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