It’s one of those airless, hot summer Sundays. The world is on holiday, deepest France is in full summer slumber – a perfect time for a country drive, on uncluttered winding roads – across the fields and through the forests. On a photo safari down to the village of Souesmes, sight of a major battle in 1944 between local resistance fighters and the Wehrmacht heading north to reinforce German forces fighting in Normandy. This is the centre of France, where, in July and August 1944 over a quarter of a million German troops heading north to south and west to east, were stopped in their tracks by the local Resistance. There are hundreds of small roadside monuments commemorating such events and occasionally village war memorials inscribed with the names of the dead from World war Two and World War One – in many villages nowadays the names of the dead from both wars are greater than the number of current inhabitants. Here are some photos of an “unknown soldier” on a village war memorial. His face shows the suffering and scars of war and his state of decay shows the indifference of modern France where once the link between the nation’s army and its citizens was a true historical and moral bond. here is the forgotten soldier.
It was the standard government bad news envelope – « Republique Française » stamped high up in the left hand corner and my name and address visible through the small cellophane window – the kind of envelope that never brings any tidings of joy, just tax demands or parking fines. I’ll open it later.
The envelope got progressively buried under a pile of magazines, junk mail until I finally retrieved it and opened it and read the letter inside and shouted OMG, nice and loud so the Almighty himself might hear because I am French – I mean literally, I am French – It says it here in the letter – I have just been awarded French nationality, I have been French since July 1st, a whole week the envelope lay there and … that’s one whole week I’ve been French and I didn’t know.
I’m not sure now if I have dual nationality or two nationalities or I am French in France and British in the UK – I’m going to have two passports, at lets I will apply for a French passport and when I renew my Britsh passport I just won’t bother telling anyone that I have a French one.
I’m not sure either if this makes me Anglo-French or Franco-British. Am I now two different people at the same time, or just half and half ?
It all started roughly eighteen months ago – whilst Britain was in the throes of a rather accrimonious referendum campaign – to brexit or not Brexit ? That was the question. For many it was just a formilaty, a forgone conclusion. Of course Brits would vote to remain in the European Union – it would be madness to leave, but just in case the tide went against the prédictions of the pundits, I decided it would be wise to have some kind of insurance policy, so I applied for French nationality.
I’ve lived and worked in France for 26 years – I’m a fully paid up member of French society, but I’d always clung on to my British nationality, despite feeling more French than British over the years . I work as a civil servant – normally a status reserved for French nationals, but since the enactment of the 1992 Maastricht treaty, all EU citizens have been able to work in the French civil service – then on June 24th THUD – SHOCK – DISBELIEF – the Brits voted for Brexit and by doing so voted to rip all those treaties and agreements to which they had been signatories – those precise and precious papers that guaranteed my job security – faced with the prospect of being « stateless » – like many Brits living in France ; I applied for French nationality. Now I am French, I have a job and a future in the land I call home. Whatever the fate reserved for UK nationals living as ex-pats in the European Union, I at least won’t be sharing it. Yes, it was a question of survival, but after so long living here I guess the time had also come to take the plunge.
Yes, I am happy to have French nationality, but joy is tinged with anger agaisnt the 1.7 million or so Brits who tipped that balance in favour of Brexit. I can’t say there is a standard Brexit voter, they seem to be a hotch potch of elderly people, white working class and bunch of misguided nationalists believing that Brexit will make Britain GREAT again. I suose in the thirty or so years between the end of World War Two and the oil crisis of the early 70’s there was a notion of « greatness », though I would be more prone to call it a misconception born from the fact that Britain emerged victorious from World War Two and until the 1970’s enjoyed relative prosperity, as did France. Yet in their Empiric and Waterloo like mindset, the Brits always thought they could go it alone, until evrything came crashing down in the mid to late seventies.
I am mistrustful of all these Brexiteers who trade in terms of « Greatness » and « Freedom » and the idea that now the UK is leaving Europe, the nation will be free to determin its own destiny and make its own laws. Was living within the EU so bad ? But now that the UK is « free » and is all set to be « great » again, towards which historical model will the pro Brexiteers look ? How Churchillian, Cromwellian, or Victorian will the Brave New Britian be ?
I’ve rambled on a length about Brexit – misguided musings with the occasional pertinent pointer, but I have never spoken about the « Norman Yoke » – nothing to do with eggs from Normandy- Let’s take a trip back into the dim, distant, but still very relevant past – The English Civil war, or what some historians such as the late (great) Christopher Hill, referred tas The English Revolution. In its entirety, the war lasted from 1642 to 1651 – I know that Charles 1st was beheaded on January 1st 1649, but it took Cromwell’s parliamentarian « roundhead » forces another two years to « mop up » the last Royalists in England and Scotland. Charles 1st may have been no more, but his son – the future Charles II carried on the campaign against Cromwel’s forces with the help of the Scots – historians refer to this period as the Third Engish Civil War – has this anything to do with Brexit ? Of course – apart from the various political and religious causes of the English Civil War (or Revolution), there was also a considérable part of the Parliamentarian forces who were fight for Freedom for all Englishmen – There were factions in the anti-royalist forces who blievedthey were liberating England from The Norman Yoke – yoke being that large wooden « harness » hung around the neck of bulls or horses to pull a plough – these « true Englishmen » believed that there ad been no such thing as true English liberty since 1066, when William of Normandy won the battle of Hastings and the last true Saxon (English) king, Harold 1st was slain (hit by an arrow in the eye so legend goes) – from 1066 onwards Kings of England were no more than French usurpers and al those wars with France wewre no more han family feuds where good English blood was spillt to settle the diferenecs of accrimonious French cousins. The rise of the Puritans and their staunch anti catholicism is also the story of the rise of the first English nationalism – both go hand-in-hand. Though England had become a protestant country over a century before the start of the English Civil War, there was still mistrust of the Church and the monarchy for supposed catholic sympathies. Charles 1st had a French (and therefore catholic wife) – Queen Henrietta Maria – she had a Catholic Chapel built in her private résidence at Greenwich and Charles 1st was suspected of having convertde secretly to Catholicism. The Norman Yoke was all this, the idea that around 1642 all true Englishmen had been living under foreign political and religious domination for nearly 600 years – with the exécution of Charles 1st and the declaraion of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, all Englshmen were finally free – I think this is somewhere within the mindset of pro Brexiteers – Britain is free once more. This might all seem flippant or even futile as an argument, but somewhere we are still in the mid 17th century mindset, there are still Cromwellian dinosaurs out there.
The current conservative government is kept in power by a minority protestant party from Northern Ireland – The Democraitc Unionist party (DUP-) – founded in the early 1970’s by the late Reverened Ian Paisley, they were no more and no less a radical regional party set up in Northern Ireland to (as they saw it) protect Protestants and above all to protect and maintain the union between Ulster and Great Britain – hence Unionist – as opposed to Republicans who sought a United Ireland. The DUP (in my opinion) are a 400 year old throwback to Cromwell. They are the modern incarnation of « The Norman Yoke », and they are currently maintaining Theresa May in power. This is not good for Britain, and convinces me that any Brexit will be negotiated in a mindset of misguided nostalgia, a harking back to a time when … I keep thinking that our Brave new Britan will be like some kind of Beatrix Potter thème park – a rural idyll where the peasants are free to sit round drinking ale and … It’s a nightmare.
Parting thought – the UK conservative government are trying to negotiate (what I hope will be) a common sensé Brexit. They are maitained in power by a manipulative minority party (the DUP) with a credo that is a throwback to seventeenth century Britain. They were founded by a venemous Victorian vicar caled the révérend Ian Paisley, who one qualified the European Union as « a manifestation of the anti christ. » If the Queen does finally pop her clogs, then Brexit will happen under the reign of the future heir apparent – Charles III – sorry have we just gone back 400 years.
Hey I am happy to be French and living in a republic. I think what Britan needs now is Charles De Gaulle.
In my pursuit of chartering those unchartered parts of France. Those towns and villages where the dead seem to outnumber the living – there are more people in the cemetery than in town.
A few days away from civilisation in a place so deep in deepest France, that it can only be described as an abyss. Welcome to the heavily wooded but sparsely populated region of La Creuse, and more precisely the small town of La Courtine – one of these « forgotten » places that is also best forgot. A dead town of old souls reminiscent with overtones of « Deliverance » and « The Shining ».
Almost a ghost town, La Courtine was one of these « outposts » that for generations, served as an important part of French military infrastructure – a huge military camp where national servicemen would be mobilised to do their patriotic duty, and fulfil their military debt to France. La Courtine camp was where national servicemen would do their basic training and after a hard day on the assault course, they would head into town for a hard night in one of the town’s numerous watering holes.
Like hunters, diggers and cowboys of old, into to spend their pay and enjoy what few delights were on offer.
In 2000, President Jacques Chirac announced the official end to obligatory military service for all the nation’s able-bodied young men and La Courtine went from garrison town to ghost town.
Bars and shops shuttered up forever, tattered « for sale » signs » hanging forlornly in the window, both bankrupt former owners and local real estate agents knowing that no one in their right mind would ever want to buy in a place like this.
There are ghosts of the past haunting every bar and every street. This town didn’t so much die as get shut in a time capsule.
Staring in through the dusty windows of the former dance hall – the parquet dance floor still danceable enough for a quick twirl and the garish 50’s stage ready to welcome a local dance band. The long ‘s’ shaped Formica bar propped up by shadowy figures, as supernatural silhouettes trip the light fantastic across the floor and somewhere in the far away, the slight echo of a dance band. How many young soldiers got their first dance, first kiss, and first fight with jealous local lads at this dancehall?
Yes, this is France, this is dead France, this is old France, this is rural France, this is the France where Central government has almost given up on the people, this is neglected France, badly in need of investment. – This is deepest France.
It is the time of year when professional organisations and lobbies get together in interminable, self-congratulatory ceremonies and hand out awards – from films, to sport, to music and even agriculture, there have been innumerable ceremonies since the start of the year. Not to be outdone, I have decided to hand out an award, so ….
In the category of THE MOST UNLIKELY STAR OF THE WEEK IN FRANCE, the nominees are …
François Fillon, French Republican Party candidate in the up and coming Presidential election, for is role in the complicated and long running saga « The man who will not be President. »
Isabelle Huppert – gorgeous French actress for her role in the film – « The Lady who missed the Oscar »
The humble ham sandwich for its role as « France’s favourite lunchtime snack. »
And the winner is
THE HAM SANDWICH
Yes, amidst all the current political and social turmoil in La Belle France, the nations media found the time to spare a few minutes and column inches for the humble ham sandwich
Last week, the French fat food industry held its annual Professional show at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre on the edge of Paris, and this year, as every year, journalists went along looking for a few off beat stories to lighten the load in what is currently very heavy and depressing national news coverage – but why the ham sandwich?
Well, long before anyone in France had ever heard of hamburgers or kebabs, or any kind of « fast food » for that matter, the humble ham sandwich was the staple « fast food » Easy to make, quick to eat and highly affordable, the ham sandwich was the lunchtime standard for many workers – wolfed down in a matter of minutes whilst standing at the bar in a café, and highly affordable – just a few francs. The ham sandwich is an iconic, national institution.
So, all you would be French speakers out there will be toying with the translation of « ham sandwich » – sandwiche jambon ??? sandwiche au jambon ??? You are all wrong, this lunchtime staple which represented 51% of all sandwich sales in 2016, actually goes under the name of « le jambon beurre » – ham and butter sandwich. This presupposes that if you just ask for a « sandwiche au jambon » you won’t actually get any butter – and a long time ago, you would have been right.
A SANDWICH IN 76
A personal memory from the long hot summer of 1976 – mum has taken us to France for our annual Gallic camping trip. It is a sweltering day in Perpignan, around lunchtime, and as with lunchtimes of old, everything is closed from midday to 2pm – great if you want a long lunch, but lousy if your car has just broken down – which is the case of our crappy old Renault 6. Luck would have it that mum has found a couple of strapping young men, willing to push us a few hundred metres from where we have broken down, to the forecourt of a local garage, which is of course closed for lunch. It would seem a good idea to have lunch and wait. We head to a nearby café and order (in our best broken French) « un jambon sandwiche s’il vous plaît monsieur. » The wrinkled old, wine soaked patron, with a Gitane stuck to his lower lip, disappears into the kitchen, emerging a few minutes later with the ham sandwiches. First bite – NO BUTTER –
« Où est le beurre monsieur ? »
Consternation from the « patron » who gesticulates wildly and shouts « beurre » a few times. We understand that if we wanted butter we should have ordered butter, so we do, and the café owner disappears in a new fug of Gitane smoke to spread butter on our sandwiches, and when the bill comes, he charges us for butter.
Howls of indignation
« He can’t charge us for the butter! » exclaims mum, but he does, because we ordered a « Jambon sandwiche » and not a « jambon beurre sandwiche », when our humble ham sandwich became a ham and butter sandwich, we had to pay the dairy differential.
In 2016 the French chomped their way through a staggering 1,2 billion ham sandwiches, though this figure is 3% down compared to 2015. Consumed in Cafés or bought at the bakers or the local supermarket, the average national price for a jambon beurre (JB) is 2.93 Euros. The cheapest JB is to be found in the northern French town of Lille (2,52€) whilst the most expensive JB in France is not in Paris, but in the eastern town of Montbélliard (3,52€), there are however unconfirmed reports of a JB in the west coast town of Nantes retailing at 4€ – add to this the price of a drink, around 3€ and you are starting to look at an « expensive » lunch when you consider the alternatives –
JAMBON BEURRE VS HAMBURGER
Take that other « fast food » – the hamburger. At McDonald’s you can get a whole Happy Meal for 4€ (burger, fries drink, dessert and even a toy). For the adults there is the « Best Of » menu – burger fries and a drink retailing at an average of 6,30€. KFC, Burger King or even the home-grown hamburger chain; Quick – you can get a standard burger, coke and fries lunch for under 7 Euros.
So, you wanna a traditional sit down lunch in a Brasserie with starter, main course, cheese, dessert and a small carafe of wine. Well big city or small town, you’ll be looking to spend anywhere from 10€ to 15€ – the bar at the end of my street does main coures, dessert, coffee and a glass of wine for 10€ – no wonder the place is always packed at lunchtime.
For all its cultural significance as the French national sandwich, the good old jambon beurre, unlike other iconic homespun French dishes, has never appeared on one of the nation’s TV cooking shows – Top Chef, Master Chef … candidates might be asked for a new take on Bœuf Bourgignon or a Tête de Veau – but none has ever been asked to « revamp » the good old jambon beurre. Why bother though? The JB is simplicity itself – rip open a baguette, butter it up and then shove in a slice of ham. Hey Presto! Lunch!
THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY
National price differentials in the jambon beurre obviously don’t come from labour costs – it’s al about the quality of the ingredients – take freshly baked crusty French bread, apply a generous covering of fresh dairy butter and then a good thick slice of traditionally cured farmhouse ham. You could also do what most people do, buy a cheap baguette and a pack of cheap, watery factory ham from the supermarket. Cut open the baguette without cracking it all (yes there are many bakers who sell freshly defrosted bread freshly baked the day before), apply a thin covering of margarine, whack in a bright pink slice of sloppy ham and …. And this is like to be the sandwich reality of many people.
It is hardly surprising therefore that ham sandwich consumption is falling. Yes the Jambon Beurre accounts for 51% of national sandwich sales, but in 2009 it represented 63% and not long before that it was 70% – but it was probably a lousy quality sandwich so people stopped buying it.
I’ll have to admit to not being a ham sandwich fan – if I do actually have lunch (which is pretty rare); I like something sexier than a humble ham sandwich. I would have to say though that in general, the French sandwich bar experience is a pretty sad one – dry sandwiches with unimaginative fillings.
A few years back, I accompanied a group of French friends to London – come lunchtime one day, wandering around near Waterloo station , I suggested we head to a pub for a traditional pub lunch – general scowls and mistrustful looks all round, – the Gallic misconception that all British food is bad. A few yards down the road, one friend sees a sign « Prêt à Manger, »
« Ah, un restaurant français » and in we all trooped. Ah not a restaurant, a sandwich bar. Never mind it is reassuringly French- and my friends order soup and sandwiches and tuck in and chomp their way through all manner of sandwiches including Bacon Lettuce and Tomato, a Pastrami Bagel and a Peking Duck Wrap. And they all smile at me and laud the quality of these French sandwiches. I am of course saving the best ‘til last – despite the French name, Prêt à Manger is actually British. AAAAGH Perfide Albion. A sandwich Waterloo moment.
It comes down to ne thing. Apart from the Jambon Beurre, France is not a sandwich culture and the French just don’t make a decent sandwich. Who invented the sandwich anyway and how would you really translate sandwich into French ? Une baguette farcie ??
An afterthought – if the JB’s position of sandwich predominance is being slowly eroded, it might also be in part down the Bagel or Beigel, which I notice, has now even reached my corner of small town France – seems like I’ll be waiting a long time for decent salt beef though.
The French call it « Gouter », which for want of a better translation would be « teatime » in English, however, depending of where you live in England’s green and pleasant land, « tea » can be one of several different meals.
So, I am not talking full blown « afternoon tea » – that meal in-between meals enjoyed mostly by tourists, neither am I talking « teatime », that term used in the North of England to describe what us southerners might simply call « dinner » – because in Northern England, « dinner » is actually your lunch.
Back to the French « gouter » which is no more than a couple of biscuits or a choclate bar or some kind of sweet snack that kids wolf down when they arrive home from school.
So, this being Saturday – I hit the supermarket like the thousands of other souls in this small town who shop on Saturday morning, because that is the time that everyone goes shopping. Long lines at the checkout, bumper-to-bumper trolleys in the aisles and … the « phenomen » that annoys me above all else – people meeting and chatting and standing right in the middle of the aisle as they do so, oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the way for everyone. I wish supermarket trolleys were equipped with horns ; I’d honk all thses aisle hogs – worse than road hogs.
Back to cake
It was on leaving the house that my daughter asked me (shouting from her bedroom) « dad can you bring back a cake (gâteau) for the gouter »
A cake – oh please for a real, sensible cake ! A Victoria sponge, a carrot cake, a banana and walnut, a Dundee cake – something copious, solid and sensible. This is France though, and the French don’t do decent cakes (I can hear howls of gastronomic francophile anguis as I write) – Yes the French have Patisseries – icing-covered, cream filled créations hat are better to look at than taste. Oh the chocolate eclair – NO, that is not a cake, it’s an éclair – and worse the coffee cream éclair. I don’t want fancy pâtisseries, I want a slice of carrot cake.
Of course, for the purposes of the « gouter », when the daughter says « gâteau » and I translate as cake, I should of course have understood « biscuit » – yep, this is the country where a cake can be a biscuit and a biscuit – well that’s something fancy that pastry chefs use in their pâtisseries. Confused – you should be.
To avoid confusion we use brand names in my house
Nevertheless – I wandered into that aisle where sweets and biscuits are sold, looking for a real cake. Ginger bread, Brownies, « English » fruit cake, but nothing that I would consider as a real cake in my very English définition.
I might get a « cake » at the baker’s, but the baker is a baker and not a pâtissier, though there are a few fruit tarts (referred to in English as pies) because when the French make an apple pie, it is an apple tart.
Oh for real cake !
Yes, I can get almost real cake in my corner of deepest France, though I have to frequent one of the plethora of tea rooms or coffee shops that have opened up in my small provincial town.
Even then, the carrot cake on offer is a very small « ersatz » affair.
No decent cake. All this in the land where Marie Antoinette told the peasants to eat cake beceuqe they had no bread.
Lost in translation again. Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say cake or « gâteau » – she actually meant Brioche, which is Brioche, because we don’t have that in Britain because it’s French.
« Let them eat cake ! »
Perhaps if they’d given the peasants a nice slice of Victoria sponge and a decent cup of tea, we would never have had all this revolution nonsense.
1000 Euros for a bottle of wine! You must be mad. I could get 50 bottle of really posh plonk for that kind of money or 100 bottles of something half decent or, if I weren’t too fussed about the quality, I could drive home from the supermarket with 250 bottles of table wine. 1000 Euros or a bottle of wine – well you certainly aren’t going to drink it – this is an investment – this is going to sit in your cellar slowly gathering dust until you can sell it on for at least double the price.
The bottle in question – a 2010 Chambertin-clos-de-bèze, fetched the astronomical price at last year’s wine sale at the Hospices de Beaune. Today marks the 2016 wine sale at Beaune and investors will be there to spend silly money on the best that Burgundy has to offer.
The Hospices de Beaune are (as the name suggests) is the town of Beaune in the Burgundy region. The Hospices are (or were) a medieval hospital offering care and alms for the poor, the sick and the needy. Beaune is in the heart of wine country – : Mersault, Pommard, Nuits St Georges, Chatteau Latour, Chablis – legendary wines that fetch astronomical prices at the yearly Beaune wine auction, where all proceeds go to funding the charitable works of the hospice.
In 2015, the wine sale in Beaune netted a record 11.3 million Euros, this year’s sale has only raised 8.4 million, roughly a quarter less.
The reasons are simple, it is not lack of buyers, there are more buyers than ever, it is a shortage of wine and the shirtagr of wine is all down to the effects of climate change. Thanks to weather change, there hasn’t been a decent harvest in the Burgundy vineyrads since 2010. Local wine producers reckon that over the past four to five years they’ve had in total the equivalent of just under two decent harvests. As the wines beome scarcer, intesrest from investors willing to pay serious wine money grows, leaving little place for those «amateurs» who buy the stuff to drink it, rather than keep it in a vault.
Prces of Pommard, Chablis and such have been rising steadily since 2010. In 2012 there was an incredible 50% price hike. 2014 saw a 26% rise and in 2015 prices rocketed by a further 37% rise – all good news for the Hospices (and also the auction house Christies who organise the annual sale). Bad news though for serious wine lovers. This begs he qustion, just how much would anyone be willing to pay for a bottle of wine. Prices are certainly on the rise.
We’ve just «celebrated» the Beaujolais nouveau in France – the «Bojo Noovo» is always released on the third Thrusday of November. Last year it was easy to pick up a bottle of this young wine for around 4 Euros at the local supermarket. This year the average bottle is retailing around 5 or 6 Euros – add on more of you fall the for the supposedly «organic» Beaujolais.
Reasons why people move to France are manifold – the weather, the beautiful countryside, the quality of life, the education system, the excellent health care – however (jokingly or not) most expats will cite the «cheap wine» as one of the reasons. is wine really that cheap?
When I see the silly prices that are paid in the UK, well wine out here in France doesn’t exactly seem cheap, just more reasonably priced in rapport with what you are drinking. My local wine is Sancerre off the shelf or from a local grower, prices are around 10 Euros a bottle – that’s roughly £8 sterling, in the UK though, I’ve seen bottles of my local tipple going for up to £20 UK (that is silly money for a bottle wine though it is certainly less than 1000€.
So, in my what you pay is what you get price guide, I am not sure of the current US$ vs € exchange rate, however for a half decent bottle of Côtes du Rhone – a Beaumesde Venise, a Rasteau, a St Joseph or a Gigondas, you can pay between 7€ and 10€, roughly between £5 and £7 UK pounds. £5 for a bottle of wine in the UK is peanuts, though you are probably buying a French table wine or an Esatern European plonk under the guise of «Bulgarian Country Wine» or «Romanian Bulls Blood» (Yep the marketing guys are scratching their heads to think up quality names for what are ostensibly amalgams of various table wines from different producers all served up in the same bottle with a sprinkling of chemicals.)
For a decent a drinkable «off the shelf» Bordeaux an uninformed drinker will lay out anything from 10€ to 15€ – for sure at this price you are getting something vaguley drinkable to share with guests over Sunday lunch (You may have understood that I am not a great fan of Bordeaux wines – Much ado about nothing)
And now, my quest
A few years back, when all the British press were waxing lyrical about «Hoooooow Loooooovely it is to live in France,» one Sunday Times journalist said that she found lovely local table wine for just 2€ a bottle – so, with some ex-pat friends, 2 Euros in pocket and no more, we hit the local supermarkets and wine stores to see what we could bring back for 2 Euros – you had to find a proper botte of wine (ie a glass bottle with a cork, no plastic bottles and no screw tops) red white or rosé for 2 Euros or less – the result was «La Cuvée du Patron» retailing at 1.69 Euros – and you know, well as a summer BBQ wine, a sangria wine or a cooking wine, it wasn’t half bad. We later found the same wine on the wine menu of a local restaurant at 10 Euros a bottle – pretty cheap for a restaurant wine, though you might just be better buying a half liter jug of wine for 6 Euros – poured directly out the wine box.
Finally, over the past couple of years in France there has been an explosion of independent wine shops, all dealing with small vineyards and selling proper organic wines for as little as 6 Euros a bottle – little gems and all the better for your guests (and you) because they are kind of exclusive.
In this house tonight, beef stew and to wash it down, a Beaujolais Nouveau retailing at 6 Euros a bottle.
In conclusion, how much wine can you get for 1000 Euros? One bottle of «Chambertin-clos-de-bèze» or about 600 bottles of «Cuvée du Patron;» Not sure what you are drinking tonight, but CHEERS.
He’s a national icon, as French as a Camembert cheese or the Eiffel Tower itself; Johnny Halliday is France, and at 74, the nation’s best loved rocker is still packing them in. Of course if you can’t get to see the real Johnny Halliday, why not get the next best thing – France’s top Johnny double – Johnny Rock (AKA Denis Le Men) ?- Monsieur Rock brings Johnny to those places the real Johnny will never play and to all those die hard Johnny fans who can’t get to see their idol. I caught up with Johnny Rock, talk about his life as Mr Halliday. (This interview appeared in the July edition of the Connexion newspaper)
Which is which?
Real Johnny on the left and Johnny Rock on the right.
How did you become Johnny Rock ?
I suppose my life with Johhny or as Johnny started in back in 1966. Back then there was only one TV channel and for us kids , only one show on it worth watching: «Age Tendre et Tête de Bois». Nowadays it might be called a chart show. There were all famous singers of the day in glorouis black and white: Claude François, Eddie Mitchell and of course Johnny Hallyday. I suppose Johnny became my idol from the first moment I saw him on TV. I was only 11, but I remember thinking at the time that «this is the man I want to be when I grow up» – even at that early age, Johnny became my role model. As the fascination with Johnny grew, I started to imitate him, mostly for friends. back in the sixties there was no school on Thursdays, so us kids would all go down the local youth club and I’d regularly perform my Johnny Hallyday turn. I earned the nickname of «le petit Johnny», even the teachers at school started to call me Johnny.
I left school at 16 in the early 70s and went to serve an apprenticeship as a shipwright but I carried on my Johnny impersonation, mostly as a party piece for friends and family., then in 1984, at a big family wedding, I was doing my usual Johnny routine, unaware that one of the guests was a local discotheque owner. He liked my routine and asked if I wouldn’t like to come an do a regular spot at his disco. I statred solo then over time joined up with some local musicians to form a Johnny tribute band. As word got around about the band,we statred to build up a good local following, and we were getting regular bookings on the local pub and club circuits.
In 1987, I got a call from a woman called Evelyne Pratt, she had formerly been one of the « Clodettes » (Claude François female dancers), she ran a talent agency in Paris, she’d heard about the show and she needed a Johnny Hallyday double on her books. We signed a contract, and for the next two years, I spent pretty much every weekend on the road doing my Johnny routine as part of Evelyne’s show. Of course I was still working as a shipwright at the time, so Friday to Sunday I’d be on stage as Johnny Rock and during the week, I’d be back in the shipyard as plain old Denis le Men the Cherbourg shipwright. I frankly wasn’t earning enough to give up my day job, but as I later discovered, as my « impressario » Evelyne was earning far more from me, than I was. She was ripping me off, so I ripped up the contract and went solo.
In 1997, the shipyard closed down and everyone got laid off. I suppose with my carpentry skills I could always have found another job, but it never really crossed my mind. Johnny Hallyday had always been a huge part of my life, so why not make a life as Johnny ? It might seem a starnge choice to some, but I had a good stage show, I had plenty of plenty of bookings, why not do this for a living ?
Do you make a good living ?
I live comfortably.
What’s it like earning a living as Johnny ?
Well the real Johnny will have his agent, his minders, his roadies and such – Johnny Rock is a one man business.
So what about sex drugs and rock and roll. Johnny’s had his fair share of hard and fast living, what about you ?
My only drug is performing. I just love being on stage doing what I do. With or without Johnny, I could quite happlily be on stage every night, but at 61, I’m not getting any younger and performing is pretty tiring. I’m on the road every weekend. I might have a show in Dunkirk on a Friday and then a gig in Marseilles on the Saturday ; So, i’ll be driving all day or night, and then when I get to the next gig, I have to set up the gear – the amps, the lights and so on. Johnny rock is a one man business, although I do have mates who come along and help me from time to time. Like I say though, performing is a drug, so you’ll take as much as you can take and even when you can take no more, you’ll carry on.
Every rock star has groupies, what about you ?
Ah yes, the ladies. I don’t like to call them groupies. It happens at evey gig. There are those ladies who would like to end up between the sheets with the real Johnny Hallyday, but he’s not around, so they’d be quite happy with the next best thing. I get propositions all the time. I’m not kidding, but I could quite happlily have a different lady in my bed after every gig, but that’s not my style. I’ve got quite a large female following though and it can be a problem. I used to put up all my forthcoming gigs on my website, but now I only put up one at a time because I’d get female fans literally stalking me from one concert to the next. I regularly get ladies showing up at my front door, one or two have even slept oustide waiting for me. A few months back I had to close down my Facebook page because of jealousy between my female fans ; there was a real cat fight going on. The ladies were putting up posts like « Johnny Rock is mine, I saw him first, hands off » It was getting really nasty.
Tell us about the shows and the sort of places you play.
I play pretty much anywhere and everywhere. I do private functions, weddings, birthdays and such. I’ve played in supermarkets, stadiums, camspites, restaurants, village halls. I’ve done concerts for 20 to 30 pêople, I’ve played stadiums in front of 12,000 people. A few years back I played at the Olympia in Paris as a warm up act for the comic Jean Marie Bigard.
You play supermarkets ?
Yeah, I do regular work for a couple of the major retail chains. I’ll play for supermarket openings or promotional évents.
And are there those places you’ll never play again because of a bad gig ?
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a bad gig, everyone is always pleased to see Johnny. I’ve always been well received by organisers and audience alike. I’ve got one golden rule though, never play somewhere the cheque has bounced. There are those places that you do a show in good faith and when you cash the cheque you find that it’s kind of rubbery.
So, you play one off gigs all over France, do you ever do any serious touring like Johnny ?
For a couple of summers now, I’ve done what I might call my West Coast Tour, playing campsites up and down the Atlantic coast.
So, if I book Johnny Rock for an evening, what do I get for my money and how much will it cost me ?
The price dépends on what you want. I’ve got my one man show which is popular for private functions or small venues. I turn up with the pa and the lights and I sing along to audio backing tracks. If you want something more elaborate, I’ve got my tribute band, myself and four other musicians. This is the sort of thing I might do in village halls or on campsites, Finally, I’ve got a full size Johnny Hallyday stage show with ten musicians and two backing singers, this is for large venues such as concert halls or stadiums. As well as the backing singers, the stage show also includes a full brass section. This is the sort of thing that Johnny Hallyday might have at the Stade de France. Like I said though, what you get dépends on what you can afford and it can be an expensive business, because obviously I have to pay my musicians, but also we all need fed and we need accommodation after the gig. If we play on campsites for example, we normally get a night’s accommodation in a mobile. No question of hitting the long road home after a three hour show.
You play three hours !!!
Of course, just like the man himself, however our ticket prices are lower. You can see Johnny Rock for 15 or 20 Euros. It will cost you almost three times as much to see the real Johnny Hallyday. You know there are many Johnny Hallyday fans out there who will probably never see their idol because they they live too far from the major venues where Johnny plays and between the price of concert tickets and transport, they simply can’t afford to go to a Johnny gig. You’ve got to remember that Johnny is a singer who appeals to the popular classes, so many of his fans aren’t all that rich. If they can’t see Johnny, then they come and see me. I’m the next best thing and probably as close as they’ll ever get., and they can get very close. At the end of a gig, I’ll always stick around for a while and talk to the fans, they’ll take photos with me and I’ll sign autographs.
Do you always do the same show ?
No, we change every year. You have to. There are those places that we play regularly every year. You can’t go back to same place twice with the same show. In January I get together with my musicians and we spend a month rehearsing a new show. I also get my seamstress to run me up some new stage costumes, the come February it’s back on the road with the new show that we’ll do until the end of the year.
New show, new répertoire. How do you choose the songs ?
Well, no matter the show, there is a hardcore of five or six Johnny classics that you have to play : songs like « Toute la musique que j’aime » or « Que je t’aime » and of course « Le Penitentier ». Next up there have to be a few songs from the latest album. You’ve also got to add a few showstopping rock and roll numbers like « Allumer le feu » and then we go through the back catalogue either ooking for songs that Johnny hasn’t performed for ages or songs that he’s never actually performed at all. Strange to think that I am playing songs that Johnny has never done on stage and probably never will. Occasionally, I might just slip in one of my own songs. I’ve written a few in my time, but I probably won’t be recording them.
And what about staging and special effects?
Well I’ll never be up to Johnny’s level, but I’ve done a few gigs where I came on stage riding a Harley Davidson or driving a Ferrari. I even did one oper air concert where I was lowered on to the stage from a helicopter. As for spécial effects, I’ve just built myself a new guitar that includes a miniature flame thrower, I use this when we do « Allumer le feu. »
How do you get along with the other Johnny look-a-likes ?
Well we’re all Johnnies and every Johnny thinks he’s more Johnny than the other JohnniesThere’s a lot of rivalry between us Johnnies and, sometimes, things can turn nasty, a few years back, one Johnny from Armentières in the north of France, threatened to « beat me up » if ever I showed up on his « patch ». He said I’d made disparaging rearks about him on a TV show. Well I’ve done plenty of shows in Armentières since then, and I’m still intact. You know, when I started doing Johnny back in 1984, I was the only look-a-like on the scene, then for some reason in 2000, Johnny doubles started popping up all over France. Just remember though, Johnny Rock was the first, and I have the official Johnny Hallyday seal of approval.
Have you ever met Johnny Hallyday or performed with him ?
Ah ! A duo with Johnny, that would be a dream come true. Seriously though, we’ve met up eight times over the years. Our most poignant meeting was on the set of « Vivement Dimanche » – Michel Drucker’s old Sunday afternoon chat show on France 2. I was having a chat with Jhnny in between takes, he told me that he liked what I did, then he looked me over and said I could almost be his little Brother ; « le petit Johnny ». That was a great moment.
Do you ever do shows with other look-a-likes ?
Yeah, I regularly get together with other look-a-likes to do tribute shows. There’s my good friend Eddie de Ville an Eddy Mitchell double, we’ve been working together for twenty years. Of course you can’t have Johnny without Sylvie Vartan, Johnny’s first wife and a successful singer in her own right, so I ofetn work with a Sylvie look-a-like called Sylvie Star. There used to be two Sylvie look-alikes on the circuit, but one retired a few years back.
And in terms of appearance, just how closely do you follow Johnny ?
Lifestyle apart, No matter the period or the dress style, I’ve always faithfully followed Johnny, I have to, it’s my business. When he had long hair in the 80s, so did I, when he cuts or dyes his hair I do the same. People expect me to look like Johnny no matter how he looks.
So, if Johnny shaved his hair off …
Well I’d have to do the same
What do you think Johnny Hallyday represents for the French ?
Johnny is part of our héritage. He’s as iconic as the Eiffel Tower itself. He’s a monument. Johnny is France. When Johnny dies it will be like losing part of our history.
What’s his appeal ?
Apart from the music, Johnny is honest, he’s hardworking, he doesn’t cheat and he doesn’t lie. People respect that. When he says that he loves his fans he really means it. He gives eveything for his fans, he lives for them. Johnny is very much the French Elvis, though he has lived longer. He inspires the same dévotion that Elvis did. There’s also maybe a physical attraction. Johnny is tall and handsome, he’s the man that women like and the man that many men want to be.
So, if you hadn’t been Johnny ?
I’d love to have been an actor in the styles of Alain Delon. He’s one of my idols. Over the years, I’ve done a spot of acting, appearing as Johnny in films or on TV. My finest acting hour was starring longside Benoit Poolevored in the film « Podium » – a film all about a Claude François look-a-like.
Do you ever get confused with this double life, is it difficult to seoperate Johnny from everyday reality ?
No, during the week, I am just plain old Denis Le Men, the ex-shipwright from Cherbourg, and when I am stage, I am Johnny Rock. Yes in many ways, Johnny is my life and has been a big part part of my life, but there is life after Johnny, but there isn’t much of a life without him because that’s how I earn my living. Some people put on a suit and tie everyday and go to their office to earn a living, I dress up as Johnny and go on stage. No matter what we do, we are all assume some kind of mantle for our work, though mine is just a bit different.
Finally, will you ever retire ?
No ! Look at Johnny, he’s 74 and still going strong. I’m only 61. As long as my haelth permits, I’ll carry on being Johnny, even when he’s no longer with us.