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THERE DOESN'T seem to have been any lessening of the popularity of beauty contests in France. Maybe this isn't surprising in a country capable of running The Benny Hill Show as emergency fodder whenever French TV studio technicians go on strike, s

THERE DOESN'T seem to have been any lessening of the popularity of beauty contests in France. Maybe this isn't surprising in a country capable of running The Benny Hill Show as emergency fodder whenever French TV studio technicians go on strike, so it's entirely possible that millions of French people base their typical image of the UK on Benny Hill. (Did you know that Benny Hill started his working life as a milkman in Southampton? I just thought I'd let you know.) Anyway, 'Miss France' is presided over by a patrician chaperone of extreme elegance and rectitude, Madame Geneviève de Fontenay, who wears so large a hat throughout the proceedings that the camera plotting probably has to be scheduled round it. It's unlikely That Mme G de F has ever watched the BHS.

There are preliminary regional heats, so the winners wear sashes saying Miss Provence, Miss Midi-Pyrénées, Miss Normandie and so on. All this to tell you the extraordinary news that only yesterday, carried away by a touch of Benny Hillitis, I spent a few agreeable moments in the arms and capacious bosom of Marie-Ange, a more than worthy Miss Picardie. No! Did you really? I hear you gasp. Yes, I really did. Every dog has his day.

(Did I hear you murmur Miss Picardie WHEN? All right, all right. Truth will out. Miss Picardie 1958, if you really want to know. Why must you always prick the bubble of these little fantasies?)

Her husband Albert was there, a man much given to composing flowery (everlasting flowers in some cases, I'm afraid) speeches, odes in prose, to grace whatever occasion he might have been invited to. In this case we'd all foregathered at a vin d'honneur to celebrate some friends' golden wedding. In the village church the bride of 50 years ago had sung the bénédiction, not without a tear or two, and after Mass the family and guests assembled in the shade of a spreading chestnut tree where white-naperied tables groaned under the weight – fast reducing, it has to be said – of bottles of pastis and muscat and a delectable champagne-based punch called, I think, marquisette, while there was the usual selection of nibbles: canapés, nuggets of fougasse (olive oil based bread with pieces of olive and bacon embedded), slices of peppered sausage . . .

After the initial encounter – we hadn't seen Marie-France nor Albert for at least four days, and they're extrovert people – she gave us some interesting insights into the world of Miss France. Slices of peppered sausage were not advised, for instance, not simply because they threatened the vital statistics but because bits stuck in your teeth and flavoured your breath with meaty garlic. Not a plus when being interviewed by Madame Geneviève de Fontenay.

Albert had his two-penn'orth to throw in as well, and I suspect there may be quite a story somewhere here. He'd been involved with many Miss France contests. On the celebratory ode side, I wondered? A sort of poet laureate to the contest? Not really, he said: he'd been more into Quality Control. Fascinated, I pressed for details. It was nothing much, he said modestly: he'd had to make sure the contestants were what they claimed to be.

You mean . . . I began, but at this moment a press photographer whisked him away to take his picture with the Golden Oldies as if in mid-ode. Clearly they were good times, the 1950s.

UP THROUGH the vineyards to the paradisal 13th century Prieuré de Fontblanque, where the acoustic is perfect, to prepare for a piano recital. There's a presbytery next door, closed up for most of the year, but in summer a Vatican theologian, Monsignor Grimaldi, takes up residence.

He's an interesting man, entirely approachable, a Dominican monk by his white habit. While we're there the bell in the tower rings out 6 o'clock. It has a slightly muffled sound. There's no means of stopping it: it will ring during the concert and we'll just have to put up with it. Moreover, in the Midi fashion it rings the hours twice, in case you missed it the first time.

Mgr Grimaldi tells us the bell has 'Montserrat' engraved on it. (Did he climb up there to see, Dominican robes flowing?) It was butin de guerre, he says, war booty: it was ransacked from the great Spanish monastery of Montserrat by Napoleon's troops under Marshal Nicolas Jean-de Dieu Soult, who gave the bell to the Prieuré. Well, I said, I doubt if it ever rang for any victory of Marshal Soult's, because he never won a battle in his life; at least not against the British in the Peninsula. Of course, Napoleon left him the Duke of Wellington to contend with.

Mgr Grimaldi looked surprised, as well he might. The French have a curious habit of glossing over battles they might not have won. If you've ever been to Waterloo – where Soult was Napoleon's chief of staff - you'll understand. You wouldn't think any British had ever been there.

He died in his bed, at any rate, Mgr Grimaldi said. No soldier could wish for more.

At 10 o'clock the bell struck the hour, twice as usual, and twenty muffled strokes resounded above the barrage of mighty chords the pianist was thundering out of the Steinway. Heady stuff. I imagined them tolling out MA – RÉ – CHAL NI – CO – LAS JEAN-DE-DIEU SOULT (that's ten syllables – go on, count them). A foolish fancy. But it least it kept my mind off Albert's Quality Control.

SO THERE we were, all sitting round the terrasse table late into the velvet evening, telling the French equivalent of Irish jokes.

The butt of French daftness jokes are the Belgians, did you know? There were these two Belgians, tu vois, Monique told us, at the end of a days' hunting, having big problems dragging a sanglier, a wild boar, they'd shot to their car. However much they tugged and heaved at the rope, they couldn't make much progress. A passing Frenchman saw their difficulty and, anxious as ever to make this world a better place to live in, said "Oh, but it's no use pulling sangliers against the grain; you have to drag them along the lie of the fur, otherwise you'll never get anywhere." The Belgians thanked the Frenchman and tied the rope to the other end. At once the carcase slid easily and progress was fast. "Well, this is just fine," the first Belgian said. "What good advice that Frenchman gave and how sensible we were to take it."

"Sure," the other replied, "but have you noticed how far we're getting from the car?"

Bravo, Monique. Keep them coming.