Football: World Cup - Thirsty search for a speakeasy

At Large In France - Lens
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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T even opening time and it was already closing time. I sprinted over to the Caron bar opposite Lens station, but I missed last orders by a whisker. It was 8.01am.

Ian and Stuart, from Middlesbrough, were taking no chances and staying put at Hazebrouck, 30-odd kilometres away, until just before the match, by which time they would, they predicted, be "totally plastered". Despite having already drunk themselves to the point of stupor by 10pm, they had very decently offered me a spot on the floor of their room in the Hotel du Nord, having first checked that (a) I didn't snore, (b) I wasn't gay.

Just to be on the safe side, Ian also invited the attractive Helene behind the bar to share his bed, by way of equipping himself with a bodyguard. "You and me, we're made for each other," he ventured. Her husband seemed to take this in good heart.

Meanwhile, Stuart had already crawled off to crash, but Ian insisted it was not too late to fit in one more glass.

It felt like being in the Blitz, the night before a good bombing, in a frenzied eat-drink-and-be-merry mood - with the emphasis squarely on drink for tomorrow we're dry. But, looking back on it, that was nothing. Today, when for 24 hours Lens had become the land of prohibition, is really crazy.

Today I, along with just about everyone else in town, provoked by a combination of giant "Heineken" and "1664" posters and small signs saying "No beer today", am obsessed with a quest which might be described as "A la recherche du Stella Artois perdu". Prohibition is a red rag. The search for the speakeasy was on.

In the Caron bar, the reaction was mixed. One man with the kind of moustache which is normally covered with froth was relaxed: "Tomorrow I will have two." Further down the zinc, a man in blue overalls with a yellow Gitane stuck to his lip was less phlegmatic: "But Marie, I am a regular, surely you can..." But Marie was brutal and unequivocal. She explained that she had had an anglais in her bar only the night before who had shattered a glass on the counter prior to shoving it in the face of his neighbour.

"This is insupportable!" she concluded. She was all the more keen on abiding by the law as there was a customs man passing through at the time (sporting a "Douanes" armband) precisely to check that the taps were not still dripping.

But somewhere business was going on as usual. Guys were parading up and down the main street with cans in their hands. I asked one of them where it all came from. "There's a little off-licence, behind the Audi showroom," he said. By the time I got there, behind a squad of gendarmes, it had reverted to Coca-Cola.

Next I had a word with Francois Vasquet, who is a penniless Lens poet reduced to begging in the street. Surely if anyone knew where to get a drink he would. "I will change the winter into ardent summer," he said, quoting a line from one of his poems. "Yes, yes, but it already is ardent summer," I said, "so how do we go about finding an oasis in the desert?" "I will tell the snowman: `Make yourself into a river," he replied.

Until recently, Francois hadn't touched a drop for 38 years. "It was a mistake. Maybe I would have been a better poet," he said, warming to the Baudelaire view that wine inspires excellent poetry or at least the conviction that your poetry is excellent. Now he likes to have a glass or two. "And is that why you're here?" I said, noting that he was reclining on the pavement at 11am. "No," he said, "I'm here because I have nothing to eat."

Francois' dire state almost succeeded in sobering me up, but when I walked past a bloke with a 20-pack of beer outside the stadium I couldn't resist buying one off him for 10Fr.

As I sauntered about taking a long swig, I was thinking that the gendarmes were being very lax. Just then a bunch of 10 or so stopped me and told me, "Ca, c'est interdit." They would have to confiscate the can. The idea of saying to these 10 armed men that they didn't seem to be confiscating anything from the guys with their shirts off and their tattoos on passed through my mind. It was probably the drink.

As I was mooching off, I heard one of the flics say to another: "Oi, Pierre, are you thirsty?" "Very," said Pierre.

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