AH, WHAT a dream! Abandon everything, stuff your pocket with a few quid/greenbacks, hard-earned washing dishes or pulling pints in the student union bar or on the Christmas post round, trust to Providence and P & O ferries and set off, guitar
AH, WHAT a dream! Abandon everything, stuff your pocket with a few quid/greenbacks, hard-earned washing dishes or pulling pints in the student union bar or on the Christmas post round, trust to Providence and P & O ferries and set off, guitar strapped to your back and lift-hitching thumb poised to cadge a ride off anyone heading for the deep South. Busking round the Continent. Nothing like it. That was the life. A few Côte d'Azur francs here, a few Black Forest deutschmarks there, some lire in the Tuscan sun. Just enough to keep going. Absolute magic.
Dream it remained. And remains still. I didn't have a guitar, for one thing. Piano, yes, but the disadvantages are obvious. The nearest I ever came to street entertainment wasn't in France at all, but in Austria: arriving one evening with a friend in the late 50s in Mondsee, not far from Salzburg, we found a German student choir in full voice in front of the Youth Hostel, completely blocking the entrance. Seeing the Union Jacks on our backpacks, they gave us Farewell, Manchester and Linden Lea, I suppose to make us feel at home, though they'd have done better with My Old Man's A Dustman, which as far as I remember was on the go just then.
What could we sing for them? they asked when they'd finished. We refused politely. Singing wasn't our thing. But surely we could do something? they insisted. Something representative of our country?
We looked at each other doubtfully. Whatever could we do? My Old Man's A Dustman? No, you needed the full skiffle set-up - washboard, broomstick and tea-chest bass for that. Suddenly Providence dealt us a winning hand. After a brief whispered discussion - was it possible with only two? - we started:
'You put your left foot in . . . your left foot out . . . your left foot in and shake it all about . . . you do the hokey-cokey and you turn around . . .
Applause was muted and brief. The students drifted away. At least we could get to the hostel door.
This takes me to Montpellier the other day, a perfect October Tuesday, warm and sunny enough to enjoy lunch with some friends outside in the Place Jean Jaurès. We'd barely lifted knife and fork to the salade aux gésiers when a middle-aged flautist, pink and fleshy, started up, close to the bronze statue of Jean Jaurès which gives the square its name. He fiddled about with his karaoke equipment on a little trolley.
(This seems to be the new thing in busking. A week or two before we'd heard a karaoke 'cellist in the cathedral square in Barcelona. We get about.)
He gave us some Bach followed by Are You Lonesome Tonight?, a bizarre offering to a merry gathering round the convivial lunch table, and when he'd finished he went round with the hat. As a frustrated busker, I always try to give to reasonable musicians.
A little chat revealed that he was an ex-flute teacher from Aberdeen who, as he said, had made it under the wire. Having taught for many years in North-East Scotland, I mentioned one or two possible mutual acquaintances, shared experiences, as you do. Or do you? A haunted, hunted look came over him, and he disappeared, pink to the tips of his ears. 'Scarpered' wouldn't be too strong a word. Goodness. Whatever had I stirred up?
INTO HIS place sprang a smiling young man in black baggy trousers, bare-chested apart from a sort of tail coat apparently made from a length of yellow and red curtain material. He juggled with a baton burning at both ends, with rubber balls, with giant cotton reels on a string, and finally with flaming torches while riding a monocycle. Good fun. We don't have anything like this in our dining-room.
He too came round with the hat, but we didn't ask where he came from. It seemed kinder to let him bask in anonymity.
JEAN JAURÈS looked on impassively through all this. He was a short, thickset man, after whom thousands of French streets and squares are named. Born in 1859 in Castres in the Tarn, a département known for its political awareness, he became a brilliant philosophy lecturer at Toulouse university, then an outstanding political journalist, then a député (i.e. MP or congressman). A founder of French socialism, he was particularly concerned with uniting trade union movements throughout Europe. In the summer of 1914 he very nearly succeeded in persuading the unions, including those in Germany, to act decisively against the war then boiling up.
Very nearly. Before he could succeed he was assassinated in Paris in July 1914 by a fanatical French nationalist. He was the one man who could have prevented the First World War breaking out. A pacifiste militant, the encyclopedia Larousse calls him, with a striking oxymoron. Oxymoron? You know, the figure of speech where one term cancels out the other, like 'pretty ugly' or 'startled clairvoyant' or - cheekily - 'a fair cop' or even 'Microsoft Works'.
Anyway, a man well worth a statue or two.
AFTER LUNCH we strolled in the sun down to the Place de la Comédie, a huge, pedestrianised square in the middle of Montpellier. Knots of cheerful, fag-in-mouth people passed us purposefully in the opposite direction, carrying furled banners, mainly red.
On the more loosely-rolled ones you could see the letters CGT (Comité Général de Travail) and FO, which stands for Force Ouvrière, Workers' Strength, however much you're tempted to think it might stand for something else when their truck, train or tractor driver members bring France to a halt.
We'd come to Montpellier on a day of nationwide transport strikes, or industrial action, to keep the oxymoron going. The banner-carriers, members of France's biggest unions, were on their way to a demonstration somewhere, maybe in the square we'd just left. We wondered how Jean Jaurès would have responded to the chanting strikers. The Hokey Cokey? Hardly. The Birdie Song, then? You put your left wing in . . .