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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

September: A Wee Trip

It was ever thus before the birth of The Daughter and, now that she's flown the nest, we are reverting to type by taking our annual holiday in September. It seems apt now that we're in the late summer of our days. 

There are fewer white touring Plastic Fantastics on the roads of Ireland than there are in France, but then the weather's less inviting. We went on holiday with low expectations in that respect. The Good Wife's all-seeing phone suggested rain, rain and more rain. It was raining when we arrived late in the evening at Cork airport and it was raining spitefully the next day when we drove to Dingle on the first leg of our Tour d'Irelande. We picked up a pair of bedraggled young Finnish hitchhikers at Killarney, who'd missed by a minute their bus to Dingle. When we dropped them off in the town centre, we imagined their day and felt rather apologetic (although Finnish summers apparently also leave much to be desired).

The rain cleared overnight, giving us the mountains of Kerry with our breakfast at Mrs. O'Whatsit's guest house. She persuaded us to drive around the stunning headland as a prologue to our epic haul to Donegal. The sun stayed with us off and on for the 400 kilometres or so to the wild north west. Since we had little time or desire to visit the latest bizarre tourist attraction of 'Famine Cottages', there was nothing much to see inland until Sligo. There the table-top mountain of Benbulben dominates 'Yeats Country', as featured in the second film of Michael McDonagh's 'suicide trilogy', the bleakly bleak Calvary

It then rained bitterly the day after our overnight stay in Ardara, County Donegal, in one of the tiniest rooms ever offered for Air B&B. I spent a holiday near there as a child, when I ate myself to a standstill in a hotel that burnt down a few years back. In the rain, the beach did not look as inviting as I remembered, and banal new bungalows now pimple the erstwhile virgin land. Clearly the Irish and/or the Americans have discovered Donegal since the so-called Celtic Tiger sprung briefly into life during the '90s. 

Beautiful as the coast is, driving across the barren windswept heartland of the county made me wonder why anyone would choose to settle there – but hey, each to his or her own. In Letterkenny we stopped for a half-way decent coffee in a café decorated throughout in apophthegms. Many a maxim makes Mark a muddled man. One thought for the day is OK, but 60 more will only bore. Quite a few were jokey sentiments about the uselessness of husbands. My wife, who tends to stand up for men (sweet innocent that she is), observed that had they been derogatory comments about women, the perpetrators would have been dragged off by the thought-police. On leaving, I asked the woman at the counter roughly how long it was to Derry. 'Oh, about 40 minutes. Is that OK for you?' On the road to Derry, we speculated about what she could have done for us had it not been.

From (London)derry, we pushed on, ever onwards, to the north coast. In Coleraine, it was surprising after so long in France to see school children in uniform. Just another reason perhaps for feeling instantly at home again, even though I only spent 12 years of my life in the province. Roots I guess are what make people return to, say, the inhospitable heartland of Donegal. Roots are what stir your emotions for no sensible reason. Walking along the great sweeping strand at Portstewart, with the dunes to our left and the north Atlantic to our right and far off in the distance obscured by drizzle, Malin Head, Ireland's most northerly point, it was all I could do to stop myself from skipping like a wee child across the sand.

And it's the roots that make you want to hug your host for the night for lighting a wood fire, showing off his rock-solid triceps from 'years of lifting beer kegs', giving us the run of his extensive bungalow and generally reminding you of just how welcoming, big-hearted, voluble and funny the Norn Irish people are. Nothing was too much trouble for Michael, a big softly-spoken man who re-acquainted me with some of the indigenous grammatical quirks: 'Now go youse to the end of the road and turn right onto the main road. Then go youse straight over the wee roundabout and keep going straight, straight, straight till youse see a Tesco there on your right. D'youse know Tesco?' 

We knew indeed Tesco, even though the supermarket hadn't penetrated this far in my day. At Michael's insistence we picked some pink ladies off his apple tree to take with us the next day for our trip along the north coast. And behold, they were as good as yer man proclaimed. Behold, too, the coast was every bit as beautiful as they say: the White Rocks, White Park Bay, the miniature harbour at Balintoy, the ruined castle at Dunluce hanging on precariously to the edge of the cliff... If anything, the miraculous Giant's Causeway was the biggest disappointment – simply because of the number of tourists swarming over the pillars of basalt. When I went there for the first time around 30 years ago, I was about the only person there and this wonder of the world exuded the kind of mysterious power diluted this time by so many people. A young married couple posed for the telephoto lens of a photographer, striking the kind of Hello! attitudes that would register their brief time in the limelight and leave us with a sickly taste of Facebook. 

The tourism stats have been boosted by visitors from all over the world, come to see the locations for Game of Thrones. At Cushendun, another family holiday destination back in the '60s, we stumbled upon some caves that were apparently used in episode x of season y. Tourism has even transformed Belfast – where dozens of gigantic cruise ships tie up annually in order to visit the Titanic museum. Buses and taxis take you to see the ironically-named Peace Wall, as if a relic of a past that's ancient history now. But is it? Catholics and Prods probably mix more these days, but it was an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu I felt while driving down the glorious Antrim Coast Road to pass through villages bedecked by flags flying the red hand of Ulster. Ireland has become a modern European nation in the decades since the Troubles. The omnipotence of the Catholic church has dissipated. Even if the south really wanted a united Ireland, the hard-liners in the north would have nothing much to fear today. I had hoped that they might have grown up and put away their foolish Orange regalia, but I fear not. 

Nevertheless, Belfast has changed out of all recognition from the time when we teenagers used to queue up to be frisked by the army at the turnstiles that cordoned off the city centre. It's a lively, swinging urban affair these days. Even the drab little family-run hotel where we spent our first six weeks or so in a new city in the winter of 1961 has been transformed into something bigger and grander. Reputedly the food's good, too. They probably serve something other than meat, cabbage and potatoes now.

We parked opposite in the drizzle for a look at our last house in the city. It has been joined at the hip with the house next door to create a crèche for wee babs. Their strap line states Happy memories of childhood, which was too delicious to miss the opportunity for one of those awful posed photies that should probably end up in the Delete bin. We walked down to my old school, there on its little hill – or monticulo in Latin, according to the fairly absurd school song that we would sing with gusto on public occasions.

After wandering around the Botanic Gardens, inspecting the refurbished hot houses and browsing a fascinating photographic exhibition of The Troubles in the Ulster Museum, our friend Joan drove us through the city centre to the Titanic area. Once it thronged with Harland & Wolff ship-builders; now it throngs with visitors. Time being tight, we decided to forego the attraction, instead visiting the Dock Café for tea and cakes. It has survived for six years as an 'honesty café', where you can spend a whole afternoon if you wish on an old sofa with your laptop and pay what you feel the refreshments are worth. On the whole, Belfast people are kind, honest folk. 

That night at our friend's family farmhouse, we went out with a night camera to watch for badgers by the set in their wood. One or two beautiful creatures duly obliged soon after dark, but they knew only too well that we were there. They didn't perform for the camera, so we were only too happy to leave them to the nocturnal cold and retreat indoors to watch the first half of our host's favourite film, the suitably madcap Hotel Splendide.

We left the North after breakfast the next morning, driving the surprisingly empty arterial road down to Dublin. Somewhere around the now indiscernible border, we passed the Belfast-to-Dublin 'express' train. What will they do once our moronic politicians go ahead with their suicidal Brexit? Will they stop the trains so that armed officials can climb on board to check the passengers' passports? And will they pull over tractors on the lanes in Tyrone and Fermanagh that wind back and forth between the two nations? 

The M50 that now by-passes Dublin resembles a second-cousin-once-removed to London's M25, but otherwise the journey all the way down to West Cork was long and tedious but easy enough. We spent our last three nights with friends who once ran a gallery in this part of France and now live in a house by the water's edge at the end of a narrow winding lane that menaced the paintwork of our hire-car. The weather was surprisingly benign despite ominous warnings of a full-throttle storm coming in off the Atlantic. Our hosts – like many of the local fish and farming folk – seized the opportunity to bring their boats in for the winter. We witnessed the tricky business of steering a craft onto a tractor-driven trailer early Saturday morning. The Good Wife, it transpires, has always dreamt of having a little vessel. Me, I'm not so keen.

The wind, more of a harbinger than the actual tempête that struck a few days later when we were tucked up tight once more in our own home, turned frisky on returning the car at Cork airport. No scratches this time, mum! Even so, they find a way to add a surcharge or two. On this occasion, it was the second driver whom I had assumed was covered. Never mind, it's the nature of holidays to bleed you dry. The flight was only mildly delayed by the wind and when we swooped down on Bordeaux, lit up like a vast printed circuit board as we banked steeply from the Atlantic coast, it was still 27 degrees at 9pm, a good 13 degrees or so warmer than the mean Irish temperature.

We both loved Ireland and the Irish. If ever circumstances and resources permit, we shall consider spending August there, when it's unconscionably hot in south-west France: two weeks near Balintoy or Cushendall perhaps and two weeks in West Cork. They say that the older you get, the more nostalgic you also get. I'll be zipping up my boots and going back to my roots more frequently now for a dose of the craic.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August: Back to Bales

Has you ever bin bit by a bee? No, but I've been stung by a hornet. Actually, it was the Good Wife who was stung. Twice on one arm. The hornet in question managed to attach itself to her dress as she was trying to usher it outside after our dinner guests had departed. I was in the kitchen at the time, washing up the mountain of dinnerly detritus, when Debs cried out in shock, 'God, I'm burning!' She half-screamed when the insect struck a second time in the bedroom. I managed to brush it off and then usher it towards the open door. 

When we got to bed, she was already in real pain. Even cider vinegar, the sine qua non of wasp attacks, didn't help. With no Paracetamol in the bathroom cupboard, and little relief from her trustiest of essential oils, all she could do was put some ice-packs around the two clearly visible stings and wrap her arm in a wet drying-up cloth. She didn't get a moment's sleep all night because she was in such pain. First thing the next morning, I went to the chemist in Martel to buy a pain killer. But it was only later in the day, after taking the homeopathic remedy prescribed by our local doctor, that the pain subsided and the itching took over as her arm swelled up like a sleeve.

It was the first time in 23 years that either of us had been stung by a frelon. Both of us had got a little blasé about these yellow-backed Lancaster bombers that occasionally fly inside the house for a brief but menacing tour of inspection before going on their way via an open door. They are supposed to be non-aggressive – unless you happen to be a bee – but we prefer not to take chances, especially since Daphne developed her masochistic taste for wasps. Presumably the equivalent of hot chillies, she seems to have been stung regularly. So we try to pre-empt an emergency trip to the vet by ridding the place of any bigger, perhaps more tempting, flying delicacies. 

You can't kill 'em either. It's maybe an old paisan's tale, but we've heard that if you kill a hornet, the pack will hunt you down and sting you to death. I can half-believe it. I remember in our old house being so freaked out by one of these virulent creatures that I had to go to bed. I was sitting at our dinner table late one evening. It was pitch black outside. The light must have attracted a particularly intimidating specimen that kept beating at the window like some vengeful figment of Edgar Allen Poe's imagination. It seemed to have my number and I was convinced that it would eventually find its way inside and seek me out. Exit man, pursued by a hornet.

Similarly, my wife convinced herself after the mugging that the creature was still there somewhere in the bedroom. It would strike again at any moment. I couldn't convince her that I was almost certain it had gone out through the open door. I woke up in the early hours and we put the light on. Sure enough, there it was in the folds of a red cushion on the chair. I picked up chair, cushion and malignant insect and threw the whole caboodle out onto the balcony. I found it, dead, the next morning. It had stung its last.

Hornets were the last thing on my mind when I went up to some friends' building site for the first spot of straw-bale building since assembling the walls of this house almost 15 years ago. Big D. and L. are building a sizeable house on the other side of the valley above the pretty red-stoned market town of Meyssac. I re-read my notes and skimmed through my many books on the business of building with bales, but 15 years is a long time in the aging process and I was being asked to supervise the team of helpers, who were pitching in for the sheer joy of doing something new and different. Fortunately, my trusty cohort, Bret, was there with me and just as I learnt to count on him here, I could also count on him there.

Nevertheless, it was quite a daunting experience. Responsibility weighs heavily on my frail shoulders. There was the camaraderie that comes from team-work to lighten the load, but it soon became clear that it wasn't going to be easy. A complicated double wooden frame – an internal one to support the roof and an external one to hold up the eaves – meant that virtually ever bale had to be cut – with a large, unguarded and dangerous disc cutter. What's more, the supposedly medium-density bales delivered proved about twice as compact as the ones we used here. They were heavy to lug around, unwieldy to put in place and extremely difficult to cut.

Quite apart from the tell-tale straw rash on my bare arms, I didn't feel good after the first day. The initial wall we had raised would never have passed the Kevin McCloud test. It was lumpy and bumpy and full of hollows and convex-acious protrusions. Preparation for rendering would be a long and arduous affair. The prescribed and elegant alternation of cut-side and folded-side rows had long been lost in translation. And I was responsible.
Straw bales, though, even the most compact ones, are nothing if not adaptable. We adapted our methods to our raw material and, by the time we called it a week, and by the time the four helpers had gone back to the UK, we had somehow managed to make better progress than I had initially bargained for. Nevertheless, I was glad when the walls were finally cloaked in tarps and left to settle: 15 years on, I realised that my body is not what it used to be. 

Over communal lunches, we spoke when we could bear it of the buffoons back home who are busy directing Britain down the nearest pan. Disaster looms large on every front: economic, social, political, you name it. Having watched a film called 'The Riot Club' and being reminded of the League of Appalling Old Etonians that runs the country, it doesn't surprise me that negotiations with Europe are getting nowhere fast. It will not end well and then we'll all be sorry. In opening Pandora's Box, the chinless Cameron may well end up tearing his beloved Tories apart. 

But let me end on a positive note for once. I read an article in the latest Songlines about the Trinidadian-born poet and musician, Anthony Joseph, one of my current main musical men. Reading his words made me feel as proud to be British as did the episode on our contribution to the Martin Scorsese-produced history of the Blues. My pride has nothing to do with the fact that we once annexed countries all over the globe for the biggest spotty empire you ever did see, nor the residual sense of self-importance that this still seems to bestow on certain compatriots, but the way that the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Pretty Things et al helped to resurrect the careers of Howlin' Wolf and other black originators of the genre, otherwise neglected and forgotten in their own country.

Here's what Anthony Joseph has to say about the immigrant experience. 'One of the most important things is the sense of inclusion that British people feel. There is nowhere else in Europe where black people have any positions of power, or where they feel really integrated into the society. But there's something about British liberalism, and it goes way back to what Englishness is based on, which is fairness. At the heart of what it means to be British is to be fair. If you do your work, you get paid for what you do, it doesn't matter where you come from, we'll let you in. That is for me what makes Britain attractive and interesting and beautiful. That is one of the things that has been helped by people from the Caribbean and all over the world coming here, forcing that change on people.'

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

July: My World Cup Overfloweth

All is well in my parallel world of sport, so I can forget about Trump and the melting ice caps, the starving polar bears and the Brexit May-hem for a little while and celebrate instead the triumph in the World Cup of my second country. On the day after the quatorze juillet, too. Any residual fireworks that evening were probably there to mark the winning of a football match rather than the storming of the Bastille. 

My first country remains England. We performed gallantly without ever showing enough creative class to suggest that we could reach the dizzy heights of Les Bleus. Essentially a team of journeymen, they showed plenty of spirit and can return home with their heads held high – for once. Being journeymen, they gelled more readily into a team, which is rather more than can be said for the collections of assorted stars over the last 50 years or so. Half a century of hurt and under-achievement. For the gelling, we have that nice Mr. Southgate to thank. Something of a spirited journeyman himself in his playing days, he had the good sense to recognise that we would go further with youth on our side, and the man-management skills to get them playing for each other and sort-of believing in themselves. He showed that there's nothing wrong with niceness in the context of competition if allied to (emotional) intelligence. I would advocate an MBE at least.

The last time we won it – in black and white – we had another manager who appeared to be nice (on the outside at least) and who succeeded in moulding a fairly unpromising and disparate bunch into a cohesive unit. We had a few stars – although Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and the unlucky Jimmy Greaves, were so down-to-earth and modest that they could never be mistaken for prima donnas – but the others would not have been everyone's first picks. Yet they worked so well as a team. There's a lesson there somewhere, but I think I was too young at the time to appreciate it.

I watched virtually all of the tournament on my grandparents' black-and-white television in their sitting room in Bath, where we would generally go for our summer holidays when we lived in Belfast. A long drive down from Liverpool that seemed twice as long because my father took the A-roads rather than the new motorway and drove at around 40mph in deference to my mother's nerves. With four fractious children in the back of his Cortina estate, that journey seemed like an eternity. Even with the current levels of traffic, you could probably do it today in about four hours. Under half the time. 

My dad watched some of the matches with me, but most of the time I watched alone. For the rest of the time, I was probably upstairs in my attic bedroom playing cricket matches on paper. I was quite a good cricketer and quite a good footballer, but always better in my head. With half a chance and a lot more self-confidence, I like to imagine I could have been a creative midfield genius, with an eye like Glenn Hoddle for the kind of telling pass that the current England team tended to eschew.

But back briefly to the heroes of '66, who achieved their apotheosis at Wembley on the very day that we drove back – for once via Holyhead, Dun Laoghaire and the Republic of Ireland – to Belfast. I forwent the pleasures of the Irish scenery sailing leisurely by and simulated sleep on the back seat for a chunk of the journey in an attempt to persuade my parents to let me stay up for Match of the Day to watch the highlights of the final. There were no VCRs in those days. Miss the match and you had to wait for the film version of England's route to Wembley to arrive at a cinema very near you. My parents weren't fooled, but they let me stay up. It was a special occasion.

Just how special we wouldn't realise until a few decades and a few penalty shoot-outs later. We're a little bit nearer to that elusive summit now, but it's still a long way off. We've reached base-camp now. More realistically, I think Her Majesty should commission Antony Gormley to erect a set of 11 sculptures on some high visible ground somewhere in the kingdom – maybe in the 'Northern Powerhouse' in honour of Ramon Wilson, Nobby Stiles and one-eyed Banksy. An eternal reminder of a time when England could prove to the rest of the world that we invented 'the beautiful game'.
In France, they've only had to wait 20 years for a repeat. They're momentarily on top of the world and, had I been a little younger, I might have taken the car out after the match and blown my horn around the neighbourhood. Even here in the heart of the country, we could hear the sound of distant claxons. And see some pretty, multi-coloured rockets descending on the meadows below.

In 1998, I watched the French team beat the Brazilians on home territory. Our telly then was linked only to a video player rather than to an aerial or satellite dish, so I watched in the company of the old woman who lived alone in the ugly house opposite us, which her recently deceased husband had built in the '50s. Being a polite young man in those days, I feigned patriotic support for our new country, whereas – being a football romantic – I was still a little in love with Brazil. Hardly Pele, Rivelino and Jairzinho, but they still played in those lovely blue, green and blue strips. Neymar, the petulant boy wonder who would spoil the party, was still a long way off. 

This time, though, I didn't have to feign support. All three of us watched the game side by side on the sofa and we all three jumped up and down with genuine glee every time France scored. You had to feel a little sorry for game but under-populated Croatia in their checked Harlequin-like shirts. Meanwhile, Djokovic the Serb, their bitter enemy perhaps, was re-discovering his mojo on Wimbledon's centre court. I would have liked Anderson to win, because he was the underdog and he has a rescued dog that he loves and he seems what the Spitting Image song denied was possible, 'a nice South African'.

And now it's all over. The tennis and football both. I don't watch much 'sacka', as the Americans call it, but I've been watching footie for a whole month. In this house at least, football's come home. What are we going to do without it? Normal service will be resumed. Back to Bargain Hunt? Never! I shall watch some stockpiled films instead. But this week at least, there's the British Open. Golf from Carnoustie. A 'demanding' golf course, it has been described. I can put my feet up for another four days – and enjoy the spectacle of American sportsmen toiling with Scottish weather conditions.
Sport, glorious sport!/What is there more handsome?

Friday, June 22, 2018

June: Retrospective

Reading Carlos Santana's entertaining autobiography, I realise now where it all went wrong. And when. It was a long, long time ago.

At my advanced time of life, I suppose you start to look back on your life and think, What have I done with my allotted time? In my case, it's a matter of rather too much of this and not enough of that. I've lived my life like a bumble bee, really, flitting from one flower that looks interesting to another that looks equally interesting.

The only thing that I can say in my defence is that at least it kept me out of the civil service for any longer than the 15 years in which I served Her Majesty's ministers. Time enough, and rather a shame that they were probably the best years of my life. Still, if I'd gone on to be a lifer, then I really would be in trouble now. Looking back on a life of files and folders stacked on my irredeemably untidy desk. How awful. I suppose the only succour would have been a rip-roaring send-off, a gold tray and an index-linked pension with which I could have enjoyed the fraction of life that's still hopefully left to me. 

I wonder how my brother feels. Apart from a spell as a waiter – the infamous epoch when he would keep his tips in a platform shoe that didn't fit him – he's been a plumber all his life. There's nothing at all wrong with being a plumber; they probably serve a far more useful function to society than I do as a well-read dilettante (or good-for-nothing misfit, if I'm being brutally honest). Even though his body is beginning to give up on him now and even though his mortgage was paid off many moons ago and financially he doesn't really have to, he still pushes himself hard. He tells me it's because he's just a guy who can't say no and there are too many clients out there who need him, but I suspect that he doesn't want to stop and look back at a life spent soldering pipes and installing bathrooms. He has measured out his life in grout and ceramic tiles and the knowledge must be somewhat unsettling. 

For all that they fear our father's death and a time when they cease to be, in their own eyes, 'useful', my sisters are all right because they both fulfilled a worthy biological function: giving birth to a pair of sons. I'm all for childlessness in this asphyxiated over-populated world, but you can't say fairer than enjoying the fruits of their offspring's loins and making the grade from motherhood to grandmother-hood. Life in the 'hood. Being a grandparent must be a handsome compensation for old age.

I remember all my grandparents with huge affection, but obviously feel special affinity now for my two grandfathers. Both were quiet, seemingly simple men of few words. They spent their working lives in offices. My maternal granddad was an auditor for the civil service who travelled around to check that HM's books had not been cooked. My paternal granddad was a company secretary. I haven't a clue what he did, but remember that he used to travel by train to Waterloo every day once they'd moved to the commuter belt. Both of them would surely have looked back on their working lives as time consumed with files and folders. I doubt, though, whether it would have filled them with the horror I would feel. Times were different then, expectations were more humdrum and neither of them suffered in the slightest from any kind of artistic yearning – although who knows? My maternal grandfather played the piano (rather woodenly) and my paternal grandfather sketched on occasions – but surely just to keep my artistic grandmother company.

Both were very good at pottering in their retirement. Inveterate potters or potterers, if such a word exists. Which brings me back to Carlos... For all his time as a disciple of Sri Chimnoy, the meaning of his life was really quite simple. He recognised in his late teens that he had to stop messing about and dedicate himself to one thing and one thing only. The guitar. He decided that he had to put his body and soul into it or he would get nowhere. Pottering wasn't for that hombre. And that's where I went wrong. Too many interests, too many distractions, too little self-belief, not enough output. 

When I listen to Carlos Santana take a guitar solo, I hear the result of that dedication. I hear what he calls the universal tone. That sense of a transcendent spirit gives me goose bumps (or the 'chicken skin' that he describes when listening to John Coltrane and other musical masters). It's rather too late to reach that kind of astral plane now. I know that the novelist Angus Wilson blossomed late in life – and I believe he might have been a civil servant – but such exemplars are few and far between. 

No, it's decision time – and do I not like decisions. I have to decide whether to go on striving or to accept that I missed the boat and just give in to my innate capacity for pottering. I have to say, it's very tempting. But will I allow myself to potter? If I give up any ambition to be a serious writer or a late-blooming radio DJ, I can't see myself as someone happy enough – like my grandfathers were – to spend his time either in an armchair or in the garden. Perhaps, like the actor James Cromwell, I should become a senior environmental activist. But then again, no. Insufficient courage allied to a conviction that it's a lost cause. 

Of course, any thought of pottering presupposes some kind of government subsidy. My application for French support is turning into a long-running saga without much prospect of resolution – rather like too many TV dramas that don't know when to stop, or the Jarndyce v Jarndyce legal stalemate in Bleak House. A new acronym has clambered out of the dense administrative woodwork. CICAS seems to be an organisation that comes under the umbrella of AGIRC et ARRCO. Please don't even ask. Suffice to say that they have sent me, not once but twice, an intimidating form – printed of course on one side of the paper only – to fill in. I was so intimidated by its initial appearance that I phoned up and made an appointment to see someone. They offered me a day next week. Then my mobile phone went off the other day and I spoke with someone intent on getting me to cancel the appointment. I said that I didn't quite understand what he was trying to tell me, whereupon he attempted to speak to me in English much poorer than my French. In the end, after many crossed wires, it transpired that I shouldn't have been sent this document because it was spewed out automatically by their computer. Because I was never truly salaried in France (despite the special agreement for writers), would I please return part of the form with big French words to this effect, plus signature and date?

I was only too happy to oblige. But then, a few days later, another copy of the monstrous document arrived, followed a few days after that by a letter acknowledging the cancellation of my appointment and a further document in a separate envelope – again printed on one side of the paper only – asking me to forward all kinds of documentary proof about my work situation. Then, soon after an e-mail to remind me of the appointment, another letter arrived to say that they couldn't continue with my demand because I was never salaried. Oh, the waste, the profligacy! It strikes me as a metaphor for the way our Great Global Leaders go about trying to reach some kind of decision about how to deal with factors that are anyway long beyond any retroactive concerted action.

Words fail me. So will you excuse me if I go outside and watch the bumble bees at work in our lavender bushes? The 21st June has just passed us by and we are now on a downward trajectory. It might brighten my mood if I study these endangered velvety little creatures busily going about their pre-destined toil, oblivious to the two-legged pottering giant, regarding at close quarters the way they move so contentedly from one flower to the next.