French Connections

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Sunday night is nostalgia night here. Useless to resist. Despite all these years of expat life (Josephine 18, me coming up for 12), all these years of practically going native here in the south of France, despite all those struggles with thorny br

Sunday night is nostalgia night here. Useless to resist. Despite all these years of expat life (Josephine 18, me coming up for 12), all these years of practically going native here in the south of France, despite all those struggles with thorny branches of the French administration to stagger away, bloody but triumphant, waving a shiny new Residence Permit, or Driving Licence, or Voter's Card, or Carte Vitale, the magic green card which is your ticket to ride the superb French national health service . . .

. . . despite all this, we're hooked, Josephine particularly: Sunday nights, France 3, about 9pm, just after Lucky Luke, a wacky French cartoon Western; a few commercials, cats and dog settled, and then eyes down, glass at elbow, for Inspecteur Barnaby.

Inspecteur Barnaby? It's better known north of the Channel as Midsummer Murders. It's pretty feeble stuff, three parts Agatha Christie, two parts Enid Blyton, one part The Archers, a dash of Thomas Hardy. A strong pinch of salt adds some flavour, but not much. John Nettles, an actor for ever condemned by nameless misdeeds in a previous existence to play curmudgeonly English village super-cops (remember 'Bergerac'?) strides purposefully amidst assorted English village eccentrics from English village pub to English village store to English village church to English village rose-arboured cottage huffing and puffing his way to the solution of unspeakable English village crimes.

It's dubbed into French, but we generally turn the sound off. We're there for the pictures, superb images of mouth-watering English countryside, rural England at its greenest and pleasantest. We drink enormous refreshing quaffs at the heady fount of Albion, and sigh with deep satisfaction, like the first fag of the day before we gave up the weed, like the first G & T after a hard day at t' mill, like the first kiss on a lover's return.

Strange. We used to feel like this before we left the UK, ooh-ing and aah-ing over seductive pictures of the Dordogne or Provence. Or like the ones in French Connections. The grass is always greener . . .

THE FRENCH are just as passionate about what they call polars, crime fiction series, as anyone else. You could probably watch them round the clock on French TV if you'd nothing better to do, moving from Inspecteur Barnaby to Inspecteur Derrick (a German import) and on via their very own Inspecteur Maigret to the pride of the Thames Valley police, Inspecteur Morse.

French 2, the second TV channel, bought a job lot of Inspecteur Morses for after-lunch diffusion last summer. July and August weekday afternoons were heavy with the promise of the dreaming spires of Oxford, the torpid middle of the day shimmered with drowsy echos of grand opera and the somnolent purring of Morse's Jaguar . . . and all this to say I don't think I saw one of them all the way through. Thinking man's polar though Morse may be, it's not a good idea to schedule it just at siesta time.

THE LATEST Inspecteur Barnaby, alias Midsummer Murders, starred Roger Sloman in a supporting role. Another sudden bout of nostalgia: Roger and I were students together, back in the depths of last century. He was one of a clutch of students, which included Patricia Hodge and Christopher Strauli, who trained as teachers but never actually made it as far as the blackboard, to my knowledge.

So if you're reading this, Rog, Pat, Chris, bonjour from your old friend in the south of France, and if you ever feel that life might have a few more glittering prizes to offer than having your voice dubbed into French in bit parts in Inspecteur Barnaby (or Inspecteur Morse, where I saw Patricia Hodge last summer: Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, which starred Christopher Strauli, is a polar that hasn't found its way over here yet), how about starting a French Friends Reunited? It doesn't exist over here.

Now there's a business opportunity, if ever there was one. Commission? No, my pleasure. If you can shed any light on the following, that'll be commission enough for me.

I DON'T suppose any of you knows what became of Peter Barker from Scunthorpe? He was another for whom the lure of the staff-room and the filling in of the attendance register was unequal to the siren call of the Mediterranean sun, in the form of chartering dodgy yachts out of Côte d'Azur ports.

A man of chameleon mind, he invented one Caleb Stik, an all-purpose personage serving when required as a sick friend, demanding Peter's bedside presence like Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest whenever something distasteful came up, such as handing an essay in on time. Caleb Stik also doubled as a phantom student, covering Peter's frequent absence from lectures, as a little-known but quotable educational philosopher, as an extraordinarily supportive referee on application forms, as a guarantor for loans and so on. A useful chap to have about. Pity he didn't really exist.

Or did he? A flip through the search engine throws up many interesting and distinguished Peter Barkers, but none of them our very own Peter Lawrence Barker, once of 11, Philips Crescent, Scunthorpe. Had his yacht foundered uninsured on the Île du Levant? Had he been obliged for him to slip into a new identity as he swam for the shore? Had he turned into his own phantom?

I fed 'Caleb Stik' into Google. After a warning – in French – that I might have got the spelling wrong, there they were: Caleb Stick, a footballer from New Zealand, or Caleb Stick, a United States family pool player. Neither seemed quite right for Peter's alter ego, but then he never was predictable. Who knows?

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

The last competition was won by Jonathan Lassen, of Edinburgh, the first to identify Marcel Pagnol as the author of L'Eau des Collines, the two-handed novel from which the films Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were made. A copy of my book 'French Leaves: Letters from the Languedoc' goes to him avec félicitations.

OK, here we go for another copy: Inspecteur Maigret, played in his English adaptation by Rupert Davies, had a habit shared with Sherlock Holmes and a sidekick played by an actor with the same as a classical Athenian lawgiver.

1. What was the habit?

2. Who played Lucas, Maigret's sidekick?

First correct e-mail answer. A vos loupes! To your magnifying glasses!