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 or twice a week, 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.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

August: Inna de Whirl

The social whirlwind that blew up at the end of last month has abated at last. I've never known anything like it. You expect rather more activity than normal during the two or three months of high summer – like camels, we stock up on cultural water before the long parched trek across the rest of the year – but the last fortnight or so has been as dizzy as a dervish in full whirl. Even the occasional trip with our amphibious dog to the nearby river – at its lowest level since my records began – has failed to restore mind, body and spirit. 

Once the abominable climatically-changed temperature had died down a bit and the Youth of Today below us had given up their attempt to smash the record for the most all-night parties in a calendar month (following a broadside from my woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown), things started to happen. Her fury spent and suitably refreshed by a good night's sleep, Debs met-and-gret an Argentinean rugby player and his parents who stayed in our flat above the clinic, while I slipped off to the Rex to see Inna De Yard with the last admission on our season ticket. Joy, joy and thrice joy. The documentary about a group of ageing Rastas who gathered Buena Vista stylee to launch an album and a concert tour was entrancing. If Cedric Myton of the Congos, a kind of septuagenarian kid with dreadlocks the colour and apparent texture of ash, was the most endearing, Ken Boothe – dressed immaculately in a succession of lurid tunics by his doting wife – was the most singular. Glimpses of the Boothes' domestic interior design suggested that never has so much colour been so clashed by so few. 

On the way back to the clinic, the young woman from the agency that manages our studio flat phoned to say that the new tenant had a leaky flush – which, apart from filling me with dread, recalled a moment in primary school when 'wee Erskie' announced to his P4 classmates, Miss, Sharon's burst a pipe! She (the agent and not the unfortunate, incontinent Sharon) offered me the choice of doing it myself or calling the agency's tame plumber. It was one of many Liberty Valance moments in my life. As Jimmy Stewart discovered in the movie, there comes a time when every man has to whip off the apron and face up to the bully with a six-shooter. Surely it shouldn't be too difficult to mend a chasse d'eau. My Dutch friend, Wim, confirmed that even a man of my limited practical abilities should be able to do-it-himself. I should have remembered that it took John Wayne to gun down Lee Marvin's Liberty.

My unfortunate decision opened up a can of insanitary worms that wriggled and squirmed around my grey matter over the course of the next fortnight. While a lesser source of worry in the great scheme of things than incipient war in the Persian Gulf, Trump and Bolsinaro's assault on the environment and the imminence of a no-deal Brexit, nevertheless the saga of the leaky flush de-stabilised my fragile equilibrium. It's incredible, this capacity of human beans to substitute peccadilloes for the Really Big Worries.

But first I had to drive to Toulouse and back to pick-up the homecoming 'prodge', as a friend used to dub our daughter. She was here to share with us the opening blasts of the social whirlwind: dinner on our blasted lawn with friends from Martel, followed the next evening by Agnès Varda's final film in a field down in our commune. Outdoor cinema is catching on in these parts and it's nice. As with all things communal, however, it does entail the awkward business of mixing with fellow communards, whom you don't know from Adam, Eve or Nip-me-tight. Fortunately, I spotted our equally reclusive neighbours and we were able to sit relatively incognito. Visages Villages is a charming account of Mme Varda's travels around France with JR, a photographer in shades and permanent 5 o'clock shadow, who blows up snaps of locals and pastes them on village walls. 

Soon after this came a trip to the plus beau village of Curemonte for a picnic with friends followed by a concert in the grounds of the medieval chateau. We sat under a crescent moon listening to a troupe of three women sing show tunes accompanied by a young male pianist. 'Charming' is the kindest way to describe it, but it passed an hour pleasantly and gave us food for debate as we walked back to the car. Whose voice was best? My daughter and I both agreed that the soprano sounded rather too quasi-operatic, the darker-hued woman veered slightly off tune on occasion, and the alto in the backless satin creation probably sang most consistently well – even if her pronunciation of the English lyrics was the most bothersome.

Meanwhile, things were going from bad to worse in the first test at Edgbaston and in the tiny bathroom of the tiny studio flat. The agent (or my fallible French) had led me to believe that the place was empty. It wasn't. If there's anything worse than facing up to your own incompetence, it's having it witnessed by A.N. Other. The horror, the horror! The new flush mechanism cost me €8, but you couldn't put a price on the shame of failing to fit it. Wim had failed to warn me that if you screw the cistern to its base too tightly, you run the risk of cracking the porcelain. You know the old saying: A cracked cistern leaks like a motherfff... For God's sake, gardez l'eau!

I took my angst with me to Nick's 63rd birthday dinner later that same day. Our chum Giles, who looks less like Mick Jagger now that he's sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, was very understanding. He's camping with his family nearby while holidaymakers are paying for the considerable privilege of staying in their watermill. He told me that flush mechanisms are not that easy to fathom. 'Just go and get a new toilet; you can pick one up for sixty euros or somefink,' he suggested, still sounding like Mick Jagger. I didn't let it spoil a beautiful starlit dinner under the convivial, spreading oak tree.

During a temporary social lull following the departure of our girl, I took advantage of the The Tenant of Wildfell Studio's fortuitous absence to buy a new loo and watch Wim fit it. Much the better option. Oh to be capable and confident. An operation that took about two hours would have taken me two days, involved chronic dyspepsia, and I would have probably cracked one of the tiles on which the shiny new throne now sits. Back home, the Good Wife and I celebrated my liberation by watching a couple of episodes of a new series about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, his long-suffering wife. Sam Rockwell is very good as the philandering choreographer, while Michelle Williams is riveting as the legendary Broadway dancer.

And so to the eye of the social storm. We voyaged first up-river to the small market town of Saint-Céré for my rendezvous with Yapunto!, a Franco-Colombian group who were playing that evening in the venerable Place du Mercadial. Obsessively punctual, we got there at six on the dot, only to discover that the band were still rehearsing. Blow me down if they didn't finish till gone seven, but musicians aren't known for their punctuality. I grabbed ten minutes of the singer's time for my promised article before she went off to eat. But in that ten minutes, I was smitten by Alejandra Charry. Are all Colombians so open, friendly and downright enchanting? My wife certainly thought so. On taking our leave, I watched the two beaming women hug like long-lost sisters. 

After another, brief picnic with friends, we hurried back for the concert itself. French audiences never cease to amaze me. A cursory glance at the three or four hundred sedate beings in serried ranks of plastic chairs didn't inspire me with confidence, yet people were up dancing from the first number until the second encore. Debs blistered her big toes, I wearied my calves and the collective enthusiasm was wondrous to imbibe. Such a polite, repressed nation; but such liberated souls in concert.

There was barely enough time to ask pancakes for breakfast? before we were off again: north by north east this time after a biblical downpour for our Amerikanische Freund's 60th-birthday luncheon. The following evening we did it all over again with the same people and a few more besides chez Thomas, where Debs and I were introduced to a game of winning simplicity called Smite. I'm a more competent sportsman than handyman: After winning two games on the trot, I stepped aside to help instead with retrieving the wooden missile thrown at the blocks of wood, which stand like miniature Easter Island statues, waiting their turn to be smitten. Olympic status is unlikely, but it could replace croquet and ping-pong here on home turf. Something to occupy the occupants in less frenetic times. Après le whirlwind, le Smite.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

July: The Golf War

Not long before the heat wave, on a chilly wet evening in Collonges-la-Rouge, I gathered with my fellow rootless compatriots for a concert in a restaurant on the main road. All summer long, it lures unsuspecting tourists to sit at one of its tables. In our case, it wasn't the food but the Honky Tonk Men that tempted us to step inside: American Steve on bass, Anglo-Iraqi Steve on guitar and vocals, French Guillaume on drums and Fred the Gaul, a septuagenarian lead guitarist who can fire off an educated solo at the blink of an eye.

The food was abominable. Enough to make me ashamed of my double nationality. I had a pizza with a base that resembled one of my mother's sickly pie crusts, may she stay forever out of the kitchen in the Afterlife. The Good Wife and our friend Sophie had omelettes filled with potatoes disguised as the advertised girolles. Evelyne and her husband Michel ordered a great big plate of chips that were caked with grease and uncooked in the middle. We're not talking Bootle here on a Friday night, but France: a country that still believes its cuisine is second to none.

As the band wound down and the evening hastened towards Bedfordshire, I sat with my friend Dan and heard about his new turntable. We made a date to spin some records together. I told him about my golf war, because I know that Dan has half a mind to take up the game. He's a natural, by all reports. I promised to take him for a round with one of my guest tickets some day. But can I do it to such a lovely chap? I'm beginning to discover what a vicious and spiteful game this is. Dan's still at the innocent, dewy-eyed stage of hitting the ball without worry or pressure; playing his natural game. I lost my innocence back in January, when I signed up for a year's membership based on one exceptional round of nine holes when the shoulders were loose, the mind was uncluttered and my eyes were fixed very much on the ball.

Ever since, I've been trying to get back to the Zone: a mythical place that the gorgeous Simona Halep inhabited for the hour it took to demolish Serena Williams in the women's final at Wimbledon. It all came so easily to her; it was breath-taking to witness. I'm clearly trying too hard. Not long after the concert and just a day or so into the heat wave, I went round the topographically-challenging course with John from Wisconsin and the two Richards, I and II. I played so excruciatingly badly that I've felt ever since like taking myself off to the golfing equivalent of a leper colony, there to live on nuts and berries and to hide from the gaze of my fellow man. Golf, I understand now, is a recipe for self-loathing every bit as virulent as Frederick Exley's, whose self-excoriating A Fan's Notes I've recently finished. Exley's frustrated literary ambitions and loathing of his fellow man turned him into an alcoholic, but eventually combusted in a book every bit as funny as Cuckoo's Nest and A Confederacy of Dunces. He and those close to him paid a heavy price, though, for his little piece of immortality. I try not to be a burden to mes proches.

My own subsequent fear and loathing was intensified by a fortnight of the kind of temperatures normally reserved for the Arabian peninsula. No wonder their collective demeanour sometimes mimics that of a French civil servant. When the thermometer goes way up over a hundred degrees, there ain't nothin' you can do. There are only so many clothes you can remove, so many shutters you can shut, so many glasses of water you can drink. A fan merely blows hot air at you. Flowers wilt and animals collapse. I felt grumpy and hope-less; my thoughts were constantly preoccupied with intimations of catastrophic droughts and raging wild fires. From 9am till 9pm, you're fit for nothing. And it's only going to get worse from now on in. Worse still if Boris Johnson, Baby Trump, wins the battle to lead Britain's unruly ruling party.

The recognition of things to come had us both gathered at a summit meeting across the table, earnestly discussing climate change and our options for the old and helpless stage of our old age. Should we sell up and go? If so, where? Back to England, where the summer sky is still usually cloaked in clouds? Or Norn Iron, perhaps, where it won't start seriously heating up for at least another century? Or should we rent a place by the sea and open our house up to summer lets? In the end, as per most summit meetings, we failed to reach a decision. So it goes and so we will burn and expire. 

My mood wasn't helped by the return of the Youth of Today. The young son of the Parisians who camp every August in the old house at the foot of the dog's meadow turned up with a mate in the parental car. Cue partying and thumping rap all through the night. I bumped into the Yoot when I was out walking Daphne in the cool of an evening. The son stopped the car for a personable chat and told me that, if the noise got too much, I should mention it to him. And so I did after the third all-nighter. I sleep through anything, but the Good Wife was sleep-deprived and due at the massage couch early the next morning. After a day composing my diatribe, I finally wandered down the chemin rural to confront the YoT. I could have said something clever and cutting – if there's anything worse than rap, it's French rap – but decided to keep it simple, stupid. (That's KISS to training officers and other purveyors of acronyms.) I told the son and his mate that it was a bit much, explained that we had to sleep with the door open because of the heat and that we could hear every sound because it rises up from their sleepless hollow – and they apologised. I thanked them for their understanding and left it at that. 

Since when, they've been as good as... if not gold, then let's say copper. No complaints. Which is not what I can say a propos the insect population. There's a virulent new breed of tick about, so tiny that it resists the grip of the plastic hook. Debs got one buried in the soft flesh of her thigh, impervious to the hook, the tweezers, the essential oils, the green clay, the needle – everything but a visit, finally, to the doctor. I picked one up the other day that sunk its mandibles into my belly. I must have caught it napping, because it came out easily with the tweezers and I flushed it down the basin into the murky depths of the fosse septique, where all manner of horrible creatures decompose with the household excrement.

And there are the flying mange-touts, as we call them, that get into the house to lurk in shady corners, only to leap out at you and give you apoplexy. They look just like the locusts that used to live in a tank in the biology block of my old school. Fortunately, they seem to come in singles or pairs, but not in swarms. Not yet, anyway. I had one on my desk the other morning and we stared at each other for a good minute or two while I decided how to tackle it. I was sure that I could see him sizing me up through his bulbous eyes. In the end, I went for the plastic goblet with a card underneath. Off it flew to feast on our wilting vegetation. 

Now, ironically after the extreme heat has dwindled, it's the flies that have been sent to plague me. They congregate in the kitchen and no matter how many I kill, the multitude is back within 10 minutes. I'm good with the fly swat; I have the reactions of a sportsman. My wife objects, but I sweep up the kill and I tell her that it's for her own good. If I didn't do it, could she possibly imagine hell that would be our kitchen? What a vile little creature the fly is. It flies around in search of something clean on which to secrete its bodily fluids, only to meet sudden violent death in the shape of a swot with a fly-swat. To paraphrase the great Curtis Mayfield's 'Billy Jack', Can't be much fun to be whacked, whacked with a fly-swat. Wouldn't it be nice to think that odious humans like Trump and BoJo might be reincarnated as common houseflies? 

Ah, what sport to swat the despicable! And what sport we've had to keep up morale. That epic final between the ageless Federer and the relentless Djokovic, who will surely overhaul the Sublime One's total of Grand Slams – but only by dint of persistence. And the cricket World Cup, whose final was probably the greatest game ever staged. The sheer excitement and tension and ultimate elation left me gasping on the sofa. I'm inclined, however, to start a petition that the trophy should be shared with New Zealand. What a great gesture that would be in the current climate.

And there's the British Open golf tournament still to come, now restored to Royal Portrush after nearly 70 years (of hurt?). I'm rooting for the Boy McIlroy of course, but not too hopeful that it won't be once more another accursed American. Me, I've been back to the scene of my degradation a couple of times already. It has been a little better, but only a little. I need a new golf swing (and a new fly swat, for that matter). Actually, a new upswing to my mentality would help the most. We've been watching George Clooney's attempt to do justice to Joseph Heller's Catch 22. I'm reminded of the doomed McWatt's words to Yossarian: something along the lines of With me, it's happy happy happy, dead. With you, it's worry worry worry, dead. McWatt was dead right.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

June: Delivering the Goods

An occupational hazard of living in the French countryside – perhaps any countryside, for that matter – is the business of deliveries. An occupational hazard of living in France is the business of dealing with delivery companies. Les courriers

We order our whole-foods now from a company in England. It's still marginally cheaper than buying them from a magasin bio in France and it's much less sanctimonious. The only problem is getting the order before any perishables perish. And that means the stress and heartache of dealing with the delivery men. They're almost always men.

This latest order took almost a fortnight. During that fortnight, we were promised a delivery on several occasions. I say 'promised', but that's not any kind of promise in human form. You're informed by some automated e-mail. Waiting for the delivery to turn up – or rather, not turn up – means that you're confined to barracks for the whole day. Even walking the dog becomes a hurried short walk to the bins and back so that there's no possible chance of missing a white delivery van on the road. 

This particular protracted delivery involved three no-shows. Not even a note left in the letter box at the top of the lane to the effect that the delivery man was unable to deliver the goods. Which has happened in the past, even though the house is maybe 40 metres down the lane. Since the Good Wife made the actual order, she felt morally obliged to track it. This means going onto the courier's website to be blinded by spurious technical details that ultimately signify nothing. 07h45, Package arrived at depot. 08h30, Package loaded onto delivery van. 09h00, Delivery van left depot. 10h, Delivery man stopped at motorway service station for coffee and bowel movement... Und so weiter – until you arrive at some 'misspoken' conclusion like, 17h, Delivery man unable to deliver package. Reason: Client not at home.

As for getting a contact number, it's hard enough just to ascertain the name of the company. Nevertheless, the girl's good at online detective work. She found a number, any number. When she dialled it, I could hear the man on the other end of the line launch into some diatribe before she'd even opened her mouth. She held the phone away from her ear and gave me a significant look. A look replete with the accumulated years of dealing on telephones with personnel in France. Over that time, however, she has learnt – perhaps through her work, as well – to show the patience and stoicism of Job in the face of the most appalling rudeness. 'Monsieur,' she said, 'please do not shout at me before I have even had a chance to tell you why I'm phoning. Obviously you must be very stressed, but would you please calm down.'

With my own still limited vocabulary, in such a situation I am given to a fit of apoplexy, which simply renders me mute. I tend to put the phone down and either strike my head against a wall or cry. Hearing her calmly give the wretched specimen of humanity her mobile number and directions to get here, I was full of admiration and wonder. I wondered how come we chose to live among some of the rudest, most xenophobic and impenetrable people on the planet for all these years. And why, for that matter, did we decide to work here, where the self-employed are disenchanted and disregarded and taxed in real terms at a level higher even than in Denmark (or so I am reliably informed)? It wasn't, I believe, to subsidise the national health of a race of pill-popping hypochondriacs. 

Encounters with the worst of French customer service over the years have tended to provoke such soul searching. After a few deep breaths have extinguished the ire, we normally take a step or two back before doing something drastic like putting the house on the market. Wherever you live, you've just got to take the rough with the smooth. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

For all its shortcomings, Britain undeniably offers a much higher level of customer service. So our next port of call was the whole-foods company. Did they know that their chosen courier was quite so awful? They did. Without shaming names, they're a partner of Britain's very own Parcel Force. Of all their European partners, apparently, it's only the French partner with whom they've had any such problems. All the others, presumably, are as good as gold – or as good as Parcel Force. So that was reassuring. As a measure of genuine customer service, our interlocutrice awarded us 10 extra points to be redeemed against our next order. Ah, life could be so simple...

One of the unfortunate lessons we've learned in almost a quarter of a century here is that you have to get angry to get anywhere with 'these people'. No doubt that conard my wife encountered fired off his broadsides because he understands how the system works. Get the first punch in before the bastard customer hits you with the old one-two. Well, I'm happy to report that the Good Wife confounded custom and practice. She stayed calm but firm. She got a commitment to deliver the goods that Friday – when for once she was at home and I was in Brive. Half way through Friday morning, I received a text to say that we had our order. The right box at the right house. Before any perishables perished. 

The received wisdom here is that courriers are worse than useless and a source of endless frustration. Everyone moans about them. La Poste's own Chronopost is one of the worst. I have to say, however, that I've struck up a good relationship with the young guy who delivers Daphne's dog food. He rings me when he's 10 minutes away. I go and stand by the roadside. We shake hands and exchange pleasantries. I wish him luck as I wave him goodbye. I'm a happy man and Daphne's a happy dog. A very spoilt dog. It doesn't have to be beastly.

I can't for the life of me tell you what the name of this particular company is, but I have a sneaky suspicion that they might be a partner of some American giant. God damn! If there's anything I hate more than couriers it's giant American corporations.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

May: Be Nice, Be Kind

Although a healthy dose of culture is just what the doctor orders from time to time, it's always good to be back in the parallel world of what a friend calls 'Shangri-La'. For all the interminable to-dos, there's a calmative sense of unreality about the place. Only the other morning, for instance, Daphne and I were on the return leg of the first of our twice-daily round trip when we encountered the sturdy carthorse from the field by the bins clip-clopping ponderously down the road towards us, followed by a very slow-moving car. I'd been chatting to the poor solitary creature only 20 minutes prior to this revelation. Perhaps the electric barrier had failed and he had decided to wander off in search of companionship.

I remember a huge muscular horse pulling a milk float in our north London suburb during my earliest years, but once they went electric the sight of a horse in an urban street became as rare as rag-and-bone men. Despite the reassurance of the woman in the car that the owner had been contacted, I didn't see my redoubtable mate since crossing him on the road. The awful thought was that he might have clip-clopped his ponderous way down to a main road where the drivers are less patient than the woman in the blue car.

So... we'd been talking for years about a trip to the Brighton Festival in May. Alack, there wasn't much on of any note in the very year we chose to go. The organisers published their programme late and we had to book early to avoid disappointment and obtain train tickets at a sensible price. At least a very long train journey for two is part of the package, offering a rare chance for mutual snacking and protracted reading. Having decided last month that I could and would re-read E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, I had to ingest it in 20-page bursts. So intense it was that only by interspersing calming doses of MP3 did I recover enough mental strength for the next exhausting chapter.

We broke our journey in Crystal Palace: a suburb of south London now voted the best place to live in the Metropolis. Or some such specious accolade. We stayed in one of two houses in the street with a yellow front door. Curiously, the other house belongs to recent friends from the parallel world of rural France. Asked by our hostess to select from the huge menu of culture, we opted for the new Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the old Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park, now the refurbished Design Museum. A nice building, but the permanent collection was a little sparse. No such paucity, though, when it came to the Kubrick. We went round it in three hours, only because we were all flagging. With a pinch of meth-amphetamine, we might easily have managed five. So much to see, so much to read, so much to ponder. Seeing his extraordinary attention to detail made it clear just why Leon Vitali – the subject of a fascinating documentary on Kubrick's 'film worker' – would devote his prime years to slaving for an artistic genius. 

The next day, the three of us went down to Brighton by train. In my childhood, when TV programmes were also sparse, they would fill gaps in the schedule with little film-ettes, like the potter's wheel that turned a lump of clay before your very eyes into something recognisably pot-like. My favourite was London to Brighton by train in a minute. The viewer rode with the driver in his cab and journey flashed by at the speed of a passing Superman. 

At Crystal Palace station, we witnessed a young American father of three make an asshole of himself by berating the ticket vendor on account of some credit card that wouldn't function. His three children watched their father – in shorts over Lycra leggings, I should add – with bewilderment, while their mother (presumably accustomed to such dull-witted demonstrations) said nothing. I had to bite my tongue. Now look here, my good man. I know you Americans think you own the world, but what sort of example do you think you are giving to your children? With more confidence in my physical prowess, I would have swung into action and nutted the tosser. As it was, we behaved instead with compensatory civility to the man behind the safety glass. An African gentleman, I believe. Later, on the train, I looked at our tickets and realised that I'd probably paid far too much for our return journey. Keeping up appearances can be a costly business.

Brighton has changed, terribly changed, in the 30+ years since I met The Good Wife there back in the year of the great hurricane, which ripped through the town and uprooted many of its finest trees. For a start, it's officially a city now. Back in my day, it was a good place to be a student, but it wasn't as it is now Studentsville, UK. Every ten paces, there's a vintage clothes shop or a vegan café, or both. The streets throng with youthful and seemingly privileged life. There were and presumably still are two infamous sink estates, but they were generally out of sight and out of mind until I went to work in the Unemployment Benefit Office. Whatever possessed me? Nowadays, you can't escape the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. In trying to avoid their eyes, you risk tripping over all the homeless people cocooned in crusty old sleeping bags and propped up against shop windows. 

Many are bivouacked along the main shopping street that runs down to the Pavilion from the Clock Tower. There are two big banners suspended across it for the duration of the Festival. One says 'BE NICE' and the other says 'BE KIND'. Lovely sentiments in a world increasingly without compassion, but how do you give alms to one and not the others? Late one evening, down near the seafront, I witnessed a gang of foxes darting past traffic and down side streets in their quest for something to eat. It struck me that these poor lean creatures, like the human caterpillars on the streets, are the pariahs of today's society.

My friend Tony was a nice man, and very kind. He died in 2017 of a virulent cancer after spending the last decade of his life in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. According to his widow, he remained positive to the end and barely ever expressed a word of self-pity. I saw him a few weeks before the end and could hardly bear to look upon his face and body ravaged by terminal illness. We stayed in their tardis in the Lanes. Although you walk straight from the street into their sitting room, the narrow house goes up and up, with shelves on every available wall space crammed with Tony's cultural artefacts. We slept in a room with swathes of Frank Zappa CDs and books by and on William Burroughs. Tony was a beatnik at heart, who should really have grown a beard and recited poetry with cymbals on his fingers.

With few Festivalities in prospect – other than a visit to a synagogue near the now decrepit Hippodrome where Max Miller would perform his 'blue' routines, and an exhibition of Stephen Jones' outlandish hats in the Royal Pavilion, the most outlandish architectural folly of them all – we took The Daughter and Min the Schnauzer with us on the train to Hassocks for a walk to the woodland cemetery where Tony now lies at rest in the lee of the Downs. We sprinkled petals of flowers past their display date on his modest grave and Carol lit some incense sticks while we stood and quietly contemplated the meaning of life. Afterwards, we walked up to see the Jack and Jill windmills close-up for the first time. Tilley, Min and I later ran back down the steep grassy slope as if in a scene from a French film with Jeanne Moreau.

The walk back to the station took us past the mouth of the tunnel that swallows speeding trains and spits them out at the other end. Another landmark and another folly, the tunnel entrance has been embellished with the facade of a fortress, crenellations and all. That moment just before the plunge into darkness was probably my favourite part of the old monochrome dash from London to Brighton. It is, I realised, an incredibly busy line.

'It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.' From what cranial recess did Dylan dredge up such a title? I don't know, but our eventual return trip to France took a train or three. We arrived in Brive at midnight on the dot. We were both all read out from hours on the parallel rails. I finished both The Book of Daniel and Nick Kent's memoir of a rock journalist, Apathy For The Devil, grabbed as light relief in a Brighton charity shop. You don't get to read like that even here in the parallel world. 

Now I've embarked on Dig Infinity!, a biography of Lord Buckley from Tony's collection. It's a rambling, discursive, stompin' 'oral history' with contributions from the likes of Robin Williams, Ken Kesey and George Harrison. Since it was my learned friend who hipped me to His Lordship, the jive-talking raconteur, it seemed the most appropriate choice on being asked to select a memento from his library. Buckley was a nice man, apparently, if as crazy as a finger-poppin' coot. No one had a bad word to say about him. Not even Ed Sullivan, whose spendthrift friend reputedly owed him $300,000 at the time of his death. That's one hell of a lot of money even now, and quite some test of friendship. 

By the way, my friend the redoubtable horse has been found, I have now discovered. Some kind soul has thought to put him in a bigger field, with a herd of Limousin cows. They don't seem to have much in common and the presence of so many four-footed females doesn't appear to have stirred the creature's mighty stallion-hood, but at least he's got company. Other than flies.

Let me finish this month's protracted ramble with some germane words of wisdom from Buckley's 'church of the living swing'. 'I'll tell you what we have to do, you see. We have to spread love... People of this nation have got to learn to be kinder, more gracious... They must be more generous. The people who have things who are living next to people who haven't got things should give them some of the things that they have. We have to learn to give more. We have to learn to tighten, to magnetize this nation by love in this coming fight that we're in.'