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, April 28, 2013

Homecoming Queen

‘No, don’t you worry. You’ve got to work tomorrow. I’ll go and get her.’

It might sound like a sacrifice to offer to go out late on a Friday evening, but when it’s your child who’s getting in off the train from Paris Austerlitz, there’s nothing on BBC4 but a documentary about easy listening, and there’s a chance to drive your wife’s Noddy car with its super-smooth gearbox and in-car sensaround stereo – well, it’s no big deal really and such a ‘selfless gesture’ notches up a stack of Brownie points.

It was pouring with rain by the time I left. After the absurd 35-degree read-out I witnessed on the digital display of the pharmacy in Brive on Wednesday, the temperature had dropped by well over 20 degrees. That morning, while there was still but a tentative drizzle, I’d managed to bring in another boot-load of wood from the chateau, my caretaker’s domain, for our future needs. I like to keep a good two winters hence in the credit column of our fuel stock. Just in case anarchy breaks out and there’s a frantic battle for resources. 

'Night train! Carry me home...'
It’s about half an hour’s drive from here to the station at Brive. There’s just enough time to enact a little mental drama. Dwelling on the occasions when I would arrive home from college, I wondered how my parents anticipated my return. With pleasure or with the kind of dread that used to temper my journeys home? The trouble with studying something light and pleasurable like English literature was that term-time was too much fun and I resented anything that curtailed it. Mixing uniquely with people who thought they were terribly clever gave me a new perspective on whatever it was that my parents taught me. What did they know? Doodly-squat. It was always only a matter of time before a resentful know-it-all was going to clash with philistine parents who lived in ignorance on Planet Mundane.

The Daughter, poor kid, hasn’t had a hedonistic time of it in the capital. However, she’s been discovering where her true creative talents lie and adjusting to life away from the comforts of home. She’s much stronger and more resourceful than when she was initially snatched from her nest, but not yet so adult and so independent that she can’t still yearn for the old familiar way. We’d been bombarded from the train by texts informing us how much she was looking forward to seeing us, so my only slight concern was that I wouldn’t get to the station on time and thus transform reunion into the kind of anticlimax that always characterised my own dutiful filial visits. 

The municipal elders of Brive are always concocting new ways to waste the money our annual taxe foncière bequeaths them. They’ve excavated the central church not once but twice in search of the kind of archaeological remains that interest no one but the most ardent academics. They’ve dug up every road imaginable in the name of flood defences that would cope with a tsunami. And they’ve created the kind of network of showpiece roundabouts that would scoop the Town-Planning Jury’s médaille d’or. Now they’re messing about with the station. It was chaos. My positive-thinking wife had reserved a spot for me right by the front steps, so I’d brought with me Philip Roth’s mesmerising Exit Ghost for that leisurely ten minutes in the parked car while waiting for the train to come in. But the constant circulation of cars forced me into the back streets. I made the platform just in time to see the illuminated train snaking in to the station. Bang on time.

It’s never like it is in the films. It’s extremely difficult to spot an individual among a milling crowd – particularly if you’re looking one way and they’re busy disembarking from the other. And when that disembarkee fails to materialise, you start to wonder… No, surely no one could have spirited her away between Limoges and Brive. Startling me as it always does, my mobile phone went off in my pocket. Where are you, Papa? I’m waiting outside. I’d failed in my mission to help my girl down off the carriage with her heavy bags. Nul pointes.

But it was all right; she wasn’t cross. And isn’t nature a wonderful thing: how you recognise your own in a crowd, despite a two-month separation and all those interim physiological changes? Reader, I ask you: would the North and South Koreans experience such joy of reunification? You imagine that all the passers-by and lookers-on feel your pride and pleasure. Regarde cet homme, Philippe. Is that not nice? He has retrieved his daughter. Whereas, of course, they’d have been far too busy with their own reunifications even to notice.
Mother and child reunion (at the Jean Lurcat Museum)

So all that remained was to deliver the girl safely back home to her mother for a late-night curry and a warm welcome from the animals that we humans like to imagine will have missed her more than their grunts could say. It’s easy to let your guard down when there’s so much chatter to share, but I scanned the road home doggedly for oncoming madmen and nocturnal animals likely at any second to rush headlong for the opposite side of the road. I’m happy to announce that we made it safely without incident. Her thoughtful mother left a welcoming light on outside and our old dog came running to greet the new arrival with his tail gyrating like the propeller of a light aircraft.

Self-portrait with modelling clay
The God of Work in his or her almighty wisdom has granted me a few days’ hiatus in which to catch up with our homecoming queen. A bit of precious time, before pressing my nose once more to the grindstone, to languish over meals and pore over her portfolio of work. I am already sharing my workspace upstairs with Hortense, her dressmaker’s dummy, who is sporting a fabulous coat that she is working on with a colleague from Peru. Within 24 hours the contents of her mighty suitcase have been removed and scattered hither and thither. Our space has been invaded and the place is a mess. But who cares?

The kid’s delighted to be home and her parents’ matching cups of joy are brimming over. We’re already revelling in her growing self-assuredness and a burgeoning wit that’s fuelled by her outsider’s perspective in a foreign capital. We’re discussing plans for next year on the assumption that she will be invited back to complete the course. And exploring ways of maximising her limited space in her landlady’s apartment, so she can spread out a little and create yet more mess.
It’s good to have our girl back. For an entire fortnight. I am whole once more. It fills me with pride to see how happy she still can be in the company of her aging p’s, though it makes me a little sad that I didn’t make more of an effort when I was her age. Ah, youth, wherefore art thou?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Turning Point

In many ways, it was just a day like any other day. It was only later that I came to realise its significance.

While the FBI was out hunting for the second suspect nail-bomber in Boston, I was driving home from Brive with our dog and our shopping and my trusty Honda strimmer in the back of a car that smelled of unleaded petrol. For some strange reason, our daughter has always loved the smell. It always makes me think of the raging headache that maddens Jason Compson, the anti-hero of William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury.

The rain that fell briefly in the morning and threatened to abort my assault on the undergrowth hadn’t materialised. In the context of this year’s deluge, it was a pretty nice day. En route for my wife’s clinic, I dropped into the pool emporium on the western edge of town to enquire about a swimming pool for a new client. Despite the marked-down prices on recliners, Fat Boy cushions and other accessories, I was the only customer in the swanky showroom. Left alone to browse, the place positively resounded with the babble of water being circulated around some kind of have-your-own spa.

A charming young assistant took down details of the desired pool. Half way through, she asked me if I was English. So, she revealed, was she. I would never have guessed. Her name was Molly and she’d been educated over here since the age of 10: a reminder of just what an advantage it is to be bilingual. If The Daughter doesn’t make it in the world of fashion and design, at the very least she could train to be a personable intermediary for a company that sells pools to well heeled English-speaking settlers. 

Young Molly gave me her telephone number and I headed off to the clinic for a spot of strimming during the lunch break, so as not to disturb the prevalent atmosphere of therapeutic calm. My strimmer’s been with me for 16 years or so. It was the first bit of heavy-duty equipment that I bought for a new rural life. Every spring, I bring it out of hiding like the geraniums to acclimatise. Then, a few hours later, I fire it up timorously – just in case that this is the year in which it fails to respond. Not this year. It sparked into life on the second pull: a testament to the Honda motor and my ability to follow the instructions for winter storage. And I shouted from the highest hill: my strimmer has survived another winter!
Just like mine - only cleaner 

Much as I love my strimmer, though, I really don’t like the act of strimming. It’s neck-and-shoulder-breaking work fraught with the anxiety that I’m going to cut through something I shouldn’t. In Brive, there’s a side passage that leads from the street to the back garden. Neighbourhood dogs tend to use it for their ‘business’, so there’s also the potential hazard of flying faecal matter to contend with. This year, too, a terrible new weed has spread like a plague. It’s the by-product, Debs reckons, of too many Monsanto products in neighbouring gardens. 

Having finished my work in rapid time, I shared a rapid lunch with my wife and awaited the visit of the man from SAUR – the catalyst for my visit. He was coming to change the water meter. Unable to wander out of earshot of the front-door cuckoo! I took the seat off the loo for the umpteenth time and put it back again in such a way that it would stay vertical if necessary without threatening the equipment of male clients.

Another job jobbed. All in the day’s work of a jobbing writer. While outside wrestling with the new John Wyndham weeds in the bed nearest the back door, the man from the SAUR turned up: a big genial man with a lavish tattoo on his forearm. I imagined some kind of five-hour operation that would involve cutting off the water and posting notices to clients about using the loo. It took about five minutes. So I made the man a coffee and we had a brief chat about the lamentable events of the Boston marathon. What is the world coming to?

With time now suddenly on my hands, I could afford a quick walk into town before taking our bored dog home for his supper. A brief visit to the central library, because my subconscious voice had talked me into believing that I needed a little more John Coltrane in my life. Then, after my fix, I nipped into a pharmacy reputed to be the cheapest in town. I wanted to buy some pro-biotics for a bothersome gut. The place was heaving; all of life had taken a ticket for the queue. Fortunately, being about the only one there in the name of preventative medicine, I was in and out in a jiffy. Everyone else had a prescription to present. I complain bitterly about the level of taxation in France, but all those insidious ‘social charges’ probably still don’t pay for all the overpriced medication that this nation of hypochondriacs consumes.

Why am I telling you all this? Probably just to underline what an insignificant, uneventful day-in-the-life it was. Until, that is, the revelation on the journey home. There’s a scenic stretch of road near home, where you climb up from one fairly nondescript hamlet to the next. There’s a steep wooded drop on the driver’s side (down which a tractor plunged recently) and a steep wooded upslope on the passenger’s. The overhanging trees form a natural tunnel. Normally on this stretch I look out for cars coming down the hill and for Billy The Kid, an adorable inquisitive black-and-white goat still enjoying its liberty within the woods. When you stop to talk to Billy The Kid, he or she tilts his or her head endearingly to one side and ventures down to the car in the hope that you, like everyone else, has brought some food.
Not quite as cute as Billy The Kid

There was no sign of our friendly neighbourhood goat, but then it struck me… I could no longer see through the wood to the view on my left. Yes! This was the day in the year when you suddenly notice that the trees are no longer bare. Twigs and branches are covered with an unfurling riot of succulent, waxy, new spring-green leaves. It’s not something, of course, that happens overnight. It’s not something you necessarily even spot in the big city, but here in the country the annual miracle of renewal hits you in the face. Once remarked, it shifts your whole perception for the next seven months or so. It’s what they call in sporting parlance a ‘game changer’. The turning point. 

Those bloomin' irises
Sure enough, as soon as I got home, I realised that I could also no longer see through our copse to the road. Those few emerging irises had imperceptibly become a blue velvet ‘florabundance’. Everything was pointing to one incontrovertible fact: Summer’s on its way! (That’s all I really wanted to say.) 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Final Curtain

We’re on a 50s binge at present in this household. I’m ploughing my way through David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, while my intrepid wife is devouring Dominic Sandbrook’s epic Never Had It So Good. Both are salutary reminders of the poverty and squalor of post-war Britain.

'Never too late to be a coalman'
My hazy memories of the 1950s are somewhat different: a privileged middle-class infancy in a tree-lined North London suburb. I remember watching the horse that pulled the milk cart feeding from its nosebag. The coalmen who delivered the coal and tipped the sacks into a concrete bunker wore those strange leather head-and-shoulder combos that you never see now except in films like Mary Poppins. We had a Bakelite telephone and, tellingly, one of the early television sets. My comic, The Topper, was delivered to our home every week. My maternal grandparents, who lived a short walk away in a house with a bomb shelter in a garden that sloped down to the Northern Line railway, used to warn us to watch out for Teddy Boys. My little brother disgraced himself in his pushchair by asking our mother why the man who stopped to say good morning had a black face. And for a few brief years, before the family decamped to Belfast, I went to the primary school at the bottom of the road, beside the tube station. All seemed well with the world.
Our friendly local tube station

Memories of the 1950s seem like an appropriate backdrop for the death of Margaret Thatcher, which understandably dominated the news last week. While I think of the decade as the bridge between the pre-war imperialist era and the white heat of the 1960, between the old order and the new, Mrs. T. put the old tin lid on it. After her reign, nothing was as it was before.

I spoke to a friend and contemporary on the day that her death was announced. Neither of us felt anything in particular on seeing the headline. Apart from a fairly privileged childhood, both of us had been radicalised to a degree by a higher education. A quarter of a century before, we might both have felt like dancing in the streets, but this week just shrugged it off. Anyone who has had to live with a son like Mrs. Thatcher’s must have suffered enough for any sins that she may – or may not – have committed. After the death of Denis, she turned into a sad, reclusive specimen to whom death must have come as a blessed release.

There was a time when I was embarrassed to reveal that my first years were spent in Finchley, the Iron Lady’s constituency. Now, though, with the perspective of history, I feel somewhat ambivalent about our former MP and a little less abashed to admit the terrible truth.

The 1979 elections were the first time I was able to exercise my vote. How grown up it felt to write my big black X on the card in the privacy of the voting booth. I honestly can’t remember how I voted, but it’s conceivable that I voted for Mrs. T. Even if her patronising voice sounded like she was telling children about Andy Pandy’s latest adventure with Looby-Loo and Teddy, the country seemed to be in a terrible mess, inflation was out of control, and she was a woman. More power to the handbag she carried like an assault weapon.

I had just started my glittering career in the Civil Surface, a callow supervisor in Brighton Benefits Office, serving the Great Unwashed (as they were known on our side of the counter). I remember talking about the new prime minister to two former students, who used to work as casuals during the busiest periods. Janet and her friend with the peroxide hair and the crimson lipstick were horrified that I didn’t see Mrs. T. as evil incarnate.

Once I’d done a little growing up, I began to think more for myself and less like my parents. Against a backdrop of the Falklands War, the pitched battles against the miners and the poll-tax riots, her voice became ever more grating and her demeanour increasingly patronising. Maybe she was evil incarnate after all. Maybe I would dance when she checked her handbag at the great Cloakroom in the Sky.

Living in France has tempered my antipathy. I’m not sure what the French think deep down about La Dame En Fer. I suspect there’s a certain grudging admiration and maybe they secretly wish that a Gallic equivalent had marched into parliament in a pair of shiny court shoes to sort out the unions and boost the economy with a stiff dose of entrepreneurship. On the other hand, they’re probably quite relieved that a prophet of the free-market economy didn’t sweep away the old values with such a stiff new broom. 

During my lunch breaks throughout the week, I watched a stirring documentary about an American Football coach who worked with a bunch of no-hope kids from some God-awful district of Memphis, Tennessee to turn a seriously losing team into something rather better. The coach in question, a God-fearing family man who had been raised without a father by his mother, could have been one of Margaret Thatcher’s self-made men: someone who’d worked his way up through the ranks to possess his own business, a big car and a big new house in which to raise a big prosperous family.  

The kids to whom he dedicated six years of his life, on the other hand, appeared to be the direct legacy of Reaganomics, the free-market liberalism of Mrs. T.’s major ally in the fight against state interference, Ronald Ray-gun (as Gil Scott-Heron dubbed him). It was the usual sorry tale of those who get left behind in the wake of economic progress: in this case, black illiterate kids, many of them without a father, some of them without a mother, living in broken down squalor, often raised by a grandparent or two (if they were lucky) and seemingly all of them without guidance, direction or hope.

Just in case you want to see Undefeated, I won’t reveal what happens. Save to say that it made very moving viewing. It was also a painful reminder of what it must be like to be part of an underclass: effectively society’s untouchables. History has shown that Mrs. Thatcher might have got certain things right. Undoubtedly, she helped to lift many out of the kind of grinding poverty depicted in the tome I’m reading. But left to its own devices, the free-market economy – which allowed her father’s grocery shop to prosper – can create a society obsessed with the acquisition of wealth. Money became the new morality. How much more dispiriting it must be to live in poverty when you see everyone else apparently living the high life.

So I won’t be burning effigies or dancing in the streets. But I certainly shan’t be watching the lavish and expensive state funeral that the current ‘austerity’ government has conferred upon a lady who’s not for returning. As another clever bit of graffiti put it: Iron Lady? Rust in peace.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Happy Returns

In my innately conservative book, there’s much to be said for routine. But it’s conservative with a small ‘c’, so there’s just as much to be said for disruption of routine.

Particularly when the disruption takes the form of a visit from friends. Visits to this outpost of civilisation are rare enough to be a treat and this one even prompted my wife to take a couple of days off, which in itself is extra-ordinary. Paul and Lucy came all the way from Sheffield by train, bringing Indian spices and creamed coconut for the beleaguered of Martel.

They arrived in Sheffield from Suffolk a year after we’d moved oop north to the Steel City. We didn’t, alas, get to know them until we’d left for balmier climes. They started off as friends-of-friends, but are now firm first-hand friends. Paul has Parkinson’s, but copes admirably – thanks in no small degree to the joys of ping-pong. So, even though the weather was borderline pants, the first thing Paul and I did the morning after their arrival was to remove our blue remembered table from its winter wraps. 

Last time they were here, they came with two other friends who were going through a marital break-up. Since they’d only been married just over a year, the atmosphere was a little tense. And since it was February and cold, we brought the table inside and transformed our living space into a hotbed of pinging and ponging. It helped keep Paul on the straight and narrow.

This time, both of them were hoping for a kind of sanatorium-style respite from the exigencies of the Great Recession prior to taking the train back to Paris and thence to Burgundy to join some other friends, who have a barge near Dijon. Paul has just been made redundant after 13 years of loyal service to a charitable organisation. It has not treated him charitably and they have been several times through the Mangle of Life since notice was given. So, much table tennis was the order of the week.  

It – and their company – helped take my mind off Daisy. We last saw her on Easter Monday. She was perched like a Cheshire cat on the big central beam that runs the length of the roof, nestling right up underneath the ceiling. I figured that she was perturbed by Sarah the Dutch dog, who had parked herself on the terrace just the other side of the cat-flap. She was waiting and hoping that Alf would come out and play, but the rain rained all day long and Alf is old and likes the comfort of his basket. Or was it the advent of spring that perturbed her? Every year about this time, Daisy tends to pack up her kit bag and go wandering.
Where is she?

There was still no sign of her when Paul and I were unwrapping the ping-pong table on Wednesday morning for the first of our Titanic struggles. I look back on my life and it sometimes appears that I have spent an inordinate amount of time calling for cats. What’s that strange noise? Oh, that’s the cat-caller, shaking his tub of croquettes. I’ve learnt not to get frantic over Daisy. Several times I’ve managed to flush her out of her customary chill-out zone: an area of untamed undergrowth not far from the communal bins, the equivalent perhaps of the hobbits’ wild wood, where she must go to live off nuts and berries and contemplate the vicissitudes of life. 

Paul and I are evenly matched and, while we strive to excel, the competition is more important than the winning (as the cliché goes). I have a fierce forehand, which used to strike terror in the hearts of the opposition in the far-off days when I represented Brighton Benefit Office’s B team – until, that is, opponents spotted my Achilles Heel: a useless backhand. I don’t play much these days, whereas Paul plays just about every day to keep his affliction at bay. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The score was two matches apiece going into Friday, the last day of their visit. It went to the wire. I succumbed – valiantly, closely, courageously – by three sets to two and so three matches to two.

I wouldn’t want you to think that I spent all my week playing table tennis. In between checking e-mails and calling Daisy at the edge of the wild wood, I played my part in the uncommonly sociable goings-on at La Poujade Basse. We walked and talked, and talked and talked and talked – about our friends and our children. In between times, there were meals to prepare and to consume. It’s incredible how much longer it takes to consume a meal when friends are involved. Incredible, too, just how difficult it is to ‘get on’ when there are guests in the house. But, so long as there’s no paid work to be completed, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As he unwound, Paul felt sufficiently relaxed to read us a few of the poems he composes on his iPhone. He read one on the final evening about his wife, which made my wife (the mushy dame) burst into tears. I suggested that he reinvent himself, with all this time now on his hands, as the iPhone Poet. I can see it now… Ladies and gentlemen, live and on stage, will you put your hands together and welcome… the iPhone Poet! 

Three days is the perfect length of visit. Three days devoted to the life-enhancing society of friends does not irreparably disrupt your daily business. Any more and it takes half an age to catch up. Debs went back to work on Saturday morning and took our friends to the station. While she was busy earning the money to keep her husband in the style to which he is now accustomed, I got back to the business of calling Daisy. Hark! The cat-caller.

During my afternoon walk with the dog, just before Final Score, I bumped into the garrulous family Garou – or the Garoux, as they are known here generically. The younger daughter is a supply teacher who has that unerring ability to talk without drawing breath. Her quieter sister told me that Serge, who cuts his wood near their happy homestead, had found a cat recently and taken it back home. She thought it was a tabby. When I finally managed to extricate myself from their company, I phoned Serge just before the football results. Arsenal were playing at West Bromwich, but Daisy took preference. Alas, no. (I am known by the farming community, for some strange reason, as Marco…). Non, Marco. C’était un petit noir et blanc. Not a tabby with a tail like a corkscrew.

'463' by Saul Leiter
Soon after my wife abandoned me for Peter Brook’s production of The Magic Flute at the theatre in Brive, our daughter phoned for a chat. I felt it was time to announce the bad news. After all, it had been five days since we’d last seen her, balancing on the diagonal beam. She phoned again later in the evening, when I was half way through a documentary on the wonderful American photographer, Saul Leiter. I was busy urging her to explore his work for the benefit of her explorations in colour when there was a crash of the cat-flap, followed by a familiar high-pitched yowling. Daisy was home and hungry enough to eat a marmot. I shared my joy with The Daughter.

Next morning, Debs and I speculated on Daisy’s whereabouts during her week’s absence. The wild wood? Nothing so prosaic. She had been to an annual Cat Festival at Gramat, the self-styled capital of the causse. Cats from all around gather to run through their paces. Daisy, she reckoned, had won the blue-ribbon event of ‘speed-mousing’, whereby cats lay in a neat row ten rapidly killed mice for inspection by the judges. She’d done pretty well at the branch-balancing event and earned a mention for the ‘endurance-licking’. (She has been well trained by her sister.) The cat that can endure the attention and saliva of another cat for the longest period before getting into a fight wins the event. But she wouldn’t have been brave enough for the mad dog event, which requires a cat to stand its ground on the tips of its claws with fur done up like a hedgehog. More an interested spectator, we surmised. 

So now we know. Our friends have moved on to Burgundy and Daisy’s back in town. Back from Gramat. Back on my lap, tired out but triumphant. Normal service has been resumed.