The 1973 three week holiday spent camping in Brittany in a hired tent with a borrowed rooftop wardrobe was one long August sojourn of hot days spent burning in the sun and long nights spent in Bern-ards Bar singing French sing-along songs and talking about the war.
Ber-nard (pronounced as two distinct syllables) was the portly French bar owner who bore a remarkable resemblance to Rene Artois from TV’s “Allo, Allo” and who had a command of English enough to welcome all English people as the saviours of his country whilst spitting in the general direction of any of “Ze Bosch” who strolled anywhere near his premises.
A little history – The whole of Northern France had been invaded and occupied by the Nazi’s in 1940 and the whole of Brittany was of strategic high importance to them, so they muscled their way in, threw out any locals who objected, and stayed there until 1944.
The likes of Ber-nard had fled their country and joined the Free French Forces in London, sitting around in dismal London bars and cursing Le Bosch in the foulest of French terms that they could muster and then learning some new English foul words to curse them all over again.
Ber-nard regaled any English people with long stories of long nights spent cursing Le Bosch in dismal London pubs until “Le Liberation” day came along on 6th June 1944 and Ber-nard became a local hero by being parachuted into France as an honourary member of the allied forces, or so he said, and who were we to argue, for while telling his tales of bravery and parachuting-ness he delivered free beer to those who were still awake.
Our dad was never a one to hide his light under a bushel, he was after all a salesman by trade and he too could talk at length about his war exploits at least as well as Ber-nard could, why he had spent the war in Africa which caused eyebrows to be raised all around the bar-room for here was a true hero, one of Monty’s Desert Rats no less – of course our dad never actually extrapolated the story to reveal that he’d been at least 500 miles away from any action in Africa driving trucks from Nigeria to Ethiopia although he did once fire a rifle – at a Colobus Monkey in a tree because he wanted its pelt as a rug for his tent.
Within a few hours of arriving on our camp site he had befriended a huge party of scousers (residents of the Liverpool district, strange people all of them) who occupied several tents opposite us and who’s main preoccupation during the whole of their holiday was to turn the campsite into a golf course as day after day they wandered its path digging holes in random places and placing large amounts of sand all over the grass as bunkers.
They too had tales of daring-do during the war and we were all welcomed into Ber-nards Bar every night as long-lost allies and as the holiday wore on the tales grew more outrageous until the party of scousers took to marching around the crowded bar limping, feigning false legs, saluting everyone and playing on a penny whistle Jimmy Cagney’s tune “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”, the wartime boasting having now gone back as far as the American Civil War.
At some point during the evening Ber-nard would shove his elderly barmaid over to the piano and with a introductory flourish on the keys he would announce the start of the marathon song “I am the music man…” and we’d all cheer and wonder what strange and misapprehending verses Ber-nard would invent tonight.
These were long-distant halcyon days when your parents invented their own entertainment on holiday, jolly nights spent singing drunken rubbish-songs about how many musical instruments you could play, not for us was television required, or a childrens club to entertain us, not when we could all sit around a table until the early hours sharing one bottle of coke and one packet of crisps all night while we watched our parents get drunker, and drunker, those were the day eh ?
And we joined in “The Music Man” and as I was sixteen years of age that year and had friend in high places at our local rugby club I could have feasibly took over the lead with some verses of my own, verses such as “I can play the shit-house door” and such-like, but I refrained for fear of destroying the Anglo-French camaraderie and so we made do with Ber-nards rather milder “Vee-alo, Vee-alo, Veeee-a-loo” whilst marching around the crowded bar feigning the playing of a violin, our only concession to crudity being when the “Um-pah-pah” verse came around and Ned and I would force out a fart or too – in tune of course.
And then the Germans arrived.