Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once a month, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

June: 'Back to Life, Back to Reality'


Last weekend, the Saturday morning market in Martel returned to its customary medieval setting. For the previous three weeks or so, it had pitched up on the boules terrain underneath the sheltering plane trees. You entered through a makeshift checkpoint where it was advised to put some cheap and nasty chemical wash on your hands before following the hazard tape in an anti-clockwise direction to the exit via as many stalls as the shopping list demanded. Masks were obligatory.


Last weekend, the hand wash and the hazard tape were gone. Masks were at the wearer's discretion and there were as many without as with. Already, it seems, people are becoming more casual about it all. After a hundred days of effective solitude, they're desperate to get out and mingle. My childhood in Belfast taught me all I need to know about the way we adapt to a situation. One day the place was like most northern industrial cities, the next day there were armoured cars and soldiers in camouflage everywhere. To access the city centre, you had to pass through turnstiles to be frisked by a member of the military. Very soon it became the new normality. You simply adapted to the new restrictions placed on your everyday life. 

So if – and it's a very big 'if' – this current scenario is part of a master plan dreamed up by the omnipotent elite, reptilian or otherwise, and if martial law follows social mayhem triggered by the biggest financial meltdown since records began, then we will shape our daily lives around it. Artists and radicals will probably flee to wherever they can find refuge, as a whole generation of Brazilian musicians did when the military reigned in the late '60s and '70s, but the rest of us will stay put and get on with it.

Just what that might involve, I was discussing with my friend the tree surgeon while helping him prune the tops of some trees that were obscuring the view from their holiday home across the eastern Lot. Help in this case meant tidying up the debris, while he did the donkey work. He's a major conspiracy theorist. If he were American, he'd be a survivalist, holed up with his automatic weapons and tinned food in some underground bunker. We shared a picnic lunch together and were closer than social-distancing recommends. It's all bollocks to him, but there's still enough doubt within me to generate unease. Even with a friend that I've known for 20 years. Has it come to this?

Even kith and kin, for that matter. Tilley the Kid was restored to us mid-week. She travelled all the way here in a mask on various trains. Her mum was waiting for her at the clinic, but instead of running into each other's arms after a six-month separation, our daughter felt the need to take a shower and wash away any potentially lethal germs before the real mother-and-child reunion could begin. When the kissing and cuddling had to stop...

We watched the three-part dramatisation of the Salisbury poisonings, which was harrowing in the extreme and made this whole coronavirus kerfuffle seem like child's play in comparison. Not the least harrowing aspect of it was the fact that such an appalling nerve agent could have been developed by human beans. Only creatures with a complete absence of compassion – and my friend would no doubt make a reptilian link – could have dreamed it up, then developed and tested the compound. Just thinking of it makes want to curl up in a dark corner and die of shame for my shared humanity. Anyway... this stuff was so much more contagious and virulent than any virus that the fact that only one person in Salisbury actually died from contact with it is nothing short of a miracle – and a testament to the dedication of the public officials who conducted the clean-up operation. As the Good Wife suggests, it's a damn good job that the Chief Public Health Officer was a woman. If man's instinct is to hunt, gather and fornicate, woman's instinct is to protect – and protect, this one certainly did. The dedication to duty of some people is remarkable. No wonder I managed only 15 years as a public servant. 

The new norm for the citizens of Salisbury must have been very, very scary. Here, there's still a vestige of fear, but the Chief Medical Officer or whoever pronounces on these things has now stated that France has got things under control, so it must all be OK. No worries, mate. The Good Wife has gone back to work – on a limited basis – and even massaged one or two clients. With masks on. We've been out on a hot afternoon at the home of friends for a yoga class under the sheltering lime tree. We've celebrated our joint 30th wedding anniversary, again al fresco, with other friends. And Dan has been over here to play records – just as a friend would come over during primary school and we'd singalonga Beatles in front of my dad's gramophone. Tennis racquets for guitars (then, not now; I've put away foolish things). So, gradually, things here have been slowly getting back to some kind of normality. 

For how long? There's the rub. France has opened its borders, presumably for FOMO. Fear of missing out on the great tourist influx every summer. Pragmatic or unwise, homo sapient? Only time will tell, my son. Already the Chinese are heading back indoors. So will we even get the summer off before the next lockdown begins? Now that the football season has restarted – behind closed doors, which must be eerily weird – I think I'll have to resort to the clichés of football managers faced with pundits intent on extracting some rash prediction. At the moment, we're not even thinking of the title. We're just focused on one game at a time.
 
One match down and I'm back to checking the sports news again (and, in the process, glimpsing the global headlines. Already my dad and I have started bemoaning the ineptitude of the current Arsenal team. We spoke after their mid-week match against Manchester City and the pater familias sat there looking very glum in his reupholstered Parker-Knoll armchair draped in the Arsenal scarf I bought for him, curiously, at the local bring-and-dump emporium. Things weren't helped by the fact that he'd fiddled with the settings of his telly and he thought that his sound-bar was no longer functioning. He told me quite emotionally how much he depends on his technology, deep as he is into his form of self-imposed purdah. 

Actually and metaphorically, he and I are focused on one game at a time. I can't predict the future. I figure that if extra-terrestrial reptiles are in control of our destiny, then there's very little I can do about it. Rise and shine; take each day as it comes. Smile and like thy neighbour. Or how I stopped worrying and learned to love potential social breakdown...

So today, for example, I got back from the local shops and sat down in the sunshine on the back balcony, sipping a supplementary coffee while listening to The Hissing of Summer Lawns and flicking through the regional freebie to read about all the assistance being offered to local enterprises. It gave me a warm glow. Or was it the mid-morning sun? A darker thought furrowed my brow. Who the hell is going to pay for it all? And when?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

May: Out on Probation


On Monday 11th, we were let out of jail for good behaviour. We can now walk and shop for groceries without an attestation. I was glad to chuck it away and rather proud of the fact that I'd only needed to print two copies for the entire two months of confinement. A judicious use of pencil and rubber almost saw us both through to the bitter end. Finally, though, the paper gave out and the space in which you wrote the date and time became but a hole. From now until the next presidential pronouncement at least, we'll need an excuse-me note only for journeys of over 100km. As the crow flies, apparently – which is not that easy to work out even with modern technology. It'll be back to a compass and pencil to work out the perimeter of our new open prison. 

We were quite hopeful of a grant of dispensation for a mission of mercy back to England, to snatch our daughter from her student house in Brighton and bring her back to the safety of her family home. Now, however, it seems that Boritz J has reneged on the British government's initial reciprocal undertaking to admit visitors from France and other European countries without quarantine. So, in the wise words of my philosophical mother-in-law who repeats her mantra almost every time The Good Wife telephones her, 'we'll just have to wait and see.' The Disunited Kingdom didn't get to where it's got today by failing to wait and see or to cross that bridge when it came to it. 

On Monday 11th, I ventured out in the morning, further than I'd been for eight long weeks of... I'm sheepish to admit, a generally very agreeable period of being able to let sleeping dogs lie. A single red magnificent poppy had opened its petals in the garden for the occasion: either a good omen or a bad one, depending on your stance on the Great War. With the car loaded up with strimmer and assorted tool boxes for the bridge in Brive that now had to be (urgently) crossed, I drove first to nearby Meyssac for my appointment with the tattooed lady. The hairdresser whose name is hallowed in this household. 

I took a mask with me, but couldn't figure out how Laetitia could possibly sheer me with something hooked over my ears. Her tiny little salon on the corner of the street is normally packed to the rafters with men of all ages waiting their turn. But on Monday it was empty. However, on the way in I almost bumped into mein Amerikanische Freund, Steve. He had just been severely shorn and his face was covered with a mask. He looked startled to see me and it felt like an encounter with a gunman in a small lawless frontier town. Where the hell was that goddamn marshal when we needed him?

BEFORE...
The tattooed lady is working strictly by appointment now. There's no chance of getting too close to some old farmer in need of a trim. She had a towel and a bottle of hand-wash by the door and once she'd made an appointment with Steve for his daughter, it was on with my mask and down to business. She herself was equipped with one of those Perspex visors associated more with strimming the grassy verges of motorways than with hairdressing. I had to unhook my mask and clutch it against my face, so she could start around the ears. Then I re-attached it and sat back for the rest of the cut. Normally, she asks you what you desire even though my answer is always the same – short at the back and sides, leave a bit of length on top but quite a bit thinner please – but she was so clearly stressed by the whole palaver of disinfection that she simply set off straight away with a no. 2 blade. Had I not stopped her at a point I deemed right and proper, I'd have come out of there looking like Convict 99. 

My attempts to engage her in conversation and slow down the trajectory of the clippers seemed a bit forced; we usually chat easily and naturally. I did glean that the confinement has taught her that she has been working far too hard. It will be strictly by appointment for the future and an early finish come the afternoon. Likewise, lockdown has shown my wife a way of getting off the treadmill. For years I have urged her to work less. Yes, she'll earn less, but she'll also pay fewer taxes and charges. Ultimately she may even be better off – certainly psychologically and probably financially. Now at last she sees that it can be so.
AFTER

Serendipitously perhaps, I emerged from the salon with one of the most satisfactory cuts since I've been going to see the tattooed lady. That might have had something to do with the sheer weight of hair that I'd shed, but I felt a lot more presentable and more akin to my old normal self on the drive to Brive. Nevertheless, the whole experience spooked me and, by the time I got to the clinic – to discover that the grass in the garden and the side passage was 'as high as an elephant's eye' and that the French equivalent of a Saniflo was pumping grey water up to street level without cutting out as it should do – I was in an unnezzezzary state of discombobulation. 

If in doubt, eat. I figured that the best thing to do before crossing all the bridges before me was to have some lunch. A bowl of left-over weekend fridge-bottom soup. The whole experience of stepping back into the outside world, however, had lathered me into such a state that I could hardly get the spoon from bowl to mouth without slopping all my soup back into the bowl. What the fudge!? What was happening to me? I am a grown man; I understand that the only thing we really have to fear is fear itself. I am not even particularly afraid of contracting covid-19, because I have faith in my immune system, and yet my hand was shaking like a field of barley in a warm wet westerly wind. I could only think that it was the sensation of being a character in a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives, who scratches away at the superficial normality to find that something underneath is very, very wrong. Changed, terribly changed

I did my strimming and made the garden look reasonably presentable. I cleaned and disinfected the shower tray where the waste water had backed up and left a very unsanitary film of something evil and grey, and decided to leave the faulty sanitation device until next time. Let no man say unto me that I am not prepared to leave a bridge uncrossed in times of high dudgeon. I packed up the car and high-tailed it out of there, back to the familiarity and safety of our open prison. 

As for that terrible seizure of fear that gripped me at my soup, I experienced it again later in the week. During an idle moment, I clicked on The Guardian home page: to find image after image of people in masks and panic on the streets. As the actress Jane Horrocks has said, the only way she has stayed sane during this time has been a studious avoidance of news bulletins. I did right to steer well clear of it all, even if it smacks of ostrich behaviour. The mere sight of those images induced an immediate restriction in my chest, the like of which I haven't experienced since the asthma attacks I suffered in my late teens and early twenties. Fear Eats the Soul, indeed Herr Fassbinder. 

Since then, we've both been out on a couple of occasions more – including our first social engagement since March on Sunday. A long dog-walk with friends followed by dinner à quatre. And it was lovely, even if we didn't feel able to embrace. French society revolves around a custom of handshakes and pecks and – when the citizens are feeling particularly exuberant – hugs, so it will be a tragedy if the virus of fear eliminates all that. At least Martel market re-opened on Saturday morning and, even though the idea of wearing masks in the open air seems a trifle absurd, little by little we are acclimatising ourselves to the 'new normality'. As for what will happen and where it will all end, I'll just have to dig into my mother-in-law's compendium of profound maxims for an answer to that one.

Friday, April 17, 2020

April: Still Life


Late in the afternoon of Good Friday, I drove over to Giselle's barn to buy whatever vegetables she had on offer. There wasn't very much, but she'd saved me half a dozen eggs, so the journey wasn't wasted. Snail Woman was there, her face half-covered in the kind of bandana I used to wear when I was a cowboy. Giselle admits us one at a time into her 'shop', so I dutifully waited my turn outside and joined in the conversation, which was predictably dominated by coronavirus. Last summer in the height of the heat wave, I would ask Snail Woman about the health of the molluscs she breeds for eating. The poor creatures suffered as we all did from the relentless heat.  

When she emerged and I prepared to go in, the conversation turned to traffic. On the way there, I hadn't passed a single car on the main road, which can be a little busy at that time of day – just as well, because my indicator has packed up again. My Noddy car suffers terribly from condensation in damp weather, which affects the little metal contacts that make the lights flash. I haven't had to swab down the windscreen from the inside for weeks, but the humidity has done its damage. Anyway, I learnt that two people aren't allowed in the same car at the same time. Debs and I had speculated about driving to Brive if the Airbnb enquiry turned into a booking. It didn't. We'd have been fined by the gendarmes, it seems, if they had stopped us. It's OK in the current climate to sleep with your partner, but not to drive with him or her.

Is that not utterly ridiculous? As indeed are many things right now. In Paris, for example, the poor citizens are not allowed out between 10am and 6 or 7pm, I forget which, but it surely means that everyone will emerge at around the same time, thereby running a far greater risk of contact with their fellow cell mates. I've subsequently heard on the grapevine that it's aimed at 'le jogging', but it's still enough to make you believe that my friend the tree surgeon is right when he says that 'its total bullshit, man!' He's a big-time conspiracy theorist, who sees all this brouhaha as a man-made plot to establish a new world order of fearful, compliant citizens who'll be too scared to protest any more. Who knows? He may just be proved right. I didn't stop to ask him about the absence of 'chem-trails' in the sky and what it signifies.

Who comes up with such decisions? Perhaps a committee – with panic on the agenda. Not, I would imagine, an individual who has taken the time to think it all through. Time is what we have on our hands at present, even if ultimately perhaps not. Nevertheless, the Good Wife and I still find there aren't enough hours in the day. She asked me over lunch on the front porch the other day how my perception of life has changed after a month of incarceration. Well... not a great deal in some respects. Perhaps I'm using the hours available to me in a more measured way, not trying to get everything done in a single day as before. Probably in recognition that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will predictably offer more of the same. 

Deprived of my bicycle by parliamentary decree, I'm now walking the dog on alternate mornings. Walking her through the woods, which generally don't accommodate ageing cyclists, gives me the chance to commune more with nature. Even with headphones on to catch up on music promos, I still feel in the thick of the natural world. Today the eerie bark or mating call of a deer infiltrated the big brassy sound of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80. I've seen and derived encouragement from nature's remarkable ability to heal itself – the photos of clear skies over hellholes like Delhi and Bangkok are remarkable – but I'm not convinced that this strange state of stasis will morph into some kind of environmental golden age (unlike a certain eternal optimist on the other side of the marital bed). Any long-term recovery depends on mankind allowing it, and while commercial interests are at loose in a world governed by despots, with humans continuing to reproduce like rabbits, I don't give Mother Nature much chance of any kind of long-term recovery.


The longer we've been locked down, the better the resident optimist has been coping. She confessed that going out to work four days a week gave her a chance to escape from de-stabilising thoughts of the garden and her paper work, both of which she believed herself incapable of negotiating. Without the escape route, she's had to confront her demons. Just lately, she's spent many a happy hour toiling in our concrete garden (after a month without rain), and she's pretty well up to date now with her admin. Every morning, she finds time to practise the piano and her yoga sessions are apparently more 'meditative' than ever they were before. Despite the freeze on work, she's still been tapping away like there's no tomorrow – on Zoom rather than face-to-face and mainly for free, doing her bit to allay the fears and distress of individuals and groups. She is the very model of a modern miracle-worker.

As to how others are coping in these hard times, I can only comment on the family across the water. Our daughter's got herself an app for her phone and she and her housemate walk five or six kilometres in an attempt to clock up however many thousand steps it takes to satisfy the youth of today and fitness fanatics in this digital era. Her other housemate – the one who managed to get back to the family home in time for confinement – sent them a care package for Easter: a loaf of homemade sourdough bread, some cookies she made and some chocolate rabbits.

Easter came and went here without so much as a chocolate egg or a hot cross bun (two-a-penny, two-a-penny – but not alas in France), although we enjoyed pancakes with a melted square of dark chocolate on the morning of Easter Sunday – and very nice they were, too. Back in Cumbria, my mother-in-law made herself a batch of buns for Easter, decided that they needed a glaze, then burnt her saucepan to death in attempting one. Apparently, the buns weren't particularly nice in any case. Now her sorely tried daughter has had to find and order her a new stainless steel two-litre saucepan online.

Meanwhile, down south in Hampshire, one sister is in splendid isolation because of health issues, still carrying out her part-time work from home three days per week and busy at other times indulging her passion for genealogy. I haven't asked her whether she opens her window each week to clap for NHS workers. My other sister is allowed out. Instead of spending two or three hours per day with our father, she meets him for a quarter of an hour or so each day in 'The Exercise Yard', three times around the flats in which he's self-isolating for a longer life. I've been busy taking up the slack on Skype, generally now two sessions per day. My old man, love him as I do, is not to be confused with the 99-year old war veteran who has raised several million pounds for the NHS by walking up and down his garden with a Zimmer frame. 

With more time on her hands, my sister is re-discovering married life because my brother-in-law can't go off on business travels. They're taking long walks together and it's possible that their new plague routine will dampen their desire for foreign travel. My brother, meanwhile, has made a wardrobe and may be drinking rather less each evening, now that he's not getting back at the end of each day, worn out by the life of a plumber. But it's not guaranteed.

So it's not all doom and gloom for the lucky ones in this time of La Peste. Easter is already a thing of the past, but here in Shangri-La, the butterflies are fluttering around the mass of mauve flowers on the lilac nearest the house, we've had the best crop of purple irises in years and the trees are bedecked once more in enough succulent greenery to hide us from the road that leads to what tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins dubbed 'Civilization and Its Discontents'.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

March: House Arrest


Outside, the air is loud with birdsong and the sounds of spring. There's so much blossom on the quince trees that it looks as if we've had a significant fall of snow. All might be normal. Inside, there's the gentle tintinnabulation of the Bechstein upright that has come down the line from my irritable father-in-law. The Good Wife – or the Dame, as my father calls her in ironic recognition of her former acting career – has taken up the piano again. Once more, the sound of the piano fills the house with something light and magical – like a sun-shower in May.  

She's done some work on herself and is getting over the fear of practising in earshot. And a good thing, too. I keep reassuring her that I love the sound of the eighty-eights in the morning. I tell her, too, not to despair about the occasional wrong note, not to drop her hands into her lap and hang her head in shame. It's why I love Thelonious Monk so much: those unexpected discords that open up sudden new vistas and keep you on your toes.

Just recently, she's gone from a bit of Beethoven to the spiritual, 'Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen'. I like to think that she's done it for me, since it's one of the saddest and most beautiful songs ever written. In her previous incarnation, she tackled 'Tico Tico' because she knew how much I love the version by Charlie Parker, but it proved a musical bridge too far. She's on safer ground with the slower stuff.

I certainly didn't mean to put her off her stride the other evening, but I thought she might like to watch a video of McCoy Tyner playing 'Walk Spirit,Talk Spirit' with his quartet at the Montreux festival back in the '70s. The great man died earlier this month of reasonably old age. He was 81 or 82, which is not bad for a jazz musician who has spent his life touring and playing concerts. A gentle giant of a man, he served his apprenticeship with John Coltrane before leaving the great man to form his own groups in which to seek similar spiritual horizons as his former employer. I count myself privileged to have seen him in his prime at the North Sea jazz festival back in the '80s and thought that Debs would like to put a face to the name that has been so often bandied about in this household.

Alas, I think it depressed her somewhat, because she knows that she will never be able to play with such confidence and fluency. Nevertheless, she'll have plenty of time to practise in the coming weeks and, God help us, months of confinement ahead. Now that we're under house arrest. I'll have plenty of time, too, to catch up on music videos on YouTube – something which has always been near the bottom of my to-do list. I certainly never wished for this kind of opportunity. 

After our dapper, diminutive president announced his emergency measures, I stole a march on the gendarmes recruited to fine any transgressions in order to pay for all the extra recruited gendarmes by dashing to Brive and back before the 12 'clock deadline to ensure that everything in the clinic was locked up and turned off. Now, any sorties have to be accompanied by an excuse-me note – an attestation sur l'honneur – to show the agents of the law when they catch you abroad. We need one even for walking Daphne locally. Thus far, no one has stopped us, but we're wary of Quislings. The other day, I chanced upon the overweight daughter of a local family, out walking her yet more overweight Labrador. I said a cheery bonjour and she looked at me as if I were holding a hand grenade. She took the poor waddling creature the 200 metres or so back to the family house, while I continued on my way, wondering whether she might be the type to snitch to the authorities. I saw that Englishman out walking his dog at 15:00 hours this afternoon... 

So we both take our forms (filled in and signed in pencil to avoid waste, which some pedantic policeman will no doubt use one day as a pretence for a spot-fine), along with our identity cards, whenever we venture out with the Terrierdor. However, we both realise how incredibly lucky we are to be living in the countryside rather than, God forbid, a 50m2 apartment in a block of flats. The parks are closed in Paris and probably most other cities, so humans and dogs are being denied even a postage stamp of greenery. I reckon by the time this all blows over, just as many people will have died of depression and suicide as of Covid-19.

Strangely, my eternally optimistic wife is maybe not coping as well as I am – even with my fresh burdens of resisting the lure of my fingernails, and cutting down on my coffee intake in an effort to rid myself of mouth ulcers. She has been waking up in the middle of the night with some specific or even general anxiety. The gentle glow of an LED light bulb tends to wake me momentarily, but poor girl has to toss and turn, read and/or meditate to try to get back to sleep. Anxiety, it is my middle name, so I am accustomed to shut down my reactor at night and not wake until either the call of nature or my phone's hideous alarm forces me out of the best place on earth.  

It's as if this current scenario has turned her entire sunny world-view upside down. By contrast, it's what I have been mentally preparing myself for most of my life. The Darkness is upon us – and why not? Throughout history, we've had to cope with periodic plagues in some form or another. It's arrogant of current generations to believe that we should be exempt just because of improvements in technology and medical science. I am not now nor ever was religious, but there sure seems to be something biblical about these last nine months or so: apocalyptic fires, devastating floods, swarms of locusts in East Africa and now plague throughout the world. If there is a God, he's definitely an Old Testament version – an old bearded geezer with wild hair and a deranged look in his eye – who's decided to visit destruction on the human race for all their transgressions. An eye for an eye...

Now that the worst is upon us, I am in some respects quite calm. We've got a pack of loo rolls and plenty of seeds and pulses. I'm finding space in the darker recesses of my head for the next worst-case scenarios. Just when you thought it was grim enough... Next up, a financial crisis to make 2008 look like a rehearsal. Then cometh hyper inflation on the back of all the inevitable money printing, followed by social collapse and even more extreme political extremism. Oh, shut the fork up and get the dog far hence that's foe to man!

Right now, we're fiddling about in the garden while the sun shines. My 25-year old strimmer fired up on the second pull of the cord after a winter in the cave. So at least the pampas-length grass has been tamed for now. One more item to tick off the to-do list. The worst thing in some respects is the waiting and the wondering. It's the phoney war before the bombers let fly. We've both acknowledged a grievous thought that we half-wish the plague upon us and fie upon all this waiting, but that seems a drastic way of testing our auto-immune systems and future-proofing our bodies' resistance.

Well, there's plenty of time at least for reading, sometimes with the perfect accompaniment of piano practice. I've just finished a rather good and very quirky novel by a Polish writer who apparently won the Nobel Prize for Fiction. Olga Tokarczuk. I'd never 'eard of 'er. Given that the current crisis could be seen as the revenge of Mother Nature and particularly her beasts of the field and forest, its theme – the revenge of animals on the hunting community in a wooded part of Poland that reminded me very much of this part of France – struck many a chord. Her rousing attacks on the hypocrisy of organized religion apparently kicked up a real stink in her country. I shall leave you with this thought-provoking and rather apposite passage from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead:


'I view the world in the same way as others look at the Sun in eclipse. I see us moving about blindly in eternal Gloom, like May bugs trapped in a box by a cruel child. It's easy to harm and injure us, to smash up our intricately assembled, bizarre existence. I interpret everything as abnormal, terrible and threatening. I see nothing but Catastrophes. But as the Fall is the beginning, can we possibly fall even lower?'