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A RECENT French TV news item centred on the steps government ministers are taking to master, or at least improve their English. The movement seems to be led by Nicolas Sarkozy, erstwhile minister of finance and now president of the majority centre

A RECENT French TV news item centred on the steps government ministers are taking to master, or at least improve their English. The movement seems to be led by Nicolas Sarkozy, erstwhile minister of finance and now president of the majority centre right party, the UMP, and probably France's, not to say Europe's, most up-and-coming politician. Sarkozy is far too august to submit himself to this sort of interview, but a few junior ministers were trotted out to say a few words in what cliché-ridden reporters insist on calling la langue de Shakespeare. Some were surprisingly good, others pathetic. We Brits, of course, have the advantage of being able to hear both the original and the voice-over translation.

In reasonably confident English one sprog minister said yes, he'd taken intensive English language courses. He'd studied for several weeks in Bath, near Bristol. Clearly the voice-over translator had never heard of the city of Bath, and maybe this isn't surprising. Firstly, with the French difficulty of pronouncing 'th', the word comes out something like 'bahss', and secondly the reporter was on familiar ground with Bristol because it's given its name, heaven knows why, to a sort of stiff card, the kind used for smart invitations. In the same way all France is familiar with the name Plymouth: nothing to do with the Brethren or the Pilgrim Fathers or a football team curiously subtitled Argyle, but heavy duty flexible plastic piping is known here as 'Plymouth'. Where we we? Oh yes, translations. Well, the translator, possibly thinking that nothing was too far-fetched for a government minister to utter, credited the politician with saying 'I spent several weeks near Bristol, studying English in the bath'.

Of course, one prefers one politicians to be squeaky-clean, but . . .

A 'BRISTOL' arrived the other day with an invitation to a book launch. I know, as far as any man can know, that launching a book is a bit like giving birth. I leave you to work out the various resemblances, from conception to delivery, but off we went to St Chinian to be in at the start. Never heard of St Chinian? Tsk, tsk. All right, close your eyes, switch on the sun, warm up your imagination. Lie back, breathe in slowly, imagining the scents of wild thyme and rosemary, of the sun-baked earth and all her generous fruits. Listen to the gentle whirr of crickets, distant church bells, the cry of buzzards on their upward thermals. Let the inner eye drift over countless acres of vineyards, groves of immemorial olive trees, clumps of cigar-slim cypresses and umbrella pines, rocky outcrops crowned with calvaries, rolling sweeps of hills covered with Mediterranean oak. Lying in the navel of this enchanted land is the little town of St Chinian, a place of pepper-pink houses and - after all, what image is ever perfect? - more traffic than the roads can cope with.

St Chinian has given its name to the surrounding area, the St Chinianais, and especially to the wines that are produced there. This part of the Languedoc, with all its south-tilted vineyards, is credited with three great AOCs, Appellations d'Origine Contrôlées, meaning that the wine is exclusively produced in the area in question and is guaranteed to meet certain stringent production conditions. The three areas are Minervois, Faugères and, sandwiched between these two, St Chinian.

The launch was for Denis La Touche's latest book, Colours of Wine, which records the changing St Chinianais yearly cycle in all its beauty and the seasonal tasks of the vigneron: winter pruning, greening in spring and the summer swelling of the clusters of grapes until the highlight of the year, the September harvest, the extraordinary patchwork of autumn colours, for each variety of vine turns a slightly different colour. Denis, a photographer of genius, has captured all this and much besides in a book which clearly testifies his love of and feeling for the St Chinianais. If you want to have more than your appetite whetted, try www.calisso.com and I can only wish you happy reading - and, when you're utterly seduced and have rushed out to the supermarket to lay in some bottles of St Chinian AOC, good health.

OUR VILLAGE held its annual festival du marron et du vin nouveau, chestnuts and new wine, a few days ago and as usual the main street was closed to traffic and all kinds of stallholders set up shop for the weekend. We strolled down on a sunny Saturday morning, before the village was thronged with visitors from all over the region. Several local people were about, including Mademoiselle Torel, a little old lady, spry and alert, who insists on being addressed as Mademoiselle despite a) a rather undefined relationship with Monsieur Escola and b) her age: she told us she would be 90 in two month's time. We were surprised, but then most elderly ladies dye their hair here and her neat chestnut perm gives nothing away.

She first came to the village in 1946, she told us, as a visiting nurse. Whatever her nursing skills she was considered a tearaway, a maverick, because she travelled about on a motor-bike. She'd never married. Certainly the young men of the village, M. Escola no doubt among them, had paid her all the attention a girl could wish for but, she said with a sigh, it was less with an eye on her figure than on her motor-bike.

Mlle Torel occasionally hauls M. Escola up to the church for concerts. He sees no need for silence while music is being played, and chatters freely through the deepest utterances of Bach or Brahms or whatever visiting musicians bring us - or would, if he was allowed to: if ever we hear a loud "Sh! Sh! People came here to listen to the music, not to you!" during a concert we know it's Mlle Torel shutting M. Escola up, generally with a sharp blow of her elbow to help the message along. But I expect they make it up afterwards, and whatever the treatment for bruised ribs is, I'm sure whatever was current in 1946 is just as effective today.

Christmas in the offing, and I spend some time looking out carols for my choir. There's an endless supply, it seems, of Provençal carols, and one day somebody will produce a definitive edition of them and reveal their sparkling riches to a world which has long since squeezed the last drops of Christmas spirit out of Away in a manger and Jingle Bells.

Their strength lies in their simplicity. They're mostly pastoral, the first Christmas interpreted through the eyes and ears of the shepherds. Here's You me souy lebat, in Provençal, French and English, a little Christmas present to any philologists lurking out there:

You me souy lebat Je me suis levé I got up
Per un matinet Par un matin One morning
Que l'albo preniot Où l'aube prenait When the dawn took on
Soun blanc mantelet: Son blanc manteau: Its white coat:
Cantem Nadal! Chantons Noël! Sing Noel!
You m'en souy anat Je m'en suis allé I went out
Cercar Guillaumet. Chercher Guillaume. To find William.
'Qu'escautos aqui 'Qu'entends-tu là ' 'What can you hear over there
Gai pastourelet?' Brave berger?' Good shepherd?'
Cantem Nadal! Chantons Noël! Sing Noel!

It turns out that what William hears is the nightingale, but we never discover what it's singing, because our version stops short at the end of verse three. I expect it was singing Peace on earth, goodwill to shepherds, philologists, district nurses, bikers, photographers, vignerons, voice-over translators, government ministers, internet columnists and holiday letting agents and everyone else. And so say all of us.

Joyeux Noël! Happy Christmas!