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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)
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)
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
Someone asked me today as I was trying to fit a bike rack onto a van with an assortment of ancient French tools made for a tractor, if I’d now be going back to the UK.
I replied quite quickly, ‘I voted remain, so I’m staying here.’
That was the end of the conversation and I went on my way carting bikes around for the retired English middle class. It was probably just a genuine question. But I couldn’t help thinking as I spun my (French made and owned) Renault Trafic round the tight corners of the Perigord, that the question had more to it. Loaded with disdain that I was swanning round France, living and working without a care in the world. As though I should join the masses back home under a governing class who want to force a real life re-enactment of the Hundred Years War. Join Citizen Boris in his crusade to be King of England. Why not? He’s bent over backwards to be Prime Minister, destroyed his chum Dave in the process, and taken his country out of a cushy trade agreement and into an economic abyss.
The Queen looks dead already so Boris must have eyes on the crown. If only because it matches his hair colour. With the Royal Family being the longest comedy act in history, another clown would fit in perfectly. Not that Boris Johnson is stupid in the slightest. His buffoonery, as everybody knows, is merely an act to fool people into thinking he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he knows exactly what he’s doing.
I should know, I do it all the time. Today for example. Scrambling around in 35 degree heat trying to fit a bike rack onto a van while being egged on by four retirees who were taking it in turns to add their own bike rack fitting wisdom into the equation.
‘Don’t do it like that! Do it this way! That’s not the way! I thought you said you were a bike mechanic!’
‘I am a bike mechanic, ‘ I replied laughing, grease and sweat running down my face like a demented clown. ‘Doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.’
We all laughed inanely and just when I thought I’d done enough to get a free lunch – “Hapless bike mechanic earns free lunch from wealthy baby boomers!” Ha Ha Ha – I got hit with the question: ‘So I assume you’ll be going back now?’
Cue my rather curt response, Fuck off!, which ended all hopes of an afternoon munching lobster and sipping sweet Sancerre. We all then went back to being serious in true English fashion, talking about the weather and agreeing pickup times. I drove off and left them to get on with whatever retired baby boomers do on holiday. Which from listening to the majority of them since I’ve been doing this job is being amazed about how welcoming and pleasant the French are.
So there we go. We’re out, I’m in and Boris Johnson is King. Bonne soirée.