Twelve of us sat down to lunch, eleven women and one man. Over pudding JMJ asked me, "How do you feel, being in a minority of one?"
"Well, actually, I feel very easy about it. Some years back I used to go with Julia and a bunch of her friends to be their cook in the villas they rented. I'd sit quietly at dinner and listen agog while they discussed all sorts of things I'd no idea about. You see, with no other men present I felt absolutely no need to try and compete: I could just sit back and relax."
We went to Britanny, Andalucia, Tuscany, Provence. I saw myself as their troubadour, their majordomo, even (in my wilder flights of fancy) their cavaliere servente: the sisterhood saw me as a superannuated male Cinderella, whose place was in the kitchen.
I did get out of the kitchen quite a lot, though. In Provence the landlord of the village houses we had rented was a retired air force officer who had flown in the Patrouille de France, the French equivalent of the Red Arrows. He took me to see his microlight aircraft in a barn at the edge of a field nearby.
It had a tiny, egg-shaped fuselage with a single-seat open cockpit . This was mounted on a tricycle undercarriage and had a small two-stroke engine driving the propeller behind it. A fabric-covered triangular wing sat atop a short pylon behind the cockpit. From the wing hung an aluminium triangle, pushing and pulling which provided the sole means of manoeuvring the aircraft.
"Would you like to fly it?" he asked. The question dismayed me. I hadn't flown solo for years. They say that flying is like cycling, once you know how you don't forget, but even so … Remember, this was a Frenchman asking an Englishman, so national honour demanded that I reply "Bien sûr!", whatever may have been my not inconsiderable misgivings.
He motioned for me to get in. I did so, fitting snugly in the cockpit. "Quelle est la vitesse d'atterrissage?" There were quite a lot of other things I wanted to know, but finding out the landing speed seemed the most important at the time. He didn't reply. Instead, he gesticulated for me to get up and sit on the rear rim of the cockpit. I did so, with my bottom seemingly just inches from the propeller. Only then did I realise, with a spasm of relief, that he was getting in too: only then did I notice that there were safety harnesses for two people.
The flight was fun. Cruising in the sunshine at two thousand feet with the Provençal countryside unfolding slowly below: what's not to like? But I reckoned that it would be a bit boring after a while so that, although there's a microlight field at Finmere just down the road, cruising over soggy north Buckinghamshire doesn't cut the mustard in quite the same way.
When we were in Brittany I used to sit quite a lot in a café overlooking the little harbour at Camaret and idly read a bit write a poem about the lady painters. I'm told that this is framed and in the downstairs loo at Ar Sparfel, the house where we were staying nearby and which was owned by one of them.
The Ballad of Ar Sparfel
Upon a Breton headland bare
There stands the house called Ar Sparfel:
Full seven dames were gathered there,
To gossip and to paint pell-mell.
With brushes cleaned and dishes cleared
Then chins did wag a-main,
When above the chat was faintly heard
A tapping at the window-pane.
`What can it be?' the beldames crowed
And 'neath the casement made a gap
Through which there slid a slimy toad
A-hopping straight on Bella's lap.
Full well she knew the fairy tale,
So swift she kissed the toad herself:
Before her stood, in coat of mail,
A doughty, comely, princely elf.
`From thrall of Morgan's curse, fair dame,
Your transforming kiss has rescued me:
Now, come ye all to my father's haem
Across the deep and silvery sea.'
So with the prince the seven dames flew
Up through the shining star-filled night
And all the horns of faerie blew
A welcome fanfare of delight.
Straight within the King of Elfland's hall
Went they, their aerie journey done.
`What boon shall I grant each and all,
For bringing back my only son?'
`O puissant king,' quoth Annabel,
`To catch the hues of earth and air
And limn all forms and patterns well
In paint upon a canvas bare –
This is the quest upon which we're bound:
Yet still our daubs go oft awry
And shape and colour we confound
Despite whatever tricks we try.'
'This is a goodly boon, I ween,
And now I cast the painting spell –
Just as long as you keep clean
The dining hall of Ar Sparfel.'
As from a dream those dames awoke
And to their easels flew everyone:
Such wonders came from every stroke
As each their master-work begun.
Such colours flowed from Bronwen's brush!
Priscilla, Joseph's coat surpassed!
From Renate's palette did rainbows gush
And Julia the spectrum on her canvas cast!
Such pictures were not ever seen
By mortal eye before,
Each capturing some Breton scene
In wondrous hue and form.
Two gallant youths from Albion sailed
(Each to each was like a brother)
By the porter they were gladly hailed;
Charles the one and Caspar the other.
Eftsoons Annabel and Frances then
Their sons did welcome well:
`O well arrived, bonnie young men,
To our hall of Ar Sparfel.'
A festal banquet then was laid,
And on the table spread:
But when the final toast was made
They all went straight to bed.
With woeful heart the elfen king
Did lift the painting spell:
Artistic skill is now the only thing
Found not at Ar Sparfel.
The moral of this tale is clear:
Be certain, when you sit to sup,
It's fine to revel wïth good cheer
If you don't forget the washing-up !