‘A comic tale of lessons in life, love, dating and the odd samosa party’

The contents lists seems to cover every possible thing you might want to know about dating from creating a profile to telephone interviews with prospective dates to handling speed dating. And that’s only part of it.

We begin with finding out about our author. Raj is sadly divorced but is now back in the dating game. He describes himself at the beginning of the book, and claims that he’s not a writer, but that’s not true at all. He has a wonderful way with words and a wicked sense of humour. Once you’ve started reading, you just can’t stop. I’m the absolute proof of that. I’m in my fifties and have been married to the same man for thirty-two years, so you might not think this book wouldn’t appeal to me at all. However, I loved every minute of reading Raj’s entertaining anecdotes and now reckon I could hold my own on Mastermind with the specialist subject of the dating game, having investigated the process thanks to Raj! 

After meeting Raj we get the lowdown on the Indian perspective on dating, and all the extra complications that brings. We meet the all-important Aunties (matrimonial intermediaries) who make things happen, and tag along to a function introduction samosa party where the faux pas are just waiting around every corner. I love how Raj describes how internet dating is really just the digital version of a match-making Auntie. We then go through all the various stages and explore this minefield alongside our very entertaining guide. If you thought, as the author did, that internet dating was only for freaky nerdy recluses or scary cat women, you’ll soon learn otherwise. There are a lot of perfectly normal people out there who are just needing a little help to meet their Mr or Mrs Right. For them, but actually for anyone, this is a superb hands-on, slightly tongue-in-cheek account of everything, and more, you need to know.

‘Winning your never-ending battle against stuff’

Let’s face it: most of us have a lot of stuff. Possessions, like they say of enemies, tend to accumulate as you go through life. Now, having stuff is OK, so long as it’s useful and you have a place to keep it. But when you don’t use yet still hang onto it, and it’s taking up the space where you could and should be keeping beneficial items, then it’s crossed the line and become clutter. And it needs to go.
The author tells us that the most important thing about decluttering is that stuff you don’t need leaves your home. It’s not about shifting stuff, rearranging it or buying new containers. Decluttering is not organising, but it’s certainly the first step towards it.
Throughout the author is very encouraging and very down to earth. She begins by explaining how her own clutter built up, rapidly and unnoticed, and then became a problematic part of her life. Her message is to live for now – not the future or past. Don’t hang onto items of vaguely sentimental value if you haven’t got space for them. Don’t hang onto stuff just in case you think you might use it one day. (There is a big difference between usefulness and using something.) Have what you need now to hand.
Dana K White uses some great words and terms. Here are a few examples that will resonate with most of us messy people:
• Deslobification – method of improving how your home looks from a cluttered mess to far more acceptable.
• Decluttering paralysis – don’t let it afflict you: you can overcome your clutter.
• Procasticlutter – things you just haven’t got round to dealing with but you know what you must do with it.
• Redecluttering – what you need to do when clutter threatens to make a come-back. But don’t panic, it’s a lot easier than decluttering first time round.
• Clutter threshold – the point at which the clutter becomes too much. Tell me about it!

There are four main parts to the book:
• Building a decluttering mindset: laying the ground rules and getting the ball rolling
• Decluttering room by room: the author reveals her 5-step process, but I won’t tell you what it is because you must go and buy the book. However, it really is effective as I’ve been trying it out.
• Helping others declutter: giving friends and family a helping hand in getting rid of stuff they no longer need
• Special circumstances in decluttering: how to tackle the huge jobs, like moving house or clearing out a loved one’s home.

The ‘at the speed of life’ element of the title is basically just fitting decluttering into your free time without it driving you mad. And simplifying the process as much as possible with easy steps, such as put the item where you’d look for it. And remember you’ve got it the next time you need it.
This is a common-sense, heartening and uplifting book. It makes decluttering possible and actually almost enjoyable!

This book is a must for anyone with chickens and who enjoys a bit of DIY. I think the two often go together, as if you’re someone who likes to produce your own eggs then you’re generally someone who enjoys being self-sufficient. All the projects in this book are achievable, especially with such clear instructions and helpful photos. Some can be completed in an hour while others may take three or four.
The authors invite you to either follow the instructions to the letter, or make adaptations and adjustments as you see fit for your own particular little flock. They encourage recycling and customisation in all their projects.

There are four sections:
Why DIY: the aims of this book are to help you save money by making things for yourself.
Basic tools and skills: from hammers and tape measures, to circular saws, you get the lowdown on what you need. You can manage with very simple straightforward tools, but electric ones make life quicker and easier. There’s advice on techniques such as cross cuts, and accurate measuring and marking, and handy and very sensible safety advice.
A look at the history of chicken keeping: this provides a nice little interlude before we roll our sleeves up and get busy, and very much gets the point across that improvisation to reflect the economic climate has always been part of keeping chickens.
And finally the projects. Each on is graded as to difficulty (many are beginner level) and gives an idea of how long it will take to make. They’re varied but they’re all extremely useful.

First up is a chicken tractor, not as in a farm machine for your chook to drive, but a movable chicken run. These are so handy.
Dust-bathing area: a great and hygienic treat for your chooks, and it will stop them digging holes in the flowerbeds.
Feeder/waterer: made from drainpipe parts, this is inspired. Chickens are messy eaters, and this has the benefit of keeping the food clean too.
Compost bin: to get the benefits of all that chicken compost, mixed with kitchen scraps
Egg incuabator: This is an advanced project, but looks a very interesting one to try.
Nest boxes: my chickens pointedly ignore any nesting box I give them and lay wherever they please, but I’m hoping that these might tempt my girls to be good.
Egg candler: this is a box design which provides a secure base for the egg you’re examining.
Chicken roost: a sturdy, movable roost that satisfies their psychological need to roost off the ground at night, and helps keep their feet healthy. Adapt this for the number of chickens you have.
Dropping board: this fits below the roost to catch all that night-time poop.
Chick brooder: to keep your hatchlings nice and cosy.
Quarantine habitat: chickens get sick from time to time and here’s a comfy cage to keep them isolated and unstressed in.
Collapsible chicken run: a foldable run, easy to move around, for when you need to keep your chickens contained.
Chicken ramp: to give your chickens easy, non-slip access to any elevated area, such as a raised coop door.
Chicken swing: delightful! A swinging roost, that’s really simple to make.
5-gallon bucket next boxes: a very quick and easy nesting box.
hod: an egg-collecting basket with wire mesh sides and bottom. You don’t have to worry about all of your eggs in this as it will keep them undamaged.
Grazing box: allows your chickens to graze at plants without totally destroying them.
Wading pool: a paddling pool ramp for hot days.
Chicken sweater- knitting pattern: this is just for fun to make your chooks look pretty, but could come in handy in short spells for a chicken that’s suffering at the beak of an overzealous cockerel.
Egg recipes for when you’re getting overwhelmed with eggs!
I was delighted to see a helpful index at the back – so many books don’t bother with these yet they’re an essential feature of a non-fiction book.
This is a fabulous book, full of great ideas. It’s beautifully thought and out and presented and if you keep chickens then you could really do with this book on your shelf. It would make a fantastic present for any chicken lovers in your life.

The authors are Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson. Published by CompanionHouse Books.
Paperback is priced at €13,64 $19,99 £14,99


F may be for France but it’s also for fascinating! This really is an interesting collection of assorted facts about France, many of them quirky. It will give you plenty of interesting things to bring up in conversations. “Did you know that it takes half a mile of Merino wool to make a beret? Did you know that the Eiffel Tower was only intended to be a temporary construction? Did you know that 95 pizzas are eaten every second in France? Did you know that the 100 billionth Bic pen was sold in September 2006?”

This little gem of a book is packed full of such rich snippets, covering culture, literature, history, language, art, nature, beauty, food, everyday life, eccentricities to give just a few examples. They’re presented in A to Z format. The author has put many, many hours of research into this book, and I think she must have had a ball while she was doing so. She shares plenty of quirky, delightful, and occasionally macabre bits of information that really do give you a good idea of what France and Frenchness is all about.

The author has a lively style and you quickly become thoroughly engrossed in what she’s saying. It’s a book you can dip in and out of, but it’s very hard to put it down once you pick it up.

In conclusion, I have to give this book another F word –  ‘formidable’!

I love knitting and I love birds, so it was impossible for me to resist this book. And if you share those sentiments, then so will you.

It’s a luxurious book. The first two pages fold outwards to give a four-page spread showing all the various birds you’ll be able to knit using this book. Same again at the back. The book is illustrated with full colour photos throughout, and there are very clear and well laid out instructions for making the birds.

Chapter One is an introduction from Arne and Carlos, describing their love of birds and how that gave rise to this book. The next two chapters in Part One outline everything you’ll need to make these fabulous little birds, from yarn and stuffing material, to how to construct their wire legs. (An note here: the book recommends using 1.5mm galvanised wired, but I found that rather stiff to handle so I’ve used 1.1mm wire very successfully.)

Part Two presents the birds. They’re all variations on the same basic pattern, and each one can be knitted up in a couple of hours. There are hats and scarfs to knit for them too, and a couple of tea-cosies to which to attach them. There are spring birds, winter birds, garden birds, embroidered birds, birds in traditional sweaters and rare birds of paradise. These latter are knitted using embroidery yarn rather than the usual fingering yarn from which the others are made, and have sequins and feathers attached. Gorgeous!

It really is a wonderful, inspiring, work-of-art of a book. I’ve already knitted four little birds and just can’t seem to stop. They’re addictive. It’s exactly the book to treat your knitting self to for a special occasion, such as Christmas or birthday or the fact it’s Wednesday. Any excuse will do!

Here to finish are a few of my birds.



Formidable! I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish.

Joe, his French wife and bilingual son leave California for Paris. Joe seems well-prepared for what French life will throw at him on the whole, but the quest for a French driving license leads him a merry dance and becomes all-consuming. It’s from this point of view that we follow Joe’s adventures in the land of shrugs and snails.

He has a sharp eye for detail and a lovely, lively style. He clearly relishes the foreignness and frequent inexplicability of France. The result is a very readable and entertaining book that will have you chuckling every few pages. For example, he hilariously describes the frustrating vagaries of French road signage, details delicious but interminable meals (with helpful ‘how to survive them’ tips), and gives wonderful accounts of nervous-tic inducing encounters with bureaucrats. He throws in lots of fascinating facts along way, for example about car ownership and vehicle-related revenues, and about the Strange French Names Club aka Asso des communes de France aux noms burlesques. He teaches us some slang and swear words and weaves in plenty of helpful information too, such as about the dreaded priorité à droite rule. All excellent stuff.

For me the book was also a look at ‘how the other half lives’, the other half being employed people in France whereas I’m from the self-employed sector. All those paid days off and holiday vouchers, I’m green with envy!

The only thing I took issue with was where Joe says that if a car fails its contrôle technique it has to be repaired immediately before it goes back on the road. You actually have two months to do the necessary work. Only a minor quibble but worth mentioning in case it causes panic to would-be expats!

A splendid book, well presented and written, and most definitely a must-read.

I’m delighted to be hosting Will Bashor today as he sets out on his virtual book tour with this truly absorbing and meticulously researched book.

Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie by Will Bashor



This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the waiting room for the guillotine because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.

Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.


My Review

I was riveted by this book from start to tragic finish.

Marie Antoinette must be one of the best known-about historical figures of all time, but not the best known. We’ve all heard the famous statement, “Let them eat cake,” Qu’ils mangent de la brioche, although it’s not certain she ever actually did give this tactless response to the claim that the poor people had no bread, and we also know that she was executed by guillotine during the aftermath of the French Revolution. And for most of us that’s just about it.

But there was so much more to her than that. In Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days, historian and author Will Bashor recounts the dreadful experiences she went through between the beginning of August 1793 until her death in mid-October. Her husband already dead, separated from her sister-in-law and children she languished in a filthy prison. Yet she showed resilience and dignity in the face of hatred and enemies baying for her blood.

The book reads, I think, more like a novel rather than a history book, in that while the authors shares a tremendous amount of painstaking research with us, we’re never overwhelmed and the pace is crisp. Our tragic heroine develops before our eyes and we feel empathy for her in her wretched circumstances. She stops being a figurehead and becomes a very real person to us. Yes, she had been one of the royal family who knew no restraint in flaunting their wealth and acting insensitively and unsympathetically towards their subjects, but that was how life was then. There was a chasm between the haves and have-nots. You can understand why the people wanted to redress the balance somewhat, or at least attempt to. With the forthcoming elections here in France, it is somewhat ironic to realise that once again there is a widening gap between the people and those that govern them – there are many millionaires in the government these days. Did poor Marie Antoinette die in vain?

If you’re interested in French history then this without doubt is the book for you. It is completely absorbing and absolutely fascinating.



Security tightened in the Conciergerie as the public uproar increased. The guards searched through the queen’s laundry, and she was only allowed a change of clothing every ten days. At the same time, the queen’s health was faltering. She complained of pain in one of her legs, covering it with her cushion to keep it warm. The queen also suffered from insomnia, anxiety, dizziness, weakness, and frequent bouts of vaginal bleeding. Rosalie attributed the hemorrhaging to the “crushing sorrows, the foul air in her cell, and lack of exercise.”

These miseries were perhaps every bit as disturbing as the presence of the guards, who violated her modesty as they watched her change clothes. When the queen discretely removed the bloody dressings, Rosalie disposed of them secretly but with great difficulty; the inspections were multiplying at all hours of the day and night. And the noise became unbearable, with the locks continuously clanking and the door of the queen’s dungeon screeching as deputies entered and exited.

On October 3, Deputy Jean-Baptiste-André Amar of the Committee of General Security decreed that 129 deputies of the Gironde party be denounced as outlaws, arrested, and brought to trial. The Girondins had campaigned for the end of the monarchy but came into conflict with the more radical Jacobins. On the same day, a large number of the Girondins were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, the same prison that housed the fallen queen of France. That these Girondins would be tried and most likely face the guillotine before the queen sparked another public controversy.

They argued that the queen was the “guiltiest of all” and “her head should be the first to fall.” The committees, clubs, and cafés of Paris were all calling for a speedy trial of the Agrippina, a reference to the ruthless, domineering, and violent mother of Nero.

“I rang my alarm bell to all French ears on the infamous Antoinette,” wrote lawyer and politician Armand-Joseph Guffroy in his journal. “Keep Marie Antoinette in prison to make peace, you say drearily, and I say to you, ‘Make her jump like a carp with its hands tied behind its back.’”

“We aim to judge the Austrian tigress from twelve until two o’clock in the afternoon,” the deputy Louis Marie Prudhomme wrote, “and we demand the offenses to condemn her; if justice is served, she will be hacked up like mincemeat in a pâté.”


About the Author

Will Bashor


earned his M.A. degree in French literature
from Ohio University
and his Ph.D. in International Studies
from the American Graduate School in Paris
where he gathered letters, newspapers, and journals
during his research for the award-winning
Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution.
Now living in Albi, France,
and a member of the Society for French Historical Studies,
his latest work, Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie,
was released in December 2016.
He is currently working on the final part of his historical trilogy,
Marie Antoinette’s World: The Labyrinth to the Queen’s Psyche.

Visit him on his website
and here are many ways to follow him:

Follow Rowman & Littefield on Twitter and Facebook



Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days:
Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie

(history – nonfiction)

Release date: December 1, 2016
at Rowman & Littlefield

392 pages

ISBN: 978-1442254992

Website | Goodreads




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From 2011: The Year of All Things Wild and Woolly

Talking about sad episodes, it’s time to mention our polytunnel. Our earnings were a little healthier now that we were with Angling Lines, but there still wasn’t a lot of spare cash. Now, we’d been mulling over the idea of getting a greenhouse or polytunnel for several months. We ate a lot of tomatoes and lettuces but these didn’t thrive outdoors. Despite digging lots of poop from assorted animals into the area of ground we designated as the vegetable patch, the soil remained poor. The only things that did grow were courgettes and pumpkins, and you can definitely have too many of those. Hence, the desire to grow a wider variety of veggies. After a lot of pondering, we opted for a low budget polytunnel off eBay. Stop laughing and bear with me. It looked good in the advert, and was the right sort of size so we paid up and eagerly awaited its arrival. It wasn’t too long coming and we got it up in one afternoon. Given the number of bits of framework and the unhelpfulness of the instructions, that was surprisingly fast. We chose a south-facing spot behind the barn. It was in the female llamas’ field and they were delighted. They had a very interesting time watching us grapple with poles and plastic. Llamas are so wonderfully inquisitive. Once it was finished they seemed very pleased with the new addition to their field and inspected it every now and again. We’d have to make sure to keep it closed, or they’d be in like a shot.

We got to work constructing some workbenches from recycled building materials and quickly covered them with seedlings in yoghurt pots. My inner gardener blossomed. I spent many happy hours pottering around potting things up in there, and Chris likewise. It started to look very impressive and productive. We took the precaution of wiring the framework to two very heavy iron bars that had come with the farm. We had no idea what their original purpose might have been, but we knew they’d come in handy one day and so we left them where they were, on the grass beyond the hangar, and regularly tripped over them. However, all those stubbed toes were worth it as the bits of iron now came into their own.

They, the bits of wire and a few bits of bent framework were all that were left after the first slightly windy night we experienced after erecting the polytunnel. A few moderate gusts of wind and the whole thing fell apart. The plastic ripped and fluttered off around the farm, sending our seedlings flying, only to be consumed or trampled on by the llamas. What a disaster. All that hard work wasted. Evidently the polytunnel was intended for indoor use only. We sighed and collected up any salvageable pieces of debris, and they weren’t many, ignoring the llamas’ giggling.

We learnt our lesson from that act of cheapskateness and decided we would have to invest in a real, proper, heavy-duty polytunnel with thick plastic and a weighty metal framework. It would be worth dipping into our savings if it meant we bought something that would last longer than a couple of weeks and withstand a gentle breeze. And so our new polytunnel duly arrived. This was more like it. It came on two pallets and weighed a ton. Never mind several hours, it took several weeks to erect. The main supporting framework needed concreting in place, wooden doorways had to be constructed and it took the whole family to help with fitting the rest of the frame together and fitting the plastic over, stretching it carefully to fit and cutting off the excess. Leaving a central walkway, Chris built a raised bed to each side which, over a few days, we filled with barrowfuls of llama and chicken poop. The ten-metre long and four-metre wide polytunnel accommodated an awful lot of poop, I can tell you. We were delighted, and, although a bit late, set to on a second splurge of growing seedlings. We hung up a thermometer and marvelled at the tropical temperatures reached in the polytunnel. On a cloudy day when it was 20 degrees outside, the tunnel clocked up 35 degrees. And when it was hot and sunny outside around the 30 degree mark, the thermometer showed upwards of 45 degrees. Surely our lettuces and tomatoes would flourish now.

Word must have got round about our polytunnel because out of the blue, a young man turned up. He explained he was a neighbour, relatively speaking – he lived a good few kilometres away but there weren’t many other habitations between us and him so I guess that did make us neighbours – and that he’d just taken over Les Chapotiers and planned to make a living growing bio (organic) fruit and veg. We’d detected a hint of hippie. He had a polytunnel on order and asked if we’d come and help him erect it when he arrived. We replied that so long as he wouldn’t object to a good bit of swearing going on during the process, then no problem, count us in. We’d found from our few years of heavy labour in France that swearwords are as crucial an ingredient in constructing something as the physical constituents. Cussing concentrates the mind. We weren’t the first to think so. I remember from my childhood Dad going round to help our neighbour, who I knew as Uncle Will, with a car problem. “Damn, I won’t be able to swear so it’ll take ages,” Dad grumbled as he set off. Uncle Will was indeed a gentle soul. We’d often call round as kids and be treated to a biscuit in the kitchen. I only saw the living room once, and the walls were festooned with beautiful embroidered pictures. All Uncle Will’s work.

The young guy never turned up again.

Another #SampleSunday, another extract from my forthcoming ‘Total Immersion: Ten Years in France’. We’re in March 2009, and we get to meet our first home-born baby llama and Chris has a very close encounter with a fox.

We’d moved Gabby, the mother llama, into a stable so she’d be warm and cosy when delivery time came and we checked on her frequently. We coated the stable floor with hay, and counted the days. We were starting to give up. She seemed intent on exploding rather than giving birth, just to spite us.

This cria is actually Sir Winter, born Jan 27 2017. My photos of baby Lulin are on another computer. But he’s equally as cute as she was!

It was a fine, sunny morning during the kids’ winter holiday fortnight so we decided to go for a walk. We did one of our local strolls, the Chambon shuffle we call it (ch = sh in French, so it’s a nice alliterative name). Coming back along the green lane between fields, we spotted a fox in the hedgerow, but it didn’t run away. We peered close and saw that it had a metal snare around its stomach, getting tighter and tighter every time the animal moved. It was probably stupid of us, but we couldn’t leave it like that. Chris had gloves on and tried to free the fox but it bit him, not surprisingly really, and we were forced to abandon the rescue mission for the time being. When we got back, Chris went to put Germolene on his bite and then find thick gloves and wire cutters for a second attempt. I went to look in on Gabby. And there, in a hideous, spindly heap, was a llama cria. Gabby had chosen the darkest, dirtiest corner of the stable to deliver in, studiously avoiding the birth-friendly hay carpet we’d put down.  The baby was cold and grubby. Caiti and I got busy with towels drying the little female down while the boys went off to deal with the fox.

Both missions proved successful. Caiti and I soon transformed the baby into a clean, dry, fluffy cria. She was mainly white with some pretty brown splotches on her face and back. At the time Comet Lulin was visible, and we thought that Lulin was the perfect name for a little llama. Again with the alliteration. Benj and Chris came back, fortunately with no more bites, thanks to the thick gloves. But we still had the one bite to worry about. And worry a lot about, as France was then still officially a rabid country.

We hopped in the car to go to the doctor’s. We explained what had happened, and he asked us if we had the fox’s head. I stared at him blankly. No, he can’t have said that. I must have misunderstood something there. I asked him to repeat the question at a non-Francophone-friendly speed, and the same words came out. Chris and I shot other a ‘what the heck’ look. I warily replied that we didn’t have the head. We’d left it on the fox as it clearly had need of it. There didn’t seem a lot of point in freeing a fox from a snare only to immediately decapitate it, not the thought of doing so would ever have occurred to us.

The doctor sighed and told us, in a long-suffering tone, that if you get bitten by a fox, or any other possibly rabid animal, you’re meant to kill it and bring its head with you for testing. As with so many things in France, you’re meant to instinctively know this. Well, we didn’t, and we hadn’t got a vulpine head with us, so what next? The doctor quickly cheered up and said that Chris would need to go to Guéret hospital for rabies-neutralising shots. These would start at the rate of several a week, then one a week, then one a fortnight and so on at increasingly long intervals for at least the next six months. He might have said years, I was too shocked to listen properly. This really was a blow. We’d been expecting Chris would need a few injections, but not that many or for so long.

Lulin today

The doctor phoned the nearest Department of Information about Rabies and we watched as the smile dropped from his face. Our hearts were in our boots. He must have underestimated the treatment process. But it turned out that Boussac was a rabies-free zone. There hadn’t been any cases reported here for some officially sanctioned period of time, so we didn’t need the injections after all. The doctor was clearly very disappointed about this. I think he’d been quite looking forward to having a case of rabies to tell all his medical chums about. Or maybe, odd as this may sound, he liked seeing English people suffer. All that needed doing was to give Chris some antibiotics. Our anti-tetanus shots were up to date, so no more jabs were necessary. Talk about relief. The incident has, however, left Chris with an intense dislike of foxes. He also vowed he would never try and free another animal from a snare, a vow he steadfastly kept until Christmas when we came across our next case of a snared animal, a deer this time, which, of course, we set free.

Snaring  is legal in France, under certain conditions, and also trapping. Our local friendly farm supply shop, run by incredibly nice people, has a whole rack of gruesome looking devices for these very purposes and obviously they don’t give it a second thought. It’s still a way of life for some country dwellers. We haven’t come across any trapped animals for a long while now, it has to be said. However, I don’t suppose the practice has died out, just that whoever’s setting the snares is keeping them off our usual stamping grounds. The snarer has possibly worked out that the proximity of our farm to the cut-through snares they’d laid was more than coincidental. Because they were quite close to us, the only inhabitants in a sizeable chunk of very many square kilometres. Mine were the only local chickens, or in fact livestock of any kind, that a fox might have helped itself to, so I can’t see the need for anyone to have set a snare in that location. OK, deer eat crops which must be annoying if you’re a farmer, but this snare was on a bit of fencing (erected by the gas board) bordered by scrub land. Unnecessary and unpleasant.

Now that the first draft of Haircuts, Hens and Homicide is in the bag, I’ve been able to return to part Deux of my memoir of our lives in France, Total Immersion. To whet your appetites here’s an extract from the chapter ‘2012: The Year of the Pig’.

The Big Freeze of 2017 is going on as I write about the Even Bigger Freeze of 2012 so it’s helping to put me in the mood. It’s brought back precise memories of exactly how flipping cold it was.

The year started off harmlessly enough. Once New Year was over, the kids headed back to école primaire (Rors), lycée (Caiti) and fac (Benj) and Chris and I settled into our daily routine of this time of years of jobs around the farm, lake maintenance and our online businesses. However, Chris’s inner swineherd was proving hard to ignore. He’d been becoming more and more interested in getting pigs, and talking about them to such an extent that some returning angling clients of ours gave him a book about pig ownership. Perhaps that was the deciding factor, or maybe he just felt ready for a new challenge as by now, between us, we’d mastered llama and alpaca, goat, sheep and poultry ownership. It was time to conquer another animal species.

Chris did some research and found someone who did pig management courses in Poitou-Charentes, about four hours away. He booked himself in on the next available session and sorted out a night’s accommodation nearby as there was an early start to the day’s training. All he had to do now was wait.

January was ridiculously mild, to the extent that the daffs were coming up, the chickens were laying fit to bust and buds were starting to appear on many trees. What a lovely short winter we’ve had this time, we thought with a smile. But Mother Nature had the last laugh.

Chris set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon, waved off by me and the two youngest. Once he was gone we pottered around in the warmth, doing the farm chores and getting some fresh air before focussing on getting everything ready for school next day. For Rors this was just making sure there were clean clothes ready and waiting, but for Caiti it was the usual painful process of packing the suitcase for a week of boarding. We should have had it down to a fine art by now, and we had done with Benj, but somehow every week seemed like the first with our daughter. She always left packing till the very last minute, long after parental patience had been ground down. I’ve never been a late night person and since moving to France and taking up a much more physically exhausting lifestyle, then bed starts calling at nine o’clock, sometimes earlier. So things would tend to get fraught on a Sunday evening. But Caiti inevitably produced the proverbial rabbit from the hat and was all ready for the off, although she regularly resembled the proverbial slow snail and reduced me to a nervous wreck on Monday mornings. However, as it turned out miraculously we only ever missed the bus once.

This particular Monday morning was very chilly but with Chris away I had no alternative but to load a warmly wrapped sleepy Ruadhrí into the car to be taken for the ride when delivering Caiti to the bus stop in Clugnat. The road sparkled with frost and it was nippy. One low, hill-bottom stretch of the road was, as usual, particularly cold. We called it the ‘frost bucket’. This arose from a very young Caiti mishearing us using the expression ‘frost pocket’. Well, since ‘frost bucket’ is so much better we adopted that one as a family saying. The car showed a temperature of minus three or so. Brrr.

Meanwhile Chris was getting up to minus five, which came as a bit of a shock. Fortunately he’d taken plenty of warm clothes with him as a lot of the training was done outside and the day itself was sunny and bright. He had a wonderful time learning about the finer points of pigmanship with trainers David and Lorraine. They specialised in English old breed pigs and so Chris got to meet Gloucester Old Spots, Berkshires and Oxford Sandy and Blacks. He got to eat them at lunchtime too but not the ones he’d just met, obviously! The whole point of getting pigs was to become self-sufficient in pork. We weren’t going to be a pig sanctuary – we were going into this venture with hardened hearts and a love of sausages.  Chris was immediately struck with how much nicer the pork from these old breeds was than what we were used to eating from the supermarket.

Chris learned about fencing, handling and breeding pigs, and about all the relevant legislation. There was plenty of hands-on experience of rounding up and feeding. He was struck with how intelligent the pigs are. You can interact with a pig. Llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep – not so much. The action with them is one way, i.e. from the human, with the creature in question simply regarding you vacantly as The Mysterious Being That Dispenses Food. A pig, though, will come over for a chat. A pig will listen. A pig will scrutinise you and size you up with those shrewd eyes, rather than just gaze dumbly at you. A pig is altogether a different kind of animal from other farm livestock.

Temperatures began to plummet as the day wore on. I distributed extra hay to the animals and took a hat for Rors with me when I walked to Nouzerines to meet him from school. It was the walking-to-and-from school season in the winter, but the rest of the year we cycled him in and out. Despite living the furthest away, and Chris and I being the oldest set of parents by at least a decade, we were the only ones who were able to get to and from under our own environmentally-friendly steam rather than resorting to car or bus. As well as allowing us to feel morally superior to the rest of the world, it kept us all fit and we enjoyed the exercise as a family activity.

Chris got back quite late and reported freezing fog and icy roads all the way. It was by now a good few degrees below freezing, and it was going to be several weeks before it warmed up. The Big Freeze had begun.

It seemed to come out of nowhere. Admittedly we didn’t watch the Météo, weather forecast, regularly. We’d tried and failed to adapt to French television generally. With its love of short and frankly bizarre (‘quirky’ doesn’t come close) vignettes, and its overly-verbose chat and quiz show hosts, it just wasn’t for us. The culturally divide turns into a chasm when it comes to the TV. But we soon started watching it every night. And the news, where ice-bound scenes from around the country filled most of the half-hour slot. However, we were far more concerned with our own ice-boundness, which was dramatic and wholesale.

(The artwork for the cover of Total Immersion is by the incomparable Roger Fereday. The photo is of our own Berkshire pigs, Rosamunde and Oberon.)