The French Are Unfriendly?

We have builders at the house in France, who have been let loose on the property without supervision. Not ideal, I agree, and their principal achievement so far seems to have been to ruin the garden with building materials, without actually building anything. So I decided to make a short trip to assert myself in French (just stop that sniggering right away, okay?).

I took a cheap easyJet flight to Toulouse and picked up our 11 year-old Citroen banger from the car park at Blagnac, where it’s kept for at least nine months of the year. I reconnected the battery, and with fingers crossed, started the ancient car. Sigh of relief: everything seemed to work fine. Until I got onto the road. Then I realised there was a repeated banging from the rear tailgate. I stopped, and discovered that it wouldn’t shut. It’s hinged at the top and it’s heavy, so it stayed more or less closed, but the latch wouldn’t fasten and it wouldn’t lock. That meant driving back to Toulouse in three days’ time and leaving the car unsecured for what might be several further weeks or even months. Getting an appointment with Citroen in the time available was a non-starter.

However, once in the village I learned that a chap called Yves who lives a five minute drive away used to be a Mercedes, or perhaps BMW, mechanic, but now worked for himself out of his barn. So I searched Google Translate for some essential phrases such as “lock” and “boot”, and set out to find him.

I turned up in the middle of the morning, but Yves wasn’t home. However the aged mamie (grandmother) who answered my knock identified herself as his mother and she invited me into the kitchen. He would only be ten minutes, she said. My French is far from fluent, her English non-existent, and her Gascon accent almost impenetrable, but she plied me with fresh coffee and told me her family history while her two enormous dogs tried repeatedly to climb into my lap. Twenty minutes later her son, the mechanic, arrived. I managed to make myself understood with my essential French phrases, and he set to work stripping the tailgate. I stood by, pretty much useless, handing him the occasional tool and holding the tailgate at an appropriate height. After half an hour the tailgate and its locking mechanism were in increasingly small and worrying pieces, and I was wondering if it would ever be reassembled. After a further while mamie came out to watch, and having understood correctly that I was only in the village for a couple of days and had not bothered to stock up with much food, she placed a box of freshly laid eggs on the passenger seat.

Half an hour passed, and she emerged with another cup of coffee, and this time a pot of her own pate. Everyone in this region makes their own pate in vacuum jars, labelling it with the year and the species of the unfortunate animal (usually killed by the local hunters) now compressed inside. The pate joined the eggs in the car.

After an hour and a quarter my new-found mechanic friend had diagnosed the problem: a broken piece of plastic that should communicate between the lock motor and the catch. In the likely event that the entire assembly would have to be replaced, I was looking at between €200 and €300. On the other hand, he thought he might be able to locate a second-hand lock assembly and cannibalise it. He would make enquiries, and if I left my telephone number, he’d call. In the meantime he would effect a temporary repair which will allow me to lock the tailgate manually.

While he started the reassembly a man in a white van arrived. The smell of fresh bread poured out of his van as he slid open the door. This was the travelling boulanger, supplying the far-flung houses in the region with daily fresh bread.

In a further ten minutes the tailgate was complete, and locked. How much? I asked. Yves waved away any payment. I don’t charge the locals, he said. There’ll come a time when I’m sure you can do me a favour. I protested, but to no avail. Maybe once, when Yves is out on a job, said mamie, and I need a lift to the market, I’ll ask you to give me a lift. I said my goodbyes, thanking them both profusely. As I was about to drive off mamie put out an arm to stop me. She scurried back to the kitchen and emerged with a still-warm bagette. I bought a spare for you, she said, so you’ll have fresh bread on which to put your pate.

I left with a repaired car and a complete meal, from people I had never met before.

I may be wrong – I like to think I am – but if I had been a Frenchman in a small English village with a problem with my car, I doubt I would have received such kindness. And certainly no pate.

Don’t let anyone tell you the French are rude, or don’t like the Brits.

Ce n’est pas vrai.

Writing Sex Scenes (that will be read by your Mum)

I guess mothers are always proud of their sons. I’m tempted to say Jewish mothers especially so, but I suspect Asian, Italian and African mothers – indeed all mothers – are no different. So the publication of a mother’s son’s first novel was never likely to pass unnoticed. And while it’s easy to deflect the “So, when can I read it?” during the gestation period, it’s more difficult after it’s been accepted for publication; more difficult still once the proofs have arrived; pretty much impossible once proofed, mere weeks before publication. She wants a copy of the book – several copies in fact – one to read, one to show her friends at the bridge club, and one for “best” to lie artfully on her coffee table, my photograph ready to greet her guests. And there’s the difficulty. There are sex scenes. Sex scenes which, if I’ve written them properly, will make the reader’s blood pump slightly faster, their pupils dilate and their breathing catch slightly in their chests. It’s not just sex; it’s sexy.

Of course, I can tell her that the book isn’t autobiographical, and there is much truth in that. But all authors draw on personal experience even if they then twist, expand and embellish. The uncle who might have been the genesis of a character in the book becomes almost unrecognisable by the end. That’s when the writing process is at its best – when characters start breathing, speaking and acting for themselves. When that spark of life you have tried to breathe into them suddenly glows of its own accord and – what do you know? – the character starts acting in ways which you would never have expected. But still…they start life rooted in real experience. Just like those sex scenes. And while I may not have done precisely what the characters are doing, it’s close enough.

My mother’s no prude, and she isn’t shockable. In fact on the extremely rare occasions when she has one sherry too many, she is liable to tell quite a risque joke. [1] And when I was little, and I asked how babies were made, she gave me a precise and extremely detailed explanation, using proper biological terminology and diagrams, until my seven-year-old eyes glazed over and I became so bored that I didn’t ask again for another five years.

But still… I cannot escape from embarrassment as I picture my mother reading in detail what I may, or may not, have been doing with parts of my body she last saw in (or, more accurately, out of) swimming trunks several decades ago. I’m married with children, so we both know I figured out what to do with those parts long ago. But still… demonstrating the detail of my knowledge is something else. And it’s not just the technical aspects of the act… it’s the… peripheral stuff… less procreative, but more fun.

The situation takes me straight back to when I was 14 or 15 and my mother insisted on taking my younger brother and me to the cinema on the last day of half term. I knew all my mates would be there, in the back row, and I resisted going, but to no avail. She was on a mission, and she thought it would be fun. After the lights went up at the end and we filed out, and my mother’s eyes lighted on the canoodling couples in the back row, several boys’ hands indiscreetly inside the clothing of several of the girls. “Oh,” she commented, rather too loudly, as we were forced by the exiting crowds to pause at the end of the row. “Isn’t that disgusting? You wouldn’t do anything like that, would you?” My mates all grinned at me, and I knew I was in for it on the Monday. Of course I would have done something just like that, given the chance. I used to dream of getting that lucky, and if mum hadn’t insisted on taking me to the cinema, I’d have hoped to be in the back row with them.

But I’m no longer 14 or 15. I’m a man of the world, and there really is no need for me to be embarrassed… is there?

I know I can’t avoid it any further. She knows my contract allows me a certain number of copies and she’s placed her order. In any event, there’s always Amazon. So, no amount of equivocation or explication is going to help. She will read it, sex scenes and all… and I will do my best not to blush.
[1] And seeing as you asked, here it is: A young man takes a young lady on a first date to the cinema. After draping his arm nonchalantly around her shoulders for the first half of the film, and receiving no rebuff, he puts his hand on her knee. Then he gradually moved his hand up her thigh. The young lady lets him continue for a few inches, but then slaps away his hand. “Manners!” she hisses. “Tits first!”

Quintessentially English

Doesn’t everyone have one or more pieces of music that immediately transport them back in time to that amazing party, wonderful holiday or intense love affair? Music which drags you to your feet and forces you to dance or brings a lump to your throat?

For me there are phrases in the English language with a similar impact. They engage me on a visceral level and I can’t help but react when I hear them. For example:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

Lump in the throat time. Get me a Union Jack to wave.

“Don’t tell him, Pike!” makes me laugh every time. You can say it to almost any Englishman or woman over the age of 40, and they’ll smile. It binds us together because it’s about the war, about the pompous Capt Mainwarings we all encounter and about our shared sense of the ridiculous.

“They think it’s all over… it is now,” does it too. Again, it’s about Englishness – The Three Lions – pride at finally, even if only for a short time, being world-beaters in the game we invented, exported and historically lose.

If anyone’s interested, send me your favourite phrases or lines which immediately prompt that emotional response. My contact page is at If there are enough I’ll collate and award gold, silver and bronze prizes in my next blog.