10-15th November: Work makes free

What happened to the week? It just whooshed by in a haze of activity. I blame work. Specifically, the first paid work for months. Real work. Close proof-reading and editing of 20 or so documents, written in the most impersonal, convoluted technical language imaginable. It conspired to do my head in, question my own grammatical certainties and occupy me night and day, night and day.

Work, the final frontier. When it's there, I resent the time it swallows up. When it's not, I worry that I will never work again. Buried in the countryside here, I'm out of sight and out of mind. But I'm one of life's fortunate individuals: I have an industrious wife who does regular real work. So it's not that I really need the work, it's just that work somehow confirms your existence. It means that I can contribute.

One of my favourite writers, Joseph Conrad, always maintained that work – in all its weary, mundane permutations – kept us from staring too deeply into the heart of darkness at the very core of our being. Therein madness lies. And it’s true in a sense; the entire week I was so busy that there wasn’t time to worry about the state of the planet, answer e-mails and sign on-line petitions. No time to ponder our daughter’s future or our dog’s decline. No time to fret about all that lapsed correspondence and mounting paper work. No time to worry about wintering the garden. No time for writing or self-doubt. Barely time to cook, in fact.

The good thing about all that is that you can wallow in the relief that comes with the end of toil. Normally my weeks segue into weekends. For the first time in ages, however, I felt the Thank-God-It's-Friday effect. So much so that the Good Wife and I went out. To a bar, what's more (a thing which of course I don't often do, as Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band narrated in his rich and fruity voice). And not just any bar, but the recently opened Bar Au Coin de la Rue: a nicely re-furbished stone building near the market place in the centre of Martel, our un-thriving local metropolis.

We went to see our Amerikanische Freund Steve's band in concert. Normally there's three Steves, but on Friday night there was no room for Steve the drummer. His kit would have drowned out all attempted conversation in such a small venue. So it was just Steve on double bass and Steve on guitar, playing, very competently, their usual repertoire of old R&B, soul and rock 'n' roll numbers. They were already well into their first set when we walked past the smokers outside, pushed open the door and stepped diffidently inside.

It was a hotbed of activity. I wouldn't have believed it possible had I not witnessed it with my own eyes. So there is life in Martel after dark and after the summer season. I recognised a few local faces. There was the nice cashier from Intermarché, whose new glasses I admired a few months ago. There was the Australian woman who walks her three dogs around town. Her little black poodle barked excitedly every time the audience burst into applause, wagging its little coiffed tail endearingly. ![](upload://4Q1Bdl0PlMhJBEN5B7etpjJ9NSs.jpg)

And our friend, Dave, was there with a group of pals and the girlfriend we hadn't yet met. He's one of the soldier boys I described in Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, who helped out on our build. Once a soldier, always a soldier. When he's not off seeking thrills and exhilaration by, for example, paragliding in Katmandu, he works here to pay his charges and keep his head just above the water. He's planning to go paragliding over or off Mont Blanc, but is currently helping American Steve with his latest renovation project.

I didn't get a chance to ask his Isabelle what she thinks about all these death-defying adventures. They met via an internet dating service and they clearly dote on each other. I wondered how they managed with the language barrier. Dave told me that when he speaks French, Isabelle tends to reply in English – and vice versa. It seems to work. Dave proposed to her outside the cathedral in Limoges and a wedding is in the offing. We're both delighted. I love a nice wedding, me. It hasn't always been easy for him over here and he's a diamond geezer, who belies all macho military stereotypes.

As a result of our construction project, Dave decided to use straw bales for the interior walls of his barn down river. He knows how long renovations can take, particularly when you have to work on others' to finance your own. In between the band's two sets, I chatted to a couple of his friends. They've just started to emerge from their own renovation project. They decided to dedicate themselves to it body and soul for as long as it would take, rather than letting it drag on for years. It took them two years and almost, apparently, killed them. She's had two operations on her hand for repetitive strain injury resulting from too much re-pointing, which is wicked work. They moved here from the Yorkshire Dales, because they were being overrun by day-trippers and she couldn't ride horses safely any more.

Debs had to work on Saturday morning, so we sneaked off half way through the band's second set – after a particularly fine version of Ray Charles' 'Unchain My Heart', which got a couple of women at the bar dancing and the black poodle barking more deliriously than ever. It was nice. And it's heart-warming to realise that there are people in our town who want to listen to live music. What's more, the cashier from Intermarché kissed me on both cheeks, which pleased me as much as our local mechanic calling me by my first name. He probably pronounces it with a 'c' instead of a 'k', but it doesn't matter. These are positive signs of local acceptance. It's good to belong.

Another good thing about work is that you earn your time-off without fear of guilt. The following day, we treated ourselves to a On The Road by the Brazilian director, Walter Sallis. It went on for hours and didn't matter a jot. As an ex-student of American literature, it shames me to confess that Jack Kerouac's famous novel is one of only a few books that I've never been able to finish. The novel was so vividly brought to life that I feel now that there's no pressing need to go back to the book. The portrayal of Dean Moriarty was beautifully realised. Now there was a man who chose not to let work stand in the way of living life to the full. Life, though, in his case, was brief and intense.

If this rain doesn't stop, I won't be able to get out into the garden with my neighbour's pickaxe to dig up the baby trees that sprouted this summer from their unidentified parent. We want to transplant them to unchartered corners of the garden. But it looks like we might have to settle instead for another film. Ah well, it sure beats work.

No need to be scared of Marseille, Mark, any more than Lyon or Paris. You wouldn't walk round those places with a gold chain round your neck and an expensive camera dangling either. I lived inMarseille for six months and have spent a lot of time there since, both for work, in the past, and for simple holidays. You just have to synch in to the place. Of course there's lots of litter around, and a lot of neglect, but it's a fascinating place to explore once you've got the hang of it :)

Was on holiday in Sicily in September, three days in Palermo, was a lot more rubbish around there, but again, no more bother than you would have in any big city either ! Ten days after that in the West of the island, around Marsala, impeccable holiday.

Thanks for the tip, Peter. I know Aubazine, but haven't been there for several years. Like the tray, Ian! I must say that I find the thought of Marseilles a bit scary. I went through it once and was assaulted by a battery of traffic noise. Nasty goings-on in the banlieues, as well. Think I'll stay here in the cold and the rain. Doreen, our Labradoid also gets very upset in storms, but he has never chewed through the tube of the vacuum cleaner. Mind you, we shut it up (not him, you understand) in the pantry.

Brian, funnily enough I held a beatnik party here during the summer. It clashed with another party arranged long before our spontaneous soirée. I played an extraordinary German version of Ginsberg's 'Howl' by a German jazz group. It's really weird to hear the text read in the type of strident German you might have heard at Nuremburg in the '30s. There's a very thin line, as you suggest, between beatniks and hippies. I was a trainee hippy, but spiritually I just love the beatnik era. Your current project sounds fascinating, by the way. Real work a go-go!

Nice little place Martel although it is a bit remote as you intimated Mark. I suppose the train attracts a fair few people in the season tho' I can't imagine there's too much to do in the quieter months. Friendly tea-shoppe in the centre too.

Don't know if you've tried it but just north of you is Aubazine, a picture postcard village perched high in the hills. A couple of good eateries as well especially the Hotel de la Tour which is a bit olde worlde but delicious nosh all the same. Definitely worth a punt with 'er indoors if you are in need of some brownie points !

Careful with that axe Eugine...

Nice to see that others are having wetness trouble with clearing the garden for the winter. Only have half of it "turned over" - I use one of those five-pronged upright earth disturbers that means you have no back-work and the worms are relatively undisturbed. However only half of this has been done, due to endless "épisodes cévenols", and there are still the carrots to dig up and put into sand and two rows of bedraggled leeks waiting to be uprooted. Managed to gather in the cabbages - good firm ones this year - and we're going have a ginormous pot au feu tomorrow (and prolly two further days after that).

The best of this wetness is that we decided to take the weekend in Marseille to see the MuCEM and all the other new arrangements - we found a nice little room in the old city, le Panier, and lo! Yesterday Sunday was splendidly sunny, up to 27° C, wandering around in tee-shirts. Bliss. Got back last night to the slashing down of rain here in Hautes-Alpes... and snow down to 1600 metres! Beware the Lautaret Pass already, snow equipment obligatory !

Brought back a tray and a plaque of this (as well as a few cans), to illuminate the kitchen :

Heart of Darkness. Hmm, many years since I delved in there. I can actually see the spine on a shelf. About six books along is On the Road, which I have read several times over. It was 'currency' when we used to hitch down to Brighton to sit on the beach (sore bum from the pebbles after too long, remember it well). Optional other reading was pieces from Allen Ginsberg's Empty Mirror: Early Poems or Reality Sandwiches. The long 'To An Old Poet In Perú' was what got me interested in that country, thus my postgraduate work there and a decade and a half spending months a time in the country doing research. Back in '64 we called ourselves 'beatniks' but in the blink of an eye we were wearing beads and bells and called ourselves 'hippies'. My bell is still within sight as I sit here.

I too am doing proper work. Well, sort of. I am being paid good money to sit around not working. My better half is in Cambodia and has done the first week of our research, now over this month she has to begin to feed back data which I have to analyse, begin to make real sense of then begin the report for a new programme for the NGO we are working for. Deadline is 23 December so that we get paid, at least the transfer made, before bookkeeping year 2014 ends.

My daughters were listening to jazz all afternoon today. They got to 1940s and 50s and one CD on the compilation included Ray Charles' 'Confession Blues' and Hoagy Carmichael's 'Georgia on my Mind' which I associate with the 'genius' more than the composer. All good on the beach music on one of those tinny sounding new all revolutionary transistor radios.

I have cleared one large area of nettles and brambles. Have only three left. One is huge, to say the least. This first one is so that I have clear ground for more fruit trees. A cherry, couple of nuts, couple of peaches and a fig. We have plenty of each but young trees take a while to become productive and we have wet, well wetter than that, and mild days. So on my pay I shall go planting tomorrow.

Isn't proper work wonderful?