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, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Message For You

The rain, it raineth every day… 
The world continues to end with a protracted whimper, not the Mayan-style predicted bang. This is surely thanks to my friend Bret’s preventative party on Friday evening. We owe our continued existence to his foresight.
So, never mind Armageddon. The four horsemen have ridden off for the time being. The shoppers are back out in force in the frantic last-minute sprint to Christmas. We’re all busy spending our hard-earned money before hyperinflation renders it worthless. That’s got to be good news for the High Street and good news for the balance of payments.
Meanwhile, chez Sampson, the fridge is indecently well packed and The Daughter is back for the holidays. Cue loud hosannas on the dog’s meadow. She and her mother have dressed the tree that I picked out the other day at Intermarché with my own fair hands. I have an unerring eye for a shapely sapin. They did a wonderful job on Saturday night under the supervision of our watchful fat-cat Myrtle, who squeezed her comfortable frame onto the top of the steps to eye-up a particularly provocative bauble. Flushed by their artistry, the girls then knuckled down to the task of going through the complete series of The Killing 3 while I assembled a compilation CD or two as stocking fillers.
As sometimes happens around this time of year, Providence has brought me some paid work at last, so I shall be busy over Yul’s tide. Real proper work brings a slight shimmer to my bank balance, but sends me into a complete spin. The weight of unseen customers’ expectations unsettles my digestion and throws my nervous system generally into turmoil. It confirms (if ever I needed it) that I wasn’t made for work. I should have been a pair of claws… Or a rich man. All day long I could tiddle-tiddle pom – if I were a wealthy man. I could use my enormous wealth to bring world peace at this time of supposed good will. I could bring comfort and joy to humanity and all creatures great and small. I could sponsor some clever brains-trust to find a way to arrest the melting of the polar ice cap.
But I’m not. Never mind, I certainly can’t complain about my lot and… It’s Chriiiiiiiii-ssssstmas! as Noddy Holder would have us remember. So, while shepherds divest themselves of their footwear in preparation for the ceremonial nocturnal washing of socks, and while herald angels tune up in glorious unison, may I take this opportunity – loyal and valued followers and gentle readers, one and all – to wish you a very merry Christmas and a new year full of eastern promise and hope for the future.
Ding dong merrily on high, Hosanna in excelsis!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

'He Talks To The Animals!'

While walkin’ the dog on Saturday morning, I had two contrasting encounters with local animals. One was uplifting, the other dispiriting.

On reaching the road at the top of our track and deciding which route to take, an indefinable shape down to my right dictated my choice. I wondered at first whether a branch had been blown down onto the road. Then, as I got a little nearer and Alf picked up the scent, I realised it was a group of three small chevreuils – the white-bottomed roe deer that hide in the woods from hunters – idling on the road. There aren’t many cars along here at the best of times and they only bounded back into the woods when Alf took off after them. We see quite a lot of them here. We curse them for their ticks and cherish them for their grace and beauty.

On the home leg, coming down from the top meadow into our nearest hamlet, I spotted one of the white goats that live in the two crowded hangars, dumped unceremoniously by the big sliding door. The poor creature was as lifeless as a taxidermist’s creation. Past its sell-by date. No doubt the farmer would pick it up later and take it to wherever he normally takes the cadavers. In the UK now, some no doubt well-intended but misguided piece of legislation requires farmers to leave their dead animals by the side of the road until they are picked up by some animal-disposal agency. Sometimes they can lie there for several days at a time. I suspect that French farmers are more pragmatic.

I didn’t stop to study the goat. I prefer to pause for a chat to the living – on mornings when the door has been slid back to admit some air – rather than to linger on an ex-goat. I am not sufficiently philosophical about the great cycle of existence to face squarely up to death. Besides, the poor stiff creature was too obvious a symbol of the way we treat animals as commodities, to breed, trade and otherwise exploit until they have outlived their commercial usefulness.

That evening, I was talking to an old friend at a dinner party. I hadn’t seen her for a few months and learned that their beloved 15-year old dog had barked his last. We talked about the joy and pain of having family pets. Neither of us could understand individuals capable of announcing, I don’t like animals. It’s an attitude that seems to deny a whole magical dimension to life on earth. She told me about the time, as a young girl, when she got back home from boarding school to discover that the family dog was no more. Her stepmother told her, ‘I took it to the vet to put down; we didn’t think you’d mind’. Clearly a woman who neither likes animals nor understands young girls.

Debs and I have tried to refrain from giving our daughter advice about the type of boy to look for in life. Neither of us believes that stuff about never trusting a man whose eyes are too close together or whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Neither of us would ever forbid her over our dead bodies from bringing a gentleman of colour back here for dinner. One thing we always urge her, however, is to be suspicious of someone who doesn’t like animals. Personally, I think this is a surer criterion than my mother-in-law’s advice to her daughter that she should go for a man with a healthy appetite. (I believe she was referring to food.)

Not that we really think there’s much chance of The Daughter hooking up with a chap who cares not for animals. The other day, she sent me a text to say: I’ve just seen a dog with its head on its master’s lap. It was the sweetest sight. It reminded me how much I miss Alfie. Please tell him that I miss him and I love him and I haven’t forgotten him. I replied to the effect that he was very unlikely to forget her. Our dog has an elephant’s memory for everyone who even visits this house. She then explained: I never question it! It’s just that I needed to voice it, he’s one of the most special beings in my life and I hope he knows it and doesn’t think that I’ve abandoned him or that I don’t love him.

Even allowing for the customary ‘drama-queenliness’ inherited from her mother, I was touched by her depth of feeling. It made me think back to my first close encounter with death, soon after I’d gone away to university, when our family cat, Sylvester, had been ‘put to sleep’. At that age, in fact at most ages, it’s devastating.

I asked my friend what their dog had died of – with half a mind, I suppose, to what we might one day have to face up to with our dog. It was a tumour; the Big C. The vet had told her that she would know when it was time to act. Their dog apparently became very dependent, but wasn’t in any evident pain. And then, one day suddenly, he went off his food and lay down on the floor and looked at her with an expression that told her clearly that the time had come. The vet came over and did the necessary.

It’s true. When you share your life with another creature, you do know. If you’re in tune with the birds and the bees, if you talk to your animals even though they can’t talk back to you, there’s no mystery to it. It’s like that splendid old Tango advert: You know when you’ve been Tango-ed! It’s simply that you understand them well enough to appreciate when something is really wrong. Just a matter of common-or-garden empathy.

Twice in his life, Alf has been infected by pirose, a potentially fatal malady carried by ticks, those vile little blood-suckers that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. Both times, within about half an hour, it was quite apparent that something was up. My friend told me that their gums go bloodless and they lose all strength in their back legs. Even though I didn’t know this at the time, it was obvious from his comportment and expression that he needed urgent help. So both times we were able to get him to the vet in time for an antidote.  

Of course, he’s now terrified of Valérie, our vet, whose one of the nicest, softest women ever to have donned a surgical green housecoat. It doesn’t seem right and we remind him that she saved his life not once, but twice. But that’s the way it goes. Like Dr. Doolittle, Valérie, talks to the animals and it’s very reassuring that she does. We know that our household animals will be in the best possible hands when that awful time arrives.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Case Of The Self-Raising Tone-Arm

True there’s nothing like a dame, but I also firmly believe that there’s nothing like a disc. I don’t mean the shiny palm-sized object that reflects all the colours of the rainbow when you hold it in the light; I mean the big black vinyl disc that should be held reverentially in both hands. The record. 

I’ve taught my daughter to revere the record. Although she tends to stream Spotify on her hand-me-down laptop, she has informed her parents of a dream one day to own an apartment in Paris, in which she would have a hi-fi system built around a record player. She has already been up to Brick Lane in London with a friend, who likes to go hunting for old vinyl at weekends. And she has studied carefully as I’ve talked her through the ritual of cleaning and playing a record on the deck. 

I like rituals. We don’t observe the Japanese tea ritual in this house, but we do tend to turn Sunday morning breakfast into something ceremonial. The ritual of the record, though, is something that you can enjoy every day. That careful removal of the disc from its inner sleeve at times accompanied by a little snap of static; the initial brief inspection for hazards lodged in the microgrooves; the laying of the disc onto the platter; the lifting of the arm from its resting place and its careful sighting over the lead-in groove at the edge of the record to start up the turntable; the light-fingered dusting of the surface of the disc with a carbon-fibre and velvet ‘disc cleaning pad’; and finally that deft flick of the lever to drop the tone-arm – ever so gently – onto the record. 

Over time, I have modified the ritual when necessary. There was a period of my life during which I also had to point at the vinyl a Zerostat pistol – a bright red affair that looked like something that Captain Scarlet or Buck Rogers in the 25th century might have wielded – and gently squeeze the trigger to counteract the static charge from the record. Even worse and even more time-consuming was a cleaning device that involved rolling over the surface of the disc a contraption that looked like a miniaturised garden roller, equipped with sticky paper to trap all the particles of dust. Fortunately, the carbon-fibre cleaner rendered both devices obsolete. 

When you add up all the time involved in this ceremonial faffing around, it would amount to a significant proportion of your life. What’s more, the music only lasts on average 20 minutes, before you have to get up out of your chair and go through the whole operation again. All this means that it’s not ideal if you have to get on with something adult that demands your attention. Much easier to slip in a cassette lasting 45 minutes, or – even better – one of those shiny laser discs that provides up to 80 minutes of uninterrupted music. The Daughter would advocate streaming MP3 files, but I still can’t countenance something that you can’t actually touch.

Call me a Luddite if you will, but I still derive as much satisfaction from re-discovering – on record or cassette – something forgotten from the past as I do from finding something new. Besides, the record player comes into its own during another outmoded operation, one that might even die out with my generation. It’s December, so it’s… Christmas cards! Since this involves great bursts of concentrated energy, it’s an ideal opportunity for playing records. There are only so many cards in which you can scribble Christmas messages without getting up to rest your brain and exercise your feet – and 20 minutes or so is an optimum period. 

This year, though, things went wrong. My trusty Dual deck developed ‘wow’. Or I persuaded myself that it had. I experienced again the angst of my teenage audio years. Was the music sounding as it should do? Was there or wasn’t there a problem? If so, what was it and why? 

I decided – as I often tended to in the past – that there was a problem. If I were to enjoy spinning old vinyl treasures while writing our Christmas cards this year, it meant acting fast. Since I had to go to Brico Depot to check out some D.I.Y. materials, I popped into my shop of choice. Cash Converters is like a flea market or American thrift shop under one small roof. People who want to move with the times (or should I say people who are so hard up that they need to raise a little urgently needed cash?) bring their outmoded music and equipment there. The shop pays them a pittance and offers the stuff for sale to foragers like me at slightly more than a pittance. I have to resist a strong temptation to create a museum of hi-fi separates. Two CD decks will have to suffice, even if there are Sonys on sale for a tenner.

Anyway, this particular visit yielded a Dual record deck. Not only a Dual, but one with the same interchangeable head as my current ailing platter. A quartz model, what’s more. I’m not sure what ‘quartz’ means in practice, but they used to cost quite a lot of money. More than I was prepared to pay. I didn’t quibble with the 25 bucks asking price, even if there wasn’t a box or a manual.

When I got it home, I did what I usually do with electrical goods. That is, I left it fallow for a few days to stare at occasionally, without quite daring to tinker with it – for fear that it won’t work as God intended and that I will have to take it back or something equally unpleasant. This time, because of the urgency of the Christmas cards, I gave it only five days to mature before summoning up the courage to disconnect the old deck and wire up its replacement. This was not easy, since all the machines that produce music here are housed in an old item of furniture bought from an auction in Sheffield. It’s gloomy inside. There are too many crucial looking wires into the back of the amplifier to pull out for easy access. So it involved connecting everything up with the aid of a torch and a pocket mirror.

Happily, it went as well as could be expected. I was able to swap the interchangeable heads, re-balance the tone-arm, set the tracking weight and anti-skating control et voilà… Off I went, happy as a little sandboy to see how gently the cuing device dropped the stylus onto the record. Analogue sound wonderfully restored, I could concentrate on the Xmas cards, flushed with the knowledge that the ‘X’ derives from an old Christian symbol of the Dark Ages.  

The only trouble is, the platter seems to have a life of its own. From time to time, the arm – as if moved by an unseen spirit – lifts itself off the record. This has added an element of stress to playing records – just as I’ve finally learned to be more philosophical about crackles and pops and even skips and sticks. It doesn’t do it very often, but often enough to make me uneasy. I give it the hard stare now when I drop the arm down and hope that I can subject the self-raising tone-arm to my will.

It came with a month’s guarantee and I could take it back, but I’m inclined to hang on. It’s quartz, after all. So far it has resisted my iron will, but I haven’t altogether given up hope. If it does renounce its propensity for levitation, then what I really want for Christmas this year is someone to come round and play records with me.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Swinging The Lead

My wife is a mine of information. In the course of her therapeutic duties, she picks up any shiny little nuggets that she can reveal to me without betraying client confidentiality. 

Last week, for example, she told me something very surprising. God knows, I’m not easily surprised about matters to do with the national health after all this time among the hypochondriac tribes of Gaul. But this floored me.

Did you know that, when he or she gives someone a sick note, a doctor can specify certain hours during which the patient can legitimately be out and about? In other words, I suppose, if Monsieur or Madame Ixx is spotted wandering up and down the aisles of their local Leclerc with a shopping trolley between the hours of, let’s say, 15.00 and 16.30, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are swinging the lead. (Or le swinging, as it may popularly become known.)   

As an outsider observing the curious rituals of the master race, it doesn’t take long to deduce that the French are addicted to their doctors. Since doctors are generally in the pockets of Grand Pharma, it also doesn’t take long to figure out that there are plenty who prefer to sign off evident malingerers rather than hold up the queue or disturb the peace. But surely someone is either sick or isn’t sick. And if someone is sick, shouldn’t that person be in bed rather than abroad between certain hours? 

For me, the discovery of this ‘qualified sicky’ exemplifies what is wrong with France. It’s the absurd consequence of a nanny state gone mad. The idea a) that a doctor, a servant and representative of The State, could specify on a piece of paper that Monsieur or Madame Ixx can only leave their sick bed between certain hours, and b) that Monsieur or Madame Ixx might actually sheepishly follow this prescription suggests that there is a deep-seated and genuine social malady requiring major surgery. 

I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m adopting a holier-than-thou stance about sick notes just because I’m self-employed and therefore can never afford to be sick. It’s nothing to do with that, and I’m even prepared to accept that many sick notes are legitimate. But I do have personal experience of just how easy it is to work the system. I was once shamelessly guilty of throwing the knotted rope into the sea to determine its depth during my 15 years in Britain’s Civil Surface. In my defence, I have to say that I was only young at the time. Maybe it was because my precious weekend had been ruined by a nasty bout of gastro-enteritis, or maybe it was the dawning realisation that my one-man war on waste would not help my promotion chances, because the only way to rise to the top in the organisation was to show yourself adept at paper-pushing, obfuscation and passing of the buck so that it stopped neither on your desk nor, more crucially, the desks of the people above you.

Anyway, it seemed very unfair that I should feel fine again come Monday morning, so I determined: dash it all; I’m not having this! I put on two jumpers and squeezed myself into a tight jacket and ran all the way along the Upper Lewes Road and then down to Preston Circus and the surgery of my nice but rather inept doctor. He was a squat Asian gentleman with a tiny voice and gold-framed bi-focals, who had better remain anonymous because I am sure that he was doing his best in the face of belligerent malingerers and frequent inducements from the drug companies. He had this annoying habit of nodding mechanically whenever I attempted to answer his question, And how are you feeling today?, and then scribbling out a prescription before I’d finished.

On this particular day, I was early enough to be first or second in the queue. So, when I was called in to his inner sanctum, I was still sufficiently wheezing from my exertions and apparently running such a high temperature that it must have seemed like I was knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door (if lead-swingers go to heaven). He wrote me a sick note for an entire week. I came out of that surgery like one of those people in annoying adverts that punch the air and go ye-e-e-sssssssss! That afternoon, I even chanced my luck by taking the bus up to the municipal golf course for a round of golf. Did I need a note to tell me that I could legitimately be abroad at that time? I did not. 

So I know about sick notes. There will always be a few dodgy sick notes even in the most public-spirited of utopian societies. The trouble is that the qualified sicky suggests that it so endemic as to have become almost acceptable. Earlier this summer, for example, Debs and I were sharing an aperitif with the Parisian who works (fitfully) in a state hospital. He and his mate had spent most of July rendering the walls of the house he is renovating down below us. He was lamenting the fact that he and his family would be returning to the big city that weekend. Debs asked him if it was back to work on Monday? Without the slightest shame or sense of irony, he shrugged and suggested that he would see how he felt, because he had a long-term note for his sciatica.    

What hope of reform is there? Each bright-faced and breezy new leader elected to the Palais de l’Élysée – often with a mandate for some kind of change – is presumably aware of the socio-economic implications of the qualified sicky. Yet, no sooner does he knuckle down to the task of doing something to change things than he is de-railed by plummeting ratings.  

Just as the tiny oligarchy of American zillionaires will no doubt use their obscene wealth to stymie President Obama’s modest efforts to tinker with the tax system, so everyone with a vested interest in the qualified sicky will do their utmost to prevent any kind of useful reform. Custom and practice über alles. So what’s the point? Why bother, one is tempted to ask? 

The longer I live in France, the more I come to understand the roots and the rationale of the Gallic shrug. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Tale Of Two Hats

Last weekend I experienced one of those awful moments of panic, when you can almost feel your bowels turn themselves inside out. It happened on the Paris Metro. 

My wife and I had travelled up on the 9 o’clock train from Brive en provenance de Toulouse. Leaving nothing to chance, we got to the station at least half an hour before the train was due – only to find that the train was 40 minutes late. This is fairly exceptional here. Brits accustomed to the vagaries of British Rail and its privatised successors wax lyrical about the punctuality of French trains, forgetting that they run only about a third of the number that they do back in the U.K. Given the enormous subsidies that SNCF receives, one has to say that if they can’t run a few trains on time, what hope is there for the country? (Not much – particularly in the face of the cowardly criminals who stole the copper cable that delayed the train.)

We’d come up for a long weekend to stay with The Daughter in her new digs, give her whatever practical support we were able to, visit the big Edward Hopper retrospective at the Grand Palais, and meet up with friends from Sheffield to celebrate a 60th birthday in a swanky restaurant on the rive gauche.  

So I was feeling pretty buoyant and walking along the platform with a spring in my step until… that heart-stopping moment when you realise that you’ve left something important behind and it’s too late to do anything about it. Not my credit card or my life’s savings or a manuscript of unrepeatable brilliance, but my hat. I left it in the luggage rack when I retrieved my coat and our bags.

Oh that’s a relief, you might say, but it was a particularly nice hat. I’ve always had a soft spot for hats and have often sported a titfer during my life, even though I admit that there have been times when I’ve probably looked a dick as a result. But, almost out of a sense of duty, I’ve felt the need to make a stand for the common hat. If I don’t do it, then who will? Really, I should have been born in a time when hats were de rigeur. Ideally, I would have been a Bopper, jamming with the other cats after hours at Minton’s Playhouse. Every one of us in a fine felt hat and double-breasted suit. 
Long, tall Dexter
I’d had this particular hat for over 20 years. I bought it in the sportswear department of the Co-operative Stores in London Road, Brighton. It was a tan-coloured cotton golf hat – the type that Sam Snead might have worn in the days before Arnie Palmer went bare-headed – but I could wear it as the kind of pork-pie hat that Dexter Gordon sports on the cover of Dexter Blows Hot And Cool. Fashions have changed in golf, so I knew that I would never see its like again. Alas, poor hat, I knew thee well.  

Tilley’s landlady persuaded me to go straight back to the Gare d’Austerlitz and fill out a déposition. Lost property is not what it used to be. These days the service has been outsourced to a company that charges you €9 minimum to re-unite owner and missing object. The woman at the Acceuil looked in the next room, where anything found on a train sits until the end of the day before being taken off to the out-sourcers, but no… My hat was probably travelling back to Toulouse at that very moment. I filled in the form in the hope that it might be found by a responsible member of the community, who didn’t want to wear someone else’s dirty hat in a misguided attempt to look like Dexter Gordon blowing hot and cool. 

'The Thin Man'
Strange how it goes, though. The next day was Saturday and there was a big bi-monthly vide grenier in the nearby Boulevard Richard Lenoir, where the Canal Saint-Martin flows underneath the wide central reservation. It was my kind of attic sale: dozens of stallholders charging sensible prices in an effort to sell rather than continue to hoard their bric-a-brac. I found a DVD boxed set of rugby world cup highlights for a buck, a semi-rare LP for three, a little je ne sais quoi for our neighbours to thank them for feeding our cats and… a hat! A light-grey felt hat sufficiently malleable to shape into a pork-pie like the ones that Wardell Gray used to wear (before he was found dead, dumped in the desert near Las Vegas). I offered the woman a crisp ten-euro note instead of the €12 on the ticket. She agreed, but pointed out that it was a Lanvin. It might have been a Johnny Stompanato for all I know about hat manufacturers, so I smiled and gave her my best Gallic shrug. 

When I returned to our daughter’s new quarters, an elegant fin de siècle third-floor apartment miniaturised by her landlady’s clutter, Tilley was so excited by the fact that I’d come back with a Lanvin hat that you would have thought I’d won the Lottery. She pogoed on the parquet and clapped her hands like a performing sea lion. Clearly, the boy had done good. The landlady was so impressed that she went out to the Boulevard Richard Lenoir and, a woman after my own heart, came back later with more clutter for the apartment. 

And so my new hat was to serve me well over the course of our long weekend. On Sunday morning, Debs and I queued in the persistent drizzle for two and a half hours for the Edward Hopper exhibition. My hat kept my head dry. Tilley and her landlady came to join us just before we reached the head of the queue. The exhibition was worth the wait and the price of admission. And I was elated to find the famous self-portrait, in which Hopper depicted himself wearing a particularly fine brown trilby. 

That evening, I wore my hat to the swanky restaurant on the left bank. Only, I surrendered it at the door, so our friends from Sheffield who were already à table couldn’t admire it. Which meant that I wasn’t able to announce, It’s a Lanvin, you know. Never mind, we had a nice meal and a lovely time in the company of eight friends from our old stamping ground. Debs wanted to walk across the river afterwards and catch a bus back to République, but we didn’t know where it left from, so we all ended up walking to the same Metro station, where we sat on opposite platforms, waiting to travel in opposite directions. She and I did a little dance for the others, because we’re not afraid of making a spectacle of ourselves, and I doffed my hat to acknowledge the applause.

On the Monday evening train back to Brive, I checked the luggage racks in case I found an old hat lurking in the shadows. I didn’t. I sat with my new hat on my knees all the way to the end of the line, for fear of failure to learn from experience. It now sits atop a standard lamp in my ‘office’ on the mezzanine. I like my new hat, but I miss my old one from the London Road Co-op. It will take me a while longer to get over the loss.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Back In The Backwoods

My Belgian friend, Kim, phoned late on Friday evening to ask me what I was doing the next morning. Would I like to meet up with him at Les Voyageurs in Beaulieu for a cup of coffee? He’d welcome my opinion about a place he’d recently seen. 

Beaulieu’s a 25-minute drive up river from here, but I’m a sucker when it comes to a request from a friend for my ‘valued opinion’. Besides, on a wet Saturday morning with my wife away at the coalface in Brive, there are times when – to paraphrase David Byrne – you ‘just want to be with the boys’.

By the time I found a parking space for a car full of shopping, the heavy morning rain had stopped. Kim was there outside the café with John-from-Leeds and a French guy whom I recognised from the local association to which we belong. I joined them for a coffee, croissant and one of my tri-monthly ‘rollies’. I lit and re-lit it with a pocket flame-thrower that John had found in a Bar Tabac, It would serve, he joked, for ‘crèmes chuffin’ brulées’. 

I’m substituting here a euphemism I picked up in Sheffield for a rather more common Anglo-Saxon adjective. There was an all-female dance or comedy troupe in the Steel City that went by the splendid name of The Chuffinells. John’s a lovely guy in his early 60s, who wears his long greying hair in a pony-tail. He’s lived in France so long now that he punctuates both his English and his quirky but serviceable French with the Anglo-Saxon adjective. It’s almost like a nervous tic. 

While the wafer-thin waitress, with a perma-grin and a back-combed hairstyle that reminded me of Siouxsee Sioux in her pomp, served us more coffee, John talked enthusiastically of wanting to build an earthship in the vicinity if he could find a suitable plot of land and a mayor with an open mind. ‘C’est le chuffin’ avenir, tu sais? Pas une maison en pierre qui coûte une chuffin’ fortune à chauffer…’ I couldn’t agree more and told him how we had been inspired by the earthships of Taos, New Mexico. Re-cycled materials, passive solar heating, re-circulating wastewater… it has to be the chuffin’ future.

We drove off in a convoy of two cars, over the river and up into the hills. Kim explained his idea to me: to buy, under the umbrella of the association, this ruined house he’d seen, do it up with volunteer help, install someone who needed a place to live as a kind of caretaker, use the space for social and educational activities and, in the process perhaps, show people that there is a different way of doing things. It sounded like a nice project.

The Correze at its magnificent best
As we climbed further up the valley side and deeper into the chestnut backwoods, however, my heart grew a little heavier. There were magnificent views, sure enough, but the altitude spelled harsher winters and we were straying into the kind of territory where folk rock on their porches and trade licks on their banjos and interfere with liberal idealists and foreigners. I’d been there, done that and relegated the T-shirt to my bag of rags.

The hamlet was little more than a handful of houses on either side of the road. It didn’t strike me as the kind of hamlet that would welcome new blood and fresh ideas. We parked on the muddy verges and Kim showed us first of all the bread oven that was part of the ensemble. The price, he explained, for house, barn, bread oven and around 4,000 square meters of land was around €65,000. The inheritors of the property would take 45. Thierry, one of the other guys who had joined us by now, suggested that this was ‘correct’.

Ruin for renovation
Kim led us into the main house. The old boy who’d lived here all his life had died at 89 around the beginning of the year. Yet, when I stepped inside, it looked as if the house had been abandoned a decade ago. In the morning room, there was a big fireplace, an old telly on top of an old fridge, some sort of cooker and a table. In the bedroom, a man’s clothes were scattered inside an open chest of drawers, and rusty springs protruded through a mattress that was shedding its innards. It was shocking to envisage the kind of squalid and impoverished existence that the old man must have led.  

Kim explained that he’d calculated around €10,000 euros for the materials needed to turn the place around. I reckoned at least €20,000 and then some, based on the Law of Renovation: that it will cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think. John’s verdict was rather more uncompromising. ‘Je te jure, c’est un chuffin’ trou Africain’. An African hole; a money pit. 10,000 just for the stuff that was hidden. ‘I’ve done it too many chuffin’ times, and I want no chuffin’ part of it. And you know what’ll happen? Everyone will be chuffin’ fired up with enthusiasm at first and we’ll get it cleaned out and have a chuffin’ party and then that enthusiasm will die away. People’ll find some chuffin’ excuse for not coming out here when you need them. It’ll take you five chuffin’ years and when you finish, if you chuffin’ finish, you’ll have a compro-mise. Buy a chuffin’ plot of land and build something that will really chuffin’ enthuse and inspire people. You can specify what you want, build it around your re-cycled doors and chuffin’ windows and you’ll end up with something that’s fit for chuffin’ purpose, takes a fraction of the chuffin’ time and costs less.’

When we looked over the barn, the solution was simpler still. ‘Pull the chuffer down before it chuffin’ falls on top of you!’ A couple of good old boys in hunters’ khaki from across the road wandered past at this point and regarded us quizzically. We muttered our respective bonjours and Thierry suggested wryly: ‘Ils sont pas finis’. The unfinished, half-cooked articles.  

Good neighbours
God knows what they thought of the motley dozen that we were by now. Most of us had seen enough to reach a verdict. We were fond enough of Kim not to spare him what we believed to be the truth, even though our candour visibly wounded him. Winding back down to Beaulieu, we passed another good old boy in full hunting regalia, cradling a pump-action shotgun by the side of the road. He, too, looked more than a tad unfinished. I glared back at him through the passenger window of Thierry’s car. 

He dropped John and me near the mairie. We chatted for a while, mainly about the misadventures of a mutual friend. In searching for a pen in my bag, I found a letter that I should have posted a week ago to pay my retirement tax (by any other name). John promised to drop it into the central post box for me.

It was lunchtime and the place was deserted. As I drove off, heading for the familiarity of home and the prospect of a late and hasty lunch, I felt that, nine years down the line, I’d just about shed the baggage from nearly a decade spent in backwoods not too dissimilar from those I’d just seen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

'Blow Winds And Crack...'

Two things have weighed rather heavily on the family this All Saints’ week. Like a Formula One pit-stop team, my wife and I have been servicing our daughter full-time: keeping her fed and watered and supported so that she finds the stamina to tackle all the projects she brought home from Paris. 

It has been quite an eye-opener to discover what is expected of a first-year student in this country. Apart from the occasional family film and the few hours she took off on her 18th birthday, the pressure – which truly doesn’t come from her contrarian parents – has been relentless. Some of her friends who are studying more academic subjects weren’t even granted a week off, so she counts herself lucky. Deborah, apparently, heard someone complaining that the youngsters of today aren’t as serious and as hard working as they were in her day. Well, in my day by comparison, we were a bunch of wastrels.

The other heavyweight thing – when we’ve been granted a few moments off from the pit-stop for reflection – has been Hurricane Sandy and, in particular, the devastation it has wreaked in the New York area. It’s a sad fact of human nature (or my nature!) that our hearts may go out to victims of natural disasters in, say, the Dominican Republic, but it isn’t generally until we see images of the more familiar places that we discover true empathy. 

There’s probably nowhere on earth that is more collectively familiar, even to those who have never been there, than New York. Even as a young kid, for example, the Empire State Building became such a byword for everything modern that it assumed mystical proportions in my imagination. As a music lover, the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina was hard to swallow, but I had never been there. So the image of a family, say, floating on a makeshift raft through the streets of the Crescent City didn’t strike such a familiar chord as pictures of the seawater pouring into a subway station. 

'Dark cloud on the horizon...'
To compound our interest, my nephew and my oldest friend were in New York when the wind blew in from the Caribbean. My nephew’s a big cheese in the contentious world of wind farms, so he was staying in a midtown hotel, out of harm’s way. My friend lives in a basement apartment not far from the west side of Central Park. I pictured the floodwater carrying off all the books he keeps in piles on the floor like literary tower blocks and sweeping away his extraordinary record collection, but apparently the tide didn’t reach that far up Manhattan. I haven’t heard from him, but that’s not unusual, so I have to assume that he survived Sandy as he survived 9/11.

We’re so lucky that hurricanes hardly ever happen in Hertford, Hereford, Hampshire and here in France. That said, I’ve experienced two in the comparatively short time I’ve been in partnership with my wife. In 1987, the year our relationship went three-dimensional, to borrow a friend’s delicious phrase, we were living in a basement bed-sit in Brighton. I was away in Bournemouth at the time, helping to run a course in a big hotel that overlooked the promenade.  

No cause for alarm
I had a bedroom on the angle of the hotel. There were two windows: one seemed to look west-ish and the other east-ish. I’d gone to bed early to read my book and await a call from the self-same friend, who was over in the U.K. at the time. This might have been one reason why I never thought to get out of there when the wind began to blow. Or maybe it was simply because I turn into an ostrich at such moments. I remember clearly the sound of smashing slates and masonry as the wind gathered force. It blew right through my bedroom and the bed shook as if there was a malevolent poltergeist in the room. Perhaps I was frozen with terror, but it never occurred to me to get up and go down into the foyer.

The next day, of course, the extent of the wreckage was visible everywhere. There was no public transport and no apparent way of getting back to Brighton. Fortunately, I negotiated a lift with someone who was driving that way. The phone lines were down, so there was no way of getting a message to my beloved. We drove through the New Forest, past countless uprooted trees and others probably teetering on the brink. We got to Brighton without incident and as we drove along the Hove seafront, I gazed at one of the beautiful Regency houses of Brunswick Terrace with a gaping wound where the stucco façade had been peeled back by the force of the wind. 

I found my gal shaken and stirred but safe and sound and very relieved to see me. The wind had swept down the road where we lived and blown over all the trees of the little churchyard at the end, so that the church itself was hidden by the vegetation. That evening, we went to the jazz club together on the seafront to see James Moody, the American tenor saxophonist, play acoustically and memorably by candlelight.  

12 years later, thanks to the miracle of reproduction, there were three of us and we were in France. The millennium was but a year away and everyone was already talking about computer bugs. We’d been to a party in the middle of nowhere and stayed overnight in a wooden shack to which mein host would retire to write. On the way back home to the Corrèze, I remember the ominous slate-grey sky and an unnatural, disquieting stillness. As far as I knew, there had been no Michel Poisson on national television to reassure the population that all was well. Nothing untoward was brewing up offshore.

This kind of thing
The wind started buffeting the house early in the evening. Tilley was in bed in her bedroom next to ours underneath the roof. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary wind, so we brought her downstairs and the three of us huddled around our sole heating source, a fairly primitive wood-burning stove that blew hot air into a living space too large for its capacity. We could hear things being blown around outside and knew when the wind was gusting because it felt as if the glass door of the fire was about to shatter. Once the ouragan started ripping the sheets of corrugated iron off the nearby barn roofs and tossing them around like tin cans, it got really scary. We heard banging at one point and surmised that someone had climbed onto his roof with a hammer and nails in a futile and inadvisable attempt to secure his tin roof. Probably Pierre, goaded no doubt by his abominable bovine wife.   

In the aftermath of that imperfect storm, our electricity was cut off for a good fortnight. Fortunately, Debs always keeps a good stock of Ikea night-lights and we were able to burn wood, even if we couldn’t blow out the hot air. A dog turned up during the blackout. We called him Geoffrey and lodged him in our barn, since he didn’t seem happy venturing into the house. He wandered off again in the spring on discovering that a domesticated role wasn’t for him. 

There are chestnut woods everywhere and huge plantations of pine trees in that part of the Corrèze. Reminders of the hurricane were all around us for the rest of our time in that department: swathes of pine trees snapped in half like balsa wood by the wind; the huge elm trees that lined a part of the road we would take when visiting the Lot flattened and gone forever.  

Heaven knows how long it will take and how much borrowed money it will cost to get the eastern U.S. seaboard back in operation. The awful thing is, given a seemingly annual hurricane season in the Caribbean, it may not be long before the next one arrives. Hurricanes happen here, but still rarely enough to warrant the label ‘freakish’. So ‘blow winds and crack ye hurricanoes’ if ye must, but never again please near these parts.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Backward-Turning Clocks

Daisy busy enjoying an extra hour
That’s it then. The pretence is over, the resistance worn down. Now that the clocks have gone back, I can accept that winter is really here and get on with the business of preparation for the duration.

Right on cue, a biting wind from the north has sent the temperature into freefall. Yesterday I lit the first (hugely symbolic) fire of the season. Despite the fact that I jettisoned my shorts a few weeks ago in favour of ‘longs’, I’ve hung on determinedly to my summer wardrobe, while expertly manipulating the shutters to preserve the heat of the sun until its next appearance. 

The turning back of the clocks on the last Sunday in October – or whenever it customarily happens – concludes the phenomenon of ‘seasonal slip’, which begins on the longest day, gathers pace around the quinze août and then finishes with a sprint after the September equinox. Mentally, during the extra hour in bed, while appreciating for all I’m worth the fact that I don’t have to get up yet, I stop lamenting the passing of the best part of the year and start conditioning myself to face up to whatever the worst part will bring. 

Last year, the warm weather here went on into November. That was worrying. As a Geordie personality here says, ‘It’s not right, man’. Up until the Sunday of the backward-turning clocks, unseasonably warm weather can still fit into the category of ‘Indian summer’. After that point, it’s just plain disquieting. In other words, it’s right that the temperature has plummeted. Up to a point, I welcome it. That point depends on a nice warm, snug house. 

Shifting hours usually coincide with Toussaint, one of those freewheeling holidays – like Easter – whose dates never seem to be sure. Over time in this peculiar country, I’ve come to embrace Toussaint as an important turning point. We have little use for it in the U.K., so it was a bit of a shock at first to see the florists and supermarkets stocked up with chrysanthemums. While in places like Mexico they’re busy having a grand old time with papier mâché skeletons and the like, the French – we were to discover – have a heaven-sent opportunity to be truly miserable. All those chrysanthemums browning on tombstones throughout the land seem to be a metaphor for the national temper. You can’t eat chrysanthemums. 

From a parent’s perspective, retrospective clocks and Toussaint represent a welcome break from the academic treadmill. The Daughter’s back home after her first two ‘challenging’ months of enforced independence and ceaseless practical assignments. Here to sleep and take stock and top up her nutrition levels and make progress with her various projects. Alas, she’s only been granted a week in which to do all this, rather than the customary recuperative fortnight for schoolchildren. Still, a week is a long time in parenthood. 

Appropriately enough, given old Father Time’s glimpse in the rear-view mirror during the wee small hours when everyone should be sleeping soundly – and quite unconsciously – the first ‘family movie’ we selected was Memento, Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary film about a man with a short-term memory loss ‘condition’, who desperately tries to piece together scribbled notes, body tattoos and Polaroid snaps into a logical thread that leads him to the killers of his wife. It’s hardly really a ‘family’ movie and requires intense concentration to follow events backwards to a shocking revelation about the conclusion to the film right after the initial credits. No wonder we all slept so deeply.

Everything seems to be going backwards at the moment. Economic and social growth has ground to a halt and, after a couple of centuries or more of so-called progress, civilisation seems hell-bent on a return to the Dark Ages. In the U.S.A., President Obama – whose inauguration address I watched in a crowded room in Martel full of the guests of American friends, who were invited to celebrate a brave new beginning – looks set to lose the presidency to a diehard Republican and self-made tax avoider, who has cleverly trumped a message of ‘change’ with a message of ‘real change’. No doubt this will involve sacrificing more of the vanishing environment to big business and a further dilution of the rights of the poor and oppressed who were once invited to the New World in the name of Liberty.  

Here in France, the electorate is already beginning to turn against our new president because the problems he promised to address have, strangely, failed to go away and, more strangely still, got worse. Next time around, there will only be one more untried option left to voters who kicked out Sarkozy only to grow so rapidly disenchanted with Hollande. The far right party has already found its calendar girl in the glamorous granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. In ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson growls, ‘Somebody do something! The present situation is ab-stract’. Presumably, at 22, she knows just what to do to rectify an ab-stract situation.  

If and when that awful day arrives, expect to find me on the morning of the last Sunday in October hiding under my duvet for considerably longer than an extra hour. 

Happy wintering, one and all!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Journey To The Centre Of Europe

To use the title of one of those melancholic torch songs in which Chet Baker specialised, ‘Whatever Possessed Me’?

Why should an otherwise sensible married couple choose to drive from south-west France to Budapest and back? Yes, it was the last chance to see an old friend before he moved back to Sheffield at the end of his tenure with the United Nations, but that hardly excuses such a rash and deluded undertaking. Public transport might have been expensive, but once you’ve paid for diesel and the incessant motorway tolls, it looks a much more competitive and certainly safer option. 

I blame myself. The notion was mine, but as usual I failed to think through the details. Whether it’s Britain or France, travelling across a map always seems to be more difficult than travelling up or down it. The distance in this case was unspeakable. Even now, I refuse to clock up the kilometres. Add to the equation the motorways of Italy and Austria. We’re spoilt in France. Traffic is generally light and people, although I never thought I’d live to admit it, drive with a certain discipline and civility. The motorway that crosses the north Italian plain is like a combination M1/M6 hell-hole conceived by a Minister of Transport given to suck the blood of his victims. It’s wall-to-wall lorries, which render the inside lane – normally my refuge of choice – impenetrable.  

It was the lorries that prompted us to take a northern spur to Austria by way of the Brenner Pass. The scenery was stunning, but no sooner had we crossed the frontier than the rain that washed out Europe descended like a curtain. The Austrians are a comparatively wealthy lot and there seems to be a surfeit of black Audis and BMWs, whose drivers want to kill themselves and as many others as they can take with them. During my white-knuckle stint, gripping the steering wheel as I tried to ignore the tiny demons whispering in my ear that we’d never make it to Vienna alive, cars flashed past at speeds that suggested they could see beyond the spray they kicked up.

Somewhere around Salzburg we ran into a traffic jam. After crawling nowhere for half an hour or so, we discovered that someone had smashed through a safety barrier and disappeared into the ravine below. The traffic police stood around figuratively scratching their heads. Electronic signs thereafter urged people to cut their speed, but no one seemed willing. Miraculously, the rain stopped and my co-pilot took us to Vienna, where – despite the absence of signs and guided entirely by E.S.P. – she steered us straight to our hotel opposite the West Banhof station. With five minutes to go before the garage was due to lock its doors, I tried out my ‘O’ level German on the woman behind the desk. Wir haben ein zimmer gereserviert… She smiled sympathetically and replied in perfect English to the effect that she would phone the garage and ask them to stay open for us. The line between triumph and disaster was fine enough to suggest that a guardian angel had helped us negotiate our road of trials. 

Only a little more than 100 years ago, Vienna, I discovered, was the 5th largest city in the world. That its population at the time was around 2 million shows how far we’ve come in terms of global over-population. My father was disappointed to discover that the Danube only skirts rather than runs through the city. I know what he meant. There is something ultimately unsatisfactory about the place. If the architecture that marked the 19th century pomp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire appears initially rather grand, it soon turns sterile and pretentious. The boulevards are wide and graceful, but they weren’t designed for tourists like us on foot. Although armed with copious leaflets and maps, we both found it one of the most confusing cities to find your way around – perhaps because of the lack of a river as a reference point.   

Our trip coincided with a major exhibition in the grandiose Belvedere Palace to mark 150 years since the birth of Gustav Klimt. Seeing his work in the flesh – and that of Egon Schiele, his younger and more radical contemporary –prompted the kind of emotions that pilgrims at Mecca or Jerusalem must experience. You realise that even the best reproductions in a book can never be more than a mere facsimile. Seeing them, too, in the context of all the pompous imperial showpieces also helped to explain what the Secessionist Movement at the turn of the 19th century was all about. The glorious Art Nouveau apartment buildings and other architectural gems of the era seem so much more modern and challenging when set beside the vestiges of the self-satisfied and stultifying old order.

There wasn’t time to visit the eccentric creations of the architect and painter, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and I would have liked to travel on the big wheel in which Orson Welles delivered his famous cuckoo-clock speech to Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, but I couldn’t leave Vienna without sampling some apple strudel. We treated ourselves to afternoon tea in the elegant Central Café, where an ageing jazz pianist ran through his repertoire as if practising scales. Verily I can now say unto thee that I understand the Germanic obsession with strudel.  

After a Duel-like incident with a menacing lorry on the M1 from Vienna to Budapest and our first mystifying encounter with the Hungarian language and currency when trying to buy the obligatory vignette that entitles you to drive on Magyar motorways, we arrived in Budapest with just enough daylight to appreciate why the city is spoken of in reverential tones. Our friend Bryan found himself an apartment on the 5th floor of a block that looks as if it was designed by a disciple of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with one of those wonderful cage-lifts that you tend to see these days only in French films of the 1950s. Some might die for the view we had from our bedroom window: over the wide Danube to the stately floodlit buildings of Buda on the other side. 

The block is in what was once the rich Jewish sector of Pest. Not any more. I had forgotten that more Hungarian Jews died at Auschwitz than any others and Bryan began our bicycle tour of the city the following morning down by the Danube to see a chilling monument to an infamous massacre. The sculpted boots and shoes on the quayside represent the victims of the Hungarian Nazis who were bundled together with barbed wire and chucked into the river.

It’s all the historical, political and social contradictions that make the city such an alluring and fascinating place. Wealth and fairly severe poverty sit side by side. Many of the elegant public buildings, which sprung up after the Compromise of 1867 gave Hungary more of a dual role in the management of the Hapsburg Empire, lie empty today. The monumental Soviet statues – including Stalin’s boots, which steadfastly remained once the body had been toppled – have been shifted to Memento Park on the outskirts of Buda, but the hated Soviet war memorial still sits in the centre of Liberation Square on a plot of Russian-owned land forever fenced off from vandals by railings. Not far from this, there is a bronze statue to the man who supposedly liberated the Hungarians from the yoke of communism. No, not Mikhail Gorbachev, but er… Ronald Reagan. And not too far from the life-size replica of Mr. Ray-Gun you can see the bullet holes, now plugged with black metal rivets, that commemorate the 1956 October uprising.  

There is a thriving counter-culture despite the current right-wing regime and the Bohemian young have converted some of the more dilapidated apartment buildings into ‘ruin bars’. They look like glorified squats and the number of bicycles parked outside tends to denote the coolest establishments. On the Saturday night, we went to one such bar to watch a Roma band play a kind of thrash-gypsy version of their traditional music. We travelled back home on a trolley bus, one facet of the plentiful and regular public transport in Budapest. A favourite occupation is fare-avoidance: a throwback to a practical form of civil disobedience during the Soviet dictatorship.

Sunday morning we spent in the lap of luxury at the famous Széchenyi spa baths. It would have been nice to capture such an extraordinary place on film, but the last thing you want to take with you to public baths is a digital camera. As I sat with Bryan outside in the crowded circular pool, not far from a group of elderly men playing chess on a plastic board up to their tattooed biceps in hot spring water, while my aquatic wife did her lengths in an adjacent pool for serious swimmers, my friend told me how in winter you can come here and not see beyond your nose for the steam rising off the surface of the water. We decamped to the labyrinthine network of plunge pools within the palatial buildings and sampled a range of temperatures and degrees of sulphur. In the murkiest and most eggy one of all, we watched a corpulent gentleman opposite us fall gradually asleep.

Because of the impending journey home, we sacrificed another night in Budapest to the further joys of road travel. This time we went via Slovenia, where they also demand a vignette for the car. As we crossed into Italy not too far from Venice, we ran into an electrical storm of Wagnerian proportions. Faced with the prospect of Monday-morning lorries, I preferred to drive on while the roads were empty and, much to my poor wife’s chagrin and for want of a convenient staging post, we ended up driving through the night.  

By the time we got home to be greeted by the cats, after another gentle jog down the unreal A89 that traverses the Massif Central, we had agreed that we would never go on holiday again. Not outside France, anyway. In time, we may recant our decision. Vienna and Budapest have been ticked off the list, but there’s still always Prague. But if we ever go there, it won’t be by road – even if that means having to fly with Mr. O’Leary’s unloved airline.   

Monday, October 8, 2012

Damage Limitation

We had an interesting discussion in the car last weekend, my wife and I. It almost became a ‘heated debate’, but not quite. We are accommodating adults mainly, who fail to agree sometimes on certain fundamentals.

We were driving up to see our friends, Howard and Lynda, on their organic farm not far from the Gouffre de Padirac, that great hole in the limestone causse that attracts tourists by the apparent millions. It was a beautiful autumnal Sunday morning and Debs was on a mission of mercy. 

Howard had been attempting to hold a sheep against his body so that Lynda could clean all four feet to prevent infection and disease. Although they have the most placid flock of sheep in France, the animal writhed and wriggled and twisted until Howard toppled backwards in such an awkward way that the sheep fell against his knee. Sheep aren’t cows, but they weigh more than a fully-grown adult apparently. It’s an occupational hazard of farming that we mortals would never imagine. 

Lynda at work in her studio
So my angel of mercy was going up to see them ostensibly to massage Howard’s swollen knee and keep him roadworthy. Unbeknownst to me, however, she wanted to pick up a picture reserved for my birthday at Lynda’s last exhibition in Carennac. Howard’s a writer and Lynda’s an artist by trade, who paints beautiful icons on found wood using traditional methods. Like many creative artists over here – or everywhere for that matter – neither of them can give up the day job. Lynda sells a few paintings whenever she exhibits her stuff, but supplements her income by making beautiful hand-painted cards to sell via a health food shop in nearby Gramat.

I don’t know how we got onto the subject in the car, but Debs and I started discussing good and evil. My wife is a member of the half-full glass club: optimistic and a firm believer in the power of love. My glass tends to be half-empty. I’m usually pessimistic about the future and only too aware of the forces of evil.  

We are Mrs. Chalk and Mr. Cheese, who have found a good balance to temper the other’s more extreme tendencies. On probing a little further, we found some common ground. Yes, we agreed, there probably are more good people on earth than there are bad people. I contend, though, that all the good done by the good people is an exercise in damage limitation. In other words, all that accumulated goodness just about keeps the evil under control. Without it, the malignancy would spread like a fungus and contaminate the world. 
For me, this seems to be one of the most elementary lessons of history. The evil that the odd tyrant and sociopath contrive to unleash is so tout puissant that goodness seems puny and ineffectual in its face. How many column inches in the history books, for example, are devoted to Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s Gulags as opposed to, say, Jonah Salk’s efforts to cure polio or… or… or? Help me out someone. 

Just recently, Pandora’s box seems to have been opened again. It seems that we are hurtling towards hell in a handcart with no brakes. Increasingly, I’m spending more and more time signing on-line petitions: urging the Russian government, for example, to stamp down on a new sick craze in Moscow to poison dogs and post films of their suffering on the internet. It’s reassuring to see all the thousands of other people signing, but you know that someone like dear President Putin is unlikely to give a monkey’s. Even if all these petitions achieve their ends, this propensity for evil doing will never diminish.

Lynda tends probably to ally herself to my wife’s philosophy, while Howard’s is probably nearer mine. No sooner had we got there than they presented us both with the picture that Debs had reserved for me. It turned out that I had reserved the exact same picture – a watercolour of a bee in flight – for her next birthday. Faced with such marital synchronicity, they decided to offer it to both of us as a joint present from both of them.

Howard is reading a book on Young Stalin. Probably to explore the mind of the Adult Stalin, whose story he has also devoured recently. We discussed our in-car debate and Howard contributed the metaphor of building a house. A team of people, united in a common good, can put up a house in a matter of months. But it only takes one bloody-minded bar steward with a sledgehammer to smash it all down in a few hours.  

After Debs had anointed the swollen knee with her essential oils, we took their dogs, Beano and Dandy, a pair of Jack Russell brothers, out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Our hound tagged along peacefully while the brothers, who have to be kept straining on a lead to stop them tearing off over the hills and far away, panted around their familiar circuit. We said our goodbyes and drove home to hang our new picture under Lynda’s painting of St. Michael, the sad-eyed patron saint of everlasting lingerie.

Howard, Lynda and egregiously lifelike scarecrow
I went back in the week to help them dig up some of their potatoes and took Howard The Stalin Epigram, a novel written by an American friend of ours, Robert Littell, who lives in a glorious house near Martel. Just to round off the picture of a megalomaniac, who would probably tie Adolf Hitler in a TV show where viewers had to vote (by telephone for not more than a pound per minute) for the most evil man in history.

It was another beautiful day. Digging potatoes is hard work, but a rewarding change from sitting in front of a computer all day long. Turning soil over to find clusters of fresh white spuds is akin to digging up buried treasure. And it’s rich soil, to be sure. They must have worked very, very hard to create such regular parallel mounds of friable earth. A lot of digging, weeding, natural compost and rigorous crop rotation. Afterwards, I helped wheel their wheelbarrow up to the barn to spread out the potatoes to dry on recycled bed bases.

I only managed half a day of such hard labour, before driving back for a soak in our bath to ward off problems with my lower back. It occurred to me that what Howard and Lynda do – working all hours to tend the soil in the age-old way – is also like an exercise in damage limitation. Are they and others like them fighting a losing battle in the face of the relentless march of factory farms, monoculture, agro-chemicals and scorched earth? 

I sincerely hope not.