I was long overdue a visit to the opticians, and had also been promising myself since my last visit that this time I would pay for Hoya’s En Route lenses, which are designed to reduce light scatter and glare from oncoming headlights at night.
Loads of people are uncomfortable with night driving. I’ve always been kind of okay with it, though the advent of halogen and then LED headlamps has made life difficult for everyone. I tend to think we should go back to the good old days of dim headlights. We’d all be happier, and maybe drive a bit slower at night. I often follow behind a car being driven by someone who is clearly terrified, slowing down every time another vehicle is coming towards them, and generally showing all the signs of timidity and hesitancy. But most people don’t even know these lenses are even available.
I’ve known about Hoya’s En Route lenses for a while, but had no idea whether they’d really work, or if it was just a gimmick you pay extra for and don’t see the benefit of. You don’t see reviews of them. The only way to find out was to pay for them. And I was lucky, because there was a special offer, and it turned out that my new glasses ended up costing a couple of hundred pounds less than they usually do. For the record: I always pay for the thinnest lenses with an anti-reflective coating, so my specs always cost a small fortune.
Hoya’s En Route don’t actually go down to the thinnest and lightest level of all, but they offer a lens which isn’t too thick and heavy and is a progressive varifocal, allowing you to shift focus between close and distance (as you’d expect), and that tricky middle ground where your car’s instruments and display screens are.
But the real test of these lenses was obviously going to be driving at night. And the recent Christmas break was a perfect opportunity, involving as it did a 12-hour overnight drive to France. What I thought was, I might be able to kid myself for an hour or so, but if these lenses were no good, I could hardly keeping lying to myself for 12 hours.
The good news is, they do seem to work. I drove a thousand kilometres, at night, through clear air, through fog, and through rain, and at no point was I bothered by too-bright headlights coming towards me. And I promise you: I usually am, and I usually complain about it. I’ve tried everything: looking slightly away, closing one eye, squinting, etc., but for the whole of this journey I was fine. I was aware of oncoming vehicles; I was even aware that their lights were bright; but I didn’t feel blinded or unsafe at any time.
Honestly, I’m as surprised that they work as you are. I actually feel sorry for people who don’t have to wear glasses.
Everybody is a type, but does everybody have a type? I’m the type of guy who wishes he could be one of those slim, grey, well-groomed older men. But I like food too much, so I’m one of those wok-bellied, slightly scruffy older men. As to whether I have a type, I’d have always said, not really. Or if I did, I prefer small women with brown hair. But how far would I travel to find out if I do, in fact, have a type?
That’s how far I walked in Copenhagen between Tuesday morning, when we arrived, and Saturday night, when we left. So just under 17km per day, including the day we hired bikes at the hotel and cycled (in addition to the walking) at least 20 kilometres. This is what you do when you visit a city like this: a lot of walking, a lot of wandering.
The main purpose of the visit was to see Chloé in her natural habitat. While my OH has been around seven times since Chloé moved there, this was my first visit. Why did I wait so long? Pandemic, mainly. Whereas my OH had a robust (and very French) attitude to travel restrictions, I was generally put off by all the admin. Also, I’ve grown increasingly anxious about travel in general, so I don’t need much of an excuse.
We flew Ryanair, no extras, which meant a small bag squeezed under the seat in front. Chloé reported Baltic weather the week before we went and advised that I dress warm, so my packing consisted of four sets of underwear and four long-sleeved thermal vests. In addition, I wore a cashmere sweater that has always been too warm for work and a fleece and a jacket. I also bought some “Nordic” jeans from Rohan, lol.
Inevitably, the late October warm-wave meant that I spent most of the time feeling too hot. I left the sweater for Chloé and wore two layers most of the time, carrying a hat in my bag for the cooler evenings. But, oh, that first day, before we could check into the hotel, the day I was wearing ALL the layers! I was so hot.
The cost of the trip was calculated so that the travel and accommodation wouldn’t come to more than our normal channel tunnel crossing and motorway journey to France. Not including food, of course. So the hotel choice was a cheap and cheerful 2-star called Saga Hotel near the Central train station. It was clean and modern, the way I like it. We paid for a room with a shower/toilet, though most of the rooms in that hotel are ones that share a bathroom. It was poky, but fine for what we needed, and every day began with the same ten minute walk up to the Rådhus square.
Eating out in Copenhagen can be expensive. We ate a lot of sandwiches etc from the 7-11, but we also ate a couple of times at Jagger Burger, and once at Chloé’s flat near Sydhavn. Our plans to eat there a second time on the day we left were baulked because it turned out the S-train (currently?) only runs Monday to Friday. This meant a long walk or more junk food. Oh well.
I’m not a great one for visiting attractions. My main object was to see my daughter, and I didn’t much care what activities, if any, that involved. We went to see an interesting Matisse Exhibit, and dropped in on the Little Mermaid etc. But inevitably, my main interest was in the city itself, its infrastructure. Because let’s not pretend that we need to be particularly different to the Danes. A smallish northern European country, outside the Eurozone? A Germanic language? They are recognisably like us, and yet, and yet, don’t seem to be as irrational in their anti-humanism, in their enslavement to corporate interests.
You know what’s coming. I’m sure capitalism is as shit in Denmark as it is anywhere else. And I’m sure employers can be as awful and exploitative. But Danes seem to care more about work-life balance. And their capital city is designed around people, not cars. Sure, there are cars, and lots of single-occupancy vehicles. But the bikes! And the pedestrian zones! If you stop to think about why Oxford Street and, say, Regent Street aren’t completely pedestrianised in 2022, your head might explode.
I would really like to see an experiment in which every person in Copenhagen who owned a bicycle went to fetch it from wherever it is being kept and stood next to it. My question is, are there more bicycles than people?
Pedestrians have priority. Then bikes. Then cars. And the cycle lanes are mostly segregated and mostly respected. Which means, you don’t see quite so many cars and delivery vans parked on cycle lanes as you do in this country. But you do see some. And there are still too many vans making deliveries that could instead be made by some of the ubiquitous cargo bikes. That aside, Copenhagen is a cycling paradise, bikes everywhere, and the kind of people riding them who would never in a million years ride a bike in the UK.
That’s what strikes you. Everybody is a type, after all, and there are as many recognisable types in Copenhagen as there are anywhere. But in Copenhagen, they all ride bikes, all the time, in all weathers. Floppy haired men in smart suits. Sporty men and women in lycra. Very tall willowy blonde women in long coats. Hipsters. Hippies. Young mums and dads. Middle aged mums and dads. Older people, all genders. Ebikes, old bikes, cargo bikes, trikes, sit-up-and-beg bikes, fat bikes, sporty hybrids, racing bikes, in all the colours of the rainbow.
Anyway, I loved it. What a fantastic city to live and work in. And, it turns out, I do have a type. I love Danish women.
It would be unfair of me not to mention that our return journey from France this time was far less traumatic than others in recent times. We were travelling on a Thursday night / Friday morning, but I don’t really think that during peak season the day of the week makes much difference.
Eurotunnel have reverted to the old way of doing things: check-in, followed by waiting for your call at the terminal, followed by passport control (Boo!), followed by boarding (Yay!). This, for old hands, was the way it always used to be, and the way the terminal was originally designed. But then a few years ago, for some reason, they decided to put border controls immediately after check-in, and it was usually a horrible experience.
You’d think after 20-odd years that they would have mastered the art of moving people around like this and wouldn’t need to keep experimenting. But the sheer quantity of temporary plastic barrier they now have gives the lie to that. My mind always goes to dark places when I think about this kind of thing. For example, theme parks always make me think of concentration camps. The trick is to prevent the “customer” from being able to see too far into the future. One of the terrible design decisions Eurotunnel originally made was to allow the car park to feed into the lane to border controls in multiple places. This used to lead to bad-tempered gridlock, as everyone tried to get twelve lanes into one. Now, they’ve installed bollards which filter you around the car park in a zig-zag route, and they’ve resigned themselves to having people in high-viz direct cars into the queue for the border controls.
The bit-of-a-ball-ache part of the journey home was that we arrived quite early for our crossing. The cat’s in the car, so you don’t want to dilly-dally. But for the first time ever we were told to sling our hooks. Instead of printing out lettered hanger to display in the windscreen, the machine printed out one that said EXIT. Well! I suspect this is part of their master plan to reduce the level of insanity in the terminal. Unfortunately, we’d arrived too late to make wandering the Cité Europe shopping centre worthwhile, so we just parked up in Pet Control and waited 90 minutes.
That was the bad news. The surprise and delight part of the journey home was that – although we were told at check-in that there was a one-hour delay to all crossings – we ended up getting on an earlier train after all. An earlier train that actually left early and didn’t get stuck in the tunnel. I also enjoyed seeing the boot that had fallen out of someone’s car (?) and been left behind, unnoticed. I just think people should be properly attired when they travel. That might not mean top hat and tails, but it definitely means no pyjamas, and keep your shoes on.
We were sitting in the car waiting for our letter to be called (the terminal itself was full of screaming children – or one screaming child, which is the same thing – which is too stressful for Oscar), and a bloke in a hi-viz started walking around telling people they could all go NOW.
I love it when that happens – it’s rare, but it does. So then we went through border controls (which was a standard level of shit rather than the unprecedented level of shit we got last time) and drove around to the boarding area. Now, this is where I felt TOTALLY VINDICATED for my previous comments about the stretchers, faffers, toilet visitors, and sleepers. Because as soon as I brought the car to a stop in the queue, the barrier lifted, and we were off to board the train. Take THAT, all you men who get out of your cars and o-so-casually wander around winding me up.
(There was one tricky moment, because we were all directed down the wrong boarding ramp, and we had to reverse back up. Reversing in the car is something I absolutely hate – it’s my #1 anxiety dream – so this was not fun. But still!)
Anyway, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Managing expectations. First lower them, then deliver the surprise. It’s exactly what Apple are so good at.
I’m not sure who is behind the brand “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France“, but they’re one of those organisations that hands out an annual award, and I guess some places choose to partake in the competition, and others don’t.
When I worked in marketing, the (very successful) company I worked for specifically did not enter any industry awards because we didn’t want our competition to see how the sausage was made, as it were. Draw the spotlight of industry attention and the despairing companies we were leaving in our wake might work out how to catch up. I’ve carried the same philosophy into education. Teachers are absolutely chronic for downloading shit they found on the internet: lesson plans, schemes of work etc. And they’re chronic for uploading the same shit for whatever reason: kudos, attention, some faint hope of being paid. Anyway, I’m against this. Although I did upload some of my resources in my naive early years of teaching, I no longer share. The idea that another teacher could deliver one of my lessons is nonsense. You might have the meat, the skin, the breadcrumbs, but I am the sausage.
Anyway, what has this got to do with beautiful French villages? Only this: I imagine that if I was the mayor of a particularly beautiful village, I’d look around me at what made it so beautiful and I’d want to keep it that way. That would almost certainly mean that I didn’t want car- and busloads of tourists rocking up to buy tat and bretzels.
I’ve visited a few of these places. Belvès in the Dordogne, for example, is an absolutely fabulous village perched on a rock riddled with prehistoric cave dwellings. We walked around one evening, didn’t spend any money, and went home. Also in the Dordogne, Beynac and Cazenac was a place we went for a longer visit, staying on a nearby campsite. It was all right. Closer to here, Eguisheim in Alsace is a mediaeval village full of half-timbered buildings and a street plan that is snail-shaped. It’s nice to see and walk around. Key to its charm, however, is the necessity to park on the outskirts and walk into the village, so that you’re not constantly dodging cars as you walk around the concentric narrow lanes.
We always try to do the right thing when we visit these places. I remember parking outside of Gordes in the South of France and walking about a kilometre into the village itself, which is perched on a rocky outcrop in Provence. But other people aren’t so considerate, and my strong memory of Gordes is of standing on a street watching and listening to a steady stream of traffic passing through. It was loud, and it was smelly, and it most definitely wasn’t beautiful.
Limeuil, in Dordogne, is similarly perched on a hillside, but there’s no through traffic, so you have to park somewhere at the bottom of the hill and climb the steep streets under your own steam. This is as it should be. You sweat your way up to the top of the hill, to the church and the lovely gardens, and you enjoy the view, which is well earned. If you can’t manage the hill, you’ll just have to find somewhere flatter.
Riquewihr is another Alsatian village on the list, one we’ve been to many times. It’s another place with a steep main drag, cobbled and largely car-free. What you want to see in these places is a barrier at the bottom of the road with a big No Entry sign on it.
Which brings us to Bergheim, the latest mediaeval Alsatian village to win the Plus Beaux Village de France prize. Hum hum hum. We dutifully stopped at the unshaded “Complex Sportif” car park at the edge of the village. A Couple of hundred metres down the road we saw a second, shadier car park. This one was right outside the village ramparts. So there were at least two places to leave your car. Unfortunately, this didn’t help the village itself, which was chock full of cars parked in marked bays (many of which were painted both on the street and supposed pavement). In fact, I’d say that a good portion of the local council’s budget had been spent on painting parking spaces onto pavements, which doesn’t say much for their attitude to pedestrians. Walking down and around the cobbled streets, there was a steady stream of traffic. It was virtually impossible to get a sense of the mediaeval layout because there were too many cars and vans in the way.
So we bailed, and drove a few kilometres to Ribeauvillé, a mediaeval Alsatian town with a No Entry barrier across its main cobbled street. We parked at the car park off the roundabout and walked up the hill. Maybe things will improve for Bergheim: they’ve only just won the prize. But it didn’t seem very beautiful or charming to me. You’ve got to be absolutely ruthless about excluding cars. I personally wouldn’t even allow the locals (population just over 2000) to drive their cars into the centre. But what do I know? I’m just a sausage.
Back in the day, they used to talk about how the Militant Tendency had infiltrated the Labour Party, and were going to destroy civilisation or something if Labour won an election. Everything being the opposite of what it is, civilisation is being destroyed, not by the political left, but by the right. As someone I follow on Twitter said the other day, I understand why people might have particular economic positions, but I’m absolutely bewildered that they can look around at everything that’s happening and say, YES, MORE OF THIS IS WHAT I WANT.
It was another tough journey across the channel (poor poor pitiful me); you can’t pretend this isn’t the new normal. It is of course unsurprising and disheartening to see both the Port of Dover authorities and others blame the French for not putting on enough staff. Kent of course voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, and so the 6-hour 4-mile queues on the M2; operation Brock on the M20; the long delays at the Eurotunnel are exactly what they voted for. I feel like all media outlets ought to – as a matter of course – mention that all these delays were caused by Brexit.
This is what the end of free movement looks like, though I’m pretty sure the high numbers of Polish, French, German, and Dutch travellers I saw on Thursday at the channel tunnel didn’t vote for it. To be fair to the French authorities, you have to wonder why they would feel obliged to invest in more border control staff just because the UK shat its pants over Boris Johnson’s invented straight bananas. I wouldn’t if I were them. But actually, they have doubled the number of passport control lanes at Eurotunnel. They just haven’t staffed them, which is amusing. The British, of course, have not doubled the number of lanes, though I did notice that the performative and dickish checking of passports isn’t quite as performatively elaborate this time around. You can take a joke too far. Mind you, you can be unlucky and get in the queue of The Chatty One. Extroverts should not be allowed to check passports.
(My own oft-stated position is that passports are bullshit and I believe in free movement to the extent of abolishing all border controls. If you’re going to be killed by a bomb, it will be while you’re forced into a confined space in a crowd. And if people are insane enough to want to live in dystopian Britain, let them knock themselves out.)
Anyway, this time around I decided that the overnight travel option is no longer the best. Because people have cottoned on, and overnight is now slammed. We were booked to cross at 10:20 and didn’t arrive in France until the small hours. We’d been waiting a long time, too, because you can’t rely on the roads on any given day for a million reasons, which mostly come down to one: people are terrible. So it was because we were so early that I noticed how much emptier the car park was at 6pm compared to 10pm. Next time, I might bite the bullet and pay more for an earlier train. You’d have to book this in advance because they were fully booked by the time we arrived. The nuclear option is to pay through the nose for Flexi+ queue-jumping, but I’ve a feeling that a lot of people will start doing this very soon. Flexi+ is like EasyJet early boarding. It only works if hardly anybody pays for it.
Eurotunnel on Thursday had technical issues (needed to restart their computer, I reckon) so had reverted to audio announcements of letters for boarding. People being terrible, I made a point of watching them behave terribly. As soon as “passengers with the letter H” was announced, you’d see a lot of H’s pass by, with the occasional late E and G. But you’d also see M’s and N’s, L’s, and even an extremely cheeky T. And there was a guy in a hi-viz jacket stopping every single one of the cheeky bastards and telling them to go back to the car park and wait for their call.
No harm done, you’d think, except – clearly – people trying to board when it wasn’t their turn are taking up space, getting in the way, adding to delays because every single one of them had to be stopped and spoken to while people with the correct letter queued behind them.
And this is why I find this whole experience so stressful. I get that I’m going to be punished by the French because 52% of the population are twats, but then the Twattish Tendency are the ones making everything worse by trying to jump the queue.
It seems to me that the principle of fairness drives a lot of political events. Even the Twattish Tendency felt it was wrong of Johnson and Carrie to keep partying while the nation was locked down. The grievance that was nurtured by the right wing press against the EU was also based in fairness: that false narrative that we, Britain, were having to take more of them, refugees, than other European nations. Facts and figures gave the lie to this, but you can’t argue with the Twattish Tendency with facts. And yet the same twats who bleat about unfairness in those circumstances will try to jump the queue to board a train.
As another Twitter wag has pointed out, hypocrisy is a feature – not a bug – of right wing politics. Being prepared to make an exception in your own case is a little wink to the camera, a breaking of the fourth wall. I noticed this as a feature of lockdown rules too. If you were black or brown and having a party you were far more likely to get a fine than if you were a “nice middle class white person” having a few friends around for drinkies in the garden. When we make rules, the rules are for them, not for us. None of the Polish, French, German, and Dutch travellers voted for long waits at the border, but those long delays are for them, not for the Twattish Tendency, who think they should just be waved through. Flexi+ beckons for the Twattish Tendency. Which is for them, not us.
Pre-pandemic, I would drive to and from my OH’s house in France six times a year. In recent times, we’ve been using late night crossings and driving through the night. This has generally been a little less stressful than crossing during the day— or delay, as it might as well be called.
I’m a little out of practice making this journey, although I’ve been keeping up with my insomnia, so being awake in the middle of the night is no real challenge. This time, in a bold experiment, we decided to cross in my new car-shaped car. This is not something we’ll do often, as my OH prefers her brick-shaped car. But I was looking forward to the journey because I nerdishly wanted to see if we could make it on one tank of fuel: the car-shaped car being more economical than the brick-shaped one, even though they both have (more or less) the same engine.
But the problem these days, even crossing in the middle of the night, is that the French are punishing us for Brexit. As anyone who has made this crossing regularly knows, passing through French passport control used to be a non-event. Often, there was nobody in the booths; even when there was, they would wave you straight through. Since Brexit, though, they’ve taken to checking every passport. Add this to the thorough checking the British have been doing since 2005 (no Schengen Zone for us), and we’ve got ourselves a capacity problem.
Hence the overnight crossing habit. Peak times have become unbearable. Big holidays, like this Whitsun half-term, can still be a bit slammed, but it’s usually a bit quieter in the night.
Little did I know that there was a football match on. I have no understanding of what would drive someone to want to put themselves through this experience in order to watch tiny people kick a tiny ball around a distant pitch rather than just watch it on TV, but fanatics gonna fanatic, I suppose.
I was pre-warned in the sense that I saw the headlines about the Port of Dover being gridlocked, and I read about the 21 planes that left Liverpool airport, but how many more might there be at midnight in Folkstone? This of course, is on top of the closure of motorway lanes necessitated by so-called Operation Brock (Operation Brexit, as it should be properly called).
So the queuing began just off the M20, as we sat waiting to move forward to check-in. We were surrounded by the usual massive SUVs, but also a high number of Transit vans and mini-buses, one of which disgorged a dozen or so speci-men (of bullet-headed, over muscled or beer gutted British manhood) to piss at the side of the road. It’s a rookie mistake to drink anything when you’re likely to be sitting in a queue of cars for any length of time, let alone huge quantities of lager. One particular chap emerged three times from the same van in the space of 40 minutes. Cystitis?
Needless to say, forty minutes was barely scratching the surface of this Hell in the South. The authorities were allowing a few vehicles at a time through check-in, in order to manage traffic flow on the other side. So it took us a couple of hours to get through. One of the pains of check-in is that – first of all – two lanes of traffic turn into 8 or 10 check-in lanes; and then these 8-10 check-in lanes turn into one lane of traffic to get to the car park.
So it took another 40 minutes or so to reach the terminal car park. Nobody was really parking, however. They were just driving round the car park in order to join the queue for passport and customs control. We did have to park, however, because we had the cat with us, bless him. So, we got to pee in a toilet like civilised people, drink a swift coffee, and then join the queue again.
This took a while. We were up to four hours in total when we eventually reached the queue for boarding. I was taking everything in what stride I have left. Sure, the French are now checking passports as thoroughly as the British, and are even trolling us by building additional border control lanes – another five or six, over the six they already had. But not opening them, of course. But then we get to the part that, no matter how much of a talking to I get or give myself, always stresses me to the max.
All we are doing is sitting in a lane, in a car, waiting for the barrier to lift at the end, so we can go round and board a train. We have been here (literally) a hundred times. And a hundred times, people wind me up.
Having done this a hundred times, I know that the time between turning off the engine in the boarding line and the lifting of the barrier can vary between 60 seconds to 60 minutes plus. So you just don’t know. You just don’t know whether you’ll be waiting a minute or over an hour. So here’s what you shouldn’t do:
Leave your car
Leave your car then fall asleep
Fall asleep then leave your car
Listen: we’re all tired, we’ve all driven a long way. We’ve all, at various points, had children (or cats) in the car with us. We all want to shut our eyes and sleep. BUT: if we needed to pee, you know what we did. We PARKED at the TERMINAL and used the TOILET in the TERMINAL. And then we got back in our car and joined the queue.
So I sat there for an hour. And I watched them, doing all of the above, and more. The performative male stretching and walking about. (If you were really the old hand you’re pretending to be, you would know that the barrier could literally lift at any moment*.) The kids running around even while cars were driving into lanes at inappropriate speeds around them. (Imagine the paperwork if one of them got killed.) The trips to the toilet. (There were toilets in the terminal, you cunt.) The rummaging in the boot. (If you thought you might need it on the journey, don’t put it in the fucking boot.)
The deadbeat French dad in front of me had three small children with him. He came out to rummage in his chaotically packed boot three times, clearly looking for something. Took his children for an endless toilet visit. Came back, rummaged in his boot three more times, each time closing it as if it were the last time. Then he opened it again, retrieved a plastic can of oil, and opened his bonnet to perform an oil change service while his children played musical seats in the car. And then?
Then he got into the car and fell asleep.
So that when the distant barrier lifted and I could see all the cars in front of him go through it, he didn’t move.
I drove around him, but not before a cheeky Skoda driver in the next lane along took the opportunity to sneak across and ahead. (This is unnecessary, by the way — the trains are long and there is plenty of room.)
Having got all that off my chest, I’m pleased to report that I made it to Auxelles with over 200km of range after an 800+km drive. As it turned out, because FIVE HOURS of the night was wasted at the terminal, I didn’t get to drive much in full darkness, but I did enjoy the clever headlights and the pretty interior lighting. And for the first time, I got my dream, which has always been to be able to push a button or throw a switch to adjust the headlights for driving on the wrong side of the road. Sure, it was in a menu within the infotainment system, but still. Right hand driving? Check the box, et voila. I appreciate this more than I can say, so I now forgive all stupidly bright adaptive LED headlights for being stupidly bright.
As for every other human being on the planet: you are not forgiven. Stay in your vehicle.
*Yes, the matrix sign might say something about when boarding will commence. But sometimes, they discover a bit of room on a train that’s about to leave, and they’ll count 5, 10 cars through the barrier to fill it to capacity. I’ve shared a spare spot in a carriage with a coach before now.
I thought I’d pay for a month of BritBox so I could watch Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, and while I’m there I thought I might as well sample some of their other “originals”, including Magpie Murders and Murder in Provence.
But first, some news: they’ve got The Goodies! This was once a phenomenally popular mainstream comedy, which pulled itself up from its original silly surrealism and Benny Hill–style chase sequences to produce some televisual stunts that lived long in their legend. But, for whatever reason, The Goodies disappeared from view and was virtually forgotten. But now BritBox have about 40 of the episodes, dating from 1970. It’s a shame Tim Brooke-Taylor (who died from Covid early in the pandemic) didn’t live to see its revival. I’ve only watched one episode. I’m sure it hasn’t aged well, but the bonkers gadgets Graeme Garden used to prepare his breakfast from his bed anticipate Wallace and Gromit by thirty years.
Magpie Murders is based on the 2016 Anthony Horowitz novel, and it follows the same mise-en-abyme narrative structure (story within a story). Many of the actors play two characters, which is fun. There are a few recognisable faces, though none of the actors are household names (not in my house, anyway). It’s all right: doesn’t particularly zing, but it does the job. The basic premise is that a highly successful mystery author (played by Conleth Hill) hands in his 8th novel featuring a popular detective, and then dies in mysterious circumstances. To compound the mystery, the final chapter of his last novel is missing. His editor (played by Lesley Manville) investigates.
My main complaint about Magpie Murders is about lighting. I know what they think they’re doing: they’re going for ‘natural’, which means – in practice – dim, flat, obscure. It’s frustrating, because it all looks a bit shit to me. If I wanted reality I’d look around my own house in the dark.
Moving on to Murder in Provence, then, and I’m lost in admiration at this brazen piece of TV fluff, which seems to exist solely as a nice beano for the mostly British cast. It’s genius really: set in Aix-en-Provence, everybody is supposed to be French, but not a single actor speaks with anything other than a British accent. It’s like an episode of Star Trek, in which Kirk and Co arrive on a strange planet and – thanks to the Universal Translator – manage to speak in American English to the lumpy headed aliens.
Now, some people have complained about this, but it seems perfectly pitched for these times. It’s not just that all of the supposedly French characters speak English: they’re all of a certain age, too. As we all sit in dingy Brexit Britain, watching the price of diesel and petrol tick upwards in real time as we queue for the few drops of fuel that have made it through the blockade; and contemplate the lorryloads of fresh produce rotting in Dover; or watch the news about our lying Prime Minister and his lying Chancellor and the sociopathic Home Secretary; we can all fantasise about being in a fantasy (Le Pen–free) South of France, eating in a Bistro and buying cheap red wine by the crate. And when I say, we, I of course mean those of us who have reached a certain age, and discovered that our plans to retire to somewhere nice like France or Spain have gone up in smoke, thanks in large part to our lying Prime Minister.
Instead, we get to watch the likes of Roger Allam, Patricia Hodge, Nancy Carroll, and Geff Francis living the lives that we can no longer aspire to. The murders in Murder in Provence don’t matter in the slightest: it’s Provence that matters. Christ, I hate this country.
I was fairly ignorant about French regions before I met my OH. I knew that a lot of British people like Brittany, the Dordogne, and Provence, but I couldn’t have named many parts of France apart from those. One of the best kept secrets, I think, is The Vendée: the Atlantic coast, but a little south of Brittany and north of Bordeaux. I always thought of French people charging down to the South for their July or August holiday, and I knew about “black days” on the motorway, days when HGVs aren’t allowed on the roads. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed that the Atlantic coast would be stormy and a lot less warm than the Côte d’Azur.
So, along with my discovery that the climate in landlocked Alsace is fantastic, my first visit to the Vendée in 2001 was a real eye opener. We went at Whitsun, meaning that the beaches and towns were very quiet, and yet – as we discovered almost every year – your chances of good weather in that last week of May are pretty high. We rented a fairly basic house in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, which is probably best thought of as the Herne Bay to the Margate of Les Sables D’Olonne or nearby Whitstable-equivalent Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. In other words, there are classier places, and there are busier places, but Bretignolles is a good base.
The house we rented that first year was right on the Avenue de la Corniche, the road that runs parallel to the beach on the other side. I think a year later we tried La Tranche sur Mer, a few kilometres further south, but in 2003 we were back in Bretignolles, which is my favourite place. We rented a house not quite on the sea front, but about ten minutes walk away. The video above dates from that summer. My older daughter is five, the younger not yet three. The wind was a bit stronger that year, the seas rougher, and there were some blobs of spilled oil on one of the beaches, but it was still great.
Bretignolles has an enormous expanse of sandy beach, if that’s your thing, but a little further down there are rock pools and hours of fun catching crabs. I can’t think of a better place for a beach holiday. The shame of it is, we almost never go anywhere but the house in Auxelles these days. We went to Ile d’Yeu a few years ago, and we’ve been to the South a few times, but the Vendée is a real trek from our place in France. France is big.
(It was around now that we discovered the young one had a sun allergy, so we tried to keep her as covered up as possible: hence the purple sun screen and the legionnaire’s hat.. My OH’s brother and his girlfriend always came with us, so they’re in the video.)
Yes, the title of a Paul McCartney album, but also a description of myself. A common conversation between me and one of my daughters might go like this…
“Do you remember that time you abandoned us in the woods and made us find our own way home?”
“That never happened.”
“It did, Dad! Don’t you remember? You said it was character building?”
“No. Never happened.”
This is a fictional conversation about a fictional event. I am not Bean Dad. “Do you remember that time you gave me a tin of beans and a can opener and told me I’d have to learn to use it if I wanted to eat that day?”
I am not Bean Dad, but I am, apparently, Dad who remembers almost nothing of my kids’ childhoods, at least not the way they remember it.
Part of the problem, I think, is that I was always behind a camera. I remember when my sister at university, she had a friend who showed her a load of photos of he and his mum at various tourist traps, and she asked, “Why are there none of your dad?” “He’s always taking the photo.”
And so it was with me. As someone who hates having his photo taken, I am the one behind the camera. And later, I was the one behind the Mac, getting more and more adept at turning a 60-minute Mini DV tape into a 5 minute iMovie entitled (if I forgot to change it) My Great Movie, which would later be burned onto a DVD along with a few other such edits. A DVD entitled, if I forgot to change it, My Great DVD.
I’ve got 14 years of My Great DVDs, from my older daughter’s first grainy Christmas in France (filmed on analogue tape and later converted) to 2010, which is about the time my kids will have started pulling faces every time a camera was pointed their way. Well, 13 years: 2002 is missing, for some reason. Anyway, 2010 was about the time I stopped using a dedicated DV camera and began to rely more and more on my still camera or, eventually, iPhone. In hindsight, this was a mistake, because no matter what phone you buy, you always end up worrying about how much storage you have left. Memory almost full etc., and there is nothing more unforgiving than video when it comes to eating up memory.
As for me, I do sometimes regret that I spent so much of every holiday and other occasion with a camera glued to my face. The worst of it were the school shows, where instead of just watching, you know, your kid, you’d spend an hour zooming in and out, trying to pick out her face in the third row of the chorus. You’d end up with wobbly, choppy footage which was useless anyway. I wish I’d left my camera at home on such occasions. But I can’t go back and change that now. What I’ve ended up with are these 13 years of short films, between five and seven per year, which take us through the regular annual events. From the garden Easter egg hunts to the sunny Whitsun holidays at the beach to the quotidian details of life in Plancher Bas or Auxelles Bas: chickens, rabbits, swimming pools, swings, walks, visitors.
I decided this week to re-import these DVDs onto my hard drive, because the one thing you can be sure of is that you must keep transferring these movies onto different media. I still have a DVD player in the house, but if it were to die, would I replace it? From tape to hard drive to optical disc and then back onto a solid state drive. Keep the files moving. What else to do? I need to make multiple copies in multiple places. Uploading to YouTube might be smart, but there will be so many copyright violations! Because part of making these annual edits was dropping a piece of music on as the soundtrack. These tracks were chosen not because they were appropriate to the picture but just because they were part of the soundtrack of that year. It’s easier to edit to music, too.
Take the one above, for example. An unremarkable set of clips from a routine summer in Plancher Bas, 2003 edition. But there is my younger daughter, not yet three, pretending to read a book, which is cute, and on the soundtrack, Mr Yoakam singing “The Back of Your Hand” from his 2003 album Population Me. An album I probably haven’t listened to in 15 years or more, but wow: what a great song.
It can totally wreck you, watching this stuff (which might be why 2002 is missing), but I suppose in a good way. Worse for my OH, who can see her gran, her great aunt, her uncle, all now dead, and gets to see our now-adult children speaking Franglais and running around the garden.
(I would like to apologise for any distress caused by my use of the font Papyrus in the titles of the above video. I don’t know what I was thinking.)
Horrid journey home from France last night. The phrase “filthy weather” was coined for such nights as this. We set off at around 4 pm, and it was already raining. The problem with driving in France in the dark and wet, as I have said before, is that the cat’s eye never made it across the channel. The ‘luminous’ paint they use on the roads disappears on such filthy nights, and I was honestly relying for most of the journey on the car’s built-in lane assist system.
The first couple of hours across country to Langres were okay. The cat was quiet, though he always starts fussing when he detects deceleration. We stopped at the McDonald’s in Langres to eat. It was around 6 pm. The women’s toilet was flooded, and the urinal in the men’s toilet was blocked. The food was cold – all of it – the drinks were half measures, and the fries were obviously left over from the lunchtime rush. Freezing cold and rubbery in texture. My younger daughter, who has decided to go veggie, had an egg mcmuffin – the one with just the egg and cheese, because the veggie burger had not reached that corner of France. You don’t expect miracles from McDonald’s, but this was particularly bad.
Then it was time for the motorway and its invisible lanes. I did the next 4½ hours with just the one stop, and we arrived at the Calais terminal around midnight. Pet control: fine. Check-in: fine. Then we were given the runaround by yet another new road layout designed to take you through a maze of cones and barriers in order to filter your arrival at passport control. It didn’t appear to be very busy, though there were a surprising number of British number plates, considering only French citizens/spouses are allowed to travel to France at this time. Anyway — French passport control: fine.
British passport control: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.
There were three lanes open, and surprisingly long queues at each, notwithstanding the labyrinthine approach. And we sat and sat in this queue for 45 minutes. Inevitably, both the other queues moved faster than ours. Sod’s law, and all that, nothing to be done about it, and no particular reason for it. But it was distressing to be sitting there sometimes, between single car-length moves forward, for a good ten minutes.
Except it turned out there was a reason. It was because the woman manning our particular lane was gassing. Gossiping. Chatting. When we were close enough to see her at work, we saw the following:
She takes the three passports from the passenger window of the car in front and closed the window of the booth.
Then she turns around and has a – I kid you not – five minute, very animated conversation with the two people standing behind her (a man and a woman). Arms were waving around.
Occasionally, she would turn around and look as if she was going to check the passports with the UV scanner or whatever it is they use.
But no, she would turn back and continue her conversation. Was it an argument? She seemed quite fervent.
That particular conversation came to an end when the other woman left the booth and walked away.
She then turned to the business at hand, scanned the first two passports.
But then turned around again and continued her discussion with the man who remained behind her.
She then turned back to check the passports but seemed to have forgotten where she was, so she did all three again.
Then she opened her little window and leaned out, asking the people in the car to show their faces.
She then visually scanned each passport and checked them agains the faces.
Finally, she returned them to the passenger, and the car in front drove forward.
Now it was our turn.
All this time, we were assuming that she was in some kind of dispute, heated discussion, something that couldn’t wait. But guess what? Just before she closed the window on us so she couldn’t be overheard, we did hear a snippet: “And I wasn’t sure what kind of discount I’d get.”
Yes. While people queued in her lane for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES and cars stretched all the way back to French passport control, she was chatting – animatedly – about shopping discounts.
As my wife pointed out, it’s the sort of thing you would expect from the French, who have made a national identity out of a calculated lack of urgency.
It’s all part of the punishment for daring to go abroad.