When a Normandy village decides to hold a Bachelor’s Ball, sparks fly, the cider doesn’t get made on time, and the muscled firemen act like Chippendales dancers.
As the village has grown and brought an influx of new people, it has become more commercially minded, and our new hairdresser, Maude, is full of new ideas. Apart from putting blue/green streaks in hair, razor cutting designs into the backs of the boys’ heads, and highlighting my hair with vermilion, she single-handedly invented the Bachelors’ Ball.
The new permissive streak in the village conscience was evidenced a few years back when the firemen came around with their annual calendar. Most of the young men in the area are at sometime volunteer firefighters and we know most of them because they have helped out with our cider making. So when Florian (the French name for Prince Charming) presented himself with his calendar at our front door a few years back, we were not surprised. However, he then took a sly gander around, and shiftily slid fhis jacket not the old standard calender but THE calendar we have all been waiting for.
THE calender is somewhere between Women’s Institute calendar — as in Calendar Girls (the film where the women all posed nude to raise money for cancer) — and The Full Monty (the film about unemployed steel workers who form a Chippendales-type group). It shows 12 great photos of the young and muscled men of the village Blangy in their posing pouches, sporting their firemen’s helmets and naughtily hosing each other down with water jets. Imagine rippling muscles, great pecs, and wet male bodies and you’ve got the picture. Daniel Craig, eat your heart out.
Not many people in Blangy did, in fact, get the picture. It was reserved for the more broadminded few. The other calendar is a bog standard one with stiffly uniformed firefighters all in a row in front of the fire engine, posed like the CRS (French SAS) ready for a riot.
The most important date in our village is 14th February – St Valentine’s Day — and now that we have a flower shop and a card shop (the heights of sophistication) we celebrate St. Valentine with the usual wine and roses but also with Maude’s Bachelors’ Ball. After the War, there was always a village dance on a Saturday night. The villages took turns hosting the dance because of the lack of young people in small villages. So the young farm hands with tractors went off in search of young girls with farms. These unsophisticated affairs soon got invaded by townies, who just went along for the fisticuffs, so the ‘Bals’ seemed to have faded out some time in the 70s.
In recent years, Blangy replaced the weekly hop with the Meet and Mate dance called La Fete des Celibataires (The Bachelor’s Ball), organised by Maude, our new hairdresser. Her shop was known jokingly as Radio Blangy because it was where all the local events were discussed and dissected and gossip spread so she had a ready-made and eager clientele.
The Bachelors’ Ball is a huge success for singles, and some couples go too, for the fun. The bar, the restaurant and all the local shopkeepers have a hand in it and decorate the Salle des Fetes (village hall) with red roses and hearts, streamers and garlands and cover every table with a red cloth. The menu is printed on a romantically decorated place mats; everyone gets a ticket for the prize draw, heart-shaped key holders, a condom and a tube of KY jelly, and a discount card for buying sexy undies in a store in Lisieux.
Most of the prizes were cuddley teddies or satin bags to keep your nighties in. I won a baby’s bottle which Maud, amidst gales of laughter, said, at my age, would have to do for the lambs. The merchants of Blangy haven’t discovered Anne Summers yet, which is probably just as well because there are two fashion parades while we are waiting for each course, a sort of inter-course entertainment, you could say. Village maidens troop onto the stage in big white bathrobes and drop them unceremoniously to the floor, revealing matching sets of bras, basques, strings, garter-belts and stockings, then they flounce around the dance floor posing for us to take photos.
Next, the young bucks sidle in from the wings in their fetching pouches, boxer shorts, strings, tiny underpants and cowboy hats. They obviously all think they are irresistible — and in their own eyes they are. We are not supposed to notice they are unsophisticated and gauche. It is all quite sweet.
By the time we reach dessert, the Chippendales or some other strippers arrive to much noisy cheering and oohing and aahing. The strippers nearly always arrive late because they have to come up from Paris and end up lost in the bush, so to speak. There are no local strippers for hire or pole/lap dancing clubs in Lisieux because it is a place of pilgrimages (St. Theresa of Lisieux) so the church pays a hefty sum to the local council to keep all such unseemly activity out of bounds – the bounds being about 30 kilometres around. (One of our friends ran a DVD hire shop and offered a selection of erotic films, as no one else was doing that, but a rival company must have reported him to the local authorities and he had to remove all the erotica.)
The Bachelors’ Ball seems to be harmless fun but there is always someone who goes too far, and maybe those celibate priests know this. One of our local heroes in the fire brigade gets all aflame and does a “full monty” at about 4am – but lovers have paired off long before that and old fogies like us have gone home to bed. Some fisticuffs, fuelled by drink, occur between husband and wife, apparently, when the man shows too much interest in being massaged by a nubile young lady. Not quite the Hunt Ball but incredibly popular and many a country lad has found his true love.
Jean-Louis from down the lane (the bottom in love’s school of his class and whose minute maelstrom of a mother would never approve his choice of bride) found true love last year. His mother had tried, years ago, to explain the facts of life to him and his brother. In her attempt to help the boys distinguish human coupling from what went on with the cows and the borrowed bull, she tried to explain that once a month women had a period but, not knowing how to put it delicately, she merely explained that once a month women were unwell. Jean Louis is supposed to have retorted, “Well, thass it then, innit. Oim not having nuthin to do with women what are ill. I got too much to do around yer without having to look after any sick woman.” When he went to the first Fete des Celibataires, there was a transvestite Can-Can Chorus Line which was very popular. Jean-Louis spent quite a bit of time dancing with one of the girls and nobody liked to tell him they were all chaps in drag.
Anyway, last year Jean-Louis found the love of his life, a large lady, well past middle age with suspiciously raven locks, glasses like the bottom of lemonade bottles, and obviously a heart of gold since Jean-Louis is no heart throb. He has huge sticky-out ears and is locally known as Prince Charles. He spent the first few days of his new relationship parading his love proudly around the village and holding her hand in very proprietorial fashion.
He keeps a happy smile on his face, like a permanent emoticon, but his brother, Michel, is now worried that Jean-Louis will leave the farm and he will be left to cope on his own. They are having such trouble with their cider making now that Jean-Louis has discovered his very own “Rosie”* and is not paying attention to the production details. Their bottles have exploded in shops and the shop-keepers no longer want their product. They have called Ted around several times to taste and give advice but to no avail. Jean-Louis’ mind is no longer on plunging his densimetre into his beloved cider anymore.
The bad news is that this year, there will be no Bachelors’ Ball. It is not the fault of the Pope, who has called a halt to the “sinful” displays, but rather the local businesses quarrelling amongst themselves about who does the most work on it and how unfair it is that? Forget “fighting on the beaches”, these Norman villagers can fight perfectly well amongst themselves but how the village guys are going to meet their dolls this year, I don’t know. Perhaps someone could invent a computer with tractor controls – that might work
* This is a reference to Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, which is Lee’s memoir of growing up in rural England between wars. There is a fabulous DVD available of the 1971 BBC TV series of Cider with Rosie but you must specify that it is the one with Rosemary Leach as there was another version. The DVD is hard to get and you may only be able to get a VHS version.
All photos © J Mclean
Interviewing the Sweet Spinsters