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Fatherhood and the Post-Christmas Blues

The festive season is over. Christmas and New Year are a time of enormous excitement for children yet now, as life resumes its normal rhythm, I feel that they can suffer a kind of post-holiday hangover. The return to school, parents going back to work and the false promises of TV advertising seem to lead to disappointment and a sense of emptiness. Family time together once again becomes a precious and limited commodity.

As a proud father, and inspired by the beautiful words of my friend, Esther Sowerby, I’d like to articulate what I believe might a son’s post-Christmas thoughts to his dad.

  • Dad, I’m delighted with the games console you bought me for Christmas, so I’m baffled when you criticise me for spending too much time playing it. Set me clear limits so we’ll both know where we stand. What would make me most happy would be if you were to play a game with me – even a retro game. That way, you’d better understand my world, and I, yours.
  • Dad, I love being with you but I know that in everyday life, we have limited time together. When you take me to the park on the weekend, can you leave your phone at home? I know that you are always there physically but I want you there in spirit as well.
  • Dad, if you have time to take me to football training, please point out my strengths as well as criticise my weaknesses. I know you played a lot of sport in your day. I’d love it if you practiced with me and taught me how to improve.
  • Dad, you warn me that social media is dangerous but I see that you are often on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you could take time to guide me through life’s hazards, I’d feel safer. I trust you and see you as my protector.
  • Dad, during the Christmas holidays I was allowed fizzy drinks and was often reminded that they are bad for my health. I notice though that you drink beer all year round. I think that the limits would be fairer if they were imposed on both of us.
  • Dad, you bought me a complicated board game for Christmas so that I would spend less time in front of the television. You are irritated because it has stayed in the box. What I’d love is for you to turn off the football on TV one Saturday afternoon and learn how to play it with me.
  • Dad, over Christmas we ate a lot of chocolate and puddings. Now you tell me I should eat more vegetables. I’d love to prepare a meal with you and make a deal that we include one healthy ingredient each which is our least favourite. We can then laugh together when we pull faces at dinner.
  • Dad, now the holidays are over, I have to go back to school. I wonder if you know what I am studying at the moment. When I find my homework hard, I’d be so happy if you’d turn off the TV, PC and phone, sit down and work through it with me.
  • Dad, I am grateful for my presents. I think it would be easier to understand gratitude if, as a family, we said thank you for all that we take for granted.
  • Dad, I’m thankful that you work hard to buy things for us at Christmas. Now that the gifts are revealed, I find that there’s just one thing I want more than anything money can buy: your heart and soul. If you gave me one simple gift and promised to use it with me, without judgement or criticism but full of encouragement and praise, I’d have the greatest Christmas ever.

danjonesauthor.com

The Season of Joy and Good Cheer? A Christmas Poem…

PS4, Xbox, please no more, new socks,

Nerf Gun, iPad, it’s enough to drive you mad!

Where’s the battery? Not included, one-armed Barbie, dog has chewed it,

Game of Thrones, fancy box set, turkey’s dry, not defrosted.

Sausage roll, Bond film, couldn’t eat another thing,

More trifle, drink be merry, looks like Nan is on the sherry,

Reindeer jumper, post took ages, milkman’s tip, there goes my wages,

Burnt parsnip, peas ‘n’ brussels, Strictly Special, Darcy Bussell.

Sloppy kiss from Auntie Vera, my advice: ‘don’t go near her!’

Santa’s coming, be a good boy, if you want this year’s must-have toy,

Spent a fortune, retail park, credit card, loan shark,

Never get, what I hope for, Dad is snoring on the sofa.

Christmas time is the season of joy and good cheer,

Laughing with family and friends, or just making amends,

With the ones whom you love and who love you in return.

Choc’late log, fruit cake, Mary Berry’s favourite bake,

Ninja Lego that I stood in, who on earth likes Christmas pudding?

Ile flottante, with meringue, mince pies, whipped cream and jam,

Not too keen on Turkish Delight, find the broken fairy light.

Mulled Wine? Out of the question, Gaviscon for indigestion,

Strawberry cream or have I ate ‘em all, oh my head, pass the paracetamol,

Open a tin of Quality Street, wash it down with sausage meat,

Neighbours bought us After Eight, office party got home late.

Went to see the Winter Play, was ‘Nativity’ back in the day,

Mention ‘Christmas’ that’s all ended, must be PC – easily offended,

Santa Claus with a dodgy beard, track him on Google, that’s just weird,

Festive lights? Bit of a bummer, switched on by Nik Kershaw’s drummer.

Christmas time is the season of joy and good cheer,

Laughing with family and friends, or just making amends,

With the ones whom you love and who love you in return.

Didn’t buy for obscure nieces, fridge is full of bits and pieces,

Carol singers, gotta love ‘em, found the stuffing in the oven,

Queen’s speech is on the telly, new cologne that’s really smelly,

Who knows where the box of chocs is? Kids are playing with the boxes.

Little Susie looks unhappy, got a goldfish wants a puppy,

Harry Potter, Christmas Lecture, where’s your gran? Forgot to fetch her!

Loitering ‘neath the mistletoe, No-one wants to kiss me though,

Baby-gro with furry antlers, Baileys from the posh decanter.

Boxing Day, turkey curry, extra kilos make Mum worry,

‘Jingle Bells!’ sing a merry air, all that fat went to my derriere,

Greed is a malady, January – salady

Peace and goodwill to all men, next year do it yet again!

Christmas time is the season of joy and good cheer,

Laughing with family and friends, or just making amends,

With the ones whom you love and who love you in return.

Dan Jones: Author, Guitarist, err… Rapper.

'Must-Have' Toys?

Christmas… the time of peace and goodwill… and huge expenditure on stuff I’d question whether we really need… and that the planet can ill afford.  

In the mid 1980’s there was an unlikely toy sensation. The Cabbage Patch Kids were pretty ordinary-looking dolls which, for reasons I am unable to fathom, became an item which parents would literally resort to brute force in order to purchase for their kids.

A Cabbage-Patch Kid. Mildly disturbing in this author’s view.

Suddenly, this phenomenon became an annual ritual: the Gameboy, Transformers and of course, Tracy Island, which became so sought after that Blue Peter attempted to solve the dearth by showing youngsters how to make one from cornflake packets.

In the 1990’s the Power Rangers hit our shores big-time from the US of A. This programme was truly dreadful – its only redeeming feature being a strangely alluring Kimberly in pink. A whole range of merchandise arrived in our quaint British stores (monsters, vehicles and the like) but at the time, my then 5-year-old son number one wanted just two things with all his heart and soul: the Green Ranger and the Black Ranger. Of course, I couldn’t find these modest items anywhere, such was the popularity of lycra-clad quintet.

Blue Peter Tracy Island. Just like the real thing… Kind of. But I whole-heartedly approve.

Soon, my wife and I heard stories in the news telling of a local Toys-R-Us which had a daily delivery of Power Rangers goodies, and how every morning, a queue of parents would gather hours before the opening time of 9.00am in the hope of fulfilling the requirements of their collective offsprings’ Christmas lists. I was very sniffy and holier-and-thou about such lunatics but, as December 25th approached, I was still without the coveted figures. I soon realised that my only opportunity to acquire these simple purchases would be to join the throngs in the High Street at 6.00am. It was for this reason that I was to be found shivering, hours before sunrise, in the centre of town, chatting amiably with other dads cast out from the warmth of their marital beds by their spouses with the threat of being left out in the front garden if they failed to return with a Thunderzord Megazord.

A Thundermegazorgy thingy. Who wouldn’t queue all night for one of these bad boys.

By 8.00am, the queue was several hundred people long. It was fun; we laughed at the madness of it all, particularly those dads who were there for the third of fourth time. As 9.00am approached though, the atmosphere changed. Eyes became focused on the entrance; people asserted their position in the line; muscles were flexed beneath quilted jackets.   When the doors were flung opened, the queue advanced in a hasty yet orderly fashion. As we entered the building, I noticed a few shoppers had broken into a gentle trot, which soon become a canter and before you could say ‘It’s Morphin Time!’ a full-on stampede had broken loose. Some dads knew where they were heading. These guys had done actual research. I just followed the posse, trying to muster as much dignity as possible given the lamentable circumstances. Within seconds, the mob had rounded on the action figure aisle. Whereas other items of merchandise were placed artfully on shelves, staff had not even bothered to take the Power Rangers items out of their delivery boxes. They were dumped unceremoniously on the floor in approximately the correct location.

The Green Ranger participates in Wimbledon.

As two normally mild-mannered clerical workers broke into a fist fight over a Mighty Minotaur, I opened a box and there before me, as if fate intended, were a Black and Green Ranger. Ignoring the sound of angelic choirs and the shaft of sunlight which had burst through an invisible skylight, I placed them gently in my basket and made my way in a self-satisfied fashion towards the checkout in pleasant anticipation of the hero’s welcome, warm coffee and ‘perfect dad’ accolades that surely awaited my return. But… suddenly… to my horror… my eye caught sight of an improvised, scrawled notice at the till. It read ‘Only one Power Ranger toy per customer’. Despite my most heartfelt pleading, the cashier confirmed the policy and sent me back to the appropriate aisle to return one Ranger. I was crestfallen. Even worse, it was a distinct possibility that I was going to have to undergo this whole pantomime all over again.

A ‘Must-Have Elf on the Shelf’. Plastic destined for landfill, made by exploited workers. A perfect Christmas lesson for our children.

Unexpectedly though, a cunning and devious idea struck me. Firstly, I looked around. No-one was about, except for a few unconscious casualties of the Power Ranger riot. I surreptitiously approached the Tonka toy section and found a line of car-transporter trucks. Using a sleight of hand movement I had no idea I possessed, I slipped the Black Ranger behind the seventh truck and, having paid for the green fellow, making a careful note of the cashier’s facial features, found refuge in a café which sold half-decent coffee. I then waited for two hours – possibly the longest of my life. At 11.30am I returned to Toys-R-Us. My hunch that  seven Tonka trucks were unlikely to have been sold in those few hours was indeed correct. Reaching behind the line of vehicles, I retrieved my prize. My second cashier of the day – selected due to her distant location from cashier number one – looked most surprised when I presented the Black Ranger for payment. ‘These normally go in minutes!’ she exclaimed, with alarming force. ‘I found him behind the Tonka trucks!’ I replied. I didn’t even have to tell a white lie.    From this experience I learned that Darwin is not only about survival of the most forceful. A little bit of cunning can come in handy as well.   

A Tonka Transporter. Never a must-have toy but a life-saver for me in the 1990’s.

In rural areas of France, Christmas is celebrated with a passion. I did take great pleasure though in the fact that the event lasted two or three weeks rather than two or three months. The appetite for huge, unnecessary consumption was absent in our experience. Amen to that I say. My favourite Christmas feature was the incredibly naff animatronic nativity scene which adorned the entrance to our village church each December. It was more kitsch than Eurovision Does Strictly. I feel that to describe it in detail would be to duplicate blogs and posts of years past – scroll back to witness the two-dimensional wonder of nodding donkeys, inert shepherds and slowly levitating Jesus figures in all their mechanical glory.

As was always the case on festive occasions, the French concentrated their time, effort and resources on preparing the dinner table rather than buying plastic junk at the command of a marketing campaign. It was a much more old-school approach. As one would expect in this age of globalisation, French youngsters are becoming immersed in advertising. They too are tempted by promises of happiness and status through the ownership a particular item. It is well known that French culture is resistant to change. At the time of writing, many rural French families remain reluctant to go with the flow of the masses; just as many in British culture are also rejecting crude, over-inflated consumption, opting to spend their money family time and building memories instead. Have a joyful and peaceful Christmas everyone.

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen and Other Essential Tips from Seven Years of Musical and Family Life in Rural France.

Cycling for All in France

Every summer, those of us who enjoy human-powered transport of the two-wheeled variety dutifully tune in to highlights of Le Tour de France – the annual event of inhumane torture to which hundreds of lycra-cald athletes submit themselves for our entertainment. This confirms three things:

Mad people about to participate in Le Tour.

(1) The French love of a spectacle

(2) The French love of agonising, heroic human effort and…

(3) The French tourist board recognise that the greatest advert for their country is… well… the country itself. Every year as I watch Le Tour on Channel 4, I am more transfixed by the chocolate box villages through which the competitors pedal than I am by any alleged strategic move made by members of the peleton when, quite frankly, they all look as if they’re pushing themselves to near death while wondering if the guy next to them contains more steroids than a body-builders’ supplies dispatch centre.

The caravan. The Haribo van chucking sweets at the crowd caused a near-riot.

La Famille Jones witnessed Le Tour in the sweaty flesh when it passed near Mussidan in 2015. We were fortunate as it was a time-trial stage. This meant that we saw the riders one-at-a-time and that the spectacle lasted a full day. I had heard that the normal experience was a multi-coloured blur which flew past the crowd, just at the moment you’d vanished to get frites and take little Johnny to the toilet, and that would be pretty much it. Conversely, our day was quite an event. Before the actual sport, the public were treated to what is known as the caravan. This is a train of sponsors’ vehicles which negotiate the course hurling freebies at the crowd, much to the delight of watching children. These could range from packets of stickers to baseball caps, resplendent with logos representing a wealth of French multinationals with money to literally throw away. Parents who had been behaving in a civilised, cordial manner towards their co-spectators suddenly became raging animals in their quest to ensure a Stella Artois pennant for little Jean-Pierre, striking actual blows at other dads who dared hinder their quest. It was Darwin in action.

Geraint Thomas. Sorry pal, it was me.

Being France, about 95% of spectators came along with seven bottles of wine, a foldable table and six months’ supply of andouille sausage, fromage and baguette. A few people had a full three-course meal on the go, cooked on a portable gas-powered barbeque in the middle of the road. The sun was shining, everyone was happy and mildly tipsy. All was good. We befriended a Belgium couple seated to our left. They were most charming and we had a spontaneous competition to see who could humiliate themselves the most convincingly when a rider of the appropriate nationality passed. When Geraint Thomas (a Welshman) zipped by, I yelled something incomprehensible in Welsh which caused a bloke next to me to drop his moules in his lap and almost forced Thomas himself to veer into a tree. I won.

Every Sunday, one will see large groups of men (is there a collective for cyclists? If not, we must create one) zooming around the minor roads of la Dordogne, panting and sweating in a manner which would, in ordinary life, attract calls to the emergency services. They sport figure-hugging outfits which, in some cases, would be better left unhugged, and when dismounted, walk like a kind of day-glo John Wayne. If you are unaware, cyclists’ shorts sport a large blob of flexible jelly between the legs in order to protect the groin area from a seat which appears to have been inspired by the guillotine.

A racing saddle…. spot the difference… I can’t.
A guillotine blade…

The smallest of villages host cycle races where such amateurs can indulge in fantasies of leading the peleton as they race pass the bar where sane people quaff beer and exchange chit-chat. Our village held an event where competitors had to complete 7 or 8 laps of a circuit, each one passing the village centre. The first person to pass at the completion of each lap would win a prize (either 10 euros or a bag of snails or something similar); this ensured the cyclists were making an effort at the moment where the greatest number of beer-swilling armchair critics (all of whom had become suddenly expert on all issues cycling-related) were gathered. We also got a local bum to drive a car in front of the pack with a stick-on siren (from Toys-R-Us I believe) and loud horn which made the experience all-the-more convincing. Watching others suffer for token rewards and low-scale glory was a surprisingly agreeable way to pass an afternoon in rural France. I’d recommend it.

A yappy dog. I mean… Why?

The arch-enemy of the rural cyclist is the garden dog. As explained in some depth in Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, country folk will often choose to keep either large, vicious and downright dangerous dogs in their garden or, even worse, those ghastly yappy miniatures which appear to exist for the sole purpose of annoying people and occasionally acting as rugby balls if one is fortunate enough to get a decent punt in. During my own escapades on two wheels, I can’t count the number of times I was scared out of my wits by the bellowing of a lunatic canine, causing me to swerve in a hazardous fashion into the path of an oncoming hay baling machine and narrowly avoiding being rolled up into one of those giant shredded wheats you see in fields during the summer months. My son, Sam, was just six years of age when he rode his bike into a ditch having been distracted by a donkey. You have been warned.

Twice per week, I worked at a school in Bordeaux. We lived some distance from this great city so I drove to the local station with my velo strapped to the back of my ancient Renault Clio (Nicole… Papa…), took the bike on the train and then rode through this magnificent city to my workplace. Happily, bikes are welcome on local French trains. There are vertical bike racks in each carriage upon which you can hang your cycle. During peak hours, these do become filled rather quickly so you can be left wobbling without a seat holding your bike. I did notice though that most French are very welcoming and respectful towards cyclists and do their best to make space for man and machine, even in the most heaving of trains. However, you are not allowed to take bikes on the high-speed TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) without prior arrangement. Check this out before you travel.

Bike racks on local French trains

Cycling in Bordeaux was an activity I loved. Although cycling in a city is an experience not without hazard, I found a route which allowed me to zip through back streets, zoom across pedestrianised areas, admire the shops in the vibrant African Quarter (often stopping for ocra and coconut milk en route) arriving in work feeling virtuous and sporty for my efforts. There were a few moments when I was forced to take the road along with the traffic. Very soon, I observed that my French co-cyclists took no notice of traffic lights; in fact some of them openly berated me for being so rude as to stop as commanded. After a few weeks, I felt that I had to follow their criminal ways; soon, I too became a red-light bandit. Some months after I commenced this practice, I was trundling down a tiny backstreet at 7.30am when I passed a red light at a pedestrian crossing. There were neither people nor vehicles in sight… except for a police motorcycle which stopped and fined me. In all my time in Bordeaux, I never saw another cyclist penalised for this action. I tried my best ‘I’m a foreign tourist who doesn’t speak French’ act but when the policeman saw my French driving licence, I was well-and-truly busted.

A red traffic light. A note to my French cyclist friends: this means ‘STOP’ (arret).

A year or so later, colleagues told me that a by-law had been passed in Bordeaux to make it law for all cyclists to wear helmets. This was no problem for me as I usually did anyway. One day, I had decided to walk to and from the school and, on a whim, decided to count the number of cyclists I saw and work out, as a percentage, how many were wearing helmets (I was clearly bored). Anyway, despite flunking maths at school, I calculated that just 30% were wearing them. The police, present at the majority of local landmarks, completely ignored them. They were obviously too occupied with busting Welshmen.

If you find travelling with your own bike too much of a hassle, Bordeaux has public bikes which you can hire on a daily basis for a couple of euros. I really enjoyed doing this and also took satisfaction in supporting the city’s green initiative. One swipe of a card and you could release your steed, adjust the seat and pedal off. The problem was that at the end of the day, the bike parking slots next to the station were often full. It was necessary to park it again otherwise you would be charged until you did so (i.e. the cost of a bike). I would often have to seek out other parking zones in the vicinity and once or twice, missed my train as a consequence.  

Bordeaux bikes – a jolly good idea, although the design is a bit ‘Famous Five’. Complete with basket for lashings of ginger beer.

Cycling in France is a joy. The traffic in Bordeaux was, as in all major cities, truly awful, so there was a smug satisfaction to be found in getting round the problem. In rural areas, such as the little village where our home is situated, it was an absolute joy to do the school run, fetch baguettes or just pop out for a leisurely pedal. For serious cyclists, many areas have opened glorious routes which will take you for miles between villages and towns. One of these actually passes our front door – that which runs between Perigueux and Libourne. If you decide to take it on, drop me a line and you can pop in for an aperitif.

When we initially considered moving to France in 2009, we were given wonderful and friendly advice by the good people at Breton Bikes. Their routes take cyclists along sections of the Nantes-Brest canal and they offer a range of packages, depending on how much of lightweight… err, I mean what degree of comfort you require.

Happy pedalling! 

Extracting Goats… Oh la la.

Dan is a professional guitarist and the author of Extracting Goats from jean-Claude’s Kitchen. This tells the story of seven years working as a musician, raising a family and running a modest smallholding in rural France. Dan can be heard at his guitarist website: www.danjonesguitarist.com.

Teaching Music in France

Since I started teaching at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I’ve been asked many times by colleagues about the ins-and-outs of working as a music teacher and performer in La Belle France. It appears that many artistically-minded people are rethinking their lifestyles and seriously considering popping across la Manche. Having worked as a music teacher and performer in the Dordogne for seven years, I’d like to share my experience with readers. In this blog, I’ll look at opportunities for classroom teachers, instrumental teachers, where one can apply, performance opportunities, the importance of the language and many more things you may need to consider.

La Famille Jones set off in 2010…

Classroom Teaching France has a highly-structured and long-established syllabus and set of principles. To be a classroom teacher in France is a prized line of employment. Students must gain the necessary teaching diplomas in France (the equivalent of a PGCE) and teachers-to-be will find themselves posted to schools across the country in order to complete their training. Unfortunately, the UK qualification, the PGCE is not recognised in France at the time of writing. There has been talk to suggest that this may change but one can only feel that with Brexit looming, such intelligent cooperation and collaboration will be restricted further. Who knows, maybe UK teachers will be forced to teach Morris Dancing and Land of Hope and Glory as core repertoire in the 2020’s while the French will focus on Edith Piaf and looking sultry.

Oh la la…

International Schools.

There is hope though for Brits desperate to use their PGCE in France and that is to investigate France’s network of International Schools. Some of these teach the GCSE and AS/A Level systems so qualified Brits will be welcomed with open arms. I taught at such a school for four years and was giving freedom to teach pretty much as I saw appropriate. There was an emphasis on delivering performances at Christmas, summer and for open days which gave us valid targets. I also made films with my students and held rock band nights. It was a lot of fun and a pleasure to be free from the restraints of a rigid syllabus. I had a low take-up of AS/A level music, but was able to work in very small groups and consequently, achieve good results.

Instrumental Teaching

Instrumental teachers have more opportunities. Those wishing to work at conservatoire level will probably have no difficulty as such teachers will be employed on reputation rather than qualifications or an interview. A proven track record in the industry will is likely to be your most powerful tool. In French schools, there are no visiting peripatetic instrumentals tutors as in the UK (despite austerity’s best efforts). Instead, most learners will find their lessons either at an école municipal de musique, an association or via private tuition.

Ecole Municipale de Musique

Learn the language…

Medium-sized towns and upwards will have an école municipale run by the mairie or town council. Lessons are usually subsidised for all by the council, regardless of age or social status. I enjoyed some very happy years working in the Ecole Municipale de Musique in the town of Coutras in the Gironde. I should point out here that I was successful in gaining this employment without a PGCE. I do hold an instrumental teaching diploma with Trinity College (an LTCL) but I am unsure as to how much difference this really made. My interview focused very much on my experience, teaching philosophy and publications (I have written tutor books). My main concern was avoiding putting my foot in it by mistranslating a question and giving a fantastically-inappropriate response.

At an école municipale, pupils are expected to attend other classes as well as their instrumental lesson, including theory (more in a moment) and choir. My challenge was that some of my pupils were teenage metal freaks so learning theory and singing in the choir was about as motivating as a Health and Safety seminar in a Slough branch of Waitrose.

Waitrose, Slough. I’m sure it’s terrific.

Of course I recognise the value of theory and singing but the multi-faceted element of the guitar and its repertoire led to tension and dissatisfaction amongst some pupils. The problem was the complete lack of flexibility offered by the system – a characteristic often seen across French education. Pupils were also obliged to sit an exam at the end of the year. This was a pre-set piece given by a faceless body somewhere in Paris. I felt the pieces were often far too challenging for many students and that there was an assumption that everyone would be able to learn at the same pace. Some colleagues believe in the system passionately, but for those seeking greater freedom, you’d be better off working for an association.

Associations

In case your pupil is trying to communicate something REALLY important, like ‘I’m going to throw up’.

Cities, towns and even the smallest villages will have a network of associations enhancing the cultural, sporting and social lives of the inhabitants. At its most simple level, an association is set up by someone, or a group of people, wanting offer activities on a local level. This can be anything from music lessons to Tai Chi, basketball to needlecraft. They vary in their levels of sophistication. I worked for one association which had been set up by a piano teacher. He was able to benefit from the use of a room owned by the mairie. I was given a key to this room and I would teach there one day per week. There were no colleagues to speak of so I felt as if I was acting as a self-employed teacher. It is possible that you will be required to deal with your own admin – including pay – which I, for one, would find uncomfortable. Other associations are large-scale affairs. I worked for another which was run by a council of volunteers. Despite being located in a small rural village, the music school offered lessons in guitar, bass, saxophone, clarinet, piano, voice, drums and trumpet. It also hosted a 20-piece big band and a choir. It ended up punching well above its weight as teachers with higher-status jobs recognised the pleasure to be had in teaching without the constraints of a fixed syllabus. More often than not, they brought half their pupils with them too. We had a ball in that little old school building, creating rock bands, jazz ensembles and the like. Staff meetings lasted for hours on end; half an hour to discuss matters of administration and three-and-a-half hours to sample and discuss the merits of the local wine producers’ wares. Our store cupboard looked like Keith Richard’s drinks cabinet.

Mr Richards himself

As associations bring benefits to communities, particularly rural ones, it is possible that the mairie will chip in financially or offer the use of buildings for lessons. A mairie should recognise that if someone brings a child to a village for a music lesson, there’s a sporting chance that they’ll use the tabac, boulangerie or café at the same time. If your village is yet to start an association for music lessons, why not pop in to the maire to discuss the possibility of starting one? This may help you to decide where to live as well.

Solfege and music theory

Anglophone music teachers are often anxious about using the ‘do, re, mi’ system in France. This concern stems from a misunderstanding linked to the Kodaly system. In France, music is taught using the ‘fixed do’ system. By this we mean that the note ‘C’ is always ‘do’. It is a simple question of translation so, the following is the case: C – do, D – ré, E – mi, F – fa, G – sol, A – la, B – ti. You’re going to have to learn French so learning new note names is frankly, the least of it. In the case of the variable or movable ‘do’ Kodaly system, the note ‘do’ is always the tonic. Therefore, if you are playing (or usually singing in Kodaly training) in F# major, the note F# is ‘do’. This helps students to identify the sounds and functions of tonic and dominant pitches amongst others. It’s an excellent technique but a totally different thing.

Tching…

Contracts and… Yes, Pay

Ah… The elephant in the room. Firstly, you’ll need to find a job for which you can apply. Look up ‘Pole-Emploi’ online. This is essentially the French equivalent of The Job Centre. It has a keyword search box so look up ‘professeur de guitare’ and matching jobs will pop up. You may notice the letters CDD or CDI adjacent to the job description. The former stands for Contract Duration Determinée and the latter, Contract Duration Indeterminée. The first is a fixed term contract. This job may be to cover maternity leave for one year for example. The second is essentially a permanent contract – much-prized in France. Frequently, a CDD will lead to a CDI. An association may employ someone for just one year to check if the person is competent. If after that time all is well and good, and if the teacher brings decent wine to staff meetings, he/she could well be offered a CDI.

I found that pay is generally quite low. I wouldn’t like to offer a figure here, but expect about 25%-40% less in comparison to a similar role in the UK. Having said that, much of your pay goes to the state in social charges or national insurance. If you are working in the French system and your income is low, you can get much of it back through a wealth of benefits so it rather balances out (mind you, who knows what will happen after Brexit, if it ever happens). My book, Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen talks about this in depth. Some associations require you to become self-employed which in France is known as being an Auto-entrepreneur. You’ll need to do this if you decide to offer private lessons. You can sign up for this online with relative ease. You will then be responsible for declaring your earnings and pay charges according to what you earn. Some associations employ external bodies to deal with pay. This means that all earnings are processed by such companies and charges dealt with. You can also to have your year’s forecast pay divided into 12 and have it paid monthly to avoid those lean holiday periods we all know only too well.

When…?

Extracting Goats… a source of unparalleled wisdom.

As mentioned, In French schools, there are no visiting peripatetic instrumentals tutors. At the moment, there is no ‘regular’ school on a Wednesday (although successive governments tinker with this system). Therefore, you can expect to work a twelve-hour day or a Wednesday. Saturdays are also popular as are after-school times. We had our two young children in the village school but in France, after-school care is free of charge and can be used (in rural areas) with glorious spontaneity. This was very helpful! To find full-time work, you need to seek out retirees or those being home-schooled. Some teenagers in college have very flexible timetables so can come for lessons at other times.

Conclusion

Perform. Let people know you’re around.

Learn French. The way to do this is to jump in at the deep end. I’m fluent and had no French lessons.

Bring something decent to drink at a staff meeting.

Look at Pole Emploi daily.

Be positive and generous. No-one likes a victim mentality.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please re-post. To hear our story in full, order Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen here or get a signed copy by contacting the author here.

The Running Author/Guitarist

Wham! The ZX Spectrum, The Miners’ Strike, Atari, Neil Kinnock stumbling on a beach… Who remembers the 1980’s? It was a peculiar decade – one of transition driven by Thatcher’s profit- and efficiency-driven government, often at the expense of culture, tradition and community. I also remember the ascent into the public consciousness of the marathon. Twenty six miles (and a touch more, as if that weren’t enough) was a distance which held mythical status. It was a domain ruled by the elite, or the insane, depending on how you looked at it, yet this was all to change. More-or-less overnight, the marathon challenge was thrown open to the masses.

En route. It hurst quite a lot actually.

Television viewers – particularly a young budding guitarist in South Wales – became transfixed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of ordinary people pounding the streets of London in a bid to earn the ultimate badge of athletic honour. For many, the only run they had undertaken in the previous 10 years had been a 100-yard sprint to the chippy to purchase the last battered sausage of the evening. Suddenly, every man and his dog identified himself as a sporting giant, participating in endurance runs across the UK. As our country’s leaders had yet to recognise the money-making potential of what we now call ‘Health and Safety’, people were allowed to act with impetuous freedom, and to accept the consequences. Participants indulged in ever-more bizarre stunts: running in fancy dress, running backwards, three-legged marathon running, often with little or no training. Cardiff, the home of the aforementioned young budding guitarist, also got in on the act. Within a few weeks I had made a decision: I was going to run a marathon. I was fourteen years old.

A battered sausage, for those who don’t know…

I have always had an obsessive personality. Perhaps my temperament is particularly suited to the necessary repetition required to become genuinely technically proficient at the guitar. I’m a sucker for a hero. When at music college, I’d enjoy the daily ritual of arriving early in the cell-like practice rooms in order to perform a 45-minute cycle of scales in all keys, using every possible right-hand combination, all to the steady beep of a metronome which would be increased in speed by one beat per minute each week. As well as developing my finger dexterity, I felt heroic. I suspect there was an endorphin release going on somewhere and I soon became a guitar-nerd of epic proportions. So, the fourteen-year old guitar player started running. I was rubbish at sport in school. We played rugby of course, and my only redeeming quality was an unquestioning willingness to leap onto a pile of writhing teenagers in pursuit of a ball – even if said ball had departed the mass of limbs some time earlier. Personal injury was a likely outcome; in fact, to be unsullied and uninjured was a disappointment. We wanted to be heroes. The quantity of mud, and hopefully blood, sported by our clothing at the end of a match was a measure of contribution to the collective effort. I recall rolling in a filthy puddle in the dying moments of a match, some fifty yards from the action, on at least three occasions in order to be recognised as a warrior. I had no idea of the score; the aim was hero-points. As the months went by, I ran and ran, usually every other day. I did this alone and without really discussing it with anyone. The first inkling of a sense of payback came during the school’s cross-country competition. In previous years, my friends and I had retired to a pal’s house conveniently placed a moment’s stroll from the school gate during timed, competitive runs. There, we spent an agreeable afternoon playing cards and drinking Panda Pops fizzy drinks before joining the returning party in an unsuspiciously mundane mid-pack position so as not to draw attention to ourselves. I believe we poured water over our heads and sprinted the home straight to imitate a degree of physical exertion. In early 1984 though, I was up for it. I recall the look on the PE teacher’s face when I can around the corner in 5th place – out of a field of about 90. He was nearly as shocked as I was.

My medal from 1984, in the days before Health and Safety

I then made the somewhat rash decision to enter the Western Mail Marathon, held on September 9th 1984. In those days, one popped a cheque or postal order in the post and a few days later, a shiny number came back, complete with safety pins. I still have mine in our attic in France. I was fifteen years old when I set off from Cardiff City Centre. Incidentally, the same PE teacher was also an entrant. I didn’t bump into him. I can remember surprisingly little about the race. With no little discomfort, I recall running alongside Jimmy Saville for a couple of miles. He seemed like such a great guy and judging by the cheers and whoops of the watching crowd, most of the world agreed with me. How powerful is hindsight… I recall feeling utterly dreadful at about 22 miles but I kept running – never once resorting to walking – and finished the course in a respectable 4 hours and 8 minutes. I still have my medal in a case which was imprinted with the date, my name and the time.

Can’t believe I ran this – looks like the dark ages.

As the years passed, I continued running half marathons, 10km races and others. My late father dutifully and uncomplaining me drove me around the country leaving me to pound the roads as he somehow occupied himself for a few hours before returning his panting, stiff and sweaty offspring to the bath back in Cardiff. It was in 1992 that I entered music college. I had worked for five years and experienced family life. My son Matt was born but my relationship with his mum ended. My success in gaining a conservatoire place was vitally important for my self-esteem, as well as my future career. I ended up spending 18 years there; firstly as an undergraduate, then as a postgraduate before gaining employment in the Junior, Academic and Guitar Departments. My running days had more or less disappeared but the discipline instilled in those youthful road-pounding days remained.

Me in my Autism Initiatives vest, looking surprisingly camp.

So how can endurance sport help the classical guitarist? Firstly, there is the physiological aspect. Guitarists spend hours upon hours in classical position. This involves placing the body in a low, seated position with the left leg raised about seven or eight inches to lift the instrument. The position places considerable strain on the lower back and injuries were, and remain, commonplace. Self-medicating, beer, painkillers and soft drugs are ‘solutions’ I’ve witnessed being employed by players wishing to overcome their difficulties. More thoughtful techniques employed include stretching and The Alexander Technique. I’ve come to the conclusion though that most guitarists are simply unfit. Running keeps the body strong, supple and active. It is a powerful antidote to the fixed, seated posture in which we spend countless hours. Equally interesting though are the mental benefits guitarists can gain from the discipline of endurance running. A practice session can be a hard slog. Non-guitarists imagine ‘practice’ being the act of ambling to a field full of summer flowers, complete with obliging cooing partner, and strumming a few tunes in a breeze, assured of certain adulation from the masses. In reality, one is often in a small room slogging through repetition exercises which sound like a cow being tormented. Such acts are necessary if one is to truly do justice to great repertoire, such as that by J S Bach and his contemporaries. A condition from which I suffered extensively as a guitarist was what I named ‘Last Lap Syndrome’ (©Dan Jones 2019). In this, I would be performing a challenging work, such as Britten’s Nocturnal, The Aranjuez Concerto or a Bach fugue and, after perhaps half an hour of intense concentration, the final page of black dots would arrive. Right in cue, a voice would enter m head saying such things as ‘Nearly there!’ or ‘OK, here comes that tricky coda’, or even ‘Man, I am looking forward to that post-gig beer BIGTIME’. Of course, the consequence would be musical disintegration as the mind wondered. The focus on the immediate note being played was lost and the magic could be extinguished like a burning match popped into a pint.

Classical guitar posture –
about as natural as Irn-Bru.

How on earth does this relate to endurance running? Well, despite being a reasonably mature and rational adult, I made the somewhat questionable decision to run another marathon this year. I have just reached a significant birthday (half-century, not out) and being unable to afford neither a sports car, nor a powerful motorbike, I rashly entered The Dublin Marathon in response to the callings of my mid-life crisis. My son, Matthew, also a keen runner, entered as well. We made a pact to stick together in the likely event of me slowing down in the later stages. I decided to publically announce an ambition to beat the time I set in my youthful years. Oh dear. My training regime was strict and disciplined. I had no problem with that. As the months passed, I decided to attempt my first major run – a distance of about 18 miles. All was going swimmingly until mile 17. I suddenly felt like death. In fact, if death really feels like that, I want to live forever. I staggered home and was unable to mount the ladder-like staircase at the entrance to our flat. My concerned family watched on as I used my arms to drag myself up to the landing, like a Gore-Tex clad Day-Glo slug, before lying inert on the bathroom floor for some hours.

Glory! Heroes again! Matt, me and a random photo-bomber who surreally identified himself on Instagram!

Predictably, I was worried. After some reflection on the incident, I decided to fight fire with fire (and energy gels) and set off on another big run – this time 19 miles. On this occasion, the agony kicked in at 18 miles. I kept on upping the distance and, time and time again, I would experience near-collapse on the last lap. I began to wonder. Was I experiencing a kind of physical breakdown, not only because I was physically spent (which I truly was) but because I was mentally giving permission to my body to cease functioning a little too early? I scoured podcasts on the topic and to my amazement, discovered that this is a known phenomenon. In endurance races, athletes commonly collapse yards from the line. It is believed that had the line not been present, they’d have been able to keep going. So, one Saturday night, I set out on my final big pre-marathon run – 21 miles – armed with more energy gels than a Kipling trifle factory. As I ran along the A912, approaching my village, I felt a familiar sense of near-panic. ‘Almost there… come on… you’ve got this…’ and noticed that I was actually trying to speed up to get this darn thing over and done with. I focused hard on my individual steps and realised that I didn’t feel so bad (relatively speaking). I found myself singing ‘Ten Green Bottles’ starting with a bottle count akin to that undertaken by a stock controller at a Heineken factory. The body has a strange ability to anticipate the resolution of a much-needed task before the ideal moment. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you may do well to turn away now as going to the toilet is another excellent example. Who has endured the experience of mildly needing a wee (or indeed, a Number 2) while walking home – not so much as to be desperate but to certainly feel discomfort – only to turn the key in the front door and the body to shout out ‘Yippee! We’re home! Let it go baby!’? One is obliged to indulge in an odd sprint-waddle to the bathroom, all the while praying one’s teenage daughter has completed her morning routine, and hurl oneself onto the lav, trousers having been discarded on the landing and ‘making it’ with micro-seconds to spare. Such events are clearly in the consciousness of the Dublin marathon-watching public as I saw at least ten supporters holding warning placards reading ‘Never trust a fart after twenty miles’. Humour or wisdom?

Matt and I taking a selfie on the start line. Man, this was going to be easy.

I had put such things down to middle-age, but it seems that the brain is releasing too early, just as the marathon runner collapses on the little mat with that big yellow clock ticking above them, only to be hoisted to his/her feet by well-meaning co-runners, and just as the guitarist completing the Gigue of a Bach suite mysteriously fluffs a few notes in the final cadenza of an otherwise flawless performance.  So on October 27th 2019, Matt and I completed the Dublin Marathon. How things have changed. We still had numbers attached with safety pins, but now a micro-chip was taped to the back so that my family back in Scotland could track me by GPS. My estimated finish time was fed to them (notably elongating as the race progressed) so that they could watch my moment of glory as we plunged over the finish line via a live YouTube feed. Bizarrely, as we were crossing, the producer decided to interview a spectator, there to support her husband who was running the race to honour their yet-to-be-born baby (she was pregnant). Despite such setbacks to my dangerously-swollen ego, I broke my youthful PB by 15 minutes completing the race in a respectable 3 hours and 53 minutes. Matt and I crossed the line together in a moment of true glory, arms aloft although he would clearly have broken 3 hours 30 had he gone full pelt. The moment was captured by a photographer and was emailed to me courtesy of facial recognition technology. I looked like a man who’d been trampled by a herd of Highland bulls but it was SO worth it. In the later stages, I felt truly dreadful, but my experience as a guitarist made me concentrate on the rhythm of my feet and the moment in hand. The incredible Dublin public were just wonderful – genuinely inspiring and encouraging. What an extraordinary city. It was magic. I was raising funds for Number 3 One Stop Shop in Perth and was supported by Perth Strathearn 200 Round Table who are giving an extraordinary gift to augment my total. Our Co-op in Bridge of Earn also hosted a collection pot into which the lovely community of our village chipped in most generously. Watch this space for a final total…

Me looking properly knackered. I’d like to tell you the camera caught me at a bad moment but I’d been looking like this for at least an hour.

I’ll be playing a number of concerts in Scotland in 2020. I’d love to see you there! Also, if you live in the Perth area, or in the Dordogne where I pass much of my time, drop me a message if you fancy going out for a run.

Took a while to get another but it feels good!

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, available from Amazon here.

Are You Trying to be Funny?…

Errr… well, yes actually.

It’s now several months since my first venture into travel/autobiography/comedy writing was published. Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is a humorous memoir of the seven years my family and I spent in a sleepy French village. The inhabitants were (and still are) a gloriously eccentric bunch and, along with their traditions and culture, I soon recognised that our experiences made for a rich vein of comic anecdote. This, combined with advice on how to successfully integrate into such a society, is the essence of Extracting Goats…

I am delighted, touched and flattered to say that I am the proud, and a little relieved, recipient of many reviews and messages (quotes from which are scattered around this article) indicating that a least a certain percentage of the population share my sense of humour. I confess that once Extracting Goats was published, I experienced many moments of anxiety; what if no-one else in the known world shared my humour? Was I ripping of the writers I idolise? Was I being offensive, or worse? I hope that some of the thoughts and tips outlined below will give you an insight into my method and thinking.

WRITE LIKE A JAZZER. It is important to clarify that I am a completely untrained writer. I am a professional guitarist and spent six years studying in a national conservatoire preparing for such a career. It struck me that there are thousands upon thousands of writers who have studied their craft to the same degree as I have studied nuances of ornamentation in the lute suites of J S Bach. That is scary. I recognise that my technique can never match that of a trained writer so I feel my approach is more like that of a jazz/rock musician. The analogy is a fair one. As I can also improvise at the guitar, I understand the different mind-sets that one adopts when creates in these two styles.

REMINICE. Make yourself laugh at the memories without analysis. I love recounting certain stories which still make me chuckle now, as I type. A favourite is one where I found myself trapped into pretending to be French at a wedding (it’s complex, read the book). I recall sitting at my laptop, tapping away fervently, emitting the occasional snort, like a baddie in a Bond movie entering the codes for a world-ending nuclear device. The experience was all about feeling. Any technical analysis came afterwards. I found it much easier – and far more pleasurable – to get the story on paper quickly and to refine later.

BE SINCERE. There are few things less funny than a writer or a speaker trying to be amusing. You have to believe in your material. Also cringe worthy are writers trying to catch the wave of a current style of humour, rather like a middle-aged politician saying ‘sick’ or ‘keep it real’. If your humour is dated, that’s OK. There will be readers within your own demographic who find dated humour funny too. If you doubt the validity of this point, ask your teenage daughter (or borrow someone else’s) to watch a 1980’s sitcom which you found side-splittingly hilarious. You may find that as you wipe away tears of mirth, your companion will be looking at the screen, ashen-faced and bemused.

HUMOUR HAS A VICTIM. WOULD YOU SAY IT TO THEIR FACE? I really believe in this statement. I dedicate a lot of page space to mocking the French fonctionnaire – which can be anyone in a position of power, such as a civil servant. Although I am pretty merciless in my observations, I took immense care to avoid stepping into the realms of bitterness and nastiness. An example is a story when I poke fun at a fonctionnaire who was a complete technophobe. I can honestly say that if he were sitting next to me now, I would say it all as written. I have tested this formula in real life. A number of my stories tease my ex-pat friends who have endured glorious failures in their attempts to learn the language or integrate. In the summer of 2019, I performed a number of concerts in the Dordogne where the pieces of music were punctuated by readings. It was such a joy to see my ‘victims’ in the audience with tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Many of them bought copies for their families and asked me to dedicate them to their pseudonyms.

AVOID BEING NASTY BY USING SELF-DEPRICATION. This one is, for me, the key to Extracting Goats. I soon realised that if I was going to poke fun at others, I had to be able to poke fun at myself. That is much funnier than just directing observations towards others. Let me give you an example. When Kirsty and I decided to open a cattery, I was obliged to take a three-day course in cat breeding. Now, you must understand that I had no interest in breeding cats – in fact, given that we were hosting other people’s cats for a fixed period of time, breeding was a definite no-no. The course was an exercise in box-ticking officialdom and it was both expensive and unnecessary. The easy course of action would have been to have mocked the lecturers and organisation forcing me to undertake the training but I soon realised that making myself the victim through recounting my attempts to memorise pages upon pages of biological information (in French) regarding illnesses and hereditary illnesses in pedigree cats was both funnier and supremely surreal.

Toilet humour… always a winner.

CHECK, BUT USE FRESH EYES. Once a story was written, I read it over and over again to undergo a process of refinement. I am only too aware that my results are imperfect but I gave it my all. After a while, I noticed that I was deleting or replacing a lot of material. Whereas it is good to be ruthless, one has to take care as a joke stops being funny after one has read it for the forty-seventh time. Consequently, I found myself reinstating gags which I had previously rejected. A good tool is to read your passages out loud to willing friends. I found this surprisingly nerve-racking. This is bizarre as I have, in my career, played a concerto to two thousand listeners with a symphony orchestra, but as this was a new venture, out of my comfort zone, it was challenging. Another really useful tool is the ‘speak’ facility on Word. Highlight a passage and find the ‘speak’ facility (Google it…) Your text will be read to you in an expressionless robotic style (which I actually found hilarious). It is great for analysing issues such as paragraph length, comic timing and basic errors such as word repetition. The final point is important here. I found myself reading what I wanted to see rather than what was on the page. Robo-voice lady just reads what’s there.

SET A LIMIT. I once sat at my computer for an hour agonising over whether the expression ‘I would rather place my own testicles in a blender’ was funnier than ‘I would rather place my own testicles in a coffee grinder’. That’s ridiculous. There is a moment when one has to walk away. Incidentally, I chose the coffee grinder.

FINALLY… in my experience, reality is much funnier than fiction, if we open our eyes to it. Be sincere, warm and open. You’ll struggle to please everyone but if you follow these principles, you’ll know that you’ve been true to yourself and what you are as a writer.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is available in paperback or Kindle editions here. Visit www.danjonesauthor.com or www.danjonesguitarist.com.

Dan will be performing as a guitarist and promoting Extracting Goats… at two forthcoming events in Scotland in September: SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 8th at Innerpeffray Library, Chapel and Heritage Trail from Midday. Please see: http://www.innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk/#&panel1-1

Dan and friends will be celebrating the launch of Extracting Goats… at Dunbarney and Forgandenny Parish Church Hall, Bridge of Earn, on Sunday September 15th from 2.30pm – 4.30pm. This will be a family day with music, readings, games for children and maybe even a crepe or two! All are welcome – entry free with a voluntary donation to Perth’s homelessness charities.