GATWICK AIRPORT, North Terminal, Thursday afternoon: Josephine and I are waiting at the arrivals barrier. Near us taxi drivers are holding up recognition placards saying things like 'Mr Twelvetrees' and 'Memsahib Fashions', so we quickly make one inscribed 'Les Jeudistes'. Just for the fun of it; it's not very likely that we won't recognise the seven members of our small choir just flown in from Montpellier, any more than they won't recognise their conductor and head alto waiting for them. We'd only parted three days earlier, just before Josephine and I, the Jeudistes' roadies, drove off with all the gear (music stands, sheet music, uniform, hostess gifts of wine, cheese and books about the Languedoc) leaving the others to follow by air.
They appear, all smiles. They've all been to England before except Monica (soprano) and Barbara, the other head alto. It's the first time she's flown, too. Adventures all round. Handshakes and kisses all round too, although we've warned them that in England la bise (the kiss on both cheeks) isn't universal by any means and that an initial handshake between men can last for life.
A few minutes later we're out of the terminal building, into the sun and away. We have to get to Sevenoaks, about 40 minutes away, where our hosts are waiting for us, probably quite apprehensive about taking in a French choir for four nights. Rather than use the motorways we elect to take the country roads.
I have André (tenor) beside me, navigating from Josephine's written directions. I really need them: I was last here 43 years ago, and much has changed. In the back there are continual gasps from Monica, Barbara and Patricia (soprano - I'll have accounted for them all by the end of the article) at the extraordinary beauty of the lush Wealden countryside in its fullest spring glory, straight out of H.E.Bates' The Darling Buds of May: woods carpeted with bluebells, lilac, hawthorn and rhododendron in full flower, immemorial oaks in green pastures, buttercupped meadows, weatherboarded pubs, oast houses, warm brick, cricket pitches and the sun, the unbelievable sun, the seemingly inextinguishable sun. Who said it ever rained in England?
So this was the start of Les Jeudistes' World Tour, an ironic term for a long weekend in SE England with two concerts arranged, for which we'd been practising on and off since the previous September.
* * *OUR FIRST full day was spare, so we went to see the sights of London. I was woken early by Josephine muttering 'One banana, two banana, three banana, four' as she prepared 9 packed lunches on our bedroom floor. I told her about an experience I'd had many years before, taking a class of 11-year-olds from the remote north of Scotland through London in the morning rush hour: we roped all 25 of them together with our washing line to make certain no one got separated. But it didn't need too much sheepdogging to keep Les Jeudistes together on our open-top bus tour of London, a mode of travel the French call à l'impériale, in the imperial manner.
They took it all in, Palace of Westminster, St Paul's, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, 221b Baker Street, Piccadilly Circus and all. We ate our one-banana-two-banana packed lunches, supplemented by some Marks and Spencer sandwiches, on a Thames cruiser plying from the Tower to Westminster. Living in the south of France and unaccustomed to the searing heat of London, we flopped out for a siesta in Green Park.
We skirted round Trafalgar Square, avoiding looking Nelson in the eye and thus raising the awkward question of certain French military defeats. Back in Sevenoaks that evening, we ate at a pub called the Buck's Head, where Eloi (bass) and Jean-Claude (tenor) had fish and chips and Patricia felt the best way to sample best bitter and brown ale was to mix them together.
* * *
Les Judistes in Sevenoaks (Chris on the far left)
DID WE sing? Oh yes, we sang. Our Saturday night Sevenoaks concert, in the church of St John the Baptist, was a little delayed by Andrew (bass) suddenly recognising his grandchildren at the back of the church and leaving the Jeudiste ranks to greet them just as I was about to lift my baton (figuratively: I use hands only for conducting unaccompanied singing) to start. It put an immediate happy family seal on the evening. Pleasant surprises in the interval, when audience and choir mingled: old friends appeared, including, dear Campbell's Diary readers, none other than the proprietors of this column and indeed of this website, Glynis and Michael Shaw. We felt very honoured.
* * *ON SUNDAY Josephine and Jean-Claude and I accepted the St John's choir invitation to sing with them at their Whitsunday morning service, while the rest went off to Knole Park to stroll about in the unremitting sun. We went full of misgivings - at least, Josephine and I did, not being churchgoers: I don't know about Jean-Claude - but we came away uplifted, with the ceremony, the music, the enthusiasm, the old familiar words, the warm waves of goodwill and friendship, in such a very marked contrast to the pathetic joyless carry-on that passes for worship at home in France. It turned out that by some tie of distant cousinship Jean-Claude was related to St Theresa of Lisieux, a favourite of the rector, the Rev. Ivan Aquilina. You can't ask for a much better entrée to someone else's church than that.
* * *WE SING again on Sunday night at Jarvis Brook, near Crowborough, in St Michael's, a smaller, more intimate church, with a kindlier acoustic. Reasonable gate, very friendly people, as appreciative of our music and standard of singing as the Sevenoakers, but we know we're on the home straight because people the choir's reminiscing already, and we only arrived on Thursday.
They're talking about the generosity and friendliness of their individual hosts. They're talking about marmalade, and Marmite, about PG tips and Mother's Pride sliced bread. About pillar boxes, unarmed policemen with funny helmets, people playing cricket, the general cleanliness. About paradisal gardens and lawns that look as if they've just been ironed, pedestrian crossings where the traffic stops for you, children wearing school uniforms. They're even comparing the suntan on their arms. They're coming away with firm and abiding impressions of England as a sun-drenched, opulent, many-flowered land, populated by a wealthy, cheerful and orderly people deeply devoted to classical music and the French. Some wonder why on earth Josephine and I have chosen to live in France.
H'm. Yes. Well, it was a wonderful experiment and experience. As Pop Larkin in The Darling Buds of May would say, perfick. We'll do it again one day, but not just yet. Illusions don't always survive too much shaking up.