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.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Thank You Letters


Inevitably, once you become an adult – once you assume the responsibility of filling the stockings, because you know that, if you don’t, no one else will  – Christmas loses some of its magic. From a certain age onwards, you have to experience it vicariously via the smiling faces of (your) children.

However, there are compensations. One of them is: you no longer have to write ‘thank you letters’. As an adult, a telephone call (or these days an e-mail) will generally suffice. Today is Boxing Day. It’s the day when all your Christmas presents go back into their boxes. And it’s the day when all those smiling children (‘I’ll soon wipe that grin off your face, Sunshine’) have to sit down and write down a list of all the people to whom they have to write thank you letters. And if you’re a very, very good child, Boxing Day is also the day when you sit down and actually write some of those projected letters.  

Children get far more presents than adults do, so the writing of these letters is a task that is requiring-to-be not-underestimated (as my old Latin master, Dezzy Spence, might have put it). This year, conscious of the annual battle of wills between both parents and a stubborn daughter, skilled in the ways of The Procrastinator (or Procrastinatrix?), which generally stretches for a good fortnight after Christmas Day, we suggested to our daughter that she might consider the tactic of writing one letter per day. Boxing Day is nearing its close and I haven’t seen any sign of that first missive. 

Being a goody-two-shoes, I used to write my thank you letters in one great outpouring of literary creativity. Like Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps, on a drunken binge, I would sit down at our ‘morning room’ (or would ‘mourning room’ have been a more appropriate label?) table and rattle off eight, nine, ten, or however many it took – at a single sitting. Everyone from the grandparents to any obscure relative thoughtful enough to send us a cheque or a ten-bob note.  

I am not inhuman, however. I have never even suggested that The Daughter should repeat such epistolary endurance feats. What’s more, I’ve passed on all the tricks of the trade and even given her a template for production-line success: start with a short paragraph expressing thanks for whatever gift it was that Dear Uncle This and Auntie That bestowed upon you (and if it was money, suggest how you might spend said money); state your heartfelt wish that they have passed a good Christmas and sketch how it was that you passed your own; talk about some of the other presents you received this year (without making them feel guilty that their own present might not measure up to the others); and end by wishing them a Happy New Year and reiterating your undying gratitude for their gracious gift (in the unspoken hope that they will repeat the gesture next Christmas)..

Easy-peasy. However, all my aides, all my prompting, cajoling, threats and sarcasm, never seem to have any effect. We always end up going the distance. Usually, some time around the final evening before the return to school, our daughter’s intransigence finally buckles in the face of relentless parental pressure. The crazy thing is that, once she starts, she’ll polish them off in a matter of a couple of days. I wonder sometimes whether it’s the ‘common courtesy’ angle that wears her down, or whether it’s the ultimate threat: that people won’t bother sending her anything next year. No matter. It works. Eventually.  

Just to show you that I may be an adult now, but I haven’t forgotten my roots, I’m going to finish with a thank you letter of my own. I like to get them out of the way, you see. That way they’re not hanging over my head for the rest of the holidays like the sword of Damocles.

Dear Reader,
Thank you very much for reading my blogs in this Year of Our Lord, 2011.
I hope you had a nice Christmas this year. We certainly did. Our little ‘soirée’ on Christmas Eve went very well. Myrtle the cat sat on our bed all evening among a pile of guests’ coats that got bigger and bigger. Alfie, our dog, stayed in the room with her most of the time, which is strange because normally he likes gatherings of people. Friends’ children played with Tilley’s Playmobil in the spare room and didn’t break anything precious. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and they left early enough for us to tidy up and watch Son of Rambow, which was brilliant.
On Christmas Day, we had Brussels sprouts with our nut roast thanks to Bio-Woman at the local market. We all watched Spartacus in the evening. Kirk Douglas has the deepest dimple ever seen on celluloid. It was brilliant. My best friend phoned from New York just before it was time for bed and now I know he’s still in the Land of the Living.
This Christmas I got a brilliant book on Art Nouveau from my wife and daughter, an immense History of Europe from my wife, some brilliant Black & Decker work gloves from my mother-in-law that have got little rubber nipples all over them, which means that you can grip things like logs, so I can use them for fetching wood for the fire (among other things), a double boxed set of Cotton Club recordings by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and others of their kidney, which I bought for 90 cents in Cash Converter and which I wrapped up for myself, pretending that my parents had bought it for me, and I got lots and lots and lots of chocolate.
Well, I’d better go. Thanks again for reading my blogs and I hope you’ll continue to read them in 2012. I hope you have a brilliant New Year and let’s hope that 2012 won’t be quite so disastrous for the environment, for humanity and for the animal kingdom as 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 etc. were.
Yours truly,
Mark

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Un-extended Family Christmas


That’s it, then. The first page of the Christmas Radio Times has been consulted. The tree from Intermarché has been stuffed into the old chimney pot we brought with us from Sheffield and expertly decorated by the women folk. All along the route from here to Brive, Father Christmases are busy clambering over illuminated houses. The weather is getting colder and Phil Spector’s Christmas Album has been dusted off for another year. Yes, the Yuletide season is upon us once again. So bring us a figgy pudding!

Yesterday afternoon I went to my first Christmas drinks party: an intimate affair in nearby Turenne, l’un des plus beaux villages de France, in a Wendy house that has been converted tastefully into a small-but-perfectly-formed gîte. Plenty of mulled wine, mince pies and festive conversation. Everyone there, including us, will be here for the Christmas weekend.  

It’s at Christmas that the expat can be particular susceptible to homesickness. During the ‘farmhouse years’, when we knew precious few compatriots and The Daughter was but an infant, we were both conscious of our fellow villagers, all gathering together with their extended families to enjoy the customary 36 courses on Christmas Eve. We felt excluded and… yes, not a little lonely. We both hankered after an extended family Christmas back home. So once, or maybe twice, we made the epic journey north. The A20 hadn’t quite been finished in those days, the globe had not yet warmed quite so alarmingly, and – because the ferry companies ramped up their prices to target hapless home-goers like us – the cost was alarming. 

Once in England, we soon realised the folly of our ways. At the best of times, traffic in the UK is hellish; at Christmas it’s positively apocalyptic. You rush hither and thither, visiting friends and relatives, living out of a suitcase and spending much of the time, when most self-respecting folk are tucked up warm and snug within the bosom of their family, driving up and down motorways in weather that’s fit for neither man nor beast. And when we got back, neither refreshed nor relaxed after our exhausting trip, we returned to a glacial house that would demand at least four days’ worth of wood before an equitable temperature was restored.   

Now, whenever I feel the slightest bit nostalgic for family Christmases past, I remind myself of one year in particular. It started badly with an argument between parents, with my mother accusing my father of being too merry at too early an hour. Things escalated as the grandparents rushed in to defend their particular offspring and we ‘kids’ chipped in with our two-penny worth. While the battle raged, there was a knock at the front door. I opened it and my giggling younger brother fell over the threshold, drunk as a waiter who has spent his tips on seasonal alcohol. Later, at the meal table, my mother gave a memorably maudlin peroration that concluded with a toast to ‘the fam’ly! Hic. My wonnerfll fam’ly’. Yes, our wonderful extended family – just a couple of years before both of my sisters were divorced, to be followed soon after by their older brother. 

Myrtle's dreaming of a white Christmas...
And so, for the last decade, we have stayed put. Just the three of us, with no obligations to anyone else, we can please ourselves. Our circle of friends now serves as a kind of extended family. On Christmas Eve, in the tradition of old friends from Sheffield, we invite people over to partake of pink fizz and selected nibbles – and kick them out before 10pm (unless my attempts to get people dancing on our terracotta dance-floor have borne fruit), so there’s time to take in a good film, fill our three stockings with inconsequential gifts and leave a little glass of port and a Clementine on the dining table for the old fellow with the white beard… Now I think of it, isn’t it rather strange that our dog doesn’t wake us with his apoplectic barking: a strange man in a red suit in our sitting room, with a team of reindeer stamping their hooves on the gravel outside? I guess it’s just another miraculous aspect of Christmas.

Nowadays, too, thanks to the miracle of 21st century technology, we can beam by satellite the post-prandial speech of our gracious British Majesty into our outmoded television set on the mezzanine level of our French home. We can even behold our parents and other assorted loved-ones as we speak to them on Christmas morning via Skype.

This year, despite the aversion of wife and daughter to such Yuletide delicacies, I have a Christmas pud of my very own to look forward to. I’ve just bought myself a carton of pre-package crème anglaise to accompany the heaviest dessert known to humanity. There’s a week to go and everything’s almost ready for our umpteenth small-but-unflustered family Christmas in France. 

Bring me that figgy pudding, then, and bring it right NOW! Personally, I’m not going till I’ve had one – and I’d advise all my fellow expats to do the same.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Making Steps


It’s a well-known fact that every French countryman is handy. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up in Mark’s Little Book of French Facts. Every French man who lives in the countryside is a keen bricoleur by disposition. He likes nothing better than to repair, modify or construct bits of his house and/or garden with the sort of useful stuff you find in Mr. Bricolage or the lorries that park in the marketplaces of small French towns to service the queues of men in berets and blue boiler suits, all clutching the prospectus that arrives in the post about a week or so beforehand. If you’re married to such a useful individual, you need never worry about what to buy him for Christmas. You buy him a tool or a gadget from Mr. Bricolage or a travelling lorry. 

It’s another well-known fact that British men who come here from some urban outpost of the United Kingdom are often not at all handy. I would number myself among this cadre of useless individuals. However, in the face of exemplary indigenous usefulness, one learns to mend one’s ways. I was talking about this learning process with a friend of mine the other day. He’s a graphic artist by trade and therefore, ostensibly, as ill equipped as I am for a practical life. He has only been here a few years, but he has made great strides and is now, I’m ashamed to admit it, much more useful than I am.  

Specifically, we were laughing about chainsaws. I know that chainsaws are generally no laughing matter – witness the celluloid devastation caused by masked men with chainsaws from Texas. In fact, I stopped on a couple of occasions recently during my dog-round to chat with a near neighbour. He speaks with cleft palette and is notoriously difficult to understand. On the first occasion, he showed me a new foreshortened chainsaw that he’d bought for one-handed tasks. On the second occasion, he showed me his heavily bandaged hand, which he’d lacerated while working with his new chainsaw. But Dan and I were laughing, because we both own chainsaws yet would never have dreamed of buying such lethal implements if we’d stayed put in the U.K. Manly tools like this are de rigeur in rural France. Dan has a proper chainsaw that runs on Sans Plomb 95. Mine is an electric chainsaw from Lidl. I used to have a bright yellow petrol-powered model from E. Leclerc, but I could never start the bloody thing. My Lidl chainsaw fires up every time you press the red button and it carries a three-year guarantee.

We both also own strimmers. The Australians call these whipper-snappers, or something equally strange. Mine is actually better than Dan’s because it’s got a Honda motor, but débroussailleuses (I trust that’s spelled correctly, as you don’t find words like that in the dictionary) are also something that neither of us would have dreamed of owning in the U.K. Within the first year of arriving in France, I realised that everyone in the village had one – and had one for a reason. It’s one thing mowing a manicured English back garden with a push-me-pull-you mower, but it’s another matter trying to tame terrain with such an implement. So I bought myself a strimmer from E. Leclerc and the Honda motor – touche bois – has never since let me down.

With tools like these, you learn quite quickly to be A Man. Of course, you make some howling mistakes along the way, but that’s what the learning process is all about, isn’t it? The upshot of the matter is that I’m now a lot handier than I was when I arrived in this country. I’m not quite Top of the Form material, but I now see myself as somewhere maybe half way along the Useless/Useful continuum. Believe me, that’s a big improvement.

With every notch you move along the continuum, your confidence grows. One of the great things about living with no close neighbours is that you can get on with your little projects without fear of someone looking over your shoulder, someone given to ostentatious tut-tutting and suggestions that you don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this. Here, there’s no one to know whether you’ve done a betise until it collapses. My wife and daughter, bless them, are unstinting in their encouragement, but probably couldn’t distinguish cowboy workmanship from the dog’s gonads if it jumped up and bit them.

Anyway, what I’m leading up to is the revelation that I made some garden steps on Friday afternoon. The mere idea that, a dozen or so years ago say, I would have filled an idle hour by making a set of steps out of wood off-cuts (donated by departing neighbours) to facilitate progress from the terrace to the compost bin, well it’s quite inconceivable. But there you are. It just goes to show that you are to a degree a product of your environment.

Ever since this triumph of construction, I’ve been taking every opportunity to go up and down my steps, partly I suppose to confound lingering doubts that I can Do It Myself. Miraculous to relate, they feel quite solid underfoot. Nor have I slipped yet on the way down. Lo! And the Lord looked down upon my creation and pronounced it good. 

On a recent trip back to England for a three-hour meeting (for pity’s sake) to kick off a new work project, I ‘overnighted’ with some old friends in Sheffield. After breakfast the next morning, mein host proudly showed me the greenhouse he’d built as a lean-to on the side of their house. I was almost aghast with admiration, having failed to appreciate that he was as useful as he clearly is. My steps aren’t quite in the same league, but I’m now so buoyed by my success that I’m already planning to make steps down both sides of the house. Who knows where it all might lead. Perhaps right down to the bottom of the field. Good grief, you might even find me one day when the lorry comes to Martel, queuing up with native bricoleurs in a beret and a blue boiler suit.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Talking Trash


I suppose it’s symptomatic of The Great Recession that one of the newest shops in the ‘main drag’ on the western edges of Brive is Cash Converter: a glorified pawn shop, where you can bring your wares – however acquired – and convert them into some paltry euros. If the shop had a legend or a strap line (an honest rather than a specious one, that is) it would probably be ‘Yo’ trash ain’t nothin’ but cash’.

Most of the stuff looks tawdry or dodgy, to put it mildly. But if you hunt long and hard enough, you can find some gen-u-ine bargains, which probably explains why it seems to be doing such a roaring trade, now as we approach Christmas at a time when people’s money generally is ‘too tight to mention’. I went in out of idle curiosity really, because the last thing I need – being an insatiable hoarder – is more stuff. 

However… there on the shelves, looking a little scratched and slightly dented, was a top-of-the-line JVC CD player, saying ‘take me, take me’. At €11,90 and with a smoothly functioning mechanism, I had to do just that. My reserve CD player, after all, is a DVD player from Lidl, which can move upstairs to the office to supplement the spare cassette player. So I duly tucked that under my armpit.

I had just enough time before hurrying off to pick up The Daughter from school to rifle through the CD bins. Sadly, it’s one of my favourite occupations in life. My pulse quickens and my temple throbs in anticipation of finding some overlooked gold in among the fool’s variety. My best friend has unearthed most of his impressive collection of Blue Note jazz LPs by never knowingly passing by a New York thrift store and by taking the time to sort through all the rubbish in the everlasting hope… His example has inspired me over the decades and only he would truly recognise my addiction. 

Fight the flower!
Inevitably – in among all the Claude Francois and Jonny Halliday discs – there were temptations to a man. Things like a Slim Gaillard compilation and a Celia Cruz collection for 50c apiece and a live double Caetano Veloso in-concert recording for a fraction under €3 went straight into the basket. But I approached a French collection of American hip-hop with much more trepidation. At its most intelligent and creative, hip-hop can be wonderful; at its most base and bombastic, it can be crude, dispiriting and plain offensive. Since it cost a mere 90 cents for a double album’s worth, I decided to ‘risk it for a biscuit’ (as we used to say at school). Thanks to computer technology, I can conserve anything I really like for a future compilation and then pass on the original to a deserving cause. Why, you might ask, don’t I just download the good stuff for such a purpose? Well, firstly I never know what might constitute ‘good stuff’ until I’ve heard it, and secondly I hate downloading. It’s too easy; it takes the fun out of the chase. 

I took my stuff home and waited till I was on my own before I aired the hip-hop, because there would surely be things to which I wouldn’t want to submit my ‘ladeez’. There were indeed some gems: predictably the De La Soul and Gang Starr tracks and unexpectedly tracks by the likes of Missy Elliot and Tupac (or 2pac, as it says on the tin). Inevitably, though, there were plenty of tracks that were misogynistic and quite horrible. Nasty posturing bully-boys ‘talkin’ tray-ash’. I had to press the ‘skip’ button of my new JVC CD player. 

The following evening, I caught an episode of Top of the Pops from 1976, hosted by Noel Edmonds, the man with the trim little beard and the smooth-as-peanut-butter patter. Among the acts were The Manhattans, a black vocal group that dated back to the golden age of Doo-Wop. I think they were performing ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’; but I didn’t take note. It would have been easy to mock the sappy lyrics and the Temptations-style choreography, but it was utterly charming and I couldn’t help comparing it with the macho trash that I’d skipped through earlier in the day and wondering how, in 35 short years, we had evolved (or regressed) from this to that. 

Where did it all go wrong? How come – and I generalise of course – that we have substituted sex and ‘bitches’ for ‘lerve’ and ‘ladeez’? It seems to me that if you listened to an exclusive diet of hip-hop and rap, you’d get the idea that male/female relationships are all about gratifying the top dog. Maybe it was ever thus; maybe it was simply better disguised for public consumption. But I doubt it. There’s a lot less room these days for sensitivity and compassion. With the impact of The Great Recession still truly to bite, there’s going to be even less room, I fear, in the time to come.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving in France


Me and the wife, we often say that we’d never have met the heterogeneous (well, perhaps we don’t use that particular word in conversation) mix of people that we’ve met over the last 16 years or so if we’d stayed put in our nice comfortable suburb on the west side of Sheffield. It has been positively life-enhancing to fraternise with so many races in one small-ish locality.

And so it came to pass that I spent last Thursday evening in the company of some American friends, who come over here periodically from Madison, Wisconsin with their red setter, Elliot, who travels in a special doggie-cage in the hold of the airplane. Being from Wisconsin, they are serious fans of my favourite American football team, the Green Bay Packers. It’s a publicly owned franchise, but the waiting list for tickets is so long and the price of a seat so high that John and Heidi watch their games on telly. It just so happened that their Sky Sports package was showing the Packers’ Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions. So I was cordially invited – along with another, mutual American friend and his French wife – to come and watch the game and eat some food. 

I turned up for the occasion, decked out in my antiquated Packers T-shirt, which dates back to the first time (following their glory years in the ‘60s) they reached the Superbowl, back in the ‘90s – when we lived with nothing but the standard, awful three French TV channels and I had to ask a French neighbour to record the game for me on Canal Plus. John and his friend Jack’s French wife were also suitably arrayed in Packer paraphernalia.

I arrived early for the pre-match chat at their traditional stone-built house, which they let out during the holiday season. It’s extraordinary: there are people in the area who come over here regularly from places like America, South Africa and even – for God’s sake – Australia. The expense of it all! Not just the epic journeys, but the cost of maintaining their holiday property and swelling the coffers of the local Trésor Public. John and Heidi are in the middle of having their roof completely re-done at some no doubt inordinate cost. They must really love it here. I wonder what Elliot thinks of it all. I hate flying at the best of times, but to be stowed away in the hold with all the baggage. Thankfully, red setters are fairly mad dogs anyway. He seemed untroubled enough, wandering about with his squishy toy clamped inside his jaw. 

As soon as the other guests arrived, the pre-match chat went for a Burton. No matter how much I rail against the more inane aspects of its culture that the US exports to the rest of the world, I just love all that inane chat and all those statistical analyses. I’ve been hooked on the game ever since I saw the legendary Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers throw a ‘bomb’ to one of his wide receivers when I tuned in idly to a match in my hotel room during my first trip to New York at the end of the 1970s. Pre-match chat, however, has to be sacrificed to social niceties.

Do fries go with that shake?
It wasn’t quite the traditional Thanksgiving depicted by Norman Rockwell: a table full of happy folk smiling in anticipation as mother puts down an enormous roast turkey, ready for carving. Instead, we ate traditional pre-match ‘tailgate’ food. We started at half time, with the Packers leading by seven fragile points, with a bowl of beer-and-Cheddar-cheese chowder. Hmmm. A soup of Wisconsin’s two most famous products – Packers fans are known affectionately as cheese-heads for the Styrofoam wedges of cheese that they wear on their heads at the games, and we all know by now that beer is ‘what made Milwaukee famous [and] made a fool out of me’ – seemed an improbable recipe. But it was rather tasty. 

Then Heidi prepared shredded pork burgers with a pear, endive and blue cheese salad (which, I’ll wager, doesn’t come from a Wisconsin recipe book) for everyone, as we settled down for the second half. I have been a faux vegetarian all my married life, which is to say that I am strict at home, but will lapse from time to time if tempted at some social engagement. It’s not that the idea of eating meat revolts me; I was reared after all as a carnivore. But I like to know that the meat has come from a happy enough home rather than some intensive factory. Being a polite well-reared Englishman, I didn’t actually enquire about the poor pig that made the ultimate sacrifice. I just gamely chomped into the enormous bun. I am a slender man, known for a prodigious appetite, but I physically couldn’t manage more than half of this gargantuan burger. Not if I were to eat some salad. It’s a lot easier to eat piles of vegetables than piles of meat. Now I understand why Americans generally are so overweight.

During the second half of the match, the Packers’ ‘offense’ woke up and performed with the kind of élan that they have been demonstrating all season. So there was much noisy cheering and high-fives, which didn’t seem to perturb Elliot, who continued to wander about seeking attention, with his squishy toy still clamped between his jawbones. 

With victory safely secured, we rounded off our tailgate meal back at the table for a bowl of apple crumble and ice cream. The general talk turned to roofs and septic tanks, but John and I managed a brief discussion on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ phenomenal ‘numbers’ for the season. There are times, not that often in truth, when the company of men hits the spots that no other company can reach.

And so it came to pass that I was able to leave for home at a still sensible hour, having experienced for the first time an American Thanksgiving. Kind of, anyway. As a souvenir, I took back with me some old football mags that John lent me, along with my paper Packers plate and my paper Packers napkin. I went to bed in my Packers T-shirt and fell asleep half way through a list of ‘all-time’ Top 10 quarterbacks. Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino… zzzzzzzz

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Calendar Time


They’ve started early this year. Sensing some canine activity downstairs while I was up working at my desk, I looked out of the window. Sure enough a car had pulled up – an event in itself, here in the heart of the heart of the country. Then, zut alors, two big strong uniformed men got out of the car. My heart sank. Gendarmes! You can’t pretend that you’re not at home with the gendarmes, just in case something dire has happened or you’ve committed some crime of which you’re not yet aware. 

Then, as I opened the front door and let our ferocious dog out to greet the strangers, I realised the error of my ways. It was a pair of sapeurs-pompiers in dark blue military-style uniform. It was a case of both phew! and uh-oh! A pair of pompiers can mean only one thing: calendars. Let the season commence.

Thanks, but no thanks.
Logically enough, we first encountered calendar time during the lead-up to our first Christmas in France, way back in the last century. I think it was our factrice who presented us with our first calendar. Being naïve newcomers from the Big (British) City, we thanked her very much for her kind gift and sent her on her way. It was only after further visits – from the pompiers, the bin men, the League of Catholic Gentlemen, the Belotte Association of the Corrèze and the like – that we twigged. Dineros. Money money money. 

That’s the trouble with calendar time. Like everything else in France, demands for money come in clusters. The calendar season comes at the tail end of the most financially exhausting time of year, when one avis de stealth tax follows another, and just before all the insurance demands kick you when you’re down. So you’re not feeling as generous as you might otherwise be. And, frankly, just how many calendars does a household need? 

At first we acted by playing dead whenever there was a knock at the door around the end of November/beginning of December. Me under the kitchen table, perhaps, while Debs would swaddle the infant daughter close to her maternal bosom somewhere behind the sofa, lest she let out a tell-tale ‘da!’ or some such childish sound to give the game away. Once we heard footsteps descending the steps, then we could breathe again. 

However, as we gathered more knowledge of the French system, we learned not to be quite so blanket in our dismissal of people bearing calendars. We learned to prioritise. For example, neither of us had realised that firemen and women in France are mainly volunteers. Soon after moving into our new home, we had a chimney fire, which was scary in the extreme. Even though the local chapter of sapeurs-pompiers got lost on the way here and arrived 25 minutes after I’d called the emergency number, I witnessed what a great job they do. So, if they come a-visiting when either of us is in, we pay far too much for a fairly tawdry collection of photographs of the squadron in uniform.

We also learned that facteurs and factrices retire on a nice fat index-linked pension from La Poste after not too many years of driving around in their yellow vans à la Postman Patrice, putting tax demands in people’s green metal letter boxes. In comparison to coal mining, chicken-packing, sweat-shop labour and the like, some might call it a cushy number. So this has determined what we give our post(wo)man for their correspondingly measly calendar. Just enough to encourage him or her to keep popping our tax demands into our letterbox rather than dumping them down a ravine. Some might protest, of course, that this sounds like a great option. I say unto them that the authorities don’t let non-receipt prevent them from charging their 10% surcharge for late payments.

As for the other hawkers of calendars who knock on our door at this time of year, we have learned to say – politely – ‘sur votre vélo’. It’s difficult, because one knock on the door sounds like any other. So if I find someone like Hervé from the local chapter of the League of Catholic Gentlemen on my doorstep, I’ve found that sending him nicely on his way without buying his ‘calendrical’ wares is good practice for dealing with incessant telesales calls.

The irony is that the most useful calendars here come free – in the form of the wall planners that you can pick up (if you’re in the right place at the right time) from La Poste or your friendly local insurance office. The irony is compounded by the fact that every year, as a Christmas present, my sister sends us a calendar for our kitchen wall. 2011 has been the year of Audrey Hepburn and 2010 was Gustav Klimt. Beyond that, my memory starts to fail me. But I don’t remember a single year when we’ve actually used one of the calendars for which we’ve paid through the nose. They hang around for a couple of months after Christmas until we’re fed up with photographs of men and women in uniform – before finding their way into the recycle bin.

Still, in the case of the pompiers at least, it’s money in a good cause.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Miniature French Giant


A couple of years before we moved to France, me and the Missus had the great good fortune to see Michel Petrucciani perform at the Brecon Jazz Festival. I’d read about the prodigious jazz pianist and the genetic brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta) that meant he would never grow more than three foot tall, but nothing prepared us for his appearance. 

If memory serves me correctly, it was his bass player, Michael Bowie, who carried him on stage, holding in his arms this weird-looking infant-adult with outsize head and glasses, as his charge clung to his neck like a koala bear.  We watched Bowie put him down and Petrucciani climb up onto his piano stool and adjust the pedal extensions that Steinway had made for him. He shuffled around on his seat to make himself comfortable, wished us ‘good evening’ and, for the next 90 minutes or so, he and his rhythm section played one of the most incredible sets I have ever witnessed. As chance would have it, the BBC recorded highlights for its short-lived Jazz from Brecon series, so we still have our video recording as a testimony to that evening in mid Wales.

On Friday evening, the two of us went to our local art et essai cinema to see Michael Radford’s captivating documentary on the French musical giant, who died in 1999 at the age of 36. Despite my efforts to drum up interest, the audience numbered the customary dozen or so, dotted around the cavernous steeply raked auditorium. The absentees missed a real treat.

In the years between Brecon and Vayrac, I’ve listened to just about everything Petrucciani ever recorded – including an astonishing solo concert recorded by Radio 3 from the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – but I knew little about the man himself. Despite the temporary distraction of my initial guilt for dragging along a couple of Germans who couldn’t speak French (when I realised that, of course, there would be interviews with French as well as American people, and of course their words wouldn’t be sub-titled), Radford’s film was as riveting as the concert in Brecon.

Petrucciani sensed at a fairly early age that he wouldn’t be long for this world, and he crammed much more into his 36 intense years than most of us manage in a lifetime. His philosophy was ‘to have a really good time and never to let anything stop him from doing what he wanted to do. Encouraged by a musical Italian father, he started off playing drums, but then saw some TV footage of Duke Ellington and realised that he had to be a pianist.

He set about learning the instrument with the same intensity as he learned English when he travelled to America as a teenager. Within six months of settling in Monterrey – where his virtuosity and energy prompted the reclusive tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd to perform in concert again – he could speak perfect vernacular American-English with little trace of a French accent.

In California he met and married the first of his three or four (I lost count) wives. This was quite a shocking and revealing aspect of the film: first the fact that so many women would fall in love with someone half their size, and then that Petrucciani – in his desire to keep changing and to keep renewing himself and thereby to keep experiencing as much as he possibly could – was able simply to walk away from the woman he loved (at the time) and to take up with the next person he took a shine to. But this is often what you find with artistic geniuses. On one hand, their creativity and their charisma makes them enormously attractive; on the other, their ruthless dedication to the artistic calling means that their muse is more important than anything or anyone else.  

When he moved to New York, he found himself living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, mixing with some of the jazz greats he had previously only revered from afar – and not surprisingly he went haywire: playing constantly, sleeping too little, consuming too many drugs and generally doing everything to excess. Eventually he went back to Europe, leaving his second wife behind and taking up almost immediately with wife no. 3. When she found herself expecting a child, they were faced with the dilemma of whether to risk passing on his hereditary illness to a child. Petrucciani’s reasoning was that he wouldn’t have missed the chance of life for anything, so they went ahead. Sure enough, their son was born with the same brittle bones. 

One of the most poignant elements of the film was the footage of his son, a young man who was, apart from his beard, the spitting image of his father. He talked of living in a world of giants and the pressure that his sense of being so different put on him to try to do something equally extraordinary with his life. Somehow you sensed that he probably won’t and that everything could, as a consequence, end in tears.

Another poignant aspect was the revelation of just what brittle bones means. Michel Petrucciani played the piano with such physical intensity that sometimes he would break a clavicle or some other bone in performance. When you listen to his long, sweeping, almost breathless improvisations, there is a sense of his driving himself through the pain barrier. Music must have been both a spiritual and physical balm.

After his years in Europe, where he recorded mainly for the Dreyfus label and with the likes of Stéphane Grappelli and where in 1994 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, he moved back to New York. But his lifestyle soon caught up with him and he died in the middle of a fearsome east coast winter after another night on the town. He was two years older than Charlie Parker before him, another burnt out case, another wayward musical genius, who lived the jazz life and pursued the muse with similar ferocity, who also kissed the girls and made them cry along the way. Like Jim Morrison, Michel Petrucciani is buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise cemetery. I think he had a better time in his life than the tormented ex-singer of The Doors did.

As I strapped on my safety belt and started up the Peugeot 107 after the film, I felt chastened by the little man’s remarkable legacy of 36 short years on this earth, but also heartened to recognise that there are certain advantages in living an ordinary life.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An Edukayshun


Having been through the entire French educational system – from école maternelle to lycée – The Daughter seems resolved to finish her studies in the UK. Therein lies the reason for a recent frenetic trip to the mother country. Three of us squashed inside a Peugeot 107, no bigger than a Dinky toy, travelling almost the length of Britain not once but twice.

It’s a long, long way from Southampton to Edinburgh and back again. Having ‘done’ the open days at the Glasgow and Edinburgh schools of art and been suitably impressed by the facilities and the teaching staff (who appear to have taken a vow to redress the sins of the ‘History Man’ generation of teaching staff, the self-important toads who looked upon students as either irritants or opportunities for an inappropriate relationship), we negotiated some of the busiest arterial roads of our island. It was the clichéd ‘white-knuckle ride’. By some fortuitous stroke of timing, we somehow kept avoiding the Friday evening queues about which the road signs regularly alerted us. Only stopping every two hours to swap drivers and/or avail ourselves of the sanitary facilities, we reached my sister’s on the edge of Southampton ‘round midnight. My neck and shoulders had fused. 
The contrast three days later with the journey south from Dieppe couldn’t have been more marked. On a French motorway like the A20, you simply point the car in the right direction, switch to automatic pilot and just check your mirrors from time to time to verify that there’s still no one behind you. Zounds! You can almost get away with playing solitaire on the dashboard. It’s one of the remaining pleasures of living in France. 
 
Given the journey involved in getting to Scotland and back, we might be forgiven for trying to persuade our girl to apply for a French fac like any other sensible member of the expat community. But she is determined to go anywhere other than France for the final part(s) of her education.
The Model Pupil
That might seem rather strange. Expat parents often compare the French system favourably to the British one: pupils work hard, they learn to read and spell and develop nice neat loopy handwriting, there’s more discipline in the classroom, they seem to achieve better academic results and the final qualification still has some market value. Like many aspects of French society, there is a suspicion that rigidity and standardisation are valued more highly than creativity and individualism. But then, maybe a system that produces socio-clones rather than sociopaths is better for everyone. 

When you talk to our daughter about her experiences here, however, you realise why she wants to go elsewhere for what should be the most creative period of her education. Way back in école maternelle, when she was busy absorbing a new language and practising the precise boucles required for tying her shoe laces, every afternoon after lunch she would be made to lie down and nap even though she never felt the need for an afternoon sleep because she always went to bed at a sensible hour. 

From école primaire onwards, she grew accustomed to hours of devoirs, regular tests and learning long poems to recite in front of her classmates. The idea behind this last requirement, we gathered, is to develop the power of recall – presumably so you are better able to regurgitate at exam stage what you’ve stuffed in during revision. Again, you could argue that this is very practical. If it’s all right for previous generations, then it should be all right for our daughter’s generation, but as a parent you see how many precious hours of childhood are wasted in the pursuit of total recall. It can’t endear you to the process of learning and surely only suggests that there is one acceptable way of doing things and one way only. 

During this time and later when she graduated to collège, her experience of the education system here was also coloured by the difficulty of being a vegetarian among carnivores. If it wasn’t difficult enough being the only foreigner in her class, she was then expected to assert her rights as the only non-meat eater. No wonder she shied away from confrontation and ate without protest the buttered pasta or the French beans that she was given.

Things have been better since she went to lycée. For one thing, she can eat lunch with her mother. Resisting the pressure to follow a bac scientifique, to which many of the undecided succumb, has opened up a whole new exciting world of history of arts, with school trips to places like Venice and Paris. She appreciates the links to local museums and galleries and the fact that she gets free admission to Brive’s art-house cinema. Nevertheless, it’s all still very academically orientated and there’s still very much a right and a wrong way of doing things.
In my day, for example, we were taught the value of an introduction, a main body and a conclusion, but it appears that even the introduction has to be broken down into distinct elements. Whenever I suggest that teachers surely are more interested in her views rather than a digest of critical thought, I’m told that I simply don’t understand the way it is. Only the other evening, she was in floods of tears because she couldn’t come to grips with the required structure of her first Philosophy essay. I’ve heard of children here who have jumped out of top-floor windows or found other ways to express their inability to cope with the pressures of the educational system. Thankfully I managed to persuade our girl that there are more important things in life than Philosophy essays.

Once, I had a long conversation with a student from Limoges University on the train to Paris. What she told me suggested that higher education here is more of the same. Courses, she said, are generally over-subscribed and the authorities try to prune numbers by means of difficult exams at the end of the first year. I know it always rains in Limoges, but she didn’t seem to be having a whole lot of fun during the one time in your life when you get treated as an adult, but don’t have to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood.
The Daughter wants to learn, but she also wants to have a little fun. She is leaning towards Edinburgh now. 

Provided that she gets in and the tuition fees don’t soar to English levels, she should be happy as an art student in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I only hope that she won’t come to the same conclusion that two other daughters of expat friends came to after enduring a solitary difficult year at an English university: that British students’ principal idea of having fun is to get (as they used to say in Sheffield) ‘bladdered’.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

French Resistance

We spent Saturday night and Sunday morning this weekend with some friends in their tastefully restored farmhouse. At breakfast, we were talking about some German friends of ours who seem to carry an entire nation’s burden of guilt on their broad Arian shoulders. They are the type of people who are so kind and so thoughtful that it’s impossible to reciprocate in full. It’s as if they have turned themselves into model citizens in their adopted country as a way of saying sorry for the Nazi occupation.
Made-up maquisard
My friend Howard told us about an old man of the hills, who lived in their village during a previous incarnation of their lives in France, when they lived further south in the hinterlands of Carcassonne. For years, this particular man refused to talk to them. Then, one morning, Howard plucked up the courage to confront him. It turned out that he had mistaken them for Germans. In those days, Howard still had some (fair) hair. His wife and their two daughters are all blonde; therefore they had to be Germans in this man’s eyes. Once he realised that they were English, his resistance collapsed. 
This is a part of France where the Résistance was very active. You only have to look at the lie of the land – with all its woods and caves and streams and shepherds’ stone shelters – to conjure up a picture of fleet goings-on under cover of night. While researching an article on a particular village a few weeks ago, I talked to an old man of the bourg. He was over 80 and the palms of his hands were stained black from a lifetime of working the vines. His accent was so strong that I had to strain to catch sufficient words to piece together the story of his life. I did manage to garner that, as a young man in the war, he had run errands for the local chapter of the Maquis.  
He offered to show me a couple of memorials that I’d never seen before. So he sat statuesquely in the passenger seat and directed me to a couple of fairly primitive stone monuments in clearings of the causse or scrub that surrounds the village. The first one commemorated the arrival by parachute of an English officer, who came here to work directly with the maquisards. The old man told me that the officer returned to the area after the war and he and his wife settled here until his death a few years ago.
We drove on to the second monument. It was bigger and more prominent, because it marked a day nearer the liberation when the sky had turned Technicolor with hundreds of different-coloured parachutes, all attached to canisters that contained arms and other provisions for the forces of resistance. As he told me all about it, the old man’s excitement was palpable: it all seemed still as vivid to him that afternoon as it must have been on that euphoric day over 65 years ago.
It put me in mind of the self-appointed elder of the village where we used to live in the Corrèze. When we moved there in the autumn of 1995, he only had another two or three years to live and you could tell that his life had become a bit of a chore. But every now and then we would sit together to hear his tales of the war. Briefly, they reanimated him as nothing else could (apart from his periodic rants about ex-President Mitterand). As temporary mayor of the commune during the war, he led a dangerous double-life as courier for the Maquis. He told us once of being stopped at a Nazi roadblock when he was taking money to the freedom fighters. One can only imagine the terror.
And that’s all we can do really: use our imagination. Britain hasn’t really been invaded since William fit the battle of Hastings-o. Until secrets were de-classified, we never even know about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. It was all kept hush-hush by the wartime government lest the truth should undermine national morale. Careless talk and all that.
Reading about what happened on Jersey and Guernsey only underlined that we don’t really know how we might behave in an extraordinary situation until it actually transpires. Similar kinds of things happened in the Channel Islands as they did here: on one side of the coin, acts of heroism; on the other side, acts of treachery. 
My wife’s work as a therapist certainly confirms that whatever took place here during the occupation created many deep personal traumas that, in many cases, have never been fully addressed. When you consider that they’ve had the Prussians, the forces of the Kaiser and the Nazi hordes stomping across their territory in the space of less than 150 years, it’s hardly surprising that the French seem at times so wary of strangers. ‘Xenophobic’ is a word that has slipped into the odd conversation.
We were comparing experiences of friendship at breakfast. All four of us have plenty of French friends here, but we all complained of our inability to take that final step across the Great Divide. It’s as if every time you think that – this time – you’re really getting somewhere, a No Entry pops up and you take a hesitant step backwards. Of course, there are good reasons: all our cultural disconnections and a strong family-centric culture, certainly in rural France, which makes friendship more of a luxury than a necessity.
But it occurred to me this morning that my abiding sense of French resistance is connected to the French Resistance. We the rootless international settlers are really just the new invaders. If we sense a certain suspicion of our different ways and a reluctance to let us all the way into their hearts, is that so surprising? Let’s be thankful that they haven’t yet taken to blowing up our cars.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lime-washing

About this time of year, I start to get rather more nervous than usual.
Brilliant white walls
My immediate concern is the prospect of lime-washing the wall of the house that takes the majority of the weather. One of the drawbacks of living in a house of straw bales is that you have to build up a protective but breathable skin of successive lime-washes. The idea being that over time the walls become as hard and as naturally impermeable as those brilliant white ones you see all over Greek islands.
Somewhere in the dustiest recesses of my brain, I seem to recall images of black-clad natives slopping the white stuff on with old brooms. It looked easy. Alas, the reality is rather more fraught. For a kick off, there has to be an ideal meteorological window of opportunity. From early September onwards, I scan the not-particularly-reliable internet météo, looking out for this rare but perfect window. Roughly five days without rain with a range of temperatures somewhere between a maximum of about 25oC and a minimum of about 5oC. Too hot or too cold and the stuff won’t cure properly. It will crack and blister like last year’s cover-up did. And, of course, if it rains before it’s cured, it is likely to wash that wash right off of our walls.  
Assuming that the forecast is reliable, you need sufficient notice to make up the lime-wash mixture, so that it can ‘prove’ for a few days. Which brings me to the mixture. These days, I’m a dab hand with our Sunday-morning crêpe mix, but a lime-wash is quite another matter. The ingredients are lime, water, some natural colour and some kind of fixative. I’ve discovered that there is lime and there is lime. Last year’s failure was made with the wrong lime (I was reliably informed by one of those experts who takes great delight in telling you that you don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this). So this year, I’ve ordered some NHL2 from the good people of St. Astier. It sounds good, looks good, but I haven’t made the error of tasting it – remembering, as I do, an unpleasant lesson from childhood when I ate a spoonful of Robin starch in my mother’s pantry, mistaking it for icing sugar.  
Then there’s the fixative (which, I think, is an additive that stops the lime powder rubbing off on your fingers or clothes). Up until now, I’ve used something called sel d’alum, which translates as alum salt, but don’t ask me what this is. I do know that it’s extremely hard to get hold of. And in view of last year’s failure – which I’ve got to put down to ingredients and/or conditions rather than personal (in)competence if I’m going to do this every year until I get too old to climb a ladder – I’ve decided this time to try something else.
I came across a recipe in a back copy of The Last Straw journal (ordered at great expense from the U.S.A.) that uses a wheat flour paste. This appealed to me because I can pop down to the local supermarket for the ingredient. The only trouble is that the measurements are quoted in the American imperial system. Cups, quarts and gallons are all slightly different from the British equivalents. I imagine that it was something to do with the rebellious colonists wishing to assert their independence from the mother country in more ways than war.
I haven’t yet tried to make up the paste, which is another reason for my present state of worry. Still. It’s good to have a recipe to work from. The first time I lime-washed our walls, it worked well, but I misplaced my recipe. So the next time I did it, I took care to write it down – only to discover the following year that I’d written down things like ‘1 bucketful…’ without specifying what size of bucket. So it’s all been very hit and miss and far from systematic. 
Assuming that I get the mix right this time, I’ve then got to apply the stuff. I’m not good with ladders at the best of times. Once I get beyond a certain rung, I start to picture the whole assembly tottering over and wondering whether, like the Pink Panther, I could judge my moment and simply step off onto solid ground just before the crash. My insecurity is compounded by the fact that I need to get up there with brush, bucket of lime-wash, a second bucket of water in which to dip the brush before each application, and a sprayer for wetting the patch of wall to be washed. I’ve managed so far – in a way that Heath Robinson would surely have approved of – by hanging everything from my strimmer harness with home-made hooks of green fence wire.
Then, assuming that I get everything safely up the ladder, there’s the business of painting the lime-wash onto the wall itself. Being lime rather than paint, the liquid starts to dry as soon as the brush travels across the surface. Hence the reason for a bucket of water. But then you don’t want to get it too wet or… And the brushstrokes themselves. An artistic neighbour, who works with lime mixtures in her work as an interior designer/decorator, advocates the ‘slap it on at random’ approach. Which I like. But the received theory suggests that the best protection comes when you apply it in two coats: the first with horizontal brush strokes and the second with vertical brushstrokes, down which the eventual rain will travel safely away.
Oy vay! What happened to that mental image of mine of native Greeks slopping it on with old brooms? I’m sorry to go on, but you understand now why I get a little apprehensive at this time of year. It does make me wonder why we opted for straw and not those terracotta capillary briques that you render once and once only, thus sparing the proprietor of the house this annual autumnal torment. Strange to relate, I’m all for a quiet life.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Insect Asides

Last week I disappeared off the edge of the blogosphere – rather like those unfortunate sailors did in the days before they discovered that the horizon wasn’t so much a precipice, more an ever-shifting focal point.
I was in London for the week, trying to accustom myself to the sound of cars and human beings and early-morning foxes. I got back yesterday via the white elephant that is Brive Dordogne Valley airport. Got back to my home, sweet home to discover that the willows are alive with hornets. What’s more, they’re the dreaded frelons asiatiques. This is bad news – just to compound the present misery of financial meltdown, environmental disintegration and the increasingly inevitable prospect of re-electing our diminutive president.
Death, Japanese Style
Day and night the activity in the willows sounds like a squadron of Lancaster bombers bound for Dresden. The inconceivably warm air is alive with their terrible drone. These creatures – with their angry orange ‘saddles’ – are fearsome. I watched a fascinating documentary about them some time ago. It was set in Japan, where they kill on average 50 or so human beings every year. Their sting is so virulent that you have to sever the affected limb with the nearest available blade to stop the venom reaching your heart. Well, possibly.
In Japan the indigenous bees have learned to contend with these aerial mass-murderers. A Buddhist monk explained how the colony lures the scouts into the hive and then swarms all over them so that they overheat and die before they can race off and tell their fellow killers that there’s a vulnerable hive at so-and-so coordinates. Alas, the poor naïve European honeybee – already facing extermination from pesticides and Traumatic Hive Disorder (or THD, as it’s known to the apian brotherhood) – is defenceless. The Asiatic hornet will just take them out in mid air or raid the hive and wipe out the entire colony just for the fun of it. They’re the etymological equivalent of Mexican drug gangs. 
Until I came to France, I’d never encountered a hornet. I wouldn’t have known what one looked like. Then it was suddenly frelon this and frelon that, and pretty soon I was classing it with the equally dreadful viper in my almanac of French Fauna to Fear.  I remember sitting up late one summer’s night, reading by lamplight near a window. There was a constant tapping at the glass and I looked up to see a frelon outside the size of a bullet, banging itself against our fragile farmhouse window, determined to get inside to kill le lecteur à table. It was like a scene from a horror story by Edgar Allen Poe. Reader, I was so perturbed that I took up my book in a cold sweat and retired at once to my bed.
Miles Davis lived for a while in Paris and he, too, must have heard tales of this intimidating insect, because he wrote a number called ‘Le Frelon Brun’ for his Filles de Kilimanjaro album. Whenever I give it a spin, I am transported back in time to that vengeful nocturnal kamikaze. The house defences held that evening, but sometimes they do get in – and it usually provokes a scene of panic and pandemonium. If I reach for the plastic fly-swatter, The Daughter is given to scream at me – not because she wants me to spare the life of the marauder, but because she fears that her father will miss his target and be stung unto death.
In fact, in recent times, I’ve learned that the common frelon is not aggressive. Unlike the wasp, it will not set out to sting you. However, when it has over-indulged itself at the vine, at the time of year when the juice of the grape is turning to alcohol, it is known to do reckless and headstrong things. So we take no chances in this house. Under the influence of my wife, we have renounced violence against intruders. Instead, we turn off all interior lights, turn on the outside light and open a door.
The trouble is, as I say, we are now faced with squadrons of frelons asiatiques, gorging themselves on whatever property they find on the leaves of the common willow. I can only assume it’s the equivalent of coca leaves for native South American Indians. They’re an unknown quantity at the best of times, but pepped up with vegetable amphetamines, who knows what they’re capable of?
For this reason, over the next few days I’m going to be sitting outside on a director’s chair with binoculars and Jonathon Franzen’s wonderful new novel Freedom. I’ll be lifting my eyes from the page to track their flight path to the wood. Apparently, they travel in a straight line, which makes the task a little easier. They nest, I’m told, in constructions that resemble ovoid paper lanterns, high up in a tree.
Either I call in an expert, who will then remove the nest at a fee commensurate with the considerable human risk involved. Or I go down to my neighbour’s house and ask if I can borrow the WW2 flame-thrower he salvaged from the Eastern Front. I appreciate that the trees are suffering enough from this current apocalyptic drought, but I’m honestly prepared to singe a few tops if it means eradicating the colony of frelons. Good for willows; good for bees.  
In fact, I can already see the film. Sampo! ‘He… was just a little-known writer, who took up arms against a brutal foe to defend the departmental bee population – and in the process he won fame, glory and a Legion of Honour.’

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Writer’s Lot

When I were a lad – and not long after my parents moved us from London to Belfast, Norn Iron – I told an old woman in the guest house where we stayed initially that what I wanted to be when I grew up was ‘a book-maker’. I couldn’t understand why she laughed.
It seemed a perfectly reasonable ambition for someone who spent much of his early days writing and drawing Western strip-cartoons in the manner of the Dell comics that my dad would buy for me from time to time. Then I stopped drawing and devoted my creative energy to inventing parallel football and cricket worlds. So I guess ‘book-making’ was in my blood.
I can’t think of any other reason why I do it. I read a rather depressing statistic not that long ago, which suggested that something like 80% of writers earn less than £10,000 per annum. J.K. Rowling, bless her, is a special case, but most publishing money these days seems to be heaped upon such talented and acclaimed writers as Victoria Beckham and Peter André for their keenly anticipated memoirs. There’s little left for the Johnny Normals of this world, particularly those who find every reason to equivocate, rather than to settle down, eliminate all distractions – and just do it.
Fortunately, after years of hanging around the periphery of training and personal development, I have drifted into the niche market of scripting e-Learning storyboards and thereby found a way of shoving myself, in rugby parlance, just over the ‘gain-line’. Not far enough to trouble the functionaries at the department’s Hôtel des Impôts, but just enough to boost my self-worth and supplement my wife’s annual earnings. 
Not The Great Gatsby
Without those storyboards, and given my tendency to beat around the literary bush lest my creation fails to measure up to The Great Gatsby, I’d be reliant on the crumbs offered by magazines and newspapers. This is not much of an option. For a start, we’re staring into the yawning abyss of the Great Recession. As sales and advertising revenue drop, so the size of the crumbs on offer diminishes. I see bigger ones these days on our bird table. 
For another thing – with the notable exception of the Archant stable of France-themed magazines – most ‘organs’ treat you like dirt. Admittedly, editors are busy people, but if you get a reply to your e-mail enquiry – even a negative one – you can count yourself lucky. The received wisdom is that you follow-up your e-mail with a telephone call. The thing is, writers often write because they are much better at expressing themselves in writing. If ever I’ve managed to get through to an editor and am then asked to ‘tell me more’ about my idea, I usually go to pieces and end up sounding as intelligible as Benny from Crossroads.
Early this summer, I managed to sell an article to a French paper focused on expatriates (I won’t name names, but I wouldn’t like you to think it was the paper with a two-word name). The Features Editor offered me two-and-a-half largish ones for text and photographs about the Galerie Pomié’s fascinating summer show, Inde Vivante.
The owners moved here from Ireland to create their rural art gallery. As survivors of the great rock ‘n’ roll circus, they know how to put on a show. They’ve travelled extensively in India and recently attended a Maharajah’s wedding that was featured in Vanity Fair. So there was plenty of good material. I made three or four trips: to interview them and two of the artists who would be exhibiting in the show, and to go through the owners’ huge collection of photographs. I then spent a couple of days writing the first draft and e-mailing the illustrations.
By the time the private view of the show came around, I hadn’t heard anything from the editor. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently carried away by the splendour of the exhibits and the promise of my fee that I bought a couple of miniature paintings of gilded elephants by a certain Mr. Pareek.  
The issue of the paper for which my article was destined appeared – but with no sign of my feature. After several e-mails and abortive phone calls, the editor eventually replied to say that she had liked my article, but felt that it wasn’t right for the paper. It was possible, however, that she would use it, in slightly modified form, in the August issue.
After the August issue came and went with no trace of my article, I wrote a polite note to the editor to point out that I had been commissioned to write the article and that I was entitled to ask for payment for the work I had put in and the expenses I had incurred. However, I would ask instead for half the agreed fee, as I appreciated that the paper wasn’t as cash-rich as, say, The Daily Mail. No reply. I sent a few more – to the editor and the publisher. Silence. The Void.
The only apparent criticism of my article that the editor gave me was that she felt it read like a ‘PR puff’ for the gallery. Well, it seemed that the owners could have done with a bit of publicity. After seven years of banging their heads against a wall of indifference, they have decided to close the gallery. Their house is on the market and they might move back to Ireland. Meanwhile, neither they nor I will be buying any further copies of a French paper for expatriates.
I do sometimes ask myself why I do what I do. There’s a fair amount of heartache associated with writing. You have to inure yourself to repeated rejection. But I guess it beats cleaning swimming pools and holiday homes. I should know. They’ve just remaindered my last book – before I could earn any more than the fairly derisory advance on royalties – but book-making, as I’ve said, must be in my blood. And I have this faith, delusion, whatever you want to call it, that one day I might make a book I will be proud of.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Same Old Junk

This Sunday, 11th September 2011, our commune celebrated the fourth or fifth anniversary of its annual brocante or vide grenier (or ‘attic-empty’). It’s fast becoming a significant event in the bargain hunter’s calendar.
This year’s event came complete with new improved parking facilities and a raft of extra stalls in front of the new Salle Polyvalente – or hall of many activities – built at great expense to local tax payers to replace its dingy ‘60s predecessor, which was built, allowing for inflation, at great expense to local tax payers in its time. Despite the fact that Deb O’Rah and I had been up late helping to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday, we got up early to drive down from our lofty seat to the bourg below in order to avoid the worst of the bargain-hunting crowds.
Who'll give me half a euro for this then?
As usual, though, we found very few bargains to divert us, while bumping into more than enough friends, neighbours and acquaintances to detain us. ‘Well, must get on and see what there is to be seen,’ or words to that effect. The truth is that there’s very little to be seen except the same old over-priced junk: some of it plastic, some of it ugly and most of it completely useless. I even steered clear this year of a few stray boxes of vinyl records, because disappointment has taught me that they tend to be twice the price of what you’d find back in the U.K.
While we browsed and chatted, I found it interesting that not a single person mentioned the fact that Sunday 11th September 2011 marked a rather more significant anniversary. It was ten years ago that I answered the phone in our old house to hear the voice of one of my wife’s old clients – a kindly soul who used to bring us produce from her garden and the kind of plastic gifts for our daughter that eventually find their way to brocante stalls. My French wasn’t as decent as it is now, so I didn’t understand everything that she was trying to tell me, but I certainly understood the urgent note of something akin to hysteria in her voice. She told me to turn the television on there and then, because something apocalyptic was happening that was going to change everyone’s lives. I felt the fear in the pit of my stomach and a loosening of my bowels: like the sensation that I used to get as a school kid when summoned to see the headmaster in his study.
In those days, we had a cheap indoor aerial from E. Leclerc that allowed hazy access to three uninteresting French channels. I put on France2, because the reception and quality of news was evidently better, even to an alien’s eyes. On the screen were those awful unbelievable images of the Twin Towers belching black smoke. When my wife had finished massaging her client, I muttered something in her ear so as not to alarm our impressionable young daughter, and together we watched the events unfolding – as our parents’ generation had huddled by the wireless in 1939 to listen to Chamberlain’s announcement – with mounting unease but without appreciating quite what we were in for.
The talk at the brocante was more of the ominous black clouds and the likelihood of rain. My neighbour, who’s a gardener and a Méteo fundamentalist, told me that it wouldn’t rain, so I could put away the foolish brolly that I’d brought with me. We joked about buying their table full of wares on the way back, so they could go back home early, knowing full well that it would all still be there virtually untouched.
And so it proved. By the return leg, we’d acquired four DVDs for a tenner from a very overweight English woman with a stall full of DVDs still wrapped in their cellophane, and a Moroccan tagine, if that’s how you spell those domed ceramic North African cooking dishes. We knew that, come six o’clock when it was time for all the stallholders to pack up and go back home, the majority of the stuff on display would find its way back into cardboard boxes to be stored once more in attics until the next opportunity came along to empty those attics and remove the same old overpriced junk from those cartons.
These brocantes are a constant source of disappointment to me. I remember all those jumble sales from my student days, open-air markets and car boot sales from the Brighton and Sheffield years and think of all the genuine bargains with which we kitted out our early married quarters. Over here, if the real bargains do exist, they’ve certainly managed to escape me thus far. I see the same old people with the same old stuff year after year. It reinforces my belief that the French people don’t really grasp the market economy. Rather than charge a sensible price and get rid of their wares, they prefer to stick stubbornly to an inflated price and go through the rigmarole of packing it all up again for the next time. See no competition, hear no competition, speak no competition.
More than that, though, it also reinforces my mantra that the only thing we learn from history is that mankind doesn’t learn from history. In the immortal words sung by Edwin Starr, ‘War! HUH! What is it good for? Ab-so-lutely nothing!’ War on terror, war on drugs – say it again, what is it good for? Man – and I use the term literally, because we’ve never given the female of the species a chance to run the show – seems incapable of learning from his many mistakes, recognising that something isn’t working and trying a new enlightened approach. So we’ll go on re-processing household junk and re-packaging wars until (Bunny Wailer’s) ‘Arma-gid-deon’.