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.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August: Back to Bales

Has you ever bin bit by a bee? No, but I've been stung by a hornet. Actually, it was the Good Wife who was stung. Twice on one arm. The hornet in question managed to attach itself to her dress as she was trying to usher it outside after our dinner guests had departed. I was in the kitchen at the time, washing up the mountain of dinnerly detritus, when Debs cried out in shock, 'God, I'm burning!' She half-screamed when the insect struck a second time in the bedroom. I managed to brush it off and then usher it towards the open door. 

When we got to bed, she was already in real pain. Even cider vinegar, the sine qua non of wasp attacks, didn't help. With no Paracetamol in the bathroom cupboard, and little relief from her trustiest of essential oils, all she could do was put some ice-packs around the two clearly visible stings and wrap her arm in a wet drying-up cloth. She didn't get a moment's sleep all night because she was in such pain. First thing the next morning, I went to the chemist in Martel to buy a pain killer. But it was only later in the day, after taking the homeopathic remedy prescribed by our local doctor, that the pain subsided and the itching took over as her arm swelled up like a sleeve.

It was the first time in 23 years that either of us had been stung by a frelon. Both of us had got a little blasé about these yellow-backed Lancaster bombers that occasionally fly inside the house for a brief but menacing tour of inspection before going on their way via an open door. They are supposed to be non-aggressive – unless you happen to be a bee – but we prefer not to take chances, especially since Daphne developed her masochistic taste for wasps. Presumably the equivalent of hot chillies, she seems to have been stung regularly. So we try to pre-empt an emergency trip to the vet by ridding the place of any bigger, perhaps more tempting, flying delicacies. 

You can't kill 'em either. It's maybe an old paisan's tale, but we've heard that if you kill a hornet, the pack will hunt you down and sting you to death. I can half-believe it. I remember in our old house being so freaked out by one of these virulent creatures that I had to go to bed. I was sitting at our dinner table late one evening. It was pitch black outside. The light must have attracted a particularly intimidating specimen that kept beating at the window like some vengeful figment of Edgar Allen Poe's imagination. It seemed to have my number and I was convinced that it would eventually find its way inside and seek me out. Exit man, pursued by a hornet.

Similarly, my wife convinced herself after the mugging that the creature was still there somewhere in the bedroom. It would strike again at any moment. I couldn't convince her that I was almost certain it had gone out through the open door. I woke up in the early hours and we put the light on. Sure enough, there it was in the folds of a red cushion on the chair. I picked up chair, cushion and malignant insect and threw the whole caboodle out onto the balcony. I found it, dead, the next morning. It had stung its last.

Hornets were the last thing on my mind when I went up to some friends' building site for the first spot of straw-bale building since assembling the walls of this house almost 15 years ago. Big D. and L. are building a sizeable house on the other side of the valley above the pretty red-stoned market town of Meyssac. I re-read my notes and skimmed through my many books on the business of building with bales, but 15 years is a long time in the aging process and I was being asked to supervise the team of helpers, who were pitching in for the sheer joy of doing something new and different. Fortunately, my trusty cohort, Bret, was there with me and just as I learnt to count on him here, I could also count on him there.

Nevertheless, it was quite a daunting experience. Responsibility weighs heavily on my frail shoulders. There was the camaraderie that comes from team-work to lighten the load, but it soon became clear that it wasn't going to be easy. A complicated double wooden frame – an internal one to support the roof and an external one to hold up the eaves – meant that virtually ever bale had to be cut – with a large, unguarded and dangerous disc cutter. What's more, the supposedly medium-density bales delivered proved about twice as compact as the ones we used here. They were heavy to lug around, unwieldy to put in place and extremely difficult to cut.

Quite apart from the tell-tale straw rash on my bare arms, I didn't feel good after the first day. The initial wall we had raised would never have passed the Kevin McCloud test. It was lumpy and bumpy and full of hollows and convex-acious protrusions. Preparation for rendering would be a long and arduous affair. The prescribed and elegant alternation of cut-side and folded-side rows had long been lost in translation. And I was responsible.
Straw bales, though, even the most compact ones, are nothing if not adaptable. We adapted our methods to our raw material and, by the time we called it a week, and by the time the four helpers had gone back to the UK, we had somehow managed to make better progress than I had initially bargained for. Nevertheless, I was glad when the walls were finally cloaked in tarps and left to settle: 15 years on, I realised that my body is not what it used to be. 

Over communal lunches, we spoke when we could bear it of the buffoons back home who are busy directing Britain down the nearest pan. Disaster looms large on every front: economic, social, political, you name it. Having watched a film called 'The Riot Club' and being reminded of the League of Appalling Old Etonians that runs the country, it doesn't surprise me that negotiations with Europe are getting nowhere fast. It will not end well and then we'll all be sorry. In opening Pandora's Box, the chinless Cameron may well end up tearing his beloved Tories apart. 

But let me end on a positive note for once. I read an article in the latest Songlines about the Trinidadian-born poet and musician, Anthony Joseph, one of my current main musical men. Reading his words made me feel as proud to be British as did the episode on our contribution to the Martin Scorsese-produced history of the Blues. My pride has nothing to do with the fact that we once annexed countries all over the globe for the biggest spotty empire you ever did see, nor the residual sense of self-importance that this still seems to bestow on certain compatriots, but the way that the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Pretty Things et al helped to resurrect the careers of Howlin' Wolf and other black originators of the genre, otherwise neglected and forgotten in their own country.

Here's what Anthony Joseph has to say about the immigrant experience. 'One of the most important things is the sense of inclusion that British people feel. There is nowhere else in Europe where black people have any positions of power, or where they feel really integrated into the society. But there's something about British liberalism, and it goes way back to what Englishness is based on, which is fairness. At the heart of what it means to be British is to be fair. If you do your work, you get paid for what you do, it doesn't matter where you come from, we'll let you in. That is for me what makes Britain attractive and interesting and beautiful. That is one of the things that has been helped by people from the Caribbean and all over the world coming here, forcing that change on people.'