Why I Keep My Christmas Tree Lights On — All Year Round

A friend came to visit me last week and the first thing he said was, ‘Shit Phil, you’ve still got your Christmas lights up!’

I think what worried him most was that the offending lights were still hanging on the tree. It was nearly February.

‘Don’t you know it’s bad luck!’ he pointed out.

I explained that the tree was actually an indoor conifer and was there all year round. The fact that there were lights on it was pure coincidence.

‘Jesus, Phil,’ my friend swooned. ‘If I did that where I lived, everyone would think I was nuts.’

I smiled at my friend and reminded him that my neighbours were over a mile away. And even if they did visit me — which was unlikely seeing as they hated my guts — they wouldn’t even notice a Christmas tree. Most of the farmhouses around here are so full of mismatched furniture, broken lampstands, and stuffed animals, they look more like Victorian bazaars than places to live in. A Christmas tree, I assured him— even with sparkly coloured lights — wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow. Even in July.

‘Plus they cheer me up,’ I continued. ‘When I turn them on each morning the bright, festive glow makes me feel like it’s Christmas Day. Don’t you ever wish that?’

The way he looked at me indicated he thought I’d been living in rural France too long. But I wasn’t joking. I was deadly serious. I’d always found it rather sad watching my mum and dad ruthlessly pack away all the decorations when Christmas was over. ‘Why not leave them out?’ I used to whine.

‘Because,’ my mother always reminded me. ‘There would be no joy unpacking it all again next year.’

She had a point. But it might have been pleasant to leave a few lights up to combat those winter blues. Which is what I do. And only replace the bulbs when the dog chews one off. Which she does with a rabid hunger from time to time. How she hasn’t electrocuted herself, I’m not sure.

I thrust a bottle of Pelforth beer into my friend’s hand and tried to explain what life was like here. That the favoured attire this season for trips to the local shop was wellington boots, mud-splattered jeans, padded blue gilets, and thick filthy sweaters. In fact, if you made the effort to dress up, you’d probably get robbed.

‘No one here really gives a shit,’ I went on. ‘People drive without seatbelts, drive drunk, shoot dogs, shoot cats. Even shoot themselves when they get really bored — it happened to a guy up the road a few weeks ago. Boom…’

My friend edged towards the door, thinking of returning back to London as soon as possible. ‘It must be like living in the Middle Ages…’ he mumbled as he tried to get a phone signal while I stood there shaking my head, a mischievous grin creeping up the side of my face.

‘You’d be better off sending smoke signals,’ I mocked. ‘Or, if you’re desperate, trekking up the mud-clogged hill and trying from there.’

‘Do you have internet?’ he asked urgently, looking at me as though he was about to throw himself off a cliff. Maybe he’d forgotten to ask me before he booked his ticket if I actually had ‘The Internet’. My friend being one of those people who can’t leave the house unless there are at least a hundred mobile phone satellites pointing directly into his brain.

I feigned surprise for a few seconds just to get his blood pressure really racing. ‘Errr,’ I said. ‘Yeh. Sort of. But it’s unreliable and slow. And sometimes even goes off.’

My friend’s eyes glazed over as the word OFF almost sent him into a coma. In his world, nothing was OFF: TV, Phone, Internet, Laptop, Radio, Coffee Machine. Always ON. Always ready to GO.

‘But most of the time,’ I finally declared. ‘It’s OK.’

He let out a long, drawn-out sigh, as though he’d just found out his mother was going to live after some complicated brain surgery.

Later, over dinner and wine, he asked me why I’d swapped a life of London cafes and bars, for a life of Normandy cows and barns. ‘I find it odd you came here,’ he ventured, gently sipping the pricy Bourgogne I’d bought especially for his visit, to save him drinking the gut-churning stuff I normally drank.

‘Don’t you get bored?’ he asked gravely, as people do when what they mean to say is: I would be bored out of my fucking mind if I lived in this rathole!!

‘Not really,’ I answered. ‘I know I’m not going to be here forever, so I just try and enjoy the moment. Plus the stuff I do, like herd cows down country lanes, is the sort of shit people do on those stupid self-discovery courses. Or corporate away-days, where all those morons try to get closer to themselves.’

My friend reminded me that he was one of those corporate morons, and had actually been on an away-day, abseiling down the side of a 50-storey building for no reason whatsoever.

‘And did you enjoy it?’ I quizzed him.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do it every day; I’m scared of heights for one.’

After my friend had gone back to the capital, I thought about taking the lights down from the tree. Some deep-buried guilt ordering me to conform to some absurd custom I didn’t like. Maybe it was because my parents were coming in a few weeks time, and I was nervous about what they would say.

‘Shit Philip! You’ve still got your Christmas lights up! We took our decorations down weeks ago.’

‘Yes Mum, I know…’

And so I would have to go through the whole conversation again. It was draining enough explaining it to my friend. To my parents, it would be like trying to find a pulse in a corpse.

So what do I do? Lights off, or on?

Difficult decision.

Luckily, I’ve got three weeks to decide. And if you want to find out what happened, you can reread this in about mid-February. You’ll know the outcome because I’ll have changed the title.

Why I Keep My Christmas Tree Lights On All Year Round — Except When My Parents Visit


(Photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash)

My Novel Le Glitch is out now here

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

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.