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.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

August: Mighty Maximus

We don't get many visitors from across the water these days, winter, summer, autumn or spring. Perhaps custom has staled our finite variety. Perhaps the hellish heat of July and August has understandably put people off. Or maybe friends and family of our vintage are simply too busy fulfilling their new-found grandparental duties – something which we haven't (yet) experienced. So, it's just the two of us, as Bill Withers once sang. (Bill's dead now, but his music lives on. Still Bill, it strikes me.)

However, we do have an intermittent visitor in the field up the road near the communal bins. Maximus is a monumental horse. We gave him that name because he's a big boy in every eye-watering sense of the word. For a while, we thought that the sight of our blonde daughter was what excited him, but she's not here now, so it's more likely that it's fantasies of some golden sun-dappled mare as he nibbles on the blasted heath of his field. There can't be a single blade of nourishing grass left in the heat and dust of this parched summer. But at least he gets a bale of hay and a vat of water in the shade of the trees at one edge of his triangular field. Which is more than you can say for the poor creatures that seek shelter in the woods.

Maximus the mighty, or Max to his friends, is an Ardennais: a draft horse with an incredibly stocky body and thick legs given to pulling things like carriages. It's probably the breed they use in Perpignan for collecting household rubbish now that the town council has done away with their dustcarts in an effort to enhance their green credentials. He and his type no doubt resemble the horse that Harold Steptoe and his father kept in their yard for their rag-and-bone trade in Galton and Simpson's beloved sitcom. Hercules was his name.

Given the parlous state of the vegetation and Maximus' stoic solitude, we take him oddments from the fridge to supplement his diet. Carrots when they're in season and just recently the yellow variety of courgette. Or an occasional apple from one of our two undernourished trees, if I can find one that hasn't been hollowed out by insects or birds. He sees us coming and plods over wearily to say hello and find his reward. Both of us are still just a tad wary of horses – so much power in one mighty creature – but we know him so well now, we can get up close and personal without the slightest flinch. You can stroke his velvet-smooth, chestnut-coloured flanks and even nuzzle his huge head. The only irritation he ever seems to feel is with the flies that constantly bother him. Earlier in the summer, there were black clouds of the genus shite-hog, the type that invade your house and turn the kitchen into a germ zone. They seem to have flown off to die or propogate, and now it's another species, less numerous but given to stinging you, then coming back to sting you again.

When I contemplate his life and think about the suffering caused by heat, drought and flies, it prompts me to ask, What's it all about, Alfie? The three certainties of life on planet earth, according to T.S. Eliot anyway, are birth, copulation and death. I doubt whether Maximus remembers much about his birth and I'm not sure whether he knows much about his Ma and Pa. Perhaps it's the memories of the occasions when he's been lent or hired out to sire the next generation of Ardennais that get his giddy-goat, sex-wise. As for death, I'm almost certain that he won't be thinking about his mortality and what he's going to do with himself when he gets too old and weary to haul carriages and such like. He won't be worrying about how to make himself useful while he waits around for the curtain to fall. He won't be worrying about wars in Eastern Europe, rising inflation or the imminent collapse of the banking system.

In that respect, I suppose, he's quite a lucky big old horse. Nevertheless, his solitary existence does get you wondering whether there's any point to it all when push comes to shove. It's probably pointless even to try to figure out this conundrum at the core of life. Some people do extraordinary things as an ontological diversion, like the guy who was given the chance to take a penalty for his beloved Everton in a friendly match, as a reward for delivering essential supplies to the Ukraine in his own car. Others, like Keith Richards, whose mighty autobiography I was reading until recently, just immerse themselves in bouts of sheer hedonism. But most of us simply get on with the business of getting through life.

Of late, I've been focusing my thoughts on a strategy for staying sane and healthy in the extreme heat of a world warmed by roughly two centuries of the Industrial Revolution. As my Amerikanische Freund, Steve, pointed out at the weekend, temperatures in the 30s translate to the 90s in the old currency, while the late thirties and early forties – to which giddy heights the thermometer has risen frequently this summer – translate to a hundred plus. In Iraq they've been giving workers time off work because the temperature has nudged 50 degrees, for heaven's sake. When she was a little girl in Germany, the headmaster at Deborah's primary school used to announce 'Hitze frei!' (or heat break, I think) and they would all troop off home because the temperature in the classrooms was hitting maybe the mid twenties. That shows the progress we have made over the last five decades.

Anyway, after a month or more of practice, we've got it down to a fine routine. Up at six; open all doors and windows to cool the house; drop shutters and close doors at the back around nine, when the sun starts to radiate; close shutters and apertures around midday when the sun has moved to the front; work in the morning before the mezzanine becomes an inferno; hide in a darkened house for the entire afternoon before raising shutters and opening all apertures again around eight, when the sun's power has diminished. It's a peculiar thing, though, that our bedroom at the end of the house is the coolest place in the house for most of the day, but it becomes the warmest place at night. It doesn't stop me from enjoying a night's unconsciousness, a system re-boot, but it does alas disturb the Good Wife's sleep.

In the years to come, people might look back affectionately as a time when temperatures only reached 40 degrees. When we built our house, we projected that we might finish our days here. But we didn't factor in the heat. We've been discussing tactics like hanging lengths of sailcloth from the highest beams to provide an extra layer of protection from the sun. Anything, in fact, but air-conditioning, which is and will be contributing to further rises in temperature. Nevertheless, I see the writing on the front and rear wall. If there's any one thing that will prompt me, us, to plod off like Maximus for pastures new, it's the heat of things to come.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

July: Ms. Ann Thrope

At the back end of last month, just after the tropical heatwave that made it too hot to step out of doors between the hours of 11am and 7pm, I did a bit of proof-reading for a new friend in these parts, whose critical biography of Patricia Highsmith is soon to make the leap from hardback to paperback.

Some of my best films are adaptations of Patricia Highsmith novels: Hitchcock's
Strangers On A Train, with its wonderful opening shot (if I remember correctly) of a pair of co-respondent shoes walking along the platform of a railway station; Wenders' The American Friend, with its incomprehensible plot, a guest appearance by the American director Nick Ray, wearing an eye patch, and a customarily brilliant performance by the great German actor, Bruno Ganz; and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, with its cast of stars who looked so fresh and young back at the end of the last century: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law.
Nevertheless, I've never actually read one of her novels, even though one of my best friends has been collecting her first editions for years. Much of what I knew about the author came from a re-run a year or so ago on Sky Arts of The South Bank Show, in which Melvyn Bragg talked to someone with a brutal haircut, a smoking cigarette and the fixed look of a cross-patch.

What really roused my curiosity was her admission that, faced with the choice of rescuing a baby or a kitten in distress, she would choose the kitten over the babe. At the risk of losing hundreds or even thousands of followers, I confess that I might be tempted to do the same: not because I've got anything against babies, but more because – in spite of having parented one myself – I am not comfortable with having to deal with their distress. Apart from jouncing them (what a strange word that is, 'to jounce') gently in my arms and uttering a few soothing words, I haven't a clue what to do (to quote those monsters of glam-rock, Sweet). A kitten in my experience generally stops crying, whereas that's rarely the case with an infant – at least not in my arms.
So I was happy to offer to help someone trying to juggle two concurrent deadlines. My own deadline to send off my mother's memoir was well under control thanks to my daily anxiety list of to-dos, and I no longer have any monthly cheese pieces to constrain me now that France Magazine is sadly no more. So, if you can't find some time as a retired member of the community, then when can you?
Proof-reading entails a much closer read than the customary mind-wander or last-thing-at-night blurry-eyed semi-consciousness before the book crashes to the floor and wakes you with a start. Quite lidrally, you have to read every word, so I really found myself getting into the head of a woman who never seemed to get over an abnormal childhood during which she was re-housed for a year with her grandparents by her mother and stepfather. She and her mother 'enjoyed' the kind of long and intense love-hate relationship that made my own double-edged feelings about my own mother seem puerile. Her mother lived till she was 95: a long time to be torn by conflicting emotions.
Equally, it became apparent that her obvious misanthropy was bordering on sociopathic, even psychopathic. Anyone who could have come up with the kind of twisted plots that she managed, anyone who could have created in Tom Ripley the kind of evil yet curiously attractive anti-hero who seems to have served her as an alter-ego, has got to have had a screw or two loose. It didn't take a degree in psychiatry to realise that she was seriously disturbed.

I've long classified myself as a misanthrope – and am toying with the idea of changing my name by deed-poll to Ms. Ann Thrope (because the joke tickles me as much as losing the comma in 'here's your book, Mark') – since I hate the carnage and destruction wrought by humanity. During my lifetime, for example, I have seen the human population increase by however many billion it is, while the population of African elephants has decreased from millions to thousands. I yearn for it to be the other way round, but my wishes are as futile as Canute's attempt to hold back the tide while seated in a portable throne. Having lived three score years and getting on for ten now, I'm beginning to lose the will to plod on simply because the prospect of things getting even worse than they are now is too dispiriting. There's only so much comfort and compensation that literature, films, sport, music, friendship and good food can offer. 
Although I found that I could understand and even sympathise with Patricia Highsmith, I couldn't condone the appalling and positively perverted way, for example, that she treated her various partners throughout her life. In reading how she would constantly throw a psychological spanner in the works, I realised that my own misanthropy is mild in comparison – even if incurable. Unless it's some asshole in a pick-up truck driving either with a nasty bullying streak or blithe incomprehension so close to the boot of my car that he might as well open it up and jump in, my hatred is reserved for humanity as a faceless, seething whole: the demos that incapacitates the laudable notion of democracy. When it comes to individuals, whether friends or individuals who have been dealt a terrible hand by fate or circumstance (unless merited – as in the case of that tailgating tosspot in a pick-up truck) – I have every bit as much compassion as I do for the distressed kitten, and possibly more. So perhaps I should describe myself as a 'paradoxical misanthropist'.
In any case, as a perennial optimist, my wife doesn't understand me. Fortunately, her incomprehension doesn't stop her loving me for the miserable pessimist that I am. No doubt due to the trauma she suffered during her abnormal childhood, Patricia Highsmith was clearly incapable of conducting a long-term loving relationship with any one individual. No doubt, too, had she but metamorphosed into her creation of Tom Ripley, she would have found some twisted way to dispose of her several limited-term partners.

But don't let me put you off either her novels or Richard Bradford's fascinating and beautifully written profile. Like many sociopaths, Pat's life made for great reading. And, for all the fame and fortune that she garnered before dying of or with cancer, you can always read the book with a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that you're not burdened with either a head or a life like hers. Normality has its place.

Monday, June 20, 2022

June: In the Land of Plenty Plastic

During our recent trip to the Yuke, a religious zealot borrowed my little-used Facebook account to send messages of great joy to friends and contacts. I haven't yet seen the offending article, but I'm mystified by his or her faith in a Superior Being when the world He, She or It supposedly created is in such a permanent state of chassis, as Sean O'Casey's character was given to say.

In spite of the current chaos and crises, there was joy a-plenty during our absence from notre petit paradis. Only one argument in the car on the journey north to Dieppe: between Vierzon and Orléans; caused by my inability to remain silent in the face of my cherished co-driver's propensity to chase cars on the autoroute rather than to let 'em go and settle back at a steady, fuel-efficient pace. The car was laden, too, with our daughter's affairs (beautifully arranged, I must say, by my anally-retentive self, since few things please me more than efficient packing of a boot or a dishwasher).

On reaching my sister's house in Romsey many hours after our 5am departure, I then had to transfer the contents of the car to her garage prior to the pre-arranged pick-up by a man named Derek in a big colourful van for delivery to The Kid's new digs in Sarf London. She's just started working in a famous interior design shop in Fulham, where she's required to wear black. Shame that she got rid of all her black clothes from her teenage days, because she's spending her initial wages on a suitable new wardrobe. It won't be coming from Primark.

She looked lovely in red for my nephew's wedding on the Saturday, one of the objects of our visit. The Good Wife looked resplendent in yellow, an echo of her own wedding outfit that caused my mother-in-law such grief at the time. My own echo was even louder, as I wore the same suit, cleaned, pressed and repaired after my daughter used it for dressing up one day in our old house in the Corrèze. It fits me better than it did her at the time.

The wedding went off like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Even the rain that had been forecast for a fortnight held off and the sun emerged intermittently from behind a thick layer of cloud. The happy couple were wed in a beautiful village church with a wooden bell-tower. The jolly vicar arrived on a motorbike in the best modern tradition to officiate with enough jocularity to temper any underlying religious zeal. My wife sang out with such gusto that our daughter had a fit of the giggles. The bride is a twin and she was preceded down the aisle by her sister, dressed in a fetching powder-blue number. I admired the original choice of outfit until the true bride followed a few steps behind in regulation white with a long train that she subsequently pinned up behind her like a Victorian bustle for the reception.

My duty throughout was that of my ancient father's minder. Accustomed to doing most things (apart from driving) at speed, I had to adapt to the pace of a Galapagos tortoise for the rest of the day. Or most of it: After the canapés and drinks with accompaniment by Tilley's musical cousin Jess; after the group photographs; after the speeches (which he couldn't hear, although he did perk up when my nephew, the groom, mentioned his name); and after the meal in a marquee as big as a circus big-top, set up a stone's throw from the bucolic river Test, I drove him back to the quiet of his one-bedroom flat. On return, the party was in full swing. My nephew had paid for an open bar and my daughter and her cousin, re-united after pairing up many years before as young bridesmaids at another nephew's wedding, seemed apparently set on sampling everything on offer in an attempt to drink it dry.

The hired band opted for volume rather than clarity, which was a shame as they offered a repertoire of old soul hits. It didn't stop Zac, one of my younger great-nephews, demonstrating an extraordinary array of James Brown moves that had everyone marvelling at his energy if not his innate sense of rhythm.

Perhaps the band felt it had to play extra loud to compete with the national celebrations for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, or 'Plat-Jub' as it was dubbed. By Saturday night, they were dying down a little – at least in comparison to the previous day, when the bells of Romsey Abbey rang for four hours without a break for drinks. The sound of church bells conjures up emotions like euphoria and nostalgia, but when finally, mercifully, they stopped suddenly, the effect was like cutting the power to a pneumatic drill.

After all the euphoria, the news by text early the next morning that a dear old friend had died after her battle with cancer – and before The Dame could visit her in London, effectively to say goodbye – threw a cold, wet blanket over all that followed. Mother and daughter took the train to the metropolis on Monday, so one could start a new job while the other took the train to the damp north-west, there to sort out her mother's tax papers and find a foldable wheelchair for the poor old dear.

This left me to relieve my sisters – the younger one of whom called in sick with Covid on the Monday morning, which left me fretting that I might catch it again myself and thus fail the test for re-entry to France (while secretly rather gloating that she had succumbed after three vaccinations, having suffered her serious self-righteous wrath due to our non-conformist stance) – by spending some serious time with my own poor old dear. Despite a kiddie-sized fit of pique on the Sunday because the parents of the bride neglected to invite him to an impromptu post-wedding evening get-together, during which he drank all the gin miniatures he had traded for at our allocated table with the great nephews, my father is in truth neither emotionally nor actually poor. 

We spent much of our time together watching England and New Zealand play out a pair of gripping test matches. He invested in a Sky contract principally to watch Arsenal play football and England play cricket. It seems that now England are under new management, with a cavalier New Zealand coach and a cavalier new captain, the team is set on entertaining the public.

For the remaining time together, I walked him slowly, very slowly around town, cooked him meals and chatted to him about the past. As he approaches his 95th birthday, he seems as determined as an English cricketer to notch up the century. He's defied all the odds to get this far on heart medication and a fairly unsuitable diet, so he could make it. Equally, he's getting so breathless that he could keel over at any time. Either way, he's having a great knock, showing much of the old élan in the last five years in particular (since my mother packed her paints and her typewriter for her voyage to the Big Beyond).

Our bond, already strengthened by our shared love of music and sport, has been further tightened these last few months of working on my mother's memoir, Make Do And Mend. As each chapter rolls off the press, I've sent it to my father, traditionally not a reader, for comments and feedback. He's risen to the task, with helpful observations and even identification of errors and typos, which suggests that he reads the text quite closely. The task of knitting together the best bits from the various versions my mother left behind has given me a real insight into what shaped the character of someone who was fairly impossible to live with, and an understanding of what made her tick and why our relationship was so problematic. It's a sad irony that it took her death to open the channels of communication. If I believed in the afterlife, I would send her a message to tell her what a genuine talent she was with both brush and pen – and apologise for being so blasé as a youth.

She was, though, an exceptionally bad cook. Cooking proper meals for my father, who thankfully cooked in his time but now depends on salmon steaks from the freezer or cheese and crackers for supper, meant that I often had to nip into town for missing ingredients. Whether the Co-op or Aldi or Waitrose, it was even more evident than it is back home just how much plastic we consume. Everything, even supposedly fresh vegetables, either comes in a plastic container or swaddled in plastic. There's barely an alternative to be found. I took his waste to the communal recycle bin like a dutiful son, knowing damn well that any reassuring figures are massaged to omit the depressing fact that x% of the y% of 'recycled' plastic is sent to some country like Turkey to be dealt with however they see fit.

Being in England is initially thrilling for an exile, but ultimately dispiriting. You see the consumer society in its raw essence and realise that we're never going to change. Or, even if we can change our habits, the process of change will be far too slow to staunch the flow. The damage will have been completed. As usual, by the time we had to leave, we were itching to get out and get back home. There is something about a small market town in a privileged county like Hampshire that seems so divorced from reality, as if sealed in a protective layer of plastic Clingfilm.

We took and scanned our negative tests for legal re-entry to our adoptive country and jettisoned more unnecessary plastic. I packed the car once more with anal precision, hiding any purchases from the motherland in a manner that could be construed as casual rather than deliberate should we be stopped at Customs in Newhaven.

As it was, we slipped through without a hitch. Despite the customary anxieties I share with my mother, God rest her troubled soul, I wasn't frog-marched off to a lock-up to be shackled in chains and fined to within an inch of my life for bringing back five tins of Lakeland Paints' finest lime-wash – and one or two other items, including Sun Ra, a feline gargoyle made on commission by a close friend of my sister's for a pre-Covid birthday present, and a pile of books, CDs and records from the multitude of charity shops in Romsey. We even managed to sleep a few precious hours in our egregiously expensive cabin.

We were away and bound for Rouen and all points south by five in the morning. The journey south was a sheer delight; just like the old days, a time when we were bushy-tailed holidaymakers and full of Gallic promise. My speedy wife tried really, really hard to keep her foot light on the accelerator. There were no arguments. After two shifts of two hours each, we were home by two o'clock in the afternoon, very hot but neither shaken nor stirred; glad to be back home in a land where, I suspect, they consume less and recycle more plastic.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

May: Columns And Committees

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?