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.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

March: At the Seaside with Ray Davies

Now that her six-month Parisian purgatory has come to a blessed end, our daughter has returned to the parental fold. Her land of soya milk and Manuka honey. We celebrated her homecoming with a week-long seaside holiday. But the subtext was our dog's pleasure. After four years of life on earth, we felt it was time to introduce her to sea and sand. Since she loves swimming in the Dordogne, she'd surely love the Atlantic.

I took with me a weighty biography of Ray Davies that I picked up in the Oxfam bookshop during a recent short stay in Romsey, Hants. A trip to see the Old One – who's still ticking along very nicely at nearly 92. A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan. I'll say it's complicated. Like many an artist before and since, Ray Davies is clearly a complex character. I always liked him, right from the early days. I must have done, to stand up in front of the class in primary school and sing an unaccompanied version of 'You Really Got Me'. Or was it 'All Day and All of the Night'? I caught them live in concert as a student at Exeter university, performing the Schoolboys In Disgrace album. I remember nothing much about it, which probably means that I was stoned or the music – like much of the Kinks' music after their late-flowering 'Lola'  – was rather forgettable. Even my mother was seduced by his gap-toothed smirk into wanting to paint his portrait (as she was by Charlie Watts' egregious bone structure). Latterly, I've liked to think of Ray sitting quietly and largely unrecognised in his favourite north London café, busy watching the world go by and penning songs for his occasional solo albums. 

But reading biographies can be fraught if you're looking for validation of your esteem. It's a compelling read and, although I'm quite a slow reader, with time on my hand I devoured hundreds of pages. For 'complex character', read moody, spiteful, callous, controlling, thoughtless, vindictive, provocative, capricious, bloody-minded and so tight-fisted that, as the author suggests, he made Rod Stewart look like a philanthropist. And this, I hasten to add, is not a character-assassination, but a balanced account based on the words of witnesses. The cheeky chappie who wrote some of the most endearing songs of the Sixties has morphed into a cantankerous miser. As for brother Dave, far from being a harmless mischief-maker, he appears to have been at the time a violent, hedonistic lout. 

There would appear to be certain similarities with Our Kid's former boss. She it was who mainly made her six-month internship such a purgatorial affair. It was, she described, a case of The Devil Wears Prada to the power of three. Clearly, it's a toxic industry. Stress rules the catwalks. Stress is no doubt the reason why her boss behaved so abominably, and why the minions in her department behaved so sneakily in turn. Stress begets stress. Significantly, when the boss was away on a buying trip, everyone else relaxed a little and even showed signs of consideration towards their fellows. 

Like Ray Davies, she is doubtless very good at what she does, but when it comes to running a team, she's a disaster. Spiteful, personal and hurtful to her underlings, she has probably had no training in (wo)man-management and her own bosses presumably believe that subject-matter expertise predicates emotional intelligence. The progeny's perfectionism can be infuriating and I can imagine that there might be certain issues around working with her under pressure, but she's a sensitive soul and her boss's behaviour was very upsetting. In her regular telephone updates around 8.30pm – when her chief's departure meant that finally the minions could finally pack up and go – she described how the woman would pace around the office with a cigarette, muttering to herself and ranting at her charges in a way that suggested that her work/life balance was so far out of kilter that her health could be at risk. So just as Ray Davies turned The Kinks into the sickest 'beat group' in swinging London, Our Kid's boss turned her office into a kind of war zone – which puts me in mind of that wonderful line from Dr. Strangelove: 'Gentlemen, you can't fight here; this is the war room!' Or words to that effect.

Anyway, she survived the ordeal – thanks partly to her mother's patient coaching on the telephone. I passed on my own parental advice founded on the years of living dangerously in an office, observing how human nature can be perverted in such an unnatural environment. 'Try not to take it personally. They take it out on you because they can and because it makes them feel better about themselves.' Life-lesson #1: Everyone looks for someone weaker to kick in order to feel better about him- or herself.

It's a lesson that you have to learn for yourself, and the fact that the final few weeks of her tenure got a little better suggests that she was beginning to assume it. Helped by her boss's more frequent business excursions, she began to experience something akin to enjoyment. The satisfaction of a role, routine and (modest) reward. So much so that her mother's counselling sessions became more concerned with 'closure'. While not necessarily hoping to leave with a hullabaloo, Our Kid didn't want to go off like a damp squib. Some kind of acknowledgement that she'd served her time with fortitude and done a pretty good job in spite of everything would suffice.

My therapeutic wife would have got her banishing negative thoughts and focusing instead on some kind of positive outcome. And so, perhaps consequently, it came to pass that the team sprang a surprise party for her on the Wednesday evening. The champagne normally reserved for end-of-show jollies flowed liberally and she was presented with an enormous bouquet of flowers and a gold necklace from an in-house collection. The colleague who frequently pulled rank on Tilley even promised her a good reference whenever the time came. So she wasn't so useless; they loved her after all. 

Which only goes to demonstrate that you shouldn't necessarily take those slings and arrows personally. I wonder whether Pete Quaife, the bass-playing Kink, was able to rise above the fact that his employer was the only member of the group, the road crew and the management who didn't come to visit him in hospital after a severe car accident when returning from a gig. No wonder he was the first of the original four to quit.

While I raced through my book, the 'girls' enjoyed some much needed R&R beside the seaside, beside the sea. Royan is quite a featureless place, but it does boast some beautiful coves or conches, where Daphne soon revelled in the phenomenon of waves. On the first of our maritime walks, I spotted a monument to the 'Cockleshell Heroes' of Operation Frankton, who set off from there in the dead of a winter's night in folding kayaks on their perilous mission of sabotage. They rowed down the Gironde estuary and planted limpet mines on cargo ships moored in Bordeaux. Only two of the commandos returned and I believe that Trevor Howard was not one of them. Don't take this for gospel, as it is the product of my suspect French translation and hazy recollections of José Ferrer's adventure film. 

Royan was bombed by the Allies at the end of the war in Europe: a tragic and disastrous misunderstanding that cost hundreds of human lives and flattened the old town. Appropriately, perhaps, the blunder is commemorated by one of the most brutal pieces of modern architecture that I've ever seen: a concrete cathedral built in the approximate shape of a sailing ship. Maybe it looks better from afar than it does from close up. Royan today is an unlovely hotchpotch of styles. The best houses tend to be the very white and very modern flat-roofed affairs with stainless steel balcony rails that overlook the sea and betray the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Probably cost a fortune.) 

As do the vets. It's a well-heeled and aging populace, and many a retiree seems to have a pampered pet or two – so the vets charge accordingly. On Day 2, our Terrierdor came down with another dose of bloody diarrhoea – awkwardly as we were crossing the promenade towards the biggest and no doubt busiest of the beaches. Try scooping that up with a plastic doggy-bag. We did the pragmatic thing and scarpered. The vet was a nice man, who charged roughly double what they do in Martel. He prescribed some medication, which Daphne took stoically several times a day for the rest of our holiday. Daily examination of her stools proved the efficacy of the prescription and the value of the innocuous butternut squash that I prepared for her meals.

Our dog recovered quickly and derived maximum enjoyment from sun, sea and sand. So that was the main thing. And oh! how we laughed to see her gambol on the shore and retrieve sticks thrown into the surf. I laughed until the final full day of our stay, when I 'did my back in'. It hasn't happened during the three or four years since I've been doing yoga. Now my pride is severely dented. I put it down to the dog. I reckon I took her out too early that morning to throw tennis balls on the grassy knoll. The weather was beautiful all week and people were out sunning themselves on the beach – in March, for God's sake. But at least the mornings and evenings were suitably bracing. Perhaps I should have been wearing a brace. All that bending down to pick up retrieved tennis balls before my body had warmed up properly.

Or stress. The stress of being away and visualising all those jobs that awaited my return. One theory, too, was that Daphne's intestinal turmoil was due to the stress of seeing us pack our bags on the day we went on holiday. Unless it was something that the arch scavenger scavenged. Stress has a funny way of affecting dogs and humans. With a hundred or so pages of my book to go, I'm hoping that Ray Davies will rise above his apparent stress and redeem himself somewhat in old age. For the next few days, I'll have little more to do than read. The meadow may be overgrown, but this man cannot mow it. Pardon the culinary pun, but I am for now a crocked Monsieur.