Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I give you Jim Harman, the man who seems to know everything and will tell you about it all at great length. But be quick, he us off to Australia very, very soon

I mentioned an Italian restaurant called La Pappardella in my last entry, and that’s where I first bumped into Jim Harman. La Pappardella is on the Old Brompton Road, in Earls Court, London, and if you are ever nearby and fancy eating Italian, I can recommend it. It is not part of a chain, and because it is not a chain, you get value for your money, e.g if you like chicken salad, as I do, you don’t get just three or four small cubes of chicken as you do in the bloody fake-Italian chains which you have to hunt down amid the mounds of shredded cos lettuce, but three or four generous pieces of freshly grilled chicken breast. I’m no skinflint, but I do like value for my money. Also the staff and everything about it, including the noise, are Italian.

La Pappardella has a small narrow terrace outside on the street, about five feet wide, with about four tables, and that’s where we smokers sit and dine. I go there on a Sunday when I work only one shift, and I am usually there from about 7.30 till 10, except in the warmer weather when Luigi, the manager, slides open the restaurant glass front to allow in fresh air (as in the ‘fresh air’ you get from a reasonably busy, semi-residential street with traffic passing all day and all night) and has politely and firmly made it clear that when those doors are open, he doesn’t like me sitting outside smoking cigars. Punters smoking cigarettes are fine, but not those who like a cigar, however modest that cigar might be. Oh, well.

I should, by the way, yet again point out that I am most certainly no rich putz with money to burn on cigars, but that I get my La Paz Wilde Cigarros from a shop in Amsterdam which sells boxes of 20 for €14 (i.e. around £12.50/$16.50), though just five of them will set you back £13 here in Britain (which is why I get them when I travel abroad to see my sister or my aunt). To put that figure in perspective, anyone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day, and many smoke a damn sight more than that, will be blowing at least £70 a week or more. My modest box of 20 usually lasts me about a month. Just saying.

I was at La Pappardella one night about a year ago when Jim Harman turned up. He had recently returned to Britain from Australia to sell his flat just down the road from La Pappardella, before leaving Old Blighty for good and settling Down Under. I don’t know how we started talking but we did, and he seemed an affable, interesting guy. The terrace and its diners are shielded from the pavement by a long, four-foot high piece of plate glass, and Jim stands on the pavement side of the glass, with his bottle of lager, cup of espresso and glass of brandy on a terrace table, leaning over the glass to reach it. In all the time I have known him, I have known him, I have never seen him sit down.

Anyway, we got chatting and in our first chat he told me the long and very involved story about how he had gone to his dentist a few days earlier to have some slight work done to his teeth, but how the whole episode had ended with him in intensive care at the Kensington & Chelsea hospital on the Fulham Road because the dentist had accidentally injected him with undiluted something or other and had more or less burned out his sinuses. I do seem to remember that he said ‘bleach’, but surely to goodness injecting a patient with bleach, however dilute, is not standard dental practice, so it must have been something else. Who knows.

He was, he said, at death’s door for 48 hours and was later told by his consultant, he said, that only some fluke or other had saved his life. All this had apparently taken place over the previous weekend. I must admit I was a little dubious about it all, as he didn’t seem much the worse for wear and was knocking back the lagers and beers with gusto, not least smoking his ciggies, which, he said, the doctors had strictly forbidden, but as this was all part of a little light conversation, I gave him the benefit of doubt. And, anyway, it was an entertaining enough story.

There was even a sequel to it, which I got to hear the following Sunday: during the week he had been getting very bad headaches and sinus pain but nothing would help. Finally, noticing something ‘plastic like’ peeping from one of his nostrils, he had pulled at it, then pulled at it a little more, then a little more still until finally a load of gunge emerged. Once that was clear he was felt a lot better. This was somehow the remnants of the ‘bleach’ or whatever the silly dentist had - undiluted - injected him with. I was again a little sceptical as yet again he didn’t in any way seem under the weather, but, hey, what the hell. Who knows? And did I care?

Jim would turn up at La Pappardella at around 9pm, and it wasn’t just on Sundays that he turned up. Sometimes, after ending my Monday or Tuesday double shift at 10pm, I, too, am in the habit of washing up there for a glass of wine and a smoke. And so in further conversations - I supposed I should more strictly call them recitations - I heard how he had, while working on the telecommunications side of things for an oil company in Nigeria, witnessed rebel fighting and how a dishonest female correspondent for British TV gave a live broadcast of the action, describing the bullets flying all around her, while actually she was standing two miles away on the other side of a valley.

On another occasion he told me how to deal with corruption in Nigeria and how he regularly outwitted various Nigerian cops looking for a bribe. There were several other stories - for several years, it seems, he was down and out in Salazar’s Portugal - but, to be frank, the details now elude me.

It was gradually and only later, once over the months I had heard several anecdotes several times and began getting a little peeved that for Jim ‘conversation’ means ‘listen to what I have to say on that topic’ - whatever the topic - that I began to find him just a little less interesting. Brexit is a favourite, but he has knowledge of and an opinion on pretty much everything you might care to raise and he is more than happy to share all with you. He is one of those people who talks so seamlessly and at length that there is no hope of getting a word in edgeways. Sadly, thought perhaps not unexpectedly, he is less interested to hear what you might have to say.

Most recently I heard all about some Michelin-starred Italian chef who had been a big noise in London finally jacking it all in and returning to Italy where he now runs a successful restaurant on the outskirts of Rome. It is on an archaeological site, so is not permanent, but consists of a tent in which he serves only British food. Knowing how much Italians like their food, and knowing just how unlike Italian food British food is, I told him I found that hard to believe, but no, he said, it was true.

Then there was the tale of the son who took over the family’ very successful vineyard and ran it into the ground because he wanted to use his new ideas. (I never knew this, but vineyards keep barrels of ‘reserve’ wine from good years which they then mix with wine from less good years to keep up the overall quality. It seems this fool, the son, that is, not Jim, thought the practice was all stuff and nonsense and refused to keep ‘reserve’ wine. End of vineyard, it seems. Or something. Once again, I got a little lost in the telling and am hazy on details.)

Jim is 77 years old, but could pass for younger. He has a slight Australian edge to his accent, but is Suffolk born and bred. Come November 2, I shall never see him again, because that is when he is flying out to Australia and leaving Britain forever (and where he will apparently spend the next few months building a small domestic solar electricity generating plant for the property he owns out there. Again, I got full details but became a little confused rather quickly. It seems he will, through some quirk in Australian out actually be able to make money by not selling his power to the local Australian power company. Or something).

After what I gather was a lucrative career working first in telecoms and later for British Aerospace in electronics he appears to be not short of a penny and owns his flat in Earls Court as well as land and property in Australia. The other night, once I had decided to mention Jim in this blog (although I didn’t tell him), I actually asked him for a brief rundown of his life history. As it turned out, it that rundown wasn’t at all brief, though briefer than it might have been as I, keen to get the details for this blog entry, was rather ruthless in interrupting him and urging him to stick to the point. Going off at tangent is something Jim is very good at.

This is what I have pieced together from what he told me and had previously mentioned over the past few years. He was born into a large Suffolk farming family of hard drinkers and fighters. His brothers were always getting into fights in the local pub, usually to protect him (or something). He left school and worked on a trawler, though for just one trip: he fell overboard and as fishermen regard that as an ill omen, no one would take him on as crew after that.

He then worked in a factory, although I can’t remember what kind, before (if I remember correctly) his foreman told him he was too bright for that kind of work and should get himself an education. So this he did, studying whatever you have to study to work for - I think - the telecommunications arm of what was then the GPO (General Post Office - this will have been in the 1950s, when life was still in black and white, policeman were the friendly sort who would give you a kindly clip ’round the ear to keep you on the straight and narrow, all women were virgins until they married and when they married all took to going to bed in hair curlers, and life was apparently better in every way).

rom there he was headhunted to work for British Aerospace (or something) and after working there, one thing led to another and he was again headhunted, this time to work for the Ministry of Defence who apparently needed someone with his background to work on some of their missiles system. Or something. I did at the time try to pin him down on dates as it was all getting a bit confusing, but apart from ‘it was in the 1990s’ (which is plausible enough, I suppose) still couldn’t get a proper timeline out of it all. And how all this ties in with Nigeria and Portugal (‘that was in the 1970s’) I can’t really work out.

But there you have him: Jim who knows pretty much everything about everything and furthermore has an opinion on pretty much everything and will pass on his knowledge at no cost but at great length. If you do want further details of him and his life, please don’t rely on my account which, as you can, see, is pretty sketchy, but get your skates on and take yourself down to La Pappardella at 253 Old Brompton Rd, Earls Court, London SW5 9HP where you can catch him on almost any night from between 9pm and midnight. But make it snappy as he’s off to Australia on November 7.

And if you want a really long chat, get him started on Brexit.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

It’s the little lad of four, sitting on a sofa trying to eat a fried egg with a knife and fork while a dog stood just feet away pissing which did my head in. Kidnapping was the best thing to do

I don’t know why this occurred to me an hour or so ago while I was leaving work and heading for here, La Pappardella in Earls Court, where I am settling in to a half-bottle of so-so to not very good house red wine, a cigar and, later perhaps, a meal, but it did. And it has nothing to do with anything which happened today, this week, this month, this year or – well, nothing to do with anything I can think of. It simply came back to me. NB This entry was actually written with the immediate bit below last, but I’ve realised that I took an age getting to it, so I have brought it to the top.

. . .

Only two stories found me while I was working as a district reporter in North Gwent, in South Wales, which were worth anything, and even one could perhaps be bullshit. But the second wasn’t.

The office phone rang, and I answered it.

‘Is this Patrick Powell?’ a low, very low and rather mysterious voice asked, one I could hardly even make out.

‘Yes, it is,’ I said, ‘why?’

Then he announced: ‘Social services have kidnapped my daughter.’

You get accustomed to nutters even when you are working for a very low-level, not very successful evening paper in the back of beyond in the South Wales valleys, but unless they are dangerous or, at worst, drunk, they help to pass the time. Oh, really I asked, give me more details. But the guy wouldn’t give any. Instead he asked me to meet him.

I went to the address he gave me. It was one of several very substantial houses in a very substantial avenue in Tredegar which had not only seen far, far better days, but which could not even remember them. There was a lot of empty housing in North Gwent and the terrace house could be snapped up for a song, but as no one had the dosh to buy the bigger ones, such as this, they were bought up by the local council and used to house those council tenants who had caused trouble everywhere else they lived.

These people were the utterly forgotten people, people who no one knew what to do with and about whom they cared even less. They existed on miserly benefits – not at all large even in 1977 – and everyone could pretend they were being taken care of. They had reached the end, an end you and I will, God willing, never meet. The house, like all the others in the row was wasted, falling down, a wreck, however grand it might once have been, almost an ex-house.

The guy who answered the door took me into his very large sitting room, and I mean the room was large. But there was nothing in it but a table and three chairs and a broken-down sofa on which sat a young child of about four. And the sight broke my heart. The child wearing very little was sitting on the sofa with a plate balanced on its knees trying, with a knife and fork, to eat a fried egg. I sat down in a chair to listen to the man’s story. But as I did so, something even more distressing occurred. A large Alsatian dog, a male, matted and ragged beyond belief, walked in, stopped, then without even cocking its leg as male dogs do, pissed, right there, not feet from the child. And then it walked on, leaving the puddle of piss behind it.

The man told me his story. It seemed that not a year or two ago, his wife had fallen pregnant and was taken to hospital to give birth. Then, once the child was born, it was whisked away by the nursing staff, never to be seen by the mother of father again.

I was astonished.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he told me. And he gave me the family doctor’s name, the doctor he claimed was responsible for it all.

I jotted down various details, then took off back to Ebbw Vale. I rang the doctor and explained what I had been told.

‘It’s true,’ he said. He was very matter-of-fact, as doctors who do not aim for a celebrity career on TV usually are.

‘What, you took the child away?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Well, you’ve met the father, haven’t you.’ That, he felt was explanation enough. He then told me the child had been immediately given up for adoption.

I kind of understood. And I never got in touch with the father again. Did I do the right thing by doing nothing? I really don’t know, but I’m certain that child had a slightly better life than he or she might otherwise have had.

. . .

Now the bit which initially came first: A few years ago, I decided to read some Somerset Maugham short stories, and then read the very good biography of the man by Selina Hastings (which I have written about before here). But this has little if anything to do with Maugham. I simply mention him because many of his stories, in fact a great deal of them, were based on incidents that occurred, anecdotes he heard or, very often, anecdotes his companions and partners, Gerald Haxton and later Alan Searle, heard and would relate back to him. In fact, Maugham is said to have relied on both heavily for ‘material’. Incidentally, both were very important to him, though Maugham described Haxton as ‘vintage’ but Searle as ‘vin ordinaire’.

Haxton had ‘breeding’, but I put the word in quotation marks because although I admit it does mean something, I dislike much of the snobbery inherent in the word. Maugham and Haxton were together for a very long time, but eventually their relationship disintegrated because of Haxton’s excessive drinking and druggery. He finally died, and although Maugham was inconsolable for a time, he also admits to something akin to relief. Haxton caused him all sorts of trouble. Maugham, a man essentially of the 19th century, was at pains to keep his homosexuality (although he was bisexual and had many female conquests) quiet, whereas Haxton, usually drunk, made no secret at all of his orientation, forever picking up rough trade and getting into all kinds of scraps.

After Haxton’s death, Searle, a working-class lad from Bermondsey, was taken on, ostensibly as his ‘secretary’, and he did, indeed, function more as an employee although he was also, most probably more in the early years, a sexual partner for Maugham. One of many, apparently.

When he was still quite young, Maugham developed a bad stammer, one which caused him quite a bit of social embarrassment, so he was grateful to Haxton who could act in his stead as host and being an ebullient sort take the spotlight off Maugham. Haxton, it is said, had the easy charm of a many to whom many would open up, whereas Maugham could be quite intimidating, although he never meant to be.

My point is that Maugham worked many of the tales Haxton and later Searle brought to him into stories, and the following account, although true, could well serve the same purpose.

. . .

In October 1976, what? 41 years ago? I left the Lincolnshire Chronicle where I had worked for 16 months as a reporter and joined The News, one of two weekly papers circulating in what was then called Gwent, in South Wales, as one of two North Gwent district reporters. As a ‘career move’ moving from one weekly in Lincoln to another in South Wales served no purpose at all, but then I didn’t much have a purpose and was simply driven by a desire to move on. Anywhere, really. It was most certainly not a ‘career move’ and wasn’t intended as one.

Life was simple and easy in North Gwent. Life as a reporter on a weekly is not onerous, not even if you have ambition, and I had none. I fell in with Julie Davis, the other district reporter who had taken a shine to me, and after staying overnight with her on the night of the paper’s Christmas party in her small cottage in Llangattock, just across the River Usk from Crickhowell, within weeks I was staying overnight seven days a week and we were living together. It was not love, but it was easy: a cooked meal every night, telly, then sex. But although I was not ambitious, I was conscious of still wanting to move on, and move on I did, to become on of the local North Gwent district reporters for the local evening paper, the South Wales Argus.

Apart from working for the local evening paper instead of one of the two local weekly papers – the other was the Gwent Gazette – life carried on as it did, except that I was now based in the Argus’s Ebbw Vale office. Stories came from meetings of the local district council, Blaenau Gwent, and the magistrates courts, Ebbw Vales, Tredegar, Abertillery and, until the closed both, Nantyglo and Aberbeeg. The routine was to stay in court or at a council meeting until I had enough ‘stories’ to file, then bugger off back to the office or even home, to write them up and then call it a day.

The job was quite lucrative, too, although indirectly, in a kind of abstract way. A district reporter’s job will not keep him or her in diamonds and pearls, ever, but my weekly wage was supplemented by – at The News’s request – submitting court stories. These were the same as I had phoned over to my paper, except that they were three or four times longer, because I was being paid ‘lineage’ – the longer the story, the more moolah would be added to my wage packet (the South Wales Argus and The News were in the same stable, so the wages office was the same). Then there were ‘expenses’ and Lord was I able to milk the paper.

‘Police calls’ could well be done over the phone, ringing up to get a rundown of local petty crime and road accidents. But for some reason we were ordered to pay each police station a visit in person. My local police stations were in Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr and Tredegar, so that is what I did. To same time, of course, I drove to Brynmawr, about four miles down the road, then on to Abertillery, then back to Ebbw Vale and on to Tredegar, and it was all done and dusted in just over an hour. That was the reality.

For expenses, I claimed mileage from the Ebbw Vale office to Brynmawr and back; then from the Ebbw Vale office to Abertillery and back (and before they were closed to Nantyglo and Aberbeeg and back; and finally from the Ebbw Vale office to Tredegar and back. My actual round trip was about 20 miles. The way I worked it bumped that up to about 50 miles. And this was claimed every day. I really can’t remember what my weekly wage was, but I do know that I was getting as much in lineage and mileage as my weekly wage.

The very, very odd thing was my expenses were never questioned, ever. Ever. Why, I don’t know, but there seemed no reason to find out why. It has long been a principle of mine to do something first and then be told to stop rather to go, cap in hand, to authority to ask whether, you know, is it OK if I do this. To which request the answer can all too often be, no, you can’t. So the moral of the story is: don’t ask in the first place.

. . .

But to get to the nitty-gritty. I did, once in a while, come up with a non-court and non-council story, but with one exception they all seemed to fine me rather than as a result of any diligent sleuthing on my part. (The one good story I came up with was so neutered – probably for legal reasons – as not to be much of a scoop when it finally appeared in print. At one court hearing, a man was fined for importing TV sets from the Channel Islands to North Gwent without paying customs duty. He was fined.

Then, about four or five months later, I was – unusually I have to say – looking through a report of one of the many ‘land regeneration schemes’ launched, paid for by Welsh Office funds, to try to do something about the economic blight destroying North Gwent, but also, and more purposefully, to show ‘the public’ that the Welsh Office was tirelessly beavering away on its behalf. As they say, perception is nine-tenths of the game.

Looking through a report on the latest, a one-million pound scheme to do something or other (and this was in 1977/8, so your £1 million pounds would now, 40 years on, be worth about £5.7 million according to the Bank of England I came across a name which struck me as familiar. What I did next I don’t recall, except that it was to establish that the gent behind the scheme was the very same guy done in the courts a few months earlier for not paying import duty on TV sets from the Channel Islands. What, I asked myself, is going one? How come a two-bit petty crook was being paid a find sum by the Welsh Office.

I did everything by phone, ringing up the Welsh Office, ringing up the company involved and all the rest. It’s not at all difficult, and just needs a little common sense. And the great thing is that people more often than not tell you more than they want to, especially as they don’t yet know that you know what you already know. I wont’ – and can’t – go into details except for one: I spoke to the guy involved and he denied he had anything or anything to do with the company concerned. I then spoked to several other people in the company who all gave me a slightly different story. And when I told one that the man he referred to as ‘his boss’ denied outright being ‘his boss’, he came out with the following great quote: ‘If my boss says he isn’t my boss, then he isn’t my boss.’

Given that there was some kind of scam going on, but given that those involved were low-level knuckleheads (and Lord knows what was going on at the Welsh Office), that about summed it up. I was very proud of my story and wrote it up. The subs then neutered it, and nothing, but nothing at all came of it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Killing time with a gratuitous kick at vino-loving francophiles

Bordeaux airport, Merignac

More time to kill, so as I am increasingly doing and lacking anyone to talk at, I have decided to post yet another blog entry, which would be my third in just a week. There’s not a great deal to write about, but as my prime intention is to pass the time, that might worry you rather more than it would worry me. Traffic on the motorway and Bordeaux ring road (rocade, my French is coming along nicely, and it isn’t an encouragement to play music as loud as possible) was average, so there’s nothing to report there, and I shan’t do so.

There was the usual rigmarole here at the airport in security checks, but I seem to be getting more used to it. Maybe it’s the wisdom of age. Maybe it’s just that I can no longer even be arsed getting uptight about something I can do nothing about. I should have discovered that years ago.

On the last two full days staying with my aunt I have taken off in the household car (and managing to scrape the left wind on the garage wall parking it last night). I set off on Tuesday to see a photographic exhibition in Langon, but contrary to promises that it was open from every day until the end of September, it wasn’t. It was shut. So I took off into town after I spotted a poster for another exhibition – water and places/towns in South Bordeaux – and eventually found it. It was as exciting as its title promised, i.e. not much, and furthermore everything was in French.

Now just as waiting for a bus or a train not due for another 30 minutes you are apt to read pretty much any and every poster available, from admonishments to keep the platform clean to suggestions about what to do if you ever find yourself at a loose end in Paignton or Blackpool or Chester or pretty much anywhere, I set about trying to decipher the exhibition. I can follow some written French to a certain extent, but after about ten minutes ‘reading’ the first exhibit, I gave up. Had I carried on in that manner throughout the whole exhibition, I would still be there next Tuesday (and on a practical note, would have missed my flight).

Earls Court, later

Back in Old Blighty after a relatively painless journey from Bordeaux airport (I started this entry in the Billi terminal café). There was something akin to controlled chaose at the airport, when for whatever reason, and with three flights setting off at the same time, passengers for all three flights were channelled into the same two passport control booths.

At 12.40 and with just ten minutes to go before our scheduled departure, there was a crowd of at least 250 people queuing up to show their passports and I did wonder whether the flight would leave without us. As it was it left just under 20 minutes late, which is pretty much par for the course for any short haul flight leaving later than 10am from pretty much anywhere. As it was we flew out to Bordeaux from Gatwick about 20 minutes late and boarding had seemed to go completely smoothly. Ah, the tribulations we jet-setters have to put up with.

. . .

Over the past 52 years I reckon I have visited about 20/25, perhaps a few times more, but can honestly say I don’t know the country at all well. My father was stationed in Paris for five years from 1968 on, but in those five years I probably only went home about eight times, every Christmas and then once or twice at Easter. My parents marriage was disintegrating (and my father had a mistress on the side back in London whom he married when my mother died suddenly at 60 after suffering a huge heart attack) and the atmosphere wasn’t very nice.

After that it was once or twice on holiday in the early 1980s (quite recent for me, the distant past for anyone under 30 (I often remind myself that 1986 to me, the year I joined the South Wales Echo, would have been 1959 to my father, the year he and his family went to live in Berlin, but anyone of my age and a little younger will know exactly what I am talking about). Ironically, with one exception when by brother and I spent two weeks in an out-of-season sky chalet apartment near Morzine in the Haut-Something or other Alps, every other visit, including to with my then girlfriend, Sian, was to the same area, Gironde. And to be frank the countryside there is nothing special.

So I know very little of France and unlike my brother and sister, who both attended a French school for five years while my father was working there, don’t speak any French. I mention the countryside because a little later today I shall be leaving La Pappardella here in Earls Court, where I am enjoying a class of wine, I shall be jumping into my car and schlepping all the way home for the next four and a half hours. And in doing so I shall be passing through some very lovely countryside. I know parts of Germany and I know a small part of France, yet – and I don’t think I am at all biased – English countryside, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and then Cornwall – knocks it into a cocked hat.

It’s not just all the bloody rain we get here, but there seems more variation. I really no claiming that France, Germany and the rest don’t also have nice countryside, just that vast swathes of those two countries – Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) in Germany, for example – are awfully flat and dull.

. . .

Many Brits have a peculiar dog-in-the-manger attitude to France. I am not talking of all Brits, but those, for example, who might refer to wine as vino and sniff the cork when opening a bottle. Question their patriotism and they might be apt to reply that they ‘love the Queen’ and would certainly ‘die for their country’, but in many ways they seem to regard France as simply a better place, a leader in so many areas where, in their view, Britain lags well behind. ‘The French,’ they will announce, ‘know how to live,’ to which you would be quite entitled to respond ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ But your response will be met by an air of queit disdain that you don’t know what you are talking about.

The French ‘know wine’, ‘eat well’, are ‘superbly chic’ they will tell you, and although such men - it is always men - would be the first, if the occasion arose, to resort to that hoary old cliche that ‘to be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life’ (with Scots and Welsh men substituting ‘British’ for English), their gushing over France and all things French would make it seem they actually believe otherwise.

I, who likes food a great deal, am the first to admit that I prefer the French attitude to food and drink and would disagree fundamentally with such self-decribed francophiles. A visit to any supermarket or a stroll in any city, town
and village in France will inform you that your average Frenchman and woman know as little about fashion and chic as our average Brit. As for the conviction of the French that they are ‘a nation of thinkers’, I also beg to differ. Certainly, they seem to argue a lot more with each other and certainly they will discuss pretty much anything at length and then some, but that falls well short of somehow being intellectually in the avant garde.

As for food and drink, the French do seem to value quality more than the Brits, but I as someone who likes cooking, know that it is the attitude to food which differs, not the food itself. (I wish to God many of the items available in French supermarkets were available to us here in Britain. That they are not merely means that there is no call for it. If the Brits wanted it, you can bet your bottom dollar Asda, Morrison, Tesco, and Sainsbury would supply a far wider selection of cheeses and pate far, far better than the slush they offer at the moment. But, as I say, the Brits just aren’t interested.)

A meal is not something to be wolfed down in three or four minutes, but something to be enjoyed. Any meal eaten on any day in France is essentially as simple as one eaten in Britain. It is most certainly not all haut cuisine, but it is also most certainly not the unhealthy stodge that passes for food in Britain.

As for wine, well, there is plenty of the cheap rotgut stuff available in France and there are plenty of takers for it. If you like wine, and I do, you can get perfectly good wine in any supermarket in Britain, just don’t go for the very cheap stuff, bearing in mind that with with the production costs and tax imposed on it, it will be very cheap stuff indeed. Still, if you are one of those ‘j’aime le vin’ Brits who beetles off to France every year to enjoy life as the French do, you’ll still be thinking I haven’t a bloody clue what I am talking about.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An afternoon in Langon drinking pastis, smoking a cigar and chasing down a viable wifi connection (as you do)

I am sitting outside a café in Place J. David (and I have no idea who he is was) in a town called Langon in the Gironde, South-West Frace, doing what we all seem to do in such a situation, apart from refreshing ourselves and possibly lighting up. I’m looking for wifi. Why, of course, I don’t know and, more to the point, well, why? Theoretically, my 3G connection should be enough (I am on my iPad), but of course Sod’s Law is kicking in and it isn’t. But why should I need or even want wifi.

Well, of course, I don’t, but that is obviously beside the point. I could try to justify it, but I shan’t. I shall simply offer an explanation. I have just taken a picture, then cropped it, then tinkered with it, and it seems to me a reasonably good picture typical of provincial France at pretty much any time. I wanted to post it on Facebook (look me up if you want, Patrick Powell, one of several Patrick Powells, but I’m sure you will sooner or later be able to choose the right one) but I can’t because the … scrub all that, solved it.

I’ve got to say that for one reason or another I prefer to be completely alone on holiday. It’s not that I don’t like staying with people (Marianne), but that when I go on holiday, I feel completely free. There’s no supper to get back to, no timetable of any kind. I can just suit myself. There are, of course, slight drawbacks if, like me, you are the sociable sort and, for example, enjoy eating a good meal or visiting a good concert or exhibition in company, so as to compare notes.

Well, despite that drawback, I just love having no deadline whatsoever. None. And I love, just love mooching about aimlessly, going where my nose takes me. And in company that usually doesn’t work if, for example, your companion doesn’t like mooching about aimlessly and there’s the sense in the back of your head that you don’t want to be boring. And one thing I like doing is finding a pleasant outdoor café like this one and just sitting (or, as is the case here, blogging.

About 30 minutes ago I took a picture, this picture, where the guy was what I was taking the picture of. But because I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, I made out that I was simply taking a picture of the street and he happened to be in it. Then I cropped it to what you can see here. Deadline, a deadline, looms. Langon is about a

30-minute drive from where I am staying and I am taking my aunt out to supper tonight. And I have to shave and get changed, so it is off with me quite soon. Damn.

So, a short blog entry for a change. More’s the pity because I do so like rambling on about absolutely nothing. Trump is now threatening to destroy North Korea, but I have no time to pontificate on that (and Lord could I pontificate!), so au revoir ici (j’espere). Hope that is right and not bloody awful French.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

And an entry pretty much in keeping with the title of this blog, in which I fly in a plane, wonder what planet Jean Claude Juncker is on as yet again he bangs on about ‘ever closer political union in the EU’, remember once more why it’s lethal for me to drink at lunchtimes and – well, nothing more really – BUT DON’T GIVE UP

Illats, France.

This is a late addition to this blog entry, but I am putting it here upfront, because the rest of this entry is so stupendously dull that I doubt anyone would carry on reading and get to it. Earlier on today, my aunt (see below) announced that Francis Coppola’s (or to give him his full name Francis Ford Coppola, though I really can’t see what the ‘Ford’ is necessary, I mean it’s not as though his last name is a boring old Smith or even Powell) recut version of his classic Apocalypse Now, usefully re-titled Apocalypse Now Redux (which makes it sound related to an anti-vomiting medication) would be showing on French/German channel ARTE. The reason she told me was that it was a ‘VO’ screening, original version.

Well, we all sat down at 8.5pm (20.55 for fucking Eurohphiles) and the film started. In bloody French. My aunt (see below) expressed her disappointment, and I thought ‘sod, it, I was looking forward to this’. Finally, after about 45 minutes of French dialogue – er, I don’t speak French – I gave up and announced I was going to bed.

But I knew that a few months ago I had downloaded the film – in English – and promised myself that when I got back to Old Blighty, I would scour my 17 laptops looking for which one it had been downloaded to. But, dear friends, there is a god: it was downloaded to this one, the trusty small, 11in Lenovo x121e I take on my travels. So guess what I am going to do once I have added this to my blog entry? Watch the film? Well, why not?

This blog entry was started several thousands of fee up in the air, for no very good reason than that I have never done that before. In fact, I can see a series coming on, a series of blogs written in unusual places or circumstances: a blog written (obviously at some considerable risk) in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s private lavatory, one written while simultaneously trying to break the record for eating the most doughnuts (US ‘donuts’) in an hour while typing with one hand.

Well, this blog entry is being written, though by necessity will not be posted while flying easyjet EZY8019 from Gatwick to Bordeaux, mainly because I am bored, don’t really want to read the Economist and watching a film on my iPad (on which this entry is being written) is not as easy as it seems because I find the noise of the engine tends to come through and dialogue is surprisingly difficult to understand.

But first things first: I, as everyone else who came to Gatwick to fly off somewhere (as opposed to all the staff in the many shops, bars and cafes selling tat, drinks and grub at hugely inflated prices – I had a Tony Powell moment when I was asked to pay £3.55 for a regular, i.e. ‘small’, cappuccino and made my feelings plain) had more or less to strip naked to pass through security.

Now I obviously fully understand the reasons for the whole rigmarole, but it always puts me in a bad mood and makes travel by plane such a pain. I like the flying, it’s the stripping off and hanging around that pisses me off. Today our flight – and not one towards the end of the day, but the 9.40pm to Bordeaux – didn’t leave until 10.25pm.

It did make, though, make me realise that I would make a rubbish refugee or economic migrant. And for once that isn’t some cheap, silly joke: given that their lot doesn’t involve mere 40-minute delays and that they are treated like shit by pretty much everyone they come across, they have my wholehearted respect. If I were a refugee, there would be not one but a great many Tony Powell moments, until they come to an end when I am shot through the head by some thug who got fed up with all the whinging.

. . .

The big news this week, or rather the 17th biggest news this week given that the wee chappie in North Korea has sent another rocket off across Japan which arguably is rather bigger news, is that one Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European made his ‘state of the union’ address to gathering of the few who can still find it in themselves to be interested and in which he banged on about chasing forward ever faster towards ever greater political union, an EU army, EU-wide this and EU-wide that. ‘Europe, he declared, ‘has the wind in its sails again. Well, perhaps, perhaps not. As usual we would have to wait for at least 50 years and preferably far more to get a balanced, reasonably objective account of how the EU fared once Britain had upped sticks and buggered off in a huff and few if any of us reading this will be around then.

I read the report of his speech in the Guardian, a paper which is not known for its Brexit tendencies, but even it was remarkably sniffy about Juncker and his speech. It pointed out that the contents of the speech were more fantasy than anything else, given that not a small number of EU members who might well be keen on most aspects of the union are – for any number of reasons – not at all hot on ‘ever closer political union’. This is something Juncker is apparently still big on.

As for Brexit and Juncker’s take on it, you pays your money and you makes your choice as to how important the great man thinks it is. The Guardian reported that he spent less than two minutes addressing the issue. You can read more details here.

The Daily Mail on the other hand made a big thing of Juncker’s references to Brexit, which is no great surprise, of course, reporting that the great man insisted Britain would regret leaving the EU.  and a second account here.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem for anyone trying to find out objective accounts of this another matters. The Mail says one thing, the Guardian another. And given the choice of two interpretations most of us accept the one which best reflects our views. But then it was ever thus.

 . .

I have now been here in Illats for a few days, days which are following their usual pattern. My aunt, who is basically Irish but who has lived in France for more than 50 years does things the French way. So lunch is the big meal of the day. It’s not that the French treat themselves to several haut cuisine dishes at every meal, so by ‘big meal’ I mean main meal, even though it does always – in her household and even though it is essentially a simply meal – consist of hors d’oeuvres (pate, cruditie, that kind of thing, then the main course, then cheese, then fruit. And it is not all gulped down in four minutes. I should though point out that my aunt (strictly speaking my stepmother’s sister, but I regard here as an aunt and her two sons as cousins) and her husband are both over 80 and grew up in a different age. Supper is something simpler, often just salad with dressing, bread and a bit of chees. But wine is drunk at both meals, and it is the wine which does for me.

I can’t say I drink a great deal, but even a glass of wine at lunchtime can knock me out for the afternoon, and it is usually two or three glasses rather than just the one. Obviously, I am not being forced to drink, but I do like a leisurely meal and nothing makes a meal more leisurely than a glass or three of wine. I can’t say I know a great deal about wine (at home I stick to one of two brands of Spanish Rioja and although neither is the cheapest in the supermarkets, buing them most certainly doesn’t risk me breaking the bank), but my aunt’s husband – who may no longer drink alcohol for health reasons – does, like many French of his age know a bit and buys in good wines, which are always a pleasure to drink. So after lunch, I retire to my room, try to read, but very soon give in and nap on and off for an hour or two and finally end up feeling like death. Some people are refreshed by an afternoon snooze, some are not. I am not.

In the past few years I have been coming to Illats in July to take in several concerts at chateaux in the region, but it wasn’t possible this year, so I am here in September. There are, sadly, no concerts at the moment (in July there is are there different series of them) but last night we did catch a nine-strong group of Georgians singing their lusty hearts out at the Cite du Vin in Bordeaux (a very futuristic-looking building). Apparently, it was all part of a marketing drive to push Georgian winesnd there was any number of brochures about Georgia’s wine industry, one claiming – not doubt truthfully – that the cultivation of grapes and wine-making began in Georgia around 6,000BC.

The singers (who each carried a foot-long dagger) had great voices and they harmonised as I have so far only heard the Welsh do.