You can’t get Guinness in France

The big summer event was the Olympic games in Montreal. From July 17th to August 1st. Britain came thirteenth in the medals table with the French in fifteenth place. In that year’s Eurovision song contest, the French had also come second to the Brits. Catherine Ferry, with her song “Un Deux Trois” totalled 147 points and came in just behind the Brotherhood of Man who won with 161 points.

In July, the Americans celebrated 200 years of freedom from British rule. To get to the Bicentennial celebrations, you might have taken Concorde. The Anglo French supersonic jet had started regular commercial flights in January, and in February, the plane was finally allowed to land State side.

In August, Jacques Chirac resigned as French prime minister. He left the post to form his own party, the RPR. Everyone thought his political career was finished, but he did eventually bounce back about twenty years later.

This was also the year that the French started what was to become their national lottery. The first draw was a experimental affair, limited to the Paris region. On May 19th, 73,000 Parisians tried to win the jackpot.

In November, the French cinema world was in mourning after the death of the great Jean Gabin. (15th November)

In the music world though, new stars were born. Jean Michel Jarre enjoyed national success with his album “Oxygene”. (Jarre purists may be screaming as they read this, but Oxygene was first released in France in 1976. Its international release came a year later on the Polydor label). On the punk music front (yes, the French did have their own pale imitation of punk) French group “Telephone” gave their first ever concert. (November 12th) The French never managed to get the diversity of groups we had in Britain. 76 in the UK saw the formation of the Jam, The Damned, the Clash, the Cure and others of that ilk.

Come to think of it, the whole of 1976 was very much in keeping with the British Eurovision entry. It was very dull and predictable. For some this meant that 1976 was the last really “happy” or “safe” year. Bad times were just around the corner. In fact, the bad times had already started.

The basic rate of income tax was 35p in the pound. Inflation was running at 17%, and Dennis Healey (great man) had to go cap in hand to the IMF because the country was bankrupt. The average take home wage was £72 per week, no one owned a computer, mobile phones had not been invented, only half of the population of Britain actually had a telephone. but there were the first video games.

A few words about the neighbours.

In 1976, we were camped next to an English family who had a huge six berth caravan. They came from Cambridge. The mum spent all her time washing and the dad would sit outside the caravan all day drinking Guinness. He had brought it with him from England.

“Can’t get Guinness in France” he used to say

The kids spent their time down at the swimming pools. The campsite had two of them. One for the morning and one for the afternoon. We used to walk down to the pool in our trunks, the caravan family though were very posh. They would walk down to the poolside in towling bathrobes. They seemed to have a different one for everyday. I guess this is why the mum spent so much of her time washing.

On the other side of us was a French family. Our French neighbours never wore robes down to the pool, I don’t think that they ever went to the pool. They wore tracksuits the whole time and would spend all day outside their tent playing “pétanque.” The Monsieur next door got quite interested in my mum. When his wife was over at the washing block peeling spuds or doing the dishes, he would nip over to our side and try to chat up mum in his broken English.

Mum was easy prey, for reasons explained before, there was no man about. This was the year that she reinvented Dad. Our father – a foreign correspondent for Reuters was presently working in Switzerland. He would be joining us later in our holiday. This still didn’t put off the bloke next door, when Madame went off, he’d always be over. Madame was actually never there. Like most French women on holiday, she spent the day cooking and cleaning.

Observed at close quarters, these French women seemed a very un-liberated lot. They seemed to spend most of their time in housecoats and rollers slaving over hot stoves. In the morning they would cross over to the washing block, arms breaking under the weight of huge plastic bowls full of crockery. Washing up done, they would nip across again, this time clutching a sponge bag. Come 11, it was back to the sinks, this time with a huge plastic bowl full of veg to peel. As they slaved away preparing lunch, the blokes would sit around drink vast quantities of “aperitif” – always Ricard. After lunch, the blokes would have a nap, then go fishing or play “boules” while the women would spend most of the afternoon preparing dinner. Was this the same nation that had given the world Brigitte Bardot? French women all seemed to be drudges, pandering to the needs of flabby Frenchmen clad in tracksuits and sporting espadrilles. How on earth did we we ever get the idea that all Frenchwomen were satin-lipped temptresses of easy virtue?

Perhaps it comes from all this kissing each other on the cheeks or perhaps from the stories of “Gay Paris” – Montmarte, Clichy, Irma la Douce and all that.

To quote from

Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944

(Bodleian Library: isbn 1-85124-335-6)

“It is also well to drop any ideas abot French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows. These were always designed as a tourist attraction for foreigners . . . If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself.”

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