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, June 30, 2011

Caniculaire, canicular…

Whenever I hear that word ‘caniculaire’ – I suppose the English equivalent would be ‘heatwave-ish’ – it fills me with fear and loathing.
I met a man last weekend, a big strapping jovial man from Norn Iron who now lives in the Creuse (or, as Raymond pronounced it, the Cruise) and he told me that he loved the hot weather: ‘the hotter, the better’. In Turkey, the previous summer, apparently it had been up over 40 degrees most days. I looked upon his hairless red pate and shuddered.
Had I been able to get a word in edgeways – because Raymond was a real ‘boyo’ and I was happy to let him ramble on, as his broad Norn Irish brogue made me all nostalgic for the old country – I would have told him that once I felt like he did. I suppose anyone coming from the temperate British Isles, starved as we usually are of anything resembling a summer, would relish the prospect of hot weather. 
I know that when we arrived in France back in 1995, I was gung-ho for the heat. ‘Le plus chaud, le mieux,’ I would tell the natives (in what I hoped was correct French). Well, all that was before the summer of 2003.
The dread ‘Canicule’ of 2003 happened to coincide with our move from the Corrèze to the Lot. We swapped the nice thick cool stone walls of our old 17th century farmhouse for the thin plastic prefabricated walls of a caravan. It was like living in a sauna. From the plastic windows, all we could do was to look out on our scorched land and dream of the house we couldn’t build too soon.
Warning: Severe heat can seriously discomfit
Those of you who were here during the Canicule will remember what it was like. Those of you who weren’t will probably remember the news broadcasts, about hundreds of thousands of old people dying in the nation’s capital, abandoned by their thoughtless families, off soaking up the sun on the coast. And oh yes, in true French fashion, didn’t the government levy some new tax designed to insure against such occurrences in the future? Maybe the money was used to train a phalanx of vélo-vendeurs, who would pedal from apartment to apartment, delivering refreshing ice cream cones to the elderly. More likely, I think, it soon found its way into the Treasury’s gaping coffers.
All through July and August, we suffered in our sauna. We suffered like the wildlife, sheltering in the woods, and suffered like the vegetation itself, gasping for water as its foliage turned yellow and then brown. There was no shelter anywhere from the relentless sun. The best you could do was to go into the woods and try to find a patch of mossy undergrowth where you could hide for half an hour or so. We tried sleeping in tents, but because of the steep pitch of the land, I for one found the business of waking every half hour or so to haul myself up into something resembling a horizontal position even more draining than sleeping in a sweat-box. 
There were days when it felt like my brain was boiling inside my cranium. Scanning the skies for anything resembling a rain cloud made you appreciate what it must be like to live somewhere like the Horn of Africa. Having the water supply shut off for several hours each day by the water company was irksome enough. What in heaven’s name must it be like to live without water?
On Monday this week, the temperature in these parts reputedly reached 41 degrees. Mercifully some rain fell late the following day. But in 2003, the hot weather went on and on, with only the occasional shower to bring any kind of relief. I remember the scenes of elation one August night at some friends’ party when we saw lightning flashing over the horizon and heard the distant rumble of thunder. I remember the joy of driving back to the caravan in the rain, wondering whether this marked the end of the meteorological madness. It must be like that every year in countries like India, where people dance with joy and relief in the first Monsoon rainfall.
Somehow my sainted wife worked on through that summer, massaging sweaty bodies on her couch to put bread on the wood-composite table in the caravan. This Monday reminded me just how difficult is any activity, physical or mental, in such conditions. You lose the will to live. No wonder all those abandoned elderly French died in their millions. No wonder the male of the species sends his women out to work in the fields so he can sup alcoholic refreshments and smoke cheroots in some cool white-walled taverna.
The hotter, the better? Not at all. The hotter, the worse. Keep the Canicule far hence, that’s foe to man…

Monday, June 27, 2011

Stop the Week 30

There’s little time for cultural pursuits during Wimbledon fortnight. But then I suppose that ‘Wmbldn’ (as Harry Carpenter would have put it) is a culture in itself.
These days, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to sit in front of the telly and simply watch. We have to content ourselves with Today at Wimbledon, the highlights programme, hosted by the debonair John Inverdale in the company of the marvellous Boris Becker, the much-improved Tracy Austin and others of their kidney. It’s reassuring that such brats from the past have, for the main, evolved into reasonable human beings. 
Even John McEnroe can now look back in wisdom at his teenage anger and admit with humour and good grace that he was an unregenerate asshole. I strongly suspect that my childhood bête noire, Rod Laver, is a thoroughly decent, pleasant and rather modest man. Poor guy. My brother and sisters used to sit in front of the screen and chant ‘serve a double’ to try and put him off. It rarely worked and he often won. Which was the trouble, of course. Had we but appreciated our tennis lore, we would have watched a legend in his prime with proper appreciation and awe – as I do now when Roger Federer’s on. Even my wife and daughter have forgiven the swish Swiss his emblazoned jacket of a few summers back.
Whenever I worry as a parent that The Daughter might be spending too long in front of the box, I think back to those Wimbledon fortnights of yore and blanche at the realisation of the hours my siblings and I must have spent parked before the screen. To be fair, the fortnight usually coincided with that delicious hiatus between end-of-exams and end-of-term when there was little homework and much frivolity. Caramba! I seem to remember watching a whole chunk of the legendary Charlie Passarell/Pancho Gonzales match, which established the template for endurance until John Isner and Nicolas Mahut re-designed it this time last summer.
Serve a double...
Much of our erstwhile viewing took place in the evening. The fading light of day was consecrated to doubles. If there’s anything I regret about the modern game, it’s the absence of the four-(wo)man game. I know doubles are still played, but for me the golden age expired with the retirement of MacNamara and MacNamee. In my day… (are you listening, children?) there were wonderful doubles partnerships, the likes of which we will never see again. There were the plucky Mexicans, Osuna and Palafox, who would send up towering lobs from the baseline for the opposition to smash until they tired of the game and sent the ball into the net or into the crowd. There were Hewitt and MacMillan: Leyton’s belligerent dad and white-capped Frew, who never had a prayer in the singles, but on a doubles court was virtually unassailable. There were Tiriac and Nastase, the Roumanian renegades, who looked like they could defeat the opposition with a series of fierce looks. There were Emerson, with his funny wind-up serve, and the perennial runner-up, Fred Stolle. There were Ann Jones and Francoise Durr, the unlikely slow-moving slow-serving big-busted couple, who somehow won more matches than logics and physiology would have suggested. And, of course, there were Newcombe and Roche on one side of the gender equation and Navratilova and Billie Jean King on the other. Ah happy days, happy evenings!
Of course, there are still the Williams sisters (curse 'em!), but for the main gripping star-studded doubles matches seem to have been consigned to Wimbledon’s history – along with invisible white balls and wooden racquets and their presses: those strange contraptions that stopped the racquet head from warping while allowing child racquet/guitar heroes like me to play their Slazenger Les Pauls and use the lever of the press as a tremolo arm.
So now those days have gone and if the telly goes on in the late afternoon during Wimbledon fortnight and stays on up to and including Wimbledon Today, it’s more for the familiar pock-pock of ball on racquet as a reassuring background. My viewing days, like my playing days, have gone into a fairly steep decline. Nevertheless, I’ll have you know that I was once runner-up in the under 14 competition at the Saint Polycarps tennis club of Finaghy, Belfast. I wore a hand-me-down lilac airtex shirt and yellow socks, a right little André Agassi. I played with a cheap wooden racquet (made in Pakistan) from F.W. Woolworth. I was 5-1 up in the first set, but as soon as I started sniffing victory, my mind started to play games and I went to pieces, losing to a chubby Stuart Smith in straight sets. Who knows what I might have achieved with a bit of coaching, some proper kit, a physio and a sponsor? (And a little more talent and drive.) ‘I could’ve been a contender, Choliie…’
‘New balls, please!’

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Longest Day Blues

So there we are. That’s it then for another year…
For a few days every year either side of the solstice, I go into mourning. My wife and daughter have learnt to handle me with care. Dutifully, they respect my annual suggestion to ‘appreciate’ the last few protracted evenings before the 21st (without ever questioning what ‘appreciation’ entails).
It’s hard to spell it out. Appreciation for me means being more aware than usual that it’s still light outside. It means stepping outside or staring mournfully out of the window, soon after the 10pm watershed, at the delicious mysterious half-light, as it hangs on tenaciously before slipping into darkness.
19th century doctors would probably diagnose my complaint as ‘acute melancholia’ and prescribe laudanum to be taken in increasing doses until helpless, hopeless addiction set in. Fuelled by opiates, I could settle down with my quill and bottle of ink and compose countless odes on the subject of all things bright and beautiful and the sadness of knowing that all such things must pass.
The solstice equals the end of the best part of summer and the beginning of two mad months when you can’t move for holidaymakers. When everything and everyone wilts in the heat. It means: Wimbledon, then the British Open, the Oval Test Match, the Last Night of the Proms, September, October and bye-bye blue skies, here comes winter.
Fortunately, the mood dissipates. For one thing, I sensibly elected to share my life with a perennial optimist. Where I might stare glumly at a half-empty glass, she rejoices in what’s left. While I see a world stripped bare by voracious humanity, she sees richness and abundance. It’s hard to shake off a lifetime’s pessimism, but bit-by-bit I’m learning to see things in a healthier perspective.
The legend of Stern'enge
In France, the longest day coincides with the national Fête de Musique. Back in the UK, druids, pagans and even ordinary citizens wend their way to Stonehenge to do whatever they tend to do within the ancient stone circle. The French cluster throughout the land to eat and drink and listen to music.
It’s a lovely tradition and one that’s catching on apparently in other continental countries. Nearly 20 years ago, I first stumbled upon it as a holidaymaker one sultry evening in the sleepy medieval town of Argentat-sur-Dordogne. Ella Fitzgerald accompanied us on our romantic evening promenade via a network of municipal speakers suspended from trees and lampposts and the eaves of buildings. It was ‘de-lovely’, if rather be-wildering.
So now we tend to take to the streets en famille with everyone else. Of course, you’re at the mercy of the elements. A few summers ago in Brive, torrential downpours rained off all the long-planned outdoor concerts and we were left to throng aimlessly with hundreds of others in search of… something. We ended up buying ice creams and going home.
Another summer we took The Daughter to nearby Martel to see her school band play under the remarkable parasol-like roof of the 18th century market ‘hall’. Locals ate their collective picnics at the trestle tables set out around the square, while the pizzeria plied the drinkers with hooch. The headmaster was there to support his group of final-year pupils. Even when a neo-grunge outfit from the nearest lycée came on to assail our ears, no one moaned about ‘the racket’. Not a mouth was puckered in disapproval. Everyone was there to enjoy the occasion and celebrate life out-of-doors.
We missed out on the Fête this summer, because the child was too busy revising for her BAC. So I was left to brood on the relentless march of time. I’m trying to train myself to see the 21st symbolically as a gateway to all the concerts and festivals (for which there’s never enough time) that are crowded into the ensuing months of a French summer, but I’ve still got a way to go.
When I get ‘dem ol’ summer solstice blues again, mama’, I remind myself that Blues, the music, though born of suffering, celebrates life with all its vicissitudes. And after all, as a child, the solstice represented the imminent end-of-June and the beginning of the long school holidays. I guess I need to learn to ‘appreciate’ every evening on earth, protracted or not. Instant karma would then be mine for the deriving.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stop the Week 29

It’s one small step for mankind and one giant step for Murk Sampons. Having run this blog for roughly half a year, I finally worked out last week how to locate and even read comments from people. There was even a comment from my reclusive best friend. I then spent several frustrating hours trying to work out how to reply to some of the people who left comments. When I found a possible route, I then discovered that I had to identify myself in terms of a whole range of perplexing options, including a Google account. I didn’t even know I had a Google account. Passwords, don’t ya just hate ‘em?
The point is, I wasn’t able to reply to some of the interesting comments that people left. So, if by chance you’re still reading the ramblings of the churlish bastard who can’t be bothered to reply to you, may I offer my sincere apologies. And if anyone would like to comment this week, please let me have your e-mail address, as I’m a big old incapable Hector and this seems like a pragmatic solution to my problem. 
Before I got sidetracked, I was going to say what a joy it is for a music-loving father to discover that his offspring is beginning to take an interest in his music archives. I got back the other day from trying to remove the last of the algae from the pool at the chateau I look after to hear the familiar sound of Etta James coming from the speakers. The Daughter is well into the likes of Adele, Amy Winehouse and Duffy, so it’s rather nice to think that she’s exploring the roots of all that ‘Nu Soul’ (although that’s probably not the term they use these days).
She loves Aretha Franklin too, but, although the Queen of Soul didn’t get her title for nothing, it’s particularly gratifying to think of her developing a fondness for Etta. Not only has she had a very tough life (Etta, that is, not my child) – being, among other things, a heroine addict for many years – but she also never really garnered the accolades that she surely deserved during her prime.  And the prime of Ms. Etta James is captured in all its glory on an absurdly cheap triple-CD set available from the usual Amazonian outlets. Track after track of pearls such as ‘At Last’ (used in an advert for… what was it, Sainsbury’s clothing or something equally incongruous?), the storming ‘Tell Mama’ and the timeless, heart-rending ‘I'd Rather Go Blind’, which was once covered by Christine Perfect of Chicken Shack, before she married John McVie and joined her hubby in Fleetwood Mac.
Tilley, my daughter, asked me whether Etta was a Motown artist. I resisted the temptation to give her a quick history of the Brothers Chess and their Chicago-based label, but, with great restraint, simply pointed out that Etta recorded for Chess, the most famous blues label in the whole U.S. of A. And very appropriate it was, too, because Etta James, more so than others of her kidney chasing Aretha, Mavis Staples and Irma Thomas at the top of the Premiership, was equal parts ‘old school’ R&B and soul chanteuse. In fact, she quite recently made a fine album of blues standards with a couple of her kids in the band. More recently still, the poor woman was diagnosed with dementia followed by leukaemia. Whether it will help her now, I don’t know, but you could do yourself a real favour and get hold of that Best of Etta James (on Chess) so you can cop a listen to a woman voted no. 22 by Rolling Stone in their 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
It also warms the cockles of a film-lovin’ daddy’s heart that his daughter is also taking a keen interest in films old and new. I encourage it. However, I would certainly not be happy to think of her seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Not yet, anyway. Aronofsky made The Black Swan. The Good Wife of La Poujade Basse found it overwrought, so I didn’t bother going to see it. But I did watch Dream during the week. It’s been parked on the DVD’s hard drive for several months, waiting for the necessary courage to sit through it.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it sho’ ‘nuff is harrowing. It’s based on a novel by Hubert Selby jr., who wrote the grim Last Exit to Brooklyn, and it depicts the descent into drug-addled delusion and degradation of a mother (played by the admirable Ellen Burstyn) and her junky son. It was brilliant, but dreadful. The Daughter’s 16 and there’s time enough for her to find out about the awfulness of life. So I did what a control freak or a responsible parent does, depending on the way you look at it, and pressed ‘delete’ after viewing.
Drugs… helping to link Etta James to Requiem for a Dream. Well, there’s a rather infelicitous way to pull these cultural thoughts together for another weekend. Have a good week, y’hear.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Last Word

One of the least pleasant aspects of life in France is taking goods back for exchange or refund. As you know, the customer is neither king nor queen here, but someone to be treated with disdain. Approximately like something nasty that you might pick up on the sole of your shoe.
Only the other day, I had two items to return – in two different establishments. So the preparatory dialogues inside my head were incessant. Mercifully one of the items in question came from Lidl. Now whatever you think of Lidl – and I won’t reiterate the joke about the French woman and her gynaecologist at this point, because I need to check all the salient details before repeating it (I’m notoriously bad at re-telling jokes) – it’s a German-based supermarket chain and its attitude to customers betrays its Teutonic origins. In other words, they give you ‘nuff respeck’.
So I went there first – to help my confidence and build up my nerve before confronting the second establishment with my broken chair. I did my regular week’s shopping in my yellow-and-blue prefabricated emporium of choice and, at the end of the customarily frantic business of trying to bag my items in time with the scanning, I casually presented the cashier with the universal telecommande that stubbornly refused to zap the humblest electrical appliance. I showed her my receipt and she asked no questions. A perfect example, in other words, of customer service as it should be. I pocketed my refund and wished her the French equivalent of ‘top of the morning’.
'Someone large must have sat on this chair...'
Then came the harder stuff. All the way down the main drag to Malemort, which is one long commercial zone on the eastern edge of Brive, I rehearsed my spiel. ‘This chair that I bought as part of a set of bijou outdoor table and three chairs… Well, the other day I noticed that one of the slats is broken.’
‘You must have sat down too hard on it.’
’Madame, correct me if I’m wrong, but a chair is designed to support the human frame, is it not?’
’You must have sat down too hard on it.’
’Please look at me, Madame. I weigh under 60 kilos. My wife weighs less than that and our daughter less than her. No one else to the best of my knowledge has sat on this chair. Perhaps a passing deer in need of a rest…’
’Then you must have stood on the chair to do that…’
’No, I assure you, I am 56 years old and have been educated to BAC+4 level or however you measure it, and I know the difference between a chair and a set of steps.’
’No, someone must have stood on this chair to do that.’
’OK. Let’s look closely at the fracture. You’ll see that it runs diagonally, suggesting an inherent weakness in this piece of wood. Had someone stood on the chair, isn’t it likely that it would have snapped like this…(at which point I would have mimed a clean horizontal break)?’
’We’re not going to change it. It’s your fault, not ours.’
And so I was ready to stand outside the shop with my hands on the back of the broken chair, ready to mutter to every potential client entering the shop, ‘This is what you can expect if you buy their merchandise.’ Of course, every potential French client would merely shrug and continue quand meme, n’est ce pas?
Anyway… I pulled up, turned the engine off, found my receipt, grabbed the broken chair and boldly marched into the shop. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? Yes, that nice woman behind the desk took one look at the chair, examined my receipt and said, ‘We’ll change this for you right away’. Say, what????
So she scribbled some hieroglyphics on the receipt and told me to take it to the warehouse. There I got a little annoyed because the man who took my receipt promptly dealt with a delivery driver who rolled up a few seconds after I did. But hey, that’s normal and I was getting a new chair. When finally said chair was handed to me, an officious little toad who seemed to be the second-in-command handed me back my receipt with a cautionary ‘Attention, your receipt is presque mort’.
I stared at my ‘nearly dead’ receipt and could feel the ire rising up from the small intestine or somewhere close by. I snapped at him, ‘Well what am I supposed to do about it then?’ Take a photocopy, apparently. Ah. Hmmm. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself off and drove off with our new chair in the back of the Berlingo. I felt just a little triumphant.
Thinking about it on the way home, wasn’t it just typical that yer man had warned me about my nearly dead receipt rather than uttering a word of apology. ‘There you are sir. Very sorry that you’ve had this little inconvenience. Take this new chair and have a very nice day.’ It’s not difficult, is it? But no, he had to have the last word on the subject. It’s the French way. I’m right and you’re wrong. No, I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, then, have it your own way, I’m right and you’re wrong. (Ponder that one, you jumped-up little amphibian…)
But still, does this episode suggest that the French are finally – finally – learning that it pays in the long run to provide decent customer service? Or was it just a blip in the status quo?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Stop the Week 28

As you may well know, Friday night is music night on BBC Four. Repeats have been doing the rounds, so there hasn’t been a lot on of late. But there was a fascinating documentary on Carlos Santana this Friday, followed by some in-concert footage.
Guitar heaven indeed
I hadn’t realised that Carlos’s dad was a musician in a Mariachi band and young Carlos first learned to play the violin – which perhaps partly explains the unique lachrymose sound he coaxed from his guitar as it took flight. Carlos stressed throughout the programme the need to ‘hold a melody’. His ability to do this and to hold individual notes without resorting to any fancy tremolo effects helped to transform the electric rock guitar into something supremely melodic. It’s surely no coincidence that he chose to cover ‘Black Magic Woman’, since Peter Green was probably his most lyrical British contemporary.
As a troubled teenager living in San Francisco (once the family had moved from Tijuana), Carlos used to go to a park where a blues/rock band, a Latin band and a Mariachi band would all be playing simultaneously. I might have found such a weird melange of styles a little perturbing, but it tripped a light bulb inside the young Santana’s head: this was the sound he wanted to create. And so the Santana Blues Band, or whatever they called themselves, was formed – and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s a history, though, that has worn very well. Being a fan primarily of British ‘prog rock’ at the time, I somehow managed to miss Santana until the timeI swapped some Subbuteo players with a friend’s kid brother for his copy of Caravanserai. Being an acquisitive little collector even at that age, I promptly signed the inner sleeve ‘Mark Sampson from Ian Bamford 1974’. It’s been with me ever since. In fact, it’s one of the few vinyl albums I’ve duplicated in digital form – if only for the enhanced separation that the CD brings. Just to hear that magnificent percussion on tracks like ‘Every Step Of The Way’ coming at you in both ears!
Carlos was warned at the time of Caravanserai’s conception that the shift to a new jazzier plain represented commercial suicide. In the fashion of a restless creator, he apparently thought ‘Mmm, commercial suicide: that sounds interesting’. Like Frank Zappa with the Mothers of Invention, Santana pretty soon took over the band – which sounds suspiciously like a monstrous ego at work, until you reflect that, without the direction he imposed on it, Santana might have lasted no longer than his brother’s equally competent band, Malo. Because of their single-minded creative drive, both Frank and Carlos created a huge musical legacy to leave mankind. It makes you wonder really how come the Beatles managed to last as long as they did, driven by two such single-minded and sometimes antithetical creators as Lennon and McCartney.
However… the footage of Santana circa Woodstock, when the band dropped acid, expecting to come on much later in the day, and a concert replicating 1999’s Supernatural underlined what can happen along the way. Santana in its pomp was one hell of a band, with everyone playing in ferocious unison: from Greg Rollie’s integral beefy Hammond organ to Michael Shrieve’s relentless drums and, of course, Carlos’s sinuous guitar. But Carlos Santana plus special guests was as curiously unsatisfying as Supernatural itself. Great in parts, but overall rather wearisome. Although the great man, with his trademark curly locks tucked under a reversed trilby, could obviously still play his sunburst guitar, I was uncomfortably reminded of Liberace.
So these days, I go back to the early albums that I missed at the time and marvel at the way the band tackled numbers like Willie Bobo’s ‘Evil Ways’ and Tito Puente’s ‘Oye Como Va’ and, as the cliché goes, made them ‘their own’. And while I’ve long grown out of The Yes Album or Trespass or Pawn Hearts, Santana’s output from the same era still sounds as ‘fresh as the day your dentist fitted them’.
Otherwise, not many blips on the cultural radar screen during a week dominated by the visits of friends old enough to remember closing their eyes to let ‘Samba Pa Ti’ transport them to some far-off heavenly plain. However, I should mention the Australian ‘claymation’ film, Mary and Max, about two of life’s lonely outcasts who become the unlikeliest pair of pen-friends ever portrayed on a cinema screen. It’s a little gem that should by rights last as long as Caravanserai.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stop the Week 27

‘This movie makes as much sense as a rat fucking a grapefruit…’
Also spracht Marlon Brando, one of two troubled geniuses wandering across my cultural radar screen this week. I thought that Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Montgomery Clift was one of the most enthralling Hollywood tales that I’ve ever read. The portrait of Brando seems a bit quick-and-easy in comparison, seemingly borrowing a lot from Brando’s own autobiography and other, fuller biographies on the market. But it’s entertaining enough to induce me to leave my bike in the cellar, propped up against a stack of boxes, and take once more to my walking boots. By chance the 2nd hand copy I brought is a large-print version from Hammersmith & Fulham public libraries (Serving our community, the memorable strap-line that no doubt cost them a pretty packet), so it has done wonders for my walk-and-read technique. So much so that I’m now sketching some Heath Robinson contraption for the bike that will allow me to ride-and-read (possibly not serving our rural community too well in the process).
I have always had very ambivalent feelings about our Marlon. I remember as a kid seeing him as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, and it was – and still is – one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life. It was a staggering performance and the back-of-the-car scene with brother ‘Chollie’ must be one of the most quoted scenes in movie history. But while I loved him in Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Missouri Breaks and The Godfather, to name but a few, equally I hated him in Mutiny on the Bounty, Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now, to name but a few.
He was a mass of contradictions: gentle, generous, sensitive, kind to animals, loyal to friends on one hand; crass, boorish, conceited and a royal pain-in-the-ass on the other. Unlike someone, say, of Tom Cruise’s ilk, who seems to have worked so hard at being a star throughout his career, Brando was a star almost in spite of himself. ‘Acting is a bum’s life,’ he said. ‘It leads to perfect self-indulgence. You get paid for doing nothing and it adds up to nothing’. Which is maybe why he ended up squandering his massive talent and describing himself, even in the early ‘60s, as a ‘balding, middle-aged failure’.
Trevor Howard said of his co-star in the ill-fated Monty on the Bonty, as my siblings and I used to call it, that ‘he could drive a saint to hell in a dogsled’. If this was so, then Klaus Kinski could have done it simply by glaring at the unfortunate saint.
Just fiends, Mr. H. and Mr. K.
I bought a boxed set of Werner Herzog’s films with the demented actor about five years ago as an investment in my child’s future. I have been training her to watch Aguirre, Wrath of God ever since, but she tells me that she still doesn’t feel ready for it (if you ask me, she doesn’t like reading sub-titles: the curse of the micro-attention-span generation). So last night, Debs and I decided to watch the slightly barking director’s documentary film about his completely barking star, My Best Fiend.
We’re about half way through it and it makes for riveting viewing, what with Herzog’s hypnotic Teutonic delivery and clips of Kinski raving at Gas Mark 10. His co-star in Woyzeck, Eva Mattes, actually talked of a sensitive, caring side to the man. It’s an extraordinary notion. At one point Herzog’s camera captured Kinski in Aguirre costume and character set about some of the extras with a broad sword, I think because they were picking at some of the food to be used as props. One of them showed Herzog the traces of a large scar on his skull, some 30 years or so after the event. If he hadn’t have been wearing his helmet, he would have been a dead man.
But if it’s true that there was a gentler, human side to the raving madman, I guess it goes part of the way to explaining how such a monster managed to sire such a soft, feminine creature as Natasja. My God, though, assuming that her father played any significant role in her childhood, she must surely be a very troubled soul.
It all does make you wonder why Herzog was prepared to put himself through the torment he, cast and crew all suffered from K.K. not once but five times. When you think about the premise of Fitzcarraldo – pulling a boat across a hill in the middle of the jungle to transport it from one river to another – there must be a strong element of the masochist in Herzog’s make-up. Maybe you need an element of insanity in order to make great art. Countless biographies seem to reinforce this idea. So maybe Herzog recognised that, if he could survive the trauma and shockwaves of working with such a human maelstrom, then he would get the kind of charismatic performance that his films needed.
Well, the proof of the pudding is there in the eating. From the staggering opening shots of the group of conquistadors snaking their way down the mountainside to the final restless circling of the camera as Aguirre and a raft-load of monkeys drift downriver, Aguirre for one must be one of the most riveting collaborations between director and star ever committed to celluloid.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shades of ’76?

Well, that’s it then. May, my favourite month of the year, has been and gone – and not with a whimper, but with a bang. Many of them, in fact.
After almost two months of scorching weather, virtually without rain of any description, there was a momentous storm on Monday, with rain so torrential you might have thought you were in Kuala Lumpur.
I’d just got back with the hound from the château I look after as one of my many gainful jobs, fiddling around with the swimming pool there, trying to balance the pH and wondering what to do with the copious deposits of algae that must have flourished undercover during April’s heat wave. The blue sky had suddenly clouded over and turned the colour of a granite work surface. The first big drops of rain had appeared on the windscreen as we neared home. There was just enough time to run to the four corners of the house to check that the down-pipes were all in ‘fill-rain-butt’ mode.
Safely indoors, I turned off the computer smartish and un-plugged the Neufbox and the telephone. Then, there was nothing to do but watch and wait. I wandered out onto the terrace from time to time to peer over the edge and check the level of the nearest rain-butt. It seemed a bit slow at first and then even threatened to stop, but a second wave swept in across the valley and once the Kuala Lumpurn rain began to fall, all four tanks were full in a thrice. There was no way I was going to dash out into the maelstrom to close off the down-pipes, so I just had to watch the splash-backs soak the walls.
The Daughter phoned half way through the downpour. ‘Is it raining there, dad?’ ‘Yes, it’s raining dogs [as she used to say when she was very small]. Is it raining in Brive?’ ‘It certainly is. Are you happy now?’
Yes, I was happy – despite the fact that the force of the rain was washing away the surface of our drive and gouging out more ravines. But I was almost happy enough to run outside and dance in it. I was happy to know that I wouldn’t have to water the flowers and vegetables that evening, and happy for all the wildlife in the woods, scratching around desperately in search of moisture. We’ve talked in recent weeks of how terrible it must be to live in somewhere like India or Africa, where your life literally depends on the vagaries of the weather.
Despite the rain, there have been ominous rumblings among the country folk here about the worst drought in the making since 1976. ‘Ah yes, I ree-mem-bare it well…’ I spent most of August that year in the Channel Islands with my disreputable friend, Simon. We started off in Sark and got kicked off by a policeman they fetched from Guernsey for illegal camping. One morning, there was a scratching at our tent, pitched perilously close to the edge of a cliff. The policeman told us that we’d have to take the late afternoon boat back to Guernsey. Simon and I debated the idea of hiding out in the copses of the Dame’s island, living on nuts and berries and stealing foodstuffs in the dead of night, but in the end we felt we’d enjoy ourselves more across the water. From the boat, we saw the policeman scanning the passengers from the quayside. So we hid ourselves, only to pop up at the last minute and give the man a cheeky wave.
The rest of that sun-baked month, we spent camping in Saint Sampson and living on bread, tomatoes and the bag of ‘erb we’d smuggled on board with us at Weymouth. We hired bicycles and spent each day gradually exploring the island, moving from one cove to the next and pegging out in the sun. We went to see Bugsy Malone one evening in St. Peter’s Port’s little old-fashioned cinema, so pie-eyed on grass and so transfixed by the images on screen that we believed that we were watching the greatest film ever made. I seem to remember being nominated to ask the usherette about the last bus back to Saint Sampson.
Michael, the silent destroyer, mobbed by team mates
Another time in a bar, I think, we watched images from the 5th and final test match against the West Indies from the Oval, which was so denuded of grass that it looked like an Arabian sandpit. Michael Holding was at his silky and lethal best and Viv Richards (Dennis Amiss, too, I believe) plundered a double century.
As a student, the summer of 1976 was just one long idyllic meteorological aberration. The weather broke almost the very day we got back to the mainland. Simon and I split up to hitch our way back to our different destinations, where we would show off our resplendent suntans to the girls who awaited our return.
In this part of France, the drought lasted until October apparently. The thought of another summer like that one – now with new added adult responsibilities – just fills me with horror. You are old, brother Markus, you are old/You will wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled…