Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hero, or Dinosaur ?

The Valley of the Fallen The Escorial

Do you ever hear on a news item that someone has died who you imagined had died some time ago? That happened to me this week when I heard of the death of Jack Jones.
Born on the eve of the Great War of 1914-18 Jack was one of the last ‘old style’ union leaders; some would say a political dinosaur, but I would prefer to call him a true Socialist, a vanishing breed in the UK perhaps, but unlike the dinosaur, not quite extinct.

Whatever one’s own politics Jack Jones’ solidarity to a cause was something you just had to admire. He doggedly resisted the lure of champagne socialism, the chattering classes of Hampstead Heath, and trendy wine bars so beloved of New Labour. Instead, at trade unions conferences in particular, he shunned the four and five star accommodation of his fellow delegates and stuck to his favourite B&Bs in Eastbourne, Blackpool or wherever, travelling back and forth to the conference hall by bus. His familiar cloth cap wasn’t something invented by spin doctors, it was Jack being Jack,

When he retired from the hurly-burly of the trades union world he still couldn’t leave it entirely, and he became the senior citizens champion, riding into battle for pensioners rights and becoming the first president of the National Pensioners Convention.

In the mid 1930’s Jack’s left wing politics were to take him far from his Liverpool roots, across the Pyrenees to Catalonia where he joined the International Brigade and fought for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. He was eventually wounded in the battle of Ebro, repatriated and spent the rest of the war organising aid for the Republicans.

His loathing of Franco and the Nationalist government was to endure until the General’s death in 1975, and he was vociferous in his condemnation of Labour and TUC leaders who took holidays to Spain while the Franco regime was in power.

I have long had a sort of morbid fascination with the Spanish Civil War, ever since my first visits to the country in the early 70’s. In the centre of the country, not far from Madrid, is the Valley of the Fallen, or the Valle de los Caidos. It’s difficult to describe the effect this monolithic monstrosity has on the unwary visitor. You really have to know the background to this bloody episode in Spanish history to appreciate just how unwittingly this piece of grandiose mawkishness illustrates the oppressiveness of the Franco regime

You can see the building miles away; it’s difficult to miss a 500 ft concrete cross. It stands atop a huge crypt carved out from granite cliffs by the losing side (the Republicans) after the Civil War, and is the final resting place of El Caudillo …Francisco Franco. Some tomb!

It is now classed as a national monument, and it can be combined with an excursion to the Escorial, the huge palace built by Philip II of Spain, as the two places are only a few miles from each other. It is worth a visit if only to provide time for reflection on the futility of war, and the complete madness of civil war.
Jack Jones’ journey from the International Brigade to the National Pensioners’ Convention was a long and momentous one, and the next time you use your free bus pass, or receive your winter fuel payment remember who it was who pushed the government to make life a bit easier for senior citizens, and say …’Thanks, Jack’

Friday, April 17, 2009

Something to Make Your Mouth Water

Last week we had a flyer in our mailbox advertising the annual hunter’s lunch next Saturday. These lunches occur all over rural France at the end of the hunting season, and, in our case they are long, multi-coursed and alcohol driven.

Like everything else in France the price has crept up, this year to 20€ ,but for that you get six courses and as much to drink as can be considered polite. And entertainment.

It’s mostly of the impromptu variety, fuelled by several glasses of wine and a fire-water digestif and it can go on a bit. There are hunting songs, and mountain choruses that I quite enjoy. In fact, the shepherd songs can be beautiful, especially when sung by our local male voice choir, the Chanteurs de Mont Royal. A ancient old boy always totters to the microphone and sings an obscure ditty with at least ten verses, and choruses to which everyone (except us) joins in - con brio !

It’s when one of the local ladies decides (as she always does) to give us her tribute to Edith Piaf that it all begins to soar into the realms of farce. We try not to wince as she renders (murders) ‘La Vie en Rose,’ and then find ourselves heading for the door as, to tumultuous cheers, she launches into ‘Mon Legionnaire’.
We are usually amongst the first to leave, at about four o’clock, but, as we live close to the Salle de Fete we are still seeing people drifting home at six.
This year’s menu, which is always included on the flyer is as mouth-watering as ever .:

Salade Gasconne
Panache de salads,tomates, gésiers,lardons et magrets fumés

Salad of duck gizzards, bacon pieces and smoked duck breast.

Pavé de Saumon sauce paprika et estragon
Fillet of salmon with tarragon and paprika

Civet de Sanglier et pomme de terre vapeur
Wild boar casserole with mashed potatoes

Cuisse de canard confit et ses legumes
Duck leg confit and vegetables (usually the ubiquitous haricot vert)


Fromage de pays
Local cheeses

Tarte aux Pommes tiède et sa glace vanille

Warm Apple pie with vanilla icecream



Vin rouge et rosé
Vin mousseaux
Aperitif tout inclusive.

I mustn’t forget to stock up on the indigestion tablets.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Where Does the Time Go?

All though I have three calenders in the kitchen time still seems to run away with me. I've only to look at the date of my last blog to prove that to myself. I haven't been idle though.

After 25-30,000 words I seem to have driven the plot of my thriller into a cul de sac and at the moment I can't seem to back it out, so I'm going to have to let it sit there until I can start the engine again - or I'll have to call the breakdown vehicle and get it towed away to the scrap yard. Fellow writers will know what I mean!

To relieve the tension I started to to jot down some humorous recollections of my adolescence... a teenager in the late fifties and early sixties. I had been listening to Emma Kennedy's new book, 'The Tent, The Bucket and Me'. on Radio 4's Book of the Week. It was hilariously funny, and for once, very popular with the listeners....just lately some of the choices have been panned on the R4 message board and not without justification.

Ms. Kennedy's book had a very simple premise which could be a bit of a turn-off for readers, including me.Family holidays!

'Oh, another self-indulgent ramble', I thought. We'd had a few of those in the past few months as BOTW....usually upper class somebodies who could take six months off and wander around Europe, India, Outer Mongolia with 6 kids, a backpack, and a desire to 'find themselves'. Oh, and sell the resulting book to a publisher who happens to be a friend/ close relative, when they get back. ( I'm just jealous really)

But it was the way in which 'The Tent' was written that made it stand out from the rest. It was just so funny, and self deprecating. I do like people who 'self-deprecate' rather than write some precious book about how wonderful it all was, and how enlightened all their children had become from the whole life-changing experience. When we all know the kids had spent most of the time plugged into their MP3 players, bemoaning the fact that they couldn't keep in touch with their friends on Facebook, and why isn't there a Macdonalds in the Hindu Kush? Well I'm sure that's what most of them are kids after all.

Some of Ms. Kennedy's mishaps had happened to me....her parents were avid campers ( that scenario's got plenty of mileage in it for a writer )...mine were of the caravanning variety but we shared similar toilet incidents.

And this set me off on a journey of my own. When I started, I thought it would be hopeless as I grew up in probably the most boring town in Britain, and I seemed, on the face of it, to have a fairly averagely boring childhood, but the further I've got into it the more I've discovered that, written as a comedy, it actually works.
Far from being stuck for what to write next, the incidents just keep coming.

The fact that I had a mother who was to cooking as Les Dawson was to piano playing, gives me quite a lot of material to work on. She was also one of those delightful working class snobs who considered herself to be 'upper working class' to lower middle. Oh, it's all wonderful grist to the mill.

I've no time for the current thirst for 'misery memoirs' Ms. Kennedy could be starting a trend for 'merry memoirs' so I'm going to join the crowd. And it's pretty good therapy as well as going back fifty years and recalling incidents one had thought forgotten is a great exercise for the brain. So even if it all comes to nought(as it probably will) at least it can be filed under 'Self Improvement' so all is not lost.