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, June 28, 2015

20th – 27th June: The Bob Marley Test

Gunther's parents dropped by the other day to say goodbye on their way back to the UK for another few weeks. Daphne was so keen to see her Ridgeback friend that she jumped into their big black van and proceeded to pee on Darryn's jeans.

Darryn was more concerned, I think, that I didn't seem my usual self, whatever that may be. Perhaps I had an air of distraction. I reassured him that it wasn't, touch wood, some life-threatening disease, but simply that I had a bit of paid work last week. Work does terrible things to me: the responsibility of creating something for someone, for money, brings me out all over in stress. It consumes my thoughts and saps my creativity. I just don't know how people do it, week in, week out. Particularly when there's commuting involved. I guess because they have to.

My sister Jo was out here last weekend, another one of the family who was never suited to the world of work. We must have taken our lead from our indolent father. Unfortunately, the spoons in our mouths with which we were born were stainless steel rather than silver. We were therefore obliged to work. I lasted a little longer than she did – clocking up a big 15 years in the Civil Surface, enough to earn a small monthly retirement pension which supplements my career as a dilettante.

Jo managed about a year in a building society in Bath, notable for an implausible sickness record. Then she clocked up another year or so in London at the Ministry of Defence, before finding a thoroughly unsuitable job as a statistics manager for a cosmetics company. Since she had no Maths to speak of, it was an extraordinary appointment that still mystifies her. In those days of blatant sex discrimination, I expect it had something to do with her long blond hair. The business of trying to bluff her way through the role took its toll and brought her out all over in stress. I believe she lasted less than a year.

Fortunately, both of us landed on our feet. She found her Great Provider and I found mine, although in both cases the provision took time and involved some hard times – through which we played our respective parts: she as a mother of two boys and me as a writer without portfolio and an itinerant training and learning thingy in those dark distant days when we were trying to find our feet among the hill people of the Corrèze. Jo's principal occupation now is buzzing about, looking after our father and making sure that her family and friends are all right. It's rare when everyone is all right at the same time, so when someone's not, she tends to break out all over in stress.

Neither of us, unlike our dear father, is lazy. In fact, The Daughter is always telling me to step off the treadmill to 'chill out'. But both my sister and I have to keep moving, have to keep busy. I have no problem with that. Things have to be done and I'm not one to shirk the doing of them. It's just that serious paid work brings me out in a cold sweat, I suppose because I have to justify my enormous fee.

I'm not counting my work as coach of the English women's football team. I do that on a voluntary basis. Guiding them to the world cup semi-finals is payment enough. Writing an article is fine, too, perhaps because the fee bears so little relation to the time put in that you end up feeling like you're doing them a favour. After all, newspapers and magazines depend on content for their continued existence.

It's finding the content that's so difficult. There was a case in point during the week. I received an invitation from the assistant editor at Songlines to come up with something for their 'Soapbox' slot. Something, anything. Therein lay the problem. I could rant about environmental destruction, cruelty to animals, political chicanery, corruption, corporate tax avoidance, the ivory trade, Monsanto, iPhones for toddlers etc. till the cows came home, but not about music. Apart from the likes of thrash or death metal and industrial techno (if such a genre exists), it's one of the few consistently positive aspects of life on earth. What could make me remotely angry about it?

Finally, it was my sister who inspired me. In a negative way. In so far as she personifies a complete lack of musical curiosity. When we were growing up in Belfast, she was – and still is – a big fan of Cat Stevens, or Yousuf Whatever, as he now calls himself. One day, some years ago, I happened to mention his Island label stable mate, Nick Drake. She'd never heard of him. What!!? Never heard of the tragic troubadour, who drowned himself as a young man, in despair perhaps at ever finding an audience for his gorgeous melancholic songs. It was a situation to be remedied.

I bought my sister a Best Of one Christmas to introduce her to someone I felt sure she would love. How could she not? Sometime later, I mentioned on the telephone a documentary on Nick Drake that they were showing on BBC Four. She'd still never heard of Nick Drake. Next time, I resolved, I'd buy her something safe – like a bar of fancy soap.

As many do, she fails my Bob Marley test. In other words, someone says they like reggae because they like Bob Marley. But if you mention the likes of Burning Spear or The Mighty Diamonds or even the other two Wailers, you get a blank look. It always works. Anyone can try it; I don't have a patent (yet). Pat Pending.

You might be thinking: Is this really worth ranting about? Isn't it just snobbery or elitism by any other name? In the great run of things, you'd probably be right. Perhaps the editorial team will reach the same conclusion. But it seems to me to be symptomatic of a general lack of curiosity about life itself. How we stick to the safe and familiar, things often associated with our youth, and turn our backs on what's new and different and maybe just a little uncomfortable.

Anyway, I'm going to climb down off my soapbox, because we were all culpable in missing the Fête de Musique last weekend. I got my article written and despatched, but we didn't go to Brive to mingle with the throng in search of sounds unlimited. Shame and scandal in the family. Maybe I for one was too busy mourning the passing of the summer solstice. It's all downhill from here till the fading light of autumn.

Soon after the solstice come the sales. I made my customary biannual pilgrimage to Cultura, where I snaffled another ten CDs to satisfy my musical curiosity. My Great Provider doesn't mind: she knows that it keeps me happy and gives her more material for her daily return journey to Brive. But storage is becoming a problem. There may yet come a time when we have to build a straw-bale extension to the house. A pleasure dome will I decree, with a music room fashioned for its ambient temperature and perfect acoustics...  

My paid work went well enough. The client approved. For now, the stress has lifted and I can get back to my perma-pottering. But it may well lead to more, which in some ways is a good thing – if I'm going to build this pleasure dome, for instance – and in some ways not so good, because it will heap on the pressure and lead to another outbreak of 'not my usual self'.

Forty-degree heat is forecast for the week ahead. Somehow my provider will have to find the strength to massage bodies in that kind of temperature. It's the first week of Wimbledon, too. I watched a fascinating documentary at the end of the week about Arthur Ashe, which brought back wonderful memories of how he slew the obnoxious Jimmy Connors in 1975 with a lethal combination of grace and guile. He was a great guy was Arthur. He spent his brief allotted time campaigning for the underdog. Incredibly, in this era of the fearsome Serena Williams, he remains the only black man ever to have won Wimbledon.

Oh, and I managed to download Windows 8.1 last week quite by accident. My, what a life full of surprises.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

10th – 13th June: When Daphne met Gunter

Blogger saves Lot from crippling drought...

Great job, Sampson! In writing about the dry weather last week, I precipitated a week of downpours and storms. Nothing too violent either, but plenty of rain, rain, rain, beau-ti-ful rain to fill up the rain butts. A friend with an underground cistern that was just about running on empty told me that it filled up entirely one wet night. That's 20,000 litres. That's some rain storm.

Holidaymakers won't thank me, of course, but farmers, gardeners and nature lovers the department over have been leaving presents for the family outside our front door. Modestly, I told well-wishers that it had really had nothing to do with me, that this meteorological instability is all part of the wonderful world of global warming. I don't wish to see straw effigies of myself in fields and gardens. Personality cults can be very dangerous things.

It's raining again this morning. It was raining yesterday evening when I went out with a quiche and a bottle of wine to Bret's latest Fête des Mecs. Guys' party night. There was only a handful of us, which might have had something to do with the weather. We almost lost Dimitri. He got as far as St. Michel de Bannières and turned back in alarm when he saw the storm clouds over the Dordogne. He's in the middle of re-roofing their barn and got back just in time to stop the wind from stripping away the enormous tarp stretched over the framework of the roof. Such was its power that it blew away the rocks to weigh down the tarp like mere pebbles. As in another scene from Days Of Heaven, during a quarter of an hour of atmospheric turmoil he was left single-handedly wrestling with ropes in the driving rain to stop the whole caboodle being blown into the next department.

The roof was saved and he got there in one piece with his pasta salad and Cuban cigars. I'd turned up an hour before, the first guest to arrive, to help Bret with his last-minute preparations. It gave me a glimpse into his unique culinary methodology, based entirely on experimentation that defies any recipes known to humankind and any acceptable combinations of foodstuffs. At one point I found myself frantically chopping garlic cloves as fast as he could peel them. He can be a little too liberal with garlic for my taste.

A small turn-out meant fewer games and more chance to chat with people I see only from time to time when I emerge from my hermit's cave. I even smoked my first cigar in about three years. Not one of the full-bodied Cuban critters, but one of the little cigarillos that Bret had bought thoughtfully for our mutual Dutch friend. It was rather enjoyable, but I discovered this morning that my clothes smelt of tobacco. Much water has flowed under many bridges since the last time I was compelled to jettison clothes for this reason.

In talking to Lee, with whom we have years spent in Brighton in common, I also discovered that we have a mutual experience of Bath. As a kid in Belfast, I used to go there every summer with the family to stay with our maternal grandparents. As refugees from The Troubles, the family even ended up living there for a few years. I used to drink in the same pub as Lee – the Hat & Feathers in Walcott – in the days when I would wander lonely as a teenage cloud down to the more edgy, alternative district of the Georgian city in search of sympathetic company.

Lee got married in the same registry office as my sister did. Apparently, he and his wife both had long dreadlocks at the time. When he cut them off in order to move to the Corrèze and become an organic farmer, he discovered what a joy it was to feel a pillow under his head again. Bearing dreadlocks, he told me, was rather like living with a carpet over your shoulders. He told me how to grow them (not that I'm thinking of it at this unsuitably late stage) and dispelled the myth that you shouldn't wash locks lest you wash away the oils that keep them together. It was all very enlightening in a Bunny Wailer kind of way.

Our Flemish friend, Kim, turned up late with a nephew in tow from his recent trip back to the homeland. Which would have been just fine, only the nephew commandeered Bret's laptop to assault us with a selection of death metal music or whatever label it goes under these days. I must be getting old, because I found myself mouthing phrases like Can't hear yourself think. My grandma used to say that about the Rolling Stones. But I couldn't. Conversation was impossible. Kim suggested that we win back the laptop, but I'd forgotten my reading glasses and the screen was just a blur. When everyone moved upstairs for games, I figured it was time to cut and run. With my quiche dish and Bret's orbital sander, I found my way to my car at the bottom of the drive in the after-midnight pitch black darkness by the sound of my footsteps on limestone chippings.

When I got back home to my old familiar sane and safe house, the girls were tucked up tight in their beds. There was just the matter of removing Daphne from the foot of the 'master bed' and returning her to her basket, before discarding clothes that smelt of cigar smoke.

There were fun and games earlier in the week, during a respite from the rain, when Darryn and Leanne turned up with their new hound, Gunter. It's his first visit from England to their building site on the other side of the valley. Gunter's a Rhodesian Ridgeback. He's an impressive beast, already double the weight of our Terrierdor, despite being a month younger than she is. I was a little nervous at first when Daphne met Gunter, and not just because they flattened the last of the irises (they needed cutting back anyway). But Daphne's a game young thing and she kept coming back for more, despite the frequent yelps of fearful pleasure.

Eventually, they found a kind of common ground based on a mutual respect for each other's physical capabilities. Next time they meet, presumably they can carry on where they left off and won't need to go through any unsettling preliminaries. Gunter will be 40kilos or so by the time he's fully grown and that's a lot of weight to fall on a fragile ribcage.  

The rain has stopped now and it will be interesting to see how the weather next week responds to my posting. If the sunshine returns, as I hope it will, there may be more gifts laid at our front door. Fruit and vegetables will do very nicely, thank you very much (if you're asking).

Sunday, June 7, 2015

3rd – 6th June: Cool Water

It's that time of year again when the local farmers give their fields a crew-cut. From up here, the giant rounds of hay look like cotton reels dotted around the meadows below. Our man with the racy blue tractor has been and done his work on the Dog's Meadow here in two intense days of activity. His machine spewed out the big modern-day rectangular bales, which he stacked up overnight into a towering edifice of hay. The smell of shorn grass is fabulous and it means that I can launch old tennis balls for Daphne now into previously uncharted territory.

It's that time of year, too, when hornets the size of Lancaster bombers buzz around the vicinity with menace, and flying mange-touts sneak into the house to sit surreptitiously on the walls, waiting for the moment when you're least expecting it to exercise their wings and land on your desk when you're right in the middle of something. It's enough to give you heart failure.

These giant crickets or whatever they are could just as well be locusts. Like the colony, in fact, that used to live in a glass tank in the corridor of the biology wing at my old school. They were a source of fascination for some, but I remember that they smelled peculiar and they were a reminder, even then, of biblical plagues and bad things for the environment.

With the intense heat this week, the mange-touts seem like harbingers of arid times to come. Already there's dark talk of drought. Poodle Man – who's back in town for the summer with his slow-moving wife, Poodle Woman, and their woolly black poodle, Cajot – stopped in his car on Saturday morning to meet Daphne, who was sitting good-girl style by the side of the road. He told me that the underground cistern in their garden is completely dry.

I hadn't realised that it had rained so little in recent months. The winter seemed reassuringly wet enough to replenish the aquifers, but apparently not. Gardeners and farmers rely on a wet spring, but apart from the humungous storm that swept much of our drive onto the grass, it would appear that the spring has been uncommonly dry.

It's not just Poodle Man sounding a note of gloom. The girls were out walking the dog the other evening and they bumped into Gil Scott Thomas – well that's my name for the younger of the two Thomas brothers, two integral parts of the clan that owns all the houses in a nearby domain: a kind of hamlet occupied entirely by members of the same extended family. He's a nice man, by far the better catch of the two brothers, who used to drive the school bus.

He talks with a funny piping voice, just half an octave down from Lou Donaldson, the alto saxophonist. Like his brother, he likes to talk – only his talk is much more interesting. Perhaps my wife used the excuse of having to get back to water the vegetables, but it prompted some extended reminiscences about his childhood in these parts. You didn't have to water in those days; you could always count on regular rain showers. Besides, they didn't have running water up here on the crest and they used to have to trudge down to the village and fill up from a well or a fountain.

We water our paltry potager from our four green rain water butts, stationed at each down pipe at the four corners of our house. It's a labour, but not one of love. Not since in the early days in the Corrèze, where the soil is significantly richer than it is here, have we had vegetables in the kind of numbers that makes the toil worthwhile. It's true that there's nothing quite like a lettuce that has survived the local slugs and that you've cut from your very own plot, but there's a young guy at the Martel market who grows salades that are almost as good, so personally I'd rather pay him a euro for each one in recognition of all the hard work that goes into it. Still, we live in the country and we have a duty to grow our own. After all, Hitler would never have been defeated had we all rested on our spades and not dug collectively for victory.

Our rain butts, though, are already getting dangerously low. There's nothing spare for the roses, which are wilting now. Past their best for another season. The Good Wife's iPhone suggests that there might be rain on Wednesday. There were dark clouds yesterday evening and rumbles of distant thunder, but the phone suggested only 1% chance of precipitation – and it was dead right. So I watered begrudgingly before watching Barcelona beat Juventus in the European Cup Final. Wednesday had better not prove such a damp squib or there will be trouble. You mark my words.

We've spared a little rain water for the hound, who discovered an old blue plastic skip beside the log stores full of stagnant black water. We've converted it into a paddling pool for her and she spends ages in there, splashing about and keeping cool – and more to the point, entertaining herself. If she proves a very good girl – and she's currently in disgrace after pulling off our table a CD from the record library and chewing up the plastic sleeve – we might even keep it full with water from the mains in the event of the rains failing. For the moment, we can launch the tennis ball into the great beyond, she will run to fetch it, bring it back, drop it at our feet and plunge into her pool to cool down.

From somewhere up above behind my head, there came an extraordinary metallic rattling noise, which threw me off my stride. On getting up to investigate, I spotted a mange-tout tucked up in the shady angle of the beam. At least it signalled its presence. But it's remarkable that one little creature can produce such a strident noise. A plague of them and I guess you're talking the kind of sense-around sound in that scene from Terence Mallick's Days of Heaven, when wave after wave of locusts ravage the growing corn.

Hopefully, it won't come to that here. The farmers for now will keep on pumping water from the Dordogne to irrigate their mono-cultivated crops, while pool owners top up from the mains. After all, we're half a world away from California, where they've had something like 20 years of drought. It couldn't happen here. Could it?