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.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

December: A Dog's Christmas in Cumbria

'A cold coming we had of it, /Just the worst time of the year /For a journey, and such a long journey...' Such a long, long journey. And like T.S. Eliot's Magi during their arduous journey, there were at times voices singing in my ears, saying that all this was folly.

All those kilometres at such a hard time of year for the sake of a mother-in-law and a dog. Christmas! it's over 800 kilometres to the Tunnel, then another 600 or so via England's teeming roads to the wild north-west frontier. It may be slightly shorter when you go via Paris rather than Rouen, but they drive like creatures possessed the nearer one gets to the capital and the traffic can grind to a standstill for no perceptible reason. There's nothing on the autoroute north of Rouen, so I stuck to my route-map.

Like those Magi, we came bearing gifts to mark the birth of a child in some far-off time in some far-off land – only we bore them by comfortable polluting car (with boot immaculately packed by my good self) rather than by 'sore-footed' camel. We had our own beast in the back: not of burden, but of leisure. Daphne sat strapped into the back seat, surveying the landscape and periodically grinding her teeth on a bone of rawhide. Not a curse nor a grumble did we hear from our indomitable dog of the meadow.

Normally, we would take the ferry at Dieppe or Le Havre (and I still find it hard to credit that we go au Havre according to the French language), thence to Newhaven or Portsmouth and on for an overnight stop with family near Southampton. We were, however, reluctant for our Terrierdor to experience the anxiety of sitting in an empty car among other empty cars on a crowded car-deck while the ship ploughed its way across the Channel.

And so we committed ourselves to the extra kilometres and the extra cost of an overnight stay on the way up and the way down. But what are time and money compared to the comfort and equanimity of a mutt? We would have paid for 'silken girls' to bring her sherbet had it been absolutely necessary, but the resistant rawhide treat proved just what the vet ordered.

It was our first Christmas abroad in 20 years or so and only the second time we have driven our car onto a transporter-train at Le Tunnel to be whisked in a trice under the sea and out the other end. But first there was the presentation of our passenger's passport at an office that hadn't even existed the first time, back when your animals were seized and locked up in quarantine for months at a stretch, without even time-off for good behaviour.

It went smoothly enough, but I was rendered anxious, 'galled' even, by a little barking dog that was tied up to the desk and apparently abandoned. It coloured my experience of the administrative process, as did Daphne's refusal to pee or poo to order in some dark corner of the car park. We even paraded her around a purpose-built paddock with artificial grass, prepared if necessary for the ordeal of pooper-scooping with a black plastic bag. But why of course would she stoop to such abnormal behaviour when it must have felt to her like she was padding on carpet?

Despite the dark and the rain at the other end, manfully I volunteered for the next leg of the journey. It was a matter of necessity – a matter, as Joseph Conrad might have put it, of immersing yourself in the 'destructive element' – because a refusal to get back on your bicycle after a spill is a recipe for phobia. The last time I'd driven in England, I'd been so traumatised by the sheer volume of traffic on the M6 that I now doubted my ability and courage to drive in the motherland.

I was wrong. Look mum, I can do it! After the first 20 miles or so of intense speeding traffic on the M20, the circulation returned to my bloodless knuckles. The M25 was easy-peasy all the way to the Dartford tunnel – for which I'd bought a one-way ticket thinking that the return across the bridge was free (in an era when nothing is free apart from the NHS and newspapers handed out at railway stations). At the Stanstead Services, where you could have reached out and touched the air traffic above, the Good Wife took over and took us to the Grantham Travel Lodge. There they like pets so much they charge you £20 for letting them sleep in your bedroom.

The following morning, I got up early to walk our doughty passenger around the darkened industrial park and the empty early-morning shopping centre that went by the name of Downtown. Cue Pet Clark, trigger pet's waterworks. There was even a bowel movement to report – on the hitherto unexplored grass behind our lodgings. What a good girl!

Later we mounted up, hollered our yee-hahs and took the car if not as far as Montana then all the way to Wetherby on the A1. Which offered further evidence that I could drive in England, even up a busy arterial road in daylight. The road that, before motorways, was once the most dangerous trunk road in the kingdom. Bathed in balmy wintry sunlight as far as the A66. as soon as we crossed the border into beautiful wild and windswept Cumbria, the rain came down like a Monsoon curtain. The North West welcomes careful amphibians.

Only 10 minutes from our destination, we ran into a very British traffic jam. The kind that goes absolutely nowhere for hours. It was, we surmised, either flooding on the road or an accident. So we followed some army boys from Pippin Fort and backed off the dual carriageway and down a slip-road in search of an alternative route to Appleby. Unfortunately, so did half the cars in Cumbria and the minor roads around those parts are barely wide enough for single-file tractors. There followed a nail-biting circuitous journey back to the A66 where, further on up the road, we discovered that the traffic was moving once more.

Thereafter, though, Christmas 2016 was characterised by a lack of incident. True, we couldn't find the little station, later that same day, when we went to pick up Tilley the Kid, who'd travelled north to join us by Megabus coach and via that most scenic of train journeys, from Leeds to Appleby-in-Westmoreland. So her eagerly anticipated mother-and-child reunion and (or maybe more pertinently, dog-and-child reunion) were tantalisingly delayed. True, too, that our pre-festive shop in Penrith was almost washed away by a deluge of Walt Disney dimensions. Otherwise, incident-free.

Because my mother-in-law now lives in a converted chapel no bigger than a shoebox, we rented for the week a cottage just a brisk windblown walk away across the Fells. Right next door to a working sheep-farm and hard up against the Fell-side, it was perfect for our needs. The Kid could comfortably sleep with Daphne in her room and there was a fully decorated tree in a sitting room that offered a view right across the Eden Valley (when weather permits visibility). It was a far cry from the 'villages dirty and charging high prices' that gave the Magi such a hard time of it.

There was even a hot-tub on the terrace outside the kitchen door – because apparently every cottage for hire should now have one if they want to compete for paying guests. Ah, there once was a time... Readers, we used it. Not once but thrice. And twice it triggered the strange sensation that comes from sitting in bubbling water waving at the gnome-like farmer next door as he roars past in his quad-bike. On the starry night after Boxing Day when we swapped a George Michael tribute for a quick nocturnal plunge, we discovered that night time is the right time for a hot tub.

Above all, our stone cottage afforded my wife the chance to re-discover her childhood roots. On with the waterproofs and off she would yomp across her beloved Pennines with our skittish dog, who needed no invitation to run off and inspect the odd cadaver of a sheep that had given up its relentless battle against the elements. Quite apart from giving her mother the kind of Christmas for which absence makes the heart grow fonder, this was I suspect the real reason we made the epic journey there and back. The Emily Brontë in her northern soul.

We wondered what Daphne made of this curious trip: into the car, out of the car; into one house, out of another. Through a tunnel darkly, not once but twice. All the way back, her view and our visibility were shrouded in thick stagnant fog. It was indeed 'the very dead of winter'. A hard home-coming we had of it, even on empty French roads. But there was Otis, waiting for us round midnight on the front porch. And there inside the house, his canine sparring partner found once more the familiar half-chewed wicker basket where she spends more than half of her life.

Oh! what joy it was to be home again and to climb once more into 'the world's most comfortable bed', as our PR company has labelled it. We slept the deep restorative sleep of Lethe. The river of forgetfulness. A hard going and returning in some respects, but we could rest now and be thankful. We had given an old woman the kind of Christmas that she has, reputedly, been yearning for. And we had given my hard-working wife the opportunity to walk the dog across her beloved untamed Fells.

Whether or not the dog felt that it was quite worth the disruption, however, remains to this day a mystery.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November: Heading South

We often find ourselves crossing the Massif Central at this time of year en route for the gentler climes of the Midi. Probably pure coincidence, and certainly nothing to do with migration, since we're committed to a genuine winter hereabouts, but maybe something to do with the end of autumn and the last chance to get away before hibernation. Given recent global events, it seemed particularly appropriate to flee and forget about things for a few days.

Two years ago, the Good Wife and I set off on the second part of what seemed like a Jules Verne-style adventure to drive and document La Méridienne: the amazing autoroute that roughly bisects the Massif on its way south from Clermont Ferrand to Beziers. It crosses some of the wildest, most dramatic countryside in the land, and, thanks to President Giscard d'Estaing's instinct for immortality (and apart from the toll over the Millau viaduct), you get to see it all for free.

Getting there is the only drag. We followed exactly the same route as we did two years ago – in roughly the same weather conditions: wild, windy and wet. Up to Gramat and across the causse to Figeac, and then down to and alongside the river Lot to the anomalous mining town of Decazeville, and then on through the Aveyron to Rodez and beyond.

Whereas our custom is to traverse all its roundabouts and leave Rodez perched on its hill, this time we decided to stop there and visit the new museum dedicated to one of its few famous offspring: the artist, Pierre Soulages. If there's any place in this beautiful part of the world less welcoming than Rodez, it's Rodez in the rain. Rather like Tulle, the capital of the Corrèze, but without its discreet charm, Rodez is heavy, sombre and more than a little oppressive. Not unlike the canvases of Pierre Soulages, in fact: an artist now in his 90s, whose palette is mainly black and the sickly brown of walnut stain.

Actually, we didn't get to visit the collection until the return leg. By the time we'd driven round and around trying to find a way into the tantalising car park, it was 11.30. No, a ticket to the museum would not entitle us to free parking, and no, the museum would not be open between 12 and 2pm. Screw that for a game of soldiers, we decided. Good old French public hospitality. So we followed up a look at the monumental cathedral with an exceptionally good snack lunch in the new Michel Bras-serie, the famous three-star Michelin chef who has almost achieved the impossible: by making vegetarian cuisine respectable in the land of the force-fed goose.

When, finally, two years ago we joined the A75 at Sévérac-le-Château, the wind was strong enough almost to rip the door from the car on stopping to visit Les Messieurs at the service station. This time around the weather wasn't quite so dramatic, but still angry enough to transform the sublime scenery of moorland, rocky peaks and deep river gorges into a lost world, uninhabited save for a few wandering wild-eyed characters clad in tattered sack cloth.

Nothing, not even a glimpse of the lights at the top of the nine pillars of Norman Foster's architectural masterpiece, winking in the distant gloom from the top of the 900m Col d'Engayresque, prepares you for the viaduct that bestrides the valley of the Tarn high above the town of Millau. When first we came this way, one November almost 20 years ago, it was maybe not even a sketch in an architect's notepad. We missed the customary bottleneck linking the two disconnected branches of the motorway, because we hit Millau in the middle of the night on our return from a trip to Provence to meet a famous aromatherapist who would, my wife hoped, reveal the mysteries of setting up a practice in France. She didn't, and Debs ended up doing it all the hard way.

When I saw it first – three years ago, on coming south for the 60th birthday of our friend's late husband, who would die tragically of premature Alzheimer's – we got out at the adjacent visitors' centre to take it all in and shoot countless photos. I'd read all about it – and heard of its splendour from my wife, who'd been this way solo the year before that party – but seeing it in the flesh was akin to the thrill I felt of gazing on the Grand Canyon.

As we drove across the platform – under which, at its highest point, you could fit the Eiffel Tower – we speculated about the good citizens of Millau below. Do they, we wondered, wake up each morning and give thanks to the mighty edifice visible from every street corner? If not, they should. Not only has it taken away all that traffic, noise and pollution, but it has also become a landmark that puts an otherwise nondescript town firmly on the map. Here stands proof that mankind doesn't have to despoil the natural world in its relentless drive to modernise.

On the other side of the viaduct lies yet more wild terrain. Depending on the weather, the Causse du Larzac could be either the backdrop for one of those cheap Republic westerns of the 1950s or, as it was last Thursday, a kind of windswept lunar landscape fit for neither man nor beast – apart, that is, from the sheep that roam among the rocks nibbling at the scrub vegetation that presumably adds the fort to the Roque of the indigenous cheese.

Two years back, we stopped for a look at La Couvertoirade, a kind of miniaturised Carcassonne, founded and fortified by the Knights Templar. And just as it did two years ago, on emerging from the tunnel that leads motorists off the Lazarc plateau and into the Midi, the sun broke through to light up the vertiginous plunge down through the mountains towards the river valley far below and thence the Languedocian plain abutting the Med.

It's a different world down there. Even if we could afford it, I'm not sure it would suit. There's the sea of course – if you can ever penetrate the urban sprawl to get there – and the milder climate. But a denser population brings heavier traffic. And although here's little danger of sudden frosts and no need to bring in the oleanders, a Mistral blew on the Saturday and the wind-chill factor was significant. I can do without wind in any form.

That evening our friend took us to Avignon for a trip to the Utopia cinema to see a film called Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen's character raises his six children in the dense forest of Washington State. Circumstances inevitably lead to a clash between his set of values and the 'normal' values of an overfed, processed, de-sensitised and wasteful society. It's very good: sometimes funny, sometimes sad and always poignant. And always eerily relevant in the light of current affairs.

On the return leg, we drove back along the coast towards Montpelier and some angry black clouds hanging very symbolically above the overlooking mountains. Sure enough, the weather deteriorated as we emerged at the top end of the connecting tunnel – and became increasingly spiteful the nearer we got to home. Across the Larzac plateau, my wife entertained me by reading excerpts on her phone from The Guardian's commentary on the fifth day of a gripping test between England and India – in which no less than four Anglo-Asian cricketers contrived to underline the benefits of a multi-cultural society.

But then we graduated from the comfortable world of sport to a deeply uncomfortable litany of the incoming president's stated policies: evict the immigrants, build a wall, frack the land for all it's worth, wriggle out of the Paris Treaty, punish women for having abortions... How could a sentient electorate have voted for someone even less qualified than Ronald Reagan to run the world's most powerful country? As if we aren't in enough of a mess without creating even more. No wonder I'm pessimistic about mankind's ability, for all its technological acumen, to clear it all up. A British architect and a team of French engineers and navvies can put up one of the greatest bridges ever conceived, but when it comes to putting our heads together globally to clean up the oceans or save the African elephant...

It's what remains of the environment and its wildlife that I fear for the most once the Trump troll gets to park his big butt behind the desk in the Oval Room. The idea's more depressing than Rodez in the rain. My wife turned off her phone and we soothed our souls with some unchallenging bossa nova. They say (as always) that it's going to be a hard winter. Leonard Cohen has already succumbed. One thing's for sure: it's going to be a struggle for survival and it won't be the meek who inherit the earth.

(Black and white photographs by my chumly Dan Courtice of Penn Graphics)

Monday, October 17, 2016

October: Life-threatening Muesli

I spotted something on a French website about the link between muesli and death. Or something like that. I didn't check out the link, because it would lead me to more environmental gloom and life's too short anyway to investigate every headline. But there's a thought at the back of my mind now, as the Good Wife and I tuck into our morning muesli, that we could be killing ourselves softly with oats and raisins.

This last weekend, we should have been nibbling away at our life expectancy in the Alps. But, after the joys of an Indian summer, Lady Weather intervened. The forecast was peppered with orange alerts and we decided that the prospect of an eight-hour journey across the Massif Central and up and over the Col du Lautaret without snow tyres and with a restless Terrierdor in the back seat was too daunting.

The big col still holds terrors. It's 40 years now since my brother, his girlfriend and I spent the night in a cramped Renault saloon, parked in a village square and watching lightning flashing around the mountains that hemmed us in, because the daunting pass was closed for the night. A landslide or maintenance work on one of the open-sided tunnels that protect you from falling snow and rocks and avalanches.

We were on the way to see my dear friend from the halcyon days of Exeter University, who was working at the time as a chalet girl at the Montgenèvre ski resort. Jacqui and her French husband, Claude, now live in the shadow of the Col du Montgenèvre, in the spectacular valley of a fast-moving stream that feeds the fast-moving Durance that flows on its way south through the old fortress town of Briançon, reputedly the highest in France (that's altitude rather than the mental state of its 11,000 or so inhabitants).

Some 20 or so years later, we did a similar trip, but this time with a tiny tot in the back seat of our hand-me-down car. Tilley the Kid had just started at école maternelle, if I haven't mistaken the chronology of our life in France, and like Monday's child she had just learnt to tie her bootlace. She sat in the back of the car for the entire epic journey, happily singing to herself as she tied and untied and then re-tied the laces of her tiny booties. No need for an expensive bone-shaped rawhide for our two-legged passenger.

At that time, we were desperate for contact with some kind of recognisable civilisation, having bedded down among the hill people of the Corrèze, who practised an alien culture based around mushrooms and accordion music and winter-evening concours de belotte. For desperate people, though, we plotted the most unimaginably long and tedious route to drive there: across the real Massif Central, not the picturesque version traversed these days by the A89. It was the bleak, windswept Massif of Etre et Avoir, that marvellous documentary film about the children and their teacher and the primeval farming community that clings onto a disappearing way of life.

Across the Massif and down the other side by one of the more tortuous roads built with tar macadam, over the Rhône at Valence and then east and upwards, ever upwards into the mighty Hautes Alpes. It was only after we drove through our friends' departmental prefecture of Gap, giddy by now with the excitement of being only an hour or so from our destination, that the child behind us started to whimper and fret as children her age are given to do.

It may have been the trip when we took only clothes suitable for a balmy June, only to wake up a day or so later and see that it was snowing outside the house that Claude and Jacq built. Summer snow is unwelcome, but it's easy enough to cope with given an extra layer or two. Winter snow is something else again. Therein lie the deepest terrors of the formidable col.

Some years later, we had emulated our friends and built our own house, among the more cosmopolitan people of the Lot. Barely an accordion in sight. By then, we had traced and re-traced a route from these parts to the mountain home of our friends that involved motorways just about all the way to Grenoble and only then the scary and relentless ascent with oxygen masks to the high country. We had even done it once by train, but it took so long that I nearly grew my first sideboards. Tulle to Clermont-Ferrand to Roanne to Lyon to Grenoble to Briançon. You lose count of the ch-ch-ch-changes.

Winter snow, indeed. At one time, worn down by the rain that keeps the Corrèze so green, we even contemplated moving to be near to our friends. I was seduced by a big sign on the outskirts of Briançon boasting something like 300 days of sunshine each and every year. Just imagine. Yes, but just imagine having to adapt to five or six months of snow every year. My sensible wife disavowed me of such a notion.

So we keep on making the journey instead. One year, in deep mid winter, maybe the year we went to spend Christmas or New Year with them, we mistimed our approach. We were better equipped by now, with a set of chains in the boot of the Berlingo, but hadn't reckoned on the degree of difficulty of a tempest of snow in the middle of a pitch-black night. When we pulled over to put the chains on, I recalled the words of the busy garagiste who had sold them to me. Oui, ils sont faciles à mettre.

Easy to put on in a blizzard, chains are not. Particularly in the hands of cack-handed incompetents. While one of us shed the feeble light of a torch on the mystery of how to strap self-twisting interlocking chain-metal around a round rubber tyre, the other cursed and cried and generally acted like a petulant teenager asked to help weed the garden. Eventually, the Good Wife did what she does best: she exercised her charm. She asked someone behind us in the lay-by for help. It is ever thus in this family. The same thing happened in a campsite on the Atlantic coast, the first time we had to pack up one of those new-generation tents that simply spring up like dandelions.

It often works, but you have to live with the shame. After that trip, we had a number of practice sessions in our house that involved chains and a spare tyre. Although we both became quite proficient, we realised that there's a world of difference when you're trying to sheath a tyre that's attached to a car by an axle – particularly with lifeless fingers when it's cold and dark outside. These days, I believe, some kind of sockette has replaced the old metal chain. I'm not even sure that I could cope with a sockette on the pass.

Now I think about it, it was about this time of year that we made a foolhardy decision (all right, the original idea was mine) to drive across France and Italy to Vienna and thence to Budapest, to see a friend who was soon to pack up and head back for Sheffield. On the way home, we drove back across the north Italian plain through the night to avoid the lorries that had so blighted the outward journey. Having failed to find any kind of pensione that would afford us a few hours' sleep, we pressed on... and on and on. Past Milan, through Turin. With eyelids propped open and almost weeping with fatigue, we crossed the Franco-Italian frontier – just as the first snow of the season began to fall. We wound our way watchfully down the hairpin bends of the Col du Montgenèvre and reached our staging post just as Claude was getting up to make the coffee.

One good thing, however, about the layer of perma-snow with which they live for half a year is that the authorities are geared up for it. The snow ploughs are out in force everywhere. By the time it came to leaving for home, we followed one all the way down the Col du Lautaret to a sensible altitude.

So this year we missed out on our customary visit. But we had a rather delightful mini-break in the familiar confines of our own home. We were able to enjoy our deleterious breakfast. My friend Jacqui has lived so long in France now that she tends to indulge in a typical French breakfast: Claude's coffee accompanied by baguette with butter and jam. It's fine for a few days, but I find it stresses my delicate gut. I prefer to follow a coarser, wholemeal route to an early grave.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September: 'Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee, Oh Mr. Lee'

My friend Bret delivered the bombshell when I was in the supermarket, wondering whether to buy crisps for the girls, to sustain them on their long journey the next day. I'd had to come to Brive to look for another cat flap, after Daphne had broken her second this year by thrusting her head through the Perspex door to bark with too much enthusiasm at unseen predators outside.

He asked me first whether I'd seen his orbital sander. I had, but it was in our cave and I wouldn't be back home till lunchtime. And had I heard the news about our mutual friend, Dave? I hadn't, I replied as sotto voce as possible, because I don't like talking on a mobile phone in public places lest someone mistake me for a plonker.

Dave, our friend, was dead. What??! I held onto the trolley and stopped my deliberations about snacks. How could he be dead; we'd both seen him not five or six weeks before at a party? Apparently, Bret told me, it was a para-gliding accident or something. At that party, our friend had in fact even asked me whether I'd like to come along sometime. I told him that I didn't think it was really my thing.

Mr. Lee, as I called him – in honour of that deliciously daft song of 1957 about a 5th grade teacher by the Bobbettes – was a quite delightful man. I don't think he ever got the reference when I would greet him by singing the repetitive chorus, but he always humoured me with his trademark bonhomie.

We were in the middle of constructing this house when he first breezed into my life in a bottle-green Jeep or Land Rover or some vehicle appropriate for someone who'd recently left the army. He arrived with his ex-army buddy and a Dutch acquaintance, who'd told them about a house of straw and brought them along for a look-see.

Dave and Steve had a scheme to start a business over here and always appeared in tandem. We called them 'the Army Boys' – with a nod to the 'soldier boys of Pippin Fort' from the children's programme, Camberwick Green – because they still bantered together like a pair of affectionate former comrades-in-arms. Typically of Dave, he volunteered their services here in return for some publicity that might help their nascent business.

One such publicity stunt we dreamed up together was the painting of the big beams that support the slanting roof of the mezzanine. Dave offered to bring his harness and hang from the highest point with pot and paintbrush in his hands while the camera recorded his gravity-defying manoeuvres. Surely it would have made great television, but the director for some reason didn't seem that keen.

With hindsight now, I realise that his whole life must have been defined by a dare-devil's taste for adventure. I suppose the army would demand nothing less. Coming to a foreign country to start a building business without a word of French and, initially at least, more enthusiasm and bravado than practical know-how took guts. With an ever-present glint in his eye and a clipped Brummie accent that suggested many a bollocking from sergeant majors, he would crack us all up with his early cack-handed attempts to speak the lingo.

He and Steve were there for the final frantic day of building and filming, doing anything useful that they could apply their talents to, like assembling an Ikea kitchen in a new world-record time. It was a time when my stress-level gauge was well into the red and I could feel the steam seeking release through every orifice. Dave was genuinely surprised to hear me confess this. He told me that he'd never worked with anyone who exuded such calm.

Not too long after, Steve and his wife went back to the UK for various reasons. The Army Boys disbanded and Dave became Mr. Lee to me. He knuckled down to the business of conquering French, mastering the multifarious building skills required of a successful sole-trader and, when he found any spare time, doing up his big barn near Beaulieu. It was a source of personal pride that he chose to build his internal walls of straw.

Being an army veteran, his politics were probably some way from mine. It wouldn't have mattered had I known for sure. At my 50th birthday party, I noticed how he jumped a track by Linton Kwesi Johnson: probably one of LKJ's dub-poems about police brutality in Brixton. I made a mental note that maybe Dave care for anything disrespectful about guardians of the law. But maybe he simply couldn't stand reggae. In any case, we both knew enough to steer clear of the subject in conversation. Instead, I learnt about things like his liking for fast cars and his seemingly eternal quest for the love of his life.

I remember when he lost one such love. They say that a dog's character generally reflects that of its master or mistress. It was a testimony to Mr. Lee's genial character that Rosie his Rottweiler was as sweet and gentle as you could imagine. Something of a contradiction in terms to anyone, like myself, who looks upon the breed as one of the most fearsome on earth. Dave was devastated by the loss of his constant companion and would still talk wistfully in later years of how Rosie might have been saved by a more competent vet.

By the time he came to help out with the refurbishment of The Good Wife's clinic, his skills had developed apace. His fame spread as his competence grew and we saw less of him. Others presumably learnt what good company he was to have around and profited from his pragmatic but conscientious approach to his trade.

I hadn't seen him for some time when our paths crossed one evening in a bar in Martel. We'd both come to see our friends the three Steves playing that night as two. Mr. Lee was very much on form and introduced us to the love of his life. He'd found her in Limoges: a public servant named Isabelle with the kind of quirky sense of humour that complemented his own. They were clearly devoted to each other and it was charming to witness how they conversed with a mixture of stilted French and classroom English.

During the night of the party, Mr. Lee spoke to me with almost poetic passion about the thrill of para-gliding. A previous accident had disabled him for several months while Isabelle nursed him back into shape. He told me that he, an ex-soldier, had cried in hospital because the pain was so excruciating. Nevertheless, he was back in the sky at the earliest opportunity. I guess some people crave adventure, while others like myself shy away from anything that puts life or limb in danger.

That same night, I asked him whether we could expect a wedding at some time in the near future. We could, Mark, yes we could. There's nothing I like more in life than a good wedding and I was angling for an invitation. It would have been lovely to see them both wed. But a horribly hot and parched September has just got worse. Our friend has gone in a flash and all I can think of is his betrothed, alone with her grief like a character in a novel by Henry James. That and the words of a particularly dark and ominous song by John Cale from Helen of Troy: 'The last thing they expected to see was sudden death'.