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, January 27, 2013

The Magic Of The Cup

When I was out walking the dog this morning, I was struck by the sky. Not Chicken-Little style by an acorn falling from above, but by its majesty. It was as if some Technicolor cinematic curtain had been pulled right the way across the eastern horizon. The contrast to the abiding grey made it seem as if I were walking near the Arctic Circle. Maybe the poor frozen people of Spitzbergen see something similar most days, but I doubt whether I’ve ever seen a winter sky quite so spectacular and – because I tend to heed shepherds’ warnings – quite so ominous.

I only mention it because it was remarkable. Like Luton beating Norwich yesterday in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Those of you who don’t follow sport in general or football in particular will probably shrug and turn off at this point. But this was Luton, a town famous only for its airport and for its links with Eric Morecambe, whose club played not so long ago in the old First Division but now play in the Blue Square Premier Division, which is the football equivalent of the Gulag Archipelago. Luton travelled to Norwich of the proper Premier Division, chaired these days by Delia ‘Cookbook’ Smith, and beat them nil-one.

It was the equivalent of David slaying Goliath with a single slingshot. It was the kind of result that causes commentators to behave unnecessarily and start squealing about fairy-tales. Even though I have no interest in either Luton or Norwich, and only a passing interest these days in football and its legions of overpaid oiks, I bathed for at least an hour in the warm glow of the upset.

It’s called ‘the magic of the cup’. Supposedly, there’s no competition in the world like the FA Cup (now with new added Budweiser sponsorship). I suspect that English spokesmen are a trifle biased, but it’s true that I wouldn’t know or even care what the French equivalent is. As a young boy in Belfast, I failed to get worked up about the local competition, even though Linfield, the local team, played just down the road and you could hear the resounding roar of any goal scored at Windsor Park.

Every May, however, I would park myself in front of the telly hours before the FA Cup Final was due to start to watch all the preliminaries: the interviews with players at their hotel; the chats with cheery fans on their way to Wembley; the highlights of the two teams’ routes to the final. And then there was the community singing led by some old bloke on a platform, before at last the two teams would emerge from the tunnel to line up on the pitch and shake the hands of whichever dignatory had come to sit like a Roman emperor and watch the match from the Royal Box. It didn’t really matter that much which teams were contesting it; that old FA Cup magic had got me in its spell.

Greavsie helps big Bobby off the pitch
From an early age, too. My first memory of a final was the one played out in 1961 on our old telly – with its green and grey livery and its minute screen – between Tottenham Hotspur in white and Leicester City in black and white. Those were the days when Spurs, like most other teams, had a big bulldozing centre-forward prepared to risk future brain-damage by heading wet leather balls (a man with the no-nonsense name of Bobby Smith), and a pair of predatory inside forwards: John White, the Scottish ‘ghost’, soon to be struck dead by lightning while sheltering under a tree on the golf course; and the mercurial Jimmy Greaves. In them days, you knew where you were with an inside forward.

My first final in our new home in Belfast the following year also involved Spurs, still playing in white, and a team playing in several shades of grey. I knew from my cigarette cards, however, that Burnley played in a fetching combo of claret and light blue. It didn’t do them any good. If my memory serves me well, Spurs – with a new no.10 to replace the now legendary ‘Ghost’ of John Whites past – beat them 3-1.

David Webb with cup and big sideburns
It was the first final I watched when I fully understood football and it was enough to cement my annual love affair with the Cup. But thereafter it becomes a blurr of highlights: Gerry Byrne of Liverpool playing most of the 1965 final with a broken collar bone (which pales into insignificance beside the feat of Burt Trautmann, an ex-Nazi paratrooper who became Manchester City’s goalie, who played through the 1956 final with… a broken neck, for God’s sake); David Webb of the Chelsea team of men with long sideburns, who liked to smoke, drink and party, soaring through the air like a big brawny bird to head the winning goal against Spurs; long-haired Charlie George of Arsenal spreadeagled on the ground to accept the adoration of his team mates after scoring the winner against Liverpool in 1971; the mazy run of the bearded Argentine, Ricardo Villa, to score the winning goal for Spurs (again) against Manchester City in 1981. And so on. And on and on through time.

As a typical British lover of underdogs, my most treasured moment is not that of the team I used to support hoisting the cup aloft in triumph, but the year, 1973, when 2nd division Sunderland slew the mighty, filthy-dirty Leeds team of champion foulers. It was the year when David Coleman bellowed Porter-field! to denote the winning goal, when Jim Montgomery made an astonishing double-save to deny the rampant Leeds, when I hid in the loo for the last five minutes while my brother conveyed the news of what was happening on the pitch, and when Sunderland’s genial Geordie manager, Bob Stokoe, came jigging out of the dug-out at the end like a pony in a trilby to embrace his heroic players.

And the wonderful thing is: anyone who’s as sick with nostalgia as I am can catch it all on glorious stop-go You Tube. No wonder the American novelist, David Eggers, refuses to have broadband in his house after catching himself squandering time on an old Kajagoogoo video on said You Tube.

Age brings a certain wisdom. Good sense got the better of all this spurious magic. I rarely waste an entire afternoon watching a final these days, now that we have a satellite dish, because I know that in all probably the two teams will be too scared of losing to serve up anything resembling a contest. I’ve certainly no time for all the preliminaries, which I can see clearly, now that the Cup has gone to ITV, as a mere pretence for advertising revenue.

But… as Alan Shearer punctuates his so-called analyses on Match Of The Day, I still like to know who has won and what if any deeds of derring-do have taken place on the hallowed turf of Wembley, because it’s part of the great panoply of sporting history. And that’s why, thankfully I believe, I can get so excited about lowly Luton travelling to Norfolk and beating Norwich at their own ground on Carrow Road. As an excitable commentator might yell when swept away by the moment, You couldn’t script it! 

Play up, the Hatters!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Foreign Country

Before the snow came and rendered transport a lottery, we travelled from the Lot into the deepest Corrèze to take afternoon tea with old friends. They live half an hour further into the interior from our old village, so the journey is significant.
When we left the Corrèze, already almost a decade ago, we would tell all our French friends, We’re only moving to the next department; it’s not as if we’re moving to another country. But they were right. Effectively it is a different country. Reputedly, even now there are still Corrézians who have never set foot out of their department. I remember when some London friends moved from Kentish Town to Crystal Palace. At the time, other close mutual friends complained that they were moving south of the river and that they would never see them. So it has almost proved.

It’s not just the geographical distance involved; it’s travelling back into the past that complicates matters. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ L.P. Hartley’s narrator recognises at the beginning of The Go-Between. They do indeed do things differently there. Being an incurable optimist, my wife believes that life is all about enjoying the present and looking forward to the future. Being a melancholic romantic, I spend far too much time à la recherche du temps perdu.

Our friends Régine and Bernard live now in Marcillac, a little market town of less than a thousand souls, not far from a 230-hectare artificial lake that was created when the river Doustre was dammed in 1949 for hydro-electric power. At over 600 metres above sea level, it certainly qualifies for the label ‘Haute Corrèze’. In summer it becomes a holiday destination and a centre for water sports. In winter, it’s a gateway to the Land of Nowhere.

You follow the Dordogne past Argentat, past the final dam and hydro station along the river’s upper reaches, and past what must be one of the world’s most scenic campsites, in the grounds of a fairy-tale château built hard by the river on the opposite bank. And then the road winds up, up and almost away to a plateau planted with acre upon acre of geometric pine forests. It was here that our friend Jean-Claude, the ethno-botanist, whom we christened the Wild Man of Wongo, brought the three of us to hear the brame du cerf one cold, dark night in autumn. We followed him by faint torchlight into the woods, no doubt watched by assorted curious eyes, stopping dead in our tracks to listen to the haunting mating calls of unseen stags. One echoed another and soon the night was alive with what sounded like hounds of the Baskervilles baying for blood.

And it was along this main road, which runs as straight as a chalk line for several kilometres, dotted with menacing bands of Sunday-afternoon hunters with their parked 4x4s, their day-glo hats and cradled rifles, that I walked one fiercely hot afternoon in late August with a band of virtual strangers and a trio of docile donkeys. We crossed the road and took a side road, which led us to a house whose garden almost fell away down to the Dordogne far below. That afternoon, I gorged myself on the most refreshing peaches I’ve ever yet tasted, picked from one of our hosts’ copious trees.

As we drove through an isolated roadside village, we marvelled at our naivety as young parents: to think that we could survive the long winters with a young child in a cold house heated only by an underperforming fire that consumed wood like the boilers of an old battleship. But people do, and we did – without going stir-crazy. The past is a foreign country and we both agreed that we couldn’t do it now. We love our insulation and our creature comforts too much, and our proximity to a transport network.

Back in those days, Régine ran a restaurant in the village where our daughter went to nursery school. Bernard worked for France Telecom, when it was still a public utility. He was one of the first people in the area who was able to talk sensibly (if only I could understand him) about mobile-phone and computer technology. Now that it’s privatised and Orange, he still works at the office in Tulle, where countless people ask for him by name because they know that he will look after them.

They sure looked after us when we arrived in France. Debs fine-tuned her colloquial French at the restaurant each morning after depositing The Daughter, chatting to Régine, Jo-Jo and other regulars who made up a morning salon. Then, when she was ready to set herself up here as an aromatherapist and reflexologist, Régine took her in hand, managed her publicity, engineered promotions and provided a market at Christmas and mid-summer for her creams and oils. When the school canteen refused to provide Tilley with a vegetarian lunch, Régine even met her from school and give her lunch at the restaurant. Meanwhile, Bernard did whatever he could to maintain my first computer, an unwieldy Compaq Presario, which cost so much money at the time that I had to ask my father for a loan. At Christmas and on other traditional family occasions, they would have us over to eat with their extended family in their crazy, chaotic house on whose upstairs walls the kids and parents alike would scribble jokes and pensées.

So a trip to see them is never just a trip to see old friends, it’s like visiting family, patrons and the Oracle at Delphi all rolled into one. Régine certainly holds one of the keys to life. Eight or so years ago, she was diagnosed with some very rare life-threatening disease. No one really knew how to treat her and she was given just a year or two to live. For a restaurateur, she had to bear the indignity of ingesting the liquid food that sustained her through a tube inserted up her nose. They sold the restaurant and moved to Marcillac and Régine re-invented herself as a broadcaster and author of books about regional cooking. She’s now on her 12th. Every November, she signs her books and holds court at the celebrated Foire des Livres in Brive. Once more she’s become a local celebrity. Sometimes, before I slide a CD into the car stereo, I catch her voice on Radio France Bleue Limousin.

We were greeted like the prodigal son and daughter and taken proudly into their salon to meet all the other guests gathered around the all-purpose table to drink tea and/or mulled wine and eat all the goodies Régine had prepared. One couple, we realised, had spent their wedding night in the gîte we used to run rather half-heartedly. I had completely forgotten.

So we sat and we chatted and exchanged snippets of news about our families and mutual acquaintances. Régine, I noticed, wasn’t wearing her once omnipresent food tube. Neither of us asked about the state of her health, because she hates to talk about it, but we both assumed that she was better – which isn’t ever guaranteed because, such is the irony of her condition, she can look her best when at her worst. The fact is that, x number of years down the line, she’s still confounding the doctors.

Their middle child, Charlotte, came and joined us after she’d run around the lake or wherever she goes now that she’s in training for the Paris marathon. Charlotte and I share a birthday and we’ve known her since she was a nipper. Once she’d finished her education, and without a word of English, she found herself a job in a Southampton hotel. My sister lent her the money for the first month’s rent on a flat she shared with some local girls. She lasted six or so years, loved living in the UK and now speaks English like a native. Back in France now, she’s got a job in La Rochelle, but the experience has given her an interesting perspective on life in France and, especially, life in the Corrèze. We told her how difficult Tilley’s finding it to make close friends at college in Paris and Charlotte revealed how much easier she found it to make friends in England.

We didn’t stay too long. When the others got up to go, we joined the mass exodus. It was a long journey home and there was a fire to revive and a dog to pick up from other trusty friends. We both felt glad that we’d made the effort to travel to a foreign country and full of love for old friends who generously took a pair of ingenuous strangers into their hearts. That was then and this was now and it was good to cross over the frontier and back into the Lot. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013


January is one of those nothing months. Neither mickling nor muckling, Billy Liar might have described it to Councillor Duxbury – although, given the Big Chill that usually arrives, it’s probably more muckling than, say, November or March. It’s the perfect month, in other words, for staying indoors and perusing the news headlines on-line.
It’s not like signing up for half an hour of relentlessly bad news on the telly. This way, you can scan the news quickly, pick a handful of intriguing captions and still retain a modicum of sanity. The bad news is always there in spades, of course, but you can choose where to dig deeper. I tend to go for the human stories rather than the blockbuster items. Yesterday, for example, I selected Wilko Johnson, Jimmy Saville, Pola Kinski and France’s very own Gérard Dépardieu.
Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Dr. Feelgood record or, better still, Julian Temple’s marvellous documentary, Oil City Confidential, is likely to cherish Wilko Johnson and be saddened by the news of his diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer. I was only a passing Feelgood fan and never had the pleasure of seeing them live, but I loved Wilko’s choppy rhythmic guitar style. The film revealed a pensive, troubled, but hilarious individual who speaks with the same kind of breathless, manic energy that characterised his stage act. Dressed in black and doing that jerky thing that ballroom dancers do with their necks, Wilko would prowl around the stage with his guitar like a dog-walker trying to follow the whims of a headstrong puppy.
Looking these days like a bald version of the Addams Family’s butler, Lurch, Wilko has apparently chosen not to receive chemotherapy. He will carry on touring till the end comes. His manager issued a statement in which Wilko offered his thanks ‘for all the support he has had over his long career, from those who have worked with him to, above all, those devoted fans and admirers who have attended his live gigs, bought his recordings and generally made his life such an extraordinarily full and eventful experience’. It’s quite something that you can look back at age 65 on a full and eventful life, but it’s very sad all the same. I only hope that, when the end comes, it comes swiftly.
Wilko Johnson could have been a national treasure. While he was in his prime, that prurient peroxide-blonde self publicist, Jimmy Saville, was busy fooling the general public into believing that he was a national treasure. Naïve and ingenuous as I can often be, I’m happy to say that I could put my hand up in class and say, Sir! Sir! He didn’t fool me. Even as a young child watching early Top of the Pops, it was apparent that the guy was a prat. However, prats don’t generally ruin lives. Now that the perspective of history has revealed the man as an A-list monster, it’s becoming clear just how many lives he must have ruined or at least damaged.
I suspect that Her Majesty probably thought he was a prat, too. Who knows, maybe her inner Boedicea was itching to do something a little less regal with her sword than tap his shoulders when she bestowed his knighthood upon him. Whereas the cycling ruling body can reclaim all the yellow jerseys granted to Lance Armstrong now that we know at last the extent of his subterfuge, I don’t suppose the queen can annul a knighthood. Still, the truth is coming out now in big unsavoury dollops. I like to think that some of Sir Jimmy’s much vaunted work for ‘cherridy’ was born of a guilty conscience. But the good wife of La Poujade Basse – whose instincts about people are usually unerringly correct – reckons that he didn’t even have a conscience. It may be many years too late for the man’s victims, but it’s surely better late than never.
Der Zorn Gottes!
Human monsters have an awful capacity for ruining lives and inspiring fascination. At least the German actor, Klaus Kinski, didn’t pretend that he was anything other than what he evidently was: a raving nutcase. Any fan of Werner Herzog’s visionary films will know that Kinski was tailor-made to play the parts of Nosferatu, Aguirre (Wrath of God) and other deranged madmen. My Best Fiend, the gripping documentary about Herzog’s volatile relationship with his star, reveals how the actor’s psychotic megalomania very nearly drove Herzog to murder.
The thought of such a loose cannon siring children is enough to make one shudder. It wasn’t just her role in Paris, Texas that made me think that Nastassja Kinski was a troubled soul. She played opposite Kinski in Aguirre and there was something disturbing about the on-screen relationship with her father, an unhinged gold-obsessed conquistador, that suggested real-life unspeakable practices. Now her older sister, Pola, has just claimed ahead of her imminent autobiography that her father subjected her to repeated rape, abuse and violence during her childhood. Of course, as monsters often do, he showered her with expensive gifts and led her to believe that this was the kind of thing that fathers the world over do to their daughters. Like so many victims of this kind of abuse, she couldn’t tell anyone for years, because she didn’t think they would believe her.
Which leads us to a complex artistic issue, one which academics might call the Wagnerian Paradox. It’s easy enough to express a distaste for Jimmy Saville. Unless you’re an inveterate fan of Black Lace or Pickettywitch, you can easily turn off a Top of The Pops repeat. When it comes to great art, however, you can find yourself impaled on the horns of a moral dilemma. Once I discovered, for example, that Charlton Heston was president of the American National Rifle Association, I declined to watch his films out of principle. Except for Orson Welles’ A Touch Of Evil that is, which will remain a great film despite a tinted Heston playing a Mexican lawyer.
Even after discovering the extent of Kinski’s evil, I won’t let it stop my enjoyment of his greatest film roles. Aguirre, Wrath Of God, for example, will remain for me one of the ten greatest films ever made. It’s helped by the fact that Kinski usually plays someone deranged and utterly unlikeable. It would be a much more uncomfortable experience to watch a film where he plays a kindly father of vulnerable young children.
Meanwhile in France, another recent revelation has reared its ugly head. It’s just over a century since the Dreyfus Affair divided the nation and brought to the surface all the virulent anti-Semitism that had been simmering for some time. L’Affaire Dépardieu is unlikely to divide opinion quite like the case of the villified Jewish army officer who was imprisoned on Devil’s Island on a trumped-up charge of treason. When I discovered that Degas was a rabid anti-Dreyfusard, it put me right off him as a man, but hasn’t spoilt my appreciation of his paintings.
The thing about Dépardieu, though, is that he’s neither a political catalyst nor, as far as I can tell, a monster. That he’s happy to become the citizen of a repressive autocracy simply because he’s been offered a favourable rate of taxation suggests a rather sad individual whose love of money is paramount. Any friend of despots is no friend of mine. I don’t like the man or his increasingly mannered acting, but that won’t induce me to turn off Manon Des Sources or Jean De Fleurette next time they come around.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Twelfth Night Fright

It was panic stations at Rancho Notorious this morning. I’ve been getting ahead of myself of late: I thought that today, Sunday, was already the 7th January. In which case… what was the Christmas tree doing still illuminated by the set of cheap but serviceable lights I’d picked up in Casa during the last-minute pre-Christmas mayhem?

I hardly dared to voice it. But… in that case, hadn't Twelfth Night been and gone? My technological wife confirmed it via her iPhone, which has seen some heavy-duty service this Christmas, in the form of seemingly endless on-line Scrabble with a friend. We set to with gusto, stripping our elegant tree of its decorations and gathering up the greetings cards. Half an hour and it was done. The commandos of Lympstone, near whose training camp I lived for a year as a student, would have been impressed by the efficiency of our joint operation. It’s wonderful how an element of panic focuses the mind.

Our Lady of The Heat Pump
The thing is, you hear of all these terrible eventualities that can befall you if your decorations exceed their sell-by date. A whole year’s bad luck if you miss the deadline. Already the gods of Twelfth Night seemed to have admonished us. I woke up to find that the temperature in the house had plummeted. The portable thermostat, stationed in our reading area, revealed that the heat pump should have been on. But it wasn’t.

Clearly, we were being punished for our hubris the previous evening, when we sung its praises to our new neighbours. They invited us round for aperitifs and we cracked open another bottle of seasonal champagne. They’ve moved down here from way up north near Lille in search of the kind of peace and rural quiet to accompany their coming retirement and their dream of running chambres d’hôte in a new house. 

As with our previous neighbours, it seems to be a second marriage. We’re busy trying to piece together the clues that were dropped. Something about meeting in a family firm they both worked for. There are children involved, and we suspect that they’re from the previous marriage. We’ve already decided that Madame wears the trousers. Jeans in this case. Over tan-coloured boots. She seems very pleasant, but her wiry frame, uncompromising glasses and rather severe short grey hair suggest nervous energy and, probably, a cork lodged somewhere up her fundament.

She’s continuing to work in what seems to be quite a high-powered job, while her husband is clearly already enjoying a life of newfound leisure. He sports a lightweight beard and the look of someone who will be happy to shuffle around his new domain in cardigan and carpet slippers. A momentary alarm bell sounded when he talked about reading a magazine entitled Chasseur, but we figure that it’s more due to a love of nature than an inveterate urge to go out at the weekends and shoot living creatures. Hope so, anyway. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, because he and his wife have been to see the jazz singer, Al Jarreau, in concert. Even though Al Jarreau can veer towards the middle of the road, his fans are not generally killers.

I’m not quite sure how the conversation leaned towards heating systems. I think perhaps it was prompted by a comparison of winters up north and down here in the south-of-middle. In the north of France, as a rule they’re as mild and wet as they are in the south of England. Last February, of course, was an exception and they had the same kind of minus temperatures for the same kind of duration as we did down here. Pipes froze across most of the country. Getting onto the wicked price of propane, we told them about the useless boiler foisted upon us by our useless plumber and the liberation that came from pensioning it off in favour of our Mitsubishi heat pump.

That must have been it. So I’ve learned the dangers of singing the praises of one’s heating system. It’s obviously as sure a kiss of death as a cricket commentator extolling the technique of an English batsman in the dangerous 90s. So I slipped on my pair of plastic Mocks, slimy from early-morning fog, and ventured down to the cave with our wind-up torch from Lidl to see what was up. But what do you look for? Disaster rarely stares you straight in the face. I removed the lid of the electrical doings only to be confronted by such exceptionally complicated printed circuitry that all I could usefully do was to blow off any dust and replace the lid. All the correct lights seemed to be on and there were no on-screen error messages.

So I did the only useful thing that I could think of doing in such circumstances. I took the batteries out of the thermostat in the reading area and swapped them around. The left one in the right space and the right one in the left. Whereupon, the heat pump was heard to come to life on our terrace. Thus it was that catastrophe was averted on this cold, clammy January day.

My timely intervention coincided roughly with our joint discovery that I had got the date wrong. Today is the 6th and not the 7th. So there was still a teeny-weeny window of opportunity. Time enough to grasp our now bare sapin with my new pair of water-resistant work gloves from my mother-in-law, pull it out of the Sheffield chimney pot in which our Christmas trees find their temporary home each year, open the double door and throw it onto the lawn before it shed all its needles on our floor. 

Hey presto, it’s Rolf! The decorations are boxed again and restored to their resting place under the roof, the tree has been stripped of its twinkling jewellery and unceremoniously ditched, and Christmas 2012 is but a memory. It passed well? It passed very well, thank you for asking. It’s a very nice memory, but a memory nonetheless. The Daughter is back in her Parisian digs, my wife is back at work and Reality rules once more. 

Still, perhaps our last-minute Twelfth Night redemption suggests that 2013 won’t be too bad. Let’s hope not. I certainly offer you my meilleurs voeux and wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year – with, of course, the customary quota of good health. Oh, and may your heating system function well and keep you warm for the coming winter. We ain’t seen nothing yet…