Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Fishing on the Marne

The view north and some quacking companions
I am awoken early this morning by the church bells in the village of Vouécourt ringing for Lauds.  Just as I am drifting back to the land of nod I am shocked awake by the shrill bleating of the mobile phone.  It’s five in the morning and time to fish the Marne.  Not that I do the fishing, you understand.  I can’t even kill a spider, let alone touch a maggot, or impale the poor little thing on a hook.  No, it’s my brother James who is the fishing fanatic and never more so than when we are in France.  Momentarily I tussle with the reason why I have to be up so early if he is doing the fishing.  But my brain just can’t hack the mental debate and I crawl out of my tent to go and get showered.

The village
Vouécourt, a tiny no-bread-shop kind of place, is situated right beside the Marne just below Joinville.  The campsite is small and our pitch is no more than 20 feet from the edge of the river.  The valley rises steeply on the opposite bank and even without my contact lenses, as I make my bleary way to the facilities, I can just make out that there is some sunshine somewhere.  There’s no-one else around – although there is a possibility that the tree I’ve just passed might have been that very tall Dutchman having a fag, I’m sure that tree wasn’t there yesterday.

As I go into the shower block I am greeted by the wonderful smell of air freshener with a satisfyingly clean hint of bleach.  I pick my shower.  There are two to choose from, so this is a particularly difficult decision at this time in the morning. 

Appropriately shampooed and shower-gelled I return to the tent for breakfast.  Breakfast is always James’ responsibility.  However, this morning I find everything just dumped on the table for me to help myself.  No kettle boiled, the remains of yesterday’s bread – ‘for toast’ shouts James as I slump down in my chair - and some dregs of cold coffee in the pot.  Why is this?  James has already got the fishing rods out and baited and in the water.  Supposedly one of them is mine.  Still can’t work out which.  So I resign myself to breakfast alone with my book.
The morning mist as it dissipates

As the morning wears on the early mist retreats in deference to the sun’s relentless heat.  I move my chair under the nearby tree and gaze at the hillside opposite and listen to the birds.  I would return to my book except that I am troubled by an especially knotty conundrum.  If fish do not sleep, why do we have to get up so early to catch them?

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Letters from the Cévennes

Last week author Miriam Drori ('Neither Here nor There' is her latest novel) asked me to contribute to her blog, 'Letters from Elsewhere'.  So I thought I would write about Jacques, the central character in my forthcoming novel Messandrierre.  Below are extracts from the letters that he might have written to his father in Paris...

1 Grande-rue
February 2008

The road from the village up through the col
…papa, keeping in touch would be so much easier if you used the laptop I brought for you and maman when I was home last month.  I know tinkering with your precious English Norton in the courtyard is more interesting than getting involved in modern technology, but it would help me a great deal if you could at least try.

I was up on the col at the weekend on my BSA and the engine failed again.  It was a long 10k walk home and mostly in the snow.  It’s been very cold here…

March 2008
The view south from the village
            …Messandrierre?  What can I say?  It’s much the same, papa.  I’m beginning to think the village is always the same.  Delacroix and the Rouselles are still feuding and I doubt that they can even remember the origin of the issue that really sets them against each other.  The Pamiers keep themselves to themselves, and I’ve realised that life here just meanders through the seasons.  So very, very different from Paris.
            I’m really sorry to hear that Francis has been made redundant.  That’ll make things very difficult for them and the boys.  I’ve still got the money from the sale of my place in Paris.  It’s sitting in the bank doing nothing except earning interest and, as yet I’ve no intention of investing in a property here.  Francis and I have had our moments over the years but I wouldn’t want see my sister and the boys in difficulty.  So, if you can papa, have a quiet word when you next see Thérèse and let her know she can come to me for help if she needs to and I’ll call her tonight and say the same thing even though it will be useless.  But if she hears it from you she’ll take notice.

June 2008

Lac de Charpal
            …I knew I shouldn’t have said anything in my last letter.  And I suspect it is maman that really wants to know.  Well, her name is Beth and she was staying in one of the chalets on the edge of the village.  She’s funny and clever and easy to talk to and vulnerable and shy and she’s English.  And it’s complicated.  Perhaps we should keep that last bit to ourselves eh?  I don’t want maman making assumptions and jumping to the wrong conclusions and then worrying about me.  And, just for the record, Beth is nothing like Madeleine.  She’s back in England now and it feels as though there is a hole in my life.  We’re keeping in touch.  Well I’ve messaged her a couple of times.  I’m not sure where this might go but…
 …give my love to maman and tell her that I’m relieved that she’s beginning to feel better.  I had no real idea the long-term prognosis was not good until your last letter.  Make sure you tell her I’m all right and that I’ll come home as soon as I can.
Your only son, Jacques

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Race Day in Angoulême...

Event poster
‘..and the sun is shining here in Angoulême for the Circuit des Remparts.  And Britain’s only hope for a win this year is the little lady in the black Morgan – that’s car number 7 ladies and gentlemen.  She’s in second place on the starting grid and….’
Vroommmmmm.'  I’m at the wheel of this magnificent machine from the 1930’s.  I’m on the grid.  I’m focussed.  I’m watching the man with the green flag.  I'm blipping the accelerator; holding the handbrake – vroommmmm – just keeping the car on its line but hungry to go.  Guy Villeneuve is in pole position; need to keep my eye on him.  And we have the flag!  I floor the accelerator and release the brake and I’m roaring down the straight towards the monument.  Guy is still ahead and pulling away.  I cut right into the seventy-left and gain a second or two along avenue Clemenceau.  I blast down the short straight of rue Carnot to the ninety-right into rue Desbrandes.  I cut right and hand-brake the car to gain another second.  I’m on Villenueves’ tail now as we head straight down avenue Verdun and into the sweeping seventy-right.  I cut left to overtake but the Frenchman is hogging the centre of the road.  No gent this bloke so I have to eat his smoke.  
One of the modern cars on display
Into the long straight and I slam the accelerator right down and the V8 isn’t even breathless. I cut right to take Villeneuve on the inside but can’t make it. I tail him through the hairpins and back up to the grid for the last lap. I’m up and down the box and then I power out of the last bend into the long straight and Villeneuve is history.
Into the hairpins and I notice Senna is on my tail.  I cut left and right and middle to keep him out.  I take the last hairpin on the handbrake and gain a second then I blast down the final straight to take the race.  
‘Eat my smoke’ I shout as the chequered flag falls in front of my car.  I cruise the straight in triumph…..
‘OK, I’ve taken the photos,’ says James.  He taps me on the shoulder.  ‘I’ve got the pictures.’
‘What?...Oh sorry.'
‘You can get out of the car now.’
‘Oh right.’  I clamber over the side.  ‘What a lot of people.’  I say, noticing the four deep crowd around the Morgan for the first time.  ‘That was brill!!!’  A self-satisfied grin spreads across my face, but James grabs my arm and drags me away.
The cute blue one!
‘Apparently,’ he says as we continue walking through the paddock.  ‘Just a couple of small points,’ he says.  ‘Gilles Villeneuve was a Canadian Formula One driver and Ayrton Senna is dead.’
‘Oh,’ I say.  But my attention is suddenly taken by something else.  ‘Wow, look at that cute blue car over there can we…’
‘Absolutely not!’ says James with a finality that takes me by surprise.  ‘You’ve embarrassed me enough for one day.’  
We walk on in silence.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A Mysterious Disappearance in Châtel-Censoir

One of the things I dislike about camping is the counting.  And there is a great deal of it when my brother James et Moi are preparing for one of our trips sur le continent.  One has to count all sorts of things.  Especially the underwear - to make sure one has enough and then I always add VAT for emergencies.
The river Yonne at Châtel-Censoir

But I also have to count the weetabix - James won't eat anything else for breakfast. He never used to be this picky.  Well, not when I think back to the state of his bedroom when he was a teenager.  Must pause for a moment to let that ghastly thought dissipate.

Anyway, I count the cereal and this time around I packed a box of 72 and a single box of 12.  Exactly what we needed for this trip.  But after the first three weeks I couldn't help noticing that the large box still had not made it to the breakfast table.  

'That box of 12 is lasting well,' I said. Rolled eyes and a tut were all that I received as a response.  When I mentioned it again about a week or so later, James very rudely got up from the breakfast table and buried his nose in his book.

Yesterday I thought I would investigate the matter and delved into the large cardboard box that he has in the boot of the car containing all the provisions.  I searched and searched.  I removed everything and, still unable to find the large box, I replaced it all.  The 72 pack of cereal was no-where, absolutely no-where to be seen.  So I came to the very logical conclusion that someone had stolen our cereal!

The port at Clamecy
Now, I don't know if you know this but, the Nivernais canal runs alongside the river Yonne to Clamecy and we thought we would visit the museum there.  You see there's a whole floor dedicated to 'Les Flotteurs'. Apparently whole families of people scraped a living from the river and the canal. Les Flotteurs managed the vast barges made of 'bûches' - in effect long floating boons of lashed together tree trunks and logs - that had been cut in the Morvan and then floated down river, through to Clamecy for eventual delivery to households in Paris.

Anyway, after leaving the museum we strolled through the town and down to the port.  So I thought I would take the opportunity to mention my suspicions to James.  

'Don't be so ridiculous!'  He paused for a moment to take a photograph.  'I've given them all to the cat,' he said and strode back to the car.