Wednesday, 29 February 2012

"The British are quite, quite mad."

The week before last there was a special advertisement shown on television at about 7.15pm. This was an advertisement for dog food - and the manufacturers claimed that the ad contained special features to make it attractive to dogs. They also claimed that this was the first television ad aimed at dogs. The result has been a number of letters to my regular newspaper regarding pets who are attracted to certain things on the television.

(We owned a collie-cross who enjoyed watching show jumping, but I have not and will not bother writing to the paper about this.)

The correspondence may have been brought to an end - though I doubt it - by a letter published yesterday. It was from an Australian who wrote:

"As a regular visitor to your shores, I have been intrigued by the spate of letters concerning the viewing habits of household pets. This has reinforced my view that the British are quite, quite mad. Long may it remain so."

It struck me that the writer's view of the British as being mad is a refreshing change from the view most Australians have of the British. We are frequently described by our antipodean cousins as 'whingeing Poms'. But that's not how we see ourselves - nor, I suspect, is it how citizens of other countries see us.

It's odd, really, that we should regard any nationality as having specific character traits. We British tend to view the Irish as stupid, the Swedes as slow, the Italians as cowardly, the Spanish as lazy and so on. It's all nonsense, of course, just as our view of ourselves is nonsense. We think we are animal lovers, tolerant, slow to anger, God's gift to the world etc etc. And we are! But I do sometimes wonder how people from other countries see us.

It was, I think, the well-known Scottish poet who wrote, "Oh, would some gift the Giftie gie us, tae see oorselves as ithers see us". (You must excuse my appalling Scots accent.) Frankly, I would prefer not to see myself in the eyes of others; it would likely be either too cringe-making because of unjustified (in my eyes) compliments or too infuriating because of (in my eyes) unreasonable complaints. I'll just stick my head in the sand, thank you very much.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Lilac Lark

This will be the third time that Brighton Lions Club has cooperated with the Friends of Withdean Park to put on the Lilac Lark, a sort of fete cum garden party in the park. Withdean Park has many lilacs which were, at one time, recognised as the national collection. Sadly, due to council cutbacks, they are not being sufficiently well looked after and the national collection recognition has been withdrawn. All the same. the fete is held on the second Sunday in May - which should coincide with the lilacs being just about at their best. They were last year:

Being a member of both the Lions and the Friends, it is natural that I should coordinate the joint effort. We do try to make this a fairly gentle affair with no brash burger vans, just old-fashioned stalls and sideshows scattered among the lilacs. We go for things like bowling for a pig, tombola, throw the ball in the bucket and coconut shy plus plant sales and refreshments. There is a dog show as well. This year I hope to book a Punch and Judy show. You can't get much more traditional than that, even if the show did originate in Italy.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The French have a word for it

Or maybe I should write that very soon the French will have had a word for it.

(Is that a verb in the future past tense?)

Today I am contemplating - possibly at inordinate length - the subject of courtesy titles here in England and there in France. I will start there in France - or perhaps not, since the newspaper report I saw was published here in England. But it concerned France. The report stated that the feminist movement in France have succeeded in persuading the French government to abandon the use of the word "mademoiselle". In future all women will be "mesdames". The reasoning is that as men are always "monsieur" without indicating their married or unmarried state, why should a woman have to indicate whether or not she is married? You have to admit - well, I do, anyway - they have a point.

Similarly, why does a woman change her name on marriage in these enlightened days? Surely, this is a practice which dates back to the days when a wife was no more than a chattel, a possession of her husband. Mind you, I do know one woman who, after marriage, insisted on retaining both the title "Miss" and her maiden name.

But to get back to the subject. One benefit of doing away with mademoiselle is that I won't any longer have to try to work out whether the lady at the supermarket checkout (or anywhere else for that matter) is married or not. Actually, I don't bother to work it out now. If she is under about 40 I plump for mademoiselle on the grounds that she is so uch younger than me that "miss" doesn't seem too unreasonable. Older than that and I just sort of grunt after the obligatory "bonjour". I reckon that a wide smile and an English accent will let me get away with what would, for a Frenchman, be impolite.

Of course, here in England we fail to use any of these words most of the time. I can't imagine calling a waiter with the words, "Please, mister" which the French would use automatically: "S'il vous plait, monsieur". I suppose one might address a waitress as "miss" but perhaps we have become too politically correct - or too afraid of seeming to be politically incorrect - to use that word nowadays.

Perhaps the time will come when we revert to the word used during and in the immediate aftermath of the French revolution: "citoyen" (citizen); or the Russian "comrade". I hope not. One of the things I like about France is the continued use of those courtesy titles, the equivalent of our English "sir", "madam" and "miss". Literally, my sire (monsieur), my dame (ma dame) and my damsel (ma demoiselle).

Things just ain't what they used to be.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Lane or Laine?

First, a short history lesson.

Before it became a fashionable seaside resort, Brighton was a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone. The village was bounded on the north, south, east and west sides by North Street, South Street, East Street and West Street. South Street was on the top of a low cliff and has long since been washed away but the other three streets are still there. The southern boundary is now marked by Kings Road. Inside this rough square is the area known as The Lanes. There are roads of ordinary width, but there are also narrow streets, some only three or four feet wide, known as lanes - Meeting House Lane, Black Lion Lane etc. In other parts of Brighton and Sussex such narrow streets or paths would be known as twittens while elsewhere they would be alleys. Along these lanes are dotted what were originally fishermen's cottages. They became shops selling antiques and all sorts of ephemera but are now more likely to be up-market boutiques or jewellers' shops. The quirky element has moved across North Street to an area known as the North Laine. There were at one time three or four laines just outside the village, laine being an old local word meaning field.

Now within the North Laine is Bond Street and running off Bond Street to nowhere in particular is Bond Street Lane. At least, that is what it used to be called. The council fairly recently erected a new street name sign which read "Bond Street Laine". This was quickly spotted by people more knowledgeable than the council official responsible and the council was asked to change the sign for one with the correct spelling. Meanwhile, somebody has taped over the offending letter but if you enlarge the picture you can just spot the bottom of it peeping out from the adhesive tape.

One would think that to correct a mistake such as this would be relatively easy. Oh no. The council now has to apply to itself for permission to change the name of the street from Bond Street Laine to Bond Street Lane, notwithstanding that the name has always been what they are trying to change it back to! Alice in Wonderland couldn't do better.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Today's headlines

That title might be seen as a slight exaggeration but two things caught my attention this morning while I was sorting the trashy bits of the newspaper from the trashier bits that come with it. I happened to spot a piece informing those who were previously unaware of the fact - and I was one of those - that the statue of Winston Churchill in London's Parliament Square has an electric current running through the head. It seems this is to prevent snow settling and to deter pigeons.

Well, "they" say you live and learn.

The other thing that caught my eye was a small, 40-page booklet published by the paper as a guide to the night sky. Unfortunately, it would, I think, take more than a 40-page booklet to teach me anything about the night sky. That last sentence may seem boastful to you but let me assure you, it is quite the reverse. I wish I could learn more, but somehow the numbers involved just faze me. I read of a star or planet being so many thousands or millions of light years away and I am gobsmacked. I just cannot take it in. I have tried to understand those maps of the night sky published in the paper from time to time - once a month, I think - but I just cannot make any sense of them. What I need is one to one tuition, not a book of diagrams that seem to bear no resemblance to what I see in the sky.

As well as the sun and moon, I can recognise just three constellations: the Plough, Orion and Cassiopia (I know it's shape - a flattened W - but I'm not at all sure how to spell it) from my days as a Brussel Sprout. I even think I can use the Plough to pick out the Pole Star. But that's it. I doesn't help that I live in a town so there is substantial light pollution but when I am staying with my cousin on the farm or am at our house in France where the street lights are turned off at 10.00pm, I gaze upwards in awe. When the sky is clear. What doesn't help even more is that I live in a country where nine times out of ten the sky is covered in cloud so how I am supposed to find my way by the stars is something I never did discover when I was a Scout.

I mentioned that we saw the sun on Thursday afternoon. The crocuses in the garden really came out as a result. We have a few - of what I regard as "standard" crocuses, the ones that come in brilliant yellow, deep purple or, occasionally, virginal white, but we do have hundreds or even thousands of mauve ones. Years and years ago I scattered a couple of hundred naturalising crocus bulbs. The flowers were originally either a pale yellow, cream or mauve - almost pastel shades of the "standard" flowers - but they have all now gone back to mauve. However, they have naturalised and have spread throughout both the back and the front gardens. When they open in the sun they are a magnificent sight.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Time wasters

Despite my pessimistic prognostication, yesterday afternoon was sunny and warm. The temperature actually reached 17C. And to think that just two weeks ago we had -14.5C! My walk across the Downs with the dog was delightful: great views, a warm breeze (A warm breeze! I February!) and the dog behaved herself. I had in mind to start posting on my Stanmer photo blog a series of pictures I have taken in town over the last few days but they will have to wait while we enjoy some Downland views. A neighbour told me this morning that as it was so pleasant yesterday she took her young son to the beach - possibly a February first. Back to grey, murky mist today, though.

But to get to the subject of today's drivel. I have said elsewhere that I spend far too much time reading other people's blogs instead of doing something constructive. Another way I enjoy wasting my time is by watching the birds in the garden or the park. I think my favourites are the blue tits.

As well as their very attractive blue and yellow plumage, they are such acrobats and I find it highly amusing to watch them searching for food in the trees. They manage to squirm into the seemingly most difficult positions, frequently hanging upside down. To them, the small twig is a bit like one of the parallel bars for a gymnast! One of their endearing traits is the way they patiently wait their turn at the bird feeder, never trying to push another bird away like most of the other species do. They also take a piece of food - nut, seed, fat or whatever - and fly with it to the nearby tree. There they hold the food on the branch with a claw while they eat it. We do have great tits in the garden as well, but not nearly as many. The great tits seem to outnumber blues in the local park, where there is also a family of long-tailed tits.

I recall reading, many years ago, a book written by a woman who delighted in the great tits in her garden, of which there were many. She came to know them as individuals and could recognise each of her regular visitors, presumably through minor differences in the plumage. Her tits became so used to her that several of them would happily fly into her house through an open window. Somehow I don't think that will happen with me and the blue tits. But they do amuse me.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Where's my egg timer?

There is a variation of Murphy's law which says that you can wait ages for a bus and then three will come along together. Much the same can apply to blogging. For several days the blogger can scratch around in a daily attempt to find something to write about which will amuse, entertain or instruct those who are kind enough to follow his blog, then three or even four subjects thrust themselves into the poor blogger's consciousness at almost the same moment. That is exactly what has happened to me. Having taken the time while walking to dog to mull over the various topics I have decided to write about egg timers.

You see, it's now official. Eastern and south-eastern England are stricken by drought. We have, apparently, enjoyed (if that is really the word) two dry winters. Other parts of England have enjoyed rain. Indeed, my brother in Cornwall (that's in the far south-west of England) complains he only has to pick up the dog's lead for the heavens to open once again. But there is no network of pipes to transport water from the non-drought-stricken parts of the country to those parts that are in need of refreshment. So we here in the overcrowded south-east have to wait for rain. Meanwhile, we are shown in the newspapers and on television pictures of dry stream beds rivers shrunken to trickles and acres of glutinous mud that should be reservoirs. There is much concern for wildlife: water voles, fishes and, further up the food chain, kingfishers and otters.

Back in 1976 we had a serious drought problem with no rain from May to August. That time the whole country was affected. We were cajoled into using a lot less water tha usual: don't flush the toilet unless really necessary; shower instead of bathing but if you must bath, just 6 inches of water; etc, etc. But the government of the day finally cracked it and provided the solution. The Prime Minister appointed a Minister for Drought. Almost immmediately there was dancing in the streets. Not, you understand, because of Mr So-and-so's elevation but because it started raining. People literally ran out of doors to enjoy the feeling of rain on their faces.

This time round the government has come up with a different solution: egg timers. We are being asked to restrict ourselves to four-minute showers and I read in the newspaper that special waterproof egg timers are to be distributed so we can make sure we don't spend too long on our ablutions.

Of course, it started raining slightly while I was in town yesterday afternoon and rained properly during the evening and night. No doubt it will keep going now until the reservoirs overflow.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

What the...?

There are times when I give way to... vanity? Curiosity? Whatever. I quite often look... Strike that: every day I look at the total number of page views shown at the foot of that flag widget thingummy in the right-hand border of this blog. Being a modest sort of a chap generally, I didn't start jumping up and down when I noticed that the number had passed through the 15,000 mark, nor - a week or so ago - when it hit 20,000. But it did occur to me to wonder just where all those visitors had come from. (If Ruth Rendell can end a sentence in her latest book with the word "with" I reckon I can end a sentence with a preposition or a conjunction if I so wish!) So I took a look at the stats so kindly provided by Blogger. Some of the search terms people had used to come up with this blog just blew my mind so I thought to share a few.
  • 5 foot wingspan bird
  • fences in village in uk
  • 24 - 26 - 28 - 30. menin gate 42nd
  • bacon roses she wants a snack

Out of curiosity (not vanity!) I Googled "fences in village in uk" and found about 691,000 results!

I'm not a great follower of any sports team, neither football, cricket nor rugby nor any of the more esoteric sports like speedway or hockey. All the same, I do glance at the football results and cricket scores in the season to see how Brighton & Hove Albion (my local football team) and other in which I am interested have done and how Sussex and Kent (cricket) are faring.

Brighton have been doing well this season, their first since securing promotion from the 1st Division to the Championship.

(Parenthetical comment. Years ago the Football League consisted of four divisions - 1, 2, 3 and 4. Then the snooty clubs in the 1st Division broke away and declared themselves the Premier League - that's League, not Division - so Division 2 became Division 1, 3 became 2 and 4 became 3. Then Division 1 was renamed the Championship, so Division 2 became Division 1 and 3 became 2. So those clubs originally in Division 4 are now in Division 2. I wonder if they feel any better because of that?)

Albion have managed to knock Premier League Newcastle out of the FA Cup and last Sunday received their reward, playing high-flying Premier League club Liverpool. It was a high-scoring match with no fewer than seven goals, of which Brighton scored four! Unfortunately, three of those four were in their own net so Liverpool won 6 - 1. But the Albion can now claim to be record holders - for the most own goals in a cup tie!

I'm off to the hospital this afternoon. It's six months since my check up after the cancer scare of last summer and the specialist wants to see me again. I wonder what she will say when I tell her that the spray I use for my chest problem (not cancer) seems to be aggravating the arthritis? Her bedside manner is not the best so I don't expect very much in the way of sympathy.

A sign of spring? Yesterday afternoon I saw a black-headed gull in full summer plumage - the first this year. But it was only last week that I saw a small flock of redwings (winter visiting birds) in the park.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


No, PAUL is not a person. PAUL is an acronym standing for Portable Aqua Unit for Lifesaving which was developed in Germany by a professor at the University of Kassel. Lions Clubs in my district and in our twin districts in Germany and France are enthusiastic about this. A recent press release read:
Lions Clubs currently respond to disasters by funding major rebuilding programmes for essential services, such as schools and medical facilities, such as following the Haiti earthquake (when £700,000 was made available by Clubs in the British Isles & Ireland) or following the Japanese tsunami. But we recognise that there is also major short term requirement for basic needs – the most essential being drinking water.

In the future, Lions Clubs will respond to these needs by providing PAUL (Portable Aqua Unit for Lifesaving) Waterpacks, each one capable of producing a daily constant supply of up to 1200 litres of clean drinking water from contaminated water.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, rivers and wells are frequently contaminated by pathogenic bacteria causing diarrhea, cholera and other diseases, or the piped supply, if it previously existed, is destroyed, resulting in many victims, especially children.

No energy – no chemicals – no frequent maintenance - no skilled operator is needed for these lifesaving units which, weighing 20 kgs, are entirely portable by one person and can be dropped by parachute if necessary. Polluted water is simply poured in at the top and the unit, by filtering out 99% of germs, provides a ready supply of clean water in a few minutes.

Lions Clubs in the south-east of England are launching a public appeal to purchase additional PAUL Waterpacks which will be held in stock pending the need for their future deployment.

Just to catch up: I cleaned the drain and refitted everything with NO LEAKS!

And the insurance. The quote I received last week for the Old Bat's motor insurance was £282. The brokers rang back yesterday with a new figure: £171. My wife took the call while I was out. She queried the difference and was told they try to obtain the best quote possible. Really? How come the first quote wasn't the best? And anyway, I can get the same cover elsewhere for £131. Guess who is not getting our business.

Monday, 20 February 2012


For a week now I have been feeling my age. My age and a bit more. The anti-inflammatory pills don't seem to have been very effective what with first a wrist not wanting to turn properly and then a knee refusing to bend as it should. At the same time, I managed to pull a muscle in my neck. Add to this occasional bursts of indigestion and you will gather that I have not been the most perfect specimen of humankind. Whether because of or as well as all this, I have been distinctly lacking in patience and tolerance. I have, in short, been a Grumpy Old Man. In an attempt to get me out of this mood, I am going to take it out on you, dear reader, with a series of rants and moans.

I think I am probably right when I say that most Englishmen are not natural bargainers when buying things. Not for us the haggling that is expected in a souk - except when trading in a car for a new one when it is taken for granted that there will be a bit of horse-trading. If I am buying something, I like to be told the price, the best price. For some reason insurance companies seem to think this a bit infra dig or something. But what really got me going this week was the attitude of a broker I have been using for some years. I am a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. Membership of the IAM can only be gained by passing a driving test considerably stiffer than the standard test to acquire a license. The IAM have arranged with a broking company to provide its members with motor insurance at supposedly beneficial rates. I have taken advantage of this facility for several years but when I received the renewal papers this week I was horrified to see that the premium had increased from £265 to more than £300. The paperwork indicated that the brokers had searched for the best price for me. I know the expression "caveat emptor" and fully appreciate that it applies to me but when I did a little shopping around and was quoted £262 for identical cover from another reputable insurance company I decided I was being taken for a mug. I told the broker that i had obtained a lower quote - and told him the figure. He says he will try to match that. But if he can reduce the earlier quote now, why didn't he do so first off? I have three more policies through those brokers, all due for renewal in the next three weeks or so. It will be interesting to see what happens as I shall most certainly shop around.

OK, now for minor rant number two. I don't like being described as a Brit. In fact, I don't like the word "Brit" used either as a noun or an adjective. The noun is "Briton" and the adjective "British". I find the abbreviated form objectionable. That probably puts me in a minority as, I suspect, most people don't give a monkey's. But rather than calling me British, I would really prefer to be described as English.

Which leads to rant number three. (I am doing well, aren't I?) Why should Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments to decide on matters relating solely to their parts of the United Kingdom when there is no such facility for England? English Members of Parliament have no say, for example, in the Scottish education system. Why, then, should Scottish MPs be able to vote on the English one?

And lastly. Not being a film buff and not reading what might generally be described as gossip columns in the papers, I had never heard of Sean Penn until this last week. After his unnecessary comments about Britain, the Falkland Islands and our way of life in general, I would cheerfully boycott any of his films - if I ever went to the cinema. What an obnoxious little man he is.

OK, folks, I feel better now.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Itsy-bitsy pieces

Time to become a little less egocentric than this blog has been of late. Mind you, I suppose most blogs are, by their very nature, egocentric in that the blogger expresses his or her views about all sorts of things.

(Oh, do get on with it!)

So Blogger made it somewhat more inconvenient for those wishing to comment on blogs where word verification is required. I had always used it in an attempt to eliminate spam comments but have now switched it off until Blogger sees sense once again. Almost immediately I received an email advising receipt of a comment from Anonymous asking for information about a programme that would post spam comments on thousands of blogs at once! Oddly, though, despite having received the email, the comment hasn't appeared.

Ah - just thought. Blogger does provide a spam filter. No doubt that comment has been diverted to the spam comment dungeon. I'll get round to checking some time.

I've done it. I mentioned weeks ago that I was thinking of packing in as the webmaster for the Lions district. I wrote to the District Governor Elect yesterday asking him to find a replacement for the next year, which he has taken on board. I rather suspect that my email was welcomed as I think he wanted somebody else in the job anyway.

Now, a mucky job awaits. The kitchen sink is draining more slowly than it should so I must dismantle the drain and clean out the u-bend. I may be back tomorrow.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

My own car again

I sprang out of bed the next morning. Well, that isn't strictly true - I don't spring so much these days as fall out of bed. There was a kettle in the room, along with one tea bag and two sachets of instant coffee, but no milk. I made the Old Bat and I black coffee before I took a shower.

It was about 10.00 before we had partaken of a meagre breakfast. (Most of the cheaper French hotels provide only meagre breakfasts in my opinion. No bacon or eggs, unless you count the eggs sometimes provided for the consumer to boil, and bread that just doesn't lend itself to being toasted. Cold croissants or pain au chocolat, sometimes some cheese or ham. In this case there was a poor selection of jams.) That done, we checked out and set off back up the autoroute towards Bernay, almost 200 miles to the north-east. I say we set off up the autoroute, but I had the best part of an hour's drive to reach that!

We stopped for a sandwich at the Alençon services and I will be quite happy if I never see another motorway sandwich! It was after lunch that I made my next mistake. Now, if you have been following this story you might be asking your self, 'Next mistake? When was there a first?' Whether you are asking that question or not, you will find the answer a little later on. Just be patient and accept that after that lunch at the Alençon services I made my next mistake. My miserly character came to the fore and I decided not to use the autoroute for the next and final part of the journey, there by saving at least £5 in tolls. I knew there was a perfectly good Route National which ran dead straight and passed through only two towns, Gacé and Sées, before reaching Bernay. I suppose, in truth, it was not that decision that was the mistake, it was the next one. You see, when I turned to the back seat of the car to retrieve my road atlas, it was nowhere to be seen. I later discovered it on the writing desk back in Les Lavandes, our ice-gripped holiday home. Being a macho male and a miser to boot, I saw no need to go into the service station to buy a map. I knew well enough which road to take. Granted, it did get us to Bernay - eventually. And after a drive about 50 miles longer than the direct road. We never did see Gacé or Sées that afternoon.

We must have been about an hour away from the car hire agency when my mobile phone trilled. The breakdown insurers rang to confirm that my car was ready to be collected. Mrs S agreed to call them when we had returned the hire car so they could lay on a taxi to the garage in Brioney, several miles from Bernay. She also persuaded them to pay for a night in a hotel as we couldn't hope to get back to the Loire at a reasonable hour that night.

The taxi turned up after we had been standing on the pavement for over an hour as all the car hire staff had to leave and lock up the office. I was getting a little worried about Mrs S as the temperature at the time was several degrees below freezing and we really were not dressed for it. However, we managed to climb into the taxi and set off. I gripped hold of something pretty tightly as the driver chatted on his mobile phone and made notes in his diary of future pick-ups, swerving at the last minute to avoid oncoming traffic. Despite the hair-raising nature of the ride, we arrived at the garage in one piece (two pieces really - her and me) and there was my car sitting outside waiting.

We returned to the hotel we had used before and had another very pleasant reception and meal at the near-by restaurant where the waitresses and the maitresse d' greeted us like old friends. I became a little anxious the next morning when the car seemed reluctant to start (the temperature was -14.5C) but we did get under way and this time I made no mistake - I headed straight for the autoroute!

It was with the benefit of the 20-20 vision of hindsight that I then saw my earlier mistake. We were returning to Les Lavandes the floor rugs which had been taken back to England after our last visit for their annual wash. If I had thought about it, I could have picked them up from the garage in the hire car and we would have been able to reduce our total mileage by 400 or so! I consoled myself with two thoughts: even with hindsight I couldn't know that the house was frozen up and at least this meant we could have another excellent meal in our favourite restaurant before spending another night in an hotel and heading back to England 24 hours earlier than planned.

And so ended the trip on which I was going to do so much work. We had spent the week either cruising the motorways of France or lounging in hotel bedrooms reading. And all at an horrific cost. The repairs to the car alone came to £750 and not all the hotel bills would be covered by the breakdown insurance company.

Just to add insult to injury, the Old Bat broke a tooth on a breakfast roll on the day we came back!

But... let's not lose our sense of perspective. A day or two later I met an acquaintance in the park. He looked bronzed and I assumed he and his wife had visited their daughter in Florida. No, they had taken a cruise up the Amazon. His wife had been taken so ill that the ship's doctor wanted to put her ashore in Brazil for hospitalisation. Luckily she perked up and was able to stay aboard - for a little longer. His mother died and they had to leave the ship and fly home more than a week before the end of the cruise. We were inconvenienced, but there was no sickness and nothing was a matter of life and death.

Friday, 17 February 2012

We twiddle our thumbs - again

After the disappointing experience of dining in the hotel in Pouancé, it is pleasant to be able to recount that the bedroom was comfortable. It was decorated in a distinctly individual style which I find absolutely impossible to describe satisfactorily other than to say that the decor involved a strip of moulded paper about three feet wide running the whole length of one wall about half-way up from the floor. (Where else would it be up from, you ask?) This strip was a bright scarlet, almost exactly the same colour as the tunics of the Brigade of Guards. At intervals the mouldings incorporated into it took on the appearance of half a sphere bulging out from the wall. Highly individual. But the shower! What a treat! Probably the best shower I have ever come across in a hotel. And who cares about the decor when all one does in such a room is sleep?

But we did rather more than just sleep in that hotel room. And no, there was nothing along the lines of swinging from the chandelier. The next day there was little for us to do. The hotel had no lounge so we sat in the room reading. There were two chairs but both were hard and lounging on the bed was soon found to be more comfortable. We went across the road to the supermarket to buy sandwiches for lunch. There was a notice of the door of our bedroom advising that cooking in the room was verboten - sorry, interdit - but we had nothing on which to cook and any food we might have wanted to cook had been left in our house.

It was quite eerie being the only ones in the hotel that afternoon, the staff having left and locked up at three o'clock and not returning until six. I did try to gain access to coffee-making facilities, but to no avail, so we decided to take ourselves off the the Bar du Commerce where we would at least be looking at different walls!

That evening we ate at a much better restaurant - La Cravache d'Or in Pouancé where we have eaten many times before and where we were welcomed like old friends.

Dining at the hotel may have been disappointing but, as I have said, the shower was excellent and the bed was comfortable - and the next day our car should be ready for collection!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The polar cold continues

So we had arrived at Les Lavandes in this rather swish, black car in which almost everything happened automatically - including the repositioning and reclining of the driver's seat. The Old Bat complained that the light in the living room seemed a little dim - I had not then opened the shutters - but I pointed out that she was wearing poly-wotsit glasses that had shaded because of the reflection off the snow outside.

On the writing desk was a note from Sue, the English lady who keeps an eye on the place when we are not there. She had turned the water off at the main stopcock because the weather forecast for the previous week had been for extremely low temperatures. Indeed, I had noticed the headlines in the French newspapers talking of the Great Freeze, Siberian and polar weather - and reporting the number of people who ad died as a result of the cold.

I picked my way gingerly through the snow - I was wearing only town shoes - lying several inches deep in the field next door and lifted the manhole cover carefully. I had so far had just one shoeful of snow and wished for no more! Under the cover was the sheet of plastic which, although a little muddy, would serve to keep my knees out of the snow as I reached down to remove the lagging and turn the water on.

After returning to the house I went back and turned the water off again. Somewhere between the stopcock and the house the water still lying in the pipe had frozen.

There was no way we could stay there - or even attempt to do the jobs I had wanted to get done. We took out of the suitcase the towels and bed linen - no point carrying too much weight - and set off for the town of Châteaubriant where I knew there to be a cheap hotel. On the way we stopped off at a supermarket to buy a colouring book and then at a toy store for a jigsaw - even in extremis the Old Bat thinks of the grandchildren. I pulled into the car park and even before I got out of the car I could see the notice on the door - "Hotel Complet" (No vacancies). Throwing my innate mean streak to the wind, I suggested trying a hotel just out of town which I expected to be rather expensive. It certainly had an expensive look to it as we drove up the winding drive, having the look of a mini château. Whether or not it was expensive was something I didn't find out. This hotel, too, was full - as was the only remaining hotel in town!

I drove back to Pouancé, to the one hotel in town, only to find that the hotel was completely unmanned until 6.00pm (it was then about 5.00). We went in search of a bar and coffee to while away the time until I was able to secure a room for two nights. I was a bit miffed, though, by the attitude of the young lady on the reception desk who told me she had no rooms available on the ground floor. People arriving after us were allocated ground floor rooms!

This was Monday, and on a Monday evening in February there are very few self-respecting restaurateurs in France who are willing to open their doors. Besides, we had many times said we should try the restaurant at this hotel but had never got round to doing so. Our neighbour Jacques had told us that the food was good but the service poor. Well, we were about to find out.

On walking into the dining room my first impression was, "Hey, this is smart!" All very nicely laid out, with comfortable chairs and the tables spaced, well, perhaps just a tad too close together but not so much as to really spoil things. It was a pity that the girl who welcomed us and led us to our table was the one who had been on the reception desk earlier and she was still wearing her moon boots, jeans and a nylon smock-type overall top. It did rather let the side down. How best to describe the menu? Interesting? Maybe. Different? Certainly. A bit on the pricey side? Yes. Pretentious? Definitely. We decided on our meals and placed our orders - starters of hors d'ouevres for the OB and what was described as "meli mili de gambas" - what "meli mili" might be I have no idea but I knew this was something to do with prawns. The OB went to help herself to the horses doobries while I sat and waited. I sat and waited some more while she ate her food. She had nearly finished when another waitress dressed in track suit trousers and a red nylon overall brought the amuse bouche - glasses of a noxious-looking green liquid with something like cream floating on top. That green liquid tasted as noxious as it looked, but the little pieces of bacon at the bottom of the glass were OK. Eventually my prawns/shrimps arrived - all six of them, two each prepared in one of three different styles. The main courses (and I don't remember what they were) were unmemorable but the desserts weren't bad. The food was, frankly, disappointing, the service poor. We shall not be returning.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

This button does... what?

If, dear reader, you have by some mischance just wandered into this blog, you find us in the middle of France - or thereabouts - spending the remains of the weekend at an hotel after our car had broken down. The story started only just down the page so, if you have a few minutes without anything better on offer you could quite easily catch up. Of course, I will fully understand if you prefer to hit the "next blog" link at the top of the page, but if you do, you might never know what you are missing. So I'll continue.

Monday morning. Could we at long last be on our way? Would our breakdown insurance company come up trumps? They did. A phone call alerted me to the fact that a taxi was on its way and, as I finished the call, I looked out of the front window and there, already, was our chariot. We didn't exactly rush outside - neither of us is fully capable of such rash action these days, but we made what speed we could.

Some miles later we were deposited in a rather grubby looking back street by a garage belonging to the car hire agency. There was a pile of snow and ice at least a foot deep beside the road by the front entrance so our taxi driver thought to make life a little easier. I climbed a few steps and pushed open the door into the staff toilets, then another door into the front office. After very few formalities - remarkably few given that we were in France - I was escorted back the way I had came and a young lady went off to fetch a large, black car. This was a top of the range model with leather seats, satnav, automatic gear change - the works. One thing it didn't have was a lever under the driver's seat to adjust its position. That made things just a little awkward as I balanced somewhat precariously on the front edge of the seat to drive a couple of miles to get out of town and find a suitable lay-by. Once there, I attempted to read the driver's manual. This, of course, was in French - an I had left the French dictionary in my car. However, I eventually discovered that the three buttons beside the driver's seat marked "1", "2" and "M" were not what I had thought. I had assumed that these referred to positions of the driver's seat that had been programmed into a memory. But no. The button marked "1", when pressed, caused the seat to slide forward. Button "2" slid the seat backwards. Just what the "M" did I never discovered. There was, however, still one minor problem with the seat adjustment. Whenever I switched off the ignition and opened the driver's door, the seat slid backwards of its own volition. It stayed back until I pressed the "1" button to move it forwards again. But as the seat moved forwards, the rear squab reclined! The handbook didn't seem to make any mention of this and I gave up worrying about it. I just re-adjusted the seat whenever I got into the car. I can't say that I saw anything funny about it, but the Dearly Beloved (well, she was before) thought it hilarious to see me gradually sinking back into an almost completely supine position every time I got into the car.

So we set off along the autoroute once more. This is a toll road, and the tolls aren't particularly cheap, but at least we know there are resting places with toilets and coffee at reasonably spaced intervals. And in mid-afternoon I managed to negotiate the layer of snow as I crossed the pavement and squeezed the car between our gateposts. Home. We knew that once the heating was turned on it would soon warm up. The two-foot thick walls do keep the heat in and make the house very cosy. We breathed sighs of relief as I opened the front door before helping the Old Bat across the virgin snow.

We should have known better.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

In which we twiddle our thumbs some more

So we had eaten well and the bed seemed comfortable. But this was not the sort of hotel that provides lavish quantities of gels and lotions. All that was provided, in fact, were two slivers of soap - packaged slivers, admittedly, but still slivers not much bigger than pats of butter. No shower gel, no shampoo and no toothpaste. We had none of those either as we leave all that sort of thing at the house. No point in constantly lugging things like that back and forth. So we cleaned our teeth with water and sunk beneath the blanket.

Although I usually need an alarm clock to wake me, I was awake the next morning before the alarm call I had set on the phone. This, most unusually, was to be the pattern of the week. I glanced out of the window and saw

Snow had fallen overnight and lay six inches deep across the hotel car park. Not to worry, I thought to myself. The French are very good at clearing the roads. I showered (Mrs S couldn't as the shower was over the bath which she can't climb into) and we ate breakfast. Afterwards I repacked the few things we had taken from the suitcase and returned the key to the gentleman on the reception desk, explaining that we expected a taxi at some time and would wait in the armchairs in the vestibule.

Sometime about mid-morning my phone rang. It was the insurance company to tell me that there were no car hire agencies open anywhere in the area, this being Sunday and France closing down on Sundays. I went and checked in again and deposited our luggage in the same room.

Lunch was very pleasant - after we had managed to plough through the snow.

We spent the afternoon in the hotel vestibule reading every word of Saturday's paper (which I had bought at the tunnel terminal) and doing every puzzle possible - or attempting them. Somehow our brains seemed a little clogged up. But eventually enough time passed for us to trudge across to the restaurant once more for another pleasant evening meal and a chance to practise my rapidly improving French on the charming waitresses.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Hotel Acropole

So there we were, waiting in a garage somewhere in deepest France for a taxi to take to a hotel. I hadn't the foggiest idea where we were. Although I knew pretty well where we had broken down, we had been taken several miles once we left the motorway. I had been sitting alongside the driver in the transporter but failed to notice the names on any signposts we passed. Mrs S was still in the front passenger seat of the car on the back of the transporter having declined the offer to sit in the cab with us as she really could not have climbed up there.

It was at about 5.30 local time that our breakdown insurers agreed that to provide a taxi for the remaining 200 or so miles of our journey really was not on and they would source a taxi and a local hotel. I took the suitcase from the boot of the car, along with the shopping bag of food (milk, bread, butter, croissants, soup, coffee etc - the basics for our stay at our French house), another shopping bag containing a couple of books, my medication, gloves and - don't laugh - an alarm clock. Lugging all that lot, together with the Old Bat's handbag and a small grip containing my wallet and our passports, I felt like the archetypal bag lady.

We waited. And waited some more.

The garage closed at 6.00pm but the proprietor hung around with us, not wishing to turn us out into the street. Eventually, at about 7.00, he told us that he was due to go to a dinner for local garage owners (at least, that was what I understood him to say) and suggested he call for a taxi for us as all attempts to contact our insurers had met with a message, "We are experiencing unusually high numbers of calls". I agreed to the suggestion and it was just a short while later that a taxi arrived.

I understood we were being taken to a hotel at Bernay, some 9 kilometers (almost 6 miles) distant but we kept passing signposts indicating Bernay to the left. My phone rang while we were being driven by the mad French taxi driver who insisted on keeping one hand on the gear lever and just one on the steering wheel while driving about three feet from the back of the large lorry in front. Our insurers told me they had been trying without success to get through to me and that they had arranged a hotel. Too bad, I told them. We had already made other arrangements.

It seemed much further than 6 miles before we turned into the drive of what looked like a very smart hotel, the Hotel Acropole. The taxi driver threw case and bags out of the boot, accepted my offer of 40 euros for the 35 euro fare and gave me a receipt. Fortunately, the hotel had a room, and on the ground floor at that, and we were soon ensconced once more in reasonable comfort and able to freshen up.

The hotel itself had no dining room but there was a smart-looking restaurant on the same plot, just a few yards across the car park. We were welcomed very warmly by a couple of waitresses. We ate very well and the service was excellent: efficient, friendly, but not too obsequious or informal.

We had eaten well and the bed seemed comfortable. It was a bit of an inconvenience, to say the least, that the car had broken down but we looked forward to picking up a hire car the next day and continuing our journey. Little did we know.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

What a week that was.

And how!

I had fully expected that now we have returned from a short cross-Channel trip I would be able to regale you with stories of my attempts to disentangle the Gordian knots of French bureaucracy regarding the delivery or collection of a wheelie bin to enable the local refuse collectors to take away the rubbish we never - well, hardly ever - leave and the issue of a credit card thingy to enable me to access our local tip to dispose of the garden refuse, ie the wisteria prunings. I also expected to be in a position to tell you about by attempt to change the tap on the shower. This in itself would have been a major challenge for me and would probably have taken me the whole week without the problems of rubbish disposal. I am not a plumber. Indeed, I well remember the Sunday afternoon when I attempted to change the washer in one of the kitchen taps. The subsequent call-out charge of the emergency plumber cost me the equivalent of an arm at least, if not an arm and a leg. But, as that Scots poet chappy said, 'The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglee' or something like that.

It all started off as normal for one of our French forays but there was a certain amount of snow and ice around once over the other side. However, this disappeared as we drove south and by mid-afternoon we were bowling along merrily on the A28 motorway (or autoroute as the French call these roads) towards Le Mans. The sun was shining and we had nary a care in the world. Well, maybe just a few little ones. Then, while we were crossing the viaduct over the Risle valley where the road consists of just a single lane and narrow hard shoulder in each direction, the engine cut out. As I coasted onto the hard shoulder a message flashed onto the multi-display screen indicating that this was a pretty serious problem. Sure enough, there was no way I could restart the car.

I have been assiduous in renewing my breakdown insurance cover, including European cover, since we started travelling so frequently to France so I confidently switched on the mobile phone and called the number in my contacts list only to be told that as I was on a French autoroute, I had to use the emergency call phones to be towed to a garage and that once off the motorway I should call my insurer again. I dutifully donned my yellow, reflective jacket and set off for the far side of the viaduct where I could see the orange pillar containing the emergency phone. Luckily, the instructions were in both French and English and I was quickly speaking to a pleasant lady who promised to send a tow-truck and insisted that Mrs S and I should wait on the grass until it arrived. I did try telling her that the nearest grass was about two hundred feet straight down but she was obviously reading from a long-prepared script and was not to be diverted.

I trudged back to the car and took the opportunity to fulfill a long-held wish that I could take a picture looking off the viaduct. One passing French driver obviously thought I had stopped for that very purpose!

Eventually a motorway service van drew to a halt behind us. The driver sat there for a while, made a phone call and wrote something in a notebook. (I could see all this in the rear-view mirror.) After sitting there a bit longer, he climbed down and opened the back of the van from where he took a red flag just like those that train guards used to wave. He then leant on the parapet, apparently talking to somebody below, although as that person would have been 200 feet away he can't have been doing that. After a car transporter arrived, the reason for the flag became apparent. The motorway service man would wave his flag to slow down approaching traffic as our car was winched aboard the transporter.

I wish I could say that we enjoyed the journey to the garage several miles away. I wish I could say that the garage mechanic spotted the simple problem and fixed it inside five minutes. Alas, that was not to be. The computer plugged into the car engine diagnosed a faulty injector. A new part would have to be ordered, but that could not be done until Monday. Delivery should be made Tuesday so I should, with luck, be able to see my car again on Wednesday. Meanwhile, my breakdown insurance company tried to arrange a hire car but it was by this time late on Saturday afternoon. The nearest hire car agency still open was at an airport some 40 miles away and they had no car available. A taxi would be arranged to take us to a hotel for the night and a fresh attempt to find a hire car would be made the following day.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Mayor's embarrassment

After the ceremony, an elderly man grabbed Mrs S's arm and pulled her across the square, saying something that we thought was probably, "Come and have a drink". He chattered away as we went into the restaurant and it at last dawned on us that he was "Onions, very good", our next-door neighbour. Perhaps if we had been more observant we would have recognised the cap that was his habitual companion, but we had never seen him wearing anything other than blue overalls; he looked completely different in his suit and wearing a tie without the stains from the various vegetables he grows. Well, I hope that's where the stains come from.

We all headed towards the restaurant, the band leading the way at a double quick march. By the time Mrs S and I arrived, still accompanied by our neighbour clinging to Mrs S's arm, there were already more people in the restaurant than there had been at the ceremony. Trestle tables had been placed down the centre of the largest room at the restaurant and these were laden with bottles of wine and plates of biscuits and other assorted nibbles. Our neighbour, having released Mrs S with some reluctance, burrowed his way through the crowd and returned clutching two glasses, one of which he handed to Mrs S with a small bow, and the other he immediately raised to his lips in a toast to the good lady. Meanwhile, I might as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as he was concerned. If I wanted a drink, it was up to me to get it for myself. I had considerably greater difficulty than the old boy in getting near the bottles, but my perseverance triumphed. I returned to Mrs S just as the mayor tuned round to offer her a plate of biscuits. He actually had two plates, one in each hand, and was also holding a glass of red wine that was in danger of being slopped over anyone within about six feet of him.

Monsieur Gabois, the mayor, is a pretty switched on guy and it didn't take him long to realise that he was face to face with somebody whose hand he had not shaken that day – or at any other time come to that. Good manners dictated that he put matters right immediately and he started to juggle the plates and glass in an attempt to free his right hand. Two plates of biscuits and a glass of red wine dropped onto a tiled floor make a bit of a mess, and Mr Onions had another stain on his tie. We crept away in the confusion and slipped through the fire exit, unwilling to face the mayor's embarrassment.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The ceremony

The weather for my next meeting with the mayor was somewhat different. The first occasion had been a gloriously warm, late spring evening; the next was to be a cold November morning with a biting north-east wind, although at least it would not be raining.

Mrs S and I were at the restaurant when Jean-Paul asked if we would be at the ceremony the following day. "What ceremony?" we asked, having completely forgotten that the following day would be 11th November, a public holiday in France when they commemorate Armistice Day. Jean-Paul explained, and we promised to be in the village square at nine the following morning when the ceremony was due to start. Even if we were to be only part-time villagers we wanted to be accepted by the locals. And we felt somebody should represent the Union Jack.

At one minute to nine the next morning, Mrs S and I shivered round the corner into the village square to find it completely empty. There was not a soul in sight and the only sound was the wind rattling the branches of the chestnut trees. As we huddled into the meagre shelter provided by the church porch I checked my watch to make sure I had remembered to change it to French time and that we had not arrived an hour late, only to miss the ceremony. Despite the wind we decided to wait and a few minutes later a car drew up on the opposite side of the square. Three men in a uniform of some sort extracted drums from the boot and disappeared inside the mairie. After a gap of another three or four minutes a second car arrived and two more uniformed men entered the mairie. It had begun to look as though something would perhaps happen at some indeterminate time in the future. But if that time were to be too far into the future, Mrs S and I would either have departed whence we came or we would have been turned into low-level gargoyles in the church porch.

Jean-Paul opened his front door, glanced quickly round the square, and shut the door again. Another car drew up and a youngish lady got out, crossed the square and stood a few yards from us. Neither Mrs S nor I saw him approach, but suddenly Jean-Paul was in front of us. He introduced the youngish lady as a reporter on the local newspaper and disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived. The three of us waited.

Eventually, the door of the mairie was opened and a gaggle of people more or less fell out to mill around on the path. It seemed to us that they were trying to decide how to form up as a procession, but there was something of a tussle going on between three or four people who each wanted to lead. The order of precedence was finally established and the drum major took his place at the head, with his band behind him. The band consisted of the three drummers we had seen earlier and two buglers. After the band came the mayor, then the village council, a selection of adults and, bringing up the rear, the village schoolchildren. The drum major lowered his mace and the band started a solemn slow march. It would probably have sounded more impressive if the drummers had some sense of rhythm and if the two buglers had each been playing the same tune. Or perhaps they were, but they had just started at different places in the score.

The procession made its way down the path of the mairie, into the square and round to the war memorial, a total distance of some thirty or forty yards, where they formed up with the band to one side and the mayor in the middle. The ceremony began with a speech from the mayor, none of which I could understand. He then proceeded to read out the names on the war memorial. After each name had been read out there was a pause, then a sepulchrally morbid voice announced, "Died for France". (It actually sounds better in French: "Mort pour la France".) Fortunately, there are only fourteen names on the memorial. And that was it. Or rather, that was the end of the beginning. The really important part was to follow: the reception in the restaurant.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Monsieur le Mayor

On the last evening of my last trip before we opened for business, as it were, I ate at the village restaurant. It was a pleasant evening and the few customers Jean-Paul had that day were all eating in the garden. As I was enjoying my coffee, Jean-Paul came bustling up (Jean-Paul always bustles, no matter what he is doing) in a particularly self-important way.

"The mayor is coming in for a drink," he announced. "I'll introduce you."

He bustled away to push several tables together, remove the dinner settings and lay out for drinks. Obviously, the mayor had quite an entourage. I could have done with getting back to the house to lay the last piece of stair carpet and collapse into bed, but it would have been rude to slink away without shaking hands with the mayor, who is a Very Important Person in any French village. I called for another coffee to help me stay awake a little longer.

It was not just the mayor who arrived, but the entire village council. They had been holding a council meeting and had decided to wind down afterwards over a bottle or three of wine. Jean-Paul, full of self-importance, introduced me to each of them as they passed my table, which involved me shaking hands seventeen times. No sooner had the mayor and council sat down than Jean-Paul bustled up again to announce that the mayor had invited me to join them. I gathered they were re-hashing what had been discussed at the meeting, but I had some difficulty in following the conversation as all twelve of them were talking at once, with at least four different conversations going on at any one time. Not one of them spoke any English. I struggled through a discussion with the mayor of the difference in house prices in England and France, what the village planned to do for the children in the commune, and the old age pensioners' annual outing. I gathered that this last was the highlight of the village social calendar.

It was with a great relief that I strolled back through the pitch-dark night, the street lights having been turned off as usual at ten o'clock, stumbling over kerb stones and bumping into the occasional lamp-post or tree. On reflection, I decided that the sacrifice of an hour's sleep had been worth it. If nothing else, the mayor and council now knew of our plans to let the house as a holiday cottage and had raised no objection.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

No electricity!

After Emmanuel and Philippe had finished it was time to start decorating in earnest. I had two, or, at the most, three visits to hang fifty-three (or was it fifty-four?) rolls of wallpaper and to paint the house from top to bottom. My days in France now started with the alarm clock ringing at six, a quick shower and breakfast, and be working by a quarter to seven. I did stop briefly for lunch and for coffee breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, but otherwise worked solidly until six thirty in the evening, when I would shower, change and go out for a meal. Back in the house again by ten, I would sometimes work again until one or two in the morning. By the time I had reached the forty-third roll of wallpaper I could gauge pretty much to the millimetre where I needed to cut a length without bothering to use a rule.

One morning I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on only to find there was no electricity. Neither the lights nor the power points worked. I checked the trip switches, which were all in order. I looked to see if the street lights were on, but of course they weren't as it was the middle of the morning. I checked the dictionary and composed a couple of sentences before going next door to ask if they had electricity or if there was a power cut. Both the onion-growing man and his wife came to the door, the old lady hiding behind her husband and peeping out from under his arm. The old boy is not tall but his wife is even shorter and her stoop makes her not much taller than three feet six. I asked if they had electricity.

"Yes, yes," they replied in unison, and for a moment I thought they would offer to lend me a cupful. Instead, they offered to ring the electricity board on my behalf. I assured them that would not be necessary and returned to ring Emmanuel, who arrived after less than half an hour. It must have taken him all of fifteen seconds to fix the problem. All I had to do was to press the reset button on the fuse board. Feeling distinctly foolish, I went into the bedroom for my wallet, only to have my offer of payment declined very graciously.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Mr Onions - our next-door neighbour

The old boy looks about eighty-seven but he still works a large vegetable garden. He is also an agent for bottled gas, there being no mains supply in the village, but I have never seen anyone go there to buy any. One morning I stopped to pass the time of day and I think we talked about the different vegetables and how much better they grew in the village than in my garden back in England, but as I managed to understand no more than one word in ten I can't be sure. I was certainly talking about vegetables, and I thought the old boy was as well, although with my limited French I didn't get much further than "Onions, very good. Bigger than mine in England. Peas, very good. Bigger than mine in England." He must have thought I was moving in to be the village idiot.

(Sadly, the old boy died about three years ago. His widow continued to live in the house until just over a year ago when she moved into a retirement home. Since then the house has been let to at least two sets of people whom we have never met.)

Monday, 6 February 2012

Introducing Sue

There were just two small items of business we had deal with. Our friend Wendy had introduced us to Sue, another English woman who lived in the area. We had approached her with a view to her checking the house from time to time, particularly after visitors had left. We wanted to make sure it would be clean and tidy for the next visitors. Sue wanted to see the house before committing herself and she was due to come while Emmanuel and Philippe were creating their own particular brand of chaos. As Mrs S and I sat in the courtyard to wait for Sue, we were amazed to see that, whenever a new tool or roll of cable was needed, one of the electricians would run – yes, run – from the house into the courtyard and back again. The French must have a different method of training electricians from the one we employ in England.

Despite all the chaos, Sue agreed to our proposal: I think it was the green gates that persuaded her.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The electrician cometh

April came around and with it the school holidays. Mrs S was able to come over to France to inspect progress and our visit just happened to coincide with the date Emmanuel had given us for the rewiring to start. On the appointed day we were at the house in good time. We had pulled all the furniture into the centre of the rooms and covered it as best we could with plastic dust sheets, although we had taken care to see that the kettle and four mugs were easy to get at. Nine o'clock came and went, but at three minutes past my mobile chirped at me in the way mobile phones do. Emmanuel informed me that he had to attend an emergency but would arrive that afternoon at two o'clock. I could see not just our rewiring, but our first letting disappearing.

My faith was restored that afternoon when, promptly at two o' clock, a van screeched to a halt outside, throwing up a spray of gravel. Emmanuel jumped out and raced across the courtyard to knock on the door, while Philippe, his assistant, tossed tools and machinery out of the van, across the pavement and into the courtyard as if they were so many bread rolls, apparently completely oblivious of the fact that my car was in the direct firing line. Or maybe he just didn't care: after all, it was only an English car. Once the van was empty he scooped up an enormous pneumatic drill, rushed into the house and attacked the kitchen wall. Within five minutes the place could have been used as a location for a film of Lawrence of Arabia struggling through a sandstorm – and our two-foot thick kitchen wall had a trench running across it nearly a foot deep. But I must give them their due: those two worked like demons. They paused occasionally to sip from two-litre bottles of water, refused all our offers of coffee, and worked until nearly seven o'clock. I was exhausted! In the end Mrs S and I gave up trying to do anything in the house that week. We gave Emmanuel a spare key and took a holiday.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

To continue

We had bought an old house in France. Although it was basically sound - indeed, even habitable (almost) - it did need a bit of tarting up. Like completely redecorating.

We had decided on the simple approach - woodchip wallpaper and emulsion paint throughout. I had very carefully measured the rooms and, sitting in one of my favourite local restaurants with an old envelope, I did some calculations and worked out that I would need a hundred and seventeen rolls of wallpaper. That didn't seem quite right so I abandoned arithmetic in favour of bavette à l'echalotte and chips, washed down with a very passable local red wine. I even had a second cup of coffee.

I tried measuring the walls again after breakfast the next day and found that if I used feet instead of centimetres (or maybe it was the other way round) the answer was quite different, but I was still going to need fifty-three rolls of paper. The cashier at B & Q nearly had apoplexy when she saw me approach with not just one or even two but three trolleys, each one loaded to the brim with woodchip wallpaper. I had completely cleared their shelf and was still six rolls short. I was given some rather odd looks as I went through the security check before boarding the ferry at Portsmouth when the car seemed to contain nothing but me and woodchip wallpaper.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Slater's Top Totty

Having no bons mots of my own today I was pleased to discover a report in the morning rag which caused me no small amusement. I have many ancestors who were involved in the licensed trade, ranging from a 7 x great-grandfather on my mother's side who was accused - some 300 years ago - of selling beer without a license to, on my father's side, a great-grandfather publican who is reputed to have drunk himself blind. I suspect they would have as amused as I.

It seems that in our House of Commons there is a bar which features guest beers. One of the recent guest beers was Slater's Top Totty, a blonde beer.

As you can see, the pump clip features a buxom blonde wearing rabbit's ears, a bow tie and a bikini. The beer is described as"stunningly seductive! A voluptuous variety of hops with a fruity, fresh finish". Most people, I am sure, would regard that as a bit of harmless fun. No so, however, one Kate Green, MP, who told the House, "I was disturbed last night to learn that the guest beer in the Strangers' Bar is called Top Totty and there is a picture of a nearly naked woman on the tap." The beer has been withdrawn from sale in the Strangers' Bar.

My view is that Ms Green needs to get a life and find a sense of humour. But I bet Slater's web site is getting a lot more hits and sales of Top Totty will go through the roof! The brewers will have the last laugh.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The time has come

It is now almost two years since I agreed to take over once again as webmaster for the Lions District. I say "once again" as I had already done the job for three years and been relieved, only for my successor to, well, really to give up on the job. I had great difficulty in getting any information from him such as where the site was hosted and how to gain access to the host server. In fact, I never did manage to do that and in the end I just gave up and launched a completely new site on a different server. Designing that site took me a long time and I was not too unhappy with the outcome, except that I needed input from other district officers. Despite direct requests to some and general requests to all, there has been almost no input apart from that I have written myself. I really have neither the inclination nor the time to keep nagging so, as the title perhaps infers, the time has come for me to call it a day. When I get back from France the district convention will have come and gone and the 1st Vice District Governor will officially be the District Governor Elect. That will be the appropriate time to write asking him to find a replacement for me.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The law of dimishing returns and other things

It seems that the more television channels to which we have access, the less there is worth watching. Maybe I'm wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but surely there was a time when every week we could watch at least one who-dunnit or police procedural, a sit-com and a variety or comedy show. And what do we have nowadays?

I recorded the second episode of Birdsong and we watched it on Monday. The critics might have thought it speeded up after the first rather slow episode but I can't say I noticed it. It got so slow at one point that the Old Bat nearly fell asleep. My verdict? Just like the curate's egg - good in parts. Overall, though, a bit disappointing.

What we have been enjoying is watching the DVDs I bought a couple of years ago - the complete set of that classic sitcom As Time Goes By starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. We have just the second reunion special to watch and that will be it. I have been promising myself I will buy the 'Allo, 'allo DVDs. Maybe when we get back from France. Why can nobody make sitcoms like that now?

Very cold this morning - seems as though winter has finally arrived. An extra layer under my coat when I walked the dog - and a scarf for the first time this winter. It was so cold in the night that we both woke - despite the tick duvet - and had to huddle together for warmth. I think it will be a case of blow the expense, I'll leave the heating on tonight.

Can you hear the sound of Madame Defarge's knitting needles?

The news this morning is that Sir Fred s stripped of his knighthood and henceforth is back to plain Mr Goodwin.

Fred Goodwin was CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland and built it into one of the biggest banks in the world, for which he was duly honoured with his K. The came the collapse and the taxpayer had to bail out RBS to the tune of £45 billion. Sir Fred, of course, was duly sacked/asked to resign. Now the committee of senior civil servants has heard the baying of the crowd and recommended to Her majesty that the knighthood be rescinded. The last Brit to face this ignominy was Anthony Blunt, who spied for Russia. Others have been Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceaușescu. But just what, I wonder, had Sir Fred done to warrant stripping him of his 'Sir'? He hadn't been accused of beating his wife or kicking his dog. He hadn't picked the flowers in the park or even walked on the grass when he shouldn't have done. He certainly had not spied, committed acts of mass brutality or, as far as I am aware, acted in any way dishonourably. His 'crime' was to have made commercial decisions that turned out to have been wrong. Granted, they turned out to have been extremely expensively wrong - but at the time that committee of civil servants, the Honours Committee, was happy with them. Now they have, as I said, given in to the baying of the crowd. Who next, I wonder? And what non-crime will he have committed?

Meanwhile, today is the first of the month and we have a new picture on the kitchen calendar.

Those snowdrops are in Withdean Park. They are not yet in bloom but are well on the way.