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, February 8, 2015

3rd – 7th February: Whiplashed by Winter



All week long, a frisky wind blew in from what seemed like the Frozen North to give a taste of Siberia. In such a wind, the tarps on the woodpiles billowed like sails in a mid-Atlantic storm. Any more than a week of it might drive a sane man mad. Of course, it was nothing compared to what's going on around the eastern seaboard of the US, or Siberia for that matter, but it was a timely reminder that you still have to negotiate February to get to March.



The wood situation was getting critical, which meant the reappearance of the feared chainsaw. The fact that it's only an electric chainsaw from Lidl rather spells out my limited ambitions in the woodsman category. Nevertheless, I always approach the task with caution, even barely suppressed terror.



The day chosen for the task was the coldest and windiest day of the week. It was also the day before my wife's birthday, so there was even more incentive than usual to avoid hacking off a limb. Suffering as she is from a damaged knee after an assault by an old lady on the Eurostar platform at the Gare du Nord in Paris, she was counting on an able-bodied minder to drive her to Brive and back. What a twist of fate that this should befall at the end of her self-imposed exile in the frozen north of England to look after her mother following a knee operation. She's shocked and badly bruised, but not we trust damaged for life. It certainly hasn't stopped her putting in the hours, putting her clients back together again.   



The wood in question comes in the shape of relèves, as they're called: the edges of the tree trunks that are transformed at the local sawmill into railway sleepers for the SNCF. They're bundled up in fagots, the kind that they used to place around martyrs in medieval times for burnings at the stake. (Yes, I've been transfixed, as millions have been, by BBC's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall – with a smouldering, transfixing performance by Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.)



I'm not sufficiently courageous to approach the slicing of the faggots with the same kind of gusto as my friend Bret. He plants his left foot on the pile and then cuts down with grim determination as far as the chainsaw will go, thus sawing through ten or more planks at a time. I like the economy of his approach, but shy away from the risk of kick-back or simply getting the saw stuck. Still, I managed a modest safety-first approximation and I've now got enough planks chopped up and stacked under cover for the month of February. With wood in the bank, I can rest easy again.


The perfect Clarnico Mint, back in 2006

Such a wind usually presages rain – and plenty of it. So when it died down a little towards the end of the week, it came as no surprise to see some snow. It was blowing up an incipient blizzard when I left for the cinema in Vayrac on Thursday evening to see Whiplash. Debs and Tilley were due to come too, but the wife's knees were playing up after a hard day at the coal face and The Daughter's working on a commission to create a costume. So I drove off alone into the dark and inclement night.



The usual crowd were there for version originale films. 'Bunch' is maybe a more appropriate word given the size of the auditorium and the number of unoccupied seats. Anyway, we were there to see a film about a young man with ambitions to be a great jazz drummer, the new Buddy Rich perhaps, and his battles with a teacher determined to push his charges to the limits of their ability and motivation. Apart from a sequence involving a car crash and blood all over the kit – which seemed more appropriate to a soap like Hollyoaks – it was a gripping film about a subject that would never normally see the light of cinematic day, and one that clearly deserved its Sundance Festival acclaim.
A little gentle persuasion



Quite apart from the brilliant music throughout, it also raised some interesting questions about a subject that's dear to my heart. The notion of talent and why some people fulfil it while others don't. Just how far should one go in pushing someone? The teacher, played by a ferocious J.K. Simmons, is in many respects a monster. Yet, there is something sympathetic in his make-up, if only because he genuinely wants his pupils to succeed. And not just to succeed, but to be great – rather than mere also-rans. As he believes, two of the most damaging words in the English language are 'good' and 'job'. In other words, we shouldn't be satisfied with mediocrity.



I was talking to a friend on Saturday morning about the film and we drifted onto the subject of our offspring. He's feeling a little nervous about his son's ambitions. For all his academic brilliance, his son seems to have rejected the kind of society that his parents are accustomed to. He wants to be a writer – in French rather than English – and wants to give it 100% for a couple of years. Then, if nothing happens, he can try something else.  



As a 70% man, a dilettante by any other name, I fully approve of the idea. Writers in English are two-a-penny, but if he makes it in French, the Prix Goncourt, Légion d'Honneur and national acclaim could be his. Blessed or cursed by too many interests, I was a 70% man whenever it was that I decided that a writer's life was probably maybe the life for me and, nearly half a century down the line, I'm still a 70% man. So it sounds like he doesn't need a spot of J.K. Simmons-style motivation.



I, too, feel a little nervous about my offspring's ambitions. Her talent's not in doubt, but I wonder sometimes whether she's got the 'mental game'. So she, on the other hand, might benefit from a spot of J.K. Simmons-style motivation. The trouble is, she's a sensitive soul. If you push someone too much or too far, you could end up inflicting permanent damage. To succeed at the kind of level that the Simmons character was talking about, you have to be very driven and almost unnaturally single-minded. Someone like Charlie Parker burnt himself out in the process, but the young hero, the apprentice Buddy Rich, reasons to his family that he'd rather shine brightly for fewer than 40 years and leave a legacy of astounding work for generations to come, than be forgotten after living a comfortable, average sort of life until he was 90.



I know which path father and daughter would opt for. But who knows, maybe it's possible to have your cake and eat it too. The megalomaniacal teacher wouldn't have thought so, but then there would have been no premise for the drama if he had. Interestingly, the writer and director of the film, Damien Chazelle, started off as a prize-winning drummer, 100% driven to succeed. Now he's found a new prize-winning career by using the experience as his creative subject matter. Now that's what I call talent. Should go far.

After the film, the snow had dispersed. Turning into our track, I caught sight of a badger darting through the trees, ears flattened against the elements and dedicated to its chosen nocturnal pursuit. The following morning, I was ready to take my wife down to the station to catch the train to Brive, but she decided that her knees were now sufficiently better after an evening's massage to attempt to drive. She did it, too. She made it there and back without incident. She's nothing if not driven, that one.

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