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I DON'T know what scale you rate jokes on. I mean, you can rate restaurants with Michelin Guide stars (it would have to be a pretty stunning joke to merit a Michelin star) and grade Gîtes de France with épis, ears of corn, bu

I DON'T know what scale you rate jokes on. I mean, you can rate restaurants with Michelin Guide stars (it would have to be a pretty stunning joke to merit a Michelin star) and grade Gîtes de France with épis, ears of corn, but when it comes to jokes there's no easy means of knowing whether you're likely to get your money's worth. Maybe you could work out a scale based on the frimousse, the French for 'smiley', and such an appealing word that our village hair stylist Sophie calls her place Salon Frimousse.

This probably comes to mind because we're going there this very afternoon for our first clip of 2009. She does Josephine and me for 20 euros the pair. Unquenchably cheerful and very pretty, Sophie certainly gets her money's-worth out of me, who have barely ten hairs to dress. But the ever-elegant and stylish Josephine is another matter.)

Anyway, for the sake of argument let's settle for frimousse as the basic unit of joke evaluation. One frimousse for the sort of joke you get out of Christmas crackers, two for playground Knock-knock or Doctor, Doctor jokes, and so on, up to five frimousses for real rib-tickling, laughter-holding-both-his-sides jokes.

You may be wondering where this is leading.

* * *

ON THE first available Sunday in January the maire and the village council invite all the pensioners to an annual free lunch, what they call the repas des anciens, the Meal for the Ancient Ones. This lunch always follows the traditional vœux du maire, his New Year greetings, in which he recalls village achievements over the past year and registers its aspirations for the coming twelve months. Many villagers attend the vœux du maire, the more seriously-minded to nod appreciatively at the tireless efforts of the authorities to keep the village up to scratch, the more frivolous to run a kind of sweepstake on how many times he comes out with his trademark word également (equally, similarly) in his speech, and some view attendance as the quid pro quo for a free lunch.

A few days before I went down to mairie to reserve places for us, only to be told by the secretary that we'd already been booked in, by an unseen hand. I didn't question this extraordinary prescience, beyond raising an eyebrow. It turned out that the unseen hand belonged to one of the deputy maires: Je connais vos habitudes, I know your habits, she said when I mentioned this to her later. I suppose the reasoning is that once you've been to one Meal for the Ancient Ones you're not going to grow any less ancient. Certainly we've been to one or two in the past. On one occasion, ever-memorable for us if not for anyone else, a sextet of Ancient Britons who've washed up in the village performed the hokey-cokey for the general amusement, whereupon it started to rain. For some this merely confirmed their preconceived notions of the United Kingdom.

So along we went, feeling just slightly embarrassed about being there at all, because we don't feel all that decrepit and because we can't help feeling that there just might be other Ancient Ones more in need of a square meal than we're ever likely to be. It turned out to be a meal worth being a little bit Ancient for. The menu should be reproduced somewhere about this article. Here's a rough translation:

Muscat (something like sweet sherry) with substantial savoury nibbles

Duck and goose liver paté, served with spiced bread and fig jam

Scallops with diced vegetables in a cream sauce, served in a draw-string pastry bag

Casserole of venison in a rich red wine sauce, accompanied by

Apple and vegetable upside-down tart



A sort of chocolate mousse served in a cold sweet yellow sauce called crème anglaise,
English cream, which the French fondly imagine is the same as custard

Couronne des Rois, Crown of the [Three] Kings, needs an article all to itself. Briefly, it's a circular bun coated with sugar grains the size of fine gravel. It's served in segments, and in one of the segments is hidden une fève, a bean-sized favour, generally a small ceramic figure, so you have to watch your teeth when eating it. Whoever finds a favour gets to wear a cardboard crown. On our table Josephine got the fève and was duly crowned by the maire. If I'd been one of the three kings, Melchior, Caspar or Balthazar, I could not possibly have imagined that two thousand years and more later my Epiphany visit to Bethlehem would be commemorated in this fashion.

Repas des Anciens menu

All this was accompanied by - in turn - white, rosé and red wine, with blanquette de Limoux (a country cousin of champagne) for the dessert.

There was a little delay while the coffee was prepared, so to keep things on the boil jokes were told. (You see, we've got there at last.) Joke No. 1 came from a village councillor. For some reason the Catholic church is always fair game, especially among the elderly. Jokes about priests and/or incontinence in any form rate right up there at the top of the frimousse scale. Ready? Here we go.

Pope Benedict XVI (known here as Benoît XVI) is known to be passionate about fast cars. Travelling in his private Ferrari from Naples to Rome, he asked his driver to change places with him. Putting the papal foot down, Benedict XVI soon reached 200, and was subsequently stopped by the traffic police. Seeing whom he had stopped, and wishing to avoid any embarrassment, the policeman called his headquarters, saying a VIP had been caught in his speed trap and what should he do?
What sort of VIP? An MP? Headquarters asked. Much more important than that, the policeman replied. An ambassador? HQ asked; a general? A cardinal? A football manager? A TV star? The President?
No, none of those, the policeman replied. I daren't guess who it is; all I can tell you it that it's someone so important that the Pope is his driver . . .

Well, I think I might give that one three on the frimousse scale, don't you? I might have given it four if I hadn't heard it before, during an after-dinner speech given by the Duke of Edinburgh, when Mihail Gorbachev was the subject.

Repas des Anciens

How about Joke No.2, told by a fellow retired headmaster? (H'm). The bishop is inspecting a remote rural parish, where the curé and his housekeeper live in such rustic simplicity that they only have one bed. The bishop questions the propriety of this arrangement, but the curé tell him not to worry, because the dog sleeps between them. What happens, though, the bishop asks, when you feel certain procreative urges? Well, the curé replies, in that case I get up, I put my boots on and I go for a brisk walk round the church, down to the pump, past the blacksmith's and back through the graveyard, and by that time any such urges have passed.

But what about your housekeeper? Suppose she has these urges? The bishop asks. In that case, the curé replies, she gets up, she puts her boots on, she goes for a brisk walk round the church, etc., etc.
And what happens, the bishop asks, when you both feel these urges? Ah, the curé replies, in that case it's the dog that gets up and goes for a brisk walk . . .
I leave the frimousse score to you. Be generous.