Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Message For You

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

'He Talks To The Animals!'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Case Of The Self-Raising Tone-Arm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Swinging The Lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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