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 or twice a week, 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.

Friday, March 9, 2018

March '18: A Visit from the 7th Day Witness Brethren

Early this month, I had my annual visit from a pair of J-Wits. (I want to write to the head honcho to suggest this new hip-hoppish re-branding for the snap, crackle and pop of the 21st century, but can I get a witness? Can I heck as like.) At school, we studied comparative religion in Divinity, as it was called then, and I vaguely remember thinking that Zoroastrianism was obscure but reasonably credible. But even though I worked with a young J-Wit during my brief tenure at American Express, I couldn't tell you what they're all about or why. Can I get inside the head of a witness? Hell, no. 

They stood there on the front porch, trying to ignore our barking, dancing dog. As usual, they addressed me in English – while I replied in French. Naively, I believed it was a mark of respect or at least an attempt to curry favour. This year, however, they handed me a flyer for some meeting in Brive later this month. Written in English. So it dawned on me, gullible fool that I am, that this English-language stuff is part of a concerted attempt to prey on a vulnerable section of society. The Expatriates: they came from elsewhere to settle in a strange country – where they lived alone without friends, without the safety-net of a family. Perhaps not an Oscar contender.

Maybe they work in the same way that the Moonies and such like, who will pick on the kind of young girl travelling alone in a foreign country that I once lived with in a shared student-house in Brighton. Poor Jane. I'm not sure whether her parents ever did manage to prise their daughter from the sinister grip of Sun Myung Moon's US mob. I hope so; she was a nice girl.

So I guess the J-Wits send their emissaries out – anyone, that is, with a vague knowledge of how the English language works – to cold-call on all the British and Dutch expatriates within a certain radius of Brive la Gaillarde. And there must be quite a few. My diligent, dutiful witnesses were a middle-aged black woman with a hat and a handbag and a painfully young smiling boy in a dark suit. He can't have been a day over 17.

I was tempted to tell Madame avec le sac à main that if she sang like Mahalia Jackson in a choir at a Baptist church presided over by someone like the Reverend Al Green, I'd be there as soon as the doors opened, but I didn't wish to submit her to any racial stereotyping. No sir, I was politeness itself. I took their leaflet, told them that I was very sorry but I simply wasn't religious, bid them adieu, and stepped back into the warmth and comfort of my own house. Daphne and I watched them walk back up the track to their parked car, where they lingered for a surprisingly long term – perhaps updating a laptop with something like 'Re-essayer l'année prochaine' or 'Try again next year' (depending on how serious they are about their English-language campaign) – before driving off to the next address on their list.

It might have been instructive perhaps to invite them in for a cup of herbal tea and a chat about their shibboleths, but life's too short and I know better now than to let anyone get a toe inside the front door. Once, as a student at Exeter University, I let a pair of Mormons over the threshold and it was the devil's own job to get rid of them. Eventually, I worked out that the unblinking stare discombobulated them and threw them off their patter. But even so, it took a good 40 minutes.

I never like to be impolite, but it doesn't do to be too considerate. Give them an inch and they'll take a cubit. Nevertheless... I would be intrigued to know a little more about what makes them tick. I understand why they effectively cut themselves off from the modern world in the way, say, that the Hasidic Jews do, and I gather that they believe that the cross was but a single vertical stake (although I wouldn't have thought the distinction was worth losing any sleep over), but their attitude to death is perplexing. On one hand, they don't seem to countenance the kind of post-mortal paradise that awaits a suicide bomber. When a person dies, they argue, their existence ends, completely – which sounds remarkably level-headed until you delve into the idea of The End (forever and ever, Amen), because apparently there will be room for 144,000 souls only in Heaven, from where they will rule (what's left of?) Earth with Jesus Christ. Many of the also-rans will be granted everlasting life on earth – which could be deemed 'paradise', depending on your view of the world.

It's all very odd and probably best that I don't go too deeply into it with a member of the clan. After all, there was that unidentified jiffy bag with some religious tract within that arrived mysteriously a couple of years ago. Never been so disappointed in all my life. Probably the work of a visiting J-Wit who detected a flicker of weakness in my otherwise steely stare.

Anyway, I only ponder because an old friend of mine is now in a hospice after a long and gruelling struggle with cancer and I can't seem to get death out of my mind. Or should it have a capital 'D'? He's feeling very unhappy and scared and I keep thinking of all those poignant monochrome images etched in my mind ever since I was a child, permitted by possibly misguided parents to stay up late and watch an epic series on The Great War. As Andrew Marr suggested in one of his excellent programmes on the making of modern British, it's rather typical of our dark British sense of humour that we should promptly apply the adjective 'great' to the worst war of all times. 

While dipping into a bedside book the other night, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street by a literary surgeon, Oliver St John Gogarty, a contemporary of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats – described as 'a lilting autobiographical account of irish life in the 1920s' (but not alas in the same hilarious vein of Flann O'Brien's pieces for the Irish Times) – I came across this resonant passage about Death: 'Once we relax the fear of Death something happens to Life. It would appear, then, that Death is an astringent to Life. It is verily. This is borne out by the fact that those who are near to Death fear it not so much as those who are in the fullness of health and the enjoyment of life. These are conscious of what they have to lose, and so the contemplation of the opposite condition becomes frightful. Death holds life together. We are borne onwards by the black and white horses.' 

I note that Gogarty capitalises Death. His is an interesting thesis for sure, but one that my suffering friend may wish to take issue with. I won't know until the time comes, but meanwhile I'd welcome an annual visit from someone of Mr. G's kidney. Rather than  leave him standing on the front doorstep, I'd invite him in for a cup of herbal tea or coffee (but not his favourite Guinness, as I can't stand the stuff) and a frank discussion about the mysteries of life. Without fear of indoctrination.

I fear though it will be another abortive visit from the J-Wits this time next year. They're nothing if not thick-skinned and obdurate. I wonder how many vulnerable expatriate souls the woman with the handbag and her youthful sidekick managed to lure to the meeting in Brive. I wonder whether it'll be the same pair next year. Perhaps the young lad will suddenly find that he's grown up to be an independent thinker. I wonder...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Feb '18: The Dawning of the Age of Ridicule

This month, the Good Wife of La Poujade Basse took a bold step into the unknown. She has followed me into what my Soul Brother #1 on the other side of the Atlantic dubs 'The Age of Ridicule'. That Father-William stage of your life when you are officially old and open to all manner of insult and injury. Every time she gets home and edges her way down the slippery slope to our front door, I fear now for my partner's physical safety. My family history has taught me that a fall precipitates an end.

Like me, she's certainly not ready for hers just yet. There are still far too many goals to achieve. Or at least, attempt. If anything, her (non-physical) stature is still growing – as more and more parents bring their problematic children to her for a miraculous cure. Instead of laying-on hands, she uses tapping and intuition and astute questions to shift people from their psychological blocks. I tell her she should be charging double what she charges. Parents with problematic children will pay almost anything to someone who can alleviate the problem. 

Clients don't find her at all ridiculous. She is fast becoming a kind of Corrézian oracle. Behold! I have seen the oracle at Brive, sitting in her light-grey armchair, and this is what she didst counsel... It's early days, though, of course. We are both in the infancy stage of the Age of Ridicule. Naturally, she's remarkably positive about the final quarter of life. She expects great things, whereas I await with trepidation the next sensory breakdown. I'm OK for the moment, but who knows what will happen in another 10 or 15 years from now? Who knows what component will fall off the chassis that has carried us this far?

I suppose I could ask my dad. He's currently recovering from a cataract operation in one of his eyes. The cataract was much bigger or thicker or tougher (or whatever cataracts can be) than the consultant had anticipated. There were complications. As a result of which, the consultant has counselled an embargo on the second eye. Better to let nature run its course. So he sits now on his re-upholstered armchair, waiting and hoping that the blur he sees through his bloodshot eye will gradually take a more distinct form. 

He didn't of course make the long journey south, as he has been promising for 20 years or so, to be there at the big table my wife set up in our living room for the sit-down meal to commemorate 60 glorious years of life. My brother has been promising for at least 10 years to bring our father south with him, but the pair are as intractable and as full of hot air as each other. If they were a double act, they might be known as the Manana Brothers.
Still, that's their look-out. There were about 20 of us anyway, which was quite enough for one evening, thank you very much. I seemed to spend two solid days shopping, while the team of caterers – my wife, our daughter, her friend Phoebe and our friend Judith, who came all the way from Sheffield with her ex-professional catering expertise – laboured long and hard to produce a meal that even impressed our German friends, who turn meals in their château into a kind of performance art-form.

I left a little time to prepare a few CDs for the occasion. Some of my wife's favourite music for dining and dancing. Of course, once the babble of humanity had boiled up into a subliminal roar, you couldn't hear any of the quieter stuff to eat along with, so it was a complete waste of time. And once we had pushed back the tables to clear the dance floor after the meal, people were generally either two tired or too stuffed to join in. Perhaps to our daughter and her friend, the sight of young elderlies going through the motions was irrefutable evidence that the Age of Ridicule had set in. To mark the death that very evening of ex-Temp, Dennis Edwards, I managed to find Cassandra Wilson's sinuously funky version of 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone'. It's dawning on me that the only real way of sharing the best music in the Lot is to find another radio show. Old DJs never die, they just grow increasingly ridiculous. Alan Freeman, anyone?

Anyway, it was a nice do. And it was lovely to see 'er indoors so happy and so revered. It was worth all the washing up and tidying up. A couple of days later, after everything had indeed been straightened, a man turned up in a van from the local garden centre. Inside the van was a magnolia tree almost as magnificent as the man's moustache. It was a commemorative present from the Good Wife's friends. I know the man; we cross each other's paths from time to time while out walking our respective dogs. He has a Dachshund, which doesn't quite seem to go with a man and such a 'tache. It had snowed during the night and in helping him manhandle the tree in its huge pot down the slippery slope, I fell on my arse. Despite a subsequent heavy cold, it doesn't seem to have precipitated my end. There's life in the old codger yet.

Not that I could possibly shuffle off to Buffalo just yet. I haven't had a chance to use my new passport or flash my new carte d'identité at a cashier requiring proof of identity. I'm looking forward to joining the shortest queue on my next return trip to the UK. I can play the appropriate passport in the pack like a joker in It's A Knockout! Who remembers that ridiculous programme? Who remembers its two ridiculous old front-men, Eddie Waring of rugby league fame, and Stuart Hall, who was given to giggling manically in those days before he was accused in his dotage of sexual misdemeanours? Or did the joker only come into play after Knockout evolved into Jeux Sans Frontières?

The woman at the mairie in Souillhac was very amiable (or aimable in French, which is an interesting transmutation, is it not?) and I obliged her by enquiring after her elderly father, who goes a little bit better, she told me (no doubt very impressed that I should remember such a detail from our prior conversation). Maybe she'll spread the word that not all foreigners are bad.

Buoyed by such a positive encounter with a member of the human race, I betook me to a shop called Kandy (pronounced kon-dee), one of those cheapskate shops specialising in Chinese tat, where I found two feather dusters for a very petit prix for my sketch at the annual cabaret: After a big build-up, Bret and I emerge from the wings as if to fight a mixed-weight prize fight – only to exchange gloves for feather dusters once in the ring. On both occasions that weekend, my friend tickled me to death. Quite ridiculous and we made guys of ourselves, but people laughed. And to make people laugh is, in its way, as rewarding as must be my wife's gift of making people better.

Although I'm not entirely convinced that old age should necessarily be the Age of Ridicule, now that I look back on it, the evidence of this rainy, snowy month is already beginning to stack-up. Even so, I'm determined to live life as long and as well as I can manage. Which clearly means that I shall be avoiding the '70s soirée later this month in Martel. The poster boasts 'rock, disco, slows et un quart d'heure américaine'. Whatever that quarter of an hour constitutes. Perhaps a crazed-gunman massacre. Yes, I want to grow old enough to see the magnolia planted and then watch it grow from our reading area as, hopefully, I find more time to sit and re-read all those classics from my past. Before the light dims.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Jan '18: Endless Crap

In all honesty, there's little about this time of year to get excited about. The rain at present, it raineth every day. The hearty partying has been done for another year. The new Paul Thomas Anderson film (D D-L's last apparently) won't be coming to the cinema at Vayrac till next month at the earliest; the Six Nations rugby happens in February; the Green Bay Packers failed to make the play-offs; and England well and truly lost the Ashes down under. There's a feeling of suspended animation as we wait for the first signs of spring, 2018.

If I could hibernate, I would. But I can't, so I shan't. Besides, the 21st December has been and gone, so the graph is going upwards and the days are elongating imperceptibly. Which gives me a little more choice when it comes to walking Daphne. I've taken to going on foot in the morning, so I can listen to all things bright and wonderful on my MP3 player, and by bike in the evening when there's still enough light to get me from A to B and back to A.

These days, every time I go past the farm – and specifically the big ugly house that the brothers built together before we got here – the light of the telly flickers in the front room on the other side of the hedge. I reckon the telly's got bigger since Jean-Louis died of lung cancer and his widow took up with the new man (not the brother), who keeps the expanse of grass all around the house neat and tidy (perhaps in exchange for board, lodgings and flat-screen television). Certainly bigger since the last time I ventured inside, to ask Jean-Louis for some tractor-aided assistance with our roof tiles.

Without fail, morning, noon or night, the reflected images from that probably enormous telly flicker brightly on the glass of the French window. It makes me think – and wonder what on earth life inside that ugly house must be like. Like a modern still life, I guess. No books, no music and possibly no joy. Just a soundtrack of endless crap from that huge inanimate object that dictates or at least underpins so many lives.

And if that sounds like the reflections of a snob, well I put my hand up like a guilty footballer who knows that he has just committed a foul, but hopes that the ref will show leniency. I am an inveterate snob. But it just seems to me that life is so precious and so fleeting that it's a terrible shame and a terrible waste to spend it in front of or within earshot of that big rectangular box. It smacks, too, of that grim song by Townes van Zandt, 'Waiting Around to Die'. Turn it off! I want to yell. Get out there and live a little. Join a club. Do something for your fellow creatures! That might send them scurrying from sofa to window to see who was so rudely interrupting their reverie.

On the way back home, I often imagine how my own life might be and look to others if I gave in to the call of the telly. Oh the lethargy, the lack of energy, the sense of hopelessness! I was once quite capable. As a young boy, I could sit and watch a test match from 11am, or whenever it was that play began, to close of play at 6.30pm. But I was a cricket fanatic and I needed the real stuff to fuel my fantasy world. The extraordinary thing was that neither of my parents would do anything to limit my viewing. Mark, you've watched quite enough telly for one day. It's time to turn that thing off. Maybe my mother said that kind of thing once or twice – those words must have come from somewhere – but my folks were archetypically lazy parents and my mother probably saw it as an ideal opportunity to shut the door of her bedroom and hammer away at her typewriter. Maybe they knew me well enough by then to be reassured that I had plenty of other things going on in my young life. I wouldn't suffer unduly from a diet of concentrated cricket.

But these days, I wonder. The older you get, the more there is to do. Or so it seems. Which makes me generally far too guilty to indulge in frivolities and the simple pleasures of life. It would make an interesting experiment to try it, I think sometimes. Something akin to that marvellous documentary by Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me!, in which our director almost kills himself by subsisting on a diet of McDo crap.

Could I do it? What would happen to me if I pigged-out on a diet of endless visual and aural crap? It doesn't bear thinking about. First, I'd have to move the set down from the mezzanine to dominate the living area. Then I'd have to watch breakfast television over breakfast (and beyond). That would involve a partial diet of news. Start the day with gloom and doom. (It sounds like a new breakfast cereal – slack, fizzle and slop!) Where would I go next before Film Four starts for the day? Although that could be construed as cheating. I love films, even bad B-movie westerns from the '50s. All those Budd Boetticher films starring the deliciously wooden Randolph Scott. But there's a school of thought now that Boetticher was, in his way, a kind of auteur. I suppose you could argue the case for almost anyone, even Ed Wood. 

So that may not count as crap. In which case, I'd have to flip to Channel 5 for truly execrable films of the genre that go straight from production to DVD. And I suppose I could watch Bargain Hunt, with that awful chinless presenter, the one with the specs-on-a-chain and the silly moustache. Or that property programme with Dion Dublin. Lovely man, Dion Dublin, although I really think he should stick to Football Focus, my own private weekly crap allowance.

Towards the end of the afternoon, there would be game shows like Countdown or Pointless and then the early evening news would really add to my sense of futility and put me in the mood for some utilitarian food. After dinner? Well, I suppose BBC2 and BBC4 would be out on the premise that they could stimulate grey matter (even before the 9 o'clock watershed – if that still exists). So... there might be a super-hero action film on Film Four that would waste another couple of hours. After which maybe I could find some suitable tripe on Channel 5 in which people expose parts of their anatomy that are guaranteed to make you gasp or curdle with embarrassment. And then, if I had the slightest will to live left, I could ease myself out of the sofa and toddle off to bed...

But hang on! I hear you cry. How does this inveterate snob know about such programmes? Surely he's been secretly indulging in crap all these years? Well, yes, I do scour the listings every day in search of something worth watching or recording. And I have sat with my antique father many a time watching programmes like Bargain Hunt. A friend of mine who worked with me in my days in the Civil Service actually even featured in one episode – and typically I managed to miss it. 

Anyway, where was I? Yes, one day in the life of a reluctant viewer. That would be quite enough for me. I couldn't manage more; I'd lose all feeling in my head. I'll leave such experiments to Morgan Spurlock, Louis Theroux and the like. Besides, it's almost time to walk the dog again. No doubt there will be bright flickering images on the window at the farm as I hiss by on my bicycle. I wonder whether the inmates will live as long as my dad. He's 90 now and I'm happy to report that he's having a good life – even if much of it is spent in front of the telly. He's certainly not waiting around to die.

Monday, December 18, 2017

December: Conspiracies

I've never been a great one for conspiracy theories. Apart, that is, from the Kennedy Brothers, and probably Martin Luther King. Oh and maybe Anne Boleyn's fall from grace. And Caesar's infamous removal, of course. And Catesby & Co. Rasputin's murder? Hitler's attempted assassination, too. Perhaps the partition of India and no doubt of Iraq, Palestine and Ireland. Oh, and there's Brexit now. And Russia's role in Trumpton.

Put like that, there have been quite a lot of conspiracies that prompt a theory. Up until now, though, I hadn't given much credence to the various 9/11 theories that have been bandied about in the cyber world for over a decade. But then I had two meetings this month with strange men that continue to make me think.

The first was with a stranger on a plane. I'd turned up at Limoges airport in ridiculously good time lest some unforeseen jam on the A20 delay me. (Apart from the two months of high summer, it's more of a vehicular vein rather than an artery). While queuing up to check in, I watched with barely disguised contempt as some aging Brit flirted with the uniformed wench behind the desk. His was the aye-aye darlin' nudge-nudge school of charm. Rather like the publican in East Enders played by a minor comedian who used to bellow Rick-ie! at his stepson or whatever relation he was. I made a mental note to avoid him like the plague.

I managed to do so until we were on board the airplane. There was an air of inevitability about the unoccupied seat beside him near the back. He was busy dispensing bonhomie to the hostess when I realised with a sinking heart that my allocated place was indeed right next to him. No sooner had I parked my backside, strapped up and opened my book than he started talking to me. Sometimes I resist. Sometimes I realise it's futile. This was one of the latter occasions.

His name was Stan or Len or something monosyllabic. His accent seemed to spell Essex and I soon discovered that he'd lived in France for long enough to learn the language well enough to get by. The accent, I guessed, would leave something to be desired, but hey – who am I to cast nasturtiums? He'd been in publishing and had sold up just before it became the thing of a pre-digital past. One of those astute self-taught businessmen of the Alan Sugar genus, perhaps, who have an instinct for the main chance.

I gave up any attempt to read my book. Voluntarily. The conversation became increasingly fascinating, instructive even, and I realised that if I could swallow my prejudices, there was a lot to learn. Swallow I did. The conversation turned from our partners to our offspring to the big scheme of things and our general sense of well being. I don't know how we got from there to 9/11, but we managed it seamlessly. And he told me all about his... if not obsession, then pet theory: that the collapse of the twin towers defied all laws of physics. I'd read something similar many years ago and kind of shelved it as the work of people without better things to do with their lives.

But the way Stan or Len described it to me made all those horribly vivid images come alive once more – but as if seen this time from a different angle. Through a prism darkly. What about the motivation, though? The details he offered boiled down once again to filthy lucre. Isn't it incredible what people will do just to have so much more of the stuff than can make you happy? But surely no one would sacrifice all those office workers who either stayed to be incinerated or leapt from floors so high that one has to hope that they passed out before impact with the concrete below. Surely? He shrugged as if to suggest, Make your own mind up on that one, Sunny Jim

One thing about this type of conversation is that it makes the journey go much quicker than usual. In no time, we were in the Disunited Kingdom once more. I thanked him for the entertainment and a potentially useful bit of avuncular advice he gave me, bade him a happy stay and focused on getting now from B to C.

And after that I thought little more of what he'd suggested, until a visit from an off-grid guy around these parts I refer to as a 'maverick American'. He must spend many hours holed up wherever he is hidden, delving into the darkest corners of the world via his laptop. He let slip something about his pet theory. On falling for the bait, it turned out to be the self-same theory that Stan or Len had described up in the clouds. So much of a pet theory, in fact, that his e-mail signature contains a cartoon of high financiers and politicians gathered around a detonator linked by fuse to the twin towers. Primed to plunge the handle.

He, too, outlined some of the details that defied even the most basic laws of physics. I was never one for science at school, but I could see that what he said made sense. But surely, I suggested, no one would be so evil as to sacrifice hundreds of his fellow countrymen. Oh no? he replied. Take a look at history, my friend. He has a point. Never mind the usual premier-division suspects. What about Napoleon and that long march into Russia? And Robert Mugabe for that matter? While we're at, let's not be vague, let's blame Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Although in his case, personal gain probably didn't come into it. More the crass stupidity born of innate privilege.

Oscar Wilde, in his usual memorable way, had some pertinent bon mots to say on the subject of my disbelief. So memorable that I've forgotten the precise details, but something about our propensity to believe the impossible, but to deny the improbable. Thanks to Oscar and the revelations of strangers, I'm now delving more into the improbable – and do I not like what I find!?

But hey! Christmas is almost upon us once more. It's that merry and joyful time of year when you can drink enough and eat enough and watch enough telly to anaesthetise your cerebellum. What a lovely word that is – to describe something essentially grey and spongy that resembles a giant sodden walnut. I'm going to give my walnut a rest for a few days and focus my thoughts on Father Christmas' customary struggle to wriggle down all those chimneys with a sack of presents. He never seems to get his red suit or his white beard sooty. Have you noticed that?

Maybe it's a conspiracy.