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.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

April: Stand By For Action...!

... Anything could happen in the next half hour! The immortal words that begin each episode of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Stingray. And anything could once those two big-eyed puppet lovebirds, Troy Tempest and Marina the mermaid, were dressed and ready for their next exciting subterranean adventure.

Me, I've passed two or three Action lorries just recently on our byways. A wake-up call on wheels perhaps. The lorries must have been taking trash to the store in Biars-sur-Cère. They're cropping up everywhere, like weeds. Where once there was one in Brive, there are now two. Action is a Dutch concern, a kind of up-market Poundland. Most of the stuff they sell is indeed rubbish, but it's good for LED light bulbs, silicone and mastic, and cheap but sturdy picture frames. I used to be able to buy organic nut butter at a plausible price, but it flew off the shelves.

Action, yes. Now that winter has segued into spring, all kinds of outside action is necessary to tame the rapid and miraculous growth that goes on all around. The Onions were here again recently and I was talking to Mr. O. on the phone the other day. He was waxing lyrical about the sudden, almost imperceptible change from the prevalent browns and greys of the surrounding oak trees to a vivid, succulent green when the new leaves unfurl. He never really notices back home, even though they live in a village and they have a big garden. From this moment on, the view through the woods to the road from my hot seat in the mezzanine becomes increasingly obscure. Where a week ago I could see the outline of a passing car, I can see now only a blur of colour.

As occasional visitors, like the magnificent crested hoopoe in early summer, Mr. and Mrs. O. tend to think that all is sweetness and light, all is an exciting adventure this side of the Channel. They rarely have anything good to say about post-Brexit England. But it's not entirely true of course – even if reading the periodic regional newsletter suggests that Occitanie is the most progressive part of France, with all kinds of laudable schemes gearing up to face whatever the future holds. It seems sometimes that we live in a bubble, but it won't take much to burst it.

The other Sunday, the Dame and I took advantage of the sunshine to take our dog for an afternoon constitutional. We bumped into Monsieur and Madame Delpy coming up the hill with their King Charles spaniel in tow – on a lead of course. Daphne is the only domesticated dog in these parts who gets to walk unfettered. Monsieur has a couple of sheep sheds in the nearby hamlet, while Madame teaches history and geography at the Collège de Martel. Our daughter was one of her pupils. Like a committed historian, she takes a keen interest in current affairs. She likes to share her views with her fellow catastrophist from England, so the Dame and I try not to linger too long in her company, as we leave it feeling depressed.

Sure enough, she soon told us about something that she'd read recently to suggest that France had three main sources of threat: religious extremism, climate change and Russia. Did I think that war with Putin was possible? I cannot tell a lie, much to my wife's occasional annoyance. So I said that it was absolutely possible. When you're dealing with a mad man, it will take a lot more to discourage him than a diminutive French president posing for the press with boxing gloves in a gymnasium.

But what can one do, other than sign up for the Ukrainian army? I didn't say it to Madame Delpy because I don't know the French translation, but perhaps rivets are the only thing. I've suggested as much to my daughter, but she's never read any Joseph Conrad, so I've put it in another way. She's understandably depressed in the light of everything going on around the world and by her inability to land remunerative creative work. Action for her is big and daunting and as the obstacles she piles up in her mind grow insurmountable, a sense of futility sets in.

I've urged action till I'm blue of hue. Not that grand daunting gesture, but those little repeated incremental acts. Keep busy, keep banging rivets into the damaged hull, as Conrad suggests, and one day that damaged hull becomes a functioning steamboat. So to speak. 'Rivets were what really Mr. Kurtz wanted, if he had only known it.' Work in other words. And in that work, that activity, 'the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others.'

I was talking about it to Christophe at a party recently. Not Heart Of Darkness, but keeping busy. Once a farmer, Christophe supplied the straw bales for this house. When we meet up, we often chat philosophically. He asked me how I was and what I was doing, and I told him I was well, touch wood. Keeping busy. He was also well, thank you, and keeping busy. Busy-ness is at the heart of his life's philosophy. The only way to stay on form, mentally as well as physically. The alternative is to sit on an armchair in front of the TV and gradually... he demonstrated the way one's body slowly reassumes the shape of an embryo. The autumnal opposite of what's just happened in our wood.

So, there's only one thing for it. Stand by for action! I've already fired up the strimmer and mown down the dandelions that pop their heads through the limestone chippings of our track. The Good Wife and I have launched another spring offensive in the war against weeds that can never be won. I've been travelling further and further up river, so to speak: penetrating the heart of darkness that lurks within the spreading sumac bush. It's another invasive weed in effect, but an attractive one, with young furled leaves as soft as kid gloves and red-hot pokers for flowers or whatever they are. Underneath it, though, is a tangle of horrors. As I contort my ageing body, inching deeper and deeper into the undergrowth with my secateurs, I keep expecting to come across Mister Kurtz: not the Marlon Brando travesty, but a Gollum-like garden sprite, with a face like a gargoyle and the body of a toad. My protective gloves are now as prickly as pin cushions. Gardening! It's all very well for Monty Don.

No matter how busy I keep myself, I can't seem to stop from peering into the heart of darkness. Like one of those morbid onlookers at the scene of an accident. Rivets work best if you're mind-less. It probably also helps to be a practical man and not someone who spends so long on a computer. Every day, for all my busy-ness, there comes that awful moment when I have to check my e-mails. My paternal grandfather once told me that he didn't like knowledge –  and it's probably what kept him ticking along till 97. I understand him more now. It's very seductive, yet I have to know what's going on, because I have to believe that some kind of action will have some effect. Won't it?

Not that the examples from around the world give you much hope. No wonder Our Kid is depressed. World leaders are busy clawing back on (admittedly unrealistic) net zero targets, while witless electorates vote for far-right despots who promise to make their country great again without explaining how making scapegoats of the immigrants who mostly keep their country ticking along will help to achieve that vapid promise.

OK smarty-pants, what would you do? Ah well, there you've got me. The Chilean singer Ana Tijoux suggests that we should celebrate the end of the world by dancing naked together. Well, I certainly love dancing, but I don't think I'll pass that on to Madame Delpy next time our paths cross. I might suggest to her that, since they can't seem to keep the peace, we could put the UN to work protecting wildlife from poachers and the environment from commercial interests. It may not stop the earth overheating, but it might give the WWF and Greenpeace some muscle.

Besides, some kind of action must trump (pun intended) inertia or despair. By heaven 'we shall have rivets!' Be done with these 'creepy thoughts'. I must commandeer my wife's diesel car and get off to the nearest Action and see if they've got any in stock. Oh, and an LED bulb for the lamp in the spare room, and maybe a new pair of thorn-free gardening gloves. Life goes on. For now. Shame about the nut butter, though; action demands an invigorating snack.

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