Votre Président de Gaulle dit – Your president says that we are broke

Three-minute story

Votre Président de Gaulle dit – Your president says that we are broke

Would I like to go to South America? Of course I said I would and then they provided the details – I was to spend Christmas and New Year on a Swedish cargo boat taking ten race horses to Venezuela. Since leaving Writtle Agricultural College I had been working for a relief milking agency, standing in for sick cowmen all over the country. This was rather different.

That year, 1967, there had been a bad outbreak of foot and mouth disease earlier in the year and the Newmarket bloodstock sales – expensive racehorses – were delayed until the autumn. Mares that were in-foal would be bought to be exported all over the world. They were good value for money as you got, in effect, two horses for the price of one. The problem with the delayed sales was that, by the time the mares were sold, they were too heavily in-foal to be flown anywhere and would have to travel by sea. Hence my trip.

Early in December we left Newmarket in two horse boxes, each carrying four mares. We travelled by ferry, across the channel to Le Havre where a Swedish cargo boat awaited us with two French race horses that were to join us. Each horse was to be housed in a wooden stable that would be lashed down on top of the cargo hatches and there they would have to stay until we unloaded them two weeks later. The stables were assembled by dock workers and the drivers of the two horse boxes helped me unload the mares and transfer them to their stables. Then they were gone, to catch the ferry back home and I was left there with ten brood mares in ten stables on the dock-side and a French stable lad who was sobbing over the departure of his two charges.

I’d had little to do with horses but they took to me and I stood inside each stable with its occupant as we were lifted up by a crane and settled on the boat. As each stable settled in its place the French dockies lashed it securely into place. At eleven o’clock that night their foreman appeared in front of me and the officer in charge of the cargo.

“Un supplementaire, s’il vous plait.”

Yes, that’s right, he wanted a tip. There was a problem, however. Not long before this the UK had applied to join the Common Market only to be told by President de Gaulle that we could not join because we were broke. I reminded the gentleman of this, in my best O-level French, and said that his president had been absolutely right. I was tempted to turn out my pockets, but instead simply made sure that my hands remained there. His face was a treat.

What caused the writer to be in France?

Was this a fair way to treat the French dock workers?
Could a quick-witted thief have done anything to be able to escape with the camera?

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