The late Seventies and early Eighties were my Hemingway days. My home was a dark-blue , John Bain-designed pointy barely-floating box called MV Silver Bird. It was parked, or should I say it “leaned” near the Capitainerie in Antibes. Occasionally, mocha- faced Tuna fishermen in their borderline-seaworthy wooden boats would pull-up alongside and throw a dead tuna onto the foredeck in exchange for a simple non-tuna meal and lots of pink wine. At other times my neighbours might be a couple of Scandinavian lovelies pulling in for the night in the old man’s ketch. The scenery was constantly changing and evolving.
We could spot the tourists because the ladies would shriek and fuck up the charter boat decks with their silly high heels. They liked to wear silk turbans and what was often a cross between a sari and an evening gown. They always had too much make-up and jewellery plus they were up for it. Gagging. We all stayed well away from them, their too-shiny Rolexes and their orange-streaked faces.
The wine we used to drink in those days wasn’t the poncy stuff that tourists drank. It was the rough stuff, no cork but a plastic cap. Mind you, after the Ricard aperitifs, wine of any quality would have been wasted on our Gitane-cured tongues. There were times when four or five languages sat around the table – but that was not the point as I had already learned the difference between language and communication. We communicated through the medium of Pradel or Listel.
My deckhand and friend was on the run from the British police. He had spent several years in an Isle of Wight establishment and claimed that he had often played chess with one of the Krays who, apparently was “a good bloke”. I didn’t argue in spite of the fact that Crazy Chris and I had developed a “special” relationship. That of a master and Rottweiler-on-Prozac. He was the type of Rottweiler that I would only have taken for a walk on a long length of scaffold pipe. Too dangerous. He loved me and probably wanted to lick my face because I had given him a job without references, actually paid him at the end of every day and even gave him advances.
Eventually his dependence became complete. It became so total that one day he asked me NOT to pay him but to keep it until he “needed it”. I ended up giving him pocket money.
Occasionally, he would cadge a lift back to England on a borrowed passport to “do a job”. His very first offence had been for car-stealing and from what I recall, I believe that he had been a good old-fashioned “wheels” man. It was not something that he liked to talk about.
Early each morning I would stagger into the Bar du Port looking for temporary deckhands at Fr100 per day. In those days you could have a very good time for £10. Some of them would be drinking black coffees but most were clutching bottles of Kronenberg whilst the “sophisticats” would already be on their second or third Fernet Branca and croissant. (If you’ve never tasted Fernet Branca – imagine liquidising mushrooms in vodka.)
Many of these rogues were ex-public school – only because most British plebs didn’t really know where the Cote d’Azur was – and buses didn’t come that far. Some of us remember when both Antibes and St Tropez were fishing villages – before the tosserati arrived and Peter Mayle had written that ridiculous book which encouraged even more tosserati – this time with white villas and sovereign rings.
One morning, I had been looking for five or six people to rub-down the paint on the hull of a very large yacht. After I had hired three regulars, I clapped eyes on Chris who was to become my personal bodyguard/helper/enforcer etc. He was sitting hunched over his coffee and baguette – in the prison manner – with his arms around and in front of his food. He didn’t look up. I shouted to him “Oi, do you want a couple of days work?”
Eventually, he looked up. His eyes were soft-grey bullet holes. He nodded.
Chris’s first day was uneventful apart from when one “hooray”, when on being handed a “Skil” sander said to Chris: “Oh I say. I prefer a Black and Deckah!” Chris threw him over the side. The electric lead had not been long enough to reach into the sea, so unfortunately, the boy survived. I only stepped-in when I believed that Chris was going to damage the idiot after he had been pulled back on board.
Lunch would be either in the Bar du Port or very occasionally at Chez Felix which was opposite – and this is the important part of the story. Lunch would always be accompanied by wine – usually ice-cold Provencal pink or possibly a beer-or-two.
Lunchtime drinking was not a big deal and it certainly was not what is known in the UK as a “session”. It was lunch and it could take two or three hours.
The Brits tend to lose the point about three-hour lunches. We would start work at 7 a.m and often finished at 7 p.m. We did not work when the sun was high.
Here in Britain, alcohol has always been a “big deal” and it is treated by many as a drug rather than a foodstuff.
There is an inordinate amount of snobbishness and pretentiousness attached to wine-drinking. Children are warned off drink so by the time they’re 15 and old enough to drink, they know all about “units”, liver-damage and the theory of binge-drinking – which is handy for when they start work and can afford to get REALLY pissed. Even in school they are shown examples of “what alcohol can do”.
The Brits find alcohol a useful drug because they are a naturally shy race which needs booze in order to be interesting. The saying “In vino veritas” should be modified for us Brits. It should be “In vino, fiducia” – “In wine , there is confidence.”
Most of the population has probably been conceived with the aid of alcohol at some stage of the process. On the plus side, a lot of art has also been conceived in the same way.
There is another point which should be cleared up. Here in the UK, there is an urban myth which states that French parents give their children watered-down wine from an early age. They do not such thing.
I’d heard the same myth and when I tried to give watered-down wine to my young sons, they spat it out and asked for a Coke.
So, on one side, we have the French experience of a bunch of hard-working (by English standards) drunks (by English standards) who take long lunches. On the other side we have part-time bingers and drunks (by ANY standard) who eat crap sandwiches at their desk.
Which is better? I’ve done both so it’s not a difficult choice.
What of my friend Chris? Unfortunately on my return to the UK, he came back as well. I went “corporate” but no-one would give him a job. So he stole a car, was nicked and helped the crime figures by allowing the court to “take into consideration” lots of crimes that he could not have committed (“The coppers asked me to TIC a load of stuff, so I thought what-the-hell”). As far as I know, he is still an occasional guest of the Crown.
I was reminded of Chris because he was the only teetotaller I ever knew. He screwed his life up without alcohol.
There’s hope for all of us.
p.s. A week after my return to the UK, I was sitting in a London restaurant with a French friend. The waiter came over and asked which wine we would like to order. My friend pointed to the “carte” and said, “Thees one. Ze Peenk”. The waiter smiled and helped my friend. “We call it Rosé, sir,” he sniffed. I ate my napkin.
(Life expectancy in France is 81.5 years. In the United Kingdom, it is 79.5 years.)