I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

Part 2.
O.K., so you're not a celebrity; maybe also, like me, you're not young, slim nor beautiful either? In which case, please read on to find out how to publish that book you've always wanted to write.
How to approach a reputable literary agent

Reputable is the key word here. The best way is to choose a selection of such agents from the 'Writers' and Artists Yearbook' (published by A. C. Black) on writersandauthorsyearbook.com. Click on Search, then on Agents. It only includes agents who are members of the AAS authors' association, and who do not charge a reading fee. You can choose from agents around the world, but if you're from the UK it's best to stick to those in the UK, and vice versa if you're from the US. If any agent you approach charges you money, then they're not reputable so avoid them like the plague. Each agent's own website includes their preferred submissions method, but in general here's how to approach them: 1. an email enquiry, or a letter, with a brief description of your book; 2. if they say yes, then send by standard mail a covering letter, a one-page synopsis of your finished book, plus the first 3 chapters (word-processed in double-line spacing, right-justified, with each page numbered). Don't even think of emailing your wondrous manuscript to them. Most won't open email attachments. Then, you pray. I'm sorry to report that even the best ones can take as many as 8 weeks to reply, and some don't bother to reply at all!
It's a real jungle out there. Remember: most agents receive hundreds of unsolicited mss every week, so your submission will not be their top priority. And don't even think of approaching publishers directly. They no longer accept any enquiries or submissions from unsolicited authors, preferring their associated agents to do the hard slog of editing, selecting and weeding-out the inferior for them. It's a hard fact of life but all are more interested in their already-contracted clients. So, only those of you with supreme staying power will last the distance.
Next week, I'll tell you what to do if the above methods have singularly failed (i.e. you approached zillions of agents 6 months ago, and none has replied - been there, done that, and worn the T-shirt!).
................................see Part 3 next Sunday on how to recognise the difference between the vanity press, POD, and reputable self-publishing sites.

29th November 2008

Yesterday we were visited by a charming couple from Cap Breton in Novia Scotia, on the north-eastern tip of Canada. With a name like Cap Breton, I wondered at its French origins as I knew that it's some distance away from Quebec and the bilingual French-speaking residents there. Our visitors told us that Novia Scotia is actually an island, now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Delving a little deeper, it seems that centuries ago the island saw active settlement by France when it was included in the colony of Acadia. The French originally named the island 'Île Royale' and it remained part of colonial France until it was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Eventually Britain merged the island with its adjacent colony of Nova Scotia (present day peninsular Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).
I find it difficult to get my head around how the modern world deals with all the European colonial 'acquisitions' from the past. It made me think of the Falklands crisis, when Britain felt so stirred up about a tiny island thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic. What has that part of the world got to do with Britain now? The same could be said for Gibraltar, and similarly many of the 'French' islands around the world. (But not the Middle East, whose residents can trace their roots right back to the beginning of time). If I were the British PM or the French President today, I would hand back all colonial 'acquisitions' of the past, such as the Falklands or Martinique, to the nearest geographical nation and give free rights of living to current dwellers, in exchange for some sort of trade agreement between both participating nations.
But then, I'm not the PM or the President, so I'll just have to go back to being a humble writer with attitude. Must say, though, it felt good to sign a copy of 'Paradis' to my new fans from Novia Scotia. Long may it continue.
................Don't miss tomorrow's (Sunday's) serial: 'I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published'.

28th November 2008

As part of the global economic crisis, which just seems to go on and on, it is revealed that France's unemployment level has just risen to over 2 million. The unemployment rate in France is calculated on a quarterly basis and came to 7.2 percent of the workforce in the second quarter, according to the national statistics institute INSEE. But the government and analysts warned a recession in Europe's biggest economy would soon be putting even more people out of work.
But the internet is a marvellous tool. It allows someone like me, living in the isolated countryside of S.W. France, to supplement my meagre(!) pension by registering for a site called PeopleperHour.com. When I retired here, I thought I was finished with work for ever and ever. Yet, this site provides quite a stimulus for a writer like me. It requires me to bid for any project that appeals to me and to quote either a fixed-fee or a per hour rate. So far, I have bid for 7 projects, including a book reviewer, blog-writer (!), greetings-card verse compiler and many more....... As this is all very new for me, I'll report soon on how successful or not I've been.
A couple of decades ago, when I was working as an administrator at a major redbrick university in the UK, I hated having to learn how to use, first, a BBC wordprocessor, then an AppleMac, swiftly followed by the advent of the PC. (Back then I wanted to stay in the comfort zone of my beloved IBM golfball typewriter. How times change!) But now I'm really grateful that I was forced to learn, because I now can't do without it. It really provides that essential link with our current lives and the world outside.
C'est merveilleuse!

27th November 2008

It is now one year since the traffic accident that cost the lives of two teenagers when their motorbike collided with a police car in a place called Villiers-le-Bel, a suburb of Paris. Amazingly, the protests that followed it are still going strong now. I still remember all the unrest that followed, when a hundred police officers were injured and several shops and buildings were burned. Six inquiries have been launched into the incident but to date none have been concluded. As in all countries, the judiciary moves at only one pace: dead slow.
But the interesting point for me was how, on the one hand, the poor families of the deceased seek to justify that their children should have been left alone to do whatever criminal action they wished, whilst on the other hand, the police seek to justify that they are above the law and can do as they please on the roads. "The police car, which was traveling without warning lights or signal and above the legal speed limit, could have posed a danger to anyone", said Jean-Pierre Mignard, the lawyer for the victims' families. Well, yes. Lawyers seem to be able to say or do anything in our courts, displaying a marked abililty for acting and obfuscation - in fact, anything that promotes their cause and bank balance, irrespective of whether real justice is seen to be performed.
In the year since the incident, the state has contributed 6.4 million euros to reconstructing a school and a library that were damaged in the unrest. The destoyed Louis-Jouvet library has now been replaced by a new one, the Aimé-Césaire, which opened in September.
And in the future? Will anything change between anarchic young people, hapless keystone cops, and money-grabbing lawyers? On verra. We'll see, but I doubt it.

26th November 2008

Back in May, whilst basking in the Mediterranean warmth, we decided to make sure that the coming winter wasn't filled with steamed-up windows, running with condensation. Yes, that's right, we ordered double-glazing. But, comme d'habitude, we found that the system doesn't work as we'd expected. At the time we thought we'd been clever: get the work done in the summer so that we don't freeze whilst the house is temporarily windowless and doorless. Well, it's now six months later and finally the window man has arrived to do the job! Yes, whilst the temperatures are plummeting alarmingly outside. But, we have to admit - he knows his stuff. He works fast and efficiently, fitting the new doors and windows with an ease that shows he is a true artisan.
I asked him how long it had taken him to learn his trade. His reply? 15 years. The French apprenticeship system puts the UK system to shame. Many young people in France look forward to starting work and learning a trade and the vast majority who don't go on to higher education enter an apprenticeship or another form of vocational training. Few schoolleavers go directly into a job without it. The French apprenticeship scheme is rightly recognised as one of the best in the world. It's a combination of on-the-job training and further education, where 1/2 days per week are spent at an apprentice training centre (centre de formation d'apprentis/CFA). A standard apprenticeship lasts from 1-3 years, depending on the type of profession.
So, do we want to go back to the English double-glazing hype of 'you buy one, you get one free' (BOGOF) ? In a word: no. BOGOF is correct! We may have had to wait an eternity for the Frenchman to arrive, but when he did, the job was done amazingly well. Yet another example: c'est la France.

25th November 2008

It seems that the current hullabaloo about standards and advertising on the BBC is spreading to France too. I, personally, have never understood why the British licence fee was set up to cover the costs of the BBC, but that viewers wishing to view only the commercial channels still have to pay the fee.
Now, French deputies are meeting to examine plans to reform French public broadcasting. The planned law has been controversial since the announcement of Nicolas Sarkozy to halt advertisements on French TV, which is publicly owned, as from Jan 5. Apparently there is to be a vote by the National Assembly on Dec 9, but so far, whatever Nicolas wants, Nicolas gets.
Up until now the public channels in France have been allowed to raise 25% of their revenue from advertising. However, limits have always been imposed on the amount of TV advertising, which may not average more than 6 mph per day, with a maximum of 12 m in any single hour. A TV licence (rédevance sur les postes de télévision) is required by most TV owners in France, costing currently around 120 euros a year for a colour set. The licence fee covers any number of TVs (owned or rented), irrespective of where they’re located in France. Even if you bring a UK set to France and intend only using it to watch videos, you must still have a valid licence. The current method is for the taxe d’habitation (residence tax) bill to include as standard the licence fee, making it far more difficult to dodge paying it. Damn! It’s called inertia selling (‘invented by a Scotsman,’ says H – ‘in Ayrshire’), forcing the few who don’t possess a TV to actively claim back the licence fee tax.
We'll just have to wait and see what happens if the new bill goes through, but my guess is that, as usual, the poor old viewer will have to pay more. Tant pis (too bad).

24th November 2008

Many of you familiar with my blogs lately will know that I'm not a great advocate of celebrity for its own sake. Fame should come from extraordinary feats of skill or bravery, especially for life-time achievements. When I look at Britain's new year's honours lists, for example, I gnash my teeth in frustration at the number of so-called celebrities who have achieved fame simply by their looks or being in the right place at the right time.
It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that I heard of two well-deserved honours for a woman called Simone Veil. It's not often we hear of someone being awarded not only a British damehood but also be elected to the Académie Française, the centuries-old body that acts as guardian of the French language.
Her story is remarkable. She was born in Nice in 1927. Her family was sent to Auschwitz during WW2, where most of them perished. At the age of 18, Veil began studying law and preparing for a life in politics. When she became Minister of Health in the goverment of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1974, Veil helped to legalise abortion. She was then elected first female president of the European parliament in Strasbourg and, in 1998, she was instrumental in pushing for a treaty to establish a constitution for Europe.
What a story! Not many of us who were belittled by Germany during the war, would then set about rising the ranks and personally achieving miraculous results during a lifetime's work. At the age of 81, here is one lady who truly deserves her honours.
Now we have a black President, who represents thousands of downtrodden slaves in America's past, I will look for a future Jewish or Gypsy leader of Germany. Having seen what Veil has done, anything is possible.

I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!

For those of you who wish to write your own novel, but have not yet ventured into the murky waters of publishing, here is a cautionary tale. The literary world is governed by the literary agent. What they say is paramount. Publishers themselves no longer receive manuscripts directly from aspiring authors, preferring to have the preliminary selecting and editing done by allied agents, and the agents themselves are so highly-selective it is almost impossible to break through the ranks.
So, how to get yourself noticed? Rule number one: you need to be a 'celebrity', young, thin, famous and beautiful. If, like me, you score dismally in any of these 'required' fields, then another tack is required. No longer is a veritable work of art, your masterpiece, judged solely on its own individual, literary merit. This has been proven by an experiment run by a leading newspaper in which several past classics, e.g. works of Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare etc., have had their character names changed for obfuscation, then sent to leading literary agents. The result? All were rejected! Clearly, these classics did not have sufficient modern 'celebrity' status to merit further reading.
The music industry, too, is full of young beautiful people, dressed amazingly, dancing attractively, but with absolutely no singing talent whatsoever!! Ever since John Lennon asked his audience to 'rattle their jewellery', the old values have gone. No longer does one respect one's elders, nor does one recognise individual merit if it's allied to someone not fitting the 'celebrity' rules posted above.
As in most industries, the literary agents' world is full of charlatans. The best website I have found is the writersservices.com site, listing the reputable manual 'The Artists and Writers Yearbook'. All the agents listed there are members of the reputed Authors' Association (AAS), and you can search therein for the genres you need, with full contact names, addresses and websites. However, many of these agents state that they are not looking for new writers, and of the ones who do, many will not answer so-called 'unsolicited' approaches, emailed enquiries nor emailed submissions! It appears that each agent's working priority is their own already-contracted clients. All new mss received are put in a giant 'slush pile', to be read by a junior member. Hardly any priority is given to them at all. I suspect that many are simply ditched, and of the remainder, only the first few lines are read, if at all.
So, if by now you haven't become completely disillusioned, read this blog next Sunday to find out exactly how to approach these gods of the literary world. After all, you have slaved and sweated over your mss for aeons and aeons. This is not the time to make a costly mistake.
......................................See next Sunday's blog for what to do next

22nd November 2008

There's a TV programme in England called 'I'm a celebrity - get me out of here', in which so-called celebrities compete against each other. Similarly, 'Strictly come dancing' is supposed to show the quality of the stars' dancing ability. Most of these shows comprise young people, but with a smattering of oldies to make up the team. What was surprising last week was how the oldest dancer by far, John Sergeant, continued to get the viewers' votes even if not for his dancing!
The only thing remotely resembling reality TV in France lately has been the socialist elections. But even here, the oldest candidate won. Martine Aubry, who gave France the 35-hour work week, edged out ex-presidential candidate Segolene Royal on Saturday to win the leadership of the opposition Socialist Party by a few dozen votes.
I suppose what I am trying to show here is that the public, at last, recognise that indefinable je ne sais quoi naturally embodied in those of a certain age. But, the public still haven't got it right in my view. We don't want the public to vote for us oldies because we seem 'cuddly' like John Sergeant, but because of the talents we have learned and honed over the years.
So, that is why tomorrow and each successive Sunday on this blog I will do a piece called 'I'm NOT a celebrity - get me published!'
You'll have to tune in tomorrow to see the first episode - don't miss it.

21st November 2008

I have often written about the many differences between urban life in the UK and rural life here in France. Noise is a case in point. None of us wants to live in a silent vacuum, but the excesses of modern-day living can reach crisis proportions to our hearing. Living in a major, busy city has consequences for all residents, from the early-morning roadworks just outside your door, to the intense decibels of that disco you attend Friday nights, or even your own alarm clock reverberating inches from your ear every single working day. It's time to stop. There are things you can do about it.
Now, the French know a thing or two about noise. For a start, they fit wooden shutters either side of every window and door. Once shut and locked at night, as well as providing perfect security, they also effectively block out insidious outside noises - like that early-morning cockerel next door! And your alarm clock? Instead of setting it to heart-attack country, use a CD model and set it to play a Chopin nocturne to lull you gently awake. And in the daytime? How to deal with that noisy dog chained up outside? In France you can apply to www.bruit.fr , who act as mediators in local neighbour disputes involving noise. If all else fails, you can even contact your local Mairie who have powers to intervene.
Voila! Problem solved. Your hearing is precious: do all you can to cut down noise levels in your own personal space.

20th November 2008

That woman with the je ne sais quoi - you know, Carla la magnifique - has been in the news again. The imminent arrival in the White House of someone with an African Muslim name has prompted a new campaign for racial integration, supported by the President's wife.
Under the Obama (or Bob the Builder!) slogan "oui, nous pouvons" (yes we can), the manifesto points to the "cruel contrast" between France's racially divided society and the lesson of inclusion that came from the US. Bruni says that she loves multi-ethnic France and that it is time to "help the elite to change". The Obama election has spurred young descendants of non-white immigrants to drop their given names - which their parents gave them to help them integrate - and claim new ones from their Arab/African backgrounds.
Names are a serious matter in France. Until a reform in 1992, parents could only register their babies with prénoms that were on an official list. Even now, to change a first name, you have to file a request with the local prosecutor's office and often argue your case before a judge. But now the trend in which Louis, Laurent or Marie want to become Abdel, Said or Rachida has connotations directly contrary to the French desire for integration of all immigrant groups.
And my opinion? If you choose to live in a different country from your own, do as the Romans do.

19th November 2008

As others of the 'baby-boomer' generation will have noticed, changes in society have followed us all along our life's journey. But have you also noticed that scientists often spend a lot of time, effort and cash to come up with a result that we knew all along? 'New' research from the national statistical institute has found that the French are happier in their mid-sixties than at any other time of their lives. Enjoyment of life goes downhill from the age of 20 and reaches a trough when people reach 50. Then la joie de vivre kicks in just before retirement age and builds to a peak in the late sixties. Good! That suits me fine. The researchers, via Insee, the statistics institute, produced their study from annual surveys since 1975 by the E.U.'s Eurobarometer agency. The downward trend to midlife misery is broadly matched around Europe. The sixties "are an age when leisure time, health and good income come together," the report says. Yes: that's why I wrote my 'Paradis' book.
The happiness curve suggests a correlation here: France offers earlier and better-paid retirement to its citizens than any other big European state. The French in their sixties report greater happiness than most other Europeans. So early retirement makes people happy. Wasn't it the philosopher Mill who said that we should all pursue personal happiness, so long as it doesn't harm others.
But what's this I read today? M. Sarkozy now wants to raise the retirement age to 70! 'You can't use a "pay-as-you-go" system if the number of workers is decreasing relative to those who are retiring.'
So here we go again. Some people never learn.

18th November 2008

One of the things we really like about living in France is the excellent health care. So, it was with chagrin that I learned of a planned healthcare shake-up in 2009. The Health Minister, Roselyn Bachelot, wants every hospital in France to have its own manager with its own individual budget. Non, non, non! She's only got to look across the Channel to see what a disaster that idea has been. Why do 'new suits' always want to change everything? If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
The other day I read with sorrow of the death of the young actor, Guillaume Depardieu, who was the son of actor Gerard Depardieu. He was only 38. Despite the otherwise excellent health care in France, he died in hospital from pneumonia following a knee injury. Have you noticed how many people seem to die of pneumonia in hospital? Frank Sinatra comes to mind. Now, you wouldn't think that someone would die of pneumonia in a place like L.A. Could it be that the drugs that hospitals dispense around the world are just TOO STRONG? Could it be that the medicine is worse than the original complaint? The too-strong drugs override the body's natural immunity and cause you to die of something ridiculous like pneumonia, which you would never have contracted at home. As my brother always says: keep away from hospitals, don't take drugs, let your body recover from colds all on its own, and you'll live long!

17th November 2008

This morning, France's newspapers have banner headlines: Prepare yourself for a week of strikes which will disrupt public services. Where have I heard all this before? It was decades ago when a very different Conservative leader was elected into 10 Downing Street that the same problem reared its ugly head. The UK was then labelled the 'sick man of Europe'.
Now the disease has reached these shores. France is bracing for a week of transport and public sector strikes affecting rail transport, schools and postal services as unions launch a spate of campaigns against the proposed labour reforms of its new President. Hundreds of domestic and international flights were cancelled for a third day on Sunday as Air France pilots pursued a four-day strike, due to end later today. Tomorrow, French train drivers stage the first of two strikes over freight sector reforms and on Thursday, demonstrations by teachers over budget cuts threaten school closures. As though this weren't enough, next Saturday postal workers say they will strike for a day over partial privatisation plans.
Give me a break! When will people ever learn? It's the old political divide all over again. A new leader is elected on a ticket of reform, only to subsequently suffer the consequences by petty, selfish, groups out to maintain their own insular aims at the expense of the whole nation's more global wishes.
All this worries me of course. There's another new leader the other side of the Atlantic. Let's hope, after the honeymoon is over, that he doesn't suffer the same as President Sarkozy (and Margaret Thatcher before him) as his new idealistic policies start to bite.
Until we learn from history, we are set to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I told you I was ill!


I shook my head from all this past reverie and put my mind to the job now in hand. We had the French attestation (paper confirmation) so went along to our local doctor in the next village. His office was situated on the Place de la République, over the railway line with its frightening red and white barriers permanently at half-mast, over the picturesque bridge shading the river Seye, and then left at the little lane by the expensively-lit pharmacie.
In the salle d’attente waiting room were seated three other people, all elderly. We entered, wishing them all a bonjour, as is the custom. We refrained from the usual ça va? (asking how they were) because clearly if they were all right, they wouldn’t have been there. We looked around for a receptionist, but evidently such an officious person, so beloved back home, wasn’t required here. We waited. Soon, the doctor breezed in, issued bonjours to us all, then welcomed the next in line into his surgery.
I tried to make polite conversation with the lady sitting on my right.
‘Monsieur le docteur, il est un bon docteur?’ (Is he a good doctor?)
‘Mais oui,’ (of course) shaking her head at such a stupid question.
I shut up and concentrated on translating the several posters pinned to the walls. As I was neither pregnant nor likely to be suffering from Aids, I didn’t bother attempting to read further. When the time eventually came for us to go in, I shook hands with the doctor and explained as best I could that I had come as translator for my husband. He nodded and ushered us into his surgery.
‘What has brought you to my surgery this morning?’ he enquired politely, whilst punching up some details on his PC.
‘Our Citroën C4!’ said H, quick as a flash.
Nothing wrong with his humour then.
The doctor looked puzzled, as well he might. However, we have hit upon a useful introductory phrase, which always seems to work. ‘J’ai mal au…….,’ (I've a pain here....) pointing to the offending part of the body. Soon the offending leg was being prodded, pummelled and the knee hit with a hammer. The doctor looked, then gravely pronounced:
C’est normal pour un homme de votre âge.’ (It's normal for a man of your age).
‘But, my other leg is just the same age, and that one doesn’t hurt.’
The doctor grunted several times, making copious notes into a file, before telling me that it was best if we sought a second opinion at the local Hôpital Chartreuse in yet another town, Villefranche de Rouergue.
‘Why do we need a second opinion, when we don’t know the first yet?’ said he logically.
‘Shh,’ said I resignedly.
The Hôpital Chartreuse proved clean, friendly and efficient. I had decided, whilst there, to take up the offer for me to have a mammogram. The French health service, rather like the NHS, invites all ladies over fifty to have a free test and as I had undergone this procedure several times in the UK I didn’t think it would be a problem. However, I had forgotten that tiny problem of language.
‘Please fill in this form,’ said the receptionist.
I glanced quickly at it, but was puzzled.
‘Why does it ask me for the name of my daughter? How did you know I had a daughter?’
‘I don’t understand, madame.’
‘See, here,’ said I pointing to the first line. ‘Nom de jeune fille…’ (young girl's name)
‘No,’ she explained resignedly. ‘We need you to put the name you had before you were married.’
I felt foolish. And the feeling persisted right into the consulting room. The nurse gabbled something quickly before leaving the room. Did she say I was supposed to undress? What if she didn’t say that and then I am led in my nakedness along a public corridor? Oh God, why ever did we come to a foreign country…?
But once I had at last finished with my radiology, and I was thankfully pronounced fit and well, we proceeded to the Physiology Department, where H’s treatment proceeded much better. The Korean doctor we saw there was charm personified. I explained as best I could H’s leg problem, furnishing the doctor with the usual difficult-to-read note from our own doctor. He got straight down to business, asking if the patient could lie down on the narrow, short (!) bed (all Frenchmen are short) whilst he did several tests on H’s nerves and muscles. At some point the doctor unravelled a long cable with a needle on the end. I thought I’d better say something.
Uh, mon mari n’aime pas les aiguilles.’ (My husband doesn't like needles). This translates medically as either ‘my husband has a low pain threshhold’ or more realistically ‘my husband is a coward.’ Either way, the doctor seemed to catch on straight away. He told me that as soon as he was about to puncture the patient’s foot with the long needle, I should divert his (not the doctor’s) attention. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this, but waited for him to nod, before suddenly coughing. My cough was followed instantly by a howl of pain from the unfortunate patient.
The doctor said that in his professional opinion the difficulties with the leg stemmed from problems in the lower back and the fact that H wasn’t getting any younger. I translated. To which H replied: ‘it’s not younger I want to get, but older...!’
Anyway, the doctor pronounced that the problem with the leg was nothing too serious that could not be corrected by the purchase of a bicycle.
‘See,’ I told H, ‘it’s what I’ve always thought:
He says you’re to get on your bike!'

15th November 2008

Writing occasionally allows me to be creative and, sometimes, to do something extraordinary.
Earlier this week The Telegraph had a piece on Clint Eastwood's film career. "The main thing is I'm a storyteller," he says. "I ask myself, 'Is this the kind of story I would be interested in seeing?' If the answer is 'yes', then I go with it."
As he has aged he has branched out into more forgiving roles which allow him to use his age as a plot device. "I like heroes that have a personal flaw or an obstacle they have to overcome," he says. "Those are the kind of characters I can relate to. Besides, I'm too old to be playing a young character doing things nobody would believe."
Whilst reading this, I thought instantly of the perfect role for him. A while ago the actor was awarded the coveted Legion d'Honneur by the then French President Jacques Chirac. In his acceptance speech the actor said that his lifelong desire would be to make a film in France. At 78, Clint Eastwood would be ideal to play the part of Philippe Petain in my novel 'Je ne regrette rien' (ISBN 978-1-84753-366-1). The role would have all the elements that suit his style: a man beset by inner feelings of guilt and anxiety but determined to do what he considered right for his country. So, I did something extraordinary. I sent him a copy of my novel.
So, come on Clint, MAKE MY DAY!

..........Don't miss Part 3 of 'I told you I was ill' tomorrow

14th November 2008

I like a country with four definite seasons. Like the raging waters of our local river, the constantly moving seasons tell us that time is moving on and we must enjoy our lives.
It's now mid-November, time to use what I like best about the winter: our wood-burning insert stove. There's nothing like a real fire. It takes me back to my childhood, a time before central heating, when everyone had a coal-house outside and you learned how to light the fire using twists of newspaper and pyramids of wood-twigs, to allow the air to flow underneath.
In modern-day France, around 7 million homes use wood for heating (chauffage au bois) even though wood can be expensive. People generally order ready-sawn logs directly from wood merchants - if you can understand them. In my experience they speak French like nothing I've ever heard before....a sort of grunting dialect, that suddenly becomes transformed into something comprehensible the minute that money is discussed. They usually charge around 35 euros per cu.m. The trouble is, they won't deliver unless you order a lorry load - and we don't always need that much (because our insert supplements our already-expensive gas central heating). So, what to do? Yes, you've guessed. I send Him indoors out at dead of night to our local forest. He takes with him the wheelbarrow (after carefully oiling it to stop any creaking - the barrow, not him) and comes back with all the fallen branches he can fit into the load. He says he's branching out. It may not be entirely legal, but what the hell. It's free and nearby. After all, almost a quarter of France is covered by forest. And if he's stopped by the Mairie? The usual je ne comprends pas generally suffices.

13th November 2008

Despite the current recession there are still UK people looking to start a gite business in France. For those with money, the dream is to buy a rambling old stone farmhouse, convert the many dependances into individual gites, and for the owner to live in the main house permanently to oversee things. For the less-affluent, what they seek is a buy-to-let mortgage, but not all French lenders will offer mortgages for this type of purchase because they see it as essentially a business venture. However, some do, taking future income from the business into account. They will, however, typically want at least 30% deposit up-front plus all legal costs, together with a business plan and projected income figures to work out the level of permitted borrowing.
If all this seems daunting in this climate, never fear. Help is at hand. Apparently, if you can find someone else to run the gite in your absence (e.g. an agent), while you continue working in the UK, the deposit requirement would be considerably reduced as the borrower would be deemed less reliant upon the gite income. And, because you would still be working, your UK income would be taken into account so raising the mortgage amount you could borrow.
Even non-married partners can secure a joint-mortgage in France - as can friends and colleagues - but to be able to use joint incomes as collateral, non-married partners must have secured a French pacs agreement. Friends, siblings or colleagues, however, would need to prove that they could afford to service the whole mortgage should the others default.
Still scary though!
Think I'll stay with what we've got. May not be much, but it's all ours - every euro's worth.

12th November 2008

Whilst President Nicolas Sarkozy was yesterday laying a wreath at Verdun, we decided to attend a much smaller ceremony in the heart of our own village. In France, national days are always held on the actual date, rather than on the nearest Sunday or Monday, as in the UK. It's always difficult to know what time to attend, as the Maire has to perform the same ceremony at each village in his commune. So, at around 10.30 a.m., and wearing black coats, we walked up our lane, avoiding the enticing aromas emanating from the boulangerie. Although every other shop was closed all day, it being a national holiday, the boulangerie was open as usual. And so the temptation continues.......
Crossing over the main road - not a car in sight - we ambled down past the crumbling facade of our ancient castle, and approached the place which houses the bronze figure of the unknown soldier. It is a tiny, garlanded, site with the tricolour flag at half-mast. Fortunately there is a bench as nothing moves fast in France. At around 11.30 a.m. the Maire arrived direct from the ceremony at nearby Verfeil. In previous years the service has been heralded by an accordionist playing la marseillaise. But it seems that this unfortunate gentleman had now died, so the music had to be played on a portable music player instead. Domage. As we looked at the faces around us, we were pleased to see a good proportion of English. I think it's so important to try to integrate, and what better way than to attend a ceremony commemorating when both countries fought side-by-side.
After the ceremony, Him indoors (especially) was pleased to discover that the Maire had sponsored drinks at the village's only bar, le cafe sport. But for me? I'm not much of a drinker. One glass of wine is the most I can take at any one time - unless it's champagne of course! But it seemed that Pernod was the proffered drink. Uggh! Still, chacun a son gout. (Everyone to his own taste).
At least we've done our duty this year.

11th November 2008

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
John McCrea

On the day when France celebrates the 90th anniversary of the end of WW1, a government-commissioned report says France should cut back on the number of official memorial days. As you can imagine, this statement has created conflict all on its own!
On the one side are war veterans everywhere, horrified at the very thought that the world should forget all those who fell during both world wars.
On the other side are those who say there are already 11 other national days in France. "It is not healthy that within half a century, the number of commemorations has doubled," said historian Andre Kaspi. So, the report recommends retaining Armistice Day, the May 8 celebration to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Bastille Day celebration on July 14, relegating all the others. I, of course, agree to keep the May 8 day. But to forget 11 Nov and keep July 14? It's as if they're saying 'let's forget all those brave WW1 soldiers who gave their lives for their country, but (rather like the UK on 5 Nov) let's celebrate those lawless people who stormed the Bastille all those years ago and beheaded the monarchy via Madame Guillotine!'
In contrast, a $500,000 memorial has just been unveiled in Normandy in honour of the forgotten US Navy servicemen who took part in the D-Day landings. And WW1, fought in large part on French soil, cost more than 1.4 million French lives and remains firmly anchored in the country's memory even after the death this year of Lazare Ponticelli, its last surviving veteran.
And for the future? All those poppies will symbolically lie in the soil undisturbed for years, in the hope that no future battlefield will force us to look fully at all that 'red' blood again. Amen.

10th November 2008

However wonderful it is to live in the Mediterranean region, with all that sunshine and open space, there are nevertheless worries. Especially for a pessimist like me! What if a global catastrophe occurs? What if I have a family disaster/emergency on my hands and there is no-one nearby to whom I can turn? Another thought: what if a family emergency occurs elsewhere and no-one knows where to contact me?
For all these reasons, I was pleased to see that the British Embassy have launched their new LOCATE service. British citizens, whether living permanently abroad or preparing for a trip, can now tell them their foreign address or destination so that the embassy and crisis staff can provide better assistance in an emergency such as a tsunami or terrorist attack. Then, if a major catastrophe does occur they'll have an instant record of your details so they can contact you to make sure you’re OK and provide advice. Also, it's an invaluable tool if family and friends need to get in touch with you as they can help them to find you. All British Nationals travelling and living overseas are encouraged to register, even for short trips. How do I register with LOCATE? Complete the short online registration form. Your details will be stored on a secure database which can only be accessed by staff at British Embassies or their Consular Crisis Group. You can delete the details of a trip once it has ended or if your plans change. You can even subscribe for country travel advice email alerts.
Anything to reassure worriers like me, living far away from their country of birth, is a good idea as far as I'm concerned. I'm not worried about the 'big brother' afficionados. For peace-loving, law-abiding citizens like me, I'm just happy to find something to help in a crisis situation and reduce delay and worry in times of stress for family and friends back home.

I told you I was ill!

Part 2.
Later on, the afternoon proved to us what we had always suspected: the French are a nation of form-fillers. Eventually, I was issued with un attestation from the Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie (CPAM) attesting to the fact that we were both now eligible for French medical benefits. It seemed that in practice, all French citizens pay up front for their medical costs and receive some back. The normal ratio is one hundred percent up front, and five days later, seventy percent of the cost is refunded directly to your French bank account. We still didn’t understand when we might receive our carte vitale, that all-important card that would give us credibility in our new country, but in the meantime I suppose the attestation will have to do. Mind you my inner neuroses were working non-stop. I could visualise that nightmare scenario of our lying in the road somewhere waiting for the ambulance to arrive, then groggily trying to explain to the trauma team just why we hadn’t a carte vitale but that we had got a vital piece of paper that was probably in my handbag somewhere!
Of course, if we hadn’t been residents and merely visiting the country, we could have applied for a CEAM card, which gives visitors the benefits of European-wide health insurance. But we had to come to terms with it. We were now bone-fide residents and must deal with the issues involved.
On the plus-side, it was clear that the standard of hospital treatment in France is second to none, and we were told there are virtually no waiting lists for operations or hospital beds. Apparently public and private medicine operate alongside one another with no difference in the standard of care between them. Everyone tells us that the quality of health care and facilities in France is among the best in the world, and much private treatment costs considerably less than back home. If ever we develop cataracts, for example, the cost of private treatment would be around nine hundred pounds sterling here, compared with three thousand pounds in the UK. Enough said.
However, our neighbour Franck told us that la France has long been a nation of hypochondriacs, famously satirised by Molière in Le Malade Imaginaire. He told us that he reckoned the French visit their doctors more often than most other Europeans and buy large quantities of medicines, health foods and vitamin pills. This must be why, in nearly every run-down dilapidated village we have driven through, the pharmacie looks the most modern, expensive building in the place.
H looked thoughtful. ‘The French must be hypochondriacs; I mean, everywhere I look are adverts for Piles.’
‘No!’ I told him horrified. ‘Those aren’t adverts for haemorrhoids; piles is the French word for batteries!’ I just knew that this foreign language thing would get us into trouble.
When Franck told us that the incidence of heart disease in France is among the lowest in the world because of the high consumption of red wine, my resident alcoholic’s face lit up. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?
We both wondered, though, why the NHS couldn’t operate in the same manner as the French health service. It seems obvious to everyone except the UK government that the increasing size of the population can no longer sustain a completely free health service. Some sort of charge needs to be levied on all wage-earners. We thought long and hard about the difficulties we had always experienced with English hospitals. The problem seems to lie not in the staff, who always appear surprisingly cheerful in the circumstances, but with the fabric of hospital buildings built in another time with a different set of values. No longer are staff in English hospitals prepared to scrub floors on their hands and knees, preferring modern polishing machines instead. Hospital clinicians seem conditioned to rely on modern antibiotics to kill germs absorbed internally by their patients, rather than the preventative, old-style carbolic administered liberally on floors and walls to disinfect the building rather than the patient. I just don’t know why the British put up with such a system. Closing all the old Victorian hospitals and building new, purpose-built buildings capable of maintaining high levels of surgical cleanliness would be a start. The hospitals everyone loves are not the bricks and mortar that hold them together, but the people who actually serve within them. These caring people will still be there in newer, cleaner and more hygienic surroundings. It is the very least staff should expect and what patients deserve, particularly in times of crisis. And if all this requires wage-earners to contribute more, then so be it. It would be worth it.
......to be continued next Sunday

8th November 2008

The French are no different to others around the world in harboring resentment for years and years, sometimes deep within themselves. Take last Tuesday. Thirty people were arrested and three police officers wounded after a protest against European immigration policy turned violent in the French city of Vichy. This was the town that was the shamed capital of France's horrific WW2 experiences, and locals have never forgotten that time.
The world tries to move on, and indeed brave organisers tried to reinvent the town by hosting its first international conference there since the war so that they could shake off their wartime stigma and become a popular spa resort once more. But several busloads of militants had other ideas, with many linking current French policy to that of the pro-Nazi past.
I have often thought that too much of what happened during WW2 has been airbrushed away by nations (especially Germany) who wish only to forget what happened and to move on to what is happening today. What they fail to realise is that by pushing all those wartime attrocities into a locked compartment - things that changed families' lives for ever - people can never be free of the memory.
My solution would be to hold an international conference, but not one on immigration. My proposed agenda would be to confront all the international issues that arose in the years immediately preceding WW2 and trace the individual events that happened, one by one, that led to what happened in that fateful holocaust. It's never one thing, but many - sometimes coming together by chance - that cause eventual disaster. Having a megalomaniac at the helm of a non-democracy is one!
Sometimes you have to confront a festering boil, even one that has been fermenting for over 60 years, and probe deep within to see how it happened before lancing the boil once and for all. A quick clean cut. At a stroke then we learn to recognise how atrocities happened so that they may never happen again. Then, and only then, can proper healing take place.

7th November 2008

Oh wad some power the gifte gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion.
- Robert Burns, 1786

There are many French who see every setback as part of an international conspiracy (naturally concocted by les Anglo-Saxons) to rob France of its jobs. So how do intending English expats who are below pensionable age and therefore need to work, deal with this situation?
One such was Clive Cummings who, with his wife Tanith and four children, decided to spend 5million euros setting up a restaurant and hotel in Burgundy. With his English accent and poor grasp of French, he knew it would be a challenge. You can say that again! But worse - what he didn't realise was that his property would be covered in graffiti, protesters would gather at his gates, his children would have to endure snide remarks at school, and planners vowed to pull his property down. Despite trying to ingratiate themselves into the community by enrolling the children in local schools and employing a young French chef, Olivier Elzer, the hostility continued. The problem was never his closest neighbours, who were charming and supportive. It was those who lived "further afield" who were against their living and working there, so he had to fight. What would Winston Churchill have said: We will fight them on the beaches......
But, all that was in 2005. Today, after buying and converting the 900-year-old Abbaye de la Bussiere, near Dijon, the restaurant now boasts a Michelin star and the hotel is listed in the prestigious Relais & Chateau guide.
So, what's the moral of this story? In this global world, we must stop living 'in the box' of our own countries and mindsets and try to help and understand those who bravely come amongst us.
Just as Robbie Burns said all those years ago: Oh to see ourselves as others see us.

6th November 2008

Now that the global excitement of the last few days has begun to die down, I look again to matters closer to home. Through our blurry windows, the rain outside continues to pour down by the bucket-load, washing in muddy channels down to the nearby river Aveyron. Yesterday I pulled my L.L. Bean raincoat from its hook and decided to join Him indoors and Bruno for a muddy walk down to see how high the river had reached. Several yellow inondation signs were leaning against the castle wall, ready to leap into action should the river burst its banks. Fortunately, when buying our house three years ago, we made sure our home was well out of the flood zone but you have to be prepared. The river was brown and raging in full flood, making me think of wild-water rafting. Not the time for Bruno (or us) to have a swim.
In this kind of weather, it's ideal for me to spend time writing. I've now finished my first children's novel called 'Rose' but still search for that elusive agent/publisher to represent me. In the meantime, I have self-published it on the YouWriteOn site (funded by the UK Arts Council) and it should be available for purchase by Xmas. (I'll publish the link as soon as I know it). It is the first of seven novels in which each girl has an adventure in one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. Rose goes to the Ancient Temple of Petra in Jordan, and because its motto is 'protection against enemies', timid Rose becomes strong and learns to love her own enemies. I've already started writing novel no. 2 in the series, called 'Clementine', who will be travelling to the Colliseum in Rome.

5th November 2008

There's an historic phrase in England: 'Remember, remember the 5th of November'. It was always supposed to commemorate (if that's the right word) the day when a certain Robert Catesby and Guido Fawkes plotted to change their nation's government. Fireworks and burning effigies have always been grotesquely used to remember that day. All the more amazing then that from today, the 5th November will be remembered for something else. Yes, people have campaigned to change their government; yes, enormous effort has been maintained to overthrow what many saw as an iniquitous system, and yes, a new way forward was seized upon for the country's people. The change envisaged was certainly explosive, but back then in England it failed.
The difference today? The change is in another nation, across the Atlantic; the people have changed their government, but from Republican to Democrat; the people have elected the man they see as the new JFK, one to lead them forward through all the current world difficulties. And, amazingly, the new President is the first ever black President of the USA. Martin Luther King and all the former African slaves would be jumping for joy.
And the rest of the world? In Europe, there is muted applause for the result. M. Sarkozy has publicly congratulated Obama. But as I look out this morning onto the rain-washed streets and muddy fields all around me? People will still live their lives exactly the same as yesterday. And for the future? We can only hope for a better world.

4th November 2008

On this historic day when millions of American citizens are voting for a new President to change their lives, the rest of the world holds its collective breath. There is so much desire for change to the old, traditional values. As Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand in the UK have discovered to their cost, people will no longer put up with stupid, crass behaviour in public.
In France, as people look for a lead via the public media, there is no such thing as a cheap tabloid press written with bias, with unsavoury photos of D-list celebrities, as in the UK. While many French people prefer to read regional rather than national papers, the content is very different from what the average British reader would expect. For many readers, any paper which is Paris-based, e.g. Le Monde, is too far from their own centre of interest. Another reason for the huge difference in France's media is because the French have a very different approach to decency and taste. In 2000 a new law banned the depiction of victims of crime or violence to be used by the media if it would 'jeopardise the dignity of the person portrayed'. Thankfully there is still a feeling in France whereby family values are sacrosanct and it is required by law for children to take care of their elderly relatives.
It was heartening to see that Obama left his busy election campaign to visit his sick grandmother, who sadly died before the results are known. Maybe if Obama - with his African, traditional roots - wins today, there might be a subliminal shift towards those traditional family values that everyone around the world seeks. Let's hope so because there's no doubt: what America does today, the rest of the world follows.

3rd November 2008

I was watching the highly-educated Stephen Fry on last-night's English TV. It is an interesting travelogue mini-series, commenting on each of the US States as he drives through. One particular comment he made, though, in Montana wasn't quite right in my eyes. Looking at the glacial waters in front of him, he referred quizzically to the number of detractors of global warming in the world. No-one can deny global warming is happening at the moment, even here in France. Just yesterday torrential rains forced hundreds of families to evacuate their homes in east-central France. Access to the A6, France's main north-south highway, was closed as was the A46 between Lyon and Saint-Etienne to the south. Train services in the area have been cancelled at least until Tuesday.
French regional representatives are trying to get to grips with it all by gathering against climate change in the city of Saint-Malo, in the Atlantic region of France. 'We need to take a stand against climate change', said one representative. But yet again, as with Stephen Fry, their comments grated with me. The point I'm trying to make is that no-one denies that global warming is happening; rather, it is how to deal with it that is important. My own view is that it is caused by a catastrophic natural event in our planet's solar activity, a previous one being the ice-age. So, what we need is world leaders to discuss how we can deal with its destructive effects, both after and before they happen, rather than argue interminably on its cause. Get weather forecasters to predict the worst of the weather in areas that are vulnerable and evacuate people from those areas likely to be flooded, e.g. in constantly devastated regions like Bangladesh. Use computer models to predict which coastal areas are at risk of high waters as a result of glacial melts. Look at coastal erosion around the world and compensate people living near cliff-edges to force them to move further inland. Only build houses safe distances away from such areas.
So, if you're planning to move home, don't even think of buying a house on the coast - particularly if that coast is prone to wild water, or you may find your very own real-estate reduced to just a few worthless grains of sand.

I told you I was ill

Part 1.
For a happy marriage
The husband should be deaf
And the wife blind
Old Occitan proverb

It's Summer 06. Our ancient ventilator fan has been moved into the bedroom, ready and willing to crank into life when perspiration in the middle of the night reaches that point of no return.
He who never went to the doctor back home, when everything was free, has now decided he should get his left leg checked out. It must have been whilst wearing his new French shorts that I bought from the open air marché in nearby Caussade that brought him to this momentous decision. He has been limping for more years than I care to remember, resulting in one leg having become wasted and thinner than the other one. There’s nothing like exposing all that flesh to reveal life’s imperfections. My brother once said that everyone should be like him and not wear glasses, as he didn’t want to see everyone’s spots and pimples in all their red and gory detail. But there we were. The shorts definitely revealed H’s leg problem to one and all, so a solution needed to be found.
When we were originally contemplating moving to France – or rather when I had decided and H had reluctantly agreed – I had managed to persuade the medical people at the Centre for Non-Residents in Newcastle upon Tyne that I should be issued with their E106 form. This was no mean feat, as I was pushed from pillar to post trying to get through to the correct office.
Eventually I managed to persuade them that I had been paying full national insurance contributions for nearly thirty years and surely I was entitled to something? But, of course, because I was yet to reach the magical age when I would qualify for a full pension, all they could promise me was an E106 form.
‘But, what am I supposed to do with it?’ I asked, expecting a rude reply.
‘We will send you two copies of the E106. You need to take both forms to your local sickness insurance office. Do not fill in any part of the form yourself (on pain of death!). The foreign authority will then complete part B of both forms. They will send one copy to us to confirm registration and will keep a copy themselves. Once you have registered with the foreign authority, they will deal with any claim you make for help with medical costs. They can also tell you what you are entitled to.’
‘But, you told me that my E106 will run out in January 07 – that’s eleven months before I reach sixty. What will we do then?’
‘When your E106 certificate runs out, you must make enquiries with your local sickness insurance office about the possibility of joining their sickness scheme. Then, when you actually reach sixty, you can apply to us for our form E121.’
Another form, aargh!
I put the phone down, my head reeling. So that was all there was to it, then! We didn’t even know where our ‘local sickness insurance office’ was, let alone how to ask about all this in our halting French.
I decided that the most appropriate place to ask was our local friendly pharmacie, where the helpful owner spoke some English. He told us that the office we needed was in Montauban, the capital town of our region. We thanked him and studied the map. As with all the places we needed, it was situated more than fifty miles away. This was proving the case for everything.
Once I received the all-important forms from Newcastle, we filled up the car and prepared for a long haul. As usual on our journeys we took several wrong turns, screeched via hand-brake turns off many a private piece of farmland before we took the inevitable scenic route to Montauban. The traffic in the city reminded us of back home. Narrow roads, parked cars, no time to stop and look before receiving gesticulations and impatient horns. Before coming here I had led a very sheltered life, but have now learned phrases, arm movements and swear words that I would rather not repeat.
By now our watches showed the inevitable: eleven fifty-five. Too late. No wonder French restaurants do such a roaring trade every lunch-time. Everything shuts (except restaurants) for at least two hours every weekday, just when you manage to find the place you’re looking for. There was only one thing to do. We walked into a restaurant and ordered lunch.
Continued next Sunday..........

1st November 2008

I see that even Joan Collins has taken on board the latest craze - downsizing her food bill by shopping at her local Target lo-cost shop in West Hollywood, CA. before loading up her RR outside! Le 'spending power' is the new buzz word in France too. There's a TV show over here called Combien ca coute? (How much does that cost?) on TF1 on Saturdays. So, it looks as if everyone's at it. But me? No. Not with food. As a pensioner I've learned a bit over the years. Life is precious, and our bodies are our lives. I can't understand why people think nothing of spending thousands on material goods but then stuffing their faces with cheap fast (rubbish) food. The quality of the 'fuel' which drives our bodies means that our bodies (i.e. our lives) will last that bit longer. The French have traditionally always understood this, so I hope the new trend doesn't catch on. You see them eating out at quality restaurants before returning to their meagre little apartments in their clapped-out old cars. Correct. Does Joan Collins run her expensive car on cooking oil? I don't think so. Yet, she is apparently now content to run her own body/life on cheap 'fuel'. Where's the sense in that? You can always buy a new car/house, but not a new life. Once your body's gone, everything's gone. So, buy fresh veg, avoid frozen, and cook nutritious meals at home. Re-arrange your time and money, give less emphasis to material goods, and give greater emphasis to the things that really matter: making you live longer and healthier.
Vive le bien manger!

P.S. New serial tomorrow.