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A chilly extract from ‘Total Immersion’

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.)

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Heads Above Water – extract for Sample Sunday

Chapter 4: Signing on the Dotted Line

Il faut réfléchir avant d’agir.

You have to think before acting.

Benj in front of the houses - not sure what he's doing!

One night on the ferry and one night in a hotel watching France play Spain in the World Cup later, we pulled into Les Fragnes about midday on the 28th June. Nigel and Philippe, the estate agents, were there to meet us as we rumbled down the drive with our trailer of essential belongings. They were delighted to see us and had laid out a picnic with lashings of wine for the adults and a mountain of crisps for the children. (They’d phoned us a few times during the course of the morning to make sure we were still coming and hadn’t turned and fled en route.) They didn’t have the keys to the houses, though, so we could only peer covetously through the filthy windows. But the buildings were undeniably still there so all seemed well. They discouraged us from walking around too much, saying we needed to get into Boussac in good time. So we took their advice, unhitched the trailer, overindulged and followed them to the town.

Our first stop was at the insurance office. Before we could buy Les Fragnes, we had to have proof for the Notaire that we’d insured it, even though it wasn’t ours yet – one of those chicken and egg peculiarities you learn to live with in France. So Nigel came with me to the GAN office to see M Orsal, the best dressed insurance agent around with a penchant for pointy-toe shoes, and we sorted this out. And on to the serious stuff chez Maître Bouret, le Notaire.

The first thing Chris and I did was remarry. Well, sort of. We changed our marital regime. The French see English marriages as being en indivision in nature. This means that if one of you dies, your spouse gets half of what’s left and the kids (or other relatives if there aren’t children) share the other half between them. Not really the best idea. So we took on the communauté universelle regime. Now whichever of us lasted longer got the lot, ideally to fritter away merrily before the kids could get their hands on it. Perfect. That process took half an hour or so and cost about four hundred euro. That’s probably more than we spent in total at our original modest little wedding back at Westerfield in 1986. We went out to check on the kids who were reading happily in the waiting room, and the rest of the cast arrived. First came M and Mme Paray, the vendors. They ran a builders’ merchant’s  in Boussac. They had inherited Les Fragnes from some relative or other and had been letting it out for the last forty years. To M and Mme Leblanc, who were the next to arrive. They were giving up their right to be tenants so the Pasquets could sell to us. They therefore had to be there to sign all the documents too. Nic Orlande rolled up next, our translator. He was a beanpole of a man, with short grey hair and a friendly face. So with us, Philippe and Nigel and the Notaire, we were all assembled. There were slightly suspicious handshakings and cheek kisses, a lot of nervousness, and then proceedings got underway.

The sale took ages. The Notaire read out every page of the long, long Acte de Vente document, which Nic, sitting behind us, concurrently translated and quietly whispered into our ears. Then I got up and initialled every page and finally signed the last one, the first to commit to this crazy enterprise. Then Chris, then the Leblancs then the Parays, and then the Notaire. Phew. By now we’d sent the two eldest kids off with money to buy magazines and ice-creams in the town, and brought Ruadhri in to fidget and snooze on my lap.

And then, momentously, Les Fragnes was ours. The huge keys were given to us. Happy handshakings and cheek kisses all round, no nervousness anymore on the French side but a hell of a lot more on the English. We staggered to the nearest café for a stiff drink before packing up the family and driving back to our farm. The first thing we found when walking round the buildings was that about a square metre of wall was peeling away, just under the roof of the tallest house. That hadn’t been like that back in December. No wonder Nigel and Philippe had kept us well away before the signing ceremony! And going into the houses, we discovered that the hunting club had ripped out the heating range, the lighting and the ceiling i.e. their few redeeming features. To Benjamin’s disappointment, the girlie calendars had gone too. We later found most of the hardware dumped either in the green lane alongside our property, or in the woodland beyond the dam wall of the big lake. Quite why they’d gone all the effort to perform this piece of mindless vandalism is a puzzle. We hope it wasn’t aimed at us. I think it was more a protest against the vendor for vending. But we were the ones who lost out. And talking of the big lake, it wasn’t many days before we realised it was fishless. Despite our agreement to the contrary, the fish had been removed and flogged. That felt extremely personal and was a massive blow.

That evening we were tired and despondent and now terrified by what we’d done. Chris inspected the dodgy wall and realised fully for the first time that the houses were built of mud and stones. And that was it. Just one step up from a mud hut basically. Now, we’d had a sort of survey done. They don’t really have them in France, but you can get a builder or architect to take a look at a property for you and give his or her professional opinion on the state of the place. We’d used a builder recommended by Frédéric, Philippe’s son. He typed up a little report which stated firmly that the buildings were ‘sain et sauf’ i.e. safe and sound. Yeah right, we thought now. But tough. Under French law, there’s no comeback. If you buy a house and it falls to the ground next day, tant pis.

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Beat the Hackers – Sample Sunday

My samplesunday contribution this week is the opening chapter from Beat the Hackers, the next of my books to hit Kindle in the very near future.

Currently revising this cover

Monday 13 May 2013

Heather Mayhew strode briskly up the steep hill towards home. She’d just got off the school bus. It was running late today, so that was why she wasn’t hanging about. Her father would be watching the clock, and if she was more than a few minutes later than normal, he’d be out looking for her. He was a worrier.

Ray Mayhew ran a computer programming business from home. And what a home it was. He and Heather lived in a large, rambling house surrounded by several acres of garden and orchards. Ray was extremely successful these days. He’d had a big breakthrough a few years ago when he’d developed an app that made it really quick and easy for people to monitor their emails, Tweets and Facebook messages. It quickly emerged as the best by far on the market, and he’d made an awful lot of money from it. So Heather had everything she could possibly need – and a few more things besides. She didn’t think of herself as particularly lucky, though. She simply took it for granted.

“Hi Dad!” Heather called as she opened the front door. “It’s me!”

“Hello!” Ray replied, shouting from his office at the top of the stairs. “I’ll be down in a mo. Pop the kettle on, please.”

Heather and her father always had a cup of tea together when she got back from school. It was one of their little rituals. Then she would get on with her homework, and Ray would go back upstairs to work, apart from Tuesdays when he drove Heather to town for swimming club and Fridays when it was Scouts. But today was Monday so Heather had the evening to herself. She decided she’d get her inline skates out later since it was warm and bright. And then maybe she’d read and catch up with her friends on Facebook. She hummed happily as she filled the kettle. She was very content with her ordered, steady life.

A clumping on the stairs signalled that her father was coming down. She pulled the biscuit tin out of the cupboard. It contained a mixture of digestives for Ray and ginger nuts for her.

“So what did you learn today, princess?” smield Ray, as he came into the kitchen. He was small and wiry, with unfashionable thick, black-framed glasses, a bushy beard and a lot of ginger hair. He was usually scruffy, except for when he met clients. Today hadn’t been a day of meeting so he was dressed in baggy jogging pants, a shabby checked shirt and odd slippers. But Heather wasn’t surprised at his appearance. Ray always looked something like that.

“Oh, we did loads of stuff,” she replied vaguely. “Mainly pretty boring. How’s your new program coming along?”

“Fine, fine,” smiled Ray. “Not too much more to do on it now.”

“It’s an anti-hacking program, right?” Heather asked conversationally, dunking two ginger nuts at once into her sweet, milky tea.

“It certainly is,” her father nodded, adding a fourth spoonful of sugar to his mug of black tea. Neither passed a comment on the other’s greediness. They were too used to each other to even notice.

“So you’ll stop all those wretched hackers messing up other people’s computers just for fun then? Cool.” She munched her biscuits thoughtfully. “But why do hackers, you know, hack? It’s so nasty.”

Ray shrugged. “Because they can mainly. And because they’re mean. Well, most are. Some hackers are harmless enough.”

“They don’t sound harmless,” protested Heather.

“What I mean,” Ray went on, “is that some hackers break into systems just to prove a point. They leave a message describing what they’ve done so the person at the other end can tighten up on security before a malicious hacker, or cracker, gets in the same way.”

“Still sneaky,” observed Heather. “But why is there so much hacking these days? A few years ago there didn’t seem to be so much going on. It’s all the time these days.”

Heather was right. In the last two days alone a thirteen-year-old girl in America had crippled three huge corporations by hacking into their websites. And in Strasbourg the computer systems of the European Parliament had been sabotaged by some as yet unknown hacker.

“It’s easier these days, Heth,” her father sighed, “because of WiFi. Most people connect to the Internet wirelessly now. The days of cables and modems are over. But it does mean that unless you physically disconnect from the WiFi network, or turn your livebox off, your computer has a static address that’s there all day, every day.”

“Twenty-four seven, you mean,” Heather corrected her father. “That’s the cool way to say it.”

“OK. Twenty-four seven it is,” agreed Ray, helping himself to a third digestive. “So it’s easier for a hacker browsing around to find an address to attack.”

“When you say address,” frowned Heather, “do you mean the website name?”

“No, the IP – Internet Protocol – address. Each computer on the Internet has a unique IP address, which is a series of numbers in groups of three. These numbers are the way information finds its way from the source to where it’s going. The website or domain names aren’t what the computers are using. They’re just there for the humans. People are better at remembering names than numbers, although that might change in a few thousand years’ time.” Ray smiled. “I read an article the other day saying that our brains are evolving to be better with numbers since they are becoming such an important part of our lives. You know, telephone numbers, car registrations, PIN numbers – that sort of thing.”

“Well, I wish mine would evolve extra fast,” sighed Heather. “I’d do better at maths then. You know how much I it! But about hackers, Dad. How will your new program keep them out?”

“That’s top secret,” her father winked.

“You mean I wouldn’t understand,” laughed Heather.

“We-ell, it is a bit technical,” admitted Ray. “Basically my program makes personal firewalls stronger.”

“I’ve heard of them, but I don’t really know what they are,” confessed Heather.

“A firewall is just a pair of mechanisms,” Ray told her. “One blocks unwanted traffic while the other permits authorised traffic through. In a nutshell, it keeps the idiots out of your computer and lets you get on with what you’re doing. And what’s more, the firewall can act as a tracing tool. My program sends an alert any time someone comes sniffing round, trying to crack the system. I may even install an automatic shutdown at that point as extra defence. But that might annoy the user too much. I’m including a virus detector too, to pick up viruses coming from the Internet and email. People are still so sloppy about computer security. They seem to think they’ll never get a virus.”

He trailed off and looked thoughtful.

“But your progam will beat the hackers, right?”

“I certainly hope so, Heth,” shrugged Ray. “I’m pinning a log on this program of mine. Talking of which, I’d better get back to work. And you’d better get your homework done, young lady.”

Heather pulled a face, but Dad was right. Time to tackle maths.