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, September 18, 2011

A Writer’s Lot

When I were a lad – and not long after my parents moved us from London to Belfast, Norn Iron – I told an old woman in the guest house where we stayed initially that what I wanted to be when I grew up was ‘a book-maker’. I couldn’t understand why she laughed.
It seemed a perfectly reasonable ambition for someone who spent much of his early days writing and drawing Western strip-cartoons in the manner of the Dell comics that my dad would buy for me from time to time. Then I stopped drawing and devoted my creative energy to inventing parallel football and cricket worlds. So I guess ‘book-making’ was in my blood.
I can’t think of any other reason why I do it. I read a rather depressing statistic not that long ago, which suggested that something like 80% of writers earn less than £10,000 per annum. J.K. Rowling, bless her, is a special case, but most publishing money these days seems to be heaped upon such talented and acclaimed writers as Victoria Beckham and Peter André for their keenly anticipated memoirs. There’s little left for the Johnny Normals of this world, particularly those who find every reason to equivocate, rather than to settle down, eliminate all distractions – and just do it.
Fortunately, after years of hanging around the periphery of training and personal development, I have drifted into the niche market of scripting e-Learning storyboards and thereby found a way of shoving myself, in rugby parlance, just over the ‘gain-line’. Not far enough to trouble the functionaries at the department’s Hôtel des Impôts, but just enough to boost my self-worth and supplement my wife’s annual earnings. 
Not The Great Gatsby
Without those storyboards, and given my tendency to beat around the literary bush lest my creation fails to measure up to The Great Gatsby, I’d be reliant on the crumbs offered by magazines and newspapers. This is not much of an option. For a start, we’re staring into the yawning abyss of the Great Recession. As sales and advertising revenue drop, so the size of the crumbs on offer diminishes. I see bigger ones these days on our bird table. 
For another thing – with the notable exception of the Archant stable of France-themed magazines – most ‘organs’ treat you like dirt. Admittedly, editors are busy people, but if you get a reply to your e-mail enquiry – even a negative one – you can count yourself lucky. The received wisdom is that you follow-up your e-mail with a telephone call. The thing is, writers often write because they are much better at expressing themselves in writing. If ever I’ve managed to get through to an editor and am then asked to ‘tell me more’ about my idea, I usually go to pieces and end up sounding as intelligible as Benny from Crossroads.
Early this summer, I managed to sell an article to a French paper focused on expatriates (I won’t name names, but I wouldn’t like you to think it was the paper with a two-word name). The Features Editor offered me two-and-a-half largish ones for text and photographs about the Galerie Pomié’s fascinating summer show, Inde Vivante.
The owners moved here from Ireland to create their rural art gallery. As survivors of the great rock ‘n’ roll circus, they know how to put on a show. They’ve travelled extensively in India and recently attended a Maharajah’s wedding that was featured in Vanity Fair. So there was plenty of good material. I made three or four trips: to interview them and two of the artists who would be exhibiting in the show, and to go through the owners’ huge collection of photographs. I then spent a couple of days writing the first draft and e-mailing the illustrations.
By the time the private view of the show came around, I hadn’t heard anything from the editor. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently carried away by the splendour of the exhibits and the promise of my fee that I bought a couple of miniature paintings of gilded elephants by a certain Mr. Pareek.  
The issue of the paper for which my article was destined appeared – but with no sign of my feature. After several e-mails and abortive phone calls, the editor eventually replied to say that she had liked my article, but felt that it wasn’t right for the paper. It was possible, however, that she would use it, in slightly modified form, in the August issue.
After the August issue came and went with no trace of my article, I wrote a polite note to the editor to point out that I had been commissioned to write the article and that I was entitled to ask for payment for the work I had put in and the expenses I had incurred. However, I would ask instead for half the agreed fee, as I appreciated that the paper wasn’t as cash-rich as, say, The Daily Mail. No reply. I sent a few more – to the editor and the publisher. Silence. The Void.
The only apparent criticism of my article that the editor gave me was that she felt it read like a ‘PR puff’ for the gallery. Well, it seemed that the owners could have done with a bit of publicity. After seven years of banging their heads against a wall of indifference, they have decided to close the gallery. Their house is on the market and they might move back to Ireland. Meanwhile, neither they nor I will be buying any further copies of a French paper for expatriates.
I do sometimes ask myself why I do what I do. There’s a fair amount of heartache associated with writing. You have to inure yourself to repeated rejection. But I guess it beats cleaning swimming pools and holiday homes. I should know. They’ve just remaindered my last book – before I could earn any more than the fairly derisory advance on royalties – but book-making, as I’ve said, must be in my blood. And I have this faith, delusion, whatever you want to call it, that one day I might make a book I will be proud of.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Same Old Junk

This Sunday, 11th September 2011, our commune celebrated the fourth or fifth anniversary of its annual brocante or vide grenier (or ‘attic-empty’). It’s fast becoming a significant event in the bargain hunter’s calendar.
This year’s event came complete with new improved parking facilities and a raft of extra stalls in front of the new Salle Polyvalente – or hall of many activities – built at great expense to local tax payers to replace its dingy ‘60s predecessor, which was built, allowing for inflation, at great expense to local tax payers in its time. Despite the fact that Deb O’Rah and I had been up late helping to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday, we got up early to drive down from our lofty seat to the bourg below in order to avoid the worst of the bargain-hunting crowds.
Who'll give me half a euro for this then?
As usual, though, we found very few bargains to divert us, while bumping into more than enough friends, neighbours and acquaintances to detain us. ‘Well, must get on and see what there is to be seen,’ or words to that effect. The truth is that there’s very little to be seen except the same old over-priced junk: some of it plastic, some of it ugly and most of it completely useless. I even steered clear this year of a few stray boxes of vinyl records, because disappointment has taught me that they tend to be twice the price of what you’d find back in the U.K.
While we browsed and chatted, I found it interesting that not a single person mentioned the fact that Sunday 11th September 2011 marked a rather more significant anniversary. It was ten years ago that I answered the phone in our old house to hear the voice of one of my wife’s old clients – a kindly soul who used to bring us produce from her garden and the kind of plastic gifts for our daughter that eventually find their way to brocante stalls. My French wasn’t as decent as it is now, so I didn’t understand everything that she was trying to tell me, but I certainly understood the urgent note of something akin to hysteria in her voice. She told me to turn the television on there and then, because something apocalyptic was happening that was going to change everyone’s lives. I felt the fear in the pit of my stomach and a loosening of my bowels: like the sensation that I used to get as a school kid when summoned to see the headmaster in his study.
In those days, we had a cheap indoor aerial from E. Leclerc that allowed hazy access to three uninteresting French channels. I put on France2, because the reception and quality of news was evidently better, even to an alien’s eyes. On the screen were those awful unbelievable images of the Twin Towers belching black smoke. When my wife had finished massaging her client, I muttered something in her ear so as not to alarm our impressionable young daughter, and together we watched the events unfolding – as our parents’ generation had huddled by the wireless in 1939 to listen to Chamberlain’s announcement – with mounting unease but without appreciating quite what we were in for.
The talk at the brocante was more of the ominous black clouds and the likelihood of rain. My neighbour, who’s a gardener and a Méteo fundamentalist, told me that it wouldn’t rain, so I could put away the foolish brolly that I’d brought with me. We joked about buying their table full of wares on the way back, so they could go back home early, knowing full well that it would all still be there virtually untouched.
And so it proved. By the return leg, we’d acquired four DVDs for a tenner from a very overweight English woman with a stall full of DVDs still wrapped in their cellophane, and a Moroccan tagine, if that’s how you spell those domed ceramic North African cooking dishes. We knew that, come six o’clock when it was time for all the stallholders to pack up and go back home, the majority of the stuff on display would find its way back into cardboard boxes to be stored once more in attics until the next opportunity came along to empty those attics and remove the same old overpriced junk from those cartons.
These brocantes are a constant source of disappointment to me. I remember all those jumble sales from my student days, open-air markets and car boot sales from the Brighton and Sheffield years and think of all the genuine bargains with which we kitted out our early married quarters. Over here, if the real bargains do exist, they’ve certainly managed to escape me thus far. I see the same old people with the same old stuff year after year. It reinforces my belief that the French people don’t really grasp the market economy. Rather than charge a sensible price and get rid of their wares, they prefer to stick stubbornly to an inflated price and go through the rigmarole of packing it all up again for the next time. See no competition, hear no competition, speak no competition.
More than that, though, it also reinforces my mantra that the only thing we learn from history is that mankind doesn’t learn from history. In the immortal words sung by Edwin Starr, ‘War! HUH! What is it good for? Ab-so-lutely nothing!’ War on terror, war on drugs – say it again, what is it good for? Man – and I use the term literally, because we’ve never given the female of the species a chance to run the show – seems incapable of learning from his many mistakes, recognising that something isn’t working and trying a new enlightened approach. So we’ll go on re-processing household junk and re-packaging wars until (Bunny Wailer’s) ‘Arma-gid-deon’.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fin de Saison

As August dissolves into September and holidays segue into la rentrée des classes, as the holiday-makers pack up and go back home, and as the temperature goes down and daylight diminishes, I always feel a profound sense of mixed blessings.
If anyone has ever tried to make a living or part-living from renting property to holiday-makers, you’ll probably know what I mean. Without that ingredient, there would be no blessing at all in the end of summer. I’m not one of these curious people who positively enjoy winter.  It seems inconceivable, I know, but there really are people out there who relish the cold and the wet.
However, if the coming of September holds any compensation for someone who hated the idea of going back to school as a child, it’s the liberating thought that my life at least won’t be plagued by vacanciers for another eight months or so.
Holiday-makers threaten Martel market
On a general social level, it means that I can go shopping at Martel market on a Saturday morning without having to circle around in search of a parking space and without having to queue endlessly at my regular stalls. I can get twice as much done in half the time, while keeping an even temper. Of course, I remind myself that little rural communities such as ours could not exist without the tourists’ euros. It’s unreasonable of me to begrudge them the space and facilities we must share for just a few weeks every year. I should know better. For decades, I have harboured a distrust of Cornish people, because I once – as a student en vacance – felt their collective disdain for grockles or whatever it is they call summertime visitors. But hey, enough already. I don’t want to be branded as a grumpy old man while I can still dance to Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.
On a specific personal level, my discomfort with holiday-makers goes much deeper. When we lived in our old stone farmhouse – with more space than we needed for regular family life – we thought it would be a great idea to turn part of it into accommodation for PGs (as my grandmother used to refer – with a certain traumatic resonance born of hard times in the 1930s – to paying guests). Without a pool we concluded, sensibly, that we couldn’t compete at the top end of the market. So we pitched it lower down: at people with lesser and more reasonable expectations. Even so, we had our fair share of people who would have benefited from a quick plunge in our septic tank. One wet day when I was working in Jersey, a black BMW pulled up. My wife went out to greet the couple with umbrellas at the ready. The woman took one look at the apartment and said, ‘There’s a cooker! What am I supposed to do with a cooker?’ Being an astute reader of the human mind, my wife suggested that they were clearly not happy with their prospective accommodation and offered an immediate refund. After thrashing herself with a stray branch from our sheltering vine, my mortified wife then offered to phone up and book them in at the local hotel. ‘Huh!’ said the woman. ‘Why should I trust you to do that?’
Later, when money for a while was a little too tight to mention, I looked after a purpose-built holiday home for an English couple. I would shop for the guests, meet and greet them, sort out their problems and generally ooze unction and servility. It wasn’t long before I was spending my weekends dreading the buzz of my mobile phone. It meant (but only sometimes) a problem to resolve. And off I would go, with my toolbox in the boot and a well rehearsed line in abject apology.
Now I should say at this juncture that the majority of people I encountered were decent, charming examples of humanity at its best. Unfortunately, the experience was blighted by the few who found fault and felt that the fact of having paid good money for their gaff justified the kind of behaviour that should have ended with the British Raj. One party suffered an unfortunate invasion of flies and felt that I should organise someone to come that day and spray the back wall of the house (where they, the flies, had gathered) with insect repellent. I grovelled and humoured them and suppressed a great urge to point out that, if they had chosen to stay on Easter Island or wherever it is, they might have had an invasion of migrating crabs to contend with. In other words, it was a phenomenon of nature. Get over it and get a life.
Someone else took a photograph of a cobweb under the wood burner that the cleaner missed and sent it with a demand for a refund to the travel company. Another family of Herberts were collectively traumatised by a hair on a duvet. The old dear who nearly keeled over at the sight insisted that she couldn’t sleep under it because it felt unclean. I changed the duvet cover for them and popped the hair into an envelope so I could send it to the Forensic Department at Scotland Yard. Well, I changed the cover. And wringing my hands like Uriah Heep, I backed slowly out of the house with the unclean duvet cover, bowing and scraping and wishing that I were the God of hell fire who could bring them FIRE!! I tell you, had I come across that woman in the desert and she’d begged me for water, I’d have given her gasoline.
But they’re gone, gone, gone. They’ve all gone and I need no longer practise my ps and qs. September is here and life is returning to normality. We permanent residents have been abandoned once more to face our fate. Winter.