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Cranial Capacity 1400cc

Rob Godfrey

Cranial Capacity 1400cc v1.04

Copyright Rob Godfrey 2017

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70 Sheets Of Plasterboard

Local Radio France

Poets And Programmes

The Gite Business

We Are All In The Gutter


We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Oscar Wilde


This is my fourth memoir and covers the years 2007 to 2017. The previous memoirs are When I Went Out One Summer's Morn, The Yukon Queen and The Iberian Job. These previous books all involved travel to weird and wonderful places. This fourth memoir is quite static in that respect, taking place entirely in France. The latest episode of my life is set against the backdrop of momentous historical events which had a direct impact on me: the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Rob Godfrey

Charente, France

March 2017

70 Sheets of Plasterboard

Mud, glorious mud. Earlier that month a tremendous amount of rain fell from stormy skies. This was during the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. The field had been crowded with tents. Due to the torrential rain many of the campers packed-up early and headed for home. Now, two weeks later, the grass was still quite boggy. I parked my car beside the caravan and loaded half of my gear into it, fearing that a fully loaded Citroen 2CV would not make it across the grass. Even half loaded it became a struggle through the mud, but I made it out of the field and drove through the small copse and up onto the raised tarmac area. I then proceeded to ferry the rest of my gear from the caravan to the car, a distance of about 50 metres.

The caravan was a large static located in the camping field of the Clyro Manor Hotel, on the Welsh borders. It had been my home for the best part of 8 months. That caravan became a somewhat tranquil and surreal full-stop to a very turbulent four years of my life, four years that took me to France, Spain and Portugal, four years during which I went to hell and back whilst attempting to get an online business up and running (see The Iberian Job).

I'd been renting the caravan for the grand sum of £50 a week. My landlord was a really nice guy called Terry, a wealthy man who owned the Clyro Manor and Estate. The only drawback with the caravan was that it didn't have a phone line or any sort of internet connection; not good for someone still struggling to get an online business up and running. The Clyro Manor is a rather grand building, and sits a short distance from the caravan across manicured lawns. I used to have to go to the Manor for internet connection, where I'd sit on a sofa in the lobby and access the wi-fi.

After spending the best part of three years on the continent, I'd been back in the UK for not much more than a year. Now I was heading back to the continent again. This came about because my mother had bought a house in south west France, a part of the world where we have family. Shortly after the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival my mother asked me if I would renovate the house in France. I had to think long and hard about that one. In the Wye valley I was starting to establish myself as a self-employed draughtsman (which has always been my trade). My landlord Terry was still seriously considering a business venture I had put to him. The family stuff remained pretty dire, yet I had lots of friends and family members could be avoided. The main thing that swayed it for me was that at mother's house in France I would have internet connection from my desk. I could get the Iberian Job back on track. I agreed to do the renovation.

A sunny afternoon in late June saw me bumping down the long driveway of the Clyro Manor for the last time. The blue Citroen 2CV was loaded to the gunnels with all my worldly possessions. I drove the three miles or so down to Hay-on-Wye and pulled-up outside my parent's house. My mother had signed the Acte de Vente for the house in France in March, and had been living there since then. Knowing that I was driving to the continent, mother had flown over to the UK a week previously, for a visit, and now she was hitching a lift back to France in my Citroen 2CV. Due to the fact that the car was stuffed full with my own gear, I told mother to travel light. In the event she had three big bags, which I struggled to fit inside the car. Once done, the rear bumper was just inches from the road surface.

We drove through evening sunshine, down to Portsmouth, where Brittany Ferries awaited. This book is my fourth memoir, and it's just struck me that each memoir begins with a sea voyage. This particular voyage took us overnight to Caen. From Caen to Mama's new house it's a six hour drive south via Le Mans, Tours and Poitiers. Shortly after saying farewell to Caen one of the front roof clips broke and part of the canvas roof whipped back and began flapping in the wind. I pulled over onto the side of the road, but was unable to fix the clip. The only thing I could do was roll the roof right back and secure it. Luckily we experienced only one brief rain shower during the six hour journey. For most of the drive we were in blazing sunshine. I had to stop often due to an upset stomach. By the time we reached journey's end Mama looked like she'd been simultaneously grilled and blow-dried.

I bought the Citroen 2CV two years previously, whilst living in France. It was a 25-year-old vehicle, hardly used, and in very good condition. The guy wanted 1300 euros for it. I got him down to 1100 euros, with two extra spare tyres thrown in for good measure. I now owned the real Macoy: a left-hand drive 2CV with French license plates. The thousands of miles I then drove in the car while doing the Iberian Job really gave it a hammering. The final straw, though, came when I was living in that caravan at Clyro Manor. With the approach of winter and wet weather, I used to park the car on the raised tarmac area, where it was totally exposed. The winter storms would come rolling down the Wye valley and totally soak the car. Now it was not in such good condition, with a fair amount of rust, although mechanically I had no worries about the car getting us to south west France.

We arrived in Chabanais at lunchtime. Chabanais is a small market town that straddles the river Vienne. It's about half way between Angouleme and Limoges and is right at the eastern end of the Charente department. It's a very rural area and is known as Charente-Limousin, and apparently it's second only to the South of France for its annual sunshine hours. Chabanais is also home to my uncle Dicky and aunty Ruth (Mama's elder sister). We were due to have dinner with them that evening, so we didn't stop in Chabanais and drove five kilometres south of the town to a tiny hamlet called Savignac, where Mama's newly bought house lay.

The previous March I'd accompanied Mama over to France for the signing of the Acte de Vente. I stayed at the house for a week, so I was already quite familiar with it. As is very common in these parts, it's a stone house with metre thick walls and a ground floor and first floor, built about 300 years ago. It's a long rectangle in shape, approx. 50 metres by 10 metres, with the short sides facing north and south. The south end adjoins the lane and in more recent years an annex has been built onto it, forming a small 'L' shape. Only about half of the building was liveable, with three bedrooms. The other half of the building was a wreck and ruin through which birds would fly.

During my earlier life in France I'd spent 18 months renovating a big house in the centre of a village called Roussines, which is about 18 clicks south of Savignac, so although not a builder by trade I was no stranger to this sort of work. The French mostly prefer new builds, which are a blank canvas as far as design goes. It's the mad Brits who buy wreck and ruins in France and renovate them. A wreck and ruin is much more of a challenge, because of course you have to design around an existing structure. As I unpacked the 2CV that afternoon I was quite looking forward to renovating Mama's house.

Ruth and Dicky lived in a quiet cul-de-sac about five minutes walk from the centre of Chabanais. Their house was quite small, with 2 bedrooms, although it had a good size garden. I never know whether to call Chabanais a large village or a small town. Whatever it is, the centre of Chabanais has an urban feel to it, yet many properties sit on a large plot of land. A lot of people keep birds and have vegetable plots. Ruth and Dicky's neighbour was a nice old boy who had turned over just about all of his huge garden to the cultivation of vegetables. The work this involved for someone his age was quite staggering. It was just him and his wife living there. What did they do with all the produce?

That evening we went round to Ruth and Dicky's for dinner. My aunty is quite tall and slim, whereas Dicky is short and stout with a balding head. They often had rows, usually about Dicky's gambling. Being back in their house I was reminded of that nightmare journey up from Portugal to Chabanais in February 2006, when I was in absolutely desperate circumstances. On that freezing night, not much more than a year previously, I stayed in Ruth and Dicky's spare bedroom. I remember taking a shower and just standing under the stream of hot water for ten minutes, washing away the stress and letting the heat soak into my body. I then slept solidly for twelve hours. Shortly after this I went back to the UK. Dicky came over for a visit while I was in the UK, but I hadn't seen Ruth since those desperate circumstances, so the meal became a reunion of sorts.

In mid February 2006, when I was living down on the Algarve, I received a telephone call from the bank. My cash card and PIN number awaited, after being lost in the post on two previous occasions. The run of bad luck had been unbelievable. I drove very carefully into Lagoa, fearing a road traffic accident. As soon as the card was in my possession I wasted not one moment. Bye, bye Carvoeiro, and thanks for all the fish. I headed east on the coast motorway, past Faro and on into Spain. I was taking the quickest route possible back to France, up through the heart of Spain and over the mid-Pyrenees. As the day wore on I went through Seville and Cordoba. The weather was atrocious, with strong winds and heavy rain. East of Cordoba, in the mountains and now in the dark, my Citroen 2CV, the Iberian Queen, had a puncture: the front passenger side. I came to a slow halt on a narrow mountain road that was quite busy. No hard shoulder or anywhere I could pull into to change the tyre. I had no choice but to continue on at a slow speed, hazard lights going and other vehicles swerving round me with angry hoots. After 5 Kilometres I came to the bottom of the pass. There was a service area. By this time the rubber on the tyre had completely shredded and the bare metal of the rim clattered against the ground. I changed the tyre in the pouring rain, then went into a restaurant to dry off with a cup of coffee.

It doesn't snow in Spain..? Try telling that to the Spanish Plain in February 2006. As I came down off the mountains, heading for Madrid, the heavy rain turned to heavy snow. It was gone midnight by the time I reached the outskirts of Madrid. I wanted to get much further than this at the end of my first day's drive. That puncture and the atrocious driving conditions put an end to this. I pulled into a service area that had a petrol station, hotel/restaurant and large parking space. Even at that time of night things were busy and it seemed like a safe place to stop. Feeling totally exhausted, I would try to have a night's sleep here; in the car, of course.

I managed to doze for about an hour. It was quite noisy there. Every time a vehicle pulled into the service area its headlight beams swept across the Iberian Queen. It felt bloody cold, despite the fact that I was completely swathed in a thick, blue duvet. At around 2am I gave up trying to get any sleep and decided to resume the journey. It had stopped snowing by now, although the landscape still looked like a Christmas card as I made my way on to the Madrid ring road. There was no other traffic about as I looked out for the exit that would take me north east to Zaragoza and the Pyrenees. The ring road runs mostly through industrial areas that in the early hours of the morning were completely devoid of life.

My solitary drive on the ring road ended when someone flashed me from behind. Perhaps they were annoyed about my cautious speed in the snowy conditions. A newish salon car matched my speed in the fast lane. There were three young men inside the car. One of them flashed a police badge and motioned for me to pull over on to the hard shoulder. I did so. The salon car pulled up in front of me. There was a momentary pause before one of the men got out the car. He looked smartly dressed and wore a leather jacket. I opened the window flap. The man said he was a policeman. He asked me who I was and where I was going. I told him. He said he needed to search my bag. I foolishly unlocked the car door. The man opened it and took my bag. He crouched down, put the bag on the door jamb and looked through it, ignoring my money belt. Then he sniffed the bag, no doubt looking for drugs. Then he returned to my money belt, unzipped it and took out the five hundred euros I was carrying. Without a word, he folded the bank notes, put them in his pocket and calmly walked back down the hard shoulder to the salon car. There was a momentary pause before the car drove away.

It all seemed to happen in slow motion. I did think about going after the man as he walked away with my money; but there were two others in the salon car. It was three against one on a deserted Spanish roadside in the early hours of the morning. I sat for a moment, to let the shock wear off. Then I started up the Iberian Queen and headed into the centre of Madrid, which was most definitely not deserted. In line with most Spanish cities, it buzzed in the early hours, with bars, restaurants and clubs all doing a brisk trade. This meant that there were a lot of police around. I approached two of them and explained that I'd been robbed on the ring road. They weren't the least bit interested, not even when I said that the robbers were apparently police. I then told them that the stolen five hundred euros was all I had in the world, and now I was completely broke. They looked at the Iberian Queen and believed me.

I followed their police car to an expensive district and the British Embassy. The policemen told me that when the embassy opened in the morning I'd be able to get help there. Then they left me to it. By this time it was about 4am and snowing again. I found a parking space on that smart street, then walked down to the embassy to see what time it opened. Due to the recent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, things were on a high state of alert. The British Embassy had been turned into some kind of fortress, with barbed wire, concrete barriers and steel railings. Just across the street from the embassy there was a blue, cylindrical, bomb-proof steel cabin, manned by two Spanish policeman. I could hear the hiss of its ventilation system, which was no doubt hardened against gas attack. The cops who'd taken me to the embassy had made the policemen in the cabin aware of my presence. Nevertheless, as I looked at the opening hours notice outside the embassy they still took photographs of me through their thick, bullet-proof window, and talked into microphones.

It all had a totally surreal quality: the fortress-like embassy, the bomb proof cabin with its hissing ventilation system, an early hours residential street, the falling snow which muffled all sound. I walked back to the Iberian Queen and had a few glasses of vin rouge, after which I managed to get two hours of deep sleep. It was quiet and I felt safe there. The place bristled with security cameras and there were two policemen a short distance away. I didn't even bother locking the car doors.

Dawn struggled through the leaden sky at half past eight. A coffee shop opened a little further up the street. I managed to find a euro's worth of lose change and treated myself to some caffeine. The warmth inside the shop felt glorious. At 9 o'clock I walked down to the embassy. After answering a number of questions fired from an intercom, electronic bolts withdrew and an iron bar gate swung open. I was admitted, not to the embassy but to a small vestibule in front of it. A breezy young lady sitting behind bullet-proof glass asked to see my passport. I told her my predicament. She told me that the British Embassy would be unable to help me. I would have to go to the British Consulate in Madrid instead. She gave me directions and a small map. I asked the young lady if all the high security made her feel nervous. She shrugged and said that it went with the job.

I found the Consulate quite easily. It, too, lay in the centre of Madrid, which was now very busy and crowded with the creatures of the day. Of course, there was no free parking anywhere. I settled on an underground car park, the sort where you take a ticket when you enter and pay when you leave. I had no money to pay parking charges and the Iberian Queen might be trapped there underground for some time. Not that it made much difference, because the car was low on fuel, so I couldn't really go anywhere with it anyway.

The Consulate did not have barricades and barbed-wire, yet the high security could be seen at the entrance door, where there were two armed guards. I showed my British passport and they allowed me through. Inside the large entrance hall there were more soldier types with machine guns. After answering a number of questions I had to hand over my bag and my shoes, before being escourted in a lift to the 4th floor. Here there was a large waiting room, with an equally large number of people waiting to be seen. Most of them appeared to be Spanish citizens. I sat there for 20 minutes before I was called by one of the Consulate staff, a young man who looked like I might have bumped into him the night before. I expected him to hand over a couple of thousand euros and say: "Pay us back when you can, old boy. Have a good journey back to Blighty". Instead, he told me that the Consulate wouldn't be able to help me.

Back out in the very crowded street, and now re-united with my shoes and my bag, the stress started to kick in. I had no money, effectively no car, in an unknown city thousands of miles from home. But I did still have some credit on my mobile phone. I started trying to make calls to the UK, all the while fighting back a mega anxiety attack. At this point I remembered that Algarve doctor, and the tranquillisers he prescribed. They were still in my bag. I quickly gulped down three of the pills, and from then on I floated through it all.

I managed to get hold of my brother-in-law Sean. He kindly agreed to wire me some money. I found a nearby Western Union office and phoned Sean back with the details, including my passport number for ID. Sean was brilliant, because he understood the urgency of the situation and got straight on the case. Nevertheless it still took 3 hours for the money to come through. During this time all I could do was wait outside the Western Union office, popping in every half hour to see if the money had arrived yet. I told the lady in the office what had happened to me in the wee hours of the morning. She was very friendly and got caught up in the tension. When the money finally arrived we both cheered. Sean sent me £700, which at the time was about 1000 euros. My friendly Western Union lady counted out the money and wished me luck. We shook hands and I went off to reclaim the Iberian Queen. It was now early afternoon.

I floated through the heavy Madrid traffic and picked-up the main road north east to Zaragoza. Once outside the city the landscape became a Christmas card again. After driving for an hour I suddenly felt incredibly tired, and only just managed to pull over and stop the car before falling into a deep slumber. Tranquillisers, huh, particularly when combined with the fact that I hadn't had any proper sleep for two days. When I awoke I felt much fresher. I resumed my journey in the mid afternoon. Come dusk, and now with falling snow, I checked into a hotel on the main road. As I walked into the lobby I was greeted by delicious cooking smells and a huge, open log fire. Paradise.

Not much more than a year later, and slightly hungover after the meal with Ruth and Dicky, Mama and I had a walk round the house in Savignac. The ground floor of the house consisted of a very large living room, a hallway with stairs leading up to the three bedrooms and a small dining room which led through to the single storey annex. The annex contained a kitchen, a storage area and a bathroom. The wreck and ruin part of the building consisted of two sections and each had a large ground floor room and a large first floor room. We decided to renovate the wreck and ruin section that adjoined the living room. The ground floor would be a large kitchen, with a new doorway knocked through into the living room, and the first floor would be a bedroom with a small ensuite bathroom. On the first floor there would also be a large bathroom, with another new doorway knocked through into bedroom number 3 in the main house, to form an ensuite.

These plans would make a huge difference to the size and function of the house. The problem, though, being drainage. The fosse septique was located near the annex, at the other end of the house. There was nowhere to run a drainpipe from our proposed new kitchen to the fosse septique. The solution was quite simple: the level of the ground floor in the liveable part of the house was about 30 centimetres higher than the outside ground level. We could build a terrace with the new drainpipe concealed within it.

Before all that, though, Mama was insistent on having central heating in the house, which thus far had been kept warm with electric heaters. Mama had contracted Sid to install the central heating. Sid is the husband of my cousin Laurie (who's Ruth's eldest daughter). Sid is an electrician by trade, and spent years working on a cushy number down the mines in South Africa. He and Laurie first arrived in France in 2004. Sid needed to get officially registered as an electrician, which involves going on courses, which takes months in this part of the world. In the meantime, because he needed to earn a bit of money, I employed him as a labourer at the house renovation in Roussines. Since then Sid had been earning a living as an electrician. Sid also did 'a bit of plumbing'.

The first works I carried out for the new central heating took place in the large garden on the west side of the house. The two sets of double doors in the living room lead out to a pebbled area which reaches a rockery rising up a metre or so to the lawn. To one side of the pebbled area the single storey annex runs parallel to the lane and ends at a narrow gate, too narrow to get a car through. Mama and I decided to widen the entrance from the lane, which involved moving part of the rockery, and to dig a pit in the lawn to take a 5000 litre oil tank. I tried doing it by hand to begin with, but the earth under the lawn was like concrete. We hired a mini digger for two days.

Next up we needed a boiler room. This proved easy, because at the end of the annex there was the bathroom, which I completely ripped out. I put through a new doorway from the garden, and built a new wall that completely blocked off the annex from what was now the boiler room. To finish up I laid a six inch concrete base for the boiler and an eight inch base for the oil tank. I love concrete.

Back then, Savignac was a tiny hamlet. As you came down the lane from the main road you encountered two adjoining barns, which were next to Mama's house (the nearest barn came with the property). One hundred metres further down the lane you'd come across 'Savignac City', which consisted of four dwellings and an equal number of barns. That was it. The largest house in Savignac City belonged to Madame Moreau, who was then in her late seventies. Across the lane from Madame Moreau there's a large barn, behind which is the small house owned by Elise, who back then was in her eighties. At the side of Elise's barn is another small house owned by Andre, a somewhat reclusive character who used to work on the Paris Metro. Finally, a little further down the lane there's a bungalow where Madame Moreau's son Fabian lives with his wife.

Madame Moreau has two sons. The other one is called Phillipe. They are cattle farmers, having inherited the business from their father who died long ago. Savignac is surrounded by rolling fields and forests. The fields contain cattle and sheep. The sheep belong to Bertrand Doucet, a jovial chap who was then in his early seventies. Bertrand was helped by his son Herve, then in his mid twenties. Before I arrived in Savignac that summer these people showed great kindness to Mama, a woman who was on her own and had purchased a house in the hamlet. Madame Moreau would often call in to see Mama, always bringing some fruit and veg as a gift. Betrand Douchet and his son Herve were on hand if there was heavy lifting to do. When I showed up in Savignac they were equally welcoming to me, and of course the Citroen 2CV went down well with the locals.

Before commencing any work on the new terrace and new kitchen I had to explore the fosse septique. This involved digging a big hole by the side of the damn thing to discover how far beneath the ground the inlet pipe lay. What I discovered was that whoever had installed it all didn't know what they were doing. The 10 centimetre diameter drainpipe came out of the annex foundations and connected to the fosse with the fall/gradient going the wrong way. Drainpipes need a little thing called gravity in order to work properly. It was a miracle that this one hadn't become blocked-up over the years. It was an easy if somewhat unpleasant job to cut out a section of the pipe, then reconnect it again with the fall going the correct way. The inlet on the fosse was at a sufficient depth to give the new kitchen drainpipe a decent gradient, so I put in a spur for it. I just love the smell of raw sewage in the morning.

At that time, what with the warm summer weather, I was using the proposed new kitchen as my office. An old door became my desk. The new kitchen adjoined the living room, which was where the wi-fi unit lurked. The signal made it through a metre thick stone wall, but it couldn't make it through two such walls. Thus the annex was the only part of the house where the signal did not penetrate. I could get it, though, in my office, and when I wasn't doing renovation stuff I spent every waking hour working on the Iberian Job.

The Iberian Job..? I know you're just dying to ask, but I'm not going to go into too much detail here, because the project got me into a whole heap of trouble. I'll just say that the Iberian Job was an internet based business that revolved around a web site. The web site had been designed to provide a service that people would pay for, and was in both the Portuguese and Spanish languages, those being the markets it was aimed at. The web site needed to be constantly built-up and updated. My arrival in Savignac was the first time in the best part of a year that I had internet connection from my desk. In the summer of 2007 the Iberian Job was making me money, but not an awful lot. It still needed much more work.

The main purpose of the Iberian Job was to fund Commuter. It's too pretentious to call Commuter an artwork, so instead I called it an 'installation piece' (which probably sounds even more pretentious!). I came up with the idea of Commuter in the early 2000s. The piece is essentially a fifty foot long coffin with toy trains running up and down it. Sounds weird..? here's part of the blurb I wrote for it:

In function and form, Commuter is a representation of the human organism and the passage of time and mortality. The overall shape of Commuter is a sperm; the overall shape is the human body; the overall shape is a coffin: from the cradle to the grave we are on a journey, a commute, from one place to another.

Commuter is also a working model of the mind, a model which will be the basis for an attempt to create a non-biological intelligence. This is not 'artificial intelligence', whereby a digital computer attempts to simulate 'thought'. Instead it's an attempt to create real consciousness within a machine.

Commuter is an installation piece by Rob Godfrey and is in essence a 50 foot / 15 metre long coffin with a 'body' laying within it. This body comprises of trackwork and trains. The complex trackwork just below the rim of the coffin mimics the arteries, veins and nerves in the human body. The model trains moving up and down the installation mimic the bodily fluids. Each train represents an emotional aspect of life and has its own colour. Sounds eminate from the trains to reflect these emotional themes.

Commuter came out of an earlier project of mine called Brain, and it was a serious attempt to create consciousness within a machine. By early 2002 I had completed the detailed design drawings for my 50 foot long coffin with toy trains running up and down it. This enabled me to cost the project, which had an awful lot of electronics, and it came in at about 30 grand. In theory I had a well-paid job at the time, but London is an expensive place to live. There was no way I'd be able to earn the extra money to fund Commuter. So, throughout 2002 and 2003 I tried to get sponsorship for the project. I approached railway companies like Virgin Trains, pharmaceutical companies, and even some well-known outfits who manufactured toy trains. No luck. It's difficult enough as it is to get company sponsorship, let alone for something as off the wall as Commuter. Who would want to associate their business with a big coffin? This failure to get sponsorship prompted me to come up with the Iberian Job, an online business venture that would earn the 30 grand to build Commuter.

By early September the new terrace was just about ready to be concreted. I'd cleared the pebbles and prepared the ground. I put through a hole in the new kitchen wall for the drainpipe. I ran the drainpipe to the fosse septique, packing the pipe with sand. I then put down the hardcore to take the concrete. Then I built the shuttering for the sides of the terrace. The new terrace matched the floor level of the house, which was 30 centimetres above ground level. However, I put a slope on it, to take away rain water, and so where it met the remaining pebbles the terrace was only 10 centimetres above the ground. An easy step, even after too much wine. I started the concreting on the 11th of September, and finished it 11 days later. It took 79 mixer loads of concrete. That terrace was by far the biggest single job during the renovation.

Whilst I was mixing those 79 loads of concrete the Northern Rock bank in the UK almost went bust. The crisis was caused mostly by toxic debt; ie, they'd been flogging mortgages to people who couldn't really afford them. Northern Rock customers began to queue round the block, desperately trying to withdraw their savings before the bank went under. It was the first run on a British bank for 150 years. The government had to step in and bail out the bank. At the time I was barely aware of the problems that Northern Rock were having, nor did I understand the ramifications of them. In Savignac it was peaceful and sunny and the vin rouge flowed freely.

Sid was taking a long time with the central heating works. A big man in his late 50s, he would arrive at 9am and take a while sorting his tools out. At mid-morning Mama would cook him a huge fry-up. Often, just before midday he'd need 'a part', but of course the shops were closed for lunch, so his work was held up until early afternoon. Such a shame. Sid turned time wasting into an art form. Instead of getting a fixed price for the job, Mama had contracted Sid on a day rate. Sometimes he'd arrive in the morning and mooch around. By the end of the day he would have only installed two metres of pipework. I knew Sid was swinging the lead and constantly moaned about it to Mama. The situation became awkward, though, because Sid was family.

In October we had guests: Harry and Judy from Australia. Judy is a cousin on Mama's side of the family and her and husband Harry were on a grand tour of Europe. They were a nice couple, in their 70s, and if I remember they stayed for three nights. Judy hadn't had much contact with the European side of her family for the best part of half a century, yet she was remarkably similar to aunty Ruth; not just her physical appearance, but also her mannerisms, which included being a heavy smoker. Harry and Judy were very polite. After we had dinner together I would go out to my office to attend to the Iberian Job, and Mama would go into the living room to watch tv. Each evening Harry and Judy stayed in the dining room, and read books or played cards, so as not to disturb Mama. In his youth Harry had done the typical antipodean thing of coming to London to live and work for a bit. In London he encountered the Citroen 2CV for the first time, and fell in love with the car. Harry said he always meant to buy a 2CV, but they are quite rare in Australia, and expensive. Of course Harry was delighted to see my 2CV parked outside the house. I took him and Judy for a spin in it, roof rolled back, foot to the floor.

After Harry and Judy had departed Mama and I thought it would be a rather good idea to extend the renovation work. The previous owners of the house were a nice couple who were very religious. When they first bought the property they had every room blessed by a priest. They ran the house as a bed & breakfast and each of the three bedrooms was ensuite. However, the bathrooms had been built in the corner of each bedroom, making both the bedrooms and bathrooms rather cramped. Mama and I had already decided to take out the ensuite in bedroom 3, which was Mama's bedroom, and to knock through a new doorway into the wreck and ruin and build a splendid bathroom there. Now we decided to also take out the ensuites in bedroom 1 and bedroom 2, and to knock through new doorways into the adjoining annex attic space and build new bathrooms. Grand Designs.

Before all that, though, I had to finish the terrace, now that the concrete had been given a couple of weeks to do whatever it was going to do. I'd already removed the shuttering around the edge of the terrace, and the final act was to lay paving stones on the concrete. With Mama's help it took five days to lay the paving stones, but we stopped short of the part of the terrace by the new kitchen. The wreck and ruin had a single doorway leading out into the garden. We wanted this to become a double doorway for the new kitchen, leading out onto the terrace. This meant that a much bigger lintel would have to be put in the wall above the doorway. A large amount of stone needed to be removed to make way for the new lintel. We didn't want to risk a chunk of stone accidentally falling down and breaking the paving.

I have described in my previous memoir just how difficult and dangerous it is to put a new doorway through a metre thick stone wall. It's something I'd done before. I had the expertise to do it. However, in the event we got a local builder to put in the lintel for the new kitchen doorway. This came out of a much bigger job that we got the builder to do, and it pertained to the new bedroom above the new kitchen. Upon deciding to renovate the first section of the wreck and ruin, a close inspection of what would become bedroom 4 showed something rather alarming: there was a 10 centimetre gap between the exterior wall and the floor. Over the decades and centuries this massive stone wall had slowly been heading east. The wall was listing. Such a thing is way outside my technical expertise, and so I rang a local architect and asked him to take a look at it. Bernard, the architect, stank of garlic when he came round a few days later. He said that to prevent the exterior wall from listing any further it would have to be keyed in to the interior wall that divided the two sections of the wreck and ruin. This would be done by removing a 3 metre wide section of the interior wall, from the ground floor to the attic, and then replacing it with a breeze block wall, which would be tied-in to the listing exterior wall with a large amount of concrete. Ain't concrete great. Bernard arranged for a local builder by the name of Albere to come round and give us a quote for the works. As part of this quote I asked Albere to chuck in the lintel over the new kitchen doorway. He gave us a good price.

Due to other commitments, Albere couldn't start the job until early January. This held up my own renovation works in the wreck and ruin, because I couldn't really do anything until Albere had done his stuff. In the meantime I began demolishing the existing ensuite in bedroom 1. Demolition is my favourite part of renovation work. I really enjoy going at things with a sledgehammer. All of the smashed plasterboard, broken tiles and timber got chucked out of the first floor window, to land on the small existing terrace on the barn side of the house. I tried to save as much timber as possible. Likewise with the screws that had held it together. The rest of it was deposed of by a series of endless runs to the dechetterie. All of the bathroom furniture was saved, to be used in the new bathrooms.

By now it was late November and the winter weather started to set in. I moved my office from the proposed new kitchen in the wreck and ruin to bedroom 1, which has a large picture window. Once again the old door was used as my desk and I set it up before the window, which overlooked the lane, and on the other side of the lane a pretty little meadow fringed with trees. Once the bedroom 1 ensuite had been demolished I carried out a similar mission on the bedroom 2 ensuite. Then I started knocking through the doorways into the attic. I alternated between sleeping in bed 1 and bed 2, depending on what works were occurring at the time. Mama continued sleeping in bed 3, where we delayed demolishing the ensuite in order to keep one shower up and running. The annex downstairs had a toilet, which I had created as part of the boiler room works, so that wasn't a problem, but it didn't have a bath or shower.

And so Christmas 2007 rolled around. Mama went back to the UK for the holidays. I spent them with Ruth and Dicky and the rest of the family in France. By this time Sid had got the central heating up and running in the liveable part of the house. The radiators were often luke warm. Sid ran flow and return pipes into the wreck and ruin, with valves on the end, ready and waiting for this stage of the renovation. Due to that day rate, Sid's works had cost a small fortune. Mama now possessed a little doll of Sid that she would stick pins into. The very mention of his name would reduce Mama to a shivering wreck.

The barn adjoining Mama's belonged to Bertrand Doucet. He used it for lambing. At the back of the barns there is a large field which runs up to our garden fence. This was Bertrand's main sheep field. He also had a smaller field on the other side of the lane from the barns. Lambing would take place two or three times a year. The lambs would often escape from Bertrand's barn using breaks at the bottom of the doors. Bertrand's son Herve would be seen chasing the little dears down the lane. Herve was one of those people who were bursting to the brim with life. Him and his wife and two young children lived in a bungalow up on the main road.

Andre, the loner who used to work on the Paris Metro, kept a large number of chickens, ducks and geese. These, too, would quite regularly escape and roam around the hamlet. Cattle were often herded down the lane as the Moreau brothers moved their livestock from one field to another. The young cowman they employed always had a smile. Madame Moreau and Elise Lucet, despite their advanced years, would cycle up the lane together to tend their fruit and veg plots near the main road. Grapes were the predominant crop.

Whilst doing the renovation I used to have a CD player going full blast. Since we were 100 metres from the other houses in the hamlet I don't think it drove the neighbours too mad. I used to play all kinds of music and soon discovered what the animals liked. The birds really took to jazz music. The sheep, too, although their favourite was pop. If the likes of Abba were playing the sheep would come up to the garden wire fence. Opera music would have them running away to the bottom end of the field. Tom the cat, on the other hand, really enjoyed classical music. Mama had inherited Tom from the previous owners of the house. He was a very elderly black cat. The previous owners had bought a house in Normandy and didn't think that Tom would survive the move. Tom used to follow me around as I did the renovation work.

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