No. 10 - 11


Augustus Young  

Extract from Chronicling Myself, by Augustus Young (New Island Press, 2008)   

Pilgrims to the Shrine of Bacchus, Bras de Venus, France 

The vineyards above Bras de Venus are watered by mountain streams. They merge into an underground river which, hitting rock at sea level, divides into two arms to embrace the town. Bras has also been embraced by vagrant souls who come from far and wide to winter out in the vineyard huts. It is the Mecca of clochards. The following is a descriptive survey of  these pilgrims to the shrine of Bacchus, and an attempt to understand their significance in French culture.   

Sample Clochards

The seal-like Slav has a gash across his cheek so deep his buccinator is a furrowed field. Someone must have tried to cut his throat and missed. His wolf dog, Ta Guele, an impolite way of telling people to shut up, barks if you look at his master too close. You wouldn’t want to  test the hypothesis that it’s worse than his bite.  

The Frizzy Blonde with a face like a football, a much-booted one, dresses as though she is young, and maybe she is. Her name is Grazziella Byloss, Belgian with an English father. The handsome wreck that is Pierrot - his idea of a good sleep is drunk on the pavement - has moved his spike from the Place de la République to share an early morning bidon with her on the bandstand in Place  Castellane. Bidons are for serious drinkers, plastic containers with five litres of vin ordinaire. Her presence in the town has transformed him. He goes to the launderette and now wears clean rags and a silver chain around his neck. They have been seen disappearing into the toilets in the SuperX supermarket and coming out separately. Her talons will add a tattoo or two to his body maps. But when Grazziella Byloss starts to ignore the poor fool, it will be all down hill again, I suppose. Women clochards used to be called clodettes. But it’s long out of usage, except for exotic dancers. Female bums, I suppose.  

Eric, the cheerful clochard, who says he’s ‘come out of the shadows’. Ex-roofer from Paris, Bras is his high heaven. He squats in a casot, a hut in the vineyards, with his wine and useless, that is friendly, dog. I doubt if Eric worries about anything. Winegrowers have been burning their casots in protest at the health warning on bottle labels. I think they would do better to market Eric’s good health and humour. The fire in vin rouge gives him his spark, pêche in French, close to sin and same as a peach. But the vine hut must be cold and damp in the winter, I say. ‘I hibernate with my radio’, he parries with a rheumy smile, which tells me he takes the affections seriously, if nothing else. 

When Jules, the ivrogne of the town and most experienced drinker, went to his grande sieste and Jim, his sad old dog, was put down, I met Eric. His eyes were bright with tears soft as the mist coming down from the mountains when the snows melt, missing his hero of the cult of Bacchus, who took on himself to drop dead, and was carted away to be incinerated at his daughter’s instigation. So Jim couldn’t be buried with him.  ‘Fire does not purify’ is his catchphrase. He had once been trapped in a blaze while slating a roof, and rescued himself by jumping. The leap put out the burning bush he had become. But his face doesn’t grow hair anymore. ‘Beats shaving’, he grins, his skin a leather strop. I can’t imagine Eric ever growing old. 
The King of the Clochards is The Sage. He has a beard like a hedgehog, wears a turban like Simone de Beauvoir, and carries his belongings in a string bag. Nothing is let slip. His rituals to ensure convenience and sustenance display a grand nonchalance that would make Aristide Malliol, the Catalan sculptor who made it big in monumental femal nudes, or Victor Hugo, said to have passed through Bras de Venus in the eighteen sixties to check out details of fishermen’s lives, seem like young men in a hurry. Who is he, I ask? I think he knows. The beard belongs to Jean Renoir’s ‘perfect specimen’ of a clochard who was saved from drowning by an antique bookseller (Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, 1932). I’m sure he knows the movie. If Boudu specialised in creating puzzlement, The Sage is a puzzle tree, and we’re his monkeys.  

The Sage holds the command seat on the Place Castellane, bumping the early birds from Rompre, the retirement home. He breaks a crust, drinks deep from his bidon and surveys the port and the great beyond. The banana and fishing boats come in and out for him. Though when the yachts set sail at midday he won’t be around, for The Sage, unlike Boudu, likes his wine (and blanc unlike the ordinary clochards). As Bacchus takes over from Poseidon, he goes for his sieste on the hill behind the Ta-marins, under the honeysuckle and woodbine, where the oleander changes its underwear in the bushes. 

Evenings, The Sage is back on the Place. After a hard afternoon sleeping his beard has begun to straggle, and he’s not caring who sees him swilling directly from a bottle of Piss-Dru, SuperX’s special offer. Albert, the bad boy of  the retirement home, Rompre, who wears his jumpsuit back to front, is his Fool. He too has had a hard day (trawling the gutter for butts and coins). The Sage, when he decides to move down under the bandstand for the night, honours him with the dregs. ‘Allez-y, Albert’, cry the nurse assistants as they drag him home. He refuses to let go the Piss-Dru. It still has a few drops.  

Breakfast with The Sage

You always carry a piece of rope 
in case you meet a donkey. Your throat
is all bottled up. And at one stroke
you siphon down the vin blanc. I note
you could be looking through a telescope.

And although what you see is the dregs,
there’s a message in it. ‘Bacchus begs
forgiveness that there is nothing left.
But back in the cave there’s plenty kegs.’
‘Bon’, says The Sage. ‘Now my ham and eggs.’

The Significance of Clochards in French Culture

French intellectuals have a thing about clochards ever since Pascal said they were forces of nature ‘whose centre is nowhere and circumference everywhere’. He had been studying the mendicants of Port-Royal. Montaigne’s kindly meant ‘nomad spirits who are neither here nor there’ seemed to him specious. But he had to admit, after several days of serving them bread and soup, that he couldn’t make ‘tail nor head of them’. There was no evidence of a moral life, or one logical to self-interest. They sat down when reasonable men stood up, passed on alms to the more fortunate so they could beg them back. Tous azimuts. Topsy turvy. Where would it all end? But it was a wee change from fellow Jansenists, a gloomy upright lot. He affectionately considered the mendicants as pre-theological throwbacks, innocents unaffected by original sin, unpredictable, except in their response to the sound of a bell. That’s why he named them clochards. 

In his youth J-P Sartre preferred to call them ‘pavlovians’ (and not after Anna, the ballet-dancer, and/or the fuchsia-like cake). While most Parisians of his acquaintance were living on their nerves, these drop-outs from social responsibility were living on reflexes: the kitchen bell of Saint Sulplice calling them to dinner, or the bell of an overhead tram under the bridges of Paris punctuating their sleep with sweet dreams. ‘Smelly, stupid and conditioned to forage like a feral, they are no better than their dogs.’ 

‘Or no worse’, said Camus.

But as drugs and drink softened his judgment, he became more tolerant and, indeed, in his premature old age, J-P liked to slip off and join the clochards on vacant lots on the Ile de la Cité, anytime Simone de Bovril gave him half a chance. ‘It’s a life of being and nothingness’, he told his acolytes when they came to fetch him back, and crackled out, ‘Sous les ponts de Paris’ (‘Under the Bridges of Paris’ in Albert Préjean’s pre-political version) on the Metro. Old ladies put small change in his soft felt hat.

It’s not much of a life on the streets, even if you’re a literary down-and-out in Paris. Moving on is the clochard’s raison d’être. In summer there is transhumance, migrating to upland pastures to live with the livestock on mushrooms, and in winter hibernating in the South. Bras de Venus may be a last resort for many blow-ins, but clochards find it a port royal for hivernage, wintering out. Though anything but a ‘dry’ dock: the wine is good and cheap when bought straight from the barrel, and free accommodation is laid on, house-minding the vineyard huts out of season. 

I have never been wholly happy with being confined to houses. Maybe I have a Lear-like future in store, fantastically dressed with mimosa and wild fennel, wandering the vineyards. Stripping down to reality might better serve my personal decline: a casot is a mean old place, particularly after New Year when the tramontane brings down the hail, and even snow. I like my comforts, and so I content myself with observing the nomads from a safe distance, dreaming of a Bedouin tent in an oasis of desert-rose (in the language of flowers, la rose des sables is lost between the sky and the sea), while munching a Reinette Clochard*, the queen of apples, whose flesh, sound as a bell under its thick yellow skin, is intoxicatingly sweet. 

*Reinette Clochard: an ancient variety of apple, still to be found under the bridges of Paris, or where European Union standards do not need to be observed.




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