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, July 28, 2013

Festival-ities


Now is the season of our music festivals, made glorious by this sun of July...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our French brethren and sisteren, often so modest and reserved at parties, unable to shake off the shackles of ‘correct’ behaviour, it might appear, except when behind the wheel of an automobile, do make exceedingly good audiences at music concerts.

And so it transpired again this summer. The end of July is the time here when local festivals normally clash. Perhaps the organisers of Africajarc and the Souillac jazz festival finally realised that this is a shame and that a percentage of their audience might wish to attend both. Perhaps they conferred and collectively bargained. Thus it came to pass that jazz and African music were served up on separate weekends in 2013.

Souillac on the Dordogne, pronounced approximately Swee-yack rather than the Solly-ack or something daft they once managed on one of those TV shows about buying property abroad, is an unprepossessing place. When the tourists aren’t here – for 10 months of the year – it exudes abandonment, like a local Detroit. But every year at about this time, a modest four-day jazz festival pumps the deserted town full of adrenaline. The weather is always balmy and the restaurants of the medieval quarter spill onto the street, packed with diners, busily eating and drinking Souillac’s fragile economy temporarily back into the black.


It all takes place in the vicinity of Souillac’s one incontrovertible treasure: an abbey originally conceived as a monastery, which dates back many centuries before Bunny Bolden supposedly invented jayazz. Me and the missus, we like to don our glad-rags and strut our funky stuff on the headline evening each year. Everything runs like clockwork and, while you wait for the concert to start on time, you get to sit in the place behind the abbey and watch its current residents, the swifts, dart and dive in search of insects to take back to their nests somewhere under the building’s extraordinary roof.

When night falls imperceptibly, the moon pops up over the perimeter and the lighting technicians’ filters create a lightshow worthy of the Tate Modern on the white stone walls of the abbey and the adjoining college of music. If the music’s as good as the ambience, it’s a bonus. This year, the young Cuban jazz pianist, Roberto Fonseca, and his sextet of bass, drums, percussion, guitar and Malian kora served music to make the spirit soar like the swifts. The kora for those who have never heard this heavenly instrument is a kind of West African harp that looks a little like a sitar. For aficionados of the jazz piano, young Senor Fonseca – a charming individual with a fine hat and a quirky French accent – plays like the immaculate conception of Hilton Ruiz, Chucho Valdes and Ahmad Jamal. The band were as tight as the lid of a vacuum-sealed jam jar and it was, we agreed in the car afterwards, one of the finest concerts ever witnessed in decades of combined concert-going. 

However… what never ceases to surprise the royal ‘us’ is just how vocal and demonstrative a French audience can be. By the second number there was a palpable bond between audience and performer. During a piano solo, when he quoted from ‘Besame Mucho’, the audience – much to Fonseca’s evident delight – burst into a spontaneous rendition of the classic. A heartfelt and noisy standing ovation was inevitable. 

On Friday evening, my friend Moke and I made the pilgrimage south to Cajarc for more kora. A whole evening and early morning, in fact, dedicated to the stirring music of Mali.
After a brief stop to check that the new arrivals had settled in at the holiday house I oversee – where I found them splashing around in the pool and making the kind of demands that branded them in my bad-book as nouveau riche – I followed my familiar favourite route across the causse, through a village called Espedaillac, which boasts a green and two ponds, down into the magical valley of the river Célé, up the other side and across another causse or limestone plateau, before the final twisting descent took us to the Lot valley and the little market town of Cajarc.

If France’s imperial history means that the emphasis of the four-day Africajarc festival tends to be on north and west Africa, never mind: the streets are lined by the stalls of an authentic and exotic enough market, and the air resounds with the thumping of djembés. In looking for a barquette of chips to fuel the marathon ahead of us, I bumped into the architect of Maison Sampson for the second year running. Monsieur Gilles Faltrept of Figeac, renowned for his plaited beaded beard, appalling teeth and the obscure cartoons that arrive occasionally by e-mail, complimented me on my sunglasses.

The Africajarc arena is a plot of otherwise unused ground between the former railway station and the river Lot. It accommodates the multitudes easily but uncomfortably. Either you stand in front of the stage (and wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care) or you sit on the precipitous slope and try to stop yourself from sliding down. It’s a good job that I love African music so much and can use my Songlines connection to blag a free press pass.  


This year I brought with me an old blanket largely allocated to the dog and a pensioned-off pillow. We found a spot with some other friends on some higher ground where the slope is gentler, just underneath a few rows of occupied benches that Véronique dubbed ‘the tribune’. And there we sat to listen to a Malian poet, to watch short films made by students from Bamako, to listen to the irritating banter of the co-presenters (a colourful version of Ant and Dec), and to watch the long succession of acts: a Touareg vocal group from the Sahara, specialising in those amazing blood-curdling yodel-shrieks; Pedro Kouyaté, a kora player with the gruffest singing voice known to man; the kora maestro, Ballaké Sissoko, backed by a group of two acoustic guitars and a simply wonderful balofon (wooden vibes) player; the extraordinary actress, dancer and singer, Fatoumata Diawara, the undoubted star of the show; and Mamani Keita, who had the unenviable task of following ‘Fatou’.

By the time Ms. Keita came on, looking incongruously like someone who might have just made a guest appearance in Coronation Street, there were spare seats to be had in the tribune. From up there, you can see the whole stage and peep over the perimeter fence to see the river itself. It was past two by this stage and, after four of Mamani’s numbers, we decided to call it a night. We trudged off for the car. Being a creature of habit, I leave it in the same spot every year, primed for a rapid exit.
 
They were still there at the front of the stage, bobbing about and waving their arms in the air like they just didn’t care that it was way past their bedtime. French audiences, eh? Sacré bleu! You gotta hand it to 'em.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Of Little Mice And Big Men


I’m just reading through a personal message from the White House as Daisy chomps her way through a mouse she must have brought in last night and left as a love-token in the vicinity of my chair. It’s a dreadful noise, the sound of teeth on bone and gristle. 

The amicable letter signed Sincerely Barack Obama is quite a good one. A well-paid wordsmith clearly spent a good few hours constructing elegant paragraphs in a friendly, understanding voice that ultimately signifies very little. The President’s ghost wrote to me in response to an on-line petition urging the Big Man to pull his presidential finger out on the subject of climate change.

‘For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.’ Well there you are then, I knew I could trust the man. We can tell our children that everything’s going to be all right. The world is not going down the pan after all, because the American President is personally going to see to it that the United States of Consumption will cut its emissions. Now I can go outside without a care in the world and play croquet with the cheap-and-cheerful set I bought from Herr Lidl the other day.

I can’t be too hard on the man. After all, he was good enough to write back – and, let’s face it, letter-writing is a dying art these days. I remember going to a party given by some American acquaintances to celebrate the new president’s inauguration. They rigged up a big-screen telly and created a cocktail they christened Obamapunch for the occasion. Everyone was in high spirits (no pun intended) and it was an uplifting assembly of cosmopolitan folk. Yer man gave an assured and rousing address from behind his bullet-proof screen, and everyone cheered him on, happy in the knowledge that, at the very least, he was much more intelligent than the previous incumbent.

However… meeting the agenda on his oval desk was always going to be a tall order: save the world, while ending the inextricable struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, revitalising the economy and wiping a few trillion off the national debt. So I enjoyed the spectacle for what it was and went home after a few heady draughts of optimism with few illusions.

Sure enough, nothing much has changed. True, the American acquaintances have swapped their lovingly restored house in Martel for one of those beautiful Regency-style houses, once the combined homes and depots of rich wine merchants, overlooking the Gironde in Bordeaux. But rather than doing something truly radical, like fitting solar panels to every roof in the country, the American government, like just about every other government, continues to fiddle while the planet burns. For all his elegant suits and elegant words, the slick orator is effectively powerless in the face of concerted lobbying, vested interest and political intransigence. 

Was there ever a time when you could trust a politician? If so, it must have ended roughly with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. If there’s any honour left, it’s an honour among thieves. Just like professional cricketers, in fact. The first test of the current series for the Ashes has been riveting, but spoiled a little by the failure of Stuart Broad to ‘walk’ when he knew that he’d edged a catch to the slips behind. He was half way through contributing to a stand that might yet prove to be the decisive factor in the match. 

To walk or not to walk, that is the question? The debate was raging in the mid 60s, when I was an avid reader of my monthly mag, The Cricketer. The English team was only just emerging from an era of Gentlemen v Players, a time when only amateur ‘gentlemen’ were allowed to captain the plebeian professional players who made up the majority of the eleven. It was the gentlemanly thing to do, to walk if you knew you were out. Even then, though, there were many – often Australian, professional to a man and generally contemptuous of any trappings of a class system synonymous with British imperialism – who would stand their ground until the umpire raised his finger. Let’s not forget, too, that any who walked potentially faced the wrath of their team-mates.

The issue was not as simple as it sounded. I found this out as a cricket-crazy kid. I was playing in a game on some far-off field, just trying to get my eye in when I played at a ball outside my off stump and there was a loud appeal from the wicketkeeper and slip fielders behind me. I wasn’t sure whether I nicked it or not. So I stood my ground and waited for the umpire. Since he was a spare from our own team, he didn’t give me out. I played on for a few more balls until the inevitable happened and I drove over a straight ball, which shattered my stumps. But I think in my heart of hearts that the earlier delivery probably did touch the edge of my bat. To this day, I am haunted by the fact that I didn’t walk. I did the wrong thing, knowing it wasn’t right.

I was a kid at the time, and I like to think that I would have been bigger about it if it had happened when I was a man. So when I’m tempted by Friday’s incident to decry the boy Broad as a brat, I have to remind myself not to be a hypocrite. In any case, Broad has to live with his conscience (if he’s got one). He may even be remembered as the morally suspect bloke who did the wrong thing: the other side of a coin that shows an untarnished image of the great Australian wicketkeeper-batsman, Adam Gilchrist, a Boy’s Own hero if ever there was one, who walked without hesitation in defiance of the team ethic. 
Perhaps I’ll write to my new friend, Mr. Obama, and see what he makes of it all. Americans don’t understand cricket, so I won’t mind too much if I don’t get a reply from him or his White House wordsmith. I’d rather he thought to write to Mrs. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, assuming the great singer left behind a widow when he growled his last a couple of weeks ago. Bobby was a big man in many senses of the word. He may never have been quite as famous as the likes of B.B. King, because the only instrument he had was his voice. But what a voice! Bobby was to the black American blues tradition as Frank Sinatra was to the white American popular songbook. 

If President Obama isn’t going to leave a solar-powered legacy, he could do worse than decree a national Bobby Bland Appreciation Day. We need our heroes – and heroines – more than ever in troubled times. We need the walkers of this life.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Killer Instinct


I felt for Sabine Lisicki yesterday at Wimbledon. So agonising was it to watch her agony that The Daughter went and cleaned the kitchen entirely of her own volition. There she was, that big blonde endearing German tennis girl, the nation’s new sweetheart, presented with a golden opportunity on a perfect summer’s afternoon to repay her watching parents for all the sacrifices they had made for their daughter in her youth… and she imploded.
Isn't she a sweetie?

Debs arrived half way through the second set after a busy morning in Brive. Chomping through an enormous sandwich that represented lunch, she surrogate-tapped for all she was worth for the poor suffering Aryan and briefly, miraculously, Sabine found her game and won three on the trot. But it was too little, too late. If the whole world had tapped together, we wouldn’t have created sufficient energy to stop Marion Bartoli, the delightful French eccentric, from fulfilling her imagined destiny.

I’ve been in love with Sabine Lisicki for a couple of years. Anyone who smiles as sincerely and as ingenuously as she does has got to be a genuinely nice girl. Fortunately, though, the cat-napping, cat-loving Bartoli – with her wry self-knowledge and endearing heft, a kind of Gallic personification of Betjeman’s Pam, Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five – is equally charming. I didn’t begrudge her for one moment her victory. She’d been here once before and wanted it more. She bounded off towards her box at the end like an ungainly teenager who has just won a school skipping contest.

Lisicki was the unanimous choice of the BBC pundits: after all, she had the big serve and the big shots, and she was riding the viewing public’s wave of gratitude for having eliminated the beastly Serena Williams. But they failed to take the mental game into account. Some are born with a killer instinct, some have it inculcated upon them and others wouldn’t recognise it if it passed them in the street. Debs wants to get in touch with Miss Lisicki to let her know how EFT (or Emotional Freedom Techniques) can help her conquer her nerves and give her a competitive edge. Dear Sabine, I watched with torment when your serve broke down and you cried as you looked in vain for somewhere to hide. I think I can help you… And why not? Look what the glacial Lendl has done for Murray.

I’m one whom killer instinct passed by. My sporting achievements were always tempered by a Lisicki-like failure to perform on the big stage. A surfeit of empathy doesn’t help. My natural instinct has always been to take my foot off the pedal rather than press home an advantage. Consequently, I’ve experienced that awful bowel-churning feeling that Sabine must have felt there on Centre Court, watched by millions: that feeling of wishing for some minor fracking-induced earthquake to create a chasm in the ground into which you can fall and curl up at the bottom in the foetal position.

When I found myself 5-1 up against Stuart Smith in the St. Polycarps Under-15 final, playing on the red clay of Finaghy, dressed in a lilac polo shirt handed down from a 2nd cousin once or twice removed, a pair of yellow socks and my Slazenger Les Paul, I caught a faint whiff of victory and my head did the rest. Like Sabine Lisicki, I could find no hiding place as my game collapsed around my ankles like a pair of pants with perished elastic. It was mortifying. All you want to do is get it over with as quickly as possible.

It was one of the friendliest finals I’ve ever witnessed and it was lovely to see both contestants embrace so warmly at the end. But sportswomanship like this comes at a price. It was no contest and no spectacle. That would have demanded a fairer distribution of killer instinct. The day before, the metronomic Djokovic and big awkward Juan Martin Del Potro produced a match of such intensity and such indomitable passion that it left you as drained as the pair of them must have felt at the end of five sets.

A certain commitment to the cause
Still, yesterday I learned that the British and Irish Lions had conquered the mighty Wallabies in Australia. Whenever an Australian is beaten at any sport, I give thanks to the spirit in the sky, because it confirms that a killer instinct doesn’t always prevail. These guys, on both sides of the half-way line, are stark-staring mad. Not only prepared to kill, they are prepared to lay down their lives for team and country. They’ll throw themselves into a ruck without the slightest thought of concussion or paralysis. It does indeed make for a great spectacle, but I’m happier to let others die for the cause.

I glimpsed such madness as a teenager among my betters at school – and didn’t like what I saw. Which is why I was happy to shine in what was dismissively known as The Rabble. The trouble was, if you enjoyed yourself too much and shone too brightly among the ‘messers’ and the wasters, the teachers mistook you for someone with the necessary talent and attitude to grace one of the proper teams. On the few occasions when I played for a serious team, my self-belief would vanish like Sabine Lisicki’s and I’d drift around the field like a damp mist. Tackle, Sampson! The cry would go up. Er, no, thanks all the same. I don’t think I really want to risk injury…

And so ended my rugby career. Stillborn. I left it to the big boys and have continued to enjoy watching the likes of the Lions put their bodies on the line in the name of immortality. I’m very glad that the current crop made it without serious injury. They’ll be talked about by generations to come, which must be very nice, but I’m not sure if it’s really worth the sacrifices.
 
I like to think, as Marion Bartoli suggested, that Sabine’s opportunity will come again. We owe her big time, after all, for what she did to Serena Williams. With or without my wife’s assistance, maybe next time she’ll find her composure and play to her true ability. Jana Nvotna got her second bite of the Venus Rosewater dish after similarly falling apart. It would be so nice if Miss Lisicki acquires just enough, but not too much, killer instinct to follow suit. She’s such a sweetie.