Boutonnet, where we live, has a lot going for it. It is one of Montpellier's most sought-after neighbourhoods, with leafy streets, fine schools, elegant academic and monastic campuses, a choice of tramlines, and a walk of less than 10 minutes into the ancient city centre. It also has a hermit.
You could, I suppose, downgrade him to squatter, but he has the reclusive demeanour of the true hermit. I have only caught occasional glimpses: a startling facsimile of the late Charles Manson's manic stare, framed by the personal styling of the Michael Palin 'It's…' man from Monty Python. I think of him each week when my glacially-conveyed copy of the Spectator brings yet another triumphalist fanfare from the likes of Rod Liddle about how politics is being wrestled back from the Elite by, and for, the Ordinary Joe.
There has been a lot written about the Elite, a disdainful term that now seems to encompass anyone who's read a book that isn't about Harry Potter. But I've yet to see anything that defines exactly who all these Ordinary Joes are who have taken charge of the agenda. What are the entry requirements, and where do you go to join the club? Would Boutonnet's Ben Gunn qualify for membership?
Somehow I doubt it. I don't see many like him among the Brexit blowhards or the Trump rally fodder. Indeed, you see very few like him anywhere: which is, I suppose, the point of being a hermit. He inhabits a windowless concrete shack in the grounds of an old orphanage. This structure, which possibly once held a generator, fronts on one of the quarter's main thoroughfares. It means we all get to share the full benefit of his eccentricities, which are both aural and visual.
The aural quirks are musical. Behind his only doorway, which he blocks off with blinds and a padlocked grille that may have started life as a bedspring, he keeps an upright piano which he thumps on for hours on end. Though he can bang out major chords, his melodic feel is commensurate with an instrument that was last tuned when Chopin was in town. Occasionally, for versatility, he switches to trumpet, on which he can produce a competent, but rarely beguiling, stream of notes.
His visual aesthetic consists of a small mountain of salvaged junk piled on the bunker roof. Bits of air conditioning share roofspace with dormant refrigerators, gas tanks, wheel arches, amputee mannequins and aluminium sinks. Potted plants line the edges, presumably as camouflage. He seems to have no internal access to this collection, since I have twice spotted him at a late hour scuttling up a ladder to reach it.
I have no idea how long he’s been there, but a quarter that generally takes pride in its respectability neither fears nor resents his presence. As far as I can gather, he is treated as a little local colour. He keeps himself to himself, he does not seem in the least dangerous, and he does not beg.
This last quality sets him apart among the lower strata of Montpellier society. Here is a city where you get used to perpetually side-stepping hats and beakers. We have hundreds of beggars, in every shape and size, from the matted New Age clochards with their evil canine bodyguards to ancient little jazz bands, busking on street corners and selling home-made CDs from a saxophone case.
I doubt that the French are any more generous towards their mendicants than we are. Nobody has that much pity, or change. But they are more civil: the faint nod of acknowledgement, rather than the disgusted stalk past. The recession here was deeper and longer than elsewhere, and everyone has felt some pain…so there but for the grace. There too the test of the official faith that liberté, égalité, fraternité is for all the republic's citizens, not just the rich. Remember, the insurgency in this country is led by a politician whose establishment credentials could not be more impeccable.
France's beggars are, in this respect, Ordinary Joes – albeit Joes whose survival strategy is hard to envy (which might say something about the alternative choices available to them), but whom no-one will begrudge their share of a finally recovering economy. Emmanuel Macron will be judged on the ability of his reforms to deliver results that at least appear to promise universal improvement.
But our hermit and his importuning comrades are not exactly the kind of Joes you can envisage being welcomed to join Nigel Farage in the golf club bar, or mingling with the baseball caps at a Trump clambake. Some people, to borrow from Orwell, are more ordinary than others.
Much more importantly, you would have to doubt that their wellbeing looms very large in the political priorities of the Ordinary Joe insurgencies in Britain or America. Brexit's concern for the poor seems to begin and end with getting them to believe that immigrants are coming to squeeze their wages and steal their jobs. Trump's rhetoric about reviving the rustbelt sits awkwardly with the ethically undernourished Wall Street billionaires he gathers around him.
Harold Wilson, whose personal decency should be better remembered, used to rebuke ministers and officials for referring to 'ordinary people' or 'ordinary voters.' It was his way of keeping elitist attitudes (if not always policies) at bay. Everybody was ordinary. Everybody was extraordinary. No-one was lumpen.
The new populism is presumed to hold to the same belief. But it has yet to demonstrate that it means it. Neither the Brexiteers nor Trump have begun to offer any coherent policy agenda to deliver on the inflated bluster and fantasies that brought them to victory.
Macron has tried, and found it tough going. His approval rating recently dipped lower even than that of his lustreless predecessor, François Hollande, after a year in office. He ends a turbulent summer with an unplanned reshuffle following the resignation of three popular ministers. The charge is that his economic reforms, while widely seen as necessary in principle, favour the better-off in implementation. It will be heard more in coming months as he shifts the focus to social spending.
Which poses the big question of how long the Ordinary Joes will wait for life to get better. Populism cannot long survive ceasing to be popular. American voters, it must be admitted, have a history of loyal infatuation with the corniest act on the bill: British voters much less so, and French voters hardly at all (they tholed Nicolas Sarkozy's bling-and-blondes presidency for a solitary term).
If this truly is the age of the Ordinary Joe, then those who have been persuaded to identify themselves as such are entitled to ask, and to keep asking, what is going to be in it for them. If no satisfactory answer comes, they will not take long to become disillusioned. Maybe the Boutonnet hermit just got there before them.