Despite my misgivings [Reflections of a Postmodernist, 11 July 2014], buying a television for our cottage in France has proved worthwhile. Just this month it has allowed me to watch key events at the European Athletics championship, and my wife some favourite DVDs, but it has also revealed its limitations. Our subscription did not allow me to watch a particular game in the recent women’s rugby World Cup. So, while the games involving the French national team were accessible at home, watching the semi-final between England and Ireland required a trip to one of the bars in Ploneour Lanvern, our nearest town. There, screens show pay-per-view sport all day long.
At the first bar, viewing was out of the question as that evening their screen would be devoted to horse trotting. Luckily, at Le Willy’s almost next door, the barman was happy both to switch to the rugby and to let me stay to watch the game. I thanked him, ordered a cup of hot chocolate – thus declaring my drinking preferences – and installed myself in front of the large screen at the far end of the drinking area. It was late afternoon and the place was empty apart from myself, the kindly barman and a man standing propped precariously against the loo door.
The match was exciting, England were superb and for 40 minutes I sat with my eyes glued to the screen and my bottom to an uncomfortable chair. For that first half I was deaf to the world and certainly saw nothing of what was going on behind me.
At the interval I stood up to stretch my legs and as I turned round the view I saw in the now dimly-lit bar threw me. The once-empty seats along the length of the bar were now filled; in them were sad-faced men dressed in drab clothes. Most were leaning on the counter drinking, some were chatting, some were staring ahead, but soon each in turn looked round at me to see who this stranger was. I had heard nothing suggesting the change and this completely unexpected scene was disorientating.
For a second I wondered if I was losing my faculties. It looked like a film set, perhaps of some prison community. I wondered if I was experiencing the sensation of déjà-vu. One of the more bizarre features in this ‘dream’ was that there were several faces I knew. They belonged to men I had often seen over the years in the village. In my moment of confusion it felt as though they had come back to haunt me. It was all very worrying – but there was an explanation.
Ploneour-Lanvern is a rather nondescript small town but, when we are in France, it is where I go almost every day to shop. It is at the junction of seven roads so the main street is usually blocked with traffic. Its main square is dominated by an oversized, plain church with only one redeeming feature – in its yard there is a neolithic standing stone that has through various modifications over the centuries come to resemble a giant phallus. Be this as it may, very often when I drive in or cycle to shop for the bread in the early morning, there are almost always a few men in the main square just hanging about. There are usually two or three, looking rather similar with weathered hands and faces, standing or walking alone, often with ill-fitting clothes and an unsteady gait. It was the faces of these men who stared back at me in the bar. But here, instead of being alone, they were sitting alongside others. To my eye at that moment, they looked like macabre characters in a painting by Heironymous Bosch, depicting some sort of hell.
After a few minutes my imagination was brought back to its senses and I turned to look at the screen and to watch the second half of the game. To my relief England won, and did so handsomely.
At the final whistle and having quietly cheered to myself, I got up and hurriedly left, stopping only to thank the barman as I rushed to the exit. No doubt the gathering will have continued until late into the evening. Not for the first time the reality of a rugby game was more comforting than than a surreal scene in everyday life.