Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once or twice a week, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Marley And Me

Our local cinema has had a digital make-over. God alone knows how they’ve found the money to buy the new projector and rig up all the speakers, but they’ve managed to transform a Spartan auditorium into an audio-visual pleasure dome.

It’s a huge barn of a place, with the rows of seats steeply raked right up to the projection room at the back. On version originale nights, the ex-pats and the more arty-farty locals are dotted around the outsized venue like cricket spectators at a county championship game on a chilly afternoon in April. Even for the most popular French or dubbed-into-French films, I can’t imagine that the place is ever more than half-full. So the money certainly doesn’t come from the paying public, who part anyway with a very modest tariff.

No, I guess it comes from the Conseil Régional, Conseil Général or whatever other public body channels government money into the independent art et essai circuit. Probably seeing the writing on the wall revealed this week by Francois Hollande’s first austerity budget, the cinema shut its doors earlier this summer for a week or so to effect the modifications. While there was still money in the kitty and before the projected exodus of wealthy citizens. And lo! God said, pick up thy balls ye rich tribes of Gall and go play with them in some far-off tax havens.

We have helped to support our local cinema by going not once but twice in a single week. On both occasions, our fellow spectators have numbered no more than 20. My wife once took time off one afternoon from her daily travails to go and see a film at the Rex in Brive. Arriving just after the lights had gone down, she fumbled her way to a free seat and sat down right next to the only other person in the cinema. A man, too. Being a good-humoured soul, she made light of the situation and retreated to an empty row. We’ve never been similarly embarrassed at Vayrac, but, as one of the few in such a big space, you feel a little self-conscious until the darkness restores your anonymity. 
'Do you know the way to San Jose?'
There was a new version of Jane Eyre on the Monday night, followed by a new documentary on Bob Marley on the Thursday. I wasn’t sure whether the world needed another cinematic version of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, but Debs pointed out that we think nothing of new theatrical productions of Hamlet, so I tagged along – and very glad I was, too. For a start, it was filmed mainly in Derbyshire, so the stunning landscape reminded us of our beloved Sheffield. Perhaps it was the new digital sound-system that made me so aware of the wind sweeping across the moors that I could almost feel it cutting me to the bone. The film underlined like no other version that I’ve ever seen the sheer cold discomfort of 19th century life. It looked and felt like that famous canvas come to life of the Brontë sisters painted by brother Bramwell. Life for a Victorian governess must have been a fairly joyless activity. Little wonder that Jane falls for Rochester and that her creator and her sisters spent their time cooking up romantic hot-pots for future film directors. 

I didn’t expect many natives for the screening of an old British classic, but I did have hopes of a full house for the Bob Marley film. Popular music tastes in our adopted country are notoriously suspect – Claude François is a stain on the national character – but people generally like Bob Marley here as much as the rest of the world does. Nevertheless, my suggestion that we go a little earlier than usual to avoid queues at the box office was palpably idiotic. There were even fewer spectators than there were for the new Jane Eyre. What’s more the international contingent, who usually lively up themselves at parties, were mysteriously absent. So we were a mere hand full, ranging from a surprisingly old couple to a little boy with his mum and a Bob Marley t-shirt.

Perhaps the length of the film put off the public. Two and a half hours might seem too long for a music documentary to some, but it offered hope to me that the director would do justice to the subject. Thanks to an ambitious and self-confident social secretary at Exeter University, the Wailers headlined our summer ball back in 1975 or 1976. We were told that the band’s itinerary on that particular tour was London and Exeter, which seems quite ludicrous now in the light of Marley’s subsequent deification, and which certainly underlined how privileged we privileged middle-class students were on that unforgettable night. Unable to say that I saw The Beatles, I have earned gold kudos stars thanks to Bob Marley, the I-Threes and all the way from Kingston, Jamaica ladies and gentlemen the wailing Wailers. So the film’s running time suggested to me that the director Kevin MacDonald, who made The Last King of Scotland about Idi Amin, had done his homework.

In fact, it wasn’t a minute too long. Had there been any kind of audience to speak of, the ‘sensaround’ digital sound would have had them dancing in the aisles. Beautifully and creatively edited, the film started in the Jamaican hills of Bob’s childhood and ended, more or less, in the Bavarian mountains at the sanatorium where he went to die of cancer. The disease that probably dated back to a game of football, during which someone spiked his toe, transformed him into a fragile ghost-like figure staring out shockingly, like a death camp inmate, from photographs that I had never seen before.

'Mr. Livingstone, I presume?'
There was much about the film to celebrate and much to laugh at: the brief incomprehensible interview with the Wailers’ former producer, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, for example, now purple-haired and irredeemably bonkers, building bonfires in his Swiss [!] garage; and the clips of Bunny Wailer, an elder statesman from an era when reggae was still a Jamaican rather than global music, sporting crazy glasses and an outfit that made him look like a diplomat from the Planet Pluto.  

And what of Bunny’s former fellow Wailer, the hero of the story? Robert, as Bunny called him, came over as one of these likeable but maddening self-absorbed characters, driven by a great talent and single-minded ambition and supported all along the way by the very people who are casually neglected in pursuit of the goal. Generous to a fault, he gave much of his money away indiscriminately to hangers-on and the genuinely needy. Rita, his former wife, forgave him for his many transgressions with other women, because he was just that kind of character. But the poignant last words on the man came from the children for whom he had but little time during his brief life. They would have preferred to know their father better than bask vicariously in the adulation of all those millions of fans around the world.

If it comes to a cinema near you, go and see this marvellous film. Austerity is officially upon us and art et essai picture houses all over France will need all the support they can get.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Steal My Spam

The Ouysse is a short but spectacular river that flows into the Dordogne at Lacave. For most of its 45 or so kilometres, it travels underground – part of the labyrinth of caves that have transformed the limestone causse into a geologist’s theme park. After its emergence somewhere near Rocamadour, the last leg of its brief journey forms a magical steep-sided valley dotted with some of the finest watermills in the region. Being a family home, the Moulin de Latreille may not be the best known, but it sure hosts the best parties. 

I went there on Saturday night with a pair of graphic artists: my friend Dan and his father-in-law, who told me tales of the wildlife near his home on the east coast of Scotland, somewhere between Aberdeen and Inverness. We went for a kind of private performance by Gigspanner, Peter Knight’s spin-off three-piece band when he’s not busy touring (as one of the group’s founding members) with Steeleye Span.  

Peter and his wife, Deborah, stayed at Fi and Giles’s chambre d’hôte a couple of years ago when they were looking for a house to buy and no doubt fell in love with the mill, as most people do. I imagine that they probably stayed in the bedroom whose window looks out on the Ouysse as it skirts the house. Subsequently, the guests tracked down that elusive house in the unpopulated wilds of the Creuse. They had talked with mein hosts about one day playing at the mill and Deborah arranged the gig as part of Gigspanner’s short tour de France.

We have known Fi and Giles for ten years or so. Due to the trying business of having to earn our respective daily bread, we don’t see a lot of each other, but it’s one of those bonds that matures and strengthens as the years go passing by. Every time we come away from the mill after a party or a dinner date, we drive home with a warm glow that derives from a feeling that we have been privy to something memorable. The pair of them know such a diverse range of people that they’ve become legends in their own lunchtimes. Giles, for example and much to my envy, numbers Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker among his coterie. One Sunday we met a friend of theirs from England, who – we discovered – used to share a house near Guildford with my brother. 

Getting to the mill involves a vertiginous descent down a track ravaged by rainwater. Each time, it creates a sense of child-like expectancy in me, as if I’m following Jules Verne’s Arne Sacknussemm down into the centre of the earth. You can measure progress with the mill by the state of the track. Fi and Giles have suffered for their ‘art’. For years, they banged their heads against the doors of indifferent officials in seeking help with the road and with a turbine that would harness the energy of the mill-race. They’ve endured winters that would have tested the mettle of Shackleton’s Antarctic team. Parties in the early years were powered by throbbing turbines that devoured fuel like it was on special offer at the Boxing Day Furniture World sale. But things have come together over the last few years. Although subject to the vagaries of the river, the water turbine helps to keep them warm in winter and the chambres d’hôte are now included in the Alastair Sawday guide.

We paid the price of admission and parked in a meadow bordered by the river and the steep cliffs of the opposite bank. If you’re steeped in the mythology of the Wild West, you can almost imagine that you’ve stumbled on the hideout of the Hole In the Wall Gang. It wouldn’t surprise you to see a group of horsemen kicking up dust as they zig-zag down through the brush of the precipitous rock face. Instead, we stumbled upon kids playing games and adults standing around chatting or sitting on some of the old armchairs dotted about incongruously. After the brief overnight rain and an unpromising morning, the sun had come out in the afternoon and the air was still balmy, filled with the smell of sausages and chicken wings smoking on barbeques. 

The three band members had set up their stage in the cavernous barn whose low beams create a deceptive sense of intimacy. Lured by the sound of Peter Knight on the fiddle, those of us there for the music stood or sat in semi-silent devotion while those there for the ‘craik’ carried on carousing outside. One particularly loud group of hooray-Henrys combined the two. If I’d been Peter Knight, I would have given them a very cold and meaningful stare until they got the message and drifted off outside. But Peter is a good-humoured man who clearly has that enviable ability to lose himself utterly in the act of creation. Watching him communicating wordlessly but joyously with his two campadres as he stringed or plucked his fiddle, I thought about how it must be almost a religious calling to be a musician. 

Only the previous weekend, I’d watched a clip of Steeleye Span performing their well-worn ‘All Around My Hat’ on some BBC archive collection that went with a documentary on Fairport Convention. The 2012 version of Peter Knight was reassuring like the 1960s model: glasses, moustache, a little greyer, a little heavier. Probably, too, a little funnier. His laconic introductions seemed suffused with the experience of 45 years in the business.

I was never a great one for the folk revival as a lad. I saw Ralph McTell and Al Stewart once, and the unique John Martyn on a few occasions at Queens University, Belfast. I had a single or two by the Fairports, Basket of Light by Pentangle and a brilliant album by the oft-forgotten Trees. But on the whole, fiddles and fingers in the ear weren’t my cup of tea. On Saturday night, however, I was spellbound by the brilliance of the musicianship. Just three men and their instruments: Peter on fiddle, Roger Flack on guitar and Vincent Salzfaas on the most tasteful djembe and congas. It was folk music, Jim, but not as I knew it.

They played two sets separated by the inevitable extended interval. They rewarded the woman who brought them a clutch of beer cans with two extra numbers after the obligatory encore. And then we shuffled off into the night, some to stay in tents pitched on the meadow, others to drive home. I asked Fi if they’d made anything out of the event. Not really, but it was good publicity. More importantly, it was the occasion. And who knows, maybe next time? Lit up by coloured fairy lights strung from the trees, the mill sometimes appears as a kind of gift to their friends.

The stars were out in force as we trudged to the car in the darkness. We spoke of the magic of the occasion. It was one of those special events that mark out your life. Ah yes, I remember. What a night. Late September 2012. I saw Gigspanner at the Moulin de Latreille. Down by the river Ouysse.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

She's Leaving Home

Sunday morning at seven o’clock as the day begins… 

7.15 to be precise. I stood there in my dressing gown blowing kisses as the overstuffed mini-Peugeot pulled away. I watched it all the way up to the road as part of my customary benediction. Everything will be well provided that I witness at least part of the ascent up our track. (Probably.)

It’s amazing how stealthily and treacherously time sneaks up on you. All summer long this September day of departure has just shimmered like a mirage on a distant horizon. Not something to focus on or worry about, because it’s not real. And then suddenly you let your guard down and turn around to discover that it is real. 

All week long, The Daughter has been busy dismantling her bedroom in order to recreate a haven in central Paris. Like her dad, the kid loves to build a nest in which she can find reassurance. The three of us have been reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids this summer, her evocative tale of her life with the artist, Robert Mapplethorpe. Neither Tilley nor I can quite comprehend their ability to leave behind the impedimenta of their young lives as they moved from one space to another. As a touring actress in her early days, my wife can understand it, but stuff to me and my gal is more than simply stuff. I did worry, though, when she asked us if she could take with her some old photos, including spares from our wedding day.

I suppose it’s different when you’re an only child. We’ve done most things together and she thinks of herself as an integral part of a unit of three. So all week long, she’s felt sentimental and on occasions tearful. The cuddles have been getting tighter, with a hint of desperation. It was different for me. When the time came to pack up and go I couldn’t wait. One of four siblings, we constituted our own unit. Our parents seemed like bystanders on one hand and even sometimes the common enemy on the other. When I went away, I felt grown up and ready and so I deliberately left behind my Subbuteo table football and Hendon Hall, my indestructible toy monkey. All that I took, when I think about it, were a few clothes, a few books, a poster or two, my record player and a box of records. Tilley has taken just about everything, which suggests that young girls are not like young boys.

And now for our next trick...
My job on Saturday, therefore, as self-appointed expert in the field, was to figure out how to transpose a bedroom into my wife’s Noddy car. The back seats fold down, but you can’t take them out without a real struggle. The boot is only big enough for a couple of shopping bags. So you start with the smallest things, of course, which you can secrete under seats and in side pockets, then you fill up the void between the seats and finally work your way up to the duvet that hides the whole caboodle. It has taken me many years, but finally I created my masterpiece. Packed to the gills, but the field of vision clear. Only the old dressmaker’s dummy had to stay behind. We’ll have to wrap it up in an old mack and take it up by train when we go to see our child in her new surroundings. 
Alf witnessed unhappily the to-ing and fro-ing. Dogs know when something major’s going on. My wife’s family dog apparently used to remove the contents of her suitcase as fast as she could pack it whenever she would go back to boarding school. Ours is adept at removing tissues from wastepaper baskets and eggshells from compost pins, but hasn’t learned that particular trick. He just lay near the car with his head flat against the grass. Even though we’d spelled out the situation – me staying here to look after the domestics while my wife spends the week in Paris helping our kid make the transition towards independence – he was resolutely lugubrious. 

So I’m left holding the fort and my child has flown the nest. My life will change momentously, as it changed when I became a parent and discovered the difference between Responsibility and mere responsibilities. Officially, I guess, I am about to step into the Third Age: a time, according to the adverts, of health insurance deals and happy holidays with your silver-haired partner.

But this is where the hard part starts for certain parents. Were I a bird, I could congratulate myself on a job well done and get back to the task of digging up my own worms. If only it were so simple. Can it ever be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’? Won’t I be constantly wondering what she’s up to and mentally fidgeting about her whereabouts and circumstances? 

No doubt a therapist would tell me to trust that I have done everything I can to equip her for adult life and there comes a time when you just have to let them get on with it. Certainly, just recently my wife has done a great job teaching her to iron: honing her skills on the laundry left behind by the holidaymakers at the chateau I tend to earn some argent de poche. Me, I thought about passing on certain lessons from The Book of Mark, but most of them seemed a bit paradoxical: enjoy yourself, but don’t neglect your studies; be prudent with your money, but be generous to your friends; eat well and healthily, but don’t spend too much on food. All that kind of thing, which normally provokes an exasperated Yes, I know! In the end I mentioned that if you have to withdraw money, carry most of it in a tight pocket and only keep a little in your wallet. Just in case… I probably shouldn’t have. As if the poor girl hasn’t enough on her plate, moving from the peace and quiet of the countryside to the noise and bustle and menace of the big city. But one doesn’t want them to have to learn the hard way. 

In the end, I trusted to her innate good sense and skipped the patriarchal pep-talks in a darkened study. Now look here, my girl… Instead, I restricted myself to a confusing lesson on connecting speakers to an amplifier so that the negatives don’t get cross-wired to the positives, and a word of caution about hanging her mirror. And here was a little box of duplicate cassettes to help broaden her musical education with a spare copy of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain for those occasional Sunday morning homesick blues.

See you soon, we consoled each other. And, of course, Paris is but a train-ride away. It’s not as if she’ll be in Glasgow or Edinburgh, where she originally planned to study. But not too soon. Because that means that she’ll be having a good time and acquiring independence and, at that point, I can start thinking about a job well done and getting on with my Third Age.

She’s leaving home… Bye bye.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Valedictories and Diplomas

This Saturday morning I deviated from my norm. Foregoing the customary pleasure of a visit to Martel market, I went to Brive in order to play the proud parent and watch my daughter collect her baccalaureate. 

We’d been discussing the ins and outs of my attendance all week long. Tilley wasn’t at all keen. Anything to do with school, apparently, freaks her out. It would be stressful enough to gather together with her peers for one last time and troop across the stage – or whatever it was that they were expecting her to do – without a proud, beaming papa there to witness it.

I’d consulted the Oracle at Delphi (my sensible wife) about the issue. While respecting our daughter’s position, there are times when you have to exercise executive power. She couldn’t make it herself, since she’d be slaving all morning over a hot massage couch. But she felt it right that one of us should represent the official wing of the family. It didn’t seem right somehow that our daughter’s school career should end with a whimper. My presence would help the kid achieve some kind of closure.

Standing in the covered walkway outside the lecture theatre where the ceremony (as I imagined it) would take place, I looked out over the quad at the gaggles of ex-pupils, no doubt talking about what they’d been up to this summer, and thought back to all those prize days and graduation ceremonies. My parents must have felt very like I was feeling at that moment: proud as punch, but as awkward as an interviewee for a job. Did I, for example, go and find my offspring and then hover around her like one of the moons of Saturn? Or did I simply respect her independence and just continue to stand there like a lemon? I removed my sunglasses and secreted my pork-pie hat in my bag in an attempt at anonymity. 

My mobile phone vibrated in my pocket. It was my daughter. I could see her with a bunch of friends across the quad. She played her final card: Dad, I don’t want to be mean or anything, but I haven’t seen any parents. I stood my ground. Well, I’ve seen parents and I’m a parent. But I did double-check with the personnage on the door that it was OK for parents to be present.

The proviseur arrived. The school principal: a suitably tall man with a wavy, salt-and-pepper hairstyle set off by a light-grey suit. He ushered everyone inside the raked auditorium and I took my place roughly half way up in an attempt to be ‘neither mickling nor muckling’, as Billy Liar might have put it. Another lone father sat down one seat away and we acknowledged each other diffidently. My daughter shuffled in with her friend, Pauline, and to my surprise and pleasure came to sit down beside me. Clearly then, the days of being forced to wear a parental burka, forbidden to open my mouth in public lest I bring her shame and dishonour, were over. Maybe I have entered the stage of our relationship where I will be presented to friends as a kind of ageing and slightly eccentric dignitary. 

As the auditorium filled up with noise and young adults, another of my daughter’s friends joined us. She’s been bombarding Tilley with texts since she started her preparatory course in Toulouse, asking her to check her English translations. With six hours of exams every Wednesday, her course sounds a bundle of laughs. Another friend has started studying for a medical degree in Limoges. After a week of constant lectures and private study every evening, she has yet to meet anyone. Under circumstances like that, I would have given higher ed a miss.

When the show finally kicked off the customary 15 minutes late, the principal underlined this relentless emphasis on hard work and results by showing some slides that illustrated how The Daughter’s school was consistently above the national average. It’s no wonder then that when Debs asked a nine-year old girl the other day why we went to school, the child replied ‘To get good marks’. When pressed for any further reasons, she answered ‘To work hard’. Learning, then, and things like discovery clearly don’t come into it. You’re taught, it seems – from a very early age – that if you don’t get good marks, you’re just a failure.

And so there was nothing as I had remembered or imagined. No opportunity to celebrate each individual’s success in graduating from school by calling out their names so they could walk across the stage to the sound of their fellows’ applause and receive their diploma, a brief moment of glory and recognition for what they had gone through. Only those with a mention très bien, who would probably go on to the grandes écoles and perpetuate France’s very own and very anachronistic elitist system, were called out to come and receive a cheque for 50 euros.

By then, however, the whole thing had generated into chaos. No wonder Tilley hadn’t wanted me to come. What on earth had I been thinking of? Everyone knows that the French couldn’t organise the proverbial pee-pee-up in a brewery. No wonder the Committee awarded the Olympics to London and not to Paris. After the head had had his illustrated say, he passed the ineffectual microphone to a series of guests, who were drowned out by the constant babble. I was shocked. Either it added fuel to the theory that today’s child has got the attention-span of a gnat or, more surprising to someone who has always maintained that the general standard of social behaviour is much higher in France than it is in the UK, no one has taught these former pupils how to show minimal respect to others. I wanted to stand up and yell For God’s sake will you shut the hell up! Only, I was hampered by a lack of idiomatic French and a desire not to traumatise the fruit of my loins.

So, alas, did it end with a whimper after all. The kids piled out of the theatre to go and pick up their pieces of paper in three separate rooms according to the type of bac they followed. Needless to say, there was an aperitif offered in the refectory. I stayed long enough to drink a glass of grapefruit juice, sample the petit fours and avoid the soupe de champagne and the meaty nibbles. Still feeling acutely awkward, I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me.

Later I told Tilley about the shock I’d experienced. Why hadn’t the principal not simply instructed everyone to be quiet? She told me that it was just the way it was. Only the teachers who use menace and threats manage to gain some order. She and her friends knew enough to be quiet and listen to what the teachers had to say, but in most classes the noise level was so high that she couldn’t even hear what it was they had to say. Surprise, surprise, the testosterone-fuelled boys were the worst, egged on by the gum-chewing, earring-fiddling airheads who hang on their every idiocy. Now you can see why it’s not just me being a drama-queen, she told me with feeling.

Yes. I can see clearly now why she had to spend so much time over the years shut up in her bedroom, doing her homework and getting some kind of auto-education. I can see clearly now why everything about school continues to freak her out. I can see why she didn’t want me to come and waste my time on a Saturday morning when I could have been shopping at Martel market and watching Football Focus. Even supposedly the best school in Brive, for all the excellent trips and cultural visits, was ultimately nothing but an ordeal. I have to hope that the next three years of higher education will be a little more frivolous and joyful and truly the best years of her life.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Try To Remember The 1st September

On Saturday the 1st September I queued up at my customary stalls in Martel’s market as I do each Saturday morning. Only, this Saturday,  the queues were a mere fraction of the size that they have been over the last couple of months. The Egg Man joked that it had been difficult to get up that morning. Sabine – or Bio Woman, who grows vegetables fit for superhero(in)es – told me that earlier it had been four degrees down in the valley. Only two weeks before the temperature had climbed above 40.

Another Saturday, another market
Suddenly the crowds have gone for another year. The roads around here are no longer so full of Plastic Fantastics, the mobile camper vans that clog up the highways and threaten to topple over on sharp bends. It all happens so suddenly. Almost as if high summer is some kind of Never Never Land and we wake up as if from a dream to stare at the familiar landscape in which we exist for the remaining ten months. While queuing for my onions, I overheard two good ol’ boys looking forward to the slaughter of the new hunting season. (Something else to look forward to, now that autumn’s on the way. I made a mental note to heap pestilence upon both their houses.)

September 1st is such a symbolic landmark. On this day, already nine years ago, the digger man dug out the foundations of our house-to-be. Children and their parents everywhere are busy thinking about the rentrée des classes. Those of us who have woken up from Never Never Land with a gloomy frame of mind are maybe thinking about the next phase of La Crise and how we’re going to get through it. As yet, I haven’t encountered a single rich and famous French person heading for a haven where they won’t have to pay the new president’s new wealth tax. But then, they’ll all be off by air or sea and unlikely to pass by the Lot.

For the time being, though, there were smaller, more practical things to occupy this first Saturday of Normal Service. Such as: how to work around an earlier time for Football Focus. I decided to record it while making lunch and then to eat lunch while watching the recording. Simples! (When you have the technology.) It was all about huge last-minute transfers before the ‘window’ closes. While I ate-and-fumed, I couldn’t help wonder why we continue to tolerate such inequity in our society. I’d read about the stir Nick Clegg’s proposed one-off wealth tax is creating in the UK. It’s only half of one per cent or something piddling, which seems very little to give back to the so-called Big Society that’s helped to swell their wealth. I noted on a Post-it to heap pestilence upon the House of Beckham and other overpaid mercenaries of his kidney. (Actually, while I’d encourage the Grim Reaper to carry off the surly Victoria, I might ask him to spare the boy David and his children if they promised to do more for the common good.)

Once my raging fury had abated and I’d tidied up the lunch things, I took Tilley over to see a friend and help her sort out her stuff for Clermont-Ferrand, where she’s going for some higher education. One by one, her school friends are dispersing to pastures new – to Clermont-Ferrand, Limoges, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Paris – and trepidation is rife. In the middle of the month, she swaps the familiar peace and quiet of the Lotois countryside for the hurly-burly and hullabaloo of the capital. The prospect is understandably scary.
Having dropped off The Daughter, I drove over to see my friend, Adrian, the tree surgeon, and on the way to deposit our duvets for cleaning. The nights are getting appreciably colder and soon a blanket and cover will no longer suffice. As I popped the ticket into my wallet, I couldn’t help think what a packed multifarious existence I lead. 

Adrian was packing up his latest second-hand van with beer and wine for the long haul back to Dunkirk and thence to Cornwall. He helped me load into the car a pair of acro-props he’s lent me for the duration to prop up a rotting beam underneath our back balcony. Then he showed me around the latest home improvements he’s made during his summer here. He’s just had the house valued. Since he’s been going through a messy protracted separation from his wife, he was delighted to show me a valuation he’s just received from an estate agent. I was staggered by how low it was. It just goes to show how far the property market has fallen and how much value a new road can strip from your assets. If other people had put the kind of work he’d put into the place over the years, they would be devastated by such a valuation. But Adrian doesn’t intend to sell. The house still represents his dream of a better future and the negative equity will help him wriggle reasonably unscathed out of the financial net in which he’s been trapped for so long. Or so he hopes.

Back home, I found the girls watching another episode of Six Feet Under on the box upstairs. There was just enough time to give the dog a quick walk and call for Daisy, who hadn’t come in for her breakfast. Friends were expecting us within the half hour. We were to bring Alf over to meet their new puppy and effect an introduction. We like to think of these friends as Alfie’s godparents, since they’ve looked after him whenever we’ve gone off on holiday without him. The trouble is, we haven’t been able to reciprocate, as their last dog was a bit of a loose cannon – and forever guilty of traumatising Daisy’s sister, Myrtle. So, if Alf and Holly got on like the anticipated house on fire, then we could have her to stay whenever they went off on their travels.

After a slightly nervous beginning attributable to our dog’s sheer size, everything went swimmingly. We ate a clotted-cream tea in celebration of Sophie’s birthday and aah-ed to see the two dogs tug a rope together until Large got a little fed up with Little’s constant demands. It was all very charming and bodes well for a happy and harmonious future.
We’ve all been watching and enjoying Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford’s Parade’s End on BBC2, so I was determined – despite the impact of such a packed Saturday on mind and body – to stay up for an Arena special on the fascinating figure that adopted the brilliant nom de plume of Ford Madox Ford. At first, I was bright and alert, but gradually slipped off into Never Never Land. Fortunately I had the wit to press ‘Record’.

Thus ended a momentous first day of September 2012. That night I dreamed that Daisy had returned. Lying on an old checked shirt of mine, she had swollen to the size of Sister Myrtle. When I got up in the morning, I found her lying on her sofa, washing her belly. She was still the runt of the litter and hadn’t put on a single ounce during the 24 hours spent away from home.