Le Havre

Just as we were raising our glasses to usher 2019 in, with a quiver of apprehension, the illumination of the west front of the Minster outside faded into darkness. We were toasting darkness.

Appropriately. Only half-admitted, the warm light of hope did not last into the new year to calm a slight shiver of apprehension. Someone at the start of the evening suggested that we should not  mention the word beginning with ‘B’ and ending in ‘T’ to spoil the evening, though everyone present was in agreement: the event it named will be a disaster for the country we live in.

I could not help remembering my younger self campaigning vigorously to join the group of nations just over the busiest shipping channel in the world. They were forging a trading union to prevent them ever descending into war. Winston Churchill realised that a common trade policy was the most potent way to prevent that, far superior to any peace treaty. It was the only way to promote prosperity and prevent war that had stalked our nearest neighbour, the continent of Europe, for centuries.

My love affair with Europe started when our ‘Mademoiselle’ entered the classroom one morning and, in heavily accented English, asked if anyone would like to have an exchange with a French girl of our age who lived in Le Havre, a port across the Channel in Northern France. She had hardly finished speaking when my arm shot up and I jumped to my feet.

So it came to pass that I travelled by train and boat through numerous customs and luggage checks and delays to arrive in Le Havre – the Harbour. Grubby steamers and cargo boats on one side jostled a forest of bobbing fishing-boat masts. The smell and noise of unintelligible voices hovered above the bustle. High upon the cliff above it all stood the mansion where Ariane lived with her two elder brothers, Marcel and François. Monsieur and Madame – I have forgotten their surname – could not have been more welcoming, but their courtesy seemed to come from another, older world. They had a cook and a maid. We assembled for lunch and dinner – breakfast was a more casual affair – in the drawing room. Summoned by a bell from the dining room, Monsieur would lead the way, sometimes with me on his arm, sometimes not, which I preferred as that meant I might be sitting next to François.

He was a few years older than me and very handsome – or so I thought. He was also irresistibly mischievous. He would throw water over me when we went swimming or sit, pensive, on the edge of the family beach hut looking out over the channel I had just crossed to go through tortuous and time-consuming checks and regulations. One evening I went with him, Ariane and their rather boring elder brother Marcel, to a party at a house on the cobbled road down to the harbour. There was a lot of dancing and fooling around, all new and enthralling. Our host’s parents appeared a couple of times around midnight, probably protesting at the noise. When they finally appeared in night clothes, we all left. François took off his shoes and the rest of us followed suit to return merrily and uncomfortably up the cobbled street back to the shipbuilder’s mansion at the top of the cliff.

On my return to England with Ariane, I was dismayed to see her anxiously channelled into a different customs area. She had to open her large suitcase and I was unable to help her answer all the questions about the joint of meat, plucked chicken and other French delicacies that her mother had slipped inside, fearful that her daughter might not have adequate healthy food during her stay in England! It was meant kindly, though it upset my mother. I had been saving the money earned over some years by delivering early morning papers and had finally realised my dream to buy a pony. The summer was spent teaching a fearful Ariane how to ride and taking her out for picnics in a pony trap borrowed from neighbours.

From then onwards I was determined to travel all over Europe and to learn as many European languages as possible. I now read and speak – fluently and inaccurately – three of them and am an inconsolable British European with a red passport that I want to keep. It is a symbol of peace.

Lost photo of François should be here…

 

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