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, March 25, 2012

Alf 4 Hamlette

This Saturday evening, as she does from time to time, Hamlette came to stay the night. Her owners, our friends Paul and Jill, had decided spontaneously to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary in nearby Martel. 

Hamlette, as you can probably deduce, is a kind of accident of birth. In other words, Hamlet became Hamlette when he became a she. I said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…

In fact, the walks are the worst of it – for reasons that will become clear. In all other respects, Hamlette is welcome in our home. Even Myrtle doesn’t mind her. Myrtle was once chased up the flue of our wood-burning stove by a black dog that bounded into the house and created consternation. I had to go up to the mezzanine, lean over the wooden handrail and gently remove the terrified cat from her perch. Ever since, black dogs represent the work of the devil. But Hamlette is a Golden Retriever and tan dogs, like our Alf, are good dogs.

We like to think that Alf and Hamlette are friends. We also like to think that, by telling him a few times in advance that ‘Hamlette’s coming to stay’, our dog will keenly anticipate her arrival. ’Just for a few hours, maybe, it will give him something other than his daily two meals and two walks to look forward to.

Actually, their behaviour suggests little more than a familiar indifference. They acknowledge each other and one will follow the other into the house for a quick guided tour, but there’s none of the hysteria that occurs when my friend, Adrian the tree surgeon, drops by with his faithful dish-mop dog, Polly.

It’s only when you take the two tan dogs out together for a walk that you realise why. Sex. Pure and simple. Even humans find that that sexual attraction can compromise a friendship. The strange thing is, though, Alf was genetically modified at something like four months old. The operation occasioned one of only two times in his otherwise happy life when he has had to wear the cone of shame. It wouldn’t have been quite so degrading for him had we lived here on ‘the dog’s meadow’ (as our daughter christened our plot of land), with only the cats to witness the inverted plastic light shade he had to wear for almost a fortnight. But we lived in a village at the time and it destroyed his social credibility overnight. He had a kind of friendship, about which we weren’t really happy, with the volatile Alsatian that ruled the neighbourhood, but Argo afterwards spurned him like an untouchable. 

So what I’m driving at is: Alf has been denied the pleasures of the flesh. Unlike the randy little Jack Russell at the nearby farm, who wanders off for days at a stretch in search of hot female bottoms, Alf has never known a) what it’s like to sow his wild oats and b) how to do it. We tell horrified, disbelieving locals that he has led a more contented life as a neuter.

Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth
And yet… when you take the two of them out on a walk together, you realise just how indelible that genetic imprint is. At first they trot along side by side by Sondheim and you think, Ah don’t they look sweet together. But every few yards he’ll stop to demonstrate his ardour for Hamlette (if you catch my drift). Her back legs are getting rather arthritic now and the bounce in her step is no longer so pronounced, but she still has a an IQ that’s as pleasingly low as that of a chaffinch and she must come across to our Alf as the canine version of Jayne Mansfield (may God rest her unfortunate soul).

Happily, the longer Hamlette stays here, the less urgent becomes Alf’s need to do the hokey-cokey. However, on Saturday evening, it was apparent that they haven’t seen each other all winter long. It’s not Hamlette that minds. She just patiently and uncomplainingly lets her tan companion go through his cack-handed manoeuvres. No, the discomfort is more the dog-walkers’. I take pride in the fact that Alf doesn’t need a lead, that he sits quietly by the side of the road when a car passes and that he does his business discreetly off-piste. It’s shameful and mortifying to witness our good boy air-humping Hamlette. 

And to see the way that Hamlette lies back compliantly and thinks of Pedigree Chum reminds me uncomfortably of the indignities that women the world over must go through in the name of testosterone. ‘Down boy!’ I tell him. ‘It’s just not nice. Dogs of your schooling don’t do that sort of thing.’
Hamlette went home this morning, when Paul and Jill dropped by after their 19th anniversary adventure to find all three of us still in our nightclothes, lingering as ever over our traditional Sunday morning breakfast. More shame. I had intended to take the dogs out before breakfast, but couldn’t bear the thought of all that embarrassing hello-folks-and-what-about-the-workers business. Maybe by the next time that Hamlette comes to stay, Alf will be that much older and wiser. Mind you, remembering the way that my 94-year old grandfather used to embrace my wife, nothing is guaranteed.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Self-indulgent Saturday

What do you do when you suddenly find yourself with time on your hands and a million jobs to do? I can tell you what I do – in the great tradition of writers faced with a sheet of blank paper, I prevaricate.

It comes as a shock to the system, when you’ve spent the last couple of months solid, slaving over a hot keyboard and/or rushing around like a blue-arsed fly fulfilling all kinds of obligations, to discover that time for once is not pressing. I even toyed with the idea of making a carrot cake – to try out a recipe I found on The Guardian’s home page and to fulfil a family joke. It’s not a very witty one, but whenever someone proposes a hot drink, the other adds: Yes please, and I’ll have a slice of carrot cake with it. To which the enquirer ripostes: I don’t think we’ve got any left. Well, I told you it wasn’t very witty. Anyway, I haven’t yet made the carrot cake, because my wife and daughter have a thing against raisins.

There’s something to be said for the routine of regular work. For one thing, it means that you haven’t got time for all those other hundreds and thousands of jobs that need doing, so you can shift them to the back burner without fear of reprisals. On a more metaphysical level, there’s also the advantage that it stops you examining the state of the human condition. Rivets, as good old Joseph Conrad might have had it. In other words, mundane routine keeps our thoughts away from The Heart of Darkness. I suppose that’s why some people, faced with the delicious prospect of retirement, go rapidly to pieces. Our work has come to equal our worth. Without it, we start questioning our value in society.

Three-toed and proud of it
Personally, I’ve always hated work. Had I been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I would have spent my life reading, writing and making music compilations. Once the family seat had been handed down to me as oldest son, I would have turned it into a sanctuary for endangered species and spent the rest of the livelong day chatting with the animals. Unfortunately, the spoon in my mouth at birth had Made in Sheffield embossed on its stainless steel handle. So I’ve been driven ever since by the Protestant work ethic and, in adulthood, by the need to earn a crust.

Yesterday, though, I took an executive decision to indulge my indolent inner self by watching two rugby matches – consecutively. However, the decision rapidly triggered a chain reaction of guilt. No sooner did I get back from the Saturday-morning market in Martel, than I changed into my worst work clothes, strapped on my wife’s head lamp that she keeps by the bed in case she wakes up in the middle of the night and needs to read to get back to sleep, gathered up some plastic ties from Aldi and crawled into the vide sanitaire beneath the house to finish the pipe lagging I’d started the weekend of the Big Chill. 

It wasn’t pleasant, but it was good penance. Once I’d made lunch with some leftover brown rice in the fridge, I’d finished the self-flagellation and was ready for my afternoon of self-indulgence. Yesterday it was the culmination of the 2012 Six Nations tournament: three matches choreographed for maximum drama to conclude at Twickenham in the early hours of the evening. The schedulers, however, hadn’t reckoned with Wales winning the Grand Slam by late afternoon. Which meant that the final match, between England and Ireland, was meaningless. Nevertheless, I commanded The Daughter to walk the dog and settled down on one of our outsize cushions with a packet of crisps and Daisy the cat on my lap to see whether a resurgent England could vanquish the Irish. Despite the rain and an oval ball that slipped about like an errant bar of soap, they could and did. Convincingly. Even though a childhood in Belfast has conferred on me honorary Irish nationality, I was happy. 

The self-indulgence should have concluded with the final whistle. But no. Sometimes the sloth inside surprises me. It shouldn’t. After all, I am still the same person as the child who used to park himself in front of the old black-and-white telly to watch Test match cricket during summer holidays. Ball by literal ball. Voluntarily I would watch the likes of Geoff Boycott and Ken Barrington compile their painstaking centuries. By the time Chris Tavaré was in his pomp – or maybe I should say his shell – some years later, adulthood had taught me that you can’t afford to do this if you want to get things done.

So when, after dinner, my wife proposed a family film, I didn’t say no. Poor thing, she had been working all day, so who was I to deny her some self-indulgence of her own? Thus it was that I clocked up five hours on the telly when I should have been filing papers, finishing my wife’s website, lagging yet more pipes, repairing a leak, pruning plants or even making a carrot cake. I told myself it was less self-indulgent than the rugby, because we have a duty to start working our way through a great big accumulated pile of movies.
We watched a worthy attempt to film David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. The novel was one of three we both read during a winter of snow-themed reading matter: The Shipping News, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Cedars. The DVD was going cheap at the annual Saint Denis lès Martel brocante. It was beautifully staged in authentic, exquisite Pacific North-West locations, featured some fine performances from the likes of Max von Sydow, but it was just a tad… stodgy. 
Stodgy is an adjective that I hope won’t apply to my carrot cake when I finally make it. I have proposed cutting up dried apricots as a substitute for raisins, but my daughter is still not happy. I’ve told her to be open-minded about dried fruit. There’s plenty of time for prejudice once you become an adult. So I shall arise and go now and attempt to make this cake, because I’m of a mind to turn a self-indulgent Saturday into an entirely hedonistic weekend. Work? Ptui! I spit upon the concept.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Party Girl

As parents of a teenage daughter, we’ve long held this touching belief that French teenagers have a much more responsible attitude to alcohol than their contemporaries across the water. I’m here to tell you that it ain’t necessarily so.

I couldn’t quite understand my daughter’s misgivings about going to her friend’s 16th birthday party on Friday night. She had worked hard on her various half-term projects for most of her holidays, so surely she deserved a little fun. Invited to spend the night, I could drop her off on Friday evening and her mum could pick her up on the way back from work early on Saturday afternoon. The venue was the friend’s parent’s holiday gîte, so the ‘kids’ could party like it was 1999, free from the custodial influence of adults.

Neither my wife nor I worried a jot about the implications. After all, she’s been to a few overnighters with friends from school and there has never been a question of shenanigans. We’ve dropped her off with her sleeping bag and comestibles, secretly rather hoping that she and her pals might all let their hair down for once. Just a little. These French ‘yoot’: they seem such a responsible bunch, busy training for a premature adulthood.

Maybe the moral high ground occupied by parents has obscured from view my own youthful transgressions, but curiously I have never really stopped to make the link to my own experience of teenage parties. They seem so far back in the past now that they’re hardly relevant. But now that I remember, surely I should be more worried about my daughter more than I have been. Drink, drugs, underage sex, appalling behaviour, irresponsibility a-go-go. She’s got my genes. It doesn’t bare thinking about.

Back in Belfast at the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s, my sister and I used to be part of a crowd of middle-class party-animals. We’d gather at a predetermined spot of a Saturday night – admittedly in a suburb that was safer than most – and either head for a party that we knew about, or wander the tree-lined avenues in search of a party that we didn’t (yet) know about. Armed with bottles of Strongbow or Woodpecker cider and Dick Turpin or QC wine, and flagons of home-brewed ‘jungle juice’ that tasted suspiciously like paint-stripper, we’d turn up, tune in to whatever was going down and turn on to whatever illicit substances were available in whoever’s house had been foolishly abandoned by trusting parents for the evening. 

I still blanche to think of one particular evening when my girlfriend’s parents returned prematurely to find all available floor space taken up by a writhing mass of hormonal humanity, either snogging at carpet-level or crashed out and propped up against a wall for support. I was upstairs when the lights went on, dressed in my girlfriend’s mother’s fur coat, either in the loo or the parents’ bedroom. All I can remember is opening a first-floor window, climbing onto the windowsill and hanging on by the gutter just above me as I swayed above the back garden below – until someone arrived and suggested that I might be better advised to climb back in and face the music. Anyone who knows the story of how Robert Wyatt of The Soft Machine ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life will recognise the folly of such a manoeuvre.

Every Saturday night, somehow we would have to make our way back home and slip into the family home and into our beds without drawing undue attention to ourselves. I can only imagine that the walk home was enough to sober us up sufficiently to avoid detection. Either that or my parents were as naïve and as trusting as I seem to have become in my time.

We, the parents, were at a party of our own last Friday evening. We left early because Debs had treated eight people that day and had to get up early the next morning for more. There was a text message from our daughter to ask if I could come and get her. What a shame, I thought. Obviously she hadn’t managed to let her hair down and wasn’t enjoying herself. So I dropped my tired wife off at home and drove off to pick up The Daughter.

As soon as I got there, I understood immediately why she wouldn’t have enjoyed herself. This party was different to others that she has spent happily among the company of school friends. There were… boys. If there’s anything worse on earth than teenage boys, it’s drunken teenage boys. I remember only too clearly how gauche and generally awful I must have been at a similar age in a similar condition. I caught one unsteady youth in my headlights, prowling around outside the house like a sexual predator. 

Locked in an embrace with some spotty Francois (or whatever the French equivalent is of Herbert) was the birthday girl. She released herself at once to greet me in a voice that was too much louder than normal to suggest anything other than partial inebriation. Hard as she probably tried to disguise it, I could see the look of relief on Tilley’s face when she saw me. She followed me to the car. Both of us were sensibly in bed before midnight.
It all came out in the wash the next day, once my wife had got back from work. That’s the way it works in this household: our daughter tells her mother, usually – unless otherwise requested – on the implicit understanding that it will be edited if necessary and passed on to her father. Apparently it was a boozing party, with whisky and Malibu high up on the menu. The party dinner came to naught, because her friend’s mother forgot the cheese for the raclette and then the boys, who started throwing food as soon as they arrived, added beer and lead pencils to the water in which the potatoes were cooked.
A whole scene going, in other words! But not the kind of scene favoured by my daughter. I have a rough idea why she’s so disdainful of teenage boys, but can’t imagine where she got to be so sensible about alcohol. I’m very relieved that she is and only hope that she manages to retain this equanimity once she becomes a student in the UK. Obviously French kids aren’t quite the sensible creatures I had previously imagined, but they’re positive angels in comparison to their British counterparts. Lord protect this thy child from the follies of her father…

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Artist

I can’t hide it; I have to tell someone… I’m in love with Peppy Miller! Well, the character played by the gorgeous Bérénice Bejo in The Artist. But then I’ve also been in love at various times with Audrey Tautou as Amélie, Marion Cottard as Coco Chanel and Juliette Binoche as almost any of her characters… I guess there’s something that appeals to me about French actresses. It’ll pass.

My latest infatuation is a very recent one. I went to see The Artist on Saturday night with The Daughter and a friend of the family who travelled here by train with her mother all the way from Sheffield for a long weekend. Having left our Guardian on the train, they tried to fob us off on arrival with a copy of the Sheffield Telegraph. The cheek of these visitors!

Succumbing to the hype, we went to see the latest Academy Award winner at the cinema in nearby Vayrac. Normally we aim to get there five minutes before the customary 9.00pm start, safe in the knowledge that you still have the choice of any of the comfortable seats in the steeply raked cavernous auditorium. There’s always time before the curtains part to exchange pleasantries with the familiar faces who turn up like clockwork for the twice-monthly versions originales. Five euros to watch a new release in the company of friends and familiar strangers: now that’s what I call a deal.

On Saturday night, we got there 20 minutes before the scheduled screening time. All the usual parking places were occupied and, for the first time ever, I had to try out the car park behind the cinema, which is maybe 25 yards further from the entrance. There was already a queue at the booking office and the auditorium continued to fill up until the last possible minute. It was a well-and-truly packed house. Never seen anything like it in all my born days! Not even for The King’s Speech.

It was hardly surprising. The French love their films and they’re very patriotic about any that become international hits. Not too long ago, they were queuing up in droves for Des Hommes et Des Dieux, which won a mere Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. They even queued to see it at the makeshift cinema in Martel, where you sit with bum-numbing discomfort on wooden benches for the experience of all those exasperating features of private film clubs: jumps, scratches, suspect sound and pauses between reels. In an age of multiplex screens and American-style buckets of popcorn, it’s reassuring to know that it’s still possible to watch films in purgatory. 

Of course, Of Gods And Men was accolade-lite in comparison to The Artist. Not only has it won five Oscars, but also those Oscars weren’t just for Best Foreign Film or Best Trained Animal. No sirree, they were for Best Film and for Best Actor. Sacré bleu, Jean Dujardin even managed to hold off the challenge of George Clooney. Which. I imagine, must fill the national bosom with as much pride as Mother Russia would have felt when Yuri Gagarin pipped Alan Sheppard, John Glenn et al to be the first man in space. 

Well, I’m happy to report that the accolades were thoroughly deserved. For a start, I would have awarded it an Oscar for the most audacious idea for a film. Imagine having to pitch it to a producer. ‘You want me to find x million dollars to finance a silent film?’ It’s one of those blissfully simple and retrospectively obvious ideas that can never be repeated. Hopefully, the powers of Hollywood will have the taste to recognise that you cannot make The Artist 2 and Son of The Artist.

I think the last silent films I watched would have been films like Battleship Potemkin, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis: all those classic films that anyone who fancies himself or herself as a serious student of film feels duty-bound to watch. So it was quite strange to be sitting among an audience gathered together to watch a silent film for no other motive than sheer entertainment. It’s hard to tell in the dark, of course, but I imagine that just about everyone there sat through it with a fixed grin. If there was anyone there who understood English, they might have even derived a curious pleasure (as I confess I did) from lip-reading certain words and phrases and then mouthing them idiotically to themselves. Maybe silent films do that kind of thing to a spectator. We will have forgotten. 

As someone who has attempted to script a film, it was also a fascinating reminder of just how much information you can convey visually. There were minimal captions and, even without them, I think I could have managed to unravel what was happening rather more easily than my wife did when she went to see Kurosawa’s Ran in Copenhagen, forgetting that the Japanese dialogue would be dubbed into Danish and not English.

All in all, the leading man had a winning smile, his dog was as captivating as The Thin Man’s Astor the Wonderdog and Peppy Miller was just a doll. I could have wrapped her up in brown paper and taken her home – but I’m not quite sure the family would have taken it. She captured the same kind of goofy charm and vulnerability that Shirley MacLaine had in Sweet Charity and Judy Holliday had in Born Yesterday.
It’s a clever, charming and entertaining film and you can understand its popularity. I suspect, however, that it will prove to be one of those Oscar-winners, like Around The World in 80 Days, that never really stands the test of time – something more of the moment than one of those truly great Oscar-winners, like On The Waterfront or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, to name but two, that last from here to eternity.
I’ve heard that the demand for Jack Russell dogs has rocketed in the wake of the film. I suppose that’s slightly better than everyone wanting an orang-utan in the wake of Every Which Way But Loose, or an endangered tropical fish after that Disney film whose name I have forgotten. I’m not like that, of course. Not susceptible to that kind of influence. I’d be quite happy with a Peppy Miller.