Sugar Daddy

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Don’t waste your pucker on some all day sucker
And don’t try a toffee or cream
If you seek perfection in sugar confection
Well there’s something new on the scene

Should you be heading down the avenue Aristide Briand in Loches, you’ll see some colourful signs for Confiserie Hallard, an artisan sweet maker. Jean-Damien Hallard makes lollipops, sweets, the French speciality berlingots, nougat, fruit jellies, pralines and nougatines. In his workshop, while his assistant works in the background, he is a born entertainer, making sure visitors all have a go at stretching a handful of semi-liquid coloured sugar until it strains into two tones, then twisting it round a stick in a perfect or imperfect spiral. This, after viewing a detailed film on how cane and beet sugar are produced. Watching him brought back memories of the glassworkers of Murano, an island I visited when I was 17. The molten sugar – coloured and flavoured – bends and slithers and flows in similar fashion, like a translucent, tame, sleepy snake. The visit also reminded me of how, when I was a kid in England, my father often took me on visits to factories and workshops to see how things were done – from the Dunlop tyre factories, to a stained glass atelier, to the presses of the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street, when lead type machines were still being used. Learning by viewing, but also learning by doing – if your host is happy to invite hands-on – all very well in sweet making, I guess, but inadvisable in industrial tyre production… 

 

Help Needed

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The 2005 BBC series Help, about a psychotherapist played by Chris Langham and his multiple patients, all played by the brilliant Paul Whitehouse – described by Johnny Depp as “the finest actor of all time” – is one of the sharpest comedies ever produced on British television. The actor Chris Langham, of course, was jailed for 6 months in 2007 for downloading child pornography. Since his release, he has starred in a feature-length low-budget comedy called Black Pond. Help was not released on DVD, presumably because of Langham’s conviction, but was freely available for viewing on YouTube. It has now been snuffed out on YouTube as well, without a word of explanation. This means that one of the most stunning comedy acts of our times cannot be viewed, by hook or by crook – unless someone can tell me of a means of which I am unaware? This is a particularly nasty and inexplicable act of censorship to all appearances. Does anyone have any information about what is going on? And how to bring this wonderful series – a whacky precursor to Gabriel Byrne’s earnest HBO series about a shrink, In Treatment – back into the public realm?

Goodnight Mommy (2014)

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Goodnight Mommy (2014) is an Austrian arthouse horror movie that lingers in the mind for more reasons than one. Identical nine-year-old twins Elias and Lukas (played by the extraordinary identical twin Schwarz brothers) live in a superb designer house – all timber, glass, marble and Venetian blinds – between a lake, a wood and a field of tall, swaying maize. Their mother returns from an operation (accident? cosmetic surgery?), her head swathed in bandages. As they pick up their life together – there is no mention of a father – the boys begin to suspect that the woman behind the bandages is an imposter. 
 
 This is a directorial debut for Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and has echoes of Haneke’s Funny Games, The Sixth Sense, A History of Violence, Jack Clayton’s The InnocentsThe Village of the Damned and even the 2007 Danish film The Substitute – at least, all of these came to mind. While you may guess the film’s enigma early on, as I did, this movie keeps you in its thrall all along the way, with an exquisitely eerie atmosphere inside the bourgeois dream house and outside – in the forest of maize plants, or beside the lake, or on a night of torrential rain.
 
The mother, with her quick spasmodic glances and movements and the dreamy circling of the wide-eyed boys – rarely leaving each other’s sides – creates the sense of a dangerous private world that brooks no intrusion. There is no scary music. There are no cheap surprise tactics. The scenes of extreme violence are enacted with cold, surgical precision. The creepiness emanates above all from the quiet collusion between the two boys and the bewitching cinematography that sucks one into the cryptic realm of childhood. In common with other masterpieces of horror, such as The Exorcist, it achieves its effects through measured counterpoint with episodes of intense serenity.

Cold Call Management Strategies

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I have never had an authentic phone call on my landline, only cold calls. In general, the caller has an Indian accent and cannot pronounce my name. If you ask where they are calling from, they saying something like “not far from you” or “the North”, begging the question. The problem with cold calls is that you have to wait a while before you can be sure that it is not your bank, or your insurance company, or a bona fide institution to which you belong. Once you are sure that it is a cold call, you can of course simply put the phone down. However, if you have a few seconds to waste, a certain degree of entertainment value can be derived from these impromptu voices from overseas. Here are two of my regular ripostes.
 
1.
Caller: Can I speak to Mr Matheus?
Me: He isn’t here.
Caller: You are not Mr Matheus?
Me: No, I’m the plumber.
Caller: Where is Mr Matheus?
Me: He’s back on the International Space Station.
Caller: When will he be returning?
Me: I don’t know, I’ll have to ask Mission Control.
Caller: This is the Pukka International Insurance Company. When can I call back?
Me: I don’t know. I’m just the plumber.
 
2.
Caller: Can I speak to Mr Matthers?
Me (outraged): How did you get this number?
Caller: Is this Mr Matthers?
Me: I repeat, how did get this number?
Caller: From the phone book.
Me: This number is not in the phone book. It is a highly secure, confidential number. Only three people in the world know this number. Your call has activated Red Alert. National security has been compromised.
Caller: It is on our list.
Me: Put me through immediately to your manager. Etc.
 
Does anyone else have any good cold caller management strategies?
 
Please share…

Neighbours from Hell

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“Good fences make good neighbours.” But there are some nuisances – and neighbours – that fences cannot contain. 
 
My musician friend “X” moved to a handsome 19th-century cottage on the outskirts of a big city a couple of years ago, and almost immediately things started to go wrong. The neighbours to one side live in a big, swanky house with huge grounds and to begin with relations were amicable. Until construction work began on a small lodge within the palatial residence’s grounds. One morning, X opened his garage door to find his passage blocked by an enormous truck belonging to the construction workers. He asked them to move it, and they said “10 minutes”. He waited an hour for action, by which time he had missed his appointment in town. From this moment on, things degenerated. The workers became increasingly supercilious, deliberately obstructing the street – not only for X, but for everyone else living there – and the only prospect of relief was the neighbour’s assurance that the work would be over in “three months”. However, a year later, it was still under way, the principal nuisance being the constant noise. When X remonstrated with the neighbour’s husband, he replied “Well, here ‘three months’ means ‘a year’” and agreed to an ex gratia payment to avoid legal action over the nuisance caused by the regularly obstructed thoroughfare.
 
Other “castle and cottage” incidents followed. Repeatedly, a woman who visited the neighbour’s parked her car on X’s property, and one day he confronted her. “Why don’t you park in your friend’s driveway? It’s huge. There’s plenty of room.” The visitor replied, “Well I have to be honest – I have an oil leak, you see. I don’t want to soil their gravel.” 
 
When at last construction of the lodge was completed, peace and quiet were set to return to this semi-rural backwater of the big city. But it was not to be. Spring had come, and the neighbours’ garden – all three hectares of it – needed attention. They promptly employed a live-in gardener, with wife and child in tow, to trim the boxwood hedges, mow the lawn, and man the strimmer, apparently aiming for an effect comparable to the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles. The gardener was employed to work eight hours a day, five days a week and from the outset it was clear that no mere garden shears were good enough for him. He liked machines, the bigger and noisier the better. Furthermore, his passion for his work extended into the weekend, because he had nothing better to do than add another eight hours to his workload on Saturdays. At this point, negotiations with the wealthy neighbour faltered, sighed and collapsed: “He has to work!” growled the neighbour, “But I have to play piano,” pleaded X.  The police shrugged: people can do what they like in their own gardens. Without a doubt, the time for personal initiative had come.
 
As a classical musician, it was clear from the word ‘go’ that music would be his ally in what was likely to become a long-drawn-out war of attrition. He borrowed a pair of powerful loudspeakers from a friend and searched through his extensive collection of recordings for the one opus that would do the trick. Mere techno or rap was pointless, the constant beat giving it a hypnotic quasi-acceptability. What was required was sheer cacophony, a jarring, strident, raucous, grating, rasping triumph of unignorable pandemonium. And at last he found it, the Holy Grail of acoustic retaliation.
 
Amériques, by Edgard Varèse, was composed between 1918 and 1921, a huge orchestral representation of New York, complete with clanging construction work and wailing sirens, requiring a total of 155 musicians. It is some 25 minutes of sheer urban ferocity, an explosion of praise for the new machine age, out-Stravinskying Stravinsky. Now, whenever the hedge-trimmers and mowers and chain saws cough into action, Varèse’s Amériques ripostes – again and again, onward and ever upward, until the blood beats in the brow and the hand reaches tremulously for the ear-plugs. The neighbour screams over the hedge, “You’ll see! I know the Prime Minister!” to which X shouts back, “And I know the Second Minister, and the Third Minister, and the Fourth Minister!” or even “I know the Queen!” When X leaves his house, the music still blaring in the garden, the gardener poses like a statue in front of the next-door palace and points a basilisk stare at him, and every day the prospect of that chainsaw being imaginatively repurposed becomes a real possibility. 
 
Thus music may have charms to soothe the savage breast, but it can also be pressed into action to quite the opposite effect. Though the outcome of this war of nerves remains to be decided, Edgard Varèse may be congratulated on the unintended usefulness of his oeuvre, with possible secondary inspiration from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Having spent the best part of a weekend listening to Amériques again and again and again, I can testify to its maddening potency. If any enterprising record producer decides to create a “Neighbours from Hell” revenge album, it should be right up there at the top of the playlist.
 
Pass the Xanax, dear…

Vide Greniers in Touraine

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The vide grenier (“attic clearance sale”) season is with us again in Touraine, as it is throughout rural France, and will continue through to the end of October or even early November. Every weekend, two or three little villages will be holding one – generally a mix of jumble sale locals and semi-professional bric-à-brac dealers, with “buvette” beer tent, a cheap lunch of merguez with chips and piped music or a roving compere. Some are themed (“garlic festival”, “snail festival”, “roast suckling pig festival”) while others finish up with accordions and an evening bal musette. For the record, the “snail festival” is in Loché sur Indrois, and is named after an enormous metal sculpture of a snail in the public common where it is held – not a single real snail, with or without garlic butter, is in evidence, and striped T-shirts and basque berets are also conspicuous by their absence.
 
More often than not, a vide grenier is the annual village fête by another name. You can find out what’s on either from a tourist office leaflet that lists all the pre-planned ones, or from more up-to-date lists on the Internet.
 
If it’s clutter you’re after, you can either go in a serendipitous mood, or with a mental list of things you need for the home, excluding furniture, which is rarely of quality. In fact “vide grange” (“barn clearance sale”) would be a better description in this part of the world, and there are always lots of 19th-century agricultural or domestic implements, terracotta storage pots, old wooden wheelbarrows or cast iron fire equipment that nobody seems to want. In the past, I’ve bought up lots of heavy Victorian irons which make perfect doorstops, or old photographs – windows into departed worlds. Above all, the vide greniers are splendid places to meet people and stop for a chat. I remember long conversations with a veteran Foreign Legion parachutist selling off all his militaria and an old man, a widower, who asked me if I knew of any unattached elderly women in the locality that I could introduce him to.
 
Today it was Bournan, a dreamy little bourg not far from La Chapelle Blanche Saint Martin in unspoilt rolling countryside.  We first met a young woman who had returned from five months travelling around South East Asia and now lived and slept in her van. She had caught the travel bug and was selling everything off to drum up enough cash to drive to Romania. We contributed to her expenses by buying BD albums (Tintin and Les Bidochon) and an antique wire-net “cloche” to protect fruit or cheese from flies. Next came an amateur radio enthusiast – wearing a baseball cap with a built-in electric fan – who was selling off half a dozen old valve radios, most in working condition, and he knew their stories off by heart – like the one his father listened to throughout the Second World War. Later we chatted with a gifted couturier and upholsterer who had worked in Germany and Paris and settled with his brother here in the village, with his little workshop, L’O Air Atelier, making eccentric decorative, upholstery and clothing items like 1950s Betty-Boop-style “perfect housewife” kitchen aprons, all frills and plunging neckline.
 
The fetchingly retro village café/bar/shop has that which interior designers the world would murder for in their failed attempts to achieve – simple functional authenticity, accrued like a patina over the years. At today’s vide grenier, they served us a perfect, unpretentious lunch – mixed crudités, entrecôte of beef with chips, a selection of cheeses, fruit salad, coffee and a bottle of rosé – all for 12 euros a head – while the village oompah band played outside.
 
The Touraine vide greniers are like something out of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête. All of human life is here – including, on this occasion, a bearded Muslim striding through the village in long grey djellaba, staring straight ahead and apparently oblivious to the festive atmosphere in this month of Ramadan. At the previous vide grenier we went to – in a tiny village of about 200 inhabitants – the locals glanced incredulously at three gendarmes, armed to the hilt, including one with an assault rifle and grenades, doing the rounds, from the kiddy trampoline to the wicker chair repairer. For verily, we live in parlous times…
 
Part of the poignancy of these village fêtes is that they are a sunny throwback to another time, but more and more they also feel like the last breath of a near-perfect way of life, fluttering on the brink of extinction.
 
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Compare and Contrast…

Today’s homework is to compare and contrast this RATP Paris Metro announcement and Magritte’s famous painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. The text of the Metro announcement reads, in English: “The information on this screen is temporarily unavailable. Our agents are working to restore it as soon as possible.”

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Happy Birthday, Fluide Glacial!

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Fluide Glacial, the French monthly humour magazine (BD), is 40 years old this year. When I first came to Touraine in 1976, an impoverished young unemployed couple living in an old barn invited me to see their collection of cartoon books, and the first hilarious issues of Fluide Glacial had pride of place. I immediately became a regular subscriber, and learned most of my street French from this wonderful source, with its strip cartoons about the oafish Bidochon family, the grouchy Carmen Cru (a wizened old hag living in provincial France), or the gross Catholic nun, Soeur Marie-Thérèse de Batignolles with her inflatable Christ-on-the-Cross, and great artists like Edika.

The magazine began as an offshoot of Pilote, and was allegedly inspired by the American Mad magazine (which had great graphics, but was never outrageously funny, to Europeans at least), and stands alongside l’Echo des Savanes and the defunct Hara Kiri as part of that great 1970s’ wave of irreverence through a medium in which the French have always excelled. Today it’s just as droll, ribald, hare-brained and cheeky as ever, with a great stable of artists and writers.

 When my sister Clare came to Paris many years ago, I took her to a street market and she stared at the huge variety of fruit, vegetables, cheese and seafood and said “Why don’t we have this at home?!” I always felt the same about Fluide Glacial. When Viz popped up, it was a close runner, but too puerile and relentlessly scatological. There is simply no British equivalent of Fluide Glacial. It’s surreal, quirky, silly, witty – a hoot. The more people tease me for liking it, the more I think I will… So there.

 Happy birthday, Fluide Glacial!

The Imposter (2011)

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From Zelig to Tom Ripley or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the chameleon-like ability of con-men and imposters to pass themselves off for someone other than who they are has a lasting fascination in film and fiction, not least because it throws into relief the specious basis on which our social and human judgements are made.

Real life has generously provided us with a motley crew of career imposters, perhaps the most intriguing recent example of which is the Frenchman Christophe Rocancourt (born 1967) who, in France and the USA, has masqueraded as a movie producer, a former boxing champion, a venture capitalist, the son of Sophia Loren, fooling along the way Mickey Rourke and French filmmaker Catherine Breillat. 

 One of the most stupefying tales of imposture is told in the documentary The Imposter (2011), narrated largely by the imposter himself, another Frenchman – Frédéric Bourdin. In a nutshell, Bourdin had a long history of impersonating lost youngsters – real or imaginary – when, from Spain, he phoned a lost children centre in the USA to find an American identity he could adopt. That identity was Nicholas Barclay, an American boy of 13 who had disappeared three years previously. To his own astonishment, his more or less random choice worked, he passed all the lie-detection hurdles and he was taken back by the family.

 This was all the more amazing since he was tall and Nicholas was short, he had dark hair and Nicholas was blond, he had brown eyes and Nicholas had blue eyes, he was and looked half French and half Algerian and Nicholas was an all-American boy, he spoke with a marked French accent and knew nothing of America, and – in short – looked and behaved nothing like the child he was impersonating. Moreover, he was 23 and Nicholas Barclay would have been 16. 

 There is no doubt from his own commentary that he knew all the tricks and wiles of the imposter, but nothing could explain the scale of this deception and the odds against it. To all appearances, the Barclay family was desperate to find their long lost darling and were so eager to believe that he had reappeared – allegedly after years of sexual abuse at the hands of high-ranking military – that no evidence to the contrary would deter them.

 What was in it for Bourdin? In short, a life in America, and a warm family environment that he had never known. In this stunning documentary he recounts each stage of his deception, and his growing amazement at what he was getting away with. Until, that is, a sharp-eyed private investigator, Charlie Parker – a character who seems to have stepped right out of a film noir – spotted the obvious, and it had to do with his ears. 

 But the incredible twist in this story is when Bourdin himself begins to suspect that his adoptive family has been telling a much bigger lie than any he himself has told.

 Patricia Highsmith could have written this, but she didn’t. It’s all true. This documentary will knock your socks off!

The Mysterious Schneider

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 The Mysterious Schneider of the Club Artistic Israëlite advertises his mysteriousness on a tin plaque with a rear prop that features, to the left, an oval portrait of “Miss Sonia” and, to the right, an oval portrait of “Sim’s”. In the middle is a three-legged cauldron with a serrated edge, like a decapitated soft-boiled egg, from which fire and a question mark emanate.

Miss Sonia is in a black dress with a lace collar and has dark hair, an odd kiss curl on her forehead and strong eyebrows. Sim’s is in evening dress and black bow tie, with short hair and prominent ears, a rather long white handkerchief hanging from his breast pocket suggesting the art of prestidigitation. Why “Sim’s” has an apostrophe is part of the mystery, since the possessive form is followed by no object of possession, unless it be the French foible for putting apostrophes in the wrong places for an air of Englishness, which the surname Sim’s might connote – and here I recall that when I was no more than nine or ten, in a cinema, a boy called Roger Sims struck a match and set fire to my scarf in the dark. “Sim’s” is also an anagram of “Miss”, and “Miss Sonia” and “Sim’s” combined are an anagram of “Amiss Missions”. Indeed, the letters “M” and “S” proliferate in the three names. And why the use of English in what is apparently a French club?

There is no indication that either Miss Sonia or Sim’s are The Mysterious Schneider who may, indeed, be a third person or entity entirely, cryptically alluded to by the question mark in the fiery cauldron. The mystery deepens when, on closer inspection, a marked similarity between the facial features of Miss Sonia and Sim’s becomes clear. Is it because they are both Jewish? Could they be brother and sister? Could they in fact be one and the same person, perhaps the female and male manifestations of a split-gender Schneider? The name “Schneider” means “someone who cuts”.

The little metal plaque – picked up at a flea market – is old, from before the Second World War, and one can only imagine the fate of the sibilant SSS – Sonia, Sim’s and Schneider – perhaps at the hands of the slightly less sibilant SS. An Internet search reveals that others have alighted on this same image, in the form of postcards, but no elucidation is forthcoming. The Mysterious Schneider has locked up his mystery in a burning question mark and time has smiled, sealed its lips and tossed away the key.

© 2018 Adrian Mathews