December: Spring hopes eternal


(Mark Sampson) #1

So there it was, Merry Christmas; everybody having fun. But not the polar bears. The warmest December on record will not help their chances of survival. And not my mother-in-law.


Up there in Cumbria, the rain has raineth every day. She lives on the edge of the Pennine Fells. Her nearby market town of Appleby-in-Westmoreland has been flooded to within an inch of its life. Despite the visit of a concerned Prince of Wales, she wonders whether her little red-stone town will ever recover from these inundations. And just when they thought that the rain might have eased up, down it came again with such force over Christmas that she couldn't even 'nip' to the garage and back for a few potatoes.


Meanwhile, any hint of rain has been studiously passing us by here in deepest France. The local farmers are still taking water from the Dordogne for their winter crops. But what are the winter crops? During our traditional Boxing Day walk with the Jackson family and friends, my American friend Steve pointed out the bushes blooming with those lovely springtime blossom-flowers the colour of raspberry sorbet.


Maybe the unnatural weather accounts for the flu that laid me low at the beginning of the month. It hasn't been cold enough to kill off all the bugs and germs and the residual flies that are still clustering in the angle of the mezzanine ceiling. My octogenarian father swears by the flu jabs he has at the beginning of every winter, but we don't do vaccinations in this household. My immune system normally keeps me healthy, but this year – for the first time in ages – I spent four consecutive days in bed and have been coughing ever since. It's not right. I am not a number, I'm a healthy man!


At least the enforced lay-off gave me a chance to read, as opposed to merely dipping my toes into books. In my sick bed, I polished off a hefty biography of the extraordinary Mitford sisters – who drove their long-suffering straight-laced parents to distraction and back – and Bill Bryson's brief but fascinating book about Shakespeare. But I'm still looking at the spine of Anthony Beevor's intimidating history of the Spanish Civil War. Looking but not touching. But when, Lord, when?


Once on my feet again, there were the regional elections to contend with. There were posters everywhere in Martel, but being an outsider and not understanding the political system of my adopted country, the faces and parties they boosted meant absolutely nothing to me. Deprived of the vote here and deprived of the vote back home – and therefore the right to have my say about the great 'Brexit' debate – all I could do was hope that those given the right to vote would exercise it with due care and diligence.


Being a student of history, I have the privilege of being able to play in advance – in certain situations – the hindsight card. Inevitably, given the atrocities in Paris the month before, voters did what voters will always do and cast their votes in protest for the extremists. Sure enough, the Front National swept to the fore across the regional board. But the impenetrable French political system being what it is, the second round gives voters the chance to organise and cast their votes strategically. This kept the fascists out. For now. But for how much longer, Lord, for how much longer?


Ah well, there's always music. The news desks didn't report the event in November, because they were far too busy with the appalling goings-on in Paris, but it was also the month when I splashed out on a decent new record deck. So December saw me re-discovering my old records and learning that the Prophets of Analogue are right. Nice clear digital sound is not analogous to the warm embrace of analogue sound. Listening to a well produced record album on a good sound system is, as my dear wife so acutely suggested, like listening in three dimensions rather than two.


Which is why mid month, with time to kill before I picked up The Daughter from the airport on her return from a sojourn in Sheffield, the city of her birth, I spent three happy hours or so browsing through the extraordinary record collection of a tiny shop in the centre of Limoges. The couple who run it want to retire after a lifetime's dealing in vinyl. Rather than knock 50% off their prices, though, they cling on to the notion of value, like co-captains on a slowly sinking vessel. My guide and I both relieved them of a few over-priced items, but – judging by the lack of clients all morning – it will be many, many years before they clear the stock at current prices and head for pastures new.


With Tilley the Kid back in the fold, we could start concentrating on Christmas. Despite her perennial Yuletide enthusiasm, though, we were hopelessly late this year. Our cards didn't arrive from the UK till the middle of the week before the Big Day. Like a Dickensian scribe, I knuckled down to the job of writing out newsy messages and addressing envelopes. They were signed, sealed and posted the next morning and – for all the talk of last posting days back home – they mainly reached their destinations in the St. Nick of time. However... our friends in the Alps received a card destined for Sheffield and our friends in Sheffield received a card destined for the Alps. That's Christmas for you.


Meanwhile, back in Paris, our leaders were busy reaching an historic deal on the climate, which will save the world and ensure that no more species are extinguished. Why not put the current climatic confusion down to El Nino and get on with the business of eating, drinking and being merry, safe in the knowledge that once more a collective of caped crusaders has nudged us back from the brink of catastrophe?


And that's just what we did. But a gentle word of warning: 11am on the 23rd is not a suitable hour for a trip to your local Lidl if you want to buy mini blinis and a pack of their finest Scottish smoked salmon. Somehow I filtered out the sound of a plague of humanoid locusts winging their way to the supermarket while I was languishing over a demi-tasse of coffee. Still, I did manage to pick up a mini chocolate Panettone for my wife's stocking and some mixed nuts for our daughter's. Next year, I shall be under starter's orders rather earlier.


And then it all came and went – as it always seems to do. I started early on Christmas Eve with a trip down to the prefecture of Cahors to register with a government agency as an auto-entrepreneur in order to pay some more social charges for an element of my work that was not accepted last year by the government agency to which I pay my social charges as a writer. The young woman who filled in my details was very charming and surprisingly helpful, so I spared her a diatribe on the hidebound and mystifying complexities of the French administration. Besides, it was Christmas and she was pregnant.


Back home in time for a mid-morning coffee and seasonal pain au chocolat, I joined in the preparations for our annual Christmas Eve soirée with a circle of local chums. Despite a resolution to delegate more this year and provide less in the way of canapés, there was still enough to do to occupy the three of us right up to zero hour itself. And then the house was full of noise and activity for a few hours before people petered away into the night and we could get down to the business of tidying up, wrapping presents, filling pillow cases that serve now as more capacious stockings, and watching the last recorded half hour of the Master Chef final – which my namesake won with his remarkable sang froid and Kandinsky-like artistry on a plate.


Post-high society, we could enjoy a quiet guilt-free family Christmas. Just the three of us plus cats and dog, who managed to single out her present from under the tree and drag it away while we were cooing over a new calendar of 1930s railway posters. Since a new rope to tug was hiding 'neath the paper, one could hardly discipline her for such un-orderly impatience.


We set a new record by staying in our pyjamas, till after midday, before dressing for the serious business of preparing lunch. Pea soup, nut roast with all the trimmings and our daughter's uncommonly delicious chocolate tart. And since there was nothing as usual on the telly, as a post-prandial treat we watched Joseph Losey's magnificently uncomfortable The Servant, with Dirk Bogarde and Sarah Miles never finer.


Thus disappeared Christmas in a flash for another year, with not a squabble, not a full-blown family argument in sight. Small is often beautiful. December is fizzling out and too soon the New Year will be upon us with another round of resolutions to ramp up the guilt during the year to come. Mind you, with my feet tucked up in new fleece-lined slippers, I feel almost equal to anything that life can throw at me. And they'll come in handy if and when this precocious spring gives way to winter, come the dark days of JanuFeb.


(Mark Sampson) #2

Yikes, your report is not encouraging Brian. I dare not even consult the Méteo these days. Sounds like you've got a busy new year in prospect. Bon courage, mon brave!


(Brian Milne) #3

Ah, but will they be dark? Long term forecasts show some rain in January but little real cold, some of it is shown to hover around 0 to -1 overnight until early February, but what is really needed, proper cold and some winter rains, ain't gonna happen if the forecasts are anything like right. Springs and wells are dry hereabouts, after welling a couple of weeks ago it is again possible to walk across parts of the Dordogne river without knees getting wet. I have seen a few cowslips in sheltered places, celandines, a few dogtooth violets and the tiny little version of scabious that grows on stony ground. Our grass is growing and fresh, people were mowing lawns on Christmas day. It is all too strange to take in.

A generally quiet, appropriately quiet Christmas here too. Now back to the grind mill. A publisher's deadline this week; the most difficult contribution to edit came in yesterday leaving one contributor to catch up. One person still needs to sign and send us his permission to publish, ironically the only lawyer who should be acutely aware of such legal documents! Then to greet the incoming year we have the builders in (finally) for at least two weeks, I have a report to translate and edit in the bag already and then the usual switch over to survival mode begins...