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Only Geraldine could light up this town

This week Michael visits Armentieres and finds a ghost town with a low-rent McDonald's substitute as the only option for lunch

Published 11 September 2011
News Review
947th article

Geraldine in front of the memorial for fallen soldiers in Armentieres (Arnold Crust)

My favourite TV star is Hitler. If he's not on the documentary channel then I watch Goering, Goebbels, Himmler and, at a pinch, Heydrich, Admiral Doenitz or Mussolini. If these murderous villains aren't displayed then I see the second world war in Europe, Africa, the Far East or the Pacific. Otherwise, the first world war.

Thus I became aware of the northern French town of Armentieres, famous for a popular first world war song: "Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parley-voo?/ Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parley-voo?/ Mademoiselle from Armentieres/ She hasn't been kissed for 40 years/ Hinky, dinky, parley-voo." There are many versions of this, some grossly obscene.

Armentieres was flattened in the first world war and again in the second world war. In the first war the German forces shelled Armentieres with mustard gas. The British withdrew but the Germans couldn't enter for two weeks because of contamination. Witnesses said the shelling was so heavy, liquid mustard agent ran in the streets. As I was in the area (isn't everyone?) I decided to have a look.

On entering, I said to Geraldine, "This is a one horse town." It was August. Nearly everything was shut. A gross Gothic town hall faced a paved square with shallow pools of water and fiddly little fountains. A large memorial showed a first world war soldier, a cherub and a French woman holding a wreath.

Opposite was Le Cristal brasserie in Place du General de Gaulle. We went for a drink, intending to take a walk and return for lunch. The owner had a non-stop frown. She looked like the mother in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film recommended to me by my friend the director Stanley Kubrick.

I asked for a Coca-Cola, which was delivered in surly fashion. When I asked for ice this woman looked as if she'd bring out her chainsaw and kill us both. We left in search of somewhere else for lunch.

I remarked to Geraldine, "I said this was a one horse town. I've got news for you: the horse is dead." I've never seen anywhere so miserable, devoid of life and horrid. No restaurant anywhere.

I said, "We'd better go back to Time Chips in Place du General de Gaulle." Compared with Time Chips, McDonald's is the Ritz. An enormous mound of chips sat behind the counter going stale. The young girls serving were cheerful and pretty. There were even customers.

I looked at a backlit display of food available and chose a hot dog. Geraldine ordered a hamburger with no bun (she can't take gluten) and cheese. We sat at a shiny-topped table. The food was on a plastic plate with plastic knives and forks.

My enormous hot dog was in a baguette, which would have fed a family of six. It didn't have in it the normal hotdog sausage, a frankfurter. Possibly a protest against the Germans having shelled the place. More likely because it was easier to get a local sausage. The baguette was good. The sausage very spicy. I had a few bites and then gave up. Above the counter a blackboard said "plat du jour" but there was nothing on it.

We went back to the war memorial. Geraldine said, "There's another place." It was behind the memorial, called Miri Celine. Had we noticed it, we might have had lunch there. Could even have been edible.

As we left, Geraldine observed of Armentieres, "It's just really ghastly." I noticed there was nobody in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre bistro, unless they were cut up and in the basement.

There's a lesson to be learnt. I shouldn't watch first and second world war documentaries. I should be glued to The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent like everyone else. Serves me right.

  • "I'm gettin' married in the morning, ding dong the bells are gonna chime!" Never thought I'd be humming that.

    But "I've grown accustomed to her face," Geraldine's. I'll be marrying her in the next few days. I first met Geraldine in the 1950s when auditioning for my first movie. Geraldine was then a star dancer in the West End. She moved to Paris, dancing on TV and with the big stars at the Olympia music hall, as well as appearing in several famous movies.

    We've always maintained an on-off relationship. She's brightened my life by living with me for the past nine years. Seen me through thick and thin.

    So when I enter the register office with Michael and Shakira Caine as witnesses, I'll be singing to myself, "It's a lovely day today. And whatever you've got to do, I'd be so happy to be doing it with you." Thus spoke Irving Berlin. And me.

  • From readers Jacqueline and David Askar: Hymie raises enough money to send his Rabbi Moishe to Hawaii for a week. When the rabbi walks into his hotel room there's a beautiful naked woman lying on the bed.

    She greets the rabbi with, "Hi, rabbi, I'm a little extra Hymie arranged for you."

    The rabbi is furious. He rings Hymie in Golders Green and shouts, "Where is your respect? I'm the moral leader of our community. You've not heard the end of this." He slams the phone down.

    The naked woman starts to get dressed. The rabbi says, "Where are you going? I'm not angry with you."

    Michael's missives

    You said the only club we'd catch you in is Annabel's but I've spotted you at our local Blockbuster. I took the liberty of telling friends we were members of the same club. Should I stop?
    Ruth West, London

    Amazing! You are looking more sartorially elegant each week. If this is a dress rehearsal for your forthcoming nuptials, please ensure the wedding photographer has some muslin through which to shoot your side of the photo.
    Patrick Tracey, Carlisle

    I was moved to tears last week to see the entrepreneurial twosome who, having come from a modest background, made it in the world of gastronomic delights. You do scrub up well! Will the Caring one provide a roof over your head while you're in a transitional state? It makes me proud to be British.
    Jennifer Clayton, Cornwall

    I'm not sure if Geraldine is marrying you for your looks or your money. Either way she's getting a raw deal.
    Brian Ahern, Dublin

    I had a disappointing lunch at La Tompette in Chiswick. The quail was memorable; the lamb rump, forgettable. Worst was the pudding described as "blueberry creme brulee". It was, in fact, a crema catalana. The former has its custard baked in a bain-marie. The latter doesn't bother with that stage. At least the restaurant didn't charge for it.
    John Gregson, London

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk