When I was young my parents would take us on holiday to Europe. This was relatively rare then. Flights were expensive, so we drove in my father’s elderly Daimler. Only once did we fly and that was an impossibly romantic stagger across the Channel with the Daimler in a Bristol Freighter, from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet, a service also employed by James Bond in Goldfinger, with, if memory serves, his 1930s Bentley. Lydd Airport is now called London Ashford Airport, because it is not located anywhere near London or Ashford, and it is no longer impossibly romantic.

We drove south and saw things that our school friends didn’t. We saw Naples when it was still controlled by deep-died ruffians, as opposed to Berlusconi-like smoothies. Indeed they broke into the Daimler as we were having a picnic and stole our passports. My identity was later used by a quite important assassin.

The only problem was the sun and the sea. My parents were sure that both were good for us. The sun burnt my pale post-War flesh. There was no such thing then as Factor 50, only some dubious and runny cream that you got from Boots. My parents were convinced that you couldn’t get burnt after three in the afternoon, and the sea into which they drove us washed even the dubious cream from Boots away. It was pure agony the first day. You knew that the second day it would mutate into a fierce itching, worst on that bit of the back that you couldn’t quite reach to scratch, and on the third the skin would come away in sheets; but this was usually academic as the second and third days were always renewed bouts of the first.

When I left home I resolved that whilst Abroad would still have its place in my life I would never again go on a beach or in the sea. I kept to this resolve until quite recently.

The better half prodded me into returning. On a visit to Amelia Island in Florida (as it happens) she was able to demonstrate that Factor 50 actually worked. I rolled up one trouser leg (rather like my Uncle Edgerton through with very different motivation) and she applied the lotion to my knee. I walked in a gingerly fashion up the beach for ten minutes and then back and was astonished to discover that, afterwards, nothing hurt.

The sea came next. First it was at night, and I still do like the reflections of the town lights in the waves as they break over me. Then I tried it in the daytime too.

Of course there was a setback. We were in Oman and staying at the Chedi. This is one of the most elegant hotels in the world and our friend Rob, who then lived in Oman, had persuaded someone to let us have rooms at an absurdly cheap rate, so cheap that the bill passed muster when eventually presented as an expense to my then law firm. Anyway, at the Chedi you felt immune from all danger, and that was where I went wrong. I let down my guard.

I wandered into the Indian Ocean. It was the temperature of momentarily neglected soup, which is how I like it. The water lapped about my thighs. Suddenly there was a fierce current and I was pulled under. I couldn’t locate the sea bed or the surface. I breathed in water.

His Highness Sultan Qaboos appeared to me. He was hovering there, shimmering, neither in the water nor out of it. He was fingering his khanja just the way he does.

Have strength, my boy, he said – or at any rate appeared to say.

Bugger me, a vision, I said to myself. Things are worse than I thought.

And with a last superhuman effort I broke surface and found myself once again knee deep in the benign and sultry waters that abut the Chedi’s private beach.

No one had any sympathy at all, but after that I steered clear of the sea again.

Rob, confusingly, now lives in Portugal. If he were fictional like Uncle Edgerton he would stay put but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Last week we stayed with him there – with him and his excellent terrier Joca, who kills snakes.

It was outrageously hot. The first day I accompanied Rob and the better half to the beach and got burnt in spite of Factor 50. They both discouraged me, as if I needed it, from swimming. The breakers came in from the Atlantic, they said and were big and cold.

For a couple of days when the others went to the beach I stayed behind with Joca, musing over some of the intractable problems of philosophy while he killed snakes. But on the last day I thought I’d try again. There were apparently compensations that the beach afforded above the intractable problems of philosophy. Portuguese woman are often sturdily built and dark-skinned. They lie on the beach, Rob and the better half reported, with gaily coloured string covering, more or less, their private parts – the latter accommodated as often as not in generous and well-oiled flesh. There were two in particular, I was told. They lie close together fingering each other’s gaily coloured string and laughing softly; we call them Bi and Large, Rob said.

Joca and I resolved to investigate this interesting phenomenon. As it happened, we never did. As soon as I got to the beach I got the feeling that Stuart Broad sometimes gets when presented with a row of Australian batsmen or Luke Skywalker when he turns off the machine. I would not fear the sun that burns or the wave that chokes. I would let the force be with me. I stripped to my togs.

Just going in, I said.

It was not cold. The waves broke about me in a manly way and in a manly way I faced them down. Suddenly the better half was at my side.

Do you need help at all? she said.

No thank you very much.

You can stand here, she said.

Yes, I said, I am.

A note came into her voice.

A wave, she shouted, pointing.

I gave her a look, infinitely loving but at the same time infinitely assured. I breasted the wave and swam some way towards Morocco.

A ghostly voice sounded in my ear.

Well done, my boy, said the Sultan.

Or at least I think that’s what he said: of course it was in Arabic.


Bubble quibbles

I met my friend Paul for a late breakfast at the excellent Dalston Lane Cafe. I had corned beef hash and egg with added black pudding and so did he, but he had added beans too. I like beans but I don’t think that they should be eaten with anything except toast and butter – and then cold. If you warm them, either by heating them in a pan or by placing them on a hot plate in conjunction with, in the present case, corned beef hash, they lose that lovely shiny quality and become dull in colour, stodgy and regrettably sweet.

On a previous occasion Paul had attempted to order the corned beef hash with added bubble & squeak, but they said no. Their contention was that corned beef hash was no more than bubble with added corned beef, and they should be allowed to know: they saw what went into the pan.

Selling double bubble, they suggested, was more than their job was worth.

At one level I’m sure that they were right. But it is not that simple and it did not stop us arguing (between ourselves, not with the management of the Dalston Lane Café, who had better things to do) about labels, about whether the hash to which corned beef is added is ‘the same’ – before the corned beef is added – as bubble, even if it comes from the same pan. Plato, I remember asserting, would have had a thing or two to say on the subject. He would have reminded us of the pure forms taken, in his world view, by ideal corned beef hash and ideal bubble.

Actually of course, being Greek, he probably would have referred not to corned-beefless hash but to mince-free moussaka. The principle however remains.

The timing of these meetings is strictly regulated by the amount of time that the London Borough of Islington allows Paul to leave his car in one of its designated parking places without penalty. Afterwards I took the bus home. It had to be a Number 38 bus, and there are different varieties of these, so you can imagine my pleasure when the first Number 38 bus to come along was one of Boris’s faux Routemasters. These are clean, new and beautifully designed, a joy not only to travel in but to get on and off, and I have no truck with mean-spirited nostalgics who say that nothing is as good as a real heritage Routemaster, with smoking on the upper deck and backchat with a cheerful cockney clippie.

My pleasure was increased when a young woman of the Afro-Caribbean community got on. She was generously proportioned, with a bottom of which she was clearly and justly proud. You could tell that she was proud of it as it was covered merely by thin black leggings and although her top half was submerged in a variety of scarves and a bulky jacket, below the waist all was classical simplicity.

I looked at her with respect and admiration. This was made easier by the fact that she decided to remain standing, even though seats were available, and she stood looking away from me. Black leggings, as I say, were stretched tightly across her bottom. She was a young woman and free from any but the most anatomically essential wrinkles, but such as there were could be seen clearly.

She was wearing a thong. The whale-tail, as I believe they are called, appeared briefly at waist level before disappearing from view. That was not unexpected. What was surprising was that the thong had a label attached to it which was clearly visible beneath the leggings just at the point where the thong itself became submerged.

One was reminded of the cowboy hat left, in films of the traditional sort, on the surface of the quicksand that has just swallowed its owner.

Is it fanciful to report that the label announced that the thong was a thong, who made it, the size, its material and how to wash it? Of course it did. Labels do. Failing eyesight and residual good manners precluded my looking closely, so I cannot give you details. No gentleman, even with 20:20 vision, would. Probably no gentleman would have noticed in the first place. Of course you have no way of knowing whether I made her up altogether, in which case no impropriety took place.

The principle however remains.

I had as I say been preoccupied all morning with labels: when is bubble bubble and when is it hash? Indeed when do the vegetable leftovers become bubble in the first place? Is it when the keen eye of the chef identifies a potential plate-companion for his corned beef? Does it make a difference that the chemical constituency of the left-overs, before the intervention of the chef’s keen eye, is identical to that of the bubble?

Over our late breakfast at the Dalston Lane Café Paul and I had discussed the point in the Catholic mass at which the wafer becomes for believers the actual body of Christ. Had it always been the body of Christ, Paul mused. No, I said, with the knowledge derived from an Anglican upbringing, the priest has some special words to mutter and when he does, and only then, does the change take place.

Are the sacerdotal mutterings the equivalent of the chef’s eye’s falling on the pile of day-old cabbage, previously destined as organic waste but at that point determined to be rescued, and not only rescued but changed, utterly, into bubble?

Or as the case may be into corned beef hash.

Or by analogy into the body of Christ.

And so it was with the attractive young woman from the Afro-Caribbean community. What label had she adopted? What message had she decided to send to the world? The main one was simple, primal and did not need anything to spell it out: ‘I am here and I am amazing’. And this message was subtly undercut by another: ‘I am a product of La Senza. I am to be washed at a temperature of no more than forty degrees Centigrade’.

I have always set my face against semiotics (if that is the right word) but maybe there’s something in it after all.

Thread in the Bottoms of Babushkas

I wake up with the face of the better half only inches away.  Without the cares of the day, and without the calculating and distrustful face that she sometimes adopts to deal with them she looks very beautiful.  She wakes up soon after I do.  “You look very beautiful,” I say.  “No, I don’t,” she says, putting on a calculating and distrustful face.

Yesterday a strange thing happened.  On an earlier visit we went to a town where there was a huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral, which was shut.  We always wanted to go back and see inside.  The building looked from the outside as far as it is possible to imagine a monument to a god of love.  We remembered the town as Pezenas, because we bought the local pies there, which look so nice and taste so dull, and they are called Pezenas pies. So yesterday we went to Pezenas.  It’s quite nice, and full of cultural amenity, if you like candle shops.  But there is no huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral.

The French have a tradition involving the rapid removal of cathedrals.  One thinks of the Jacobins.  One thinks of Debussy’s cathedral engulfed by the waves.  Closer to home one thinks of Musrum, by Earnshaw and Thacker:

A torpedoed cathedral sinks rapidly into the ground.”

Or perhaps it wasn’t Pezonas but somewhere else, and the huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral endures yet.  Google may reveal.

The visit wasn’t wasted however.  On the way back we climbed the hill and looked down on the huge and wonderful dried etang at Montady, perfectly circular, a mile across and shaped just like a tart that has been sliced and is ready to eat.  See http://www.360cities.net/image/oppidume-etang-montady#41.86,21.00,70.0

I think that I may have maligned the younger Belgians.  They have become affable, to each other and to us.  Maybe it was a row that made them morose.  Anyway, they left today and are replaced by a family with two babies.

After breakfast, the older Belgian man and I have a conversation about food.  He refers to the reputation of English food as leaving something to be desired.  I say, as I always do on these occasions, that the food in restaurants in London is as good as anywhere, but that the food routinely available in England, such as in airports and in the high street, is still by and large dire.  I tell him about the great genius of Fergus Henderson and how the St John Restaurant is slowly changing the world.  The older Belgian man adopts the thoughtful look of one has long ago stopped listening to anyone else.

“I once – there is thirty years – ate a steak and kidney pie.  The taste was, er, not so bad, but – bouf!”

He gestured expressively, but what did he mean by ‘bouf’?  He put on a kilo?  He was most unwell?  His cultural integrity was fatally compromised?  Suddenly I feel squeamish and I change the subject.

The weather is hot and cloudless, so we go to the beach.  The French by and large stay away.  As Anthony Powell remarked, French people when in an expansive mood tend to inform you that the difference between the French and the English is that the French operate by logic; the English by experience.  Logic dictates that by September the winter has begun; experience that the temperature is in the high thirties, there is nota cloud in the sky, the little waves curl refreshingly about your ankles and it is all quite good.  Even better, last week, when it was not winter, there was a café on the beach with a ghetto blaster dispensing the sort of sound that reminds you that the French may have the best food and wine in the world and some estimable painters, but their pop music is crap – and now it is silent.

Three women of a certain age parade along the beach.  One is wearing a headdress appropriate to a closed order of nuns, and instead of a bikini bottom an arrangement in string.  It is as one imagines the dress code might dictate for an orgy.

“Russians,” says the better half.

“How do you know?”

“Because only Russian women wear string instead of bikini bottoms on the beach.”

She is prepared to leave it at that, but I can’t help wondering why that should be.  Is it something in their cultural history?    Were secret papers transmitted during Stalin’s terror entwined between the buttocks of babushkas?  Does it go further back than that?  Did Genghis Khan and his henchmen rage across the steppes, ever closer to the heart of Holy Russia, with string in their bottoms?  Probably speculation is useless.


The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

Wylder’s Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu


Cold chicken, tomato and avocado salad

Domaine de la Mirande: Picpoul de Pinet (bought from the back door)