Wednesday, December 19, 2012
To do this I needed money and started saving a little here and there. Alas when I eventually set off I had only saved about a month’s salary plus the silver coins I had slipped into an empty Dimple Haig whiskey bottle. This turned out to be a further £40, so maybe I had £100 in all, scarcely enough to buy a ticket to anywhere. My friends in the newspaper office where I worked placed a losing bet that I wouldn’t leave before Christmas, but most of that was spent in the pub on the eve of my departure.
But I did leave in late December 1960, getting a ride with friends who were going to spend Christmas in the South of France.
We set off in a Renault Dauphine, a small rear-engined French answer to the Volkswagen. It was noisy, underpowered and uncomfortable but it was a free ride. This was long before the construction of autoroutes and the main roads were lined with plane trees, the arbres d’alignment, of Napoleonic times. Apparently the Emperor had the roads lined with trees so his soldiers could march in the shade.
Our overnight stop was at Dijon and by the time we arrived it was dark and snow was falling. We drove into the courtyard of the hotel and shortly after the large wooden doors were closed for the night as if brigands might attack.
At the next table in the restaurant a portly Frenchman was eating a plate of snails and I remember asking him if they were good. He pushed his plate towards me and I had my first taste of escargot.
The following day we arrived chez Ted, who was the Riviera stringer for the Daily Express. He lived in the gatehouse of a chateau owned by an American couple, way up on the hillside above St Laurent du Var. We arrived on 23 December and the following day there were plans for Father Christmas to greet the children of the village. There was however, a problem in that the local children knew everyone and clearly would not believe that one of their own had suddenly transmogrified into Père Noël. It was therefore decided that I should become Father Christmas. Fame at last and I had the right outfit too in the form of a red nylon sleeping bag with a hood and white interior lining.
We contrived Santa’s white beard by tearing apart a Paddi-Pad, a disposable diaper, and glued the white wadding to my face for a beard. A chair was then put out in the street in front of the chateau gates and I was in business. A small sack of bon-bons was provided and I dispensed treats to the village. Most of the children wanted to kiss me (well it was France) and there were many complaints that Père Noël’s beard was coming apart. Other criticisms were that he had no legs – a sort of mermaid Noel – and his jacket didn’t have proper sleeves, but I managed to ignore that with a lot of Ho! Ho! Hoing until the candy was gone and I could jump back through the gates as if in a sack race.
Two days later I was on a train bound for Istanbul. And later still I ‘sold’ the sleeping bag to a student in Tehran, but he never paid me.