Friday, 8 June 2012

God save our noble plans

Isn’t she great? The Queen. Sixty years listening to people talking to her about some of the world’s most boring subjects, faithfully keeping a smile and alert. Except when she is watching ancient rock’n’roll artists droning on in the name of entertainment, that is. Who can blame her for having a face like a smacked bum at the Jubilee concert? When some prat called prances on stage completely devoid of any singing talent whatsoever, or when Sir Tom Jones jigs around pretending to be 16. Poor old girl would probably have rather listened to the radio.
Still, at least they didn’t roll out Jedward or, worse still, Engelbert nil-point Humpydump!
While the Jubilee celebrations unfolded over a 4-day period in UK, life in France carried on unaffected by all the hype. France doesn’t do hype - although we Brits did have a couple of parties of our own. At Chauffour, our annual shindig avoided the forecasted rain as we celebrated a visit from our very own Queen, my sister Sarah, who is still making great progress after her illness.
Inevitably one or two guests failed to leave until the next day and the after party-party evolved into even more fun, as we mine-swept the remnants of the previous day in blazing sunshine.
Then on jubilee day itself, a crowd of us pooled our collective British-ness by having a picnic in a French plum orchard, thus creating our very own little street party.
Can you imagine the local farmer’s perplexity when he turned up on his tractor to check his fruit and encountered strings of bunting hanging through his trees accompanied by raucous choruses of Rule Britannia - with The Queen and Prince Philip (aka Craig and Emma Dymock in very realistic face-masks) sitting at top table eating smoked salmon sandwiches? Poor chap, I thought he was going to have a coronary. As is the way of most farmers in these parts, however, he did stay and enjoy a couple of glasses of vin-rouge before going back to work, albeit scratching his head in bewilderment at Les Anglais.
A few months ago I penned a children’s novel about the adventures of a small and unfortunate piglet called Oinky Grub. In the story, poor Oinky got his tail chopped off, sold on ebay, as well as hunted by police through Paris’s red-light district (the Pigalle). As with most of my books, when I began it I had no idea of how it would end, but I did have a notion that our porcine hero would inevitably get a nose for that great French delicacy – the Truffle. With that in mind, I made a brief phone call to a contact I had met a few years earlier who runs a truffle-tree farm, requesting that he might be the baddie in my novel. Needless to say he was delighted to accept. Without spoiling the ending, the resulting story was relatively entertaining and this weekend Wendy and I took a trip to visit him in the Gascon area, down near the Pyrenees, so I could present him with a few signed copies.
 As well as running a flourishing wine business, Dick Pyle has one of the most ingenious businesses ever - offering sapling oak trees for adoption over the internet. In his own words, allows people to ‘buy a piece of tranquillity’ in the French countryside, which you are at liberty to visit at any time. For a small annual fee, Dick maintains the tree on your behalf as it matures hopefully into a truffle-bearing oak from which you could be paid handsomely from its spoils. Now in its tenth year, the thousand-strong orchard has yet to bear fruit but all good things come to those who wait, and there are quite a few celebrities eagerly waiting in the truffle queue.
Over the exquisite dinner table, I was enlightened to a gastronomic organisation known as Slow Food International, of whose existence I was blissfully unaware. Conjured up in America over 20 years ago to counter fast-food, this 100,000 strong army now has ‘chapters’ worldwide, including a fervent presence in France. The idea of slow-food appeals to me immensely - not least because I can’t cook very fast - because I am passionate about what I eat, i.e: how it tastes, where it comes from and what it costs? And this organisation advocates just that. A group of diverse yet like-minded people, not just beardy-weirdos mind-numbingly blabbing on about organics and GM crops, but enthusiasts who are supporting the local producers, keeping existing traditions alive as well as nurturing fledgling new ones. For example, one UK cheese-maker was trying to bring back production of old-style Stilton, a product which was banned and re-directed 20 years ago because it uses un-pasteurised milk. With some old recipes and quite hefty legal backing, they are challenging the EU directive, proclaiming quite rightly that ‘raw-milk’ never killed anyone. At present it looks like they are winning and, although the product will now be called Stichelton, we may soon see it back on our shelves. Incidentally, nearly all French cheeses are still made with un-pasteurised milk, once again highlighting France’s blatant disregard for the rules which they were party to instigating.
Down in the Gascon, the same group had chosen to collaborate with farmers to revise the ancient Mirandaise breed of cattle from that area that have been all but extinct for 50 years since they were no longer required to pull ploughs.
Excitedly I googled ‘Slow Food’, only to discover, somewhat disappointedly, that there are no groups in our near vicinity that I can join in with. Maybe I should start my own ‘chapter’? After all, I do have some local unidentified breeds of sheep and grow masses of Marmande tomatoes. Perhaps they could sponsor my Autumn chutney festival?
As long as I don’t have to join the ‘Slow Drink’ society - I am not sure they would take me as a member of that one!
In between the parties, over the past 3 weeks, I have exchanged writing fiction for that of writing the more structured language of computer code, as we look to launch a small internet-based business. Amongst other careers in my murky past, I earned my living writing Visual-Basic code for 5 years, a language that worked closely with Microsoft technologies. During that time, as you can imagine, I became quite fluent in the dark art of variables, event procedures, arrays and sub functions etc.
Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t go into, this time around the project I am building requires to be written in a different language. So here I am, back to the drawing board with more self-teaching, cursing my variable strings – which have now become string variables – as none of the syntax is the same. It’s like learning Chinese where before it was Russian. The sentences all do the same thing except the words are different, and in the wrong order. I really must apologise to my neighbour, in case he has heard me swearing – backwards – although fortunately he will not understand my English.
And herein hangs a tale. After having lived in France for 5 years, my spoken French is still appalling. You see, in spoken languages you CAN get away with the wrong syntax and missing the odd semi-colon from the end of sentences and still make yourself understood. You try doing that in computer code and everything will come crashing down around you. All this makes me feel extremely foolish. If I can learn a highly-pedantic written language in just over 3 weeks, why don’t I learn French properly? Back to school at the end of the summer hols, methinks.
Despite my best intentions, one subject I cannot avoid this month is the Olympics. Although I am none too despondent that the torch didn’t come through France (if I’d wanted to see it I could have bought one on ebay), I did note that it had made its way through the English Midlands to rapturous applause. But it seems that the torch relay itself is not without controversy. In Cornwall, where it started its UK tour, all references to local Cornish tradition such as flags and place-names were removed in a bid to portray unity in Britain and affect a global-village image. They have also removed the Saltire flags from Hamden Park in Glasgow, which is staging some footie events, because it’s not British enough. What nonsense.
The problem is, what the Olympiad – or whoever is organising this years event – fail to recognise is that Britain, by its own invitation, is a multi-cultural society where just about everyone wants to fit into a sub-division to gain some identity. The government, having spent 10 years allowing ethnic groups to ban Christmas due to their religious beliefs or encouraging entire areas to speak in a language that no one else can understand must surely feel pretty stupid now asking them to take down their individual flags and stand united in the name of a 2000 year old sporting tradition? Let’s face it, the last time a Welshman ran through the countryside with a flaming torch it was to set fire to English-owned cottages! And the thought of anyone being encouraged to carry fire through the Gorbals area of Glasgow beggars belief.
Can Britain remain united for 3 weeks in July? Or will Scotland claim all the cycling awards for themselves and the media start dissecting up the medals table on day 1? If we win any, that is!

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