Saturday, March 15, 2008


When an icon crumbles, it is only human to feel the tremors in your own feet. Terry Pratchett has always been with me, either in a current book or reference, usually, but not exclusively, shared with my daughter Lucy, who has inherited my own passion for his writing.

His most obvious and saleable talents; prolificacy, humour and wry perspicacity have relegated TP to zone 'popular' , but he is in fact a great philosopher and his humour is grounded in a detailed knowledge of philosophy. That he should now be silenced by a rare and virulent form of Alzheimer's is too cruel an irony to dwell on, but in compensation he can say that his time as a writer will persist well beyond his time as a living being. In addition, his writing has earned him enough to be able to contribute half a million pounds to further research of the disease and hopefully help future sufferers - another prolongation of his presence. I wish I could leave behind so many, valuable souvenirs, but in our own small way I suppose we are trying. PDF continues to stretch us on the rack of technological torture, but we will sort it out and our guide books will help a small number of people find the via Francigena with less pain than we had to go through. After another day lost, it looks as if Paul may have found the solution. I am trying not to think about the fact that this requires a copy and paste of the whole book into a single document.

This morning I went to Laval to pick up the export documents for our 'girls' and this afternoon I cleaned up the schooling area (something I should have done long ago), prior to them being collected tomorrow morning. When I went into the tack room and saw their saddles and bridles I nearly broke down. The next few days are going to be very hard.

On the way back, I discovered an element of France - the housing situation - that had passed by our comfortable, closeted existence. Here in the country, supported by Paul's pension and income from my own property, the notion of 700 euros a month rent paid by teachers earning only 1200, seems utterly impossible, but apparently not. The item featured a number of action groups, particularly one that is exposing the practice of landlords to demand sex in return for 'reduced' rent. All of which reminds me that our time in France could include far more than our own, very personal aims, and adds a metaphorical post-it to all the others randomly scattered in the jumble of early-morning (still in bed) ruminations.

I rejoin this draft blog with at least two of the items superseded by new events. The 'girls' have gone and the moment was predictably painful. We groomed them and winced when they so obviously appreciated the attention. I wrote a long, last letter to Emma, listing more of Gwen's eccentricities and urging her to love our horses as we have done/do - though I don't think there will be any doubt about that. Then the lorry came and now we have the Marie Celeste. Even Vasco was visibly disturbed by their departure and refused to leave the road until I had to pick him up and carry him inside.

Our Printer Proofs for the Volume One have been rejected again, so we are no further. But, on a lighter note, yesterday I received the second half of my mother's day present - tickets to see Evasion, Femmes de Plein Vent, a French a Capella group who defy any distinct classification. Singing in a variety of languages, Portuguese, French, Italian, Arabic and African dialects, they managed to transform their voices and persona to mirror every aspect of the individual cultures - movement, facial expressions and interaction with each other . We were all agreed that it was an amazing spectacle, not only because of the quality of the performance itself, but also because it was in a tiny village hall with no more than 200 in the audience - only in France, long may the subsidies last.

Next on the list of icons - Hugh Sykes, reporting out of Baghdad, so obviously engaged with the people there, speaking some Arabic and relaying what I believe to be the most accurate impression of life in Iraq. I recommend it to anyone who has not yet listened. Radio 4, a 5-minute item in PM or his blog:


Meanwhile, the apartment is acquiring layers of paint and a new landlord. Perhaps it is good news, perhaps he/she will want to re-decorate our depressing and odorous hallway, and perhaps he will want to mend the leak in the cistern. We can only hope so, but we will meet him next Tuesday and probably get an impression of which way our luck will swing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sod's Technology Law

If it needs to be done fast, if you are working against deadlines, if people are waiting for the output, only one law will apply - Sod's Technology Law. Having sorted out the maps, typo's, layout, colours, content and photos to our satisfaction - a long and painful exercise - we are now at the stage where all - a word with such a comprehensive sense should have at least 40 letters - all we need to do is convert the Quark files to PDF and send it off to the printer.

First round - it all flips into landscape and is sent back
Second round - the PDF convertor we are using is not 2001 compliant
Third round - we have purchased a new convertor and Paul is battling with it as I write this blog. In fact this is the only reason I can write the blog, because every other minute is usually taken up with Vol. 2, painting the apartment and otherwise trying to do all the other things that need to be done.

Meanwhile, the storm to beat all storms has just crashed over England and slopped its left-overs on France, which means we and more specifically our horses are looking for an ark (two by two). And on the subject of horses, it is all change here too - faster than we had expected. For anyone who is unfamiliar with our story, I will just say that Gwendolyn and Lubie are no ordinary horses. Having been left on the equine scrap heap here in France, they got back up again and carried us 1,500 km to Santiago de Compostela and then 2,000 to Rome. Friends for life, but also due better treatment than we can give them when we finally move into our new apartment. Fields and willing helpers are plentiful, but what our 'girls' really need is daily contact and care, so we have had to make a major decision with regard to their future. In short, I put an advert out on the web, explaining what we/they are looking for in terms of a new home, and now it looks like the perfect person is offering just that - albeit in England - how ironic. If all goes according to plan, they will be leaving here at the end of this week, which is wonderful for them (10 acres of fields), but heartbreaking for us.

Meanwhile, Lucy's kittens, Marx and Nell, have been to the vet for the 'op' and we find that we in fact have Marx and Engels - a shock, but cheaper.

Lucy is poised on the brink of a new future, applying for universities, trying to get it right first time and summing it up so perfectly by commenting that she is doing such 'grown up' things without really feeling grown up at all. Nevertheless, I envy her and wish I had used my 'lead-in' time more usefully, but of course it is too late for regrets and I still have time to write that book everyone is supposed to have inside them.

In the wider world insanity reigns as usual. Today Lord Goldsmith proposed "to make schoolchildren take part in citizenship ceremonies (swearing allegiance to the Queen) and a new public holiday to celebrate "Britishness", established by 2012". If it wasn't for the lack of lions and wardrobes I would swear we are in Narnia. Or perhaps Lord G is in fact the real-life version of Uncle Andrew. Either way, he would benefit from taking a good look at today's Britain, where the Queen has very little relevance for anyone (least of all teenagers forced into some sort of Baden Powell-style ceremony) and Britishness is the kind of embarassing condition most of us avoid talking about.

And continuing the theme .... insanity that is ...

Following a week-long training seminar for priests in Rome, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti has announced that the seven new mortal sins are to be:
Environmental pollution

Genetic manipulation

Accumulating excessive wealth

Inflicting poverty

Drug trafficking and consumption

Morally debatable experiments

Violation of fundamental rights of human nature

But if anyone out there (politicians especially) is about to check ebay for fire resistant suits, don't panic because Pope Benedict has already sourced the problem and the solution.

"We are losing the notion of sin," he said. "If people do not confess regularly, they risk slowing their spiritual rhythm."

Ergo, a bit more effort in the confessional area will speed up our spiritual rhythm, enable us to rediscover our notion of sin and ensure we avoid all those deadly new ones.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Back to Blogdom

Having decided that letting my blog go is a sign of letting my thinking go - I will now try to make at least two or three blogdom forays per week - even if no one reads them.

Top of the thought list for today is the death of yet another teenager, this time at the hands, or more accurately the knife, of another teenager, her friend, a girl, high on a mixture of cocaine and alcohol. Maybe it is just my age and long distance contact with current reality, but for me the anomalies in this list are too obvious to brush over with the usual demand for curfews, prohibition, ASBO's and 'good parenting'. No, I don't have any solutions, better or worse, but perhaps these can only come from looking at the source of the problem, rather than trying to attack the symptom. There has never been a golden age, my childhood was as miserable as the rest for a range of archaic reasons, but in spite of all this, I do not think we had reached the vortex vacuum society seems to be careering round today, with the consumer power being the only power available. Am I onto something here? Is the solution perhaps in the very doom and gloom of the economic down turn everyone seems to be predicting? Or do we need an ongoing 1984-style pseudo war to keep us on the right track? Is this why Bush feels the need to be in perpetual conflict? Is he in fact a great less stupid than we think he is? Am I fooling myself that Barak is the answer? Probably.

So, a very fairly random start, but a start nonetheless and a break from our 8/9/10 hour days spent working on the guide book - which can be a fairly mind-numbing process. Nevertheless, volume one - Canterbury to the summit of the Great St Bernard Pass - is with the printers, proof expected back in about 15 days, and Vol 2 - Great St Bernard Pass to Rome - is halfway done and people are clamouring to buy them, so it's not all a wasted effort. No, far from it, in fact those nights spent dreaming about cover designs and typos seem to be paying off, because the PDF version really look quite good, something to be proud of. No matter how small a drop in the ocean of publishing and guide books it may be, it is our drop and someone out there will benefit from its existence.

Meanwhile the rest of our life is in flux, as usual. Yesterday, we bought some light fittings and dropped them off at the apartment, along with coffee, cups and toilet rolls, in preparation for the days we will spend there painting and putting our stamp on it. As we slogged up the shabby staircase, bringing back memories of my student squats days, it occurred to me that such a basic accommodation choice is strange for a couple of our ages to make. In fact, most of our friends, especially our Rotarian friends, would think we are completely mad, if we let them see it, but actually we, Paul and I, are probably as excited about this move, as we were when we initially came to France. Fougéres and our apartment are a bridge to the place we have been hankering after, without even knowing it - regular social contact, shops, cinemas, the theatre and in particular the Coquelicot bar - all within five minutes walking proximity. A lifeline for this ageing hippy who once said that only a desert island would suffice. How times change. Given enough sun, I suspect we would forgo all plans of moving south (post voyage to Jerusalem and back) and buy something here, but these are only the emotions of the moment and no doubt I will be recording something completely different in my blog a few tomorrows ahead.

So, as finger fatigue sets in, I feel a minor sense of accomplishment because I have managed to write reasonably freely and a sense of guilt, because I have spent all of ten minutes away from the guide book, but I cannot close without mentioning the Rosebud Blues Sauce band ( saw at the Coqueclicot last night. Too big for the venue, and only a small, though enthusiastic audience, but a great rendition of old blue numbers nonetheless, with a saxophonist who left me vowing to find a teacher in Fougéres. Thank you Patrick (Coqueclicot owner), another great evening.

And to close …. A blog recommendation for anyone who needs to be reminded that there is another worked out there Dr Mona Al Farra, physician and human rights and women's rights activist in the occupied Gaza Strip.