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SCENE: Montpellier, super-sophisticate among Mediterranean cities. Only Venice and Barcelona offer any challenge.

OCCASION: La Comédie du Livre, the annual 3-day Book Fair. It's called 'Comédie' because it takes place out of d

SCENE: Montpellier, super-sophisticate among Mediterranean cities. Only Venice and Barcelona offer any challenge.

OCCASION: La Comédie du Livre, the annual 3-day Book Fair. It's called 'Comédie' because it takes place out of doors, pavilioned in splendour at one end of the immense, traffic-free Place de la Comédie, itself named after the gorgeous Second Empire opera house, the Opéra-Comédie, dominating the other end. The Fair was supposed to have a Chinese flavour this year, but the outbreak of SARS kept Chinese guests at home. All the same, there are about eighty exhibitors.

WEATHER: Desperate. Tramontane – we're too far west for the more famous mistral to freeze our young blood – coming down from the heights of the Cévennes like the wolf on the fold. Steady rain forming rivulets between stacks of books.

CAST: Winston, proprietor of The English Bookstore in Montpellier; there's a surprising demand for books in English. Elizabeth, an American faith novelist, signing her books. Yours truly, ditto. Helga, a stunning Icelandic girl. Mousse, a drunken Frenchman (not a common sight, actually, certainly not in the Midi). A crazy Spanish woman. You can't say we're not cosmopolitan down here.

Episode 1: Mousse staggers up to our tented stall. What teeth he's got are like Stonehenge. He has something unappealing, a crab or an eel, in a plastic bag. He loves England, he says. More than anybody else he loves Major . . . Major . . . he searches vainly for the name. Thompson? I suggest, thinking of the pin-striped, bowler-hatted and umbrella'd stereotype Englishman invented by Pierre Daninos. Mousse is disappointed to learn that Daninos was French. He holds the whole French nation in contempt. He makes a rude one-fingered gesture to express his feelings for France. I tell him the same gesture in the UK requires two fingers. He staggers off, laughing uncontrollably. This is yet more evidence that England is far, far superior to France.

Episode 2: Helga appears. She is very, very beautiful. She has just been to the SARS-free Chinese calligrapher in a nearby pavilion. She shows us some sheets of paper with Chinese characters brushed on them. They are her name, she says. How can you tell? Winston asks: for all you know they might say 'Ugly woman here' or even 'Dog turds'. Winston has a way with beautiful Icelandic women, he can get away with this sort of thing. I'm reminded of an ample-bosomed Englishwoman visiting Hong Kong who despite strong discouragement insisted on having some material she found printed with Chinese characters made up into a blouse. Later she discovered the characters said 'condensed milk'. H'm. Helga buys a copy of Jane Austen's Emma, an inexplicable best-seller at the Book Fair. Maybe it's a Montpellier university set text.

Episode 3: Mousse re-appears. His bag is empty. He's thought of another famous English writer. Sha . . .Sha . . . he gives up. Shakespeare? I suggest. That's the one, he says: To be or not to be. My god, he loves that man. He shambles off, but it won't be the last we see of him. What draws drunks to our tent?

Episode 4: An bustling Spanish woman arrives, flourishing a sheet of paper. She wants our autographs. She says she's going round all the tents collecting the signatures of "all you famous intellectuals". She wants them for her son. They might be worth a lot of money one day. Winston and I look at each other, eyebrows raised. Now's our chance: which famous intellectuals might we have been, but for the accident of our birth? Noam Chomsky? Raymond Queneau? Terry Eagleton? We reckon you can't be a famous intellectual until you're dead, so we chicken out and sign our own names, consigning her son to certain but decent poverty. It was nice to be asked, though.

Episode 5: Elizabeth appears. She's a pretty, petite, soignée American who lives locally. She takes station behind a stack of her novels, including her latest, The Swan House. Some are in translation: Dutch, German, Norwegian, but none it seems in Spanish or Icelandic. Mousse, moth to the flame, re-appears. Shamefully, I hide behind a display of pulp fiction, pretending to be busy. He won't go. The more charm and tact Elizabeth shows him, the more he's fascinated and the longer he stays. He's putting off other customers too, even French children – and adults - fascinated by piles of Harry Potter books in the original English. He'll have to go. But how? He can hardly be frog-marched to the other end of the Place de la Comédie and dumped in the fountain until he sobers up.

Winston, ever resourceful, comes to the rescue. Although he's standing not two metres away from Elizabeth, he rings her on his mobile. She excuses herself from Mousse, carries on a long, meaningless telephone conversation with Winston, during which Mousse drifts off and we never see him again. Phew. Wish I'd thought of that. Maybe I would if I'd been a famous intellectual.

THE Saturday of the Book Fair was further enlivened by a couple of demonstrations, one against the siting of the rubbish dump I was writing about two months ago, the other expressing the local teaching unions' opposition to certain government reforms, mostly involving pensions. Some, with feet in both camps, had a busy afternoon, belting out chants like "Raffarin, t'es foutu: Tout le monde est dans la rue" (Raffarin – the Prime Minister – you've had it: everyone's taken to the streets) so lustily that they lost their voices: an unfortunate circumstance for some, who were due to sing in a concert that evening and were reduced to mouthing impotently.

AT the time of writing, anyway, it doesn't look as if Raffarin has had it. On the contrary, his government has stood rock-firm against the now ebbing tide of left-wing protest against pension reform. Bernard Thibault, a major trade union leader, was heard to comment that clearly the spirit of Madame Thatcher roamed the corridors of Matignon, the prime minister's HQ. So la dame de fer is remembered yet.

But in what terms? At the height of the Iron Lady's power, in about 1983, I went into a bank in Thiviers in the Dordogne wanting to change some Scottish banknotes into francs. The teller looked suspiciously at my Clydesdale Bank £10 notes, not the commonest currency, which featured an elegantly-coiffed David Livingstone. He took them into the manager's office for verification. Presently the manager came out, tapping the engraving of the great Scottish explorer and missionary. C'est Madame Thatcher? he asked uncertainly. Oui, I answered, tickled as ever by such zany flights of fancy. OK, c'est bon, he said, and I got my francs. Thank you, Maggie.