Feature

Book of The Week

I don’t normally promote other people’s books because I don’t know many writers. But on this occasion, I will. One, he’s a friend. And two, I enjoy his work.

His latest book, New Ghost Stories Volume 3, starts with the unnerving introduction:

“Ghosts don’t care if you believe in them or not.”

It’s a chilling line, don’t you think? Poking fun at a casual non-believer like myself. Shoving these ghouls and ghosts in my face and saying, ‘Prove we don’t exist, then!’

It’s a skilful tagline I have to admit, and one you’d expect from an experienced copywriter. But there’s a serious side to these books. Because while they boast the author’s name, he didn’t write them.

‘Duh! Well, who did. A ghost?’

Well yeh, sort of.

David Paul Nixon has spent more than ten years chronicling real ghost stories from people who swear that what they experienced was real. Actual accounts of terrifying, traumatic and harrowing events (let’s call them hauntings) that have shaped their lives. More a case study on the human mind than an account of the paranormal. But all thoroughly investigated and painstakingly transcribed. And all incredibly scary.

But are these ghosts real? And if they are. What are they?

Humans are clever, there’s no denying that. We’ve made discoveries and achieved feats of engineering that would astound our ancestors. I live about an hour and a half away from the Eiffel Tower, and every time I see it, it blows me away. Built as a temporary structure from railway girders 132 years ago, it still stands. Yes, it’s clever.

But not that clever. We might be able to build towers and go to the Moon, but even the most celebrated cosmologists, astronomers and physicists admit most of the stuff out there still baffles them. Take Superstring Theory for instance.

Developed in the seventies, string theory attempted (among others) to unite general relativity (gravity) with quantum mechanics (gravity on an atomic scale). It ultimately failed to find a link, but did spawn the idea of multiple dimensions.

The four dimensions we know (length, height, depth and time), plus another six for good measure. Some brainboxes have even postulated the existence of 23.

Most of us struggle with the 4th dimension when it comes to being on time (me included!), so imagine living in a world of 23 with twisting space-time realities, parallel universes, time loops and worm holes.

‘Hey mate, have you got the time?’

‘Err.’

Point is, even trying to imagine this stuff is impossible. Even the guys who make this up admit the human brain simply can’t process these ideas. Visualising this world is beyond us. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We tend to think of the universe where all this weird shit happens as being out there in the distant darkness of space. How did Star Wars begin?

…In a Galaxy Far Far Away.

But it isn’t. The universe is right here. In your coffee cup, in your cupboard, in your basement, in your attic, in your bedroom, in your house. It’s even in our heads. 23 dimensions in our heads. Imagine that? No wonder we’re so fucked up! No wonder we see stuff!

I’m not trying to rationalise, explain or even downplay the strange events that take place in David’s books. I’m just curious. Curious to come up with some explanation as to why. Nothing weird has ever happened to me. Nothing like in the books. But it might, so I have to be armed so I can deal with it when it happens.

‘Ah, I know what you are? You’re not a ghost, you’re a dimension. Number 23?’


New Ghost Stories Volume Three is out now.


Or listen to David read from Volumes one and two below:

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Observation

In Search of a Free Lunch

I’m a sucker for free gifts. Always have been. Growing up with my gran in the late 70s, we spent hours cutting out coupons from magazines and newspapers. Sending them off and waiting three weeks for a (then) state-of-the-art Pyrex dish. By the time she died, her entire kitchen was a museum to 1970s mail-order ovenware.

My grandfather wasn’t much better. His vice was collecting cigar cards. He’d smoke like a trooper just to complete the set then send off for the free presentation pack into which you could stick the cards. I’ve still got them, and while many of the cards have become faded or unstuck, the twenty or so booklets on stamps, coins, countries, and trains (to name a few) are a poignant reminder of my grandparents’ obsession with the free gift.

Years later, even my father got in on the act.

If you lived in the UK in the 1980s, you might remember collecting tokens at petrol stations that you could exchange for a variety of household items. He always went for the glasses, and as he drove a lot in those days it didn’t take long for our house to become a shrine to Texaco tumblers, high-balls, schooners and champagne flutes.

Fast forward thirty years and I seem to have inherited my ancestors’ penchant for gimmicks and free gifts. Rarely do I return from the shops these days without a stash of tokens, vouchers and coupons that I trade in for products I don’t need.

I don’t know why I do this. I’m not really the consumerist type, and I know it’s all a marketing gimmick. But like people believe in Jesus or Santa Claus, I too believe somewhere there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. This holy grail my grandparents were seeking out all those years ago.

This obsession came to a head last week when I received a free gift from my bank. Yes, even I was cynical. Bank? Free gift? Really? I was right to be cynical as I had to take out a year’s magazine subscription from the enclosed catalogue in order to obtain my free gift

Oh great! I sighed, magazines are not really my bag. But hang on, I was only thinking the other day that I need to improve my French. I can meander my way through uncomplicated French novels but when it comes to football or politics the language can get quite tricky.

A well known British football commentator coined the word ‘Lollipop’ to describe when a player steps over the ball to deceive his opponent. ‘One lollipop. Two lollipops. Three lollipops!’ goes one of his famous commentaries. The French use a similar phrase, Café Crème, to describe a similar skill. Both terms aren’t covered in any dictionary.

I therefore recovered the magazine catalogue from the bin but the first few pages weren’t promising. Télé Poche, Windows Gamer, Closer, Auto Moto, and Investir magazine didn’t grab my attention. Neither did Femme Santé, Mickey Junior, or TéléRama. At least Google wasn’t spying on me. If they were they would know that TV, gaming, cars and finance are not top of my internet searches.

I eventually went for TIME magazine. At €3 once every two months it seemed like a good deal. €18 a year plus I still get my free gift. Great work!

Only I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d misread the small print and confused Bimensuel for Bimestriel. Every two weeks as opposed to every two months. Shit! Now I was going to be billed €72 a year rather than €18. Suddenly my free lunch didn’t feel too free anymore.

But maybe I can rescue this. Find something else. Change my order.

I grabbed the catalogue again and had a look. Charlie Hedbo and Le Point looked interesting but expensive. Cuisine et Vin  looked OK, but would still cost me €70 a year. And Le Pêcheur (the fisherman), despite being cheap, looked incredibly boring.

Then I saw it. AD magazine – Architecture and Design. Arches, porticos, columns, that sort of stuff. Not my usual reading material, but for €4.50 every two months, I’ll take it. At least my free gift will retain some of its ‘freeness’.

That was last week. I’ve got my magazine, which is OK-ish, a bit heavy on detail, but I haven’t got my free gift yet. I phoned up the hotline and they said it’s on its way. That was Monday. Today is Wednesday and it’s still not here.

It’s got me wondering why I bother. Why me, my gran, my grandfather, and my dad wasted our time clipping out coupons, smoking ourselves to death, or filling our shelves with poor quality glasses. A cynic might argue, it’s a symptom of Western Capitalism. An optimist might argue it’s just a bit of fun.

It’s probably both. Fifty-fifty. Yes, we’re fucking up the planet, but who doesn’t like a bargain. Tell me that? We know the Free Lunch doesn’t exist, but for some reason we keep on looking for it all the same.

Only today I had another offer through the mail: Subscribe to SFR Mobile and Watch Unlimited Football For a Year – For Free!

(tempting, isn’t it?)


My whacked-out rural satire is still available. (No free gifts)


Check out more Blogcasts on Spotify:

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Commentary

Ten Years of Blogley

I started writing this blog ten years ago when I arrived in Lyon for a teaching job I didn’t want. Here’s the beginning.

“I live in Guillotiere. A heady mix of Arabs, Africans, Vietnamese, Chinese and me, crammed into a couple of blocks south of the Rhône. At the moment I’m standing in my tiny third-floor apartment looking at some Senegalese kids watching a football match on TV through the window of a bar.

I stayed in Lyon for two enjoyable years before moving on. I now live and work on a farm in Normandy herding cows, bailing hay, mowing lawns and eating apples – yes, that’s me below.

I came here to help out a friend for a few months. Two and a half years later I’m still here (BBC – Brexit, Boris, Covid has seen to that). But if nothing else it’s given me time to work on my BIG novel which has so far ‘cost’ me six years of my life.

It’s not BIG in length – it’s actually quite short. It’s just BIG in my head. Like a nuclear bomb detonating every time I look at the manuscript.

It started as a blog post (like this) but somehow enlarged itself into a full-blown novel. Like a minor sore turns into a terrifying disease. It starts quite benignly:

“I’m in the shower scrubbing away at a hangover with some expensive shower gel called EXIT.

At the time I was working at a residential craft centre near Cahors when I had an idea for a range of organic shower gels called START, GO, EXIT. I was trying a prototype out on a hangover but the smell made me feel so sick that I didn’t take it any further, and instead the idea wormed its way into a novel. This happens a lot, which is why my life exists more on paper than in reality. Call me a dreamer.

The title for this BIG novel is called DEATH ON A FACTORY FLOOR. It’s a murder mystery set in London, Derbyshire and France. There are no murders in it, just accidents. It’s more of an Accident-Mystery – a new genre, perhaps?

My only other novel, Le Glitch (2019), is a romantic-sci-fi-farce, according to some book categorisation algorithm I found. You input a few keywords and it gives you a genre match. I tried it out on my half-written novel about a hapless, idiotic TEFL teacher and the algorithm gave me: EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY. Which might explain a lot.

I doubt I’ll be writing this blog in another ten years as I’m probably the only person in the world who reads it now. I think most of my stats are generated by bots. Do people even read blogs anymore?

I used to be on Facebook and Twitter and advertised each and every post. When I deleted my accounts, I assumed fewer people would view them. In fact they stayed the same.

My post about the French writer Guy De Maupassant does well in India, and my quick (and woefully inaccurate) guide to Paris does well in China. My How to Build A Shepherd’s Hut and How to Tap a Walnut Tree for Syrup are my two bestsellers – in Canada.

So if anyone is remotely interested in reading any of my old posts from Lyon and beyond, you can access the entire archive (fuck!) by using the ladder icon at the top of the page. I don’t know why you would want to – maybe you’re in jail or something and have nothing to do. But you might.


You can buy and read Le Glitch – my satirical romp (or romantic sci-fi farce) here as eBook, Paperback, or Audiobook.

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Observation

Wine Box Bike Racks

I’ve been doing cycling tours on and off for years. Bike, couple of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, set off, see where I end up. They’ve always been great fun, either alone or with a friend. Total freedom, plus a clean and cheap way to see the world. But where do you put your wine?

There’s nothing more invigorating than drinking a bottle of wine while cycling. I normally keep it in the water bottle holder on the frame, so that when I come to a difficult hill, it’s within easy reach. A slug of Pays D’Oc decreases the gradient of any hill. Even a tortuous Alpine pass turns into a gentle climb.

I’ve loved touring since I was kid. Me and my school friend Duncan used to cycle round Cornwall in the rain and hail of the British summer. We stayed in youth hostels back then and didn’t drink wine. Just the odd fag now and then to fire our lungs up before an ascent of those ludicrously steep Cornish hills.

My smoking days are done, but the cycling continues. And so does the bottle of wine. Even though it has never been particularly secure, jammed into the flimsy metal wire cradle that was originally designed for a light plastic water bottle and not a heavy Bordeaux.

It of course goes without saying that over the years a bottle of Claret has broken free and shattered all over the road. Total disaster for me and any cyclists bringing up the rear in their skinny wheelers.

Despite the water bottle holder’s shortcomings though, I’ve kept on using it as my wine rack. Until a few years ago, when I found an old champagne crate in a dustbin up the road from where I live.

‘Oh Lord,’ I thought as I measured up the dimensions. ‘It’s perfect. Not only for wine, but beer as well. I wouldn’t even have to stop. Just a quick reach around into my portable bar for a chilled beer or a slug of wine.’

It’s not just that it fits exactly twelve cans of beer and two bottles of wine in it. It’s the utter simplicity of it that I find astonishing. A old box strapped to a bike. And yet it serves its function perfectly. Not just for alcohol. For anything. Books, groceries, vegetables, fruit, wood, dogs, fish.

I’ve seen bikes with boxes on them for years. Even on those Cornwall trips I saw crazy cyclists with gigantic trunk like containers on their bikes as though they were heading off to Africa. And yet I never thought of having one myself. Even as an adult.

Two years ago I cycled 2000 kilometres to Santiago from Nantes with my wife and the wine box went with me. As you can see in the photo it slots in perfectly between the two panniers. My tent went on top longways and was held together by a bungi. Sometimes I stopped in a town or a village and I’d share a glass with some other pilgrims. Then after we’d finished, someone would buy another bottle and put it back in the rack ready for the next people we might meet. Times like these made everything worth it. Not just the wine rack or the wine or the trip, but everything. Everything fitted perfectly, which is the way it should be.

That was the last trip I’ve done for reasons most of planet earth is aware of. I can’t wait to do another. I’ve still got the rack and a cellar full of wine. Allez!

wine box
Photo/Elizabeth Milligan

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Observation

Why I STILL Don’t Own a Smartphone

Do you remember when mobile phones were small and compact? When they easily fitted in your pocket? When the battery lasted for over a week? When they did nothing else except take calls. Do you remember those days?

A few weeks ago, my old Nokia 105 (above) clapped out, and I went to the store to buy a new phone. I was set on a smartphone. Why not? Get with the times.

When I arrived at the impossibly over-heated store, I asked the shop assistant about them. His eyes cracked open from his long shift, and he showed me to a stand.

‘We have the new iPhone 12 for €1300, or we have a basic one for €909…’

‘I’m sorry???’ I spluttered. ‘Can I stop you there? €1300! You must have misunderstood me, I’m looking for a phone not a small boat.’

The assistant stared at me unamused. Must have been a long shift after all. I was pretty blown away if I’m honest. Yes, I knew these things were pricey. But €1300 for a phone? I never realised the world had gone so bonkers.

‘We have cheaper ones,’ he said, noticing my shock, and showed me to another stand.

I stood there gazing at a showy array of chunky technology. ‘Do you have anything smaller?’

‘Smaller?’ he replied.

‘Yes. Smaller. Like in the old days.’

His eyes glazed over and he seemed to fall back to sleep.‘ Err, I think we have some Nokias over there,’ he wearily informed me. ‘But they are not smartphones.’

‘Great,’ I beamed and a few minutes later left the store with a brand new Nokia 105 with dual sim, flashlight, radio and headphones.

Can I watch a film on it? No

Can I watch TV on it? No

Can I listen to music on it? No.

Can I make zoom calls on it? No

Can I take photos on it? No

Can I access the internet on it? No

Can I read the news on it? No

Do I want to? No.

When mobile phones became popular in the mid-1990s (I’m 46, so I remember this) people wanted them small. The smaller the better. Remember those trendy adverts for Motorolas that sat in your palm and had the battery life of interplanetary space probes.

So what happened? Overnight mobile phones became as heavy as dustbins, and as clunky as plates.

Here is a quick comparison:

Weight of iPhone 12: 228 grams.

Weight of Nokia 105: 57 grams

Dimensions of Samsung Galaxy: 150mm x 75mm

Dimensions of Nokia 105: 85mm x 45mm

But here is the best one.

Battery Life of iPhone: 9 hours

Battery life of Nokia 105: 18.5 days.

That is not a typo. Yes, 18.5 days. That’s longer than it took the Apollo astronauts to get to the Moon and back. In fact, if they had taken my Nokia fully charged, they could have called Mum to say they were safe the moment they landed. If they’d taken an iPhone, it would have probably clapped out shortly after blast-off.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there? Shit! The battery’s dead.’

*phone dimensions and prices are approximate and may depend on the model. Although a Nokia 105 is round about €20** from most retailers. Yes, that is not a typo. Twenty.

**Or in Pounds Sterling, multiply 20 by the Euro Brexit rate and see what you get. If the shit has hit the fan, it’ll about £20 or more. If things are OK, it’ll be about £16-18. In $ it’ll be about 25.

***I don’t know why I’m even doing the arithmetic, because I know no one will buy one. But you might.

Further reading: Why I don’t have a Smartphone here.

(Image/Nokia © 2019)

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Observation

The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker

I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before they add colour. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey.

The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and runs from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid, only worse. Those films were in colour. Here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.

Most people have their own key for their locker, but I don’t, so I have to get the master key each morning from the office and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.

I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel-capped trainers which are actually very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next ten hours. In my locker, there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado, which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer-generated voice asks me, ‘Do I want an order?’

I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.

‘Go to slot 1726. Pick Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.

‘A slot’ is the space underneath the huge five-storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles between the shelves where we work. I once asked a driver of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.

‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5-tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.

When I get to a slot, I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’

I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a CHEP Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve washed your hands in a meat grinder.

The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.

This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.

As you might notice, the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.

The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this, but only one right way. Unfortunately, I was never taught properly, so I’ve developed my style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.

The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a 1950s mobster movie. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s, therefore, no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.

Apart from this, the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along, a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.

We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:

  • 300 cases an hour.
  • Or 5 a minute.
  • Or 1 every 12 seconds

Take your pick. But whichever statistic you choose, it’s hard to manage. And after twelve weeks, I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!

‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say, clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree, I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.

‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.

‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A  dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.

Instead, I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’ 

This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures, so he can’t verify whether or not I’m telling the truth. So he says ‘good’ or ‘OK’ and drifts off to the next picker, who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing around the place most mornings.

The only person who has the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.

‘You need to pick it up, Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’

I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening, I will write a redaction and an immediate apology in this post.

‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’

‘All the others manage.’

‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.

It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus, most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job, and at the moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.

‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise, my pickrate is going to plummet.’

There’s nothing much he can say to this, and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.

I think regularly of how many people we employ in the retail industry. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days, most likely. Maybe even hours.

And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes. It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul-crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, sales agent, teacher –  to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse around a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.

But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless.

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Observation

New You – New EU?

Image: Samuel Regan-Asante

So the children won. They enthusiastically traded in their shiny new marbles and in return got a few cracked ones back. That’s what leaving the EU feels like to me.

I once traded in a white Renault Trafic van for a Leyland DAF one. I thought I was getting a better deal as the parts were cheaper and it was also meant to be more fuel-efficient. Oh, and it was British (this was in the early nineties) when I was still vaguely proud of my country.

Anyway, within three months it was kaput. Even the garage I bought it from didn’t know what was wrong with it. Total mystery they told me. I took it to other mechanics and they couldn’t work out what the problem was either. ‘Should have stuck with the Renault,’ one bright mechanic joked with me. ‘Much more reliable.’

After seeing more garages that cost me money every time (I even paid for the diesel injector nozzles to be cleaned at huge expense) I ended up trading it in for scrap – I got £50. To say I felt short-changed was the understatement of the decade, and I haven’t felt this ripped off since you know what…?

The Brexiteers claim FREEDOM. But freedom from what and whom? The EU is still there, and getting on with life; while Britain fondles with its cracked marbles.

‘Free to make our own laws,’ I hear people say.

But we did that anyway. Except for some laws that protected people’s rights and dignity. But of course, that’s not important any more.

‘Nay,’ cry the Brexiteers. ‘It’s more than that. We wanted our Sovereignty back!’ Which is actually code for: ‘We don’t want any more immigrants.’

Which is what Brexit is really about. There has been a hundred arguments put out there, but there’s only one the majority of Brexiteers really wanted, and nothing will ever change my mind about this. But well done! You’ve achieved your goal but damaged the lives of millions of decent citizens. British and European. As well as damaging the country’s reputation.

All of his has been said before, and people including myself are pretty sick of it, but I still wanted to say something on it. Plus I still wish I’d never traded in my lovely French van for a crappy English one. What was I thinking?

Other articles: Advantages of the UK leaving the EU on 1st January 2021


My hilarious satirical rural romp.

Out now as an audiobook, eBook, or paperback. Click here

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Feature, Short Story

Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 km north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian novelist (and goalkeeper) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read Exupery’s The Little Prince. (Or Night Flight)

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: ‘Four copies in fact.’

I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (The touristy village of Montpezat being close by).

He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman he was thinking). ‘No, it’s not; Maupassant is the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

And so began my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

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This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882, and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely, his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage — yes overnight! — from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip — a trip I assume he made himself — but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

“All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.”

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire, to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found translated into many languages. And all for free. What else could you want for Christmas?

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