In the first of three hilarious posts from historical novelist Conn Iggulden, he tells us about a highly formative day trip to Calais in 1981…
In 1981, I was ten years old when my primary school organised a day-trip to Calais for Year Six. We took a coach to Dover, then went across on a huge hovercraft, which in itself gives me twinges of nostalgia. Like Concorde, they just don’t exist any more, but they were great fun at the time, as big as a ferry, bumping along at ridiculously high speeds and the whole thing smelling of spray and vomit and rubber.
We arrived in the French port at 10am and the two male teachers checked their watches and told us to stay in groups and be back at 3.30 for the return trip. We scooted off into the port and I headed away on my own. I look back on that moment with something like awe. Thirty ten year olds, left completely alone in a French port. I know it was a more innocent time and so on, but still! Either way, I was going to take advantage of it. I knew exactly what I was in France to do. I had francs pressed into a sweaty wad in my shoe and a shopping list of things to get, most of them illegal back home.
Approximately ten minutes later, I was mugged. Two boys sauntered up to me as I crossed a park. One was tiny. He looked somehow wizened, like an old man, certainly no threat. The other was frankly enormous and clearly the muscle of the operation.
I completely failed to comprehend what they wanted at first. I spoke very little French and they spoke no English at all. Mugging someone is not that easy in those circumstances. When understanding finally dawned, I looked somewhat sceptically at the midget. I was tall for my age then and he didn’t look like he could enforce his desire to part me from my money. He seemed to understand my attitude. Somewhat wearily, I remember him pointing at his huge friend, who raised his eyebrows and grunted something, thumping one fist into the other. The power of French mime broke through the difficulties of language.
“I don’t have any money!” I said. They looked blank. As it happened, I did have four francs in loose change in my pocket and I realised I was going to have to give them up. I showed them my empty school bag and pulled my pockets inside-out. My hand clutched my asthma inhaler. I seized on it, waving it at them and saying ‘”I am an asthmatic! No money!” in a French accent. Asthmatics do not have a “community”, but if they did, I feel I rather let the side down then.
Reluctantly, my would-be muggers accepted my few coins of small change and strolled off. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I was not bothered by that incident at all. I was free, in France, with a shoe full of money and a dozen things to get and experience.
I had alcohol, bangers, a flick-knife, a lock-knife and pornography. I was delighted
A present for my parents was the first thing – easy enough to pick up a bottle of red wine for the ridiculously low price of five francs – about fifty pence at the exchange rate then. Again, it occurs to me now that it might be considered a bit odd that a ten year old had no problem buying alcohol, but believe me, I was just getting started. I was after bangers, next. At home in England, fireworks were not easy to come by for children. I’d heard you could buy proper ones in France – miniature sticks of dynamite. I found a shop that sold them and stood in an alleyway to surreptitiously slide a crumpled note from my shoe to my pocket before going in. That shoe thing had turned out to be a first-rate idea. In comparison, my dad’s advice on hearing I was going to France: “Don’t mention Agincourt!’ was no use at all.
[Years later, when I was seventeen, I was leaving France when I suddenly remembered his advice in a shop. Somewhat nervously, I said: ‘…Agincourt?’ to an elderly Frenchman counting out my change. He threw the coins at me. Hand to God, all true.]
Bangers safely in my schoolbag, I found a knife shop. Honestly, it was like Calais was designed for kids in those days. You could buy penknives at home, but I wanted a flick-knife, where the blade would pop out at the touch of a button. I found one called, for some reason “The Black Finger” – bit racist – and parted with some more francs. On a whim, I also bought an Opinel lock knife for six francs. [That particular blade would change my life in the most extraordinary way, but that will have to be another blog, probably entitled: The Ruislip Younger Firm, or How I Ran With the Gangs.]
Two streets along and I found a newsagent with an exciting, shiny shelf of dirty magazines. I’d heard French magazines were positively filthy compared to British ones. Again, no difficulties at all with me buying one, though I could only point and say my vital phrase for the day: “Combien, s’il vous plait?” How much, please?
I had alcohol, bangers, a flick-knife, a lock-knife and pornography. I was delighted with myself and my haul and decided I had just enough money and time left to go for lunch. I found a restaurant and planted myself and my bag at a table. I couldn’t remember the words to order frog legs, so I contented myself with “Escargot” – snails. I was determined to enjoy all France had to offer, you see.
The waiter brought me a sort of yellow earthenware rectangle on a plate, with six small holes in it. Half a dozen curly black snails peeped out at me from under a drizzle of butter and garlic. I took a deep breath and popped one in, chewing manfully with my eyes shut. I remember distinctly that I could feel the pimples of the snail on my tongue, so I dry-heaved a bit. I finished them all, though I’ve never eaten snails again. In all honesty, they tasted of butter and garlic.
The day had flown by. I had to run to reach the coach in time and be counted on and then driven back onto the hovercraft car deck. I remember being overcome with sudden terror that the coach would be searched and all my contraband found. I stuffed it all down the back of my seat. The coach wasn’t searched though, so I yanked it all back out again as we reached home late that evening.
The flick-knife broke after just a few goes with it. The bangers were utterly brilliant and incredibly powerful – I took a piece of my parents ceiling out with one when they came in unexpectedly and I put a cup over it just as it went off. The lock-knife got me into a huge amount of trouble and the magazine entertained me for ages. My parents loved the bottle of wine.
Conn Iggulden, for Waterstones.com/blog
Read more from Conn in his second article, The Ruislip Younger Firm, or How I Ran With the Gangs
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