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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Room 237

Well, Christmas sped by, as I predicted it would. There will be some pleasant memories to dredge up in coming years, but already Christmas 2010 is receding hazily into the past. There’s still New Year’s Eve to come, but after that it’s January, that most unrelenting, hopeless of months:
I was hoping that our tree might just soldier on till the new year, but I made the mistake of picking the first shapely one I could find from the pile outside the supermarket, and overlooked the fact that it was rootless. Alfie’s tail and the underfloor heating did for it. By yesterday, it was visibly sagging under the weight of the decorations. It had to go. This morning, just after my sister and brother-in-law headed back to Limoges airport and thence to Southampton, my daughter and I stripped it bare. My wife has draped the lights artistically around one of our free-standing shelf units. It looks pretty enough to help fill the vacuum left by our denuded tree.
'Ze Shinink'
With my sister gone and the socialising over, we all sat down early this evening to watch the DVD that formed part of Tilley’s present. The Shining. It must have been at least 30 years since I’ve seen the film. Tilley sat on the sofa clutching a cushion and constantly seeking reassurance, but all I could remember was the infamous ‘here’s Johnny!’ scene.
Kubrick pulled out all the stops: the discordant music, the long tracking shots in pursuit of vulnerable characters, the queasy décor, the visual clues scattered hither and thither, the nightmarish hallucinations (that must surely have inspired David Lynch, particularly when dreaming up Twin Peaks), the suffocating sense of claustrophobia.
I remembered Shelley Duvall’s dippy wife, Wendy, brandishing the kitchen knife unconvincingly, but I’d forgotten quite how often Jack Nicholson turned into a werewolf. And I’d forgotten the wonderful husky-voiced, bandy-legged actor, Scatman Caruthers, was in it – forever cherished here for his cameo in The King of Marvin Gardens (‘What’s your name, boy?’ ‘They call me Johnny the Wonder-boy…’ ‘Well I wonder why you don’t get the hell out of my kitchen’) – mainly, it seems, to deliver the snowmobile that enabled wife and son to get the hell out of that cold, cold place.
I’d also forgotten Room 237. Scatman warned the little boy about Room 237, but human beings can never resist temptation. The bedroom is the equivalent of Pandora’s Box. And as soon as little Danny enters the forbidden room, all hell breaks loose. All the resident evil in that snowbound hotel rushes out like a gust of wind.
Christmas is my personal Room 237. Dashing around my supermarkets of choice just before the festivities, I found myself as usual recklessly putting all kinds of things that I would never usually contemplate into the trolley: bottle of champagne, smoked salmon, ludicrously expensive Swedish crispbread, German Christmas cake, chocolate, more chocolate…
Starting on Christmas Eve, the next week or so becomes one long snack. After my sister’s departure, Debs and I swore abstinence only to succumb immediately to an opened bottle of wine. Our daughter accused us of ‘hitting the liquor again’. She no longer recognises her normally abstemious parents.
What is it about Christmas that causes you to lose all sense of reason? Is it the fact that it represents the end of a long, hard year? Is it the thought of January to come – and all those weeks of little more than leaks, cabbage and potatoes? I don’t know the answer. It’s a question of eat now, pay later.
I only hope that when retribution comes – as it surely must – it doesn’t come in the shape of a deranged, unshaven half-man/half-werewolf wielding an axe.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Stop the Week 6

It’s Christmas Day! It snuck up on me, like I knew it would. I should have taken my cue from the weather. The temperature plunged alarmingly, an Arctic wind blew up and snow fell the other night when we were least expecting it, tucked up tight in our beds. There it was the next day, deep and crisp and even, turning the place into a winter wonderland.
It's a winter wonderland
The upshot of the matter is: we have a White Christmas. Bing the C. need dream no more. But Christmas has fallen on a Saturday this year and it doesn’t seem quite right. Taking Alf on his walk this morning, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. It just wasn’t like a Saturday. A Sunday’s fine, but a Saturday somehow doesn’t work properly.
Never mind, it’s Christmas and we’ve already opened our stockings together in the parental bed, made our phone calls to family and friends and opened our presents to each other. My daughter spent her pocket money on the most beautiful book on Paul Gauguin for her dad. I was touched to the core. And when she told me that she got it for a petit prix in a remainder shop, I was even more pleased. Clearly she’s a chip off the old block.
I did my customary bit and bought myself some music in anticipation of a cheque from my parents – most of which goes on practical things like electricity bills, but a little bit of which goes on frivolities for their son. I’ve already unwrapped another in my collection of Harmonia Mundi boxed sets of the best jazz from a given year. I wait until the discs cost little more than a euro each – and then I swoop. This 1955 set truly lives up to the generic name of the series: Les trésors du jazz. Check out amazon.fr, pop-pickers.
My sister and brother-in-law arrive tomorrow evening and they’re bringing a few more of my indulgences. There’s a double CD collection of that most romantic but tragic soul-singing partnership: Marvin Gaye and the delectable Tammi Terrell. She collapsed in his arms and poor bereaved Marvin was never the same man after that.
There’s a double CD of two of Horace Silver’s lesser-known gems from the 50s, which amazon.co.uk are virtually giving away. I saw the Great Man in Brighton once. It was a thrill, though slightly marred by Andy Bey’s vocals. He’s a good enough vocalist, but the joy of Horace Silver’s brand of funky jazz was its simplicity. It’s lack of unnecessary embellishments – like vocals.
Most of all, though, I’m a-quiver at the prospect of the complete works of Billie Holiday on the Columbia label. Many of them are in the company of her beloved Lester Young, he of the original pork-pie hat, who held his tenor sax at roughly 45 degrees off vertical, almost as if he were nursing an infant. Few would bother arguing that her Columbia recordings are probably the greatest examples of jazz vocals ever recorded.
An unassuming, mousey little man in the finance office of Brighton Unemployment Benefit Office introduced me to them over 25 years ago, when I wasn’t long out of university and eager to learn as much as I possibly could from whatever source presented itself. Alan lent me his treasured collection of double LPs, not knowing whether I might be one of those dreadful types given to scratching and fingering vinyl, but presumably prepared to make that leap of faith because of my youthful enthusiasm. There wasn’t a lot I could do to reciprocate, but I shall never forget his trust and generosity.
I’ve just eaten a bowl of cream of chestnut soup peeled by my good self and prepared by my dear wife. I’ve just listened to the Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet play ‘George’s Dilemma’. My daughter has just requested Sergeant Pepper. So my cup of yuletide joy overfloweth. It’s a happy Christmas for the privileged few on earth.
I bring you all glad tidings of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Lardon Conundrum

For almost 15 years, we’ve known this woman who lived near us when we had our house in the Corrèze. She used to run a goat farm and we bought our cheese from her. Now she works as a therapist with people who are, for one reason or another, emotional or mental wrecks. She speaks softly and smiles warmly and I guess she’s thought of in these parts as somewhat alternative.
She and some of her ‘alternative’ friends took part in one of Debbie’s first courses on aromatherapy. And she’s been coming to see her on and off as a client ever since. The point is, she’s the type of individual who should know better.
Whenever they share lunch together, this woman never fails to bring something with meat in it – even though she’s known for years that Debs is (whisper the word) a vegetarian. In France, you see, vegetarians are either green-toed web-fingered freaks – or English people.
Yesterday, she and Debs had a snack lunch together after a treatment ‘in my lady’s’ clinic. Tilley and I took bets on what this woman would bring with her. We decided that it was odds-on something with lardons in it. Bacon bits, that is. And we all know that vegetarians don’t mind eating lardons. They can’t do, because they often feature here in vegetarian options.
So when her mother got back from another long day’s journey into night, Tilley asked immediately what this woman had brought to eat. A kind of pizza, this time, with potatoes – and lardons. She thought that Debs wouldn’t mind picking them out of the pizza.
Tilley’s outrage made her mother feel ashamed that she hadn’t confronted the woman. But 15 years of apologising for your beliefs wears you down in the face of such… what, intolerance? Ignorance? Sheer bloody-mindedness, perhaps. It’s an attitude akin to: this is our country and we do things our way; don’t think that we’re going to pander to your fancy-Dan ideas and notions.
Father and daughter - out come the freaks
Poor Tilley, though, has every right to feel outrage. She has suffered more than her parents have for her refusal to succumb to the indigenous cuisine. Now she’s at the lycée in Brive, she can eat her lunch at the clinic with her mum, safe in the knowledge that it will be free of lardons and goose grease. But during her long school career here (they start at école maternelle between 2 and 3 years old, when they’re propre – or out of nappies), she’s been made to feel like an outcast of society in the various canteens she’s sampled.
We’ve written letters, talked to the people in charge, talked even to the people who cook the food. It never made an iota of difference. Debs once went to see the mayor of the relevant commune. She asked, ‘what about Moslems, who don’t eat pork? You wouldn’t do anything for them?’ His reply was a contemptuous shrug.
Many was the day when Tilley would come home exhausted – not simply because it’s a long, arduous school day here, but also because she was just plain undernourished. An ‘effort’ constituted a plate of green beans or a bit of pasta with some butter or grated cheese. It was as if she were being punished for a childish caprice.
There’s a prevalent notion that you’re a vegetarian because you’re fussy. Another of Debbie’s clients talked of how relieved she is now that her grandson had given up his nonsense of wishing to be a vegetarian and was finally eating the meat that she served him. Fussy no more, in other words. Debs told her that she herself is a vegetarian not because she’s fussy, but because she detests the way animals are farmed and then transported to the slaughterhouse. ‘Oh gosh, you don’t want to think like that,’ her client told her. ‘I tell my butcher that I just want the meat. I don’t want to see the head or the hooves. That way it’s just meat, not an animal.’
Christmas is coming and the thousands of geese in these parts are getting fat. Not long now before they’re trussed up and turned into a roast. We haven’t yet decided what we’ll be eating together on Saturday, but we’ll do nicely, thank you. And whatever it is, we won’t be picking lardons out of it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Stop the Week 4

Now what was I saying last week? Never trust a beaten Australian... And do we listen? Do we ‘eck as like? All this talk of an Australian cricket team in disarray, of an England team performing like an Australian team of yesteryear. Our media, commentators and assorted ex-cricketers never learn. Don’t they realise that any British team’s position of strength comes from being cast as the underdogs?
But no. We have to go ‘bigging up’ our boys. (Is there anyone else out there who hates such perversion of the English language? What’s wrong with the purpose-built verb ‘to aggrandize’? Yes, I know that you’d never hear it from the mouths of X-Factor judges – as in, ‘Danii, you’ve been aggrandizing Matt all night; it’s got to stop’. Where does it come from? I reckon there’s only two species of human being congenitally capable of turning nouns into verbs: Americans or… Strylians.)
Yes, so we go aggrandizing or inflating our boys Down Under in just the same way as we’ve done our inept national football teams over the last three decades or so – and look at the result. We revert immediately to type. Our batsmen collapse. Spurred on no doubt by some inspirational team talks from Richard ‘Ricky’ Ponting (‘Listen mites; we’re supposed to be flamin’ Strylians and we’re performing like a load of Pommie pooftas out there. Remember who you are, mites. Remember your Strylian heritage. Why do you think God blessed with us so much sun and so little between the ears? Now go out there and thrash those limp-wristed bastards!’), the men in the baggy caps have re-gained the initiative. Momentum has swung and I fear the worst.
Anyway. That’s my problem. On this freezing cold day on the other side of the world from the shenanigans with bat and ball, I was very saddened to read of the death of Captain Beefheart. Don Van Vliet, singer, painter and, one of anendangered species of unique artists. A mere 69. This was a man who could pen lyrics like ‘Tropical hot dog night/Like two flamingos in a fruit fight…’ and sing them like a progeny of Howling Wolf.
As an adolescent wannabe hippy, I had a picture of the Captain’s occasional collaborator, Frank Zappa, on my bedroom wall. But the Captain was just too weird. It was only with the coming of manhood that I came to appreciate his mad gumbo of jazz, blues and anything avant-garde he cared to throw into the mix. It was a type of music that tended to go down better with men than women. I once bought a copy of The Spotlight Kid for a girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, the relationship didn’t last very long. Thankfully, performances like ‘Upon The My O My’ upon the Old Grey Whistle Test will be preserved for posterity on You Tube.
And finally… Me and the Missus have been really enjoying Channel Four’s Any Human Heart. The jury was out after Episode 1, but we’re hooked now after three episodes. Matthew McFadyen has morphed disquietingly into Jim Broadbent now, which is a little disquieting. But once you get over the shock, it doesn’t half bring home the poignancy of passing time.
Only another eight days till Christmas. Another Christmas. Whither goest the time so quickly?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Petit Sapin de Noël

For several days our Christmas tree has stood naked and forlorn in one of the old chimney pots we brought with us from our terraced house in Sheffield.
Until this evening, that is. Spurred on by the pulsating funk of Azymuth’s ‘Jazz Carnival’ – who remembers dancing to that on disco floors as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s, pop-pickers? – we three set to during an hour of concerted activity to dress our tree and turn it into something symbolic and magical.
It’s a symbolic moment because it means that Christmas is really coming on strong now. I don’t count the electric houses that have been brazenly flashing their wares at passing motorists between here and Brive for the last ten days or so. Climbing Santas and winking lights are everywhere, but I don’t count them: all those brash decorations fail to speak of Christmas spirit – just life’s relentless competition to keep up with the Joneses/Du Ponts.
I love our petit sapin de Noël – and all that goes with it. Decorating it this evening made me feel as happy and as excited about the coming of Christmas as it makes me feel sad and deflated when we sweep up all the fallen pine needles and carefully put the decorations back in the box marked ‘Xmas Dex’ for next year.

Myrtle poised to pounce
It means now that when I get up each morning, the routine includes switching on the Christmas tree lights. They stay on till the shutters rise to let in the morning and they come back on as soon as they go down to shut out the night. Myrtle has already left the box of chestnuts by the fire – surely the equivalent of a bed of nails – to park her extremely large frame on the steps beside the tree in an attempt to hook off a bauble or two.
Now that the tree is decorated and our friend Dan has brought us back a copy of the Christmas Radio Times from his recent trip to Bristol, I’m made up. I’m too old to open the little doors of advent calendars, so I leave that to Tilley. She announces the day each morning like a sailor reading out the depth.

My excitement builds up to a crescendo on Christmas Eve. That’s just about my favourite day of the year: the shortest day has been and gone, so we’re back on the slow climb towards balmy days and light evenings; the presents are wrapped and sitting round the tree; my wife is off work and our daughter has ‘broken up’ and the Big Day is still to come. By the 25th, everything has already started to deflate. Melancholia sets in, as it does on the longest day of the year, like the coming of a cold.

Daisy unimpressed by her sister's antics

But, hey! I’m not going to start thinking about that on this joyful evening. Thanks to our little tree from the local Intermarché in its Sheffield chimney pot, I’m going to start focusing my thoughts on the last moments of Christmas Eve: when we’ve probably watched a good movie and switched off the telly and the whole house is silent – nothing stirring, not even the mouse that Myrtle has brought in and set free so she can spend the next few days playing a game of watch and wait, not even Alf wriggling in his wicker basket – and Debs and I can sneak a stocking into Tilley’s bedroom, and then leave one for each other at the foot of our bed in readiness for the morrow.
There’s an Arctic wind blowing tonight, which presages the snow forecast for the end of the week. So who knows? Christmas 2010 could well be a white one. The last one of those we had here, Debs slipped and broke her shoulder. Er… what was I saying about the magic of Christmas?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stop the Week 4

Mine eyes have seen the glory of our cricketers not just beating the feared and loathed Australians, but pounding them into an Antipodean pulp. It’s a wonderful feeling, but it’s tinged with nervous anticipation of the next three test matches. Never trust a beaten Aussie; he’s always likely to get right up again and administer an even sounder beating. I can’t rest easy in my bed at night until England notch up the second victory that will guarantee the return to these shores of that miniature urn full of the ashes of burnt bails. Strange the way we get so worked up over such a tiny trophy.
I see it as one of my missions in life to pass on my love of film to our daughter. Just in case she is ever called upon to deliver a treatise on Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. This week it was Mike Leigh’s wonderful Secrets and Lies under the spotlight. We love Tim Spall in this house and his portrayal of the sweet and slovenly brother, Maurice, was as touching as they come. Mike Leigh’s methodology inspires actors to get so deeply into their characters that they come up with lovely telling details like the miniature rucksack that Maurice’s assistant wore during the climactic get-together.
Friday night is music night on BBC Four. I look forward to it every week. This week, the two lovely folk-singing Unthank sisters – Rachel and Becky, they of the heavenly voices, the frumpy frocks, the old-fashioned charm and the kind of earth-mother figures that would send the cartoonist, Robert Crumb, into a sexual frenzy – presented Still Folk Dancing After All These Years. (Or ‘yairs’, as the sisters would pronounce it in their frost-melting Northumbrian accents.)
The Coco-Nuts
It was a six-month tour of Britain in search of obscure folk-dancing troupes and traditions. Before I fell asleep in front of the telly, I witnessed some courageously daft groups, like the leaping Morris dancers of wherever it was near Oxford. I once went to a traditional Breton wedding in the heart of ancient Brittany that featured hurdy-gurdies, obscure reed instruments and prancing hanky-wielding dancers in jerkins and/or lace dresses, and it stirred my soul.
The Prime of Mr.
Wilko Johson
But I’ve never seen any folk dancers as gloriously lunatic as the blacked-up Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup, Lancs. It was like something that Spike Milligan might have dreamed up for Q9, or whatever his show was called. These are the real Mad Men: one day each year they get dolled up like a troupe of pantomime dames to slap and shuffle their way around Bacup, Lancs, a one-horse mill town in the shadow of the Pennines. Mar-vellous!
Good as it was, though, it wasn’t one of those Friday night programmes that you want to record for posterity – like the Black Sabbath story, or Julian Temple’s Oil City Confidential, the story of Dr. Feelgood, fronted by the manic but utterly loveable Wilko Johnson, or, best of all perhaps, the heart-wrenching story of Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane and the tragic aftermath of a reunion concert with his fellow New York Dolls.
Roll on next Friday; roll on the next test match.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Par le nez

Now that our Grand Designs re-visit has been broadcast, Debs and I can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
When we tuned in last Wednesday night, we clung to each other like monkeys in a laboratory for fear that the programme would be slanted in a way that would depict us a pair of airy-fairy nerds. In the end, we were relieved that Kevin’s verdict on the Sampsons was favourable. Not guilty, m’lud.
Apart from the unnerving experience of seeing how you’ve aged in six years, one moment in particular made me cringe. Admittedly talking back in 2004 when the original programme was aired, our Kevin gaily suggested that you could eat and drink like a king here for next to nothing.
I’ve long maintained that the cost of living in France is noticeably higher than it is back home. OK, so you can still find ‘white-van restaurants’ that offer an ‘artisan lunch’ for around €12. Frankly, though, you could eat more cheaply, more nutritiously and much more interestingly at Wagamama’s in the very centre of London.
The exchange rate doesn’t help matters, but – once you’ve bought a house here and saved on what you’d spend on property in the UK – everything from food and clothes to electrical goods and (particularly) building materials costs significantly more in France. For something like a new boiler, it would be worth it to drive all the way back to the UK, buy the product and drive all the way back again. Besides, you’d get some kind of customer service as part of the package.
But it’s the taxes that hurt the most. I once sat beside a young student from Limoges on the train to Paris. She asked me about the expat experience in France and I told her that one of the pleasures for me was the French code of politesse. Being civilised and decent to one another (except on the road). Ah yes, she said, but it’s quite banal. She meant, I think, that ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sin-zerrity.’
It’s the same with the fiscal system here. It seems to me insincere, even fundamentally dishonest. In the UK, one pays income tax, council tax and your TV license – and that’s essentially it. You know where you stand. Here you pay income tax plus a plethora of incomprehensible stealth taxes, both local and national. And if you survive all those, there’s a wealth tax – for Johnny Halliday and others of his kidney to avoid by de-camping to some foreign tax haven.
A few years ago, for example, the government introduced a not insignificant social charge designed to chip away at the national debt. It was, we were told, for a limited time only. Hurry, hurry, hurry, citoyens! Pay your social charge and help to make the motherland solvent again. However, the citizens are still paying – in steady annual increments – for their government’s profligacy.
Our diminutive president, who professes to espouse the Anglo-American economic model, probably felt it anachronistic to tax the self-employed for any subversive entrepreneurial instincts. So the taxe professionelle was phased out with great hullabaloo – and replaced, once the hullabaloo had quietened, with something still more incomprehensible.
Space + natural beauty = quality of life?
Recently, some friends moved back, reluctantly, to the UK. Steve is as good a plumber as you could find – and everyone knows that a skilled, honest and reliable plumber doesn’t come cheap. He worked his socks off to service more clients, French and British, than he could shake a length of copper pipe at. Yet he found himself unable to pay his cotisations and ran into problems with the bank. He was shelling out thousands per year on pension, health insurance, unemployment insurance, this and that insurance. There was no way out but to sell up and go back to the land of the NHS and everything else we tend to take for granted in the U.K.
In certain Scandinavian countries, I’m told, the natives pay 50% of their income towards their excellent welfare provision. We would throw up our hands in horror back home. 50%!? Achtung, Gott in himmel. But they’re happy enough to do it because they know what they’re getting in return. Here you pay at least that much, but because the official stats are massaged, you don’t always realise it – until you find that you can’t pay your winter fuel bills. Moreover, what you get for your money diminishes annually in direct ratio to what you fork out. It’s called chipping away at the national debt.
I shouldn’t carp: we have some very artistic floral roundabouts to show for it all in nearby Brive. This must be part of that renowned quality of life that Kevin McCloud also mentioned. It does exist; it’s not a myth. Much of it, however, is due to the natural beauty and a sense of space that comes from living in a bigger country than our cramped little ‘sceptred isle’.
I don’t wish to dissuade anyone thinking of swapping ‘the green, green grass of home’ for greener grass across the water, I simply want to warn you that you pay for your quality of life. Par le nez. Through the nose.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stop the Week 3

This week I’ve been re-discovering a box-set of Trojan-label lovers’ rock, which I picked up years ago in Fopp, my favourite record shop in London, for something fairly notional like a tenner.
While I was preparing for this morning’s sub-zero constitutional with Alf, my daughter called me into her bedroom. ‘Is this Inner Circle, dad?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I answered with astonishment. ‘It’s their version of the old Stylistics’ number, “You Make Me Feel Brand New”. The singer, Jacob Miller, has been dead for yonks. How on earth do you know about Inner Circle?’ I imagined it might have been featured in Shrek 17 or something like that.
Jacob and mate Bob laugh off the rising cost of ganja
‘Did he… have dreadlocks?’
‘Yes, most of them did. I saw them once in Brighton, supporting Average White Band.’
‘Did you?’ she asked with what I took to be genuine interest. 
So there I was, thinking I might be able to dig out some of my old Mighty Diamonds’ LPs for her edification, when she smiled archly and revealed the mobile telephone in her hand. It’s some fiendishly clever application that identifies music playing via the internet. These youngsters. She’s a monkey, that daughter of mine, raising my hopes like that…
Signficantly beter than sliced bread
In her mother’s absence (on another therapeutic course in Brussels this weekend), Tilley and I watched the last episode of Mad Men. A cracker. But that’s it for God knows how long, now that Richard Murdoch and his running dogs at Sky (or whatever it’s called these days) have bought the rights. Our family fix will have to come now from the occasional box-set. I still think that The Sopranos may be the single finest piece of TV drama, but Mad Men has certainly been the most enjoyable. Devotees of The Wire will probably tell me to wise up, but I couldn’t go through all that grim, brutal reality.
Me and the missus were mightily relieved that the Grand Designs re-visit on Wednesday night didn’t turn us into a pair of namby-pamby alternative dip-sticks. At least, I like to think it didn’t.  I spent the next day courageously phoning up the newspaper editors I’d contacted by e-mail the day before. Most of them weren’t there or were too busy, and not one person I spoke to either watched the programme or wanted an article from me. As my dear friend Trevor, the PR guru, so succinctly put it: most TV is like newspapers – the next day’s chip paper.
One good – and rather astonishing – thing emerged from the next day’s chip paper. Our friend Sophie, who lives but 15 minutes from here, spotted a long lost bag that she’d bought as a souvenir of a holiday to New Zealand. It was hanging in our kitchen. It took a prime-time national TV programme to unearth her bag and reveal the Sampsons as untrustworthy souvenir-thieves.
You will, I’m sure, be delighted to hear that Sophie is now reunited with her Kiwi bag. I’m still fruitlessly trying to place an article, but, as the immortal Viv Stanshall would have it, ‘Life’s like that, isn’t it?’ I’m heartened at least that the boy Alastair is doing great things Down Under. May he put those bumptious Aussies firmly to the sword!
Shame about the World Cup bid, but it only goes to prove the truth of the maxim that ‘the best laid plans of mice and men come to nought in the face of bribery and corruption.’ They hate us because we invented the ‘beautiful game’ and we’ve got the most exciting and truly international league in the world. Put that pensée in your pipe, Mr. blinkin’ Blatter, and set light to it…

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Day in the Life

‘I rise at six and I feed the chicks…’
And that’s about all I can remember of a daft single by Benny Hill called ‘Harvest of Love’. My parents’ friends, Bill and Irene, gave it to them. They never really played it, but we kids would play it over and over on the old Ekco gramophone. ‘And oi’ll reap the ‘aaarvest of love…’
The point is, I do rise at six.  I say that, not in a self-justificatory way (as my mother has always justified her existence by claiming that she’s been ‘up since 5.30’ – though she usually fails to explain exactly what she’s been doing since 5.30; cutting peat?), but because it’s a necessity in this household.
My ‘girls’ leave for Brive at an ungodly hour. Just after seven, in fact. Tilley starts school at eight and Debs is often treating clients by 8.30. The journey to Brive takes half an hour and you have to add on ten minutes for Tilley to apply her make-up.
So I rise at six to speed them on their way. While our daughter spends far too long in the shower, I stoke the fire, make sure that the new heat pump is still turning and boil a kettle for our first-thing therapeutic hot lemons. And while the water is boiling, I give Daisy and Myrtle their croquettes and Alf his starter-for-five of bread scraps steeped in dog-food gravy. ‘Mmm, nice Max.’
I then get them their breakfast, sort out their lunch and look them out a CD for the journey. By raising shutter no.2, they can go out by the French windows we’ve always used rather than the front door at the side of the house, which I’ve failed to convince them to use.
Waiting for daylight, I tend to write my journal or try to get to the end of the chapter of the book that fell out of my hand in bed the night before. And when daylight arrives, I get dressed, go down to my still remarkably tidy cave, check that the boiler is still alight after Tilley’s shower, add salt to the water softener, pump up the bicycle tyres and take Alf out on his morning constitutional.
Back in the warmth, I turn on the computer. While it goes through its 20-minute warm-up routine, I make myself two cup-lets of egregiously strong coffee and listen to some ‘damn fine’ music as I muse about the day ahead.
Displacement activities like making the beds
After a quick look at the BBC and Guardian headlines just to reassure myself that I do still live in a big world outside this house, I start work. That might be an e-learning script or an article when I have paid work, or some current creative project when I don’t. Despite my uncommonly comfortable chair, I get up frequently and engage in such displacement activities as bed-making, sink-shining and tug-of-war with our demanding dog.
Have lunch, then either repeat or, if it’s not too inclement, get outside for some futile bit of gardening or some rather more critical maintenance to the house.  Allow to simmer till 4.30 or thereabouts when it’s time to feed the cats and to give Alf his main course – of croquettes moistened with dog-food gravy. ‘Mmm, nice Max.’
The last of the daylight allows me just enough time to give Alf his second ‘bicyclical’ constitutional of the day. It often coincides with the passing of the school bus. I wave cheerily at the driver. Depending on who’s behind the wheel, I may get a rather diffident acknowledgement. They probably think I’m mad.
And then I shut up shop for the day: retrieve wood, stack by side door and click on innumerable switches to send the shutters down on their graceful and technologically impressive descents. Since the ‘girls’ don’t get back from Brive till gone eight most evenings, I have time to carry on computing (they never filmed that one, did they?) before preparing supper.
After said supper, we might watch a little telly. Unless it’s Mad Men, Debs is usually asleep within five minutes. If it’s something particularly good, I’ll record it so she can watch the next five minutes the following evening. Then we go to bed with many Walton-esque declarations of everlasting love. ‘G’night grampaw…’ I read until the book slips out of my hand and wakes me with a start as it crashes to the floor.
Yes, ‘it’s Friday, it’s five o’clock and it’s…’ The Life of Reilly!! Hmm. Maybe I’d better start justifying my existence.