France without tears


I HAVE never regretted for one second moving back up north after a 30-year stretch in Fleet Street (OK, Kensington High Street for most of the time). Who could pine for the constant traffic, the Tube crowded with smelly tramps and foreigners, and the warm, flat southern ale?

There are a couple of things I do miss, however, about life in Bromley, Kent.

The first is the shopping day-trips to France. We would drop the kids off at a friend’s house near the junior school at 8am, then head for Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel. For some reason in the Chunnel, my claustrophobia seldom clicked in, possibly because we were still in the car and therefore at one remove from the roof separating us from billions of tons of seawater.

By lunchtime we were in Calais, ready to eat, drink and be profligate with the credit cards. Cité Europe is a massive shopping complex which even I could find by means of following a succession of curved lampposts from the Eurotunnel terminal.

We usually lunched at Le Moulin, a bustling café which boasted its own brewery and where we had tartiflette and delicious, strong, blonde beer.

A favourite stop was a branch of Oddbins, which tended to be shunned by the French so we were always made welcome by the underemployed indigenous staff.

Then it was the Carrefour supermarket, where we would part for 45 minutes and, with a trolley each, cruise the aisles looking for bargains, of which there were many, particularly in the alcohol department.

Reunited at the tills, we would wonder at the sheer volume of stuff we could get for two or three hundred quid. Case after case of wine – enough almost for a week.

Returning to the terminal, we would buy 400 cigarettes for my mother and her partner (yes, I know we were encouraging them to smoke but they would have bought the fags anyway at more than twice the price). The best part of this was that we were awarded Eurotunnel bonus points which paid for our next trip.

Back to Blighty in time to pick up the nippers from school, then spend the next hour unloading our booty into the cellar.

Of course it couldn’t last. The bonus points scheme was cancelled and the Chunnel fare raised. And then, with the rise of Aldi and Lidl in the UK, forcing the big stores to match them, prices of food and wine over here plummeted. Our last French day-trip, we reckoned, saved us nothing and we were sideswiped by a Polish lorry on the M20. So that was the end of that.

The second thing I miss is my weekly forays to Surrey Street market in Croydon. The stalls sold mainly fruit and veg, but there were several meat stores where you could get cheap food for the dog. Pig’s head was usually available for a fiver – ‘Have you got a pig’s head?’ ‘No, I was born ugly’. Pig’s kidney was 60p a lb. There were a couple of Turkish butchers who sold ‘curry chicken’, chopped up, on the bone and ideal for a home-made Madras.

One time, a vegetable stall was selling Romanesco under a sign which read: ‘Spiky green thing, cooks like cauliflower’.

Faced with the metrification menace, stallholders abandoned pounds and ounces, and substituted washing-up bowls filled with produce, usually at a quid a go. Often, especially with unusual stuff which market folk called ‘queer gear’, you could come away with huge amounts of food at the peak of ripeness – which is why it had to be sold quicksticks.

There is a Young’s pub, the Dog & Bull, which last time I was there did a fairly decent pint of Special. It is said to be the oldest pub in Croydon, dating back to the 13th century, although it was refurbished in the 18th.

There was also an Asian café where the food was cheap and excellent. I would order multiple portions for the freezer, especially when Haleem (made with meat and many types of lentil) was on the menu. The young proprietor told me one day that he was returning to India, where his father had a huge ranch and many servants. He invited me for a holiday and gave me his email address, which turned out not to exist.

Of course the great strength of a market is its stallholders, one of whom, because of his face battered by decades of bar-room battles, we dubbed Robert Redford. One day I asked him about the quality of his nectarines, going at five for 50p. ‘They do eat, they do,’ he replied.

Another time I asked if his satsumas were seedless. ‘Satsuma’, he said in a tone of huge boredom, ‘is Japanese for seedless’. Total cobblers, I would discover, but I bought two bowls of them and found them full of pips.

Give Us a Break

LIVING in sunny Southend-on-Sea in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we used to make a tidy sum playing the quiz machines in bars and amusement arcades. The trick was to find one which had taken plenty of money that day – you could tell by the amount of time it allowed you to answer and the number of points you had to score before making a profit. This could vary hugely depending on the success of previous players.

Our favourite machine was Give Us a Break, based on a radio quiz game. This gave you questions with four possible answers. As in snooker, red-ball questions got you one point with the opportunity to go for one of the colours. The maximum possible break was 75, which won you a £10 jackpot, not bad for a 20p stake.

I still remember our first jackpot, which we won by guessing the location of the Isabella water wheel (answer: Isle of Man). We were so proud of ourselves that we boasted to Margaret’s father. He was unimpressed, saying: ‘Everyone knows that.’ (He had been to the IoM several times before the war covering the TT races for the Manchester Evening News).

One night in a pub near the Daily Mail office, we met a true pro. No matter how fast the quiz machine went he was a match for it, emptying it in a matter of minutes. I’ve often wondered if his amazing general knowledge and memory could have been put to more constructive use.

Old jokes’ home

Wife: ‘The doctor says I’ve got acute angina.’

Husband: ‘I thought he was supposed to be looking at your heart.’

A PS from PG

Breakfast had been prepared by the kitchen maid, an indifferent performer who had used the scorched earth policy on the bacon again.

PG Wodehouse: Spring Fever

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