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, February 26, 2012

Life Is A Cabaret

Friday night was the 10th Cabaret du Coeur at the Curemonte Salle Polyvalente. The first cabaret, old chum, was mounted in response to the tsunami – which happened, if I remember correctly, in 2003. 2012 minus 2003 seems to be nine, but it was definitely the 10th one. So it is now officially a local tradition.

This time, I was too busy to take part either as a writer/performer or a Master of Ceremonies (modelled closely on Joel Grey in the musical). Which meant that I could go with my dear wife and a bunch of friends and giggle stupidly in the audience. Nothing induces naughtiness like amateur dramatics. I remember going with a workmate to see a mutual friend and colleague during my days in the Civil Surface. The pair of us behaved like a pair of seven-year olds and Debs must have wondered whom she had recently married. An upset stomach this time meant that my behaviour was somewhat more in keeping with my years.

The idea of the Cabaret du Coeur is that members of our local association – which exists primarily as a means to order wholefoods at slightly less than the outrageous going rate in France – their children and assorted hangers-on perform music, dances, sketches and other turns. In return, the audience pays for their tickets and all the drinks and comestibles provided by cast, crew and families that it can consume in the name of some ‘cherridy’ of democratic choice.

Each year the mayor of Curemonte, l’un des plus beaux villages de France, a medieval marvel perched on top of a hill), lets us use without charge the communal hall for rehearsals and performance. It’s the perfect venue: an ante room that can house a ticket office, an intimate auditorium that houses just enough people to create a good atmosphere, an offset vaulted corridor where the buffet and bar can be set up, a raised stage and a backroom that serves as a dressing room for the stars.

Things have escalated over the years. The first cabaret was on a solitary Saturday night. This year, Friday night’s performance was the first of three this weekend. Perhaps it’s testimony to how little there is to do round here in the deep mid winter, but each one was sold out a good fortnight ago. In the past we’ve had to bring along a table and chairs to help seat the audience, but this year two handy members of the association had fashioned some scraps of wood into round tables – which meant that we could beat a hasty retreat at the end rather than hang around to recover our garden furniture.

Some things, you see, haven’t changed. It still went on for at least an hour too long due to the customary reluctance or inability to start on time, little or no stage management and a tendency for acts to outstay their welcome. But that, I guess, is half the charm of amateur dramatics. So was the juggler who dropped his batons, the kids who consistently muffed their punch lines, the dancers who were just out of synch, the clowns who weren’t particularly funny and the serious performers who were. It doesn’t matter: everyone knows everyone else and, when you’re among friends, you can make a spectacle of yourself without fear of hecklers.

So it was fun. And there were some welcome surprises this time around. The troupe of djembe drummers opened rather than closed the show, banged their drums in time and didn’t go on interminably. My good Canadian friend, a computer technician by trade, didn’t fluff his lines and created a musical piece with his girlfriend that was surreal and achingly funny. I was proud of him. For years, his very idiosyncratic sense of humour has bemused French and English alike, but this was like the apogee of his art – almost as if his whole public life has been leading up to this one marvellous moment of triumph.

The crowning moment was reserved for last. Anna the MC, who emceed with considerably more professionalism than I last managed, was half way through her thanks. She singled Christophe and Chantal’s son, Hélios, for his sterling unseen work at the edge of the stage, operating the curtain. Cue the applause. She moved on to the next credit and half way through it Hélios appeared, looking bewildered and sheepish. He took a diffident bow and beat a hasty retreat back to his unseen spot behind the curtain at the side of the stage. As TV types have a tendency to say these days, you couldn’t have scripted it. 

We’d taken bets on taking our seats as to whether we’d be able to leave for our beds before midnight. Well, we made it with a quarter of an hour to spare, which meant that we could take our friends back home and pick up our daughter, who was babysitting for their two young children, and get back home and under the duvet by 12.15. I knew from bitter experience that we had left the performers to stay after the auditorium had emptied and tidy up for the next show. I didn’t feel guilty because of the simple act of having paid for my ticket. You might call it spectator’s privilege.
Next year, like every year before it, I’ll have to weigh up the pleasures of camaraderie and showing off as part of a show on one hand with all the hard work and commitment on the other. Now that I’ve seen it from an audience’s viewpoint, I’m leaning more towards absence rather than participation. I might just exercise another of my spectator’s privileges and leave it all up to the amateurs.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Work Experience

At the end of last week, I had a young stagiaire here, observing my every action in the name of work experience. I couldn’t really afford the time, because of the pressing demands of deadlines, but it was a kind of quid pro quo deal. His mother gave our daughter some coaching in French literature for her oral Bac exam, and since the child subsequently obliged with a perfect score, it would have been churlish to turn the boy away. 

Besides, once I’d given up trying to work and occupy Victor at the same time, it turned out to be a very agreeable experience. During her work experience, Tilley had mainly sat twiddling her thumbs in a kind of graphic design office. So I was determined that Victor wouldn’t have to endure the ignominy of watching me typing on a keyboard all day long.

Normally, the prospect of trying to communicate with a 14-year old boy would fill me with horror. But Victor proved an exceptional ‘yoot’. Hearing that he was a student of the guitar, I’d made him a compilation of assorted guitar heroics as part of our family effort to thank his mother for her coaching efforts. One evening I got a phone call from him to thank me for the CD and to tell me which tracks he’d particularly liked. I was impressed. I mean, how many 14-year olds can you think of who’d have the self-confidence and good grace to phone up and chat with an adult they didn’t know from Adam? A foreigner, to boot.

He brought his guitar with him and a sheaf of official papers from the school. It was revealing to go through the documents with him on our first afternoon together. What sector was my enterprise in: primary, secondary or tertiary? What hours did I work each day? How many days a week did I work? All sorts of questions that were very difficult to answer and which testify to a cultural incomprehension of the ‘profession libéral’. All his classmates were doing their work experience in shops, bakeries, veterinary practices and the like. Victor, I’m certain, would have been alone in observing someone who follows his own rhythms and who works for himself and for as many hours and as many days as it takes to get the job done.

How to be a writer
So what could I do for the poor lad? I showed him a few magazines to which I’ve contributed, a few CD reviews, an e-learning storyboard or two and a notebook full of chaotic ‘Mind Maps’. But it’s not as if you can demonstrate the whole writing process as you might take someone through the process, say, of baking a loaf of bread.

I decided that the most valuable thing I could do for him was to give him a potted history of 20th century American black music to complement his guitar studies. It was the right thing to do, for both of us. It gave me a taste of the joy of sharing a passion and it gave him the reassurance that there are people out there in the world who understand why he wants to be a guitar player when he grows up. 

So for 2½ days we had a ball. Armed with some books in French borrowed from Brive library, I set him a curriculum of the blues guitar on Thursday and the jazz guitar on Friday underpinned by a DVD on Wednesday afternoon about the music of New Orleans. I gave him a bit of homework – to read up on the likes of Howling Wolf, T-Bone Walker and Wes Montgomery – in preparation for the music we would spin the following day. As part of the deal, I was supposed to talk to him a bit in English, but translating every other phrase slowed us down too much, so we muddled by in French. I got used to his scrambled syllables, while he sorted out my bizarre pronunciation. Since music is a universal language, we managed fine.

On the second afternoon, he took himself off to our spare bedroom to practise his beloved jazz manouche (gypsy jazz) and promptly fell asleep for an hour and a half, which gave me a chance to catch up on my e-mails and concentrate properly on the guy from Lyon who came to explain how the EDF photovoltaic deal works. Which reminds me… Has anyone out there turned their roof into a private solar farm to produce and sell electricity back to France’s biggest suppliers? If so, does it work as they state on the packet?

While he was asleep, someone from his school phoned up to see how he was getting on, whether he’d arrived punctually and so forth. I told the man that he was a diligent and charming pupil and that everything was going fine. When Victor got up, full of apologies about such a lapse in etiquette, I let it slip that his teacher had phoned up and that he’d wanted to speak to him, but I’d said that it was a shame to wake him up because he was obviously tired out. His expression of barely suppressed horror was wondrous to behold.

Early on Friday evening, Victor’s elegant mother came to pick him up. We all assured her that he had been impeccably polite and helpful and utterly charming, and hoped, without actually saying so, that she would encourage him in his ambition to be a guitarist rather than push him into some ‘sensible’ profession that would probably bore the pants off him. 

He went home with a couple of CDs and a few indecipherable Mind Maps and, I think, the ability to tell Albert King from B.B. King, Professor Longhair from Little Richard and Miles Davis from Dizzy Gillespie. No doubt he will have a few revelations to trade with friends who have learned how to kneed bread. As for me, I got an idea of how much more tiring it would have been to have two children rather than one around the house. But I learned a bit about the father/son relationship and the mutual value of handing things down from one generation to the next.
Later that evening I managed to get on with my work, but I’d already indicated on the official papers from the school that I’d be willing to do it again next year. The chances, though, of having another stagiare as interested and as personable as Victor must be fairly slender.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ice Age 4

A few years ago, a friend sent me one of those e-mails that undermines your will to live. This one suggested that, far from globally warmed tropical conditions in Western Europe, we would be plunged into a new ice age as a result of the Gulf Stream being diverted off course. As yet, it hasn’t happened – and I sure hope it never will – but, to paraphrase Stingray, ‘anything can happen in the next half-decade’. 

This cold ‘snap’ is providing us all with a sneak preview of what to expect. This morning, I took the dog out for a walk, swaddled in all kinds of winter paraphernalia. Cycling, however, into the teeth of a wind that seems to be blowing direct from Kamchatka or some such other frozen wilderness made a mockery of all my compound tog value. It was like placing your bare chest on a sheet of cold steel. My face was locked into an indelible grimace. 

In 16 years of soldiering through continental winters, this is the coldest I have ever known it. Once, while visiting friends in the Alps, who persuaded us to take our daughter up a mountain for a ski lesson, I experienced cold that made my whole frame shake, cold that brought this grown man to his knees. But that was due to the fact that I was dressed more like Tintin in Tibet than a sensible modern-day parent.

In terms of consistently sub-zero temperatures, this current spell beats the winter of 1963. There was more snow then certainly – I remember being off school for several weeks, seeing the snow half way up our morning-room window and reading all about the cancelled matches in my Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly – but it can’t have been as cold as this, because central heating in those days was a new-fangled mod con and my parents certainly hadn’t invested in a system, so I wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale.
Let us now remember the poor beasts

Yet, apparently, and according to the retired guy down the road who likes to chat whenever I bump into him during one of my Alf-time twice-daily dog walks, it was worse than this during the winter of 1956. It was so cold that he remembered the sound of the plane trees cracking and splitting in Martel. There was certainly no chauffage central in dem days and, he told me, families would huddle around their fireplace to keep as warm as they could.

The combination of cold and water, I’ve discovered over the past few days, can be dramatically destructive. A good friend of mine here, who looks after houses while the owners are away as one of his many sidelines, phoned me in a state of some distress. While hugging the wood-burning stove that was struggling to maintain 14 degrees in the house, he noticed water dripping from the floor above. A practical man, he dealt with the leak as best he could before popping next door to check their empty gîte. There he found that six of their old cast-iron radiators had burst with the cold, spilling black gunge all over the floorboards. Did I know of a plumber who could help? I did not. The one reliable plumber in the area has gone back to the UK. And the plumber who fitted all the pipe-work in this house is still wanted, dead or alive. Just to put the old tin lid on everything, the owners’ geriatric cat, poor creature, now seems to be peeing blood. The owners are due back in a few days and so far no plumber has answered his S.O.S. calls. 

On Friday, after a week spent marooned at the bottom of our drive, due to a dead car engine and ice on the gradient, a friend took me to the château that I’m supposed to be looking after. A scene of devastation greeted me, with stalactites hanging off fractured radiators, taps frozen up and, in one apartment, a bath full of water that must have dripped from the ceiling above and frozen solid, unable to drain away via a frozen plughole. Boilers had been left on in hors gel position, but the wind from Kamchatka must have got in under the eaves and rendered the heating useless. I had to send e-mails to all the owners and describe the damage to their beloved apartments. So now It’s my turn to try to find a plumber prepared to come out and help. Second homes! Who’d have ‘em?  

Cold as it is, though, what on earth must it be like in Siberia, Alaska, Spitzbergen, Greenland and all those other frozen parts of the globe? Imagine the misery of trying to stay warm in conditions that are twice, even three times as cold as it is here at present? No wonder them Russkies drink so much alcohol. What else is there to do in such a climate other than to climb into bed, your head befuddled with vodka – and stay there? You can’t possibly work. Even eating becomes an effort.

Cycling into the teeth of that glacial wind this morning, I also thought back to Scott, Shackleton and all those other intrepid polar explorers. Whatever possessed them? Voluntarily to put yourself through the misery it must have been to drag a sled full of instruments and provisions, trying to fight off frostbite in an era before Gore-Tex, polar fleeces, Damart thermals and other sensible modern weatherproof clothing. What were they thinking of?

Not a happy chappie
I remember watching a dramatised documentary about Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, when he and a colleague endured the most appalling deprivations to bring back a King Penguin’s egg (or something like that). Poor guy developed irritable bowel syndrome and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his born days. OK, he achieved some degree of immortality – though he would probably have gone down in history in any case as the possessor of one of the most ludicrous names ever given to a child. Faced with the choice between a warm bed and a penguin’s egg, I think I’d have known which one to choose. Screw the immortality! 

So there you have it. Has anyone seen the long-term weather forecast? I’m hoping that this week will see the back of this Arctic cold. I’ve had enough of genuine winter already. I’m told that this kind of frost is good for the soil and the next harvest. But after the big chill comes the big thaw – and we all know what happens to frozen pipes and frozen baths when temperatures start to rise again.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

‘… Then Play On’

In view of recent meteorological events, I was thinking of writing Mr. Sampson’s Lack of Feeling For Snow this weekend. But I’m too worn out by spending Saturday afternoon in the crawl space under the house, known over here as a vide sanitaire, lagging pipes that should have been lagged years ago. The horse, in fact, had already bolted: we had no water from our taps – just long enough to give The Daughter a taste of what it must be like to live in some hell-hole across The Continental Divide.

So I’m taking the easy option. The fact is I was so buoyed up by all the comments and all the nostalgic reminiscences that came pinging into my in-box as a result of last week’s musical discourse, that I thought: why not offer a few more musical pensées

After all, the second part of the BBC Four trilogy on How the West Was Won (by British musicians in the U.S.A.) aired on Friday evening. And it was a good week musically speaking, because four CDs arrived through the post. Normally I hate opening up our letterbox – and only do so because it lets the rain in – for fear of official missives. But no, there were four CDs over the space of two days. Three from old friends, plus a promo. I love receiving friends’ compilations. I may not approve of every track, but it’s delightful and d’lovely to know what they’re listening to these days. (The promo, by the way, was Sly & Robbie’s forthcoming new offering. Fans will be heartened to know that they have laid down some of the best dub known to Jah.)

The second part of the trilogy added some new characters to the mix. Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, the Laird of some wee island off the west coast of Scotland, both come over in a suitably lordly way. Bill Bruford, former Yes and King Crimson drummer, is a good friend of someone whose maison de vacances I keep an eye on. I have been on at this good friend for months to persuade Bill to get over here, as I’m certain he would be game for some studious musical discourse. Keith Emerson appeared remarkably youthful and remarkably decent, considering he was partly responsible for creating Emerson, Lake and Palmer. 

The south paw from Birming-ham
But my vote for pick of the week goes to another guitarist – the lugubrious Brummie, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath fame. Somehow the man has lived to tell the tale of touring with Ozzy Osbourne. Quite a different character from dear, charming Jimmy Page, but an engaging chap nonetheless. For more on Ozzy, Iommi, ‘Geezer’ Butler and Bill Ward’s bulbous W.C. Fields-like nose, make sure that you catch The Black Sabbath Story next time it’s shown.

While on the subject of guitarists, which we sort of were, Peter Green’s name cropped up in a few of the comments I read last week. It sent me searching for an obscure French compilation of British Blues for a Peter Green cut from 1978, some time after he and Fleetwood Mac had gone their diametrically opposite ways. It’s called ‘A Fool No More’ and it features some of the most resonant and educated guitar playing you are ever likely to hear. And one mustn’t forget that poor, drug-blasted Senor Green also had one of the most distinctive of singing voices. There is some memorable footage from the Top of the Pops’ archives of Fleetwood Mac performing ‘The Green Manalishi’. With his long curly locks and his checked maxi-coat, Pierre Vert (as the French call him) looks like some 17th century cavalier who has been dragged by a horse across Marston Moor. 

I’ve always had a special affinity with the guitar. Though I can’t play a single note, I reckon you can hear in an electric guitar all the beauty and the anguish of the world. I always took my guitar simulation very seriously. In my early youth, I would stand in front of my dad’s Ekco gramophone, ‘playing’ along on my orange plastic Beatles’ guitar to hits by the Fab Four, the Stones and Brian Poole & the Tremoloes. I could have been a contender, Charlie, but (as I suspect I’ve mentioned before) my days of simulated guitar-heroism died as a result of mortification. My mother walked in on me in mid Frank Zappa solo on ‘Willie the Pimp’, my Slazenger tennis racquet ‘plugged’ into an old electric fan heater. Oh well, as Peter Green would have sung.

However, I still feel qualified to mention some lesser-known and maybe temporarily forgotten guitar-smiths of yore in the hope that it will prompt some chatter. How’s about then, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ollie Halsall of Patto and beyond, or Gary Boyle of Isotope and Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, or that proto-metallurgist with a gift for the ominous chord, Robin Trower of Procol Harum? And though I never gave a fig for Alvin Lee and his pyrotechnics, I should remind you perhaps of Albert Lee of Head, Hands and Feet, renowned ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ and – judging by his appearance with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings at Cahors a few years ago – one of the sweetest and most modest of men ever to depress a wah-wah pedal. Let us also proffer our respect to a man known more for his voice and his organ. I speak, of course, of the outrageously talented Stevie Winwood. 

There’s always a danger that musical discourse turns into a boys’ thing, so I shall try to correct the gender imbalance by mentioning two axe-women. I’m very fond of a Philadelphian jazz guitarist called Monique Sudler, who could be based in France these days. And there’s Deborah Coleman, a blues woman, whose solo of roughly 25 notes on ‘Dream’ is one of the most eloquent solos ever crafted. Less is more and all that.

Yes, indeed. Time I stopped this chitter-chatter and let you get on with your Sunday evenings. May your pipes continue to flow throughout the continuing cold snap.