John Walsh: Tales of the City

'In the upper rooms, they'd taken the remote from my son's Batman TV but left the TV. How bitchy!'
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The Independent Online

Several things can be guaranteed to spoil your holiday, and I've had them all: 1) hornet's nest by the swimming pool, 2) unsalted bread at the boulangerie, 3) all-day closing on Monday in France, 4) flash floods hitting Nimes just as your easyJet flight lands, 5) the steely browed chap at the French check-in desk who announces that your luggage is now eight kilograms overweight and charges you £40. But nothing is more guaranteed to insert a spoke of gloom into the wheel of conviviality than your neighbour ringing up at 9pm, four days into your two-week holiday, to announce that your house in London has been burgled.

Regular readers will know I am a martyr to felony, a chronic victim of light-fingered opportunists who, whenever my back is turned or my attention distracted, nip into my shed and pinch the hi-fi, or into the car and blag the briefcase. I seem to attract criminality. Perhaps my habitual air of wholesome goodness drives the morally stunted into acts of jealous retaliation. Yes, I expect that's it.

The kindly neighbour called the police, who had the back door nailed up. Like a sealed tomb in Luxor, the house waited 10 days to reveal its secrets. I asked the police if they'd investigated the scene. "The house hasn't yet been forensicated," said a stolid voice. "But we sent a dog in to check there was no one still on the premises." All that night in Provence, my head was filled with thoughts of a canine superhero, specially trained at hide-and-seek, who adopted the mock-scary tones of a fond uncle at Christmas when entering the upstairs bedrooms ("Are there any naughty boys in... here!?!"). But shortly after we came back to London, the place was comprehensively "forensicated" (I love that word – like "authenticated" but with more dusting powder) by two brisk lady cops, and a curious picture of the miscreants began to develop.

The DVD player was gone, and my laptop, my SLR camera, and my son's PlayStation, but they'd ignored some pricey items, such as my posh guitar. In the kitchen, they'd left my Talisker malt, my Miller's gin and St Lucia rum, but the fridge door was left open and I swear that a carton of organic yoghurt was missing. Stupid of me to leave such a thing in the fridge for a fortnight, but – but hang on a minute. Did they nick the yoghurt because it needed eating up?

Upstairs, my consort reported that, though they'd rummaged through her jewellery, they'd taken nothing, but they'd pinched two bottles of Jo Malone scent. Who were these guys? Did one of them rasp at the other, "Oi, leave that – we're lookin' for diamond bracelets," only to be told, "But this is Jo Malone Orange Blossom. It's my absolute favourite. It has top notes of vetiver and jasmine with a lingering memory of sandalwood..."

The master bedroom was a sorry sight, all yanked-out drawers and upended document boxes. On the bed lay a single blue pillow. Where was the other one? Had they taken that too, along with the PlayStation and the scent? Had the more effete burglar said, "Do you know, I was going to buy some of these in the John Lewis sale?" And had his friend tried to argue with him? In the upper rooms, they'd taken the remote from my son's Batman TV but left the TV (how bitchy!). It was impossible to establish the level of loss in my eldest girl's boudoir, because it's such a explosion-site chambre de bricolage, but it seemed that a sequinned jacket from Comme des Garçons had also gone walkabout.

By the end, when the cops were examining the French windows for shoe-marks, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn they'd been made by Crocs, those camp plastic moccasins with holes in them. I've never known such fey, capricious thieves, personalising their haul of ill-gotten gains with scatter cushions, cologne and probably some rocket salad as well. The police lady told me that burglars check your fridge because that's where middle-class people often hide their jewels, but I know better. I know these felons. They're London SE21 bad guys, just as bourgeois as their victims. Down Dulwich way, they think nothing of burgling a house just to get at the cartons of Actimel.

****

Hanging out in Provence gives you an opportunity to reconnect with one of the oldest traditions of southern Europe: taking the piss out of bulls. Forget the gory corridas of Spain, the blood-soaked, protracted, cape-wielding, death-in-the-afternoon Hemingway stuff, the Provençal version is much milder. It's called the course camarguaise, and involves nine limber young men in white jim-jams prancing around a bullring in Arles, diving out the way of an enraged couple of tons of beefcake with horns like sharpened lyres. The bull isn't harmed, just annoyed beyond endurance. Watching the chaps leaping to safety over the arena wall and on to convenient bars, seeing the impossibility of the bull ever goring them, one is reminded of playing "It" in a school playground, with all the weariness and frustration that entailed.

Ah, well, you think, I guess it's what French youngsters have been doing for thousands of years, to prove their manhood. And at least the bull isn't killed. And the children weren't shown anything very horrific. And it only costs seven euros. Then, at the end of the week, you discover there's a more exciting "hand-to-hand" version going on at the Beaucaire arena. It features chaps in proper matador suits, making contact with the bulls, presumably jumping over their heads and giving the animals a chance to fight back. That sounded fairer, so we rolled up, to discover that even the children's seats were getting on for £40. "Why the extravagant prices?" I asked an oldster near the ticket office. "Mises à mort, m'sieur," she replied, like Madame Defarge at the guillotine. They're put to death, sir. Of course, people will pay eight times over the odds for such heady sophistication. Naturellement.

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