Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

I took the only spare chair on the terrace of the Modern bar, one of four bars on this Provençal village square. By repute, it's the bar where the least snobbish of the villagers meet and drink. Rough, some might say. Old-fashioned ideas of masculinity and femininity are more clearly marked here than at the posher bars up the road. It was market day. Sixty or so locals, plus one Englishman -- moi -- occupied the steel-framed wicker chairs arranged around the trunk of a plane tree.

At the next table a sweet little girl in a pink kimono embroidered with flowers had a balloon attached to a small bat by a string. She was batting her balloon in a desultory, bored manner. She reacted to my loving smile by scowling and looked away. Six leathery old men were betting noisily on a card game with square plastic counters and swilling back glasses of watered anisette. Beyond them, at an eight-seater table, males and females of three generations of the same family sat in perfect accord. The children sucked their neon-bright drinks through straws with restrained avidity. At a farther table was an emaciated, ladylike alcoholic or perhaps heroin addict, or perhaps both. French pop music -- I will never be reconciled to it -- blared from a source inside the café. French conversational hubbub whirs faster and at a higher pitch than an English one, and is punctuated with shouts. The café parasols weren't unfurled yet and the mid-morning sun was burning my neck.

In last year's regional elections, in the crucial second round of voting, 45 per cent of these villagers voted for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen of the National Front, and 54 per cent for a party called the 'Union of the Right'. I could safely say that the strange faces and other minds surrounding me were of a deeply conservative nature. Beyond this enlightening snippet found on the internet, however, I found the Provençal French impossible to fathom. The complexes behind the tanned faces seem unknowable. I can't even guess, for example, whether the French Republic is divided by self-conscious social classes as in Britain or, if it is, how to begin to recognise them. I've heard stories of rampant snobbery, but that isn't quite the same thing, and could be driven by simple vulgarity. Here I feel so deprived of familiar references that I find myself surmising blackly violent political undercurrents, or unbelievable sexual licentiousness, or even Satanism, guiding the Provençal spirit. …

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