Tour de France

Eddy Merckx pushing for the lead in the Tour de France, Summer 1974

In the summer of 1974 , the 61st edition of the Tour de France – one of cycling’s Grand Tours – took place. The race officials decided it was time for some real innovation, so they scheduled one stage in the UK near Plymouth, England. The stage and the race was won by the favourite, Belgian Eddy Merckx – his fifth in a row. (This occurred years before the great cheater Lance Armstrong dominated the race by replenishing his blood during every stage.) Quite by coincidence that summer, I had planned to take a long cycle trip to the continent and found myself in the middle of the world’s most famous bicycle race. I experienced  the following on the first day of my journey . . .  

Tour de France

By

J. P. McEvoy

June 1974

While cycling on the D7 along the northern coast of Brittany, I discovered a most beautiful expanse of white sand near Plouescat. It was so inviting that I turned off the main road toward the sea. Shortly thereafter, I was forced to carry my cycle, avec panniers, across an enormous sand dune and onto the beach. It was low tide. At the edge of the water, turquoise blue and glimmering in the mid-day sun, the sand was firm. I put the cycle down and soon realised that I could stroll along the water’s edge, rolling the cycle easily. I knew a risk was involved as the consistency of a sandy beach prepared by the sea is not as predictable as highway D7. Yet, it was worth a gamble as the visual delights ahead (cliffs, dunes, miles of empty beach, blue water) gave me a heady sense of abandon. 

The Beach at Plouescat

The wind off the bay caused the kinds of sensations in my body which make one feel several times more alive than usual – like having twelve senses. Such feelings always involve bodily motion and rhythm – dancing, singing, love-making and cycling. I was sighing under my breath– happy. I began to sing. I could not see another human being. Except for the church spire in the village in Plouescat off in the distance, I could have been on another planet blessed with the miracle of water. A loud splash startled me. I turned and watched a sea gull fall like a rock into the surf. One, twice, three times before successfully acquiring his mid-day meal. 

Suddenly, I felt the imaginary presence of someone next to me. I could not make out who it was. I began to wonder who should be here with me. 

About a mile away, I spotted a young woman with two small children playing at the water’s edge. Slowly, I rolled my cycle towards them trying to imagine the impression I would make. Sunglasses, jeans and sneakers – with a racing cycle on the beach. She might surmise that I was a delirious drop-out from Tour de France which was passing nearby this very day on the road from Brest to Roscoff. I passed without incident, other than the mouth-opened stares of two small children. “Bonjour Madame.” “Bonjour Monsieur.”

As I approached the point, the sand began to give way. Although still pure white and virginal, it could no longer support the cycle nor indeed, my own weight. I began to walk like a duck which I learned as a fourteen year-old beach umbrella salesman on the Southern Atlantic Coast of New Jersey. It became a chore to go on as the moist sand, piled high by the recent tide, gave less and less support. My fantasy world began to collapse about me and I was thrust back into the uneasy tension of the real world. I thought of the dull, firm D7. Exhausted, I sat down – smiling like Peter O’Toole in the desert. Again I wondered who should be here with me. 

I was determined to push on. I was determined not retrace my steps nor climb over the dunes, which by now were small hills. Dripping with perspiration – pulling and pushing and carrying the cycle as one might a lame pony – I finally reached the end of the sand. What should I find but a marshy plateau, surfaced by the escaping tide, which I would have to cross. I had to carry the cycle – now much heavier than before — some 300 meters through the marsh. My sneakers soon disappeared in the mud. I rolled up my jeans in an attempt to re-coup some self-respect. However, the stickers and other abrasive vegetation forced me not only to roll them down into the mud but use my cycle clips as well to fashion a pair of denim ‘Wellingtons’. A snake slid between my legs without raising an eyebrow (mine i.e. not his!) and I was down to about two senses. Yet, I continued to wonder who should be here with me. 

After a still more frustrating detour to avoid what looked to me like the continental shelf, I finally reached dry, firm soil. I climbed up an embankment by a small bridge onto a most pleasant footpath which lead into the village. As I finally placed the cycle down on the ground (Is it a mirage?), I decided I would never feel guilty letting this delicate machine carry me anywhere again. 

I sat by the bridge and cleaned my feet. After a swallow of Muscadet from my flask, a slice of Camembert, and five or six juicy plums, I laid back in the soft grass and let the bright sun galvanise my disposition. I noticed that the bridge was quite beautiful, made up of granite blocks and containing an ancient wooden paddle wheel to indicate the direction of the tidal flow. The sea was now returning as the earth’s motion changed the position of the sun and moon relative to the meridian. The marsh would soon be a dark pool of water. Birds were singing and the reflections of the sun off the water produced strange dancing images through my Polaroid lenses, like a mild ‘acid’ trip. I was once again at peace with the earth. Suddenly, the introspection caused by the intense concentration of the last hour had cleared my mind. I now knew who should have been with me …. my twelve year-old son, Michael. 

He would not have been concerned with regulations regarding cycling on the beach. After all, he was with his Dad! He would not have been embarrassed to sing and sigh and study the seagulls with me. He would have trusted my inclinations to wander along the beach fully accepting that something might go wrong. He would not have complained at all about the sinking sand and the mud in the marsh. This young, lithe body would have been able to carry his cycle without my help, or my worry. And I would not have needed to say, “I told you everything would be all right” when we finally discovered the bridge. He would not only have endured but would have been interested in the short lecture on tidal forces which I surely would have given as we rested by the bridge.  How grown up he would have felt when I offered a drop of Muscadet from my flask. It would not have been an ordeal for him and he, in fact, would have wished to be there. And as we sat in that green pasture by the footpath, resting in the warm sun, he might have said – “That was great….Dad.”

The senses of a young boy like Michael — precocious, pre-adolescent and innocent are not finite. They are constantly being created and developed like the cells of the body. He has known the sensations I described here – he has sung and danced and cycled — and will soon discover love-making. It is then that he will leave me with a caress and an understanding of these things I have written about the bicycle trip we should have taken together. 

Twenty-five years later still on my bicycle

Meeting the Barefoot Contessa – Ava Gardner – in Harrods 1975

When my wife and I came to live permanently in London in 1973, we took teaching positions at the American Community School (ACS). We were in separate divisions of the same institution, she as principal in the small elementary school in Hampstead, and myself as the science head of the high school branch, which was located in Knightsbridge. I often would tell the story with much glee of how I would shop for pencils for my students in Harrods, perhaps the most glamorous department store in the world. 

One day as I was walking along the main street of Knightsbridge (famously called simply, Knightsbridge), I noticed a woman who was walking right next to me and instantly recognised her as one of the great enigmatic figures of the cinema world, the former Hollywood star Ava Gardner. She was walking along in bright sunlight holding a small dog in her arms. And she was certainly not dressed as a Hollywood star, in fact, she had her hair tucked under a scarf and if I remember correctly, pinned up in curlers !  

Ava Gardner with her dog about the time I met her in Knightsbridge

Not surprisingly, I began to doubt slightly my rather remarkable ability to recognise celebrities by merely facial characteristics such as eyes and mouth. I have written about this ability in previous posts, most notably in the case of the French writer Jean Genet who I identified from a postage stamp-sized photo of him on the back of a paperback book I had purchased years before.

I continued to walk nonchalantly along the  sidewalk and noticed that this glamorous woman was also heading for Harrods, as I was. I followed her into the department store, wondering if my ability to recognise celebrities was still sharp. I noticed that she was heading for the pharmacy department and followed a few steps behind, making myself as invisible as I could. While she walked up to the counter to engage the attendant, I waited until I heard the ensuing conversation. Indeed, she was known to the person behind the counter and was addressed as Miss Gardner, confirming my identification. She apparently was asking if the prescription for her dog was ready to be picked up. It was. After receiving the small parcel, she continued to wander through the shop for a bit and then walked out the front door back onto the street. 

I was building up my nerve to say hello and finally addressed her with a cheerful Good Morning, Miss Gardner. She immediately stopped in the street and gave me a big smile, surprised that anyone had recognised her. She said something like . . . How did you recognise me in this getup? 

I remember this particular conversation very well because with her large sunglasses, bandana around her head and dog in her arms,  she seemed a parody of a Hollywood star. It appeared that she was not irritated by my intrusion, asking me again how I recognised her and where I was from, hearing my American accent. I told her that I didn’t quite know where this strange ability to recognise certain people came from and that I was from the great state of New Jersey. She smiled and continued walking in a rather relaxed manner, not at all trying to escape me or my probing questions. 

Although I don’t recall all that was said in the two or three minutes that we walked along the street, I do remember that I asked her if she was still in touch with one of my heroes in the entertainment world, Frank Sinatra, her former husband. She responded with most outrageous and surprising remark I think I’ve ever heard . . .

Sinatra with Ava smiling and smoking

Oh yes ! . . . that crazy fucker sends me a dozen roses every year on my birthday. 

To say that I was shocked by her colourful language doesn’t quite sum up my reaction. I don’t recall what else was said during that short time but I do know that it was a thrill for me to meet her strolling along the street in the city which I now took to be my home. 

Probably the most well-known femme fatale in the modern age, I will always remember what Ernest Hemingway told his assistants after she took a nude swim in his pool in Cuba . . .

Don’t ever change the water in that pool . . . 

Later, I was to discover that she had been living in a flat near ACS and Harrods for several years and was very happy there.

Ennismore Gardens near Harrods and ACS

She wrote of her life in London in her autobiography . . . 

I’ve always loved London. So it rains sometimes. It rains everywhere sometimes. And I happen to like the rain. More important, the British leave you alone. They take three or four photographs when you arrive and then they forget you exist. It’s a very civilized town. I do have a lot of friends in London… really good friends, so I’m far from lonely. We have dinner at our homes or, if we go out, it’s to places where we won’t be disturbed….Actually, my apartment in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge suits me so well I hate to leave it, even for a park bench. 

After a lifetime of smoking, Ava suffered from emphysema  and an unidentified autoimmune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. She suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. Her last words were reportedly “I’m so tired.” She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, at her London home in Ennismore Gardens where she had lived since 1968.

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I have always been excited by the opportunity I have had to live my adult life in the vibrant city of London. As a fan of theatre and movies and blessed with an ability to recognise faces in a crowd, meeting Ava Gardner in the street is an example of what I mean. From the time my wife and I first arrived in 1964, I have  . . . 

  • picked Cornel Wilde (remember him ?) out of a crowd in a street market in Islington N1;
  • received a letter from Laurence Olivier thanking me for a poem I wrote praising his portrayal of Othello; (now in National Theatre Archive SE1);
  • had several lively conversations with my neighbour in West Hampstead NW6, Emma Thompson;
  • hosted Stephen Hawking for lunch in our villa in Tuscany after writing a book on his life and work. Later, I introduced him to 6000 science fans at a book launch at the Albert Hall;
  • had tea with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Harold Pinter in the National Theatre canteen SE1;
  • met Paul McCartney in the street in St. Johns Wood NW8 (amazing how relaxed and friendly he was considering what happened to his song-writing partner John Lennon in New York). Sadly, I forgot to give Sir Paul the phone number of my musician son Michael;

It’s most likely I would not have met all these celebs if we had stayed in New Jersey, certainly not the Barefoot Contessa, Ava Gardner !