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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Feb '18: The Dawning of the Age of Ridicule

This month, the Good Wife of La Poujade Basse took a bold step into the unknown. She has followed me into what my Soul Brother #1 on the other side of the Atlantic dubs 'The Age of Ridicule'. That Father-William stage of your life when you are officially old and open to all manner of insult and injury. Every time she gets home and edges her way down the slippery slope to our front door, I fear now for my partner's physical safety. My family history has taught me that a fall precipitates an end.

Like me, she's certainly not ready for hers just yet. There are still far too many goals to achieve. Or at least, attempt. If anything, her (non-physical) stature is still growing – as more and more parents bring their problematic children to her for a miraculous cure. Instead of laying-on hands, she uses tapping and intuition and astute questions to shift people from their psychological blocks. I tell her she should be charging double what she charges. Parents with problematic children will pay almost anything to someone who can alleviate the problem. 

Clients don't find her at all ridiculous. She is fast becoming a kind of Corrézian oracle. Behold! I have seen the oracle at Brive, sitting in her light-grey armchair, and this is what she didst counsel... It's early days, though, of course. We are both in the infancy stage of the Age of Ridicule. Naturally, she's remarkably positive about the final quarter of life. She expects great things, whereas I await with trepidation the next sensory breakdown. I'm OK for the moment, but who knows what will happen in another 10 or 15 years from now? Who knows what component will fall off the chassis that has carried us this far?

I suppose I could ask my dad. He's currently recovering from a cataract operation in one of his eyes. The cataract was much bigger or thicker or tougher (or whatever cataracts can be) than the consultant had anticipated. There were complications. As a result of which, the consultant has counselled an embargo on the second eye. Better to let nature run its course. So he sits now on his re-upholstered armchair, waiting and hoping that the blur he sees through his bloodshot eye will gradually take a more distinct form. 

He didn't of course make the long journey south, as he has been promising for 20 years or so, to be there at the big table my wife set up in our living room for the sit-down meal to commemorate 60 glorious years of life. My brother has been promising for at least 10 years to bring our father south with him, but the pair are as intractable and as full of hot air as each other. If they were a double act, they might be known as the Manana Brothers.
Still, that's their look-out. There were about 20 of us anyway, which was quite enough for one evening, thank you very much. I seemed to spend two solid days shopping, while the team of caterers – my wife, our daughter, her friend Phoebe and our friend Judith, who came all the way from Sheffield with her ex-professional catering expertise – laboured long and hard to produce a meal that even impressed our German friends, who turn meals in their château into a kind of performance art-form.

I left a little time to prepare a few CDs for the occasion. Some of my wife's favourite music for dining and dancing. Of course, once the babble of humanity had boiled up into a subliminal roar, you couldn't hear any of the quieter stuff to eat along with, so it was a complete waste of time. And once we had pushed back the tables to clear the dance floor after the meal, people were generally either two tired or too stuffed to join in. Perhaps to our daughter and her friend, the sight of young elderlies going through the motions was irrefutable evidence that the Age of Ridicule had set in. To mark the death that very evening of ex-Temp, Dennis Edwards, I managed to find Cassandra Wilson's sinuously funky version of 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone'. It's dawning on me that the only real way of sharing the best music in the Lot is to find another radio show. Old DJs never die, they just grow increasingly ridiculous. Alan Freeman, anyone?

Anyway, it was a nice do. And it was lovely to see 'er indoors so happy and so revered. It was worth all the washing up and tidying up. A couple of days later, after everything had indeed been straightened, a man turned up in a van from the local garden centre. Inside the van was a magnolia tree almost as magnificent as the man's moustache. It was a commemorative present from the Good Wife's friends. I know the man; we cross each other's paths from time to time while out walking our respective dogs. He has a Dachshund, which doesn't quite seem to go with a man and such a 'tache. It had snowed during the night and in helping him manhandle the tree in its huge pot down the slippery slope, I fell on my arse. Despite a subsequent heavy cold, it doesn't seem to have precipitated my end. There's life in the old codger yet.

Not that I could possibly shuffle off to Buffalo just yet. I haven't had a chance to use my new passport or flash my new carte d'identité at a cashier requiring proof of identity. I'm looking forward to joining the shortest queue on my next return trip to the UK. I can play the appropriate passport in the pack like a joker in It's A Knockout! Who remembers that ridiculous programme? Who remembers its two ridiculous old front-men, Eddie Waring of rugby league fame, and Stuart Hall, who was given to giggling manically in those days before he was accused in his dotage of sexual misdemeanours? Or did the joker only come into play after Knockout evolved into Jeux Sans Frontières?

The woman at the mairie in Souillhac was very amiable (or aimable in French, which is an interesting transmutation, is it not?) and I obliged her by enquiring after her elderly father, who goes a little bit better, she told me (no doubt very impressed that I should remember such a detail from our prior conversation). Maybe she'll spread the word that not all foreigners are bad.

Buoyed by such a positive encounter with a member of the human race, I betook me to a shop called Kandy (pronounced kon-dee), one of those cheapskate shops specialising in Chinese tat, where I found two feather dusters for a very petit prix for my sketch at the annual cabaret: After a big build-up, Bret and I emerge from the wings as if to fight a mixed-weight prize fight – only to exchange gloves for feather dusters once in the ring. On both occasions that weekend, my friend tickled me to death. Quite ridiculous and we made guys of ourselves, but people laughed. And to make people laugh is, in its way, as rewarding as must be my wife's gift of making people better.

Although I'm not entirely convinced that old age should necessarily be the Age of Ridicule, now that I look back on it, the evidence of this rainy, snowy month is already beginning to stack-up. Even so, I'm determined to live life as long and as well as I can manage. Which clearly means that I shall be avoiding the '70s soirée later this month in Martel. The poster boasts 'rock, disco, slows et un quart d'heure américaine'. Whatever that quarter of an hour constitutes. Perhaps a crazed-gunman massacre. Yes, I want to grow old enough to see the magnolia planted and then watch it grow from our reading area as, hopefully, I find more time to sit and re-read all those classics from my past. Before the light dims.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Jan '18: Endless Crap

In all honesty, there's little about this time of year to get excited about. The rain at present, it raineth every day. The hearty partying has been done for another year. The new Paul Thomas Anderson film (D D-L's last apparently) won't be coming to the cinema at Vayrac till next month at the earliest; the Six Nations rugby happens in February; the Green Bay Packers failed to make the play-offs; and England well and truly lost the Ashes down under. There's a feeling of suspended animation as we wait for the first signs of spring, 2018.

If I could hibernate, I would. But I can't, so I shan't. Besides, the 21st December has been and gone, so the graph is going upwards and the days are elongating imperceptibly. Which gives me a little more choice when it comes to walking Daphne. I've taken to going on foot in the morning, so I can listen to all things bright and wonderful on my MP3 player, and by bike in the evening when there's still enough light to get me from A to B and back to A.

These days, every time I go past the farm – and specifically the big ugly house that the brothers built together before we got here – the light of the telly flickers in the front room on the other side of the hedge. I reckon the telly's got bigger since Jean-Louis died of lung cancer and his widow took up with the new man (not the brother), who keeps the expanse of grass all around the house neat and tidy (perhaps in exchange for board, lodgings and flat-screen television). Certainly bigger since the last time I ventured inside, to ask Jean-Louis for some tractor-aided assistance with our roof tiles.

Without fail, morning, noon or night, the reflected images from that probably enormous telly flicker brightly on the glass of the French window. It makes me think – and wonder what on earth life inside that ugly house must be like. Like a modern still life, I guess. No books, no music and possibly no joy. Just a soundtrack of endless crap from that huge inanimate object that dictates or at least underpins so many lives.

And if that sounds like the reflections of a snob, well I put my hand up like a guilty footballer who knows that he has just committed a foul, but hopes that the ref will show leniency. I am an inveterate snob. But it just seems to me that life is so precious and so fleeting that it's a terrible shame and a terrible waste to spend it in front of or within earshot of that big rectangular box. It smacks, too, of that grim song by Townes van Zandt, 'Waiting Around to Die'. Turn it off! I want to yell. Get out there and live a little. Join a club. Do something for your fellow creatures! That might send them scurrying from sofa to window to see who was so rudely interrupting their reverie.

On the way back home, I often imagine how my own life might be and look to others if I gave in to the call of the telly. Oh the lethargy, the lack of energy, the sense of hopelessness! I was once quite capable. As a young boy, I could sit and watch a test match from 11am, or whenever it was that play began, to close of play at 6.30pm. But I was a cricket fanatic and I needed the real stuff to fuel my fantasy world. The extraordinary thing was that neither of my parents would do anything to limit my viewing. Mark, you've watched quite enough telly for one day. It's time to turn that thing off. Maybe my mother said that kind of thing once or twice – those words must have come from somewhere – but my folks were archetypically lazy parents and my mother probably saw it as an ideal opportunity to shut the door of her bedroom and hammer away at her typewriter. Maybe they knew me well enough by then to be reassured that I had plenty of other things going on in my young life. I wouldn't suffer unduly from a diet of concentrated cricket.

But these days, I wonder. The older you get, the more there is to do. Or so it seems. Which makes me generally far too guilty to indulge in frivolities and the simple pleasures of life. It would make an interesting experiment to try it, I think sometimes. Something akin to that marvellous documentary by Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me!, in which our director almost kills himself by subsisting on a diet of McDo crap.

Could I do it? What would happen to me if I pigged-out on a diet of endless visual and aural crap? It doesn't bear thinking about. First, I'd have to move the set down from the mezzanine to dominate the living area. Then I'd have to watch breakfast television over breakfast (and beyond). That would involve a partial diet of news. Start the day with gloom and doom. (It sounds like a new breakfast cereal – slack, fizzle and slop!) Where would I go next before Film Four starts for the day? Although that could be construed as cheating. I love films, even bad B-movie westerns from the '50s. All those Budd Boetticher films starring the deliciously wooden Randolph Scott. But there's a school of thought now that Boetticher was, in his way, a kind of auteur. I suppose you could argue the case for almost anyone, even Ed Wood. 

So that may not count as crap. In which case, I'd have to flip to Channel 5 for truly execrable films of the genre that go straight from production to DVD. And I suppose I could watch Bargain Hunt, with that awful chinless presenter, the one with the specs-on-a-chain and the silly moustache. Or that property programme with Dion Dublin. Lovely man, Dion Dublin, although I really think he should stick to Football Focus, my own private weekly crap allowance.

Towards the end of the afternoon, there would be game shows like Countdown or Pointless and then the early evening news would really add to my sense of futility and put me in the mood for some utilitarian food. After dinner? Well, I suppose BBC2 and BBC4 would be out on the premise that they could stimulate grey matter (even before the 9 o'clock watershed – if that still exists). So... there might be a super-hero action film on Film Four that would waste another couple of hours. After which maybe I could find some suitable tripe on Channel 5 in which people expose parts of their anatomy that are guaranteed to make you gasp or curdle with embarrassment. And then, if I had the slightest will to live left, I could ease myself out of the sofa and toddle off to bed...

But hang on! I hear you cry. How does this inveterate snob know about such programmes? Surely he's been secretly indulging in crap all these years? Well, yes, I do scour the listings every day in search of something worth watching or recording. And I have sat with my antique father many a time watching programmes like Bargain Hunt. A friend of mine who worked with me in my days in the Civil Service actually even featured in one episode – and typically I managed to miss it. 

Anyway, where was I? Yes, one day in the life of a reluctant viewer. That would be quite enough for me. I couldn't manage more; I'd lose all feeling in my head. I'll leave such experiments to Morgan Spurlock, Louis Theroux and the like. Besides, it's almost time to walk the dog again. No doubt there will be bright flickering images on the window at the farm as I hiss by on my bicycle. I wonder whether the inmates will live as long as my dad. He's 90 now and I'm happy to report that he's having a good life – even if much of it is spent in front of the telly. He's certainly not waiting around to die.

Monday, December 18, 2017

December: Conspiracies

I've never been a great one for conspiracy theories. Apart, that is, from the Kennedy Brothers, and probably Martin Luther King. Oh and maybe Anne Boleyn's fall from grace. And Caesar's infamous removal, of course. And Catesby & Co. Rasputin's murder? Hitler's attempted assassination, too. Perhaps the partition of India and no doubt of Iraq, Palestine and Ireland. Oh, and there's Brexit now. And Russia's role in Trumpton.

Put like that, there have been quite a lot of conspiracies that prompt a theory. Up until now, though, I hadn't given much credence to the various 9/11 theories that have been bandied about in the cyber world for over a decade. But then I had two meetings this month with strange men that continue to make me think.

The first was with a stranger on a plane. I'd turned up at Limoges airport in ridiculously good time lest some unforeseen jam on the A20 delay me. (Apart from the two months of high summer, it's more of a vehicular vein rather than an artery). While queuing up to check in, I watched with barely disguised contempt as some aging Brit flirted with the uniformed wench behind the desk. His was the aye-aye darlin' nudge-nudge school of charm. Rather like the publican in East Enders played by a minor comedian who used to bellow Rick-ie! at his stepson or whatever relation he was. I made a mental note to avoid him like the plague.

I managed to do so until we were on board the airplane. There was an air of inevitability about the unoccupied seat beside him near the back. He was busy dispensing bonhomie to the hostess when I realised with a sinking heart that my allocated place was indeed right next to him. No sooner had I parked my backside, strapped up and opened my book than he started talking to me. Sometimes I resist. Sometimes I realise it's futile. This was one of the latter occasions.

His name was Stan or Len or something monosyllabic. His accent seemed to spell Essex and I soon discovered that he'd lived in France for long enough to learn the language well enough to get by. The accent, I guessed, would leave something to be desired, but hey – who am I to cast nasturtiums? He'd been in publishing and had sold up just before it became the thing of a pre-digital past. One of those astute self-taught businessmen of the Alan Sugar genus, perhaps, who have an instinct for the main chance.

I gave up any attempt to read my book. Voluntarily. The conversation became increasingly fascinating, instructive even, and I realised that if I could swallow my prejudices, there was a lot to learn. Swallow I did. The conversation turned from our partners to our offspring to the big scheme of things and our general sense of well being. I don't know how we got from there to 9/11, but we managed it seamlessly. And he told me all about his... if not obsession, then pet theory: that the collapse of the twin towers defied all laws of physics. I'd read something similar many years ago and kind of shelved it as the work of people without better things to do with their lives.

But the way Stan or Len described it to me made all those horribly vivid images come alive once more – but as if seen this time from a different angle. Through a prism darkly. What about the motivation, though? The details he offered boiled down once again to filthy lucre. Isn't it incredible what people will do just to have so much more of the stuff than can make you happy? But surely no one would sacrifice all those office workers who either stayed to be incinerated or leapt from floors so high that one has to hope that they passed out before impact with the concrete below. Surely? He shrugged as if to suggest, Make your own mind up on that one, Sunny Jim

One thing about this type of conversation is that it makes the journey go much quicker than usual. In no time, we were in the Disunited Kingdom once more. I thanked him for the entertainment and a potentially useful bit of avuncular advice he gave me, bade him a happy stay and focused on getting now from B to C.

And after that I thought little more of what he'd suggested, until a visit from an off-grid guy around these parts I refer to as a 'maverick American'. He must spend many hours holed up wherever he is hidden, delving into the darkest corners of the world via his laptop. He let slip something about his pet theory. On falling for the bait, it turned out to be the self-same theory that Stan or Len had described up in the clouds. So much of a pet theory, in fact, that his e-mail signature contains a cartoon of high financiers and politicians gathered around a detonator linked by fuse to the twin towers. Primed to plunge the handle.

He, too, outlined some of the details that defied even the most basic laws of physics. I was never one for science at school, but I could see that what he said made sense. But surely, I suggested, no one would be so evil as to sacrifice hundreds of his fellow countrymen. Oh no? he replied. Take a look at history, my friend. He has a point. Never mind the usual premier-division suspects. What about Napoleon and that long march into Russia? And Robert Mugabe for that matter? While we're at, let's not be vague, let's blame Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Although in his case, personal gain probably didn't come into it. More the crass stupidity born of innate privilege.

Oscar Wilde, in his usual memorable way, had some pertinent bon mots to say on the subject of my disbelief. So memorable that I've forgotten the precise details, but something about our propensity to believe the impossible, but to deny the improbable. Thanks to Oscar and the revelations of strangers, I'm now delving more into the improbable – and do I not like what I find!?

But hey! Christmas is almost upon us once more. It's that merry and joyful time of year when you can drink enough and eat enough and watch enough telly to anaesthetise your cerebellum. What a lovely word that is – to describe something essentially grey and spongy that resembles a giant sodden walnut. I'm going to give my walnut a rest for a few days and focus my thoughts on Father Christmas' customary struggle to wriggle down all those chimneys with a sack of presents. He never seems to get his red suit or his white beard sooty. Have you noticed that?

Maybe it's a conspiracy.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

November: Lounging Lizards and Bonding Ties

Well I woke up this morning, and I found a lizard in my bed.../Said I woke up this morning, people, and I found, that's right, a doggone lizard in my bed/Thinking how it got there's sho' nuff breaking up my head... 

It was only a little lizard. One of those dark green rapiettes that used to scuttle into and out of every joint in the stone walls of our old farmhouse. People say that cats like to eat them to stay slim. Our current killer, Otis, occasionally finds one to mutilate, but they're a rare sight now. They were plentiful during our tenure in the Corrèze, but these days – like every other species on earth except for human beans, rats, flies, ants and cockroaches – their numbers have declined to the point where they are now classified as endangered. It won't stop Otis, just as the tragedy of elephant poaching won't stop the Trump family from shooting some more as trophies.

Anyway, it was a shock. It's the last thing you expect to find when you pull back the duvet to air the bed of a morning. By the time I'd found an old card and a tumbler for removal purposes, the rapiette had scuttled under the bed. Was it one of the cats that brought it in? Did it come in of its own volition to find a nice warm spot for a bit of hibernation? Who knows what goes on in the mind of a lizard. Underneath a winter-weight duvet would certainly be a cosy niche for the season.

For the season is upon us once more. I always try to remember the 5th November. Catesby & Co. The plot to blow up parliament in the name of the perennial religious wars. Sounds familiar. Even the punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering the plotters, obscene as it might have been, is probably no more brutal than what goes on in many a dark nefarious corner of the globe. 

This year our British friends, Tim and Gilly, marked the occasion. They held what I thought was going to be an intimate little bonfire party. Being punctual souls, we arrived at seven on the dot, having followed a procession of two or three other cars bound for the same venue. All were driven by Parisians with second homes and an eye on the clock. I was introduced to one woman whose name was Daphne. I told her that our dog shared her name and I don't know whether she was too pleased. It's a lovely name, I hastened to add. And it is. So redolent of the British Raj and the jolly awfulness of those times.

Unlike the Parisians, the 'Meyssac Crowd', as they are known in these parts, kept themselves to themselves. I've given up trying to make the effort to communicate. Parisians are easier on the frontal lobe: generally speaking  they're more widely travelled, more educated, more cultured and less concerned with apparence. As we all gathered around a bonfire that raged as bright and as fierce as a cliff-top beacon in Napoleonic times, the French contingent must have wondered about this strange tradition of ours. Burning some poor Guy in a conflagration is not a nice thing to do. A long, long time ago, I mingled with the crowds at Lewes on the 5th to watch crazy men run about with barrels of burning pitch strapped to their backs. Never again.

After a few desultory sparklers, we got back to the serious business of eating, drinking and dancing. The Meyssac Crowd stayed in the sitting room by the open fire, only to emerge like excited teenagers to shake their booties in time to Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'. Why, I wondered later, do people still get moved by the spirit of Gloria Gaynor and Hot Chocolate? Nothing much has changed in that respect since the first party we were invited to at the same venue almost 20 years ago. Which on one level is quite reassuring, but on another is a little mystifying. 

The Good Wife of La Poujade Basse came over all emotional while talking to our host about the passage of time – and in particular the remembrance of little children past. I think it was the first occasion that our daughter met their daughter. They were tiny tots at the time and now, still bosom friends, they've both blossomed into beautiful young women. Proper warms the cockles of a parent's heart it does to witness the vicissitudes of your progeny's friendships. The bonds that tie. Or is it the ties that bond? Or rather, bind?

We met another nice Parisian at another occasion on another significant date. The 11th November, Armistice Day. Waiting for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was all very well and all very neat, but it's heartbreaking to think of all those needless deaths when the end was in sight. None more poignant than that of Wilfred Owen, who might have gone on to become the greatest poet in the English language had it not been for a stray bullet during some futile face-saving mission.

This Parisian is an élu, or elected one. Part of the mayor's team. It's one of my first perks of French citizenship that I was invited to hob-nob with the top table on the 11th day. The mayor invited us as citoyens d'honneur. The commune's honoured new citizens. We waited in the wings with a motley crowd in the car park in front of the mairie on a suitably sombre, even dismal morning. There were a few problems with the sound system before we got underway. The mayor gave a little address, then handed the mic over to a minion who read out each name on the war memorial followed by the collective chant of mort pour la France. It was surprisingly moving. Maybe it was the effect of the incantation and remembering individuals who once lived here in the same commune rather than the faceless slaughtered multitudes.

After this, there was a recorded version of the Last Post followed by the familiar roll of drums that ushers in the Marseillaise. Surely our chance to shine. We had run through the words again on the drive down. But no! It was the instrumental version. The crowd were mute. Debs reckoned it was because we were the only ones present who can actually sing it.

Then the mayor called us up to the microphone and introduced us with a surprisingly generous and surprisingly brief speech. Neither of us was aware that he really knew anything about us. Fortunately I had prepared a little address for such an eventuality. I sketched the family history and how we came to be in this neck of the Lot. Our search in my wife's bottle-green Beetle for a house with a septic tank et cetera. I resisted any mention of cuisine, but did suggest – ha ha ha! – that we could bring le feeshancheeps as a cultural offering in return for the indigenous love of nature and the land. Or térroir, to use a term often employed in viniculture (of which there's not much in the immediate vicinity).

My little address to the multitudes went down rather well. A round of applause chuffed me to the core. My French can't have been too bad. Afterwards, we trooped inside the mairie and his worship's team passed around the appetisers, which were mainly pâté-laden bits of unappetising bread. For maybe the first time in my tenure here, and maybe fortified by my new official standing, I felt able to turn them down on the grounds that ours was a vegetarian family. The servers looked a trifle surprised, but didn't direct us to the naughty-step. Food for thought, I considered. It would do them good to know – and even reflect. Who knows, in another decade's time, they might hand around pieces of bread bedecked with tapinade. Green or black, I'm happy with either. 

Now, the end of the month is nigh. We've had about two days of genuine cold. Not even a snap-ette, really. The leaves are the colour of copper and the temperature's unseasonably high. In another few weeks, 't'will be Christmas – and already local villages have decked their main streets with electronic decorations. Couldn't they at least wait till December? Everything is topsy-turvy and up the Suwannee River. Pity those poor lizards, who will be emerging from their duvets, believing that that a false spring has sprung.