I was thinking again about our exit from the Blackwall tunnel on our way to France. We’ve just emerged from the narrow coils of the tunnel, the road is still a single carriage way and I haven’t seen a sign that cancels 30 and says drive like a Valkyrie in a hurry for hell but there’s a guy behind me who puts his hand on the horn a few times and then just leaves it there. I do frighten easily but not that easily so I just maintained my old man’s course, looking out for signs and information, and when the road widened to the dual then triple carriage way that sweeps up in a long gentle curve past the millennium dome towards Kent and France the car behind swept past and I was surprised to see that the guy in the passenger seat wasn’t giving me a V sign but seemed to be trying to climb out of the window, his face a devil beast twisted with rage, his mouth spitting and screaming. Two days later we would see such faces as gargoyles high up on the cathedral at le Mans, seeming to sway and dip with the motion of white clouds behind them and safely remote. At Chauvigny near Poitiers the devils were much closer, carved as capitals in the choir of the church, next to tender scenes of the annunciation and angels appearing to the shepherds: leering mouths crunching the bones of the damned.
I wished I’d had my camera ready at the Blackwall tunnel. Or a mirror: devils were everywhere in the middle ages, and were especially attracted to holy places, and it was thought that they would be repelled by images of themselves. To see ourselves as others see us?
We had the usual little disagreements about driving styles, Sheila and I, as we drove south. She became annoyed at my helpful suggestions: change gear! try to glance at the rev counter occasionally! maybe you’re a little too near the car in front! that jerky breaking jars my spine! (the autoroute sweeps down to the valley of the Dordogne) – you’re doing 90! She spat back at me once or twice. It was only later that I remembered that cunning little devils take on many different forms; they may appear to be polite and reasonable, so that I may be, I probably am the bourgeois gargoyle. It sounds good in french, you have to stretch your mouth a bit like a gargoyle to get the vowel sounds, as Mr Hewlett showed us in our first french phonetic lessons in 1957: la gargouille bourgeoise. aa – oo, oo – aa. Get it?
Where did you hear that before? Yes, it’s oo aah, Cantona. Only it’s like a northern, not a southern ‘a.’