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, May 26, 2013

Mission Of Mercy

‘Tis with a heavy heart that I sit down to write on this misty morning, for I must arise and go soon and go to the land of the Angles and the Saxons once more. Not that I have anything against my native land, but to get there involves travel – on which I am not keen – and this visit also involves babysitting my parents to give my beleaguered sister a break.

My father, soon (hopefully) to achieve the grand old age of 86, goes in to hospital in the middle of week for the operation that has been waiting for several years to happen. The surgeon will be operating to remove, or whatever it is they do these days, an aneurysm at the back of his neck. If you ask me what an aneurysm is, I’d simply have to quote the dictionary definition: the morbid dilation of an artery. Since that artery feeds his brain, they’ve been keeping a close watch on it and have decided that it’s now or never.

He has supposed to be getting himself in training for the op. This doesn’t mean visits to the local gym to lift weights and jog on a treadmill. No, the prescription simply means to put one foot in front of another for a period of, say, 20 minutes in order to convey himself, without electrical or mechanical assistance, around the block. Despite our nagging, he has managed to find various excuses for not doing as the medical experts suggest.

You see, by night my father is like any other rather noisy slumbering octogenarian, but by day he slips into his corduroy trousers and buttons up his shirt to become… The World’s Laziest Man! Somehow he has survived this long on earth without motivation, drive, desire, curiosity, hobbies or interests. To be fair, he likes music, but he doesn’t like anything that he hasn’t already liked for about the last 70 years. He is very good at sitting in chairs and he consumes copious amounts of Coronation Street. Give the man his due; he has taught himself to use a laptop, so he can order the weekly shop from Asda without having to get in the car, so he can check on the fortunes of Arsenal, and so he can chat to me on Skype. He can also create something not entirely unpalatable in the kitchen. His hand was forced, probably quite soon after he wed, on discovering that he had married… The World’s Worst Cook!

In less fragile times just a few short years ago
Every afternoon for the last 25 years or so, come rain or come shine, my father has retreated to his bed, where he stays for around three hours at a stretch. I am not accustomed to visiting him in his bed, because he is not to be disturbed. But this time, I shall have to get used to it. If, as is the trend, the NHS kicks him out of his hospital bed the day after his operation, I shall be there to bring him regular horribly stained cups of tea and sympathy.

My heart is particularly heavy because I shall be staying at my parents’ house rather than my sister’s for the first time in aeons. My mother is now in the first stages of Alzheimer’s and she gets seriously panicky if my father goes anywhere for even an hour. It’s a very rare occurrence, of course, but this time he’ll be gone for at least a couple of days. So I shall be there to quieten her.

My mother’s madness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. She has been in training for most of her life. If you children don’t behave, your mother will end up in Purdysburn was a regular refrain when my three siblings and I were growing up in Belfast. Purdysburn was the local ‘loony bin’: a big Victorian building set back behind a perimeter wall that kept out curious children. During holidays in Bath at our maternal grandparents’ house, our mother would throw periodic wobblies and threaten to throw herself into the Kennet and Avon canal. We took it with a pinch of salt, but our grandmother would be very disconcerted and spend days ruminating about what it was she must have said. 

The thing is, though, we were remarkably well-behaved children – with the possible exception of my younger brother. He was our mother’s shoo-shoo, probably because he was and is so like our father, and he could get away with murder. Our mother’s withering looks or savage assaults with a rolled-up House & Garden magazine meant nothing to him. While my father went out to simulate work at Tilley Lamps, the family firm, my mother would shut herself in her bedroom to hide from her children and paint pictures of Belfast street scenes or hammer out novels on a portable typewriter. She would read portions of them to her disinterested offspring, but would never send them off to a publisher. She lacked all necessary self-belief.

Once as a bolshy teenager, when my mother complained of how weary she was, I had the temerity to suggest that she didn’t actually do anything that she didn’t like doing. If there were jobs to be done, they were generally done by her children (with the possibly exception of my brother, due to his ability to get away with homicide). This was not a diplomatic move on my part. The maternal looks and barbs grew ever more withering for at least a week.

Looking less beleaguered
We lived, therefore, in a kind of tree-lined genteel squalor. But it’s nothing to the squalor that my parents live in now. My sister has been in on two occasions with a cleaner-friend of hers. With a packet of disposable gloves and probably the kind of double-nosed gas marks that Walt and Jessie wear when they’re cooking up crystal meth in Breaking Bad, they’ve blitzed the place – partly for my benefit. There’s still a way to go, apparently, but at least it’s no longer like one of these freakish places you see on Channel 4 reality programmes. Britain’s Most Unsanitary Octogenarians!

So thanks to their efforts, I’m not dreading the visit in terms of my physical comfort or personal hygiene. It’s more the prospect of what I’ll find when I get there. My mother has become alarmingly frail, it would seem. Withering in another sense of the word. At least, madness has made her as gentle as a lamb. All she needs is some food that won’t trouble her intolerance to gluten and plenty of cuddles. It’ll be like cuddling a sparrow, but otherwise shouldn’t be too difficult.

My sister has asked me if I could bring something with me to aid our father’s recovery. Since he doesn’t read and doesn’t listen to music that he doesn’t know, I think sleep will be the best bet. He’s very good at that. If I get any time off for good behaviour, I’ll hunt down CDs in the charity shops of Romsey and script a few e-learning screens on the laptop that I’ll have to take with me in the one bag I'm allowed by the generous people at Ryan Air. In any case, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I shall arise and go now…

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pleasing The Punters

We’re due to go to a rockabilly festival this weekend in the little town of Alassac, north of Brive, where we bought some bathroom fittings for our first house in France many moons ago and had our first run-in with a shop assistant over the vexed issue of customer service.

It’s not so much a festival, in the Isle of Wight sense of the word, more an early animation d’été: a summer spectacle designed by an enterprising commune to pull in a few tourists. Only a little one – in the vanguard of the big ones that turn July and August into a festive blow-out. Neither of us are great fans of rockabilly, which treads the dangerous demilitarised zone between rock ‘n’ roll and country & western (with all them good old boys in pick-up trucks and their big-haired cow-eyed gals singing about affairs of the heart). However, our friends, the Three Steves, are playing there and they play a good mix of rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues.

I forget what they call themselves – something like the Head Honchos or Rancho Notorious, or… something actually not very like that at all. So we think of them as three guys named Steve: American Steve, who slaps a mean double bass and tries out the beautiful vintage guitars he imports from the States; Steve Jay, a professional musician imported from Malvern, who lays down a rock-solid beat on drums and plays keyboards when called upon at parties and more intimate gigs; and Steve Michaels, who plays a beautiful Fender Stratocaster and shares my penchant for such lesser known R&B minstrels of the 1950s as Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris and Bull Moose Jackson (who famously sung about his big ten-inch… record of the blues).

Rockabilly and music of that kidney seems to be quite popular in these parts. There’s an annual C&W festival at Gramat, the capital of the limestone causse, which probably attracts the folk who drive tractors and distil their own eau de vie from pears or plums. Rockabilly gives couples the opportunity to dance le rock, which is a watered-down, rather polite and strangely charming version of Lindy-hopping. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the 90%-proof version – you can catch a Hollywood-friendly genre in the film, Hellzapoppin’! – but it was one of the wonders of the mid-20th century world. Couples, mainly black and quite lithe, would throw each other over their backs and through their legs and cavort like human dodgems ostensibly without permanent damage. In le rock, Monsieur et Madame hold each other at arms’ length and proceed to do a fairly gentle push-and-pull roughly in time to the music. It’s all very civilised. 

Anyway, the appalling weather has hung a big question mark over the weekend. It was the talk of the town at the market on Saturday morning. A mere ten degrees, the egg-man pointed out. Old man Thomas suggested that Friday’s brief respite from the rain represented our summer and it will soon be winter again. They say it’s due to the melting polar ice cap. I prefer to think of it as Mother Nature’s vain attempt to try to correct the imbalance and top up the water table before the apocalypse really kicks in.

Whatever. It certainly won’t please the punters. We have now entered the time of the season when pleasing the punters becomes paramount. The first of the season arrived at a house very near to this cinema this weekend. As always, it was a last-minute booking, which means that everyone stops doing what they’re doing in order to mount a tireless clean-up operation. When the news broke, I was trying to get my head around an incredibly opaque and turgid official document in order to extract the salient points and dress them up in the kind of transparent, engaging and exciting fashion that every modern e-learner demands of their on-line training. Already battling against a tight deadline, I had to drop everything to mobilise the staff (notoriously hard to get these days, as you know). On Friday I was helping the cleaner inside the house with the beds and the windows. The next day I was helping the pool man pull back the winter cover in the unlikely event of any sunshine warm enough to entice the punters into the water. And re-cleaning the windows with a product from Intermarché that doesn’t smear the glass. Blimey missus, you should see what I should see when I’m cleaning windees!

Later in the day, I returned to the house with my best obsequious face on to meet and greet the first of the punters. I showed them what’s what and pointed out all the special features laid on by the thoughtful owners for their delectation – the set of boules, the library of free DVDs from Sunday newspapers, the better-than-usual range of discarded books, the array of parasols, the solar-powered twinkling lights around the pool to turn each evening into a romantic adventure, the travel cot for parking babies under the shade of the spreading oak trees while the adults play ping-pong, the welcome pack (which has become a little less welcoming this year due to the stealthy creep of inflation and the rigours of the Great Recession) and so on. All in a patent attempt to compensate for the lack of the one special feature that every punter wants and every owner cannot guarantee: good weather.

Over the last few years, I have become so accustomed to bending over backwards that I might have embarked on a new career as The Amazing Rubber Man if the stress of it all and the fear of appliances breaking down and the concomitant bad marks and/or unfavourable comments in the visitors’ book didn’t keep my body quite so rigid.

They asked me if the pool were heated. I touched my forelock and genuflected in the manner of a messenger delivering the news unto Caesar that his armies had been routed by the Visigoths. But maybe the owners will consider it for the future… Expectations seem to have risen in line with the innovations of the digital age. Once, a DVD player would have been a big deal. Then the telly had to be linked to a satellite system. Now a lack of wi-fi in every room triggers a teenage glower. Soon there’ll be a groundswell of opinion to suggest that heating the obligatory pool should be standard. 

It doesn’t have to be thus. My friends Stuart and Gabrielle have done quite nicely, thank you, with their Brittany Country Gite linked to their permaculture lifestyle in the Breton countryside. Holidaymakers can hug the woolly black Ouessant sheep or pet the personable pigs instead of lazing by a pool. 
They're black, cuddly and adorable!
You can generally tell what people want by their car. The current punters drive an Audi. I’ve got nothing intrinsically against Audis, and they’re nice polite middle-class people from Middle England. But Audis, BMWs and the like make me nervous. These Audinistae have got a sweet little 15-month old daughter who’s into everything, so it’s not going to be a relaxing holiday if the weather keeps them inside all week long. I didn’t suggest the rockabilly festival, but maybe I could help the situation by lending them my impenetrable document. A few sentences of all that bureaucratic guff would lull the child to sleep and give the parents some time to enjoy a few discarded novels.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Strawberry Fields

Up river in Beaulieu this weekend, they’re celebrating the annual strawberry festival. You’d never know it; the weather’s currently more in keeping with root vegetables. That won’t deter the crowds. It’s one of those events that features a superabundance of food: in this case, a flan big enough to feed the five thousand.
Please, sir. Can I have some more?

This makes it roughly the 18th time we’ve managed to miss the festivities. It’s not that I’ve got anything against strawberries – other than that tasteless variety they grow under plastic in Spain to sell under plastic in supermarkets. Quite the contrary. I just have a horror of any kind of seething mass of humanity, whether congregating to sample this year’s harvest or, as they do in Lewes each November, to light fireworks in the streets and cheer on men mad enough to rush about with burning barrels of pitch on their back. Ever since the last of those particular spectacles I witnessed as a student in Brighton, I’ve preferred to stay far from the madding crowd.

It was our recent visitor – my wife’s friend and EFT mentor – who inadvertently reminded me of another reason for spurning the strawberry festival. Gwyneth was telling me about her subscription to eMusic and showing me some of the stuff she has downloaded onto her iPhone. I happened to notice some Van der Graaf Generator tracks. It turned out that we share a love of that ponderous band, whose gloomy albums came out in the early ‘70s on the Famous Charisma Label. A thinking person’s Led Zeppelin, she described them. Music for self-harm, I would prefer.

‘Love’ is perhaps too strong a word in my case. I managed to kick the habit when I grew out of my anguished teenage phase, but kept their albums as some kind of mementos mori. At the time, though, I was such a fan that, in the absence of a lyric sheet with my copy of Pawn Hearts, I borrowed a friend’s and painstakingly transcribed in tiny hand all of Pete Hammill’s (many, many) words onto the inner sleeve. 

What, pray, has this got to do with strawberries? There is a connection. It’s to do with a group of intrepid sixth formers who, for two summers, took the overnight boat from Belfast to Liverpool and thence, via trans-Pennine train, to an ex-POW camp near a small town called March in the Fens. The landscape was as flat as it is around Chartres in northern France, and on certain fine summer’s days you could see the spire of Ely cathedral in the distance.
Riot in Cell Block #9 

It was a camp called Friday Bridge and we would sleep in the big Nissen huts that used to house the Italian prisoners of World War 2. Imagine, a dormitory full of teenage boys! We were there to pick strawberries and – in the management’s hope, I guess – spend the results of our back-breaking piece work in the communal bar, where we Belfast boys would drink a foul brew called barley wine and sing impolite rugby songs. Fortunately, I was more motivated then – as now – by an insatiable appetite for music. Faced with a choice between barley wine and the LPs I could buy when I got to London, well… it was no contest.

Inevitably, there were drunken shenanigans. There was one night… Maybe it was the conclusion to the day when a crowd of inmates gathered around an open window to watch, on a television within, David Bowie perform ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops – in bright orange hair, knee-length boots and a quilted jump suit. I went to bed reasonably early to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for another day’s hard slog in the strawberry fields, only to be woken up by Stinker McCallum and a group of drunken cronies, insisting that I get out of my lazy bed to sing ‘The Sash my father wore’ with them. I was tired and not sufficiently sectarian to know the lyrics of the Orangemen’s battle cry, so I told Stinker to leave me to sleep in two words of one syllable. It was not the most diplomatic way to handle the situation. Stinker started hitting me; I hid under the bedclothes; and a new friend of ours from Manchester jumped out of his bed to fight the good fight of the dormant. I can’t remember how it ended. I suspect I still sat beside Stinker the following term in A-level English.

The work was grim and poorly paid: the kind that these days might be carried out by gangs of illegal immigrants. Weekly work rotas would go up on the notice board at the weekend and you’d congregate early each morning, waiting for a ride on a flat-bed truck or a tractor trailer to Farmer This or That’s endless fields. The lucky ones might be allocated to the canning factories or to the potato sheds, where you would stand all day at a conveyor belt removing stones and clods of mud from the procession of spuds that passed by en route for the sacks. I did that once. Every time I closed my eyes for the next 24 hours or so, I saw potatoes dancing about inside my head. 

We usually got there several hours after the gypsies, who started around six, worked at a Formula 1 speed and then packed it in at lunchtime. You’d take your buckets, wander off to the serried rows of soft fruit, get down on your hunkers and then shuffle off towards the horizon like a toddler with a full nappy. Eating the occasional pesticide-enriched strawberry or periodically taking a full bucket off to get weighed and emptied punctuated the boredom. At the end of the day, you’d exchange your tokens for real money – to be spent, by the diehard boozers, on barley wine.

Second time around, all the xxxx beds ended inevitably in tears. On the last night, things got out of hand and all the beds in our particular punishment block found their way outside. The head honcho turned up with some security muscle and ordered the boys from Belfast off the premises. As part of a small group, pretending not to be scared by the shrieks of the animal kingdom on that pitch-black night, I remember lugging my heavy case across fields and along interminable roads as far as March railway station.

I think I travelled to London with Billy Ellison, a sensitive ‘yoot’, who mumbled almost inaudibly and parted his long hair when it flopped in front of his face, like someone opening curtains. A year above me, he would later go off to Cambridge, only to be last seen begging on the streets of Belfast. We travelled by train and then by bus. When it stopped for 10 minutes or so at Peterborough coach station, I nipped into a record store to buy a copy of Pete Hammill’s hot new solo album, Fool’s Mate. It was a kind of rapid aperitif to a lazy afternoon with headphones on a floor cushion at the first Virgin Record Store in London, where I spent my hard-earned lucre on things like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Pharoah Sanders’ Deaf Dumb Blind, my first jazz record. 

So you see, much as I enjoy eating the local strawberries that are now beginning to appear at Martel market, the memory of the hard labour involved in picking them has given me another compelling reason for avoiding the annual fruit fare in Beaulieu.

As for Van der Graaf Generator, Gwyneth told me that – like so many blasts from the past – they got back together again, went on the road and produced a live album or two of golden greats. I’ll give them a miss.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Desert Island Day

Made it Ma, top of the world! The James Cagney character then blew himself up at the top of a water tower to exit with style in an apocalyptic explosion. My own idea of making it, Ma, is rather less spectacular, but equally far-fetched: to receive a phone call from the BBC, requesting my presence on Desert Island Discs.

Being a compulsive list-maker, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with Top 10 pieces of music, books, films, paintings, finest football midfield players or whatever. Tell me about your fifth selection then, Mr. Sampson. Well, Roy, it’s a classic example of a memorably melodic three-minute pop song: ‘I Saw The Light’ by Todd Rundgren. (I only quote this particular choice because I was prompted last week by The Guardian home page to watch a video on You Tube of a slightly corpulent Todd performing a new version of his song with a slightly corpulent Daryl Hall and other friends at his Hawaii home.)

And so I wouldn’t have any difficulty in pinpointing my Desert Island Day, the best day of my life. As a young kid, it might have been the day at the end of Primary 7 when I finally beat Albert Jordan to the coveted First Boy prize. That kind of thing was important to me in those days. I was quite competitive then.

Albert Jordan was the ground-keeper’s only child. He lived in a house that looked like it was made of marzipan, about 25 yards from the school itself. Our first house in Belfast backed onto the playing fields. We kids dug a hole underneath the railings, so we could slip underneath and play in the grounds. During the summer holidays, I would slip through the hole – which his father would keep filling up with stones – to play tennis or two-man cricket with Albert. My friend was a talented southpaw and I could never beat him at tennis or bowl him out at cricket.

So it was wonderful to get that First Boy prize after several years of trying. Somewhere among my memorabilia is a fading black-and-white photograph from the Belfast Telegraph of me, grinning like a loon, sandwiched between Anne Kissock and Jane Rutherford, the object of my young heart’s desire. We were all supposedly pouring over my prize: a history book written by Winston Churchill. My glory, though, was tempered by the fact that the journalist (as usual) got a salient detail wrong. The paper printed that we were pupils from P5. I’m not 9; I’m 11, for God’s sake!

Still, it was a good day. But not the best. I know which day I should choose. It was the day our daughter was safely delivered into this world. I’d long muttered darkly that if it were a boy, I’d leave him as the Spartans used to do on some bare, craggy mountainside – to see whether he had what it took to survive to manhood. So I was greatly affected by the sight of what the consultant referred to as a healthy wee gurrell.   

In truth, though, I was too agitated fully to revel in the moment. It wasn’t so much the matter of child’s sex, as the fact that she was delivered by caesarean section and I was perturbed at my wife’s bedside by all the antibiotics they were drip-feeding into her (the mother’s) system. At that point in both our lives, we were a little obsessed by the health of our immune systems, and so I was concerned that the antibiotics would undo all the results of following the Fit For Life diet, a book first introduced to me by James Moody, the great American tenor saxophonist, at a concert on the Brighton seafront, a day or two after the hurricane of 1987.

So not that particular blessed day. No, pop-pickers, number-one-it’s-Top-of-the-Pops occurred 23 years ago today, the 5th May. It was the day, not unlike today in fact – a warm early summer’s day that unravelled under a limpid un-Sheffield-like blue sky – when I married my wife in Bakewell Registry Office, Derbyshire.

The weeks before had been pretty stressful, organising the catering, the party (in the church hall at Tideswell, a delightful village in the Peak District) and accommodation for family and friends. We’d almost agreed to call the whole thing off. In the time-honoured fashion, we separated the evening before the event. While I was enjoying in our terraced house the company of my best man and his wife, who had flown over from New York, my estranged wife was holding court in her mother’s temporary lodgings in Tideswell – and resisting, in fact, her mother’s last-minute attempts to warn her daughter off tying the knot to a man with few prospects and suspect moral character. Her father, in his irascible wisdom, had stayed at home as if to underline the words of a Gerry Rafferty song: Her father didn’t like me, anyway.

We met up the next morning down by the river in Bakewell, surrounded by a gaggle of family, friends and local ducks. My peerless bride arrived in her open-top bottle-green Beetle, which she and her best woman, Vicky, had cleaned and festooned that morning. It was the first time that I’d seen the mustard coloured trouser suit of which her mother so strongly disapproved. Vicky had hennaed her hair a dramatic shade of red that bled onto her outfit. Together, the pair of them set the tone for a wedding that the registrar would describe as very, em… modern.

Surrounded by friends and family and relieved of the responsibilities of organisation, our mutual joy was so unconfined that the registrar had to demand a little decorum and attention half way through the service. After the handful of unofficial photographers had snapped us in groups great and small among the roses of the public gardens by the roundabout, we de-camped to the church hall in Tideswell, which the vicar had had painted specially for us. Presumably this cost rather more than the £15 we had paid him to hire the place for two days. 

We ate a sumptuous meal prepared by the two charming male friends of my boss at the time, who looked a little like a diminutive version of Freddy Mercury. My mother and mother-in-law complained conspiratorially about the background music I’d prepared for the occasion and my best man let slip a four-letter word within earshot of my white-haired grandfather at the conclusion of the speech he reckoned he’d screwed up. In the absence of her irascible father, the bride was given away by her avuncular friend, Graham, whose speech was as funny as his appearance at a party a year or so later as a worryingly convincing Dusty Springfield.

The parents and everyone else over a ‘certain age’ disappeared for the party that evening in the same village hall and we danced until the wee small hours. Anyone still in the area met up late the following morning for an Indian lunch at the restaurant across the street where we lived. Debs and I then took off for our honeymoon in the house in the Corrèze we’d bought the year before, to be followed by my brother and his girlfriend. Being of a more practical nature than I, my kid brother – a plumber then and now in Guildford – was going to look at our 17th century folly and diagnose whether anything could be done with it.

And did we have any inkling at the time that, 23 years further down the route nationale of time, we would be living within straw walls an hour’s drive from our nuptial destination? Reader, we did not. I was pretty damn sure, however, that 23 years later I would still be looking back with a broad smile on the day that I would select without hesitation to relive time and time again on my desert island.