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 a month, 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, April 9, 2021

April: Mellow Yellow

It's that yellow time of year again, full of colour and promise. The meadows are carpeted with dandelions. I've made my first and probably last futile attempt to strim the heads off the garden variety before they go to seed and propagate still more of the infernal weeds. We keep missing the chance to pick the leaves for salads before the flowers appear. The roots are reputedly very good for the gut, but trying to dig them up is heart-breaking and in any case the concoction tastes as foul as the stuff of morbid intestines.


Easter has been and gone with the best of the fruit blossom. The exceptional record-breaking temperatures have dipped suddenly. At night, they sink below zero, cold enough surely to damage the summer harvests. Nevertheless, I've been for my spring haircut. The winter thatch has now gone, shorn in a matter of five minutes by the Tattooed Lady. She was due to attend to Tim, Steve and me outdoors last week on an afternoon when the thermometer went way up to 27 degrees or thereabouts. But she didn't turn up and I found out in her tiny salon on market morning in Meyssac that one of her 15-year old cats had died that worryingly hot afternoon. I paid my money, she stamped my card and told me that the next cut is a free one.

We've had our first asparagus of the season. On Good Friday, after spinning some records with my friend Dan and stocking up on necessities from Lidl's organic range for the April lockdown, the third one now in France (a lockdown lite, we are told), I went to Giselle's nearby barn towards the end of the afternoon for the week's vegetables. She goes in for the white variety, as the French seem to do. We all prefer the thinner green spears in this household, but Giselle sells off-cuts and misshapes cheaply enough for risottos. Tilley the Kid made an excellent one for dinner on Easter Saturday.

When I got there, Giselle was bantering with Snail Woman, who seems to be her only other regular customer at present. Not for much longer, it would appear. As soon as the current confinement is declared over and travel is legal once more, she and her husband are off in their converted camper van. She's another tattooed lady: something faded and blue winds its way around both arms. It looks a little home-made, unlike the multi-coloured sleeves of my coiffeuse. For quite a solid well-rounded woman, she speaks with an incongruously child-like voice. She told Giselle and me that the next day would be her last day of selling her prepared snails at Martel's Saturday morning market. Presumably, the snails on her farm will be released back to nature when she and her man take off in their van.


The plan is, she explained, that they will drive to Italy and Greece to test the conversion's credentials. Apparently, we discovered, the pair of them have been working on it for most of the winter months, taking a regular white van and putting in everything including the kitchen sink for a comfortable life on the road. The next stage of the plan is to travel with it by cargo ship to South America, then spend however long it takes exploring the entire continent: south, north and Canada. She suggested that she has been to Colombia before. I was tempted to ask about the music scene there, but didn't want to spend the rest of the day buying our vegetables. She's clearly a dark house, Snail Woman. Well, blonde actually. There was I, thinking of her as a pleasant enough soul who spent her days de-toxing snails, before killing them (as humanely as possible, one hopes) and preparing them for sale at her market stall with parsley, garlic, butter and whatever else is involved. But no. I see her now in quite another light. I suspect that she and her husband moved down here from Paris with other baba-cools seeking the good life, or the slow attitude as the French call it, here in the middle of nowhere. Well, I takemy hat off to her. The well travelled French citizen is rare in these parts.

She must have been out east as well. She talked about Vietnam and how the French are regarded in the Orient – as moaners and thieves. Giselle shrieked with laughter, as she tends to do rather disconcertingly. Yes, she admitted, she could understand the moaning bit. But thieves? I couldn't see it either, and suggested that people here generally seemed pretty honest in my geographically limited experience. Snail Woman looked at me and made a face behind her mask and shook her head. No, it had some substance, she offered.

Eventually, she paid her dues and wandered off with her basket to the immaculate Berlingo she parks in the same space every week, outside the mayor's bedraggled cowshed. Without further ado, I bought our veg from the limited supply currently on offer: onions, potatoes, a bag full of salad greenery, a bag full of Swiss chard, some assorted asparagus bits and a dozen of her finest eggs. The chickens are laying again.

As for my wife and I, for all my questions about the conversion of the van, we're not going anywhere. Our wayfaring days are over, particularly now that the final payment has gone out on the clinic. Le cabinet de Deborah Sampson est à nous. We drank a bottle of finest champagne on the Saturday evening to celebrate the 15 years of monthly payments and running repairs that the process of ownership has involved. No sooner did the money leave the account than we received a speculative letter from the Century 21 estate agency prospecting for property. 'It's the time to profit from a market that has never been so dynamic!' A slight case of commercial hyperbole, one wonders?

In any case, 't'is the season to be mellow and we intend to be independently yellow for a while, to sit back and bask in the glory of true proprietorship. Time will tell what we can and cannot do now that 900 euros won't appear in our debit column each month. For now, spring has well and truly sprung.

 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

March: Young Lady in a Van

Only the other morning I was walking the dog. It was bright and early and still quite cold. In another couple of hours the day would be made glorious by this sun of Lot. We were passing the farm, Daphne and I, when we were joined by a young woman bearing a rucksack. It was Cécile. The last time I had seen her close-up was around 15 years ago, when we were still new in these parts and she was a sturdy, red-cheeked girl in her mid teens. We went sledging together in the field that slopes down from the back of the cow sheds, the concentration camp, to the road that leads down to the hamlet of Bonnard, where she lived with her parents, Jakob, a big bear of a bearded Dutchman with a dodgy hip and Christianne, a kind-hearted woman with a voice louder than the proverbial fish wife, which carries on a clear day as far as our house. Back then, we'd had some serious falls of snow and we shot down the slope on makeshift sledges of black plastic bin-bags.


It was a memorable, unexpected turn of everyday events, so I've always had a soft spot for Cécile, who seemed like a girl with lots of spirit. Tilley had bumped into her the other day near the farm while walking Daphne, so she alerted me that Cécile was back in town. I had guessed it was her behind the wheel of a plastic-fantastic camping car a week or so before. Sure enough, her home-on-wheels was parked nearby, beside one of the ramshackle farm's abandoned outbuildings. Last I'd heard of her – because I try to avoid Christianne if I can, for the sake of my ear drums, and Jakob's Dutch accent is so strong that his French is just plain unintelligible to my unconditioned ears – she was driving lorries somewhere down near Toulouse. Before that, she'd learnt to be a plumber working beside an uncle or a cousin. Taps and pipes and boilers clearly weren't for her.

We chatted about life's developments: how she'd given up driving lorries and bought her camping car and was now a traveller of no fixed abode; how she was here for a few weeks to help her older brother put a smart new roof on the ruined house just up from the sheep sheds we were walking towards. We refer to it as 'the little house on the prairie'. It's been abandoned for decades judging by its appearance, but is now rapidly becoming a house once more thanks to the siblings' endeavours. It was bought by the daughter, or so we've deduced, of Monsieur et Madame Mouchette. It's not their real nom de famille, but the name of their old and remarkably aggressive dog. Whenever Madame Mouchette, a timorous woman seemingly afraid of anything on four legs, who drives her little blue car at around 30kph, is out walking their dreadful dog, we turn around and head back home lest the beast aggresses Daphne again. Mouchette must have long ago picked up on her mistress's neuroses, so protects her from any potential foe that comes too near. So you can't blame the bitch; it's another case of the owner, not the dog.

Anyway, the little house on the prairie is getting a significant make-over. But once the roof is finished, Cécile will be off on her travels. Her brother, too, is heading for pastures new: the Pyrenees in fact, there to learn to be a cordiste. Rather than seeking clarification, I let myself imagine that a cordiste had something to do with tuning musical instruments, quite a departure for a roofer. My good wife put me straight later that morning by suggesting that it was something to do with ropes. Maybe a rope-maker. Later still, I discovered that it's someone who works by ropes on high or difficult places. A dangerous job in other words, requiring the kind of steely nerves that a roofer might possess. Even after a quarter of a century in this fair land, my grasp of the language is still tenuous enough to lead me down strange dark alleyways of miscomprehension.


 

Their younger sister, meanwhile, whom I engaged for a few weeks to work as a cleaner alongside our daughter in a holiday home I misguidedly managed for a couple of years, is still in the area – the same age as Tilley the Kid, a mother of a young child and, I'm pretty damn sure I understood this time, a plasterer by trade. A most practical family. I forgot to enquire about their kid brother, last seen as a robust teenager with the build of a rugby player and the kind of constitution that deems a T-shirt suitable garb for the middle of winter. Presumably he has gone to work in a steel foundry somewhere. Perhaps he even plays rugby for the works' team.  

I asked about her own plans. She wants to travel around Europe in her camping car, but obviously this ambition is on hold in the current climate of uncertainty. But France is a big, beautiful place and there's plenty to see without crossing borders. She agreed. Her next stop, in fact, is Brittany. She might explore the coasts in her mobile home. It gives her all the creature comforts she needs: cooker, shower and bed. There wouldn't have been much more than this in the little house in Bonnard that once accommodated four children. But what they lacked in life's luxuries, we surmise, they made up for in family love.


We arrived at the little house on the prairie, already looking like a habitable home. I said goodbye and bon courage to Cécile, knowing that I probably wouldn't see her again for another few years. Waving to her brother, the wannabee cordiste, I swung my leg over my bike and pushed off in the way that I remember my maternal grandmother cycling off to the shops in Finchley High Road. Daphne and I continued on our customary way, past the meadow and then down the stony track to Bonnard, then back up the road to home, where the plum trees beside the house are in magnificent blossom and our twisted willows that have survived the willow-grub are succulent with young leaves. Spring may be disconcertingly early, but it's reassuringly glorious.

It's rare for me to have anything to report to the women folk when I get back, but close encounters of a neighbourly kind can occasionally trigger a glow of conviviality. I felt really good about and for Cécile: a nice young kid who has turned into a really fine young woman, someone with limited but refreshingly individual ambitions who seems admirably level-headed, despite everything that's befalling our world-on-a-knife-edge.

 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

February: Trash Talk

I feared the worst on travelling to Brive the other day, but then I always fear the worst. Even the Good Wife's heart was heavy; always a bad sign. So I suggested we go to the post office first in an attempt to put off the evil hour. I sat in the car and felt suitably guilty as I watched my wife queuing in the rain with all the other masked clients on the steps of the central post office.


Debs described the 'guest' as nice but a little 'brave' (the French equivalent of 'dim'). On arrival at our flat, she enquired about a broom and vacuum cleaner, suggestive of a national obsession with cleaning. British holidaymakers will generally do the minimum required on departure, while French guests will generally leave the place looking immaculate. However... on the Tuesday of her week-long stay, one of the therapists downstairs reported a constant procession of male visitors to the rooms upstairs. The woman appeared from time to time apparently to unlock the code lock to ensure that her 'friends' could get in. They were, we suspected, the men who are here laying fibre optics all over town. They shall have a faster connection wherever they go...

On hearing this and fearing something generally associated with red lights, 'Madame Dé-bor-ah' sent a diplomatic message via Airbnb about public health and sanitary arrangements in the current climate. A couple of days later, a young woman with a big red suitcase was spotted in the street. We surmised that the bird had flown. Nevertheless, there were supposedly two people staying in the flat, so we couldn't investigate immediately. We waited till the appointed hour on Saturday morning.

Opening the door, we were greeted with a scene worthy of some investigative documentary on squalor. It was even worse than my dark imagination had conjured. Quite apart from the pile of unwashed utensils and food everywhere in the kitchen – on the floor, in the sink, on the cooker – my energy-conscious heart sank when I saw that the washing machine, lights and radiators had been left on, with the kitchen window left wide open. On further investigation, we found cigarette butts stubbed into the rugs and on the floorboards. Someone had vomited in the loo and not bothered to flush it away. The sitting room and bedroom were littered with discarded tissues. We found a suspicious roll of black electrical tape and what looked like a rubber seal for a pressure cooker, which could've been intended as a tourniquet for injecting heroin. Unable to speak, Debs merely groaned tearfully. She found some blood stains on the wall behind the sofa. Our minds boggled. She said it felt like a worse kind of personal violation than burglary. I went to check the bedroom under the roof. Miraculously they hadn't touched it.

What do you do in that kind of situation? Call the police? My wife had the presence of mind to take photos of the devastation, however we decided there was no hard evidence to put before the gendarmes. The electrical tape could have been intended for a bare wire. We knew, of course, that it was a case of sex and drugs. We don't provide a telly on the grounds that maybe you attract a better class of person without one, so there was no rock 'n' roll, no smashed TV set down in the back garden two storeys below. I've never understood nor approved of people's propensity for destruction. Some might laugh at Keith Moon's antics, but I always felt that hotel owners and the like should have called down the full force of the law on him. Maybe the trashing of our apartment was revenge for not providing a telly.

Nothing much for it, really, than to tidy up as best we could. While Debs phoned Airbnb for support, I went to Carrefour for two pairs of rubber gloves. I was programmed as a child; washing up was my daily job. Nevertheless, doing it after a party isn't much fun. Washing up after someone else's party is even less fun. Still... I set to. The great thing about washing up is that it improves an otherwise hopeless situation quite quickly. Within an hour, my endeavours had let the daylight in at the other end of the tunnel. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, which I hesitate to do, 'Where there is chaos, let there be order.'

We worked solidly for five hours. Two people @ 5 hrs. = 10 hrs. total, as even my basic 'O' level Maths taught me. By the time we decided to call it a day and head for home, we were shell-shocked and knackered. The final insult came on disposing of all the discarded vodka and beer bottles at the bottle bank. One of the bottles must have been only half-empty, so I was showered by the contents and thus stank of stale beer on the way home.

The sum of the 'violation' was enough to put me off for life. I have been lobbying for an end to this Airbnb lark and a return to a full-time tenant. The Good Wife argues that finding someone respectful and reliable is potentially fruitless. Whereas I get myself stressed and tongue-tied whenever I have to meet and greet new guests, she enjoys her status as a 'Super Hostess' (by day, she was just plain Madame Deb-or-ah; by night...) and doesn't mind the welcome routine. Even she, though, wondered whether she would have the heart now to do it again. Once she got over the initial shock, which lasted at least a couple of days, she concluded that the most upsetting thing was the thought of someone living such a degrading existence. It upsets me more to think of the innocent victims of such degradation: a child or an animal, say.


It was, I suppose, a salutary lesson. 'Er online is normally very assiduous about checking reviews and references. This time, however, the 'guest' was seemingly new to Airbnb and my big-hearted wife wanted to give her a chance to build up some 'history'. But as our savvy daughter pointed out, she could easily have borrowed or stolen some basic identity to set up an account. Her mother will be rather more vigilant in future. As for me, the whole sorry incident merely reinforced my view of humanity. The 'writing on my wall', as Debs calls it. As Edwin Bocage, Eddie Bo, proprietor of the Check Your Bucket Café and demi-legend of the New Orleans R&B scene, has it: 'I believe that we were all born with righteous nature inclination and a wicked nature inclination and you choose which side you want to live on.' I chose the righteous side. Life is so much nicer if you're nice to people and they're nice to you, yet so many choose the 'wicked nature inclination'.

Anyway, it wasn't an experience that I ever want to repeat. It wasn't life-threatening, but I wouldn't wish it on anyone fortunate enough to have a flat to let. Sank heavens for music and cricket. My father delivered the wonderful news that Channel 4 would be showing the India v England test series live on terrestrial television. For the five days of the first test, I was camped in front of the telly with my hot lemon and then my breakfast while the rest of the house slept, enthralled by the action. It was the thought of live cricket that finally induced my dad to shell out for a Sky Sports subscription, despite his disapproval of Murdoch's media. Ironically, then, he didn't need it for the current series. The rights, apparently, are owned by some Disney adult channel, although I fail to see the connection with Channel 4. Never mind the details, feel the bliss. The first live test cricket in nearly 26 years of living in France. The BBC lost the rights just before we got a Freeview satellite. What's more, England seem to be playing rather better cricket than the last time I was able to watch them live. This sporting life offers certain compensations.

Monday, January 11, 2021

January '21: New Year's Insurreckshuns

 


It's not every year that kicks off with a coup d'état across the Atlantic. Positively Seven Days in May. I think John Frankenheimer's dead now, but some director will make a film of what happened in the not-too-distant future. I for one am delighted that what happened on Capitol Hill happened. At least now it's out in the open, with no pretence. The president is a dangerous madman whose lunatic insurreckshun, as Linton Kwesi Johnson the dub poet might have termed it, seems to have failed. The fact that four of the five people who lost their lives are Nazis makes it almost a win-win situation. Hopefully, too, this might split the Republicans into those who are prepared to sign their souls away in pursuit of power and those who are not quite so sure about the benefits of hitching their wagon to a megalomaniac prepared to sell off America's national parks to the highest bidder, shoot wolves in their lair, wall off the Mexicans and incite lynch mobs. Perhaps in future American voters will have the choice between three parties: the Democrats, the Milder Republicans and the Confederates, hell bent on a return to the good ol' days when a person of the opposite colour could be strung up on a tree for daring to look too blatantly at a southern belle.

It is as we say in this household a case of letting the dog see the rabbit. My ever-optimistic wife believes that seeing the evil by bringing the slime to the surface is a necessary precursor to some kind of Golden Age, where everything will be rosy. I don't subscribe to such tosh, but even I – the grumpy, misanthropic pessimist she's hitched to – confess to a glimmer of optimism. However... even if the insurreckshun might rent the Republicans asunder, it's unlikely to be permanent. The initial rush of resignations is probably symptomatic only of a sinking ship, with representatives showing the kind of duplicity that Jean-Louis Trintignant portrayed so memorably in Bertolucci's masterful Il Conformiste, which readers of this page will know by now is my favourite film EVER. Someone rather more clever than the recent incumbent, someone more plausible and even more devious, will crawl out of the woodwork when the time comes. Cometh the hour, cometh the creep. There are still millions more out there ready to follow, millions more who won't just go away overnight.

Of course, little of this touches us here in the Land of Nod. But as goes the US, so goes the rest of the world. It will eventually wash up on these shores like flotsam from a shipwreck, but for now we have the luxury of watching events unfold from a distant dispassionate standpoint. Here, for the while, little changes at new year. The surtout la santé element of the standard, clichéd exchange of best wishes has rather more meaning in January 2021. Especially good health. When I went to Giselle's barn on Friday evening to buy the vegetables after her Yuletide holiday – which, of course, she stressed in the way of the martyr, is no real holiday for her, with so much to attend to inside her house and outside in her field and under her poly-tunnel – she told me that the plague has visited the EPHAD in Martel, which stands roughly for Old People's Home.


Virus schmirus. It's rather colder here than it was last year, cold enough in fact to make your nose drip and your ears ache, which is a cause for celebration since it will, as people remind you constantly, kill off some of the microbes that undermine that so-important bonne santé and the bestioles that attack next year's crops. Whether or not it will have any impact on the coronavirus remains to be seen. I'd bet that it won't, since the Spanish Flu lasted four years or so and these cyclical things tend to follow similar patterns. But neither cold nor virus stops the good ol' boys of Martel, the hunting fraternity no doubt. They were there on Saturday morning, hanging around outside the PMU, half of them masked, half of them not, clutching their cups of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, probably discussing the next campaign of carnage against local wild boars.

In the supermarket, I recognise the usual suspects in spite of their masks. We're growing progressively more adept at recognising people from their eyes and the bridge of their noses. I smile at the cashiers, caged within their protective Perspex, but I'm not sure that they can spot my gesture between the top of my mask (which seems to be made from an old sheet in the style of my old mad mother) and the bottom of my John Lewis bonnet, which The Daughter has taught me to pull down below my eyebrows to make it clear that I am not a docker or a farm labourer, but rather a dedicated follower of fashion. The latter, of course, is lost anyway on the inhabitants of Nod.


My personal circumstances have changed since this time last year. I am now a broadcaster once more, this time at a local radio station that operates out of what's little more than a shack not far from the railway station at Biars-sur-Cère. It's the story of my career as a radio host really; I've come to specialise in a certain kind of fly-by-night operation reminiscent of the Wolfman character in American Graffiti, broadcasting from a hut with an aerial in the middle of nowhere. Decibel FM's mixing table was state-of-the-art back in 1995 and subject to bugs and glitches that keep you on your toes when you're in the studio. Still, I'm doing it anonymously in my prezidential nom de platine, so I can say and play what I like, be snide about hunters and the SNCF and make more gaffs than Dan Quayle, and no one apart from my friends Adrian and Darryn, who listen to local radio, will recognise the geezer with the funny French accent.

I'm not quite sure where this urge to expose myself to potential ridicule comes from. Certainly, my passion for music and my yearning to share it goes back to primary school days, when I'd invite my friend Bob Rainey round to spin singles on my dad's gramophone while we played along on tennis racquet guitars. Gerry Marsden's recent death also reminds me of the time in P5 when I sang 'How Do You Do It' in front of the class. Excruciatingly, I repeated it sometime later – this time with prototype heavy metal guitar riffs – with the Kinks' 'You Really Got Me'. Back by popular request: the clown with an air-guitar. It's the same kind of instinct, I suppose, that drives me to don the headphones and gabble into a microphone. And it's not that it's a breeze either: it's a 20-minute drive from here; it's more than a little nerve-wracking; and it's time-consuming to prepare an hour's show. But... preparing a show, gathering together and linking the raw material is such fun. Having read John Peel's autobiography, I can fully understand why he spent so much time in his music 'shed', preparing all those weekly shows for the Beeb.

So where was I? How did I get from Donald Trump to John Peel? I can't imagine, suffice to say that we all watched the most wonderful production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya the other evening. Toby Jones as Vanya was brilliant and Aimee Lou Wood so sweet and poignant as Sonya that I yearned for Richard Armitage's Doctor Astrov to reciprocate her desperate ardour. It's all about ageing, unrequited love, disappointments and nostalgia, so it was right up my street. It was broadcast on BBC Four because it should have been playing live to packed houses at the Harold Pinter theatre in London. And that, of course, is another thing that's different about the new year, 2021 style.

Friday, December 18, 2020

December: The Transformative Power of Paint

 

Only the other day... I was on my way back from walking the dog when two white-bottomed deer wandered casually across the road between our bit of wood and the farmer's on the other side. I can only describe their colour as a grey-brown shade of ground-cover. Daphne saw them and took off like a bolt of greased lightning. The two deer bounded into the woods and within seconds they were lost from view. I thought to myself, Isn't nature marvellous? These creatures are born with a colour so perfectly blended to their natural surroundings that they are rendered virtually invisible to the naked eye. And thank heavens, with so many hunters about (lockdown doesn't apply to the hunting fraternity, it appears).


Which leads me to the colour of paint. The myriad colours of paint. Now that The Daughter is back in the fold, deprived for the time being of her calling to design textiles and clothes, she has been casting her educated eye on her parents' environment. Our sense of interior design has been found wanting. Where there were a whiter shade of pale walls, let there be colour. Where there was bare wood, let there be more colour. To be fair (as footballers are given to start their proclamations), her mother has been looking at our bare wooden staircase up to the bare wooden floor of the mezzanine and saying for many a moon that we should do something about it.

I don't give her much encouragement in that respect, because I don't like disruption. But as soon as her offspring is back in town, she has a natural-born ally and the pair of them plot their campaigns like two umbilically-tied consultants. Last extended stay, it was walls and ceiling – and I have to admit that they've uplifted the place. The trouble is that our girl's tastes are in keeping with her ambition to work in some area of haut couture. So the paint has to be Farrow & Ball, because only Farrow & Ball make the necessary shade of day-room yellow, churlish green, cinder rose, hound's tooth, grizzled avocado, oatmeal compôte, dissatisfied cat and such like. Paint in France costs a small fortune, but Farrow & Ball set new eye-watering standards.

The colour chosen for the bare wood was peignoir, which is a French word for dressing gown. It's very nice, but to me it looks more like blueberry milkshake: a subtle blend of pink and purple. We ordered it from a small shop in Brive and they gave us a 10% discount, which made it 'cheaper' than buying it from the company's website. And you can't put a price on the sense of self-righteousness derived from supporting a small trader in a time of crisis.


The Kid and I did the painting, an opportunity to bond during confinement. She's a perfectionist, while I'm a pragmatist – certainly about painting. I'm quite fast and prepared to take a few short-cuts where things won't be apparent on a casual glance. I learnt the basics of painting by the side of my father when we moved from our first house in Belfast to our second. Like anything in life that involves effort, he was not the best person to learn from. Fortunately, in recent years, I've had the example to follow of my friend Bret, one of the best painters on earth: fast, efficient and thorough. I passed on as much of his wisdom as I could to my girl. She took it in rapidly, though her natural propensity is to be slow and meticulous.

Still... it went well. No stand-offs nor contretemps, just a few murmurs of discontent. I handled the underside of the floor between the beams, she did the stairs and we did the mezzanine floor together. Nothing could be finer (than to be in Caro-lina) – except for the major disruption that the joint element caused, because it meant moving my stuff, or schtooff, as a Spanish friend of yore used to pronounce it so endearingly. I have envied my brother-in-law's office and desk for many years: so clear and compartmentalised, so efficient and organised. I've tried, God knows I've tried, but just never manage to achieve anything resembling his level of order. I work surrounded by clutter, which probably explains my career trajectory. I am cluttered. Clutter and mouth ulcers are two perennial facts of my life.

So all those hundreds and thousands of tapes and CDs had to be taken off the shelves and boxed up, the detritus of insatiable decades on this earth. The shelves then had to be taken down because their feet stand on the floor. All the papers that found their way from the equivalent of my sister's 'piling pile' to what I laughingly describe as my 'filing system' had to be removed in order to move the filing cabinet to become a support for my desk. All the records in the free-standing shelves had to be removed and piled up against the door to the top balcony in order to move the free-standing shelves out of the way and then re-shelved because they were in the way, then re-removed and re-piled against the door when one half of the floor was done and dried before being re-shelved – by which time the approximate alphabetical order had gone completely awry. The sofa we discovered on moving had lost a foot and the head of the screw where once it had been had gouged a hole in both the rug and the floorboard under it.

While the paint was drying, I went through the video and audio cassettes with an eye for duplicates and I managed to fill one small boxful for disposal. Some people have the ability to throw whole collections away wholesale. I don't know how they can. It's surely better that they should be taking up space on our shelves than sitting for centuries in a landfill site – although my poor daughter will have the unenviable task of sorting it all out when I'm gone. Perhaps by then I will have come to terms with my addiction and joined some remedial support group.


In a concession to aesthetics, I even painted the spare speakers that are wired to the DVD player the same fetching shade of blueberry milkshake. And rather smart they look, too. Everything is now back in place and the gouges in the floor are painted and covered by a rug. Tilley the Kid asked me whether, in the final analysis, it was worse than I had imagined, about what I had imagined or better than I had imagined. Clearly she is of the generation that's comfortable with Survey Monkey. I reflected for a few seconds and came to the conclusion that it was just about as I had envisaged it. Grim and disruptive but ultimately no worse. It's one of the few comforts of being a pessimist, that you're mentally prepared for the worst. Moreover, now that I look around me and consider my changed work environment and take pleasure in the colourful floor and stairs and in the prospect of being able to find things just a little more easily, I consider it well worth the pain and discomfort involved.

And so to conclude, as the lecturer said to an enthralled audience, a lick of paint does wonders for the soul – even if that paint costs an arm and a leg. Able now to look forward now to the prospect of a slightly tidier New Year, I can wish my multitudinous readers a very happy 2021.