Paradise regained, in and around the Vole Hole

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The Independent Culture
All this fantasy-city business; all this dreaming - I think I may have mentioned it before - about an imaginary town where everything is nice; bugger me but I think I may have found it. I think it exists, and here I am. Maybe I've got one of those magic fountain-pens where you write it down and it comes true, but, look, I can get up from my writing- table and step out into a courtyard where small birds sing in the shade of an ancient oak. Behind what looks like a shabby, unpainted stable-door is a Roman church, haunted. The courtyard leads through a wicket-gate into a quiet street opening on to the town square in front of the Hotel de Ville; also haunted. In my courtyard it is silent, apart from the birds, but the square is a hum of voices until late in the evening. No cars, no shrieking alarms or up-yours techno disturbs my stroll up the cobbled hill towards Notre Dame; only the restaurants, the creperie, the old Pharmacie de Notre Dame (Homoeopathie, Phytotherapie, Fondee en 1847 and the shopfront unchanged since then), La Cave du Fromager, the grocer's shop, the butcher's shop, the two bakeries competing fiercely. If you want it, there's a little stationer's shop, with dip pens, scented violet ink and all sorts of writing paper; none of your "We got Basildon Bond, or alternatively you can piss off" here.

At the top of the street, where it opens out towards the west face of the cathedral, there's a 17th-century stable, or possibly 15th (last Saturday it was 11th, but we were all a little eleves); a tiny, barrel-ceilinged hutch, complete with ghost. It used to be a garage but now it's a bar: the Platonic bar of which all other bars are mere imperfect copies: tiny, intimate, welcoming, with the three most important elements any bar can have. It has beautiful women: a tall, sulky blonde; a wren-boned, dark- haired, high-coloured beauty whose lips, as they touch her glass, can send men scurrying across the street for absolution; a clever, sharp-featured, bob-haired brunette, obviously trouble and obviously worth it; an absent- minded, gloriously disorganised, plump and pretty assistante sprung to life from the pages of some piece of Victorian curiosa. It has a substantial gay clientele; important for a bar, providing, as they do, an atmosphere of amiable and louche benevolence as well as keeping the wheels of the gossip-mill turning freely. And it has drinks; specifically, it has L'Angelus, a local wheat beer, three glasses of which will not only knock your socks off but return them later, laundered, pressed and folded. The bar is called the Vole Hole. The barman is called Richard. The owners are called Roger and Pamela. Remember this information. It could save your life; or at least remind you that you have one.

But, even here, serpents lurk outside; largely English; specifically, a particular subset of doomed and useless Brit, ruined by British supermarket food, trudging about in nasty bunches, hating each other, thin mouths turned down, whining loudly, moaning endlessly, it's all right for some, have you seen these prices, moules, what are moules, where can you get a burger, this isn't beer, we should have stayed at home, bloody Frogs, gab gab gab, sodding garlic, 30 francs that's nearly four bloody quid, it's all right for some, it's all right for some, it's all right for ...

They don't all make it up here, to the old town on the hill. Some of them are headed off at the Sea-Cat Courtesy Bus, which saves them a five- minute walk but takes 25 minutes to board, largely because of the unofficial Courtesy Old Englishman who stands in the doorway in his shabby fawn mackintosh, reciting his pitch in almost-cut glass accents. "Are you travelling together? Here is a map, follow the red line and you will find a nice little cafe where you can get a good meal, if you have any luggage they will look after it for you, they take English money by the way. Here is a map ..." He seems tired, like an old elephant, but he is polite and vulnerable, doing his best, tearing his neat, hand- drawn maps out, one by one, from a reporter's notebook. Who pays him? The nice little cafe, probably. I bet it sells chips. Burgers. Proper food.

But some of his charges reject him, and escape. You can't miss them; they stand out, like boils, like feet, like nasty armpits on the turn. Three decades of cheap international travel have taught them nothing. They don't understand the language, won't eat the food, fear that Johnny Crapaud will chloroform the kiddies, ship the wife to a Tangiers brothel and force hubby into a filthy den, where they'll stuff him with snails and force him into public miscegenation with reeking Frog bints with scarlet lipstick and terrible armpit-hair. You don't have to come here to see them. Just close your eyes next time John Major talks of Europe. It's all right for some. Piss off. Piss. Off.

And they do, eventually. Last Sea-Cat's at 21:15, French time or wha? Whassat then, proper time? The ship's Tannoy leaks "The Girl from Ipanema" across the harbour, played on a Hoover by a gynaecologist. "This is your captain speaking. Your cabin services director today is Debbie." Why do they all - trains, ships and coaches - aspire to the condition of aeroplanes, surely the worst mode of transport ever invented except for, possibly, the Space Shuttle? And the leaky, prole music? Is it to stop the passengers - customers - rioting?

So off they go, the awful Brits. Quiet descends, as quiet does. Up in the Vole Hole, down in the town, courtesy and amiability resume their sway. Paradise regained. Excuse me? Oh yes, it's real enough: Boulogne- sur-Mer; the old town, on the hill. But it's not quite Paradise yet. No brothel quarter. But here in my room, industrious with my pen, I am creating one: a garden of earthly delights where I am both ponce and sole punter; where it is always l'heure bleue and I never get a bill. Soon Paradise will be complete, and before it can turn sour, I will climb into it and disappear, and you will never see me again. !

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