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.

Monday, June 20, 2022

June: In the Land of Plenty Plastic

During our recent trip to the Yuke, a religious zealot borrowed my little-used Facebook account to send messages of great joy to friends and contacts. I haven't yet seen the offending article, but I'm mystified by his or her faith in a Superior Being when the world He, She or It supposedly created is in such a permanent state of chassis, as Sean O'Casey's character was given to say.

In spite of the current chaos and crises, there was joy a-plenty during our absence from notre petit paradis. Only one argument in the car on the journey north to Dieppe: between Vierzon and Orléans; caused by my inability to remain silent in the face of my cherished co-driver's propensity to chase cars on the autoroute rather than to let 'em go and settle back at a steady, fuel-efficient pace. The car was laden, too, with our daughter's affairs (beautifully arranged, I must say, by my anally-retentive self, since few things please me more than efficient packing of a boot or a dishwasher).

On reaching my sister's house in Romsey many hours after our 5am departure, I then had to transfer the contents of the car to her garage prior to the pre-arranged pick-up by a man named Derek in a big colourful van for delivery to The Kid's new digs in Sarf London. She's just started working in a famous interior design shop in Fulham, where she's required to wear black. Shame that she got rid of all her black clothes from her teenage days, because she's spending her initial wages on a suitable new wardrobe. It won't be coming from Primark.

She looked lovely in red for my nephew's wedding on the Saturday, one of the objects of our visit. The Good Wife looked resplendent in yellow, an echo of her own wedding outfit that caused my mother-in-law such grief at the time. My own echo was even louder, as I wore the same suit, cleaned, pressed and repaired after my daughter used it for dressing up one day in our old house in the Corrèze. It fits me better than it did her at the time.

The wedding went off like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Even the rain that had been forecast for a fortnight held off and the sun emerged intermittently from behind a thick layer of cloud. The happy couple were wed in a beautiful village church with a wooden bell-tower. The jolly vicar arrived on a motorbike in the best modern tradition to officiate with enough jocularity to temper any underlying religious zeal. My wife sang out with such gusto that our daughter had a fit of the giggles. The bride is a twin and she was preceded down the aisle by her sister, dressed in a fetching powder-blue number. I admired the original choice of outfit until the true bride followed a few steps behind in regulation white with a long train that she subsequently pinned up behind her like a Victorian bustle for the reception.

My duty throughout was that of my ancient father's minder. Accustomed to doing most things (apart from driving) at speed, I had to adapt to the pace of a Galapagos tortoise for the rest of the day. Or most of it: After the canapés and drinks with accompaniment by Tilley's musical cousin Jess; after the group photographs; after the speeches (which he couldn't hear, although he did perk up when my nephew, the groom, mentioned his name); and after the meal in a marquee as big as a circus big-top, set up a stone's throw from the bucolic river Test, I drove him back to the quiet of his one-bedroom flat. On return, the party was in full swing. My nephew had paid for an open bar and my daughter and her cousin, re-united after pairing up many years before as young bridesmaids at another nephew's wedding, seemed apparently set on sampling everything on offer in an attempt to drink it dry.

The hired band opted for volume rather than clarity, which was a shame as they offered a repertoire of old soul hits. It didn't stop Zac, one of my younger great-nephews, demonstrating an extraordinary array of James Brown moves that had everyone marvelling at his energy if not his innate sense of rhythm.

Perhaps the band felt it had to play extra loud to compete with the national celebrations for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, or 'Plat-Jub' as it was dubbed. By Saturday night, they were dying down a little – at least in comparison to the previous day, when the bells of Romsey Abbey rang for four hours without a break for drinks. The sound of church bells conjures up emotions like euphoria and nostalgia, but when finally, mercifully, they stopped suddenly, the effect was like cutting the power to a pneumatic drill.

After all the euphoria, the news by text early the next morning that a dear old friend had died after her battle with cancer – and before The Dame could visit her in London, effectively to say goodbye – threw a cold, wet blanket over all that followed. Mother and daughter took the train to the metropolis on Monday, so one could start a new job while the other took the train to the damp north-west, there to sort out her mother's tax papers and find a foldable wheelchair for the poor old dear.

This left me to relieve my sisters – the younger one of whom called in sick with Covid on the Monday morning, which left me fretting that I might catch it again myself and thus fail the test for re-entry to France (while secretly rather gloating that she had succumbed after three vaccinations, having suffered her serious self-righteous wrath due to our non-conformist stance) – by spending some serious time with my own poor old dear. Despite a kiddie-sized fit of pique on the Sunday because the parents of the bride neglected to invite him to an impromptu post-wedding evening get-together, during which he drank all the gin miniatures he had traded for at our allocated table with the great nephews, my father is in truth neither emotionally nor actually poor. 

We spent much of our time together watching England and New Zealand play out a pair of gripping test matches. He invested in a Sky contract principally to watch Arsenal play football and England play cricket. It seems that now England are under new management, with a cavalier New Zealand coach and a cavalier new captain, the team is set on entertaining the public.

For the remaining time together, I walked him slowly, very slowly around town, cooked him meals and chatted to him about the past. As he approaches his 95th birthday, he seems as determined as an English cricketer to notch up the century. He's defied all the odds to get this far on heart medication and a fairly unsuitable diet, so he could make it. Equally, he's getting so breathless that he could keel over at any time. Either way, he's having a great knock, showing much of the old élan in the last five years in particular (since my mother packed her paints and her typewriter for her voyage to the Big Beyond).

Our bond, already strengthened by our shared love of music and sport, has been further tightened these last few months of working on my mother's memoir, Make Do And Mend. As each chapter rolls off the press, I've sent it to my father, traditionally not a reader, for comments and feedback. He's risen to the task, with helpful observations and even identification of errors and typos, which suggests that he reads the text quite closely. The task of knitting together the best bits from the various versions my mother left behind has given me a real insight into what shaped the character of someone who was fairly impossible to live with, and an understanding of what made her tick and why our relationship was so problematic. It's a sad irony that it took her death to open the channels of communication. If I believed in the afterlife, I would send her a message to tell her what a genuine talent she was with both brush and pen – and apologise for being so blasé as a youth.

She was, though, an exceptionally bad cook. Cooking proper meals for my father, who thankfully cooked in his time but now depends on salmon steaks from the freezer or cheese and crackers for supper, meant that I often had to nip into town for missing ingredients. Whether the Co-op or Aldi or Waitrose, it was even more evident than it is back home just how much plastic we consume. Everything, even supposedly fresh vegetables, either comes in a plastic container or swaddled in plastic. There's barely an alternative to be found. I took his waste to the communal recycle bin like a dutiful son, knowing damn well that any reassuring figures are massaged to omit the depressing fact that x% of the y% of 'recycled' plastic is sent to some country like Turkey to be dealt with however they see fit.

Being in England is initially thrilling for an exile, but ultimately dispiriting. You see the consumer society in its raw essence and realise that we're never going to change. Or, even if we can change our habits, the process of change will be far too slow to staunch the flow. The damage will have been completed. As usual, by the time we had to leave, we were itching to get out and get back home. There is something about a small market town in a privileged county like Hampshire that seems so divorced from reality, as if sealed in a protective layer of plastic Clingfilm.

We took and scanned our negative tests for legal re-entry to our adoptive country and jettisoned more unnecessary plastic. I packed the car once more with anal precision, hiding any purchases from the motherland in a manner that could be construed as casual rather than deliberate should we be stopped at Customs in Newhaven.

As it was, we slipped through without a hitch. Despite the customary anxieties I share with my mother, God rest her troubled soul, I wasn't frog-marched off to a lock-up to be shackled in chains and fined to within an inch of my life for bringing back five tins of Lakeland Paints' finest lime-wash – and one or two other items, including Sun Ra, a feline gargoyle made on commission by a close friend of my sister's for a pre-Covid birthday present, and a pile of books, CDs and records from the multitude of charity shops in Romsey. We even managed to sleep a few precious hours in our egregiously expensive cabin.

We were away and bound for Rouen and all points south by five in the morning. The journey south was a sheer delight; just like the old days, a time when we were bushy-tailed holidaymakers and full of Gallic promise. My speedy wife tried really, really hard to keep her foot light on the accelerator. There were no arguments. After two shifts of two hours each, we were home by two o'clock in the afternoon, very hot but neither shaken nor stirred; glad to be back home in a land where, I suspect, they consume less and recycle more plastic.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

May: Columns And Committees

After roughly fifty cheeses, it seems that my days as a columnist are numbered. France Magazine has been swallowed up by a rival publication and I doubt whether there will be room for my three hundred monthly words on the subject of a French cheese. Like wine-tasting, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find new ways of describing the subtle fruity or not-so-subtle salty notes of the cheese in question, so maybe my time was more or less up – particularly as I had just about exhausted the selection of my friendly neighbourhood cheese van at the Saturday-morning market in Martel.   

I could, I suppose, attempt to negotiate with the new editor and perhaps even work out a deal for more column inches for a bit more money, but it takes a lot of time and effort to build a relationship with an editor and, at my time of life, I'm not sure that I can be bothered. I'm on a stipend from the British government now and, frankly my dear, my fee was fairly derisory. Nevertheless, I shall miss our family tastings: gathered around the table to mull the cheese over, identify the smells and flavours, and grade its strength on the 'Robustometer' from one to ten. It taught us all truly to appreciate the difference between a cheese produced by a small farmhouse fromagerie or co-operative and the equivalent industrial version sold in supermarkets.

As a five-year old in a sedate North London suburb, or whenever it was that I tasted my first Cheddar, I never imagined that one day I would become sufficiently knowledgeable to write about a dairy product. It just goes to show. I was planning to build on my unforeseen success by proposing a monthly column on francophone music from around the world – a subject in which I am rather more invested – because I had that kind of relationship with my editor: I could pitch ideas to her without feeling guilty about wasting her valuable time, secure in the knowledge that she would take it seriously enough to read it and reply, rather than parking it in a slush folder and forgetting about it.

Ah well; so it goes, to use the immortal phrase of Kurt Vonnegut. No use crying over discarded rind. Maybe I won't miss the extra seventy-five quid per month, even with the price of everything from diesel to crisps 'gettin' higher and higher', as Toots growled on 'Time Tough'. I suspect that they're going to get tougher and tougher, with a knock-on effect on everything from social unrest and crime to deforestation and wildlife trafficking. It's not a pretty prospect. Last week, a friend and I discussed a potential positive repercussion of tough times: that we might be entering an era of thrift as opposed to consumption and waste. The one thing my thrifty mother prepared me for in life was a regimen of thrift. I'm quite comfortable with the idea of saving yet more elastic bands, paper bags and jars for storage.

While my status as a columnist is in the balance, I am now – for the first time in my life – a committee member, which means that I can bring to the round table my wealth of experience in... um, French cheese. It's some kind of cultural committee, although the first meeting last Friday disavowed me of any misguided notion I had of helping to influence cultural policy in these parts. I had this vague idea that I might be able to use my music publicity contacts to organise some world-music concert in the market place in Martel.

Thinking, therefore, that I ought to make my presence felt, I wore the new Paul Smith jacket that I found last week for eight euros in the Emmaüs bazaar for the poor and thrifty. Actually, aforementioned friend found it for me, as I was busy searching among the piles of Nana Mouskouri records for treasure in the music room. The jacket was far too small for him, but it fits me like a glove. He found himself a couple of shirts and I found an un-played copy of George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh, so we were both happy bunnies.

Any self-confidence that the jacket might have lent me was quickly dispelled. Our mayor had lent the commune's salle polyvalente for the evening and the place was full of strangers. This presents the dilemma of propriety: to quietly take a seat or shake hands with each committee member present? Since the mayor was there and I was duty-bound to shake his hand, I felt I ought to go around the room and shake everyone's hand, based on a similar logic to one employed decades ago when I deposited our tiny daughter at the école maternelle one morning. Since I'd kissed our friend the teacher, who lived in our village, I felt it would be churlish to exclude a bevy of young mothers at the gate, so I gave them all the customary peck on each cheek. They were probably as perplexed as I was embarrassed when I thought about what I had done later that day. Emotion recollected in a lack of tranquillity.

I found a seat a little removed from my fellow committee members. The young and personable mayor of St. Michel de Bannières distributed a raft of papers to each of us. But I spent so long trying to figure out what they all meant that the meeting just about passed me by. This much I gathered, however: we were there as representatives of the various communes in the canton – a collection of communes for administrative purposes (I think) – to allocate a limited amount of funds made available by the department of the Lot for local cultural events to a number of associations that had put forward proposals and demands for sums of money bearing little resemblance to the actual budget available. Little chance, in other words, of being able to organise a concert of world music in Martel's market place.

Since the mayor-chair was so efficient and so apparently invested in the activity, all I had to do finally was wear my glasses, pretend to study and assess the inexplicable figures before me in a thoughtful manner, and nod or shake my head based on her suggestions and the consensus of opinion in the room. Thus the meeting went remarkably painlessly and quickly, given that it was a French meeting in France, where meetings are characterised by endless discussion and bickering even after a decision has been reached.

I would have believed myself entirely supernumerary had I not learnt during the round-table introductions that my name hadn't been picked out of a hat, but had been put forward by our mayor. So I felt flattered, chuffed and even a little touched. So much so that, after the event and after we had chosen an item from among the departmental promotional gifts on offer – I selected a cheese board in the shape of a parallelogram, bearing the contentious new strap line Oh my Lot! – I stayed behind to help the mayor put away the chairs and tables and pull down the blinds of the salle. Ever the school swot!

The next meeting of the committee will be in September, when (I believe) we shall be assessing another tranche of proposals hoping for money from an ever-decreasing budget. Next time I'll know that I probably won't need to wear my Paul Smith jacket; that I won't need to shake everybody's hand because we'll be embarking on a new round of Covid restrictions; and that I might be able to score a departmental mug. With the end of my cheese column in sight, I decided to give the hand-crafted board to my daughter in recognition of her contributions to the in-house cheese committee. Nutty? Fruity? A hint of the cowshed or pasture? 5 or 6 out of 10 for cheesiness?


Sunday, April 10, 2022

April: Choice

At last, after more than a quarter of a century of living in France, we now have the chance to vote for our next president. Unfortunately, if the opinion polls are to be believed, it will boil down to the Hobson's choice of.... 'in the blue corner, the man in the suit, your friend and mine, the career opportunist... E-man-uel Micron; and in the even bluer corner, the bleached blonde breeder of kittens, with the far-right leanings, Maaaaarine Le Pen!!'

For the first round, however, we are presented with a choice of around ten candidates, hope-ful and hope-less. A mixed bunch of idealists and extremists. Each of us received an A4 envelope with manifestos. Given the fact that we don't watch French television nor read French newspapers, our only way of assessing their credentials is by reading said manifestos. But then, we all know that politicians lie and break promises as regularly as decent working people change their underwear. So, I shall be guided by Greenpeace's assessment of their environmental stance. Needless to say, that of the big two is flaky, shaky and ultimately untenable. Fed up with tactical voting, I'll be swayed by environmental concerns. It'll be a wasted vote, but someone's got to vote for an issue that's bigger than the old familiar concerns.

The electoral system, built upon an appalling waste of paper (since multiple duplicates of the manifestos will be spread out on the tables of the Salle Polyvalente where we vote), is puzzling – and therefore, it seems, peculiarly French. This is how it works, unless I have got it all wrong: After presenting your electoral card and your carte d'identité for checking, you go into a little booth and put your candidate's piece of paper into an envelope given to you by the card-checker. You shouldn't, as I did this morning, take a diversion to say hello to the volunteers at the other desk, thus creating confusion as to whether or not you've actually voted.

On your way to the booth – unless you've thought about it beforehand and bring your candidate's piece of paper with you, secreting it carefully in a pocket, say, to ensure that no one sees the telltale name that gives your game away – you pick up a piece of paper for each  candidate so that the volunteers don't spot your choice. In the booth, you put only one piece of paper in the envelope. The rest get chucked in a bin. You don't, as I do each time, attempt to seal the envelope, thus leaving incriminating traces of spit that could be forensically traced to you.

Finally, you take your envelope back to the team of two or three volunteers, one of whom is there to open the little letterbox affair with a knob. You pop your envelope inside and he or she announces 'A voté!' (has voted). I performed this role myself in the recent communal elections during the two-hour lunch period (because everyone knows that the British aren't like the French and don't sit down for a two-hour lunch at 12 on the dot, which makes them the ideal recruits for this graveyard slot), but I suspect that I didn't make my announcements with sufficient conviction or gusto, because so far I haven't been asked back. Perhaps if I gargle regularly and practise a bit more, the day might yet come to pass.

At this point, you sign your name in a little rectangular space on the electoral list and you are now free to walk. It's second nature to the indigenous population, but all three of us somehow find it a very self-conscious and nerve-wracking affair. Quite apart from the business of erroneously licking envelopes, there are other issues that make you question whether you carried out your citizen's duty to the letter of the law. Did anyone see my pre-prepared piece of paper when I pulled out my electoral card? Did I, in fact, put the right piece of paper in the envelope? Will my fellow communards think that I'm an idiot and therefore that all foreigners are stupid?

Come the second round in a fortnight's time, I'm expecting to abstain because I can't bring myself to vote for either the candidate in the blue corner or the candidate in the even bluer candidate. I could register a vote blanc by going through the whole rigmarole again and depositing an empty envelope, which at least means that you will have been seen to have done your duty. However, a neighbour told us that these 'white votes' are not registered statistically, whereas abstentions are – and that, it seems to me, makes them a more satisfactory form of protest.

Our daughter wondered whether you could volunteer to help out and then conveniently lose a few envelopes. I suggested that the number of envelopes would have to tie in with the voting record. If they didn't, I imagine that no one will be allowed to leave the premises until the discrepancy was resolved. So how about removing papers from certain envelopes and turning them into blank votes, she proposed? At this point, I had to exercise my full parental authority. Electoral fraud cannot be condoned in any circumstance, even by a member of one's own family.

So that's it, then. We'll have to wait and see and live with the result, which should be announced soon after typing. The conclusion seems foregone. There will be no pleasant surprises. In times of war and rising prices, people worry about survival in the here-and-now. It's only the privileged few who worry more about survival of the planet. So the silent or not-so-silent majority vote for the candidates who promise short-term solutions to current ails. If, ultimately, Micron gets back in for a second term, I'll try to be a more effective free radical in order to piss the man off TO THE MAX! I wish I had thought to deface his poster, with its ridiculously pat slogan Nous Tous, by adding Avec McKinsey. If it's that nice Marine Le Pen, we'll all have to hope that she doesn't renege on her seemingly more reasonable policies and turn into a female version of another well-known dictatorial animal lover (the one with the hairstyle and the silly moustache).

Vote Nobody – Just to be sure.

Friday, March 11, 2022

March: A Grand Day-Out


In times of war and pestilence, perhaps the last thing on the agenda should be a family day-out, particularly with the price of diesel having gone through the roof. Nevertheless, what else can you do with your spare cash when all is said and done: build an underground bunker and/or sink those anti-tank iron spikes they used in the last European war?

In any case, we had to take The Daughter to the airport in Limoges for her first trip back to the UK since the pestilential brouhaha has quietened a little. It always seems wrong to be taking an airplane, but we don't do it very often and, after reading reports of empty planes 'flying high in the friendly sky' (as Marvin Gaye once put it) simply to keep their slots open at the airports either end, it seemed to be neither here nor there in the great scheme of things. So we dropped her off, I disobeyed the notice on the door that only passengers could enter the airport in order to satisfy a pressing need to use the facilities, and we – the Dame, the dog and I – took off on our projected detour.

For years, we've been driving up and down the A20, our scenic toll-free motorway (Free at least! between Brive and Vierzon, an unedifying dump south of Orléans), and ever since they put up big painted signs to attract passing tourists, we've been aware of Mont Gargan. Somewhere in the hinterlands, just south-east of Limoges. 'One of these days,' one of us would say, 'we must get off the motorway and go and visit Mont Gargan.'

The final day of last month happened to be one of those days: a beautiful balmy late-winter's day under a limpid, cloudless sky with a distinct promise of the spring to come. Besides, a French friend of ours, a photographer by profession who is currently photographing the Limousin for a book, went there early one morning not long ago and reported that it is a wonderful place. On such a day, too, our girl might look down on us from up in the sky and see her parents waving from the summit. On the other hand, the Ryan Air pilot, driven by tight schedules, might prefer to head due north for Stansted.  

We took off cross-country north of Pierre-Bouffière, a little staging post where we once stopped for an early morning coffee when the motorway hadn't even been finished. There's an aire de repos nearby, where I paused a few years later for a rest on a long solo drive south from the Channel back when I attempted such crazy feats of endurance. I remember it well because it wasn't very restful. Alone in the deserted car park, a stray nocturnal car came and pulled up within spitting distance of our old Peugeot 205. It was either a good-ole'-boy looking for a victim or a Mr. Lonelyheart looking for love, I figured. Or perhaps a lady of the night looking for a client. I didn't hang around long enough to find out, but quickly resumed my journey. A spooky episode.

On the cross-country leg of the journey to Mont Gargan, we barely passed a car. The rolling landscape of meadows and woods is dotted with occasional settlements that might harbour a boulangerie, but precious little else. It's a lovely part of the world, but not a part to inhabit unless you have a hermit's chromosomes.

When the road became more hilly, we picked up some signs for Mont Gargan. They lead you up to a village, where you turn hard left and climb a road with woods on either side. Then left again and up to a car park. We followed two vehicles: a private car and one of those pick-ups that good-ole'-boys convert into hunting-dog transporters. It was the final day of February: the day that marks – so we believe – the final day of the hunting season. Just our luck, to stumble in such deserted parts upon a party of hillbillies bent on one last legal slaughter before they have to hang up their rifles. But the pick-up pulled into a lay-by and I watched in my rear-view mirror as it turned round and drove back off again. No doubt, this was a protected public site and they were up to something illegal. Just their luck that two private cars should materialise.

The woman in the other car let her dog out of the back just as we liberated Daphne. She heard us talking together in English and addressed us both nervously in the same language. She was sorry, she explained, but she had just tested positive for Covid. She'd had the requisite vaccinations, though, she added. I reassured her that I'd just had it myself (and didn't give a monkey's whether she was vaccinated or not, but I kept that to myself). We moved off in separate directions.

Mont Gargan is around 730 metres high, which makes it a mountain in Britain and little more than a big hill in France. It rises up out of the surrounding countryside in splendid isolation – like the Wrekin in Shropshire, only bigger – so the 360o views on such a beautiful morning were almost limitless. But even more spectacular is the avenue of ancient beech trees that leads you up to the summit: trees like the oak that once hid the fugitive Charles II from the forces of parliament, with branches that spread upwards and outwards. And although I've never seen it, I like to think that this arboreal landmark is as splendid as that tunnel of trees in County Antrim to where the tourists flock now that Game Of Thrones has highlighted the natural wonders of Norn Iron.

The summit is crowned with a ruined chapel that was built in the 19th century for some spiritual purpose that doesn't seem to have lasted long. Perhaps it coincided with the Diaspora of the local population to Paris in search of work. Without a congregation to help with its upkeep, it must have fallen prey to the elements. It sits on a grassy plateau surrounded by bracken. Perhaps in the second world war it was used as a refuge for the local Maquis.

And lo! during our circumambulation of this magical place via the department's thoughtful 'discovery trail' (which, I can confirm, is definitely not suitable for pushchairs; the 40 steps that take you back to the summit were a challenge to two fit people and perhaps even their dog), we learnt that the local Resistance was the sole unit during the war to win a pitched battle with the forces of occupation.

Just a few days later, we learnt more when we went to lunch with an old friend from our days in the Corrèze and his new partner, a retired schoolteacher from Bordeaux. We call Jean-Claude the 'wild man of Wongo'. He's spent most of his adult life leading groups around the countryside to explain which nuts and berries you can live off and which mushrooms to avoid; making films about his patrimony; or restoring old barns in which to house his eco-museums. In the days when we were scratching around for a buck, Jean-Claude gave me some pocket money to help him roof an outbuilding with chestnut shingles. He gave Debs her first break, too, by co-hosting a course in the old school in our local commune, which involved an element of aromatherapy massage. Unfortunately, the publicity they created together involved the use of the word 'massage', which they discovered – when the course was shut down by order of the medical Mafia – was an illegal term for anyone other than an accredited kinésithérapeute (or physiotherapist). For years afterwards, she used the term 'lymphatic drainage'. Now she's old enough and wise enough not to give a flying flacon of essential oil.

Anyway, while we ate our resuscitated mushrooms he'd picked in the autumn, accompanied by a salad of field-fresh dandelion leaves and a hard-boiled egg laid by the chickens, garnished with home-produced walnut oil, and in between consulting his useful notebook of natural nutrition to compare the vitamin content of dandelions, say, to oranges, Jean-Claude told us about the leader of the Resistance in the Haute-Vienne: a chap by the name of Gingouin, who fell out with the French communist party after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact, then organised the local Maquis. After the battle of Mont Gargan, Gingouin disobeyed orders from a communist leader to take Limoges by force, and the rest of his (long) life was characterised by slurs on his character and actual physical abuse from the police and magistrates whose anger he had also incurred during the war. Highly decorated by the state for his war efforts, he was rehabilitated by the commies in 1998 – to which Guingouin replied, rather splendidly: 'It's a problem the Party has with itself. It doesn't concern me anymore. I've reached the age of serenity.'

I haven't quite reached that stage of my life yet. However, Jean-Claude's revelations did inspire me to pitch an idea for an article to my very nice editor at France Magazine. She has commissioned a feature deriving from our grand day-out. So you can read more about Mont Gargan and its history sometime next year at a newsagent near you. If, that is, with the world 'in a state of chassis' (as Sean O'Casey might have had it), such familiar establishments survive until then.