It’s hailing today. A couple of weeks ago we had warmth, sunshine, and spring leaping out at us from all directions. We were all cutting the grass, getting the overwintering plants out, and chasing cobwebs that we hadn’t seen in the gloom and which suddenly seemed to have draped themselves like dusty swags from every corner. Cattle which had been kept indoors all winter were allowed into the fields, and the calves were kicking up their heels for the sheer joy of space and air and hope.
People were a close second.
The beaches were heaving, the summer clothes were being shaken out, and all that bare flesh that usually lurks up sleeves and trouser legs was being waved frantically in the direction of the sun in a kind of dire thirst.
In England, of course, the older generation looked on, and frowned and tutted. “Ne’er cast a clout till May’s out,” they said, wagging a knowing finger. Few listened.
In France, there is one group of people who never cast a clout. At all. Ever. They are the farmers.
In the height of summer, when the sun is so hot it’s trying to squash you into the ground, there will be the farmer on his tractor, in his vest, and tee shirt, and shirt buttoned up to the neck, and a cardigan (albeit with impromptu air holes), and possibly a jacket, and most definitely a cap of some sort. His tractor may not possess a cab (his tractor may not possess a seat, but just a makeshift affair involving sacks and the cardigans whose holes have made actually dressing in them too much of a puzzle) so he has to keep the sun off any way he can.
He doesn’t look up at the sky and think, "I’ve got to have some of that!" and rip off his layers. He may have done that once, in his madcap youth, and learned the hard way. A sunburned farmer with a crashing headache is still a farmer, and the stock still have to be dealt with; so, as with age comes wisdom, so it brings with it the many-layered approach to skin conservation.
We knew a very elderly man down south whose wife knitted his vests for him, and had done since they got married. He had only ever been away from home for the time it took to do his National Service in North Africa in the 60s, and one assumes that she knitted enough for him to take with him.
For social affairs he would dress up rather finely in his smart trousers and one of those soft, supple leather jackets that only Frenchmen can wear. He was a tiny chap who always conversed with a lady’s bosom and rarely anything further north; but that was only fair, as it was impossible to enter into conversation with him without your eye being inexorably drawn to the triangle of yellow knitted cotton peeping from the top of his shirt (the neck being unbuttoned indoors – no risk of any sunshine getting at him there, though obviously just the one or two buttons could be allowed off duty).
It was unknown whether the vests started out yellow, or just naturally took on a jaundiced look over time, but every single day of his life there it would be, under all the layers, protecting him from the elements.
The oldest man in France is about 117, and has a son of 81. He’s a farmer. (There are 26 women older than him. The relationship with their undergarments is not known at this date). He’s not a banker or a magnate or a millionaire - the sort who might get their undies from specialist suppliers in the silk trade: no, he’s of the string vest wearing fraternity.
If asked, these venerable people always claim that their longevity is down to a simple life, a tot of whiskey a day (or no alcohol at all), and going at the pace nature intended. This is of course nonsense. It’s a national secret, but I can reveal it to you here: it's all in the vest.
So if you want to live a long and healthy life, the answer does not lie in stretching yourself out on a lounger with a bottle of lotion and not much else on, frying gently. It involves keeping your clout about you at all times, whether May’s out or not.