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.

Monday, January 11, 2021

January '21: New Year's Insurreckshuns


It's not every year that kicks off with a coup d'état across the Atlantic. Positively Seven Days in May. I think John Frankenheimer's dead now, but some director will make a film of what happened in the not-too-distant future. I for one am delighted that what happened on Capitol Hill happened. At least now it's out in the open, with no pretence. The president is a dangerous madman whose lunatic insurreckshun, as Linton Kwesi Johnson the dub poet might have termed it, seems to have failed. The fact that four of the five people who lost their lives are Nazis makes it almost a win-win situation. Hopefully, too, this might split the Republicans into those who are prepared to sign their souls away in pursuit of power and those who are not quite so sure about the benefits of hitching their wagon to a megalomaniac prepared to sell off America's national parks to the highest bidder, shoot wolves in their lair, wall off the Mexicans and incite lynch mobs. Perhaps in future American voters will have the choice between three parties: the Democrats, the Milder Republicans and the Confederates, hell bent on a return to the good ol' days when a person of the opposite colour could be strung up on a tree for daring to look too blatantly at a southern belle.

It is as we say in this household a case of letting the dog see the rabbit. My ever-optimistic wife believes that seeing the evil by bringing the slime to the surface is a necessary precursor to some kind of Golden Age, where everything will be rosy. I don't subscribe to such tosh, but even I – the grumpy, misanthropic pessimist she's hitched to – confess to a glimmer of optimism. However... even if the insurreckshun might rent the Republicans asunder, it's unlikely to be permanent. The initial rush of resignations is probably symptomatic only of a sinking ship, with representatives showing the kind of duplicity that Jean-Louis Trintignant portrayed so memorably in Bertolucci's masterful Il Conformiste, which readers of this page will know by now is my favourite film EVER. Someone rather more clever than the recent incumbent, someone more plausible and even more devious, will crawl out of the woodwork when the time comes. Cometh the hour, cometh the creep. There are still millions more out there ready to follow, millions more who won't just go away overnight.

Of course, little of this touches us here in the Land of Nod. But as goes the US, so goes the rest of the world. It will eventually wash up on these shores like flotsam from a shipwreck, but for now we have the luxury of watching events unfold from a distant dispassionate standpoint. Here, for the while, little changes at new year. The surtout la santé element of the standard, clichéd exchange of best wishes has rather more meaning in January 2021. Especially good health. When I went to Giselle's barn on Friday evening to buy the vegetables after her Yuletide holiday – which, of course, she stressed in the way of the martyr, is no real holiday for her, with so much to attend to inside her house and outside in her field and under her poly-tunnel – she told me that the plague has visited the EPHAD in Martel, which stands roughly for Old People's Home.

Virus schmirus. It's rather colder here than it was last year, cold enough in fact to make your nose drip and your ears ache, which is a cause for celebration since it will, as people remind you constantly, kill off some of the microbes that undermine that so-important bonne santé and the bestioles that attack next year's crops. Whether or not it will have any impact on the coronavirus remains to be seen. I'd bet that it won't, since the Spanish Flu lasted four years or so and these cyclical things tend to follow similar patterns. But neither cold nor virus stops the good ol' boys of Martel, the hunting fraternity no doubt. They were there on Saturday morning, hanging around outside the PMU, half of them masked, half of them not, clutching their cups of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, probably discussing the next campaign of carnage against local wild boars.

In the supermarket, I recognise the usual suspects in spite of their masks. We're growing progressively more adept at recognising people from their eyes and the bridge of their noses. I smile at the cashiers, caged within their protective Perspex, but I'm not sure that they can spot my gesture between the top of my mask (which seems to be made from an old sheet in the style of my old mad mother) and the bottom of my John Lewis bonnet, which The Daughter has taught me to pull down below my eyebrows to make it clear that I am not a docker or a farm labourer, but rather a dedicated follower of fashion. The latter, of course, is lost anyway on the inhabitants of Nod.

My personal circumstances have changed since this time last year. I am now a broadcaster once more, this time at a local radio station that operates out of what's little more than a shack not far from the railway station at Biars-sur-Cère. It's the story of my career as a radio host really; I've come to specialise in a certain kind of fly-by-night operation reminiscent of the Wolfman character in American Graffiti, broadcasting from a hut with an aerial in the middle of nowhere. Decibel FM's mixing table was state-of-the-art back in 1995 and subject to bugs and glitches that keep you on your toes when you're in the studio. Still, I'm doing it anonymously in my prezidential nom de platine, so I can say and play what I like, be snide about hunters and the SNCF and make more gaffs than Dan Quayle, and no one apart from my friends Adrian and Darryn, who listen to local radio, will recognise the geezer with the funny French accent.

I'm not quite sure where this urge to expose myself to potential ridicule comes from. Certainly, my passion for music and my yearning to share it goes back to primary school days, when I'd invite my friend Bob Rainey round to spin singles on my dad's gramophone while we played along on tennis racquet guitars. Gerry Marsden's recent death also reminds me of the time in P5 when I sang 'How Do You Do It' in front of the class. Excruciatingly, I repeated it sometime later – this time with prototype heavy metal guitar riffs – with the Kinks' 'You Really Got Me'. Back by popular request: the clown with an air-guitar. It's the same kind of instinct, I suppose, that drives me to don the headphones and gabble into a microphone. And it's not that it's a breeze either: it's a 20-minute drive from here; it's more than a little nerve-wracking; and it's time-consuming to prepare an hour's show. But... preparing a show, gathering together and linking the raw material is such fun. Having read John Peel's autobiography, I can fully understand why he spent so much time in his music 'shed', preparing all those weekly shows for the Beeb.

So where was I? How did I get from Donald Trump to John Peel? I can't imagine, suffice to say that we all watched the most wonderful production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya the other evening. Toby Jones as Vanya was brilliant and Aimee Lou Wood so sweet and poignant as Sonya that I yearned for Richard Armitage's Doctor Astrov to reciprocate her desperate ardour. It's all about ageing, unrequited love, disappointments and nostalgia, so it was right up my street. It was broadcast on BBC Four because it should have been playing live to packed houses at the Harold Pinter theatre in London. And that, of course, is another thing that's different about the new year, 2021 style.

Friday, December 18, 2020

December: The Transformative Power of Paint


Only the other day... I was on my way back from walking the dog when two white-bottomed deer wandered casually across the road between our bit of wood and the farmer's on the other side. I can only describe their colour as a grey-brown shade of ground-cover. Daphne saw them and took off like a bolt of greased lightning. The two deer bounded into the woods and within seconds they were lost from view. I thought to myself, Isn't nature marvellous? These creatures are born with a colour so perfectly blended to their natural surroundings that they are rendered virtually invisible to the naked eye. And thank heavens, with so many hunters about (lockdown doesn't apply to the hunting fraternity, it appears).

Which leads me to the colour of paint. The myriad colours of paint. Now that The Daughter is back in the fold, deprived for the time being of her calling to design textiles and clothes, she has been casting her educated eye on her parents' environment. Our sense of interior design has been found wanting. Where there were a whiter shade of pale walls, let there be colour. Where there was bare wood, let there be more colour. To be fair (as footballers are given to start their proclamations), her mother has been looking at our bare wooden staircase up to the bare wooden floor of the mezzanine and saying for many a moon that we should do something about it.

I don't give her much encouragement in that respect, because I don't like disruption. But as soon as her offspring is back in town, she has a natural-born ally and the pair of them plot their campaigns like two umbilically-tied consultants. Last extended stay, it was walls and ceiling – and I have to admit that they've uplifted the place. The trouble is that our girl's tastes are in keeping with her ambition to work in some area of haut couture. So the paint has to be Farrow & Ball, because only Farrow & Ball make the necessary shade of day-room yellow, churlish green, cinder rose, hound's tooth, grizzled avocado, oatmeal compôte, dissatisfied cat and such like. Paint in France costs a small fortune, but Farrow & Ball set new eye-watering standards.

The colour chosen for the bare wood was peignoir, which is a French word for dressing gown. It's very nice, but to me it looks more like blueberry milkshake: a subtle blend of pink and purple. We ordered it from a small shop in Brive and they gave us a 10% discount, which made it 'cheaper' than buying it from the company's website. And you can't put a price on the sense of self-righteousness derived from supporting a small trader in a time of crisis.

The Kid and I did the painting, an opportunity to bond during confinement. She's a perfectionist, while I'm a pragmatist – certainly about painting. I'm quite fast and prepared to take a few short-cuts where things won't be apparent on a casual glance. I learnt the basics of painting by the side of my father when we moved from our first house in Belfast to our second. Like anything in life that involves effort, he was not the best person to learn from. Fortunately, in recent years, I've had the example to follow of my friend Bret, one of the best painters on earth: fast, efficient and thorough. I passed on as much of his wisdom as I could to my girl. She took it in rapidly, though her natural propensity is to be slow and meticulous.

Still... it went well. No stand-offs nor contretemps, just a few murmurs of discontent. I handled the underside of the floor between the beams, she did the stairs and we did the mezzanine floor together. Nothing could be finer (than to be in Caro-lina) – except for the major disruption that the joint element caused, because it meant moving my stuff, or schtooff, as a Spanish friend of yore used to pronounce it so endearingly. I have envied my brother-in-law's office and desk for many years: so clear and compartmentalised, so efficient and organised. I've tried, God knows I've tried, but just never manage to achieve anything resembling his level of order. I work surrounded by clutter, which probably explains my career trajectory. I am cluttered. Clutter and mouth ulcers are two perennial facts of my life.

So all those hundreds and thousands of tapes and CDs had to be taken off the shelves and boxed up, the detritus of insatiable decades on this earth. The shelves then had to be taken down because their feet stand on the floor. All the papers that found their way from the equivalent of my sister's 'piling pile' to what I laughingly describe as my 'filing system' had to be removed in order to move the filing cabinet to become a support for my desk. All the records in the free-standing shelves had to be removed and piled up against the door to the top balcony in order to move the free-standing shelves out of the way and then re-shelved because they were in the way, then re-removed and re-piled against the door when one half of the floor was done and dried before being re-shelved – by which time the approximate alphabetical order had gone completely awry. The sofa we discovered on moving had lost a foot and the head of the screw where once it had been had gouged a hole in both the rug and the floorboard under it.

While the paint was drying, I went through the video and audio cassettes with an eye for duplicates and I managed to fill one small boxful for disposal. Some people have the ability to throw whole collections away wholesale. I don't know how they can. It's surely better that they should be taking up space on our shelves than sitting for centuries in a landfill site – although my poor daughter will have the unenviable task of sorting it all out when I'm gone. Perhaps by then I will have come to terms with my addiction and joined some remedial support group.

In a concession to aesthetics, I even painted the spare speakers that are wired to the DVD player the same fetching shade of blueberry milkshake. And rather smart they look, too. Everything is now back in place and the gouges in the floor are painted and covered by a rug. Tilley the Kid asked me whether, in the final analysis, it was worse than I had imagined, about what I had imagined or better than I had imagined. Clearly she is of the generation that's comfortable with Survey Monkey. I reflected for a few seconds and came to the conclusion that it was just about as I had envisaged it. Grim and disruptive but ultimately no worse. It's one of the few comforts of being a pessimist, that you're mentally prepared for the worst. Moreover, now that I look around me and consider my changed work environment and take pleasure in the colourful floor and stairs and in the prospect of being able to find things just a little more easily, I consider it well worth the pain and discomfort involved.

And so to conclude, as the lecturer said to an enthralled audience, a lick of paint does wonders for the soul – even if that paint costs an arm and a leg. Able now to look forward now to the prospect of a slightly tidier New Year, I can wish my multitudinous readers a very happy 2021.

Friday, November 13, 2020

November: 70m Americans Cannot be Serious


November: the penultimate month. Here we are locked down in Confinement #2 in another futile attempt to hold back a virus that will not be confined, fashioned as it is for the follies of mankind with nine parts venom of Yahweh. My Ageing P is beginning to feel that there will never be an end to it, that he will be locked down permanently for however more years he's granted. He told me the other day that he has this image of himself laughing heartily when death finally comes calling for him.

Tilley the Kid made it back home in her usual last-minute manner on the day of amnesty granted by the French government to returnees from the Toussaint holiday. She came by train from England, armed to the teeth with all kinds of disclaimers and attestations, none of which were actually checked. I picked her up on the Saturday night (sha-la-lala-lee), a masked man on the platform waiting for the arrival of his long-lost daughter. I watched her climb down from the carriage like some modern-day Anna Karenina, weighed down with bags and portfolio. On the journey home, she tucked into some aubergine fritters that her mother had prepared for her earlier. There was no one and nothing on the road, giving the floodlit chateau above Turenne a spooky, spectral quality.  

A few mornings after her return, I awoke early with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The early results were coming in from across the Atlantic on the Good Wife's phone. Biden was ahead, but Trump had taken Florida already. History suggested that he who takes Florida takes America – most notably, I guess, when that other dangerous chump, George W. Bush, swindled Al Gore out of the presidency. So I spent the day with my head buried in the sand, grumpy and demoralised, facing up to the prospect of four more years of a deranged madman.

But my daughter, God bless her youthful optimism, kept at it, determined that the news should be ultimately good. All through the day and the next day and then the day after that, she brought the good news from Ghent to Aix as it dribbled in on her phone. Good news from Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia, Philadelphia... No one in this household – and I suspect no one in the whole of France – understands the obscure antiquated nonsense of electoral colleges, but we all appreciated how many seats it took to win the election. If and when the sociopathic golfer finally trumps off back to his dysfunctional homestead in Florida or wherever, then another old man with dubious hair can move into the White House and try to clean up the almighty mess left behind. But more importantly, he'll have a dynamic individual – a woman at last, and a dark-skinned one at that – to help him.

However, it's sobering to realise that 70 million supposedly God-fearing Americans were prepared to cast their vote for a womanising, tax-cheating criminal with the morals of a guttersnipe. That's one hell of a lot of the kind of self-interested, moronic individuals who probably don't even notice let alone care that their flaxen-haired leader spells 'polls' in his bilious tweets 'poles'. That's 70 million people who will never change their ways nor surrender their assault weapons in the face of everything that has to be put right in the very limited time available. Can you imagine any of them trading in their gas-guzzler for an electric vehicle or giving up Nutella for the sake of the Indonesian rain forest or swapping their Big Mac for a veggie burger? No, neither can I.

Joe Biden seems like a reasonable human being, although it's quite beyond me that anyone his age would want to go jetting off around the world in a face mask for high-level talks. He's been in a politics for a long, long time, so he must be very ambitious. Ambition is a strange thing. Some people are consumed by it for most of their lives, and would be lost without it. Our own current president is a patently ambitious man, which doesn't endear him to the French electorate – but then they never like their presidents once they elect them. God knows, the little squirt is far from perfect, but I was very gladdened to read that he is very keen on criminalising ecocide. In other words, men like Trump and Bolsonaro would be accountable for their crimes against nature. So let's hear it for Pres Macron. 

As for your foreign correspondent here, I was quietly ambitious when I was a younger man, but then I quietly lost most of it and I have to say I'm happier to be largely devoid of it. OK, I'd still like to stumble upon a stash of original Blue Note records at a modest price and I'm looking for some Britains Ltd. mounted Indians of the Swoppet variety to make the Native American encampment on my desk complete. Nostalgia seems to have replaced ambition, but I can reflect on that.

Fortunately, the president elect seems to be rather more forward-thinking. He's big on renewables, which is a good thing. A Green New Deal, if it's half as good as FDR's original programme of public work, is a fine notion. He'll have to get the Big Idea of course through Congress and the Senate, which are half-populated by representatives of the 70 million voters that cannot be serious, but I'm told that he's good at brokering deals. He was, for example, a key player in the Good Friday agreement, dear to my heart as an honorary Norn Irishman.   

For now, though, there are more pressing concerns than climate and elections. Now that our daughter is back in the household for the duration, we will be talked into certain home improvements. With her own big ideas and her designer's eye for colour, there are some aesthetic transformations to effect – mainly with paint and rather expensive paint at that. I'm prepared to go along with it, to a degree, secure in the knowledge that one day she can apply some of her more lavish ideas in a place of her own.

But of course that means finding a job, and I recognise how virtually impossible it must be to land anything of note in the current state of affairs. It will require ambition and drive on my daughter's part to get to where she wants to go. Good luck to the girl, because she's half-full of my genes (of the loose-fitting, sloppy kind). Still, she's also half-full of her mother's, so one has to hope – and there's a glimmer of it now that a decent human being is in charge of the 'free world'.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

October: Under the Volcanoes


Clickety-click, sixty six. My recent birthday was marked by the state. Officially old, I received my first payment of UK state pension. The five hundred quid or so a month will come in very handy, at least until hyper-inflation erodes its value. But for now I'm celebrating my OAP status.

I'm officially allowed now to indulge in nostalgic programmes on the box. The Good Wife and I have been watching a series of programmes on Sunday evenings in which the original Lovely Man, Michael Palin, looks back on his epic series of travel programmes from the end of the last century. This last Sunday, we watched footage of some of the teeming hellholes of the Pacific Rim: places that no sensible human being would ever wish to visit  – Vladivostok, Seoul, Bogota and such like. We both admitted to sadness in seeing how dear Michael has become an old man. He was born during the 2nd world war in Ranmoor, Sheffield, where I used to work for a few years, so it's hardly surprising. At least, we comforted ourselves, he's had an incredibly rich and fulfilling – and privileged – life.

We talked about the accident of birth that has governed our own privileged lives in the West, where you don't have to walk miles for clean drinking water or fight every day for survival. My dear idealistic, optimistic wife puts it down to karma, but I put it down to pure good luck. If it were karma, I argue, how come there are so many bad mothers (shut yo mouth!) sharing this happy space? For example... our Grand Designs programme was aired again recently. I know because I generally receive a clutch of charming e-mails from around the world. This time I got an e-mail from some loathsome crackpot threatening to spread the word about me on the dark net unless I put some bitcoins in his virtual wallet. Since I haven't been visiting call-girls in Martel or desperate housewives in Brive, I figured I'd ignore it.

But that's the kind of thing you're up against these days. Thus we owe it to ourselves to enjoy our good fortune while we can. So we went away for the first weekend of the month ostensibly to celebrate my birthday with friends, but in reality to give our dogs what we term a Holly-day, in honour of their pampered beast. We went to the wild and windswept Massif Central and unfortunately it coincided with a big storm that blew in from the Atlantic and wrought some kind of devastation on south-east France and north-west Italy. I love the untamed beauty of this country's granite heart. I feel a certain affinity with it, perhaps because it reminds me of places beloved of memory – like the Mountains of Mourne and the Peak District.

In fact, the weather was quite kind to us given the general meteorological perturbation. We went with long walks in mind and were able to carry out our mission on each of the three days away. On the Friday morning, we left in beastly conditions. Our friends the Thompsons took the easy route on the A89, while the intrepid Sampsons pottered across the byways of the Cantal. When we arrived at our initial rendez-vous – the curious town of La Bourboule, a remnant of the belle époque, when visitors came to gamble and take the waters – and Daphne spotted Sophie outside our car, she almost burst a blood vessel with excitement. In the lee of the Puy de Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif, and a mere hike from the source of the Dordogne, we drove on over a mountain, with the road pegged on either side by markers to guide motorists through winter snowstorms, to Chambon-sur-Lac. The blinding rain had eased to a very light drizzle and we were able to walk, unmasked or unleashed, around the perimeter of the volcanic lake, almost 3,000 feet above sea level.

On the next leg of our journey, we stopped off for a (masked) tour of the ruined Château de Murol, a mighty 12th century strategic pile built on an outcrop of basalt. It once belonged to the d'Estaing family, whose descendant, Giscard, bequeathed the magnificent A75 motorway to the nation, but fell into ruin and disrepair until rescued by the commune below and converted into a profitable tourist attraction. We all felt that the €15 entrance fee was a bit steep until we'd done the tour. There is no son-et-lumière in this season, nor Strictly Come Jousting in the arena between the inner and outer walls, but the exhibits were tastefully done and the view from the ramparts was sublime: across the valley to the Puy de Sancy and way out westwards to the A75 and our destination for two nights – although maybe not quite as sublime as the view on the return leg, dropping down from the mountains to see the chateau below us sitting atop its mound, briefly bathed in bright sunlight.

We drove on through geographic brand-names like Saint-Nectaire and Perrier to our destination just the other side of the market town of Issoire and the A75 that flanks it. One of the Puy de Dôme's plus beaux villages de France, Usson is built up and around a volcanic plug, topped by a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary and a view across the plain to the uplands we had just crossed. The Good Wife had sourced an Airbnb for us, the last house in the village before the virgin. Built on three levels, and tastefully refurbished by our host, an artist and photographer, the two bedrooms – above and beneath the living area – afforded panoramic views of the outlined mountains and, once darkness had fallen, the winking red lights of a cluster of wind turbines. Maybe it was their electrical pulses that woke us in the middle of the first night, or maybe it was the 5G satellites, or maybe it was simply the champagne with which we had toasted my 66 years and our 25 years in France.

The weather relented the following day, long enough to grant us a three-hour walk around the base of the village that left me feeling my age. On the cruel climb homeward, we skirted the remnants of the old chateau, demolished by order of Cardinal Richelieu, that once kept the (in)famous La Reine Margot a virtual prisoner for almost 20 years when she was at loggerheads with her equally (in)famous husband, Henry IV. I first found out about this intriguing couple during a weekend assignment in Pau for France Magazine, so it felt appropriate to pitch the editor an article idea on our return. Reader, I nailed it.

Our return trip was by way of a somewhat wild walk around the mysterious Lac Pavin. Nestling in a volcanic crater roughly half-way between the ski resorts of Besse and Super Besse (whose name always reminds me of some feminist avenging angel, visiting her own brand of justice on the arch villains of Gotham City), the lake sits at an even higher altitude than Chambon. One of several legends attached to the deepest lake in the Auvergne suggests that its depth is unfathomable. Unusually, it neither feeds nor is fed by a river or other kind of water source. There's an ugly municipal building by the car park that normally houses café/restaurant, holiday flats and public loos, but everything looked shut and abandoned – as if some apocalyptic pandemic had swept through it.

Discretion this time being the better part of valour, we took the motorway home after splitting up. Brief rays of sunshine aside, we were almost swept away by the wind and the torrential rain, but things quietened a little on the familiar road from Tulle to home. Being a fully-fledged pensioner now, the prospect of an early night in our comfortable bed filled me with the joys of my station in life. Sloping off to bed without guilt at the earliest opportunity is one of the true compensations of getting old. I hope to receive my second bank transfer from the British government at the beginning of next month. Then I'll know that it wasn't a flash in the pan, that I can really settle down to a semi-subsidised old age.