The Battle of Cezembre [1996]

This is going to be a short column, because last week, when I should have been toiling in my garret by the light of a guttering candle to produce another gem of dognostic wisdom, I was in France, eating like a pig, drinking like a fish and sleeping, I am coldly informed, like a tractor at full throttle.

In between sleeping etc, I navigate. Yes, I know I once lost San Francisco (hire car at airport. Which way turn at gate? Short debate. Listen, me navigator, you driver. Do what you're bloody told and drive the bloody car. Instead of San Francisco, found Redwood City. Yukk!). And there was the time I attempted to thread us across Birmingham at rush hour while inadvertently holding the map upside down. And once, on the M25 on my own, I sought the turn for Hornchurch and ended up in Dover. But if I don't navigate, I drive, and nobody wants that.

This year I retired from my onerous duties as an International Rock Star and Sex Symbol, and so, for the first time in thirty years, my weekends are free. Now, having been bitten by Biggles as a child, I love aeroplanes. I read about them. I make Airfix models of them. And if I have a weekend free, I try to find an Airshow. Or two. May 25, Belgium. May 26, Paris.

I don't know if you've ever been to a Belgian air display in the rain. Nothing flies. Nobody smiles. Wet children whine. A limit dog show is fun in comparison.

To make it on time to the Parisian show it was necessary to leave the hotel at six the next morning, so we settled our bill and went to bed early. Come the dawn and we awoke to find ourselves locked in. No night staff. No keys. Check through the window. Nothing moving save, across the road, a well-endowed young man clad only in a vest thoughtfully scratching his bottom outside his front door. When he went back inside I finally managed to pull Herself away from the window and, sneaking downstairs, we made out escape.

The Gendarmerie in Fontainebleu are searching for a middle-aged couple seen leaving a local hotel with their baggage in the early morning through a ground-floor window.

The Paris airshow was fine, except that by this time the indigestion was getting to me. Caused, I must add, not by the fantastic French food, but by an excess of kindness at home. The Fat Controller had departed with the car a couple of days early so that she could spend a couple of days in England with her friend Barbara doing womanly things like shopping and getting lost (no navigator). So, the night before I left to join her, I was at home, awaiting the nightly phone call to assure me all is well, when my Dutch neighbour Theo rang to invite me for dinner. No, I explained, I was awaiting word from Herself. Okay, he said, phone us then.

Time passed, hunger grew, and at last I left the phone off the hook and made a quick raid on the village for a giant pizza and a bottle of wine. Back home, phone rang, all well, ate and drank myself silly, relaxed. Phone rang again, Theo, had she phoned? Quick drunken calculation. If yes, will have to go to their house and eat second meal. "Not yet", I said. "So you haven't eaten?" "No, not yet," I said, quick as a whip "but I'll just nip out for a pizza as soon as she phones".

Ten minutes later, a ring at the door, and there is Theo with a half bottle of wine in one hand and a huge steaming vat of spaghetti in the other. "We were worried about you", he explained. Then he sat companionably opposite and watched me, while I stuffed every last forkful down my protesting gullet. The effects of this excercise in mutual politeness lasted a week.

Anyway, there were two other things we wanted to see in France. One was Mont Saint-Michel, where I uttered one of those phrases that haunt a marriage for years - "My God that's pretty" I said, raising my camera, "Get out of the way".

The other was the island of Cezembre. This, according to one of my guide books, is the best preserved World Was Two battlefield in Europe. Once a German coastal fortification off St. Malo, it is now a bird sanctuary and can be visited by regular boat trips.

Although it was off-season, there was one trip scheduled for a group of schoolchildren, which we joined. Twenty minutes later we arrived on the island to find that only the beach was open to visitors. The rest of the island, including the battlefield, was, according to the notices, off-limits and protected by barbed wire.

I expressed my disappointment to one of the caretakers. Oh, he said, the notices say it's forbidden, but everybody explores. Great. Followed by a complaining Claire Anne, I breached the barbed wire and set off up the hill. The birds were not impressed. They wheeled and screamed and one of them knocked my hat off. We retired in disorder.

Out came the caretaker again. "Go on, go on!" he insisted kindly. "But the birds are upset", I said. "Here," he said, handing me a tent pole, "Wave this over your head as you climb, and the birds will stay away".

At this point the Fat Controller refused to have anything more to do with the enterprise and retired frostily to the beach leaving me, fat balding and white-bearded to take the position singlehanded. The birds were everywhere, screeching, diving, as I advanced to the summit, my trusty tent-pole waving about my head. Under constant air attack, and in the teeth of withering enemy fire I pressed on through the bombardment until triumphantly gaining my objective. Several anonymous hunks of rusting metal scattered in the long grass amidst rubble. Very bleeding impressive.

By the time I returned to the beach, still waving my tent-pole in great circles, I was covered in bird-shit. On my clothes. Down my neck. In my ears, in my hair, behind my glasses. And there, at the bottom of the hill, was my kindly caretaker and a few of his friends, literally weeping with laughter. They had caught another one.

On the boat back all the children fell about giggling and my beloved wouldn't come near me because of the stench. Lonely, stinking, but heroic, I glanced back at the island. There on the beach the lads were cutting another notch in the tent-pole. rshow. Or two.