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, May 29, 2011

Stop the Week 26

‘Can you call on Lady Day? Can you call on John Coltrane?
’Cos they’ll, they’ll take your troubles away…’ (Gil Scott-Heron)
Sunday morning in this household, for no compelling reason, is always given over to jazz, but the sad, sad news of Gil Scott-Heron’s death on Friday night in a New York hospital sent me searching for some of the great man’s best music among the serried ranks of old cassette tapes.
Brother Gil
The news of his demise made the chance we were granted to see him last summer in Central Park even more poignant. It was at the tail-end of our once-in-a-lifetime holiday to New York, Ottawa and the Maine coast. We were back in New York, sharing my best friend’s tiny vacated basement apartment with the piles of records he’s trawled from countless visits to thrift shops and the like. It was our last Sunday and we spent the morning in the hallowed space of the Metropolitan Museum.
I kept a close eye on my watch, because I knew that Gil was playing in the park as part of the city’s Summer Fest. My oldest friend and I had already seen Baaba Maal during the first leg of our round trip and I’d missed out on McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane’s former pianist, while we were visiting another old friend in Newport, Rhode Island. So I was keen to get there early in case we were turned away from the concert venue on account of overcrowding.
As usual, I’d imagined the worst-case scenario (although there was a nervous moment when Tilley was asked for some I.D. – not because Gil had gone X-rated, but because of the local liquor laws). We got there far too early and took our fairly uncomfortable seats with a nice central view of the stage. So far the weather had been kind to us, but that afternoon we had a real New York summer afternoon to contend with. It was ‘silly hot’ and airless. We sat and watched the human traffic and we waited. We sat through some self-important support act that went on far too long, all three too busy fanning ourselves even to bother with polite applause.
The Daughter, poor lamb, was getting restless and hungry. She kept protesting that she was all right, but it can’t have been much fun going to one of your first music concerts with your parents. She knew of ‘The Bottle’, his dance-floor hit of the ‘70s, and she knew that we had both seen The Man in Sheffield. I told her, too, about the first, magical, time I’d seen him back in my ‘20s in Brighton: how he ambled on stage, this stick-thin tall black man dressed all in black, and sat down at an electric piano, and how his often hilarious patter would segue into a series of resonant message-songs like ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’ – but I don’t think it convinced her that she was about to see someone as exciting as Adele or Paloma Faith.
When he finally loped onto the stage, carrying a bottle of beer, still stick-thin but grey-haired and grey-bearded now and frankly not looking too well, he was late. He joked about this in his rich deeper-than-ever drawl and everyone forgave him at once, because he always had a way with words that made you feel like he was addressing you personally. Then, as he’d done 30 years before, he sat down alone at the piano and launched into a long, droll monologue that dissolved into the chillingly beautiful ‘Winter In America’.
The band joined him after a while and a little of that special intimacy was lost in the mix. The girls gave up the ghost and sidled off for some food back in our record depository. Common, the Chicago rapmeister, came on for a guest slot and a kind of valedictory for a man who has sometimes been dubbed the ‘Godfather of Rap’.
But, heaven help us, Gil was a lot more than just that. He was a novelist, poet, humorist, musician and above all perhaps a genuine humanitarian. If I’ve got it right, he once asked in a song ‘Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn?/ Or did that just apply to dying in the jungles of Viet Nam?’ Well, Gil gave a damn and, what’s more, he was prepared to do something about it. His death seems like another nail in the coffin of humanity.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wedding Bell Blues

Sitting in the little park outside the Mairie last Saturday, sheltering from the fierce afternoon sun, while waiting for the arrival of the bride and groom, my wife and I both felt distinctly like fish out of water.
Normally, I love a good wedding. There’s nothing quite like them. But the prospect of a French wedding made us both feel uneasy. Queasy, even. Which does, of course, beg the question: what were we doing there at 4.10pm on a Saturday afternoon?
Debs concluded that she had been seduced into it. Her client and our former neighbour from days of yore, when we lived in a small village where your business was everybody’s business, had asked her to be her witness. It’s quite an honour at the best of times, but particularly flattering for a foreigner. It’s a kind of seal of approval, I suppose – which is why she said ‘yes’ without really thinking about the implications. And I said ‘yes’ to give her my support and because I love a good wedding.
'Can I get a witness?'
Then, in that little park, the implications dawned on us. It would be just like the old days, when we would feel like objects of curiosity from a different planet. We would spend the next several hours in the close company of people with whom we had nothing in common, indulging in small talk over an interminable meal that would probably leave us feeling as if we’d just eaten a half pound of butter. We’d get back at some unearthly hour, wake up late on Sunday morning and struggle all day with a sense of having frittered away a precious weekend. We decided that we would put away such churlish thoughts and do our best to enjoy the occasion.
By the time the bride arrived, we felt less apprehensive. Natalie looked lovely in a long crimson taffeta skirt with white bustière and hair styled by Franck, the bio coiffeur of Brive. To see someone you like radiating joy and delight is guaranteed to melt even the stoniest heart. But I had witnessed her first wedding – in the cathedral at Tulle – a dozen or so years before, and I knew that her ex-husband’s dysfunctional family were a vindictive, twisted bunch, so I kept a wary eye on the nearby road for potential drive-by shootings.
After milling around and exchanging chit-chat, the small, select bands of guests trooped into one of the Mairie’s ‘state’ rooms for the ceremony itself. His worship the mayor, with a republican sash draped diagonally across his jacket, conducted the brief ceremony – which consisted of reading through the relevant civic codes, including a new addendum that makes husband and wife responsible for each other’s debts. Natalie’s new man, an engaging chap almost 20 years her senior, dressed quirkily in light-grey silk-effect suit with complementary hat, earrings and surgical boot, feigned indignation. I tried to ensure that I wouldn’t be in the pictures that someone was taking, just in case a photo appeared in the local paper and someone vindictive… well, you know.
Then we shuffled out for confetti and photographs before driving off in convoy to the reception at a little hotel/restaurant in the heart of a picturesque village somewhere in the hills above Brive. These wedding convoys involve mass honking of horns. It’s rather appropriate, as we both believe that the French often only let themselves go when they’re behind the steering wheel of a dangerous four-wheeled machine.
When we arrived, a gaggle of British bikers were busy drinking beer and soaking up the balmy evening outside the hotel. We were in the back garden down below, underneath a spreading maple tree and high above the motorway that skirts Brive en route for Paris or Toulouse. A bevy of earnest waiters in penguin suits attended to our desires. Debs and I found ourselves sitting with a pleasant if somewhat staid recently retired couple, who both knew England. She had spent a year in a school in Datchett and they had good friends from Bletchley Park. I felt that it beat talking to the two ‘rugby men’, to whom I had been introduced earlier, who would probably spend the entire evening teasing me about English teams past and present.
There was a sense, of course, of biding time before the real focus of the whole affair: la grande bouffe. It was a long time coming. We were finally ushered in around 9.30. As witness, Debs got to sit on the top table beside Natalie. Mercifully I sat within hailing distance. Everyone had a menu in the form of a scroll, which the happy couple had procured via the internet. The new husband, sweetly, had done a translation for the pair of us – also via the internet, so it bore very little relation to what we were about to receive.
And that was a steady stream of rather fussy nouvelle cuisine creations (such as a white pudding of lobster meat… soused in cream). Everything that came our way was guaranteed to delight on first acquaintance until the realisation that the flavour was butter, cream and salt. A sorbet refresher half way through was drenched in calvados and no substitute for a nice fresh salad. It soon became obvious that any idea we might have had of escaping before midnight was ludicrous. 
The combination wedding cake/dessert finally arrived at 1.30 in the morning. Taking our cue from a young couple with baby, we felt able to take our leave after the surfeit of chocolate. That way we wouldn’t have to bear the indignity of trying to dance to one of Claude François’s ersatz disco confections. Moreover, we were able to sneak out without going round the entire room shaking hands or pecking cheeks in the time-honoured fashion.
We got to bed around 2.30 and spent all day Sunday trying to claw back lost time.  But it would be churlish to dwell on the negative aspects of our outing. It was a nice wedding and the couple’s evident happiness was a joy to behold. And what’s more, so far, I’ve neither witnessed nor read about any drive-by shootings.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stop the Week 25

All week long I’ve been greedily reading the Mojo Frank Zappa Special that I brought back with me from Southampton airport. The bike’s been off the road, stymied by a rear-wheel puncture, so I’ve been literally walkin’ the dog and perfecting my technique of directing my feet on automatic pilot while my head is buried in the text.
Francis Vincent Zappa, family man
I’ve always been a casual fan of Frank’s without ever being a serious fanatic. His face used to grace my bedroom wall on the top floor of our house in Belfast. My mother thought he was the devil incarnate, with his twisted mop of dark hair and that trademark combination of droopy moustache and bushy ‘Imperial’. She changed her tune a little when I pointed out that he was happily married and had two children – though I didn’t tell her that they were named Dweezil and Moon Unit.
Hot Rats has always hovered around my Top 5 albums, despite the indignity of being caught by my mother one afternoon, playing along to ‘Willie the Pimp’ with my Slazenger tennis racket ‘plugged’ into an old fan heater. You can’t really wriggle your way out of that one. Just grin and bear the mortification.
The Mojo Special painted a picture of a difficult and driven creative glutton, who never hesitated to hire-and-fire assorted band members in the pursuit of musical excellence. Captain Beefheart, his High School friend and fellow ‘difficult genius’, shared a love/hate relationship with FZ, who reminded him of a ‘cataract’ and whom he described memorably as looking ‘like a fly’s leg’.
Ironically, a lot of his copious musical output is far from excellent. Like so many autocratic prolific creative geniuses, he could have done with a stringent editor. Someone who might have excised some of the puerile dross that peppers his albums. For that reason, I’ve stuck mainly to Hot Rats and taped compilations of gems like ‘Montana’ and ‘King Kong’ that lurk among some of the more disposable items in his huge back catalogue. 
But the man was never less than interesting and while I’d never label myself as quite such a misanthropist as he seemed to be, I always related to his contempt for human stupidity in all its guises. I read my comic from cover to cover, as I used to do when I subscribed at various times to The Topper, The Victor, Fabulous, Football Monthly, The Cricketer and Melody Maker. It was a shock to be reminded of the fact that the man died in his early 50s. Frank must have been far too busy creating his vast legacy to read magazines from cover to cover.
It served me a salutary reminder that he was younger than I am when he died. Younger, too, than Hugh Laurie. Which brings me very neatly (or not), ladies and gentlemen, to an interesting programme I watched during the week on the other half of the Stephen Fry double act. As you may know, Hugh ‘Dr. House’ Laurie, has just been paid to go and record an album of his favourite New Orleans classics with a band of solid Noo Orlinz session musicians and a few invited luminaries.
It’s a sad fact of life that the record company in question clearly recognised that the album will probably sell in big numbers on the strength of his famous name alone. That said, Hugh had the good grace to recognise his huge good fortune and his infectious exuberance throughout the programme would have won over the most died-in-the-wool sceptic.
I was very pleasantly surprised by his musical and vocal competence. He’s certainly no Allen Toussaint, but he had the good sense to hire the great man – the man behind hundreds of the finest recordings from the Crescent City – to arrange some of the numbers. He also had the exemplary good taste to cover a couple of the beloved Professor Longhair’s numbers. If he introduces a few new listeners to the likes of ‘Fessy’, Irma Thomas and Huey ‘Piano’ Smith then he deserves all the plaudits and sales he can garner. (But what a lucky bastard, eh?)  

Thursday, May 19, 2011

English Country Gardens

My dear horticulturally-inclined wife prevailed on me to accompany her on Sunday morning to a big garden show about an hour’s drive from here. It’s an annual event, rather like some of our flowers. (I’m still learning the difference between annual bloomers and hardy perennials, but don’t ask me to explain the difference unaided.)
This annual event takes place at somewhere called La Nouvelle Abbaye. Never having seen it written down before, I heard abaille (bee) rather than abbaye (abbey), so I had a very strange mental image of the place as a kind of geodesic dome built in the shape of a bee. Given the location – in the middle of fairly remote countryside – this now seems a fanciful misconception on my part.
It’s actually an old abbey. It was new some time around the Middle Ages and has been crumbling ever since. It finds itself, as The Daughter might have it, a few miles the other side of Gourdon, the sub-prefecture of the Lot. Some people like Gourdon, but I hate the place. It’s where the tax office is located, or the Hôtel des Impôts, as it’s known: an innocent enough name to lure in unsuspecting citizens who don’t know their rights. Twice I have been grilled there by battle-axes determined to catch me out and make me grovel. Twice I have had to pay supplementary tax following the ordeal on some specious grounds that I still don’t understand (though I suspect that it was to do with a tax on being foreign, topped up with a surtax on being English). So I shuddered on Sunday as I drove through Gourdon looking for the New Bee. 
It was just after 9 o’clock when we arrived, but the place was already heaving. Parking in a converted field and walking along the lane towards the abbey, it soon became apparent that most of the heaving was English. We were dangerously near Dordogneshire here – and it showed. Here an accent, there an accent, everywhere an accent…
Garden created without a single Spear & Jackson tool
The English do love to garden. There were signs for and references to jardins anglais everywhere. There were Brits with stalls and one even selling Spear & Jackson tools at a supposedly unbeatable price, which I suspected could have been beaten quite easily via the internet. One elderly couple pressed into my wife’s hand a flyer for their (presumably) magnificent garden – visits by arrangement only, price €10 including a cream tea. We smiled sweetly and kept their flyer for as long as it seemed proper and then dropped it into a rubbish sack.
The French have taken to their bosoms this notion of a nation of gardeners. I was talking to someone recently on my return from England. I explained that I had been away for a few days. ‘All those beautiful gardens,’ he or she suggested. I suppose there is an element of truth in it: you are rather more likely to spot a perfectly manicured lawn with immaculate herbaceous borders in England than you are in France.
The French are rather more pragmatic about their gardens. Apart from the lunatic fringe who create driveways lined with plaster animals leading to some improbable gateway, they tend to invest more time in their kitchen gardens. It’s fodder of course for la bouffe.
I’m not a great one for these events. It’s rather nice to wander among the exhibits, but I never know what to buy, particularly given the arid nature of our limestone soil. So my principal role is usually testing my wife with penetrating questions to ensure that she doesn’t go overboard. There was a fair bit of going overboard-ness, judging by the roaring trade that local girls seemed to be doing – offering a wheelbarrow service to your car.
Besides, I’ve always hated crowds. Humanity was beginning to seethe by 11 o’clock. So, after a quick chat with friends encountered at the refreshment tent, and having eavesdropped on an attempted conversation about pruning dead wood between an earnest English couple and an improbably patient French stallholder, we decided to take our purchases and flee.
Driving anywhere in France on Sunday is always a lottery, because the gendarmes are generally out in force – except, of course, between the hours of 12.00 and 14.00 (at the earliest) – so I was delighted to get through Gourdon and all the way back home without being pulled over.
Debs was as delighted with her haul as I generally am following a good music sale. We pottered away most of the afternoon in our country garden, which is neither really very French nor English, she with her plants and me with my Honda strimmer: the very model of a modern expat couple in springtime. A pair of quite hardy perennials, successfully transplanted from one location to another.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Boosting the G.D.P.

When my sister dropped me at Southampton airport on Wednesday morning, an old guy waiting for a bus collared me. ‘How’s the house?’ he asked.
I was staggered that anyone should recognise me after what, one or two viewings of Grand Designs Revisited. It’s not as if I’m a newsreader or a weatherman. Maybe it was the pork-pie hat I was wearing. ‘I admired your persistence,’ he continued. ‘I really liked what you did. How is it holding up, the straw and all?’ He told me about climbing into haystacks as a child and feeling the heat rising up from within all that natural insulation.
He hurried off to catch his bus and left me feeling rather bemused. A little taste of stardom – but it goes quite a long way. Later, when I’d passed through the Departure gate and had some of my more suspicious-looking purchases checked and re-examined – the pack of batteries, the gold-plated Scart-to-Scart video lead, the car-lighter USB adaptor (all of which could probably be fashioned into a detonation device for a bomb) – I was collared a second time. This time it was a woman with a clipboard, who wanted to ask me some questions to help determine the impact of tourism on the U.K.’s G.D.P.  
She asked me what I’d done during my brief stay. Had I visited any museums or art galleries? Er, no. Had I been to the cinema or theatre? Er, no. Had I dined out in a restaurant? Again no (unless my dad’s take-away curries from Asda or my own fish-and-chip supper for three counted). No, all I’d done was to sit and talk about gardening and the War with my mother, about music and films with my father, and about our reminiscences of childhood with my sister. And to shop. Which was embarrassing to confess, because when I’m in France I’m pretty scathing about our national obsession with shopping – as if I’m above such inane activity. And what do I do as soon as I touch down in England? I shop. Not once, not twice, but thrice in four days.
'My head's about to explode!'
Monday morning I went to Romsey and did a charity shop dash for an hour. The French don’t go in for charity shops; they seem to have an aversion to things second-hand. I miss them. I miss the occasional excitement of coming across the unexpected. In the Oxfam shop, for example, I unearthed a double CD by Weather Report for just under four quid that I hadn’t even known existed. Live & Unreleased. In the Salvation Army shop, I encountered a young auxiliary, who was a dead-ringer for Little Britain’s Vicki Pollard. She kept announcing incoherently that her head was about to explode, because she had to serve me while in the middle of putting some clothes on a rail. I paid her a quid for the three-volumes-in-one of George Melly’s autobiography. And in Help the Aged, of all places, I found a fabulous ska compilation for another quid.
Later that morning, I took my dad to the vast Asda at Chandler’s Ford. He hadn’t been since the last time I took him six or seven months ago. My parents order their groceries on line these days, so they never have to leave their house. But he needed some little round coloured stickers for the wall chart in his office. A red dot, I would think, denotes a day of inactivity. I bought myself that dodgy Scart-to-Scart lead and a pack of recordable DVDs that cost about a fifth of what they would cost in France.
Finally, on the Tuesday morning, I went to Southampton’s ugly city centre to deposit some cheques and to buy presents from the HMV Shop: a boxed set of Norman Wisdom films for my dad’s 84th birthday; a boxed set of reggae for my sister, who loves Bob Marley, but wouldn’t know her Toots from her roots; a couple of films for the missus; and a couple of ‘modern’ CDs for The Daughter. And a little something for myself.
We sat in the sunshine afterwards, eating exotic wraps from Pret-à-Manger and watching the human beans walking on by. As if to remind me that I was back home, a newspaperman periodically barked out something unintelligible that sounded like a foghorn in the night. I suggested to my sister that it would be an ideal job for someone with Tourette’s syndrome.
After all this shopping, what forgiveness? Fortunately, I’d travelled ultra-light and just about managed to stuff everything into a bag that would fit into the FlyBe hand-luggage gauge. At least the woman with the clipboard would have appreciated my efforts on behalf of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stop the Week - On Location

Dedicated as I am to the task of feeding my followers with inconsequential information, I am writing this while far from my desk. I'm in Southampton or thereabouts for a tour of filial duty. The little prop plane from Limoges flew over the city and from my seat by a window I saw the expensive football stadium where the red-and-white striped football team won promotion to the old Division 2 yesterday. A little further on, as it circled over Winchester and swooped down towards the airport at Eastleigh, I watched a game of cricket far below and actually saw a batsman scamper a single. Incredible what one sees from an airplane.
A couple of days before I packed my bags to come away, I drove to Brive to watch a couple of games or sessions or whatever you want to call them of the Pelote Basque world championship at the Fronton Municipal. I know very little about pelota - apart from trying to play one of the varieties with French friends while staying at their holiday home on the Atlantic coast north west of Bordeaux. It was extremely difficult and I was embarrassingly crap. It involved hitting a ball with a kind of stunted wooden paddle against a huge solitary free-standing wall.
The two games I witnessed took place indoors. I sat at the side of the arena on an incredibly uncomfortable bench in among a load of school children (bussed in to create a bit of noise and atmosphere). While the players warmed up, the P.A. system treated the early spectators to some excellent salsa from the likes of Celia Cruz. I warmed at once to the mysterious sport.
The fronton is a three-sided affair, like a cross-between an elongated squash court and a real-tennis arena, marked at intervals with different-coloured lines. All very exotic and rather incomprehensible.
However, when the first game started, it soon became obvious what it was all about. First off was a game of La main nue variety: two teams of two participants whacking a leather ball against the end wall with bare hands bandaged with Elastoplast. It looked merciless and exhausting. In the white shirts and white nylon 'slacks' were two Spaniards, who looked remarkably like brothers. In the red shirts and white 'slacks' were two Venezualans. I feared for them after watching the warm-up and thus it transpired: they were no match for the battle-scarred Spanish 'brothers'.
It is a best-of-three sets affair. The first team to ten points wins the sets. The server runs up to a line not too far from the end wall, smacks the ball with his hand against the wall and hopes that it lands so far back in the court that the receiver hasn't the strength to smack it all the way back. The hapless Venezualan receiver at the back of the court had a stinker and his colleague at the front was rarely involved. The two sets were over in about 20 minutes of one-sided carnage and the Spanish pair, cheered on by a noisy party of schoolchildren all the way from the mother country, waltzed into the semi-final. I was heartened to see that the two teams felt able to embrace each other warmly at the end. No hard feelings, just hard calloused hands.
The second game was one of La Paleta cuir: a much faster affair played with beechwood paddles (about the size of a wooden spoon designed to stir a Lancashire hot-pot for a small community) and a Puckish hard leather puck that travels at roughly the speed of light. We spectators were thankfully shielded from possible harm by two huge safety nets, which were pulled across like curtains.  This game, too, features a Spanish team. This time they were in red, but again looked like brothers. Two David Tennant brothers, in fact. Moreover, with their white helmets and their safety goggles, they looked like they once played with Devo ('Are we not men? No we are Basque Pelota players...'). One was a right-hander, the other a south paw: the perfect combination for this game. Once again, I feared for the opposition - a pair of stockier, swarthier Cubans. Since they were clearly underdogs and since Cuba gave unto the world such wonderful music, I rooted for the team in the white shirts.
In this version of the game, it is the first team to 15 points that wins the set. The server plays from the back of the court, scrutinised by three officials in black trousers, light blue polo shirts, crash helmets and goggles, who look for all the world like a team of Securicor men. The puck ricochets off the far wall and has to bounce past one of the lines but not beyond another line towards the back. Otherwise, it's all very similar to the bare-hands variety.
As I had feared, the two Spanish David Tennants strolled through the first set. But spurred on by my vociferous support, the stockier Cubans scrapped and clawed their way back into the game to pinch the second set. Alas, the abbreviated third set was an anti-climax and the Tennant brothers eased their way into the semi-final.
It was all over. There was an hour-long break until the next match, but after over an hour of squatting on the wooden bench, my backside couldn't take any more. I left the bench, I left the tomb, I took three paces through the room - to emerge in the bright sunshine of a warm spring day in Brive la Gaillarde.  I drove to the nearby pawn shop to pick up the Sony CD player I had reserved at 25 euros.
And so I can now tell my grandchildren that I once cheered for the underdogs at the 2011 world championship of Basque Pelota. It was an interesting, enjoyable affair, but - to be quite honest with you - I doubt whether I shall be going to the next one four years hence. Particularly not if it's in Venezuala next time.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tales of the Unexpected

A number of things helped to lift my spirits this week: the torrential downpours on Tuesday, for example, which replenished our rain butts and restored our lettuce plants; the boost to Obama’s re-election hopes with the unexpected disposal of Osama Bin Laden. Most of all, though, the news that the ex-Queen Mother, bless her little pick-me-ups, liked steel pan music and Jamaican ska.
Three-minute hero? Or my girl Lallipap?
Can you imagine? The old Queen Mum jerking away in time to the staccato riddims of the Skatalites? ‘Charles, it’s granny… You must come over, dear. I’ve just got this wonderful new record by Roland Alphonso… the Skatalites, you know… No, Don Drummond was the trombonist. Didn’t that ridiculous school of yours teach you anything…? Do pop by, won’t you dear? I’ve got this most terrible urge to dance…’
Such little unexpected things restore your faith that there is magic in the quotidian. I revel in the incongruous: the fact that things and people don’t always fit into convenient cubby-holes. Heavens, I’m even prepared to admit I might be wrong when the French fail to conform to stereotype.
It’s a shame in a way that they got rid of their royalty. There’s a lot to be said against a royal family as titular heads of state, but it’s undeniable that the Windsors are a source of endless fascination and, judging by the way that the French have taken William and Kate to their collective Gallic bosom, surrogate royals for my republican brethren. They sure help to boost our national stock. ‘So Breetish’ is a phrase that suggests both mockery and envy.
I look after a quintessentially Breetish couple whenever they visit their apartment in the nearby chateau that provides just one of my many distracting day-jobs. The phrase ‘look after’ is not patronising, but literal. This elderly couple exist on an intellectual version of Cloud 9, thus rendering them as helpless as upturned tortoises in the event of the unexpected. They spend their time here reading and pottering, and when they go back home they pass on to us all the food that they haven’t and all the books that they have consumed.
The biblical rain that I spoke of was accompanied by a storm of apocalyptic proportions. It blew out the couple’s electricity supply. Edgar phoned me on his mobile during the afternoon to ask what they should do. I suggested that they wait a little while to see whether it would be restored and then to check their trip-switch. I didn’t hear anything more and (dangerously) assumed that everything was once more, to use their phrase, tickety-boo.
That evening, while eating the delicious dinner that I had prepared in my role as househusband, the phone kept ringing. It was Edgar each time – until he was cut off each time in the act of explaining, laboriously, what he had done. I managed to gather enough to realise that they were still preparing for their departure the next morning without the aid of power.
So I drove up to the chateau as soon as I had polished my plate and taken it to the sink. The electronically operated gates seemed to work. I checked the other apartments and found that their lights still worked. This suggested… well, to Edgar and Elizabeth it suggested a crisis. I should phone the electrician straight away, if I wouldn’t mind awfully. I asked to see their fuse box. I pushed in the button, which had clearly tripped, and hey presto! Power was restored. They were both as surprised as children watching a conjuring trick. Elizabeth gave me a hug and thanked me for my prestidigitation. Earlier she had emptied out the immobilised dishwasher and washed up in a bowl of cold water. Her paternal husband looked bemused and a little sheepish. This is a man who once helped to run ICI. Oxford-educated, he has written a mighty tome on the life of Admiral Nelson. He is half way through some epic new biography of the poet Houseman. But practicalities has he none.
I was not surprised. However, when we sat down to chat, I heard about the education of their son, James, a successful doctor. I discovered that he was very much into heavy metal as a ‘yoot’. Nowadays he likes opera and he will go with them to Glyndebourne. But he still listens to heavy metal. Now it would have been truly wonderful to discover at this point that Edgar and Elizabeth were fans of Metallica and Black Sabbath. Alas, they are not. But… but their son taught them to value the music of Elton John.
I drove home that evening with a big smile on my face. I haven’t been a fan of the dumpy Sir Elton for many decades, but I had an endearing image of Edgar and Elizabeth driving back to the U.K. and singing along to ‘Benny and the Jets’ or, heaven forfend (dear boy), ‘Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting’. When next they’re here, in July, I should try them with a little Laurel Aitken. If it worked for the Queen Mum, why not for my ageing aristocratic couple?
‘Skanga, skanga… Ya stick it up, ya stick it up…’

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stop the Week 23

Growing up in 1960s Belfast, I remember the excitement when my dad brought back a green pepper from Smithfield market in the seedier part of the city centre. Some time later, I think I sampled an avocado pear and didn’t think much of it, foolish child that I was.
As with food, so with music. Just as peppers from the plastic tunnels of Spain and the greenhouses of Holland are the standard fare of supermarkets these days from Falmouth to Fishguard, so we have assimilated music from Benin to Viet Nam and cellophane-wrapped it as ‘world music’.
In 1960s Belfast, music came courtesy of Irish showbands, or from across the Irish Sea, or – if your ears were a little more open – from across the North Atlantic Ocean. Otherwise, there was only the occasional aberration like The Singing Nun, who hailed I think from Belgium. And Nina and Frederick, who derived from the principality of Denmark.
This week, I received a wonderful double CD of 80s World Music Classics courtesy of the Nascente label, which seems dedicated to re-packaging great music from all over the globe at a most reasonable price. The compilation was inspired by dear old Charlie Gillett, who died fairly recently at an age when he would have just been getting used to having a free bus pass. Charlie was a lovely unassuming man who wrote the classic tome about American R&B, The Sound of the City. He used to host a late-night music show on Channel Four with some daft dingbat, who couldn’t string a sentence together without making you cringe with embarrassment. I think she’s still alive.
All the classics of that exciting era of discovery are here. All the tracks that my friend, Pete, discovered while working as a teacher in the Gambia and thereafter packaged on a series of cassette tapes christened The Africa Series, which he copied selflessly for his friends. Before those tapes, my own limited idea of world music consisted of Jamaican reggae and Nigerian music courtesy of Osibisa and King Sunny Adé (whom Island tried to market as ‘the African Bob Marley’).
They’re all here. There’s a track from Salif Keita’s album, Soro, which introduced me to the extraordinary angelic voice of the albino minstrel from Mali. There’s a track from the first of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares albums, which acquainted western listeners with the cademces and slightly unsettling harmonies of Bulgarian female choral music. There’s Gilberto Gil’s original ‘Todo Menina Baiana’, which was covered, bizarrely, by Georgie Fame and produced, even more bizarrely, by Stock, Aitken and Waterman. There’s some jit jive from the Bhundu Boys of Zimbabwe, who treated my wife and me at the Leadmill, Sheffield (blissfully unaware as we were at that time of the misery that would befall that nation) to some of the most joyful music we had ever witnessed. There’s one of the tracks that broke Cheb Khaled in the UK, the moustachioed Algerian rai singer with the cheeky grin. There’s…
'Forward in all directions!'
Enough already! Save to mention the 3 Mustaphas 3, whose track ‘Linda Linda’ concludes the first of these two succulent CDs (‘Don’t say that word!’). Supposedly the nephews of Uncle Patrel Mustapha, Hijaz Mustapha, Sabah Habas Mustapha, Houzam Mustapha, Niaveti Ill et al were all pseudonyms of good old British musicians, who were surely the musical equivalents of the legendary music hall sand-dancers, Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Their slogan ‘Forward in all directions!’ reflected an ability to play convincingly music from all over the globe and to mix genres (such as Country music sung in Japanese) with reckless abandon. Unsurprisingly, such fez-wearing lunatic genius earned them the patronage of John Peel the Divine.
Anyway, if you want the best overview of the burgeoning world music scene in the 1980s at the best price this side of Pound Stretchers, buy this handsome CD. There. I’ve done my bit to justify my promotional copy. If you’ll excuse, I must arise and go now, and go to the great chateau of Curemonte (‘un des plus beaux villages de France’) for a concert of jazz this evening. It’s a tribute to Oscar Peterson. I know nothing about the pianist nor his group, but listening to jazz inside a beautifully restored medieval chateau appeals to my bourgeois sense of discretion.
Besides, we’re not yet in high summer (despite the weather), when the cultural cup overfloweth, so you have to grab such offerings with both hands during the rest of the year. ‘Wish me luck, as I wave you goodbye…’