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.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

February: Done Fishin'

The man with the Panama hat and the telescopic rod is my friend and fellow golfer, Steve. That's me, looking on anxiously – a permanent state of mind – while he fishes for the ball that I sliced into one of the ponds that dot the first hole at our local course. Steve extended his egregious rod and fished out my ball. I hung onto it for all nine holes of that particular round, but still managed to play disastrously. It's a depressing thing when you realise that you're not progressing, you're regressing. The first time I played, back in early January, I played so well because I was loose and relaxed and had no expectations. That set up expectations, which bring the mind into play. On every subsequent occasion, I've played like a cretin. I can't even remember to keep my eye on the ball. Next time, I shall try repeating the words of the wonderful W.C. Fields in a priceless scene from You're Telling Me: 'Stand back and keep your eye on this ball'.

On the subject of fishing, the month of February was notable for the death of a fishmonger. We've been nominally vegetarian now for getting on 30 years, but have succumbed for about the last ten to a periodic temptation from the deep blue sea. It's not really regular enough to warrant the term 'pescatarian' – although card-carrying members of the Vegan Party would insist that we were just that (and probably be technically correct) – but The Good Wife does, or did, from time to time bring home something fishy from Brive of a Friday evening. Whenever we considered that we needed a good shot of protein.

She hasn't done so since Christmas. Every time she has gone past the fishmonger's stall, in the little pedestrian-only street that runs down from the inner ring road to the big church at the town's core, it has been closed. She figured that he and his wife must have gone to the Caribbean for a bit of R&R in the sun after his busy Christmas period. Then the absence grew increasingly longer until the other day, when she noticed some flowers laid to rest. On making her enquiries, she discovered that he was dead. The fishmonger had a massive heart attack on the eve of his second-busiest day of the year: New Year's Eve. So anyone who had ordered fish for the réveillon dinner would have been bitterly disappointed.

In the summer months, he would put out a few tables and chairs and serve mussels and chips and other delicacies – whatever was fresh – to the town's professionals and shop keepers during the two-hour lunch break. He did a roaring trade, so his clientele will be lost without him and the small body of staff he employed will find themselves without a patron and a livelihood. 

His fish was the best. He sold only what was in season, so there wasn't much choice, but you always knew that what you were getting would be good and responsibly caught. We used to eat our occasional fish with a reasonably clear conscience. The fishmonger had an eye (a bit of a wall-eye at that) for the ladies. He was particularly gracious towards my wife and would make sure that she had the prime cuts and plenty of them. His wife runs a camp site and he asked my wife once if she wouldn't mind translating his wife's brochure. My wife, being a generous and spontaneous soul, said of course she wouldn't mind doing it – though she found the request a little unorthodox. For all her propensity to exaggerate, she tends to underestimate effort and expense, so she found that it took much longer than anticipated. Instead of paying her for the service, her fishy beau gave her a little of what she fancied. And what she fancied were coquilles St. Jacques

Now, the flirting's over. Perhaps our occasional fish is off the menu, too. We're not sure what will happen to the shop. Maybe there'll be the equivalent of a management buy-out, but I somehow doubt it. For one thing, once the Administration becomes involved, everything slows down to the speed of an event that I remember from my primary school in Belfast: the slow bicycle race. Participants would try to be last across the finishing line without wobbling out of their lane. I never took part myself, because I was ashamed of my bike and because I'm an inveterate non-joiner. But occasionally I find myself trying it these days while waiting for Daphne to catch me up if she's been distracted by something in a field (like horse-do felafels). It's not easy.

February's going fast and will probably prove the hottest February since records began. The bulbs are shooting and the fruit trees budding – all in readiness for the inevitable hard frost that will come riding in at some unseasonable moment like a meteorological horseman of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, there's fishing all over the world. In the Disunited Kingdom, the soft Brexiteers are fishing around for a last-minute deal, while the hard Brexiteers are being obdurate, obstreperous and obstinate. Both the main political parties are busy rending themselves asunder in step with the rest of the nation. In America, the Democrats are fishing around for ways to get rid of the flaxen-haired dictator or at least to limit the damage he is wreaking. In Europe, the EU is fishing for ideas in the face of rampant nationalism and impending break-up.

Here in these parts, the traditional hard-nosed men of the community are preparing to put away their guns and bring out their rods. I went fishing once in my life, at the insistence of a persistent Parisian who used to holiday in our old village. Fortunately, I didn't catch anything, but I've never been so bored in my life. Gone fishing, I quipped on my departure. Done fishing, I quipped on my return. My aim for the month ahead is to improve my golf game. Keep my balls on the fairway and out of the ponds, for a start.

Friday, January 11, 2019

January: On The Agenda

The coming of another new year brings certain responsibilities. Not to waste as much time in the year ahead, for example, as during the year gone by. Particularly not with the sands running out so rapidly. Why is it that they appear to speed up nearer the end, do you suppose? Even Albert Einstein would have struggled to explain it. Figuring out the speed of light was a doddle in comparison. I believe it has something to do with perception, but that's about as far as I'm prepared to go. 

I deal in stuff like metaphors rather than theories. The SPV, for example. That's a Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, for those who were never attuned to the wonderful miniature world of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Captain Scarlet, Lieutenant Blue and the other uniformed puppets would travel around the papier mâché landscape of Supermarionation in their SPVs, moving rapidly forward yet sitting at the controls facing the road receding into the distance. I think that's marvellous. The Andersons certainly nailed the visual part of life's complex equation. 

Anyway, I'm frittering away more valuable time, so I'll leave the philosophical dilemmas to others. Let's just reiterate that, for whatever reason, time passes more quickly the older you get. So, at New Year, the pressure is increasingly on to do something with life before it drains away, not with a bang but a gurgle. The decorations are down and the warm glow of Christmas is consigned to the bank of happy memories. The serious stuff of living has started all over again. 

Resolutions are again on the agenda. This year, I resolve to... I resolve to... What exactly? Keep my desk tidier? Good luck with that one. No, that's an impossibility and I learnt from a programme the other evening that by exerting willpower on something that you don't necessarily want to do dissipates the willpower needed for something dearer to your heart. 

It was a programme about keeping fit, actually. A subject that's germane at my time of life. A staggering amount of money annually is squandered on subscriptions for gyms that are either unclaimed or seriously under-used. The message was that one should not waste time and willpower on activities (like lifting weights or running on a treadmill) that you simply don't enjoy – particularly when new research shows that there are just as effective and far less time-consuming ways of keeping fit.  

I'm not sure that playing more golf counts, but since I've verified that I can sit down and stand up without the use of my arms 10 times in under 18 seconds, I feel that I've passed a test of sorts and can therefore sign up for a sport that's not that physically demanding (no matter how mentally taxing). That said, after playing with my pals Tim and Steve on Monday afternoon, I sat down with a book and promptly fell asleep for half an hour. I think I've spent too much time watching the domestics. Their propensity for sleep is amazing. Too much petting pets makes Mark a dull and dozy boy.

As I hadn't played the merciless game since late summer and I was feeling roughly like the Burton Albion players must have felt travelling to the Ethiad Stadium to face a Manchester City team (that would put nine past them), I was quite relaxed and resigned to defeat. Besides, I don't generally do sport to win, I do it to battle my demons. Nevertheless, my shoulders were loose and my swing, such as it is, was fluid. I made a point of keeping my eye on the ball, which I've found always helps, and consequently played well enough to confirm that I'm not a cretin. Flushed with success, I've resolved to sign up for an annual membership and to look for some golf shoes in the sales. Yes, this year, I shall play more golf. Other retirees do it, so why shouldn't I?

Last year, I fully intended to buy less music, but it just didn't work. My heart wasn't in it. With retailers and junk shops virtually throwing away CDs now, it's like trying to resist an open treasure chest. Anyway, I can kid myself into believing that they're also an investment. One day, they will be valued again – as LPs are once more. Besides, I've already subjected myself to the sales. I was there bright-eyed and bespectacled soon after opening time on the second Wednesday of the month to plunder the bins. Given bargains like a double-orange-vinyl-with-free-CD set of Amadou & Mariam's Dimanche à Bamako for six euros or a seven-CD set of John Coltrane's 1961 European tour for the same price, what can a compulsive collector do? My wife understands me, even if she can't quite see the worth of seven different versions of Coltrane's transformation of 'My Favourite Things'. The first interpretation, at the Paris Olympia, has already transported me into the kind of ecstatic state normally reserved for whirling dervishes, so I don't see it as over-egging the pudding – which may sound a little tragic to those who are only familiar with the Julie Andrews version from The Sound of Music.

So, no. E'en if the hills be alive with the sound of it, I won't resolve to buy less music. As a youth, I used to smuggle my vinyl purchases into the house to avoid Checkpoint Mother, but now I'm past shame. After all, I spend far less than a smoker does on tobacco or a drinker does on alcohol and it's cheaper than a life-support system. Instead, I shall resolve instead to do something that doesn't come naturally to a hoarder: to get rid of some old things to make way for the new.

Where does that leave me? If there's any time left from all this hunting music in bargain bins and gadding about golf courses, then I shall resolve to do more writing. Now that the French government is paying me 90 bucks a month to be old, I can concentrate on writing for pleasure rather than writing for gain. It's high time I knuckled down to the business of writing something of substance. And since I generally do my best work in bed, nor should it matter too much my quest to get a little fitter fails in the process.

And with that in mind, I must be off – for five minutes of brisk star-jumping, squatting and running on the spot. Who needs to go to a gym, anyway?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

December: Among the Yellow Vests

The final month of the year, a time when one is traditionally slipping into the lead-up to Christmas, has been dominated by the yellow vests. The infamous revolting gilets jaunes have been burnin' and a-lootin' in Paris, and stopping traffic in the provinces and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Christmas can't come too soon.

The Good Wife of La Poujade Basse is out on the road more often than her house-bound house-husband, travelling back and forth to Brive four days a week. So she was the first one to notice the cars driving about with their fluorescent yellow security vests (an obligatory part of every motorist's kit for a number of years) folded or scrunched up above the dashboard. When I started spotting them myself, I realised there was something more going on than the breakdown-drill of a few over-zealous motorists.

Now I spot them everywhere I go. There's a couple in the nearby hamlet who have hung one on their front gate. I would say that one in every three cars now wears its yellow heart (as it were) on its sleeve. Maybe more. The drivers are a motley crew to look at: ranging from old people to brawny white-van-men to serious-looking young urban professionals. It's depressing. For some reason, I feel most down-hearted when I pass female yellow vests. It depresses me to think that the involvement of womankind is a sign that things have really escalated. I live with this touching faith that women generally know better than men and it's perturbing to realise that they can be just as dumb. It's only good manners that stops me giving them the finger, too.

Not that there's anything necessarily stupid about protest. It's high time for a revolution. We all wanna change the world. But I question whether the impulse for demonstration in this case has anything to do with a desire to change the world in the kind of truly radical way it needs to be changed. It seems much more about preserving the comfortable status quo. Being charitable, you could say that the yellow vests are doing what the Peter Finch character did at the end of Network, bellowing to the world that they're as mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. God knows, we have enough to be mad about in France. After Denmark, it must be the most taxed country in Europe. Over 50% of your income disappears without even seeing it. So the rise in diesel prices can of course be seen as the straw that breaks the camel's back. And yet...

On my way to the local supermarket last Saturday morning, a whole bevy of yellow vests had occupied one of Martel's fistful of roundabouts. They were handing out leaflets and proclaiming themselves on makeshift banners as citoyens en colère. I drove past one such angry citizen before he could thrust a leaflet at the car, employing the tactic I use for hunters: denying eye contact. Fairly tame, I know, but a little more ambiguous than flipping the bird, which could end up in the kind of scuffle that would leave me significantly worse off than my opponent. 

Yeah, mate, I snarled from the safety of my car, I'm angry too. I am angry that Macron is revoking the wealth tax that will make the rich even richer. I am angry that the deputies of parliament have, I believe, voted themselves a nice fat pay rise. But I'm also angry that it takes a rise in the price of the filthy pollutant that fuels our cars and fouls our air to get people off their arses and out on the street to demonstrate their displeasure. And how telling it is that they employ the traditional French tactic of setting fire to old car tyres, just to confirm how little they are concerned by what's happening to the planet. Many of them, too, will no doubt come out with the Trumptonian angle that climate change is just a big hoax, anyway, and has nothing to do with the way we go about our daily business on this fragile over-populated planet of ours. It's just the media and liberal bleeding hearts trying to push an inconvenient truth down our throats.

I'm angry that my ungovernable compatriots seem happy to fiddle while the world burns, voting every four years for someone espousing much-needed change only to take to the streets each time he tries to enforce it. I'm angry that they will go on repeating the pattern until finally they put their faith in some strong and charismatic leader who persuades them that life will be better if they get rid of Jews, blacks, migrants, homosexuals and anyone else who doesn't conform to the norm.

I'm angry that instead of lobbying their representatives and the Fat Cats of big business, they take to the street and make life doubly difficult for the ordinary people they purport to represent. Brive was like a ghost town on Saturday morning when I went to buy some pipes for our imminent new water cisterns. Admittedly, I went early to avoid yellow militants, but I can imagine that shoppers are staying away in droves. And how's that going to help the small shopkeepers who are already feeling the pinch of online trade at the one time of year when they can normally rely on a bit of human traffic?

I'm angry, too, about all the Frexit posters popping up all around town. Instead of trying to reform the institution that has managed to keep Europe war-free for decades at a stretch, the gilets jaunes are just the very people to bring it down by voting instead for a trip down memory lane. Ah yes, the glory days of insular self-interested nation states. I remember them well.

Of course, when you talk to the folks at the barricades they'll tell you that some of their best friends are 'coloured' Jewish homosexual migrants, that they've got nothing against them on a personal level, but when you get them en masse... At which point, I should stress that I've got nothing personal against individual gilets jaunes. The couple down the road who wear their vests on their gate, for example, are good people. They walk their dog instead of letting her run wild, they've adopted two orphans from somewhere like the Reunion Isles, and Monsieur once gave me a whole basket of girolles he found in the woods. I know some of these people and appreciate how marginalised they feel here in the Styx, far from the capitalists of the capital. No, it's the thought of them gathered together in a mob that feeds my ire.

I fear the mob, even bearing legitimate grievances. The gilets jaunes could be the 21st century reincarnations of the sans culottes. They'll be there cheering at the guillotines when it's time to round up the scapegoats and despatch swift and summary justice. Every day in every way we reinforce our ignorance of what history teaches us. The next financial crisis is just around the corner now. The big one is coming to push us over the edge. Then we'll see how many of the good citizens of France, the ordinary people, swap their yellow vests for brown shirts. Be afraid; be very afraid.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

November: Dogs and War

If there's one thing worse than a sick infant, it's a sick animal. People who deny that their pets are a child-substitute are generally talking pish. I have been through the parenting business; my daughter is, as Chuck Berry would have it, 'almost grown' and now my paternal instincts are directed mainly towards our scruffy mutt. Daphne's our little girl until our real little girl comes home again. Good grief, I even talk to her in terms of 'mum's going to take you out for a walk this morning, because dad's got some urgent work to do'. I know, it's sad – but probably not that uncommon. At least I don't dress her up in dolls' clothes.

Daphne got sick this month and her papa was worried sick. Mama, too, for a little while, but she has much more faith in things like recoveries than her woebegone husband. Woe, woe and thrice woe. All is woe. The world is a terrible place and no good will come of it. We're half way through the neutral month of November and so far it has been dominated by dogs and war. I'm hopeful that the twain shall never meet.

Let's start with the war; get the worst stuff over with first. It didn't come much worse than what was laughably termed the Great War and, on the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 2018, we celebrated, or remembered at least, the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage a hundred years ago. Other than sparing a few more million lives (for a few months until the Spanish Flu carried them off), nothing much good came of it, since it sparked a chain of events that led to the rise of Nazism and another great-in-terms-of-misery-and-blood-letting war a mere 20 plus years later.

My paternal grandpappy fought in the Great War and my eternally jammy father joined up just at the end of its follow-up, just late enough to miss out on active service, which would have pleased him no end. I think he inherited his good luck from his father, who developed a virulent case of trench-foot while waiting to be slaughtered at the Somme. He was sent back to England, from where – by some serendipitous quirk of administration – he was sent to Arkansas to help train the American troops to be slaughtered in the trenches. He took up with an ice cream millionaire's daughter, who taught him how to dance – and maybe one or two other things besides, although those were very different times and my grandfather was a reserved man. My sister and I used to call him Grandpa Quietly. My delightfully Bohemian grandmother used to rib him about his dalliance with Anna-Fae Solliday, the ice cream millionaire's daughter, and he would chuckle to himself.

Perhaps one of the reasons he was so 'quietly' was to do with the fact that he must have seen the horror, the horror in the time it took for his foot to turn horrid. He never spoke of the war to his grandchildren until a time late in his long life when he recounted a few details to me over one of his ruinous gin-and-tonics. One of my grandmother's brothers was killed in the trenches, and another – favourite – brother was so shell-shocked that he took to alcohol and became a shadow of his former self. 

Thus it was that I had a few ghosts of the past to remember on the 11th day of the 11th month. I proposed to the Good Wife that we should go down to the mairie on the Sunday to take part in our local ceremony. Perhaps yearning for a quiet Sunday morning at home, she questioned my motives. Did I simply want to be seen by my fellow communards to be respectable and respectful? Probably, partly. But I also argued that it was only right and proper that we should remember all those innocent millions who lived with the rifles' rapid rattle and died like cattle.   

We were both glad that we went. Even though we didn't get to sing La Marseillaise – again – the mayor put on a good solemn show outside the mairie and afterwards we all trooped off to the Salle des Fêtes for a little exhibition of memoranda. The mayor's elected henchmen and women read letters home from the trenches and vice versa, which were very moving and poignant in their concern for the routine from which they had been torn. Let me know how much corn you manage to harvest from the top field... One woman signed off by telling her husband to be brave, but not too brave. That kind of thing tugs at your heart-strings.

As does the look of a hungry dog that can't understand why you're denying her breakfast for the second day running. We didn't stay for the meaty nibbles – zero tolerance as usual for vegetarians or anyone with dietary disorders – but went back home to be with our poorly pet. In fact, she was already better. I took her on a walk earlier that morning hoping that she would perform for papa. The vet had stuck a gloved finger up her fundament a few days before and diagnosed something like haemorrhaging diarrhoea or some such joy. Daphne got a shot of antibiotics, something peculiar in a chunky syringe to take mornings and evenings and some probiotics to mix with her food when she was allowed to eat once more.

For two or three days, we could only let her out on a lead, since she wasn't allowed even to eat grass. Too abrasive for her irritable bowel, apparently. I don't suppose that our vet imagined that her prescription would trigger a situation in which Daphne's parents would respond to barks in the night by getting up out of their warm bed to give their patient a quick walk. Well, you'd do that kind of thing for a sick child, so why not for a sick dog? In actual fact, it was quite memorable in its way. There was just enough light from the moon to cast a stark silhouette on the occasional dead tree and everything at such an unearthly hour was as quiet as a nun. Only the patter of paws on tarmac and the abrasive squeak of my jacket's artificial fibres. Think about it: one normally sleeps through the night and misses out on such an experience. On balance, though, I prefer to sleep.

Anyway, Daphne was quickly restored to her customary playful, affectionate self. She loved the fish that I bought from the supermarket as a soft substitute for her customary croquettes. My concern was that something was still lodged in her gut. Some shard of an illicit bone perhaps. So I needed to see some evidence of transit before I could properly relax. That Sunday morning, just before the ceremony of remembrance, our dog performed for her papa during the morning walk not once, not twice, but thrice. Good solid healthy-looking stools each time. I walked home with a spring in my step.
The worst seemed to be over. The end of the bloody faecal matter. If only one could say the same thing about war.