Category: France

Burglary and France

By , 31 July 2009 9:17 pm

I suppose if you read the last few blogs you had this vision of me writing them from a cool, damp Swansea. Well, I have to disillusion you. We have been on holiday and in fact I wrote the last three blogs together in the first week of July and had them remotely posted in our absence. I did however manage to check on my blogs reasonably regularly courtesy of my iPhone and a very dodgy and extremely expensive GPRS network. So I hope no one was terribly miffed when it took 48 hours for the answer to be posted.

You see the thing is you can hardly announce on the Internet that you’re going away on holiday for the next two weeks. All someone needs to know is where you live (and that probably isn’t too hard to find) and Mr or Mrs Badperson can break in and help themselves. Actually, you’d find it quite difficult with us as we have a very efficient burglar alarm and one or two neighbours who seem to know exactly what we are doing, even when we aren’t doing it.

We haven’t had a burglary for over ten years. What happened the only time we have been burgled is quite revealing about Swansea and doesn’t really reflect much credit on Swansea, its burglars or police. In addition to taking one or two valuable things, such as my wife’s engagement ring, the thieves helped themselves to a large part of my CD collection but apparently failed to notice that all the CDs were classical ones. I alerted the only two second-hand shops in Swansea that might conceivably take classical CDs (as you may have gathered, it’s not that sort of the town) and gave them my phone number in case some unlikely character decided to try and offload some improbable music. (You can imagine the dialogue. ‘Yeah well, I guess I’ve kinda got bored wiv late ‘em late Beethoven quartets. I know all the tunes.’ )

Rather to my surprise, a few days later, I did actually get a phone call: a couple of girls who obviously didn’t know Bach from Borodin had tried to sell a bag full at one shop and were heading to the next one. With the extraordinary glee that comes from the realisation that your own intelligence and righteousness is about to achieve a glorious victory over someone else’s stupidity and wickedness I called the police. They moved with uncommon swiftness and met the girls at the shop. Here however the achievement of the constabulary grinds to a miserable halt. The cops took the CDs off the girls on the grounds that they felt they might be stolen property, but let the girls themselves go because they couldn’t prove that they were stolen. (Me? I’d have asked them to whistle the opening bars of Beethoven Five but then I’m mean like that.) When, a day or so later, I went down to the police station I was asked to prove that the CDs were mine. At this point, I showed them that a number of them actually had my name and address on sticky labels on the back (I had lent them out to friends). Faced with this rather unwelcome but peculiarly compelling piece of evidence that they were genuinely stolen, the police then decided to search the girl’s accommodation. But by now the master burglar who had been running the show had moved on along with the loot. I was told that the girls were involved in drugs, that it wasn’t them that had done the burglary anyway and while I could press charges of them being accessories and receivers of stolen goods, the nasty man behind them would probably beat them up. So, I shrugged, committed it to divine justice, took my CDs and went home. The insurance kindly coughed up for all the other missing bits but they got their own back (they always do) by increasing premiums and insisting that we had a burglar alarm installed: which has on occasions been more trouble than it’s worth.

Anyway I digress. France was wonderful. We drove right the way down to the southeast corner, the Cote D’Azur, just above Nice. For the first week we stayed at the new centre A Rocha France have at Les Courmettes because I wanted to see how suitable it was for doing geology. We had intended to drive around the Mediterranean a way before coming back up the Massif Central but instead we found a nice warm freshwater lake with a good campsite and stayed put instead, enjoying sunshine, heat and good food. When we came back to Swansea it had been (guess what) raining pretty solidly for two weeks. As it is now. And probably will be tomorrow.

I consider myself pretty incorruptible. If someone offered me a life in the French countryside for a single night’s act of quality and competent burglary you’ll be pleased to know that I’d say no.
But slowly.

The problem of encountering excellence

By , 10 August 2008 8:46 pm

As previous posts have explained, we have just had a great holiday in France which was also something of a stimulus in many areas. Yes, I did get some notes jotted down towards new books but frankly, dear reader, I am still recovering from having produced The Infinite Day and am reluctant to commit myself to the vast number of hours of labour necessary to write the sequence I want to. (An attractive offer of a publishing company/wealthy fan/visionary could change all that.)

Anyway, while we were in France we got the chance to look at two sites in the Dordogne, that vast area of dissected limestone plateaux that drape onto the western edge of the Massif Central. The two sites were the village of Rocamadour and the small town of Sarlat and both feature highly in any tourist guide.

Rocamadour is a suite of ancient churches and chapels spilling down the steepest of slopes. It is all steps, spires and dizzying vistas down on to red roofs. At times you feel you could be in some mediaeval romance.

Even if you have very little sympathy with much of the religious elements (and I am too good a Protestant to be fond of the multitude of statues and icons) it is an awesome place. Allegedly it is the number two tourist site in France and understandably so.

Sarlat is supposed to be France’s best preserved mediaeval town. When you finally get in past the traffic you are soon in lost a tumbling maze of ancient buildings. Winding streets present a constant succession of half timbered and honeyed stone buildings with the steepest of roofs pressed together with endless and varied doorways, courtyards and arches. It is one of those places that that it belongs more on the film set than in reality.

Having visited both of these places a problem emerged. We went to what we would have once considered an attractive French town a few days later with some lovely old buildings and both concluded that sadly ‘it wasn’t Sarlat’. In other words the good had been spoilt for us by our glimpse of the excellent.

It is a phenomena I have come across before. There are three sites in the Near East of global stature: Lebanon’s Roman temple of Baalbek, Syria’s sprawling Crusader fort of Krak des Chevalier and the jawdropping city carved into rock that is Jordan’s Petra. Baalbek is the greatest Roman temple preserved anywhere; Krak the greatest castle anywhere; and Petra the greatest… well, ‘city-carved-into-rock’ anywhere.

I am grateful that having seen these things, and especially, this summer, Sarlat and Rocamadour. But they expose the danger of focusing on excellence to the point that we overlook that which is merely good. I suspect there is a spiritual lesson here. Maybe we need sometimes to turn our eyes away from superstar excellence (which, in all probability, is utterly unattainable) and focus instead on a more down-to-earth ordinary kind of goodness.

On living in France

By , 5 August 2008 8:29 pm

Anyone who travels to France cannot fail to be astonished at the number of British people there. We visited one small town where in the centre literally one in three people seemed to be British. It wasn’t just holidaymakers either: the cafes were run by Brits and there was even a fish and chip shop. Many shops had either advertisements that were either bilingual or in English alone.

Which raises the question: what is so attractive about France to Brits? The answer seems to be that it is no single thing. An almost universal attraction is that the weather is so much better. And here one can sympathise: for instance in Swansea we have had heavy rain for the last two days with not a glimpse of the sun. Other people like the food and the cheap wine.

Still others relish the fact that you can buy a large property relatively cheaply. Certainly it seems to be a cheaper place to live than the UK. There are other things: for people of my age and older it is the still largely rural nature of France that is attractive. It has widely scattered, quiet villages, rustic hamlets, hedgerows, tree-lined lanes, vast rolling woodlands, abundant wildlife, dark starlit night skies and the absence of the eternal roar of roads that is almost universal in most of Britain. The irony here is that the attraction of France is not because it is France but because it is like a long lost Britain.

I haven’t heard that many people go to France because they like the French. In fact the quite revealing fact is that most Britons buy up country properties out of the towns. They say it’s because they want the peace and quiet; I have a niggling suspicion that, in some cases at least, it’s so that they don’t have to deal with the locals. In some places the Brits were trying to create an alternative community of English-speaking shops, hairdressers, electricians and plumbers so that you wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of a) learning French b) having to be nice to Pierre and Sylvie. Once or twice we had to insist that people spoke to us in French rather than English. They seemed grateful for our efforts.

Let me hear make two Christian points. After all I suspect that something equivalent to France occurs in most countries. From what I gather, California or Florida often seems to have the same role in the northern US.

The first point is that there is a real danger that you see in this France or its equivalent, paradise. It is the place where, finally, everything will go right; the place where joy will be yours eternally. And of course expressed like that, you see the fallacy of the argument: there is no paradise other than God’s paradise and we are separated from that by more than the English Channel. (Indeed from passing comments, we heard much of France can often be bitterly cold in winter. The bureaucracy is often impenetrable. The inner cities have dreadful problems. The state is bankrupt. And in the rural areas over winter you find large numbers of people traipsing around blasting little birds to bits in the course of la chasse. I get the impression from a few of the expats we talked to that disillusionment can set in very quickly.)

The second point is that we cannot – and should not – divorce ourselves from people. There is probably a whole theology that centres on the incarnation about getting involved with local life.

Anyway I’ll make no bones about it. If I could sell the film rights I would very seriously and prayerfully consider moving to France where I would continue to write and my wife would continue editing by e-mail. With the fast rail and plane links we properly wouldn’t be too far away from aged parents. But on the one hand we would be under no expectation of paradise and on the other, we would make every effort to get involved with the local community and especially that rarest things, a French evangelical fellowship. Anyway, it’s all a fancy at the moment. But cannot a man dream? Especially a fantasy writer?

I hope to get back to a regular Friday pattern as soon as possible. Oh, and no news on the baby front yet.

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