WE SEEM to have been very popular just lately. No idea why. Three invitations at least. Well, one was more in the nature of an appointment card, so perhaps that doesn't count. Let's get this one out of the way first.
In 1994, years of a self-inflicted school canteen diet mostly consisting of jam doughnuts and custard and a local confection called Hungrie Boie Pie finally caught up with me and I was obliged to see the inside of the cardiac unit and the ceiling of the operating theatre at the excellent Clinique Pasteur in Toulouse. (I should observe in passing that the description of my school diet is a gross exaggeration and that we did in fact teach modern spelling, the Shakespearian spelling of HBP being an inexplicable foible of the school cook.)
Having kitted me up with stents, in the process serving wine with every hospital meal except breakfast, the Clinique Pasteur turned me loose and apart from one or two minor wobbles everything has gone well since. The French National Health Service continues to keep a watchful eye on me, which is very good of them, and every now and then I have to undergo a stress test. This involves going to a hospital a bit nearer than Toulouse but nevertheless 90 minutes away, stripping to the waist, having electrodes stuck all over my manly torso, mounting an exercise bike and pedalling against ever-mounting resistance until . . .
. . . they tell you to stop. By which time, on this last occasion, I was utterly exhausted and was very glad that I'd taken the precaution of arranging for someone to drive me home again. There was a slight problem here, because my wife Josephine had been unexpectedly called away to England. Someone else had to be found. I canvassed around friends, including my small choir, Les Jeudistes. A willing volunteer was found in Barbara, who is as tall as I am medium-sized, is blonde and beautiful and young enough to be my daughter. (I assure you she isn't.) Barbara sings alto alongside Josephine in Les Jeudistes. To stifle any possible argument, I style them both head alto.
But when an elderly codger in shorts turns up on the arm of a beautiful blonde, even in France glances are exchanged, nudges are nudged, giggles are suppressed in the back office, and somehow explanations that the lady is one of my head altos aren't altogether convincing. In fact my cardiologist, an exceptionally polite man who usually addresses me with an almost forgotten old-world courtesy in the third person (How is Monsieur today? Is he at all breathless?) went out into the waiting-room-cum-corridor to have a look and came back addressing me in the second person (If you're expecting some slightly saucy innuendo I'm sorry to disappoint you).
While I was pedalling Barbara was being fully entertained. This hospital is absolutely split-new. It's like a giant cruise liner which has somehow run aground in a massive field of sunflowers. It's so new that staff haven't yet found their way about in it. Doors to sensitive areas only open when an authorised card is flashed at them.
An assistant came past wheeling a bulky piece of hospital equipment, a sort of patient-hoist so big and unwieldy that it was fitted with wing-mirrors. She pushed it down the corridor, stopped at the double doors and put the brake on. She flashed her card. Nothing happened. Eventually she realised with some annoyance that these doors only opened when flashed from the other side. Abandoning her monster, she sighed deeply, trudged back past Barbara and disappeared into who knew what maze of lifts, stairs and corridors in order to reach the double doors from the far side. She flashed her card. Obediently the doors started to open, outwards, but only a fraction: there was something blocking them. With heavy heart she realised that the culprit was her wing-mirrored monster. She'd left it too close. So near, yet so far . . . there was nothing for it but to slog all the way back again, take the brake off and pull the mighty beast clear. Meanwhile the slightly-open doors had timed themselves out and had closed again. So she set off back yet again, darkening the corridor with muttered oaths. We never saw the end of this French farce. She may be still there, of course.
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THE OTHER invitations were to two concerts, within a couple of days of each other. Last year Gilbert, an old friend of this column, the choirmaster and restaurateur who until he retired a month ago used to spit-roast legs of lamb or pork, capons and sometimes geese of a Sunday on his open-fire rôtisserie, took his choir on tour to Belgium, where they had a high old time. Their Belgian hosts were invited back to the Languedoc to sing, which they did the other day with great spirit and gusto. The venue was the salle polyvalente, the sort of all-purpose hall you find in most French villages, in St Etienne d'Albagnan, just along the valley from us, and Josephine and I were invited because Gilbert sometimes makes outrageous claims that I taught him all he knows about directing choirs and I wish he wouldn't because this might be taken two ways.
Gilbert's 20-strong choir kicked off first with their usual medley of popular French songs. Little three- and four-year-old girls congregated in the space between the stage and the front row of a packed house to vie with each other in jumping up and down and waving their arms in time to the music. One petit bout de choux (literally 'little cabbage-end'), i.e. tiny tot, insisted on bringing her push-chair as a kind of dancing partner, and the whole recital was punctuated by the struggle between this wilful infant and her scandalised granny. The 50 or so Belgians followed with an extraordinarily mixed programme ranging from the Hallelujah Chorus to Abba selections, which we enjoyed a lot more than the pathetic Belgian joke someone told us. Belgian jokes to the French are like Irish jokes used to be to the English. Ready?
Belgians have a great affection for the British royal family, none more than Belgian truck drivers. To celebrate Her Majesty's recent 85th birthday, 85 of them were drawn by lot to cross the Channel and drive to London in formation to present their greetings in person. Such a manoeuvre needed practice, of course, not forgetting that in the UK they drive on the left, not on the right like they do in Belgium. So they bore this mind when practising in the streets of Brussels . . . wasn't worth it, was it?
The second invitation was to a private recital in someone's house, where a visiting tenor with guitar accompaniment sang songs by Kurt Weill, a composer best known for his The Threepenny Opera, with words by Berthold Brecht. We were invited to eat first, alfresco finger-food on a roof terrace, where I chatted to a very small man who had spent his life climbing mountains and Josephine chatted to a rather sad woman who at one point said her son était parti dans l'univers, literally 'had gone away into the universe'. Josephine wasn't certain whether this meant he had simply left home or that he'd died, a dilemma which made her very guarded about the rest of the conversation. We'd been invited as part of the local musical establishment, and I was asked to outline what my choir did.
This was a splendid opportunity to tell everyone - and of course you, dear reader - that Les Jeudistes are about to embark on a concert tour of Scotland, a great adventure. If you're anywhere in the region of Ullapool, Nairn or Grantown on Spey on the evenings of May 6th, 7th and 8th, please come along. We'll all be there, two sopranos, two tenors and two basses, plus Christine our pianist. Plus Barbara and Josephine, the two head altos, of course. And that stress test was entirely positive, so I ought to be in good heart too.