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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Le Grand Tour

You know me. I’m not one to drop names to impress, but my mate Indra, the TV and film director (puffs out chest and clears throat), has jetted in from London to stay here for some high-level talks about a film project.
We both speak reasonable French and both love that kind of uniquely French comedy of manners where characters gather at, say, a big house in the country to talk and be witty and philosophical and generally (for a brief moment) to put right the wrongs of society. Things like Jean Renoir’s wonderful Les Règles du Jeu and Louis Malle’s charming Milou en Mai.
We don’t necessarily hope to create a carbon copy for modern times, but want to make something in a similar spirit that speaks to humanity of the zeitgeist (puffs out chest and clears throat again). And since the French still think enough of their indigenous film industry to grant it funds, we figure that we could, with a decent script and a degree of chutzpah, go berets in hand to the holders of the regional purse and ask, very nicely if you please, for some dosh. Or Le Dosh, as it may come to be known in time.
We got down to work on Toots’ Day after much beating around the bush and were promptly side-tracked by the New Zealand/Sri Lanka cricket world cup match. Nevertheless, we mapped out an idea by lunchtime, after which I took Indra out for a tour of le coin. This might sound to the cynical amongst you like yet more displacement activity, but the idea was to get a feel for the milieu in which the characters will operate while continuing to talk and to develop the story.
Alf loves nothing more than a sortie, even if it involves sitting in the boot of the Berlingo, watching the road recede. We went first to Curemonte, just across the frontier in the Corrèze, l’un des plus beaux villages de France. I’d say that roughly 50% of the houses are lived in all the year round, while the other 50% are holiday homes. Yet there was no one abroad. A small dog yapped at us from behind the closed front door of the café; otherwise we had the distinct impression of visiting a village abandoned in mysterious circumstances. In the covered market place, there was an exhibition of stills from a film that was made here in the ‘90s. Perhaps the German storm troopers had returned to spirit away the populace.
I took my friend to see the village’s two privately owned monumental chateaux, like medieval twin towers within a walled garden that sits above the village like some land-bound liner. A Parisian couple own (and have restored) these chateaux: a retired English teacher and her convivial red-nosed husband. When in residence, they organise cultural events and last summer we went to see Milou en Mai projected onto a massive screen set up between two trees. Ominous storm clouds on the horizon, with utmost consideration, shed not their watery load until the film had ended.
From Curemonte we drove to the market town of Meyssac. On our first trip here in 1988, Debs and I passed through Meyssac in her old soft-top Beetle. One look at the medieval buildings built of the blood-red local sandstone and I knew that we were entering a truly special territory. We visited my favourite boulangerie to buy some of the rye bread in which they specialise and a tarte aux pommes for dinner. Then we dropped in to a nice unspoilt Bar Tabac that goes by the name of Chez Gilles for two pick-me-ups and more high-level discussion. Gilles himself is a gruff but friendly proprietor who blends well with a gruff but friendly clientele that took kindly to Alfredo, my faithful dog. ‘C’est un bon chien…’ ‘Oui, c’est un très bon chien.’
Part of the Viscount's territory
From Meyssac we drove a kilometre west to Collonges la Rouge, the original plus beau village de France and one of the most visited sites in the whole of France. Even in March there was a coach load of oldies assembled by the post office to listen to the guide explaining how the stone got its unique colour (iron oxide, I gather). In truth, it’s a bit of a museum, but there’s undoubtedly something stunning and unique about the place.
The last leg of the tour was Turenne: the spectacular granite village that snakes its way around and up an outcrop of rock, on top of which sits a ruined castle that once belonged to the influential Viscomtes de Turenne. It seems like a 1 in 3 gradient and we reflected on how the permanent residents manage when laden down with shopping bags from E.Leclerc.
At the top you get a different perspective on the same landscape that we survey from our house. This was the Viscomte’s térritoire, almost as far as the eye can see. Now it’s the Lot/Corrèze borderland. Maybe one day it’ll feature in an Anglo-French production of a film directed by Indra Bhose, conceived during three wet days on the dog’s meadow at La Poujade Basse.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Stop the Week 18

So farewell then Dame Elizabeth Taylor – as E.J. Thribb would no doubt have started his valedictory ode.
Worryingly, the thumbnail portrait of Liz in her dotage – as displayed on the BBC homepage – bears a striking resemblance to Dame Michael Jackson, as he might have looked had the nimble-footed one lived on into adulthood. Strange (or maybe not so strange) how the two oddballs gravitated towards each other. Rather like Gilbert and George or Flanders and Swann. I remember watching an interview scoop with Michael circa the business with the boys. For part of it, Dame Elizabeth stood behind him in one of the tents that she used to wear to hide her vastness, looking for all the world like some sinister Svengalian minder.
Todd Browning's Freaks
She led a fairly useless life, did our Liz – growing fat on husbands, diamonds, tantrums, booze, a perfume range and unreasonable demands. An example really of how not to spend your brief tenancy on this mortal coil. Having said that, however, she did leave an indelible image for generations to come. As Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Montgomery Clift’s temptress in A Place in The Sun she came across, briefly, as one of the most beautiful, seductive, positively edible specimens of womanhood ever created by whoever creates them. No wonder Richard Burton lost his heart and his marbles, and wasted his wealth on diamonds as big as the Ritz.
But even at her most lovely, she could not have played Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen Mum, as well as Helena Bonham Carter did in The King’s Speech.
That was on at the end of the week at our local cinema in nearby Vayrac. It’s one of those heavily subsidised art et essai cinemas that show films in version originale to the likes of the Sampsons (and not many others). Many are the times we’ve gone there and joined a mere handful of people in the cavernous auditorium to watch something that hasn’t been butchered by dubbing. The French love to dub their films and probably believe that Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and the like all speak with their particular dub-artists’ voices. It’s a travesty and an outrage and I’d rather miss a film than see it dubbed.
Can you imagine The King’s Speech dubbed? Well, you couldn’t – which probably explains why so many people – British and French – queued with us for admission on Thursday night. The manager warned the queue that he had been sent a particularly poor copy of the film. Full of scratches and such like. Some turned away, muttering about coming back on Monday night for the second showing. We pressed on.
Once everyone was seated, to his eternal credit he came and gave a little front-of-house speech to apologise for the quality of the film and offer people the chance to come to the box office at the end and get a note (no doubt in triplicate) that would admit them on Monday. The poor man was genuinely embarrassed. It clearly offended his professional pride. 
Well, it was indeed scratched to buggery – like particularly popular CDs tend to be in Brive library. But it didn’t jump and the vertical lines were curiously in keeping with the period of the piece. Almost like one of those Harry Enfield pastiches. As it didn’t ruin our enjoyment, we didn’t queue up for our readmission note (in triplicate). Colin Firth deserved his Oscar and it’s inconceivable to think that many others throughout France will be listening to someone simulating his speech impediment in aristocratic French. Geoffrey Rush was delightful as Lionel, his friendly Antipodean speech therapist. And Helena Bonham Carter was not only Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to a tee, but also a seductive specimen of womanhood.
A very fine film that, for once, lived up to all the hype. And all the better for not starring Elizabeth Taylor and her kind. May she rest in as much peace as her corporeal self merited.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stop the Week 17

It hardly seems appropriate to be writing about cultural matters in the light of World War 3 in North Africa and Apocalypse Now in Japan – particularly the kind of whimsical stuff that has been on offer last week. Nevertheless, one has to pretend that life goes on as normal…
There was nothing normal about Paul King’s extraordinary directorial debut, Bunny and the Bull, aired on Film Four – that wondrous channel for movie buffs who refuse to pay Rupert Murdoch for his satellite services. Paul King created the surreal TV comedy series, The Mighty Boosh, which I somehow contrived to keep missing, even though a friend avowed that I would love it, seeing how I was such a fan of Flight of the Conchords, HBO’s comedy series of two whimsical musicians from New Zealand adrift in New York.
It’s difficult to summarise it succinctly, since there’s nothing (chrono)logical about it all, but roughly speaking it’s based on the recollections of a vegetarian agoraphobic, who has incarcerated himself in his flat following the traumatic conclusion of a European holiday with his disreputable, unreliable, hedonistic friend, Bunny. What made the film so remarkable was not so much the characters, but more the wacky backdrops to the episodic plot. There is one glorious scene, for example, where the hero and his would-be Spanish girlfriend (who bears a tantalising resemblance to Penelope Cruz) ride a Ferris Wheel made from the parts of old clocks.
Visually, the film seems to have been conceived in the spirit of Oliver Postgate, whose wonderful whimsical creations lit up my childhood: Noggin the Nog, The Clangers and Bagpuss, for example – all of which displayed a similar kind of lunatic home-made inventiveness. I never met Mr. Postgate, but according to some retired German friends in the Corrèze, he had a holiday home not far from our old house. I would like to have shaken his hand, and would willingly do the same to Paul King, should he ever decide to settle near here.
We also watched Scottish director David McKenzie’s Hallam Foe, which was a little less zany, but rather more edgy. The element of whimsy kept threatening to teeter into something sinister and unpleasant. But it didn’t, thanks partly to a lovely performance by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame, who played the eponymous hero with a brooding charm. One of the stars of the film was the city of Edinburgh, which is still one of my favourite cities in the world despite the unfortunate consequences of eating a rogue sausage in a B&B on the edge of the New Town. Another reason for identifying with the vegetarian hero of Bunny & the Bull.
Still following my whimsical thread, I’m reading a delicious novel by an American writer: Cathleen Shine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. It reminds me a little of The Accidental Tourist and other books by Anne Tyler. The same kind of gentle comic sadness that seems to get to the essentially mundane business of life on earth (for those of us who are luck enough to have the time to meditate on the subject). It’s supposedly a homage to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but I’m too immersed to step back and see it clearly just yet.
And finally… a friend introduced me last week to the Reverend Billy and his surely hopeless crusade to stop Americans from shopping so much. His album, The Shopocalypse, contains some excellent gospel music from the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and some splendid rants from the Reverend himself, which are uncomfortably like those of some genuine southern TV evangelist. 
May your week be full of the ‘beatitudes of buylessness’ despite the awful events of this criminally insane world of ours.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Hard Sell

Late yesterday afternoon, the phone rang – as it does from time to time, even here in this outpost of civilisation.
When it’s a cold-call, they usually speak so quickly that I just about catch the name of the organisation they represent if I’m lucky. I heard the letters EDF. The electrical company. Probably another ‘free survey’ to test the possibility of putting solar panels on the roof. Which meant that I would have to explain, yet again, that we had panels for our hot water, but a previous survey had shown that our poor orientation meant that panels for power were not viable.
In fact, no. It was someone pushing the benefits of paying for our power by means of equal monthly payments rather than the current bi-monthly bills. He pushed them so forcibly that it rang alarm bells. If there was something in it for me, there sure as hell had to be a lot more in it for them. I explained politely that I was quite happy with the current arrangements. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I like to see my bills so I can check our consumption and see how many more insidious taxes they’ve added to the total amount payable.
He harped on about the benefits and I explained again that I was OK paying bi-monthly. Then he asked me why. Why was I happy with it? Why didn’t I want to change to equal monthly instalments? At this point, I puffed out my chest and put on my best Tory politician tone and intoned ‘because I don’t-want-to-change’. (Aha! The crux of the matter: a man who doesn’t like change.) Finally, he acknowledged – with more than a hint of righteous indignation – that he had taken up enough of my time, and there was nothing left but to wish me ‘une excéllente soirée’. (You, too, moosh.)
If only...
Over the last five or so years, the French nation seems to have woken up to the concept of customer service. After decades of abusing customers and treating them as ignorant pariahs, certain big-wigs seem to have figured out that customer service can help an organisation to keep its existing customers and even, mrabile dictu, win some new ones. It’s as if, however, this radical idea has been passed down to the workforce in the form of commandments, but without any training or other forms of reinforcement.
Consequently, you can hear how hard they’re trying; you can smell the insincerity. It puts you off. But if you have the temerity to refuse, they come over all hoity-toity, as if you’ve wounded their pride and made some hurtful remark about the origins of their parents.
Selling’s the same: the mantras are all well rehearsed, but the sincerity isn’t there. I remember once being conned by some cartoon blousy blonde, who had no doubt been drafted in by the bank to sweet-talk their silly susceptible male customers into signing up for some credit card that they didn’t really want. Opération carte de crédit…
When I discovered that the card was only free for a limited period, after which you started paying a not insubstantial quarterly charge, I marched into my local branch of the Crédit Agricole and hung around till I could see the manager. He took me into some plush new office presumably funded by previous opérations carte de crédit), sat me down and asked me what the problem was. I explained that I was returning the card, because I wasn’t used to having to pay for one and I wasn’t at all happy that I had been ‘induced’ into taking it out in the first place.’
Whereupon, young thrusting fresh-faced manager disappeared – to return a minute or so later with a be-suited henchman. Together the pair of them assailed me with a tirade about the potential costs of lost cards and the need for insurance to cover the appalling consequences and had I thought, Monsieur Sampson, about the destitution that could lie just over the horizon and… When breath was drawn, with my limited French I voiced my distinct feeling that I wasn’t a valued customer of the bank, more some hapless maquisard who had been apprehended and now interrogated by the Gestapo. For good measure, I told them that I had a good mind to close my account.
Arms were thrown up in horror. Oh Monsieur Sampson, what a thing to suggest, ha ha, you English and your renowned sense of humour, nervous titter, of course this isn’t an interrogation; of course we value your custom. And just to prove it, the be-suited henchman tip-toed off and left the manager to calm the troubled waters. We shook hands at the end. The bank took back the card, rescinded the charge and I kept my account open.
Some years later, I bowed to the inevitable and took out a low-cost card when I opened my account with La Poste. It’s just one facet of French life that you come to accept. Like lousy customer service and a shirty reaction when you deflect another hard sell. Oh, excuse me a sec, the phone’s ringing…

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stop the Week 16

Well shine a light, Lord love us, Gorblimey guv’nor… it’s the Rolling Stones.
Over the course of four or five lunches this last industrious week, I watched Martin Scorse’s film of the venerable Stones in instalments. I still have a soft spot for the OAPs of rock, even though I rather lost interest in their musical offerings after Let it Bleed – which means that I’m an Exile on Main Street agnostic.
The soft spot inevitably goes back to my musical youth (‘I say, pass the dutchie on the left-hand side would you, Winston…’). After the first flush of Beatledom had subsided, inevitably there came along the Stones. The Fabulous pin-ups covered my wall and into my embryonic record collection came High Tide and Green Grass, their first greatest hits retrospective. In fact, ‘Not Fade Away’, was the first single I ever pur-chased – by dint of the fact that The Gramophone Shop in Wellington Place, Belfast, had run out of Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’.
Bill 'Pint Size' Wyman
The wonderful, bashful Charlie Watts was and has faithfully remained my favourite Stone. I remember my mother professed to be enamoured of his extraordinary cheekbones and wanted him to sit for a portrait. It was never to be. Meanwhile, although I have always managed a half-decent impersonation of Sir Michael over the years, Jagger has always managed to make me cringe with embarrassment every time he opens his mockney marf. And Keef might have the most impeccable taste in black American music, but really…
I read and enjoyed Bill Wyman’s chatty autobiography a few years ago and actually met the wee fella a couple of summers ago in Cahors. A close friend of ours with a fascinating past from these parts got us free tickets with back-stage passes to go and see Bill’s Rhythm Kings as part of the annual Cahors Blues Festival.
It was probably everything that a Rolling Stones concert isn’t – and all the more enjoyable for that. Low profile, no king-size egos, just sheer love of the music, typified by the delightful Albert Lee, a guitarist’s guitarist, who played with a wide smile on his face all evening long, as if truly delighted to be there. Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, who has a holiday house in the area, put in a guest appearance on keyboards and sung (inevitably) ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ in a duet with the ever-wonderful Georgie Fame.
Backstage, it was a shock to see just how small Bill Wyman is. No wonder he played a vertical bass. Charming and unassuming, you could pick him up and put him in your pocket. Nearly 70 at the time, he didn’t seem to have changed over the years. I plucked up the courage to go and talk to Georgie Fame and we chatted for half an hour or so about BeBop and his mentor, the jazz vocalist, Jon Hendricks. I’ve been boring friends and family about this close encounter with a legend ever since.
But I digress, as the saying goes. The film and the concert seemed a surprisingly lacklustre affair and only seemed to warm up once Buddy Guy had done his guest spot. Nevertheless, it underlined how fit and what a remarkable performer Mick Jagger is. For all the ludicrous posturing, the man is a born entertainer. There was, though, a strong impression that the only one of the quartet to have grown up since the days of High Tide is that self-effacing drummer of theirs.
Otherwise… it has been a desperate week for Arsenal, following their casual and careless disposal of the Carling Cup Final. To be beaten by Barcelona was no disgrace, but to lose – again – to Manchester United will probably represent the last nail in this season’s coffin. I spoke to my father about it this morning. He has followed the Gunners all his life and he had an interesting take on all the disappointments. At least he didn’t have to watch them play any more this season, he told me. Yes, it’s a stressful and frustrating business, watching a team you follow over a full 90 minutes with some realistic expectations of success. We both agreed that Monsieur Wenger should sell Fabregas to Barcelona for as many millions as he can muster and spend the money on a few older heads to steady the youthful good ship Arsenal.
Hey-ho! ‘It’s a life,’ to quote a Liverpudlian friend of mine.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Student Demonstration Time

Monday was a journée morte at school: a dead day.
This meant that everyone – teachers and pupils – were on strike, demonstrating against the swingeing cuts proposed by our diminutive president and his team of yes-men-and-women. Living in France, you tend to get a little cynical about strikes and manifestations, because there’s always someone or some group at it: whether it’s the lorry drivers, the functionaries or the SNCF railway mob, demonstrating their abhorrence at any attempt to raise their retirement age from 25 to 28.
I’m all for protesting any attacks on education. If anything is going to sort out society’s ills and the problems of the world, then it’s educating the citizenry. And if anything is going to provoke our short-sighted short-term political masters to wield the axe in times of economic crisis, it’s that soft target of education. Why spend money on educating our children when you could be commissioning some state-of-the-art nuclear doodlebug, or paying consultants to come up with some clever new strap line (Hey! How about, ‘Bootle – if you’ve got the bottle’?)
So why wasn’t I out on the streets of Brive with The Daughter waving a banner and chanting slogans in French? Well, um… I’m working on several projects at the moment, all with uncompromising deadlines. And Tilley was desperately trying to catch up on all the homework that she should have done during her fortnight’s holiday.
Yes, I know – that’s lame in the extreme. I do most of my protesting by petition or letter and I tend to think that society’s high and mighty don’t pay much attention to earnest middle-class kids marching with their earnest middle-class parents under the watchful eye of their overpaid police. Of course, if the crowd turned into a mob with a guillotine in tow, then they might get a little more edgy.
The truth of the matter, though, is that on the one occasion when I took part in a demonstration over here, I felt so comprehensively out of place that I vowed never to repeat the experience.
It was maybe ten years ago in Tulle, the departmental seat of the Corrèze. I can’t even remember what we were demonstrating against. A proposal perhaps to install a V2 rocket-launcher on the disused marshalling yard by the station. I don’t know. I turned up dutifully at the appointed hour, hung around in the area by the cathedral that’s taken over twice a week by a market, looked for any familiar faces and spotted only a German therapist (who was probably behind the V2 scheme), listened in sheer befuddlement to some rousing speeches from impassioned individuals with megaphones. And felt like an alien, trying to figure out what the human race was all about.’
At a given moment, the crowd moved off and I shuffled off with them, alone and baffled, having lost sight of the familiar German therapist. We paraded along by the river Corrèze that runs through Tulle like a main drain, crossed it by one of the bridges and paraded along the other side, chanting slogans that had all the significance of ‘oggi oggi oggi, oi oi oi!’ We re-crossed the river and paraded back to the cathedral and all the time I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing in this foreign place? I could be back in Britain, demonstrating against something that I understand’. In the words of the old song, ‘What-ever possessed me?’
Mind you, if opinion polls are to be believed, Marine Le Pen could become the next president of France. Whereupon, she will turn the police into a proper rather than pretend military outfit that will suppress any subsequent marches with tear gas. So I guess we’d better hang on to this precious civil right and make the most of it while it’s still there. Use it before you lose it. OK, come the next journée morte
Meanwhile, the Missus and I have decided to apply for joint nationality, so we can earn and exercise the right to vote as French citizens. Hopefully we won’t have to show our passports to Le Pen’s lackeys and attempt to explain that we’re really rather French. At least our skin is off-white. Any hint of colour and we’d have the devil’s own job.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Stop the Week 15

I’ll start this week by asking you a question that has been sweeping through the French nation: What’s your favourite Joni Mitchell album?
Triggered last week at the dinner table by an idle conversation between the senior Sampsons and four visiting friends from Sheffield, the controversy was heightened this week by the arrival of a CD in a cardboard package from those nice people at Amazon.
It seemed to be the unanimous opinion of the Four Friends from Sheffield that Blue represented Joni’s finest hour. I professed, to universal horror, that I wasn’t overly familiar with Blue since my personal love affair with Ms. Mitchell started after hearing the gorgeous Court and Spark. Controversially, the Missus and I voiced the common line that Hejira was our favourite album.
So, on returning to Sheffield, the kind friends sent us a re-mastered copy of Blue. I knew ‘Cary’ of course and one or two others and while the songs are all fairly memorable, I was struck by how shrill Joni’s voice sounded to my ears. Blue seems to be the zenith of the gawky long-haired long-dressed Joni’s art. This was Joni Mitchell, the girl-woman folkie, with whom Graham Nash and David Crosby fell in love.
Being a bit of a jazzer at heart, I love the more explorative, experimental Joni Mitchell of the brooding Hissing of Summer Lawns, the ambitious Mingus, the self-assured Night Ride Home and, particularly, the evocative Hejira. I had a listen to the delicious ‘Song for Sharon’ just to be sure. By then, her voice had dropped half an octave, she was using jazz musicians of the calibre of bass player, Jaco Pastorius, and her lyrics were either more enigmatic or more obtuse, depending on your standpoint. So I’m quite sure. Hejira gets my vote. But the French nation will vote the week after next and the result will be announced on a TV special by a diminutive president in stacked-heel shoes. I’ll keep you abreast of the situation.
Meanwhile, nostalgia has been the name of the musical game this week. I’m not quite as bad as my father, who refuses now to listen to anything but British dance band music from the 1930s and ‘40s. Nevertheless, I’m showing worrying signs of living in the past (to quote a song by Jethro Tull, which I once owned, only to sell it when 7” singles were deemed unhip).
I watched, for example, an excellent documentary on Steve Winwood. It was strange to hear his speaking voice, accustomed as I am to the mid Atlantic inflections of one of the great soul singing voices, white or black, of the last 40 years. He speaks with a middle-class Brummie accent, pronouncing his gs, as in ‘singgingg’. And it was a little alarming to see that he has turned into a landed squire of the Cotswolds.
But then Steve Winwood never really courted controversy. Perhaps the most outré thing he ever did was to cut his hair in a bizarre wedge and don a sporty jacket for the MTV videos of his 1980s adult-oriented-rock persona. No, as brother Muff testified, bass player with the excellent Spencer Davis group that first presented his prodigious younger brother to the world, Steve Winwood has always just been quietly and uncommonly obsessed with music.
As a kid, I loved Spencer Davis and I loved every incarnation of Traffic and, as an ageing nostalgic, I love the music he has created since he got over the haircut and the jacket – especially the music he has made of late with Eric Clapton. Moreover, it was Steve who made me feel better about not being able to play a note on any instrument. I read an interview with him in which he described the curse of being a musician: that he can never listen to music without analysing it and thinking about how he might approach it.
A fine fellow, the Cotswold squire. Having just finished Peter Doggett’s excellent book on the post-break-up Beatles, I’m not sure that the same could be said of the Fab Four. I think I’ve mentioned how my sister, my brother and I as kids used to divide up our meals among the four mop-tops. John would always get my prime cuts. These days I wouldn’t be too averse to sharing with George, Ringo and, for all his control-freakishness, Paul. But John wouldn’t even get the crumbs from the table.
As for Yoko, I wouldn’t even offer her the dog’s dish after he’d licked it clean.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Week with an Incontinent Dog

At the end of last week we swapped our daughter for a 16-year old incontinent Labradoid dog.
No, this isn’t Russia. We don’t tend to trade children in this country. It’s only on a temporary basis. Blondie’s owners have gone to the Canaries on a week’s holiday and since the Daughter is the best friend of their daughter, they have taken our 16-year old with them.
So we are harbouring Blondie – and a bag full of old towels and blankets with which to line her basket. We’ve taken up the rugs and put our bar stools on the sofas to discourage her from sleeping on them, but so far she’s only had one accident.
Not the canine variety
It’s a testimony to two good walks a day and the evident comfort of sharing digs with her old Labradorable mucker, Alf. The pair of them are like Little & Large together, though the bow-legged blonde has got whiter and less upright with age. She’s as deaf as a post and somewhat purblind, which means that you have to tap her gently on her flank to wake her up in the mornings and last thing at night you have to retrieve her from the great outdoors by torchlight. But she eats heartily and walks well for what amounts to an exceptional age for any dog with more than a phial of pure Labrador blood in her veins.
Even Myrtle is quite unperturbed by her presence in the living area. Myrtle was chased once by another of Alf’s girlfriends, Ella the canine loose cannon. In her panic, she leaped from the edge of the mezzanine onto the metal flue of the wood-burning stove and clung to the elbow joint. Fortunately, it was spring and the fire wasn’t lit. We managed to retrieve Myrtle from her precarious perch, but she’s been a bag of nerves ever since. However, she seems to live by the credo: black dog bad, yellow dog good.
Anyway, the upshot of the matter is that I’ve been forced to change my quotidian habits this week. Blondie’s deafness means that I’ve had to drop the bike in favour of my own two feet, so I can stay right by her in the event of a passing car. So far, we haven’t been passed by a single car, but I’m ready to spring into action and usher her to the side of the road.
Walking the dawgs, as Rufus Thomas might have had it, has given me the chance to read for longer than my customary ten minutes every night before drifting off to sleep, only to be awoken with a start by the sound of a book falling to the floor. It’s a sign alas of my fading powers that I now have to wear reading glasses even outdoors. Were any motorist to pass, I imagine it must be a bizarre sight: a bespectacled man in his nephew’s thermal climbing trousers, peering at a paperback book and accompanied by two yella dawgs. ‘Hot dang, that’s a bi-zarre sight, Darleen!’
I’ve been reading about the internecine struggle between John, Paul, George, Ringo, Yoko, Alan Klein, Phil Spector and other interested parties post Beatles break-up in Peter Doggett’s riveting You Never Give Me Your Money and a lengthy exposé of Ireland’s calamitous financial collapse in Vanity Fair: a salutary morality tale for our times, which highlights not only the greed but also the blatant stupidity of these financial top-dogs who vote themselves enormous salaries and unjustifiable bonuses.
So it has its evident compensations, looking after an incontinent dog. It’s those little variations on the daily routine that keep you on your toes and stave off the onset of senility.
If I can somehow get her into the boot of the car on Saturday morning, I’ll take her back to her home and trade her for The Daughter. It’ll be back to pedal power and walking a single dog afterwards. The next challenge in this life of constant Indiana Jones-ish escapades will be to work out a way of rigging up a book to my handlebars so I can read and ride twice daily. Some sort of magnifying glass with built-in rear view mirror contraption, I fancy.
Heath Robinson would have been the man to consult, but sadly he is no longer here to advise me. I’ll let you know how I get on without him.