'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.