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, October 13, 2013

The Book-Maker Regrets

In an idle moment with my beloved time-waster, often referred to in polite company as 'my wife' - now a self-styled Emotional Health Specialist by trade, because 'aromatherapist, reflexologist and EFT practitioner' seems far too cumbersome - we explored a key moment of my childhood.

The hotel today

It was during the winter of 1961. As a comfortable middle-class family, in the grip of never having it so good and keenly anticipating the benefits of the white heat of technology, we had just moved from a north London suburb to Belfast. We stayed in a small private hotel run by a gruff but good-hearted woman in the same tree-lined avenue in which we would buy our second red-bricked house. My parents were busy hunting our first house and lining up a suitable primary school for my sister, my brother and me. We kids had time to kill and time to get to know the few old ladies who lived there permanently.   

One day, I think I might have been reading through one of my beloved cowboy annuals in the lounge, when one of the bespectacled 'old dears' asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her proudly that I wanted to be a book-maker, whereupon the gaggle of old ladies giggled out loud. What was so funny? What was wrong with the idea of making books when I grew up? I expect I smiled awkwardly and they probably tried to explain to me the difference between a book-maker and a bookmaker, and I expect I took refuge in the Wild West of my annual.
The book-maker and his middle-class family

So maybe I was too embarrassed to mention it again if anyone else asked me about my ambitions. If I had have done, I doubt whether it would have been encouraged anyway by my parents, who wouldn't have considered it a serious occupation for a young man. Ironically, the sound of a typewriter was key to much of our childhood. Most afternoons, my mother would shut herself away in the parental bedroom and hammer out the pages of novels she wrote about the IRA under a pseudonym, no doubt because she had been persuaded by her parents that the life of an artist was not really the thing for a 'young lady'. The paintings of Belfast street scenes still hang in my parents' current home, but I don't know what became of those painstaking manuscripts. They're probably hidden away in a suitcase under a bed somewhere. Notwithstanding the pseudonym, I doubt if my mother ever sent one to a publisher, because she couldn't bear the anticipated rejection. And so, because parents tend to pass on the messages that they get from their own parents, she encouraged me to become a chartered accountant. Fortunately (and maybe subconsciously deliberately), I was useless at Maths.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut jr. (who was perhaps encouraged by senior Vonneguts) would have it. On such seemingly innocent moments as the Incident in a Small Private Hotel, whole careers and destinies hinge.  My best-est of best friends, for example, won a poetry prize sponsored by Queens University while still in the 6th form. But he never took his literary ambitions seriously enough to overcome the self-doubt that possibly derived from an unwitting childhood humiliation when he read out one of his creations to his parents. Oh Chollie... Chollie. He coulda bin a contender. He coulda bin the next Wallace Stevens... To use the hyperbole of our American cousins, he coulda bin ossum!

 It took me many, many years of bashful avoidance before I plucked up the courage to call myself a writer. Even now, however, I still qualify the term when people ask me to expand on the subject. Well, you know, most of it is writing e-learning to earn a living, which isn't ultimately the kind of writing I want to do... Blah blah blah. Obviously, I don't quite engage with the term 'writer': it doesn't fully describe what I really, really want to do.

Which is why I've decided to go back to that moment in the small hotel (without a wish-ing well...), move on from the unconscious humiliation and re-embrace the term 'book-maker'. It was good enough for a seven-year old, so it's good enough for an adult in search of something a little more inspiring than 'writer/journalist'.  And I shouted from the highest hill, I wanna make books!

Mother and child reunion

The wonderful thing about EFT - or Emotional Freedom Techniques - is that it doesn't simply re-visit key moments of pain, thereby actually reinforcing them as poor psychotherapy can do, but it allows you to shift the psychological block by repeating phrases that have personal meaning and by tapping on the body's psycho-dynamic energy points (otherwise known as 'meridians'). I know, I know... It all sounds too New Age to be credible. I was sceptical myself, but I've experienced how it can work and how it helped The Daughter through her annus horribilis, her first year at her 'school' far from the nest, how it helped transform the desperate tearful crisis calls into the determination and self-belief that enabled her to come out top of her class. Frankly, it was the sine qua non.

But a technique's only as good as the person who employs it. Which is why I've decided to stop waiting around for the Grauniad to discover me and offer a lucrative contract for a weekly column, and hitch my love of language to my wife's personal wagon and help her explore new territories. Go west, young man!

Which is why I'm going to suspend La Vie En Straw for now and concentrate on my next, proper book: Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow (an account of the year of living dangerously during the construction of a straw-built grand design). And produce the EFT Weekly each weekend in partnership with my wife. Because health matters... (and emotional health is surely the key to physical health).

Thank you, gentle readers, for sharing my thoughts over time, coherent and incoherent. And, in the words of Razzo, the wonderful character created by Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, A'm invoytn ya to read our joint production as from next weekend on a web page very near to this cinema.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

A French Film

I read something sometime recently that made me groan with the inevitability of it. Something about the decreasing popularity of French films in France. French audiences are demanding instead, quelle surprise, more fodder from the Big Country of philistines across the Atlantic. More bounce to the ounce, presumably: more guns, more explosions, more chases and other frenzied action, more brutality, more clichés.

It’s not that French film makers are immune to clichés. Judging by the posters and the blurb, plenty are riddled with them. But when they’re good, there’s still nothing quite like a French film. Movies like Un Air de Famille, for example, where we watch a group of beautifully observed individuals just interacting subtly and naturally, often warmly and humorously, where plot points and character arcs are so integrated into the whole rich tapestry of cinematic life that you don’t even notice them. France seems like one of the last places on earth where the indigenous film industry still bears an immediately recognisable stamp. So maybe not for much longer, then.

Last weekend it seemed that my wife and I stepped into a French film and became characters in a drama that unfolded around the 60th birthday of the friend I mentioned in the last post. His premature senility, as it was once known, lent the scenario the poignancy that the scriptwriter needed to lift it out of the commonplace.

Intercut with scenes of the preparations – and, being France, of course there would be some succulent close shots of food being chopped and cooked – is disparate footage to bring some of the players to the house where the drama will unravel. The now bearded good-looking son flying in to Lyon airport from his latest posting in Budapest; the daughter and her new partner speeding south from Normandy via Paris in a TGV; a car load of chattering friends from Bordeaux; another friend cycling down the Canal du Midi; a pair of expatriate Brits on the deserted A75, the ‘Meridian’ that cuts a swathe across the Massif Central from Clermont Ferrand to Bézier and Montpelier. The landscape they drive through looks notably dramatic under an ominous sky, which threatens to rain on the host’s parade. There is a glimpse of the distant viaduct with the lights on top of its seven huge pillars blinking in the gloom, followed by a closer look from the Air de Repos at the monumental structure’s giant strides across the valley of the Tarn.

Journey’s end is a fairly typical well heeled house of the Midi – with a big veranda at the front sheltered by a vine laden with grapes the colour of rosé, a gravel courtyard that separates the house from a discreet fenced-in pool and boules court surrounded by little outhouses where the wood and the wine are stored. The abundant grapes and a huge flowering oleander testify to the year-round mildness of the climate.

On arrival, the guests go up in dribs and drabs to one of the bedrooms, where the photograph album compiled by the daughter in the weeks leading up to the party is laid out on the bed. Among the bygone images of family and friends are some of the 50th birthday celebrations at the summer house by the Atlantic. The proof of the time-lapse is there in the characters’ silver hair and the wrinkles around their eyes. How we have all aged! Moist-eyed with nostalgia, they write their testaments to friendship in white ink on black paper and studiously avoid sentiments like, So sorry you’ve gone off your rocker prematurely, because we had some great times together in the past when you were all there and we could share a proper conversation.

And then, like many a French film of yore, out come the first of the aperitifs that will mark the next two days. As glasses are raised, the host takes his English friend’s hat off his head and puts it on his own, then promptly forgets all about it until his wife, now wearily accustomed to such pranks, removes it and returns it to its careful owner. After the initial aperitifs, the women – because it’s always the women who do the socially responsible thing – bring out the various dishes they have been preparing all morning long. While the host’s solicitous female entourage checks to ensure that he is remembering to eat, his male friends either josh him or avoid having to stand next to him with nothing really to say.

Between the midday meal and the evening buffet, people sit under the vine and smoke and chat about their families and interim developments, or wander over to watch a noisy gaggle of men while away the afternoon over repeated games of boules. Some of the pluckier guests follow the lead of their hostess by taking a swim in the pool that is surprisingly cold. But isn’t this the Midi, where swimming pools stay ever warm to compensate for the density of the people and their motorised traffic, for the Mistral and for the arid terrain?

With the advent of evening, more food and drink emerges from the bottomless kitchen to cater for the influx of les jeunes: the nephews (plus partners and offspring) of our host, who has by now retreated indoors to watch some match on the telly and to find a little quiet time in order to recover from being present for so many visitors. Very small children scoot about on plastic pedal vehicles. An angelic boy, who could have been lifted from an Italian Renaissance painting, burns his finger on the motor of his dad’s motorbike in the road outside and the strange English woman succours him with lavender oil and then a demonstration of EFT, which tempts others to try its apparent magical powers on their own deep-seated wounds.

Meanwhile the very old have arrived to add a fourth generation. The elegant mother of the host’s cousin and daytime carer (and his wife’s best friend) looks dapper in her navy blue suit and a trifle disorientated by the sheer number of guests. And as the host’s own father introduces his new partner to the multitudes, words are not needed to underline the poignancy of an octogenarian greeting a son and only child who is incapacitated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

The floodlights come on as the young men take on the older men for one last epic encounter at boules before the evening celebrations begin in earnest. The English couple secretly hope for a good dance to some good music, but the acoustic guitars have already come out and people settle down with their drinks under the soft lighting of the veranda to sing along to the poetic music of Georges Brassens and the less poetic music of lesser heroes from their youth. And there are stilted attempts to SingalongaBeatles, but only the two English guests know all the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Hey Jude’.

The film could end here or, after the violent nocturnal storm that somehow holds off until the other side of midnight, with the tearful departure the following morning of her father’s doting daughter – but it would need some kind of revelation or resolution that would cast light on why the host has been stricken with Alzheimer’s at such an early stage. Real life prevails in this case and people drift away, car by car, after the final round of drinks and food on Sunday. Back to the quotidian. And being real life, mysteries are unresolved and questions are unanswered.

Cue music and credits...