Off to the seaside for a few days and any sort of holiday needs books and plenty of them, as vital as the paddle in the sea and the suncream. We went to France every summer to visit the family, five of us in a Ford Anglia. Packing was simple; everyone had a small suitcase with summer gear (it was always scorching hot), presents in the form of boxes of very sophisticated After Eights, a jar of Marmite which had to last the full six weeks, which left plenty of room for books.
We were all great readers in the family and to some extent could swap books, but we were always worried about running out, as there were no books in any of the family’s houses and the nearest bookshop was an hour’s drive away. So the car was packed with books; books in the boot of course but also on the floor of the back of the car, so our legs rested on stacks of reading matter. No reading was allowed until we had crossed the Channel and then my parents relented and we could dive into our supply. Both of them being teachers, they never lost an opportunity for instruction, so we would read out the ads on the giant hoardings on the way down, handily teaching us French grammar at the same time.
So for me a holiday isn’t a holiday without first visiting a bookshop. If I fly, I love the airport bookshops which often have advanced copies of bestsellers. However this time it’s a sedate trip on a train, three days away, which requires at least three books (running out would cause hyperventilation). Spend a happy half hour browsing in a bookshop (one of the great anticipatory pleasures) I come away with four paperbacks, just in case.
And when I settle down to read on a bench in the shade, I’ll remember the joy of travelling half way down France perched on a stack of holiday reading.
Vive les vacances!
So the Uk is going through the usual three day heatwave, when we look at the blue sky in a slightly puzzled way and shake our heads. Go and stand by the freezers in the supermarket, giggle at the dress codes where Brits abandon any pretence of looking in the mirror before leaving home. I’m talking to you sir, beer belly exposed at nine am. And you madam, in a bikini and flip flops in central London.
The French call it the canicule and they know how to deal with it. Close the shutters or curtains in the heat of the day. Don’t go outside between eleven and three, or if you must, keep to the shady side of the street. Drink copious amounts of water and stay off the booze.
I sat in a garden square in the late afternoon with a book, watching kids running barefoot in the grass. Enjoying the play of the wind in the trees and the sun stippling through the grass, the feel of the cool earth beneath my feet.
Just being and realising that for the first time in ages I was…content. And after some of the very dark places I’ve been recently, I reckon content will more than do.
Did a big shop today, more colour for the diet: red peppers, avocados, kale, carrots, tomatoes, mangoes, strawberries, raspberries, the full summer palette. Got to the till and there was a woman a couple of shoppers ahead of me doing that really annoying thing of being surprised that she had to pay for her shopping, taking ages to get her purse out, count out the exact change and generally annoy the rest of us.
When it came to my turn I put the shopping efficiently in my trolley, but when it came to pay I found I didn’t have my loyalty card. I had a coupon for a fiver off, but the woman at the till said I couldn’t use it. I protested. No tutting in the queue, but folded arms from the next customer with a certain amount of eye rolling. Supervisor resolves issue. It then takes me about thirty seconds to line up my trolley, the supermarket trolley and stick. Next customer’s eyeballs in danger of falling out and rolling across the floor.
I have become that annoying customer in the queue. I hear the cluck cluck of chickens coming home to roost.
Following on from yesterday and the importance of celebrating life as the best way to counter the nihilistic death culture that manifested in Nice, today has been a day of simple pleasures. Texts to friends on the best way to make a potato salad (minus garlic for picky parents), planning a trip to the seaside, sitting in the sunshine in the garden doing the crossword, tea and blueberry brioche with another pal, excellent Beck Swedish detective film.
Heartbreaking interview online with a mother and daughter caught up in the Nice tragedy. The mother said she just ran and forgot all about her husband; she said she felt terribly guilty afterwards, but her first instinct was to make sure they were safe. They all survived and the husband bore her no resentment. The daughter, about fourteen and clearly still shocked, said she felt it was now her duty to live, laugh and smile for those whose lives had been cut short. What a wonderful sentiment.
So simple pleasures today, but each one a celebration of life.
When you first visit Nice and come out onto the Promenade des anglais, three things strike you – the impossible blue of the sea and the sky and the palm trees. Miles of promenade and a pebbly beach, with the old town, market and flower market – a joy of smells and tastes. The painter Raoul Dufy celebrated the colours.
So how to respond to such terrible news? Sadness of course, prayers and thoughts for the families involved. But we also need to respond to this culture of death. Somehow get to the young men before they are radicalised, come down hard on the people who are trying to manipulate them. These young men have families, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters; we need to include them in the conversation. Above all avoid the culture of blame and recrimination.
And even more than that, celebrate life itself. They would have us live in fear, be at war with our neighbours, cause division and strife. For fundamentally they are against life – the life that goes out with a family to watch the fireworks, the life that has a meal on the beachfront with friends, the life that celebrates liberty, egality and fraternity. The BBC proms got it right too, playing the Marseillaise at the opening last night.
We understand that they want to destroy our culture of life and celebration, but in the face of such great tragedy we must remain firm in our resolve to live and love. So we live, we love and we celebrate this precious life.
Sorry to have been AWOL for a while; I’ve just been too exhausted and ill to summon the energy to blog. On Sunday I ate my first vegetables in a fortnight, a handful of green beans in a very good salmon nicoise. I could even taste them! It seemed like a new dawn, where I don’t just eat cereal, toast, cheese, banana and yoghurt (lovely though they are and they’ve kept me going).
The lack of veg and fruit also seemed to make the darkness even darker somehow. Just back from a big colour shop to encourage the light – red cherries and tomatoes, orange mangoes, green beans and avocados, pots of basil, mint and parsley.
Pushing back the darkness with colour and a bit of paddling in the shallows of joy. Crosswords, Jack Reacher and Rebus novels and of course the Tour de France.
It’s not the rubbish weather or even Wimbledon that tells you summer’s here if you have a drop of French blood in you. The real clue is the Tour de France and this year highlights are on ITV every night. What a joy! Not just for the excitement of the race itself but seeing the French countryside roll past day by day in all its splendour. From the flat lands to the impossible mountains, from the coast to the inlands, it’s such a beautiful country.
And the Tour has an almost magical relation with the people of France, despite scandals and drugs. That’s why the route is lined with people of all ages, cheering and waving and sometimes getting in the way. Cycling is a national obsession even if you’re no longer fit enough to do it (though the number of people of all ages out cycling on the road at the weekends is impressive) – that’s why cars respect bicycles and always give them a wide berth.
The route changes every year and there’s nothing more exciting than having the Tour come through your village. I remember it twice, once as a child in my mother’s village and once as an adult in the mountains of Provence. The first time, I must have been eight or so; we sat on chairs outside the house and waited all morning, then the publicity cars came past throwing out hats, sweets and small prizes. You knew the cyclists were coming because you could hear the cheers from further down the village. And come they did, in a blur of wheels and colour, past my grandmother’s house in about a minute. We were thrilled.
Later on when I lived in Provence, they came through not quite so quickly and left by the steepest mountain road out of the village that was hard to walk up, never mind cycle. We could see them coming from miles away, little coloured dots on the landscape and then they were actually in the village and then gone, the sound of applause and cheers ringing in their ears and every tiny house on the route out on the roadside cheering and waving.
It’s a moment and enthusiasm that unites the country and reminds me that my French side is alive and kicking (though a bit feebly at the moment). Allez les gars!