Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

We returned to the house early the next morning, on the way pleading special permission to pass through the police roadblocks. A strip of blackened hillside about one kilometre away showed the extent of the blaze before it was extinguished. The online local newspaper said that 500 firemen had tackled a blaze that had destroyed 400 hectares of forest -- roughly speaking the two round Provençal hills between the house and the nearest village. It seemed a small result for so much smoke. And I wondered why the French state should have gone to so much trouble and expense to protect perhaps a dozen properties, including our breezeblock shack. (A French friend reassured me that in this green-minded age, the state is as anxious to protect forest as it is private property.) Because the fire began 3km from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's £19 million château, the casualty-free forest fire made it into the Daily Mail online news. The only property rendered uninhabitable by the fire, I heard, was a château hosting a wedding party, whose roof collapsed under the weight of lake water and retardant.

Catriona and I discovered that we were a bit shaken by the experience and embarrassed by our behaviour during it: I for falsely imagining that the fire would overtake and engulf us at the speed, say, of Usain Bolt finishing strongly in the 100 metres; Catriona for wishing to stay in the house anyway and martyr herself. We apologised to one another and suspected that we knew each other better now than we did 24 hours previously.

Thin vertical plumes like campfire smoke showed where the fire still burned on the charred hillside. These plumes increased in number and density, and in the afternoon the flames took hold and ran out of control again. Again helicopters and single files of yellow and red Canadairs flew over the house laden with lake water. I spent the afternoon in a recliner on the terrace watching the airshow through binoculars, this time safe in the knowledge that the breeze was fanning the fire away from where I was sitting and in the direction of the nearest village, which had been evacuated. By nightfall the fire was under control and these latest evacuees were allowed back into their properties. Throughout the night, the flashing lights and headlights from traffic jams of fire engines lit the unmade forest tracks that criss-cross the hillsides. …

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