Speeding fines

Just when I was looking forward to a cleaner driving licence, I have opened the mail delivered in my absence and there are two speeding fines – with points off my licence – for exactly the same spot on the road to St Hippolyte du Fort.

Shucks.  I thought I was being so careful.  I knew the speed limit for this dangerous cross roads was 70kph and that this was controlled by speed cameras.  What I hadn’t appreciated was that the speed cameras were a little way outside the crossroads, tracking speeding in the normal 90kph (straight road, no traffic…) road.

Well at least this shows that my little car will not have any problems on its first outing on a motorway next Friday.

Recording my dad’s birth

Those following my Brexit rants will be aware that a major obstacle to my completing the application forms for French citizenship is the absence of my father’s birth certificate. And indeed until very recently this was compounded by the apparent loss of all passports.

So, since the referendum I have been wandering around in circles, wondering what to do next, hoping the whole problem would go away, grasping at various MEPs’ statements that there might be a special status of EU citizen, and considering whether it might be easier to apply for Irish citizenship. There would be the same issue of no direct proof that the A W Filson who was my father was indeed the son of Major J T Filson and Mabel Alice Hamilton Hunter. But the Irish would no doubt be readier to accept circumstantial evidence like newspaper reports – and besides, they seem to be generous in their issuing of Irish citizenship to those seeking a way out of the Brexit quandary, and to people with less Irish connections than mine.  After all, I have two Irish grandparents.

Unbeknownst to me, my brother-in-law, Peter, was more proactive than me: he wrote an excellent letter, outlining my circumstances and dilemma, to his MP, who happens to be Sir Keir Starmer. He sought his advice on which person or department within the Home Office I should write to in order to obtain a statement that our father had possessed a British passport. As expected, Starmer wrote himself, asking this question of the head of the Passport Office.  That was in March.  There has still not been a reply!

When I arrived in London a week ago, my sister, Deb, said that she had unearthed several of Dad’s old passports amongst the papers of our brother, Dan, who died two years ago!  So, problem solved, I thought.  This may not say anything about my father’s birth but at least it proves his nationality, and that is probably the nearest I am going to get. (I’m tempted to say to Peter, don’t pass on this information to Starmer and see if the Passport Office ever replies!)

Before coming to London I had arranged to visit the Indian archives in the British Library.  Now that I possessed the passport I felt this was less urgent, but went all the same.

It was worth it, if only to visit the British Library.  I passed through an undistinguished door beside St Pancras Station and found myself in what is like a gigantic piazza. I liked the architecture, which I know is controversial, and I loved the sense of activity and enjoyment – people everywhere going to exhibitions, meeting friends in the cafés, or clearly going to or from one of the many reading rooms.  I was in awe of this, the biggest library in the world.

Getting a Reader Pass is a scarily complex business. I had started the process online and then had to go by several desks having my passport and proof of residence verified, photo taken, and finally the treasured Reader Pass, valid for a year. Then having left most possessions, including pens, in the cloakroom, I made for the Asian section.

There, somewhat embarassed at my rusty research know-how, I approached the help desk.  They were everything help staff should be:  friendly, helpful, intelligent, authoritative and not patronising.

I said hesitantly that I had thought that maybe I might find some circumstantial evidence of my father’s birth, maybe something like a newspaper report. Did I know, asked Aliki, the help desk person, if my father had been baptised.  I could have hit myself: as an atheist I had not even thought of something so obvious! Of course, with two Irish Protestant parents, my father would have been baptised.

Aliki did not just abandon me at the unfamiliar microfilm reels. It is always worth searching records for the year after the one you expect she said, as events like baptisms may not be recorded immediately. And there it was, the entry showing that my father had been born on 23rd August 1913 and baptised in January 1914!

I have paid £18 and for this I will apparently receive an official copy stating that since birth registers were not compulsory at this time, baptism records like this are taken as the equivalent.

Wow.  Search over.  I asked Aliki, who is Greek, if she was affected by Brexit.  Yes, she said, she was keeping her head in the sand and hoping it would all go away.  Her husband is British and this is quite clearly home.

I took advantage of being in the Indian section to start finding out more about my grandfather, and while I was doing that, Aliki – fired up by the challenges – found the record of my grandparents’ wedding in Colombo, Ceylon.  So undoubtedly next time I am in London I will be returning for more family research.  I haven’t even mentioned to Aliki the connections with the East India Company on our maternal side!

I finished by having lunch with our cousin, Ursula, curator of Persian collections – another part of the Asian section.  I asked her if there were many staff like Aliki coming from the EU.  Many, she said, and the British Library would be lost without them.

Now back in France, I await the baptism record with enthusiasm and reckon I can now go ahead with collecting all the other endless records I need.  I propose to tick the little box asking if I have my father’s birth certificate and then produce this baptism record as the equivalent.


Taxis in London

Given various aches and disabilities and a busy schedule, I spent a minor fortune on taxis during my week in London. Most of them were cars booked with the Uber app.

What, you say, you are using Uber?! – cars that are part of that irresponsible, global corporation, managed by bullies, ignoring employment laws and with inadequate driver background checks?  Yes, I suspect that a lot of that is true and that if I were a principled person perhaps I should stick to (unaffordable) black cabs when in London. I have friends who refuse to download the Uber app out of principle. That would certainly be the position of my sister, Deb, if she owned a smartphone.

Ironically I was in London when the furore broke out when TFL (Transport For London) said it was not going to renew Uber’s licence, which expires on Saturday. They are probably right, that Uber has been consistently ignoring or not complying with rules. That seems to be generally the view of Labour leaders such as Sadiq Khan and Corbyn. Oh dear, am I going to be on the side of Conservatives? I am hoping that TFL and Uber will talk and that Uber quickly reforms rather than lose its licence.

That was the view of the Uber drivers I used this week, including one who had been a manager in TFL for 20 years before taking early retirement three months ago and starting work as an Uber driver. They all said they valued their independence – the ability to choose when and where to drive. What about the lack of sickness pay or paid holidays, I asked. Well, that is the same for all self-employed people, was the reply. One driver added that uber had a reasonable scheme you could pay into to get cash if sick for more than a few days. They all acknowledged that the Uber corporation could do better, but were confident that concessions, such as better security checks by an organisation authenticated by TFL, could be made and that the licence would not be terminated.

I see no problem about forcing Uber to reform its security checks but I do not understand enough to know whether they are right in saying that drivers are employees rather than self-employed.

The fact of the matter is, with lots to do between grandchildren going to school in the morning and coming back in the afternoon, and a painful left foot and ankle, I needed to use cars to get around. Black cabs are not plentiful south of the river and are prohibitively expensive. To get a Uber car using the app on my phone is so simple. There was always one available a few minutes away, even in south London and, rather childishly, I enjoy watching the icon of the car on map gratifyingly approaching (well, with some exceptions!). The drivers were all polite, pleasant and usually sociable. It is so handy not having to find money; provided you have already have set up an uber account you simply click on confirm. Above all, it is so very much cheaper!

Being me, I chatted with the drivers. Yes, I know you are not surprised, son-in-law 🙂  There was a Sinhalese, several West Africans, and from Europe a Bulgarian, Greek and Pole.

I had a particularly aimable conversation with the Bulgarian about food.  He had taken a family group for a long weekend to Avignon and enthused about the way the French savoured what they were eating over leisurely meals, and loved the use of fresh ingredients.  He likened this to eating in Bulgaria. He then went on to talk about the history of Bulgaria, with some pride and affection.  When we reached my daughter’s house, he leapt out to help me from the car, shook my hand and thanked me for such an entertaining ride!

When the drivers heard I live in France the subject of Brexit invariably came up.  I was quite surprised that they had all voted Remain, unlike the Black Cab driver who dredged up all the usual accounts of immigrants wasting resources, telling me that 75% of births in an Essex hospital had been Polish births. No point telling him that other EU countries account for about 5% of births in NHS hospitals, though granted this figure may be higher in Essex.

The Sinhalese driver, for example, said quite calmly that it was his humble view that Europe contributed much in the way of human rights and social protection. Others talked with some horror of the potentially disastrous effect on the economy.

The Sierra Leonean driver came first to Europe as a political refugee in the nineties and was placed in Holland.  He spoke with admiration about the way the Dutch government set about integrating refugees and putting them on a fast track to learning the language.  He took out Dutch nationality with gratitude. Then he met and married an English woman.  They had one child but then moved to England to be nearer her family.  The two subsequent children already have British nationality, but now he is going to have to apply for it for himself and the first child.  I had not realised the cost has gone up to £1700.  I took a look at the online forms but they are so complex it is hard to establish without detailed study what the exact figures are, but I can imagine that whatever the exact figure this will hit hard for friends of the driver where all five members need to get dual nationality.

Now I am back in France and currently dealing with the fact that once again my English card has been blocked.  Not because of all these Uber trips, it turns out, but because I took a £45 black cab trip (using their app, mytaxi) from my daughter’s house to Gatwick Airport.



Mitchison family

Our family’s links with the Mitchison family go back 90 years, when our grandmother, Tish, first got to know Dick (barrister and politician) and Naomi (writer and activist) Mitchison.

For the best part of 40 years, until they both died, Tish was Dick’s mistress (not his only one). I dislike the word “mistress” which suggests something somewhat grubby and also the idea of property, of being kept. While it is true that Dick was a wealthy man and did indeed give Tish many gifts, it was more a warm friendship that lasted all their live
Tish got fun and comfort from the relationship. And Dick? I’m not sure. I know he loved Tish, but he also loved his wife, Naomi, or ‘Nou’.

Dick and Tish in their 80s, Rokey looking on

Tish’s husband (and our step grandfather), ‘Rokey’ and Nou lived with this situation. In Nou’s case – this being the between the wars period of the Bloomsbury set, she too was pursuing other relationships – while also loving Dick.

It was maybe their younger children – Av and Val, the two youngest Mitchison siblings, and my Aunt Mary Hope, Rokey’s only daughter – who occasionally found it harder to accept.

The outcome of this relationship is that the bonds between the two families remain strong.

We grew up a street away from the family of Denny, the oldest son. And I have colourful memories of visits to the splendid, idiosyncratic family house, Carradale, on the shores of Kintyre, with huge house parties where one might bump into a well known politician or scientist, as well as swarms of Mitchison children.

One of the more recent friendships I have made is with John  Charlton, the historian husband of Sally Mitchison, whom I first met when she was eight, now a psychiatrist.

When staying with me last year, John told me of his research into the Mitchison family. So much attention had been paid to the Haldanes – Nou’s family – and their network of links to Britains intelligentsia, that nobody talked very much about Dick’s family.

When John asked Nou, she replied, dismissively, that they were not very interesting, or alternatively, they were only interested in making money.

John got his historian’s teeth into the project, interviewed people, searched archives and followed trails. The result was his book, Making Middle England. The history of an English family which traces the family back to its humble status in the eighteenth century, as it clawed its way up the social and economic ladders, to reach the twentieth century as people of considerable wealth.

John and Sally invited family and friends to a small party to celebrate the publication of the book. I could not resist this chance for another Mitchison gathering as well as to celebrate the book.

The party took place in Denny’s house in Richmond, where I had played so often as a child. (Terence, Denny’s younger son, was a superb host.)

I was pleased to meet up again with Dick’s children. Murdoch died last year, but Denny is now 98, Lois 90, and Av and Val in their eighties. I was also saddened to see their diminished powers. They have been so much larger than life through the years.

It was great also meeting up with the next generation, my generation (though they are all younger than me)  well represented that day.

So a good, somewhat poignant occasion. And I now have the book to read.

London visit

The past week has whizzed by in a hectic but satisfying series of events in London.

I came primarily to attend a party celebrating the launch of a book, but packed in shoe shopping, visiting an old friend and undertaking some fruitful family research.

And of course I was able to spend some time with my two families (and my sister, Deb). I managed to walk each child to school at least once.

Amazingly three of the four are, at least in theory, in new schools. Only Willow (nearly 6) has moved from Reception to year one in the same building. Otto (7) has moved to the nearby Dulwich Village Junior School – in essence a continuation of the infants school.

Ella (nearly 8) made the biggest move, from her local primary (which is struggling) to Belham Primary, a new school (opened 2015) nearer Peckham. Several of her friends have also moved, but she has already made new ones – one of the reasons for moving her. Ella’s and Otto’s schools are academies (in the same group, sharing the same head teacher)  I don’t approve of the move from direct local authority control to academies, but it does appear that these are two good, dynamic schools with enthusiastic staff and happy children

Maddie (4 last April) has also started primary school (hard to believe). There was not a place for her at Belham, but she is on the waiting list and with a sister now there should move up the list. Meanwhile,  rather than move her twice, Ed and Jude have kept her on at her excellent but private (so expensive!) nursery school, which has a small private infants school attached. What a luxury: to be in a class of 15, with lessons in French and swimming, excellent meals and lovely purpose-built buildings. What a shock when she finally moves to the state system with classes twice the size! But for the moment it really suits Maddie, who had been totally opposed to the idea of school and is anyhow very young to be starting. She loves it and gives breathless accounts of the day which seem to be cycles of play, tidy up time, bit of learning, more play …

What is nice is that all four are happy at school, have plenty of friends and are (on the whole) enjoying education. While I was staying with the Gillies (I divided my time between the two households)  Otto, who struggles with numbers, brought home a very grand certificate for perserverance in maths, presented in front of the school.  Bravo Otto, keep on trying.

Otto and Willow also have a busy week of activities: ballet, individual swimming lessons and taikwondo. I watched Otto’s taikwomdo class and was converted from sceptic to enthusiast – at least for Otto in these early stages. There is a lot of emphasis on qualities like concentration and balance



Tendon on borrowed time

At last I have definite decision about the next step  for my shoulder – even if everybody is not quite sure if it will remove all pain. Snip the long tendon which links the biceps to the shoulder.
Not to worry, says everyone. There is a second, shorter one which will take on its work – after yet more lengthy physiotherapy and hard work.
Last week I saw the highly efficient échographiste . She spent an hour examining my records and looking at ultrasound Images of my arm. I liked the way she pointed things out to me, like which anonymous white blur on the moonscape in front of us was the prothèse – the shoulder replacement.
In the end she had no time to write the report immediately and handed it to me when I was on my way to Montpellier – in a sealed envelope.
So yesterday I was back in the consulting room of my surgeon, Marion Bertrand ( as usual elegantly clad, this time in high heeled boots and a striking black trouser suit).
She is also somewhat baffled by what is going on in my arm (but patently relieved it was not the shoulder prothèse). She thinks we can but try cutting the tendon, given this is where I have pain.
It is day surgery she said, with a night in hospital, given I live on my own. When would I like to have it done. Can you imagine a busy surgeon asking that question in Britain? Well, I replied, it would need to be after 27th October, when I get back from Istanbul. How about the 30th October, she asked. I agreed.
Then a rush back to le Vigan where I was to play music with the other cello students – simple stuff, so no big strain on my right arm. They were pleased to hear that perhaps from November I might be able to play properly again. I hope so, but it is still a big unknown

New kitchen stuff

Me? Excited by kitchen appliances? Well, I have to admit – yes!

A fortnight ago I said I had ordered a new hob and oven.  They arrived and Richard, who originally installed my kitchen, has just finished putting them in place.

I have to report instant satisfaction.  Whereas the old gas hob was incapable of simmering slowly (something to do with the gas supply), my new induction hob gently heated a pan of girolles, no problem.  I thought I would be irritating by the controls, which ae hiding in the black surface (a white would have cost me more than 100 euros more), but once you touch the start button all is lit up and very intuitive.

Even more satisfying is the oven.  In contrast to my old Smeg, which was a nightmare of unnecessary electronic complexity, this Samsung number basically has two satisfying physical knobs, one to turn it on and rotate to select the function, the other to rotate to select the temperature.  I exaggerate a bit, there is a tiny bit of touching the screen (to select the temperature function or changing the clock, for example), but it is pretty idiot-proof.

Today I grilled lamb chops (something I have not been able to do easily for years). Better still, you can choose to just grill on one side, if grilling for one. And the oven can be divided into two, either simply not heating the bottom half, or using it for some complex baking at two different temperatures (not my league).

My family and friends who have struggled with cooking here will be delighted to read all this.  And once I  have finished some forthcoming travels, I intend to justify the expense by improving my cooking skills.

I’m not promising to pull my weight by sharing more of the cooking when you are here – not just yet.


Road up – again

On Thursday I got back from a lengthy medical session to a very local drama: no water, the road blocked and a few metres up from my house the road up.

My English friends and neighbours, on holiday for a week, were very excited and concerned about what to do in the unknown length of time without water.  I have to say I was a bit more phlegmatic; this is after all the second time this summer when we have no water.

Apparently water suddenly spouted out of the road and when I arrived they were still searching for exactly where the pipe had broken.  Our road is the boundary between the communes of Mars and Bréau and hence a shared responsibility.  So, as well as the four or five workers, the two mayors were there. Plus, of course, the usual round of locals come to give them advice.

I asked the mayor of Mars, whom I like, how this joint effort was organised.  He replied that Mars had the men and Bréau the equipment (well actually Fred, who drives the bulldozer, lives in Mars but works for Bréau…).  I made some guarded comment about how it might be easier if these two little communes were merged (knowing the complex reasons it had not happened, including that the two secretaries don’t get on). He agreed, but said it will take a little while for these ideas to get accepted……

They eventually found the break (caused by stones piercing an elderly pipe which at that time had not been insulated with a layer of sand).  Drama over.  We have our water back.  The road, on the other hand is an ongoing mess.


Octogenerian friends

This week I attended a delightful party for two friends who have reached 80. Weird to think my friends are that age now – but that’s another topic.

René Ruer was a businessman in the Paris area until in retirement he and his wife moved to Bréau, where he has thrown himself with energy and generosity into local affairs, and was till the last elections, a deputy mayor. He partially officiated Ed and my daughter Jude’s wedding in Bréau nine years ago. René and Jacqueline have been friends for years and were fond of Chris.

Francis Delabarre and his wife Mireille are newer friends. Parisians, they spend chunks of the year in Avèze, in a lovely old family home. Francis is a delightful, gentle soul. It is Mireille who usually has “la parole” until Francis interjects with a short witticism. He was a publisher and also did desktop publishing (on a Mac of course) so I also like to talk about his work. He is currently part of a team trying to save the le Vigan museum and has mounted two superb exhibitions there.

So these two friends got together to celebrate. About 80 friends and family gathered at the restaurant up on the Causses, with a view of the magnificent Cirque de Navacelles just in view.  It was a lovely event, good food, even better wine and champagne and an excellent band.  We sat outside in the (now autumn) sun, at tables of eight – but with plenty of room to circulate round other tables.  The company was a good mix of Parisians, Cevenoles (locals) and people like me.  There were the friends of René, of Francis, and those of both.

Francis and René gave amusing and sometimes moving accounts of the passage of time through their 80 years. Lulu Vaquier (whom I suspect could now be nearer 90 than 80), known as a local speaker of Occitan who over the years has made our local fetes in Serres with his rendition with friends of well loved songs of the Midi.  This time he sang a favourite, joined in as usual by many of us, appropriately named ‘Quatre-vingts Chasseurs’ (about a Marquise and her 84 hunters… …).

A lovely occasion.


More about Brexit

I have reached the stage when I can only contain my anger and concern by not reading about Brexit too obsessively – or at least trying not to.

Luckily for me my cousin, Lucy Seton-Watson, who lives in Denmark and shares my views is  an obsessive reader and shares links on Facebook to relevant newspaper articles and books on a daily basis.

A few days ago she drew attention to a report in the Independent that nearly one in five private landlords would prefer not to let to EU citizens because they are obliged to make such rigorous checks that they are here legally.

Lucy’s reaction:

I am utterly ashamed to be a Brit and I am anguished. How dare any government damage our international standing like this? Forget the economic and procedural disaster – Britain has been damaged for ever in the eyes of the world. Our soft power – gone. Our prestige – gone. Our identity as an entrepreneurial, innovative country – gone. And as a place of diversity – gone. It is so awful.

No government had the right to make our country into this hateful, xenophobic place.

The only good news in the past month was met with an extraordinary lack of interest by the Press  but with much relief and astonishment by people like me.  David Davis said that reciprocal healthcare rights for British and EU retirees would be maintained. If the Government sticks to that, then one of my main concerns is removed.

The tone of British negotiators is becoming more and more bellicose.  So as a precaution I am switching my attention to another issue, residency rights. I am back to exploring how to complete the complex application form for French nationality when I cannot tick one box: a copy of my father’s birth certificate.

Looking ahead, I think I back Andrew Adonis’s view (today’s Observer) that the only way out of this terrible mess is to push for a second referendum on whatever deal the Tories make or fail to make. Sadly I will no longer have the right to vote in this.