The Last Day of May

Friday 31st May

My, how the year is flying past, May all but gone now, and ‘sunny June’ just around the corner (not that you would know).  We had visitors last week and they were hurrying back to England because, among other things they had tickets for the first day of Wimbledon.  The football season has ended (at last) and we have already had two England test matches.  We don’t really feel we have left Winter far behind us and already summer is knocking at the door.

Or should be, but for the second year running we seem to be in some perpetual rainy season, not really cold yet not warm enough to call summer.  We live in perpetual hope for something real to believe in.  And it is the same with politics, we seem to be stuck in some perpetual rainy season, with Cameron wetter than wet, and Milliband distinctly damp too.  With the rise of UKIP, some of which will undoubtedly last and impact on the next election (two years off – God, how can we wait that long) we may well be looking at another wet wet wet coalition, offering sunshine just around yet another five year corner.

Or is it just me?  And getting older, feeling that perennial complaint that ‘Fings aint what they used t’ be.’  Maybe politics will matter less and less to future generations, and we will have some sort of continuous meritocracy, possibly linked in with computers so sophisticated that they only need a few politician-meritocrats to discuss and agree the finer details.

And maybe they will be able to generate the seasons once more, with a clear distinction between them rather than this perpetual rain, where the last day of May could well be any day in March, April, October or November.  Only the calendar gives us any clue.

Raindrops keep falling on my head

Thursday 30th May

Oh dear, what wet weather we are having.  I understand it is not too wonderful in England either.  Here, after a slow start and a flurry of sun on Sunday we had one gorgeous day on Monday.  Tuesday it was on and off all day, but with some lovely sunny spells.  Today, Wednesday it has rained, quite violent thunderstorms at times, more or less all day.  We still managed to get out and headed south into ‘Lot et Garonne’.  I liked the sound of Trompefort but it turned out to be a dismal little town, on to Montahus, a not too inspiring name.  We were high up on an escarpment by now, and Montahus lies snuggled underneath a colline, or hill.  We parked the car and followed the sign for a viewing point.  Up and up we walked, and were at last rewarded with a lovely grassed hill with beautiful vistas over the surrounding countryside. We must have been pretty high up, as you could see quite a few kilometers away.  There were panoramic maps showing the surrounding towns and chateaux, and through the persistent rain we slowly identified them.

We had a lovely lunch in a splendid restaurant in Saint Pasteur, another nice sounding but otherwise boring little town.  The whole restaurant was white with blue curtains and base plates, white damask tablecloths and napkins.  It was really reasonable too, and such a surprise to discover, there were tall windows all around and as we were still quite high with lovely views as you ate.

The rain continued, and we got soaked a couple of times, but are now snug and warm in our little house.

Hope it stops tomorrow, as I really have to put a second coat on those garden doors.  Oh well.

As I get older – Part 3

Wednesday 29th May

I could have titled this petite dose de vitriol ‘Will you ever actually do what you say you are going to do?’ but decided that might be a tad harsh for those of a delicate disposition.

Scene 1 – the Supermarket, (In England I hasten to add – here En France – jamais) Mother busily loading up the trolley with 3-for-2 double litres of Coke, giant packs of 32 bags of crisps and Value burgers and chicken; kiddie one, a toddler is wandering down various aisles fingering the goods longingly, kiddie two is strapped into a pushchair when he could well walk.  The kid in the pushchair is straining and arching his back to get out and screaming at the top of his voice.  Toddler 1, picking up chocolate bars and surreptitiously slipping them into the trolley, decides to eat one there and then and proceeds to unwrap it.  Mother is constantly shouting, “If you don’t stop you’ll get a smack.”  Finger points and wags “I’m warning you, I’ll give you a smack in a minute.   Smack never comes.  If only it would – problem solved.

Scene 2 – Husband waits patiently for wife to leave the house for shopping.  “I just have to go upstairs and clean my teeth and we’ll go.  I won’t be a minute.”  Ten minutes later, “I just have to water the plants and we’ll go.”  Another ten minutes “I am just putting my make-up on, I won’t be a minute.”  Twenty minutes later “Come on, what are you doing sitting down, we haven’t got all day.”  Well, obviously she did have before she decided that one minute had almost over 2400 seconds in it.

The English language has been cultivated over many years and has evolved so that it can cover almost any situation.  I am lost for words though, at the inadequacy  of it’s usage.  If you are going to do something then do it, do not constantly announce the doing of it whilst postponing the event, sometimes for ever.

Cars Without Indicators

Tuesday 28th May

I have noticed for some time now that manufacturers are making cars without indicators.  I don’t mean those little pop-up arrow-shaped flippers that used to stick out of the side which had replaced the driver using hand signals some decades ago; these were superseded of course by flashing red lights which for a time were everywhere.  But it seems they are now making cars without any indicators at all.  The lights are there alright, just to the side of the head and rear lights, but for some reason they don’t light up anymore.  Are the electrics not working, or can the drivers not find the little indicator wand at the edge of the steering wheel, I really don’t know.

But what I do know is that both here in France and back in England cars have largely ceased indicating.  Here in Eymet the town square is open to traffic, there are four corners each with roads leading into the square at right angles; so eight ways in, and once there for each road two choices, straight ahead or either left or right.  As a pedestrian you are always on the lookout for these cars who enter the square totally blind-sighted, the drivers sitting hunched over the wheel looking left and right.  But though I am looking out for the cars, the car divers aren’t looking out for me but for other cars.

Now the drivers I am sure know where they are going and which direction they will be taking to both enter and exit the square but I as a pedestrian do not.   So why oh why, do they not use their indicators to let me know.  Not a single one does, so I have to conclude that for whatever peculiar reason there might be the manufacturers have decided not to manufacture cars with indicators anymore.

Take your life in your hands pedestrians, and keep an eye out left right straight ahead and behind you too for the indicator-less motor car has finally arrived.

Painting can be so soothing

Monday 27th May

I used to paint a lot, and now I end up painting a lot.  It used to be oil painting of course, but now it is house painting.  I used to spend nearly every evening drawing or painting, I specialized in monochrome biro, thick dense blocks of colour but with fine delineation around the eyes or fingers.  But in a funny sort of way it was the repetitive biro strokes filling in the dark areas that I liked best.  Sometimes it took days to finish off a portrait, and only a few minutes doing the interesting bits, but hours and hours blocking in the background colour.  And even when I progressed to paint, I liked using Humbrol enamels best, again this was repetitive work with a fine brush, attempting to create dense blocks of colour.

And I am doing it again, house painting – filling in blocks of colour, trying to get the brush strokes as even as possible.  This week it is the doors leading to the courtyard garden.  They were just a varnished wood and now they are Green Glade and White.  And it is so soothing, brushing up and down, and watching as slowly the doors are transformed.

I sometimes think I am in the wrong job, accounts.  I drifted into it by accident.  Back in the late sixties you didn’t think about a career.  A job was just a job, you never really questioned whether it was the right career or not, you just did it until something else that paid better came along.  But maybe I should have been a painter, decorator.  It is a very soothing occupation.

What do I think about when i am painting?  I cannot really say, i am concentrating one part of my mind on the job in hand, the painting, the smooth strokes, while my mind wanders off, probably at all sorts of tangents, who knows.  The thing is, it’s a bit like dreams, you wake up knowing you have dreamed a lot, and sometimes one particular repetitive theme stays with you, but mostly they are gone, just gone, just like the old door colour.

The House Looks Lovely

Sunday 26th May

One of the things that always amazes me is that things remain the same even when you are not there.  Whether this comes from a longstanding suspicion I have harboured that everything is actually just occurring in my brain, you know, the whole Universe, people and events, just a symptom of my imagination, or whether it is just some exaggerated form of self-doubt I do not know.  I was pleasantly surprised therefore that everything was just as it was a month ago.  The house in France is perfect, well almost, because every time we go we small improvements to be made.  The only difference is that the flowers in the garden have grown and the roses are now in bloom.

The weather was cold, barely above 6% on the way down, and only briefly hitting 10% about six in the evening somewhere near Bordeaux.   Today (yesterday for you) it has slowly warmed up leaving us with some late evening sunshine, and it should be much warmer tomorrow.  It is exactly a year ago since we first met Paul and Lindsey, who we bought the house from, and signed the initial agreement at the Notaires office in Duras.  Even then we barely allowed ourselves to dream it might really be ours someday.  Now, I would be devastated if I woke up one morning and had a Bobby-in-the-shower moment and it had all been a dream.

Maybe that partly explains my sense of relief and almost disbelief that the house is still here each time; a feeling that somehow I don’t deserve it, that someone is going to come along and take it from me.  As a child I don’t think I was ever taught to expect much; the school of hard knocks (and I had a few too) where you knew your place and kept to it.  But also my mother was always telling me how worthless and indeed stupid I was that I never quite believed I deserved anything at all out of life.  Better that I suppose than those pampered kids who expect it all.

Anyway, suffice to say the house is still lovely, and even more so this evening with a clear blue sky and promise of more sun in the next few days.  Hope the weather is not too bad back in England; it is a bank holiday weekend so nothing would surprise me

Music again and M is for Kirsty MacColl

Saturday 25th May

Sorry to bore you folks but the alphabet waits for no man, and rolls over us all right the way to Z.

I am actually drivng to France on Friday, so I hope you got yesterday’s blog.  The first thing to say about Kirsty is that she died in a tragic speedboat accident quite a few years ago, and only recorded about five albums, and was definitely at the top of her game when we lost her.  Her (estranged) father was a folk-singing purist Ewan MacColl who Kirsty hardly knew.  Gifted with the voice of an angel with an incredible range and subtlety who could sing first takes and be perfectly in key through the whole song, she was also a brilliant songwriter.  Her songs almost always had a twist of humour or self-effacing mockery – ‘There’s a Guy Works Down The Chip-Shop Thinks He’s Elvis’ and ‘Don’t Play The Cowboy With Me Sunny Jim’ were two early favourites.  She also had the good sense to know a good song by someone else and how to sing it better than the original – her versions of ‘A New England’ and ‘Days’ have never been sung better.

She may be best remembered for her Christmas single with the Pogues ‘Fairytale in New York’, and she never actually recorded it with them.  Her husband Steve Lillywhite was producing the song and it was getting nowhere, so he sent Kirsty a copy and suggested she oversing the girls parts.  Again she did it brilliantly, and they overdubbed her voice, though she did sing it with them a few times live after it became a hit.

Kirsty MacColl


Discussing Lyrics with Leonard

Friday 24th May

I spent all of last night, right into the early hours discussing lyrics with Leonard.  Yes, that’s right, you heard correctly – Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian singer and poet.  Leonard spoke slowly in that deep whispery voice, as if mulling his words carefully even here.  He explained that it was frustrating that he had spent months, years sometimes honing a phrase, choosing exactly the right word for a song which now nobody remembers, just an obscure album track; and yet when recording an album and another song would be needed, he would dredge up some old lyrics or a failed earlier attempt and give it one more run-through, and lo and behold it was acclaimed as a classic.  This was certainly true of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ where Leonard repeated that he still felt he had never quite nailed the lyric.

We were joined on and off by a female singer of long-standing fame (whose name escapes me for the moment, though I know I was stunned by her sultry beauty), who was contemplating recording an album of Leonard’s classic songs.  I suggested that rather than go for ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Bird on the Wire’ she should look for more obscure songs like ‘Chelsea Hotel’ or ‘The Smokey Life’, or even, I dared to suggest, ‘God is Alive, Magic is Afoot’, the excerpt from Leonard’s novel ‘Beautiful Losers’ which Buffy recorded back in 1969.

The conversation went back and forth all night, and tired as I was, I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity; the opportunity of a lifetime, because great friends that Leonard and I are, he is getting on a bit and he won’t be around for ever.

In the morning I woke bleary-eyed and tired but thankful that Leonard had spared the time to spend the whole night discussing lyrics with me.

Leonard Cohen photographed at the 41st annual Songwriters Hall of Fame at The New York Marriott Marquis on June 17, 2010 in New York City.  Rob Kim / RD / Retna Ltd.



M is for Mann (Aimee and Manfred)

Thursday 23rd May

Aimee Mann is an American singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the late nineties.  She has released only a handful of albums, with songs of love and sorrow sung quietly with erudite and clever lyrics.  Hers is a small voice, no Britney or Rihanna with their histrinoics and big personalities, just a small voice singing honestly and simply.

Manfred Mann has enjoyed a long career with at least two golden periods.  Manfred was actually the keyboard player and the band were named after him because of his somewhat unusual name.  They emerged from the early sixties blues scene in London, and with Mike D’Abo as lead singer had a string of hits.  Mike was later replaced by John Paul Jones and the hits kept coming, but they were never massive they were just there, part of the scene. They were particularly clever at re-interpreting and commercializing Dylan songs , even making a hit out ‘Quinn the Eskimo’, an obscure song not officially released by Dylan until much later.

As the sixties morphed into the seventies and most sixties pop groups faded away Manfred Mann morphed into Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and took on a harder more political edge and released a string of brilliant albums and singles in the mid-seventies, even repeating the Dylan trick with ‘You Angel You’.  There was a trio of albums ‘Angel Station’, ‘Somewhere in Africa’ and ‘Plains Music’ that are brilliant and every song resonates with vibrancy and feeling.

So another old favourite, look out for them on you-tube, try ‘Tribal Statistics’ for starters.

Front Cover '76 Tour Programme

Women and Equality

Wednesday 22nd May

Sitting in a small café behind Oxford Circus and listening to a table of three women of a certain age, somewhere between forty and fifty I would say, but, well-preserved as they are, I could be wrong and they may be older, I was reminded of the romantic novels of the (I was about to write last then realised my mistake) Nineteenth Century, where the thrust of the romance is usually that young women spend so much of their time desperately trying to get married. Circumstanced as most were this was the only way they would ever get away from their parent’s homes and find a degree of independence, even if in most cases they were simply transferring their economic reliance from parent to husband.  At least, if strong enough of character they might gain some equality, if not indeed superiority in the domestic arrangements of the marital home.

Why was I reminded?  Because these women, all married and bedecked with fat wedding rings, even fatter eternity and large stone engagement rings were discussing future holidays.  Brochures were spread over the small table and encouraging or disparaging remarks were offered regarding various holiday destinations.  I couldn’t help hearing how one after the other commented on their husband’s likes and dislikes, and complaints of the cost of these annual, or maybe more frequent jaunts.

So, I thought, things may not have changed quite so much.  Yes, these women undoubtedly worked where there forbears would not have, but in this unequal world it is unlikely that they will be earning quite as much as their partners.  In any case they all appear to have succeeded in their prime motive of getting married and presumably having a family.  Unequal as society may well be, these women seemed to rule the roost at home, and despite who might actually earn the money they appear to be in the driving seat when it comes to spending it.

Good luck to them.  But I wonder if when things change, as they inevitably will, and women become at least equal wage-earners if we will be overhearing a group of men of a certain age looking over holiday brochures and complaining at the meanness of their wives in not allowing them the Carribean or Mauritus rather than Majorca or Cyprus.