Friday morning’s promenade en vélo took me up and round and down past the two goat sheds in the nearby hamlet. Their doors were slid back to give the poor creatures inside some respite from the week’s accumulated heat. The bleached white inmates had all gathered at the threshold to gaze at the novelties of the outside world. My impulse is to dismount and to walk up for a quick chat, but doing that can create a mini stampede within and I couldn’t bear to be responsible for some crushed goats. I can see the headlines now in Le Dépêche. A French version of Chatty cyclist causes fatal crush…
I freewheeled down past the Dutchman’s wood-stack to the road where Poodle Man, as he has become known, was just finishing off his retaining wall. Wittily I’ve dubbed it the Great Wall of China, because one likes to banter with the locals. Poodle Man’s real name is Charles, I have recently discovered. He is married to Poodle Woman, whose ancient deaf poodle has now trotted off to that big toilettage in the sky. In the past, she has complained of her husband’s lack of sociability, but I have always found him ready to pass the time of day.
Charles has been working on his muraille for many months. He’s 75 now, but has the lean physique of a teenager. He likes to keep busy and I wonder what he will do now that his great wall is finished. Every day during its construction he has been getting up at six to mix his barrow full of mortar and fix in place the limestone slabs he scavenges the evening before. It’s as well that he’s finished now, because he’s just done himself a mischief. He recognises that a septuagenarian shouldn’t be lifting heavy stones, but the man is driven.
As a fellow sport-lover, he asked me whether I would be watching the Olympic opening ceremony that evening. No, I wouldn’t – and nor would he. It wasn’t sport and the cost of the spectacle was ludicrous. London did Paris a favour by beating it to the bankruptcy tape; Montreal’s still paying for the ’76 Olympics; Athens can never pay for its games; and so forth. We ranted like a pair of grumpy old men; ‘gave it large’, in the words of my friend, the tree surgeon.
Somehow we segued from overpaid footballers to communally minded sheep. Take the cost of the fauchage teams with all their expensive orange-painted equipment, which periodically pass by to sheer the roadsides. In the old days, he told me, farmers’ wives would walk behind their flock of sheep, up and then back down the road, knitting away at their latest creation while their bêtes tamed the vegetation. Isn’t that a lovely notion? Proper made my day, it did, to imagine such a leisurely but efficient and – more to the point, as a hard-pressed ratepayer – inexpensive form of highway maintenance. These days, you hardly ever see either sheep or farmers’ wives. They’re always shut up inside like those poor benighted goats.
Knowing that she’s recently finished her bac, Charles enquired about The Daughter. I explained that she was in London – and certainly would not be watching the Olympics. Not my sport-negative offspring. In fact, she and her best friend – who is, rather delightfully, the daughter of my wife’s best friend – are at the WOMAD festival in Wiltshire this weekend. They went off together on the special coach from London, Victoria with tent, sleeping bags, basic provisions and a camping stove that apparently doesn’t work. We parents are rather hoping that they will be bold enough to ask someone if they can borrow theirs. Perhaps a pair of nice, well-brought-up boys who aren’t slaves to their sex drives.
It’s Tilley’s first festival. She’s never let on that she’s at all interested in world music. I suspect she’s tagging along for the adventure. I sent her a text to suggest that she and Alice should make sure that they see Ska Cubano, Femi Kuti and Keb’ Mo’. They’ll probably and quite rightly ignore a curmudgeon’s advice and stumble upon their own entertainment.
I sho’ ‘nuff envy her. Not so much the festival itself: I’m getting a bit too old and impatient for all that hanging around and standing about on two feet. These days I tend to go along to the annual African music festival in Cajarc and the jazz festival at Souillac, but only for an evening at a time. No, I envy her more for the sheer excitement and novelty of it all.
I remember, for example, the thrill of steaming along the M4 with my friend James in his old white Renault 4, bound for the agricultural show ground at Reading. Ah! the sense of anticipation as we joined the throng from the car park to the stage; as we later ate our sandwiches while waiting in our few square feet of trampled grass for John McLaughlin’s latest permutation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to appear on stage. It’s funny that someone as obsessed with music as I am should remember all that much more vividly than the music itself. I suspect that it will be much the same for my girl.
Well, in talking to Dan, Dan the graphics man and a couple of others whose opinions I value, it seems that, in studiously avoiding the opening ceremony, I missed something rather good: more humorous than bombastic and quite far from an attempt to out-Bejing the Chinese. Maybe I shouldn’t be so pleasantly surprised. After all, London’s had its time in the sun and even its reputation as a global financial capital is now tarnished by scandal, so what else have we to hold up to the world but our good old quirky British sense of humour? We will always at least be so Breeteesh. Nevertheless, the idea of spending 25 million or so to project simply this at a time when so many good causes are being systematically starved of funds seems quite obscene.
Before riding off into the sunrise and leaving Charles to finish off his wall in peace, my interlocutor came up with an idea that seems very sensible. Why not write off Athens’s Olympic debts and at the same time spare other ambitious capitals around the world endless financial servitude by holding each Olympic games in their place of origin? In the process, it would give a quadrennial fillip to the Greek economy. You know it makes sense. (Far too simple and sensible, though, for our political masters.)
Of course, in returning to the days of the original Olympian spirit and an era when tricoteuses would direct their sheep to trim the roadsides, the athletes would have to strip down to bare essentials and perform their feats in the nip. It would certainly help to revive my flagging interest in women’s track and field.