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.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Doppelgänger at Christmas

That was quite a week, that was. Well, I woke up this morning... Thursday morning, in fact, to find that I had been unveiled as the new manager of the English women's football team. Somehow, I managed to miss my interview on Radio 4's morning news programme.

It all could have been quite serendipitous. Only the other day, I was wondering whether my gainful work as an instructional designer had run its natural course. Was it time perhaps for a new career, even at my advanced age?

I confess that I was rather excited by the prospect of taking on a team of fit women and turning them into a crack unit of winners. (Unlike their male contemporaries.) With some interesting training techniques up my sleeve to try out, I was itching to get stuck in, so to speak. I even received from pals several offers of help with the physiotherapeutic side of the role. One, in particular, even went to the trouble of acquiring an online massage qualification in order to jump the queue. I had to temper his enthusiasm by questioning his practical experience with a magic sponge.

One thing's for sure, 'affable and friendly' I might be, but as the BBC sports page pointed out, I am 'not to be messed with'. Mark Sampson is definitely his own man. When it came to allocating the support roles, favouritism would not come into the equation. For example, I'm on good terms with a few plumbers in the area. They're good enough at their trade, but imagine if there was a problem with the showers at the end of a gruelling international. Could I count on them to remedy the problem on the spot, or would they engage in the usual shilly-shallying one associates (alas) with plumbers? No, I realised that the only person suitable for the job was... Guildford's favourite plumber, my brother.

In the cold light of the following day, however, I realised that a certain conflict of interest was colouring my credentials. I couldn't quite put my hand on my heart and say that I was going into this new venture in entirely the right, purely sporting, spirit. So, with rather less brouhaha, I thanked the powers for the offer and tendered my resignation. Reporters are even now clamouring at my door, hoping for some kind of indiscrete statement to fan the flames.

Never mind... It would have been an all-consuming role. Deep down, I knew that there wouldn't be time for my book-making career in tandem. Only this week, after an agonising Sunday wrestling with formatting, I uploaded my book of our grand design to Amazon's Kindle platform. After almost ten years in gestation, and thwarted up until now by the commercial considerations of traditional publishing houses, it was a liberating experience to get it all down on paper. Well, a computer screen; I never cared for carbon paper. Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow is less about construction and more about the de-construction of family life during our year of living dangerously close to the edge. I don't know if one can put a download in a Christmas stocking, but I'm hoping that it's priced so modestly that it might serve as a last-minute universal 'tree present', as my grandma used to label her more minor gifts.

So... if readers would care to go there and fork out three bucks or so for what Stephen Fry has already called 'an entertaining read', and then, if they like it sufficiently well, post a glowing review on said Amazonian platform, who knows? In my wildest dreams, it will become a succès d'estime and supplement my retirement. I've already received a royalty payment of £1.82. Dream hard enough and the sky is surely the limit.

Flushed with a sense of achievement, I took time off from the daily grind to go Christmas shopping with the Good Wife of Brive la Gaillarde. Around the church in the centre of the old town, they've put up some of those market stalls that look like self-assemble sheds from Monsieur Bricolage. One of them was womanned by a woman in a smart coat from the Dordogne selling double jazz CDs illustrated by some celebrated French cartoonist. They were overpriced, but I was tempted by a Ben Webster compilation for a friend who likes Duke Ellington's finest tenorman.

We got talking and she congratulated me for and then corrected my French. She talked about all les anglais in the Dordogne (living in the department and not floundering in the river) and I recognised the patter of a crypto-racist. The ones who hide behind a painted smile. It all came out: don't speak the language, stick to themselves, bring supplies in from the UK, blah blah blah. She had English neighbours, she told me with a certain faux-liberal pride, and I sensed that she'd be the sort to sell them down river as soon as Marie Le Pen's xenophobic foot soldiers start sniffing easy prey. It was with great pleasure that I was able to point out that London is now the sixth biggest French city and then witness the genuine surprise that masked the painted smile. Had I had my wits about me, I would have asked her whether she had ever tried to live in a foreign land, far from all that's safe and familiar, and then suggested that – in the words of the song – she tried to walk a mile in my shoes before rushing to judgement.

Readers, I bought not a one of her CD coffrets.

My week ends with the return of our prodigal daughter. She rides in on Saturday afternoon on the 10.10 from Paris, or whatever time it leaves the Gare d'Austerlitz. Two whole weeks of Christmas en famille. What fun, what bliss. Myrtle can go back to sleeping on The Kid's bed. Once the commercial mayhem has abated, we can settle down to chestnuts roasting on an open fire and some of the films I have been assiduously burning onto DVD.

I hope you've noticed how I've used words like 'platform' and 'burning' in their modern sense. I am the very model of a modern major-domo – but not so modern that I cannot raise a cup of sack and wish ye all a very merry Christmas and a most happy and prosperous new year.

Hosanna in excelsis!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Book-Maker Regrets

In an idle moment with my beloved time-waster, often referred to in polite company as 'my wife' - now a self-styled Emotional Health Specialist by trade, because 'aromatherapist, reflexologist and EFT practitioner' seems far too cumbersome - we explored a key moment of my childhood.

The hotel today

It was during the winter of 1961. As a comfortable middle-class family, in the grip of never having it so good and keenly anticipating the benefits of the white heat of technology, we had just moved from a north London suburb to Belfast. We stayed in a small private hotel run by a gruff but good-hearted woman in the same tree-lined avenue in which we would buy our second red-bricked house. My parents were busy hunting our first house and lining up a suitable primary school for my sister, my brother and me. We kids had time to kill and time to get to know the few old ladies who lived there permanently.   

One day, I think I might have been reading through one of my beloved cowboy annuals in the lounge, when one of the bespectacled 'old dears' asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her proudly that I wanted to be a book-maker, whereupon the gaggle of old ladies giggled out loud. What was so funny? What was wrong with the idea of making books when I grew up? I expect I smiled awkwardly and they probably tried to explain to me the difference between a book-maker and a bookmaker, and I expect I took refuge in the Wild West of my annual.
The book-maker and his middle-class family

So maybe I was too embarrassed to mention it again if anyone else asked me about my ambitions. If I had have done, I doubt whether it would have been encouraged anyway by my parents, who wouldn't have considered it a serious occupation for a young man. Ironically, the sound of a typewriter was key to much of our childhood. Most afternoons, my mother would shut herself away in the parental bedroom and hammer out the pages of novels she wrote about the IRA under a pseudonym, no doubt because she had been persuaded by her parents that the life of an artist was not really the thing for a 'young lady'. The paintings of Belfast street scenes still hang in my parents' current home, but I don't know what became of those painstaking manuscripts. They're probably hidden away in a suitcase under a bed somewhere. Notwithstanding the pseudonym, I doubt if my mother ever sent one to a publisher, because she couldn't bear the anticipated rejection. And so, because parents tend to pass on the messages that they get from their own parents, she encouraged me to become a chartered accountant. Fortunately (and maybe subconsciously deliberately), I was useless at Maths.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut jr. (who was perhaps encouraged by senior Vonneguts) would have it. On such seemingly innocent moments as the Incident in a Small Private Hotel, whole careers and destinies hinge.  My best-est of best friends, for example, won a poetry prize sponsored by Queens University while still in the 6th form. But he never took his literary ambitions seriously enough to overcome the self-doubt that possibly derived from an unwitting childhood humiliation when he read out one of his creations to his parents. Oh Chollie... Chollie. He coulda bin a contender. He coulda bin the next Wallace Stevens... To use the hyperbole of our American cousins, he coulda bin ossum!

 It took me many, many years of bashful avoidance before I plucked up the courage to call myself a writer. Even now, however, I still qualify the term when people ask me to expand on the subject. Well, you know, most of it is writing e-learning to earn a living, which isn't ultimately the kind of writing I want to do... Blah blah blah. Obviously, I don't quite engage with the term 'writer': it doesn't fully describe what I really, really want to do.

Which is why I've decided to go back to that moment in the small hotel (without a wish-ing well...), move on from the unconscious humiliation and re-embrace the term 'book-maker'. It was good enough for a seven-year old, so it's good enough for an adult in search of something a little more inspiring than 'writer/journalist'.  And I shouted from the highest hill, I wanna make books!

Mother and child reunion

The wonderful thing about EFT - or Emotional Freedom Techniques - is that it doesn't simply re-visit key moments of pain, thereby actually reinforcing them as poor psychotherapy can do, but it allows you to shift the psychological block by repeating phrases that have personal meaning and by tapping on the body's psycho-dynamic energy points (otherwise known as 'meridians'). I know, I know... It all sounds too New Age to be credible. I was sceptical myself, but I've experienced how it can work and how it helped The Daughter through her annus horribilis, her first year at her 'school' far from the nest, how it helped transform the desperate tearful crisis calls into the determination and self-belief that enabled her to come out top of her class. Frankly, it was the sine qua non.

But a technique's only as good as the person who employs it. Which is why I've decided to stop waiting around for the Grauniad to discover me and offer a lucrative contract for a weekly column, and hitch my love of language to my wife's personal wagon and help her explore new territories. Go west, young man!

Which is why I'm going to suspend La Vie En Straw for now and concentrate on my next, proper book: Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow (an account of the year of living dangerously during the construction of a straw-built grand design). And produce the EFT Weekly each weekend in partnership with my wife. Because health matters... (and emotional health is surely the key to physical health).

Thank you, gentle readers, for sharing my thoughts over time, coherent and incoherent. And, in the words of Razzo, the wonderful character created by Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, A'm invoytn ya to read our joint production as from next weekend on a web page very near to this cinema.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

A French Film

I read something sometime recently that made me groan with the inevitability of it. Something about the decreasing popularity of French films in France. French audiences are demanding instead, quelle surprise, more fodder from the Big Country of philistines across the Atlantic. More bounce to the ounce, presumably: more guns, more explosions, more chases and other frenzied action, more brutality, more clichés.

It’s not that French film makers are immune to clichés. Judging by the posters and the blurb, plenty are riddled with them. But when they’re good, there’s still nothing quite like a French film. Movies like Un Air de Famille, for example, where we watch a group of beautifully observed individuals just interacting subtly and naturally, often warmly and humorously, where plot points and character arcs are so integrated into the whole rich tapestry of cinematic life that you don’t even notice them. France seems like one of the last places on earth where the indigenous film industry still bears an immediately recognisable stamp. So maybe not for much longer, then.

Last weekend it seemed that my wife and I stepped into a French film and became characters in a drama that unfolded around the 60th birthday of the friend I mentioned in the last post. His premature senility, as it was once known, lent the scenario the poignancy that the scriptwriter needed to lift it out of the commonplace.

Intercut with scenes of the preparations – and, being France, of course there would be some succulent close shots of food being chopped and cooked – is disparate footage to bring some of the players to the house where the drama will unravel. The now bearded good-looking son flying in to Lyon airport from his latest posting in Budapest; the daughter and her new partner speeding south from Normandy via Paris in a TGV; a car load of chattering friends from Bordeaux; another friend cycling down the Canal du Midi; a pair of expatriate Brits on the deserted A75, the ‘Meridian’ that cuts a swathe across the Massif Central from Clermont Ferrand to Bézier and Montpelier. The landscape they drive through looks notably dramatic under an ominous sky, which threatens to rain on the host’s parade. There is a glimpse of the distant viaduct with the lights on top of its seven huge pillars blinking in the gloom, followed by a closer look from the Air de Repos at the monumental structure’s giant strides across the valley of the Tarn.

Journey’s end is a fairly typical well heeled house of the Midi – with a big veranda at the front sheltered by a vine laden with grapes the colour of rosé, a gravel courtyard that separates the house from a discreet fenced-in pool and boules court surrounded by little outhouses where the wood and the wine are stored. The abundant grapes and a huge flowering oleander testify to the year-round mildness of the climate.

On arrival, the guests go up in dribs and drabs to one of the bedrooms, where the photograph album compiled by the daughter in the weeks leading up to the party is laid out on the bed. Among the bygone images of family and friends are some of the 50th birthday celebrations at the summer house by the Atlantic. The proof of the time-lapse is there in the characters’ silver hair and the wrinkles around their eyes. How we have all aged! Moist-eyed with nostalgia, they write their testaments to friendship in white ink on black paper and studiously avoid sentiments like, So sorry you’ve gone off your rocker prematurely, because we had some great times together in the past when you were all there and we could share a proper conversation.

And then, like many a French film of yore, out come the first of the aperitifs that will mark the next two days. As glasses are raised, the host takes his English friend’s hat off his head and puts it on his own, then promptly forgets all about it until his wife, now wearily accustomed to such pranks, removes it and returns it to its careful owner. After the initial aperitifs, the women – because it’s always the women who do the socially responsible thing – bring out the various dishes they have been preparing all morning long. While the host’s solicitous female entourage checks to ensure that he is remembering to eat, his male friends either josh him or avoid having to stand next to him with nothing really to say.

Between the midday meal and the evening buffet, people sit under the vine and smoke and chat about their families and interim developments, or wander over to watch a noisy gaggle of men while away the afternoon over repeated games of boules. Some of the pluckier guests follow the lead of their hostess by taking a swim in the pool that is surprisingly cold. But isn’t this the Midi, where swimming pools stay ever warm to compensate for the density of the people and their motorised traffic, for the Mistral and for the arid terrain?

With the advent of evening, more food and drink emerges from the bottomless kitchen to cater for the influx of les jeunes: the nephews (plus partners and offspring) of our host, who has by now retreated indoors to watch some match on the telly and to find a little quiet time in order to recover from being present for so many visitors. Very small children scoot about on plastic pedal vehicles. An angelic boy, who could have been lifted from an Italian Renaissance painting, burns his finger on the motor of his dad’s motorbike in the road outside and the strange English woman succours him with lavender oil and then a demonstration of EFT, which tempts others to try its apparent magical powers on their own deep-seated wounds.

Meanwhile the very old have arrived to add a fourth generation. The elegant mother of the host’s cousin and daytime carer (and his wife’s best friend) looks dapper in her navy blue suit and a trifle disorientated by the sheer number of guests. And as the host’s own father introduces his new partner to the multitudes, words are not needed to underline the poignancy of an octogenarian greeting a son and only child who is incapacitated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

The floodlights come on as the young men take on the older men for one last epic encounter at boules before the evening celebrations begin in earnest. The English couple secretly hope for a good dance to some good music, but the acoustic guitars have already come out and people settle down with their drinks under the soft lighting of the veranda to sing along to the poetic music of Georges Brassens and the less poetic music of lesser heroes from their youth. And there are stilted attempts to SingalongaBeatles, but only the two English guests know all the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Hey Jude’.

The film could end here or, after the violent nocturnal storm that somehow holds off until the other side of midnight, with the tearful departure the following morning of her father’s doting daughter – but it would need some kind of revelation or resolution that would cast light on why the host has been stricken with Alzheimer’s at such an early stage. Real life prevails in this case and people drift away, car by car, after the final round of drinks and food on Sunday. Back to the quotidian. And being real life, mysteries are unresolved and questions are unanswered.

Cue music and credits... 


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Heading South

We’re heading south soon, the wife and I – not because we’re a pair of migratory birds at heart, but because a friend is celebrating his 60th birthday. And it’s not just any old friend, or any old birthday. This is one of our very first friends here in France; we go back nearly 18 years. It’s important that we’re there because this particular friend – a very kind, but vaguely troubled soul – was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago.

I remember my first perplexing brush with premature Alzheimer’s. I was 19 at the time, working in a stately home as an assistant archivist during my year off between school and university. It wasn’t the earl himself, a seriously eccentric octogenarian, given to writing little messages (or billets doux, as he called them) on scraps of old envelopes in spidery handwriting that had to be deciphered by his permanent secretary. It was the mother of a school friend.  

I’d travelled north from Stafford to Liverpool and caught the boat across the Irish Sea to Belfast. It was the first trip back after the family’s return to England, so I was excited about seeing my girlfriend of the time and a whole host of old chums. (And what a splendid word ‘chum’ is: another word, like ‘wireless’ and ‘charabanc’ that’s crying out for a revival.) Ian and his brother David lived on the other side of the back entry that divided our two parallel tree-lined avenues. My kid brother and I would blow up old Airfix model airplanes with them and play two-a-side ‘binball’ in the car park of the architects’ practice, so-called because we used dustbins turned on their sides as goals.

Ian wasn’t in when I called round – after being kicked out of my girlfriend’s house by her mum when she caught us snogging on the parental bed – and his dad let it be known with equivocal looks and vague asides that something was up with his wife. On the way to the loo, I bumped into her in a dark corner of the house where the boys used to hang their coats after getting back from school. She said not a word and smiled strangely at me, and her far-away look suggested that she’d gone off with the fairies.

With a start and a sense of foreboding, I recognised that same look in our friend last time that he and his wife dropped by to see us when they were staying with old friends in the Corrèze. Everyone at the time was looking for logical reasons for his forgetfulness and his strange behaviour. He had, after all, a quite high-powered job and stress went with the territory. But by the time I witnessed that vacant look, it was clear enough that the game was up.

Once the diagnosis was confirmed, he took early retirement and they moved south from Paris to somewhere near Avignon, whence they had started out together on their professional peregrinations. We met them when he was based in Tulle and his wife was the institutrice at our daughter’s first school in the next village from our former home, in the Corrèze. She was – and probably still is – a creative teacher and a great motivator of young children. In some ways, Tilley couldn’t have had a better start to her education, but she and her mother have subsequently discovered – in sessions to explore the roots of the psychological trauma that the French system has inadvertently created in her – that it was precisely this start that triggered the mental blocks, which consistently stopped her believing in herself. When she turned up at école maternelle, she found that everyone spoke a language that she couldn’t. Some children, blessed with a precociously positive spin on life, might have told themselves that they were unique, because they could speak a language that no one else could. But our daughter learnt that she was different and wasn’t up to it, and so spent the rest of her schooling trying to convince everyone in her reticent way that she was indeed worthy.  

Anyway, our friend’s wife was also my wife’s first aromatherapy client, so she helped get the ball rolling in more ways than one. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay long in Tulle. Our friend was transferred to Toulouse and thence to Montluçon, a God-foresaken dive on the northern edge of the Massif Central, before winding up his career in Paris. We’ve kept in touch and enjoyed many of those magic mo-ments that Perry Como sung about: his 50th birthday among a host of fans and admirers at the converted school house they co-own on the Atlantic coast; we sole Brits cooking vegetarian curries for all the assembled die-hard meat-eaters; applauding a big red summer sun as it slipped gradually away behind the horizon over dinner al fresco at a beach-side café; a perilous kayak trip down a rocky half-empty river during the canicule of 2003; a guided tour of the Marais in Paris; his tales of Tipitina and the other clubs he visited to imbibe the music of New Orleans during a youthful road trip around America.

So it’s going to be a poignant affair, as we haven’t yet witnessed the deterioration that has taken place during the two years since their last visit. The contrast between his 50th and 60th bashes will be stark. Since music is still something that strikes a chord, we’ll go bearing some T-Bone Walker and a nice compilation of New Orleans R&B, but whether he’ll know that it’s from us – or even remember who we are – remains to be seen.

It’s a long way south to Avignon and another salutary reminder of what a big country France is. Still, the journey will give me my first opportunity to see Norman Foster’s monumental bridge that spans the Tarn at Millau. It’s the first time I’ll have driven down the A75, which runs south from Clermont Ferrand to Montpelier and Bézier across the wind-blasted heaths of the Massif, for what seems like an eternity. Last time, our daughter was a tot in the back of the car, and we drove down to visit some celebrated author and aromatherapist whom Debs met at a conference in Sheffield. We were received in the elegant mas where she lived and practised. We came away somewhat frustrated with non-specific advice that amounted to something like, If you build it, they will come. The rest, as they say...

Stopping briefly at a service station to stretch our limbs in the dead of night half way back across the blasted Massif, I vividly remember an almost ghostly sensation of geographical emptiness. Since then a lot of water has flown over the bridge, as Mr. Malaprop, an ex-boss of mine in the Civil Surface, was given to say.  All that temporal distance may no longer register in the mind of our friend, but it certainly will with his wife, his beloved son and daughter, and all his many friends who will be gathered to celebrate another milestone on the way to our common destination.