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)

252 – The Final Supermarket Trip of Jesus of Nazareth

hussein's mini mart2

‘In the name of Jesus Christ. Stop!’ Judas heard a voice cry out behind him as he entered Hussein’s Mini Mart for his daily shop.

‘Oh hi, Jee,’ replied Judas turning to greet his old friend and picking up a basket. ‘What’s up?’

Jesus popped a fig into his mouth from the free-to-taste section, swallowed it and spoke. ‘There’s word on the grapevine that you’ve been saying the wrong things to the wrong people.’

Judas looked troubled. His eyes scanning the shelves trying to decide whether to buy pasta or rice. He was having a few friends over later and couldn’t decide on risotto or tagliatelle.

‘It wasn’t the Pharisees was it?’ continued Jesus.

Judas was astounded at the range of products on offer these days in the town’s supermarkets and in truth wasn’t paying attention to his irate friend. ‘It was the Romans actually,’ Judas finally answered, dropping a packet of Mr. Pharaoh Arborio rice into his basket. He had decided on risotto.

‘The Romans!’ cried Jesus. ‘Do you know what they’ll do if they catch us?’

Judas wasn’t bothered. ‘Look Jee, to be honest, I’ve got rather a lot on today,’ he said heading towards the deli counter with a bedraggled looking Jesus in tow.  ‘Can it wait until tomorrow?’

Jesus stared at Judas in disbelief. ‘Well I hate to be such a crushing bore old chap, but no it can’t wait until tomorrow. This!’ exclaimed Jesus, holding up a three minute boil-in-the bag salmon and chive tortellini, ‘could be my last meal.’

He’s right, thought Judas. Maybe it should be pasta. We had rice last Friday. A creamy mushroom tagliatelle infused with a few lightly roasted peppers plus a few olives on the side might go down better than a heavy risotto, especially in this heat.

‘Jee, old buddy,’ said Judas facing Jesus. ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t you stop by for supper this evening and we’ll talk about it over a few light ales and the odd bottle or two of red wine. What do you say?’

Jesus stared at the unappetising three minute pasta meal in his hand. The thought of eating plasticky tortellini again for the fifth time that week made him almost gag.

‘What time?’ asked Jesus unenthusiastically.

‘Oh, say seven to seven thirty,’ replied Judas smiling.

‘Can I bring somebody?’

‘Of course. Bring whoever you want. Bring that bird you know. Or those hippie dudes you hang about with. The more the merrier, eh?’ said Judas slapping Jesus on the shoulder before disappearing off to the booze aisle to look for some good red wine. Leaving the Son of God holding a bag of salmon and chive tortellini, wondering if he should have simply said no to Judas and stayed in and watched the golf.

(Taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, available as an ebook or a paperback.)