French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

I SHOULDN'T have mentioned it, of course. Just tempting providence. Any public hint that I was building a wall carried the seeds of its collapse. In my beginning is my end. I suppose that's true of any human project, really. But need it have happe

I SHOULDN'T have mentioned it, of course. Just tempting providence. Any public hint that I was building a wall carried the seeds of its collapse. In my beginning is my end. I suppose that's true of any human project, really. But need it have happened quite so quickly?

Barely had last month's Campbell's Diary appeared than Rob Quinn, a Canadian correspondent and frequent competition winner, e-mailed me to say that with a drystone wall about 150 metres long by 2 metres high advancing at the rate of about 30 centimetres a day was going to be a long, long project. He didn't know how long . . .

The weather doesn't do things by halves down here in the deep south. If it rains, it really rains. And it did, for several days on end, until the ground sprang leaks like a porcupine's hot water bottle and the river Paresse rose ominously and our riverside neighbours, alto and bass in my big choir (few can live in this neighbourhood without being roped in to sing), below us began to think about building their personal ark.

When it eventually stopped and the scent of dry dog and cats began slowly to replace the dank miasma of wet fur, we went outside to inspect. We weren't sorry to see that though elsewhere a thousand rills their mazy progress took, the land on which our new house is to be built remained wet but firm, and not a single pebble nor grain of sand had been washed away.

However, at the back of the property, a disused and overgrown public path runs along a terrace about 2 metres above it, a terrace held in place more by gravity and molecular cohesion than by the present decrepit wall I'm striving to replace. There, just at the part which I'd rebuilt so artistically, ensuring a tasteful, varied and balanced pattern of the local schists, marbles and limestones to delight my eye as I looked out from my eventual study window, was a huge and ugly gap where the waters had broken through, carrying all before its mighty flow. Like a missing tooth in the smile of a well-loved friend, like the Möhne dam in 1943, like . . . oh, think up your own similes. I'm sorry, that's how I feel about the whole wretched business.

Or felt. I expressed my disappointment to a French friend, no stranger to Gallic cynicism. Pas de problème, he said, eyes shining at the prospect of putting one over the local authority, with whom he's perpetually at war: the disused path and the terrace it runs along belong to the commune, the local council. In France it's a general principle that landowners are responsible for the upkeep of boundary walls downhill of their property. All I had to do, he said, was to trot along to the local Mairie and complain that one of their walls had fallen down. They'd be along in due course to rebuild it. They had to. It was their duty.

I think there just might be a tiny flaw in this somewhere. Meanwhile Rob Quinn keeps sending me transcripts of political speeches, solid chunks of dense and impenetrable matter. Just the thing for rebuilding walls with. Thanks, Rob. I knew they'd come in useful sometime.

ALONG THE valley of the Paresse, now back to its usual level, over the col at the head of the valley and down into the next département to the little town of Mousse les Grieux. The scenery changes: the terrace walls are still there, as they are in any hill country, but our chestnut woods, cherry orchards, vineyards and olive groves have given way to fields of winter wheat, sheep and cattle. Cattle are a rarity in our Mediterranean département: it's much too hot in summer and the grass is scorched by early July.

But we didn't go for the scenery, we went to sing. Every March a charity called Retina France organises an event known as Mille Choeurs pour un Regard, A Thousand Choirs for a Glance, a weekend during which choirs all over France are invited to put on concerts for their benefit. Every year a well-known composer of popular songs is asked to donate a song – choirs aren't obliged to sing it, though – and the concert proceeds go towards research into eye disease, in particular macular degeneration.

So my big choir, Le Choeur des Hauts Cantons, joined forces with the romantically-named L'Echo des Rochers, The Echo of the Rocks, a choir from the village of Albine. A couple of months before we'd asked for the church to sing in, because the acoustics are usually flattering, at least: but the curé said no, there would possibly be a funeral that afternoon and we'd have to take ourselves elsewhere. Clearly there's no arguing with this sort of foreknowledge, so we sacrificed acoustics for plush seats and booked the cinema instead.

You'll be asking, since Le Choeur des Hauts Cantons is known for its spirituals and gospel songs, whether we sang 'Josh fit de battle ob Jericho, an the walls came tumblin' down'. Well, thanks for asking, but we didn't. Much too sensitive a subject, I'm afraid.

I SUPPOSE some people would give their eye teeth to tour round French villages giving concerts. It seemed a remote possibility a dozen years ago, when I first came to live in France. Now it's an everyday part of life here, running a sort of Rent-a-Choir, no job too big or too small . . .

Monique, the choir president, rang the other day to say we'd been invited to sing in a grotte, to celebrate its 50th anniversary of being open to the public. A grotte? A cave, or system of underground chambers. There's a very fine one locally, La Grotte de la Dévèze, known for its splendid crystal formations. No problem with acoustics, unless they're so responsive that the sopranos' high Gs and As dislodge a few stalactites. Or funerals either, I hope, certainly not as a result.

I accepted at once. We like a challenge, something to get our teeth into. We'll take them on, hand to the plough, shoulder to the wheel, back to the wall . . .

And that's where I'm going now, or it'll never get finished. A bientôt!

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

There's a grotte in the Dordogne that's famous for its prehistoric wall-paintings, which are however so sensitive to the moisture and carbon dioxide from human breath that visitors are shown round a replica a short distance away. What's it called? First correct e-mail answer to me wins a bunch of rosemary from our own herb garden. Just right for roast spring lamb. Mmm, délicieux!