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, November 28, 2010

Stop the Week 2

Our family movie of the week was Elia Kazan’s Boomerang. Dana Andrews played a principled DA who followed a hunch that Arthur Kennedy was not the murderer of a local priest in the face of dubious political machinations. Lee J. Cobb, a perennial favourite of mine ever since his portrayal of Johnny Friendly, the menacing union boss in Kazan’s On the Waterfront, almost stole the show as the solid but unimaginative local chief of police.
Where oh where are such high-minded men or women of principle now? There was a period when I thought JFK was one of them. Andrew Marr’s wonderful documentary about the revered one’s presidential campaign of 1960 was possibly the best thing on telly all week. The programme suggested that the much-vilified Hubert Horatio Humphrey got a very raw deal from the media and confirmed, in my mind at least, that the assassination of Bobby Kennedy represented a greater loss for mankind.
Whatever you think of John Lennon’s principles, he certainly wore them on his sleeve. I watched Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, based on John’s troubled boyhood. It’s one of those quiet, unassuming, but classy films – like the recent An Education – that we seem to do so well in Britain. You can’t imagine one of those awful deep-voiced American trailers pumping up a film like this. ‘He was a lost, angry young man who would one day…’
Lovely performances all round, particularly from the ubiquitous Ann-Marie Duff as Lennon’s mum, Julia, and the ever-polished Kristin Scott-Thomas as Auntie Mimi (why on earth would the witless Hugh Grant character in Four Weddings pursue Andie McDowell with KS-T on offer?).
I once met a forthright Liverpudlian felt-maker. She was lodging with Ingrid, the sculptress who bought our old farmhouse in the Corrèze. She told me that she went to the same youth club as Lennon-McCartney. ‘John was a gett,’ she said with feeling. ‘But Paul was very nice. Always nice and polite.’
The film explained a lot about why John could be such a git. As a kid in Belfast, growing up with the Beatles, I loved John, probably because he was so naughty and cheeky. My sister and I would divide up our dinners among the Fab Four and John would always get the choice cuts from my plate. I teased my sister because her love for Paul, the pretty one, led her to eating with her knife in her left hand. 
Now I’ve come to see that she was right all along. Paul gets a lot of stick because he is ‘nice and polite’. Somehow, people seem to equate it with being lightweight. Well, John wrote some heavyweight masterpieces, but he also wrote some solipsistic dross. Paul, however, has a gift for melody and sheer love for the songwriter’s art that puts him right up there with the likes of Richard Rogers, Cole Porter and Burt Bacharach.
Which leads me to two records of the week. (I still call them records.) The first is Marcos Valle’s sumptuous Estatica on the Far Out label, which specialises in the tastiest morsels from Brazil. Those Brazilians, they sure know how to pen a catchy melody. Marcos Valle is one of their finest. He writes tunes that are so uplifting that you can’t help but sing along with the gay abandon of someone plugged into a Walkman – or should I say MP3 player?
The second is The Tribe’s Rebirth on Discograph. The Tribe are a collective of Detroit musicians who cook up very tasty funky jazz together.  The opening ‘Livin’ In a New Day’, served up on a cushion of ominous, brooding synth-bass, is worth the price of admission alone.
‘Mmm. Nice, Max.’

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Of winter and warmth

Weather-wise, people tend to think that it’s all sweetness and light here in France.
Yes, there’s probably more sun in evidence, but winters are long and often harsh. We’re three hours inland from Bordeaux, so the climate is bordering on the continental. None of your warm-wet-winters-with-westerly-winds in these parts. The temperature can drop to –10 or even –15 for several weeks at a stretch.
I hate it. If I were a man of more means, I would probably spend winter in the UK and the summer in France. We British seem doomed to be disappointed by our summers, but there are no great expectations heaped upon winter. You just dig in for the duration and wait for the grey days to turn blue(ish) again. With a good duvet, a decent umbrella and a new season of programmes on BBC Four, I think I could manage that.
One reason why I hate winters in France is that you’re in the lap of technology. Even something basic like a wood-burning stove depends on the type and dryness of wood: You have to stack it, keep it dry, go out in all weathers to retrieve it, risk doing your back in to bring it back to the porch – and so on. Then, if it’s insufficiently dry, there’s a constant vigil to ensure that it burns hot enough and long enough.
At least you can fiddle with the air vents. Worse, far worse oh Lord, is the type of technology over which you have no control.
For the last six winters, the sophisticated gas boiler that our sweet-talking plumber enticed me into buying has been giving me turbulent oceans of grief. I’m now quite certain that the bar-steward was taking backhanders from the company that manufactured it. Alas, I can’t name and shame them. I will tell you, however, that they’re not British, French, Irish, German or Scandinavian.
A friend of mine – who built his house virtually single-handed – had the same plumber and bought the same boiler. Ours at least has worked intermittently; his has never worked. When we see each other, we plot acts of terrible revenge. So far, incarcerating him in a tank of propane seems to be the most appropriate option.
So this is why Debs and I decided to invest in an air-source heat pump this summer. We should have bought one in 2004, but hindsight is a fine thing. Besides, the technology has moved on since then.
We have a Mitsubishi Ecodan and it stands on our terrace beside ‘our lady’. Heat pumps normally come in two units: one outside and one inside. We opted for the Ecodan because it consists of one external unit and because (I know it’s daft) the best video recorder we ever owned was a Mitsubishi.
It works a little like a fridge in reverse. This is how I once explained it in an article I wrote: ‘A liquid chemical, which boils at very low temperatures, and a compressor together generate rather than extract heat. At peak efficiency, the process of transforming liquid into vapour can produce up to 4kw of energy for every 1kw of electricity needed to power it.’
Clear? No, me neither. I can observe that a fan, the size of a small propeller, seems to extract the residual heat in the air. The unit heats the water that passes through it and twin pumps circulate it around the underfloor heating tubes. Remarkably, it makes so little noise that periodically I stick my head out of the door to reassure myself that it’s still turning.
We haven’t had the first EDF bill yet, but each night when I answer ‘the call’ and my feet feel a gentle warmth emanating from the terracotta tiles beneath them, I mouth a little mantra of thanks to Mitsubishi.
If it proves as reliable and as economical as they say, then I may just reappraise our French winters.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Stop the Week 1

‘This week oy am wurring Dolce & Gabana jeans passed on to me boy moy discerning nephew, Bas. He’s good to his old ooncle is moy nephew, Bas.’
Don’t you reckon there’s nothing like a good western? My daughter and I watched a great one over the course of two extended suppers in front of the telly (a thing which of course, you understand, we rarely do in this civilised home). Robert Aldrich’s ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ is a thoughtful, morally complex film starring the incomparable Burt Lancaster. It’s cavalry versus the Apaches set in the desert of southern Arizona and I commend it most heartily to you.
I was never a big fan of Led Zeppelin for some reason. But I watched an hour long programme on Robert Plant (‘In his own words’) and I really warmed to the curly haired gentleman. So I borrowed the hit record he made with Alison Krause from our extraordinary music library in Brive. Behold, it is just about as good as they say. Their voices work together in wondrous harmony and the music is often uplifting.
This week, too, I have been re-discovering The Doors, trying to get over that feeling of bombast that I often associate with Jim Morrison. ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘Riders On The Storm’ are still matchless, but there’s much more to them besides.
The helio-eccentric Sun Ra
On Monday morning over coffee, I allowed myself the time to listen to – really listen to – a wonderful album by Lloyd Miller & the Heliocentrics that goes by the same title. It came out a few months ago on Strut, that most cultivated of small independent labels. Lloyd Miller himself is a bit of an independent: a maverick figure on the periphery of the jazz scene. It’s a little like ‘Sun Ra visits the Middle East’, but without the avant-garde assaults of the star ship Arkestra. Just beautiful, captivating, atmospheric jazz of the first order.
I’ve also been re-discovering Duke Pearson’s ‘The Right Touch’ on Blue Note. It has been gathering dust on the shelves for far too long. There are seven tight Pearson compositions beautifully arranged for an octet that features Stanley Turrentine’s bluesy tenor and Freddie Hubbard’s elegant trumpet. Anyone who likes the music of Oliver Nelson should investigate this. Forthwith!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The satisfaction of a well organised cave

I’ve always admired and envied my brother-in-law, Alan. Not simply because he had the gumption, courage and acumen to start his own company – specialising in the project management of wind farms – and grow it into a thriving concern. No. Even more because he always has the tidiest, most organised desk that I’ve ever seen.
No matter the number or frequency of my pushes and offensives on the desk front, my ‘work station’ still remains a mess. I work surrounded by cacti, pens, scraps of paper, model Citroëns, leads and flexes, notebooks, old cheque books and general ‘stuff’. There are papers and diaries at my feet because there’s no room on the desktop. My post piles up for weeks at a stretch. The longer I leave it, the more terrified I become at the prospect of addressing it.
Yet I have this image of myself as a methodical, organised individual. It must be a delusion. I’m sure that if I could find the secret to keeping my desk tidy I’d be earning big bucks like Alan, rather than working for peanuts ever since I made the mistake of going self-employed.
When my friends Steve the plumber and Paul the electrician came to install our new Mitsubishi heat pump, I was so appalled, so ashamed and humiliated, by the state of our cave (or to use, as we never do now, the English word – cellar) that I resolved to do something about it. If I could organise our cave, logic would suggest that I could organise my desk.
So I bought myself three remarkably cheap sets of self-standing metal shelves from Monsieur Bricolage. I assembled them without turning the air too blue. And I started work. I made them into an L-shaped storage space in one corner of the cave for my essential tools – and took it from there.
Last weekend was a picture-window of opportunity. My wife, Deborah, was away in Brussels on another of her courses, learning still more about how to probe to the heart of the human condition. The sun shone on Saturday and I was able to move the most cumbersome impedimenta outside to provide room inside for manoeuvre. To use the catchphrase of an old acting friend of my wife’s, who came out one summer to lend a hand in our old farmhouse in the Corrèze, ‘Let the dog see the rabbit’.
Spurred on by the daydream of showing Debs, Steve or Paul through the door and watching them gasp in admiration, I worked with drive and gusto. If I could just finish it before she got back, then what a good boy I would be.
The more organised it grew, the more intensely glowed my pride and the harder I worked. There’s surely a lesson there for the educational theorists of this world. Maybe Mr. Cameron would employ me as his secondary modern guru. From the humble beginnings of a cave cleaner, I would rise to a position of influence and power…

Well, I did it. This is the result. Unfortunately, I never thought to document the hideous ‘before’. But look at it now. Look upon my work, ye people, and let glad orisons ring out.
How long it will stay in this state remains to be seen. ‘Oil give eet foive months.’ No, no. Longer, I’m sure. I’m proud of my cave. I shimmer now with smug self-satisfaction.
The question is: can I bottle the essence of that feeling and apply it next to my desk?