Why I Can't Talk About Money (Ever!)

(Image/Josh Appel/Unsplash)
During my early thirties, I made the stupid mistake of completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I thought I was doing myself a favour, instead I just got into debt.

After I’d finished, I started writing small ads for a local newspaper in Bristol while the bills mounted up. I occasionally changed jobs, but my wages couldn’t keep up with the payments, so I filed for bankruptcy. Then my father found out.

‘Why didn’t you ask?’ he inquired. ‘I could have helped.’ He wasn’t rich, but generous enough to help out when someone in the family needed it.

‘Because I can’t talk about money, Dad.’

Still can’t.

Only last week during a job interview, I couldn’t get round to talking about money. And because my prospective boss didn’t mention it either, the matter seemed closed.

When I got back home and my wife asked me about wages, I just stood there like a dummy. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t ask. The minimum I guess.’

This wasn’t the first time. Years ago, I’d worked for a guy selling Christmas trees. And yet three weeks into the job, I still didn’t know how much I was getting paid for standing around in a freezing cold car park selling half-dead conifers.

As time passed, I became more terrified. Each morning I wanted to ask, but as soon as I saw him thumping about the yard like a bulldog with his equally terrifying son, the fear overtook me, and I got on with the job.

I mean, who does this? What loser works for three weeks without knowing how much he’s getting paid? True, my boss was a fierce bastard you wouldn’t want to be up against in a bar brawl — unless you wanted your arms and legs broken. But was I always going to be the coward hiding under the table?

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around (it’s amazing the number of trees sold on the 24th), I still hadn’t asked, and the matter was only resolved when he palmed me a nice roll of twenties. ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t going to pay you, eh?’ he ribbed me.

‘Ha! Not at all,’ I laughed it off, practically fainting from exhaustion and mental fatigue.

When I recovered and started looking for another job after New Year, I vowed never to let the same situation happen again. And yet here I was, almost ten years later, doing exactly the same thing. Attaching no more worth to myself than a man walking up the thirteen steps to the gallows. Even killers had a price on their head — I didn’t even have that.

I had to fix this situation. The thought of starting another job with this kind of uncertainty would kill me — I may as well start knotting the noose myself. Which was why I was standing outside my new employer’s office the following morning knocking on his door.

‘Come in,’ came his reply.

I waited a few seconds, then walked in. He was at his desk, looking straight at me as though he’d been waiting for me all night. I hadn’t slept a wink either due to the worry, so I told him why I was here.

My boss eyeballed me. ‘I’m sorry, didn’t I mention it? It’s the minimum hourly rate. Is that OK?’

I was about to say, ‘That’s fine.’ When a thought opened up in my mind. Was I meant to wrangle here? Was this what normal people did? Negotiate?

On the few occasions I’d bought something at a private sale, the vendors had always looked shocked when I’d paid the asking price. I once bought a van for 900 quid. It was a total wreck. I knew it, the seller knew it, everyone in the entire world knew it. But I paid the owner anyway. Four months later, I sold it for scrap.

‘Could we go for twelve?’ I asked my boss. I was sweating now, this was new territory for me.

‘I could do ten fifty,’ he proposed.

I breathed in. ‘Eleven.’

The boss paused, then shrugged, then pretended to look at some data or chart on his desk, which I saw was actually a blank sheet of paper. ‘OK. Fair enough. See you Monday.’

As I walked home, I felt elated, my pride restored. For once I wasn’t walking into a job with a rope around my neck. And even though I’d only negotiated £1 more, it felt like a million. As though all my numbers had come in at once. I’d overcome something big. Some error in my programming that I’d been carrying around with me for years, had been miraculously rectified. Just like that. Just by being bold.

I’d even enjoyed it and was secretly looking forward to the next interview. Which, if my past job record was anything to go by, wouldn’t be too far away. What would I say? Something like this perhaps:

‘Hi, thanks for inviting me in for the interview. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but before we start, can we please talk about money.’


My novel Le Glitch - a story about getting lost - is out now! Click here for details

The Dead Art of Letter Writing

Last Saturday while reading What am I doing here by Bruce Chatwin in the bath, I was struck by the thought: When was the last time I wrote a letter?

When I lived and worked on a farm in Provence in 1994, I had no phone, no radio, no TV, and of course no internet. Only a guitar, cigarettes, wine, and a cat, whose name I can’t remember (Pascal, perhaps), to entertain me. I used to write regularly to my parents and my friends, and always looked forward to receiving a letter back. It was an incredible event.

I remember the yellow La Poste van rolling slowly up the rutted driveway at about ten-thirty in the morning to deliver the mail to the farm’s owner and some of the other workers who lived there. About once a week (strangely it was always on a Saturday) there would be a letter for me. Either a brown manila envelope from my father, posted from his office, or small, cheaply-made white envelopes from my friends.

I used to save it until the evening and open the envelope under the ancient olive tree in the yard, reading it many times over. Laugh and reminisce and sometimes want to be back in Nottingham with my friends going out on the town, drinking and meeting girls.

Then I would go into the cavernous kitchen of the farm to cook some strange Anglo-French concoction — normally a steak sandwich with brown sauce — and settle down to my reply. Sometimes writing five or six sides of A4 about my life on the farm or things I was looking forward to on returning to England. I would then address it and get excited about posting it in the village on the Monday, which I went to anyway to buy cigarettes.

Now I think about it, it wasn’t really the news or the puerile banter in the letter that counted, but the process of sending the letter. The writing of it, addressing it, sticking on the stamp, walking to the post office in the village. The routine was far greater than what I had to say to my friends— I could have drawn doodles for all I cared. True, I may not have got many replies, except for, ‘Are you OK out there?’ But the ritual of traipsing down to the post office to converse in my mangled French with the postmistress once a week was priceless.

For my brother and sister, who are fifteen years younger than me, the idea of communicating by letter with their friends, is utterly ludicrous. They’ve never done it; there’s never been the necessity. So why would they?

By the time they reached the age of nineteen (the age I was in Provence), the internet and the smartphone ruled, and letter writing became something their parents did — or their older brother. The very time-consuming process of writing on real paper, addressing it and walking down to the post office belongs, in their minds, to the Middle Ages.

The only exception I guess is the Christmas card. But rarely do these contain any pearls of wisdom except a photo of a robin and Happy Christmas scrawled inside. Love Bob and June xxx

When I did return to England after my adventures in Provence, email, texts, and mobile phones were much more in abundance, and I never really experienced that joy again. I wrote letters, but the frequency decreased until one day I must have written my last letter.

And that’s what I was thinking about in the bath last Saturday. When was this? When did I write a letter addressed to a person I know? To be honest I have no idea. Bar job applications, paying bills, or sending documents out, it must be twenty years since I wrote a personal letter. And I miss it.

And brings me back to a topic that floats around my head most days. Has technology made life better?

I can actually make a good comparison here. Because as it happens, I’m living on a farm in France right now. Alas, not in Provence, but in rainy Normandy. But I’m still on a remote farm, and if I was here in 1994, things I guess would be very similar.

Except now I’ve got the internet, TV, films, and two mobile SIM cards (although I haven’t got a Smartphone). True, the reception and internet reliability isn’t great, but I can still phone, write and converse with people pretty much instantaneously

A yellow La Poste van still comes up the lane a few times a week (not the same one obviously), but it isn’t carrying handwritten letters anymore. Oh no, today the postman’s arms are filled with supermarket advertisements, bills and Amazon parcels. There are no badly scrawled letters from my friends giving me the latest news and gossip. No firm instructions from my father to keep working hard and keep learning French. Now it’s just photos of people’s lunch on Facebook.

I blame myself though. I could write a letter, and I often ask myself, why don’t I? But it would feel strange, wouldn’t it? People might actually think I’ve gone crazy (again).

They might ask: ‘Philip? Why are you writing letters? Haven’t you heard of the internet?’

‘Yes, I have,’ I would fiercely reply. ‘That’s why I’m writing you a letter.’

I’m 45 now and a long time has passed since those letter-writing days of Provence — pre-email, pre-mobile phone, pre-social media. Sitting under the olive tree in the sunshine looking at the ants crawl over the baked ground reading letters from my friends. Now I just get an annoying beep to read someone is going to the movies or a new restaurant. Great, I think! Why don’t you tell me about it in a letter, it might be more interesting?

Le Glitch by Philip Ogley is out now. Click here

How French Rural Life Inspired a Novelist

In August 2014, I gave up my job teaching English in Lyon to housesit a farm in Vienne and write a novel. I wasn’t particularly looking for the literary good life. I just wanted a break from the city.

Six months later I finished it. But the elation was short-lived. I didn’t like it at all, so I filed it away in the deep recesses of my computer marked ‘Unfinished’ and started chopping wood instead.

I wasn’t too upset though. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the process: waking up early every morning to write in one of the empty rooms while the sun rose up from the small wood in front of the house. The way I could walk down the hill to the village on a foggy morning and feel like I was walking off the edge of the earth. Because let’s face it, there are few places in the world (from my experience anyway) as quiet (or as beautiful) as rural France in winter.

Sad to leave the farmhouse when the owners returned, and eager to avoid returning to the teaching treadmill, I ended up doing a series of short house sits in Gascony, Aude and the Ariège. Each one more remote than the last. I started wondering whether reintegration back into modern life might be hard. Or even impossible. Not realising that just around the corner was my toughest assignment yet…

In October 2017, I was offered the chance to look after a chateau for the winter in Tarn-et Garonne. The village was called Auty, population 86, and during my first week I saw no one. Just a dog and a herd of deer trotting up the road as though off to a meeting. In my second week, I met the postman, plus a couple of kids on mopeds careering down the hill towards the town of Caussade ten kilometres away.

It was odd. It wasn’t even that remote. The A20 autoroute was only eight kilometres away. Toulouse, one of the biggest cities in France, only an hour’s drive. And yet here in Auty, especially when the snow fell, it felt like I was somewhere far north.

It made me ask myself, what was I doing here? After that first house-sit on the farm, I’d fully intended to go back to my job in Lyon. Now, nearly three years later, the thought of going back to teach the present perfect over and over again just so I could afford a box flat in Guillotière was about as appealing as sawing my own foot off. So I decided to start another novel.

Over that winter I toiled away using one of the rooms high up in the chateau, hoping I could get it right this time. It was cold and isolated and eerie. The chateau was over 250 years old and at times I was sure there was more than one set of ghosts rushing up and down the ancient stairs, getting ready for a party that had taken place over two centuries ago.

The book was finished in March 2017, entitled “Right Time Right Place”. Mainly because I thought I had got it right this time. I was wrong. On reading it through, I wasn’t happy, so once again I filed it away under ‘Unfinished’. I joined the local cycle club in Caussade instead of bemoaning my latest failure.

The Caussade Cyclo Club: A club full of eccentric French cyclists who go out in any weather on a Sunday morning and ride as fast as possible so they could all get back in time for lunch.

On one of our crazed Sunday sorties, round about the time I’d pretty much ditched any notion of ever writing another novel, I had a new idea. We’d stopped to refill our water bottles from the fountain in the quaint village of Bach about 20 kilometres from Cahors. It was May and it was hot, even for ten o’clock, but apart from a group of cyclists dressed in lycra, there wasn’t a soul in sight. I wasn’t particularly surprised of course; I was used to it — I lived in Auty! But as I waited for everyone to finish filling their bottles, I started wondering what would happen if there were more people here.

What if, for example, through some strange glitch, people started mysteriously coming to this desolate village in rural France. All arriving hungry and thirsty with only a drinking fountain for sustenance and a load of crazed cyclists for company. What would happen then? And was there a story in this?

When I got back to the chateau after the ride, and without even changing, I frantically wrote my idea down. I started typing it up and didn’t stop until I had got down a rough draft. Two years later Le Glitch was published…

See my page ‘Le Glitch’ for more details here

(Images and words © 2019 Philip Ogley)

Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone.

On a recent visit to see me in France, my friend asked me if he could borrow my phone for a minute. His was out of battery and he needed to check something. I handed him mine.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.

‘My phone. It’s quite smart. It only cost €5. It’s even got a radio.’

He looked at me in utter disbelief. I hadn’t seen him for a few years so he couldn’t work out whether I was joking or I simply hadn’t caught up with modern life.

‘But it doesn’t even have internet,’ he complained pressing the thick plasticky keys of my Logitech D34.

‘No, it doesn’t,’ I declared. ‘But it does have a torch, so at least I can see where I’m going.’

Once he’d got over the initial shock, he congratulated me, telling me he would love to live without his phone, but sadly, he couldn’t.

‘Why not?’ I asked. I wasn’t trying to be smug or clever; I was simply interested.

‘Because it’s got everything on it,’ he admitted. ‘I mean everything, bank details, work schedules, films, photos, my diary, passwords, my life. If I lost it, I’d be screwed. Even leaving home without it sends me into a mild panic. I sometimes have to drive back home just to retrieve it. It’s like a drug I know.’

‘More wine?’ I asked.

I poured him another glass as we tucked into our confit du canard, which I’d lovingly cooked from the tin. ‘Mmm.’ He licked his lips. ‘Very good. I mean, down our way you can’t even order a pizza unless you’ve got the App! I can’t even remember the last time I actually spoke on the phone. I just communicate via Messenger or WhatsApp.’

‘I prefer email,’ I added. ‘Or the old fashioned landline.’

My friend burst out laughing. ‘That’s why I can never get in touch with you. Who uses a landline these days? Next you’ll be writing letters.’

We laughed and discussed more fantastical scenarios involving the future of technology, and what would happen if one day it all got turned off and we were all forced to write letters again. Then finally, we got onto my novel, Le Glitch.

‘So? I asked him tentatively, slugging back a glass of red Saumur so lacking in body it felt like I was drinking Shloer. ‘What did you think?’

He got my book out of his bag and held it in his hand like he was taking an oath. ‘I haven’t read it,’ he quickly admitted. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What!’ I exploded. ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read it? You said you would. What were you doing on the train down here? You could have probably finished it, you’re a fast reader, aren’t you? Plus it’s quite pacy – or so I’m told by people who have read it.’

‘I’m sorry, I got distracted.’

‘By what? The view?’

He looked sheepish. I’d known this guy since school and he always looked the same when he’d been caught out. His face muscles tightened and his mouth dropped open like a dead fish, signalling he was about to tell the truth. ‘I’ve just started seeing this new girl, you know how it is. Messaging and texting and before I knew it, I was at the station. It’s why my phone is out of battery. I’ll read it tomorrow.’

Then I had an idea. ‘No, you’ll read it now,’ I barked. ‘I’m not going to give you the internet code until you’ve read the book. And seeing as there’s no mobile signal around here for miles, I suggest you get reading. Unless you want to start writing letters. In that case the post goes at about eleven o’clock in the morning twice a week. But as the postman rarely shows up, you might have to resort to smoke signals to contact your girl. Your choice.’

My friend looked back at me. No internet. No mobile phone signal. His world had suddenly collapsed in on itself, casting him into a sea of impenetrable darkness. ‘But but but,’ he pleaded. ‘Can I just text her to tell her I’ve arrived?’

‘No – get reading!’ I ordered. ‘It shouldn’t take you long. As I’ve said, it’s quite pacy.’

And with that my friend sat down in my armchair, filled up his glass of cheap Saumur, and opened the first page of my book and started reading.

Five hours later he was finished.

‘Well?’ I asked.

‘It’s good. Can I go to bed now?’

‘Oh.’ I looked astonished. ‘Don’t you want the code?’

‘The code?’

‘For the internet.’

My friend rubbed his tired eyes. ‘Nah. Forget it, it can wait till the morning. I’m going to bed. Night.’

You can buy and read Le Glitch here

Le Glitch. A Novel

In April 2018 I started writing a novel. My third.

In the film Sightseers, there’s a bit in which one of the characters boasts about being on his third book. Then gets killed by the guy who’s writing his first. Watch it, it’s funny.

I’m probably not going to die, because this is really only my first book. The other two sit in dark corners on a computer file marked “For later.”

As the title suggests, this novel is about a glitch. A sudden, usually temporary malfunction of electrical equipment, that in this story, changes a man’s life forever.

It’s a classic storyline I admit: Man down on his luck. Just about to throw the towel in on his silly life. When a miracle strikes!

So what about the setting?

How about a deathly French village in the middle of nowhere. Call it Crêpe. Why not? Short, easy to remember. Much shorter than some of those French villages like  Saint-Remy-en-Bouzemont-Saint-Genest-et-Isson that take half an hour to pronounce. Plus Crêpe translates well into English: Crepe.

And the protagonist, this down-and-out joker? What does he do? Well, let’s make him the Mayor of this rathole. Call him Jean Marc Bulot. Bulot’s good. French for sea snail. Slow moving, idle , lazy.

Next throw in a smattering of useless friends. A drunk, a depressive, a half-arsed janitor, a retired English nurse, a crazed old school teacher. Suddenly we’ve got a cast.

What else? How about a rival village?

Ventrèche: A smouldering cesspit of hatred, bad blood and jealousy that’s been at war with Crêpe since the Middle Ages.

And the bad guy? Enter Michel Arnold, the Mayor of Ventrèche. A real slimeball who wears cowboy boots and a Stetson even though he’s nearly seventy (and French). What a clown!

So we’re all set for Le Glitch.

OUT NOW
Paperback
UK: £6.99
US: $8.99
FR: €8.43* 

Puffballs for Breakfast

At around eight thirty after dinner I usually take a walk around the farm Elizabeth and I are currently looking after. Part of the fun is feeding the fallen apples to the cows. Over the past few weeks they seem to have got addicted to them, and pursue us across the fields, their mouths drooling.
It was on this occasion yesterday, as I was attempting to escape the rampant beasts, that I stumbled, quite literally, upon a giant puffball (Calvatia Gigantea) nestled under one of the many apple trees that litter the farmlands.

I had once eaten one at school. Rather bizarrely our physics teacher brought one into class and cooked it on a camping stove during the lesson. Apparently it was part of the laws of thermodynamics module, but I can’t remember the exact context – Everything is created: everything is destroyed (eaten), perhaps…?

Remembering Mr. Mitchell’s culinary introduction to Isaac Newton, I yanked the football-sized mushroom from the ground and carried it home via a trek up High Field, across a small river and down through the apple orchards. When I arrived home, it was still intact.

Despite its resemblance to a brain, it smelt gorgeous. Like a slightly peppered steak.

‘Breakfast tomorrow!’ I exclaimed to Elizabeth enthusiastically.

Her eyes rolled upwards as she recalled the near poisoning incident we had with some misidentified field mushrooms a few years ago. In that instance I picked yellow stainers instead of field mushrooms and needed the bathroom rather quickly after wolfing down a plate of mushroom stroganoff. I was alright in the end, mild gut ache, but I’ve been a little wary of wild mushrooms ever since.

This time though I was sure. Why? Because puffballs are probably the most easily identifiable mushrooms on the planet. They are big and when sliced lengthways they are white and spongy, and have the texture of soft suede leather.

Yes it is true that when they are smaller they can be confused with amanata which are deadly. However when a puffball is sliced open it will be pure white with no internal structures or gills whatsoever – it is literally like slicing through a large ball of mozzarella cheese. Plus when puffballs are this size, it is highly unlikely to be anything else.**

As you can see, it’s lovely white. (If it’s discoloured, don’t eat it as it’s no longer edible.)

Next slice it into cubes like you might do with tofu or pieces of steak or courgette.

Slice 3 cloves of garlic and fry it all up with butter or oil for about 5-10 minutes. Like this:

Et voila, breakfast, with toast of course.

What does it taste like?

It’s clearly a mushroom. But it has a distinct meaty taste, almost like veal. Or even monkfish. It’s hard to describe. It’s certainly not chalky like tofu. Neither is it succulent like fish. It’s a bit slimy – like chicken legs – but it is filling and mildly satisfying.

When I was eating it, I imagined it roasted. Or even made into soup. It’s more of a camping food I guess. Pitching a camp and foraging for a nice puffball, even though it’s availability is limited to late summer/early autumn. Plus they are not that easy to find. While not rare, finding one this big isn’t common.

Best thing is to try it for yourself. It’s out now in a field near you!

Giant Puffball – Calvatia Gigantea

 

(** P.S. I am not an expert. This was my own personal identification using my own knowledge and research. Please do the same if unsure. Thanks.)

The Swimming Lake

Hello.

After spending six months back in the UK, I’ve finally come back to France. To Normandy to look after a farm. How long I’m not quite sure. Maybe enough time to finish a novel?

Yesterday was hot. Very hot, so I spent it in the small lake we have here. More a large pond. Later I made a short film accompanied by music someone recorded in a street in Nantes. Where I am is about 300 kilometres from Nantes so there’s very little connection. Except that it’s in France.

For those of you who’ve never read this blog, it started out in Lyon in 2011. Then it was called BLOGLEY and was about living in Lyon. Since then it’s become a general platform for stories, travel articles, short films, audio pieces, and general pieces about nothing in particular.

So if you have a few minutes of your life to waste you might want to browse some posts. Or you could even buy the book: A Man in France by clicking on the photo of bottles of wine and cans of beer opposite —->

If not, this 60 second film with music from Nantes pretty much sums it all up.

The Mailman Milkman Affair

This is a short story about a good old fashioned punch up between a milkman and a postman on a Bristol common. While this event is fictional, it may have happened at some point in the past. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?

I was walking across the park the other day when I saw a postman and a milkman boxing on the section of grass normally reserved for cricket.

They were still wearing their uniforms: white jacket and black trousers for the milkman. Blue trousers and red polo shirt for the postman.

A small crowd had even gathered. Passersby drawn from their daily lives to watch this strange spectacle being fought out on a damp municipal park in North Bristol. As though a page had been ripped out of a fairytale and blown on the wind to this part of town. Picked up by the protagonists and played out as best they could without props or a stage.

Whatever it was – improvised theatre or simply an ongoing feud – I was as transfixed as everyone else and it didn’t take long before people started taking sides.

‘Go on postie! Come on milkman!’ came the shouts as more and more people joined the crowd.

Whether the fighters heard any of this or were simply intent on getting the fight over, so perhaps they could go home, they both seemed to raise their game. The blows becoming faster and more direct until moments later the postman caught the milkman on the jaw with a fierce right hook. Sending him down onto the compacted earth of the cricket square with a loud thud.

But he wasn’t down for long and once they had restarted some shifty character in a flat cap and thick grey trousers started taking bets.

Most of the initial money seemed to be going on the postman, but I wasn’t convinced. While the mailman was certainly the younger and fitter of the two and had already floored the milkman once, the dairyman definitely had the weight advantage. And I was sure he needed only one good hit to finish the contest.

By now there must have been over a hundred people round the ring with money changing hands faster than a Vegas showdown. The bookmaker wasn’t stupid either and quickly realised that in order to maximise his takings he needed to prolong the fight for as long as possible.

He quickly ran into the ring to split the fighters up and announced to the excited spectators that there would be a two minute interval. Slightly bewildered, the two fighters went to opposing corners where some people who seemed to have a knowledge of boxing started relaying tactics and splashing water over their faces.

I’d never gambled before in my life, but if ever there was a time to take a punt, it was now. I waved a ten pound note in the air and immediately a small boy forced his way through the crowd towards me. The boy, no more than nine years old and who had clearly been commandeered by the bookie as  his skivvy, snatched the tenner out of my hand and asked who I was for: Postie or Milko – their official fight names.

I told him my bet and he quickly scampered back to his master to place it. Someone who’d been a boxing referee at one time or other volunteered his services and the bookmaker, who was now all-round promoter, manager and gangmaster, happily obliged him.

What was certain on that Monday morning was that no-one was going anywhere. This was high entertainment.

The fighters were greeted by a huge roar as they bounded back into the ring looking revitalised and eager to go.

‘Milko!’ screamed the fans of the dairyman against the opposing yells of ‘Postie!’ from the mailman’s followers.

Both fighters were now stripped down to their trousers making the whole scene feel like an old French short story set on the damp plains of the Solonge or the Vendee. Two  story-book characters fighting over land, a girl, money, a pig. Who knows? – I was pretty sure no one had bothered to ask them.

Despite their initial enthusiasm the opening encounters to the second round were fairly tame with neither fighter taking any unnecessary risks. This didn’t please the hyped-up crowd and a few boos rang out around the arena. The fighters took their cue and the blows started to rain in much to the delight of the braying mob.

And then Bang! Postie’s guard went down allowing Milko – just as I’d predicted – to slam a perfectly weighted left hook into his opponent’s face. Blood spurting out from a deep cut under his eye as he went down to the floor.

The referee started counting. One – Two – Three, triggering a riotous roar from Postie’s supporters urging him to get up. Four – Five – Six. Postie was hardly moving though. Seven – Eight. The roar became louder and slowly Postie began to get to his feet. Nine! Postie stood on one leg and then after what seemed like an age, finally forced the other one up, until he was standing tall and ready to fight. A giant roar went up from everybody. Nobody wanted this to finish yet.

When the battle recommenced each man was giving it his all. The punches were coming in from all sides as each fighter pushed for the final victory. The noise level increased as the supporters demanded a knockout. Especially as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the police turned up. Some idiot jobsworth concluding enough fun had been had for one day.

After about another minute of frenetic action, the fighters started to tire. Their work rate dropped and they seemed to be content to lock arms and hug each other, occasionally delivering the odd punch to prove they were still interested.

The crowd egged them on, trying to push one of them on for a final knockout. But they were done. Who knows how long they had been fighting for. They could have been at it for hours, days, years.

So when they finally collapsed to the ground, embraced like two lovers in a tragedy, a huge roar erupted over the park.

And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived, everyone drifted away. Leaving the two fighters, the referee and the bookmaker in the ring.

At first I couldn’t understand why nobody had asked for their money back – it was clearly a draw. It was only when I saw the bookmaker take his roll of money from his pocket and stuff it in between the bloodied bodies of the fighters that I got it.

And then like everyone else I walked away leaving a postman and a milkman lying on the ground, the best of friends. Two men who’d given several hundred people a marvellous morning’s entertainment.

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

The Mailman Milkman Affair taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. Available here

Notes from Copenhagen #4: Tuborg Lager

I’ve been in Copenhagen for 6 weeks now and it’s rained for half of them. The barkeeper in the pub down the road told me on Thursday night that it’s been the worst summer for 38 years.

‘It’s not normally like this,’ he said pouring me another pint of Tuborg.

The day after was glorious but I didn’t notice it. Laid up on the sofa all day with the worst hangover for years. A quick calculation from the money I didn’t have in my pocket gave me a total of 9 pints. Elizabeth grinned at me from the armchair egg and bacon butty in hand as I lay there groaning like an old man. Managing to sip my cup of tea without having to rush to the bathroom.

I’d so far resisted the bowl. My prized capacity for alcohol wasn’t going to be beaten by some dodgy Danish beer. Which was of course the reason I felt so wretched. And not the fact that I can’t take my beer any more.

I’ve suffered some cruel hangovers in my time. Hard, grinding ones that seem to hang around for days like the smell of bacon fat or burnt toast. I haven’t had one of those for years. Partly because I don’t drink as much. But this laid me low. Like a man who’s suddenly contracted a terrible illness and has days, if hours, to live. Melodrama being one of the traits of drinking too much.

I was actually on call to work as a cycle courier, but luckily there were no orders because half of Copenhagen is on holiday. August 1st is when things spark back into action here. This was good fortune as while I’ve gone to work in the past with the most frightful of hangovers, I didn’t fancy charging round the city with a thundering headache barely able to keep the contents of my stomach down on what was a really hot day. If you know what I mean.

Today is cold and raining again as predicted by Stig, the barkeeper on Thursday night.

‘If you’ve got anything planned for the weekend, see it tomorrow,’ he advised.

I said I would make full use of the glorious weather. Then he poured me another pint. Although in truth I did make it to the sea for a swim yesterday in a desperate attempt to kill my aching head.

I like Copenhagen. Swimming in the harbour is one reason. But there are many. It’s phenomenally relaxed, it’s not as expensive as people always say (4-5 quid a pint), it’s friendly, and there’s loads to see. Plus you can cycle everywhere. It’s quite easy to get a job, people speak English (or French/German) and nobody really gives a shit.

It’s perfectly normal to see people of all ages and social backgrounds wandering round the streets or the parks with a can of beer in their hand. It’s also normal to see people picking them up off the floor and putting them in plastic bags.

This is called Pant collecting. Pant in danish meaning deposit (or mortgage.) as all bottles and cans here (except wine bottles and a few others) have a value depending on their size. Each bottle or can is labelled according with either Pant A, B or C.

When you get enough, you take them to the machines in the supermarkets where you get a ticket for the value you collected. With this you can buy more beer (or food).

It’s  a good system as it discourages littering. And if people do, there’s always people (like me) who’ll pick it up.

It’s become an obsession of the city. Everybody does it. Especially in the parks and open areas. The Fælledparken near here is a goldmine. After the recent Guns & Roses concert we collected almost 120 kroners worth of Pant. A similar amount after a football match. Even on a nice summer’s evening (rare) there’s enough for a meal and a few beers.

But you’ve got to be on the ball. If you don’t get there on time, there’s not a can or bottle in sight. The entire park scavenged by anybody with a bike or a bin bag. The entire park spotless within hours. It’s amazing. As though the park has a built-in self cleaning function. Press the PANT button and within hours the park is as clean as when it was built.

It’s funny because of all the things to do in Copenhagen, this is one of the things I enjoy doing most. You wouldn’t think it would you? But along with my bicycle courier wage, I’ve been able to scrape together enough to live on. So much in fact that I can afford to go and drink 9 pints of Tuborg on a Thursday night.

(*My absurd guidebook to France, A Man in France, is currently free to download until 31st July – click here)

Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier

My job in the Indian takeaway lasted precisely 25 minutes. Beating my other record for staying in a job by a full 20. Forty-five minutes being the time I did a job in Exeter cleaning commodes and soiled bed covers for Devon County Council’s geriatric department.

That turned out to be a clerical error on the part of the temping agency I was working for. I was meant to be doing data entry but some admin joker thought that if somebody can do one shit job, they can do another…(Great humour!)

I walked out of that job and didn’t say goodbye. This one though was more mutual. The takeaway owner letting me go 25 minutes into my shift, citing that I was too qualified and would probably leave anyway. Which was true. I had planned to leave. Just not so soon. But after almost half-an-hour of standing by a silent telephone looking at faded photos of India on the wall, I was mightily relieved when he stepped in and fired me.

Sauntering back up Osterbrogade that slices east and west Copenhagen in two, I started thinking about what I would do now, seeing as my only job so far had come to an abrupt end. My plan on coming to Copenhagen was to find a job as quickly as possible. Something interesting, something different. Three weeks down and I was still cessantibus. Which according to the Copenhagen jobcentre is latin for unemployed. (For the record unemployed in Danish is arbejdsløs.)

As fate would have it though, as I turned onto Nordre Frihavnsgade – a super cool street lined with diners, bagel bars, cycle shops, vegan takeaways and yoga rooms – I noticed a cycle courier piling burgers into a large square pink styrofoam box the size of a WW2 field radio.

‘That’s my job,’ I said to myself noting the company.

A week later, I had the job complete with my own pink box which has enough space for a family sized buffet, wine, beer and ice.

I don’t look very happy in the photo but that’s because it was my first shift. I was phenomenally nervous owing to the fact that my knowledge of Copenhagen was limited to the bakery, supermarket and beer shop near where I live. I had a smartphone with Google maps on it, but that turned out to be as useful as a chessboard without any pieces.

Half an hour into my first trip my phone started beeping. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Another order!’

Only to discover moments later that it was my battery, which promptly died, sending me into a spasm of pure panic. Without a phone, it was impossible to do the job. I was as good as lost. And would have had more chance finding my destination blind drunk using that good oldfashioned paralytic global positioning system employed by millions of drunks daily in their fight to get home.

With a steaming pizza on my back I rushed home, plugged my phone into my laptop and threw the whole ensemble in my box hoping I had enough power to last me until eight o’clock. Luckily, it did. And the next day I bought a huge 14 megawatt phone recharger powerpack. Just in case.

In the past I imagined bicycle couriering to be a glamourous affair. Whizzing round the city like some modern day beat poet. Crazy, aloof, cool. A rebel for the cause. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. You’re just another jerk on a bike delivering pizza. Or bagels, or Indian, or Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Russian, or Greek, or Turkish. Or any other food type from around the world. Even Danish, believe it or not.

I got through my first week and enjoyed it immensely despite the occasional meltdown from an overload of orders. My legs are like iron, my brain like a walking atlas of Copenhagen and I know every takeaway in town. Except the ones where the signs and street numbers have been obliterated by years of heavy rain and violent winds. Copenhagen in case you haven’t been, has the climate of Newcastle.

Below is yesterday’s delivery route (click to enlarge)

And the day before

It looks like the drunken meanderings of a man after 20 pints desperately trying to get home. And if I’d had this technology when I lived in Warsaw it may have been an accurate representation of a typical Friday night there. Rub out Copenhagen, write in Warsaw and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I generally work between 3.30pm and 8.30pm and receive my orders via my phone. There’s a line in The Bourne Identity film where the hitman played by Clive Owen tells the hitman played by Matt Damon: ‘We always work alone.’ This sums cycle couriering up for me.

  • We never see who gives the orders.
  • We never see another cycle courier.
  • We only ever see the target when they open the door.
  • There’s no boss breathing down our neck wafting some hideous aftershave or perfume over us.
  • No colleagues discussing my performance in front of the cleaning staff.
  • No gossip.
  • No boring chitchat.
  • No small talk.
  • No speaking.
  • No office parties.
  • No photocopiers.
  • Just me and the road. (And the 3/4 million people who live here. But I can deal with them because they’re normally just a blur in my side vision.)

In short, it’s the perfect job for me…Almost.

The cycle culture in Copenhagen is great from an ecological standpoint – less cars, less pollution, less noise. On the other hand it’s a nightmare for a cycle courier. This might sound odd – almost demented coming from someone who rides bikes around the city all day. But it’s true. Ask any taxi, bus or delivery driver on the planet what would make their job better and they’d reply, almost unanimously, ‘Get rid of all the commuters, day trippers and joy riders!!’

Cycle lanes are a good idea for sure, but like roads, the more you have, the more they are used. To the point when they become clogged. Copenhagen is famous for lots of things. Jazz, opera, fish. It’s also famous for cycle jams. Lots of them.

The key to a successful cycle courier career is speed. The more orders, the more money you make. As a result you’ve got to move fast. Which means avoiding clogged up cycle lanes. Just like you might avoid the M1 or M25 at rush hour. Choose your route. Know the city. Be cool. Don’t get killed.

(to be continued…)

For more Blogley in Copenhagen, see Notes from Copenhagen #1

Notes From Copenhagen: The Takeaway Attendant

I’ve been in Copenhagen two weeks. The city is flat and low rise.  The streets are wide. There’s more bicycles than cars and people seem happy. I haven’t totally adjusted to life here, partly because I’m still expecting to wake up and look out over hills, lakes and forests. But any city where you can swim in the harbour and where cyclists get priority over cars, is certainly worth a few months of my time.

I even brought my vintage 1980 Peugeot PK 10 with me so I could try and look as cool as everyone else. Although my street cred took a hammering on my first morning when a lace from my chunky green Lidl trainers (cool?) got wrapped round my front pedal, upsetting my balance on a bike that’s already three sizes too small for me and sent me crashing to the floor like someone who’d just graduated from a tricycle.

I managed to compose myself, pretending it was some mechanical problem caused by shoddy French engineering, rather than my own incompetence. I then carried on to the city centre and witnessed my first ever cycle-jam.

40 or 50 cycles queuing patiently at a red light which made me wonder whether they’ll have to widen the lanes like they do to motorways to take more traffic. The lights went green and we all moved on, all 100 bikes now, for another 200 metres, until the next traffic lights where we all stopped again for another few minutes.  Nothing is perfect I thought. Even Copenhagen.

As for the Danes themselves. They are everything I expected. I went to the jobcentre on my first day here to ask about employment issues (tax, bank, legal status) and it was as though I was visiting an old friend. The man treating me as though I’d lived here all my life and wasn’t some scrounging Englishman looking for an EU passport.

I found him pleasant.  He smiled and got to the point – Danes don’t do small talk I’m told –  telling me to find a job (with a contract) and come back here and we’ll go from there. I left feeling confident that I might find my dream job here in the Kingdom of Denmark.

That was 10 days ago. Tomorrow I start work in an Indian Takeaway. There is a French phrase: faute de grives, on mange des merles, which I learnt when I first rocked up at the cycling club in Caussade on my vintage Pk 10 when everybody else was sporting 3 grand tour bikes.It roughly translates as beggars can’t be choosers or half a loaf is better than none. (*Literally, if you can’t eat thrush, eat blackbird).

In the interview with the takeaway owner he asked me where I lived. ‘Sankt Jakobs Plads,’ I said.

He was impressed. Then questioned me on why on earth I wanted to work in an Indian Takeaway, waving my CV in his hand like a judge pressing a charge. My CV is a schizophrenic mess of short contract teaching and catering jobs spanning most of my life. And he’s probably right, I’m probably over qualified – just.

I thought of telling him that I’ve never worked in an Indian Takeaway before so I’m just filling in the blanks. Getting more experience. Instead I told him the truth. ‘I’m running out of money in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I need a job.’

I’m not sure he was entirely convinced, dressed as I was in a checked Pringle shirt, blue cotton trousers and brown brogues. And as I live in one of the most expensive parts of the city (a flat courtesy of a friend), I looked more like I was a home counties lawyer on a day out at the races, than a man looking for a job as a takeaway attendant.

‘How do I know you’re not going to run off after a few weeks and get a job at Berlitz?’ he asked me.

I laughed. ‘I doubt it, they pay less than you.’

He liked that one. ‘Really! Less than me,’ he said laughing.

‘Yeh,’ I replied. ‘Teaching English is notoriously badly paid. Don’t you know. It’s why most teachers end up working in bars and restaurants. Or working in shops. Or dead.’

After becoming serious again, he said I had the job and that I could start Monday. ‘But you must learn the menu over the weekend,’ he said pointing to it. ‘Tuesday’s going to be busy. Gun’s and Roses are playing.’

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, genuinely perplexed. ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses, as in the American rock band?’

‘At the stadium. Just there.’ Pointing to the national stadium which is literally over the road.

‘The original lineup?’ I asked.

Now it was his turn to look confused. Perhaps thinking I was referring to his menu rather than which burnt out rock stars were reuniting because they were skint fresh out of rehab. ‘As in Slash, Duff, Izzy?’ I said.

‘Just learn the menu,’ he said curtly. Clearly not a fan of classic rock.

I said I’d see him Monday and spent last night learning Indian Menu codes while drinking generic Carlsberg lager that’s half the price of The Best Lager in the World. I only got as far as Chicken Madras 228, Lamb Spinach 333 and Fish Tikka 447 because I couldn’t help thinking of Guns and Roses.

I’d seen them (the original lineup) in 1993 at the Milton Keynes Bowl. Driving down from Nottingham and parking my ancient metro in some industrial estate on the outskirts of town (if Milton Keynes is a town). Then walking 5 miles to the venue. Getting there at 11 o’clock in the morning and waiting until 10 at night with nothing to eat or drink (just a few cigarettes) before they came on.

That was 24 years ago and as I tried hard to remember vegetable curry codes, I couldn’t help one of those stupid questions people always ask filtering into my head:

‘Hey Oggers, if I said that the next time you hear Guns ‘n’ Roses play live you’ll be taking orders in an Indian Takeaway in Copenhagen, what would you say?’

‘I’d say, don’t be so fucking stupid. How would that ever happen?’

(to be continued)

Pyrenean Cycling, Vikings, Lego and Copenhagen

It’s that time of year again. End of the winter, end of looking after the chateau. Time to move on.

First stop is Spain to which me and Elizabeth are cycling to in a few weeks time. Me on my ultra modern road bike, Elizabeth on her 1970 Peugeot Randonneur. The bicycle equivalent of the Ford Econoline van used by travellers and musicians in the 1960/70s. Lots of bells, chrome fittings, lights and racks. Perfect for a cycling trip in France and 1000 times more stylish – and comfortable – than my 21st century posing pouch.

We are going to be following part of the Chemin de St. Jacques to sling shot us down to St Jean Pied de Port and then catapult us over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to do since I was there a few summers ago on a camping holiday (Read Blogley post 139 if you can be arsed)

In the Pyrenees 2014

After that it’s back to Auty, then the long drive back to Double Brexit – sorry I mean the UK – to sort out a few bits and pieces. Like assassinate all the politicians and burn down the House of Commons. After I’ve done that it’s onward to Denmark via Essex (Also known as Stansted Airport).

Going to Copenhagen for three months feels almost exotic. Not in a Radox-blue tropical sea sense. Exotic in a Northern sense. Mysterious. Edgy. Cold. Vikings, longboats, herrings and plastic building bricks that get stuck in your foot.

I once saw a film when I was a kid in which a Viking chieftain is cremated on a longboat. The ship gently sailing out into the harbour fully ablaze until it caved in on itself and sank into the bay. A glorious send off. None of this black tie funeral parlour stuff full of straight faced vicars and washing line thin pallbearers receiving weak silent handshakes from relatives they’ve never met.

I remember the Viking funeral being spectacular, full of passion, death, honour and glory. Sending the warrior to a new life sitting at the high table next to Oden, a voyage over the waves, through the clouds and into eternity. Stark contrast to what happens to most of us: burnt in a cheap wooden box and then tossed into a rose bush or kept on the mantelpiece for the next 100 years like a ornament.

I said to my father after I’d watched the film that I wanted to be buried like a Viking. To which he replied while reading yet another dismal writeup of Leeds Utd’s latest demolition, ‘You’ll get buried like anyone else. In the ground. Here in Leeds. You’re not a Viking, Philip.’

‘Oh. Aren’t I?’ I replied and wandered off to research other burial practices from around the world. Parsi was my favourite: the corpse left on a high tower to be baked in the hot sun and then ripped to pieces by vultures.

(**Memo to my father: If I die in Copenhagen, I have the right to have a full Viking funeral. Longboat, flames, honour and glory – The Works.)

One Christmas I remember a quiz question from one of my sister’s board games. It asked, ‘Name three Danish brands?’

Most people would probably say what I said, ‘Lego and Carlsberg.’

I tried Danish pastries but that didn’t work. I could have said Bang & Olufsen (TVs), Netto (supermarket), Prince (fags), or Arla (cheese). Good to know now though.

I only other thing I know about Denmark is that it’s flat, which might be a welcome break after the ascent of the Pyrenees in a few weeks time. It’s also – or so I’m told – stylish. Which is where I may or may not fit in.

Style for me is drinking good coffee, not pretending it’s good just because it’s been squirted out of a ludicrously expensive Nespresso machine like a dribble of warm tar. Feeling good on the inside as opposed to obsessing about what I look like on the outside. It’s why I’ve been in the middle of rural France on and off for the past four years. I can dress in a hemp sack and there’s no one here to say, ‘What are you wearing a hemp sack for? You hippie!’

In Copenhagen I’ll probably have to say something like, ‘It’s not hemp, it’s brushed Japanese cotton. Seriously, you think I’d be wearing hemp. That was so last season!’

In a few weeks we’ll leave Chateau Dumas for good. It’s been a very pleasant year (2 x winters) and I’ve done lots of things. What, I’m not sure, but now it’s time to move on to Danish ‘Arla’ pastures new.

I’ll leave you with the last ever short video made here, featuring me trying to head a red football into the cold outdoor swimming pool accompanied by Beethoven. Au revoir and Bye!

More silly stories about my time in France can be found in A Man in France: Available in Books

How To Tap Walnut Trees to Make Syrup

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I like maple syrup on my porridge. It’s sweet, nutritious and tastes great. It’s also expensive. So yesterday morning Elizabeth said to me, ‘Why don’t you tap the Walnut trees in the garden? There’s loads of them.’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said looking out over the walnut grove of the chateau we look after over the winter. It once produced nuts on a commercial basis, now it’s tired and overgrown. And while the trees still produce nuts, they’re only appreciated by the family of wild boar who have taken up residence there.

The truth is there’s an untapped reserve of walnut syrup on my doorstep. So I rushed out to tap it. The results were spectacular. Here’s how you do it.

1. Find a walnut tree – this is an English Walnut, but Black Walnut trees are equally good. The best time to tap them is now (February/March). Cold nights (preferably freezing) and warmer days. In the morning about 10 o’clock.

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2. Drill a hole about a centimetre in diameter at hip height. PS. If you’re planning to use your walnut tree for making chairs and tables – don’t do this!

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3. Push a metal spout like this into the hole.

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4. I don’t have one like this – this is one from Canada (where else). So I used a piece of cut off hose and jammed it in.

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5. It works fine (little bit of leakage down the tree). Now you need to set up a bowl underneath and wait.

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6. When I first did this, I thought the sap would be already treacly and brown. But it actually looks like water, which you can drink and tastes really nice. This bowl took about three hours to fill, but it depends on the conditions.

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7. The next step is to take it inside to boil down, or set it up on an open fire.

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8. Let it boil away furiously. Open some windows as there’s loads of steam. Hence why it’s better outside!

9. Drink coffee while you wait. It takes about two hours for 5 litres of sap to boil down.

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10. Boil until you get a brown syrupy liquid in the bottom. But don’t boil it down too much as it will cool down and solidify more. (And don’t forget about it either and burn it. Or your house down!). Then decant it into a bottle or jar. Et Voila! 100% pure English Walnut syrup grown in France.

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11. The one above is a touch too syrupy for my liking. I made that yesterday. The one below I made today and is about right. A lovely rich colour.

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OK, I know what you’re saying. ‘You don’t get a lot, do you?’ No you don’t. About 35mls of syrup from 5 litres of sap. But it’s great fun to make, especially with children, plus you’re connecting with nature from the inside out as it were. So how does it taste? Play video to find out!

12. Philip Ogley tasting his home-tapped Walnut syrup.

 

For more information on other trees that can be tapped, visit site: https://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/

Photograph of spout courtesy of http://homestead-honey.com/2014/03/10/beyond-maple-syrup-tapping-black-walnut-trees/

Egg and Spoon Races on the Tour de France

Every Sunday I cycle with the Caussade Cyclo Club. A smattering of hardened veterans, Lycra clad family guys,  grizzled tradesmen, and me. The fresh faced Englishman from Auty who looks after a chateau there in winter. Who appears around November and then disappears again in May, and who only seems to cycle with the club in the ice, freezing fog and howling wind.

This Sunday was no exception as we headed out in storm force winds up to Caylus north of Caussade, then across to Espinas and down into St Antonin in the Aveyron gorge (where Charlotte Gray was filmed). Then we headed up the other side of the gorge on a well known local climb called Côte de Saint Antonin, which as it happens, formed part of Stage 6 in last year’s Tour de France.

tdf__route

Granted, it’s hardly Alpe D’huez, more a pinprick in comparison, but it’s quite a nice climb all the same: the wide road winding up the side of the gorge giving great views of the valley and town. (You can see the road in the photo below.)

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I’ve done it a few times since I’ve been here and have always found it pretty tough, clocking up times of 15.24 and 14.23 respectively. Both of which are pretty poor.

However, this Sunday after I got back and downloaded my data from my GPS watch (whatever happened to old fashioned speedometers, eh?) I saw I’d done the climb in 11.50 and had risen up to 235th on the Strava leaderboard for the Cote de St. Antonin climb.

If you’re not familiar with how Strava works, think of it like this.

It’s school sportsday, the last day of term, your family are here and you’re approaching the finish line in the egg and spoon race. You’re in the lead. Everybody is cheering, even your grandfather who’s nearly dead, and then calamity! You trip and fall over, break your egg and watch Fatso McGeekan, your longtime nemesis, glide past you and take first place. Leaving you scrabbling around on the yolk splattered grass picking up broken eggshell along with your shattered dreams.

But now let’s imagine that wasn’t the end of it. That you had the chance to rerun the race again and again as many times as you liked in a sort of parallel universe to ensure you came first instead of Fatso McGeeken.

This is what Strava does (more or less).

Let’s take the Cote de Saint Antonin climb, for example. On Strava, this is a Segment. This means that every time a cyclist does this climb, their time is logged and their position ranked on a leaderboard alongside all the other riders who have done it in the past.

An individual can move up the leaderboard by improving their time. Therefore, if my imaginary egg and spoon race was a segment on Strava, which it could be in theory because anyone can set one up, I could rerun the race over and over again and beat my nemesis. (This is hypothetical of course: I’m actually 43 and not still at school.)

I understand that the whole point of races is that the winner is the winner on the day. However, what’s interesting is that after my cycle on Sunday while enjoying a homemade croissant courtesy of Elizabeth (they take three days to make she tells me) I saw on Strava that even though I’d done the Cote de St. Antonin in 11.50 minutes, the quickest time was actually a mind boggling 7.04. Wow! I thought. That’s quick. Very quick! Furthermore, scrolling down the page, I saw there were loads of good times. 7.10, 7.13, 7.15 and so on.

‘Holy Christ!’ I cried out, nearly choking on French pastry. ‘What the hell did these guys think they were doing, the Tour De France, or something?’

Turns out that’s exactly what they were doing, Stage Six to be precise, a Who’s Who of modern day cycling on the same Strava leaderboard as me.  Even one of my favourites, Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner and double Giro D’italia winner, was there. Look!

screenshot_2017-02-13_at_5-56-30_pm

And here’s me on the same leaderboard back in 235th place.

screenshot_2017-02-13_at_5-59-06_pm

I then started thinking about my sportsday analogy. If I could beat Fatso McGeekan in an egg and spoon race, then by applying the same schoolboy logic I could beat 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. All I had to do was get a time better than his on the Cote de St. Antonin and I’d leapfrog him on the leaderboard. 

Not waiting to see if my logic made any sense, I stuffed a few more croissants down my neck and headed back out on my bike to St. Antonin. You better watch your back Nibali, I’m right behind you…

vincenzonibali-800x528
Vincenzo Nibali

For more anecdotes and undeniable logic read my book A Man in France. Available here

Frozen Swimming Pools, Spoon Making and Cornish Pasties

I received a text last week from the guy who manages the pool here at the chateau telling me he’d come over that morning to work on it, but I wasn’t in. I found this strange because I’m always in.

Anyway, not thinking too much of it, I wandered down to the pool to have a look at what he’d done. Which was nothing. Everything was exactly the same. Except the leaves…millions of them at the bottom of the pool.

When I arrived here in November there was a highly efficient pool robot that scooted around the bottom sucking them up. And then one morning it was gone. Mysteriously vanished as though it had packed up and left for Spain. ‘Too cold here mate,’ a message inscribed on the floor in dried leaves. ‘See you in Torremolinos!’

It could have been stolen. But by whom? Things don’t get nicked round here because most houses have dogs and most of the occupants have guns. So I phoned the pool guy and left a message asking him if he knew where the robot was. I never heard from him. That was in November.

This morning the swimming pool was frozen. Solid as a rock. Deep enough to skate on. Somebody had turned the filtration pumps off that keep the circulation going. Baffled I phoned the pool guy to ask why he’d turned the pumps off last week when he visited when it’s minus 8 outside. Plus where the fuck is the pool robot? And when is he going to collect all the leaves from the bottom of the pool. But unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in. I left a message. The saga continues…

frozen-pool3

Other news. My friend from my Falmouth days, Richard ‘Rich’ Barker, recently visited for 10 days. We drank beer and ate lots of meat and spuds and he taught me how to make spoons from the mass of wood we have at the chateau.

It’s funny, isn’t it? (or perhaps not) but I’ve been burning all this wood simply to keep warm. Never once occurring to me that all this walnut, oak, ash, cedar, apple, pear could be used to make something. Like a palace for example there’s so much of it. Talk about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

Now I use it to fashion implements to stir my porridge with in the morning, ladle my soup with at lunch, and eat my curry with in the evening.

So far I’ve made four spoons, three spatulas and a set of chopsticks. I’m a cautious man so the implements are chunky and crude. Richard on the other hand told me he doesn’t possess any spoons because he’s a perfectionist. He whittles them down to the limit. Then they break and he starts again.

It’s a good test to examine two people’s character. Give them some spoons to whittle down and see who has a full set by the end of the day. Those who don’t and who have a pile of broken moon shaped pieces of wood on the floor are the ones who seek perfection. Those who do, simply don’t have enough cutlery.

By the time I leave here in May, I’ll have so many spoons, slices, forks, bowls, and spatulas, I could probably set up a shop. A museum’s worth of curiosities that look like they date back to the stone age.

Talking of food. The other major thing this month is the discovery of the Cornish Pasty in the barren desolate wastelands of rural France in winter. One morning a few weeks ago, me and Rich were making spoons when we were called into the house by Elizabeth.

‘Lunch is ready,’ she cried, a large smile on her face.

‘Whoopee,’ we both cried out like children, wood chippings clinging to our hipster beards like shavings of parmesan. Our faces red and raw from the freezing fog like slabs of meat.

Hungry, we rushed in to witness this marvel before our eyes.

french-pasties

Our eyes nearly popping out of our heads as we stared at this gorgeous platter cooked up by Elizabeth from the steak and potatoes left over from the night before. Both me and Rich have lived in Cornwall and yet never have we tasted such Cornish heaven. With baked beans as well. And a can of Coke each! Life doesn’t get any better.

Afterwards, we trudged back out into the freezer to resume our spoon making, warmed inside by hot meaty pasties. A moment later, I saw a van pull up and for a minute thought it might be the pool guy making a shock appearance with the pool robot. But no such luck. Just a ghost. The wait goes on.

Seen this robot - contact Blogley below.
Seen this robot? – Contact Blogley below

For more anecdotes read A Man in France available @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01D1H7D62

The Christmas Woodpile

chateau_dauty-1I’m the winter caretaker of this 17th century Chateau in South Western France. If you’ve seen or read The Shining this is as close as it gets. In summer the chateau is used as a hotel, in winter it’s closed. Cue me and Elizabeth who are here to make sure it doesn’t fall down, bills are paid, intruders shot. For five months of the year, I’m Jack Nicholson.

It’s good for a number of reasons. One, it’s free. Second, it’s pretty. Three, it’s big. Four, it’s quiet. Five, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Six, there’s shit loads of wood. The entire estate being surrounded by an endless supply of pear, larch, cedar, ash, oak, hazel and lime. A lot of which ends up on the woodpile below.

logs-pile

Good, eh?

This is actually the New Woodpile and is located on the northern edge of the estate near the village church, whose bells chime at seven o’clock twice a day. Once in the morning, this doesn’t bother me as I’m asleep. And once in the evening, a useful signal to crack a beer and start cooking (if I ever needed one…).

For the record The New Woodpile superseded The Old Woodpile (below) as it simply wasn’t big enough.old-woodpileAs you can see it was also Christmas then. Although I can assure you the logs were real and not superimposed onto the photo like the trees in the background were. (I don’t know where the reindeer, stockings or candy canes came from.)

Last year I split the wood with an axe. As shown in the video below.

This year I’ve upgraded to an electric log splitter. It’s about as romantic as eating your evening meal in McDonalds, but I’m giving it a go due to back problems and the fact that I’ve got an incredible amount of logs to split.

Another guilty admission is that last year I transported the logs from one part of the estate to another in an old wheelbarrow.

wheelbarrow

This year I use this

car-logpile

It’s terrible I know. However, I can transport five times as much wood, which gives me more energy to carry it upstairs to the apartment where we live and add it to the Indoor Woodpile ready to burn. After that I sit in front of the fire with a glass of port and a whopping great plate of cheese.

happy-xmas
*Smile not included  ** Not all items may be real

Death of a Vintage Bicycle

Last Sunday I completed my 10th cycle with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo-Club. My best so far, mainly because I was riding a new bike. Dispensing, rather regretfully I have to add, with my vintage Peugeot PK10 (below).

PK 10

For those of you who know nothing about cycling or bikes. The Peugeot P10 series (PK, PX, PU, PN, PL) was one of the standard racing bike models of the mid-to-late 20th century. Their heyday being in the 60/70s with cycling legends such as Eddie Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Thevenet riding them.

Brought out in the 1930s the design remained almost unchanged up until the mid 1990s when the surge in cycling gave way to new ideas, materials and accessories. Cycling had become cool and the bikes (and of course their riders) had to look the part. The old classic racers became unfashionable, unused, and disliked. The grinding gears of the vintage models gave way to slick urban road bikes mounted by lycra clad, hi-vis wearing commuters who could be seen in every UK city sharing the miniscule piece of road left for them by a million angry motorists. The upside to this was that the old PK10s ended up on eBay or on Gumtree for enthusiasts to pick up for the price of a pint.

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Peugeot 1936 catalogue

So I slightly stunned myself last week when I bought a brand new slick urban road bike, the likes of which I used to hate. It was my first new bike since my father bought me a PUCH “Sprint” Racer for Christmas in 1986 and cost me ten times what my PK10 did.

triban
Triban 520

It’s not bad, is it? True, it looks like it was designed by a kid on his iPhone, and would have the greats of the past who used to cycle up the Col Du Tourmalet on their 10 speed PK10s, turn in their amphetamine soaked graves. But at least I can now keep up with my riding buddies on their 39 speed Shimano Ultegra, £3000 carbon frame Pinarello bikes.

On my previous rides out with the club – the other 9 – I could keep up for about 60 kms, then my legs would buckle, like my wheels, and I’d watch them disappear off into the distance leaving me searching for another gear on my ancient Simplex shifters.

Saying that however, the great advantage of this year long battle on my unreliable and (relativity) heavy PK10, is that it’s hardened my legs and expanded my lungs to almost professional level. Or so it felt like on Sunday. Breezing over the finish line wondering where everybody else was. True a few had got lost somewhere near Cahors due to a vintage French road intersection (ten roads meeting in the same place with no signs in sight). But the transformation from the week before when I’d limped home feeling like my legs had been shattered with a pickaxe was astonishing.

Technology wins. If not for style then efficiency.

Further proof of this was on Monday when me and Elizabeth went for a quick ride. Me on my PK10 for old time’s sake, Elizabeth on her even older ‘Tour De France’ vintage racer (below).

nuttys-bike
1970s custom made racer. Origin unknown. https://www.instagram.com/wildbeebeauty/

After the mandatory chain-falling-off episode, which always plagues old bikes, she seemed to get on fine. Gliding up and down the steep pie-shaped hills of the Tarn-et-Garonne like a female reincarnation of Jacques Anquetil. I, on the other hand – the so-called new Chris Froome as they called me on Sunday – felt like I was riding a tractor. Clugging away up the hill to the village as though I had mounted a pedalo by accident.

When I got back home I threw the PK10 in the garage, cleaned my new bike (again) and hugged it like the cat. I feel bad about letting the it go, but sometimes things no longer serve their purpose. They have to be retired. Put out to seed. Or simply left in the garage to rust.

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Me after Caussade Cyclo-Club Ride No. 1

*For more cycle stories plus other exciting anecdotes of my five years in France, take a look at A Man in France: a series of offbeat journal entries, short anecdotes, observational pieces and travel articles from the dark side of the wheel of camembert. Available in ebook or paperback format. Click photo to order.

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