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

Share

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence