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, June 8, 2024

June: Henry Miller and A Good Acquaintance

Several decades ago, I went through a phase of reading the American author Henry Miller’s books: Nexus, Sexus, Plexus et al. I love his writing, and not just for the infamous naughty bits. I remember seeing the film version of Tropic of Cancer as a febrile 6th former at the Queen’s University arts cinema and being very impressed – but perhaps mainly by Ellen Burstyn’s magnificent body.

In recent years, I’ve tended to take Miller for granted – like Bellow, Roth and others of their kidney – in my search for new writers of a similar stature. It took the Good Wife to remind me just how brilliant he can be. She was inspired to read his travel book about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi, when I revealed that our lovely German friend Martina reads a passage from the book at the start of every workshop that she and her diligent husband Achim run in their chateau near here. Miller happened to spend some time down our way before he met up with his friend Lawrence Durrell and went off to Greece just before war engulfed Europe in 1939.

The passage Martina reads suggests that this area is ‘the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece.’ To have seen the Dordogne, he concludes, ‘gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.’ Martina reads it out perhaps to reinforce their punters’ decision to come and spend some time here. It’s only a page long, but it whetted my wife’s appetite to read the entire book. For the next few days, she waxed lyrical about the book from breakfast to bedtime.

While she was away up north attending to the whims of her ancient mother, I decided to re-read Maroussi. With a certain trepidation, I should add, having re-read recently another favourite of mine, John Kennedy Toole’s extraordinary A Confederacy of Dunces, only to have been slightly disappointed. Better to have remembered it as something hilarious and unique. Not so Miller’s book. The writing throughout is wild and wonderful. It’s like jumping onto a spinning carousel and hanging on for dear life because you dare not get off until it stops.

Miller is particularly perceptive about the French. He spent quite a bit of time in Paris and wrote Quiet Days in Clichy about his experience there in the 1930s. The French, too, bless their non-conforming socks, published Tropic of Cancer when no one else was prepared to take the risk. Never let it be said that a Frenchman or woman is uptight about a bit of sex. So Miller knew a thing or two about the French race. In another incisive passage, he compares their attitude to friendship to the Greek’s. ‘With the Frenchman friendship is a long and laborious process: it may take a lifetime to make a friend of him. He is best in acquaintanceship, where there is little to risk and where there are no aftermaths. The very word ami contains almost nothing of the flavour of friend, as we feel it in English.’

I’m sure that anyone who has lived among the Gauls as long as The Dame and I have will acknowledge the acuity of these observations. It’s not snide to point out this national characteristic; it’s just the way it is. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Half the world knows how singular the French are, so we knew or at least guessed what we were letting ourselves in for. After nearly 30 years here, we have a very few good French friends and many acquaintances. C’est comme a.

Just recently, I have been forming a firm acquaintance with Stéphane down the road. He lives in the hamlet of Bonnard – or Bonard with one ‘n’, depending on what sign you see. Signage: another French quirk. I prefer the double ‘n’ because I love Pierre, the painter. Our paths often cross while out walking our respective dogs. He has a Golden Retriever, une gol-den as they say here, called Pêche. She’s a sweet peach of a dog, a superannuated bimbo. We often stop for a chat, which suits Pêche more than it does Daphne, because the former can pause to catch her breath, while the latter wants to get on. We’ve established, Stéphane and I, that we wear the same walking shoes and even take the same size, which is kind of spooky in an Edgar Allen Poe way. Quoth the doppelganger, never more!

In other ways than footwear, though, we’re chalk and cheese. He’s very tidy and organised and methodical for one thing. He’s just bought a little patch of land on the other side of the road from their house, and he’s busy growing things to eat. They’re growing, fast – in geometric rows. He’s built two little raised beds rather like the ones I built, except mine are jerry-built and his are right-angled and rigid. What’s more they’re full of lettuce growing at a rate of knots. My raised beds are still unmade, still recovering from last summer’s tangled riot of tomatoes, courgettes and Swiss chard. He’s made a proper hotel for benevolent insects. I attempted something similar last year, only Stéphane’s is five-star accommodation, whereas mine is a slum. It all makes me envious and a little bit sick. If we could only talk about Henry Miller or Latin jazz, maybe I could teach him a thing or two.

Never mind, he’s a very nice guy and I’m glad – and just a teensy bit proud – to be an acquaintance on such congenial terms. Only the other week, the sun came out between showers and the general deluge of the merry month of May, so I felt the moment was propitious to take Daphne out for her post-meridian constitutional. When we got to the main road at the top of the chemin rural, I looked back to spy Stéphane’s white van parked by the side of our little wood. He likes to spend time alone or with his golden bimbo combing the woods for mushrooms. I don’t have either the patience or the know-how. We spotted each other and waved in the way that genuine acquaintances do.

A minute later, he drove my way to turn the van round and head back for Bonnard. I made a point of getting Daphne to sit by the side of the road with the minimum of fuss on either’s part, as if sub-consciously to underline how well funny Englishmen train their animals. Not with a stick but a carrot – or some such comestible treat. Stéphane stopped for a quick chat while I patted Pêche, who was getting her breath back at the foot of the passenger seat. I asked him, as is my wont, whether he’d had any luck on the mushroom front. He opened a plastic bag and showed me a host of golden girolles. They’re the truly delicious and very distinctive yellowy-orange variety of fungus that you can be fairly sure won’t poison you. Wow! I enthused. And the next thing I knew, he’d thrust the whole bagful at me. Make yourself a nice omelette with lots of butter and garlic, he suggested. I protested of course, but he wouldn’t have it. His larder was coming down with them, he told me.

I was genuinely touched. I finished my walk with a jaunty spring in my step, swinging my bag of girolles like the beautiful Julie Christie as Woodbine Lizzie in Billy Liar. It still irks me: how and why could Tom Courtenay deliberately miss the train that was taking her – and him, supposedly – to start a new life in London? Anyway, nearly 30 years ago, my missus and I started a new life in France. We haven’t made many French friends here, but we have plenty of Gallic acquaintances. Some very good, very kind ones. Sometimes a mushroom omelette reaches the parts that other food cannot.

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