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, February 24, 2013

Il Etait Un Rock Star


A slightly famous reclusive ex-pat died recently way down south near Carcassonne. Kevin Ayers was famous enough to justify the re-publication of a ‘last interview’ in the Guardian, but his death certainly wouldn’t have warranted space on the national news – neither in his adoptive country of France, nor in his native Britain.

Kevin Ayers was one of those reluctant rock stars who shied away from fame. His prime motivation seemed to be just to create music. And, in order to do so, he needed love in his life. ‘I can't write songs unless I am in love,’ he confessed in that last interview. ‘And I have always been that way. If I am not in love, nothing is meaningful to me. I have no energy.’

When he had the energy, he wrote deceptively slight, whimsical songs almost as if apologising for the emotions they reveal. He sung them in a voice that was as rich and fruity as that of Vivian Stanshall, the eccentric front man of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band. It was apt that he should end up spending so much of his life in France, where they still quietly admire an essential British-ness that alas seems old-fashioned and out of place back home.

He came to my notice as a teenager largely due to his connections with favourites like Caravan and the Soft Machine and the so-called Canterbury scene. I remember listening to an album his Whole World group made called Shooting At The Moon in my bedroom at the top of our house in Belfast, probably stretched out on the bed to concentrate on the stereo separation, with curtains no doubt drawn for atmosphere. My dad knocked and poked his head round the door and told me that the music was surprisingly good, as if realising for the first time that there was life after Frank Sinatra.

I was particularly fond of a song called ‘May I?’, possibly because the apparent diffidence with the opposite sex struck such a chord at the time. ‘May I stop and stare at you for a while?/I’d like the company of your smile.’ And there was a song called ‘Clarence in Wonderland’, which with hindsight suggests why his musical output dried up for so long. ‘Let’s go to my chateau, we could have a good time/Drinking lots of sky wine’. Like so many fragile spirits of the age, who couldn’t cope with the degree of fame that they found, he sought refuge in drink and drugs. It was apparently at one of Ayers’ infamous house parties in the early 70s that his grammar-school friend, Robert Wyatt, fell out of an upstairs window. Paralysed from the waist down, Wyatt has spent the rest of his long and distinguished musical career in a wheelchair.

Kevin Ayers, however, went to ground. It seems that he had an unhappy, unstable childhood and the Wanderings of Kevin surely reflected a restless and fruitless search for some degree of stability in his life. Having given up on the Soft Machine when fame and fortune seemed to beckon to flee to Ibiza, he disbanded his Whole World group just as it, too, threatened to take off. Its bass player, Mike Oldfield, of course, would go on to write Tubular Bells and the rest, as they say…

After trying the other Balearic Isles, Kevin Ayers wound up in France. Mike Oldfield spent part of his new untold riches on buying a portable music studio for his former colleague, but Ayers apparently sold it to raise money for a rampant heroin habit. Not surprisingly, he disappeared from the music world’s radar. God knows how he must have lived – in the foothills of the Black Mountains, or wherever it was in the south of France that he lived at that time. I discovered that the drug buddy with whom he spent a lot of his time was a very talented guitarist called Ollie Halsall, who played in a group called Patto, whose first album I also used to listen to in my darkened teenage room. Halsall died of an overdose in 1992.

Like many casual fans, I would imagine, I forgot about Kevin Ayers until one day in the Brive record library I stumbled upon Still Life With Guitar, a collection of songs written at the height of his powers in the 1970s and recorded with the likes of Ollie Halsall. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. One of the most endearing things about the French nation is the reverence in which it holds all kinds of artists and the safe haven it has traditionally offered to artistic dignitaries: from the high-profile, like Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis, to the less known, like Robert Crumb and Siouxie Sioux and Kevin Ayers, it seems, who have hidden themselves from view in the French countryside. Of course they would value an obscure songwriter from the British ‘underground’ enough to stock some of his music.

Goodness knows, though, what the locals must have made of him: this tall blonde dishevelled Brit, a kind of male equivalent of Marianne Faithfull, whose youthful beauty was sand-blasted by years of drink, drugs and whatever other way they found to abuse their bodies. Reading between the lines, he lived in a state of near squalor, drank heavily and was given to impromptu recitals on his guitar in the village where he lived. At the time of the last interview, he was nursing some broken ribs from a fracas at the local bar.

For some time, until about five years ago it seems, he lived with an American barmaid about half his age. No doubt she provided the love that inspired his acclaimed comeback album in 2007, The Unfairground. Typically for such a self-destructive artist, the itinerary for the promotional tour the following year sent him into the kind of blind panic that ended up in hospital, suffering from an excess of painkillers and alcohol.

I’m not sure what finished him off. I guess it had something to do with the quantities of the demon drink that he consumed. Not for him, obviously, the circuit of cabaret venues, regurgitating old songs for faithful fans who remembered his heyday. He played a brief series of small gigs in France two years ago, apparently, and insisted that the venues were shrouded in near darkness. I wish I’d known about them; I’m a great believer in supporting your local artists – particularly those who so deliberately eschew the limelight.

I doubt if Kevin Ayers will ever achieve the degree of fame after death that Nick Drake, the quintessential British tortured artist, has done. But he managed around three times as many years on this earth, and I hope that some of them were happy ones. I would love to give Shooting At The Moon a spin in his honour, but I must have lent it to someone or lost it over the years. The beauty, though, of the digital age is that I can go onto amazon.fr and download in ‘one click’ a few of my favourite tracks to hear again that deep, resonant voice that never seemed quite in tune with such boyish good looks.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Opportunities Knocked

On Friday night, I watched my customary music programme on BBC Four. In this case, diverse artists gathered at the Abbey Road studios to re-record the Beatles’ Please Please Me. Artists like Joss Stone, Mick Hucknall and Graham Coxon of Blur talked about the influence of the Beatles on their own childhoods and subsequent careers.
It was spine-tingling stuff because Please Please Me was the first long-playing record I ever owned. My siblings and I used to congregate with our tennis racquets in front of my dad’s Ekco gramophone and mime to songs like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and John Lennon’s throat-wrecking version of ‘Twist And Shout’. I learned every line of ‘Anna’ long before I discovered that it was an Arthur Alexander song.
But what really struck a chord (arf, arf) was hearing from a singer whom I’d never heard of, born three years before me, that his first guitar had been a plastic Beatles guitar. I once owned a similar guitar. It was bright scarlet, I remember, with the autographs of all four mop-tops affixed in silver plastic. That guitar allowed me to step up front and mime more convincingly than my siblings could on their tennis racquets.
The thing was, though, despite my already burgeoning love of music, that guitar didn’t inspire me – as it had done the singer in the programme – to learn an instrument and pursue a career in music. Why, I wondered? Was it laziness, or was it that I had already discovered something that (I later realised) I wanted to do in life: namely to write – specifically the Western comics that I devoured whenever some kind adult thought to buy me one?
I never managed to write speech bubbles for Western adventures, although I still love a good Western. Cowboys and Indians are still very much in my blood. But, I did – rather half-heartedly alas and with many sidetracks along a path that should have been clearly visible – in a kind of way ‘follow my bliss’. Whenever I moan about having to write training materials to earn some money, I find consolation by telling myself that at least I am still writing.
I consulted the Oracle at Delphi about the matter. My sensible wife would surely know the answer. After all, she pursued a career in acting in the belief that it was what she really, really wanted to do only to discover that it was something she only really wanted to do. She discovered, while training to be a reflexologist and then an aromatherapist during periods of ‘resting’, that she had known more than she realised the day she answered her mother that she wanted to be either a ballerina or a doctor of tropical medicine when she grew up.
Well, she never was never quite serious enough to sport a tutu or execute a pas de chat without beaming like a Cheshire cat at the inherent daftness of it all. She did in a way, however, follow some kind of Hippocratic calling. It may not have been anything to do with tropical Africa, but France profonde is a fairly uncommon and unlikely venue in which to practise the dark arts. And strangely, part of her work now, particularly as a practitioner of Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, is to help people find their chosen path and their heart’s desire. What if you, too, had been a white-collar worker in a succession of office jobs all your life only to discover that what was holding you back and making you feel constantly restless and dissatisfied with life was the fact that you weren’t spending your days repairing car engines?
Something, I think, that makes the expatriate experience so fulfilling is that you come in contact with so many people who have been sufficiently motivated to pursue a calling. Even when circumstances might force them to earn a crust by doing some kind of building work, say, at least their eyes are often firmly on the prize of ultimately doing what they really want to do. Since moving to France I have met many more writers, artists, potters, felt-makers, jewellers, photographers, film-makers and others following either part- or full-time responding to some kind of creative impulse than ever I did back home – even in creative hot-spots like Brighton.
So many in fact that you almost start to believe it’s the norm and forget about the legions of people who never even know let alone practise, even as a hobby, what it is that makes their spirit soar. Maybe it’s both absurd and even arrogant to expect them to do so, given how much effort it takes just to put food on the table for your family and generally get by from one day to the next. But it’s a shame – especially when you consider how these vague but perturbing feelings of frustration generally manifest themselves within families and relationships. ‘On the whole, I’d rather be a miner than a judge,’ Peter Cook once said in one of his comic monologues. You could add, On the whole, a fulfilled individual is nicer to know and easier to live with.
Anyway, to get back to the Oracle at Delphi, my wife’s take on the matter was quite clear. I didn’t learn to play that guitar and follow a musical path because it wasn’t meant to be. As simple as that. Quite oracular really.
This weekend I’ve been compering the annual Cabaret du Coeur at Curemonte. I’ve done it in full Nosferatu regalia. I watched Klaus Kinski again on Friday evening in an effort to get into character for the role. But I can honestly say that my experience hasn’t convinced me that I’d rather be an actor than a writer. After 15 fairly purgatorial years in Her Majesty’s Civil Surface, however, I can honestly say that I’m glad that I never entirely stifled that insistent little voice in my head that said I should stop dithering and just be a writer.
Nevertheless, and in spite of my wife’s verdict, I do keep thinking about that plastic Beatles guitar and wondering… What on earth happened to it? How come I didn’t keep it to auction to the highest bidder on eBay? And what might have been had I felt more of an urge to figure out how to finger a chord?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Soldiering On


Every Sunday morning at around 11 o’clock, ever since we first dropped anchor in France, I speak to my parents back home. With the coming of Skype and the possibility of vision, things have become more ‘virtual’ over the years. During the first ten years or so, my father would ration our idle chatter by standard, expensive telephone line: an egg timer would ring at the 15-minute mark to terminate the conversation at whatever point we’d reached.

There always comes a point when I’m duty-bound to enquire about my mother’s health. As often as not, she will reply with something non-committal like, Oh well… you know, dear… soldiering on. Kate Winslet, apparently, has also been ‘soldiering on’ since her divorce. The phrase puts me in mind of the monologue of that title in the series of six that Alan Bennett wrote for television. I don’t remember much about it, other than that it starred Stephanie Cole as a woman whose fragile fortitude is both admirable and irritating. It’s a phrase that annoys me, above all, because it suggests such a deep-seated resignation to your fate that there’s little point in seeking to alter it.

You can also see it, I suppose, as symptomatic of the Dunkirk spirit: that stiff-upper-lip cartoon British stoicism lampooned by French and Saunders’ country women in Barbour jackets given to sawing their legs off without anaesthetic to stop scratches going gangrenous. There are, I discovered, annual soldiering on awards, which presumably celebrate such heroics. I find it hard to disassociate the expression from an image of regimented unquestioning men in khaki valiantly going over the top at the Somme.

I had thought that the French didn’t have an equivalent. Ca va is used so universally here that you can interpret it as you choose: it can be just as upbeat as it can be down. Anyway, it’s so disposable an expression that you don’t need to respond. It carries nothing like the same weight as ‘soldiering on’, which seems to suggest that things are actually really awful, but you’re doing your best to grin and bear it.

But Debs taught me one that she comes across a lot in her work. It’s an expression that I’ve heard now and again, but haven’t really given it much thought. Ca peut aller is much more loaded than ça va. Literally, it must mean something like, I suppose it could be all right (with the implication again that it isn’t). So whenever she hears a client tell her this, her response is, OK tell me what’s not going well.

When my mother mentions ‘soldiering on’, it acts like a red rag to a bull. I know I should let it lie, but It’s so difficult to do so. I want to probe, because I want her to see firstly that her notion of what’s awful is relative and probably pales into insignificance compared to the genuine burden of others, and secondly that, if things are as bad as all that, rather than meekly putting up with them, perhaps she should take some action to address them,.

However, I have given up probing over the last couple of years. Since she scattered her marbles across the living room floor and lost them somewhere in the pile of the carpet, she wouldn’t even remember the reason for soldiering on. If you were to question it, she’d answer something like, Oh well… you know, dear… it’s just the way it is. In other words, she has spent so long conditioning herself to believe that life is awful, she has forgotten why that might be so. So you just accept it and soldier on in the face of constant but intangible adversity.

This week, me myself and I have been soldiering on. Despite my trusty support belt, I did my back in again lifting a manhole cover. I’ve been hobbling around like my octogenarian father. The dog doesn’t understand why I can’t play tug-of-rope. On top of that, I’ve caught a strain of the 100-day virus that my wife brought back on the train from England. So, every time I cough, I clutch my lower back as if trying to clamp the anticipated spasm in place.

Suddenly everything that you take for granted becomes an effort. It takes ten minutes just to put your socks on. You appreciate the truth of that other cliché, the one they serve up at New Year – when you wish everyone a year full of good things and good health. Surtout du bon santé. Good health, in particular. They’re right. While you’ve got it and you’ve still got a genetic memory of youthful vigour, you feel that you continue to do just about anything. But once you start feeling like a crock, you start behaving like one, too. It’s suddenly clear how easy it must be for people with health problems to get caught up in a debilitating downward spiral.

Thanks to the wonders of aromatherapy massage, I’m on the mend. Today is the first day in almost a week that I feel able to cast off my Lidl biker belt, my ‘man-girdle’. If anyone were to ask, though, I wouldn’t tell them that I’m soldiering on. Which got me thinking about whether there’s an expression one could use in times of distress that doesn’t smack so strongly of martyrdom.

I’ve come up with ‘advancing’. Suggestive, I think, of an army on the move, it even continues the military metaphor. The trouble is, you’d feel a right pillock using it.

How’s it going, then?

Advancing, thanks.

Advancing?

Well, you know… I’m not quite sure where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, but I do still feel aware of a certain forward momentum – even if it’s only towards the grave, ha ha.
 
So maybe not. Nor soldiering on, or ça peut aller. Ca va is OK. But I’ll just continue to do what I normally do when I’m asked by solicitous parents on Sunday morning, which is to give a brief but balanced resumé of the situation and move on to a more interesting subject than the state of my health. It strikes me, anyway, that it’s often those in genuine dire straits who don’t like to talk about it. Recognising that it’s not enough just to soldier on, they are often the ones who go out and do something that inspires others.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Superbowl Sunday


The beginning of the otherwise uneventful month of February is marked by two events: the Good Wife’s birthday and the Superbowl. Once every seven years, they even coincide – as they’ve managed to do this year.

I’ve actually been following the events of the NFL Superbowl for slightly longer than I’ve been following my wife, and a lot longer than I’ve been following her on Facebook. The love affair – with the spectacle of big beefy men in armour beating the living daylights out of each other in the name of sport – goes back to the days when Channel 4 first came to Brighton. I didn’t miss an annual feast of American kitsch until we moved to France.

Until the quite recent advent of satellite here at The Dog’s Meadow, I had to rely on the kindness of comparative strangers for my yearly fix. One year, my team, the Green Bay Packers, appeared in their first ‘world championship’ (as the Americans typically like to dub something that only really plays out in the United States) since the golden age of the man who would give his name to the Superbowl trophy, Vince Lombardi. I swallowed my pride and went cap in hand with a blank video to the couple that lived behind a high hedge. She was our daughter’s teacher at école maternelle and he was her slightly sour husband. They were showing the final on Canal + and I’ve kept the video as a record of that momentous three hours.

The fact that the BBC broadcasts the event these days is indicative, I think, of our endless fascination for all things American. On one hand, the relentless commercial overkill seems to typify everything excessive and crass about American culture. On the other hand, it’s a glorious sporting spectacle brought to a worldwide audience with the same kind of technical panache that brought us Hollywood. It’s a modern-day gladiatorial contest, if not quite to the death. Had I been born a Roman, I would have been there cheering wildly in the Coliseum, happy to receive my ‘bread and circuses’ in exchange for the social status quo.

This year’s spectacle is somewhat extraordinary. Both teams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, are coached by two brothers: John and Jim Harbough. Needless to say, it’s already being dubbed the Harboughbowl. For all the hype, though, it is an incredible notion: two sibling rivals guiding their respective teams through the obstacle course of fate, luck and circumstances to arrive at the same destination. The fact that it’s the Superdome in New Orleans where, not so long ago, the dispossessed sheltered from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, also makes this year’s show ‘quite remarkable’. You couldn’t script it!

I shall be root-root-rooting for the team from San Francisco. Until the Green Bay Packers came along with their seductive public ownership and green and yellow strip, the 49ers were my no.1 team on the basis of a few minutes of idle viewing on a hotel television during my first trip to New York. A lean quarterback, the glamorous creative lynchpin of an American Football team, with the legendary boy’s own name of Joe Montana, threw ‘a bomb’ deep downfield to his wide receiver – and I was intrigued and soon hooked from that moment on.

Their previous appearance was back in 1995. It was our last winter before moving to France, and my understanding wife persuaded me to fly to New York so I could watch the game with my best friend in his basement apartment on the grounds that he is a diehard fan of the 49ers and that it might be my last opportunity, now that I was a new father, to do anything quite so frivolous. Troubled by such a sacrifice and being a wannadoo journalist, I phoned GQ Magazine to suggest that I might contribute an article based on an authentic American Superbowl experience. Anyone who has ever tried to phone an editor and sell themselves will know that it’s a daunting experience for the mere mortal. I attempted to explain why quarterly gentlemen might be interested in my proposition and the editor asked me the withering question: Do I know you? Rather than respond spryly with something like, You may not know me now, but you certainly will do, I wilted like a deflated balloon and said something limp like, Probably not.

I didn’t get my commission and it gave me a phobia of phoning editors, but it didn’t stop me going. The snow nearly did. We took off from Manchester airport maybe half an hour before the incoming blizzards grounded the fleet of airplanes. On the other side of the Atlantic, I landed in the middle of a spell of brilliant winter: it was as cold as a a butcher’s storeroom, but the city’s steel and glass twinkled for four or five days under a blue cloudless sky.

The match itself was fairly uneventful. The 49ers duly vanquished the San Diego Chargers. But that wasn’t really the point. I was able to watch the game in real time on a genuine American TV, drinking American beer with a pal who was able to offer an ex-pat’s insights into the game itself and the state of the nation. We took in all the pre- and post-match analysis and, without succumbing to hamburgers or frankfurters, the occasion added up to a fairly authentic American experience.

This year, I shall be enjoying my wife’s birthday in real time and, like every other year, recording the match to view in leisure time. With a remote control, you can skip all the incessant advertising breaks (filled in on the BBC with idle chatter). If you zap past the pompous half-time show, you can boil the match down to little more than the actual hour or so of genuine playing time. This way, if you’ve avoided all the blaring headlines, you can distil the essence of concentrated excitement.
This year, althought I don’t give a fig whether Beyoncé sings or lip-synchs the anthem, I do sincerely hope that Jim’s side beats brother John’s, that the team in red and gold beats the more defensively minded team in purple and black, that the new quarterback with the tattooed arms rifles the ball to his phalanx of receivers for at least four touchdowns, and that a San Francisco victory brings special cheer to my friend, watching the game in his same basement apartment just around the corner from a shop that sells cup-cakes to trendy New Yorkers.