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, January 29, 2012

‘Musi-cal Dees-course!’

Thanks to BBC Four, Friday night is music night in this household. After what seems like an eternity of repeats and dross-age, the station got back on track on Friday with the first of a three-part series on how the West was won. That is, how British musicians conquered America.

I use the term ‘household’ rather liberally. Despite my best efforts, I watch alone. As interested as they are in music, the ‘girls believe that music is for listening to. They can’t generally be bothered with documentaries and in-concert footage. Fair enough, maybe it’s a male thing. But I can’t help but feel that they’re missing out on an added dimension to their music for pleasure. (And who remembers that label? MfP – 14 shillings and sixpence.)

No doubt I’m showing my age, but I derive as much pleasure from seeing how the rock stars have aged as I do from watching the contemporary newsreel footage. As the terrible landmark of 60 looms on the horizon, I find myself looking at people like Paul McCartney and wondering whether, if I keep up my punishing schedule of twice-daily dog walks, I shall look so presentable at 70. He’s showing a little saggy round the jowls these days, but is still recognisably Paul. Not bad for someone who hasn’t (to the best of my knowledge) gone in for a little ‘lifting’, as they say in France.

It was a particularly good programme in that respect on Friday night, because it was full of characters who don’t tend to be wheeled out for every other music programme. There were the usual shots of the screaming hordes at Idlewild airport (as JFK was then known) to great the fabulous Beatles, but there were also some great clips of the minor stars who followed in their wake. The Animals, for example, arrived to find the airport and the streets of New York worryingly deserted. It provided an excuse to talk to the Eric Burdon of today. He may not be the best preserved of individuals – after all he looked 50 when he was 21 – but he’s certainly the funniest. Despite all the years of living in LA, he still sounds like a fisherman from South Shields.

Mike Pinder, the singer of The Searchers, has an air of a double-glazing salesman on the threshold of retirement nowadays. Tony Hicks, the baby-faced, spindly-legged guitarist of The Hollies, is still as thin as a rake. His face is testimony to that ne’er-quoted truism, ‘once a baby-face, always a baby-face’. He didn’t get to say much, because he was sitting beside drummer, Tony Elliot, who took the opportunity to wax lyrical about all the jazz legends he saw during the group’s first visit to New York.

Another splendid double act was Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. The latter, he of the breathy singing voice of an adult choirboy, didn’t get to speak much, because he was Ernie Wise to Rod Argen’s Eric Morecambe. The last time I saw Rod Argent on the telly, he was playing Hammond organ with his eponymous group and had just about the biggest head of hair I ever saw on a male (until the day I saw a Rastaman in the Paris Metro, with dreadlocks down to this shins). If I remember correctly, Rod chirped away about visiting Graceland – only to find that the King was away for the day. His dad, though, was happy to show the lads from St. Albans around his son’s humble abode.  

Washes whiter - and it shows!
My award for the sweetest person on view went to a disarmingly white-haired Jimmy Page, who talked ingenuously about the awe of simply being in the land of all his blues heroes. Peter Noone ran him a close second. Herman of the Hermits still looked and sounded like the cheeky little Mancunian chappie who won the hearts of middle America. I still find it staggering to think – and don’t quote me on this, because I haven’t checked my facts on Google – that they sold more records in the U.S. at one time than the Fab Four themselves. 

The best moment of the programme came when an 18-year old Peter Noone, a naïve supporter of the Vietnam War at that time, was debating the impact of music with a Graham Nash just on the verge of going all Crosby, Stills and. Our Graham, bless him, was arguing that music had the power to stop all wars. Peter Noone, even at 18, wasn’t so sure. Graham rubbed the point in by suggesting that if everyone stopped to listen to what Donovan was singing about, they would put down their weapons. ‘No more wars, no more wars…’ 
Well, it was a delightful sentiment, but you only had to look at Donovan today to appreciate the error of judgement. Britain’s very own Bob Dylan looked like a hurdy-gurdy man preserved in East Anglian clay and dug up by an archaeology team a few centuries later. 

There are two parts still to come and I’m dying to see what Robert Smith of The Cure looks like these days. Will he still back-comb his hair? Does he still outline his eyes with kohl? All will be revealed on Friday at 10pm on BBC Four. The girls have got it wrong: music is far more than a mere auditory pleasure.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mais C'est Normal

Dearly Beloved, as a prelude to this week’s sermon – on this sad weekend when the ‘chan-toosse’, Etta James, took the celestial elevator to the penthouse suite, there to serenade the wing-ed throng with renditions of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘Tell Mama’ – I must mention something rather splendid. 

I popped into Cash Converter in Brive on Saturday morning for a quick rootle through the music and found a double retrospective of Dillinger’s career – the Jamaican ‘toaster’ and not the gangster. I would have paid the derisory asking price for the title alone: Natty BSc. Isn’t that marvellous? The idea of Dillinger, in full dreadlocks with mortarboard and gown, receiving his diploma in one hand, with a huge spliff in the other…
I saw Dillinger back in the distant days when I was a postgraduate student in Brighton. I remember very little about the concert other than the audience singing along to Dillinger’s hit of the time, ‘Cocaine’ (‘running around in my brain…’). I suspect it didn’t occur to me at the time, but now I can only think in contrasting terms of a cinema audience, during the Blitz perhaps, cheerily following the bouncing ball as they sing out with gusto, ‘Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run…’ How, I wonder, did society evolve from singing about a running animal to a running hard-drug in 30 years or so?

Maybe I should ask a policeman for his or take on such a conundrum. The police wouldn’t approve of Dillinger and I don’t generally approve of the police. The French police, in particular, scare the living daylights out of me. They don’t ever smile and don’t even appear to be human. But… I met a very pleasant and personable gendarme this weekend.  

He and his wife are based in the extreme north west of Brittany, but they have just bought an apartment in the chateau I look after as one of my day-jobs. Like me, this gendarme experienced a coup de coeur on seeing the countryside here for the first time. We both told ourselves that we wanted somehow to spend our days here. He managed to get himself a job for nearly ten years as a sports coach at the big School for Gendarmes in Tulle. Now he’s back in Brittany, but together they have made a first step towards a ‘re-implantation’ in the area.  

The three of us sat in their new kitchen amongst all the unpacked clutter that they brought with them in a hired van. We sat drinking tisanes and nibbling on delicate chocolate biscuits and exchanging life-histories. They asked me all the stock questions, but with sincere interest: what brought us to France, how do we cope without our families, do we ever feel like moving back to the U.K., what do we do to earn a living and so on? I quite forgot that I was talking to a gendarme. Normally I would feel much more guarded than I did, fearful of revealing anything incriminating lest I end up in some dank dungeon deep within the Château d’If. (I suppose the experience might at least test my ability to grow a long beard.)  

All this and crepes, too?
Anyway, at the end of our ‘interview’, the gendarme’s charming wife presented me with a carrier bag full of edible delicacies from the Land of the Bretons. Cider, crêpes, biscuits – that kind of thing. But what was this for, I protested? It was for having the keys cut for them and responding to all their e-mails so promptly and generally giving the impression that someone was looking after their interests. ‘Mais, c’est normal,’ I protested some more, in the time-honoured fashion that I have learnt over here. And it was. After all, it’s part of my job: to look after the occupants and their best interests.   

As we emptied out the carrier bag together later, Debs and I talked of other such acts of kindness we have experienced since we have lived over here. And we wondered why acts that we, and most Britischers, would indeed consider quite normal should apparently be taken as tokens of abnormal gentillesse. We could only conclude – based on our own experience – that French people are staggered when someone they don’t necessarily know does something for them that they say they will do. 

When I think about it, I don’t think I have ever known an artisan or an office clerk or a shop assistant or a fonctionnaire phone me back when they said they would. So if someone asks me on the phone now for my contact details, I always punctuate my response with something like, ‘But will you be sure to phone me back?’ I’m not sure why I bother, because I know that they won’t. It has become one of the Top Five frustrating aspects of life in France that we have simply learned to accept: the administration, the inability to say sorry, the refusal to specify a time for receiving goods, the failure to listen to you, particularly once you’ve been twigged as a foreigner, and… the impossibility of returning a call.

We also recalled an old woman in the village where we used to live, who would also ply us with (homemade) goods in return for acts of quite normal consideration. With the insights she’s gained over years of dealing with clients’ convoluted psychological processes, my wife also thinks that it could be symptomatic of country people’s fear of histoires. As in, ‘je ne veux pas d’histoires…’ That is, a fear that, if they don’t return like with like, all those acts of ‘normal’ kindness might stack up in the ‘Debt’ column of the accounts book until one day you pay them a visit, Mafia-style, to call in the accumulated debt. ‘Madame, you remember that troublesome tax inspector I mentioned the other day?’ (Unwraps the bundle held in left hand to reveal a pistol…) ‘Well, Madame, this here is a Magnum .45 – the most powerful handgun in the whole world. It can blow your head clean off etc. etc.’

Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is, we were both very touched by the gesture and we enjoyed our Breton crêpes for breakfast. But as for unravelling the intricate patterns of the national psychology, you’d need a BSc for that. Even a ‘natty BSc’.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Destination Bed

Who here agrees that the best place on earth in winter is bed? Did I hear you say yeah? (Yeah!) ‘Said, did I hear you say YEAH? (YEAH!!!)  

The 'Master Bed'
My feelings exactly. There is simply no place quite as cosy, comfortable and comforting – especially now that January is here (which, contrary to what T.S. Eliot would have us believe about April, has surely got to be ‘the cruellest month’) – as my lovely ever-welcoming bed. When you look at the history of mankind through the ages, bed was probably the best of all inventions.  

At this point, I have to confess to a mean and heartless act. Although I failed to find any music for a sensible price in the disappointing January sales, I found a great new ‘hoodie’ reduced from 55 bucks to ten. The rule my wife has imposed in this house means that I have to identify some old item of clothing to discard whenever I buy something new. I duly found something that I tend to wear only once or twice per decade, so it was relegated to my hamper full of work clothes. 

However, because the hamper is way too packed, I then had to identify something to relegate to a work rag. On taking the demoted item down to the cave to put into my old plastic laundry bag-o’-rags, I disturbed a mouse that had made itself at home inside. Without stopping to think, I leapt back and danced around in my habitual fashion before taking the bag at arm’s length to the door, turning it on its side and kicking the bottom. Whereupon the poor terrified mouse ran out and away. No doubt it will become one of Daisy’s nightly kills. When I looked inside the laundry bag, I realised that the mouse had created itself a cosy little bed for the winter. It wasn’t doing anyone any harm – and I evicted the poor creature. I’m gutted and repentant. 

That poor mouse had exactly the right idea. A friend of mine once made us a compilation CD entitled ‘Getting Through February’. That may well be the case for Sheffield, but we all know that February can be a surprisingly fine month in France, full of the hope of spring. Getting through January is far more to the point. January is a useless month. It’s cold and nothing grows. There’s no decent food in the markets. In the words of Gwen Guthrie, the soul singer, ‘There ain’t nothing goin’ on but the rent’.  

So what better course of action than to go to bed and stay there for the entire month? Curl up under a warm duvet with your beloved, just reading, sleeping and what have you. You know it makes sense. Certainly in times of yore, dirt-poor French peasants apparently would effectively hibernate in the deep mid winter to slow down their body-clocks and thereby suppress their appetite for food that they could neither produce nor afford. Come some sunny day in February, you could wake up with a smile and leap out of bed full of renewed vigour after your month under the duvet.

Alas, there’s just one thing wrong with the idea. There’s a living to be made and a daughter to be taken each morning to school. So the alarm goes off at 5.50am in this household. Our old battered Sony clock radio ‘cube’ has a pause button. We allow ourselves three ‘bashes’ on the button, i.e. three blissful six-minute hiatuses, during which we can luxuriate in the warmth of our bed in a state of semi-wakefulness. 
We were talking the other day, the wife and I, during one such period of suspended animation. We were wondering just who invented ‘bed’. She thought it had to be a man; I thought it had to be a woman, because women are feline, sensuous creatures who surely have a natural affinity for the wonderful world of slumber. My wife, whose mission in life, Jim, is to help people resolve their problems, suggested a compromise: it was probably a husband and wife team. The man, Monsieur Bed, in the best tradition of French bricolage, created the base in his cave and his wife, Madame Bed, invented the mattress and the bedding.

Which led us to speculate when it was that the Beds came up with their invention. Not thinking straight at this hour of the morning, I suggested the hedonistic 18th century. But of course this was ignoring all the evidence of Hampton Court and other showcases of four-poster beds and such like. It couldn’t have been as early as the age when Alfred the Great was burning the cakes, because people still slept on straw (didn’t they?). The invention had to derive from a time after the invention of the saw, so Monsieur Bed could fashion his base. The Romans had no doubt came up with a prototype, so maybe the Beds lived in France at a time when the Romans’ influence was still evident. We decided on the Dark Ages, since there was nothing better to do then than sleep. There were certainly no January sales in that epoch.

The conversation might have drifted on to the subject of how the word ‘bed’ became ‘lit’ in French, but there is no fourth bash in our household. I take it upon myself to get up and make the drinks and feed the animals and stoke the fire, because I have the luxury of staying at home for the rest of the day while the girls must ply their trade in Brive. I could, of course, sneak back to bed once the little 107 has driven up the drive and I am alone again (naturally). But I don’t. Guilt and the pressures of the daily ‘to do’ list will not allow it. All I can do is anticipate that glorious moment later in the day, when the shutters are shut and the dishwasher has completed its cycle, that glorious moment when I climb back into bed and pull the duvet (or what’s left for me once my wife has completed her cocoon) around me again. Bliss. 
So let’s hear it one more time, y’all. Let me hear you say yeah! Bed, huh! What is it good for? Absolutely everything. Bed: the best place on earth, particularly during the useless, redundant month of January. Anyway, won’t be long now till February comes calling once more.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Health Matters

This is the time of year when everyone exchanges their best wishes. Over time, prompted by the locals and my desire to participate in the game, I have graduated from a simple cheery ‘bonne année’ to a rather more sententious ‘mes meilleurs voeux’.  

The trouble is, it doesn’t stop there. Yesterday morning at Martel market and then again at the new improved Intermarché, I was reminded that the meilleurs voeux are just the gateway to a whole rigmarole of hopes and wishes that lead the conversation inevitably to health matters. ‘…And good health above all. Yes indeed, you can have everything else, but if you don’t have good health blah blah blah…’ Out waddle all those duck-billed platitudes that get passed on down the generations. When, without a hint of irony, some polite and earnest teenager comes out with all the bonne santé stuff, it does make you question the spontaneity and sincerity of it all. 

I suppose the ritual is hardly surprising, given how seriously the French take the whole business of health. And my God, what a business it is! I hadn’t appreciated just how big it was until a visit one day to the little converted bread-oven in the village where we used to live. It was owned by a deeply unpopular pair of French holidaymakers, whose mere presence would stir up the sleepy village two or three times a year. Les Parisiens, they were referred to with a certain heartfelt contempt. It used to make me feel slightly better about our label as Les Anglais. In the caste system of outsiders, we didn’t appear to be quite so far down the pecking order as the Parisians. 

Anyway, one day in their Wendy-house, I witnessed a shocking scene. It was aperitif time and while Monsieur Parisien poured the drinks, Madame fetched a carrier bag from which she produced, like a magician pulling object after object out of a top hat, packets and sachets and multifarious containers of medication. By removing one or two pills or soluble capsules from each, she built up a little multi-coloured heap in the centre of the table. I can’t remember whether this was for her alone or for both of them. The thing is, I don’t believe she was particularly ill. She was just a run-of-the-mill native hypochondriac. 

It’s a big self-perpetuating business that’s bleeding this country dry. The laboratories produce all this superfluous stuff – pills to counteract the side-effects of all the other pills – and then push them with incentives to surgeries, clinics and hospitals throughout the land. Doctors then prescribe them to their patients, who use their carte vitales like credit cards to offset the crippling cost of all this gratuitous medication. Too late, the politicians have woken up to the need to wean the populace off their doctors. It’s way too late now: they’re hooked. Such is the culture of dependence that people – as we all well know – will go and see their doctor if they catch a common cold. (I say: catch a common cold and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day…)

Sweeties for all?
I know that this is no startling revelation to anyone who’s lived in this country and observed the natives at work, rest and play even for a few months. But I thought about it the other night, after talking to my pal in New York. Despite any of the new Obama health reforms, the fact of the matter is that, in comparison to the American populace, the French have no idea how lucky they are. My friend has a health problem and he is currently out of work. While he was in work, something like $700 was deducted from his pay packet each month. Not only that, but now that he is unemployed, he has no accrued rights whatsoever. He can, of course, retain his rights if he can find a further seven or eight hundred bucks per month during his unemployment. He chose to waive that option. And now he finds himself with a medical condition.

Without insurance, if he wants to go to see his doctor – who is apparently a fairly average doctor and certainly not a doctor to the rich and famous of the Upper East Side – he has to pay $300 for a ten-minute consultation. This same doctor arranged a test, which was not a particularly complicated one. He then presented my friend with a bill for something like $3,000. Without wishing to rub salt in his wounds, I told him about our local doctor in Martel. A highly qualified homeopath and a very conscientious man, he charges €38 for a good hour of his time. Part of this charge is then reimbursed via the carte. For a Brit like me, raised to be self-reliant and accustomed to hard-pressed NHS doctors who get out their prescription pads as soon as you open your mouth, a doc like this (or a toubib, as they say) is a revelation.  

Talking to my friend about health matters led me swiftly to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, America is clearly no country for old men and my friend needs to get back to Europe before he reaches that stage of his life. Secondly, for all my quibbles about the French national health – people’s obsession with the subject; the tyranny of Big Pharma and the medical mafia; the child-like dependency on doctors and a general lack of personal responsibility – we are blessed with a system here that protects the haves and the have-nots alike. It’s comforting to know that if you develop a serious health problem in France, the treatment won’t bankrupt you – even if, over the course of time, it will probably bankrupt the nation. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year And The Old Place

So there you have it. Audrey Hepburn has come down from her spot on the kitchen wall, which she has dominated – in different guises – throughout 2011. She has been replaced by 12 views of Britain from the golden age of railway posters. During January, I will be looking at one of South Devon’s coves and imagining the excitement of travelling there from London (courtesy of Great Western Railways) in the summertime, when the weather in those days was always fine. 

That was then and this is now. The great wheel of the celestial clock has slipped another cog and the old year has given way to the new. 2012 is upon us. (Be afraid, be very afraid!) I wished my parents a happy new year this morning and, stupidly, asked them how they celebrated the night before. My father told me that they went to bed well before the midnight hour. It’s all stuff and nonsense and what is there to celebrate anyway? I guess that, when you’ve negotiated 84 years on this earth, you start to think like that.   

My younger sister turned up with a copy of the Mail on Sunday and my father read me the headline. Something about the Inland Revenue declaring war on millionaire footballers who don’t pay their taxes. Not before time. When I suggested a fiscal war on every overpaid individual who doesn’t pay his or her taxes, he launched into a diatribe on Jonathon Ross. I managed to steer the conversation onto more positive ground – an appreciation of Oliver Postgate, in fact, and his charming creations, like The Clangers and Bagpuss and Noggin the Nog – by telling him about our New Year’s Eve.

It was a rainy night in the Corrèze – and it felt like it must be raining all over the world. We dropped The Daughter off at the Salle de Fêtes in Ligneyrac, where she and her friends were seeing in the New Year, free from adult supervision. We drove on through the pouring rain to Serilhac to have dinner with old friends. At least the rain kept the gendarmes off the roads. I had nothing to hide, but I always fear those routine roadblocks. ‘You have a defective side mirror, Monsieur. That will be 180 euros and six points.’ 

American Steve had invited one of the other Steves from his band, unofficially known as The 3 Steves. I’d met him (2nd Steve) before at a gig, the night when he aired his new Fender Telecaster, but I’d not met his wife, nor their good-looking, personable son. They moved here from Bristol six or so years ago and renovated an old hotel in La Roche Canillac, an improbable medieval village that perches precariously above the steep-sided valley of the Doustre, a tributary of the Dordogne. It was only a 15-minute drive from our old house, so we grilled them for news about the old place. The beautiful little lake where we used to go for swims in summer and walks in winter was still beautiful. The garden full of topiaries, nicknamed ‘Corrèze Disney’, was still as outlandish as ever. The bearded Welsh oceanographer still lived in the village, but the retired German couple who befriended us had moved now to the same hamlet as our ex-family doctor. The German couple were good friends of Oliver Postgate, who spent many a month in his holiday-home in the bourg. By a stroke of very neat good fortune, Oliver Postgate’s stepson has bought their old house in the village, which has been up for sale for several years.

Ivor or Tacot?
Apparently, during the dark days when Steve and Jo were renovating the old hotel and trying to galvanise builders (who ended up absconding with a sizeable deposit), the Germans lent them a DVD that Oliver Postgate had made about the old Transcorrezian railway, affectionately known throughout the department as the Tacot. The fact that this old stately steam train, which once wound its way through some of the more impenetrable valleys of the Corrèze, taking passengers from Tulle to Ussel and back at little more than a walking pace, might have inspired Oliver Postgate’s Ivor the Engine somehow gave Steve and Jo the courage and belief to keep going, instead of throwing in the towel and moving back to England. 

Our meal culminated in Jessica’s homemade Christmas pudding and her twin brother’s approximately 95% proof brandy butter. American Steve went outside to light some fireworks and Debs and I took our premature leave, as our Belgian friends had booked me for a two-hour DJ slot at their annual party in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. We would all meet up there later that evening.
The party-people danced, but not like it was 1999, and I fretted about the sound quality in general and distortion in particular. My cross-fading was a little perfunctory and Amadou & Mariam went missing for a few worrying minutes till I located the disc in the bowels of the console. Nor did I feel it was quite right to be wearing reading glasses to keep an eye on my playlist. So by the end of the slot, I had to ask myself: should I really be putting myself through all the doubts and the stress for the sake of my demanding ego?
Later, my wife and I chatted some more with 2nd Steve and Jo at the bar. Steve picked up on my reference to ‘Bullmoose’ Jackson’s scurrilous ‘Big Ten Inch (Record of The Blues)’ and Jo professed to wanting to come up and riffle through my vinyl at some point. It also crossed both of our minds that our daughter might like to meet their personable son, so we ended up inviting them for dinner later this month. Let the new year start with new friends!
On counting out the old year and counting in the new, we all raised our plastic champagne flutes (left over from our Christmas Eve party), toasted 2012 and then indulged in that invigorating pastime we’ve all learned from the French: indiscriminate kissing. Two for most nationalities, but three for the Belgians and possibly, if I remember correctly, the Dutch. More fireworks were then set off – outside and not in – before people started settling imperceptibly into the latest calendar year.
1.30 in the morning seemed a rather amateur-ish hour at which to leave the festivities, but Debs by then had lost all traces of her voice and we are, as they say, ‘not so young as we used to be’. On leaving (with three more kisses), our Belgian hostess Natasja echoed my feeling that 2012 is going to be a singularly hard and testing year, but – she suggested – we must all be ‘true to what is in our hearts’. Amen to that and nobly phrased. Happy New Year, one and all!