Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

This time last year the postman delivered a picture postcard depicting a village square in Provence. The photograph on the front of that postcard was contemporary, but the colours were digitally manipulated to invest the image with a nostalgic, hand-tinted, vintage air. The square was eerily deserted. No customers were seated at the tables under the gay sunshades set out under the trees. Time stood still.

I'd never been there. I hadn't even heard of the place. And yet the square and its forsaken tables seemed oddly familiar. The photograph transmitted a nostalgic sweetness which was almost sinister. An invitation was implied.

'Come!' the picture seemed to be saying. 'Life!

You belong!'

What does one do with a picture postcard that speaks to the imagination as subtly as this? I mounted it. The mount I then put in an ash frame, which I hung above the lavatory exactly at eye level. For a year, each time I stood at the bowl, my mind's eye contemplated those deserted tables beneath those festive umbrellas. The invitation was patiently insistent. The empty tables and umbrellas, the shops, the fountain, the trees: they were waiting, promising, daring.

Three weeks ago, I went there. I stepped through the magic portal and into the picture.

I was there five days and nights and came to know those tables. I lounged and dined and drank and stared and talked and smoked and laughed and laughed and sang and kissed and touched and fondled at several of those cafe tables. And during the five days, the promise implied by the postcard, perfect worldly happiness, was duly delivered. The place, it turned out, unsurprisingly, was an amalgam of Never Never Land, the Land of Lost Content and the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Every person I met there seemed larger than life. None could believe their luck. Many had burnt their bridges. Only a few were English. I had such a sunny, magical, alive time there, I came home wondering if I hadn't been given a gift; a gently given, perfectly tailored gift that everyone who goes there gets as a thank you for simply showing up.

And then, foolishly, I came back. I stepped back through the enchanted portal, back to this spiky, British reality, and found, among other certainties blown to smithereens, that my boy and his partner of five years had parted in acrimony, and the shit was flying. …

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