Going by appearances

In 1962, just to show the readers of the Sunday Telegraph that the spirit of adventure was not dead in Fleet Street, I rode a Lambretta from London to Barcelona.

Somewhere south of Bergerac, at about  5 p.m, I was brought to a halt by a flat front tyre. With practice and a proper knowledge of the appropriate book of words, fixing the spare  would no doubt have been very simple, but I had neither.  By the time I had found a way of propping up the scooter so that I could work on it without fuel spilling from the tank, and removed the wheel (and four vital nuts that ought not to have been removed), and  retrieved three small washers from the long grass and got the spare in place, an hour and a half had gone by and I was a much hotter, dirtier and only marginally wiser man.

About two hours later I saw a sign pointing through park gates and along a tree-shaded private road proclaiming an hotel ‘de premier ordre’.  So far, I had practised the sort of economy that seemed to me becoming for a scooterist, but felt now that a touch or two of premier ordre was precisely what the situation required. At the end of the avenue was an expanse of gravel and the sort of house that in France is often called a château and in England a country mansion.  Half a dozen cars, all obviously out of the scooter class of income, were drawn up beside well-tended turf. I put the Lambretta up on its stand, removed my helmet, smoothed my hair back and went inside.

The hall had been modernised and adapted to its function as a hotel lobby and behind the reception desk was a receptionist-cum-concierge wearing striped trousers and a black coat, looking like the butler who had stayed on when the place had changed hands. Like all good butlers, he was impeccably polite, but at the same time his manner was a touch short of that of mine genial host.  He regretted, he said  after a perfunctory glance at his booking sheet, but the hotel was tout à fait complet.

Tout à fait?

Oui monsieur. Tout à fait.

I thanked him and withdrew.  The noise of the scooter echoed reproachfully from the grey stone walls as I revved up and drove away.

In a village café a mile or two farther south I allowed half an hour to pass while I drank a small carafe of wine,  then telephoned again to the same hotel. I had spoken French before, now I spoke English.

Certainly  they had rooms. Where was I calling from and would I be wanting dinner? Last orders were taken at 9 pm.

Arriving for the second time, I felt sorry for the embarrassment of the man in the black coat as he explained that a cancellation had been received not ten minutes after I had left. Deeply ashamed, I said that I had hoped as much, and had so liked the look of the place that I had thought it worthwhile trying again. In my room a few minutes later I saw myself in the looking-glass, dishevelled, my nose red from the sun, a smear of black grease across my face, more grease on my wind cheater.

Had I been the butler, I think I might have called out the dogs!


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