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)

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.

205 – Harold Kynaston-Snell May Have Saved My Life

‘At all costs his enthusiasm must not be checked and crushed by exceptions and irregularities. His interest must be kept and his ability encouraged.’

The above extract is taken from a 1933 book that belonged to my grandfather entitled First French Course for Seniors by Harold F. Kynaston-Snell.

I picked it up a few nights ago. I had nothing else to read and was intrigued by this blue faded hardback that I had been carrying around with me for years. A tribute to my long dead grandfather, who despite studying French for almost his whole life, could hardly speak a word.

I’ve taught and learned languages myself, so I’m very familiar with the books. And most of them start like this:

‘This English-For-U course book with its motivational and interactive approach will push students to new levels of excellence and brilliance ensuring top marks every time…’

Whereas Kynaston-Snell seems to be saying:

‘Look here old sport! You’re not going to learn this language in a week, or even a month. Take it from me. What I can do is give you this book. It contains everything you need to know. Read it once and then burn it. Good-O.’

While the English-For-U students lumber their way through twenty volumes of glossy text books filled with airbrushed pictures of celebrities asking questions like, Brad Pitt lives here. But where did he used to live?

Answer: Who cares.

I see Kynaston-Snell’s approach more along the lines of being taught how to swim.

‘You won’t be able to swim the channel just yet old sport. But neither will you drown. And at least you’ll be able to order a glass of champagne, buy a packet of cigarettes and talk about the weather.’

Which in 1933 was probably all you needed to know.

Kynaston-Snell produced a great little book with plenty of stylish black and white 1930s illustrations making the book feel more like an art galley prospectus than a language book. No film stars, no pictures of exotic islands and no photos of people sitting in dull meetings in grey offices pretending to look interested.

I struck a deal with myself this morning. This was it:

Whenever I feel weak. Whenever I feel like giving up. In any part of my life, not just learning French. This is what I will say:

‘My enthusiasm must not be checked and crushed by exceptions and irregularities.’

Thank you Harold Kynaston-Snell. You may have saved my life.