‘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.

Oh là là Language

I am of an age to have been obliged to study Latin at school. I was quite open-minded about this proposition – neither I nor my colleagues were of the view that we shouldn’t study a ‘dead’ language. We were of a time where pupils unquestioningly acted upon the wishes of a teacher.

I was dreadful at Latin. Although this could well have been due to the limitations of my overall intelligence, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that one of our teachers took joy in humiliating weaker pupils, inviting the class to mock students (that was me) and the other was downright violent. I felt no resentment or fear of these characters – I just switched off completely in the class, took the hit (literally) and learned nothing, although I have a vague recollection of a volcano wiping out the main characters, including a dog.

Conversely, I was quite good at French. I had two lovely teachers, one of whom I remain in contact with now, and the other who moved on and I have been unable to locate. In 2010, we relocated to a sleepy village in rural South-West France and I was obliged to delve back into the distant reserves of my memory and rekindle my school French. I found that being immersed in a language – and having to use it as no other option was available – was a very effective way of becoming a fluent French speaker. I use the word ‘speaker’ as my written French is still rather poor, but that is unimportant. If I’m in the bar with my French pals, no-one is likely to ask me to write the verb ‘vouloir’ in the third person conditional tense. It is much more valuable to learn the expression for ‘Wales won the match – you owe me a beer.’

As time progressed I fell deeply in love with the French language. I learnt how to say ‘I’m going to throw up’ when a child demonstrated exactly how to say this before offering a practical demonstration of the phrase in his guitar lesson. The same child also taught me the unlikely phrase for ‘there is a dead bat under the fridge’. I adore the odd old-fashioned words which are departing from English but are still commonplace in French (cache, umbrage, grave, terminate and the like) and the daft new words for modern items (aspirateur – vacuum cleaner, ordinateur – computer).

The strangest, but possibly the most-valuable tip I’d offer the French language learner is that when speaking a language, the job of communication must take over the whole body, possibly to the extent where the speaker’s personality changes. When speaking English, I can be rather quiet – I tend to mumble and meander. When in conversation in French, I become far more European. I hurl my bodyweight forwards with open palms when arguing a point, I shrug, I say ‘Mais non!’ and wave exasperated arms around; quite frankly, I become a Frenchman. This sounds silly and has, quite rightly, left me exposed to mockery and ridicule from my social group, but surely effective communication is more than just words from the mouth. How often do we look at people’s eyes to see what they are really thinking? Can the body language of cultures be a whole new discipline in itself? Should we teach pupils gestures such as ‘the upwards flap of the right hand, with flexible wrist to express disagreement’? Language is a complex, cultural and expressive tool. To speak it, we must say it, feel it, express it, shape it and communicate it with our whole being.

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, available from Amazon or through the contact page.

How about Farley’s Rusks for Adults?

A poem about Farley’s Rusks to brighten up your day!

A selfie with rusks in Tesco. I told the security guard I was checking I was buying the correct product with my wife at home. This is known as ‘brilliant improvisation’.

Farley’s Rusks, you’re an international icon,
Your round crumbly form, transports me to days bygone,
Ever present, on the high-chair tray,
Or down beside the washing machine, where they fell one day,

I once found a doughy lump, underneath the fridge,
It had clearly been in my son’s mouth – it had a little squidge
I took a glance to my left, to check no-one was looking,
And yes, I popped it down the hatch, before continuing with my cooking,

The little bits of green fluff on it, must have been bacteria,
But the need to gobble it up, drove me to near-hysteria,
But yes indeed that was an error, to tell the whole story,
As I spent that very evening, poised on the lavatory,

I found one on the booster seat, I thought to myself ‘oh shucks’,
Even though it retained some warmth, from my baby’s buttocks,
Yes, I ate it, that’s quite sad, just how far will we men go?
My mate Kevin once ate a piece, he found in a box of Lego,

But the point of this woeful tale, is to ask oh why indeed,
Were rusks so utterly delicious, when my baby needed to feed?
Once my son was eating one – doing quite alright,
When I ripped it from his very hands – he put up quite a fight,

And when my wife came to see, if her boy was still breathing,
I said “Don’t worry dear, he surely must be teething”,
Every day I watched my kids, struggle with their nourishment,
Praying they would have enough, I offered no encouragement, 

I could wait for hours on end, for just one puny nibble,
Pouncing on the squashy bits – (because of infant dribble),
Friday saw a quarter rusk, Saturday, a half,
Sunday I took a whole one, Monday I did barf,

Why are rusks in circular form? A square may be more practical,
Draw inspiration from Toblerone, make a triangle – equilateral?
If you make a grown-up rusk, please do keep me informed,
We may start a national craze, Oh Farley, you have been warned,

Chia-rusk, Flax seed, Kale-rusk and Spinach,
Real rusks for adult tastes, instead of bits unfinished,
Cash in on the health-food craze, corner that hippie market,
No longer will long-suffering Mums, scrape bits out from the carpet,

Alco-rusks, beefy-ones, or veggie-rusks, and meat,
Instead of stale and hardened lumps, I find stuck to my feet,
Roasted-rusk, risky-rusk, rested-rusk rice or regular,
You could offer me a marketing job, I’ll be a full-time Grown-Up Rusk pedlar.   

Dan Jones, on the Perth-Glasgow train, Scotland, March 2019.

 

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, available in paperback or digital form from Kellan Publishing.

Tomorrow is the BIG DAY!

To celebrate tomorrow’s publication of Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, here’s an alternative Brexit newsflash!

Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen And Other Essential Tips From Seven Years of Musical and Family Life In Rural France is published by Kellan Publishing. 

Pretending to be French at Weddings

Me, performing for a wedding in the beautiful Dordogne.

With exactly one week to go before Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is published, I’d love to share a further extract with you. In this passage, I warn against the dangerous combination of high spirits, hot weather and an abundance of wine when attending a French Chateau wedding, and why it is a poor decision to pretend to be French at such an event…  

‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’, from Chapter 16 – ‘I am the Music Man, I Come From Far Away…’

The biggest enemy of the château wedding is the lethal combination of high spirits, champagne and hot weather. I must avoid being a moral judge here because I love a wedding and, if I am fortunate enough to be invited as a guest, I’m partial to a glass or two of the bubbly stuff. I will never, ever though, be discourteous to a member of staff or fellow guest. If I make a fool of anyone, it will be myself when I fall off a chair or the like.

Some venues rather invite trouble as they identify the ‘Summer French Wedding in the Sunshine’ market as a potentially-lucrative one which can easily be tapped into. Generally speaking, these events require a serious financial outlay, but there are venues who run more of a budget package – supplying gite accommodation or placing ‘glamping’ facilities amongst the trees in the grounds. They will also strike deals with local wine producers ensuring no-one will go thirsty. Whereas the classier châteaux will advertise rooms which have been slept in by 17th-century French aristocracy and a feast produced by Michelin-starred chefs, others will promise enough Prosecco to sink a ship, and an abundance of barbequed foodstuffs at an affordable price.

One of the Dordogne’s many beautiful, secluded churches which make such fabulous venues.

Venues which are simply holiday complexes rather than châteaux also get in on the act. The results are stressful and painful for the venue and forgettable for the participants, not because they endure a mediocre weekend but because they suffer memory loss due to the effects of drinking industrial quantities of budget rosé.

As I pull up at a venue to play for a wedding, I can, within minutes, discern what kind of experience the afternoon promises, and react accordingly. Having arrived at one particular engagement, for example, I was ambling across the lawns of a historic château close to Bertric Burée when my eye caught the sight of around fifteen lads wearing only England football shorts, kicking a ball around, using 300-year-old oak trees as goal-posts. They had lagers-in-hands and the air was blue with alcohol-induced expletives.

Bearing in mind this was a couple of hours before the ceremony, I politely said my ‘Hellos’ and found a corner well out of the way to set up. One has to be careful with a choice of repertoire at such events as, if I play anything remotely ‘pop’, it risks generating raucous applause and the dreaded ‘requests’. I’m up for doing a few familiar tunes on the classical guitar as much as the next guy, but when I’m asked to play Jay-Z, well, I know my limits. Problems can arise when the invisible barrier between client and guitarist is broken; this can lead to a scene, despite my efforts to be courteous and light-hearted. I’ve experienced lager-fuelled Brits becoming aggressive because I am unable to perform the latest offering from Little Mix spontaneously for their little girl. Funnily-enough, being a hairy middle-aged white bloke, I tend to learn other material in my spare time.

Oh dear…

The footie-wedding described above was particularly farcical and seemed to simmer with aggression all afternoon. Luckily for me, I was due to zip away at 6.00pm as it felt as if the event was going to ‘kick off’ in more ways than one. As mentioned, I communicate at length with my couples before their big day. This particular couple had chosen Pachelbel’s Canon in D for the processional (although the email read Canon’s Pachelbel in D) – a pleasant if not trailblazing choice – and, two hours prior to their ceremony, were yet to select a piece for the recessional. In the end, I promised a stressed groom I would bash out ‘something good’ for them, leaving him to quaff Stella Artois number seven before making his vows.

The ceremony itself passed off well enough. The congregation talked throughout, seemingly unaware that the weekend’s Strictly results were of lesser importance than a couple vowing to give their lives to one another. During the aperitifs, I found a little corner and settled into playing my repertoire to some pleasant folks sitting on recliners in the shade of the building.


Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, 

The father-of-the-bride was walking in peculiar zig-zag shapes having knocked back enough bubbly to flatten a herd of elephants. He had learned some French for his weekend away in the Dordogne, which was admirable, and was keen to try it on anyone unfortunate enough to be cornered. I was halfway through a bit of Tarrega when he stumbled over, sat next to me and, resembling Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo, attempted a bit of the lingo.

“Bonjourno guitarist. Comment allez vous today?” asked Mr Dad-of-Bride.

“Très bien merci,” I replied unthinkingly, concentrating on my job.

“Comment tu-t’appellez vous your name innit?” he ventured further.

“Dan,” was my ground-breaking reply.

“Je suis English. Anglais-like,” offered Mr Dad-of-Bride.

‘No s**t Sherlock.’ I thought. “D’accord, c’est trés interessant,” I said.

Of course, I was digging myself a very big hole and one which I was going to struggle to climb out of. The good gentleman, beaming all over his face at the marriage of his daughter and perhaps due to the lavish imbibing of cheap bubbly, believed that I was French. To make matters worse I appeared to understand him. Call me stupid (you wouldn’t be the first) but I didn’t have the heart to reveal my Welsh origins, because I felt it would burst his bubble (and his body contained enough champagne bubbles to make quite a pop, I tell you). He seemed so proud of his efforts.

Thus commenced a surreal series of encounters during which he would periodically approach me to try out new phrases, in between mingling amongst guests proudly proclaiming he could communicate with the locals. By divine intervention, he failed to approach anyone who had chatted with me in English beforehand. He sported a little English/French phrase book and, having ‘mastered’ a new phrase, would meander over to try it out on me.

“J’aime le football. Man United. Man City sont les Nancy-Boys,” he offered profoundly.

“Ha ha! C’est trés drole Monsieur,” I said, this being the necessary response.

“He understood me!” he announced to one-and-all with worrying vigour.

I cringed, praying no-one within earshot would reveal my Anglophone identity.

During one particularly arduous exchange, he was trying to tell me how beautiful the Lake District was. He felt a good way to illustrate this would be to introduce mime into the linguistic equation. To illustrate ‘lake’ he repeatedly drew a circular shape in the air with his hands, about six inches from my face. To the uninitiated, this could have been anything from an egg to the solar system.

“Moi – je aime le Lake District,” he said for the eighteenth time.

“D’accord,” I replied, simultaneously fighting with Bach’s Prelude in G major.

Mr Dad-of-Bride then called out to no-one in particular.

“I don’t think he understands me. Hey, Geoff! How do you say ‘lake’ in Froggie Lingo?”

‘It’s ‘etang’ I thought. ‘Please go away before I’m busted’.

He then used the uniquely British multilingual approach:

“Moi – je aime le Lake District!!!” he yelled as if attempting to communicate verbally with someone in the actual Lake District.

At this point, I made the suspiciously quantum leap from ‘understanding nothing’ to ‘all becoming as clear as day’, apparently via the means of volume and circular hand gestures.

“Aha! Ze Lake Deestreect, eet ees very… err… beau n’est-ce-pas?” I offered, unconsciously putting on a French accent.

Dad-of-Bride looked more astonished than anyone at this success and, had he been sober, probably would have had his suspicions aroused, but I seemed to dodge the bullet.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen – and Other Essential Tips from Seven Years of Musical and Family Life in Rural France is available in print of digital formats from Kellan Publishing on January 27th.

Giving Concerts in Small-Town France

Performing in the Perigord

I’d love to share with you a second extract from ‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’ in which I describe the sharp contrast between concert giving in small-town France and that in urban life. I hope it makes you smile and I’d appreciate a share. ‘Extracting Goats… is published by Kellan Publishing on January 27th.

During my formative years as a classical guitarist, I soon came to understand that a formal concert in a British, urban environment is a structured and rather predictable affair. There is a code of conduct which attendees follow religiously: it is inappropriate to applaud between movements of a piece, a concert will start at 7.35pm if it is billed as 7.30pm and the performer will receive an encore – regardless of whether the audience enjoyed their evening or otherwise. How different my experiences were in our little corner of France.

Upon arrival in theDordogne, I was a musical unknown. I needed to expand my pupil base pretty sharpish and to present myself as a guitarist for concert work as there were mounting bills looming on the near horizon. The music schools for which I worked were kindly and energetic in organising events where I could showcase my playing. One of my first concerts was in the beautiful Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in Ribérac. Here I was to share the programme with an organist, a pianist and also accompany a violinist. Upon arrival a couple of hours before the event I was thrown into a world of loosely-organised chaos, more akin to a rock gig than a classical concert. The pianist was using an electric instrument and brought along a degree of sound equipment better suited for Megadeath at Glastonbury rather than Chopin at Ribérac. There was also the preparation of the microphone for the Master of Ceremonies or, as he/she is known, the animateur or animatrice. This was my first of, sadly, many experiences of the phenomenon I refer to as Monsieur/Madame Micro. Attendees of concerts in small French towns appear to believe an evening is incomplete without a local ‘character’ bellowing benign information down a microphone at a volume akin to strapping one’s head against the landing gear of a Boeing 747 in take-off mode. More on this in a moment.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen

As the starting time of 8.30pm approached – notably later than in the UK – I was prepared. I had changed into a snappy suit and red shirt, completed my warm-up routine, and was poised purposefully on a pew to the left of the stage. At 8.35pm, the pianist was still unloading more equipment – reversing up a truck to the ancient oak door and gathering a team of roadies to stagger in with a second batch of bucket woofers. There was no audience. By 9.00pm, I was anxious and my normal zen-like pre-concert state had evaporated. I felt uneasy at such a casual disregard for the starting time. At least though, the church had gradually filled up nicely. It seemed the French audience knew the protocols just as a British audience knows theirs – they were just singing from a different hymn sheet. In small-town France, there is no way that a concert starts at the billed time. It is mutually understood that at 8.30pm, an audience is tucking into dessert which will be followed by an espresso and the obligatory digestif.

My dubious artistic depiction of the notorious Monsieur Micro… it’s 10.05pm and I’m yet to play a note…

Eventually, at 9.15pm, Monsieur Micro took to the stage to rapturous applause. I sensed his performance was of equal, or perhaps greater importance to that of the musicians. He proceeded to introduce the performers at a volume which would have made Pete Townshend wince, giving lengthy biographical details of each of us. This was completely unnecessary as he was simply reading the same programme notes which had been handed to every audience member in print, but it was all a necessary step in the procession of events. Whereas I was bored and mildly vexed at this further meaningless delay to the music-making, the audience appeared enraptured, nodding encouragingly at every already-communicated fragment of information. I soon found myself staring vacantly at the ancient stone domed roof above us, concerned the massive vibrations emitting from the PA may cause structural collapse and kill us all before a note was played. Suddenly, I became aware of a sustained round of applause. I looked at the audience and saw all eyes were on me. I had been introduced and, due to the mixture of 10,000 watts of power and my rudimentary knowledge of the language, I’d rather missed my cue. I hastily stood, grinned gormlessly like a kid with his hand caught stuck in the cookie jar, and took a bow.

The first performer was the organist. He was around ninety-seven years of age and barely able to lift his upper body, never mind place the necessary limbs on the organ’s keyboards and pedals. Once he had installed himself at his instrument, with generous help from a couple of gentlemen in the audience, I looked at the programme to see the works he was proposing. With considerable surprise, and admittedly some apprehension, I read that he would be offering pieces by Charles Gounod. These virtuosic and massively musically-complex works seemed an extraordinary choice of repertoire for an audience who looked more as if they were up for a touch of easy listening, and a performer who would perhaps have been more at ease in charge of a Zimmer frame.

Kirsty and me giving an outdoor concert in the summer of 2017.

He commenced, with the volume predictably turned up to eleven. As he crashed his way through the rich, dissonant harmonies – some Gounod’s, others of his own inadvertent invention – I found my face wincing into a range of contorted expressions of which I had no idea I was capable. I lost three years’ worth of tooth enamel due to a subconscious grinding induced by each wrong note. At every page-turn, he would stop, raise an arm, and agonisingly turn the sheet before continuing his war with the keyboard. The time taken to do this necessitated a substantial pause which suggested a somewhat elastic interpretation of Gounod’s rhythms. Some pauses occurred for no immediately apparent reason. At one point, I wondered if Monsieur l’Orgue had met his demise at the instrument which would, I suppose, be quite a rock ‘n’ roll way to go, but no, happily (or otherwise, depending on your musical tastes) he jerked back into life and launched into a new phase of his attack. At least these pauses allowed us respite to grab a tissue and dab at the blood discharging from our eardrums. Monsieur l’Orgue’s performance was met with rapturous applause – a standing ovation even. I have no idea who was more surprised, me or him.

Finishing a jazz gig with friends

From this, I learned an audience in the Dordogne love to hear works by a French composer. It is perhaps a reassertion of the might of their culture. Bearing in mind many in the audience were elderly, it’s possible they remember the war and therefore value their ‘Frenchness’. Secondly, I learned the French like to see a bit of effort – they recognised the gladiatorial element of the performance. Yes, all the notes were there but the audience wanted blood, sweat and tears – as if they were watching a monstrous bearded-bloke from Latvia pulling an articulated lorry in The World’s Strongest Man rather than marvelling at the subtleties of phrasing in Gounod’s melodic counterpoint. I think it also relates to the passion they have for a good spectacle, the artistic consequences being immaterial. Interestingly, the French also adore music of a Celtic origin. I arranged many traditional Celtic songs and melodies for solo guitar and placed these within a classical programme. They went down a storm. Some of them, such as the beautiful song The Water is Wide, have been rewritten with French lyrics. The original meaning is usually completely disregarded and new stories created. The other items, including my own offerings, passed off very well – the audience loving my attempts to tell them about the pieces (Bach, Weiss and Villa-Lobos I believe) in French. Monsieur Micro looked rather affronted as I was stepping into his territory.

This is my arrangement/recording of The Water is Wide, so popular in Scotland and France. In the latter country it is known as ‘La Ballade Irlandaise, popularised by the brilliant singer/songwriter Renaud. The recording is on my disc Les Cerisiers

I was interested to see and hear the courteous and reverential silence which one habitually experiences during the actual pieces was absent during this concert, and the dozens of similar events I performed at afterwards. It was regarded as perfectly acceptable practice for a group of ladies to noisily drag a table across the back of the church during the slow movement of a sonata, in preparation for the inevitable post-concert aperitif, digestif or rather charmingly named pot d’amitié (pot of friendship) which is a diplomatic way of saying ‘any excuse for a glass of hooch’. To omit this element would be akin to omitting the presence of musicians or even worse, Monsieur/Madame Micro.

Concerts were habitually of agonisingly-long length. I would frequently share programmes with choirs in the area and, during pre-concert planning meetings, I would drop to my knees and beg them to discard some of the proposed items. The response would be that the audience would enjoy such-and-such a piece or this would be a nice contrast to that piece, but when buttock has been installed on hard pew for an hour, Monsieur/Madame Micro is in full flow and you had that second glass of wine during the pre-concert aperitif, believe me, an unbroken hour of music is too long. I played at a choir festival in Perigueux and the well-meaning organiser allowed a young folk singer with a guitar to do ‘a small spot’ at the beginning of the already-groaning-at-the-seams programme. The result was the young fellow, charming as he was, did that maddening thing all folk guitarist/singers do where he mumbled indistinct introductions, telling stories which went nowhere, all the while strumming airy chords and making meaningless adjustments to his instrument’s tuning. We heard about half-an-hour of chit-chat and seven minutes of songs, all before the actual scheduled programme had begun.


Dan goes on to explain why pretending to be French at a boozy chateau weddings is a bad idea, how one should avoid flippantly offering to perform at a French funeral and how he is repeatedly mistaken for a celebrity at pop/rock gigs.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is available for digital pre-order now and in can be ordered in print from January 27th 2019.