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.