Clickety-click, sixty six. My recent birthday was marked by the state. Officially old, I received my first payment of UK state pension. The five hundred quid or so a month will come in very handy, at least until hyper-inflation erodes its value. But for now I'm celebrating my OAP status.
I'm officially allowed now to indulge in nostalgic programmes on the box. The Good Wife and I have been watching a series of programmes on Sunday evenings in which the original Lovely Man, Michael Palin, looks back on his epic series of travel programmes from the end of the last century. This last Sunday, we watched footage of some of the teeming hellholes of the Pacific Rim: places that no sensible human being would ever wish to visit – Vladivostok, Seoul, Bogota and such like. We both admitted to sadness in seeing how dear Michael has become an old man. He was born during the 2nd world war in Ranmoor, Sheffield, where I used to work for a few years, so it's hardly surprising. At least, we comforted ourselves, he's had an incredibly rich and fulfilling – and privileged – life.
We talked about the accident of birth that has governed our own privileged lives in the West, where you don't have to walk miles for clean drinking water or fight every day for survival. My dear idealistic, optimistic wife puts it down to karma, but I put it down to pure good luck. If it were karma, I argue, how come there are so many bad mothers (shut yo mouth!) sharing this happy space? For example... our Grand Designs programme was aired again recently. I know because I generally receive a clutch of charming e-mails from around the world. This time I got an e-mail from some loathsome crackpot threatening to spread the word about me on the dark net unless I put some bitcoins in his virtual wallet. Since I haven't been visiting call-girls in Martel or desperate housewives in Brive, I figured I'd ignore it.
But that's the kind of thing you're up against these days. Thus we owe it to ourselves to enjoy our good fortune while we can. So we went away for the first weekend of the month ostensibly to celebrate my birthday with friends, but in reality to give our dogs what we term a Holly-day, in honour of their pampered beast. We went to the wild and windswept Massif Central and unfortunately it coincided with a big storm that blew in from the Atlantic and wrought some kind of devastation on south-east France and north-west Italy. I love the untamed beauty of this country's granite heart. I feel a certain affinity with it, perhaps because it reminds me of places beloved of memory – like the Mountains of Mourne and the Peak District.
On the next leg of our journey, we stopped off for a (masked) tour of the ruined Château de Murol, a mighty 12th century strategic pile built on an outcrop of basalt. It once belonged to the d'Estaing family, whose descendant, Giscard, bequeathed the magnificent A75 motorway to the nation, but fell into ruin and disrepair until rescued by the commune below and converted into a profitable tourist attraction. We all felt that the €15 entrance fee was a bit steep until we'd done the tour. There is no son-et-lumière in this season, nor Strictly Come Jousting in the arena between the inner and outer walls, but the exhibits were tastefully done and the view from the ramparts was sublime: across the valley to the Puy de Sancy and way out westwards to the A75 and our destination for two nights – although maybe not quite as sublime as the view on the return leg, dropping down from the mountains to see the chateau below us sitting atop its mound, briefly bathed in bright sunlight.
We drove on through geographic brand-names like Saint-Nectaire and Perrier to our destination just the other side of the market town of Issoire and the A75 that flanks it. One of the Puy de Dôme's plus beaux villages de France, Usson is built up and around a volcanic plug, topped by a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary and a view across the plain to the uplands we had just crossed. The Good Wife had sourced an Airbnb for us, the last house in the village before the virgin. Built on three levels, and tastefully refurbished by our host, an artist and photographer, the two bedrooms – above and beneath the living area – afforded panoramic views of the outlined mountains and, once darkness had fallen, the winking red lights of a cluster of wind turbines. Maybe it was their electrical pulses that woke us in the middle of the first night, or maybe it was the 5G satellites, or maybe it was simply the champagne with which we had toasted my 66 years and our 25 years in France.
The weather relented the following day, long enough to grant us a three-hour walk around the base of the village that left me feeling my age. On the cruel climb homeward, we skirted the remnants of the old chateau, demolished by order of Cardinal Richelieu, that once kept the (in)famous La Reine Margot a virtual prisoner for almost 20 years when she was at loggerheads with her equally (in)famous husband, Henry IV. I first found out about this intriguing couple during a weekend assignment in Pau for France Magazine, so it felt appropriate to pitch the editor an article idea on our return. Reader, I nailed it.
Discretion this time being the better part of valour, we took the motorway home after splitting up. Brief rays of sunshine aside, we were almost swept away by the wind and the torrential rain, but things quietened a little on the familiar road from Tulle to home. Being a fully-fledged pensioner now, the prospect of an early night in our comfortable bed filled me with the joys of my station in life. Sloping off to bed without guilt at the earliest opportunity is one of the true compensations of getting old. I hope to receive my second bank transfer from the British government at the beginning of next month. Then I'll know that it wasn't a flash in the pan, that I can really settle down to a semi-subsidised old age.