Friday, 13 March 2009
Chapter 6 It's Been a Long Time
Sorry I haven't added anything to the blog recently, but I've been away somewhere there is NO ACCESS to the internet! Unbelievable, until I tell you I was in hospital -a place where they haven't heard about the internet, let alone wi-fi networks.
Part 1 - Harvest Time and a Special Lady
On arriving at the farm, armed with only a handwritten introduction to the the proprietor, we gathered that the Vendenge had already begun, and that he had all the hired help he needed. Our friend had been meant to phone her uncle to let him know we were coming, but had forgotten to do so – this was the first he knew of the arrangement, and thus he had obviously not prepared for it. Something in our pitiful expressions touched his romantic French heart however, as after a whispered conversation with his wife he announced that he would take us on. This would mean shortening the harvest, which in turn meant less work (and pay) for the others, but ‘c’est la vie.’ We were inordinately grateful to the other hired hands who accepted with incredible generosity and modesty being worse off financially in order to be hospitable to a couple of strange English people. We were totally useless as grape pickers of course, and the work was back-breaking, but we enjoyed three weeks in idyllic surrounds, adjourning from our labours in the vinyard every day at lunchtime for two hours to sit beneath awnings and scoff copious amounts of bread, cheese and wine. At sunset, we lolled in the back of the cart containing the days harvest, as it slowly wound its way via winding country lanes to the local co-operative wine pressing plant. Not much beats passing slowly through Dordogne countryside as the sun sets, in a rustic cart being towed by a French vintner who really did wear a beret and smoke endless Gauloises. At night the food and wine would flow even more freely, neighbours would drop by, the labourers would bring out a variety of instruments and play Gallic jigs and reels, whilst political discourse wound around us in crescendos of passion and friendly disagreement. The level and intensity of this, and the readiness of the French to become deeply immersed in political debate was truly wonderful to behold, even if I understood very little of what was passing. Our exemplary host had no land free to use as a campsite, but instead directed us to a neighbour, who had a field and some rudimentary washing facilities.
One morning I woke to the chugging sound of a VW engine – a sound which would one day become only too familiar – and gazed bleary eyed out of the tent to see a golden yellow split screen camper van, and a driver whose long hair was only marginally less golden alighting from the cab. In a moment, I was transported back to my parent’s place in Australia all those years before. ‘Another reminder’ I thought ‘how many more do I need……’ The driver’s name was Trevor – he and his girlfriend hailed from Leicester, and were touring France in a van which nowadays, being an original split screen variant would sell for tens of thousands of pounds (think of Jamie Oliver’s purple version), but which Trevor had picked up for just a few hundred. It was battered and rusty and I guess that VW purists - such as I would become - would be outraged at it’s generally poor condition, but in those days VW campers were primarily seen as a useful, and cheap, mode of transport, rather than the icons of cool they’ve now become. As our new friends prepared dinner on the tiny built in two ring cooker and regaled us with stories of faraway romantic places they’d visited – Malaga, Frankfurt, Rome, Manchester, Slough, Bradford etc - a vision began to form in my mind. Not only would I own such a van and drive it round Europe; I would embark upon the overland trail to Australia, known at the time as the ‘hippie’ trail. There and then I renewed my vow to own such a vehicle on our return to England. It would be another three years before the idea became a reality.
Part 2 - Heartbreak in Suberbia
On arriving back in England on a cold dismal English summer day my girlfriend suggested we could talk to her dad about finding somewhere to live. He was a carpet fitter, and worked for a property company in south London. Without too much difficulty, he found us a top floor flat in a large house in Croydon, and there we settled down to a life of cosy domesticity – or so I thought. Bear in mind that this was my first serious relationship, and I worshipped my girlfriend with what could retrospectively be diagnosed as puppy like sycophancy. I was pretty boring really, always agreeing with her, always doing what she suggested, and never wanting to engage in argument or conflict. So it should have come as absolutely no surprise when after about eighteen months, she announced she was leaving me for an Irish bloke she had met in the pub. There was also an incident with my best mate from Australia which is probably best glossed over in what is supposed to be a cheery tale about campervans (remember them? Don’t worry, we will get back to the main topic in hand, promise).
So she moved out, and left me in solitary, so to speak. This was around February or March in 1979, during one of the coldest winters since records began – oh well since 1963 according to a particularly informative website about weather I’ve found (www.personal.dundee.ac.uk/~taharley/1979_weather.htm). It had snowed for what seemed like weeks although in fact was just a few days, and I wandered the slush encrusted streets of South Croydon, my mind hotwired like spaghetti, going over and over in my head what I had done to deserve such calumny and what I might have done to avoid it. Not putting her on a pedestal about ten foot high would have helped, but I was unversed in the ways of the world in those days. Also, there’s nothing quite like your first love, that is until you meet your soul mate, which I did a few years later. My torment seemed never ending, I was stuck in a loop - with the snow renewing itself each morning - just like in Groundhog Day, and me seemingly fated forever to plough a lonely and desolate furrow through the bleak midwinter landscape. Well, you can’t really call South Croydon a ‘landscape’ – this term conjures up images of fields, cows, daisies and butterflies and other rural delights whilst South Croydon is more in keeping with post modern ironic industrial chaos, but whatever you want to call it, I was marooned in it, and began to despair of ever finding refuge. Salvation arrived one night several months later in the form of a ring on the door-bell. I scuttled downstairs, eager to converse with a visitor – any visitor – and was practically binded by a golden haired vision of beauty, framed in what seemed like a halo, but which was in fact, the light from the streetlamp behind her. ‘Hi’, she intoned in a part cheeky, part demanding manner; ‘Do you wanna talk about socialism. I’m in the Militant – ‘I’m selling papers. Wanna buy one?’ Did I want to buy one? I would have been mad not to! I would also have been mad not to have invited her up to the flat, and mad not to have used my ultimate weapon of seduction – a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. Her name was Sam, short I learned later for Fidelma, and she favoured a style of dress which I guess could be called ‘military lipstick chic.’ Her endless tresses of blond hair would have done credit to the ads of the time ‘I bet she uses Harmony hairspray’ etc etc,…except Sam would never have been caught dead using anything so obviously part of the anti-feminist, pro-capitalist agenda. Having quickly succumbed to my wiliest cup of tea and biscuit overtures, she decided to stay for dinner, and of course after that we spent the night together…..talking about the best way to bring about revolution, the true nature of communism, the innate unfairness of the class system, why England were rubbish at football and so on. Erotic stuff. Sam was just the tonic I needed. She moved in with me after about a week, and proceeded to turn the flat into a cross between an artist’s attic studio and a social centre for all the revolutionaries, misfits and dodgy characters in Croydon. She would sit up late at night, long after I’d tired and gone to bed, discussing consumerism or Trotskyism or some other ism with an a phalanx of mostly male admirers, or crouched over an easel, painting, which was her other great love. She told me, with a frankly furtive air of intrigue, that she had once been married, but that her husband had died a horrible death by drinking huge quantities of beer whilst dosed up with antibiotics. Her real name was Fidelma, obviously Irish and with strong religious connotations, but she thought it decadent and old fashioned and renamed herself after a bloke. She tried to appear tough and ‘artistic’ but she had a smile of huge intensity, and when happy her eyes would laugh with light hearted mischief. I was inordinately happy with her, even though she had quite a temper, and would often shout, rage and throw things when annoyed with me. The kitchen wall in our flat bore the marks of a teapot which only narrowly missed my head for years after she hurled it at me, for all I know the indentations are still there.