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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Commentary, Film

Why Your Fairtrade Organic Latte Isn’t Going To Save the Planet

A few nights ago my wife and I settled down to watch First Reformed with Ethan Hawke. I like Ethan Hawke – he seems honest and humble and his characters are (mostly) believable.

But this is not a film review. It’s a short article written in my head during the part in the movie where the environmental campaigner (Philip Ettinger) explains to the priest (Hawke) that he wants his girlfriend to have an abortion to avoid bringing another child into this world.

It’s a well-done scene and reminded me of a discussion I had with a close friend a few years ago. He asked me one night why I had never had children — he had three. I argued various points about it never being the right time, financial worries, my rather unstable life, difficulty in taking responsibility, blah blah. Until I finally admitted that my main reason was the environmental impact of having children.

My friend looked at me rather blankly. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to put it any clearer, so I said it again: ‘I don’t have kids because every child is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Get this: I recently read that one extra child produces 60 tonnes of carbon per year. If you go carless for a year, you save two. I mean the figures are astonishing! People go on about going green and recycling, without ever realising that the best thing you can do, is not have children.’

After my rant, my friend looked shocked. ‘Wow, I’d never thought of it like that.’

‘Most people don’t,’ I said. Then I apologised, saying that I loved his kids and that I wasn’t having a go at him personally, his wife or his family. It was just a personal decision. ‘And anyway,’ I smiled at him. ‘You asked the question.’

We went on to talk about other things, but I always remember the conversation and found it interesting to see this idea addressed in a film. True, the guy in the movie was asking for drastic action. An abortion! But the point was the same.

I once read a book by Raj Patel called The Value of Nothing. It was a good book, except the author (a Brit like myself) seemed to think having kids was fine and wasn’t a problem. I disagreed when I read the book, and I disagree now. Surely, this IS the problem.

His argument was that we could accommodate more children on the planet if we dispensed with our rapacious lifestyles. BUT, as I told my close friend later in our conversation that night, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. And how long do we have? Western Capitalism isn’t going to disappear overnight, and as the world’s middle-class expands, the problem will only get worse.

Most parents believe their child will grow up and do something amazing: like save the planet. But in reality, he or she, whatever they do, will simply keep on polluting it. Just by living

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Of course, even I know that in order to keep the species going, we need children. But that’s not going to stop. For starters, teenagers will still get drunk on cheap cider and have sex in the park. The species is safe, so don’t worry!

And anyway, I like children: I value their spirit and curiosity, but maybe less is better. Because here’s the truth:

We can recycle our plastic bags, drink our organic fairtrade lattes, cycle to work, or even go vegan. And perhaps in the long term this ‘ecological dressing-up’ might work. But it’s going to take a long time. Time we probably don’t have. So what are we going to do about it?

Keep tweaking at the edges: a bit of this, a bit of that? Or fundamentally reduce the number of mouths we have to feed and the number of bodies we have to keep warm?

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Commentary, Observation

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.’

(*This was originally published 25 November 2019. I still don’t have a Smartphone. Although with technology creeping up on me and everything requiring Apps these days, I’m not sure how long I can last. I’ll keep you posted.)

Le Glitch is still available here

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Commentary

The Blank Page

What is writer’s block anyway?

I got up early this morning to write something for this blog.

But nothing came.

And as eight o’clock rolled on towards nine o’clock. And nine o’clock nudged ten, I was still staring at a blank screen. My mind felt empty as though my brain had been scooped out overnight and filled with soot. I wasn’t tired or hungover or ill; in fact, I’d been running the night before, and felt fit and fresh. And yet I was totally devoid of even the simplest idea.

I stared at the screen for ages. Then out of the window at the dirty sky wondering if it was going to rain. Then back at the screen. Then back outside again. Was this writer’s block? That mystical thing I hear other people talk about.

Surely not. I looked at the screen again. I’ve always got something to say, some rubbish to write about, even if it’s just nonsense. But today I was stuck, as though my hands were made of jelly fingers, unable to press a single key, incapable of typing a single word.

I briefly thought about writing about my summer holidays like I used to do at school. But as I didn’t have a holiday this year, or the year before, there wasn’t much to say. I could write about life on a rural French farm where I live and work, but I’ve flogged that horse to death enough times already.

Normally when I’m stumped for words, I write a short story starting with something like: ‘I woke up thinking I was Jesus.’ They generally fizzle out after a few pages, but at least I’ve written something.

JG Ballard, one of my favourite English authors, said he wrote a thousand words a day, every day. And I try to match this at least 5 days out of 7. But today nothing. And I hadn’t written for a week.

I almost flew into a mad panic and if it wasn’t for my wife I might have thrown something. A book against a wall. Luckily she arrived just in time and asked me what was wrong. So I told her. ‘I can’t write anything today. My mind is dead. I feel dead.’

She suggested I write about why I can’t write. Reminding me of all the novels written and films made on that very premise. ‘In fact,’ she went on, ‘there’s probably a whole genre in the film industry entitled: Writer’s Block.’

It was a good suggestion. Even though part of me thought it was a bit of a cop-out. Was I too dumb to think of anything interesting? And if so, what was I doing writing in the first place if I couldn’t write down a simple passage of prose, however banal?

A friend of mine who writes ghost stories for a living recently asked me if I’d had any more ideas for another novel.

I laughed. ‘I’ve only just finished my first,’ I informed him.

‘So?’ he shrugged. ‘Are you going to bask in the glory forever?’

I told him I wasn’t basking in any glory, but I understood his point. What he was really saying was, when are you going to write something serious? He knows me well so he can ask me these things.

‘I’m getting round to it. Slowly,’ I told him.

He nodded and we moved on to talk about football, which was a relief.

I actually have written about my life at boarding school and the death of my mother. The problem is, they don’t seem that interesting. The subject matter, however personal, is dull. I can’t make it come to life and I would much prefer to write about what it feels like to wake up as Jesus. Not that I’m in the slightest bit religious; it’s just that when I was young, I thought I was special — didn’t we all?

My friend would argue that all these, ‘Fantastical-what-would-happen-if-stories,’ are all well and good. But how about the ‘What-happened-in-reality-stories?’ Why don’t you cut the gags and get down to the real stuff? The meat. ‘Isn’t that why you write?’

It’s a good question. I probably write because I’ve always written. At school, I wrote an entire film entitled ‘School.’ I enjoyed it and even asked the drama master if we could perform it. He laughed at me and said maybe next year. We never did of course, and I’ve no idea what happened to the manuscript.

It was fun to write because it was just a load of stupid gags and pranks. More a sketch show than a full-blown movie. Of course, it didn’t contain any of the serious stuff: the beatings and the violence, but it was probably why I wrote it, to keep me sane.

But anyway, I’ve reached the 1000-word mark now, so it looks like I’ll have to stop. Just as I was getting started…

Photo by Pedro Araújo on Unsplash

My unserious novel Le Glitch is available here
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Commentary

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. And 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. But 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, 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.

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

‘Yes, I have,’ I would 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
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