Thursday, 31 December 2015

Fewer and further between...

I don't seem to have blogged much lately. I'm not sure why - it could be my usual autumn bout of SAD, or it could be that after nearly five years of doing this, I've lost a bit of motivation. What I do know, however, is that when I've got something interesting to report, this is the medium through which that happens.

A lot of people these days, it seems to me, and especially at this time of year, love to make a statement and/or draw attention to themselves: "I've gone vegetarian!", "I'm having a dry January!", "I'm going to the gym 18 times a week!". What's really happening is that they're cutting down on meat/having a couple of weeks off the sauce/doing a bit more exercise than usual - but saying those things isn't nearly as eye-catching (in their eyes), as the Grand Gesture, the thing that enables them to say "look at me!", and frankly, it's a bit annoying.

I'm not going to fall into that trap and renounce blogging forever. It may well continue, and 2016 looks like it might be a year with plenty to report - I'm 50 during the year, and plan to mark it by having a decent length of time not working (in France), learning a bit more French (in France), doing a bit of cycle touring with Mrs Monmarduman (in France), riding my bike for a week in Provence (yes, that's in France), attempting an ultramarathon (not in France), and having a trip to Iceland (definitely not in France). I'm not going to expand on any of that now, because you know what they say about God having a good laugh what you announce your plans - and whilst I'm not religious I think I'm going to play it safe on this occasion.

So the blogging will continue; there'll just be less of it, and probably concentrated in the summer when I'll probably be glad to swap bike or spade for keyboard once in a while. A Very Happy 2016 everyone, and if you make a single resolution, promise me you'll learn the difference (if you don't already know it) between 'purposely' and 'purposefully'. I thank you.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Paris

I was going to write something deep, meaningful and insightful about last Friday, but frankly I don't think it would add much to the sum of human understanding.

I'm also not going to change my Facebook profile pic so that it has red, white and blue running through it, nor post any virtue-signalling tweets.

Instead, I'm going to support the French by doing what me and the missus are lucky enough to be able to do regularly, and what we're doing the weekend after next. That involves paying our French taxes, buying French wine, and talking to our French neighbours.

We talk to our neighbours regularly of course, particularly Mrs M with her reasonably fluent French. She had what media people would call a "breakthrough moment" during the summer, when on showing our 80 year old retired farmer neighbour a calendar featuring pictures of Macclesfield from the early decades of last century, he declared (in French obviously, for never a word of English has knowingly escaped his lips), "you're not that different to us really" - the "you" being the English/British of course. For someone who's barely left the local commune in his 80 years, this was a cultural earthquake.

By telling them we were just as shocked by last Friday as we would have been had it happened in London or anywhere else in the UK, by them seeing (I hope) 80,000 football fans singing the Marseillaise tonight, and by mentioning that parts of the debate on the prevention of terrorism in the British parliament yesterday were conducted in French, it would be nice to think a few more of them will realise that "we're not that different".

That's not to defend the EU or suggest that we should have closer political ties; I haven't made my mind up on all that referendum-related stuff yet. It is, however, to make clear that there's far more that unites us than divides us - and that unity may prove quite useful against a common foe in the next year or two, especially if it filters through to our political and intelligence communities.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

More despatches from the front in the War on Bad English

Ok, so I'm not claiming that everything I write is either grammatically accurate (or indeed interesting), but I do get to see a lot of written stuff at work and on social media. Here are some latest horrors. Most are regular mistakes, a couple are one-off hilarities that I had to include:


  1. Apologises - a regular one, this. Used where the writer actually means 'apologies', as in "my apologises for not being able to help you".
  2. Decent - much abused in the world of online cycling blogs, as in "I had a great decent down the mountain pass". Don't forget the 's' fellas. (Fellas in a non-gender specific sense, obvs.)
  3. Where/were - seems to have originated in Liverpool, because in Scouse these two words sound exactly the same, but neither are pronounced in a way the rest of us recognise. Anyway, because they sound the same, they use them interchangeably in written form. "Where you there?" "Yes, somewere" is a not-uncommon exchange. This contagion seems to be spreading to non-Scouse types now, more's the pity
  4. Defiantly - used erroneously when the writer means definitely. Another riser in this year's Top 40. Note - defiantly means "in a rebellious way", whereas definitely means absolutely, for sure
  5. "It's a mute point" - oft heard in work situations. It's not a mute point my friend, it's a moot point; when you've heard other people saying it, they've been enunciating properly, not affecting an American accent.  Talking of which....
  6. Affect/effect. I'm not even bothering to explain this one
  7. Dependent/dependant - I'm dependent on breathing to stay alive; my children are mt dependants. Again, often used interchangeably. Stop it!
  8. "I think we're going to have to change tact" - another work horror show. TACK, not tact, you odious little man
  9. Talking of which, my current work's Mr. Malaprop declared yesterday that one of the tasks on his to-do list was 'odorous'. I think he meant onerous, as working in HR I'm pretty sure he wasn't on his way to muck out a pigsty
  10. Your/you're - I think I and my legion of fellow pedants are going to have to run up the white flag on this one, on the basis more people now seem to get it wrong than right. "Your great" now doesn't get much more of a reaction that a resigned sigh; it's only "did you receive you're present?" that gets the hackles rising
  11. To/too - how hard, pray tell, is it to understand that you need to use "too" when something has an excessive amount of a quantity of something, and that an event is also happening?  Too hard, apparently
  12. A lovely one-off - the Shropshire Star website wrote last week in one of its court reports, that an individual had been described in court as "repungent". Reading a little further, it became clear that said individual was not a very nice person at all - repugnant was the word the professionally-trained journalist was groping for, but unfortunately, failing to grasp.
There. I'm sure there are others, but that should be enough to get me classified as an old-fashioned, got-no-life, sad snob. Tssk, whatever. Standards, Jeeves, standards.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Permission to nag

It's more than a month since I last blogged, partly because I've not really had anything interesting to say (the unkind might say I never do), and partly because I've been so darned busy.

However, I'm in France at the moment for a few days, and I have a little time and energy to be a keyboard. So it's like this loyal reader....I need a collective conscience, and indeed I need to be nagged. Not now, next year. Round about end of March, start of April in fact. But you have my permission in advance.

Here's why. Right now I'm three months into what will be a six month, and could be a nine month assignment. It's one of the best I've had since I became self-employed; a nice firm, a strong leader, remarkably few politics, and a management team that actually wants me there. So far, so good. But it's damned hard work - 4.30am starts on a Monday, often not back till late on a Friday courtesy of the paved hells otherwise known as the A46, M4, M5 and M6, and all manner of stuff in between - one minute I'm talking IT, the next HR, then Finance, oh, and then I need to know how you go about setting maintenance budgets for an HGV. Now, I'm not asking you to get out your miniature violins - the work's well-paid and interesting. But to use an over-used word, it's not sustainable. For example, the 10 days I like to have in France at this time of year to bring my bike contracted to a week, then to three days - because of work demands. Thank God for grass, for if the half-acre's worth here hadn't have needed mowing I might not have come at all.

Which brings me to next year. I'm 50 next year - just about a year from now in fact. I have Plans, partly designed to celebrate that fact, and partly because I'm determined not to work till I'm 60 and then regret the fact I didn't spend my 50s running and riding whilst all my bits worked properly. Or at least the bits that need to for running and riding. Anyway, those plans involve many things, but not being at work in May, June and July is central to them. And frankly, if I work from now till the end of next March, you can chuck April in too.

I know what I'm like though. I don't know whether it's the curse of the Victorian work ethic, a terror of wondering where the next contract is coming from, or old-fashioned avarice, but sometimes I find it hard to say No when a work opportunity comes up. So if I'm working any later than mid-April in 2016 I need to be asked what the hell I think I'm doing. For a few months, creating a fully-functioning veg plot and greenhouse, seeing a bit more of Brittany and Normandy with Mrs M (hopefully on bicycle), training, and then having 10 days in the Pyrenees riding the Etape du Tour 12 years after my first attempt and then watching the Tour de France (having also seen the start at Mont St Michel) matter more than money. You can quote me on that, and in fact, please do.

Friday, 4 September 2015

I know what I did this summer

One of the joys of childhood, teenagerdom, and even your early '20s is the neat delineations of time those years bring with them. School years, GCSE results (or O Levels in my case, being a Gentleman of Advancing years), A Levels and university years all mean that many of us can pinpoint what we were doing in - say - 1984, far more easily than we can in 2006 (change years to suit your actual age). At least, that's the case for me. I can normally just about work out what was going on in each of the last 10 years by either remembering which major cycling event I did, and/or where we went on holiday. But those years don't generally come snapping back to my mind like those of 30 years ago do.

This summer, I sense, is going to be different. It's been extraordinary one way and another, and will stick in my head for a long time, not so much for any single event, but more for what I/we have packed in. Since we took delivery of 11 Le Millet in April, adding it to 9 Le Millet, I have (and a good number of these have been shared or done with Mrs M; hopefully they're self-identifying):

- had 6 weeks off work in France, with the rest at work in Staines, Newbury and Trowbridge

- gone a long way to getting the new French place in order. I've documented much of what we've done in previous blogs, so I'll limit myself to saying that, though by no means finished, it's now quite a pleasant place to be - and we've got some heavy duty pumpkins and squashes in the veg patch that I'm very much looking forward to harvesting when I'm next back there in October

- had a huge variety of visitors, of both the friend and paying variety. They've been British, French, Italian, good, bad and indifferent, and not always in the combinations you might expect. We've both joined the sharing economy by sourcing some of our guests from Airbnb, and gone back to the barter economy by swapping our glut of blackcurrants for neighbours' salad and potato surpluses

- seen the Tour de France, if not literally in our back yard, then certainly within a couple of kilometres of it, and a good portion of that stage on the roads that are delightful and familiar riding territory to me, less so for the vast majority of other Brits

- commuted between the UK and France at weekends. Not every weekend, but since the end of June more weekends than not. The logistics have been very kind to me; on the way out, I've been within 60 miles of Portsmouth, been able to get down there for the 3pm ferry to Caen, drive past the fairytale castle that is the beautifully-lit Mont St. Michel at midnight, to arrive 'home' at 12.30am-ish. On the way back, I've taken the 11pm ferry from Caen on a Sunday night, and been driving into work in Trowbridge earlier on a Monday morning than if I was travelling down from Cheshire. There have been some squeaky-bum moments, like the Sunday night the French farmers chose to block the Caen Peripherique, but overall, it's worked well. And it's felt exotic, driving on to French soil and its invariably warm evening air after a week at work

- been to two music festivals, again as previously blogged. Even two months on, with the benefit of reflection, the FFS (Franz Ferdinand & Sparks) gig remains the most remarkable I've been to in many a year

- eaten a mountain of fantastic seafood at a lovely restaurant in a gorgeous coastal town on our wedding anniversary. Thank you again Mrs M; what a treat that was - you even managed to get the weather delivered to order..

- done work I've actually enjoyed! Praise be to Hitachi for not being as ridiculously political and bureaucratic as many of the other places I've had the misfortune to work in recent times

- managed to squeeze in the hillwalking weekend with my son that he and I do each year in Shropshire. Each year has a twist, this year's being that we did the course in a single day, rather then two. It was tough coming on the back of a much reduced training volume (we ran a very sweaty 10 of the 27 hilly miles), but we managed. And a combination of Indian meal and B&B sherry afterwards meant we slept the sweetest sleep that night...

- had the rare opportunity to get my kids all together for a trip to France, which occurred over last Bank Holiday weekend. The timing couldn't have been better either for a bit of celebration - since the start of the summer they have, respectively, become the youngest female project manager at her grade in Network Rail, graduated from Exeter with a 2:1 in Philosophy and got a 1st in an Accountancy summer school, and got straight A*s in her A Levels, and so be accepted into Magdalen College, Oxford to do Politics, Philosophy & Economics. Apologies for coming over all Nauseating Christmas Card-y, but I couldn't be prouder. The icing on the cake though? They're all funny, nice people who get on well together, and who it's a pleasure to be around.  Here we are on the Plymouth to Roscoff ferry 8 days ago, just before they got me tipsier than I should have been...


So that was my summer. It was a good 'un, and one I'll remember in another 30 years....

Friday, 31 July 2015

Cecil and Venard

It's quite strange being on a non-Dover-Calais cross-Channel ferry (I'm on Portsmouth- Caen) this time of year for me - I'm surrounded by people going on their holidays for a couple of weeks, in their summer clothes and with their happy demeanours (apart from those with young children, who look as stressed and as knackered as usual). I'm sitting here in my 'dressdown Friday' work clothes, reviewing operating models and organisational designs, the joy of which I'll be back to on Monday. It sounds like I'd rather be in their position, but I wouldn't - not only have had plenty of holiday time already this year, but I'm in the very fortunate position of not having a set number of days off work each year that I count down as I take them; I suspect the same isn't true for my fellow sailors.

Anyway, the fact my brain's engaged on work things isn't helping me resolve this week's self-created moral question, viz. animals, and our relationship with them.  The prompt for this of course is the storm of social media outrage - that became mainstream media outrage - over the killing of Cecil the Lion by Walter the Dentist. Now, I hate lynch mob mentality, and the aggressive opprobrium of Facebookdom and Twittersphere, so I almost felt sorry for our Walt. When I learned he'd paid a very large amount of dollars for the privilege of taking part in the hunt - much of which would be ploughed into maintaining the flora, fauna and more practically, the fences that allow Big Game to resist the encroachment of human dwellings and industries - I was even more conflicted; the argument was that Walt's dollars were aiding the conservation of the species he was hunting. Much the same argument as for estates and their shoots in the UK.

So my moral compass started swinging away from the bleeding hearts who cast Walt as an evil unspeakable. However, however...........there are two things countering all that. First, I just can't get my head round the urge, desire, thrill, whatever you want to call it, to hunt and kill animals that aren't threats or pests to human existence - and I include farming in that - and are as downright glamorous as Big Cec. Second, it has no direct bearing at all on the issue, but we lost our lovely French canine friend this week, Venard, after he ate some poison that had been irresponsibly been left somewhere local. Me and the missus have mentioned him elsewhere, so I won't say any more about him here, other than that I genuinely feel like I've lost a bloody good mate. Which, frankly, I have. And that's made me go a bit gooey about animals....

So I've been a bit conflicted. I was brought up in and around agriculture however, and have come back to that upbringing to help me sort this out in my head. I've got a fairly utilitarian attitude to animals generally - they're there to serve a purpose, even if that purpose is decoration and companionship. That said, a cornerstone of British agriculture for the vast majority of British farmers is good animal husbandry. Yes, they're working creatures that will have foreshortened lives, but you treat them properly. Part of that is pragmatic - look after the assets and they'll give you a good return, but having known a fair few farmers over my lifetime, whilst I suspect many wouldn't admit it, I'd say there was a moral side to their good practices too.

All that's quite helpful on reflection, so here are the rules; if you keep it for profit or if it's a companion, treat it well and with respect, but don't forget you're the boss; if it's wild, a nuisance and not endangered, hunting and killing humanely is ok; if it's wild, but doesn't do you or anybody else any harm, the economics are irrelevant - damn well leave it alone at the very least, and nurture it at best. There, no so hard after all was it?

Friday, 24 July 2015

Dear Labour Party (an open letter)...

I've never voted for you, and probably never will; our values, beliefs and views of the human condition are just too far apart. In fact, whilst I respect the traditions from which you emerged, I heartily dislike much of the modern party, and particularly your virtue-signalling, offence-taking members who seem to think anyone who doesn't vote for them must have some kind of moral disease.

My first reaction, therefore, when I see the horrible mess you've got yourself into with this leadership election is to laugh like a drain. It really is tremendously entertaining. However, history teaches us many things, and one of them is that good government needs a good opposition. Weak opposition means governments get lazy, complacent, and do stupid things. And the way you're going at the moment, you couldn't oppose your own thumbs, let alone a cocky Conservative government.

Now, I've spent many hours in the car in the last week, and have had the misfortune to listen to interviews on the radio with the four people who are competing to be your leader. Here's my assessment:

Andy Burnham - chippy northern bloke with a dire track record in government, pretending to be a plucky outsider to the political village, when in reality he's steeped in it. Impossible to work out what he believes in; speaks in indecipherable political cliches

Yvette Cooper - chippy northern woman with a dire track record in government, pretending that the last Labour government did nothing wrong. Impossible to works out what she believes in; speaks in indecipherable political cliches

Liz Kendall - interesting only in the respect that she reminds me of that generic squeaky-voiced well-meaning teacher that you'd meet at a parents evening, and whilst despising her general drippiness you'd think the black nail polish made her seem slightly exotic and attractive. Slightly easier to work out what she believes in, but still speaks in indecipherable political cliches

Jeremy Corbyn - hahahahahahahahahah! You allowed him to go on the ballot paper "to widen the debate", you allowed people to join the party for £3 and have full voting rights, and now he's winning by some assessments. Are you completely insane?! We all know absolutely what he believes in, and believe me, if he's elected, it'll be touch-and-go next time (if he makes it through to 2020 without meeting Peter Mandelson in a dark alley one night) whether you or the SNP have more seats.

So, they're a shower, that much is clear. Chuka Umunna would have added some polish, if not depth, and you really messed up by not putting the brother David in charge five years ago. Either of them would have worried the other side. The current lot? Not so much.

I've read much in the last week about what you should do from a policy point-of-view; should you turn Left, or Right, stay in the middle, come down from the moral high ground etc etc. You don't even know whether to go with the courage of your convictions, or be voter- and pressure-group led.

But here's the thing - none of what I've read or heard actually talks about leadership. The candidates are discussed only as totems for policy, not as actual leaders of a surprisingly still-large group of people, and potentially, a country. If you want to stand a chance of sorting yourself out, forget talking about policy for the foreseeable; most of us aren't interested, and even if we were you're not going to get chance to implement any of if for five years, probably much longer given the strength of the SNP and the forthcoming constituency boundary changes.

Nope, get yourself a proper leader - someone who can lead with conviction rather than via focus groups, but who, unlike JC, has at least the semblance of a grip on reality. They'll sort all that policy guff out; they'll make people believe in him/her; they'll give Cameron a run for his money in Parliament; they'll be someone who the rest of us can picture in a room with Putin without actually dirtying their underwear.

So there you go. Over to you. And one last thing - change your increasingly stupid name. I "labour" just as much and probably more than most of your members, and I ain't coming your way any time soon.

Yours aye,

Amused & Concerned In Equal Measure, Macclesfield

Friday, 17 July 2015

Up close & personal

I think we all have that streak of parochialism in us that means that no matter how much we like to think we're unshockable, urbane polymaths with a healthy world view, stuff still means more when it's close to home or you see it with your own eyes.

Two very contrasting events have brought that home to me this afternoon as I've worked and amused myself on what, for most of the next few weekends, is my rather exotic commute - Trowbridge in Wiltshire to Ploeuc-sur-Lie, via Portsmouth and Brittany Ferries. The first is very sad, and seems to be today's lead news story (at least on the BBC News site) - the explosion at the wood mill at Bosley just outside Macclesfield. Not only is this very close to home, but the dramatic pictures are shot from a tiny back road I've cycled down many times (there's a cracking climb soon after) - it just seems strange to think millions of people are seeing that little road. Even the canal towpath that runs close to the factory, and on which I do much of my running training, has been closed. The first thought, of course, is that things work out as well as possible for the poor buggers involved who are either injured or missing; but that thought is more intense than it would be were the incident in, say, Dundee rather than Macclesfield. Wrong, but natural I think.

The other event was the three days I spent last Friday to Sunday watching the Tour de France with Neil. It was good in many ways that he cam over to watch - first, it's always nice having guests over (though he was one of the several who had already experienced the delights of Le Millet). It's also a pleasure both to show people the joys of cycling in France, and to ride to the race route with somebody. However, having someone across prompted me to go that bit further than I would have done had it just been me (and possibly Mrs M). I certainly wouldn't have driven on my own the 100km to the outskirts of Fougeres last Friday, and then fought my way to within 120m of the finish line - but we were richly rewarded for doing so by seeing a late Cavendish surge to see him take the stage win. I probably wouldn't have left so early to bag my place at the top of Saturday's categorised climb (other than Mur de Bretagne itself), but again, we managed to get a prime spot right under the King of the Mountain banner (which meant I could get excited when we were on the ITV4 highlights). And on Sunday, whilst I'd have gone down to Plumelec for the Team Time Trial, I probably wouldn't have pushed through the crowds to get a cracking shot of Froome and Sky in the last 200m. Nor would I have seen Cavendish high-five-ing the crowds as he rolled in behind his team mates.  So, thanks Neil (he also brought the best housewarming present ever - speakers, amp and ipod dock; how cool's that?!).

Being close to events does two things for me - on the one hand it de-mystifies them (pro cyclists are clearly fine specimens, but neither are they all Adonises). On the other, it can intensify the experience and create more questions than if you watch from afar (how do those same cyclists go up hills so rapidly?).

Actually, mention of Adonises reminds me that I saw Lord Adonis (ex-cabinet minister in the final Blair government) on Monday. He was at Exeter Uni to receive a honorary doctorate, as part of the same ceremony my son Seb picked up his degree in Philosophy. Both were conferred, anointed, whatever the right word is, by Floella Benjamin (who also sits in the House of Lords these days); she insists on giving all participants in the ceremony (of which there were many) a massive hug and headstroke. Seb's not the most tactile person in the world, but he didn't seem too appalled.

So, chuck work into the mix, and it's been a busy and varied week, which will be topped off nicely by the visit of the Macclesfield Lawtons to the France gaff this weekend, assuming the horrors of Calais don't get in their way tonight. Which means I need to be on form for some drinking and barbequeing, which in turn means it's time for a little snooze before we dock....

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

FFS

No, not For F**k's Sake; Franz Ferdinand & Sparks. That's what the "supergroup", comprising the two groups, now call themselves. I thought it was a wind-up when I heard the two of them had got together to both record and perform, and the name doesn't do anything to dispel that. After all, one was/is an American, predominantly electronic, group from the '70s, and the other is a British indie-ish, guitar band of the '00s onwards. As it happens, I'm just the right age to know and love both of them independently, but I couldn't quite see how it was going to work with them together. I got chance to find out last Saturday night, when they performed at Bobital Festival near us here in Brittany.

In a nutshell: Gig of the Year, possibly longer. It was brilliant - funny, energetic, quirky, melodic, fun, excellent sound quality, and it went in the blink of an eye. It wasn't a mickey-take, but there was plenty of humour. Track 6 at the gig (which is on their joint album) was Collaborations Don't Work, which tells you all you need to know. I also thought it was hysterical that the last song of the night, sung by an American and a Brit to a mainly French audience, was called Piss Off.

The gig was basically Franz Ferdinand's four biggest hits, Sparks' four biggest (though not Beat The Clock, my only slight disappointment of the night), and eight tracks off their album. The crowd's favourite was undoubtedly Take Me Out. Mine was Number 1 Song in Heaven, which I've loved for 36 years, and never thought I'd see done live. Even less likely was Ron Mael (the mad staring one which a variety of choice moustaches), who normally sits statue-like still at his keyboards, carefully loosening his tie, shuffling to the middle of the stage, and doing a mental Dad-dance at the end of the song. Weird and wonderful. 

Anyway, the two groups apparently got together because they had a mutual admiration. It showed - they all (Ron aside, but you disappointed if he showed any emotion), looked as though they were all thoroughly enjoying themselves, and that fed through to the crowd. If you like or have ever liked either or both of FF or S, go see them together if you get chance: you'll love it.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Lit Spat

I'm not a particularly literary sort - I like reading, but I'm not one for bagging the classics; never read Jane Austen, War & Peace, any of those kind of works. So when I was struggling to remember any of the great literary grudge matches that have gone on over the years, the only one I could recall without use of the electric internet was that between V S Naipaul and Paul Theroux (father of Louis), and the only reason I could remember that one is that Paul Theroux is one of my favourite authors. (His travel books are Bill Bryson-esqe without some of the bubblegum, and his fiction is much underrated in my view (My Secret History being my favourite)). The two of them fell out many years ago over something trivial, and the bile that each of them has unleashed since has been wonderful to behold - and they've used columns, interviews and other media to unleash it. Disappointingly as far as connoisseurs of the insult are concerned, the two of them are now on speaking terms again.

Why do I mention this? Well my friends, great mate and fellow blogger Mendip Rouleur shared this offering with the world on Sunday night: http://t.co/0Ov5vBimpm, a piece in which he castigates both some of my musical preferences, and my 'thinking' approach to music generally. I did think of posting a comment at the bottom of his blog, but frankly, it's much more entertaining to go down the passive-aggressive route of writing the social media equivalent of an open letter back to him, i.e. this.

Now, I'm not going to criticise either his musical tastes, not least because I've not bothered to listen to the links of any of the songs he's raved about in his blog, so have no grounds to do so. But even if I had what I considered to be grounds, it would only be my opinion, and trading insults over subjective opinions is futile. I can't bear it when someone observes "that genre/band/song is rubbish". No, you might not like it, but that does not constitute empirical evidence of its rubbishness.

What I'm going to take issue with is two things, the first a generalisation, the second a question of philosophy.

The generalisation: Mr Rouleur (as I shall be forced to call him if our mutual vendetta is truly to have wings) doesn't make the mistake of saying heavy metal is rubbish, merely just that it's "not his cup of tea". Fair enough, but to the aficionado of the rock and metal oeuvre, that's tantamount saying "I don't much like food". What, none? I bet I could locate a track that in an unguarded moment my blogging sparring partner would grudgingly admit to being alright. It would have to be all angsty and meaning-laden, but if I trawled Jethro Tull's back catalogue I'm sure we could come up with the goods.

And the question of philosophy: I vividly recall a moment when Mr Rouleur and I were sharing a room during one of our Pyrenean escapades, and I was bouncing around to some latest piece of Euro-chart-disco-shite, and he turned to me with great solemnity and sadness and asked (rhetorically I think, seriously I'm sure) "you just listen to music to enjoy it don't you?" Dear reader, I'm tempted to make no further comment other than "I rest my case", or possibly "Er....yes".

But I shall not yield to that temptation. Yes, I do listen to music to enjoy it - possibly just for the sake of the music itself, possibly to enhance some other activity (e.g. running, relaxing, dancing [especially when I'm washing up; you should try it - turn drudge into joy]). Music is not work - it's not something to be endured or prodded and poked for virtue; listening to it for its content and significance is not worthy in its own right. It's an enabler for a mood, just like booze and other stimulants / depressives. It's to be appreciated in its own right, which is why, as well as rock and metal, I like many, many other forms - old stuff, modern stuff, rap, grunge, disco, electro, folk, garage, goth, opera (even if it just musicals for posh folk), and yes, even some jazz. My mind is open to the possibility of greatness without meaning.

So there we have it - the opinion of a hard-hearted, latter-day, cynical management consultant. Do you parley or respond sir?

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A l'avenir

Part of the reason I love the French language so much is that I don’t speak it. Now that might sound a bit dubious, but “avenir” is so much more pleasing that “future” when it’s not your native tongue – there’s even a bike race in France called the “Tour de l’Avenir” (the Tour of the Future), which features up-and-coming riders. Anyway, it was the 10th wedding anniversary this week of the good lady wife and I, and she consequently (and brilliantly) organised a couple of a days and a single night away from Chateau Kinsey, at Chateau Mont Dol in fact. Mont Dol is a small hump of land visible to the right just off the motorway as you pass by Mont St. Michel, and the Chateau is a privately-owned hotel, with superb garden rooms leading into an equally superb garden. I’ll come back to the time away; the point was that we were talking about the future, and our approaches to it.

Now I’m the kind of person who loves plans – not rigid ones, because they have a habit of going awry, but certainly outline ones as far as “the future” is concerned; where I’m going to be working and living, what I’m going to be doing with my spare time, athletic pursuits and otherwise. Mrs M on the other hand, doesn’t make plans, and even when she does, she tends to forget them. If it’s not on the calendar, it’s not happening as far as she’s concerned. I pointed this out to her (the no plans bit, not the calendar thing). “Is that wrong?” she asked, in the tone of voice that makes the question a genuinely inquisitive one, rather than an accusatory one. I had to think, as the concept of not making plans was, momentarily, beyond my sphere of understanding. “No”, was my eventual answer, “as long as you take opportunities that present themselves along the way”. And in her case, and I like to think our case, we partly create those opportunities too. That’s probably why I bang on probably a bit too much about what we’re doing in France, because we partly created the opportunity, and we took it when it arose.

The result has not just been about acquiring a little land and a second small house, but about creating a different life. Other people might call it a lifestyle, but I hate that word – it’s too associated with pretentious magazines and sloppy journalism. It means we can be in France as much as we want to be subject to the rules about becoming a French tax resident (a big no-no), which effectively means up to 25 weeks a year. It means we can be there and still earn a bit of money from renting the original house. More importantly, it means that we get to meet new and interesting people who stay there. However, the best new thing as far as I’m concerned is the garden. We’ve not done that much with the productive part of it yet, but that hasn’t stopped the existing fruit bushes, and the blackcurrants in particular, from going wild. They’re laden. I could have spent a working day on the blackcurrants yesterday and not harvested them all. And they actually taste sweet, unlike the shop-bought things. The night before we had a salad which included beet leaves, lettuce and mint from out of the garden. These are small things that would mean nothing to many people, but they matter to me. Sure you can buy all of those things these days for a pathetically small proportion of your income, but wandering out of your back door, hearing nothing but the birds singing and maybe a distant dog barking, and picking them directly from the soil, reconnects you with things that matter.

Anyway, enough lyricism, you’d think we’d got it all cracked out there. We haven’t – despite a new bathroom, tidied up electrics and some decorating, there’s a long way to go inside and out at the new place. It’s habitable, but that’s about it. I’m feeling both frustrated and slightly guilty that I’m writing this on the ferry back to the UK to do a week's work– this coming week was the one single clear seven day period with no visitors or events, and I’d hoped to crack on with things further. However, for the sake of a week’s flexibility now, I've got a contract to do interesting work that lasts till the end of September, and I’ll have a further week off 10 days from now for Tour de France excitement. (Indeed, I think I may well set a new record for the number of cross-Channel ferries taken by a non-ferry company employee in the next month or so. I’ll be doing the Portsmouth to Caen crossing alone 3 times in 5 days next Friday to Tuesday).

That’s the frustration bit; the guilty part is that Mrs M is going to have to get on with stuff in my absence, and around her work. At least I’ll be there at weekends to mow the lawn, and next week, accompany her to another music festival, though not, thank the Lord, one that involves tents or overnight stays (see last blog post). However, she’ll be having to take carpet deliveries, paint bathrooms, clear up after paying guests, stain and varnish wooden floors, and so on, when I’m not around. I have no compensation or mitigation to offer, other than that by working now, she’ll see more of me between my 50th and 60th birthdays than would otherwise be the case. Though some might think that’s more of a punishment than a reward.

Two final things – the first goes back to our days and night away this week. We ate lunch on Wednesday at Cancale, a small Breton coastal town known for its seafood production and restaurants. In these heady days of Trip Advisor, we ate at the number one rated restaurant in the place, out of a formidable list of about 53. Just as well we consulted that particular oracle, because it was fairly unprepossessing from the outside. But the food – wow. We had a seafood platter for two that came on a boat-shaped polystyrene construction. Oysters, langoustines, large prawns, shrimps, two whole crabs of different variety, and things I only know the French names for all featured, and it was both fantastic and time-consuming – 2 hours it took us to get through the thing (plus a couple of carafes of rose wine). It was a wonderful protein overdose.
And the second final thing – in case you’re thinking I’m sounding too pleased with myself, I have this week, in no particular order:

-         -  Accidentally burned on a bonfire a very expensive pair of secateurs
-          - Crashed quite nastily on my bike only metres from home taking a corner stupidly quickly; I now have a stiff neck and a hole in my left leg
-          - Been shouted at by a French policeman for trying to teach him a lesson; don’t ignore a gendarme folks, even if he is a narcissistic prick


My battery runs low though my enthusiasm is still high. Enough.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Wildean Revisionism, a.k.a. Hellfest 2015 (Day 2)

Oscar Wilde apparently wrote that "everything should be tried once, apart from incest and folk dancing". I'm not going to argue with him on the first of those, but if participating in a couple of ceilidhs at Scottish weddings counts, I've done the folk dancing thing, and to be honest, it beats going to an outdoor festival if you're a miserable git over 40 who doesn't much like thronging crowds, particularly 50,000 people being steadily baked and pickled under some strong French sun.

Yes, I was at Hellfest yesterday (but not Friday or today; more on that later), France's premier rock and metal festival. Now, don't misunderstand me, the music was great, and by way of a wander down Tangent Boulevard, here's who I saw, with a very short line review of each:

Ace Frehley (ex-Kiss) and his band: pretty good, with the grinning, gurning, singing drummer star of the show

Airbourne: brilliant. 4th time I've seen them, and they always make the gig feel like a party, even when the stage loses power for 10 minutes like yesterday. Best loud live act in the world in my opinion, and boy, are they ever loud - my internal organs always feel as though they're being rattled againstst each other. Sporty types - check out "No Way But The Hard Way" for a top training anthem

L7: hadn't been aware of their existence before yesterday, and our paths won't be crossing again. Think a collection of gin-soaked aunts playing bad heavy metal

Slash (with Myles Kennedy singing): own stuff competent, Guns 'n' Roses tracks still the highlight

Killing Joke: had lost track of them since 1981, but they made a pleasingly dirty noise

ZZ Top: started slowly, ended brilliantly. Couldn't understand why more of the crowd weren't boogeying like me, then I realised at least 50% of them weren't born when the good ol' boys were being properly famous

Faith No More: only caught the first 10 and the last 20 minutes; they're clearly proper musicians, but were determined to do what they wanted rather than what the crowd wanted to hear

Scorpions: had expected them to be my highlight; in the end maybe it was fatigue, but whilst you couldn't fault their performance, it wasn't either exciting or a party (see Airbourne and ZZ Top)

Marilyn Manson: if he dropped the attitude and interminable, silent gaps between songs could be a half-decent performer - has the songs

So, that was the music. It was a pretty good line-up, and on Friday there had been Alice Cooper, Motorhead and Billy Idol among others. All jolly good. As were the incredible fireworks at 11pm, and the general design and staging of the event - will put a small selection of photos on the Book of Faces.

However........now, I'm not going to criticise anything in particular. There were clearly lots of people having the time of their lives, and for whom the chaotic parking arrangements, festival-standard toilets, and sleep deprivation caused by all-night partying are tiny pimples on an otherwise beautiful face; maybe they even consider them enhancements. For me though, not so much. Just as I always swore after a particularly wet walking and camping holiday in the Lakes when I was 18 that the two things wouldn't again be coupled in my lifetime, I think I can say the same for gigs and camping - one or the other, fine; both, non merci.

The experience has nevertheless been a valuable one insofar as it's reminded me that I'm getting less good at doing things on the cheap, and therefore work takes on a renewed purpose. Which is just as well, as I'll be back at it a week tomorrow, just for a week or so, before I return to France on the 7th July for the planned Tour de France days. The company through whom I do most of my work has won a big bit of business, and is keen for some early help. It's a nice project for a management consultant too - we've got three months to turn round an interesting business in the early stages of deep trouble. It's also based in Trowbridge, which makes a nice change from London.

Talking of not doing things on the cheap, it's the 10th wedding anniversary of me and the missus this week, and she has, bless her, booked us into a fantastic fish and seafood restaurant in Cancale (a major oyster-producing area) on Wednesday lunchtime, followed by a night in a local chateau. I suspect that'll be much more up my autoroute than the last 24 hours, which she probably knows. She also knows, tolerates and forgives my many foibles and idiosyncrasies, for which I am eternally grateful.

And talking of being grateful (the segues in this post are getting more predictable that a local radio dj), Son came out to France last week for six days, and spent some of his time here assisting in the prep of the new place next door. He also left me with two things, one of which I'm grateful for, the other less so. The one I could have managed without was a short-lived, but nasty summer cold, or some suchlike. I awoke on Friday with every part of me aching, including my eye sockets (never a good look), along with general snottiness and gastric misadventure. Travel was an impossibility, much less standing in blazing sun watching rock music for 12 hours. I'm also not doing that today, even though Hellfest continues, principally because the big name acts were frontloaded in terms of the scheduling, shall we say. Cock & Ball Torture anybody? No? Biohazard perhaps? You get the idea...

Oh yes, the other thing Son left me with. Well, it was opinion that he enjoys my more current affairs-geared posts on here, and I should do more of them. So I might. In the meantime, I'm off to enjoy Fathers Day by having a ride in the Breton sun.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Postscript....TdF route excellence

So the detailed routemap of this year's Tour de France has been published. On the second Saturday (11th July) it's in Brittany, and it's a dream route:

- Mr. Prudhomme obviously got my letter - I've been telling him for years they ought to climb the Col du Mont de Bel Air, my favourite training climb, and from where over the last five years I've posed countless pics of an idiot, much like this one in fact:


- anyway, they're doing it - it's the first categorised climb of the day, even if they are doing it from the easy side, lightweights
the intermediate sprint of the day is right outside my favourite pizza restaurant and micro-brewery. I'll be having a word with them on Saturday to bag a place outside...
- the route then bends close to our house, passing 2 miles away at its closest point
- best of all though, because the riders have to do a big loop south we'll be able to both watch the intermediate sprint, then bike over to the hilltop finish at Mur-de-Bretagne.

As you might be able to tell, I'm quite pleased, and not a little excited.

Better go and do the last couple of days work to be able to afford the time off....



Monday, 1 June 2015

Here comes summer...

Two years ago I had five weeks off work - unpaid, slightly involuntarily - starting from the first weekend in June. Last year I had five weeks off work again - still unpaid, but totally voluntarily, as I was by then self-employed - and it started from mid-August. I enjoyed both, but I preferred the earlier break - last year I felt as though summer was passing me by as I watched tourists boil on the streets of London from my overheated work cell.

So, this year I'm having at least five weeks off again, and it starts - again - from the first weekend of June: i.e. this coming weekend. Wednesday is my last day on the current assignment, and Thursday is the second delivery of the one-day Peoplemad course for Business Wales. But then on Friday I'll be up with the birds to drive down to Portsmouth, and the ferry to France.

I'm not exactly going for a rest - in addition to continuing the garden taming project, the new house has got to be habitable by 24th June, which is when the old place is booked out to paying guests. This means a partial re-wiring, bathroom replacement, and total redecoration (only the last of which is being done by us to be fair).

We'd be busy enough if that were the extent of our ambitions, but we've also got two music festivals, one local with mainly French acts (though if anyone remembers Sparks, they're on the bill too), the other the renowned Hellfest, complete with ZZ Top, The Scorpions, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Motorhead, Slash, and many other rock gods. We've also got Son coming out for six days - though I hope to benefit from his labours - a night away for our 10th wedding anniversary, the local races, the women's Tour de France locally, and friend Neil coming out for the three days the male Tour de France is in our vicinity. Phew. And even when I leave to come back, when I drive off the ferry at Portsmouth on 13th July at 7.15am I'll be racing to Exeter for the late morning graduation ceremony of said Son that day.

So, much to do and not much time to do it in. Training takes a backseat for a while, and anything on here is likely to be a tale or two of la vie francais. Hope that's ok........

Saturday, 16 May 2015

White Peak Marathon 2015

Don't worry, this isn't going to be a blow-by-by account of every mile.......

...there's a saying among cyclists that "it never gets easier, you just get faster". Well, the opposite seems to apply to me and running - I never get faster, it just gets easier. Take today for example, this year's White Peak Marathon, run on the glorious Tissington and High Peak trails in Derbyshire, finishing at Cromford, near Matlock. If I say so myself, I did everything right - preparation, in-race drinking, eating, all spot-on. I even managed my first ever "negative split" (i.e. the second half is run faster than the first half), meaning my pacing was good too. And yet, I still only did it in 3 hours 25 mins.

Which is respectable, but not remarkable. Good, but not great, as Roy Walker used to say on the original Catchphrase. It was enough to have me finish 29th out of 166 today, again quite respectable across a bunch of reasonably good athletes. The thing is, I ran as hard as my little legs would let me as a couple of minor calf cramps in the last couple of miles reminded me. The other thing is, I feel brand new now. No blisters, no soreness, no mad hunger, no dehydration, no exhaustion; I genuinely feel like I could go and do it again tomorrow. Which is why I say I'm not getting faster, but it is getting easier.

Maybe the thing to do is not to try to go faster, but go further...hmmmm. I'm teasing, I've already entered my first ultramarathon. It's in September, and it's a relatively modest (for an ultra) 35 miles. That at least is further than 50km, the generally-accepted minimum distance for a true ultra. It's also damn hilly, as many ultras tend to be. The best thing about it is that it gives me a great excuse to spend some money on some new kit. More on that in due course.

Anyway, back to today's race, and in case any of the organisers get to see this, a word - or several - of thanks and praise. It's a brilliantly organised event; loads of friendly marshals, many water stations, well-marked route, and best of all, the goodie bag contains fruit and a commemorative mug, and none of the corporate PR pap you so often get. Combine all that with the route being exclusively offroad in the lovely Derbyshire Dales, kind weather like we had today, and a very reasonable entry fee, and the whole thing's a winner. But specifically thanks again to all the club volunteers at this at every other local, low key event, whether they're running, cycling, whatever; they don't have to turn out and marshal, but quite simply these events wouldn't happen without them. They're true stars.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

More than the usual amount of bewilderment....

What's bewildering me this week then? The general election, the potential result, and the things that are occupying the headlines, or rather, aren't.

First, Scotland, and the SNP. Now, I love Scotland, and some of best friends have even been there. Joke - I worked for Bank of Scotland for several years, I have Scottish family, and I know Edinburgh as well as any other British city. However, it seems to me that the canny bairns are getting away with political murder at the moment, and political mass murder potentially after the election. Last year, they had an open referendum, and decided by quite a reasonable margin to stay part of the UK; fair enough, though if can't say I was particularly arsed whether they stayed or went. Now, however, it looks like they'll send a bunch of MPs to Westminster who overwhelmingly will be intent on holding a likely Labour minority government to ransom for their support, demanding yet more cash than they already get under the Barnett Formula, cash that isn't deserved, and certainly isn't earned. All this, however, is not the bewildering part - it's a great scam on their part. What's bewildering me is that England and the English are not alive to this possibility, and are seriously considering electing a sufficient number of Labour MPs to make this scenario possible. If there weren't already enough reasons not to vote Labour, here's the decider, surely?

Before I go any further, let me re-balance things. I've just suggested that people shouldn't be voting Labour. The alternatives aren't that edifying however. Unless you genuinely want to see the UK's standard of living go backwards through economic stagnation and decline, voting Green is just mad. And neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats are properly serious about tackling two of the biggest issues that concern me - debt and housing.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to take a rounded view of what's best for everyone when I vote, not just me. This is where I get bewildered again. Let's take the debt issue - the debate currently is all about the speed at which the various parties will eliminate the deficit. Not the debt, the deficit. There is no mention of the staggering £1.5 trillion we'll owe as the national debt, nor the £48 billion (minimum) interest bill we'll pay annually for the privilege of having that debt. The Tories' pledge not to increase taxes in the face of those numbers is just bonkers, and I don't truly believe any other party gives a stuff anyway; it's just about promising stuff now to get elected now. But debt levels like that (and what percentage of the electorate I wonder understands the difference between debt and deficit?), will really hurt us all in future years, young more than the old, especially if interest rates start back on an upward track at some point. It's time to stop increasing the overdraft and start paying off our loans, else today's school leavers will look back at claims that 2010 to 2015 were years of 'austerity' with a bitter laugh.

And so to housing. Again, I'm bewildered at both the big parties. So the Tories extend Right to Buy; great - but the problem is the lack of supply of houses, causing prices to be at historic multiples of average price to salary, in turn causing countless people not to be able to buy a home, even with interest rates where they are. The true market solution here would be to ensure that supply and demand were more in tune with each other, but I see few signs of that in what the Tories say. As for Labour, rent controls, really? Have you ever actually opened a history book any of you, or looked at overseas examples? Rent controls are a sure fire way to destroy the housing stock of a city, and a damn sight faster than you might imagine. Another insane policy, but countless inner city dwellers, the exact people who will be most harmed by that policy, will vote Labour nevertheless.

So as I say, I'm bewildered. I could go on, but I won't. I fear for what will happen after next Thursday. I may have to emigrate. ;)

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Top 5 things on today's DIY East Cheshire Mountain Marathon

Right now I'm going through one of those rare and frustrating periods - I'm in Macclesfield without any work; if I've no work I'd rather be in France, and frankly if my usual source of work doesn't get its act together a bit sharpish I'll be back off there next week.

Anyway, I saw the weather forecast last night and it looked great for today, and without anything round the house to do that couldn't wait another 24 hours, I decided to follow up the two quarter marathons and two half marathons I've done in the last four days, and go for a full marathon, in the hills, in the sunshine. Oh man, it was glorious too. I'm knackered now, as you would be after 28 miles and more than 4,000 feet of climbing, but it was so worth it.

Instead of describing it (there are some photographs on Facebook of me at various high points on the route, and anyone who's interested in the route can follow me on Strava), I shall limit myself to the five best things about the run, other than, of course, the wonderful weather and amazing countryside we're blessed with round these parts.

#5: the number of old geezers out walking the Gritstone Way and other footpaths. There were dozens of them, some alone, but most in groups of perhaps seven or eight. Life doesn't end when you're 65.

#4: Cat & Fiddle pub - despite its proximity and the fact it's officially the 2nd highest pub in England, I'd never been in it before today, and it was the one bit of external help I allowed myself (a pint of Pepsi for a very reasonable, given the location, £2.50). What a nice surprise - it's really pleasant in there. I'd always thought it was a bikers' pub predominantly, and it might be at the weekends, but they serve all sorts of stuff.

#3: re-creating the moment in Wayne's World when they're lying on the bonnet of their car, talking, and they're drowned out by a plane above them. As I ran down from Shutlingsloe on the Forest side the daily Emirates service into Manchester - the gargantuan Airbus A380 - flew right over me; I could nearly read the pilot's name badge

#2: the smell of the gorse blossom at this time of year - it's a sweet, vanilla-like smell that was being  wafted over the moors and hills by the gentle breeze. Gorgeous

#1: coming face-to-face (well, perhaps 20 yards away) from a male, female and baby deer in Macclesfield Forest. First, perhaps I'm a bit dim, but I didn't know we had deer in the Forest, and second, they mustn't have thought I was much of a threat, because the three of them stopped and stared at me from just off the path I was running up. It was first thing this morning, with the sun just beginning to shimmer through the trees, and it was just magical

So for the price of a Pepsi, a couple of energy bars and possibly one lost toenail I've had a brilliant day.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Grappling Irons

Being offline right now as I am (aboard the M/V Bretagne between St. Malo and Portsmouth), I have no real idea what grappling irons actually are, though I’ve a suspicion they’re something to do with climbing. I have my doubts, therefore, whether they’d help me successfully grapple with the self-imposed dilemma I’m currently facing.

You see, like many of us, when things are swimmingly along quite nicely I get this temptation to complicate them a little. The plan had been to buy next door in France, then spend the next year to 18 months doing the place up progressively, whilst I carried on working in the UK when work was available. We’d move in to it this summer after a few basics were addressed, and all would be well.

Well….that still might turn out to be the plan, but there’s a bit of me that’s mighty tempted to take some extended time off now – till the end of July say – and blitz all the jobs that need doing. As I write, I have no confirmed work for the coming weeks, and I’ve been messed around a bit over the last couple of weeks by my regular source of work, another factor contributing to the consideration of a working sabbatical. (You might ask why I’m going home at all, if I’ve no work next week. Good question, but there are some loose ends to tie up, including confirming an agreement to do a minimum of 6 days work over the next few months with a new source, which is good).

A further factor still is that the “jobs” are, in the main, such damn fun. Over the last ten days or so I have, in roughly reverse order:

-         -  Had a fantastically aggressive bonfire last night with all the things we’ve cut down, pruned or pulled out of the ground; inevitably the wind was blowing in precisely the wrong direction, so the few neighbours we have would have been overcome by smoke till the thing was damped down (sorry to them. Sorry also if they witnessed me peeing on the compost heap earlier in the week; it needed watering, I needed a wee and I was outside, it seemed like a happy confluence of considerations)


-          - Bought and now used in anger a ride-on lawnmower. Three quarters of an acre of mowing done in an hour, bosch. Letting the 10 year old son of our new Scottish neighbours drive the thing a couple of nights ago also put a big smile on his face, which was nice

-         -  Dug and planted some of the veg plot.  God knows if anything will germinate, but if it does, we’re in for a salad-based treat
-         -  Knocked down two internal walls and made good the resulting holes and assorted other damage.  That’s the least interesting thing of all, but also the most time-consuming; the skirting boards took ages to fit and fill

-         -  Bought a roll-end of lino and fitted it in a bathroom, and not too disastrously at all as it turned out

-         -  Jet-washed anything that moved; good job the cat was inside

-         -  Conspicuously failed to get a tap working from an outside tap. I know that sounds like it should be straightforward, but with nearly 80 metres between the tap and the outer reaches of the veg plot, we opted for two cheap hosepipes and equally fittings. Mistake. Leaks, punctures and frustration abounded

I’ve been ably supported by Mrs M of course, who’s undertaken a Herculean amount of weeding herself, along with the catering, and if she could catch me, supervision of my efforts.
The point is, it’s been fun, and apart from one ride and one run, I’ve denied myself my usual athletic pleasures. If I was here for a longer period, those sacrifices wouldn’t be necessary – it was a delight to re-acquaint myself with French backroads in temperatures of 24c plus – and I (we) could both take the raw materials we’ve bought and turn them into a very splendid French home, and make the existing place more rental-friendly.

So there we are: should I stay or should I go, and all that? Going (back to France) would be the slightly irresponsible thing to do, in that I’ve never either been unemployed or turned down work as a self-employed person in my life, and whilst I would probably only be lighting a candle under my bridges rather than burning them down completely, it still goes against the grain a little. On the other hand, I’ve spent nearly all my working life being sensible, and when I have taken risks (changing employers, changing professions, becoming self-employed), they’ve always worked out ok. And whilst taking the time off would feel irresponsible, the fact is that I’d be creating value on a property rather than squandering it on world tour or suchlike.


Well, I’ve got the next 8 hours to contemplate things, as that’s how long I’ll be sitting on this ‘ere boat. I’ll let you know what happens.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Les grands travails

After last week's post Mrs M suggested that maybe this blog should evolve into a record of our new adventure in France. It's not a bad idea actually; I've been droning on about running, cycling and anything else that exercises me for some time now. I don't think I'm going to abandon the old stuff completely, but there's going to be plenty of goings-on to record from the southern side of the Channel over the next few months.

So we duly took delivery last Friday of our next door neighbour's place, which consists of:

- one large, empty, abandoned, uninhabitable house
- one small, one-bedroomed, quite cute inhabitable house
- one stone building, left half acting as laundry, right half currently a wood store
- one garage of wooden construction, in pretty good nick
- one hen house
- one greenhouse with approximately a third of its panes missing
- one shed, most recently used as a sheep shelter
- one fruit and veg plot
- about half an acre of grass; lawn over-glamorises it
- two ponds, connected but each on different levels
- half a menhir (basically a ancient monumental rock; think Stonehenge in extreme miniature)
- an 11 tree orchard

And stone me, there's a lot of work to do to get it looking half-decent. As I mentioned last week, the previous owner has managed the decline of the place over the last couple of years. He has, we discovered to our horror, undertaken some DIY however. I mentioned the one-bedroomed house above, which, as far as we remembered, had a rather lovely mezzanine bedroom and study area above the living space below. Well, blow me if he hadn't put a plasterboard wall in behind the balustrade and boxed it off, and done the same thing at the top of some nice granite steps on the way to the living room. Many Euros-worth of deterioration.

We need to be able to camp in that house, if not occupy it properly, by the second weekend in May, when the French national mountain biking championships are being held in our village, and the house in which I'm writing this now is rented out to some French mountain bikers. And making lots of dust after that point won't be ideal, so bringing the wall down is an early priority. Is....was....down the wall duly came yesterday. I employed a modicum of subtlety rather than just attacking it with a sledgehammer which was my first instinct. I blame You Tube - there's no excuse not to see how to do things properly these days, and Canadian Steve was my friend when it came to demolishing a plasterboard wall.

I'm only here till next Monday though, and I'm keen to get as much done as possible before then, so besides the demolition job I've:
- weeded, dug and levelled about 25 square metres of the veg plot 
- planted beans, chard and petits pois
- made the balustrade a bit safer, such that anyone leaning on it won't find themselves on the ground floor two seconds later
- started the marathon weed clearing process
- removed the first 20 metes of fencing that kept the previous owner's sheep in the right place
- bought and assembled a petrol-driven strimmer
- ordered a ride-on lawn mower. It arrives tomorrow afternoon, and I have to say that slightly to my surprise I'm not that excited - it just feels like a necessary tool

And that doesn't even begin the scratch the surface of what needs to be done. It doesn't even begin to identify which surface needs to be scratched. It would be easy to be hugely daunted by it. But it doesn't need to be done at once, and it could be, will be, terrific in the future. It's going to be a long journey though, and I'm sure there'll be ups and downs along the way. I'd love to jack work in for six months and crack on with it, but that's not going to happen. If I'm honest, I'm not entirely sure why we've bought this lot (other than the fact I'd have been heartbroken if someone else had bought it), and what we'll end up doing with it all. We will, however, have plenty of time to ruminate on that as we get stuck in. Expect more in due course.....

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Chalk and cheese

As a rule, I'm not the kind of fellow who tends to extremes. Everything in moderation and all that. I'm not teetotal, but nights like last Saturday excepted, I rarely drink to excess. I'm not vegetarian, but I don't eat that much meat either. I'm conscientious enough at work, but not to the point of workaholism; good enough is, well, good enough. And so on.

Yet there's one part of my life where this rule doesn't apply, and that's physically where I spend my time. For the majority of my working life I'm in central London, buzzing between buildings, meetings and a hotel room. I know you're never supposed to be more than a few feet away from a rat, but I'm never more than a few feet away from a Londoner (though there are some shared characteristics). In fact, I'm never more than a couple of dozen yards away from hundreds of other people, and for an essentially miserable, introverted, middle aged git, that's quite hard. There's always, even at 3am, background noise; somebody, somewhere close, doing something. 

However, on the distressingly few recent occasions I've had the chance to go over to Brittany, the opposite is true much of the time - within a radius of two miles (I should probably say three kilometres), there might be a couple of dozen people, and the chances of bumping into those are pretty low. When I wake up in the morning, then assuming neither the missus nor the cat are snoring (and both have their moments in that department), the sound of birdsong is deafening, for no other reason than it's filling a total noise vacuum. And that, I do like.

I'm mentioning this because the week or so from Saturday promise to be even more solitary than usual. The explanation for this is that motorways and ferries permitting, we shall be siting in a notaire's office at 11 am on Friday going through the arcane, anachronistic and incorrigibly French process of completing the purchase of a house. Two in fact, though as I've explained before lest you think we've turned into some sort of moguls, one is one bedroomed, and the other doesn't have running water, let alone any internal walls. However, they come with land, some of which was in its heyday, a mighty fine vegetable and fruit garden.

Unfortunately, the French owner for the last two years has been more interested in planting his seed in a romantic way than a green fingered style, and the state of the garden bears testament to his neglect. I'm hoping that once cleaning duties in the new house are concluded, I'll get chance to start to restore the glory of the veg plot, not least because Mrs M has made a hefty (for her) £9-worth of investment in seeds, and it'd be a shame to waste them.

The point of this is that when I'm in that garden next week, it will feel like a world away from work, and a nice world at that. Suits, PowerPoint and hustle-and-bustle will give way to wellies, a spade and peace-and-quiet. I'm not quite ready to hang my computer keyboard up yet, not least because I can't afford to do so, but I tell you, as I printed and bound earlier today the 150 or so pages that represent my post-Christmas labours, I reflected on how little satisfaction they gave me compared to the courgettes I hope to harvest later this summer.

So when you read, if you do, my grumpy tweets of a Thursday night, you'll understand why I'm in that place. It's not the work, that's not too bad; it's the constant presence of other people, other strangers. That probably explains too why I love running in the hills so much; back to that subject, probably, next time. Unless I have an overwhelming urge to tell you about my cultivations. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

This week's absurdities

In no particular order:

1. People being upset because Jeremy Clarkson was sacked, or more accurately, didn't have his contract renewed - it pains me to admit it, as I like Jezza, but the Beeb got this one right: you just can't hit work colleagues and there not be consequences. And let's face it, Top Gear had got a bit tired and repetitive in the last couple of series, so this might be the creative kick up the backside he/they need. (And to anyone who thinks worse of me because I like Clarkson/Top Gear.....well, I like tofu, lentils and bicycles too, but that doesn't make me a Hoxton hipster now does it?)

2. People on Twitter saying that all those who'd signed the 'Keep Clarkson' online petition were, variously, "condoning bullying", "saying it was ok to hit people", "standing up for a racist, sexist idiot". No they weren't; they were just in their own little world, hoping that their favourite presenter on their favourite TV programme wouldn't be sacked. Worthy? No. Bad people? Probably not.

3. "Jazz hands" rather than applause at some women-only branch of an NUS conference. Apparently, applause can unsettle and disrupt speakers, so delegates were urged to do "jazz hands" rather than clap when they agreed with a point. I'm not making this up, honestly. First, I'd loved to have seen it in action, would have been the best laugh I've had in ages. Second, I'm thinking of encouraging my colleagues at work to do the same - every time I make a particularly good point in a meeting, I'd love it if they could "jazz hands" me, as it were; it would brighten things up no end. No sure how well it would work on conference calls however

4. Cameron and Miliband playing "how big's my willy" over which taxes they could rule out raising. It might have been quite entertaining, and the look on Miliband's face when Cameron ruled out increasing VAT was priceless, but really fellas, 1) how the hell do you know what's going to happen economically and fiscally in the next five years, and 2) have you checked the national debt level recently?

5. Strava - for those not of an athletic bent, Strava is an app for recording rides, runs, walks etc. It maps your route, gives average times, total distance, and compares your efforts to others. According to Strava, I ran 5.6 miles at 5.24 a mile yesterday morning. Also, my name is Mandy van Hoogenstrat. How can the app not keep hold of its GPS signal at 6am in central London for goodness sake?

Anyway, the servants have arrived with supper, so I'll love you and leave you.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Cambridge Boundary Marathon

Here's a rarity: a report on an actual event. Yes, yesterday I did the Cambridge Boundary Marathon, so called because, unsurprisingly enough, the 26 and a bit miles are basically a large anti-clockwise of the city.

I entered the event in January, thinking it would be flat, on road and therefore quite quick. However, there were no actual details on the website - the thing is run by Cambridge University Hare & Hounds, i.e. its athletic club, i.e. students, and therefore, shall we say, perhaps not as professional as other events. That said, it's about a third of the usual price of a marathon, so you can't grumble too much. Though when I was a) driving round looking for a completely unmarked car park at 7.15am yesterday, and b) running an extra 400 yards because a flour direction arrow had washed away overnight, I grumbled muchly. There were an extra few hundred yards at the end of the course too, meaning I was just under 27 by the time I stopped running.

305 people did the half-marathon, 230 did the full monty. I came 33rd out of the 230, disappointingly losing 4 places in the last mile, with an official time of 3:39. The winner did it in 3:08, second place 3:17, then a big cluster of us 3:25 to 3:45. So it wasn't fast, and it's easy to understand why; there were three big impediments to speed. First, near enough 6 miles were off road, and some of that was in a right state - we were coming off fields with an inch of mud on our soles. The student organisers, bless them, recommended using road shoes rather than trail shoes. I'd have ignored that advice had I known what it was truly like.

Second, there were many, many roads to cross, quite a few of them main roads. I and everyone else much have lost several minutes cumulatively. And third, a blast from the past. Oh, how I remember peddling round Cambridge in the winters between 1985 and 1988 with Arctic winds blowing straight off the Fens and up my trouser legs. I got a reminder of that yesterday, with a strong north-westerly hindering progress between miles 18 and 24 - just when it's toughest going in any case. At the end, my face was caked in a layer of salt, despite the fact I didn't seem to have broken sweat. I had, but it had been dried instantly, just leaving the salty residue.

I'm a bit disappointed if I'm honest with my performance, especially in the second half of the race, which was nearly 20 minutes slower than the first half, but given the conditions and the fact I've worked in London since 12th Jan, so limiting my mileage, I'm kind of ok with it. 

As an event, it was ok. You don't get to see much of the attractive centre of Cambridge, and some of the organisation was a bit iffy, as I've described, but it's friendly, it's a proper athlete's event (there was nobody carrying a fridge or dressed as the Honey Monster), and it's cheap. Would I do it again? Possibly. However, with that one done and nothing else entered, it's time to go and do some research.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Love and understanding

In a shock move, this post actually concerns one of the original subjects I intended to concentrate on when I started it four years ago.....viz., cycling.

More accurately, it's about road use. Now, I'm both a cyclist (less so than I used to be, but I still just about qualify), and a motorist. I'm also a Libran, and if you believe in all that astrology nonsense, that means I tend to be able to see both points of view in any given argument. And given that cyclists and drivers seem to have quite a few arguments these days, here are a few things it would be helpful for each side to understand about the other, where they may be less experienced in the opposite discipline.

First, listen up motorists:

1. The fact you pay Road Fund Licence (not 'road tax'), and cyclists don't, does not mean you have more right to be on the road. The public highway exists to facilitate travel by all modes, whether that's car, bike, horse, tractor, unicycle, walking (if there's no footpath), or anything else you can think of. Paying to use the road makes you the odd one out, not the other road users. Besides which, many cyclists also own cars, and so pay RFL. Or they own an electric or super low emission car, in which case they don't. Oh, that's right, RFL levels are based on pollutant levels these days, and guess how much cycling emits (bottom-related baked bean induced gases excepted, obviously)?

2. Unless there are double white lines down the middle of the road (but one of those may be a broken white line, rather than a solid one) cyclists have every right to cycle two abreast. Not three or more, but two is fine and legal

3. Some cyclists travel quite quickly. So don't think that because it's a bike you absolutely have to overtake it, or else your manhood will shrivel up and die (reverse sexism at work possibly there, but it is usually men). Many times have I heard a car accelerate to go past me when I've been riding at or near 30 mph in a 30mph zone). Similarly, just because it's not a car or a lorry at a junction or a roundabout doesn't mean it's not there

4. Very few cyclists - a tiny, tiny minority - are deliberately trying to piss you off.  Examine your own attitude. Would you be as annoyed if you were being momentarily held up by a horse or a tractor? Why not?

5. Just because you're a great driver with fantastic spatial awareness who knows exactly where your near side wing mirror is does NOT mean it's still not flipping frightening for cyclists for said wing mirror to miss them by a matter of centimetres. Give cyclists room. Please. The sooner we have the 1.5 metre rule in this country, as they do in plenty of others, the better.

Now it's your turn cyclists:

1. Unless you are totally, utterly confident that a vehicle is not going to pull to the left or turn to the left when it's moving, do not ride up the inside of it. Even then, try not to. The driver may not be able to see you, or even think of looking for you. If it's a large vehicle, and maybe if it's a small one, you will be run over, and you will probably die

2. Do not pick and choose whether you're a road user or a pedestrian, depending on which set of rules suit you more at the time. If you want to be treated as a road user, behave as a road user; obey red lights, treat junctions properly, don't ride on pavements ideally at all, or certainly at anything more than walking pace, etc. etc.

3. Do not ride in such a big group that it's virtually impossible to overtake you. If the overall overall footprint (wheel print?) on the road of the group is greater than than of, say, a small bus, break into a number of smaller groups, with a decent gap between them. Yes, drivers should be patient, but don't try that patience unreasonably - they'll only end up taking chances, which ultimately are likely to result in harm to you

4. For those of a more sporting bent, don't drop litter like gel packets and the like; you're not riding the f***ing Tour de France, and even at that event, there are designated litter zones these days, with riders fined if they're spotted jettisoning stuff elsewhere

5. Do try to make eye contact with drivers at junctions, roundabouts etc. Two reasons: first, it helps you read the driver's intentions, and whether they're likely to do something stupid. Second, it humanises the whole road using situation - it's not a big machine against a little machine, it's one person engaging with another. Acknowledging good behaviour is also good practice (eg little waves when drivers slow up on single width roads), as it encourages more of the same. Works on kids, why not with drivers?

There we go, my Wednesday night recipe for driver-cyclist harmony. 

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Six Nations

So the rugby's started. Every year I hope the final table will look like this (with reasons):

1. England - I'm English; born here, live here most of the time
2. Wales - Land of my Father's
3. France - love the place, and if I hadn't have hit the jackpot by being born an Englishman, being French would have been a good runner's up prize
4. Italy - generally self-regarding narcissists; same can't be said of the rugby team though and I love them for that
5. Ireland - troublesome Celts, but as not as bothersome as they used to be
6. Scotland - more troublesome Celts, and ungrateful ones at that

😉

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Stuart Marconi

So last Friday on the train into Manchester I ended up sitting across the aisle from Stuart Maconie, or Stuart Marconi as Mrs M insists on calling him, principally because she loves seeing me roll my eyes despairingly. I seriously contemplated asking him for a selfie for about 10 minutes, until I remembered I was a grown-up man, and not a 16 year old of either gender. Anyway, should you be interested, he was very nicely dressed, he's surprisingly svelte below the neck, and he's got a white iPhone 6. 

But the point of mentioning that was that thinking about him now reminded me of the band Pop Will Eat Itself for some reason. Remember them? Probably not if you're under 40. Maybe I was reminded of their name because I did an Audax last Sunday, and it felt a bit I was contributing to cycling doing itself harm. Now, I'll make no bones about it, I'm the guiltiest of guilty parties here - I only did the damn ride to get a 200km Paris-Brest-Paris qualifier under my belt. I hadn't ridden my bike since last September, and I won't riding it again for some time to come, what with me being entered in the Cambridge Marathon in 5 weeks time. I was riding purely to qualify for another event, not because I really wanted to be there.

If it's any consolation to those of purer cycling credentials than me, I had a miserable time. First off, I'd forgotten what a sodding faff it is to ride a pre-set route during the winter. Overshoes, Garmin, front lights, back lights, computer, food, drink, blah blah....I made the fatal mistake of not writing down everything I needed, which meant I started with no food, no neckwarmer and a bad attitude. The morning in the sunshine was vaguely pleasant, but two punctures in the early afternoon began to sap my spirit. Add in the recurring problem of losing much of my vision on a long ride in coolish weather, a misbehaving derailleur (my fault), and a sense of overwhelming boredom, and, well I've had better days. And on Monday I paid the price of riding 200km with no riding preparation - the groinal channels either side of my Gentleman's Area were redder than a sunburned Arthur Scargill.

But to get back to the main point - there were loads of Audaxers there. Loads of 'em. Some were quite interesting, two in particular - they were doing the ride on Ellipti-trainer type bikes. Weird looking things, and the bikes weren't much different. But there were also many who just weren't in the spirit of things; not only did they not have beards nor sandals nor a tricycle, but they were riding carbon bikes with neither mudguards nor mapholders nor a gargantuan saddlebag. Hell, three years ago they'd probably have been on a golf course. There can be no greater expression of disgust on my part.

So I'm off back to the world of running for a while, but it might be time to start a counter-revolution - time to dust off that mountain bike do you reckon?......




Friday, 2 January 2015

10 Things That Mystify Me

When I'm out running or cycling I generally feel full of vitality, energy and fitness - certainly more than when I was a fat 30 year old with three small children and no opportunity to exercise.  I look in the mirror and I see an early middle-aged looking man; plenty of random hairs sprouting from ears, nose and increasingly (and strangely) temples, all of which have to be removed weekly, but not too many wrinkles by-and-large. (My favourite wrinkles story concerns Mick Jagger and George Melly, who I met once.  Apparently George commented to Mick that he was looking old, and had plenty of wrinkles to prove it. Jagger replied "they're just laughter lines"; Melly's retort was "nothing's that funny Mick"). I wear skinny jeans and listen to BBC 6 Music, and occasionally Radio 1. In other words, whilst I may be 48, I don't feel completely out of touch. But then I see stuff that I don't understand, mystifies me indeed, and in most cases I can only attribute it to the fact I'm becoming an Old Duffer.

Here are 10 of those things.
  1. Quite a lot of TV adverts:  I frequently, having watched an advert, have to turn to Mrs Monmarduman to ask her what the heck it was they were actually promoting. God knows what 80 year olds think is going on, though to be fair many of them are probably more on the ball then me. My hypothesis though is that if I don't know what's being sold the ad can't be that effective. However, the products are usually games for Xbox, PS2, that kind of thing, products for women (hair colourants and the like), or payday loan companies. I then realise that I'm not in the target audience for any of these things, so maybe the ad's actually ok
  2. Why people feel the need to walk down the street sipping from a plastic cup of coffee only marginally smaller than a bucket:  Now, I love coffee; it's one of life's, and morning's, great joys - much more interesting than tea, warming in winter, and a mild stimulant. I drink it most days. But bleak will be the day when my dependency on it is so strong, or my time management is so poor, that I have to drink it in the street (not carrying it; that's ok, it's the drinking bit).  It makes the people who do it just look like upmarket hot beverage junkie; don't do it!
  3. Trolls and the people who react to them: we all know Katie Hopkins (to choose a recent example) is a deranged publicity seeker, so why give her the proverbial oxygen of publicity by creating a fuss about it? Attention is what people like her and the even more destructive, foul-mouthed trolls crave. Don't give it them. Block them or ignore them, but don't react to them
  4. People who email or phone to complain about things on TV: you know the sort - "Dear BBC, I was outraged the other day when Charlie Newsreader was wearing his poppy at an angle of 42 degrees instead of the properly respectful 45 degrees. I shan't be paying my licence fee as a result". Who has the time or motivation to do that?
  5. Why people hero-worship Ed Sheeran: it is, I grant you, refreshing and unusual to see a ginger thriving in his/her chosen field (and I say that as the parent of 1.5 ginger offspring), and his rendition of Stevie Wonder's Master Blaster on the Hootenanny the other night was masterful, the adulation seems to go way, way beyond the quality of his songs. Am I missing something?
  6. Why anyone gives Russell Brand the time of day: jeepers, I'm not even going to explain this one. He's not making any valid political points, he's just a career-savvy opportunist
  7. Over-cheerful TV presenters, and I'm not talking about those who present children's TV; they're allowed to be wacky and cheerful. No, the particular offenders I'm referring tend to be either weather people, or presenters of magazine programmes like Countryfile. I don't know whether they think waving their hands around, or walking round a field and pretending to meet interviewees there creates some sort of 'personality' (which of course is one of the building blocks to the modern Cult of Celebrity), but it really annoys me. It's not how normal people who aren't Americans behave. Calm down, and just either tell me whether it's going to rain, or introduce the next item in a calm and considered manner.  That's my 3rd TV-related entry; you can tell it's winter and I've not worked for the last month
  8. New Year's Eve celebrations: this naturally is a seasonal entry, but yesterday's headlines included "Six Stabbed At The Belfry", "35 Trampled To Death in Shanghai", and "Man Murdered With Axe In Pub Brawl Near Plymouth". We also went out on New Year's Eve, and I drove the few miles home, my desire to drink being heavily outweighed by the downsides of having to locate and pay for a taxi home. In that time I saw three people prone on the pavement, one of whom had required the attention of the constabulary. I don't understand why celebrating things, and NY Eve in particular, seems to involve so much misery. Then again, I suspect some of those who bedded down on the pavement at 1 am yesterday told their mates later that they'd had a fabulous New Year
  9. Wearing your jeans so low your pants are on show: oh I know all the explanations of where this came from and why Da Youth do it, but still - it's really impractical and uncomfortable. You could say the same about women wearing high-heeled shoes I suppose, but at least there's an aesthetic pleasure with that, whereas low slung jeans and exposed boxer shorts have all the appeal of a week-old turkey
  10. Criticism of Wetherspoon pubs: maybe we're lucky in Macclesfield, or maybe I just don't go in on Friday and Saturday nights, but I don't understand why Wetherspoons have acquired a reputation for being haunts of the less-refined members of society. I use our local one regularly, and it's a pleasure - an extensive menu and well-cooked food, a wide range of beers, wines and harmless old men in corners, free wifi, and as I discovered today, unlimited coffee for £1.15. What's not to love?  Unnecessary snobbery, that's what.
Right, that's it. My next post is already written - it's very long, very personal and quite heavy. I need to look at it again to make sure I'm happy it being at t'interweb, but if I am, brace yourselves.
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