Monday, 10 October 2016

Summer 2016 - End of an Era

For the first time in 10 years of travelling to France for our summer holiday, we were not the normal band of five. No, this year we'd lost a girl and gained a boy. G was in Greece with a friend from school whooping it up post GCSE endeavours, so we filled the space in the car with E's boyfriend. It was fun to mix things up but I couldn't help feeling how it was the end of an era.

When we bought our house in the woods in south-west France back in May 2005, I knew that we would have 10 good years, all being well, of family holidays and shared memories. It was to be a place in which the girls would grow up, becoming familiar with the languid habits of a holiday in Les Landes: setting up routines, becoming comfortable with French customs, culture and language and making life-long connections with people and place. It may lack the glamour and adventure of family holidays in far-flung exciting places, but we hoped it would be a solid grounding which, the older they became, the more they would appreciate. There is something deeply reassuring for the human soul to return to the familiar. We always hoped it would become a 'home from home' and I think we have achieved that. They have the rest of their lives to globe-trot, after all.

Next year E has declared that she may only spend a couple of weeks with us and G, no doubt, will have her own plans too. People will come and go, especially with E hopefully passing her driving test soon and therefore able to get to and from airports and home without the need for complicated logistics involving ever-patient friends. The treasured five weeks of time together in a French home rather than an English one have certainly finally come to an end. I feel rather sad, but have to look beyond that selfishness and perhaps take some comfort in the fact that hopefully N and I will come to spend more time there across numerous seasons and that the girls will always want to return.

Like a dying tree which has a last flush of flower or fruit before giving up the ghost, the sun actually decided to shine in south-west France this August and we had the best weather we've had there for many years now. We woke almost every day of the four weeks (not five this year, due to the need to return for GCSE results) to blue skies rather than grey - something our sun-starved bodies and souls were yearning for. The sun was very hot, the air quite cool and the sea positively cold - quite bizarre conditions really which must have been something to do with gulf streams or jet streams but we never got round to finding an explanation. While evenings were not balmy, the days felt like true summer - but not so hot they were impossible.

We had the usual string of visitors - friends and family - including celebrating my mother's 80 years of life with my brother and mother-in-law and G's 16th. It was all very convivial with memories to treasure. The house has provided many such special moments over the last decade, for which we will always be grateful.

There was inevitably a lot of hurtling up and down the autoroute to airports - Biarritz and Bordeaux - collecting and returning everyone but we always managed to make something of it by having a special meal, a bit of shopping, or simply a change of scene.

N continued his long-established routine of doing a bit of work every day - something which still frustrates me as he never quite 'switches off' - and we jointly dealt with issues that needed sorting around the maintenance of the house and garden (specifically the problem of how to keep the wild boar out!).

For all these reasons it is never quite a holiday, but a change is as good as a rest. To be able to dip into a cool pool, feel hot sand between my toes, be tossed around by powerful Atlantic waves, read a book from time to time and have the odd sneaky snooze in the sun is a blessing and a privilege for which I am eternally grateful.

Silly selfie on the ferry...

The sun setting on Portsmouth...

G comes back to the fold from Greece with friend in tow...

The bay of Archachon...


The first week gang...

The first week gang gets bigger...

Late lunches at the beach...

Mother and Brother cooling their heels...

Just driftin'...

The Birthday Surprise for G - her best friend arrives!...


More driftin'...

Luminous Landaise light...

Sweet 16!...

Celebrating in Biarritz...

Mine's a pina colada...

So many sunsets...

Sun, sea and sand...

Having a laugh after Dax races...

Surf's up...

Wave watching...

Final sunset...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

EU Referendum - A Wider Vision

I grew up looking across the English Channel. I grew up wanting to live and work in France. I grew up learning French so I could go across the English Channel and live and work in France. When I was grown up I went to live and work in France. That was before 1993 and the formation of the European Union (until then it had been the less binding EEC), which means it was less easy for a Brit to live and work 'abroad', but it was still possible. It required some focus and dedication, but that's not such a bad thing, is it? It certainly makes you question yourself closely as to your wants and desires which, you could say, is also a good thing. In the early 1990s I went to live in Italy. This was still pre the European Union, but it was still possible to live and work there. Europe was not a closed door.

All the talk about leaving the EU being a big, scary unknown black hole perplexes me. We've lived without being part of the EU a lot longer than we've lived as part of it. Back in 1993, I sat at a dinner and, greatly daring, suggested to my learned neighbour (who's now an eminent QC) that there was more than a little irony in the fact that just as we were witnessing the very bloody break up of Yugoslavia (The Yugoslav Wars), back into its original, component countries, here we were trying to mulch a whole load of historically, culturally and linguistically independent countries into an amorphous blob called the European Union. Had we not just seen that such actions end up - whether many decades down the line or not - with a mass revolt against the political and economic ambitions of the (relatively) few? At the same time (1990-91) we were witnessing the dissolution of the USSR which, crucially, signalled the end of the Cold War. It seemed a little odd that our European political leaders were thinking that scrunching together a group of disparate countries and cultures just because they shared the same bit of Planet Earth (i.e. the Continent of Europe) was a good idea. Had they just sleep-walked through the previous few years of bloody upheaval?

I am fed up with the emphasis - on both sides of the debate - on politics and economics. Why is this not about people? The Human Factor? When will politicians learn that people - especially the British it seems - do not want to be herded and dictated to? Good, effective leadership is about suggestion and example. The European Union, in its current form, is arguably the perfect hiding place for power junkies and bullies and for otherwise no-hope politicians (I'll refrain from naming names): a big unwieldy machine where people get lost and gobbled up in the cogs and wheels and pipes and where gremlins can lurk undetected.

Globalisation - another of the key arguments in the Remain camp - needs careful scrutiny too. It is a very complex subject and has spatial, economic and social connotations. Yes, the world is better linked than ever before thanks to the massive advances in transport and technology over the last century. In that sense humanity is becoming more 'global'. Everyone can travel and communicate across the planet. Trade is easier. Migration is at an all time high. Things that could never be conceived of are now possible. People's eyes are open to all the possibilities out in the big wide world. No-one is confined these days to their village or their town or their country. People's horizons can be truly broad. But does this always breed happiness? Is it not a bit like the baby who's placed in the middle of the room because the parents misguidedly think they will like crawling around and touching everything when in reality they feel insecure and vulnerable and are much happier in the confines of a playpen with a few chosen favourite toys and in sight of their parent? It's great to globe-trot, but more often than not it's even greater to 'come home'. We all need roots. We all need stability. It's a basic human need. Too much choice creates stress and confusion. Carefully selected choice is certainly an excellent thing - but can the same be said of limitless choice? And anyway, even if you don't take this view, I don't believe that globalisation is only achievable if we stay in the EU. Arguably, a world without a European superstate, would actually widen horizons still further and encourage ambitious people and adventurers to take their skills further afield, beyond the comfort of the Eurozone.

If I sound dangerously like a 'Little Englander', this in fact could not be further from the truth. I have never felt particularly 'English' (whatever that is) and am chameleon enough to embrace living in different cultures. However, it is this very experience which also teaches you how similar, yet how different, humanity can be, even within the confines of the Eurozone. I've had the most amazing times living in France, Italy and Spain - particularly living in northern Italy for four years and where my first child was born. It was a wonderful life and we made wonderful friends - Italian and multi-national - almost all of whom we are still in touch with thanks to modern mediums such as Facebook. Nevertheless, while on the one hand we never wanted to return to England, on the other hand we were very conscious that, however integrated we were, however well we spoke the language, we would never actually be Italian. We would ultimately still always be relative strangers in a relatively foreign land.

True, if globalisation and migration continues exponentially, then ultimately we should all feel 'at home' wherever we are in the world. Yet I feel this is a very, very long term ideal. It may certainly eventually happen, but I sense that The People will decide this rather than the politicians - which is what true democracy is all about. Maybe now is not quite the time; or rather, the way in which it is being presented to us is currently not palatable to all. The idea needs time to mature in people's minds and bit by bit the whole integration thing will perhaps take a more natural course. Agreed, that if we leave the EU right now, there may be a delay. Possibly a long delay. But taking stock is not such a stupid thing to do. Assess, analyse and do not be afraid. One step back may ultimately be two steps forward.

Diversification is usually what guarantees longevity (as Darwin's Origin of Species and Natural Selection prove); but such things take millennia of development and adaptation to occur. My concerns are that politicians are rushing the fusion and that there are many who just want to see it as a 'Success Story' in their own political and human lifetime which, in the vast sweep of history, is frankly absurd. If we come out of Europe now - and if others follow - this is not to say that there is no future for a united Europe. Instead it should be seen as a learning curve. The best things in life take time to mature. Why are we in such a headlong rush? Our Prime Minister went to Europe with suggestions of how things could be adjusted and he was stone-walled. Is this the right attitude for positive development of the European Union? I read it more as certain countries/politicians seeing it as a threat to their political careers as well as to their political legacy. And let us also be aware of the language: a united Europe could be a very different thing from a European Union. If we are 'united', we are usually in accord: in a 'union' there can often still be discord.

The Remain campaign has largely focused on economic disaster as their reason to stay; similarly, the Brexit campaign has been associated almost entirely with concerns over immigration quotas. Yet there will be many of us who feel neither of those things. Intelligent people will listen to both sides but ultimately draw their own conclusions from their own observations and convictions. There will undoubtedly be many who vote to leave simply because they feel the political, social and economic model isn't quite right. They will not all be fascist xenophobes causing the UK to become a marginal bit-part in the epic EU drama. Equally, there will be many who vote to stay who feel passionately that the European Union, in whatever form, is the way forward and fear that an exit vote means we will be out in the cold for ever more. While younger voters have never known a Great Britain outside the EU, older voters have. Agreed, we will not be returning to the world as it was then (which would be wholly retrogressive), but at the same time, should we feel unduly scared by the idea of being independent again? As with most things in life, you win some and you lose some: there will be losses but there will be gains. The main gain, in my view, is that we would return to being a proper democracy rather than a member of a superstate where only the most powerful seem able to have a defining voice. Perhaps the disillusionment with our politicians is associated with the fact that none of them seem to have the power any more to affect significant change.

One of the things that is being claimed by the Remain campaign, aside from economics, is that we are safer by being part of the EU. Indeed, the initial six countries that signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951, did so as a reaction to World Wars 1 and 2, in an attempt to ensure that no such horrors should take place again and in the belief that we are stronger together than apart. While this is a truism, there is also an irony in the fact that the larger the European Union becomes, the more of a threat it potentially becomes to world peace. We saw the domination of the USSR last century and it was only when it broke up that the Cold War ended: now it is the European Union that is rapidly becoming this huge geo-political entity which is flexing its muscles every time its peace and ideologies are threatened. The suggestion of a European Army alarms me more than comforts me. As western democratic ideologies gain geo-political weight, so the eastern ideologies see them as more of a threat and the territorial and ethical mistakes of World War 1 and 2 (such as the Sykes-Picot agreement), let alone those of the British Empire, come back to haunt us. Terrorism in Europe is growing exponentially: is there not a link here? Moreover, the United States wants us to remain in the European Union as it sees the EU as a buffer between it and Russia. I do not feel safer for having the USA on our 'side' - in fact I see such a stance as simply provoking the age old problem of superpowers vying for world domination in some sort of real-life Bond movie.

Indeed, the EU is arguably becoming less democratic by the day. The Individual seems to be increasingly obliterated by The Group. We have handed over the keys and our right to drive the car. People in their own countries no longer have the full weight of their vote. There are thousands of laws and regulations which they no longer have knowledge of, let alone control of. Some might argue that this is the future. This is what globalisation is all about. This may well be true, but the one factor that is being consistently ignored is The Human Factor. What makes us human is our right to choose, our right to be cognitive human beings not stupid herd animals. This is the factor that is being overlooked, and overlooked at Europe's peril (and, indeed, at the world's peril). If the UK votes to leave, perhaps this will encourage all the countries involved to take a step back and get a better overview; to analyse what works and what doesn't and not be so arrogant as to ignore those areas that are not ideal. The problem we have created is that the ability to have more lucid independent vision has been obfuscated by The European Machine. Elements of George Orwell's prescient novel '1984' are arguably happening in 2016 instead. That's quite a disturbing thought.

So what is the answer? In truth I'm not sure I know. I do believe, though, that sometimes you have to do the hard thing to end up in a better place. That may mean voting Out on June 23rd which will undoubtedly set the cat among the pigeons in the EU; but if that leads ultimately to an intelligent re-assessment of the European Union - what truly works and what truly doesn't, and how a more effective model may pave the way in some far distant future to greater union across the entire world map rather than just in Europe - then perhaps that's a dice worth rolling.

The 'Out' vote, contrary to public perception, could ultimately claim a wider vision than the 'In' vote. Now that would be a turn up for the books.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Definition of Cool

It's a funny old business when one's distinctly middle-aged accountant husband is regarded as 'cool' by the friend of your daughter whose father is, erm....a rock star.

Yes folks, bean counters are officially hip! The father of Friend of Eldest Daughter is drummer with The Verve, but it's the boring accountant who is currently being viewed as Mr Cool: fast car (a battered and bruised Audi Quattro A4 convertible 3.2 litre engine, permanently filthy, which has had various encounters with dry-stone walls due to dodgy handbreak); suit, sunglasses (actually, they're just reading glasses for failing middle-aged eyesight) and a Honda Blackbird in the garage. True, there's a slight 007 edge to the International Man of Mystery but only because we pass like ships in the night and most of the time neither he nor I have a clue what either of us is up to - wedded bliss and all that.

It seems that Turgid Predictability is still highly regarded when all I've ever wanted is to be married to a musician. Hey ho. So did I get something right after all? Are Accountants more revered than reviled? It's interesting that The Young are not despising The Dull. It gives me some crumb of contentment that there is still some respect out there in the Next Generation for hard work and dedication and not just the glamour of celebrity in this XFactor Age.

Meanwhile I must see if I can't wangle some drum lessons with the Rock Star Father. Now that would be cool.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Circle of Life

I turned the key in the ignition and the radio blared on. I would have turned it off if it hadn't been Blondie belting out 'Denis Denis', immediately followed by Abba asking to 'Take A Chance on Me'. It was Pick of the Pops from March 18th, 1978. I was hooked.

I drove out of the village in the darkness, my youngest by my side, and by the time we hit the traffic-less main road we were waiting with baited breath for the Number One that week: it was Kate Bush and her ground-breaking, rather extraordinary debut single Wuthering Heights. A new career was launched. I started wailing away in an unnaturally high voice, actually remembering the words for once, to the great amusement of L. I then went off on a riff of nostalgic explanation:-

' In 1978 I was fifteen, I'd broken my leg skateboarding the year before, I was having orthodontic work, I was madly in love with a boy obsessed with Kate Bush, and who would have thought that here I would be, 38 years on, driving around north west England, braces all over my teeth again, with my own 13 year old by my side, wailing along to Wuthering Heights'....and my daughter added, ever wry, ' 3.56 in the morning!'

The circle of life, indeed.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Sunshine and Snow

Now that the weather has turned more spring-like, this day, two weeks ago, seems a little surreal. Did we really have snow? Well, yes, we did, over the Mother's Day weekend, but it seems a lifetime ago given how the landscape has changed again since. 

It was the first proper snow of the winter, which I had feared would remain essentially snow-less. How times have changed over the years we have lived here. We would get snow every winter 10 years or so ago, but still never in the way it used to be in earlier decades when the villages and towns of the High Peak would be cut off and the snow so deep that it rose above the dry stone walls and people would ski over it's pale virgin expanses. 

A great sadness to me is that those days are long gone.  I adore the mountains, skiing, and everything that the white stuff brings - cold, bright light; fresh tingling air; a new stillness; footprints.  The other Monday - while we were hardly knee deep in the stuff -  was nevertheless a small reminder of how transformational such days can be. Going back inside the house, for once, was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I could have stayed out there forever.

Below is what I captured that day...

Monday 7th March

Today was simply exquisite: bright sunshine bursting out of a cloudless blue sky and bouncing back light from streams of melting snow and fields of frozen white. Hardly a breath of wind stirred the sharp cold air and the sound of sheep and birdsong filled my wool-clad ears. Indeed it was a day when all the senses sang and the spirit soared in sheer life-affirming joy. I do not exaggerate. It was truly so. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

And so to Como...

After a morning meeting up with an old Milanese friend and then exploring the Castello Sforzesco in glorious warm sunshine, we had a quick, atmospheric lunch in the thronging business quarter of Milan before hopping in the cars and heading up with The Godfather and Son to Lago di Como.

The Italian lakes have long held lyrical associations and never more so than when the likes of William Wordsworth and other poetic exponents of the Romantic Movement were wafting around their sublime shores:-

AND, Como! thou, a treasure whom the earth
Keeps to herself, confined as in a depth
Of Abyssinian privacy. I spake
Of thee, thy chestnut woods, and garden plots
Of Indian-corn tended by dark-eyed maids;
Thy lofty steeps, and pathways roofed with vines,
Winding from house to house, from town to town,
Sole link that binds them to each other; walks,
League after league, and cloistral avenues,
Where silence dwells if music be not there:

Young Wordsworth's obvious attraction to 'dark-eyed maids' aside, Lake Como is a natural draw for those wishing to escape the rigours of city life. Is is the third largest northern Italian lake after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore and, lying in the province of Lombardy as it does, it is the lake of choice for the Milanese (oh, and George Clooney).

Of glacial origin, Lake Como has a startling geography - a deep, dark, reflective slash between tall green hillsides ('confined as in a depth of Abyssinian privacy').  It has both drama and delight in abundance and is the perfect contrast to the more worldly pleasures of the City of Fashion, Design and Finance.

I had chosen to stay in the not-so-imaginatively named Hotel du Lac in Varenna. There are more Hotel du Lacs in the world than I've had hot dinners, but this was a little gem, and very aptly named, it has to be said. Perched on the edge of the picturesque village of Varenna, literally hanging over the eastern shore of the lake, it was all that we could have asked for. Hidden away down a minute lane off the main square (hire a small car), the car park was a challenge in itself. Once achieved, you head down some steep steps to what seems like the back door of the hotel - but the front door would require a swim. A warm welcome awaits - even though we were there on their very last night before closing for the winter season, which would have lent a charmless air to many a hotel. After terrible traffic leaving Milan, we arrived in a rush to see the sunset. Abandoning our bags in the entrance hall we threw ourselves out onto the balcony (and an unsuspecting young couple enjoying a quiet romantic drink) to capture the dying colours of the setting sun and the silhouettes of the mountains as they tumbled into the dark waters in front of us.

A glass of Prosecco inevitably followed, served charmingly by an English lady from the East End of London who came out here on a year out several decades ago and never returned, wed as she is now to the Italian she met back then. Beware those 'dark-eyed maids' (...and men, clearly).

Dinner that night was enjoyed in a lovely little restaurant called Al Prato literally two steps from the hotel in a cobbled courtyard oozing quintessential Italian lake charm and hospitality. I enjoyed three types of lake fish, all cooked differently, as it seemed appropriate but all our meals were equally delicious and took in both meat and homemade pasta all washed down with a beautiful Bardolino.

The following day dawned bright and beautiful and it was bliss to open the doors onto our little Juliet balcony and hear the lake water lapping lightly at the walls below.

I waved to The Godfather and Son who were enjoying the same vistas below us. There was nothing to do but get out there and enjoy it - which is exactly what we did.

.....but ye have left

Your beauty with me, a serene accord
Of forms and colours....

William Wordsworth
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