At the age of 22, after a series of disastrous relationships, it looked like I was going to be ‘left on the shelf’. At that age it was expected that you’d be either married or at least seriously courting.
All my friends were either married or nearly so, all the men I met were either married or seriously courting and I was desperately lonely.
Following the advice of all the best agony aunts, I joined a youth hostelling group, going with them on rambles or walking weekends. It was all right, I suppose, but I was never the athletic type. I was more interested in meeting people, girls as well as boys, enjoying the evenings spent in the pub more than the actual walking. I remember once a crowd of us going up to the Pendle Hill (of witch fame) area for the weekend and being desperately tired after hiking about 20 miles on the Saturday, spending much of the Sunday in the pub and catching the bus home.
The group later decided to get more involved in rock climbing which didn’t appeal to me at all so gradually I stopped going. The following summer, I learned that one of the girls had fallen to her death in Snowdonia.
I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my life, yearning always for some indefinable thing beyond my reach.
Then, out of the blue, in the early summer of 1961, an opportunity arose to do something completely different. My parents were, by this time, working at the HQ of a local packaging company, Mum as a cook for the directors, Dad as a chauffeur taking directors and visitors to and from the station. One of the directors asked Dad if he would drive his Bentley to Cannes, while he flew, so that he could drive the car while he was there. The director would pay for Mum and my brother Mark, then 8-years-old, to go along. Somewhat diffidently, Dad asked if it was possible for me to go along too and they would pay for me. He agreed and wonderfully, marvellously, unbelievably, we were off to France for two weeks in a Bentley.
No words could ever describe my feelings on that holiday, the way it changed my life, but I’ll try. Having grown up with a chauffeur for a father, I was used to riding in luxury cars but none of us were prepared for the deference with which we were treated on the way. We flew from Lydd Airport, Kent, and drove down to the South of France in a leisurely manner, calling at various hotels on the way. I can still remember our stopovers. Abbeville, where they spoke beautiful English, and Maçon, where they didn’t and I had to practice my now rusty school French. We were so shocked, too, that the French showed no scruples, men or women, about urinating at the side of the road. One man was even eating a sandwich with his other hand.
High on the Corniche, in baking heat, we stopped for ‘une thé’ only to find it was made with goats’ milk with globules of fat floating on top.
In Cannes, once Dad had delivered the Bentley to the director, who was staying on La Croisette, the rich palm-fringed mile or so of hotels, restaurants and private beaches, we were free to enjoy ourselves for about ten days. Our hotel, the Belle Plage, was in the old part of the town, overlooked by the floodlit monastery high on a hill. Unfortunately, Mark got sunstroke very badly and had to be kept indoors for a few days, watched over by either Mum or Dad, which curtailed our enjoyment a little.
The American fleet was in port, with dozens of ships anchored in the bay, and the old town bars were packed with American sailors. There were so many of them, all of them confident and extrovert, I was a little afraid of them and stayed clear. That was until I met Butch on the beach, with Mum of all people. He wandered over to us, chatting in a friendly manner and calling her ‘Ma’am,’ which impressed us both.
When he asked if he might take me out, I agreed, and found him not at all how I’d imagined American men to be – ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here,’ a legacy of the war years. He was quiet and a little lonely, not unlike myself really, and we had a rather sweet romance for a few days.
Then the fleet left, leaving the bay and a large part of Cannes desolate. To my surprise, most of our part of the town closed up for a couple of days, to recover, I presume. Fortunately, I met a German girl, Margrethé, and she and I chummed up together, so I was able to get out in the evenings with her. With everywhere being so quiet, she and I ventured up to La Croisette, calling in one of the more posh cafés for a cup of coffee, all we could afford. There, we got chatted up by a couple of Italians, who were working in one of the big hotels. I’d always thought of Italians as being dark, yet one of them, Max, was actually a blond, something that fascinated me.
We complained to them about the lack of night life in our part of town and they promised to take us to a quiet little place with good music and dancing. It sounded ideal so we agreed. Even when we entered the French apartment block, with atypical blue flaking paint on its walls, we didn’t suspect anything; we thought perhaps it was a private club. It was only when they opened the door to their shared apartment that we realised that they had tricked us. With a glance at each other, we fled back down the stairs, with the two of them hanging over the bannisters, laughingly taunting us all the way down.
Margrethé, Me, Mum and brother Mark
Maybe it was with staying in the old town, but I was surprised to find myself being mistaken for French several times. Once, in the main square, we saw a young man running for a bus which was just pulling away from the kerb. Without thinking, I called out to him, ‘Vite! Vite!’ He paused briefly, called something to me in French, probably suggestive, before he made a last minute sprint for the bus. And I became so used to telling enquirers that I couldn’t speak French that when someone asked me, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’ I automatically replied, ‘Non, non, m’sieur.’
All too soon, our magical holiday was over and it was time to drive back. Unfortunately, the director wanted the car until the very last minute which didn’t give Dad much time to drive back to Calais.
It was a question of driving flat out in time to reach the ferry. Unlike our leisurely journey down, this was a mad dash through the darkened French countryside, with only the very briefest of stops. I felt sorry for Dad having to do all the driving and wished I’d carried on with my driving lessons. When Dad had tried to teach me, however, we’d had a bad experience, which put us both off. I’d put my foot on the accelerator pedal instead of the brakes, the car shot out of control into someone’s garden, narrowly missing a schoolgirl. Still, I kept him company throughout the night, forcing myself to stay awake, chatting about inconsequential things, while Mum and Mark slept in the back. On the outskirts of Fontainbleau, we stopped in a lay-by for a brief sleep, then it was on to catch the air ferry.
If I had been dissatisfied before France, deep discontent set in when we came back. Horwich seemed so dirty and smelly, with the blue sulphur smelling haze from the Locomotive Works hanging over the town, the people so parochial after the brief glimpse of cosmopolitan life in Cannes, that I couldn’t settle. The question was, what to do about it?
You’ll have to wait for my next blog post to find out!
Lead photo is of me at a YHA hostel somewhere in Lancashire.