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THE AMIABLE William actually managed the top hat, white tie and tails straight out of the Cole Porter song, not to mention evening cape, white silk scarf, silver-mounted stick and - wait for it - spats, for which the French is demi-guêtr

THE AMIABLE William actually managed the top hat, white tie and tails straight out of the Cole Porter song, not to mention evening cape, white silk scarf, silver-mounted stick and - wait for it - spats, for which the French is demi-guêtres, something I'm sure you've always wanted to know. Goodness, who has spats in their wardrobe nowadays? Well, clearly William does, and much more besides, because he lent me a splendid striped blazer, bow tie and a straw hat of the type they call un canotier here, a boater, the sort of thing the singer Charles Trenet wore jauntily on the back of his head. I hadn't worn a boater since school days, when it was compulsory outdoor wear at all times, a regulation two inches above the eyebrows, so that if he'd been at our place Charles Trenet would have spent most of his time in detention for sumptuary insubordination. It was that sort of school.

Anyway, all this dressing up was to ensure a convincing ambience at the village bal costumé, a 1920s and 30s-style tea-dance in the mairie promoted by the village amenities committee in conjunction with the Office de Tourisme. There isn't very much Tourisme going on in February, so the locals had the event to themselves, and probably just as well because few tourists pack their bags with gear from what the posters round the village announced as les années charleston, the Charleston era.

Full marks for enterprise, especially as the organisers took a risk in holding it on the same day as La Fête du Mimosa, the Mimosa Festival, a popular bunfight and street market in Roquebrun, a village about 20 minutes away down the valley. Their faith was rewarded: more than 100 people turned up and you never saw so many cloche hats or bandeaux with feathers, long strings of beads, shimmying skirt fringes, seamed stockings, boas, cigarette holders and all the rest of it, apparently straight out of Agatha Christie. Indeed we suggested to some of the men, who'd done their bit by digging out trilby hats, parting their hair down the middle and attaching small moustaches with spirit gum, that there ought to be a Hercule Poirot lookalike competition, but that little idea fell with a heavy thud because nobody had heard of Agatha Christie's Belgian detective. This surprised me because in a recent nationwide survey of European cultural awareness (who dreams up these daft things?) the two top English writers came out as William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. Maybe they're all Miss Marple fans here, of course.

I had a lovely time either accompanying Sue the jazz singer on keyboard or Gilbert, an old friend of this column, who sings to his own guitar, on drums. Gilbert put himself on stage, I sat myself below the apron at the drum kit, bass drum, snare drum, ride cymbal and hi-hat (which they call un charly here, short for Charleston) providing a rhythm backing. Gilbert stage-whispered what tempo of dance music he was about to launch into: Valse! he would hiss down to me, so I would know to brush out a waltz rhythm, or Fox! which I supposed meant foxtrot, or Slow!, and I've lived in France long enough to know that un slow is a smoochy kind of two-step. Momentary panic struck with Boléro!, while I prepared to beat out the very complex rhythm of Ravel's Boléro, but it turned out that Gilbert's tune was Never on a Sunday, known here as Les Enfants du Pirée, the Children of the Piraeus.

Everyone knew these dances, even the children present, and the dance floor was heaving and swaying with smooching 1930s-dressed couples during un slow from Sue called J'ai deux amours when all the lights went out, the heaters failed, the sound system collapsed and my Clavinova was reduced to a dummy keyboard. The current was only restored when M. le maire slipped in about 20 minutes after being summoned by mobile, exactly the time it takes to drive from Roquebrun. Clearly La Fête du Mimosa had exercised a stronger pull than the bal costumé, but all the same it's a fine thing when the mairie itself enters into the spirit of the thing and displays its 1930s wiring.

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A BIRTHDAY trip takes us, ears still humming with Foxes and Slows, to the Mediterranean coast between Marseilles and Toulon, a rocky, indeed mountainous, coastline deeply fissured with narrow inlets called calanques, mostly accessible only by goat-path or boat, in season, and where the water takes on a magical blue-green colour probably due to the underlying limestone. We spend a wonderfully sunny February day at Cassis, a little fishing port and resort lying in a bowl the surrounding cliffs have forgotten to close in. Even if food isn't a major interest, there's nothing to touch fish caught that morning and eaten in the sun on a bistro terrace overlooking the sparkling sea. A humbling experience, even . . . and in fact during a brisk pre-lunch walk along the mole that encloses the harbour we stop to look at a statue of a seafarer and to read the inscription at the foot: Umble emé l'umble è mai fier que lo fier. We scratch our heads: we recognise the language as Provençal, not quite the same as the Occitan we sometimes hear at home, but what does it mean? Well, we get it almost right, only mistaking è for ès, 'and' for 'is': there's a translation on the other side of the plinth: Le humble avec le humble, et plus fier que le fier. The humble with the humble, and prouder than the proud. It's a line from the poet Frédéric Mistral, who is to Provence what Robert Burns is to Scotland. I'm still thinking it out . . .

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WE STAY at the Hostellerie Bérard in La Cadière d'Azur, a rabbit warren of a place, all corridors and stairs and passages between several adjacent buildings, a place particularly known for its splendid cuisine. In the dining room there's a group of youngish Brits, all speaking good French. We nod approvingly. When we leave for home another group arrives. Again, their French is good. Very encouraging. We wonder if living in France for as long as we have qualifies us as old French hands, or simply as chiens dans la mangeoire, dogs in the manger, but we find we have less and less patience with Brits who come over here to live and make not the slightest effort to learn French. What can they possibly get out of living in France, or contribute to French life, if they have this shameful communication block? They'd be better staying at home . . .

. . . OK, that's my beef done. Sorry about that. I know, I should be remembering that little line about humility from Mistral.