France was beginning to come into my life in more ways than one.
In April 1975, mum traded in our camel-coloured Morris 1300 and bought a Renault 5. On the day we went to collect the car, I stood in the showroom marvelling at a Renault 17 Gordini. A sexy, low-slung coupé. Inside it had leather seats. I had never seen a car with leather seats before. Mum always maintained that our Morris had leather seats, but I knew they were plastic, my bum used to stick to them in summer. My mum’s remedy for a sticky summer bum was an awful tartan travelling rug (rag?) that she would drape over the back seat to “protect the leather upholstery.”
I remember crossing my fingers, hoping that the Renault 17 would be our new car, but we ended up with a blue box on wheels with square headlights. I never liked the Renault 5. (except for the Renault Supercinq that I eventually learned to drive on).
Mum always had problems driving it. For starters, the gear stick was in the dashboard. The car always stalled, especially going up hills. Mum reckoned it was the puny 900cc motor. « Not powerful enough ». Looking back though, I reckon we always stalled because my mum couldn’t get the hang of the gears or the pedals.
The gearstick on the Renault 5 was mounted in the dashboard. I’ve always wondered about the logic of a dashboard-mounted gearshift. Why? It was a common feature of many French cars up until the late70’s. It was also one of the reasons that people didn’t want to buy French cars. And the reason ? To keep the gear-shift as near to the steering wheel as possible so that the driver need not take his (or her) eyes off the road when changing gear
This was the Renault that would take us to France that summer.
« We’re going camping in France » announced mum one evening.
Gran wasn’t best pleased. She was too old to go camping. She’d have to go up to Scotland again to stay with her sister Annie in Dundee. I could understand her disappointment. Aunt Annie as we called her, lived on a miserable 1930’s council estate on the outskirts of Dundee. I have few memories of Aunt Annie’s, other than the fact that her house smelled of damp and wee and it had a huge electricity pylon in the garden, and when we went to visit, we got flat lemonade in dirty glasses.
Gran knew about France. In 1932, grandpa George had taken her to Deauville for a two-week holiday. Gran warned mum about « French men ». They were apparently only after « one thing », but no one ever told me what it was. Gran also regaled mum with stories of the white slave trade. She would be chloroformed and whisked away in the dead night, forced to spend the rest of her days catering to the needs of randy, moustachioed garlic-stinking men in a Parisian brothel. (possibly better paid than teaching in a south east London primary school, which was my mum’s occupation at the time) A camping holiday in Brittany sounded very dangerous indeed. Perhaps we should just go for one our regular, miserable beach holidays in Scotland or Norfolk.
Doctor Webber, the family GP, was also less than happy about our planned trip. He gave us a lengthy lecture on the lamentable state of French personal hygiene. « The French never wash and they go to the toilet in a hole in the ground. » pronounced the Germanic doc. « They can only drink wine because the water is so vile. » Dr Webber”s teutonic tones never wounded very menacing. He spoke with a lisp – not like those cold, vile Nazi types you see in War films. I once asked mum if Dr Webber had been a Nazi. “He’s Jewish dear.” I never knew what that implied until later on in life
Dr W insisted we take water purification tablets with us, and just to make sure we caught nothing nasty, he also gave us all polio jabs. After the natives came warnings about the wildlife. Horrible bugs that would sting and bite and burrow under our skin to lay their eggs, or perhaps crawl into our ears at night and nibble away on our brain cells. The good doc suggested we take a course of malaria pills. Mum refused, but he did prescribe a large supply of medicated wax earplugs, to stuff in our lugs as we slumbered.
We told our next door neighbour Paul, that we were off to France.
« That’s nice. I went there once. » he said
Mum asked what it was like.
« I didn’t have much chance to find out » he said. « Germans were shooting at us the whole time, and you don’t see much of the scenery when you’re driving a tank.»
And that was the problem. No one we spoke to had actually been to France since the War. The popular misconception was that the place hadn’t evolved much since D-Day. Some things must have changed in the thirty interceding years. As far as we knew, the French had electricity and running water. They must be vaguely civilised, they had posh perfume and Sacha Distel and, they had a car industry, even if it did produce some bloody awful-looking cars.
Mum bought a Michelin Guide to Brittany. She had to go all the way into the centre of London to get it. W.H.Smths in Bromley didn’t stock anything that exotic, though they had plenty of holiday guides to Spain
Flying off to Spain on a package deal was a popular holiday option by 1975. My mum’s hairdresser went to Spain, as did half the kids in my mum’s class. In September 1974, the first genuine holiday hit « Y Viva Espana » by Sylvia, brought back from the dance floors of the Costa Brava, entered the British top ten.
France was not a « popular » destination. Plenty of Brits went there, but they were the kind of Brits who liked to avoid other Brits and preferred red wine to Red Barrel.