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.

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.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

May: A Lesson in French History

This month, oy bin learnin' all aboot French histree, see. Actually, it was the end of April, but since I seem to have spent the whole of May either mowing the lawn or re-writing gibberish for a client, please pardon my poetic license. I had a good dose of French history in 6th Form, specialising in the Revolution and then studying on up to the Dreyfus affair and the horrors of Verdun. But as for anything prior to the cake-eating and the Terror and the assassination of Marat in his bath, I knew of nothing more than Versailles and the massacre of the Huguenots. And as for post-Armageddon and Armistice, all those short-lived republics passed me by as I buried my head instead in the films, see, of Carné, Clouzot and Chabrol, and the novels of Camus.  

In the words of soul songstress, Jean Carn, 'I got some catchin' up to do...' And I caught up in Pau. Way down south in the Béarn, overlooked by the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees. A long coming we had of it, the Good Wife and I (riding shotgun with her camera for my magazine assignment). Four hours or so of dreary, expensive motorway. 

The Tourist Office lodged us for the Saturday night in a Best Western hotel, which didn't sound that exciting – and we had a hell of a job finding its subterranean garage, even with the aid of path-finding technology – but it turned swan-like into the old Continental: a magnificent belle époque hotel right slap bang in the middle of town. Our room was modernised, of course, but the lobby and corridors retained an air of what it must have been like in times more gracious than today. What with the whispering automated lift announcer, I could have danced the continental right down the length of the corridor to our fourth-floor bedroom.

Around that era, Pau was an important spa town. Word got out that the air was good for respiratory problems, and a wave of well-heeled Brits came here in the late 19th century to build the kind of so-Breeteesh mansions that the cheery driver of the little tourist train pointed out during the half-hour excursion. (A strange business, to ride in a train that doesn't run on rails.) Not that British, though, Debs and I concluded. More like British ex-pats' attempts to build in the vernacular. Not unlike today's reproductions in cement blocks of local Lotois houses with pigeon towers and gob-ons, they betray a lack of authenticity. If anything, they reminded us of scaled-down versions of palaces built by the mega rich of the Industrial Revolution in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Pau is now in the process of trying to reinvent itself as a centre for water sports and hi-tech boutique start-ups, and like those great houses facing the distant mountains, the city seemed on Day 1 – in the immortal words of Billy Liar – 'neither mickling nor muckling'. 

But then, on the Sunday morning, it all fell into place. The previous evening we'd walked down to the river and across the bridge to eat some of the best genuine Vietnamese food I for one have ever tasted, in a small but very busy little restaurant presided over by an overworked but remarkably good-tempered factotum. He seemed a little bemused when I showed him a copy of France Magazine that I'd been carrying around with me for just such an eventuality. Given the size of the establishment, I didn't have the gall to try and blag a free meal, so I simply suggested that I'd publish the details of his restaurant in the article. End of story. But not quite. He brought us a pot of Vietnamese tea after the meal. On the house. And when we were settling up at the counter, behind which two women continued to cook flat out in their woks, he presented us with a packet of said tea. 

On the way back, warmed by our host's touching gesture, the spectral faces of historical dignitaries projected onto the vast wall of the Château de Pau reminded us that this place was really important long before its late 19th century renaissance. It was the capital of the joint kingdom of Béarn and Navarre, whose most famous son would become the city's resident spirit: the man on the equestrian statue... good king Henri Quatre.

Next morning, it was fresher and more overcast than the previous scorcher. We waited in the courtyard of the chateau, surrounded by architectural opulence. A door opened and a woman stepped out. I thought of Dr. Prunesquallor's purblind sister, Irma, emerging from her Gormenghast apartment. Pure fantasy. The charming woman did not have rooms in the chateau. She was just a guide – but what a guide she turned out to be. She offered us our own personal tour, so she could practise an impeccable English she'd picked up from time spent in Milton Keynes. Of all places.

She took us into the old kitchens and there beganneth the lesson – in front of a model of the chateau and the old town that nestled around it. I'm a sucker for models; it must be something to do with my unquenched hankering as a boy for not just a train set (which I had), but a pâpier maché landscape through which to run it. I could have lingered long by the maquette, but there were extraordinary tapestries to see and a dining room with a table on a series of trestles long enough to run an Olympic sprint on its lacquered top, ante-rooms and royal bedrooms and voids between the original stone walls and the later wooden panelling that servants would use to effect magical appearances with goblets of claret and steaming dishes of roast swan. 

We even saw what I understood to be the legendary (giant) tortoise shell that served as the infant Henri's cradle. He was born a Catholic but raised a Protestant by his mother, which probably explained the pragmatism that characterised his reign. In order to assume the throne of France, he gave up his Huguenot faith (which almost got him massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day) to revert to Catholicism – but then threw in the Edict of Nantes as a sop to however many Huguenots survived the slaughter. The trouble was, for all his popularity (which seemed to stem from a genuine concern for his people – as typified by his wish that every peasant should have a chicken in his or her pot come Sunday lunchtime), he couldn't please all of the people all of the time and, after surviving previous assassination attempts, he was finally stabbed by the dagger of a fanatical Catholic named Ravaillac.

We saw his helmet with the white plumes – or panache (which gave me an aha! moment) – that was depicted in paintings as well as all those equestrian statues. In one such painting, yer man – le vert gallant or Green Gallant – with the panache is seen on horseback underneath the balcony of one of his many mistresses. Our guide told us of another popular legend, that Henri Quatre had 'a bone for his sex', as she so sweetly put it. In other words, he couldn't keep his pistol in his 16th century equivalent of a pocket.

The legend lived on in the popular imagination. He sits today astride his horse on the Pont Neuf in Paris (having been pushed off it during the Revolution), and when the Bourbons were restored after the fall of the house of Bonaparte, Louis-Philippe and co. created something of a cult around the first of their kind. Part of which, if I got my facts right, were the home improvements at Pau, which turned a rather monotone medieval chateau into the fascinating bastardised chateau-of-many-styles that it has become.

And so endeth the lesson. Let us now praise famous men. We returned whence we came after a quick visit to the new centre of water sports, where the sportier aquatic Palois were paddling for all their worth around a series of hurdles suspended from rails that bridged the water, while the more bourgeois and leisured Palois surveyed them from the centre's chi-chi restaurant. Yes, Pau is reinventing itself. Kayaking schmayaking, personally. Being a history man at heart (and a poor swimmer), I'm more attracted to its past.