Roofs, ants and cicadas

As Jean de la Fontaine (and before him, Aesop) so rightly observed, some of us are cicadas, chirping away merrily without a care in the world; others are ants, ceaselessly scuttling and toiling for the good of all. When it comes to Europe, the division is clear: the ants, virtuous and dour, are in the north, where they endlessly churn out Mercedes, while the feckless cicadas laze about on the beach down south, piling up debts and paying no taxes. It’s very easy to know which part you’re in because in the north it’s always raining and in the south it’s always sunny. France, which straddles the divide, applies this rule quite consistently, having fixed the Loire as the demarcation line. Few people north of the Loire watch the weather forecast, as they know there’ll be a big black cloud above the spot where they live. In the south, people only watch it in order to gloat.

However, due to the occasional aberration, it has been known to rain in the south. This has to be lived with, unjustifiable as it is. Over and above the trauma, it can cause disorientation, since you’re no longer sure where you are – Antland or Cicadaland? Fortunately, there’s a rough method of knowing, whatever colour the sky is – the roofs.

You might well find a few ants who,  hoping to brighten their existence, adopt a red roof, but the reverse is unlikely. On the whole, it’s slate in the north, tiles in the south. The roofs in Provence, you might think, need no looking after because cicadas, concerned only with singing all summer long, can’t fix a roof to save their life. Well, that may be true enough when the tiles are recent, but after a few decades, they start to crumble and crack. On the left is the roof on our garden shed, built (not by me, don’t worry) in 2012. On the right, the roof over our study, formerly a garage, built circa 1920.

‘Have you noticed,’ said Mrs. B. one day last summer, ‘those patches of damp on our ceiling?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think they might be due to the garden on our roof.’

‘We’ve got a garden on our roof?’ Mrs. B., who keeps up to date with gardening trends, was impressed that we had a living roof. All the same, fearing for the plaster on our ceiling, we decided it ought to be removed. As luck would have it, our friend Bruce was visiting at the time, so after waiting for the roof to be in the shade, we climbed up and scraped the garden away. Then we replaced the tiles that were already broken, plus all the ones we broke ourselves when replacing the ones that were broken.

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If you’re doing this, it’s wise to wear gloves, as I found out to my cost when a splintered tile dug itself into my finger. With great fortitude I stitched myself up, just like Matt Damon in The Martian, then donned a couple of Mrs. B’s gloves, which not only protected me but won me the Most Fashionable Roofer Award.

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The tiles were the curved type, known as canal, which are very easy to place because they just slide under one another like playing cards. The technique was used in ancient China around 2000 BC, and the Romans adopted it throughout the Mediterranean, so Bruce and I were pleased to be carrying on the tradition. According to Mrs. B., in olden times the tiles were made on people’s thighs. This seemed plausible, since they look the right shape, tapering as they get towards the knee. After a little research, though, I discovered it’s a myth – in fact they were moulded round a block of wood called a gabarit. Which is only logical when you come to think about it: what if you ordered a batch of tiles and got a mix of George North and Cara Delevingne?

Having fixed the roof, Bruce and I retired to the garden (the one that’s where it should be), where we opened a beer and sat back listening to the cicadas. Which was all very enjoyable until I looked up and noticed that the entire house was circled by a column of ants.


 

This post (again in the nick of time) is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up.

Lou Messugo

Thursday Interview: Wendy Wheelbarrow

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Wendy, you’ve kindly accepted to – Wendy? Are you all right?

Yes, I’ll manage, thank you. I’m just a bit tired. I’m on my last wheel, you know.

Which is why I’m very grateful for this interview. Just how old are you exactly?

I’m afraid I lost my birth certificate a long time ago. But I was here when you arrived and I was with the previous owners for about 30 years, so that puts me over 50, which isn’t bad for a barrow. Of course, if I’d been born into the bourgeoisie, sleeping indoors, hardly ever doing an honest day’s work, I dare say I’d still be in my prime. But I was never pampered. Slept outside, made to lug stones and earth and branches all day, with nary a word of encouragement. A tough life, it was, but in those days you didn’t complain. You just got on with the job.

You never thought of going on strike? Demanding better conditions?

I was all on my own. I’d never even heard of NUBGI so it wasn’t –

I’m sorry? NUBGI?

National Union of Barrows and Garden Implements. But I don’t know if I’d have joined in any case. Bunch of troublemakers as far as I can see. I’m not saying everything in the garden’s lovely, but we have to make do with our lot. If I’d been born with another wheel, I’d have been a bicycle, wouldn’t I? But I wasn’t, so there’s no point worrying. I wouldn’t have wanted to be one anyway. All those fancy gears and what not. More trouble than it’s worth. Down to earth, that’s me. Never led anyone up the garden path.

Well, that’s admirable, Wendy. But I still think you could have been better looked after in your old age. We have no photos of you younger, but in my research for this interview I came across a portrait which a visitor did of you in 2003. You were in quite good shape back then.

barrow2Yes, I remember posing for that picture. The artist was rather irritable, as I recall. Kept saying my features were too wooden. Heaven knows what he expected. For me to put on a steely expression, perhaps.

And how do you see the future? I don’t want to be too blunt but there’s not a lot of you left.

Do you think I don’t know? I’m all wheel and no barrow. I feel pretty rotten, to be honest. But I’m not ready to throw in the trowel just yet. Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.

Silly games

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Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was a rather strange film. I suppose it was a comment on the vacuity of life for rich, privileged kids who indulge in silly games while the rest of us have to work. We were talking about this the other day while playing Bananagram, a sort of speed version of Scrabble. I was just about to place the rather good word PLONK when the L fell off the table and bounced from the balcony into the garden below. This was a minor disaster, as the garden was overgrown with grass, and a missing L in Bananagram spoils everything. As luck would have it, though, a team of workers came round that very afternoon to clear the garden, so I went down and told them about our problem. They looked bemused, but promised to keep an eye out, and lo and behold, they cleared the garden so well that an hour or so later one of them woke me from my siesta by shouting up that he’d found it. So my story has a happy ending, because now we’re able to play Bananagram again.

Channillo on my Plate

It’s funny, but I seem to have managed to get rather a lot on my plate. ‘Here in Mayotte? Doesn’t he get bored?’ people ask my wife when she says I’m retired. To which she replies an emphatic ‘No, not at all!’ Apart from the novel, already on the go, the blog eats up a variable portion of the day, and then a few weeks ago I decided to launch the Gazette (see subscribe link on sidebar – first issue going out tomorrow!). As if that wasn’t enough, I received a tweet from Kara Monterey, founder of Channillo, asking me to submit an idea for a column, which I duly did. So for a year, starting 1st June, What a Life! What a Day! will be a weekly column for her recently founded serialised writing website. Many thanks for the opportunity, Kara!

I guess that’s called workaholic. On the other hand, if you’re doing what you enjoy, I find it hard to think of it as work. I was a bit the same when I really did work, taking on responsibilities that left me with very little time simply because I enjoyed it. As my wife still has to go out and deal with traffic jams, meetings and reports, I really ought to do all the housework. Strangely enough, though, I somehow never seem to get round to it.

PS Currently travelling, so please excuse me if I’m less reactive to comments, or less able to visit other sites myself. It’s not that internet access is difficult, just that this activity called ‘sightseeing’, which appears to be part of the deal, takes up a fair part of the day.

The Writing on the Wall

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The race was on – pool versus book. They were starting the wall, he was starting the second draft. He’d been away – they hadn’t got much done. He’d worked well, got up a head of steam, knew where the plot was going. The story was clear as an architect’s plan. The book was the odds-on favourite. No question.

The view from the window. Every so often, he rose from his desk to look. They were doing well too, no doubt about that. It spurred him on: they poured cement, he poured out words. For each of their planks, he nailed a dozen lines, hammering the words into place. Finished the chapter, set it in cement.

They were out in the sun, hauling and drilling and sawing, helmets heavy in the heat. He was inside with the ventilator. He went to the window and watched. They were mixing a paragraph with sand, tipping it into a barrow. They were building a row of chapters to support the wall. They’d need four or five, maybe more.

He went back to the desk, and saw that his words were loose. The screws weren’t right. They belonged to the story, but they wouldn’t fit. He leant back, trying to capture the music of the paragraph. It had to be there somewhere, hidden deep in the screech of the saw, the throbbing rumble of the drill.

With a howl, he gathered his notes and threw them out of the window. The workers watched the sentences roll down the road. One of them took a broom, swept the words into a pile and shovelled them into the barrow, verbs, nouns, adjectives tumbling in pell-mell. He showed them to the foreman, who examined them, nodded, and added them to the cement. The writing was on the wall. In the wall. Forever.

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The writer went back to his desk and stared at the screen, smooth and empty as a freshly built facade of cement.

Thursday Interview: Sisyphus

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– Now I’ve heard you have one of the toughest jobs on earth. Can you describe a typical day?

– Typical? Hah! My days are identical! Up at the crack of dawn, ten minute drive to the bottom of the slope, then it’s heave, heave, till nightfall.

– When you say heave, you mean you’re pushing a rock, I believe.

– Yup. All 526 pounds of it. Up a 1.4 mile slope that in parts is one in five. I get to the top, the rock rolls all the way down, then I walk back down myself and start all over again. I’ve been doing it for over 2500 years. Not that it makes much sense to count because I’ll be doing it for eternity.

– Wow! But why? Surely not out of choice?

– No, of course not. It’s a punishment from Zeus. I can understand, in a way. I cheated death, you see. Hades – the Grim Reaper, if you like – came to arrest me with this fancy set of chains, so I tricked him into showing me how they worked – on himself! It still makes me chuckle today. Upshot was that with Death in chains, no one could die any more. You’d have these guys getting hacked to bits on the battlefield and turning up for duty the next day. It made a mockery of the whole business of war. Not much wonder Zeus got mad. But even so, when the punishment was announced, I went into a state of shock. I didn’t think anyone could be that cruel. But when it comes to cruelty, Zeus is in a league of his own.

– And it’s been the same all this time? Nothing’s changed and nothing ever will?

– Oh, there’ve been a few changes. You could say it’s got a bit better. When I started, it was in Greece, and man, that was tough. So damnably hot! And the slope was steeper too. So I’ll always be grateful to the Brits for granting me political asylum. A couple of hundred years ago, bloke by the name of Byron came out, heard about my plight and took pity. Started a campaign to get me moved to better conditions. Fortunately the Greeks didn’t care one way or the other, at least not at the time. Now that I’m a tourist attraction, they’re trying to get me back – a package with the Elgin Marbles – but I don’t think it’ll happen. I’ve got a Facebook support group and Amnesty International behind me. There’d be an uproar.

– But how on earth do you put up with it? How do you keep going?

– No choice, man! Look for the positives, that’s the only way. The view when I get to the top – the Cotswolds – or the people who cheer me on. You get the occasional insult, but they’re mostly very supportive. Sometimes they’d even lend a hand, till Health and Safety stepped in. Now there’s a fence on either side, which in fact I prefer. They just upset my rhythm. But still, I always let them. So then they could go and tell their mates they’d helped old Sisyphus with his rock.

– But even so, to think you’ll be doing this forever… Doesn’t it drive you crazy?

– Well, you know what? I represent the human condition. No kidding!  Absurdity – that’s what it’s all about, apparently. This French fellow, Camus, came to visit and we had a few chinwags and he wrote a book about me. The Myth of Sisyphus. To be honest, I’ve never read it, but I was flattered he even bothered to take an interest. Rolling this rock for ever and ever – it does sound pretty absurd, doesn’t it? But Camus also says, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ And strangely enough, he’s right. Things could be better, of course, but what if I just gave up – lay down and let the rock flatten me? What sort of message would that send out?