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, April 28, 2011

Little Victories

I really don’t like our green metal letterbox at the top of our lane. It’s not that I’m offended by its ugliness (because I sited it cleverly among the undergrowth), but I find the tension of opening it almost too much to bear.
These days, people don’t write letters; they send you an e-mail or post something on your Facebook wall. Not like it was when I were a lad. Nay, when I were working in Lord Harrowby’s stately home as an assistant archivist and later, when I were a young student in an Exeter Hall of Residence, the daily post was a matter of keen anticipation. There might be a letter from a (grand)parent, a sibling or a school friend (even, dare I suggest, a girlfriend).
But there are never any nice letters in our green metal letterbox. The only letters that we get are the heart-wrenching variety from charitable concerns, asking for funds, or the unintelligible official type from some arm of the insatiable Trésor Public, usually attached to a demand for payment. Otherwise, it’s publicités from supermarkets or gardening emporia and – just occasionally, if I’ve been a very good boy and I’m very lucky – a CD to review or simply to listen to.   
Consequently, I tend not to go to our green metal letterbox for days at a stretch. C.f. the telephone. I let the messages pile up until the system overloads for fear that there might be a message demanding action. However, there comes a time when action must trump inaction.
Such a moment came at the beginning of these idyllic Easter holidays. We decided to take the dog out for a walk en famille at the end of the day. I brought along the key to the letterbox, as I strongly suspected the silent but powerful presence of an electricity bill – lying there on the Ho Chi Minh ant-trail that meanders into the box, over the contents and out again.
Heat pump, heat pump, measur-ing the energy...
And not just any old electricity bill, but The Bill. The big one, the bomb. Winter’s reckoning. This was our first winter not only with the new Mitsubishi heat pump, but also with an electric element grafted onto the side of the solar immersion heater to provide us with hot water. The awful gas boiler that had made the last few winters a personal misery was history.
We had a quick sweepstake on the way up the drive. I thought €300 would be a realistic figure. I would take that; it would still represent a saving on the three quarters of a tank load of propane that we customarily consumed. The Good Wife of La Poujade Basse, being an eternal optimist, thought €200. The Daughter, being a complete innocent in the adult world of utility bills, reckoned on a mere €100 (snort, guffaw).
Being the man – the hunter and bill-gatherer – I took it upon myself to open the envelope. ‘And the winner of this year’s prize of the Official Jury is…’ The tension was unbearable. I saw a figure ‘2’. 200, good. I could go for that. Then I noticed that there was a minus sign beside the digits. It was -€200! God damn it, EDF owed us money. So it was true what they claimed about their heat pump. This was the company that doesn’t lie. It really does use little more electricity than a fridge.
Not only had we cut our winter fuel bill by about 70%, but it was also reliable heat and hot water. By my calculations, we had kept ourselves warm this winter and provided enough hot water to clean the family for about €250. We hopped and skipped our way to the communal bins and back. Even Alf barked to see such collective joy.
It sounds a bit pathetic now that I re-read it. A lot of fuss and nonsense over an electricity bill. But in a world where the news seems unrelentingly bad, that minus figure represented a little victory: a triumph over adversity and the crushing power of the utilities companies in particular and unfeeling capitalism in general.
Needless to say it made our evening. We opened a bottle of wine and drank to the health of Mitsubishi. It helped to make our Easter. I felt so reckless and gay that I ate an entire Lindt dark chocolate bunny while watching Brokeback Mountain. I confess, however, that it hasn’t really helped to eradicate my phobia about our green metal letterbox. I went there today for the first time in a week and found… a review disc. And it’s a cracker! Things are looking up.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stop the Week 22

Up until April 2011, I had managed to avoid Private Benjamin. Then a friend, whose opinions on film I normally respect, suggested that it was a smashing movie and that I really ought to give it a chance.
Well, it was directed by the same guy who made the delightful Hollywood Cowboy, with Jeff Bridges as an ingenuous wannabee scriptwriter, who talks in clichés and somehow finds his way to Hollywood. When he sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time, the voice in his head utters the immortal words, ‘The wide Pacific…’
So, misguidedly, I recorded Private Benjamin when Film Four aired it. Still more misguidedly, I suggested to my wife and daughter that we watch it with our supper one evening last week. I can only assume that my friend must have been swayed by an infatuation with Goldie Hawn.
It started promisingly, with Goldie the spoilt Jewish princess getting married to the overbearing, but dull-as-ditchwater Albert Brooks, then cutting dramatically to the aftermath of his funeral. Harry Dean Stanton signs Goldie up for the army with a promise of an easy life. Thereafter, despite the presence of the splendid Eileen Brennan (who played the earthy waitress in The Last Picture Show) as Private Benjamin’s authoritarian nemesis, it degenerated into the most vacuous pap imaginable. I sat and watched to the bitter end, as I felt guilty about subjecting my family to it. There was even a smooth-talking Sacha Distel lookalike, who enters the equation as a potential second husband. Goldie realises the folly of her ways and jilts him at the altar, but I didn’t care and certainly didn’t cheer (as I do every time when Katherine Ross chooses Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin at the end of The Graduate).
Gonna crawl to the sod-busters' ball
Despite the stain on my credibility, I regained sufficient confidence during the week to propose that we all watch Shane when Film Four showed it yesterday to mark Easter Saturday. Shane helped to create the template for just about every Western cliché possible, so you know exactly what’s going to happen (although I was surprised that the Swedish ‘sodbuster’ didn’t get shot simply for being Swedish), but the film never fails to delight. Particularly when it’s viewed with a bar of 70% Easter chocolate.
For all that the camera tries to lie, however, you can’t help but notice how improbably small Alan Ladd is as the hero, even when dressed up to the nines in buckskin. He and the miniature Veronica Lake were truly a match made in heaven. In Shane, the love interest resides with Jean Arthur, one of those actresses – like Judy Holliday and Dianne Wiest – whose voices alone can make me melt at the knees and come over all unnezzizairy. The big question at the end of Shane, which The Daughter posed, is the extent to which Shane is wounded in the shoot-out with Jack Palance’s smirking villainous hired gun and the cattlemen who hire him. My wife, the eternal optimist, reassured her that it was only a flesh wound and that Shane will simply ride off to find more settlers to help. Being an eternal pessimist, I can’t help but feel that Shane rides off to die in the saddle – having helped Van Heflin and the others rid the town of evil, so they can make a genuinely democratic community for all but black people and native-American injuns.
My cultural activities haven’t been entirely passive. I’ve been busy drafting an article to promote the summer show of our friends, Keith and Miranda Payne, who have boldly – and some might suggest recklessly – converted their barn into an art gallery. For the last few years they have been testing the theory that fine art and rural communities can co-exist. This year they are putting together a stunning show based on their travels to India, with gorgeous materials, traditional miniature and tribal paintings and the work of three local artists who have painted in the sub-continent. The Paynes are under no illusion that original art can tempt the indigenous local community to draw apart their tightly-pulled purse strings in order to extract some euros. Unlike many, they are prepared to measure the success of their venture in terms other than financial. It behoves me, therefore, to do whatever I can to ensure that sufficient people will come and see and make the exhibition the talk of the Lot this summer.
Now if you’ll excuse me, being Easter Sunday, I must get back to the weekend’s principal cultural activity of assessing the respective merits of different chocolate bars and bunnies. ‘Shane! Come back Shane! You’ve forgotten your bar of chocolate to help sustain you for your final ride into the backdrop of the mighty Rocky Mountains!’

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Schiste Happens

Despite what I might have said in a previous despatch, on Sunday I went to Cahors to demonstrate. My body said no, but my head said yes. It was high time to take part in another manifestation.
It may smack of Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism, but I don’t want the privateers of the petro-chemical industry despoiling this beautiful department – or any other department, beautiful or not – in the search for gaz de schiste.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard or read of this latest crime against the natural world cooked up by the Money Men and their tame back-handed politicians, let me explain. 
Someone somewhere has dreamed up the wheeze of drilling bore-holes into the rock beneath the soil, then ‘fracking’ the sub-strata by pumping at high pressure millions of gallons of precious drinkable water mixed with a toxic compound of lethal chemicals in order to break up the shale and release all the bubbles of ‘natural’ gas, which can then be brought to the surface, stored in tanks and sold to the general public as a miraculous clean energy.
Except of course it’s about as clean as bio-diesel. But don’t let that stop the government of France’s diminutive president with the stack heels and shifty eyes from granting licenses to companies to go off and undertake explorative studies all over the Massif Central and its foothills. This sort of thing has happened already in the U.S.A. – with the predictably catastrophic environmental consequences. Surprise, surprise: the aquifers have been poisoned, the indigenous wildlife killed off and the landscape rendered lunar. I couldn’t bear to watch the documentary, Gasland, when shown at the local cinema, but reputedly it shows polluted tap water being set on fire.
So I persuaded my friend Adrian, the celebrated tree surgeon, to come with me on Sunday afternoon. It was a beautiful hot spring day and we headed south on the A20, which cuts through the kind of lush landscape that is under threat. We speculated about the type of human bean that could a) dream up such an idea in the first place, b) pursue money with such appetite and sangfroid and c) live with himself when the results of all this reckless greed are documented. It was ever thus, I suppose…
'Meet on the bridge, we're gonna meet on the bridge...'
Friends who dined with us the evening before told me that we would be assembling by Cahor’s famous old bridge – the Pont Valentré – at 3 pm. Despite the fact that we passed likely demonstrators all heading in the opposite direction, I managed to persuade my friend to follow me all the way down to the river. There was no one there, bar the odd Sunday promenader.
So we walked all the way back up the central artery, lined with gendarmes in their Sunday-best uniforms, to the big car park in the centre of town by the grand prefectural building. Incredibly, the first people we spotted in the human throng were the friends who had (presumably unintentionally) misled me. In fact, they didn’t stay long. Keith, an artist who has lived long enough to understand the way of the world, muttered something about the same old crowd and their dogs-on-string. ‘This lot aren’t going to frighten the bureaucrats. Where’s the press, man? Where’s the press?’
Nevertheless, Adrian and I filtered into the crowd on its way down the main street. We fell in behind a gaggle dressed as Revolutionary sans-culottes: a man playing a fife, another beating a drum and a couple of women shaking their home-made maracas. We turned left into one of the town’s narrow medieval side streets, which took us down to the monumental abbey. It would have been the perfect opportunity for a bit of Met-style ‘kettling’, but the crowd was well ordered and the gendarmes looked rather more amiably insouciant than usual.
Adrian recognised an old boy with a thick white beard and an anti-nuclear T-shirt, who looked like Ben Gunn reincarnated as an eco warrior. We stopped for a quick chat and discovered that there were roughly 3,000 souls present. Not bad, but not that good given the gravity of the situation. Then we fell in with our jovial fifer once more and followed the crowd down to the river Lot and along almost as far as the old bridge, where all the speechifying started.
I am not and never have been one for rhetoric. Adrian wanted to hang around on the pretence of people-watching (whereas I knew that he was on the look-out for his latest heart’s delight), but I persuaded him to return to the car, so we could beat the traffic back out of Cahors. In truth, though, I had been long enough out of my nest for one day and I simply wanted to get back home.
There were no military-style roadblocks out of the town. Nor was I hauled out of the car and beaten by gendarmes on the look out for dirty anarchists. As Adrian slumbered in the passenger seat and I steered the trusty Berlingo northwards, I wondered whether what we had done would make any difference. Perhaps not, but at least we had, to translate the French literally, ‘manifested ourselves’.
I was heartened to see that today’s Guardian was carrying a story about gaz de schiste and other demonstrations occurring around France. There is still hope. But what happens when hope runs out? I have to ask myself, punk, am I committed enough to get myself a rifle and learn to be a sniper? Whoops, there goes another Money Man…

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stop the Week 21

‘Drink your Nehi and eat your Coney Island,’ has long been a quotation of choice in this household – usually directed at The Daughter when she gets mouthy.
It comes from the wonderful Peter Bogdanovich film, Paper Moon. I hadn’t seen it for decades and mentioned this fact to a friend when he told me that he was going to the NFT to see a re-mastered version (if that’s the term one uses for films as well as music) of Bogdanovich’s other masterpiece of the era, The Last Picture Show.
Last Sunday, those very nice obliging people at Film Four aired Paper Moon. Someone somewhere must have got wind of the fact that I hadn’t seen it for so long and was very keen to see it again.
That same afternoon, I met up with my friend Adrian, a tree surgeon by trade, so we could walk our dogs down to the river and talk about the events of the week. He’s usually late, so I was a little anxious about getting back in time to see the film.
We met up in the square of Floirac, a delightful village in the flood plain of the Dordogne. We wandered down to the river, revelling in the sights and incredible smells of this most beautiful of springs. Alf and Polly chased each other and went swimming in the river while Adrian told me all about his latest romance. On the way back, we were passed by a parade of veteran cars from the ‘50s, including a sweet little bright-red soft-top Skoda. Back in Floirac, he suggested a beer at the crêperie, but I confessed to my pressing engagement back home.
I made it back in time. And the film didn’t disappoint after all these years. I first saw it in Stafford, during my year off between school and university when I was working as an assistant archivist for the 6th Earl of Harrowby. I think I saw Paper Moon, The Way We Were and a double bill of Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man in the space of a few weeks: a golden time for a teenager working in almost solitary confinement.
Paper Moon, as you probably know, is a road movie involving an orphan child, played by the 10-year old Tatum O’Neal, and a confidence trickster who may well be her father, played by her dysfunctional real-life dad, Ryan O’Neal. Not only is it very funny, but Lazlo Kovacs’s resplendent black-and-white cinematography also conveys a convincing sense of the Mid West during the Great Depression.
And there is the added bonus of Madeline Khan as the floozie with airs and graces and a very weak bladder, who temporarily wins the heart of Ryan O’Neal until the orphaned Addy cooks up a plan to get rid of her. In my book, Madeline Khan was a latter-day Judy Holliday, whose look of lustful longing for Mel Brooks when he cracks the microphone lead during his Frank Sinatra piece in High Anxiety is one of the great unsung moments of cinema.
Film Four is running it on a loop as part of its fabulous Films for Life season, so be sure to catch it if you haven’t done so already. As for Peter Bogdanovich, lovers of The Sopranos might have spotted him as Tony’s shrink’s mentor. Bogdanovich is one of those incredible multi-talented human beings who can seemingly excel at anything he tries. But if he is remembered principally as a film director, that part of his career probably peaked with Paper Moon.
Anyway, thank you Film Four for showing our family his finest film. Now Tilley will understand the significance of my urging her to ‘drink her Nehi and eat her Coney Island’. And now maybe I’ll lobby them for a airing some time soon of The Last Picture Show – if I can cope with seeing Jeff Bridges looking so unbearably young.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Bio Coiffeur of Brive

Following my recent dental extraction, I haven’t quite been feeling in the pink. So what better way of boosting your self-image – life has taught me – than to go and get your hair cut?
Life taught me this lesson the hard way. I remember my first visit to a barber back in ’59 or ’60. My dear paternal grandmother took me to Bentalls department store in Kingston upon Thames. I made an extraordinary fuss when called to sit down in the chair. My grandmother must have wondered what on earth had got into her normally placid grandson. She bought me a copy of The Eagle to help me get over the evident trauma.
During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s at school, the mere mention of the word haircut was guaranteed to strike fear into my heart. Long hair was a statement of youthful disaffection and I endured all manner of indignity to keep my hair as long as I could possibly manage it. Hair inspections at school were a time of calamity. My fellow rebels and I learned to stretch our necks like giraffes as prefects wandered amongst us, looking for signs of hair-on-collar. Sometimes I escaped the tap on the shoulder, sometimes I didn’t. Poor Puff Gardner never did. ‘Why me?’ he would complain bitterly to anyone who would listen.
Alf and Daisy seem to prefer me with shorter hair
If only I had known then what I know today. How easy it is to submit to the scissors. How liberating it feels to shed unnecessary hair. How good it makes you feel about yourself for the next few days. It’s like buying a new pair of shoes: you surreptitiously try to catch sight of your reflection in every pane of glass you pass until you grow blasé about your new profile.
So I phoned up Franck in Brive and he managed to squeeze me in on Wednesday morning at 10.00 a.m. – which was perfect, because I could get the shopping done and park the car and even, with a superhuman effort, take the books and CDs back to the central library before the rendezvous.
Franck is no ordinary barber, not even an ordinary hairdresser. He is the only bio coiffeur in Brive. How many towns in the world can boast their very own organic hairdresser? I go there because he does the girls’ hair in return for my wife’s services (as an aromatherapy masseuse). Debs persuaded me that he would do a better job than Jo-Jo Publique by the roundabout in Martel. She wasn’t wrong. I’ve entrusted my scalp to Franck and his super-sharp scissors and cutthroat razor for over two years – and not regretted a single moment.
Franck is a pupil of a tonsorial mentor who goes by the unlikely name of Remy Portrait. Based in Paris, Remy writes books about his philosophy of ‘show me the follicles and I’ll show you the (wo)man’. Franck has been through a long list of courses with Monsieur Portrait and is licensed to employ a kind of friction-cut, which costs un bras et une jambe. I opt for something more traditional and much less expensive.
He, Franck, has a tastefully appointed salon down a side street just off the rue Gambetta, a stone’s throw from the family’s favourite tea & coffee emporium. It’s all soft lighting and ambient music. Very restful. The jeune sits you down in a very uncomfortable chair that tries to massage your back while your head is thrust backwards, so she can wash your hair while whispering sweet nothings about the temperature of the water. ‘Oui, c’est bon merci.’
Then she ushers you into the main room and sits you down in a conventional chair in front of an unforgiving mirror that highlights every wrinkle on your face. Franck drapes a thick rubber jerkin-thing over your shoulders, which seems heavy enough to keep out X-rays, let alone falling hair. Then he gets to work, snipping and fussing as we discuss families and common likes and dislikes. This time he told me all about a winter in 1985 when he lived in a flat in Pimlico and worked as a waiter in a French restaurant near Sloane Square. He told me that his mother came to see him and he booked her into a small hotel on the square itself, and how she woke up one Saturday morning to the edifying sight of the traditional punks’ parade.
At the end of the session, he brings the traditional rear-view mirror, which he opens with an ex-waiter’s flourish to reveal my new improved neckline. I nod my approval and give him the thumbs-up. He retrieves my bag and helps me into my jacket. I slip him the customary €21 and drop some change into the tin for the jeune who washed my hair.
Being a stingy git about such things, it’s more than I would normally pay for the privilege, but I go out of there with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, feeling roughly like a million euros. It’s worth it. For one thing, it means that I won’t wake up every morning (until my hair gets to a ‘certain length’) with an eagle’s ear: that irritating lock of hair that ruins my silhouette by sticking out at a right angle from my sconce.
So let us now please bow our heads for a moment in praise of bio coiffeurs everywhere.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stop the Week 20

I’m still not really sure what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he described April as ‘the cruellest moth’ – despite having studied the man’s poetry for ‘A’-level. It always seems to me that April and May are palpably the most wonder-full months of the year: when winter is put to rest for another year and nature bursts miraculously once more into bloom.
What’s more there’s the promise of summer to come without the burden of expectation. So if the weather’s not too brilliant, you don’t feel cheated. As it happens, the weather last week was in perfect synch with Mother Nature. It was hot – probably a little too worryingly hot for early April – with just enough of a light breeze to render temperatures impressive rather than oppressive.
Spring sprung
The birds all around us are doing their collective nut, singing as if their lives depended on it. The wood in front of the house is turning the most vivid, succulent green imaginable. The only down-side to such fecundity is all the work demanded to keep it in check. I’ve been far too busy all week, working my fingers to the bone, for cultural activities (other than polishing off The Forsyte Saga on three successive evenings, but I won’t bore you with further eulogies about the Granada production and the lead performances).
The heartless, thankless task of weeding has begun again. Tender new brambles are popping up in all the usual places and the bindweed is already making its triffid-like move on any plants that look vulnerable enough to throttle. And because the soil here is so poor – turned into concrete after two successive day of unbroken sunshine – there’s very little chance of ever extricating the roots.
It’s the dandelions that are the current bugbear. I did for a misguided moment consider getting the strimmer out and lopping off their heads before they are able to spore, only to look at the carpet of yellow in the meadow behind the house to realise the futility of such a notion. Last year, I remember the proprietor of one of the holiday homes I look after telling me to instruct the gardener not to spare any single dandelion lest they multiply. I pointed out the state of the surrounding countryside and suggested that it would be as vain a gesture as Canute commanding the sea to roll back.
Probably as vain a gesture as the F.A. banning Wayne Rooney for two matches following his latest in a long line of unspeakable acts. No doubt the brouhaha has found its way into French television sets. I do wonder whether our French neighbours sometimes see Britain’s only cultural exports as Benny Hill, Mr. Bean and the kind of yob culture personified by the boy Rooney. It’s kind of embarrassing and I do what I can to disavow natives of that idea.
Of course, Wayne – and inevitably the awful Sir Alex Ferguson – feels that a two-match game is excessive. After all, he has apologised, which makes everything all right again, doesn’t it? Saying sorry, though, in my book doesn’t make things better without some kind of genuine sense of personal responsibility. Far better that the F.A. should ban the boy for two years, channel his monstrous wages to charitable causes and devise some useful community services for the period of the ban. That way, it might have some effect on the boy himself and his legions of misguided fans and admirers. Moreover, it might stop Manchester United winning everything in sight and enforce the retirement of the graceless, boorish manager who seems so adept at nurturing such graceless, boorish human beans as Roy Keane and Wayne Rooney.
Ho hum. Pigs might fly. Weeds might stop growing and ants might stop tunnelling under our attempted lawn and producing myriad miniature mole-hills everywhere. I think I’d better stop ranting and go fire up the strimmer, so I can take out my venom on a host of golden dandelions.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dental Practice

This week I went to the dentist’s for the first time in three years. Like supermarkets, it’s a different experience in a foreign country. Unlike supermarkets, it’s not one that I relish in any way.
My local dentist and his co-practitioner in Martel used to occupy the first floor premises above a hairdresser’s. Since my last visit, they’ve moved with another practitioner into a purpose-built building with air-conditioning, double-glazing, swing doors, the works. Most impressive. So how much more expensive would this visit be than the last?
The whole tooth and nothing but the tooth
‘In France, they kiss on Main Street,’ Joni Mitchell suggests. Well, I’m not sure if she’s quite au fait with the state of the national teeth. Visits to the dentist are not reimbursed at the same percentage rate as are visits to the doctor. This explains why the natives rush to the doctor at the slightest drip of a nose, but stay away from the dentist until the pain gets too much to bear. The consequence – allied to a rich diet – is often a distressing build-up of tartar. In France, they should be very circumspect before they kiss on Main Street.
Nevertheless, compared to Britain, now that there are virtually no dentists still operating under the NHS, you tend to get a pretty good deal in France. I’m not necessarily talking about orthodontists, who prey on parents’ insecurity and bleed them dry in the name of perfectly regular teeth. But dentists here, in my experience, have generally been highly competent and very reasonable. My poor wife did, however, encounter an old-fashioned sadist once, who didn’t offer anaesthetic and then virtually climbed into her mouth.
Still, posh new premises surely mean that someone’s got to pay for them. My immediate concern, though, was what to call the dentist. I’ve met him at a couple of social events, even hiked in snowshoes around the mountains of the Cantal with him. Should I therefore call him by his first name or say unto him ‘Docteur Garcia’? In the end, I took the coward’s way out by simply shaking his hand and saying ‘bonjour’.
I was particularly impressed by the fact that he remembered that I had a broken tooth at the back of my mouth. Lower left molar, or whatever it’s called in the profession. But as I settled back in the chair and was lowered effortlessly to extraction level, I realised that he must have checked my last X-Ray picture on his computer screen before I came in.
These days, everything is done in the name of sanitation and automation. A discreet jet of water turns on while you are rinsing your mouth, ready to wash away your spit. All the equipment seems to come in sealed paper sachets. Docteur Garcia donned a disposable mask, which rendered his dental mumbles quite unintelligible. I knew enough, though, to steel myself for an injection, an extraction and a repaired filling.
I don’t know if it’s still the case, but the suicide rate among dentists used to be abnormally high. So I try not to appear too terror-stricken. Even though I’ve seen Marathon Man twice, I try not to grip the arms of the chair. I try not to allow my morbid brain to dwell on the millions of animals and human beings that have suffered horribly so that today’s dentist causes us the minimum of hardship. Instead, I recite ‘I-will-relax’ and I conjure up a mental picture of the Pyrenees. Strange, but it seems to do the trick.
After the work, I felt so relieved that I gaily dropped Philippe’s name on several occasions. Not quite the breech of etiquette, perhaps, as the time my brother tipped his dentist, but I hoped that I wasn’t establishing a dangerous precedent. 
It was more expensive than last time, but 60-plus euros didn’t seem too outrageous given the state-of-the-art equipment on show. Moreover, roughly 70% of that will be reimbursed (unless they find some pretence for not reimbursing a foreigner). Docteur Garcia gave me a perfectly reasonable written estimate for a crown on another fissured tooth, which I signed and returned there and then. Struggling even more than usual with my pronunciation because of my anaesthetised mouth, I made three appointments for June, wrote my cheque and stepped out into the afternoon sunshine, feeling like a prisoner emerging from house arrest.
Now that I’m in my 50s, my teeth – like my sight and my hearing – are starting to fail me, but it’s a comfort to know that I’ll be in caring, competent hands.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Stop the Week 19

While in Sheffield a few weeks ago, the friends I was staying with urged me to borrow a boxed set of a Granada-produced adaptation of The Forsyte Saga.
Since it was a Ryan Air flight back to Limoges from Liverpool, space was at a premium, but I found a little niche for it in my bag – mainly because I thought the girls would appreciate it. As a child, I had watched every episode of an epic BBC production. My parents never forgot it and when my siblings and I were scratching around for something to buy them for their 50th wedding anniversary, we came up with the BBC version of Galsworthy’s saga.
I started watching the re-make more out of a sense of curiosity than keen anticipation. However, I was hooked within half an hour. This week, we finished off the first series and are now hungry for the second. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but – if you haven’t – you durn well should. It’s quite brilliant: lavish production values and superb performances equal the best TV drama.
Soames and Irene, the unhappy couple
Remembering the first production has added spice to the experience, because I can compare performances. Rupert Graves makes a far, far better Jolyon than the rather wooden Kenneth More; Gina McKee knocks Nyree Dawn-Porter into a cocked hat as Irene; and, good as Eric Porter was as the stiff upper Soames, Damien Lewis’s performance is the stuff of legend: he has the ability to make the viewer vacillate constantly between sympathy and loathing. I never tire of quoting David Coleman: ‘Errrrrr, quite remarkable’.
While on the theme of literary classics, my good wife and I have been watching BBC Four’s adaptation of Women in Love. We’ve kept it quiet from The Daughter, just in case there’s a surfeit of rutting involved. Not, you understand, that we try to disavow her of the idea that human beings, even of a parental age, get up to that kind of thing, but because it makes for a little edgy viewing ensemble. You know how it is: when you’re a child, you want to spare your parents the embarrassment; when you’re a parent, you want to spare your child a similar embarrassment.
Mercifully, so far, we’ve been spared the sight of two grown men wrestling in the noddy. Accustomed, as I am, to the indelible image of Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, two out-sized human ape-men cavorting in the buff before a fireplace, the performances of Roy Kinnear’s son, Rory (can you imagine the effrontery of a father adding an ‘r’ to make the name of his son?), and whoever’s playing the heir to the mine owner’s ill-gotten gains, have been subtlety itself – which is also quite remarkable, given that the source material derives from D.H. Lawrence.
Similarly, two of the women in love – the sisters, Ursula and Gudrun – are notches above Glenda Jackson and (I think) Jenny Linden in the film. The third woman, their ma, played by Saskia Reeves, is equally good. The sum of the parts makes for good viewing, although it hasn’t tempted me to dig out the source novels for a re-read.
There was also a classic final in the one-day cricket world cup to enjoy in severely abridged form, which I watched this morning with my hot lemon while mixing up a bowl of pancake mix for the traditional Sunday morning family breakfast. It was nice to see India win it in front of their adoring fans and particularly nice that Sachin Tendulkar’s genius should be rewarded in such a fitting way.
En plus, I was listening quite a lot during the week gone by to some classic ‘cool-school’ jazz in the form of Paul Desmond: the quiet and unassuming alto saxophonist, who played with Dave Brubeck’s quartet during its heyday. Like the great Bill Evans, he was a bespectacled, studious-looking man, who looked more like a civil servant than a jazz musician. But he it was wot wrote the sublime ‘Take Five’: possibly the most recognisable post-war jazz number in the world. Even non-jazzers could probably name that tune in two or three. Desmond moved from the U.S.A. to Toronto for the last years of his too short life – which is fairly remarkable in itself – and continued to cook up music in a quartet that is so cool and minimal it might have persuaded Oliver and Alan to stop their shenanigans, put their clothes back and settle down on the sofa for a glass of red before supper.
‘This is nice, Gerald…’
‘Yes, beats wrestling any day of the week. Chin-chin.’