When your heart grows cold and old

I was listening to a (back catalogue episode of) Roderick on the Line today, and he said an interesting thing about music and nostalgia.

We, he said, meaning people in their 40s and 50s, are the first generation who can listen to the music of our parents’ generation as easily as we can listen to our own. Can this be true? I’ll explain.

My parents were born in the 1930s, and the music collection they had when I was growing up came mostly from the 1950s and on. In other words, came from the era that they’d have been in their later teens and twenties. A collection of brittle 78s, a mostly-disappointing collection of vinyl LPs (with the notable exception of Sinatra), and some other stuff from the early 1960s that I’ve always assumed belonged in some sense to my older siblings.

But my father’s father, who was dead long before I was aware of anything: what was his music? No records survived. Even if he was in his 20s in the 1930s, that era of economic hard times, would he have even owned a record player? Or had the luxury of even being into music, in the modern sense? No records survive.

Similarly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing any music at my maternal grandmother’s house. My grandad had an old broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, but who knows what it was ever for?

Just now, I could hear my kid upstairs playing Buddy Holly, which is something I passed onto her. It’s interesting to hear her playing (over several days), Jonathan Richman, then the Velvet Underground, then Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. You can trace the line, you can hear the musical DNA. I listened to Buddy Holly myself because I wanted to know where the Beatles had come from, and because “Words of Love” was on Beatles for Sale, which was the Beatles album in our house.

When I listen to Sinatra, it’s also because there were a load of albums in the house when I was growing up (but, really, only two or three of them were of the right vintage, the rest were from the Reprise era, not the kind of thing I still listen to). So the Sinatra DNA was passed on, but I had to do my own work to obtain/discover the best material. My mother had Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly With Me, but I never heard the superior A Swingin’ Affair until much later on.

So the kid upstairs, you might say, represents a third generation, who can listen both to the music of her parents, but also her grandparents. Does she have Sinatra on her iPhone? I think she does. How weird is that?


Home for the holidays*

IMG_6339This week’s episode of my favourite podcast, Reconcilable Differences, resonated with me when the discussion turned away from St*r W*rs and towards the holidays and how some people get very tense and/or miserable about them.

John Siracusa was firmly of the opinion that people oughtn’t to force themselves to fulfil family obligations to please other people, particularly when those people were in reality rarely actually pleased to see them. He argued that if you choose to spend the holidays snuggled up at home with just your immediate family, like a hobbit, and that results in the rest of your family not speaking to you, maybe that’s what has to happen. Meanwhile, Merlin talked about family dynamics in terms of producers and consumers, which both rang a bell and felt like an original way of looking at the problem. Families always have those who do, those who arrange, cater, cook, host, give up their time; and people who turn up: consumers, other words.

John talked about his experience growing up, with an extended family living nearby, and how the holidays involved seeing all these people, all the time. And then how people – the next generation, maybe – living in different circumstances, often tried to recreate that experience, which was the source of so much stress. It’s one thing if all your uncles and cousins live within a 30 minute drive; quite another if getting everyone together for the holidays requires hours-long road trips, or negotiating airports, etc.. People need to give themselves a break when it comes to this stuff.

Merlin picked up on that, talking about three types of nostalgia: real, imagined, and aspirational. People either look back on idyllic holidays in their childhood; or look back on the holidays they wish they could have had; or want their kids to be able to look back. In all three cases, there’s pressure on people in the here and now to live up to some ideal.

All of which struck a chord. I don’t look back on my big family holidays with nostalgia, but that’s what it was like: there were uncles and aunts living within a short drive, and December 25/26th involved a round of visits. I would place my mother in the producer camp, and I think we, her children have felt varying levels of obligation to be producers in our own lives.

Since meeting my wife, I’ve spent most of my winter holidays in La France, where much of her family (on her mother’s side, at least) do indeed live within a short drive. Her father’s family are more dispersed (most of them in the South, some in Paris), but there are still enough people in the local area to make the two weeks a constant round of visits and occasions.

For most of the time we’ve been going over there, I’ve been a consumer, which has felt odd, because I’m old enough and ugly enough to organise my own festivities. My mother-in-law was the main producer, but a couple of years ago, when she was temporarily ill, we took over. And so this year (having just hit 53) will be just the third time I’ve been a producer. And Merlin’s right: if you’re going to do that sort of thing, you have to start planning well in advance, long before all the consumers in the family are interested in the subject. Which can be awkward when you’re trying secure agreement from people about what you’ll be eating and all they have to say is, ‘Isn’t it too soon to be talking about this?’

*Yes, I’ve decided, slightly awkwardly, to start calling it the holidays. Apart from anything else, this is likely to enrage Daily Mail readers, which is all to the good.

The balcony

We persuaded my oldest to come away with us in the summer, guessing it might be a while before the whole family went on holiday together. She won’t be with us this Christmas, and who knows what she’ll be wanting to do next summer, after ‘A’ levels?

Anyway, it occurred to me that I might have taken my last balcony shot for a while. I’ve been getting the girls to pose on their grandparents’ balcony in Plancher Bas for years. I’ve mostly remembered to do at least one a year since the first.

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The short marriage of Angele and Charles

The house in Auxelles

So this is the house that one day my wife might inherit, though the chances of that happening while we’re both young enough and fit enough to (a) make it habitable and (b) enjoy it seem to be rapidly diminishing.

We occasionally fantasise about this place because staying in my in laws’ house for even a few days, summer or winter, is becoming such a drag that I’d rather stay at home. Back before we had kids, my wife’s parents would go away for two weeks in the summer, leaving us to house sit (water the garden, feed the animals). This was great, and it was possible to properly relax. With Elisabeth’s old man hanging around all summer, however, it’s complete misery. When she was younger, my wife’s father would actually hit her (or threaten to) for reading. Even now, he sarcastically refers to me as an “intellectual” because I like to read books when I’m on holiday.

So, anyway, there’s this house. It’s very old, and my wife’s great aunt Simone lives there. Over a year ago, Simone had a series of strokes and has been bedridden ever since. She needs round-the-clock care, and in any sane universe the family doctor would have ensured she got it, in a hospital or care home. But because my mother-in-law foolishly promised the old lady that she wouldn’t end up in a home, the doctor has left her to it, in spite of the fact that, all these months later, my mother-in-law has basically had to leave her husband (bar a few hours in the afternoon) in order to move in with the old lady.

The bottom end of the “garden”

Now, Simone never had any children, but she had a couple of sisters. This house is on a bit of land you might call a smallholding. It’s probably big enough that you could do a Tom and Barbara and live self-sufficiently. The house has three downstairs rooms (including kitchen) and three bedrooms. There’s an upstairs storage area. A modernish bathroom has been tacked onto the back. Attached to the main house, there’s a barn, which has at least three sections, and which link together and to the upstairs storage. There is, in short, a lot of storage space. As long as I’ve known my wife, Simone has been living in the three rooms downstairs, and nobody – but nobody – was allowed to go upstairs, of which more below.

An insane English person might propose to convert the barn into habitation, but no French person would consider it. It has stone walls and a tiled roof, but the inside consists of massive oak beams, all of which are rotten. My idea would be to completely gut the interior and build a new, modern, wood-framed house within the stone walls. No French person would consider such a thing – any builder would quote you way more than it would cost to build a brand new home. It’s just not the done thing.

Part of the barn

In recent years, Simone made noises about inheritance, and signed the house over to Elisabeth’s mother, on the understanding that she could go on living their until she dies. She’s in her 90s. My mother-in-law said then that she would give the house to my wife when the time came. On the occasion of the paperwork, we were invited to look upstairs.

For Elisabeth, this was very exciting. She frequently dreamed about “going upstairs in Mané’s house”, and now we were actually allowed to go. I had my video camera on me, and started to film the tour, but the battery went flat – domage!

Anyway, it was a brief tour, about five years ago, and all we saw was three very cluttered old bedrooms with heavy, old-fashioned furniture, ugly decoration, and primitive electrical connections. Around the same time, Simone arranged for a new gas central heating system. The whole family has a downer on wood as heating fuel (too much hassle), even though they have a barn that is stuffed full of 40-50 year-old firewood.

This theme of things being 40-50 years old will recur.

After her strokes, nobody expected Simone to live for long. In a hospital, I suspect, she would have been allowed to quietly slip away. With my mother-in-law’s care, she’s thriving, even though she can’t move, speak, or feed herself. In fact, her blood pressure and pulse are all perfect. She could go on for years, and has in fact survived more than a year.

This left us in an awkward position, because the only thing that made my in-laws’ house vaguely tolerable was the presence of my mother-in-law, who could mitigate the effects of my father-in-law’s rudeness and misery. This year, we were so fed up that my wife decided to go and start decorating one of the upstairs rooms in Simone’s house. We could stay there, she said, or my mum could sleep in it instead of on the camp bed downstairs. If nothing else, next summer, we could pitch the tent in the garden and use the toilet/shower in the house.

Auxelles Bas is much quieter and more pleasant than Plancher Bas, which over recent years has attracted a lot of new residents from Belfort, and the associated traffic. Auxelles is further up the mountain, on a much narrower road, and is a much more attractive place to stay. The garden of the house is vast: there are fruit trees, flower beds, lawns, small fields, and even a well (without the safety feature of a wall/cap).

This was all a bit awkward, because my in-laws suffer from a little bit (a lot) of that OCD/clutter thing that you see on the telly sometimes. They visit flea markets and buy junk, and they never throw anything away. There are stacks of margarine tubs, bottles, jars, cupboards full of coffee cups, glasses, and there’s even a 6-foot high glass cabinet full of souvenir teaspoons. Their house is bad enough, and Simone’s house is more of the same – with the added wrinkle that Simone’s clutter dates back to the days when she shared the house with her two sisters, Angele and Anna, and their mother. During the last war, there were German soldiers billeted there, and there have been various husbands, including one who hung himself in the barn. All the men are dead, Angele died many years ago, and Anna (who lived with her son in her final years) died not long ago.

As we started to clear up the clutter in the upstairs bedrooms, shifting stuff around so my wife could pain the walls, we started to unpack the history of the house, and in particular the sad, short marriage of Angele and Charles.

Charles was a soldier, and he moved around a lot. He was in a relationship with Angele, who was much younger than him, but they didn’t marry until his military career was over. They got married, and moved into the back bedroom (we’re already calling it the Red Room, because of its colour scheme), but Charles was dead within a year. Angele simply abandoned the marriage room, and moved back into her mother’s bedroom.

Elisabeth thinks Angele was a bit simple, from what I can gather.

Anyway, rooting through the cupboards and drawers, we came across shocking evidence of just how short this marriage was.

Item: a brand new night dress, still boxed.

Item: white wedding shoes, worn once.

Item: sugared almonds (traditional at French weddings), still in presentation box

Item: a full set of shiny cutlery (wedding gift), still boxed.

Item: a couple of packets of military-issue cigarettes, unsmoked

Item: calling cards, printed with the names of the married couple, still boxed

Item: Brand-new forty-year-old torch, boxed

Wonder torch

There was an electric blanket on top of a wardrobe, still boxed, several other obvious wedding gifts, unused and still boxed, and small remnants of Charles’s military career, including a couple of boxes of tiny photos, showing him in various parts of the French empire.

We also discovered plentiful evidence of the bootleg liquor cottage industry that used to run on the premises (including one full bottle of the clear eau de vie they call goutte, stuff made from mirabelle plums that’ll make you go blind), a couple of boxes of sweets, and a pristine, immaculate, vinyl record player – an item that was used just once a year, at christmas. There were about a dozen 45 singles, including several by Petula Clarke, who was always big in France.

For the platters that matter (speakers were in the lid)