17-23rd November: Local lines

I was talking to Dirty Dave at my friend Adrian's 50th birthday party on Saturday night. Dave's a big gentle bear of a man, with a nose ring, a beard of W.G. Grace proportions and a pair of those ear rivets that turn your lobes into flaps of parchment. I was asking him about the house he co-owns in the wilds of the Massif Central, not too far from the town of Le Puy en Velay, with its religious icons on top of its extraordinary volcanic plugs.

We were sitting next to the wood-burning fire, which really wasn't necessary given the unnaturally mild weather of the weekend. I assumed that Dave had a good wood burning stove for his outpost of civilisation. 'Well there is,' he told me, 'but it only brings the temperature up to about two or three degrees. Which is OK,' he hastened to add. 'When it's minus 25 outside, you step inside and it feels almost warm in comparison'.

Five months of snow. Minus 25. It's not something that I could cope with. Dave doesn't live there, but he visits from time to time to make sure that everything's all right and maybe to check what life must be like for the Inuit people. 'I tell you, I've never experienced total silence until I stayed there for a few days. And I mean total silence. Not a sound. Not even a bird in a tree. They've got more sense than to hang around there in winter. How many of us can say that we've experienced total silence in our life?'

Not many. Certainly not at Adrian's party, where his band were 'giving it large' in his living room. There were moments when I yearned for some distant corner of the Massif Central. There's something about the place that has long fascinated me. All that wild beauty, all that windswept solitude. There's life there, Jim, but not as we know it.

Not that long ago, I wrote about an epic two-part journey I took from Clermont-Ferrand to Beziers down the A75 that follows La Méridienne (as the motorway is popularly known), the line of longitude that cuts the Massif roughly in half. It was a journey of discovery that opened my eyes to the untamed beauty of the region. For several months, I’ve been trying to persuade the editor of France Magazine to commission a follow-up journey, but this time by train. She finally relented.

Having tried in vain to plot a route using SNCF's dreadful website, I went down to the station at Saint-Denis-lès-Martel – or près-Martel, as it's known only to the railway, for some strange reason. The little station is an architectural classic. It has featured in a couple of period dramas and has probably appeared in miniature on many a French child's train set in a time before the white heat of technology irrevocably changed our world.

There's always someone different behind the safety glass at the guichet. This time there was a bloke with an alarming facial twitch, which made me glad of the glass between us. I kept wanting to take evasive action, sure that the poor guy was about to nut me. It was a little like a localised version of Jack Douglas's exaggerated whole-body twitch, if anyone out there still remembers the big northern comic who appeared in many a Carry On film, often sporting a trademark flat cap and rimless glasses.

Our conversation didn't start very propitiously. I asked him if they had a timetable for the whole Midi Pyrénées region and he looked at me as if I'd asked to buy a book of first-edition stamps. So I checked, sarcastically, that this was indeed the Midi Pyrénées region and therefore not unreasonable to think that one of its stations should carry aforesaid timetable. It turned out that he thought I'd enquired about the Mediterranean region. Dear God, is my French accent so bad? Anyway, no, he didn't have a timetable that he could let me have. Only for one branch line which wasn't on my likely itinerary.

With another sudden disarming leer, he asked if there was any other way he could help. I outlined my planned article of a journey across the wilderness and back purely by local trains. This prompted dark mutterings of catta-stroff, which I strained to comprehend. The catastrophe in question appears to be a five-year plan of some malevolent Docteur Beeching to close down all these lovely little latitudinal lines in favour of the longitudinal lines of the network's showpiece, the TGV. Grand Vitesse, the bywords of the modern era. You can travel fast but very, very expensively between the country's cities and principal towns, but soon you won't be able to join up the little dots in a leisurely and just-about-affordable manner. I learnt that they have already cut the speed limit from 80 to 60kph along our local line between Saint-Denis and Bretenoux (and thence to Aurillac in the Cantal by way of the scenic gorges of the river Cère), because it costs too much to maintain it. The bell is already tolling with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.![](upload://cW6purxqPmljlaHDT7gXL5jf6fi.jpg)

Even the Train de Cévennes, the special tourist line which follows the spectacular gorges of the river Alier, is under threat. He phoned the nearest station for me to check that I will be able to ride on it next May. I nodded sympathetically and made all the right noises, but – had I the necessary vocabulary and clear head – I was just itching to toss in a few heartfelt beefs about the SNCF and its ranks of pampered public servants with their outmoded privileges and inflated pension rights. You know Monsieur, if you had been a little more realistic about the age we live in, and a little more prepared to compromise, instead of stamping your feet and calling all those wildcat strikes that alienate the public you are meant to serve, you might have been able to engineer a deal that could have saved these local lines.

I left him to his disgruntlement, heavy with the knowledge that my projected journey next spring might be the last opportunity available and with a sinking feeling that I was going to have to work out the itinerary myself – via the SNCF website. As usual, I felt a customary sense of ambivalence. There's something both maddening and admirable about this defiant resistance to anything that seems to smack of globalisation. When you hear, as I did last week, that a new snack bar in St. Céré is calling itself Le Snatch – no doubt in some misguided attempt to appear hip, trendy and global (solicitors since 1995) – you understand why the guardians of the French language in their official Parisian salon try to preserve its purity.

The trouble is, it all smacks of King Canute. Surely there has to be a more intelligent way to hold back the waves. If there is, our politicians will probably find a way to shelve it. Were it not for my fear of five months of snow and sub-Arctic domestic temperatures, Dirty Dave's house in the middle of nowhere might sound rather more attractive than it did on Saturday night. There's something quite appealing about the notion of total silence.

You're very welcome, Ian. It's most gratifying pour moi. David and Peter, loved your stories by the way. Thanks all for such great contributions.

Hey Mark, I just realised your blog posts are the best ones I've used to see a roaring conversation get going - thanks for such stimulating writing, mate :)

He could have given her a "tuyau" before she went into town :p

I've done this before a while back on another topic last year but it's worth a repeat. About 20 years ago a very close lady friend of mine went into a well known hardware shop in Chasseneuil (16). Her hubby had sent her to get a nine-inch length of 30cm plastic piping to repair a small section of wastepipe. Her french wasn't brilliant so she opened her hands to about nine inches and asked the very nice male assistant for a 'pipe' ! She couldn't understand why all the male shop assistants were rolling about on the floor. The penny dropped however when hubby informed her she had just asked for a 'blow-job' !!!

'E were bl**dy right too, forrin muck :p

I'm constantly being told by my French in-laws that "we" have disgraceful tastes in food, however when I do the cooking it all gets skoffed !

What a great website- problem is it brings back soooo many memories!

Your Spanish tale reminds me of an experience in the 60's or very early seventies in Spain. One evening some new British guests arrived at the table next to us for dinner. He clad in a singlet, and evidently on his first trip abroad. He struggled with the menu and eventually the waiter explained that gazpacho was a soup. When it arrived our compatriot took a spoonful and spat it out. "Eeee! This soups stone bloody cold!". The waiter failed to understand the problem and the maitre d eventually arrived and politely explained that the soup was meant to be cold. "Where I come from t'soup's served 'ot!". So away they went and boiled up the gazpacho to the evident approval of our neighbours. He's probably a UKIPPER now.

Mr John Hope-Falkner of Bourges (on this network) was with me for dinner that evening and can confirm the veracity of this cabaret.

Ozaltistle? You'd need a pointy hat to get near enough, and a hand held translating device to gather some understanding :)

Ere's 'ow thi speik at Ribchester, not that far over :


A family from Lancashire go on holiday to Benidorm and order some food. The father thinking his pie is lacking in gravy calls the waiter over saying " 'asta Bisto fer't pah?' and the waiter replies in a southern English accent, "Sorry mate, I can't speak Spanish."

'ow do they speak or indeed sing in Oswaldtwistle?

Wouldn't know mate, I kept well clear of Accrinton in them days :) Now, Lower Darren, 'appen !

"Whoa back buck an a tee badalam, who made da black man, whoa god dam"

Isn't that " Can you give me directions to the Post Office" in Accrington speak ?

Yep, that's the real stuff Brian. Blind Willie MacTell, none better, though Leadbelly comes close :

"Whoa back buck an a tee badalam, who made da black man, whoa god dam"

And for the good Captain, "Moonlight on Vermont"... Fab.

Up and down as many times as PNE, that can't be possible :)

Ian, now we are talking. I have a large blues collection, some of them 78s. I have even met B.B. King several times, my oldest friend being a pro photographer of blues and jazz performers who more or less worships B.B. and goes as part of the package on every tour and has done since the early 70s. I have the complementary early gospel, cajun, zydeco, soul and some rock and roll. I am slowly digitising the lot. It should take a few years, if I live long enough, then (despite HER royal commands) I shall not get rid of the vinyl. So there (stamps foot!!).

As for the Captain: Trout Mask Replica is one of my all time favourites 'all grey like a sewing machine...', etc.

I have just about all Zappa plus some unreleased stuff through a friend. Then Dr John, well I must digitise my Gris-Gris LP sometime so I suppose I'll be getting to hear that first time again after some years.

Genesis, never got me. Crimson, came and went without going where they might have.

Been following SM Caen since the early 70s thanks to my 'second family' being in that area - a yoyo team who have been up and down more than a whores drawers !

In the real world i'm a Spurs fan with Canary tendancies

Off for a coupla sarnies now Peter, back to my photo album creation and the very finest reminiscent conversation later on.

I'd need to be able to Tardis into the Deepdale Hotel circa 1965 for that, Peter. These days I go for Olympique de Marseille :p

Ahh, PNE fan ?

Have you considered therapy ?

Ah but he came from the Small Faces, Shepherd's Bush skins, so he reminds me of when PNE beat QPR 3-1 at Shepherd's Bush and the fifty or so of us PNE fans had to clear orf kwik before their skins got to us. Even better than Cold Blow Lane that was :)

Do yah think i'm sexy ?

No idea how Rod ever made it ? He's ugly and can't sing ! There's hope for us all I suppose ...........

Thanks for the Jeff Talmadge mention Mark, he sounds just up my street