Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corr├Ęze 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.

Monday, January 26, 2015

20 – 25th January: Long Time Passing

It was only a petite semaine, Tuesday till Sunday, but it feels like I've been away for an eternity. Unbeknownst to me, it even snowed here while I was gone. There wasn't much evidence of it on the road home from Brive, but our track was still a picturesque matt white, being always the last place to thaw. 

I seem to have been on the road or rail for a pocket eternity. My wife implored me to find some quicker and more comfortable form of transport, something more in keeping with my time of life, but there were no flights to Southampton in January and I was too late for sensibly-priced Eurostar tickets. Besides, I was intrigued to try out Megabus.com. What kind of business model can be based on tickets so cheap? £18 from Brive all the way to London, every day of the week. Are they mad?

Not according to the driver. They pay him a good wage – 50% more than he got as a driver of tour buses – and they're expanding. They already go to France, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Germany, and this spring there's a new route planned to Milan via Lyon and Turin. My coach had come up from Barcelona and the driver told me that, if you book early enough, there are a few seats to be had at a £1 each. He told me of a student who had travelled from Aberdeen to London for a quid and then on to Barcelona for another one.

It does, however, take a long, long time. I boarded my coach just after two o'clock and arrived in London at about six the next morning. There's an inconvenient three-hour break in Paris, along with another two hours on the ferry, but still... My wife, I think, is worried that putting myself through such an ordeal goes with the hair-shirt handed down from my mother. 

Well, yes and no. I was genuinely curious and it's true that such a bargain deal pleases me about as much as snapping up a Blue Note CD for a euro in among the dross at Cash Converters. I also wanted to try out the service for our daughter, who might one day be glad of it if she realises her ambition of studying her metier in Scotland. Besides, it really wasn't that much of an ordeal. The coaches are state-of-the-art, warm and comfortable with a plug for your phone and/or laptop and LED reading lights for short-sighted citizens like me who want to lose themselves in a good book. 

Soon after midday the following day, I was chatting with my father in the comfort of his new flat in Romsey, Hants. My sisters and I had dinner with him in a pub that evening and, after almost three weeks in cold storage, we buried our mother the following morning. It was bitterly cold but very beautiful and, as funerals go, a fine occasion. 

My mother would have whole-heartedly approved. The little parish church of North Baddesley is right on the edge of the Southampton overspill, looking out across open, rolling countryside. The ceremony was concise and dignified. My eulogy made people laugh and I concluded it by reading a beautiful poem my mother once wrote about John Clare, the 19th century romantic poet. She recognised in him a kindred spirit: unable to cope with modern life, he would end his days as a madman in a form of psychiatric hospital.

Afterwards, we filed out and followed her willow coffin past the oldest tombstones to a plot they had prepared for her at the edge of the graveyard. No one mercifully tried to fling themselves into the open grave. We said our goodbyes and left messages among the tasteful arrangement of wild flowers. Far enough away from the traffic's wall of sound, it was like a scene from some updated Thomas Hardy novel. 

We then headed off for soup, sandwiches and coffee cake in a little room above the tea shop in St. John's House, a charming historical building tucked away behind the centre of Romsey. We had a soundtrack of the CD my father and I had compiled the previous afternoon. Along with the Chopin and Glenn Miller, it included my mother's incongruous favourite: Les McCann's 'Compared to What', a version of which Roberta Flack included on her first album. 

By noon the following day, I was off again. Bound for Liverpool and a reunion of the class of '73. This time by rail, changing at the most awful station in the world: Birmingham New Street. True to form, there was chaos on the underground platform. The power lines from Euston were down, so I had to make my way to Liverpool uncertainly via Lichfield and Crewe.

It wasn't a fit night out for man nor beast, as I made my way down from my labyrinthine hotel in Mountpleasant to Albert Dock via the centre of town. I couldn't find our meeting place at the Premier Inn and wandered about in the dark; wet, windswept and bemused. But it was there, after all, right beside the Beatles Museum. And there in the bar was a group of old school associates, already well into the business of celebrating reunification after 42 years.

 And my oh my, it's weird. Paul, my old classmate and the only other 'boy' to turn up, confessed that he'd been 'terrified'. Probably a bit of Belfast bluster, but I knew what he meant. I'd certainly felt an element of trepidation and it was awkward to be put on the spot and asked whom of the assembled group you remembered. It was only later, after we'd shifted our reunion to one of those big noisy restaurants that resemble seated nightclubs, that I started to remember voices and adapt youthful profiles to their aging permutations.

I went to a big school. There were three or four hundred of us in the 6th form alone, so of course you didn't – couldn't – know everyone. We all had our own cliques and the majority of those back together again seemed to have a scientific bent. It was noticeable that neither my best friend, Winston, nor I featured in any of the group photographs of dimly recognised individuals we tried to name. We had probably mitched off to drink or smoke and listen to the new Frank Zappa and do generally arty things with our more literary pals. 

But it didn't really matter a jot. Those of us who'd come together have all gone our separate ways. Helen B., whom I'd known as Helen W., has lived in Germany for 30 years; Rosie has a house in France; Alanna has lived in Australia and renovated houses in Wiltshire; Paul is now a man from the motor trade, who lives in Dunblane, Scotland. Yet we all have our old school in common. We all remember the same teachers and we all share similar acquaintances.

We all, too, grew up with the Fab Four. So, next morning, we met up to dredge up still more memories at the Beatles Museum. I was even able to claim my first ever senior citizen discount. This, too, was pretty weird, as I've been immersed in the Mop Tops' life stories during the past fortnight. The museum is full of artefacts and mementos and reproductions that might have been as naff as their Madame Tussaud wax models. But they weren't. The mock Cavern was particularly poignant. I found myself standing at the stage staring at the three guitars and the empty drum kit, listening to the endless loop of 'Twist And Shout', almost paralysed by nostalgia. 

When we said our farewells, we vowed to do something similar at some time in the future. And we meant it, because it was lovely. The sands of time are pouring rapidly through the glass neck now, so we can't afford to wait another 42 years. With power restored to the overhead cables, I finished Shout! on the train back to London, resolved to go back, Jack, and do it again.

So I'm home again in a land that somehow still feels less familiar than Northern Ireland does. Despite my daughter's imprecations, I hitched into the centre of Brive from the Commercial Centre where the chatty coach driver deposited me. A young lad in a beaten up car full of empty beer bottles, with his four-year old daughter strapped into a car seat in the back, stopped to pick me up after only a couple of minutes of wondering whether I was tempting kidnap and/or murder. He was only heading for a petrol station, but he took me out of his way and dropped me off at the Rex cinema. 

I found my car, still parked where I'd left it. I'd quite forgotten to lock it. I guess that's the impact of all those passing years on your grey matter.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

14 – 17th January: Of Sod, Shout and Doggerel

A father's work, I discovered on Thursday, is never done. Despite having had the entire Christmas holidays in which to finish her personal statement, The Daughter left her UCAS application as per to the last minute.  

Actually, she managed to get her statement to me the day before the deadline. So I could take time off from pruning the address I've written for my mother's funeral next week to concentrate on pruning her lettre de motivation. It was easier by far to get that down to the requisite 4,000 characters than it was to reduce all I wanted to say about my mother's tenancy on earth to fit the five-minute slot I've been allocated. I warmed more to the task on learning that the officiating lay preacher wants some music by Duke Ellington for his own funeral.  

Anyway, our girl has reverted to the idea that she should be studying her craft in Glasgow or Edinburgh, where she originally wanted to go before she was deflected by Paris. She would have had a much better chance this year, too, because her time in Paris has at least given her plenty of material for what the Scottish adjudicators are seeking, a strong portfolio.

The only trouble was that Sod decided to test her mettle with his law of... what, diminishing returns? That is, anything that can go wrong at the last minute will go wrong. For a kick-off, she has had to adapt suddenly to life without wi-fi, if you can imagine anything quite so inconvenient. Ever since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, SFR's public wi-fi network in Paris seems to have been down. So she's had to leave the sanctity of her room and take her laptop out to friends' flats and public libraries to get re-connected. 

Alas, the reference she needed to complete the application still hadn't arrived by Thursday afternoon. Which demanded frantic calls on my part to UCAS and to our her referee. It turned out that Keith hadn't received the official e-mail with the link to follow in order to upload his reference. There had been violent storms in the south-west of Ireland and his own internet connection was intermittent at best.

They were understanding and sympathetic on the other end of the expensive UCAS helpline, but an automated system doesn't accommodate human error. I phoned the admissions department at Edinburgh College of Art, but they were adamant. Tough mammary, matey. Very sorry, but the deadline was 18:00 hours and that was that. 

Texts flew back and forth between Paris and the Lot. Any luck? Not yet. Fingers crossed. We're an hour ahead of the UK here, but that didn't really help. Keith sent an e-mail with the reference embedded, but the sympathetic person on the UCAS helpline couldn't help. The system wouldn't allow him to link that particular e-mail to The Daughter's dossier. It had to be uploaded via the official link or not at all. How's it going? Not well.

An hour before the deadline, I had to leave my desk, the nerve centre so to speak, and go to my restorative yoga class in Cazillac. On the point of turning off, Keith contacted me to say that he had finally received the official e-mail, but there was far too much involved to complete it in the time remaining. With payment still to be organised, I told him to let it lie. My yoga would wait for no man. Seconds out, time up. Put it down to experience – but learn the lessons of Sod's Law. Dad xxx

Well and truly knackered afterwards, I opted for an early night with one of the three Beatles books that my girl gave her nostalgic father for Christmas. Philip Norman's seminal Shout! is beautifully written and fascinating. I've just finished the first section about those exciting early days in Hamburg and the Cavern Club (The best of cellars, as the resident DJ would quip). Ringo is still a peripheral figure, drumming with Rory Storm, but Stu Sutcliffe is as complex a character as Pete Best was evidently good-looking. The author clearly has a leaning towards John Lennon and looks for opportunities to take a subtle dig at Paul. As children, we all had our preferences and I was that way inclined until I discovered in later life that John was not quite such a loveable mop-top as the publicity machine might have had us believe. But then who was, who is? Mind you, I can't imagine Ringo being beastly to anyone.

The tiny print is a challenge to aging eyes, but I am eager for more and the interminable journey back to England next week will give me a chance to get really stuck in. After the funeral, I'm taking a train trip to Liverpool for my first ever class reunion. More than 40 years down the line, so it could be a shock to the system. Liverpool was a more convenient venue than Belfast itself, so there may even be time to wander past the Cavern and see for myself why it was once the best of cellars.

Talking of puns, my friend Paul sent me a lovely bit of doggerel that he wrote in honour of our dear departed dog, who spent a week with a big party of us in Brittany last summer. Paul is such a thoroughly modern chap that he composes directly onto his iPhone. I dubbed him on holiday The iPhone Poet in the hope that he'll remember me when he's rich and famous. At the risk of appearing maudlin, I thought I'd take this opportunity to reproduce his ode.

Alfie goes to Brittany, by A. Doggerel

Here we are at last, a 10 hour drive
Berlingo’d out and so happy to arrive
Nice to be invited, had to come along
But they don’t get that I’m a dog, not really one of them

What’s a dog’s life? – responsibility
They’d just never exercise if it wasn’t for me
Who patrols the garden, keeps them off the road
Tells them when its supper time – it's a heavy load

Oh Alfie, Alfie, what’s it all about
You see it all as we wander in and out
Cocking an ear, paws for thought
Then guzzle up the goat’s cheese when you think you won’t be caught

I’m very happy with my bed down on the kitchen floor
Would even be quite peaceful except that they all snore
And there’s nightly visitations from those who cannot sleep
My God he’s got the muesli, how much can he eat?

And now another one comes down, and she’s giving me a hug
But you can’t fool me I know that she just wants to steal my rug
And next here’s one of the sisters, she of the strawberry flan
Leading everyone astray with her dancing and her gin.

I feel a little peckish, I’m growing rather weak
They’ll have left me something, but they like playing hide and seek
So is it on the table, or is it in the sink?
Is it in the cupboard, come on Alfie, think!

Oh Alfie, Alfie, what’s this all about
You’ve been at the dustbin, strewn the contents out
We come down in the morning, it's not a pretty sight
The incident of the dog that got curious in the night!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

7 – 9th January: Taking Care

I took the girls to the train station in Brive on Wednesday 7th January 2015, blissfully ignorant of how momentous that date would become. We've been shrouded in a damp cloying mist all week, so the journey took longer than usual. For once, people drove sensibly and didn't attempt any lunatic manoeuvres to shave seconds off their journey time.  

Depositing them in good time for the 9 o'clock train to Paris, I told them to take care, as one does. The world, I know only too well, is a dangerous place, but I try not to let it immobilise me as it did my agoraphobic mother. Even so, it's a fairly automatic thing to bid your loved-ones. Unless you live somewhere like Baghdad, you don't really expect the need for vigilance on a train. It's my favourite form of transport, because statistically it's one of the safest. You can let your guard down, relax and sink down into a good book.

After the delivery, I took a cursory look at the official January sales and came home with a couple of new tops and just a clutch of bargain-basement CDs. The house seemed empty, terribly empty on my return. No dog to greet me and convey his relief in discovering that he hadn't been abandoned. The cats were nowhere to be found, as usual. I stoked the fire, made myself some lunch and settled down to read the liner notes of my discs.

The phone rang. It was my wife. They'd got to their destination safely, as I had imagined that they would, but her voice sounded anxious. You haven't seen the news, then? No I hadn't. And she proceeded to tell me how our daughter's Metro station at Richard Lenoir had been closed and someone had told them to take great care, because there were gunmen loose on the streets, shooting people at random. Understandably panicked, they had made it safely to the apartment, where Tilley's landlady told them the terrible emerging truth of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters.  

I'm getting uncomfortably accustomed to such appalling acts of random violence. Growing up in a troubled Belfast, I remember one trip to the centre of the city with my best friend, Winston. We went to trawl through records at Smyth's and the Gramophone Shop, the two best haunts in town for vinyl junkies. On leaving the former, I still vividly remember, we headed street-wards through a little shopping arcade. Suddenly, there was a distant muffled explosion and we felt the ceiling of the arcade billow. As we emerged from the arcade, the glass front of the shop opposite just sort of fell out of its frame.

It was a day when synchronised explosions went off all over the city centre. If it was a concerted attempt to terrify the population, it certainly worked. The pair of us walked back out of town down the white line in the centre of the main road home. I don't know whose idea it was; we were and are a pair of worry-warts. Anyway, it worked. We made it back in one piece, without being hit by flying glass. Without, for that matter, being hit by a passing car.

Latterly, our stay in Northern Ireland must have brought back painful memories of World War 2 for my mother, so we moved back to the mainland at the end of my schooling. But effectively we've been living ever since the title of that long-running series, The World At War. It didn't become really apparent, though, until the 11th September 2001. I recalled that day this week, because old Madame Paucard, the harbinger of the coming apocalypse, phoned me up: ostensibly to find out how we were, but effectively to talk about her health for nearly half an hour without drawing breath. With the language barrier, I no doubt got several wrong ends of the stick as I frequently do, but my brain switched off after five minutes of her monologue.

It didn't, however, switch off on that beautiful autumnal day when she rung us to relate what was happening in Manhattan. We switched on the telly to see the unmistakeable images that confirmed I didn't get the wrong end of the stick on that occasion. Winston phoned later that day from his basement apartment not far from Central Park, just to reassure me that he wasn't caught up in Dante's Inferno downtown. What we went through in Belfast together was child's play in comparison. No doubt I urged him to take care and I think I suggested that he should keep a journal of those terrible events. I don't believe he did, which is a shame because an expatriate's view on the events surrounding the outbreak of the current War on Terror would have made fascinating reading.

The terror derives from the customary inevitable resistance to a global imperial power. Like the Goths and Vandals in Roman times or the Thuggees during the British Raj who killed in the name of the goddess Kali. Only this time they're better armed and therefore that much more lethal. Their real enemy is probably the filthy god of Lucre – in the form of the relentless march of global commercialism founded on a never-ending supply of artificial money.   

Well, that's my simplistic way of looking at it. Even living within rather than outside such a system you have to take care. On Friday I phoned up SFR on behalf of The Daughter. I wanted to see whether they could help her get re-connected to the internet. I spoke to one of those high-pitched female operatives who sound vaguely hysterical. As usual, she regaled me with a whole raft of questions. Eventually, she put me through to someone in technical support who merely reiterated what our kid's been doing anyway throughout her stay in Paris.

An hour or so later, I received an e-mail thanking me for choosing to add – at a cost of €5 per month – unlimited calls to mobile phones to my standard contract. I phoned back immediately, outraged because I had certainly never agreed such a thing. The last thing I would want to do is to alter the contract, because I know the disruptive ramifications only too well. Even so-called customer service is a minefield of sales targets. Sell, sell, sell. The commercial drive is rampant and relentless. You can't be too careful.

I watched a drama the other night of Tommy Cooper's relationship with the two women in his life: his wife, Dove, and his on-the-road 'assistant', Mary. It featured an extraordinary performance by David Threlfall, who actually made you believe the impossible: that there could be more than one Tommy Cooper in this world. It dramatised his sad alcoholic decline and his death on stage. It served to underline just how difficult it is to take care. My mother once phoned me up to warn me about the dangers of kidney beans, but frankly you could even die laughing like Tommy Cooper in this dangerous world.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

31st December – 1st January: A Death in the Family

In the end, the end came swiftly. On the first morning of a new year, I got up to tend the fire and there was no familiar click-clicking of claws on the floor tiles. No bedding by the standard lamp. As I fed the cats, I had to deal with their incomprehension. Why are you feeding us here where the big fella used to eat? Where is he for that matter? Why's our friendly canine compatriot not here? I had to explain that the big fella was no more.

In some ways, the worst part of the ordeal was having to leave him outside in the cold, wrapped up in his bedding while the world celebrated the parting of the old year and the arrival of the new. It was as if we had simply discarded an old ex-dog, as the farmer in the nearby hamlet would bring out a goat that had died inside the hangar. It seemed quite wrong that there was no lying in state and no procession of local people to sign the book of condolences.

Considerate to the end, Alf chose the last day of the year for his departure. He stayed with us long enough to celebrate his 14th birthday and one last complete family Christmas. He left us with an anniversary that we are never likely to forget and a very good excuse for turning down invitations to share in the new year merriment.

We'd got used to the routine of getting up at around 5.30 to let him out for his first desperate matutinal pee before breakfast. But when I got up on New Year's Eve, there were puddles everywhere, as if he'd leaked all through the night. For the first time, he was in evident distress. After breakfast, he kept going out into the cold and wouldn't come in. He kept trying to pee, but nothing would come. The vet told us to collect what we could and bring it in for analysis. So I took in a few dribbles in one of those individual jam jars that hotels provide for 'continental' breakfasts.

At lunchtime, I phoned my working wife to tell her that I thought the time had come. She agreed that I should phone the vet back to ask her to administer the last rites. Although she was on her own at the practice with a waiting list of urgent operations, she would do what she could at the end of the day. By now he was wandering around the house in the biting cold, almost literally like a lost soul. I told our daughter my feeling that he was looking for a place to die quietly and she burst into tears.

During the afternoon, he came in from out of the cold and slept for an hour before going out again and repeating the same forlorn wandering. Debs got back from work soon after five and did her best to settle him. Right on cue, the vet phoned to say that she would leave in a few minutes. We saw a car on the road through the trees, but it passed us by, so I wrapped up tight and wandered up the track with a rather feeble torch to stand by the side of the road and flash any lost cars. The end of the day turned into night and still there was no sign of her car. She phoned my wife to tell her that she'd ended up at the farm I had told her to avoid.

When, finally, she arrived, I helped the Angel of Death into our house with all her veterinary impedimenta. Although it wasn't Alf's usual vet, the law of serendipity dictated that she was absolutely the right one for the job. Kindness and empathy itself. She explained how she would give him an anaesthetic first to put him into a deep sleep before the lethal transfusion. He would feel nothing. She also identified straight away a tumour by his groin, which reassured us that our intervention wasn't untimely. With this assurance, it wasn't quite as distressing as I had envisaged when we gathered around his old duvet to stroke him and say our goodbyes before the anaesthetic kicked in. He looked peaceful and, when I buried my head in the thick fur around his neck, he still smelled of McVitie's digestive biscuits.

The vet had trouble finding the right vein and had to pull out his left leg from under his prone body to try again. This time, the sickly red poison drained down into his bloodstream. It seemed like he panted at one point and his heart convulsed briefly, but it was mainly a case of just slipping quietly away. The vet stayed until he'd gone and, once she'd gone, Debs and I carried out our dearly beloved dog, wrapped up in his bedding, and left him covered with a tarpaulin to discourage any passing famished wolves or bears.

New Year's Day was frigid but blissfully sunny. Debs and I debated his final resting place and located an appropriate spot between a pair of young fruit trees at the back of the house: a spot where he could continue to survey the dog's meadow and protect his family from marauding hot air balloons and the like. The concrete topsoil yielded to my manly pickaxe and underneath we found the familiar rock-filled clay that clings to the blade and sticks to your boots. It took two long sessions – either side of a little lunchtime New Year's Day party at a friend's house nearby – to dig something suitably large to accommodate a Labradorable dog. This was the sixth burial during roughly 25 years of Sampson Hall & Co. (since 1987), but the other five were feline and rather smaller in stature.

Worse, far worse, than the digging was the business of uncovering the heap by the wood store and reminding ourselves that the cold ex-dog there was once our faithful companion. We hauled him down to his final resting place and lined the bottom of the grave with some cardboard as a kind of token biodegradable coffin. At this part in all those familiar film scenes, onlookers shovel dirt into the hole and someone jumps in for a final dose of melodrama. The earth we'd dug up, though, came in big cloying clods of clay, so we had to mould it around our dog, like a rather macabre bit of modern sculpture destined for the Tate Modern. Then we added a cardboard lid, before kicking in the last of the soil. We used the stones that we'd painstakingly unearthed and separated to create a kind of random abstract expressionist dolmen, partly to mark forever the spot and partly to keep the creatures far hence that are foe to dogs. The plan is now to plant some rods of willow around the perimeter that will one day create a veritable living installation.

We wished him well and God-speed on his journey to wherever his soul is or was bound. My wife believes in reincarnation, but knowing how statistically unlikely it is that any subsequent Alfic avatar will be as happy and as fortunate as this one, I merely hoped that the soul of Alfred Lord Sampson would simply orbit the earth and check in on us from time to time. 'I don't necessarily mean a dog,' she told me. 'He might take some other form. A world leader perhaps.'

Well, there's an idea. Certainly Alfie was loyal, loving, sensitive, considerate, fair, faithful and diplomatic. Even, one could argue, empathetic. All important qualities of leadership. I'm not sure, though, about his uncommon greed. But on the other hand, these days...