Sugar Free Cereal Bars For Halloween??? Are you crazy???

Hollowing out a pumpkin – a messy and fastidious business and probably the closest I’ll ever get to brain surgery – anyway Mr Jack O’Lantern is now on the windowsill burning into the dark Halloween night. I can’t say he looks scary, more of a stupid smile …

Sweets are ready too – a big bowl sitting by the front door, awaiting the hordes of ghoulish kids that will soon come to darken our door.

I’d swear that sweets are getting smaller – in comparison to the chocolate or candy bars of my childhood, today’s offerings are tiny – or have I just got bigger? – of course I had to test the merchandise, so few chocolate bars went my way) chomp, one bite, two bites and they’re gone. Increasing obesity levels, rampant tooth decay and a massive hike in cocoa prices – the trend is away from large bars – but no kidding, the size of today’s bars … it’s a joke.

This year, I bought decent « branded » candies – I guess it is in a reaction to all those years I went trick or treating with my daughter and her friends – traipsing round the neighbourhood with a coven of kids in tow, in search of candies – and some people occasionally gave decent sweets, but the result was often crap – cheap candies with near-sounding brand names, from the discount supermarket or the leftover sweets from last year – it doesn’t seem right to have to look at the « use-by » dates on the candy wrapper before your kids can eat it. And what is worse than last year’s Halloween candies? Why, the box of cheap chocolates you got as a gift at Christmas but never got round to eating – stale chocks with « white » surface markings, loaded into your kid’s

Halloween bucket by some seedy-looking old guy – has he washed his hands? DO NOT EAT THAT! You scream at the kids.

There were those Halloween’s of old when I would buy the sweets and then « plant » them with neighbours in the afternoon.

« Oh, the lady at number 21 gave us looooaaaaads of coooool sweets, » my daughter and her fellow witches and wizards would enthuse through mouths full of chewy toffees and bubble gum. (Yeah kids, but that’s only ‘cos dad planted them with the neighbours this afternoon.)

My Halloween nightmare was the lady giving out sugar free cereal bars – what the hell, this is Halloween! A fistful of marshmallows ain’t going to get my daughter tipping the scales.

Okay, I can see some ghosts floating down the drive, better go and fill them full of candies.

Happy Halloween readers.

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Running Down A Dream

So this is a kind of rambling post about my clichéd American dream in the light of recent events

Running down a dream, that never would come to me …

I had this crazy, clichéd American dream – I was crossing the great wide open, in a huge, beat up old RV – I was cruising long roads into nowhere stopping off in battered old gas stations and sad motels – I was driving east to west looking for Bagdhad café, Kerouac, a Fistful of Dollars, Aliens and Vegas – I wanted to start at Rockaway Beach or Coney Island and drift through road movies – I’d be heading out across the plains with Born to Run blasting out the speakers in the RV.

I guess that has always been my American dream – I could hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach and travel on down to sit on the Dock of the Bay.

Running down a dream that never would come to be

It’s Monday morning – had a sleepless night, running work through my head – that’s always Sunday through Monday – half awake with this giant checklist churning in my brain like one of those old dot matrix printers spewing out endless reams of paper – must do, must do , must do … and what if it never gets done ?

Monday morning road trip, the rain thudding down on the windscreen, stuck in a long line of early morning traffic – crawling at dead slow stop snail’s pace, past the bakery, the supermarket, the café, the gas station – turn right at the lights and crawl on. Monday morning, half awake, half asleep – running down a dream ? I’m Running on empty.

Switch on the radio « Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door » – Guns and Roses version – Oh how I hate this song now – it’s been a staple of every band I’ve ever played in – « And now folks here’s a song about a dying sheriff … » – that’s how I announce it now – switch channels and there is news coming in about a mass shooting in Las Vegas – rain outside in the blurred half light of Monday morning and mass murder – feels like that big black cloud really is coming down. In France we are stiil reeling from the latest terrorist « attrocity » – two girls stabbed to death at the St Charles train station in the southern city of Marseilles – two students – both cousins aged 20 and 21 killed by a knife weilding madman who proferred God’s greatness and then hacked up two girls because they were girls – and now a 64 year old mad man who slaughters fans at a country music festival because … because they lke country music ? Because they wear Stetsons and cowboy boots ? Because he is mad ???

The profiler/psychiatrist /specialist professer guy on the radio is asked to speculate about a motive and the « profile » of the assassin. « Is he mad ? » asks the journalist of the expert. « We can’t say the killer is mad, for him, his actions are probably perfectly sane and logical. »

Running down a dream – news comes later in the week about the sad death of Tom Petty

« US Rocker Tom Petty … » announces the BBC – I never thought of him as a « Rocker » but as a poet – I suppose his words were the inspration of my clichéd American dream – I loved his road trip style, far flung, small town, dead town wanderings – listening to Tom Petty, I’d just want to esape to somewhere that was probably nowhere. He had a sideways, poetic, vison of the American dream, that seemed achievable « Even the losers, get lucky sometimes. »

Back in Vegas, the death toll gets bigger as the media rolls out non-stop coverage. I’ve got this kind of 9/11 feeling in the pit of my stomach as news comes in that terrorist group, Islamic State have claimed responsibility for the massacre – 64 year old former accountant/property developper/banker (the killer’s job changes with pretty much every news bulletin) – a white middle class senior with an unhealthy passion for guns, who would seemingly have undergone some fast-track, self-styled, internet radicalisation and then … It doesn’t fit.

I’m still in my American dream. My daughter mocks gently as she sees me consulting pages and pages of cowboy boots on Amazon. « OMG ! » laments the wife « You’re surely not going to …  not at your age. » Dreary, caustic disbelief . And why can’t I have a pair – I’m only just in my early fifties.

I suppose my American dream is still that fuelled by my American idols, from Lou Reed to Ray Bradbury, A Tom Petty, a Joey Ramone, some Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kurt Vonnegut with Patti Smith. I’d like New York Punk, a trip to Coney Island, Breakfast at Tiffanys – an RV ride to Aliens in Nevada and to top it all, a ride on the Chattanooga Choo Choo. – My wierd American dream scape littered with silver rocket ships, flying saucers, vast graveyards of planes left to « die » in the desert sun and rolling up to a battered old gas station on route 66 behind the wheel of my Chevvy Impala asking some « old timer » for some « gas » .

So, at the end of this clichéd and confused post, I guess that I am trying to says that I have, for years, been nursing a stilted and very personal vision of my American dream that procludes the Las Vegas Massacre. My dream is inspired by all my favourite muisical and literary clichés. For me the US is still this giant and impossible gritty western. It is Josey Whales peppered with Steppenwolf. I supoose this is like Americans who thin of the UK as all Bowler hats and afternoon tea ( oh dear). But I wanted in foremost and earnest fashion to sat that my heartfelt sympthies go out to all American readers after the Las Vegas massacre. My love to you all.

Heading For the Normandy Beaches

French holiday road trip from Calais to Cabourg.

We leave the UK from Dover; which is a town so unpleasant and sinister that it makes a great place to leave from – always better to start a journey from some from somewhere so awful that anywhere else is better – the somewhere else is Calais – on the opposite side of the English Channel – another miserable port town – in the news over the past few years for the vast number of migrants, in and around the town. From Algeria to Afghanistan, they come in their hundreds with one singular intention – to cross to the UK and make a life there. In between there lies the Channel – only 23 miles wide between Calais and Dover. The immigrants will try any way to get across, hopping on lorries, hiding in trailers, walking through the Channel Tunnel – any risk is worth the risk for the promise of a new life in Britain. Escaping war torn countries, or grinding poverty in the lands thy called home, they cross Europe, last stop Calais, waiting to take their chance in a chance crossing. For years, the migrants were huddled in an illegal camp knob as “The Jungle” – that was dismantled by the authorities and the migrants were “dispersed” to other parts of France, but many just headed back, intent on crossing to Britain. The migrants err around the town, along the highways into Calais or on the car parks of petrol station or lay bys on the roads into Calais. They have become such a familiar sight that what was once “shocking” is now commonplace.

On the road out of he port, mile upon mile of high wire mesh fences surmounted with rolls of  razor wire to stop the migrant eating into the port. The once sedate Channel Ferry port now looks like a prison camp.

From Calais, we head to our destination of Cabourg – a small family seaside resort on the Normandy coast, near Caen, very popular with Parisians. Welcome to Cabourg – revel in the nostalgia of what the seaside looked like a generation ago.. Along this stretch the Normandy coast is all slong, windswept,sandy beaches with iconic beach huts.

Beach huts in Cabourg

Cabourg beach front with a sepia finish

Sandcastles in Cabourg

Low tide in Cabourg

Once in Normandy – A pilgrimage to the Normandy landing beaches and a viitto the Bayeux Tapestry. Today it is raining, his is definitely not a beach day and every tourist in Normandy has headed to a museum. Lines of wet tourists snake their way around the entrance to the Arromanches museum. No pre booking by Internet, you just wait in the rain. At Bayeux, the queues are o great that they have had to close the museum.

Waiting in line in Arromanches

Rainy day for the beach

Rainy beach misery

On the Beach in Arromanches

Next leg from Cabourg to Lorient

Forgotten Soldier

It’s one of those  airless,  hot summer Sundays. The world is on holiday, deepest France is in full summer slumber – a perfect time for a country drive, on uncluttered winding roads – across the fields and through the forests. On a photo safari down to the village of Souesmes, sight of a major battle in 1944 between local resistance fighters and the Wehrmacht heading north to reinforce German forces fighting in Normandy. This is the centre of France, where, in July and August 1944 over a quarter of a million German troops  heading north to south and west to east, were stopped in their tracks by the local Resistance. There are hundreds of small roadside monuments commemorating such events and occasionally village war memorials inscribed with the names of the dead from World war Two and World War One – in many villages nowadays the names of the dead from both wars are greater than the number of current inhabitants. Here are some photos of an “unknown soldier” on a village war memorial. His face shows the suffering and scars of war and his state of decay shows the indifference of modern France where once the link between the nation’s army and its citizens was a true historical and moral bond. here is the forgotten soldier.

Of Satellite TV, Advertising, Barbecues, German supermarkets French Wine, Napoleon, British Bangers and the Metric System

I love my satellite TV – over 300 channels and I can still say (hand on heart) that there is nothing to watch of en evening. Take out the news channels, the plethora of religious channels, the shopping channels and TV reality channels – there isn’t much choice left, BUT, I do get British TV. I have a direct window on British news, views and contemporary culture . I can enjoy some excellent drama and also follow my favourite soap operas. Best of all, (and the best indicator of social and economic trends) I get all the ads –

British ads are so different from the French TV commercials. They are funnier, quirkier and far more professional than their French equivalents – There is nothing better tan the humble TV commercial to highlight the cultural divide between France and Britain.

On this, the hottest weekend of the year so far, when common sense would dictate that we all crawl under a stone rather than stand outside in the blazing sun, the good folks don my street are all firing up their barbecues. Midday was the sound of popping corks, as neighbours « unplugged » their rosé wine, and come early afternoon – following a long aperitif, the air was thick with the irresistible odour of sizzling meat.

I daresay this scene is being repeated across the Channel – everywhere in the UK is enjoying unseasonably warm weather – And on both sides of the water, there will be people crawling in to work tomorrow morning with hangovers and red raw flesh burned by the sun – Yes folks, never get too drunk on a hot day like today, and never snooze off in the sun for a drunken post BBQ nap.

Back at the commercial break, I am watching an ad for that German discount supermarket with an unpronounceable name – Lidl –

The ad is doing the hard sell on BBQ goodies. I am told that at Sainsbury’s supermarket, a good bottle of French Champagne will set me back £30, BUT for the same price at Lidl, I can get a second rate bottle of French fizz, a bottle of French white and French Rosé wine, several slices of Italian ham and a Moroccan cous cous, all for £29,95. Now I am not sure that the advertisers have actually understood what a cous cous really is, and they perhaps mean Taboulé – notwithstanding that’s quite a bit of food and booze for just under thirty quid and it’s all FRENCH – Oh thank you European Single Market. Oh thank you EU trade deals. Oh thank you EU. On this, the day before Britain sends a delegation to Brussels, to being Brexit negotiations. AH, all those European garden party goodies. How much will they cost after Brexit? Food for thought indeed. BUT if you are enjoying beer, burgers and sausages – yes they might be British bangers made at your local butcher’s, but they were made in regulation with EU-inspired food and hygiene norms. As for that beer, are you sure it isn’t a continental lager ? Perhaps from Belgium?

And that was a tenuous link into my next rant which takes you (dear reader) to Belgium) and the small village of Watterlot, known to the Brits as Waterloo.

Before we head to the site of the famous battle though, a quick final word on TV ads – you would never get that Lidl ad on French TV. Under national French TV regulations it is illegal to advertise alcohol on TV.

Off to Waterloo, which was a battle that gave its name to a London mainline train station and the 1974 Eurovision- winning ABBA song.

Napoleon cartoon wih more than a littlle hint of Mr Stallone

So the Brits named a station after a victory against Napoleon, well the French did the same – Austerlitz train station in Paris, named after old Bonaparte’s December 1805 victory over a Russian/Austrian army under the command of Czar Alexander 1st (Austerlitz is situated in the boundaries of the modern Czech republic)

Now we have a phrase in French –«  C’est son Waterloo » – meaning that it is a person’s last heroic but futile stand. Ironically (more Brexit) Britain begins Brexit negotiations tomorrow (Monday 19th June) in the Belgium capital of Brussels, just 30 kilometres from the battlefield of Waterloo. Will this be the British Waterloo – in the French sense ?

Napoleon – love him or hate him – left us a few daily reminders. He was the guy who introduced the metric system to France and eventually to Europe. I noticed this week, after the tragic events at Grenfell House in northwest London, all the journalists, fire fighters and assorted experts were giving their measurements in metres.

Back t the weather – on Sunday June 18th 1815 it was raining and the battlefield was heavy going for the cavalry. On Sunday June 18th, afternoon temperatures in my corner of France hit the 34°c mark. On the Friday night BBC London News bulletin, a very voluptuous lady informed viewers that Saturday temperatures would hit a 32°c high – no more Fahrenheit on the BBC, although wind speeds are still given in miles per hour.

Meanwhile back at the Lidl advert, the bottle sizes are being quoted in centilitres and the weights are in grammes and t is all for French wine. Perhaps Napoleon did win in the long run.

Okay – time to sign off and uncork a bottle of French Rosé. Later on, I’ll be having my Father’s day treat of a juicy Aberdeen Angus steak with good old Mc Cain oven chips made in the Netherlands.

Before I go, this Sunday is polling day in the second round of French parliamentary elections – this isn’t one to bet on, Emmanuel Macron’s « La République en Marche » party is set to wipe the board a forecast puts him at over 400 seats in the 570 seat French parliament. I can’t help thinking of a recently elected British prime minister who would love a similar majority – no snuggling up to the nasty Unionists.

Of course, voter turnout has been low, everyone here is too busy at the BBQ to go and vote.

Ok it is officially wine time.

Cheers

The Ghosts of Deepest France

A night at the movies in La Courtine

In my pursuit of chartering those unchartered parts of France. Those towns and villages where the dead seem to outnumber the living – there are more people in the cemetery than   in town.

A few days away from civilisation in a place so deep in deepest France, that it can only be described as an abyss. Welcome to the heavily wooded but sparsely populated region of La Creuse, and more precisely the small town of La Courtine – one of these « forgotten » places that is also best forgot. A dead town of old souls reminiscent with overtones of « Deliverance » and « The Shining ».

Dead station in La Cortine

Deserted station at La Courtine

Almost a ghost town, La Courtine was one of these « outposts » that for generations, served as an important part of French military infrastructure – a huge military camp where national servicemen would be mobilised to do their patriotic duty, and fulfil their military debt to France. La Courtine camp was where national servicemen would do their basic training and after a hard day on the assault course, they would head into town for a hard night in one of the town’s numerous watering holes.

Last orders in La Courtine

 

Fat Sun’s pulled his last pint

Like hunters, diggers and cowboys of old, into to spend their pay and enjoy what few delights were on offer.

In 2000, President Jacques Chirac announced the official end to obligatory military service for all the nation’s able-bodied young men and La Courtine went from garrison town to ghost town.

Main Street La Courtine

Bars and shops shuttered up forever, tattered « for sale » signs » hanging forlornly in the window, both bankrupt former owners and local real estate agents knowing that no one in their right mind would ever want to buy in a place like this.

Alternative shot of the Bazar Universel

Dead bar in a dead own

Former Tabac Presse is just old news

There are ghosts of the past haunting every bar and every street. This town didn’t so much die as get shut in a time capsule.

No more cuts in La Courtine

Deceptively open

Staring in through the dusty windows of the former dance hall – the parquet dance floor still danceable enough for a quick twirl and the garish 50’s stage ready to welcome a local dance band. The long ‘s’ shaped Formica bar propped up by shadowy figures, as supernatural silhouettes trip the light fantastic across the floor and somewhere in the far away, the slight echo of a dance band. How many young soldiers got their first dance, first kiss, and first fight with jealous local lads at this dancehall?

Welcome to l’Esperance

Yes, this is France, this is dead France, this is old France, this is rural France, this is the France where Central government has almost given up on the people, this is neglected France, badly in need of investment. – This is deepest France.

War memorial fallen out of memory

Up the garden path

 

 

 

SO, YOU WANNA BE A SINGER IN A ROCK AND ROLL BAND or ELECTRIC LAZYLAND

« I had a teenage dream

On moonage days,

I’d be a freak out far out

In a purple haze,

Cruising electric Ladyland

I’d be silver surfin’

In a rock and roll band. »

« Teenage Moonage » by the Stone Purple Haze Band

SO YOU WANNA BE A SINGER IN A ROCK AND ROLL BAND?

First, find a band, or find a band that needs a singer or find a band that needs a singer and plays the kind of stuff that you want to sing. This narrows down the choice immensely, so first, just find a band, any band.

How do you find a band?

It started with an ad in the local paper

« ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? » read the title at the top of the ad

Sounds like Hendrix cover band. Can I sing Hendrix? Do I want to sing Hendrix covers? I’ve got to start somewhere.

« Hi, I’m ringing about your ad ….

« Can you sing? » asks the laid-back, deep-sleep voice on the other end. A voice thick with phlegmy nonchalance nurtured on years of cigarettes and alcohol. The voice reels off a long list of Hendrix numbers to learn for the audition and once the « dictation » is over I hit the local record shop looking for a Hendrix « greatest hits » compilation.

CASTING OFF

So, you have got as far as the audition phase. This is the point where you physically meet your possible, future band mates, who are not yet mates and might never become your mates. Banding is not bonding. This is about music and not friendship. The band needs a singer and not a soul mate.

It hasn’t occurred to me, but I might actually need a mike and I haven’t got one. I ring the voice again.

« I’ve got a mike » it says flatly. « I’ll see you later »

Later is late. Nine o’clock on a Sunday night, when normal folks have long finished dinner and are settled down ready to snooze off in front of the TV.

The voice lives only a few streets away. I can walk. I get to the « house » and – I’m walking down a tree lined street of neat two up, two down houses all with well tended gardens, then at the end almost out on a limb, almost in another universe is this run down, shuttered up pile of bricks set in an overgrown patch of waste ground. Surely this can’t be the place. I knock on the front door and after an eternity there is the creaking and clanking as the metal shutters are pushed slowly open. A skeletal hand appears beckoning me to the window, a gaunt and ghostly face framed by long lank strands greasy hair, emerges from the sombre depths. « Side door » rasps the voice

« Do you always rehearse this late? » I ask, entering through the kitchen and into the «rehearsal room ».

ELECTRIC LADYLAND

The place is a mess. It’s a f***ing mess with a huge capital F. It’s a health hazard. Already from the outside, the house only looks fit for demolition, inside … the sink piled high with dishes, the walls thick with grease and yellow with nicotine, discarded empty dog food tins lie strewn across the floor, and stomach churning stench

The place stinks of wet dog, urine and shit – like proper shit, like faeces, like someone’s had diarreah, bowel cancer or lives on a heavy vegetarian diet and they’ve systematically crapped away their insides over days and never flushed the toilet.

Can I make it through this audition without catching something? Can I survive more than five minutes in this house without some kind of independent breathing apparatus?

So, I finally meet the voice who tells me his name is Patrick though people call him Jimmy and he bids me welcome to « Electric Ladyland » I want to laugh, but Patrick is so into Hendrix that he’s painted the name of Hendrix’s third and final studio album in big purple letters on his front door.

This is possibly the worst place that I have ever auditioned for a band, lord knows I’ve has some strange auditions. I once had to prove my vocal prowess over the phone, and another time I auditioned in a car, singing along to Highway to Hell, on a cassette player, the AC/DC classic doing it’s best to struggle out of the crappy car speakers.

NAKED WITH STRANGERS

Auditions are all the same. There you are in a room with four or five other guys you’ve never met before. You are finally all plugged in, miked up and ready to go, the drummer counts us in and you sing, but you’re not just singing, in a way you are baring your artistic soul. You are fragile, you are naked. You are stripping off in front of strangers. Try it some time, invite four of five complete strangers round to your house and stand naked in front of them. You don’t feel ridicule, you just feel vulnerable.

You sing or try to sing those three or four songs that the voice on the end of the phone has told you to « learn » and after twenty minutes … the verdict

RETURN TO ELECTRIC LADYLAND

There’s a limp, quivering, emaciated dog lying in a basket in the corner. There’s a fresh patch of (is that dog vomit?)

Patrick (AKA Jimmy) tells me that the dog is ill and for the moment he can’t afford to take him to the vet.

Patrick has red sunken eyes and a gaunt haggard face that has been ravaged by years of … Rock and Roll. (In comparison, Keith Richards is a picture of health.) He limps around the room, all quivering like his dog. He’s all lank greasy hair, torn jeans and a threadbare sweater held together more by the food stains down the front than any of the threads. He introduces me to three « clones » in similar degrees of frail decomposition. There’s Jean Paul the guitarist (AKA Mick) because he’s a Rolling Stones fan; Fabrice (AKA Chris) the drummer

« Chris? »

« Yeah he’s a big Magma fan » explains « Jimmy » so we call him Chris after the Magma drummer Christian Vander »

The last « clone » is Christophe, the keyboard player who logically should be AKA Chris but calls himself John, after his hero John Lord.

No need to ask the musical influences of this band of early fiftysomething, seventies survivors.

« What are you called? »

« Eh? » expressed by the three clones in collective grunt

« What’s the band name? »

A BAND WITH NO NAME

There are no hard and fast rules for choosing a band name, save that it should be, catchy, evocative, easy to remember easy to say and short enough to print on a T shirt. A band name doesn’t always need to reflect your musical style but it helps.

I am at present auditioning for a band with no name because at the moment there is no band.

To be continued