samedi 26 décembre 2009

It's all abouta toucha culcha for the vulchas

You may very well wonder what we manage to get up to during deepest winter in profoundest Sticksville SW France.

Perhaps, you may think, we spend six dark months arranging our collections of toenail clippings and lifting up the carpets to watch the floorboards warping.

Of course, a lot of the houses here have tiled floors, which meant that not so many moons ago, many of us were left only with the admittedly unappetising toenail option.

Forced to do something to combat rampant cumulative insanity, we have learned peu à peu to create our own entertainment.

For which reason, we shall be off this evening to the Cafédefa for the monthly Jazz Jam Session. This is, of course, why I have chosen to illustrate this piece with a pic (by Martin Castellan) of my mate Stan, in full flight with voice and fretless Fender Jazz bass.

I should make it clear that Stan is a real musician, which is why it's his not altogether straightforward task to extract something resembling music from people like me, who merely turn up to twang things hopefully.

It reminds me of the eternally-droll Sir Thomas Beecham who famously remarked that: "The English all hate music but they quite like the noise it makes."

I'm not sure quite how we ended up having a classy American bassist (and brill electric cello player) from Chicago living in the Haute Vallée de l'Aude but this sort of thing seems to happen dans ce petit coin de la belle France. It's as good a reason as any for living here.

Not being content with making a bloody racket by means of musical instruments, we've also tried our hand at poetry recently.

As I'm a poet, obviously this was all my fault, so I had to organise the Café Poésie evening. Serves me right for having the idea. Actually you can't go that far wrong doing poetry in France because the French love a bit of the old verse and worse, Rimbaud - First Blood etc.

It does however mean talking all your French mates into performing the stuff or no-one will have a clue what you're on about.

Alternatively you can intentionally make no sense at all like my mate Debs (la femme de Stan) did with her wonderful performance of the Loch Ness Monster's Song by Edwin Morgan; an inspired, nay audacious sequence, of barmy, meaningless and thus totally international and EU-approved noises. Great stuff.

Strange and lost horses for missing courses

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me . . . well, this pair actually.

It has to be said that in turtle-dove terms they're distinctly solid and, er, horse-like. Anyway here they are, penned up at the side of the church at Fa and nobody knows who they belong to.

I first discovered them in the deepening gloom last night while trying to take out the ash from the wood burner, and realised that in rather hostile horse language they weren't going to let me get to the wheelie-bins.

Seeing, in the cold light of day just how much I would have trodden in, maybe they were doing me a favour and one should be grateful for small mercies.

So perhaps they were sent here by the raging Furies and fickle winds of mischance and twisted fortune. It's also possible that they were sent by the Anti Smoking Police, because every time girlfriend Claire goes out for a fag, they either make strange and scary ghostly horse noises in the dark or by day they just stare at her intently, pointedly and balefully.

It all has an agreeably seasonal symmetry: No room at inn, hapless gees chucked out to make room in stable, gees fetch up sheltering under wall of church. Alternatively some silly sod somewhere hasn't learned how to shut the gate, though this explanation tends to lack charm, Christmas romanticism or indeed any class and style at all.

Still, it seems to have been a Christmas of minor mishaps all round: Down at the ever-genial Cafédefa, Dave the Underdog (formerly known as Barman) regaled us with the tale of how all his grandchildren's presents ended up in the dustbin.

While making an overnight flying visit to Fa, He Who Was Responsible became over-zealous in tidying up his accommodation and assumed that the handily positioned bin-liner contained crap . . . which all ended up in an SOS phone call, a rescue mission by Dave in suitably seasonal silly Santa hat and a huge dry-cleaning bill from the Christmas fairy, who is apparently also suing for false imprisonment in someone's manky old dustbin.

Actually Dave was still wearing his silly hat while spilling the beans but I think this was only a ruse to look cute and charming while trying to get a Christmas kiss off Claire (he succeeded).

By the way, we succeeded in having another turkey-free Christmas, thanks to Claire's fab saumon en papillotte (salmon steaks with carrots, leeks and mushrooms fried in butter and crème fraîche, deeply yum) for the Réveillon (Christmas Eve) and my own offering of Morroccan-style lamb with coriander, prunes and mushrooms with veg on Christmas Day.

If this latter dish seems perversely multi-faith on my part, well (a) I prefer lamb to turkey and (b) if they had had Crimbo dinner in Palestine in Zero A.D. it's odds-on that they would have eaten lamb rather than a huge, dry, flightless thing from America which would not be discovered for another 1,500 years . . .

dimanche 13 décembre 2009

Stringing up Santa: the perilous art of social climbing

I see it's "String up a Santa" time in SW France again. Already there is a hint of winter in the air and the nascent feeling that the Old Year will peg out on us quite soon.

These particular Crimbo decorations, very popular round here, have always intrigued me. Actually this example (courtesy of my normally dour and taciturn next door neighbour, surprisingly enough) is fairly well made, which spoils the joke a bit.

Here you can clearly see that the old gent is climbing a ladder; with the numerous el cheapo ones, it looks just like Santa has been hanged by the neck in this place of execution until he be good and dead.

Still the art of social climbing was ever perilous; which brings me round (or my round?) to my mate Dave the Barman and the rich, seasoned and seasonal life at the Café de Fa.

For a start it's the Cafédefa these days, because Marie l'adorable chef thinks it looks cool and I have to admit that it does in the cute and exotic typeface that she's found to use on the posters. I hunted around in the crypt-like bowels of my computer and found something quite close, though I'm not convinced that it's a dead ringer.

And while in the spirit of correction, journalistic ethics* and, indeed, right of reply; I am forced to report that Dave the Barman has visited the blog, and whilst in general enthusiastic, expressed himself as disappointed to be known as only Dave the Barman.

This has worried me for some time, because Dave is an all-round bon oeuf and frequent source of inspiration and thus a character of no inconsiderable honour in this humble chronicle (of love, passion, astonishing courgettes, turn-the-handle, village, waffle, blah blah, idiot, etc etc).

I have racked my brains for long and sweaty hours over this conundrum and could get no further than The Dave Formerly Known as Barman, with its slight nuance of a well-known small, moist and eccentric but undeniably talented musician.

However it's been officially decided that he's Dave the Underdog. To explain this title, perhaps I should introduce you to the hierarchy at the Cafédefa.For a start it consists of at least four women, even if one of them is an ancient and cantankerous dog . . . and Dave.

The boss is, of course, Marie l'adorable chef, (française) who owns the place. Dave (anglais) is actually her chap, but don't imagine that this counts for anything in the cut-and-thrust of female world domination.

Then there's Nanou (française) the barmaid and very possibly Of The North as her agreeable chap Eric could well be the Viking and stands to make a lucrative career as stunt double to Hagar the Horrible.

Julia, the chef as in cooking, (anglaise) is a shy and retiring flower who rarely leaves the kitchen, though it was discovered that she's a mean Celtic harp player during an exceptional foray into the public eye. Her occasional substitute is a large and deeply formidable française who I have never risked trying to identify more closely than as Valérie's mum.

Lastly there's Mollie the ancient dog (française) who barks at everything and everyone, especially in situations of zero-risk. The one time they had an actual burglar down in the bar, Mollie remained utterly silent, safely hidden under the bed upstairs . . .

Mollie, having been Marie's exclusive compadre these many years, remains deeply ambivalent about the incomer Dave's place in the scheme of things. I suspect she regards him with the utmost distrust; a fiendish usurper no less of the affections of her mistress.

Thus we have Mollie the Dog so Dave must be the Underdog. QED: C'est la vie.

*English county to the west of London

mardi 1 décembre 2009

A study in epic grandeur or rivers of turnip blood?

I'm great lover of idiom, be it French, English or anybody else's language. Now and again the French come up with a good one like: "Il a du sang de navet", which literally translates as "he has turnip blood" and means someone who always feels the cold.

I couldn't immediately think of an English equivalent. If, like me, you come from Staffordshire, you would of course say "nesh" but it's definitely a dialect word. I don't know how widely it's used but I doubt it ranges far outside the frozen, desolate and possibly turnip-ridden wastes of northern England.

Of course, in speaking of turnips, the prophet may have merely been making a general reference to the producers of all root vegetables, and possibly even onions, but I know exactly what he meant, when the first really cold, dank bone-chilling rain of winter set in this week.

To capture the feeling of the moment, I offer this imposing view of the sun forcing a passage through the late-afternoon mountain murk, hurriedly snatched from the hallowed slopes of Anorakville-le-sacré, alias Rennes-le-château.

I have to admit that I am a devout unbeliever with regard to our local centre for sword/sorcery/hidden treasure/runes/codes/Mary Magdalen/the Holy Grail/and possibly our old friends the Giant Green Lizards who will take over the world in 2012 or sometime definitely, maybe, possibly, never or at least after our teabreak with chocolate digestives.

But if you insist on being gnostic about it, the one Great Truth that I do recognise about our little shrine for the intelligent enthusiast/hyper anorak/casual sightseer/terminally bonkers is that on a wet afternoon in December, it's bloody cold there. Holy Grail? I'd prefer a nice cup of tea.

lundi 30 novembre 2009

Shock holly - the demise of a fluffy animal story

There are sprigs of freshly-cut holly among the tubs of winter-flowering pansies in Fa. Early seasonal cheer perhaps? L'esprit de Charles Dickens et son Chant de Noël? Monsieur Scrooge, Timothée Miniscule et cetera?

Not a bit of it: Bah! Humbug! C'est la vengeance des gratte-culs, or as they say in anglais; The Revenge of the Arse-Scratchers.

I must admit that I (usually . . .) have a weakness for the old-fashioned tabby. The French evidently don't, because here they're called chats de gouttière, or gutter cats.

Obviously this little horror lived right up to his stereotype, prompting swift retribution from the nice old dears who care for the flowerpots of Fa.

Up to this point I'd been going to spin you a sweet little yarn about the kitsch kitten that's been trying to adopt us; me and girlfriend Claire, that is.

It's probably our fault for habitually sitting on the wall outside 5 Boulevard de la Pinouse, whilst ungluing our tongues from the roofs of our mouths with the first large coffee of the day.

Alternatively it's Claire's fault for having to have the first fag of the day and my fault for taking up passive smoking; lest the air of the sort-of-quite-near-the-Pyrenees become too heady in its pure form.

Anyway said tabby kept coming to make itself at home in our laps, rolling dough and squirting hyper-toxic levels of charm at us from its cute glands. It also sometimes accompanied us on a stroll down the boulevard in the general direction of the Café de Fa.

Incidentally, inhabitants of larger but less perfectly-formed settlements have been known to doubt that so small a place as Fa possesses its own boulevard. But we do, even if the title is a shade prétentieux for a little street of ordinary lumpy and stony maisons du village.

And it's true that, about half way up, our super-chic boulevard abandons all pretence of grandeur and becomes the deeply basic chemin de la Découverte; a brownish study in decrepit hardcore.

But back to the tabby terror, caught in the act by a bit of smart camera work. It has to be said it's a definite lapse in pussy PR: Sorry sunshine, you've been dumped.

lundi 23 novembre 2009

Small kid, large dog and last house naked

Winter is coming in the Pyrenees. You can tell this because all the leaves obligingly dropped off the conker trees outside The last house before Spain, leaving this normally chaste and discreet edifice delectably undraped in all its eccentric glory. Revealed for the first time are the perky little dormer windows, the full extent of the bizarre iron tat on the roof and the two ends of the wonderful gallery on stilts affair that goes all the way around the back of the house as well.

I suppose it's not surprising that the place is snoozing a bit these days compared to its adventures in the past. Back in the Franco era, there were customs officers at the border and even the vague little track outside the last house possessed its own checkpoint.

However it was sufficiently off the beaten track to get quite lively deep in the night when the officers of les douanes were all safely tucked up in beddy-byes. Girlfriend Claire, whose mum's house this is, tells me that when she was a child, you quite often heard knocked-off cars and lorries loaded with whatever contraband making a run for it in the dark. And it wasn't unknown for the last house itself to harbour the odd refugee from time to time.

It all reminds of that children's TV classic Belle & Sébastien, a prog so indelibly stamped on my generation that there's still a Scottish indie rock band named after it. I borrowed a French DVD of it and the whole thing comes back like it was yesterday.

For a start the BBC put an English narration straight over the top of the original French soundtrack so you recognise all the voices. We used to get a lot of Euro kid's TV like that. Either the Beeb hadn't invented dubbing yet or was too tight to bother.

Curiously we also watched, without fail every holidays, a French version of Robinson Crusoe, complete with similar el cheapo narration. Presumably the Beeb was again too tight to make their own stab at this most English of stories, but it still seems a bit strange on reflection.

B&S, you may remember, concerns the adventures of the orphan Sébastien, and Belle, a Pyrenean mountain dog big enough to flatten him with a single lick.

The boy is adopted by the somewhat stern homme de montagne César, who is quite a bon oeuf really and brought up with his own older grandchildren, the deeply fit Angelina and her own adolescent kid brother (a bit of a prong). It all sort of goes on from there with lots of mountains, snow, suspicious villagers and customs officers.

I don't suppose English kids would be allowed to watch it these days. For a start Nasty Norbert, the villain of the piece, tries it on with Angelina and gets the kid brother paralytic down at the village bar. But worse, much much worse. They ALL smoke; even César with his wise, reflective, manly old homme de montagne pipe.

I'm happy to say that the gorgeous but sensible Angelina has les hots only for the handsome young village doctor and rebuffs Nasty Norbert in no uncertain terms, and actually I don't think that she smokes either, but I don't think even that would be enough to save B&S from the PC police.

I have to admit I'm a sucker for kid's TV from when I was a kid. It's a good job The Clangers weren't French, I can bore for England on the genius of Oliver Postgate. I even named our coffee-maker after the Soup Dragon.

mardi 17 novembre 2009

A bridge too Fa, going too Fa, sweet Fa

Dear me, a triple crap gag headline, I must be weakening. Or sickening for something. Mind you, I did used to get paid for writing this sort of thing, quand j'étais rédacteur sur les journaux . . .

It has to be said that a village with a name like Fa has to be a bit of a gift for a blog-artist and source of enough dreadful puns to impress Ronnie Barker. Certainly it's a great way to confuse online mail order firms in England.

They always think I've forgotten to put in the name of the town and that FA (all capitals for a French address) must be part of the post code. No: I REALLY DO LIVE IN A VILLAGE CALLED FA!!!!!

Still I also do wonder if the winds of change haven't been getting a bit gale-force lately in Fa. Reality and modern life seem to be catching up with this unlikely-sounding little corner of the world.

Time was when our Mairie was just a handy place to buy school meal tickets, grumble about your water bill and file the odd planning app to turn some shambolic pile of amorphous rock back into a cute little village house again.

It also published useful little gems of info, such as when you could torch the entire surrounding countryside without being prosecuted and the precise dates of the underwater sanglier strangling season.

Just lately though, the Mairie seems to be have been getting keen and positively enthusiastic, which is only a short step away from modern or . . . downright dangerous. They seem to have employed more people, which is not really a bad idea, given that they're all good lads. The trouble is that they keep finding things for them to do.

On the face of it, this is right out of character for local government within spitting distance of the Med, where the whole point of employing people is for them to do nothing at all whatsoever: rien, nil, nada, nyet, nicht, pas du tout. In Fa however Monsieur le Maire, reasonably enough, is clearly out to get value for money.

I had my first doubts when a yellow line began to appear under my kitchen window. I normally find British Expat Syndrome a total turn-off but curiously, any Englishman reverts to type home/castle-wise if some prong threatens to ban him from parking outside his own house.

I nipped outside for a sharp word with Gerard-from-the-Mairie's-assistant-whose-name-escapes-me and withdrew magnanimously after ascertaining that the line wasn't going so far as to stop me parking my notoriously obtuse and maneating Kangoo by the front door.

Matters seem to have rested there but I still regard said yellow line suspiciously from time to time to make quite sure that it hasn't grown in the night.

Nonetheless it still seems to be the thin end of the wedge. I was talking to Bab, one of the Café de Fa's more notable characters, an amiable French Scotsman or a Scots Frenchman with a trilby, a beard and lots of tattoos.

Apparently the boys from the Mairie keep strimming the banks of the mighty River/pathetic trickle Faby and flattening his back garden, complete with expensive young plants, in the process. This is despite the fact that he keeps telling them not to . . . where will it end? one asks oneself.

Otherwise the dear old place rambles on in its own inimitable fashion: Josette the champion village eccentric (as previously chronicled) has a face on with me because I keep driving past when she's out thumbing a lift.

I don't do this on purpose; I just know perfectly well that she can't get in the Kangoo because the seats are too high and I can't lift her in without a co-pilot. Perhaps I could give one of the Mairie boys the job?

dimanche 15 novembre 2009

A moan for all seasons

I suspect the English love talking about the weather largely because they hate it, in all its hues, shades and flavours.

After all, when it comes to a profound state of auto-whinge, we're nothing if not versatile on the subject of weather: It's too cold, it's too wet, it's too grey, it's too sticky, it's too foggy/rainy/snowy/cloudy/sleaty/bleaty/draughty/windy/dank/mank or in the worst case scenario, sunk.

In the remote event of anywhere in Britain being made glorious summer by this sun of York: It's too hot . . .

I suppose the English are happiest, if that be possible, in September, a month often remarkable for having less of everything and thus being quite pleasant, in a character-building, cold-baths-before-breakfast sort of a way.

Here in the languid Languedoc, pretty much everything is late, and fortunately this usually includes autumn and winter, so early November is the new late September.

I suppose I might wax lyrical, or just drivel on a bit about the delicate melancholy that is forever autumn hereabouts but being terminally bone-idle, I shall simply whang a couple more logs into the old faithful black iron woodburner and refer you instead to the pic as taken once again by my visiting old friend Barbara on the Visigoth Tower hill above Fa.

Just to wind up tree-lovers everywhere and eco-persons generally, most of us burn shedloads of oak every winter in the largely vain attempt to keep some semblance of heat under our age-old and frankly eco-useless historic roofs.

Fortunately most of these trees grow on steep slopes and would simply fall down the mountainside long before they stood any chance of becoming mature. So all us would-be lumberjacks and the hired assassins of the firewood trade are only saving them from a nasty tumble. At least that's our story and we're sticking to it.

But the last word should go (as so often in this torrid chronicle of love, death and prize courgettes in a small but perfectly-formed French village) to the immortal Café de Fa, AKA the true centre of the universe.

I was just absorbing a genial bière or two with my mate Dave the barman, when mushroom-hunter extraordinaire Alain comes in with his spoils of the season, a selection of cepes de Bordeaux. The size of these things is incredible. Should you be rendered homeless, you could probably apply to live underneath one.

Dave, of course, was on form with the gossip, including a touching tale about one of our more mature bachelors, perhaps arriving in the autumn of his years, who was making moves over someone called Juliet.

"So, do we get to call you Romeo?" asks Dave in a how-did-it-go? sort of way next day. Total blank.

"You know, Romeo, Juliet, good old WS, balcony, poison, love, Immortal Bard", prods Dave helpfully. Deep, complete and total blankness. It's good to know that the age of romance is not dead . . .

Murder in the cathedral

It seemed a timely moment for a TS Eliot tag, being as the old boy's second volume of letters is due out just now, though of course the overall effect might be closer to Titus Groan . . .

I have a soft spot for cathedrals, having more or less grown up in one; Lichfield to be precise. This one is actually the delightfully lop-sided edifice of St Etienne in Toulouse and if anyone was murdered here, then odds-on it was the architect.

It is, in fact, a complete bodge-up. The nave is totally out of line with the choir, here and there they obviously ran out of stone and changed to brick, and it all sort of leans on that wonderfully asymmetric giant pillar which looks as if it's about to keel over.

The overall effect is exceedingly odd; sighting up the aisles is distinctly dodgy and I'm tempted to think that competing clergy operate an off-side trap during evensong.

For all that, it has a great deal of eccentric charm, especially when birds fly in through the broken windows somewhere right up high, and go into permanent orbit around the vaulting. I'm rather fond of the old place.

Therefore it was a must-visit when I took my mate Barbara Fuller on a whistle-stop tour of central Toulouse one grotty November afternoon last week. She took the rather fetching pic, thus giving me the chance to burble on again at last about nothing in particular. So no change there . . .

Apparently back in 12, 13 or even 14 something (my dates are even vaguer than usual), they already had the old bit of St Etienne, i.e. the sort of nave that we were standing in to take the pic. Then Bishop Somebody had the brilliant if megalomaniac idea of demolishing the lot and building a mega-cathedral.

For whatever reason, this also involved moving the whole thing several metres to the left. Anyway they'd got as far as building the back half when they ran out of money, enthusiasm and inclination. I suppose it's also possible that the great Bishop was burned at the stake or something else par for the course in those unenlightened times.

Under the circumstances, it was kind of handy that they hadn't got around to knocking down the old front half. They pressed it back into service, bodged the two halves together, added a sort of porch thing in brick, and left it at that. Which must have taken a lot of shrugging off, even by the exalted Gallic standards of the Midi.

It rates as No2 in my Top Ten Ecclesiastical Heroic Failures. Number One goes to the architect of Girona Cathedral, who built an incredibly daring single-span roof, the largest of its day. He then crapped himself that it would all fall down and threw himself into the nearby river with distressingly fatal consequences.

Unfortunately, it's still standing after 800 years. Or fortunately; it rather depends on your point of view . . .

dimanche 1 novembre 2009

The bluffer's guide to getting younger

I come from one of those families where everyone is born aged 91 and counting. Me, I always tried to rebel. I sold my Meccano model of a zimmer frame to the kid next door when I was only 17 and a half.

So after nearly half a century (help!!) of trying to avoid nightmaria imaginata geriatrica, it comes as a shock to find that bits are falling off me. The aforementioned latin tab isn't some gothic form of mega-toxic mushroom, though it might as well be; there's loads of them to choose from, here in super sticks-tastic SW France. It's actually a highly refined form of collective family hypochondria where everyone has viruses instead of colds, not just the blokes.

You first realise that the world is not as it once seemed when those miniscule screws drop out of your glasses and you can't see to put them back again. Perhaps it's what comes of not paying the TV licence?

Bloody specs: I never thought I'd find a hate object to rival yappy dogs and boy band records but I've succeeded. I might even promise to listen to an all-in-one yappy boy-dog band track every day in return for renewed vision, though on reflection, simple old-fashioned selling of the soul to the devil might be easier. Or offering to have all one's lingering teeth pulled out before they succumb to the lure of gravity (it's all those McCavities . . .)

But it's not just crap eyesight. Once you get into the groove of nightmaria imaginata geriatrica, your mission to self-destruct can cease to be impossible in about ten seconds, should you choose to accept it. To quote the immortal Nigel Molesworth (as I love to, whenever possible): "there is something wrong with yor hart, which hav stoped beating . . ."

Both my knees are knackered. They go blue and melt away into the sunset at the vaguest first sign of incipient damp. During our last two months of nearly-drought I used to hang them out of the bedroom window in hopes of a four-minute warning. Wonderful night for a Raindance? Don't talk wet.

Then there's something that falls apart on a regular basis, somewhere inside my left shoulder. I never have worked out what that's about. I just charge danger money for thumbing lifts.

Two standard bloke remedies for Age-Prevention-Self-Delusion (APSD or All Pissed) are noisy motorbikes and even more deafening electric guitars. I went through a prolonged bike period in my twenties to dodge a quadruple bus-pass so I figure this time it has to be guitars. I have them stacked up around my living-room like a Boy-Thing Cindy doll collection.

All over the Western World, ageing playboys are scrubbing away frantically at Fender guitars in a desperate search for eternal youth through the Genie of the Strat; grey-haired and sweating in the hope of at last being who Mick Jagger might have been 50 years ago and probably still isn't today.

The only realistic result is to make you Stone-deaf, which at least makes it easier to accept life in the Faust-lane and do that deal on the boyband tracks as proposed earlier.

It's what comes of being the generation that refuses to grow old. You can tell we've got it all skewed from the way we treat our kids. Being selfish gits, we keep burning their CDs instead of incinerating them. They're obsessed with computer games instead? It's all our own fault.

samedi 17 octobre 2009

Eaten alive by his own Kangoo

I've a vague idea that my car is becoming a man-eater. This is due to the steady deterioration of the central locking system. Neither front window will open and two of the door-locks have packed up.

I'm beginning to have a persistent nightmare that one day, it will refuse to let me out via any recognised orifice, squirt digestive juices all over me and simply swallow me alive, pausing only to gob a few scraps of hair and bones out through the exhaust pipe. I'll only be identifiable by dental records and the odd spare tyre.

Doubtless I'm a victim of my own prejudices and cosy memories of plastic windey window handles on cars and other antediluvian devices from a lost and nostalgic world of long ago, when men were men and Morris Minors were not yet being driven at 20mph in the middle of the road by overly-infatuated enthusiasts.

I've tried hard not to become a slave to technology: Look at TV remotes. Originally they were promoted as a means of saving terminally bone idle lard-tubs the bother of staggering three feet across a Barrett House living room to change channels.

These days, one false move down the back of the sofa, no-one can find the buttons and home entertainment as we know it grinds to a halt in a blind panic. Then there's the other buttons for the DVD, the satellite and a Force Ten outside putting the dish into orbit. Me, I walked away from TV, it's become too much like hard work vegging with a can of beer . . .

But I'm just as bad as anyone else. A few days ago my ADSL line went down for a few hours. At which point I realised just how lost I was without the computer: Couldn't access the blog, my website, my email, my clients. Scary.

Of course, what really makes these situations horrific is the Age of Mass Non-Communication:

Technical problems? Please consult our website.

I can't, the ADSL's down. That's why I have a problem.

Well, try our helpline.

You mean the one that's designed to save you money by avoiding talking to me at all costs?

To be ignored completely, please press 5!

(Blankety-blank, silence, nothing, emptiness, mutism, void, vacuum, deep space, out to lunch until the last syllable of recorded time . . . and the one after that)

If I ever discover who invented telephone call stacker systems, it will be worth starting the Revolution just for them . . .

These systems are possibly slightly more unhelpful in French than in English but it's a very fine distinction and nothing to get rabidly anti-French about.

I was astonishingly lucky. France Telecom knew about my fault and were actually in the process of putting it right. It is hard to quantify the magnitude of this particular miracle.

Maybe it's just the ageing process. Being the kind of person who routinely defrosts his fridge with a hammer and chisel (works a treat, by the way . . . especially if you have one of those crap cool-box things that ice up in about 12.8 minutes) perhaps I'm just not fitted for the traumas of hyper-technology.

It's bad enough having to put specs on to tune a guitar or even set the volume on my valve amp (lovely old relic of the steam age, Leo Fender's Rocket) and watching the few remaining shreds of my ever sparse rock'n'roll cool disappearing into the ether or even a passing hyper link.

But this week's retro success has to be rediscovery of the portable cassette recorder. These things are brill. You can take them to a building site (in this case, sunny Rouvenac, home of the living dead or possibly the Grateful Dead), fill them to bursting with dust, plaster and old bricks . . . and they still work!!!

Of course, it means going back to a musical timewarp, a cut-off date after which there were no cassettes. I'd forgotten just how good Thin Lizzy were, and then there was all that wonderful spoken-word stuff from the Beeb: Ian Carmichael is still Live and Dangerous.

lundi 12 octobre 2009

Up among the moods and clouds, a shadowplay

Over this summer I finally got to know and love the Pyrenees. I don't know why it took me so long to get there. It's possibly because I don't go a lot on the ultra-sunny picture postcard stuff, possibly because most great things come in their own good time. But give me the moody moments, the storms, the rain, the wild and savage mountains, these I can love to the end of my days.

This is it - The Last House Before Spain

I've meaning for a while to drop in a quick snap of my girlfriend Claire's mum's place; the house which gave this blog its name.

Actually it's a bit of a bugger to photograph, being largely smothered in gigantic horse chestnut trees, each of them laden just now with about three billion conkers. It's a lovely old place nonetheless. You can just about make out the exotic clutter of wrought iron that decorates the roof, and the front porch which was apparently designed to look as if it was falling off the wall from the word go.

Legend has it that Claire's family got it for a very reasonable price on account of it being haunted. The alleged ghost turned out to be a strange squeak in the electric meter. Should you be lucky enough to be invited f0r lunch here, the food is awesome and the pears from the orchard at the back, out of this world.

mardi 6 octobre 2009

Wotta lotta plotters . . . a theory which is mine

I have a conspiracy theory that I'm being surrounded by conspiracy theorists. Especially ones that have lost the plot, so to speak . . . Living in deepest sticksville, SW France, you do tend to meet a few folk who have come here to avoid life, the universe, the parallel universe, and everything, and everything else. But just lately I have been inundated with loons telling me that:

a) The moon landing was a fake

b) Somebody's air force is spraying us with barium in the hope of altering the weather

c) All the famous politicians are holding secret meetings to own the world personally

d) The world is controlled by giant lizards (presumably they beat the politicians to it)

e) We are all being force-fed GM foods in our sleep

f) A giant horned planet is going collide with the Earth in 2012

g) Well did you ever? What a swell party this is . . .

h) They've seen the planet and they know it's got horns

i) Someone's planning enormous explosions to move the Earth out of the way

j) Or maybe they were going to blow up the horned planet instead?

k) Perhaps it could just sound its horns and politely allow the Earth to move for it

l) You can never tell with a horned planet

m) Especially when the Earth moves for it, darling

As usual I may have got this all muddled up due to terminal vagueness/memory loss/not listening properly, and exaggerated it a bit for loopy melodramatic effect but you get the general idea.

I suppose it's cool if you own property next to Bugarach, the delightfully freaky highest mountain near us, which has apparently been designated the point of impact. That way you can sell it at a fat profit to some End-Of-The-World-Is-Getting-Nigher theorist, or even The Hunchback of Nostradamus and retire to the Bahamas.

Mind you, if I got vaporised before actually witnessing TEOTW (work it out . . .) at first hand, I'd ask for my money back.

I wonder what the collective noun for conspiracy theorists is? A plot, a coven, an obsession? Or even a conspiracy of conspiracy theorists.

They'll be telling us next that the giant lizards built the pyramids. What crap. We had a lizard working for us and it couldn't even make the tea, let alone lay bricks. It's what comes of having no thumbs.

I don't know why anyone bothers with this stuff when there are so many wonderful real mysteries. Wouldn't you just love to have watched them building the pyramids or Stonehenge? How did the Romans get their roads so straight? How does an aboriginal man know a tsunami is coming and leg it to safety the day before?

And don't you just love it when conspiracy theorists who smoke sit there telling you how THEY (alias THEM) are poisoning us and you must only eat ideologically pure, organic aubergines in order to survive.

And all this while voluntarily ingesting enough creosote-flavoured airborne filth to kill a horse. Perhaps they practise plotting against themselves in their spare time.

dimanche 4 octobre 2009

It's the blogroll of honour

This one ought to get my User-Friendly Label Of The Year Award. You can't help but be impressed by a company with the thoughtfulness to label its bog standard toilet paper in no less than four languages. After all that effort, it just seems a shame somehow to use a see-through packet . . .

dimanche 27 septembre 2009

What the papers say . . . not a lot actually

We had la grande famine des journaux at the Café de Fa today: No bloomin' newspapers. Of course, it was no great surprise that Le Weekend Grauniad had failed to appear; it usually does fail every few weeks or so.

I do love the dear old Gradniau at the weekend, especially the seriously good (and seriously serious) Arts Review, so close to my heart and vicariously hedonistic soul.

However I do occasionally wonder whether it's obligatory to have a degree in amnesia to be Gnauriad circulation manager. It was always the one paper that you could rely on not to appear in Aberystwyth 30 years ago when I first started reading it as a student très prétentieux. Evidently nothing changes much.

However, let us not be too hard on the Guadrian, because all the other English papers failed to appear today as well, causing our never exactly charmant newsagent to receive a dose of his own curmudgeonliness from customers whose gruntles were never so dissed. (I'm always intrigued by negative words, whose positives don't exist, though I'll admit that to be gruntled would sound too much like being a happy pig).

I suppose that I could read it for free online, but it's not quite the same thing as the touch of hot sticky flesh on grubby old newsprint and with the newspaper industry fighting for its life, I do think it would help actually to be allowed to fork out my weekly €3.80. I can't take the computer to bed either . . .

Anyway Dave the barman and I were still reeling from the loss of our regular Sunday dose of corrupt and illicit pleasure when Marie, l'adorable chef du café, discovered that her Indépendent had also been knocked off by geriatric guerilla warfare.

This is not the Indie, of course, but our rather more parochial rag locale with indispensable coverage of such international events as underwater sanglier* strangling in Espéraza (dist. from Fa: 1km).

In the frame for snaffling l'Indépendent, including the Sunday-only colour supplement (to make matters worse), is champion village eccentric Josette, age approx 89, and fairly off the planet even by Fa's highly competitive standards of dotty-old-dearness.

Considering that Josette's normal rate of progress can be measured in hours per kilometre, it must have been a pretty smart move to nab the paper without anyone noticing, and indeed she denied all knowledge when Marie nipped round to her place to nab it back again.

However the profound animal cunning of the extremely old and extremely rural should not be underestimated. This is, of course, not actually theft, but in fact part of a very subtle and mysterious game.

And many things about Josette are mysterious; such as how does someone who is only about four feet tall manage to consume four croissants and a loaf of bread every day without fail. I mean no-one has noticed Fa's enormous swift population crashlanding due to rampant obesity.

Then there's the bread ritual itself: Every single day, Josette examines her bread (sold at the café) and declares it "trop cuit!"(overdone). Marie solemnly takes it back, hides it under the counter, waits 30 seconds, and hands out exactly the same loaf again. This time it is declared much better and Josette shuffles off happily. Confused? We are.

Dave and I have a theory that chez Josette, the whole place is stacked to the rafters with boxes of four croissants plus one loaf of bread and snaffled copies of l'Indépendent. It's all a bit like that surreal Spanish film where a guy gets kidnapped by a crane lorry while accidently locked in a phone box and eventually finds himself in a warehouse with umpteen other guys all locked in phone boxes . . .

Entirely deprived of happening newsprint, Dave, myself and girlfriend Claire fell back on the noble art of conversation. It has to be said that Dave does excel as intentional Mr Malaprop: Hoist on his own leotard is the best one I've heard for a while.

*sanglier = large black wild pig, frequently delicious for the un-veggied.

samedi 26 septembre 2009

In pursuit of the perfect fig moment

There are moments of simple luxury living here, such as right now when you can eat ripe figs straight off the tree. Life-affirming moments which remind you that you weren't completely barking to jack in the day job and come to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous paperwork in France.

So here we have them: Purple figs, locally known as Les Couilles du Pape or The Pope's Balls, though whether affectionately, satirically or downright offensively, I don't know.

Mind you, His Holiness did launch a seriously vicious and bloodthirsty crusade against the heretic Cathars in the Languedoc region round about 12 or 13 something, so it's a fair bet that the fig gag isn't entirely complimentary. In any case, I couldn't let such a deliciously earthy morsel of local folklore go to waste.

I should stress that to have a perfect fig moment, they have to be eaten straight off the tree. There is always something deeply disappointing about the brown and manky things that someone picked the day before and was unfortunately moved to offer you. They will sit, ignored on the kitchen table, while you continue to invent good reasons to avoid them.

Every fig has its day: The day before, it's not ripe; the day after, the birds have spoilt it. So, select carefully, pick, eat, enjoy. It doesn't get much better than this.

samedi 19 septembre 2009

How many philosophers to change a lightbulb?

I've been limbering up for an eco-rant for quite a while now. You have to watch ranting; when most people rant, it becomes exponentially boring.

The best ranter I ever knew was my mate Big Dave; Big so as to distinguish him from Dave the barman, formerly with a pet swift (see previous blog entry). Daves tend to come in infinite permutations of lots of them. Which is confusing.

Anyway Big Dave, all 6ft 7" of him, could rant on about the state of the world in a magnificent state of profound melancholia and eloquent bewilderment, though it has to be said that the previous night's 19 pints of Banks's Mild * probably had something to do with the bewilderment.

You only had to feed him a line about Women of Today, Pop Music of Today, in fact Anything of Today, Computers, My Top 101 Utterly Crap Football Teams or Absolutely Anything They Don't Do Like They Used To . . . wind him up and let him play. Somehow he was also awesomely funny. I'm not in Big Dave's class so I shall try to rant with due care and attention.

I'm not exactly a Luddite, I'm just innately suspicious of re-inventing the wheel. After all the basic concept of a round thing with a hole in the middle has served us well for many thousands of years and to tamper with it would only invite disaster. I also love lo-tech solutions. Lightbulbs wasting energy? Turn them off when you're not using them. Well, it works for me.

In fact it all started with these new lightbulbs, which I have been avoiding as I would a rabid dog ever since they appeared. I don't like the use of eco-blackmail to make anything five times as expensive as it used to be. Nor do I like their clammy, putrescent light like a vampire's boudoir. However I was finally forced into buying some.

At first, all went well: I could replace three 40-watt spots with 11-watt equivalent 60-watts for a mere €16.50 (formerly two quid . . .) and upgrade the living room lighting. Super! In less than 12 hours one of them failed, jammed in the socket, broke and remained jammed. When I have a mo I shall have to dismantle the entire fitting. I remain unconvinced.

Have you noticed that eco-Anything costs a fortune? I tried to buy some more of the perishing things at a notably budget store and found that they were just the same price. Cartels unite to save the world? Heartwarming, innit? . . .
almost worth being ripped off.

It's just the same with insulation and solar panels. Being as we're all trying to rescue the planet, you would expect insulation to be free, subsidised or just plain cheap, especially to little old ladies in cold winters. In fact whenever I bill a customer for insulation (without any extra margin for me), I'm always staggered that they don't complain about the bill. It worries me just buying it for them. As for solar panels, just how much do you have pay for an inside-out radiator painted black?

In fact just about every previous civilisation was less wasteful than us. OK, the pyramids were a touch ostentatious as a death statement but they're built to last, entirely non-polluting and probably didn't cost much more than a house-full of eco-lightbulbs . . . End of rant.

*French equivalent: three bottles of Ricard, the number one choice for discerning headbangers.

samedi 12 septembre 2009

White line, white heat

On the face of it, the village of Fa doesn't have a lot to do with The Velvet Underground, whose song title I have borrowed and modified for a cheap-thrill headline in the finest traditions of what was once Fleet Street.

Indeed this is a clean-living blog which doesn't make routine hip references to dangerous drugs. The only speed around here is the ubiquitous blonde belle of Fa making another lightning sortie through the village in her souped-up green Kangoo. If we fitted the bridge over the Faby with an angled flight-deck, the results could be spectacular. wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww
We have got the white lines though; they're bloomin' everywhere. Fa seems to be having a prolonged outbreak of neat-and-tidy-respectable-villageness. I mustn't knock it; the place was, it has to be said, endearingly shambolic when I came here seven years ago. "They don't spend a lot on paint, do they," an early visitor remarked tersely.

Well, they've been making up for lost time; signboards, plant pots, lots of flowers and enough road markings to confuse a Parisien commuter with amnesia. My own modest contribution is a couple of basil pots outside the front door, for the entirely selfish reason that it tastes so good cut straight off the plant.

Masterminding the white (and yellow) lines operation, with a gigantic set-square thriftily constructed from old planks, is Councillor Maniak. I kid you not, though I should reassure those of a nervous disposition that our Stanislas is a very nice man who can safely be allowed to roam the streets, armed with a gigantic set-square.

As I understand it, frequently being vague and lazy on these matters, Councillor Maniak is a retired maths teacher or mathematician, definitely something figurative anyway. This accounts for the surreal precision of our brand new parking bays, stop lines and the piéce de resistance zebra crossing outside the café.

I say surreal because in rural French architecture the equerre or right-angle is very, very rare indeed. Over many centuries, otherwise highly-skilled craftsman have developed an aversion to the 90° angle which is now a dominant gene, inevitably inherited. There is no obvious reason why this should be so. Perhaps the number 90 has a Satanic significance, which eludes me? Most things to do with numerology strike me as being utterly barking.

All other Mediterranean cultures have been able to lay out right-angles for thousands of years by doing strange things with knotted ropes, though perhaps that's more an area for a more specialised form of blog . . . And it's not as if France is short of classy mathematicians. Fermat, of Last Theorem fame, lived as near as Toulouse so he's practically the local boy dun good.

I must admit to being a bit worried about the sinister onslaught of traffic calming measures round here. It's depressingly like England for a start and it's not as if we need them. Now that the camper van invasion has slackened off, we have the vendange with all its little, squashed Postman Pat tractors and the strange praying mantis-like grape-harvesting machines. And of course you're not allowed to start swearing when you get stuck behind them unless you're teetotal. The vine-growers, just like you, live and work here and are entitled to make a living.

Actually it's about now that we often find the real praying mantis, a very weird and wonderful sight; a bit like grape-harvesting machines.

Female PM: "You never want sex." Male PM: "OK, don't bite my head off."

samedi 5 septembre 2009

IKEA? It's because U-KEA et oui-KEA

So what do very British Brits do when they are terminally homesick? Answer: They go to IKEA in Toulouse. Momentarily forsaking France where the sun is free, the wine is cheap and the girls are cute, they seek solace in blue and yellow Sven Bhuddism. Ah! Those comforting and familiar names; Ektorp and Gründtal, Fjord, Abba and Slartibartfast: Names that are forever England, or at least a dead ringer for IKEA off the M6 at Wednesbury (Brum for the uninitiated).

This is, of course, quite normal for the English. They routinely gorge themselves on tea (Indian or Chinese), curry (Indian again) and Heinz baked beans (American) to make themselves feel completely at home. So no change there.

I should make it clear that I'm no slouch when it comes to IKEA. I know for a fact that the Gründtal range includes a very elegant stainless steel hinged towel-rail, which is a real winner so long as your sprogs don't lean on it too hard and knacker the spot-welds.

I also have a Poäng armchair, which is as near as dammit a design classic in moulded and folded plywood. My mate Phil and I once got close to starting a Poäng Owners' Club because they really are brill, though the Mark One carburettors are getting difficult to source these days.

Do you suppose this could be a product-placement blog entry? Then I could have 17 free kitchens and blow them up at the end of the article like all those police cars that get supplied gratis and for nothing by Ford and GM for wrecking in Hollywood blockbusters.

The French, of course, have a tendency to look down their long, Gallic noses at IKEA stuff. This is because they spent their childhoods contaminated by real wood furniture dating back to Louis XIV's auntie. The way of chipboard is not of their world, it is alien to them; they were not programmed from birth to live and seek profound truths in an infinite universe of stabilised sawdust.

Certainly IKEA at Toulouse doesn't have quite the capacity to cause gridlock on the main drag to Foix et Tarbes that its all-powerful sister-store manages at Junction 9 of the M6. Mind you, have you ever been to Wednesbury on a manky, wet afternoon in late October? If I had to live there, I'd go to IKEA, chain myself to a Poäng and demand extradition to Stockholm. As it happens, the first girl I ever fell in love with used to live in Stockholm so it could be quite nostalgic. There again, she was 18 and will now be 52, so could I live with the reality check?

I'm always intrigued as to how IKEA came about. I'm convinced that two very serious blond guys, wearing Moomintroll-sized specs and both called Sven, realised that Sweden was about to be obliterated by pine trees and enough sawdust to mop up a giant hamster invasion from Mars:

"It's no good Sven, we will have to invent IKEA."

"You are so right Sven. What else can we make out of pine trees?"

Apparently they dreamed up flat-pack because Sweden is long and thin and a logistical nightmare if you want to transport anything anywhere on a regular basis. Then their customers dreamed up putting the stuff together themselves because they could get the boxes into the car, through the door, up the stairs and didn't have to wait to see if the Svengalis at IKEA could understand their own instructions. I have to say that the idea of making your customers pay to do half the work themselves is just a bit smart.

I've always thought you could write a great soap or a cartoon strip with all the characters named out of the IKEA catalogue. Imagine it:

"Ooh, Rïytta!"

"Shüjt up, Mävvis!"

Roll credits as kätt goes back to sleep on rjoof . . . though actually I imagined something more like South Park; it's all a bit more hard-edged and closer to classic cool Nordic design. And even if the plot would require permanent darkness six months of the year it couldn't possibly be more boring and miserable than Albjërt Squäre.

dimanche 30 août 2009

And did those sheep in ancient times?

You may possibly wonder what bagpipes, fog, and a man being pursued by sheep (some of them wearing cute hats) have in common. Have faith: All will be revealed. If, like me, you have increasingly crap eyesight, double-click on the pic to cop the cute hats . . .

Now pay attention 007, because this is where it gets serious, thought-provoking, socially-relevant, and even interesting. Your new French word for today is transhumance. No, I didn't know what it meant either. It means the annual migration of livestock to summer pastures and is living proof that French sometimes also has a single word to describe a whole sentence of English rather than, as is usually the case, the other way round.

Each year farmers in the French Pyrenees lead their cattle, sheep and horses up into mountain pastures at 2000 metres where there will be ample grazing and water, far above the parched lower valleys. Actually they go up in June and come back in October so this is completely the wrong time of year to be recalling this age-old custom. But I only just received the pix from photographic correspondent and occasional partner in crime Martin Castellan, so you're getting them in August . . . tough.

The said custom had died out but it's been revived these last few years as a fun event to liven up the scene for visitors and locals alike. Everyone is encouraged to take part so my choice of photo is a bit of a con. I rather liked the image of the dour old gent in the Vicdessos valley being moodily and atmospherically stalked by hundreds of Tarasconnais ewes. Actually there are loads of other people and animals cunningly concealed in the mist.

Of course the migrations both here and elsewhere in the mountains are an ideal excuse for a good piss-up afterwards. There was a great party in the village of Biert in the Couserans, hence the ubiquitous accordion and the cornemuse, which is of a type of pipes peculiar to the region. Lovely evocative word cornemuse, though the instrument itself still sounds like bloody bagpipes . . .

jeudi 27 août 2009

I say, old fruit, take me back to Mummy

It has to be said that I wasn't in general thrilled by the paintings in the Louvre. True, there's the inevitable Mona Lisa, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, from before it was hijacked by The Pogues for an album cover, and Vermeer's gorgeous The Astronomer.

However for my taste there's way too many epic God pix, be they Catholic, classical Roman, Greek, bloodthirsty or plain enormous: It all makes for a very long walk. But along the way, I did come across these wonderfully bizarre, fruity old geezers as constructed from garden produce (various) by yer man Archimboldo.

As a personal choice, I reckon the real wonder stuff in the Louvre is the collection from ancient Egypt, including Mummies (various), and a wealth of antiquities from other points around the Med. Go, enjoy, be genuinely thrilled.

*Incidentally, you can get a better look at the old fruits or any of the other pix on the blog by double-clicking on the image.

mercredi 26 août 2009

There's only one way to deal with . . .

I am indebted to correspondent Martin Castellan for best offered suggestion as to how to stamp out the camper van menace in the Pyrenees (see previous post). A little expensive maybe, but definitely worth a try . . . Martin took the picture of the plane out on its normal task of water-bombing a big fire.

mardi 25 août 2009

Giving it the Mad Elbow

I love good names - the crazy, the clever, the downright eccentric; like a resto I saw in Paris the other day called Le Coude Fou. Wondrous . . . it means The Mad Elbow; or as we'd say, the Raising of the Wrist. But it's also a play on le coup de foudre or love at first sight.

I used to know a great restaurant called The Angry Cheese. Don't you just love the overtones of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear? Then some prong bought the place and changed it to the utterly boring Frère Jacques. How could you possibly dump such a memorable name?

It’s always the details of a place that catch your eye and give it colour and identity. It's kind of handy in Paris in August when the locals have all legged it to avoid tourists like me. Of course I’d legged it from the Aude to avoid tourists like them. But when a great city is mostly away on holiday it gives the place a languid elusiveness that makes it hard to get your bearings.

You mostly navigate by Metro stations and the big museums. We were staying out in the Chinese Quarter, a quick wizz away by the ultra-posh new Metro Ligne 14. Incidentally you can get a three-course with wine, Michelin-listed meal for €20 a head in the neighbourhood; Paris doesn’t have to be pricey.

It has to be said that apart from posters for the deliciously-named Les Lapins Crétins Show, brand-new line 14 is a touch on the bland side. For the real flavour of the Metro you need one of the old lines with their grotty tin-box Hornby trains, grease, grime, sweat, slappers, itinerant sax players and miles and miles of lumpy white tiles. No stupid rabbits curiously.

The subterranean intestines of Paris are loosely connected by an incredible collection of passages which may or may not lead you to the next platform that you’re looking for; there must be literally kilometres of them, weaving their way drunkenly between the different lines and multiple exits to the streets.

To add a touch of class to the whole idea, one old railway station, presumably called La Gare d’Orsay, though I’m guessing, ended up as the wonderful Musée d’Orsay, home to the city’s collection of 19th and 20th century figurative painting. A four-hour or even an all-day wallow in Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne and many more costs a princely €8, i.e. bugger all.

Both the d’Orsay and the equally brill modern art collection at the Pompidou Centre have their fraught moments if, like me, you have a crap head for heights. Personally I’m not enough of a stupid rabbit actually to want to be dangled off the side of the (very tall) PC building in long glass tubes. The pic, by the way, is of the Louvre taken from the roof terrace of the Musée d'Orsay.

Somehow as a break from art-mania, Claire and I ended up in the bizarre necropolis Père Lachaise. For a crematorium and graveyard it’s definitely a touch prétentieux but some of France’s finest are buried there; Balzac, Proust, Molière, not to forget our own dear Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison of The Doors. It’s the Crem de la Crême.

mercredi 19 août 2009

Feesh by Braque

Here we have une petite entrée, Feesh by Braque, or Les poissons noirs to give them their correct if more prosaic name. I chose them to serve as an appetiser for a series of wanderings through Paris. For all you art buffs, the feesh were painted in 1942 and are part of of the permanent collection at the Pompidou Centre. The observant will note that I stole the gag from the guy who wrote Narrow Dog to Carcassonne and resprayed it.

lundi 10 août 2009

Haunted by remorques

That's to say, trailers* rather than guilt, because; yes, it's the grockel season en l'Aude. And where there are trailers, there are caravans. And where there are caravans, there are (get out your crucifix and garlic) camper vans . . .

I say this with the seasoned, possibly tedious, and certainly totally prejudiced venom of anyone who lives and works in a rural area, and has to put up with these bloody things doing 20 mph in the middle of the road for hours on end every summer. Especially when you are about to miss a train or give birth. I name this child Van Morrison . . .

*Who are these people who drive either in their sleep or on another planet?

*Why do they keep their brains in the on-board chemical toilet throughout their holiday?

*Why do they NEVER pull over to let other people pass and even speed up at overtaking places?

Strangely, my absolute belief that camper van drivers are the most selfish and/or brain-dead people on Earth took a knock last weekend when three of them actually did pull over. There is a God. Not being an atheist, I don't have a problem with the existence of God. But if you do, what better proof could you ask for? In the face of such phenomena; there must be a God.

Meanwhile, rampant bottoms in Rouvenac remind me that the tourist season brings its fair share of other hazards. Rouvenac, I should explain, is the next village up the valley. To a true Fanol, (especially our Monsieur le Maire . . .) this renders it, in best Marcel Pagnol fashion, utterly beyond the pale. They can't even get ADSL in tins-and-string Rouvenac, so don't worry, mesdames et messieurs: We're talking about you, not to you.

Actually they're alright really, in a naïve sort of way. The rampant bottoms are the result of their village Mairie explaining, in a local newsletter, that it could no longer afford weed-killer to posh the place up a bit for the summer visitors. Therefore all good citizens were asked to come and do their bit, weeding the village by hand.

I forgot all about this until one morning when I drove into the village and found an enthusiastic team down on their knees, hard at it. Of course, it may have been an ancient fertility rite but the general age and condition of the bottoms tended to suggest otherwise.

However the perils of pricey weedkiller are as nothing compared to the threat of the Têtes de Gambas Gang. Apparently, and I quote from the same authoritative if slightly quaint local organ: Rouvenac has become a seething hell-hole of vandalism. Picnicking tourists have been chucking their prawn heads, hence têtes de gambas, in the fountain. This knackers the pump: Alors, pas de fontaine . . .

It's Manon des Sources all over again: an old-fashioned tale of love, hate, revenge and the risk of getting duffed by a Gang of Prawn Heads. Quite exciting really . . .

*remorque = trailer

dimanche 2 août 2009

If you remember the Sixties . . .

I always think that my mate Rod should write an "I was there" book of British rock. He started out having a No 2 hit in The Nashville Teens with Tobacco Road in 1964 and much later went over to studio work, after playing guitar for Badfinger and Tina Turner among others. Which means that he covered a fair bit of the turf.

He always thinks I should write it, on the grounds that he was there but can't remember it whereas I can remember it . . . but wasn't there. Well I was sort of, but being only eight in 1969, with possibly the squarest parents in the known universe; I faced certain drawbacks in terms of listening cool.

My parents' singles collection mostly consisted of Bernard Cribbins's original Right Said Fred. Much later on I discovered a copy of Joe Brown and The Bruvvers' What A Crazy World We're Living In, lurking on an old portable record player in the boxroom. Actually, that's not a bad record so I suspect it was left on the turntable by whoever sold my dad the record player . . .

My best mate Nabbsy's parents were distinctly more hip. They had several Beatles singles; original issues which would be worth a fortune today if we hadn't scratched them all to way beyond redemption. We loved the sparky, R'n'B-flavoured I Feel Fine, which sounded even more sparky when serially abused at 78 rpm.

Actually, we had the most fun out of their copy of Shirley Bassey's Big Spender and something that I identified long afterwards as the dance number out of Zorba the Greek. Maybe it's a good thing we didn't know that you were supposed to smash glasses to it . . .

Let's face it, kids are suckers for novelty records, notable ones at the time being The Scaffold's Lily The Pink and (horror of horrors!!) Two Little Boys by Rolf Harris. Like I told you, I was only eight . . . And it's well worth remembering, when some patronising old bore starts to tell you that real music died with the Sixties, that dear old Rolf's infamous TLB was the last British Number One of the decade. The music died? With tunes like that, it probably did; without any help from Don Maclean.

My old man spent the Sixties grumbling that all pop music was rubbish and how they should all get their hair cut and do National Service. What's really scary about this is that he was only about 25 himself when The Beatles released She Loves You. Mind you, he was also one of those people who insist on building their own hi-fi and then have to buy a record to test it.

Under such adverse circumstances, I suppose it's no surprise that the only rock star I had discovered by the age of seven was Beethoven. Curiously, Beethoven actually was and is a massive rock star; he invented the whole trip about 150 years before anyone else. However I did manage to work out that Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was crap, even if Macca did write it.

Rock'n'roll epiphany (with optional damnation) happened to me in 1972: Slade's Mama Weer All Crazee Now. The first time I heard that low-down growling boogie intro: Whoah! Something happened deep inside me. To this day, I always love a band who know how to beat a riff to death.

After that, it was all Glam Rock; Slade, T Rex, Bowie (or to be precise, Mick Ronson, whose guitar-playing I still adore). These days, I figure it's a good thing that I was never completely convinced by Gary Glitter. On reflection, some of them should have had their hair cut; not necessarily shorter, just better . . .

Meanwhile, unknown to me at the time, the possibility of Rod playing for T Rex had failed on height grounds, because they were all miniscule: "You're a bit, er, tall for our band, man." A bid to join weird folkie rockers Jethro Tull was similarly rendered still-born by lack of a beard. Who says obsession with image is a recent thing?

Soon after, I moved on to mainstream rock. I remember the five albums I bought with my first wages at 14: Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti; The Who, Tommy; Deep Purple, Machinehead; Wishbone Ash, There's The Rub; Queen, Night At The Opera. I've still got all of them except the Queen album, which seemed to be short of guitar tracks so I sold it and went off Queen generally.

In those days, kids didn't have personal stereos, there was just the family record player. Poor little buggers, they will never know the sheer full-blast satisfaction of persecuting their dad with his own stereo. And all to cries of "What's this rubbish?" and "They don't write tunes like they used to!". I suppose you could call it progress.

mardi 21 juillet 2009

The wonderful world of self-tautology

I've always loved words; what they mean and where they come from. I love that wonderful phrase etym dub, posh dictionary-speak for: We don't know where it comes from either. I always wanted to call a band Etym Dub but wasn't sure whether I wanted it to be forced to play reggae. I eventually called one of my poems Etym Dub; it's fairly barmy.

I used the word cataclysmic for the first time last night. What is a clysm anyway? And does it need a cat? Is it no fun by itself? Not all of us have cats. Apparently it's connected with great floods, which I figure rules out cats altogether.

It worries me that, in reporting the demise of my Peugeot 106, by fire if not the sword, that I may have committed a tautology with the phrase "cataclysmic flood". Actually it was a seriously impressive flood, well worth an emphatic tautology, but I don't like to be caught out this way. It serves me right for not knowing what the word means. For a long time I didn't know what autodidact meant, but that's self-tautology.

Some words seem wilfully obscure. I discovered that the French phrase a priori translates as the English phrase a priori; I have to admit that even after looking it up, I'm not a lot the wiser.

PD James adores the words hieratic and atavistic. She cannot resist using them at the drop of a Dalgleish. These days I'm vaguely aware that one is to do with sacred ritual and the other is about genetic throwbacks. However I can never remember this when I'm reading PD James, and when I eventually remember to look them up in a dictionary, I can no longer remember why she used them or when.

Still, who am I to criticise the venerable mistress of the It Doesn't Matter Who Did It? She writes such exquisite English that the identity of the murderer has been rendered entirely unimportant. Perhaps one day crime novel fans will worry again about such things. Positively atavistic.

lundi 20 juillet 2009

The Sad Decease of a Cent-Six (106)

Some bastard burnt my Peugeot. As my mum's Canadian cousin would have said, despite being, of his own admission, only a damned colonial: It's an outrage.

This was the car in which I scaled the north face of the bridge over the Loire at Nantes while rehearsing a massive heart attack; the car whose handbrake fell off while practising sinking during a cataclysmic flood at Lyons; the car that threatened never to start in winter but always did; the car that had lovely simple things like windows that wound up and down, with a black plastic handle that always worked.

All those summer miles, windows down and still sweating, to the agreeable rattle and hum of a knackered old diesel doing about 4rpm. Now it has gone, dismembered and incinerated, the funeral pyre possibly witnessed only by a brainless bunch of Ariègeois sheep. Silence of the lambs eh? Watch it, O ye woolly ones, you too could end up on the barbecue.

The car that survived a incredible number of increasingly improbable, incredulous and unfeasible MoTs and control techniques, is now but a naked tin wreck identifiable only by its ashen chassis plate; all thanks to some nameless thieving gits. We go back a long way, me and that 106. I wish they still made cars like that.

Jeff Beck . . . Blow by Blow à Sète

As any fule kno, Blow by Blow was Jeff Beck's most successful album; a wonderful sequence of off-beat jazz rock and fusion from a guitar player who was always ahead of the game, and even now, 30 years later, still just seems to get better and better. I don't suppose it hurt to have George Martin producing on both Wired and Blow by Blow, but it has to be said the boy himself remains something special.

Beck headlined the last night of Jazz à Sète a few days back in the open-air intimacy of the 1,000-seater (or something like that) Theâtre de la Mer, an offer that me and my mate Jay, for two, couldn't resist. Just us and a few seagulls. You just don't get to see people this good in venues this small for 35 quid in the UK. Many of the small summer festivals around us here in southern France are incredibly good value.

Sète itself is an intriguing collage of canals, bridges, cars, fish, chaos, possibly a lurking étang or two and some quite classy architecture au bord de la mer, somewhere near Montpellier. There's also a Theâtre de Molière as France's top thesp apparently got his first big break at nearby Pézenas. Don't cut it too fine as it's murder to drive in Sète. Much better, indeed it's a great idea, to pig out at one of the many seafood restaurants before the show. We did: it was brill.

But back to Beck: Always bracketed with Page and Clapton, less well-known than the other two but in my (not at all humble, actually) opinion a much better player than either of them. And seriously more modern. While it's possibly hard to credit that a 65-year-old rock star retains jet-black hair entirely by natural talent, there's not a note of nostalgia in Beck. This is up-to-the moment, relevant playing. He uses a few effects, but most of them, he seems just to grab out of thin air. It's soaring then spiky, sometimes weird, and rhythmically often very strange indeed.

Maybe that's why Beck never had a wider following, he never offers you the easy way round, but I was spellbound. Ritchie Blackmore once commented that Beck always took risks; when they came off he was incredible, when they didn't, he was crap. Well, it all came together at Sète.

He seemed to be really enjoying himself too. Beck was always notorious as a fully paid-up member of The Awkward Squad but maybe he's mellowed. And why not? From the opening Beck's Bolero to his monumental take on The Beatles' Day in the Life, both he and his band were astonishing.

mercredi 15 juillet 2009

Frog Wars or frogwarts . . .

My home village of Fa lies somewhere none too precise in the right armpit of the upper Aude valley, possibly at the extreme end of a figurative hair. This small but surprisingly cosmopolitan community goes about its business under the monosyllabic frown of the famous hill-top Visigoth tower; a 9th century monolith, built like a brick shithouse. Well, it might be 9th century, I'm usually hazy about these things and too lazy to check them. But it's definitely very old and very solid.

A dissolute assortment of of old stone houses comes to inaccurate conclusions around the church, the bridge over the river Faby and the true nerve centre of village affairs, the accurately if obviously-named Café de Fa. River is maybe an exaggeration; the Faby is often a brook, in winter a fairly convincing torrent and in summer usually a pathetic trickle. But this spring it never stopped raining and that's why we've got Frog Wars in the Faby . . . in fact we've got loads more frogs, toads, snakes, mossies, and anything else anti-social which is likely to bite you, than usual.

The big question at the café tables is whether it's sex or war, or if there is, in fact, much of a difference. The one thing that's certain is the deafening racket. Whether it's a case of 'take me, baby' or 'stitch that, Jimmy', it clearly involves a lot of mouth. Dave the barman feels that it's a turf war. Me, I reckon it's the Legendary Orgy of the Pyrenean Bonking Frog. After all, two bits of manky reed, a few pebbles and a mugful of tepid water don't seem much like a country worth fighting for, but maybe it's different for an ambitious frog.

Mind you, Dave always takes a more philosophical view than me; sitting under the bamboo awning, luxuriously thick roll-up in one hand and nursing his orphan baby swift in the other. It fell out of its nest and landed in the pub, not yet quite able to fly home; rather like some of the other regulars. Still it could have done worse . . .

What's in a name?

Well, The last house before Spain is actually my girlfriend Claire's mum's place. It's on top of the Pyrenees; large, gracious and possibly haunted. You go down a lane and either turn right through the elegantly-rusted, tall iron gates into her drive or you go straight on down the road into Spain. In recent years some deliquent builder may just have squeezed a couple of speculative non-entities into the gap between the garden wall and the border but what of it? This is still the last real house before Spain.