Tag Archives: life in England

Oh England…

… What have you done to Steve and Jake??!

I sent you two healthy, excited, rosy-cheeked (well, Jake maybe!) well-fed, well-rested boys and you send me back two hacking, coughing, wheezing hags who’ve slept for the last 20 hours??! How’s that work?!

I think it goes to show how good the country living is out here. Less contact with sick people, fewer diseases. I was only sick once last year, when I got a nasty bout of laryngite from a woman in a doctor’s waiting room. Fact. Doctors’ waiting rooms MAKE you ill. I think they should give everyone masks and isolation booths.

Seriously, in a population of 499, when you see one or two people a day for a prolonged period and very few people meet up with Typhoid Marys, it’s much easier to stay healthy. If there’s a flu pandemic, I’m staying here! I shall live off my WTSHTF pack (when the shit hits the fan, of course!) and not go out for weeks until either everyone is dead, or everyone is better. This is true of a) zombie-pandemics b) ‘I am Legend’ scenarios and c) coughs and colds.

Not only that, without a pizza place or chippy on our doorstep, there is NO temptation. Not at all. You just can’t have an unhealthy meal because they aren’t there at your fingertips. This has me in mixed feelings. Yes it’s great to be virtuous, but it is a pain in the neck to always be cooking something. I usually spend an hour a day in the kitchen. I do all my shopping in one fell swoop, like Mother Used To. The good thing is Jake can’t whine about what just isn’t there. It’s like whining about having a spaceship. We just don’t have those conversations which go:

“What do you want for tea tonight?”


“You had chippy last night.”

“Burger King.”

If it were not a potato or some sweetcorn in his tuna, or the ubiquitous vegetables with the Christmas roasts, I bet that boy has not had a vegetable pass his lips in two weeks. And here’s me cramming 5-a-day down his gob, including lentils, beans, peas, pulses… no vitamin deficiencies on my watch!

I’m way past accepting that food has an effect on your health. Give me a full-fat 500 ml coke and a packet of Haribo sours and see mania take a grip. My boss used to give me these when he wanted me to do meetings extra quick. When I was a runner and preparing for triathlons, I was SO clean at eating. SO clean. This is when I weighed 7 stone 10 (49 kg??!) and I ate so many vegetables and pulses. Plus, I was vegetarian too, which I plan on being again from June. Claire will no doubt be pleased. Mostly, it’s just laziness. If I’m cooking, I end up doing one meal for Jake, one for Steve and one for me. And at least 5 nights a week when we now all eat the same thing, it’s SO much easier.

But whilst the boys weren’t here, in between the toffee crisps and the biscuits my sister sent me, I was a rice-and-beans kind of a girl. Lentils and pasta. Rice and haricot beans. And it makes you feel clean inside.

Last night, whilst the boys were still asleep (they were both in bed for 2 p.m.) I made a pie. Pie and mash and peas and carrots. Steve was already semi-awake by the time I was getting to the finishing touches.

“None for me, thanks. I’m not feeling too good.”


I took some through for Jake. He barely woke up. Thirty minutes later, the plate was still there, untouched. Ah well. The dogs ate well last night.

This morning, I’ve had 2000 mg of vitamin C and I’m hoping I won’t catch whatever it is they have. Mainly, I think it’s tiredness. Lack of routine, hyperactive brothers and eating junk food will do that to a boy. Jake’s got an absolutely terrible cough. He used to get really ill when we lived in Bury. He’d regularly be off school. I think he had two weeks off in Year 4 and similar in Year 5. Here, he’s never off school. I’m off out to get some glycerine and I’m going to make some home-made cough syrup. It was the only thing that made a difference when I had laryngitis.

Not sure if the boys will be back England-side again before they go back in June, but if they are, I bloody well hope that they come back in better condition! I’m already tired of making food nobody eats, putting blankets on people and saying ‘there, there!’ and going from looking after just me, the cat and the dogs to having a houseful again – especially a houseful who are lying on sofas coughing up a lung like some old smoker with emphysema… Ah joy!


The stars are brightly shining…

Amid all the commercialism, it can be easy to forget the ‘real’ message of Christmas. The first and most historical is that those there Romans once they’d put aside their heathen ways were unlikely to win over the dark nations without a few parties. The most significant of those are Easter and Christmas. I know people get upset about all the bunnies and eggs at Easter, but they’re as much a part of the festival as anything: rebirth, renewal, spring. New life. And Christmas? It’s no secret the Romans married it to Saturnalia, the festival to celebrate the passing of the world from long nights and remind us at the darkest of times that the light will return.

Christmas Eve walk

For me, Christmas is about that – the returning light. When you’ve had darkness from five o’clock until nine o’clock – all those sixteen hours of darkness can seem like they’re never going to disappear. Winter hits me hard when it first arrives. I’ve got a friend who gets depressed around the middle of June because he says it’s all downhill from there. In a way, he’s right. The days darken a little every single day after that, and by bringing all this light and shiny life inside, the berries of holly, mistletoe, the evergreen pines and ivy, the baubles and the lights – we remind ourselves of the natural order of things: just as light disappears, so it returns.

It’s also about a family. Whether it’s about the holy family or about your family, for some of us, it’s the only time we have with our nearest and dearest. This year is the first in many years that my sister and her husband haven’t worked on Christmas Day – and we all struggle to make sure everyone sees someone who’s family. It reminds us of the importance of the people who we love – whether they’re a happy accident of birth or whether they’re the people we’ve found through life that bring us a lot of light and love.

My garden - Christmas morning 2011

The second thing I do is ring family. The first is open my presents. That’s natural.

Whether it was those early mornings as a child when we’d all get up to get presents out, sitting around in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, or whether it’s a little later as a grown-up opening them on my own, presents are my family’s way of showing how much we care about each other. And it’s never been about cost. Sometimes, we’ve got a lot of money. Sometimes, we’ve got none. Either way, the best gifts are those that show how much our families or friends know us and care, no matter if they cost 79p or nothing, or whether they cost £200. It’s our way of saying ‘you mean the world to me’.

My sister’s was the first I opened yesterday and I was weeping as soon as I opened it – with joy, of course. Toffee Crisps. Not really my chocolate of choice, but a real family thing – as much as Blue Ribands used to be. My sister has ALWAYS got Toffee Crisps in her fridge and it’s just this thing we have between us – me snaffling her Toffee Crisps. I might live in the land of the chocolaterie these days, but a Toffee Crisp isn’t just a Toffee Crisp – an inelegant, bright-orange, sugary treat – it’s sisterhood. There was all sorts in that hamper, and every single one of them was thoughtful. From spices that cost the earth here to instant coffee (it’s all about quality in France and do you know what? I just can’t always be bothered to brew the cafetiere… and British instant coffee might be the source of ridicule – it’s on the shelf with chicory coffee and the French see it as some terrible throwback to the war, but our instant coffee beats much of their cheap ground coffee hands down!) and Viennese biscuits and hair dye, every single thing in that box was a treasure. Yes, hair dye. Over here, it costs a small fortune and I can’t fathom why. The home dye job is about the easiest way to do something about being glamorous.

Abi's Christmas Hamper... mmmm....

My mum’s also got me laughing and smiling. How well she knows me! Wool was the first thing out – three huge, rich burgundy balls of wool and a cute cardigan pattern. That’ll keep me busy for a couple of weeks and help beat off the darkness! Some netting to keep the birds off my sweetcorn (of course, I’ll plant them their own corn!) – an Alys Fowler recommendation I’d seen in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago and thought ‘Yes!’ – and my mum just must have known, a thousand kilometers away that’s what I was thinking. A weeding pad with ‘Keep Calm and Get Weeding’ on it – oh how I love it! All kinds of knitting accoutrements – and nothing I already had. How can someone know that you are missing 6.5 mm needles and stitch holders??!

Mum's Santa Sack

My Nana doesn’t need to give me a gift at all – because she IS my gift. I phoned her and she reminds me of all things I had forgotten – how me and Abi went down to the beach on Christmas morning in Mexico and watched the sun come up over the sea, then she says we went to her room, all three of us, and sang a carol at the door. I don’t remember doing it, but it sounds like something we’d do! I do remember ringing her room and telling her she’d need to pack her suitcase and go down to reception. We were trying to prank her but I was laughing so much that as soon as she answered, all she heard was me going ‘hee-hee-hee, hee-hee-hee’ and Abi and Al laughing at me laughing. Imagine getting a phone call of someone laughing insanely and saying nothing! But my Nana had sent me some money to spend in Moulin de Tin Tin – my current favourite shop.

Yesterday, the day was bright and cold – I’d set off to my dad’s about elevenish. I make no bones about it – my dad’s roasts are a masterpiece. Cooking is my family’s way of being a family – whether it’s a slice of Mary cake or whether it’s a Sunday roast. Al was cooking for his girlfriend, her daughter, my mum and step-dad. Abi was cooking for her husband and my Nana. My dad was cooking for me and my step-mum, as well as assorted guests. We have it down pat and I would challenge you to find any family that are so kitchen-gifted. There’s never a let-down. I’ve eaten Christmas dinners at other people’s houses and they are never the same. Never. Our family’s gravy is thick and sumptuous. Our roast potatoes are crisp and fluffy and crunchy. Nobody (except my sister…) does carrots like my Nana. If I had a last meal choice, my family’s Sunday roast would be it. Dad had done scallops and bacon on a bed of rocket and salad leaves, then the standard turkey with pigs in blankets, stuffing, roast, boiled and gratin potatoes, roasted leeks, sprouts, gravy. Brenda had done her Christmas ice-cream bombe and an apple topless tart. Then cheese. All this after a mountain of aperitifs, champagne, wine, crackers, dips, nuts, cheeses, charcuterie, dried sausages, gherkins, sausage rolls, sloe gin truffles, chocolates. I’m not eating again for weeks.

My own efforts seem a little humble. I’ve made most of my presents this year, and whilst there are some I can’t put up yet because they’ve not yet reached their recipients, I’d done a set of paintings for Brenda and my dad. I thought it would be nice to do their wedding love song words on a kind of painty-collagey thing with a photo I took of their wedding rings, all in a kind of  a heart shape. I’ve also been busy with the jigsaw and the dremel and I’ve done some other stuff, but I’m not putting that up yet!

Painting I did for my dad and step-mum

My best gifts, as always are the things that no-one could put in a package – not easily anyway! My mum, dad and respective step-parents, my sister and brother-in-law, my brother, my Nana. Family are a blessing when you get a good one! I know not everyone is so lucky. My dogs and my cat – who always bring light into my life, no matter what the weather and really are the best friends you can have. And then my friends, those people who make my day a whole lot brighter even if all I do is bring them to mind. The night was star-bright last night – and you can’t put a price on that beauty. This morning, I watched the sun rise from the warmth of my little house and with all these things, I am one blessed creature!

The little lights of my life...

Rebellion, insolence, sedition which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered

I’m watching what is happening in England through a computer screen which removes me somewhat from it. Much of it horrifies and alarms me. I’m watching youtube clips of men arrested for smashing windows with golf clubs who are then saying ‘what reason do you have to arrest me?’ to the police. I’m watching cars being smashed, businesses destroyed.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – author of one of the most powerful books of our time – might not say this is a black swan event – but there’s a bit that seems to fit for me – the posthumous rationalising of events as if they were predictable. Lack of jobs, poverty, lack of opportunity, a trigger event initiated by the police – all being used as reasons for the behaviour we’re witnessing. The media are to blame for spin. The shops are to blame for putting stuff in view. Labour are to blame because they created this culture and made policing weak. The Tories are to blame because it always happens on their watch because they give the police too much power. It’s the fault of the police. It’s the fault of the parents. It’s the fault of the schools. It’s the fault of new technologies allowing all this to happen.

The problem with all of this rationalising is that it doesn’t take into account personal accountability and morality. And this is what we have: a mass of ungovernable people who have either lost their sense of personal morality in the heat of the moment (not unlike so many other people who get caught up in the heat of the social zeitgeist, where genocide becomes acceptable, at the far end of the spectrum, or where far right parties get voted into power) or a mass of ungovernable people who can’t think for themselves because they are so overwhelmed by greed and moral indignation. Sociology tells us to group people, to link social events to social causes. But it doesn’t look at the individual, as if the individual has no free-will whatsoever. To me, social explanations such as poverty or unemployment is a problem for one great big reason: they see us a mindless herd. Maybe we are. Maybe that’s where it all went wrong.

Where are we as individuals if we have no sense of right or wrong, or no sense of consequence?

I can rob this shop. I can get carried away by the heat of the moment. I can subjugate my values for the brief euphoria of lawlessness. I can smash its windows because it feels good. It gets rid of some of that anger about ‘The Establishment’. I can steal all the things I never could afford. I can finally have the thing I wanted for so long. What I covet can be mine. In my miserable life, I can finally think someone’s handed me a lottery ticket to get those trainers I wanted, a new laptop, a new blackberry.


I can think. I can rob this shop, but this guy who owns the shop – he’s going to suffer. Maybe his insurance won’t cover it and he’ll end up out of pocket. Maybe everything he’s worked for will be destroyed. I can imagine the guy’s face as he realises his living has been destroyed. I know he’ll never feel the same again. It’ll take a while for him to get the insurance, and they’ll look for every opportunity they can to rip him off, because they’re a business and that’s what they do. He’ll suffer, whilst I’ve filled my pockets with his cigarettes and his cash. Maybe he won’t be able to pay for food tonight. Maybe he’ll break down. Maybe this will push him over the edge. Maybe he’ll sink into depression. His insurance premiums will go up, through no fault of his own. He’ll put prices up. Either that will drive people to cheaper places where they can soak up overheads, or he’ll have to live in poverty. If insurance goes up, prices go up. My own friends and family will have to pay more. I might steal this £200 from the till now, but every time I buy a can of coke from this guy in the future, I’ll have to look him in the eye and know I did wrong by him.

And I make the right choice.

I can square up to the police and throw a petrol bomb. But that man is just a man. He’s protecting the country because he’s paid to. I might not like what he stands for. I might disapprove of their politics, but he’s just a man. He’s a man who maybe doesn’t believe in how the police operate all the time, but he knows overall they do more good than bad. By a long shot. He himself remains dignified and composed and doesn’t launch a petrol bomb back at me. I allow my emotions to run free, but I don’t expect him to have emotions. Or I expect him to control them. He’s just a man. He might disagree with my politics. He might have come from Irish immigrants forced from Ireland due to famine. His ancestors might have been born in workhouses. His family might have pulled themselves out of the gutter. Maybe he wants to petrol bomb me because he thinks I’m disrespectful scum and I’m creating a world that he doesn’t want his kids to grow up in.

So I do the right thing.

I remember that this is my community – my home. It might not be much, but it’s what I’ve got. It’s what my family fought for. It’s what they tried hard to get right. This is the park I played in as a kid. How devastated would I have been to see it ruined? This is the church I went to. I might not believe in God, but it’s where my Mum goes every Sunday and I respect that. It means a lot to her.

So I protect my community, my home. I take personal responsibility not to commit a crime and I know that if I steal, if I vandalise, if I destroy, it’s myself I’m hurting. Because I am part of this community and what I do to it will hurt me. I know I’m part of a bigger picture and I know my part in it.

Where is this kind of thinking? Where is empathy and insight? I can blame the big things, the institutions and governments, education, parenting, community, religion. But at the bottom of it all, we are individuals who make choices. At some point, sociology forgets that. The media forgets that.

When I was face to face with the teenager who stole my camera, he was full of excuses of poverty and being wound up by a group. He was too poor to repay me, so he said. He didn’t want his picture taken. Allah (!) didn’t believe in it. Society and sociologists and religion gave him ready-made excuses which he trotted out. It took a while to cut through these social excuses to make him see what he’d done. He’d damaged the good work his mosque had done to integrate. He’d let down his family. He’d victimised a woman who is the same size as his mum. He’d stolen a camera full of ebay stuff I was going to sell, so I didn’t make money that week. He’d been part of a hundred-strong group who were inciting a fight in times where people carry knives and heaven knows what else. He cried at the end.

But the worst thing is, despite him crying , I know he’d do it again. That voice that I provided for him is missing or else he wouldn’t have done it in the first place. And that’s the real problem. There have always been people without their own moral voice that says stealing is wrong (because it hurts someone else) but that’s what’s wrong, to me. All these people with no moral voice to tell them what they’re doing is wrong. They cite poverty and unemployment and tension and police brutality as if they are living in Syria. They are not. I look at other news and see the world falling apart – so it seems. Famine in Somalia. Civil dispute in Syria and Libya. Economies in free-fall. I know we’re not going to get through this with a smash-and-grab mentality. So why don’t more people think like I do?

What’s missing seems to be two-fold: altruism and empathy. I see so much anger, so much rage and so much selfishness in the news reports about London – there’s one solution. Empathy. When you empathise, your anger dissipates. When you empathise, you want to help others. When you empathise, it allows you to balance the needs of others against your own and then be altruistic. But this is down to the individual, not society. Society can’t be responsible for teaching everyone to empathise. I can imagine the scorn with which that would be greeted: National Programme to Develop Empathy. You can imagine the derision from the media. I can imagine the derision from myself! But that’s what we need.

Writers’ retreat

I’m a notional member of ‘the writers’ retreat’ – a group online who spend an hour every so often writing just for fun. The goal is that you spend an hour writing online in silent pursuit of pleasure. I say notional because its time zones don’t work for me, being in the middle of the night, but I usually spend an hour anyway. It’s not very silent tonight – I have a bad case of the hiccups and Tilly is growling over a bone she tried to hide in amongst the magazines behind Steve’s chair – Jake is still chatting with his dad and Cops is playing in the background. Still, it’s my best attempt at a silent world for a silent hour of creative pleasure.

So… perhaps two topics to discuss – both linked by a rural village.

One is a piece of rural England that is seen as the doyenne of rural Cotswold villages. Busloads of American and Japanese tourists arrive there each day to sample ‘rural’ English life – a village as Stow-on-the-Wold. It is filled with Wind in the Willows sentimentality in a way – even the very name so quintessentially ‘English’ – harking back to an England perhaps long gone, preserved in a living museum to English village life gone by. When tourists think of English village life, they think of this: tea shoppes and antiques shops, painters’ galleries and quaint boutiques, ancient inns and hostelries. This is my mother’s world. Her family ran The Bell Inn for some time, and owned a smallholding on the outskirts of town, known as The Mill. I can’t remember much about The Mill except for the fact it had an old Mill on it, of course, and that I remember my uncle built cars in a workshop not unlike the workshops Steve now has on hand. There was a field of goats at the front and a chicken pen. The first time I went there, I was perhaps 10 or 11 – and it seemed like a different world to me.

The house inhabited by my maternal grandfather and Aunt’s family seemed like it belonged to another world than mine. Steps led up and down – nothing was even. The front room, I remember, seemed to be full of stuffed animals and strange objects. It was ramshackle in ways that cottages are. With no even planning, dark corridors led to rooms unexplored. I don’t know if it was really like this, or if time has done something strange to my memory. I remember the lanes seemed the greenest I’d ever seen as we went down to The Mill. My uncle Bill developed his own photographs, I think – I don’t know where – and I have a photograph of my brother and mum putting up a tent outside in an overgrown garden that seemed almost magical compared to our own very neat back garden which was middle-class suburbia through and through.

There’s a little of this wildness where we live now. Steps connect all the rooms – the floors are all on different levels. Secretive doors merge into the wallpaper and we discovered another attic a good two months after we’d lived here permanently. The land is a triangle, too, which my mother reminds me was the shape of The Mill. It’s nowhere near as big as The Mill, but maybe a little of it will remind my mother of the place she grew up.

It was into this rural kingdom of English gentility that my Dad arrived. I don’t know how he got there, why he ended there or what happened, other than in snatches. An inner-city Manchester boy in his urban clothes, with his wealth of 1960s experiences arrived in a town that was probably still in shock about Elvis and The Beatles, so lost in Greensleeves and Elgar it was.

He gave me a little snippet yesterday that brought back some of that quaint and charming English magic – he worked in a little restaurant in Stow called, aptly, The Stowaway. This is so resonant with so many images. Not just the pun on the name of the town, but the whole notion of stowaways (despite Stow being miles from the sea!) and I see wooden panels and dark interiors well used to hiding people who don’t want to be found. He says it was small – only 20 or so covers a night – and only two rooms – the restaurant and the kitchen – with two rooms upstairs to sleep in. English people do ‘small’ so very well – it’s probably impossible for Americans and Canadians (that’s you, Wendy!) to imagine how small English rooms and houses can be. I see oil lamps and oilskin tablecloths, odd chairs that don’t match – a far cry from white table cloths and linen that I imagine the world where my mother worked to be. My dad said he and the other guy who ran the place slept upstairs, and that his friend kept a rifle to pick off the rats.

Those of us in the end of our teenage years can sometimes live life so romantically and ambitiously – no fear to guide us – that our stories of those times seem a world away from the world we inhabit – finally – as ‘grown-ups’. No wonder they all seem so interesting to those of a younger generation – when they finally decide to listen to the days when their parents were more than their parents – the days when their parents were actual living, breathing people, intrepid teenagers. It reminds me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Before you were mine’ where she looks back at her mother with an awe and a fascination for the woman her mother once was, before she belonged to the poet.

I look back at the teenage me, living in rooms in shared houses with students or friends, cooking meals for 16. Once, I went down to Brixton to stay with a Venezuelan friend, hopped over the barriers to the tube, got off at Camden – where Camden market seemed so new and so fresh – even though it had been a mecca for the peculiar and the unusual way before 1990 when I arrived there. I worked with Jewels, my Venezuelan friend, in a radical bookshop selling copies of socialist propaganda, feminist texts, Marxist texts. We stayed in his squat in Brixton, making pancakes on a calor gas stove, sleeping on fake animal skins, dying our hair matching colours in the bathtub. We talked for hours and hours, long into the night. He laughed at me and said I would fall asleep talking. He was the first person I’d ever met with his lip pierced – not once, but twice – nothing like the be-pierced youths of England today. And he was the first person I’d ever met who had ‘good’ tattoos – not just skulls and the usual hard rock images done by Dave in Bury. He had an eagle in full flight across his chest.

One night, we hopped over the heavily-secured fence into Brockwell Park – the heart of Brixton – and lay looking at the stars.

“No matter where you are, or where I am, you know you can always look up and see the same stars.” He told me. He was right. I look up most nights here, and often think of what he said. No matter how big the world, we still share the same view of the universe and whenever I need to feel connected, I know I can look up and know my mum or my sister can see the same stars. He taught me to go beyond myself, beyond my small town values and to think big. We talked only of big ideas, as only teenagers can still do, filled with passion about society and history, literature and music. I still think he was the person who knew me best in all the world. He was an exotic hummingbird to my Manchester sparrow – and he brightened my worlds and broadened my horizons in ways I could add to my life. I like to think that when I look at the world maps, wondering where to go next, his spirit of fearlessness and bravery makes me as intrepid as he was.

We walked one July night to Clapham, picking up pink rice from a Turkish takeaway along the way and eating it with our fingers. He said he had a friend who was having a get-together and maybe we should go. We walked by the house, where strange creatures came and went through the doorway, and we spent the night with people playing guitars. I remember very little except for a beautiful black woman singing her heart out. It was a woman who would later be known as Skin, in a band called Skunk Anansie. And she could sing!

The 18-year-old me would be wide-eyed at the 38-year-old me I’ve become. I don’t know whether I’d be amazed, or scornful. I know I’ve not changed that much. Maybe I’m much more cynical, but I still possess – and relish – the ability to be wowed by things. A cat watching a computer game, Molly cuddled up with Fox, Tilly hiding her bone in a pile of magazines, cherry blossom and chickens all still make me smile.

And so here’s part two of the tale of two villages: from Stow to Les Ecures. Stow is upmarket, antique-y and wealthy in ways that rural France is often not. There’s none of the polish and yet there is still most of what real Stow life was probably all about: village schools and church bells, green fields and the distant sound of shotguns. We are 14 houses, a handful more residents, a good few dogs and a bend on the road between one village and a small town. Nothing exciting happens. It can bring no romantic dreams of tiny, darkened restaurants sandwiched in the middle of a village – it has little so romantic about it. M. Richon with his yellow sou’ester and wellingtons is about as exciting as things here get. The old lady (and her mother, maybe!) who live opposite us and a little farther up. Arthur and his family, our very clean cut and delightful neighbours. A Dutch couple who have painted their shutters a wonderful shade of lavender. An older lady I’ve seen once when she came to tell me about the perils of the road. Michel, the farmer, who regularly waves as he tootles past on his tractor.

It’s not romantic. There’s nothing wonderful or daring about it. It’s not some unusually named restaurant in a village, or a squat in Brixton, but it’s my home. I hope I’ve not lost the fearlessness of my teenage years when I walked through Brixton on warm summer evenings, but I feel a little less rough around the edges, a little softer. A little more like my mother and father – a little more ‘straightforward’ – and yes, a little less awesome and amazing in how different I am from the teenage me – I feel like I’ve had the rough edges polished from me – perhaps as my father has had as the years have gone by.

It reminds me, though, in a very zen kind of way, that tough stuff is needed to polish diamonds. It’s not an easy job and it requires a lot of friction. Maybe such is true of life, too, that it takes a lot of buffing to smooth the rough edges and become just a little softer.

My hour is up. Tilly is silent now – she’s lost her bone for growling at Bird. Bird is sitting over my shoulder, his eyes shut, curled up in a ball. Fox is stretched out, a sofa to himself. Molly is sitting as close to me as she can possibly get and I am thankful for her soft warmth. Jake has gone to sleep and I’ve lost Steve to the world of some computer game and here we sit, all of us bound in 20 metres square, all of us in our solitary, comfortable universes. And, most thankfully of all, my hiccups have disappeared.

Oh England, my England!

There’s a debate in The Sun today about the moves to make St George’s Day a bank holiday. This would be great for several reasons. One is that it’s my bother-in-law’s birthday and he would quite like a bank holiday. Second is that it’s also the accepted date for Shakespeare’s birthday. But third, more importantly than these, is that it would allow people to be ‘English’ for a day.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like being attached to Scotland and Wales. That’s fine. But they have their own patron saint days and everybody, but everybody, celebrates them. Daffodils and Leeks. Thistles or whatever it is Scottish people have. Nobody would be embarrassed to go to Burns’ Nights celebrations. On Anglo-Info, there was a whole thread of people admitting their Welshness in time for St David’s Day. But to wear a red rose on St George’s Day, or – heaven forbid – to sport the England flag, would be seen now as tantamount to racism. Our flag has become a symbol of racists and a symbol of nationalists and every negative quality they stand for. Unfortunately, if I put a flag up, I become a bigot, a person who thinks England should be elite. Or else it’s a major sports season and I’m allowed.

It’s embarrassing to be ‘English’. It’s like admitting to years of enslaving people, colonialism, unscrupulous expansion and brutality. I feel like we should have a badge saying ‘Sorry’ if I admit I’m English. In fact, I can’t even say ‘English’ on my passport. I have to say ‘British’. I feel the weight of history, for the Unionisation between England and Scotland, the ceding of Northern Ireland, tyranny in Ireland… it’s not done to remember amazing British history. It’s not done to be proud of standing up to Fascism and Nazism and how hard we fight for justice and ‘good’.

The thing is, I think in all the Jeremy Kyle type people, the scroungers, the jobs-worths, the ‘entitled’ and disrespectful ‘yoof’ – the Karen Matthews of the world, the mealy-mouthed social workers in Haringey, the miserable pram-faced girls with their assorted offspring from several different fathers, it’s easy to forget the majority. The majority of English people are great. We’re hard-working and we’re honest.

I didn’t vote for David Cameron, but I think he’s gaining power because he seems honest. Seems. He seems sincere. And Nick Clegg? His sincerity seems now as thin as Tony Blair’s. We actually expect people to be honest. Except footballers. We expect them to be dishonest, lying, drug-taking cheats. You know what I think kept people going through the Second World War? The fact that we believe in Good and we believe in Freedom. And mostly, I think that we’re like this.

For example, there are many unscrupulous leaders now being taken by storm by uprisings across the world. Good. But do you know what? This wouldn’t need to happen in England – because we expect our politicians – naively perhaps – to be honest. We might not riot, but Tony Blair, David Chaytor and so on – they all know how the public feel about dishonesty. Americans were cynical about WMD and a lot of Americans I know say they weren’t at all surprised that Saddam didn’t have WMD. I think the English were. I think the first time we went into the Gulf, over Kuwait, it might have been about oil to Americans, but to us, it was about fairness. It’s just not cricket.

And we trusted Blair. Foolishly. As The Jam said, “you choose your leaders and place your trust…” – it’s so true. We really do. And yes, we’re disappointed from time to time. But in all the expenses scandal, we actually had three politicians punished. That’s fair. In Italy, you only have to look at Berlusconi to know that this just wouldn’t happen. You can be as corrupt as you like. In France, Jacques Chirac is in court on corruption charges, but it’s taken 15 years to get here.

In France, you are expected to be, above all, French first. The true meaning of a secular nation. You can be whatever else you like too – French-Algerian, French-Moroccan, French-Muslim, French-African, but you are French. You learn about France in school and have a very Francocentric view of the world. You must speak the language and adhere to 200 year old laws. Religion isn’t taught in state schools, and no one, but no one would think to say that the French flag is a racist thing, despite Marine Le Pen trying to claim the colours as such. Every mairie, every important building, they all have the French flag outside of it and are proud to do so. Where is the England flag on our buildings? Sure we have the bastardised Union Jack, but it’s not English. For one day of the year, it would be nice to reclaim that flag and celebrate a bit of England.

So I’d love it if we could have a day of being English. I’d love it if that didn’t mean nationalism. I’d love it if the 80% of the English public would rise up and be proud of our bad teeth, our regionalisms, our language, our culture, our heritage. We dragged this world kicking and screaming from Feudalism to Industrialism to Commercialism and we should be proud of that. In England, you are free to be what you choose, free to vote, free to say and do what you want. I’m proud of our loyalty, our inherent belief in honesty, our moral stance.

When Rupert Brooke wrote ‘If I should die, think only this of me/that there is a corner of some foreign field that is forever England’, he meant those values we are inherently – never mind the rodenty sub-species that fills our newspapers – we are brave, we are honest, we are upright, we know Good. We love our country.

Now you might think this is a little rich coming from a girl who lives in France. Well, I’m sick of the usual flag-wielders, and I’m sick of the Jeremy Kyle people. I’m sick of the ‘so unfair’ generation who expect the world to owe them a living before they have even fought for their place in it. I love England and being English. I never want to be anything else. I love France too – but if we’d had the weather, the property prices, the space, the houses, I’d still be there. I’m tired of the rain. I think the sun should shine for one day in England, and that it should be St George’s Day, when we kick people like this into touch. If you live in England, it should be England first, everything else second. And shouldn’t we have a day to celebrate that?

St Paddy’s Day is celebrated across the world. On March 17th, Irish green abounds around the globe, wherever there are Irish communities. Sure, it might be more about Guinness than about repelling all the snakes, or whatever he did. But if the Irish are about community and celebration and singing ‘Oh Danny Boy’, then so be it. Nobody is embarrassed to be Irish.

I wish we felt the same about being English. And before you say we do: our Government doesn’t. Otherwise, it’d be a day off for all its loyal subjects. Shame it takes Dr John Sentamu, a British Ugandan, to say that. See. British first.

Sunny days and Sundays really make me smile

Jake usually doesn’t get out of bed at the weekend until past 11. He’s already ‘teen-boy’. So it was quite a surprise to have him up at 8:00 on a Sunday morning, and in a fine temper. He stayed in a fine mood all day, too, which is more than I can say about the Stephen with the sore head, but oh well. Such is the universe!

Jake and I went to the nearby skate park today. He’s a marvel. He didn’t quite have the confidence to do the big ramp, but he had a go, just about made it and was then scared to come down! He was also scared that someone might see him and he’d be embarrassed. He doesn’t quite go along with the idea of ‘when will I ever see these people again?’ which is my firm motto for embarrassing behaviour. In fact, if I were to see them every day, it wouldn’t bother me.

Then I came back and got on with the garden a bit. I dug over about a third of the bit of what will be the potato patch. The ground is really soft and lush – hopefully good for potatoes. I’ve planted out the sweet peas I soaked last night. I’ve also fashioned a cold frame inside the polytunnel for those things needing a bit extra warmth to get them going – amazing what you can do with an old windscreen!! I’m so looking forward to the coming months, and that’s not an easy thing for a girl like me to say. Tomorrow, I will do a bit more of the potato patch. We had some carrots left in over the winter, and I can’t decide to dig them up or leave them. Yet again, I had little success with the spring onions. Onions are not my area of expertise!

Steve had a good sleep last night, whilst Jake and I watched 300 and ate pancakes. I might be good at many culinary things, but pancakes are not one of them. They are Steve’s forté and I leave well enough alone. But with him sleeping, it seemed best to make them ourselves. We had them with melted butter and sugar, comme les francaises!

blame the boy!


Le Crissmass Pooddinguh

Yesterday, Jake came home from school with an impromptu request.

“Our teacher wants to know if I can bring some crackers in, because I’m English.”

Crackers, for those of you who don’t know, like the French, are toilet-roll inners wrapped in fancy paper. Inside this is a little bit of card with a tiny bit of powder that ‘cracks’ when you pull them with a partner, to reveal, oh joy of joys, a little plastic ‘Made in China’ gift. Apparently, China are outsourcing to Vietnam now, so it might say ‘Made in Vietnam’. There’s also a terrible joke and a paper hat. It’s compulsory to wear the paper hat if you want to look the part. That is… if the part is looking like a drunken, fashion-less fool. For this privilege, you usually pay about £10 for a box. My brother Al and I have a competition to see how many we can win – we even have a technique and a specific angle.

However, they aren’t known in France, and whilst you can buy them from various English shops, they’re three times the price, and since there’s not so many of us here over Christmas, it just didn’t seem worth it. So, no, we didn’t have any crackers.

I went to my dad’s to see if I could find any in his grange. I had a distinct memory of sleeping with a bag full of crackers next to me last Christmas. But we couldn’t find any. Just as we were packing up, my Dad’s neighbour turned up with a stere of wood for my dad’s fire – so we spent a good ten minutes taking them off the trailer and catching up on new dogs and local news.

So… in lieu of that, I decided to crack into a Christmas pudding as a swap. Most of the ingredients are available here, except they don’t really ‘do’ different mixed fruit – just raisins. I’d kind of adapted it and it’s now without glacé cherries. How can France not do glacé cherries? Surely glacé implies ‘iced’? I thought they would be like marrons glacés, but they aren’t available over here, despite how popular they are in England. Neither is crystallised ginger. All of these are missing, but my Christmas pudding seemed right. I shall have to make my own crystallised ginger and glacé cherries next year when the cherry crops are ready. I found the stout and enough dried fruit to sink a ship, so I managed to make three 2-litre puddings. One is for Christmas pudding ice-cream, one is for eating, and one was a spare.

So… I sent Jake with a note saying I was prepared to come in with a Christmas pudding and some custard. The French love custard, like we love crème patisserie. I got an excited phone call ten minutes into school time saying the children would be delighted to sample some Christmas pudding.

Unfortunately, between nine and two, a million things went wrong. I got a flat tyre, my dad’s Clio wasn’t starting, since it’s been out of use for a few weeks, the charger wouldn’t charge, every time we tried to attach it, the alarm kicked in, and Steve called me a chocolate fireguard and made me sit in the van, because all I could think about was 180 euros for two second-hand tyres like last time. That’s nine tyres this year.

So, by the time I got to school, I was a little frazzled. Still, rows of delighted children will cure you of that. They were all extremely excited to taste Le Crissmass pooddinguh and to take the recipes and get the ingredients. I have to say I was giddy, too, as they worked out what was what. Some said it wasn’t for them. Some liked it though it was a bit strange. Several came back for more, though I think they were just hoping for ‘la pièce’  the lucky sixpence. Axel, who’s a bundle of enthusiasm (I wish I had a friend called Axel. It’s a cool name. I wonder if he’s named after the German band who did the tune to Beverley Hills Cop, Axel F, or after W Axl Rose, the rock star who really should have taken early retirement. The cornrows didn’t do it for me like snake hips did in Welcome to the Jungle. Still, Axel is pretty cool anyway) had an English phrase book from way back when, complete with details of pounds, shillings and sixpences, and when he looked up la crème anglaise, it said “The custard” which I thought was quite cute, and actually accurate, except you wouldn’t ask for the bananas with the custard, really, unless you were reading from Axel’s pre-decimal phrase book. There’s a lovely, hyper-intelligent girl, Sara, in the class. One boy was flicking an elastic band at her, so I said “Donnes-moi!” in my teacher voice and put it in my pocket. Jake was horrified by this. He said: “That’s robbery!” and was quite outraged.

I’m sad he didn’t see me in my prime when I routinely confiscated several phones from various little beggars, would stand at the door with a bin and anyone who didn’t spit gum into it and was subsequently found with gum would be found somewhere with lots of gum stuck to the bottom and made to remove it all. If it came out in my classroom, it was considered my property. I considered my classroom as The People’s Republic of Lady Justine – You have no vote and no say. But I was fair, if strict. I had several rules, one of which was ‘you can’t wear more make-up than me’ and ‘you can’t do ‘THAT’ face’… ‘THAT’ face being that ‘I’ve just seen some dog licking vomit off a pile of doggy doo’ combined with the ‘I have no regard for you and I wish you would die a horrid death in a violent way, preferably involving me spitting on you repeatedly to show my scorn’. I patented this face. I have photographic proof. I can do the scornful adolescent sneer so much better than any child I’ve ever come across. So, any imitation of ‘THAT’ face was immediately banned. Much like a young Elvis might have banned all the ancient old impersonators who would come to represent him. I perfected that look. I made it an art form. None of my friends did it. In fact, they all had healthy, wonderful relationships with their family. However, we did do the class ‘scorn-n-sneer’ to teachers who we didn’t like. So… confiscating an elastic band being flicked at a precocious and amazing little girl is fair game.

Steve just said ‘but you’re not a teacher any more’ and has given an explanation as to how he’d have complained. Like Father, like Son. And little does Steve know that if he’d have complained after having had to have an elastic band removed from his personage by a guest of the school because he was aiming it at a sweet little girl, I’d have carted him off to the Maire to be told off and shamed. I’d have insisted on speaking to his parents (That’s you Susan!) to express my outrage and insisted they share my indignation.

I did this with a boy once, who shall be known as Darren. It’s a pseudonym, though why I don’t name and shame is beyond me.

Said boy was lurking in the corridor, trying to pull a few of my sheep-like fifteen-year-old top set kids out of the fold for mischief. I’d appropriately admonished them and pulled them back into the pack, and said to Boy:

“Who are you?!”

“Why?” *why do they ALWAYS ask ‘why?’ – nothing sets my sparks going like that. Especially when they do it with a whiney nasally tone.

“Because I want to know.”

“What have I done?”

“Well, you won’ t tell me who you are.”

“I don’t have to…”

“In fact, dear, you’re right. You don’t. However, like the police I reserve the right to detain you until you do, so to the back of my class, now.” And I prompted said Boy to my classroom door.

“And you can spit your gum out and tuck your shirt in.” *Any English teachers will know this instantly. I don’t know why British education still bothers trying to clothe pupils in what’s essentially a polyester suit, since all they want to do is wear their tie in weird ways and un-tuck their shirts.  I did the same. We wore shirts out to cover rolled up skirts. We had a doughnut ring of skirt around our midriffs. I’m not sure why boys do it, except that if you have your shirt in, you look like a ‘stiff’, as 11 year old me would have said.

“And you can suck my dick…” he said, smirking, thinking the class would laugh. They didn’t. Mouths opened. Jaws dropped. Eyes were on stalks. A bit of tumbleweed blew by.

“Fine… come with me.” I promptly escorted said boy to the headmaster, a portly fellow of great gravitas and dignity, about as prim as you’d want him to be.

“Sir, I’ve brought you a boy….”

Sir looked appropriately worried.

“He’s just asked me to SUCK — HIS — DICK.” I enunciated each word, loudly and clearly, as if the words aren’t common in my mouth. Darren blushed.

The head looked mortified and played along well. He made all the appropriate ‘in front of a lady’ noises, as if this was 1820. I asked for permission to call Darren’s mother. I did the same to her.

“I’m sorry to be calling you, Mrs Jones, but I have some very disturbing things to report. I’m afraid Darren has been incredibly rude. I have to say, as a woman, I’m sure you’ll understand, I felt quite violated by this, but Darren told me to SUCK–HIS–DICK….” I let the words echo. I’ve never seen anyone paler. “I’m sure you’ll understand, if a male teacher said this to a female 15 year old student, how horrific that would be – struck off, possible police investigations and so on.”

I laid it on thick and spread it about like a maturing cheese on a cracker.

By the end of it, Darren was excluded temporarily. He had a file like a telephone book and was on his ‘three strikes and you’re out’ last warning – hence why he wouldn’t tell me his name. I’m quite sure a young boy CANNOT be more mortified than when a female teacher repeats to his loving mother exactly what their little darling just said, and then milks it a little. I thought not, at the time.

It turns out, in Catholic schools, the way to get back in is to apologise in person to every member of the governing body. So Dear Darren had to apologise, precisely, using his exact words, to the priest, the head, the deputies, his parents, and finally, me.

So, Cillian with his elastic band, Stephen with his sympathy and Jake with his distress on Cillian’s behalf about robbery can join the queue of people I’ve caused grievance to.

They can find it directly behind Darren. By now, it’s about 200,000 people long.

What they’ve yet to realise is how boys actually need a firm hand. Rules is rules, but when Miss brings you cake and tells you all the rude jokes in Shakespeare, and sometimes lets you have a rest in her office, you’ll pretty much do anything for her. Boys like it strict. Let it be known. And, if they don’t like it strict, they need it strict!


It’s the little differences…

Recently, some posts from back home, particularly to do with Essa Academy, the school which the muggers attended, have been popping up on my ‘people found your blog who searched for…’ – and recently, Essa Academy Deputy Head, or She-who-is-too-busy-to-deal-with-violent-robbery. It makes me wonder what I’m going back to in November.

There are many ways rural life changes you, and many ways France changes you – here are some of the ways!

1. There isn’t the ever-present McDonald’s everywhere. In fact, one of the McDonald’s in Angouleme shut for lack of business. I don’t have to deal with Jake’s constant requests for a Chicken Select meal every time we drive down the dual carriageway. In fact, fast food is a no-go in general. Sure, I still stick a pizza in, but it’s always home-made. I’m sure Steve used to have takeaway pizza at least once a week. Jake saw a sign for a pizzeria yesterday – see, ‘see-it, want-it’ – it reminds me of that episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Dewey watches an advert with a blue cuddly toy on it which speaks to him personally and was a class satire about the power of advertising on children. He got giddy about pizza and then forgot about it by the time we got to the petrol station. Such is life in France. In England, there’s McDonald’s hovering on the periphery of every child’s consciousness all the time. Here, our nearest McDo is 20 minutes’ drive away, at the back of a car park, and the one time we went, it was so bad that we never bothered again. Now, I’ve got Jake eating some food that’s the same as ours – he’ll happily eat mash and jacket potatoes alongside chips, which he wouldn’t a year ago, unless it was pre-packaged. Bolagnaise, chicken in sweet and sour sauce, meat pie… the boy is a changed man. And no pining for McDo every time you drive past.

2. Pre-packaged stuff in the supermarket looks very plastic. It probably does in England, but here, it looks SOOO unappetising. Like it was deliberately designed to put you off. In the supermarket, we have 4 freezer rows. One has ice-creams and sweet stuff; the second has frozen veg and chips; the other has meat and fish. The final is mostly made up with pizza, a few frozen rice dishes and a few quiches. None of these endless rows of pre-pack, frozen chicken in batter, or fish in batter, or Aunt Bessie’s *though I confess I miss Aunt Bessie’s yorkshire puddings very much*. If you want it, cook it yourself.

3. Things that are oddly missing. Frozen or fresh sweetcorn. Weird. Canned, fine. Fresh, No. Chillis with more punch than an old women’s bitch fight = non-existent. Things that are weirdly expensive: raisins (in this land of grapes!) sultanas, oats. Clothes. You get used to planning to grow your own ‘weird’ veg that nobody wants, or making do without. No flapjacks for us.

4. The sad loss of English cheese. In England, cheese rules. Japanese people think British people smell like sour milk, and it’s probably all the cheese we eat. We have a range of fantastic hard cheeses, crumbly cheeses and soft cheeses – some of which are worth export, beyond cheddar, surely? Red Leicester, for one, perfect melted. Double Gloucester, your perfect cheese-and-tomato-sandwich cheese. Lancashire, acid and flaky. Caerphilly. Stilton. In a British supermarket, you can buy Italian cheese, French and Swiss cheese, Austrian cheese, Spanish cheese – and the full complement of British cheeses to boot. Yes, there’s a lot of Cheddar, but you can buy at least 5 Italian cheeses, Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Gruyere, Emmenthal, Edam, Jarlsberg… it’s a smorgasbord of cheese. In France, you can buy rows of Camembert and Brie, goat’s cheese, a bit of Comte or Gruyere – and stuff you if you want to buy anything else! You can find a few packets of Italian cheese hidden away, but they just don’t do hard cheese like ours. English supermarkets are a whole lot more cosmopolitan, as are our eating tastes. You have to ‘go French’ if you move here. And mostly that’s not a bad thing, but sometimes, it’s imbecilic that they don’t import the best, most yummy stuff from other countries. National pride in your cuisine is one thing; failing to accept other countries have something to offer is another.

5. The TV is less pride of place than it was. We watch DVDs a lot (having worked our way through series 1-8 of 24) but it’s not constantly on. I don’t miss it. I want to watch French t.v. to learn the language, but other than that, I can’t see I’ll ever be connected.

6. Instant coffee is a big no-no. It’s on a shelf with chicory coffee. It’s almost like it’s not coffee at all. In fact, it makes me wonder, how the hell do they make it so it dissolves??! Weird! It frightens me a bit now I think about it. No Alta Rica to be found here.

7. All French houses have a coffee pot (that I’ve seen, anyway!) or a stove-pot. You have to have proper coffee, with coffee beans, or at least ground coffee. Not instant.

8. Your ‘vie quotidienne’ (daily life) is very different. School being only 4 days gives you a different rhythm to life. It’s like a mini-weekend. Jake is much less tired and seems to enjoy school more. Also, everything other than Leclerc shuts down at lunch. You can’t just nip to the bank or post office in your lunch time. If you aren’t ensconced in a café, you aren’t out. There’s no point. You have to plan ahead more, too, deciding on Friday what you’re eating on Sunday and Monday – since you won’t be getting to the supermarket. Even the giant Casino supermarket shuts on Sundays. And some places are shut on Mondays, too. In fact, plan on stuff being open for a couple of hours a week either side of lunch and you’re about right.

9. Plan to get your petrol or use a credit card (not at the moment, anyway!) since petrol stations shut too, apart from the 24/7 credit card pumps. And they shut for lunch. And a lunch time shut means up to three hours. Right when you might want to go somewhere. I’ve seen people pull in at 12:01 and still be sitting there at 2:59.

10. You have to get used to not only French numbers, which for me are a hundred times more difficult than actual words. I can learn words. I can remember fosse septique and plinthes and portail. I can say je voudrais deposer deux cheques, s’il vous plait, but it took me an awful long time to learn my postcode (seize cent dix) and I’m still a long way off with our phone number. I can do the zero-cinq quatre-cinq easily enough, but then I get mixed up. And why would 16110 be sixteen-a hundred and ten? Why is it four-five in my phone number, and then sixty-five? Why not forty-five, sixty-five, or four-five-six-five? What’s with mixing the tens with the units?! And how do you know until someone says?! I still can’t remember my birth date (quinze – always escapes me) and you don’t say ‘the fifteenth of December’ you say, ‘fifteen December’ literally speaking. What’s with that?! I’m yet to master my year of birth. We do nice ‘nineteen-sixty’ tens blocks. In France, it just as well might be one-nine hundred-and-sixty, or a-hundred-and-ninety-six-zero or something weird. 2010 is easy enough – deux mille dix, but numbers before the millennium scare me. As do times. The 24 hour clock is in full swing here, and it’s bad enough not being able to remember what falls between douze and dix-huit when pushed, but when you then have to deal with ‘is quatorze heures’ two o’clock? I instantly think 14 must be four o’clock. The man in the bank looked alarmed when he said three o’clock and I wrote down five o’clock. Bloody numbers!!!

It’s the little differences, as Vincent Vega would say.

L’Hiver le chasseur aiguise son couteau

It’s definitely the advent of Winter – I think Autumn definitely started with the fall of the aspen leaves at the tail-end of August – and now, two months on, the fire is on and there is a definite nip in the air. It’s the kind of weather that makes you need hats, scarves and gloves. I’ve got several immediate projects to get on the go – a draught excluder and some curtains to go across the archway, as there’s a mighty strong gale that blows under the door way!

Steve’s mum and step-dad have now gone back to the UK – and sadly missed! – although Keith needs to bone up on his science knowledge as it seems to have melded into science fiction. If the truth be told, I like the small yet heated debates – it reminds me of my Gramps and my Uncle Paul – both of whom debate(d) endlessly with me over trivialities. Now ‘normal’ life will resume until I have to come back to England mid-November, and which I’m not looking forward to. I am glad I’ll get to see friends and family, but not so glad that I have to be back in England. Mind you, France right now has several English bits about it, beyond the nip in the air.

The country is on strike tomorrow (including Jake’s school, which is a rarity) and there are petrol blockades set up. There was mass panic yesterday when I realised L’Eclerc had switched their pumps off (well, considering they are credit card ones, it’s not a bad idea to stop people filling up jerry cans!) and worried I wouldn’t be able to get petrol tomorrow – you live through petrol concerns once (2000) and you realise what a chaos it can create. Of course, in England, the petrol blockades were announced on a Friday morning, so the great and the good of the retired world saw fit to panic buy and fill up their cars with 40 litres of petrol each, and by the time the offices kicked their workers out, there were mile-long queues and pumps running out. I still remember driving over to Clitheroe at a snail’s pace trying to conserve petrol, the roads empty and half the kids not in school. Luckily, a week in, the UK had had enough, and I wonder if France will feel the same. There’s a certain amount of inconvenience you’ll put up with whilst you’re standing up for your rights, but once you start worrying about how you’re going to get your shopping in, then it stops being a matter of principle and starts being a real concern. If it goes anything like England, the things you’re campaigning about might be held off for the moment (the £1.00 for a litre of petrol) but they’ll soon sneak in the back door virtually as fast as if you hadn’t bothered at all. I wonder if the country will bring itself to its knees without Sarkozy blinking. However, seeing as he’s got an emergency council in place and the press start talking about martial order, you realise they think it’s a bigger problem than they might be letting on.

It’s funny, because this is the first time I feel touched by French politics. I see the problems on both sides and it’s difficult to know what the solution is. I guess, sensibly, top-up pensions for those who want to retire early, though that’s incredibly undemocratic, since some of the hardest professions are some of the least well-paid, and some of the rich fat cats who can afford the top-ups would be able to work until they were 80, desk jockeys as they may be.

We’d planned on going to Aubeterre, but with the pumps being out of commission, it ended up being Montbron. Lovely, but not quite the same.

This reminded me, cobbles in England are being outlawed. Even ancient setts are being removed because councils are so scared of litigious citizens wrapped up in the compensation culture. So sad.