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.


Thursday, October 22, 2020

October: Under the Volcanoes

 

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.


In fact, the weather was quite kind to us given the general meteorological perturbation. We went with long walks in mind and were able to carry out our mission on each of the three days away. On the Friday morning, we left in beastly conditions. Our friends the Thompsons took the easy route on the A89, while the intrepid Sampsons pottered across the byways of the Cantal. When we arrived at our initial rendez-vous – the curious town of La Bourboule, a remnant of the belle époque, when visitors came to gamble and take the waters – and Daphne spotted Sophie outside our car, she almost burst a blood vessel with excitement. In the lee of the Puy de Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif, and a mere hike from the source of the Dordogne, we drove on over a mountain, with the road pegged on either side by markers to guide motorists through winter snowstorms, to Chambon-sur-Lac. The blinding rain had eased to a very light drizzle and we were able to walk, unmasked or unleashed, around the perimeter of the volcanic lake, almost 3,000 feet above sea level.


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.


Our return trip was by way of a somewhat wild walk around the mysterious Lac Pavin. Nestling in a volcanic crater roughly half-way between the ski resorts of Besse and Super Besse (whose name always reminds me of some feminist avenging angel, visiting her own brand of justice on the arch villains of Gotham City), the lake sits at an even higher altitude than Chambon. One of several legends attached to the deepest lake in the Auvergne suggests that its depth is unfathomable. Unusually, it neither feeds nor is fed by a river or other kind of water source. There's an ugly municipal building by the car park that normally houses café/restaurant, holiday flats and public loos, but everything looked shut and abandoned – as if some apocalyptic pandemic had swept through 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.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

September: Men of Our Time

 



Last week I met an author who has written a biography of George Orwell sub-titled A Man of Our Time. It was a thrill to talk to him about the man who was my very first literary hero. When I first started reading seriously in my teens, a bit of a late-starter, I devoured Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in equal measure. They seemed to cover both sides of society's coin: the former exposed the dark underbelly of the latter's world of frivolous glitterati who wasted their time at Oxford and Cambridge, then partied through the 1930s while others marched and starved, before war gave them something responsible to do. Waugh made me laugh, which is very important, but Orwell showed me the true nature of our social world, which is arguably even more important.

Richard, the author in question, made a convincing case for Orwell as the greatest British writer of the 20th century. I suggested that Joseph Conrad was the greater novelist and superior writer of sheer beautiful English – an astonishing feat given that he was Polish by birth – but Orwell was bubbling under in the Top Three. There's no denying that Orwell wrote elegant, lucid prose, but novels like Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air aren't really that good. It was his acute vision and comprehension that made him such a great writer and great man. Most people know by now, or should know, thanks to Animal Farm, that all men and women are created equal but some are more equal than other. And Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted the duplicitous orthodoxy of Newspeak long before its 21st century apogee.

But I always preferred Orwell's essays and books like The Road to Wigan Pier and Burmese Days, which quietly told things as they were. He spoke a truth that was the polar opposite of the Ministry of Truth's propaganda. Richard pointed out, for example, how Orwell effectively predicted both the European Union and the fact that the UK would be the first major player to leave it – because we find it so much harder to shake off the innate sense of imperial superiority that he exposed with such understated clarity in Burmese Days.

If Orwell actually was a Socialist, he never romanticised the working class. During his travels oop north, his raw material for Wigan Pier, he attended local meetings of the Communist party and of Oswald Mosley's black shirts. The fact that the latter was so much better attended I find perplexing and so very depressing – particularly at this time. What is this terrible tendency of people to shake the hand that smites them? With the American elections coming up in November, it's this tendency that could return to power an evil narcissist who has inherited a fortune founded on exploitation, while avoiding the taxes needed to create a fairer society.

Meanwhile in the Disunited Kingdom, it's the poorer people oop north, those who will suffer most from the fall-out of covidiocy and a unilateral Brexit, who gave another flaxen-haired oaf the parliamentary majority he is exploiting to trample any opposition in his big-footed wake. We listen, I suppose, to those who make the most noise. It's so much easier to put the blame on Mame boys – to find some convenient scapegoat to hang our troubles and woes from, rather than to look inside and assume the responsibility to do something positive about it.

I remember standing with The Good Wife by the water's edge at Port Askaig on Islay, waiting for the ferry to take us back to the Scottish mainland. It was maybe three decades ago, but I remember staring at the Paps of Jura on the bleak island just across the straits, thinking about George Orwell, who found a refuge there from London and the solitary quiet he needed to write Nineteen Eighty-Four. I wonder what he would have made of all that's happening now.



How would he have reacted to entire populations covered up in face masks? There's an obvious symbol there to employ. Just recently, I took the train from Brive to Orléans to meet up with the Dame on her journey down from Dieppe. She'd driven all over England in an effort to sort out her intransigent mother and to move our daughter out of her final student house, so the last thing she could face was an eight- or nine-hour drive back home. It's a three-hour train journey made suffocating by the SNCF's decree to wear a mask at all times, except when eating. After riding the tram to the city centre, I was so happy to take it off and stuff it in my pocket. With a few hours to kill, I visited the vast cathedral and  a few other sights to see – including a brilliant little record shop I found down a back street. My visit coincided with a kind of metropolitan jumble sale, when all the shops of the main street put their end-of-sale wares out on the pavement to tempt passers-by. So the city centre was packed – and everyone, it seemed, was masked. I walked around, resolutely mask-less, and couldn't understand why I was getting so many looks. Disapproval? Surprise? It made me question who was mad here. We were outdoors, for God's sake. Surely there's no justification for wearing a mask in the open air. Or did they know something that I didn't?

Finally, as I was thinking about catching a tram back to the mainline station where I was meeting my beloved traveller, I caught sight of a municipal notice. It revealed a pitfall of avoiding the news. Masks were to be worn at all times, inside and out. By order of the mayor. So I'd had a lucky escape, not from the virus, but from an eager gendarme. I might have been fined three or four times the price of the train ticket: the cost of an ill-informed outsider's ignorance. That would have certainly soured the journey home in the car.


Judging by his updated profile picture on Skype, my old dad seems to have a healthy attitude to masks. Oh-hoh YES! they're the great placebo. He's sporting one of the disposable models, which are already polluting the polluted planet, so I hope he's figured out that you can wash them if you put them in a pocket of some dirty jeans, say. We've been wearing the material kind, which – as a recent article I read pointed out – simply become a cocktail of germs if you neglect to wash them regularly.

In fact, it was a very reassuring and enlightening article. It came courtesy of Alternatif Bien Etre, to which we subscribe for a viewpoint uncontaminated by Big Pharma. It took the form of an interview with an epidemiologist, who contends that any epidemic is well and truly over. As director of some obscure research institute to promote data on health, he has studied the progression of the virus since its proliferation in March. He points out that roughly 30,000 have died, but figures have been distorted because it includes those who died with the virus as well as those who died of the virus. What's more, 10,000 died in old people's homes. He also underlines that an average of 73,000 people die each year with tobacco-related problems – yet we don't shut down an entire country because people still insist on smoking.

So who's responsible for all the panic, sensationalism and gross distortions? The media or the politicians? Or both? Chicken or egg? Take the so-called exponential rise in cases reported by the French media and public health site on the 28th August. Around 7,500 new cases, apparently. But these were positive tests – compared to around 175,000 negative results, which were not reported. Two days later, those exponentially rising figures had dropped to around 1200 cases.

George Orwell would have appreciated the individual rationality on one side of the equation and the collective insanity on the other. He would have seen how the Ministry of Truth would prefer to go along with the media rather than admit that they might have been wrong and that shutting down the country for two months was maybe a little drastic. Although the great man is probably most famous for Nineteen Eighty-Four, as far as novels go, it was arguably more of a handy vehicle for his political and philosophical ideas. But how remarkably prescient and perceptive those ideas were. Open the novel at almost any page and something pertinent jumps out at you. Take this for example: 'Inequality was the price of civilization. With the development of machine production, however, the case was altered. Even if it was still necessary for human beings to do different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels. Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted.'

Think about that last sentence, in particular. Orwell was a man of our times, all right. The trouble is, he died in 1950. We could do with a few more of his kind right now.  

Friday, August 21, 2020

August: 'Stay-cations'

I was due to travel to England by train on Monday 24th to visit the family and join 'the girls', but thanks to the idiocy of the British government and its knee-jerk fortnight's quarantine, I had to cancel the trip. Not that I was particularly looking forward to two long train trips and one shorter one with a suffocating mask over my face. Nor the Metro and the London underground, for that matter. My solicitous daughter left me with a bottle of hand gel and instructions for surviving the subterranean part of the trip just before she and her mother took off in the car for the delights of Cumbria.

At the Martel market the Saturday after their departure, I bumped into someone I meet from time to time at either the market or the local supermarket or, it has been known, both on the same day. I recognised her despite the mask. She clearly wanted to embrace, but felt that she couldn't. I didn't force myself upon her. I told her what had happened and suggested that Boritz & Co. were like the playground bullies who want to show the world how tough and decisive they are by means of such an arbitrary and ultimately redundant measure that triggered a stampede of British holidaymakers for the Channel ports. With my Lindsay Kemp hat on, I mimed the gestures of a bullish politician who's more Cro-Magnon than modern man.

My friend laughed as if I'd done something very funny. Oh that famous British sense of humour, she chuckled. It's the only thing that keeps me sane, I replied. This led us into the inevitable conversation about the 'pandemic'. We agreed that the modern intestinal flora is incapable of resisting the virus. She knows a thing or two about the human gut, because – as far as I can gather – she carries out obscure research into homeopathic treatments. From time to time, she presents her findings at her home and she invited me to join the homeopathic dignitaries of the south-west at some such do in mid October. I said I'd make a note on the calendar when I got home, but I'm not sure that either my French or my competence is up to such a challenge. A couple of years ago, she made me a present of a self-produced booklet about some research linking homeopathy to Queen Elizabeth I and the British character. I attempted to read it, but couldn't really make head nor tail of her thesis.

Apart from our agreement about the state of the nation's flora and the lamentable contents of your average Monsieur/dame's shopping trolley, we also came to the conclusion that one good thing has come from the reluctance to travel to foreign parts. The market was packed. Normally, at this time of year, it's packed with Brits and the Dutch, but the overwhelming majority seemed to be French. I noticed the same thing last month when the Good Wife and I left our daughter in charge of the household companions and took our own 'stay-cation' in the Alps. It was just a long weekend with friends, but long enough to observe how packed were the mountains with French cyclists and hikers. Cars were parked on every feasible bit of roadside. Neither of us had seen anything like it, even though we've made the long, tortuous ascent from Grenoble to Briançon on many occasions.

The theme of our own weekend was also outdoor activity. On the Saturday morning, Claude drove us up their valley and deposited us at the foot of a mountain. My old friend Jacqui, Debs and I then walked up the mountain – admittedly not the highest in the Hautes Alpes – and across a grassy intermontane plateau alive with crickets and grasshoppers to meet Claude by a lake (in which the intrepid mountain-bikers who had passed us on the way up were swimming, God love them). Then we wound down the other side, past all the trekkers trudging up, to a trattoria on the Franco-Italian border, where Claude had parked the car, for some authentic rustic polenta. Every step of the way, we passed clusters of French and Italian families and friends. Now that she has become a grandmother, life is doubly precious to Jacqui, who stood to one side on each occasion and held her breath to avoid possible contamination.

Their son Loïs made the journey up from Lyon to join his parents for the weekend. He brought with him his incredibly light and incredibly expensive racing bike with all the gear. The shoes and pedals alone cost a small fortune. His idea of fun is to climb mountains on his bike, which is admirable but very unappealing. On the Sunday, for example, he went off on a round-trip into Italy and back into France of about 150km, which included two Grade A climbs (or however they categorise them). He got back, ostensibly barely puffed. We preferred a leisurely walk along the Alpine river that runs along the foot of their village and past the local campsite, which was packed to the fly-sheets with mainly indigenous holidaymakers.

While we were enjoying cooler temperatures in among the mountains, The Daughter was baking back home with the dog and the cats. The summer has been generally a good one, with plenty of nice overcast days and all that rain in June, but there was a fortnight when the mosquitoes treated me like a self-service buffet and there have been sufficient days of impossible temperatures to make me question our location. Last year, it was so bad that I was reading up on the Isle of Lewis. I think I've got that nonsense out of my system, but am wondering whether we should pack up and move to the coast – or at least find somewhere reasonable for a few weeks that accepts dogs. The trouble is, you can't predict when the excessive heat is going to arrive. In any case, if I make it to Armageddon, the coast will be under water.

We drove home on one of the hottest days of the year. Neither of us likes to use the air conditioning, cursed as we are with a conscience, but we may not have survived the journey without it. We stopped off at an aire de repos for our picnic and sheltered from the sun behind a hedge. The vegetation around us was uniformly scorched and lifeless. Once past Clermont-Ferrand, we stopped again to eat our patisseries. This particular aire is one of the most beautiful you could imagine. You climb up a grassy knoll to be presented on the other side with a breathtaking panoramic view of the vulcans: the long-extinct volcanoes, whose craters were grassed over by the passage of time. These days, they're probably full of hikers rather than cinders.

 

Apart from snapping my favourite pair of sunglasses – and apart from the heat of the return leg – we had ourselves a brief but lovely stay-cation. We even came back with another of Jacqui's paintings for the house that thinks it's a gallery. Living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, we're the lucky ones: we can choose from rather more than Blackpool, Torquay or a caravan park on the Ards Peninsular. I must have my mother's genes, because the older I get, the less is my desire to travel anywhere far afield. Except perhaps Norway. If anything good emerges from the current awfulness, one positive thing would be an end to cheap air travel and a return to the tradition of the Wakes Weeks, when whole towns decamped to their nearest seaside resort. Well, some kind of sensible modern equivalent. No one in their right mind these days wants to spend a week in Cleethorpes.

I'd like to believe I glimpsed at least one healthy element of the future this summer. But then again... I signed a petition the other day to urge the French government to pass a law to make it obligatory to register your pets in one way or the other. Apparently, some 200,000 dogs, cats and any other species at risk from humans are abandoned every year, most of them at holiday time. It's a bit late now to put myself up as a candidate, but I'd make holidays illegal – even within one's own country – for anyone incurring penalty points for abuse, cruelty, abandonment and the like. Only if they win back the points by exemplary behaviour over a given time would such people be allowed to take another holiday. My new world order. Makes sense, huh? Thus it shall never come to pass.