Sunday, September 13, 2009

Same but different.

Biarritz has beaten Bayonne and the whole town is alive, vibrant with Saturday night revelling as rugby fans celebrate their local Derby victory. Horns toot and blare, the team anthem is playing from every passing car, people are dancing in the street.

For reasons completely unknown to me many of the red and white support are dressed as Indian Chiefs - full feather headress and warpaint - their wives as squaws. Inside our little bodega the sangria is flowing the paella being scoffed (we are in basque country after all) while outside a little old man dressed head to toe in team colours is waving a red and green version of the Union Jack* and despite his years moving to the music with impeccable grace and quite stylish timing. It is fiesta time. Twickenham, with its loud and leery drunks, was never, ever like this.

The team truck passes with a sound system blasting out the anthem and we repair to another bodega where what appears to be the team are making merry with hundreds of supporters , dancing and singing, waving at passing cars and buses who're blasting their horns now. There are children leaping around, their mothers dancing, their fathers maybe just tapping their toes.

We leave them to it and wander away, passing smaller bars which echo the noise. We are in party town, quite by accident, so rather than go straight home, we're drawn towards a karaoke bar, The Queen, where we have noticed more merrymaking. Inside, a small squad of camp followers, not attached to rugby proceedings, are belting out French and English songs with aplomb, putting their body and soul into it. We have stumbled across "France's Got Talent" and it is wonderful. We have a little grandstand seat and we watch and listen in awe as torch songs echo around the walls, long forgotten french classics see the light of day again, and the occasional Elvis number is enthusiastically performed, complete with finger pointing, fancy footwork, and a snarled lip.

The door opens and in stumble what appear to be rugby revellers, about twelve of them, and they colonise the bar, mincing and preening as they imitate the singers. But they're not rugger buggers, they're a British Stag Night, and they're out for a laugh.

We fall into conversation as they basically take over the bar, much to the annoyance of other customers and staff. Individually, they're all very nice, if a little pissed, but collectively they're givin it large, dismissing the singers as 'pricks' and 'dicks', generally mooning and dancing like Noel Gallagher on a bad day. They try to get their names down to sing but madame, she 'eez 'aving none of it, and a boisterous discussion takes place with the Englanders declaring that it's 'not right' that they're not being allowed to sing, that it's discrimination not to have any English songs sung, and, oh, something else of great import to a bunch of normal guys who've been necking lager since they got off the easyjet.

Madame relents under management pressure and the lads sing. Or rather they get hold of the mikes. They are shit. I mean, really really incomprehensibly embarrassing shit, incapable of singing a single note in tune between them. They roll around the bar, arms around shoulders and generally shout and ball until madame loses it, switches off the track and the barman walks out in search of the gendarmerie. The lads think this is just not on and protest, but sense that it might be time to head off. We are invited to the wedding next week, we shake hands with all of them and promise to meet up the following day (yeah, sure guys). But we politely decline the call to attend other bars, despite my partner being described as a 'fit bird' by a man whose weekday life, we are sure, is spent within the confines of The City.

The bar is quiet, the crowd now depleted, then Biarritz's own Marc Almond gets up and the air is filled with camp melodrama again. He's followed immediately by an emotional duet, and then a riveting performance of 'Suspicious Minds' which has us on our feet. cheering and clapping and demanding an encore, before deciding that, at 2am, it might be time to head home.

* The Ikurrina, unofficial flag of Basque national Autonomy.


Thursday, September 03, 2009


A small cafe in a small town in the Aveyron, a department of South West France barely known to the outside world, including the rest of France. I like the cafe as I can have a coffee, check my email, and watch the world go by. It's clearly mobbed at night, judging by the various artefects, posters and gaming machines dotted about. The blue-smock-and-berets outside smoking this morning don't keep this place alive. And so far, there are no whisks.

There's an odd machine on the bar. A kind of silent digital Pachinko, but without the Japanese addicts, or the baskets of ball bearings. A man is playing in a crazed way, like a late night drunk with a world beating system. Nobody's paying him any attention.

The day, interspersed with rain, 3000 year old statues, spectacular new art and miniature horses, is odd to say the least. En route to dinner I pass a yellow skinned man talking to himself. Not on an iphone - common enough nowadays - but genuinely to himself. Loudly. He only registers because his skin colour.

Dinner is Farcous followed by duck confit with aligot, the cheese is Rebarbe (Roquefort mixed with creme freche and eau de vie) and the wine an Entraygues le Fel. But my eye is constantly drawn to the wall, to a frame containing kitchen implements, mostly whisks. It's the kind of thing you see in Paris and London, bought at car boot sales and designed to make a place look 'old'. This place is old, these things belong to the owner's mother. They're from her kitchen but that's not why I'm drawn to them.

I eventually twig. It's Worthing, one of God's Waiting Rooms on the Sussex Coast, whose genteel denizens were slowly invaded by outsiders who discovered they could claim their long term benefits by the seaside, rather than in a sink estate in the rain.

The whisks? There was a talent show along the south coast which ran for years, Search For A Star, where ancient acts would sing and dance and tell antedeluvian music hall jokes to dwindling audiences until somebody had the bright idea of making the audiences - fired up on lager - the stars. They'd ignore the acts, or jeer them, or read the papers in mid song. There would be organised mayhem, waving and general hilarity, including one night where the entire audience suddenly produced whisks and whirred them above their heads, to the complete bafflement of the act on stage.

It was just about the maddest event I've ever attended. Whisks just never seemed the same afterwards.

As I leave, le patron tells me his favourite customer is Jonathan Meades, the Times journalist and broadcaster who now lives in South West France and suddenly I'm whisked away (geddit?) to Mr Meades' shows, always a delight, and impressed that he likes the same scoff as me.

I'm staying on a high floor and there's a noise outside, from the bar downstairs. A madman is raving at some dark skinned customers, aiming his fingers at them in mock execution, screaming abuse and wandering into the middle of the road, pretending to gun down passing motorists, cocking his fingers, shouting rat-a-ta-tat at all and sundry, looking mad and crazy and constantly coming back to the bar to shout more abuse. It goes on and on and on. A common enough city sight, but incongruous here.

It is, I finally realise, the pachinko playing yellow skinned nutter, now transformed through drink to a demon. It is a sight to make most Americans shudder, their lax laws on handguns have caused many deaths, as he picks off everyone who comes within range. Ptshouw! Ptshouw!

I watch as the police arrive, slow down, stop, and observe. He's relatively quiet, his back turned but still in the middle of the road doing the driveby shooting. The police decide it's not one for them and drive off. He turns and aims at them. Ptshouw!

Mr Jaundice Banshee continues his wailing, shooting, dancing and saluting. I, however, am whisked off to sleep.

Did you see what I did there?