After roughly fifty cheeses, it seems that my days as a columnist are numbered. France Magazine has been swallowed up by a rival publication and I doubt whether there will be room for my three hundred monthly words on the subject of a French cheese. Like wine-tasting, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find new ways of describing the subtle fruity or not-so-subtle salty notes of the cheese in question, so maybe my time was more or less up – particularly as I had just about exhausted the selection of my friendly neighbourhood cheese van at the Saturday-morning market in Martel.
I could, I suppose, attempt to negotiate with the new editor and perhaps even work out a deal for more column inches for a bit more money, but it takes a lot of time and effort to build a relationship with an editor and, at my time of life, I'm not sure that I can be bothered. I'm on a stipend from the British government now and, frankly my dear, my fee was fairly derisory. Nevertheless, I shall miss our family tastings: gathered around the table to mull the cheese over, identify the smells and flavours, and grade its strength on the 'Robustometer' from one to ten. It taught us all truly to appreciate the difference between a cheese produced by a small farmhouse fromagerie or co-operative and the equivalent industrial version sold in supermarkets.
As a five-year old in a sedate North London suburb, or whenever it was that I tasted my first Cheddar, I never imagined that one day I would become sufficiently knowledgeable to write about a dairy product. It just goes to show. I was planning to build on my unforeseen success by proposing a monthly column on francophone music from around the world – a subject in which I am rather more invested – because I had that kind of relationship with my editor: I could pitch ideas to her without feeling guilty about wasting her valuable time, secure in the knowledge that she would take it seriously enough to read it and reply, rather than parking it in a slush folder and forgetting about it.
Ah well; so it goes, to use the immortal phrase of Kurt Vonnegut. No use crying over discarded rind. Maybe I won't miss the extra seventy-five quid per month, even with the price of everything from diesel to crisps 'gettin' higher and higher', as Toots growled on 'Time Tough'. I suspect that they're going to get tougher and tougher, with a knock-on effect on everything from social unrest and crime to deforestation and wildlife trafficking. It's not a pretty prospect. Last week, a friend and I discussed a potential positive repercussion of tough times: that we might be entering an era of thrift as opposed to consumption and waste. The one thing my thrifty mother prepared me for in life was a regimen of thrift. I'm quite comfortable with the idea of saving yet more elastic bands, paper bags and jars for storage.
While my status as a columnist is in the balance, I am now – for the first time in my life – a committee member, which means that I can bring to the round table my wealth of experience in... um, French cheese. It's some kind of cultural committee, although the first meeting last Friday disavowed me of any misguided notion I had of helping to influence cultural policy in these parts. I had this vague idea that I might be able to use my music publicity contacts to organise some world-music concert in the market place in Martel.
Thinking, therefore, that I ought to make my presence felt, I wore the new Paul Smith jacket that I found last week for eight euros in the Emmaüs bazaar for the poor and thrifty. Actually, aforementioned friend found it for me, as I was busy searching among the piles of Nana Mouskouri records for treasure in the music room. The jacket was far too small for him, but it fits me like a glove. He found himself a couple of shirts and I found an un-played copy of George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh, so we were both happy bunnies.
Any self-confidence that the jacket might have lent me was quickly dispelled. Our mayor had lent the commune's salle polyvalente for the evening and the place was full of strangers. This presents the dilemma of propriety: to quietly take a seat or shake hands with each committee member present? Since the mayor was there and I was duty-bound to shake his hand, I felt I ought to go around the room and shake everyone's hand, based on a similar logic to one employed decades ago when I deposited our tiny daughter at the école maternelle one morning. Since I'd kissed our friend the teacher, who lived in our village, I felt it would be churlish to exclude a bevy of young mothers at the gate, so I gave them all the customary peck on each cheek. They were probably as perplexed as I was embarrassed when I thought about what I had done later that day. Emotion recollected in a lack of tranquillity.
I found a seat a little removed from my fellow committee members. The young and personable mayor of St. Michel de Bannières distributed a raft of papers to each of us. But I spent so long trying to figure out what they all meant that the meeting just about passed me by. This much I gathered, however: we were there as representatives of the various communes in the canton – a collection of communes for administrative purposes (I think) – to allocate a limited amount of funds made available by the department of the Lot for local cultural events to a number of associations that had put forward proposals and demands for sums of money bearing little resemblance to the actual budget available. Little chance, in other words, of being able to organise a concert of world music in Martel's market place.
Since the mayor-chair was so efficient and so apparently invested in the activity, all I had to do finally was wear my glasses, pretend to study and assess the inexplicable figures before me in a thoughtful manner, and nod or shake my head based on her suggestions and the consensus of opinion in the room. Thus the meeting went remarkably painlessly and quickly, given that it was a French meeting in France, where meetings are characterised by endless discussion and bickering even after a decision has been reached.
I would have believed myself entirely supernumerary had I not learnt during the round-table introductions that my name hadn't been picked out of a hat, but had been put forward by our mayor. So I felt flattered, chuffed and even a little touched. So much so that, after the event and after we had chosen an item from among the departmental promotional gifts on offer – I selected a cheese board in the shape of a parallelogram, bearing the contentious new strap line Oh my Lot! – I stayed behind to help the mayor put away the chairs and tables and pull down the blinds of the salle. Ever the school swot!
The next meeting of the committee will be in September, when (I believe) we shall be assessing another tranche of proposals hoping for money from an ever-decreasing budget. Next time I'll know that I probably won't need to wear my Paul Smith jacket; that I won't need to shake everybody's hand because we'll be embarking on a new round of Covid restrictions; and that I might be able to score a departmental mug. With the end of my cheese column in sight, I decided to give the hand-crafted board to my daughter in recognition of her contributions to the in-house cheese committee. Nutty? Fruity? A hint of the cowshed or pasture? 5 or 6 out of 10 for cheesiness?