Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once or twice a week, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stop the Week 11

If I’m a bit late this week in posting, you can blame Ikea.
We capped off our week yesterday with a visit to Bordeaux, bourgeois capital of the Atlantic seaboard. The city that once rivalled Paris in financial, economic and even political terms found itself overtaken in the latter part of the 20th century by the likes of Lyon, Toulouse and Lille. It had to inject a huge amount of money to transform itself from a grubby traffic-saturated has-been of a city into a gleaming and efficient modern metropolis.
Bordeaux: Traditional elegance meets modern efficiency
We’ve both said it before at the Brighton Conference – and we’ll say it again – that if we ever have to live in a city again, Bordeaux would do quite nicely thank you. A top floor flat, say, in one of the elegant 19th century bourgeois town houses overlooking the quays along the Garonne wouldn’t go amiss, with a view across the great sweeping fluvial crescent to the poorer parts of town on the opposite bank.
But it’s 200km from here and a day-trip assumes almost epic proportions. All for an opportunity for the girls to go sales-shopping and the dubious pleasure of a trip to the Swedish flat-pack emporium. Mistake no. 1: shop first, visit Ikea later. I don’t want you to think that I’m a smug know-it-all, but I did propose the other way round. Unfortunately, I let myself be swayed – as always – by my wife’s uncanny ability to suggest that she knows what she’s talking about. Praying on my morbid fear of crime and disaster, she made the point that we shouldn’t leave a car full of Ikean boxes in some less salubrious suburb.
However, this is now an efficient city. The park and ride system is fantastic. An official in a booth surveys each of the car parks, where you leave your car before catching one of the swift, silent trams into the centre of the city. So, as the Strylians say, no worries, mate.
The upshot of the matter was: by the time I dragged mother and daughter, kicking and screaming, away from the more expensive boutiques, the traffic had built up to such a degree that the Centre Commercial on the edge of the town was heaving with idiots like us, who think that it might be a good idea to make their excursions in the middle of the afternoon. It was a vision of retail hell: cars, nose to tail, edging forward in search of an exit or a space to park.
Moreover, the Bordeaux Ikea is built to frustrate. You see it from the Rocade as you plunge down the Pont d’Aquitaine, but as soon as you leave the motorway, it hides itself from view. So you drive round and round in circles until someone spots a flash of yellow on royal blue and cries out, ‘Ikea!’ But, in attempting, to sidle up on it, we strayed back onto the Rocade and found ourselves going back over the Pont d’Aquitaine.
Well, anyway… By the time we got home, later than expected, tempers a little frayed and stress levels ramped up by the frustrations of not finding, as usual, exactly what we’d come to buy, it was far too late to turn on the computer and write up the week in perspective.
In truth, after the Packers’ victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field that sent them to next Sunday’s Superbowl and sent me into paroxysms of delirium, everything else was anti-climactic. However, an interesting metaphysical conundrum arose on Tuesday evening. Convinced that I was putting the hoodoo on Arsenal, who couldn’t score the goals against Ipswich that would send them to the final of the Carling Cup, I valiantly turned off the telly and went to bed to read a few lines before sleep overtook me. Within minutes, they’d scored twice and secured their spot. Now, the thing is, was it my selfless act that prompted them to score and would they have failed to score if I had remained glued to the box? I’m sure that Jean-Paul Sartre would have had something to say on the matter.
And finally… My wife and I watched Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which has been languishing on the hard drive for weeks. I couldn’t imagine the three dreamers – an incestuous pair of Parisian twins and their live-in American friend, played by Michael Pitt, looking for all the world like a young Leo di Caprio – assembling flat-packs in the rambling apartment that could almost have been where Marlon Brando had his way with Maria Schneider in the director’s Last Tango in Paris. I knew nothing about the film other than its erotic reputation, and deliberately avoided any critiques that might have coloured my critical faculties, but we both loved it. Much more interesting than the rather turgid Last Tango, which was spoiled for me – as was Apocalypse Now – by Marlon’s mumbling routine. But not as successful as Bert O’Lucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist, my favourite film of all time.
I should tell you that we built our Ikean kitchen cupboard with minimal weeping and wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth, but – in typical Sampson fashion – we made one critical error: nailing the back board on the wrong way round, so that the nice shiny laminated side faces the wall, unseen by human eyes, while the nobbly hardboard side serves to remind us of our craven stupidity every time we open the door.
Would it be too much to ask Gunar and Gudrun Ikeasson to stamp their un-finished pieces with big red Xs to remind idiots like Mark and Deborah Sampson to think before they gaily nail them into the wrong position?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Le Rod-Redge

I was intending to continue my look at language this week, exploring further glorious products of linguistic miscegenation along the lines of le leggin and le re-looking.
But then I was driving my daughter to school this Wednesday morning… It was another ice-cold, tundra-dry morning: the type of morning when windscreens can explode for no conceivable reason, like Spinal Tap drummers.
Generally, I enjoy driving in France because there’s so little traffic (though I still bear the mental scars of a white-knuckle ride round the Paris Péripherique). Nevertheless, you have to stay on the qui vivre, as somewhere along the line you’re likely to encounter some progeny of incestuous parents. Yesterday, a couple of things pushed me up onto the moral high ground here – whence I doth survey the valley below.
There was no music for once. Tilley was still busy learning her German passage to recite in class. So I was alone with my thoughts when some twat flicked his or her lit cigarette-butt out of the car in front. I watched it bounce over the tarmac towards the verge.
Why is it that, after centuries of evolution, human beans still cannot think about the consequences of their actions? If it had been the Midi in mid summer, for example, that glowing cigarette-butt would have bounced into the tinder dry undergrowth and sparked off a conflagration that would have roasted countless innocent creatures and ruined the lives of all those people whose houses would burn to a cinder while the legions of unpaid volunteers fought in vain to quell the flames. 
My God! Even our saintly dog shows more awareness of others. Whenever he’s gorged himself on found carrion during a walk and has suffered an uncontrollable attack of nocturnal runs – as has happened maybe six or seven during his ten indulged years on earth – he has had the good grace to go on the floor tiles rather than a rug. Often by the door. And don’t tell me that it’s because he doesn’t wish to soil his sleeping place. This ain’t no human bean, this is a sentient, considerate and supposedly ‘dumb’ animal.
But my bias has diverted me… Meanwhile, back in my Berlingo, I thought fondly of my brother’s Corgi James Bond car. How wonderful it would be to drive an Aston Martin with built-in chain-cutter and rocket-launcher. See some act of lunacy or thoughtlessness on the road? Simply push Button B to launch a pair of heat-seeking missiles that would blow the perpetrator to oblivion.
I’d need some rear-view offensive weapon as well for tout-puissant 360o control. The French are obsessed with politesse, but it all goes to pot on the road. It’s not generally the isolated high-profile incidents that you might find in the UK; it’s more of a nation-wide passive road rage. The kind that wears you down: attaching themselves to your rear bumper, failing to dip their lights, flashing you for driving too slowly – that kind of thing. My wife treats daily the products of living with a large cork up your back passage. She believes that the only time they feel free to go ape-shit is when they’re behind a wheel.
Anyway, that was the second incident that inspired me to write – a limpet clinging to my back bumper and blinding me with his or her headlights. I take great delight in driving as perfectly as I can under such provocation, religiously respecting every speed limit and generally, no doubt, working the limpet into a state of raging fury.
I have this routine I devised for a fantasy stand-up routine. It’s based on Bob Newhart’s ‘The Driving Instructor’. It features a stiff, proper-looking Gallic instructor and his timid pupil. ‘Closer… Come on, closer. Now flash… With your headlights… Like that, come on. Again… Come on, keep up. You’re losing him… OK. We’re coming to a bend. What do you do?… No no, au contraire. You pull out. Yes come on… Overtake!’
Yes, OK. It’s probably not hilarious, but it makes me titter in times of duress. (Oo er, no, don’t! Titter ye not, missus.) On the other hand, titter ye imperatively. Anything that helps calm you down. Because ‘these rod-redge ees driveng me crezzy.’

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stop the Week 10

The week started off with a bang, but certainly didn’t end with a whimper.
Jimmy Cagney is Cody Jarrett!!
The bang was the sudden accidental information I picked up while navigating through my BBC home page, bound for somewhere like The Guardian. The injury-hit Green Bay Packers had mashed up the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. It sent me into surprising paroxysms of joy. I wanted to simulate Jimmy Cagney at the end of White Heat by climbing out onto our roof and bellowing, ‘Made it Ma! We’re in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday!’ (Then hoping that I wouldn’t be blown to kingdom come by a cataclysmic explosion: VAROOOM!!)
How strange and illogical it is, this business of backing a team. ‘Heaven knows, Mr. Allison’, I’m not even American. Moreover, Green Bay is the capital of Wisconsin, the rural heartland of America. In other words, a place full of bigoted red-neck farmers who soak their crops with poisonous pesticides and rear their ‘beasts’ in batteries. For all I know, the original packers could well have been the packers of animal hides, delivered by cold-hearted, pusillanimous Davy Crocketts, who trapped and skinned their furry victims, oblivious to the agonies of their long, drawn-out, agonising deaths.
Yet there I was sharing my exhilaration with wife, daughter and anyone else who was prepared to humour me – and all because the team wears a natty combination of yellow and green, plays in the frozen north and is publicly owned by a fanatical body of supporters who wear polystyrene cheese-hats on their heads. What’s wrong with me?
Worn out by our respective travails, my wife and I settled down the other evening with a DVD lent to us by friends, who obviously have stronger stomachs than we do. We watched the acclaimed Wolf Creek with an awful feeling of impending carnage. Something appalling was going to happen to those nice young guys ‘n’ gals at the hands of inbred Outback Aussie sheep-shearers, bush-wranglers, wombat-rapists or whatever they were.
As a dad, I couldn’t stop seeing my daughter in the guise of one of those soon-to-be-violated back-packers. We decided to call it an evening and consign the DVD to its box. I remember the case only too well and there seems something morbid and immoral about effectively forcing the parents to confront their tragedies once more in the name of art and commerce.
On Wednesday morning in Brive, my addiction took hold of me once again. I nipped into another multi-media emporium in the town centre while waiting for my daughter to finish her scholastic morning. I found many more musical nuggets, each for the price of a derisory euro. Pick of the bunch was a beautifully packaged set of 80th birthday recordings by the legendary Cuban pianist, Bebo Valdes (father of Chucho, founder of Irakere). The idea of a European octogenarian playing music as gloriously funky as this would be inconceivable.
We must be turning into a sad bunch. Tilley found Dave Marsh’s book of ‘The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made’ and initiated a game where we take turns at picking a song at random. I then have to find it among my records, tapes and CDs, then play it. Easy so far: Harold Melvin’s sublime ‘Wake up Everybody’ and Jimmy Ruffin’s ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?’ Saddest thing of all, perhaps, is that I’ve read the book from cover to cover.
Anyway, despite the pressure of work this week, I went out in the freezing but extraordinarily dry cold on Saturday night – alone because both ‘girls’ were too knackered – to DJ at a party in Beaulieu, further up the river. It was in the same Scottish-owned restaurant where we all celebrated New Year. There was no food this time, it wasn’t so crowded and everyone danced. Much as I love hosting a radio show, you can’t see your (possibly single-figured) audience at the other end of the radio waves. When you’re behind a mixing desk, you can witness the unadulterated joy on people’s faces of dancing to good music. It’s good for the soul and good for the ego.
‘Made it Ma! To the top of the world, Ma!’

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lingua Franca

One of the most stimulating aspects of living on foreign soil is the language. French is not a million miles away from my own and familiarity has taught me just how entangled they are.
Because we share some of the same roots, I can usually get by here when stumped for a missing word by dredging up an under-employed English word with a Latin root and then pronouncing it with a Gallic flourish. Words like ‘punitive’, ‘expedition’, ‘(im)permeable’, ‘fortifications’ and ‘ostentation’. Get creative with your endings and your syllabic stresses and the natives will often comprehend.
The French are enormously proud of their language. So proud that it has made me in turn more proud of my own than I’ve ever been before. I take great delight in throwing little controversies into the equation to see what will transpire. I should be ashamed of myself; it’s rather like a child poking a cat with a stick to see how the poor creature reacts. But that smug self-righteousness is just ripe for the undermining.

Walky-talky or talkie-walkie, jury?

So I might, for example, suggest that English developed from a richer cultural mix than French did, or that there are at least twice as many words (‘The horror! The horror!) in the English lexicon than in the French. And if they don’t believe me, which they never do – because I am a foreigner – they can read about it for themselves. They never do. They just sink into a state of recalcitrant denial.
Pride breeds protectiveness. There is a Salon de Something in Paris, which meets to discuss and to pronounce on whether new words can be subsumed by the mother tongue. Not that long ago, something similar existed for names. If you wanted to christen your new baby something like Justin or Kylie, you’d have to first seek approval at the local Mairie. Anything other than variations on Philippe or Marie-Claude would necessitate debate, deliberation and documentation in triplicate. Friends of ours were denied the chance to spell their daughter’s name Maya and had to settle for Maïa (or vice versa). But it was a losing battle and there must now be a whole phalanx of French Kevins.
And so it went with language. Despite the efforts of the Salon, French is now littered with Anglicisms. The French being the French, though, it wouldn’t do to adopt them, they have to adapt them. Put a French stamp on things to pretend that they originated in France. And so a walky-talky, in the name of General de Gaulle, becomes un talkie-walkie! A pair of jeans is transformed into un jean – as if you can ever buy one-legged denim trousers outside a specialised outfitter for life’s less fortunate). A brush-and-blow-dry is referred to as le brushing. And if you decide to sign up for an image makeover, you go through what’s called un re-looking.
My favourite, though, is the metamorphosis of leggings to un leggin. On a literal level, you can’t really argue with it. Indisputably, you put your left leg in and your right leg in, and then you pull them up and shake around a bit. And I like the way that there may be no such thing as a un leg-over, but there is un leg-in.
It’s a bizarre business, language. I’ve always found it a fascinating subject. I was one of those rare creatures – a freak of nature perhaps – who actually enjoyed Latin at school. I think I liked it because you didn’t have to speak it, but you could sit down and work it out as you would a crossword puzzle. But one thing has always puzzled me about language – and I’ll leave you with this to ponder until next time, when I might talk about our daughter’s linguistic development as a bilingual child: Who sat down and invented all the rules? Was there a kind of salon in ancient times? Did they play around with things on their wax tablets until they settled on nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative cases and associated endings? Did someone come up with the idea of the gerund and the gerundive?
Only asking.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Stop the Week 9

The unnaturally mild weather is helping to make the customarily difficult month of January fly by. It’s easy to think we’re over the worst now, but bitter experience of French winters has taught me not to be so stupid. More snow is surely on the way…
One of January’s few compensations, helping me pull through till February relatively unscathed, is the biannual sales or soldes. In this regulated society, retailers are limited to two per year and they happen between certain designated weeks in January/February and July/August. Woe on them who try to lure shoppers in with wildcat sales.
Actually, it’s a sign of the difficult economic times that a little leeway has been officially granted. Shops have been showing signs of the British malady by offering inducements like 3 FOR THE PRICE OF 2!! for some time now.
Nevertheless, these are only make-believe sales. The official biannual therapeutic sales are genuine affairs. I anticipate them keenly. No matter how scathing I can be about the British nation’s obsession with shopping, I do love to shop in sales. Music sales, that is.
They always start on a Wednesday in France. I think it’s something to do with the pedagogic community. Since schools tend to shut down on Wednesday afternoons, the idea is that teachers can rush to the soldes after their two-hour lunches. They are not, therefore, disadvantaged.
In this neck of the woods, cultural activities take a back seat to things like log-stacking and jam-making, so the early bird doesn’t necessarily catch the worm. I have known the most absurd bargains lie fallow in the racks for days. Drop-in visits have netted rewards like the complete Stax singles reduced from €100 to €10, and a double DVD of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio in concert and a boxed set of Fela Kuti classics for a buck each.
Nevertheless, I try not to leave anything to chance. So I was there at Cultura by 10.30, the multi-media emporium on the outskirts of town, where Brive turns into a kind of Americanised main drag. I’d dropped the daughter off at school and done the weekly supermarket shop and felt that a little leisure and pleasure were justified.
Sometimes my legs shake with anticipation; it’s like a hit of very strong coffee. My fingers tingle with febrile energy as I flick through dem racks. There’s no longer the comforting muffled phlumpp of LPs being displaced; now it’s more of a plastic clatter as CDs are assessed in the blink of an eye. Of course, if I forget my glasses, I’m in trouble. I have been known to leave behind more recherché bargains due to an inability to read the small print.
Records or CDs, the excitement has not diminished over the years. It’s the thrill of the chase. Some bastards around here shoot at majestic four-legged creatures, I hunt for music bargains. There are worse vices on earth. It’s also about the mystery of the unknown. You never know what you’re going to find. You have no preconceived notions. Downloading from the internet doesn’t do it for me. Where’s the degree of difficulty in pointing, clicking and waiting?
Chet Baker - with horn
Anyway, I was not disappointed – even if inflation has doubled the standard price from one to two euros. Forgive me if I tell you what I got – as I used to do as a child writing thank you letters. I just need to share my excitement. Well, there were: singletons by David Byrne, Daniel Lanois, Gilberto Gil and a blues chanteuse by the name of Ruthie Foster; re-mastered re-releases by Traffic and dead Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson; DVDs of Steve Winwood, Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave in concert; compilations of reggae greats, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and the Pioneers; compilations of British blues guitarists from the 1960s; a Rough Guide to the glorious music of the Congo; a 3-CD Ministry of Sounds set of Club Classics; a 4-CD set of the 70s recordings of bearded German big-band leader, Peter Herbolzheimer; and, best of all, a six-CD boxed set of Chet Baker recordings from the early 1950s.
The Young Man with The Horn, it’s called – appropriately enough. Chet Baker, he of the matinee-idol looks and the lifelong problems with drugs and the opposite sex. A bit of a bastard, in other words. Yet, when he put down his trumpet and sang, his haunting androgynous voice could transform the most anodyne popular song into a little masterpiece of melancholia.
So all that and more for less than the price of filling up our Citroën Berlingo. Nothing like a good sale. This year’s booty should help me get through the rest of January.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

An Expat’s Home

During the last few lunch breaks, as respite from scripting e-learning, I’ve been watching chunks of a film I recorded over the Christmas break: Barry Levinson’s An Everlasting Piece.
I had high hopes when I recorded it, because it was set in my old home, Belfast, Norn Iron. It’s a film about two chancers who try to sell hairpieces to the baldy-men. The dialogue and the feel of the old place were ‘dead on’, but the girls didn’t really catch the drift of the dialect or the humour when we all sat down to watch it after the Christmas festivities. I felt the kind of embarrassment I feel when watching sex scenes with my parents or my child.
So, guiltily, I’ve watched on alone when Debs is at work and Tilley is at school. In truth, it didn’t really work, certainly not as a Barry Levinson film. It was no Diner, no Tin Man, no Rain Man. Yet I laughed my leg off, as we used to say over there, and it made me feel incredibly and inexplicably homesick.
Why on earth would any sane man, living in one of the most beautiful parts of this earth, feel such pangs of longing and nostalgia for an often damp and dreary industrial city riven by sectarian strife? Well, I don’t know, but it brought it home to me just how the soul of a place can infiltrate the soul of a man.
I love the home we’ve created here, but I’ve never really felt ‘at home’ as an Anglais in France. My wife spent roughly the same proportion of her childhood in Germany as I did in Belfast. Our formative years. As a result, perhaps, she feels European, while I still feel very much British. Continental Europe is still a strange and slightly scary place.
Under leaden skies - Belfast, Norn Iron
When I took my wife to Norn Iron on the ferry from Stranraer some 15 years or so ago, I felt immediately and profoundly at home. I hadn’t been back for aeons. But, on driving through the tree-lined suburban streets of West Belfast and later spotting the bluish outline of the Mountains of Mourne further down the coast, I experienced nothing short of euphoria. It rendered me wobbly-kneed and moist of eye and I knew, if ever I had forgotten it, that this place had to be my spiritual home.
What is it about a place? Is it the people? Everyone knows the Northern Irish people are quite mad, but some of the most welcoming people in the western world. So is it because I’ve always found the French people ‘difficult’ and because we don’t partake of the same cultural references that I don’t feel entirely at rest here?
I suppose that what I have become is a rootless expat. It’s a strange label to carry around with you, expat. It conjures up images of Ian Fleming and his cronies drinking rum cocktails in Jamaica or bands of Brits on the Costa del Something, congregating in bars that sell pork scratchings and tepid beer. It’s not a label or a self-image that I’m comfortable with and I tend to avoid enclaves of British expats and do what I can to integrate with the local people.
No matter, my actual home is a house in a country that just doesn’t feel like home. The three of us always get very excited about any trip back to see friends and family in England and talk about ‘going home’. Then I get there and realise that England is just a country where I happened to be born a long time ago and where I lived in a series of different houses that were all home for a while. But England’s not home now either. After a few days, I start champing at the bit and longing for my actual home.
It’s a complicated business being a restless, rootless expat. It must be a lot easier to be born in somewhere like Wolverhampton and to spend the rest of your life there. At least you know where you are. So, from time to time, and particularly after watching a film about chancers and baldy-men, I ask myself: should I stay in a lovely home in a country that’s not home, or sell up and find a nice enough home in a country that’s really home?
France, England or Northern Ireland? Uch, I think I’m just being a silly tube and making life difficult for myself. I guess, to paraphrase the words of Marvin Gaye, ‘wherever I obey my cat, that’s my home’.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Stop the Week 8

I admit it. I put my hand up – as we were taught in class – and confess that I was quite wrong. All those sports pundits who predicted a 2-1 or even 3-1 series win for England, all those pundits whom I thought of as optimistic buckeejits, got it dead right.
I failed to appreciate just how poor the Strylians have become since losing their greats of the last two decades and just how good, how well-oiled the English team has become. The Ashes series of 2010-2011 was planned and executed like some military campaign of yore: Pompey v Mithridates, the D-Day landings, that kind of thing.
They sure as hell teach those public school boys to be leaders of men. Eton or wherever it was that he was a pupil must be justifiably proud of our Andrew Strauss. He kept our boys focused on the job at hand. Each and every one of them, even our two adopted South Effricans, seemed prepared to rush headlong into a hail of machine-gun bullets for their modest leader.
Anyway, I was delighted to be wrong. It has been tough to get on with anything resembling work this week. I’ve been reading every bulletin available on the BBC and Guardian home pages. Writing in the Grauniad this very morning, Joseph O’Neill – author of the brilliant Netherland – talked of the therapeutic bliss of victory against the dread Strylians.
I can’t bear all that football-speak about ’20 years of pain’ or ‘two decades of hurt’, but looking back over the last few decades and the ritual humiliations we have suffered Down Under, my euphoria this time round has brought it home to me that I have shared in a kind of national trauma. But lo! I am cleansed. I can pick up my blanket and walk among my fellow human beans once more, proud in the knowledge that I am English. No sir, we don’t always get beaten.
Excitedly, I have been relaying bulletins to my daughter, who has been off school all week with the grippe. A dose of flu. She probably doesn’t give a monkey’s, but smiles with forbearance and, sweet child, says something that she knows I like to hear, like ‘Oh that’s great, dad. That’s brilliant’. It has been nice to have her around while I play the role of solicitous dad, nursing her through it with some homeopathic cough medicine and her mum’s essential oils.
Vincente Minnelli and
quite famous daughter
Continuing her course on ‘Great Minor Classics of the Cinema’, I proposed Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful the other evening. It’s a stylish ensemble piece built around three characters’ reminiscences of a Machiavellian film producer, played by the great dimpled one, Kirk Douglas. It’s not a comedy and it’s not a thriller, it’s just that: ‘an ensemble piece’ – in the same vein as Citizen Kane and All About Eve. It’s quite delicious and our girl loved it. Minnelli repeated the formula a few years down the line with Two Weeks in Another Town, but it didn’t work anything like as well. What’s more, it didn’t co-star the gorgeous Gloria Grahame (she who once had scalding coffee thrown over her face by a particularly vicious Lee Marvin in The Big Heat).
Fortunately, I didn’t have my daughter with me the other day when I was wheeling my shopping trolley out to the car. A white-haired man was standing by an adjacent car, staring into space as he took a Jimmy Riddle. I tried not to be transfixed. There he was in broad daylight, the Lad hanging out of his open flies, peeing over the car and, no doubt, his shoes. I know that the French are very liberal about this kind of thing, but this… Shurely shome mishtake, I thought. Certainly not for my daughter’s innocent youthful eyes. Then the man’s wife (or daughter) emerged from the supermarket and I realised at once that the poor guy must be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Shame on me for my disdain.
There but for the grace of God go I. For the time being, anyway. What was that line from The Who's 'My Generation'? 'Hope I die before I get old...' When I was a teenage fan of the 'Orrible 'Oo, I dug the sentiment and identified with the youthful bravado. Now I understand, though, what it means. What it really means.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Followers

The other day, I’d just: ‘posted my blog’ when I thought I’d have a little troll around the Blogger.com ‘interface’. (Hey! Dig the lingo – not bad for a doddering old technophobe like me.)
Anyway, my joy was unconfined on noticing that I had a whole host of ‘followers’. The list is approaching double figures. How splendid to have followers. Our Lord Jesus had followers, but they called them ‘disciples’ in his time. I’m not for one moment, you understand, equating my new followers with disciples, but it’s rather reassuring for someone who calls himself a writer to know that he is not working in a total vacuum.
My wife doesn’t understand me. She cross-questioned me the other evening, wondering whether blogging wasn’t just another displacement activity. She has, of course, a point. But she doesn’t quite understand how important it is for someone who labels himself a writer to have an audience. Even if a single-figured one.
Without one, it’s rather like calling yourself a beautician and spending your life peeling potatoes. People might start to question your authenticity or your sin-zerradee (to quote a song that I’ve forgotten). I could spend the rest of my days diligently writing my journal, as I do now, but there comes a time when you need to get out there and reach an audience.
And writing’s not like painting. I’ve said it before at the Blackpool Conference, and I’ll say it again, at least a painter creates something tangible that he or she can hold up and show people. A writer relies on someone’s volition, patience and concentration. Given the infinitesimal attention span synonymous with the modern era, it’s ‘a big ask’.
Not that a painter doesn’t suffer the same crises of confidence as a writer does. I have a new Anglo-Polish friend (or should it be Polo-Anglish?) who’s a blocked artist. He hasn’t painted anything for several years because he’s deep in a creative slough of despond. He sent me a ‘jay-peg’ (more lingo) of his last piece of work: a portrait of his father, dashed off with a style and verve that made me think at once of Walter Sickert. It was instantly clear that the man has a talent the size of K2, and yet…
Anyway… I thought I’d send a message to each of the mysterious followers whom I didn’t know personally or didn’t recognise by their ‘handles’ or their thumbnail silhouettes. Just to say ‘thank you for reading my blog; I would be delighted to reciprocate’. Embarrassingly, though, I got in such a two-and-eight with the interface that I ended up adding myself to the list of followers. Now people will think that I’m both ungracious and narcissistic. 
Oh well. If any follower is reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks and please don’t think that my thumbnail photograph in the ‘Followers’ space indicates an ego of Noel Coward proportions.
I am, though, a follower myself. I follow sporting teams – like the Green Bay Packers, and – to please my old dad in his dotage – Arsenal. I follow the careers of sporting stars, musicians, comedians and other public figures. And now I shall follow my Polo-Anglish artist friend in the hope that he achieves a reputation commensurate with his talent.
The Humblembums, painted
by Gerry's mate, playwright
John 'Patrick' Byrne
(of Tutti Frutti fame) 
I can’t say I ever really followed Gerry Rafferty’s career, but I was saddened to read of his death today – at the insignificant age of 63. Problems with alcoholism apparently. Mind you, he was Scottish. Everyone knows ‘Baker Street’, of course, even my daughter, and some know ‘Stuck in the Middle’, from his days with Stealers Wheel, but few know that he was one half of The Humblebums with Billy Connolly, in the years before the bearded comedian became a national treasure.
I used to have a couple of records by The Humblebums and it was a bit of a pain, as I had to lift the arm to skip all the BC tracks, which were useless, for those by Gerry Rafferty. People will argue the point, but It’s my humble belief that, as a British pop-tunesmith, Gerry Rafferty was second only to Sir Macca. Go ponder.
‘All the best people do it, there ain’t nothing to it/Just keep turning every little thing into a lie…’ (R.I.P. Gerry Rafferty)
Hold the front page!!
While writing this whatever-you-want-to-call-it, I received a message from an old friend, whom I haven’t seen for 38 (count ‘em) years. He reads my blog, for heaven’s sake. Let us all praise the wonders of modern technology. All hail Stan the Man, ex-Methodist College Belfast and stout-hearted follower!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Stop the Week 7

Happy New Year everybody. Come all ye faithful, it’s 2011 now. It was only 100 years ago that we were all busy getting ready for the Great War. May the coming few years, despite the hike in oil prices and the increase in VAT, be rather less apocalyptic.
2010 ended here with a fair old bang rather than a whimper. There was nothing quite as memorable as standing (two years ago) outside the manorial home of our mighty German friends, huddled together in the sub-zero chill and staring into the cloudless heavens, oo-ing and ah-ing as we followed a squadron of paper lanterns on their diaphanous journey to the stars. I have since discovered that these beautiful paper lanterns have been known to wreak some kind of ecological damage – interfering with the flight paths of rare geese, perhaps – so I guess that’s an option ne’er to be repeated.
No, this time round it was something much more prosaic: a good old shindig that took place in a restaurant in old Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. I recognised it as the dingy traditional establishment where my wife and I had once eaten while on holiday. Two courageous Scottish chaps have transformed it into something rather more modern and inviting. They are wintering elsewhere to gather strength for next season, and have left the keys with a Belgian friend and fellow music-nut. Don’t worry, though, they gave him their permission to hold a party in their absence.
Kim asked me to help with the music: always an honour and a pleasure. Since he’d borrowed a record deck for the occasion, I took the opportunity to rifle through my collection of 12” singles in search of tasty morsels for the dance floor.
I went armed with a bag of some headphones, one of those plastic spacers for ex-juke box singles with big holes, some indispensable CDs and a bundle of antiquated treasures from my dustiest shelf: things like Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Hopscotch’, Patrice Rushen’s ‘Forget Me Nots’, Coati Mundi’s ‘Me No Pop-I’, War’s sublime version of ‘Groovin’’ and, gulp, the Gary Byrd Experience’s ‘The Crown’.
The only trouble was that I was allocated the graveyard slot. So everyone was too busy wining, whining and dining while I was spinning my blasts from the past. The trouble with D.J.-ing is that your job is to pick things that make it impossible to stand still. Dancing is one of those oh-too-rare pleasures of my life, so standing on show behind the console with a pair of phones on my head cannot compensate for the frustration of having to stay there or thereabouts. Lest one misses that seamless cross-fade from one piece to the next, you understand.
‘And then the music changes…’, as Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman was given to intone. By the time it was someone else’s turn and I could move onto the dance floor to practise my ‘tigers-on-Vaseline’ moves, the new D.J. was pumping out the most awful racket. Grunge and… AC/DC for heaven’s sake! Suddenly the dance floor was choked with gyrating bodies. You couldn’t move; you couldn’t talk. You could only wonder. It underlined that there’s no accounting for taste, that you’re onto a losing cause if you try to predict or mould it, that you can’t hope to please all the people all of the time, and, most worrying of all, that you’re getting old. Like Father William, my time has been and gone. Ich bin ein dinosaur.
Choosing the music for the party was a challenge of head-scratching proportions. Choice, for a Libran like me, is the final frontier. I should be so lucky, of course. It’s only in the privileged West that we are blessed with the luxury of choice. In many countries, I’d simply take up my crude clay vessel and trudge my way to the nearest source of clean drinking water. Choice? There are no alternative options. 
Panic in Detroit

I remember talking (theoretically) some time ago to my oldest and dearest friend about the options open to us if we chose to up-sticks and move out of our current nests. He mentioned that real estate was cheap in Detroit. This morning I saw some amazing photographs of some once magnificent municipal buildings in the Motor City. They reminded me of old imperial Moscow after the Bolshevik hordes had steamed through them. Incredible devastation and decay. Even the once magnificent central railway station was reduced to a vandalised shell. How could it have happened? This was once a great industrial American city.
No doubt property is cheap in such a damaged, traumatised place. But, my, what a leap of faith it would take to invest in the hope of its eventual gentrification. Downtown Detroit? I’ll be staying in rural France for the moment, thank you very much.