I first went to France in the summer of 1959 at the age of thirteen. My pre-adolescence had been car-free and island-bound; now there stood in front of our house a gun-metal-grey Triumph Mayflower, bought secondhand, suddenly affordable thanks to a £200 grant from Great Aunt Edie. It struck me then as any car would have done as deeply handsome, if perhaps a little too boxy and sharp-edged for true elegance.; last year, in a poll of British autophiles, it was voted one of the ten ugliest cars ever built. Registration plate RTW1, red leather upholstery, walnut dashboard, no radio, and a blue metal RAC badge on the front. (The RAC man, portly and moustachioed, with heavy patched boots and a subservient manner, had arrived to enrol us. His first, preposterous question to my father 'Now, sir, how many cars have you got?' passed into quiet family myth.) That cars were intended not just for safe commuting but also for perilous voyage was endorsed by the Triumph's subtitle, and further by its illustrative hubcaps: at their centre was an emblematic boss depicting, in blue and red enamel, a Mercator projection of the globe.
Our first expedition was from suburban Middlesex to provincial France. At Newhaven we watched nervously as the Mayflower was slung by crane with routine insouciance over our heads and down into the ferry's hold. The metal RAC badge at the front was now matched by a metal GB plate at the rear. My mother drove; my father map-read and performed emergency hand-signals; my brother and I sat in the back and worried. Over the next few summers we would loop our way through different regions of France, mostly avoiding large cities and always avoiding Paris. We would visit châteaux and churches, grottoes and museums, inducing in me a lifelong phobia for the guided tour. I was the official photographer, first in black-and-white (home processed), later in colour transparency. My parents tended to feature only when the viewfinder's vista seemed dull; then, remembering the dictates of Amateur Photographer, I would summon them to provide 'foreground interest'. We picnicked at lunchtime and towards five o'clock would start looking for a small hotel; the red Michelin was our missal. In those days, as soon as you left the Channel ports behind, the roads were empty of non-French cars; when you saw another GB coming in your direction, you would wave (though never, in our family, hoot).
That first, monstrous expedition into the exotic was a gentle tour of Normady. From Dieppe we drove to Cany-Barville, of which I remember only two things: a vast and watery soup pullulating with some non-British grain or pulse; and being sent out on my first foreign morning for the newspaper. Which one did they want? Oh, just get the local one, my father replied unhelpfully. I had the normal adolescent's self-consciousness that's to say, one that weighs like a stone-filled rucksack and feels of a different order to everyone else's. It was a heroic journey across the street and towards the shop, imperilled at every step by garlic-chewing low-lifes who drank red wine for breakfast and cut their bread - and youngsters' throats with pocket knives. 'Le journal de la région,' I repeated mantrically to myself, 'Le journal de la région, le journal de la région.' I no longer remember if I even uttered the words, or just flung my coins at some nicotined child-molester with a cry of 'Keep the change.' All I remember is the purity of my fear, the absoluteness of my embarrassment, and the lack of vivid praise from my parents on my safe return.
From Cany-Barville to Thury-Harcourt: did all French villages have such solemn hyphenation? None of that Something-upon-Whatsit, Thingummy-in-the-Tum-Tum. Cany-Barville, Thury-Harcourt: this was different, grave. Thereafter, my memories become slighter, more banal; perhaps not even memories, but half-forgotten impressions revived by photographs. A brown-beamed coaching inn, a rough-fleeced donkey in a rough-grassed park, my first squat French château with pepperpot towers (Combourg), my first soaring ditto (Josselin). Then first viewings of Chartres, the Bayeux Tapestry and Chateaubriand’s aqueous tomb. On the tranquil roads we mingled with traffic of lustrous oddity. French cars were very unMayflowery: curved in the weirdest places, coloured according toa different palette, and often formidably eccentric — witness the Panhard. They had corrugated butchers’ vans, Deux Chevaux with canvas stacker seats, Maigret Citroëns, and later the otherworldly DS, whose initials punned on divinity.
And then there was the formidable eccentricity of the food. Their butter was wanly unsalted, blood came out of their meat, and they would put anything, absolutely anything, into soup. They grew perfectly edible tomatoes and then doused them in foul vinaigrette; ditto lettuce, ditto carrots, ditto beetroot. Normally you could detect that foul vinaigrette had been slimed over the salad; but sometimes they fooled you by slurping it into the bottom of the bowl, so that when with hopeful heart you lifted a leaf from the top... Bread was good (but see butter); chips were good (but see meat); vegetables were unpredictable. What were those things that weren’t proper runner beans but round, fat, overcooked, and — cold! There was pâté: forget it, anything could have gone into that; though not as anything as the anything that went into their gristly, warty saucissons, assembled from the disposings of an axe murderer. There was cheese. No, there were thousands of cheese, and I would eat only one of them — Gruyère. Fruit was reliable — not much they could do to ruin that; indeed, they grew very large and juicy red apples you could positively look forward to. They liked onions far too much. They brushed their teeth with garlic paste. They camouflaged quite edible meat and fish with sauces of dubious origin and name. Then there was wine, which bore a close resemblance to vinaigrette; and coffee, which I hated. Occasionally there would be a noxious, unassessable dish which explained all too well what you found and smelt behind the teak-stained door of les waters, where gigantic feet in knobbed porcelain awaited you, followed by a gigantic flush which drenched your turn-ups.