If you met the men I meet, you'd end up looking barking mad, too

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There was a time when disgruntled bearded men went to live in caves to avoid the folly of the world, rather than to plot its destruction. One remaining specimen of this breed has his hermitage set into the hill above the Provençal village where I spent the last fortnight.

There was a time when disgruntled bearded men went to live in caves to avoid the folly of the world, rather than to plot its destruction. One remaining specimen of this breed has his hermitage set into the hill above the Provençal village where I spent the last fortnight.

He has camped in a bleak stone cell for more than 20 years – ever since a day trip to Oppède-le-Vieux lured him from a ribald life escorting tourists round Parisian nightclubs. Every so often he descends from his grotto, determined as the Ancient Mariner to waylay some passing socialite. Much like the troglodytes in Afghanistan he has his mind set on past grievances, but unlike them he is content to limit the punishment to a few hours' seamless diatribe.

The hermit's main grouse is with my husband and me: "I hate you," he says in excellent English, his deep-set eyes flashing fiercely beneath shaggy eyebrows. "I hate you because you killed Napoleon." I look at my feet in the manner of someone who has committed some indescribable social faux pas – certain of one's guilt but not quite sure how it all happened. It turns out that the hermit is not accusing us personally of administering arsenic to the Emperor. But we are found guilty merely on the charge of being English. My husband, unlike me, is totally undaunted. He fixes the hermit with an equally gimlet eye and proceeds to tell him, in excellent French, that all the latest evidence suggests that Napoleon was in fact poisoned by a compatriot, one of his own household. When I wander off to the village bar half an hour later, the hermit is still backed up against the wall casting his eyes around wildly while my husband warms to his thesis.

It strikes me that if the hermit ever retires, my husband would make an excellent replacement: solo pottering is his favourite occupation and he abhors all social occasions; I float in and out of the house between midnight and 8am, casting scarcely a ripple cross his tranquil path. My uncle, with whom we were staying in France, refers to him as "the married monk". But although reclusive, he is given to rants about world events and his linguistic talents ensure he could make himself disagreeable to tourists of all persuasions. I'm telling you, it's a vocation.

Furthermore, he has a past. Every anchorite worthy of the name needs their personal myth: the streets of Oxford and Cambridge are paved with tramps who "used to teach philosophy at Trinity". When Angus takes up residence in the cave at Oppède, the summer tide of visitors can point him out and whisper to each other in muted horror and pity: "People do say that he used to write for the New Musical Express about experimental German rock bands – there are even those who claim he was once the editor of GQ, the men's style mag." Then they'll gaze on his threadbare Baden-Powell shorts, shaking their heads with utter disbelief.

I will play a keen support role in his new profession by putting several thousand land miles between the cave and me. The current hermit has a wife whom nobody has ever seen, and I think it's the least I can do to maintain this fine tradition. Also, the space will help me to develop my own ambitions as a Cambridge bag lady. To further my plans, I have patented my own badge of barking madness. I now carry at all times a foot-high cross made from two twigs bound with scarlet cotton. This spooky-looking object was presented to me on Monday by my friend Christopher with the words, "a Rowan tree with scarlet thread, holds the witches all in dread". I don't know about that, but it certainly scares the hell out of commuters. Nobody sat near me all week until an endearingly shambolic man plumped down opposite me yesterday. As the train pulled out he leant across and introduced himself: "I'm a philosopher," he said, "at Trinity." I nearly replied, "Neither am I," but settled for, "I edit an erotic magazine."

Like freemasons, we recognised fellow travellers on a much longer journey – one that leads to a park bench and a can of Tennents. We beamed at each other the smiles of the mutually delusional.

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