Category Archives: About life

Want super intelligence? Read a good novel!

super2aHave you ever been so absorbed in a novel that you’re still thinking about a particular character while you’re having a coffee or driving somewhere the next day? Or wished you could be reading on instead of working? Of course you have. Isn’t it amazing how much detail we can recall from a novel – detail that lives on in our mind’s eye – compared to a non-fiction book?

Anthony Carboni, in his video (below), looks at why we inherently remember stories more easily than non-fiction or bullet point facts. Whether we’re reading or listening, the brain likes to find patterns and meanings, and stories are a natural medium for this. Children who have stories read to them, and who can read, are usually hooked on books for life, aren’t they?

Reading stories activates certain parts of our brain. For example, hearing or reading about running lights up the mental cortex of our brain, taking us through the mental exercise involved in running. I knew there was a better way to exercise … just read about doing it! (Anthony didn’t say that, by the way.)

super3Stories are also easier to remember because the way our brain works causes us to experience the story. This can also lead to lasting changes in our brain function. Hmm, does Hannibal Lecter’s creator have something to answer for here?

Incredibly, functional MRI studies show vastly higher activity in the temporal cortex and central sulcus areas of the brain which control language and motor skills for five days after reading a novel for only one day. That’s where the super intelligence bit comes in.

Good literary fiction (the research makes a clear distinction here) has also been found to be important in the development of empathy. Now that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

What are you reading? How do you feel if you don’t have time to read? I remember one successful novelist stating that he never, ever read anyone else’s work because it would affect his writing style. What do you think about that?



Slow down, you’re going too fast!

I found myself reading a book the other day. Speed reading it actually. And then I suddenly realised the absurdity of what I was doing. No, delete ‘absurdity’ and insert ‘stupidity’—it fits, as you’ll see.

Did you know that the idea of tracking time is a fairly recent concept? Prior to 1374, when the first mechanical clock appeared in Cologne’s town square dictating exact times for eating, sleeping and working, we simply went about our business with a vague eye on the sun. For the more exacting of us, the shadow it cast as it meandered across the sky gave slightly more accuracy. If the sun was hidden by clouds we were even more relaxed about time, relying on the cows to give us a nudge when they needed milking, or a banshee-like wail from the kitchen when dinner was being spoiled.

Then time was broken down to hours, minutes, and seconds, and the ethos of being a good timekeeper and always punctual rapidly became the norm. And then, as industrialisation swept across the world, it became an absolute requirement.

Multi-tasking was, until recently, a practise to be proud of. We’ve since learned that multi-tasking usually results in doing too many things at once at the expense of enjoyment or of doing any one thing properly. Demands of schedules, both personal and work-related, have us on the hop from the time we wake up and check our emails to burning the midnight oil catching up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Linkedin, and more.

To stay on top—more like constantly run behind—we have to do everything as quickly as possible—or do we?

Studies have increasingly shown that doing things at a more leisurely pace actually increases productivity and goes a long way to preventing stress, high blood pressure, diabetes related illnesses, cardiovascular problems, and substance abuse.

Yes, we do have to do some things quickly. But do we have to stress about running for that train when another will be along in two minutes? Or have a holiday that is so action-packed that we need a break when we get home? Can we enjoy preparing, cooking, and eating a meal instead of always slamming processed fast foods mindlessly down our throats? Or even read a book properly? Maybe write one?

Oh, the book? ‘In Praise of SLOW: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed’ by Carl Honoré. It’s worth a slow, relaxing read. Really.

Could your new totem for the year be the tortoise rather than the hare?




Alcoholic Brilliance

Jack KerouacA recent client told me that it was impossible for her to write creatively unless she was drinking alcohol at a steady and (to me) frightening rate. I knew she was fairly pissed during her writing spells because she would call me in an extremely slurred fashion to let me know.

It mystified me how she managed to put thoughts into written words when she could hardly make her mouth work effectively, but she certainly did. OK, her work needed serious editing, but it pretty much did when she was sober too. The difference was that on a drinking and writing spree, her written words were delightfully loose and uninhibited.

So why do some people need to drink or take mind-altering medication before words begin to stream?

Some of our best-known writers may know the answer to that. Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Truman Capote, James Joyce, and Jack Kerouac, to name but a few. Of course, they all died from their addictions, so we can’t ask them.

Ernest HemmingwaySurely all that creativity, and perhaps more, could have been unleashed if we’d discovered what was repressing it, rather than using substance abuse to temporarily disable fears and blocks?

I got to thinking of my own turbulent days of boozing and writing many, many years ago. Quite honestly, they’re a bit of a blur, although, back then, I thought I was writing brilliantly. I was not.

Years later, I had a mentor who was able to put me in touch with my creative self—while I wasn’t galloping back my wine by the bucket. I must admit, life became a lot easier after that and, with a very occasional glass of wine, a great deal healthier too.

What turns your creativity on?





Let us eat cake

It was a diet (one I’m still on incidentally—and, having tried a fair few, that’s a rarity in itself) that got me thinking about favourite extracts from books.

If you want a bellyful of quotes, just drop into twitter for an endless stream of banal, ill-considered, program-produced extracts. The same ones keep popping up and, whether from the psalms or the I Ching, they are simply retweeted without a second’s thought.

Some extracts stay with us. A line or two of Shakespeare—“Once more unto the breach”, something from Great Expectations—“love her!”, or the Great Gatsby—“old sport”.

My recent favourite extract is from Dr Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer’s book, The Fast Diet. Here it is:

‘Can I really eat what I like on the off-duty days? Yes, yes, yes,’ (the two extra yeses are mine).

The text goes on to tell me that it’s acceptable to eat freely of fish and chips, roast potatoes, cake, and biscuits. Just tell me that’s not a great extract for a serial dieter and lover of food!

So what’s your favourite book extract?

Writing Therapy

Writing is TherapyThe more people I’ve helped to write, the more obvious it’s become to me that writing about oneself is enormously therapeutic. “Well, brilliant, Watson,” you may snort. “That’s a well-worn fact and everyone knows it.” And I agree. Therapeutic writing has been around since … hmm … well, since diaries and journals first began, around the time the written word was invented.

Feeling better

Feeling better

We all appreciate how much better we feel after venting in an email, or on a forum, despite the possible backlash that letting it all hang out online can engender. But as a writing coach I’ve seen something quite special occur many, many times when people sit down to write their story. It’s a healing that’s almost palpable. Not only does the writer come to terms with hurt, betrayal and anger (you’d think that would be reward enough) but they also enjoy an improvement in overall mental and physical health.

So why?

Stronger Immune System

Stronger Immune System

Putting feelings down on paper certainly helps mental clarity. But there’s much more to it than that. Dr James Pennebaker, a Texas researcher, found that when people wrote about the hard stuff—emotionally difficult feelings and events—for as little as twenty minutes at a time over four days, their immune functioning increased. There was a direct impact on the body’s ability to withstand stress, and fight off infection and disease.

Makes you want to write, doesn’t it?

Clients on the Today Show

It was great to see Kate and Kristina talking about the book I coached them on appearing on TV this week.


Ever thought ‘Why can’t I shed those extra kilos?’ you’ve done the detox, you’ve tried the clean diet but nothing seems to work? Two Melbourne-based psychologists are saying it’s actually all in your head. Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot join the TODAY team to discuss their new book; ‘Do you Really Want To Lose Weight’ and the need to understand not WHAT we’re eating but WHY we’re eating it.”


Sloppy punctuation may cost you

Everything is fast these days. Fast downloads, rapid exchanges of text—delivered at lightning speed—and messages written and read on the run.

All that convenience, or pain in the arse in-your-faceness—depending on how you look at life—comes with a hidden cost.

We are simply not communicating properly. Words are abbreviated or misspelled, punctuation is generally ignored (except for the ubiquitous exclamation mark, which has gone from the rarely used and effective to anything up to fifteen of them slammed at the end of one sentence), and messages have unintended multiple meanings.

Perhaps we don’t have to be perfect. Or do we? In one recent case involving a legal document, one misplaced comma in a contract cost Rogers Communications Inc., a Canadian Company, C$2.13 million dollars. That one comma allowed Aliant Inc., a cable laying company, to terminate a contract with one year’s notice, rather than the five years Rogers Communication thought they’d signed up for.

We may not be negotiating million dollar deals every day before lunch, but we do need to be clear, and punctuation helps. Let’s look at the following:

We invited the strippers, Mum, and Dad.


We invited the strippers, Mum and Dad.

(Interesting parents whichever way you read it.)

How about:

Let’s eat, Grandma.


Let’s eat Grandma.



A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

One of the best ways to test your punctuation is to read your words out loud. In this era of flashing, whizz-bang everything, how you communicate is more important than ever. Punctuation isn’t there to torment us. It’s there to add clarity to what we want to say. Just take two more seconds to reread what you’ve written before pressing the button.

Believe it, or not!

Childhood memories

Childhood memories

How much of our fiction writing is drawn from real life? How often do we base our characters on people we know? And are those places we invent actually drawn from childhood memories, or somewhere we’ve once visited, or a bit of both?



Writers of speculative fiction can create whole new worlds, races of people, social structures, weaponry, even entire languages that come straight from their imaginations. How they do that is beyond me. Like most of us, I have to have points of reference. If I write about a bunch of little kids having a fight, I have to remember a schoolyard altercation I was involved in, witnessed, or heard about, and develop the scene from there.

World domination

World domination

So, when someone asks me if a character in a piece of fiction is actually me, it’s hard to respond with an unequivocal, ‘No!’ even when the character is about to do something really despicable—not like me at all, I assure you. I certainly base my characters on elements of real people, and my own experiences, but that’s where the similarity ends. I’ve no desire to embark on an evil mission of world domination, thank you very much, but it is fun working out how it can be done. In fact … oh, forget it, that one’s already been tried.

How much of you and your experiences goes into your writing?

Never judge a book by its cover

Book covers made me wonder

Book covers made me wonder

Ghost-writing some fiction just the other day, I tapped out those exact words. Of course, the expression is a common English idiom and the meaning a metaphor for not deciding the worth (or lack thereof) of anything, or anyone, by its outward appearance. Good advice, perhaps.

However, rereading and editing the text, I found myself wondering about book covers—you know, how long they’d been around, which are the oldest, the most famous et cetera. Before long, I was berating myself for falling into a trap I constantly warn my book coaching students about—losing focus (the ugly term for it is procrastination) yet also fascinated by a few interesting facts that emerged. I decided that this was, after all, essential research.

Did you know, for example, that with the advent of the mass press during the 17th and 18th centuries, book covers (or dust jackets as they were referred to then) were nothing but plain and functional? At first they were cloth, and then paper. Sometimes holes were cut in the front covers to display the title and author’s name, but it wasn’t until around the turn of the twentieth century when the obvious advantages of decorating book covers became apparent. And then it was on for young and old.

Girl with Leica - Alexandr Rodchenko

Girl with Leica - Alexandr Rodchenko

Avant-gardists like Alexandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky of the Soviet Union produced some of the first radically modern cover designs during the 1920s. Aubrey Beardsley with his striking covers for the first four volumes of The Yellow Book (1894–5) was also an early influencer.

Of course, there is always an exception. Way back around 810 BC, an illustrated manuscript—the Lorsch Gospels, a collection of the Four Gospels of the New Testament—was produced. The cover was made from highly decorated, carved ivory plates. I’ll bet the guys who put it together hoped like hell it wouldn’t become a best-seller.

James Joyce - Ulysses

James Joyce - Ulysses

And can you tell a book by its cover—literally? How about James Joyce’s Ulysses? That amazing cover designed by Ernst Reichl in 1934 in no way relates to the book’s actual contents. But, there again, could any cover symbolise the contents of Ulysses?

Today the book cover is regarded as one of the critical selling points of a book. And with e-publishing, book cover design has taken an even more complex turn. What can look highly attractive on the rapidly disappearing bookshop shelf may look pretty banal as a website thumbnail. So, there you are. Even as we speak, it’s no longer a book cover; it’s become a ‘thumbnail’.

What do you think?

It didn’t happen like that, or did it?

I love referring clients to Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. To me, that pithy novella and winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011 represents all that is good about contemporary writing. Short enough for the poorest attention span (a gnat’s, I believe, being the present scientific medium of comparison), disarmingly sweet and simple, it is also a swollen river of thought-provoking undercurrents.

Yup, you guessed it—I like that book. But what I like about it most of all is the way Barnes has the reader believe the lifetime memories of the protagonist, until they are eventually completely shattered by someone else’s recollection of what happened.

Ask a law-enforcement officer

Ask a law-enforcement officer

Isn’t life just like that? Separately ask a number of witnesses to remember what happened at a particularly memorable event in the past and they will often come up with wildly differing accounts. Ask any experienced law-enforcement officer and they’ll confirm that obtaining corroborating evidence is extremely difficult. And how often does an after-dinner story become a lively discussion—OK, argument then—about whose version of that holiday incident is the more accurate? Let’s face it, the ways people remember things are, well, different.

So what’s this got to do with writing? Apply the exercise of recalling memories to writing a memoir. Which author gives the right version? The first one into print? The most famous?

When was the last time you totally disagreed with a version of events, and knew—just knew—you were right?


Walking out of the local supermarket and into the main mall area three months ago, I saw a toddler, aged around three, standing near a toy car—you know the ones, you put your child behind the steering wheel, feed the slot a dollar, and the thing lights up, growling and shaking, to the utter delight of the young.

She was blonde, barefooted, and dressed a little raggedy, but she had an inner beauty, an exuberance, and a sense of wonder that, despite the weight of my bags and the prospect of a plod to my car in scorching thirty six degree sunshine, made me chuckle.

As I drew level, she stood on the car’s pedestal and called to someone behind me. ‘Daddy, daddy, look!’

She climbed into the driver's seat

She climbed into the driver's seat

Hearing a rough, throaty male voice echo through the mall, several people including myself stopped to look around. ‘‘Get off that fucking thing!’

The little girl, appearing not to hear, began to climb into the car’s driving seat. Her fascination with the machine was intense—as if she’d never set eyes on anything like it before. Perhaps from the country, I thought.

In the next moment, a thin, shaven-haired, thuggish-looking guy around thirty rushed to the girl, gripped her by one arm, and hauled her from the machine. His pale, hawkish face was twisted with ferocious anger—almost feral.

As he viciously bent the girl’s arm and her leg slammed against the toy car, she screamed in pain.

It was over in seconds, with half a dozen of us spectators left gawping in horror and shock as the man disappeared around a corner in the direction of the mall’s exit. Gradually, muttering in disapproval, we began to disperse and move in our intended directions.

Feeling nauseated, and trying to come to terms with a sense of guilt, I walked towards the car park wondering what I could or should have done. It had happened too quickly, I rationalised. The guy was probably on drugs—he looked like a junky, all emaciated and mean-looking—so any interference may have had terrible consequences for the girl and for me for that matter. He may have been carrying a weapon—he looked the type. Anyway, my involvement would have enmeshed me in witness statements, possible court appearances, maybe even some retribution from the guy himself. And for what? It’s possible the girl was an impossibly naughty creature and the incident was the culmination of a day of enormous parental frustration.

Beginning to walk across the deserted car park, I heard a terrible wailing. It was the girl, perhaps a hundred metres away, held against a battered old truck and being beaten with a length of plastic piping.

I was paralysed. I didn’t know what to do. My hands were full of shopping bags, it was unbearably hot, and there was nobody else around to help. The guy was also probably half my age and, built like a whip, would make mincemeat out of me.  As the girl’s cries became shriller, battering my ears, and the heat seared mercilessly up from the concrete, I felt like throwing up. Was this like being in hell?

Is this what hell is about?

Is this what hell is about?

Luckily that entire incident never happened. I made it up. The questions are: what emotions did it evoke? How did you feel about the girl, the father, and me? Did my inertia and pathetic rationalising make you angry? Were you imagining yourself in the same circumstances, and wondering what you would have done?

Sometimes we have to cause readers some discomfort. It’s not all about feeling good. If we can bring their emotions to the surface, make them angry, distressed, or even confused about how they feel, we’re doing our work.

What was the last piece of fiction you read that upset you?

Writers beware – it’s a New Year

Without fear

Without fear

Yes, it’s that time of the year when we might make some resolutions: this year I will write without fear—fear of rejection, fear of going public, fear that my innermost thoughts and dark psyche are being exposed. I shall write bravely, setting aside time to write—for myself—come what may.

Brave words, but what the hell has a specific time of the year got to do with what we should be doing right now anyway? A few wise words from Karen Nixon’s new blog got me thinking. She talked about our propensity for wanting to leave the old year’s pain and difficulties behind and make a fresh start in the new, and she made the valuable point not to wipe the slate clean, but to take all we’ve learnt, moving forward with the benefit of hindsight.

Take the New Year by storm!

Take the New Year by storm!

Well, here’s some hindsight. A writer doesn’t look forward to a point in time when the stars and moons are in perfect alignment to do his or her thing. A writer does it now. Now, I say. And, yes, as you take the New Year by storm, may the mistakes you have made in the blundering universe of writing be your reckless, charging stead.

To the breach!

Words that matter

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer

Looking through an array of Christmas cards yesterday, I was struck by the complete lack of imagination of the wording inside them. Has it always been like this, I wondered. For the last few decades I’ve gone for blank cards because the generic wording never seemed to fit—for me anyway. And now the words all seem very much the same.

In the 2009 movie, (500) Days of Summer, a romantic comedy about a woman, Summer, who doesn’t believe in true love, and the young man, Tom, who falls for her, Tom is employed by a greetings card company to write the sentiments inside the products. I was fascinated. Do jobs like this still exist? I also really felt for him when his depression resulted in a departmental transfer—from greetings to condolences. But, more importantly, where are his cards?

How often have you received a card from someone you haven’t seen or heard from since last year, and seen something like, ‘lots of love from Aunty Flo and Uncle Bill’? And that’s it. No news. Not a scrap. Flo’s husband, Uncle Bill, may be recovering from a triple bypass following a massive heart attack, and Flo herself celebrating the year she climbed Kilimanjaro (aged 89, and probably precipitating Bill’s condition), but all you get is ‘lots of love’. Oh, and, ‘wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’, because that was already printed there.

Let’s make our words really matter.

Bad sex in fiction (part 2)

Just to continue the light-hearted theme of the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, and grinding to its climactic conclusion (see, it’s contagious), the winner of this year’s award goes to David Guterson, best-selling author of Snow Falling on Cedars.

His novel, Ed King, brings the Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex (note the pun) from the distant past into late 20th century Seattle.

In one scene the main character “massaged, kneaded, stretched, rubbed, pinched, flicked, feathered, licked, kissed, and gently bit her shoulders”, but the clincher for the gong was “Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap.” And I love the end of that scene: “Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch.” Well, after all that you’d need to, wouldn’t you?

Sign Language

Read me

Read me

What is it about reading a sign? You’ve seen it plenty of times—someone drops litter beside a fully signed-up trash can, dogs and their human slaves roam unfettered on a dogs-on-leashes only beach, we skip across the road when the sign says, DON’T, and junk mail appears in the letterbox, despite the sign that asks otherwise.

Do we not see signs, or are we ignoring them? Why isn’t the message getting through?

Maybe our message just isn’t strong enough, poorly worded, or too obscure. Perhaps what we want to say is drowned by the clutter of our lives, or perhaps we aren’t reading words any more and just want to look at the pictures.

How has reading changed for you?

Finding time to read

In Michael Hyatt’s blog about five ways to find time to read, he comes up with some useful ideas. You can read the blog post here.

Finding reading time seems to be a real problem for many avid readers. Time slips by, and how many books have you read in 2011? One of Michael Hyatt’s solutions was to make a sacrifice and turn the TV off at 9pm. I’d go further than that and suggest that if you seriously want to catch up on your reading, don’t turn the bloody thing on at all.

Turn it off!

Turn it off!

At home we made an effort to avoid TV over ten years ago. As a result, I munch through a book and a half week on average. Let’s see, that’s almost 800 books. And what have I missed on the box? Hmm.

After dinner, I feel as weary as the next person. In fact it’s hard to get up the enthusiasm to do anything, never mind read. But once I start and the magic swirls from the pages, it’s way past bed time before I realise. What say you?

So Much For That

Things are about to warm up around here. Shorter, sharper blogs, delivered with far more frequency. Not that we’ll lose all the thinky posts—they’ll still be there, and we’ll have a few more from time to time.

For starters, I’d like to mention Lionel Shriver’s gut-pulling novel, So Much For That. If you’ve felt reluctant about putting your weight behind your words when you write—pulling your punches—take new heart and dive into this superb example of how people really are and what makes them that way. Shriver writes with furious energy about people, as sad, disillusioned and utterly unlovable, and yet …

Get into it!

The loneliness of the long-distance writer

Another writing day

Another writing day

In the olden days—no guys, that’s not a mere twenty years ago, let’s say the mid 1800s—we can picture the writer, sitting at his or her desk, quill in hand, staring contemplatively out over some peaceful English rural scene. For the sake of romanticism, can we forget the more likely scenario of the starving, emaciated scribe, shivering in a windy garret?  Let’s stay with the positive image—the writer who is blessed with oodles of time, is free of distractions, and loaded to the gills with money. So what’s changed?

My book coaching clients never complain to me about how hard it is to write a book. We all know it is. For some, it’s the hardest thing they’ve done in their lives and, for them, the rewards are the greatest.

Small things that get in the way

Small things that get in the way

For those who are struggling, we discuss the difficulties of writing and devise personalised strategies that remove some of the biggest, ugliest boulders, and then get down and dirty, roll our sleeves up, and shovel the rest out of the way. Fortunately we can all do this from the comfort of our favourite chair, and the nearest we’ll get to dirt is a few crumbs of toast or coffee spills.

But what writers do complain about is the loneliness, the isolation, the desolate feeling of having to live inside their own heads for long periods at a time. And it’s not necessarily happening for them during the time spent at their desks. The affliction can manifest at family dinners—the slow mechanical chewing of food, having coffee with a loved one—staring into one’s coffee cup with a faraway look, sitting in a movie, or, the biggie—lying awake in the middle of the night. In fact, living-in-the-book-syndrome can strike anywhere and anytime during the book writing process. So what can we do about it?

I'm on my own - for a long time

I'm on my own - for a long time

First, is it necessarily something we should stop? Of course not. It’s all part of the creative process. Having plots and ideas running constantly through our heads is the result of our unconscious and conscious minds doing the extraordinary work required to produce a really great book. But we do need to guard against reaching a point of obsession. That’s when our relationships can break down and our day jobs can suffer.

To start with, talk to people about your project—at least until their eyes begin to glaze over. Seriously, there’s always someone who wants to talk about writing—fellow writers, writers’ groups, bloggers (be one yourself and let it all hang out online), and you would be amazed at how many wonderful ideas your friends will help you with when you’re prepared to share. Yes, that means talking about the precious global conspiracy theory

What global conspiracy?

What global conspiracy?

you’re writing about without assuming that someone’s going to steal it and run off to the nearest book agent. Believe me, that’s just not going to happen. And when you’re bombarded with great ideas, just make sure you acknowledge your friends and their help properly when your best-seller is published.

Sleepless nights can be tough, and not too many friends appreciate being called in the wee hours. Even long-suffering partners can get a bit tetchy when their beauty sleep is curtailed by a restless author’s busy brainwaves. Keep a notepad by your bedside to jot down some of those mind-bending thoughts so you can deal with them comfortably in the morning. Smartphones are great for that sort of thing too.

Sleepless nights can be tough

Sleepless nights can be tough

And here’s a great idea. This evolved from discussing suitable work areas with one of my clients—a busy mum. Home was too distracting—too much happening to focus properly, and her time was extremely limited. We decided on the local library as an ideal environment and found that it had an unforseen bonus. My client reported that she felt sufficiently closeted in her own space to do her writing without the feeling of being alone. Surrounded by strangers beavering away at their own projects, her creative juices were stimulated without the distraction of conversation or demands from her family. Give it a go!

So what has changed? Our romance writer is still at his desk, revelling in the luxury of time. Is that a clue? Perhaps we’ll go more into that in my next blog. What do you think?

In the way of the French

Faster than a speeding snail

Faster than a speeding snail

In my late teens, I and three companions—my girlfriend, Vanessa, and two cousins, Derek and Lenora—decided to take my very shaky Ford Cortina from London to the south of France. We’d never been to France and had been invited to help rebuild an ancient farmhouse in return for food, a place to camp, and drink.

The people who’d invited us were friends who’d either forgotten or chose to ignore the fact that all four of us drank an awful lot, particularly when a bottle of red wine of dubious quality was only two francs—but that’s another story. We had to get there first.

The epitome of all things French

The epitome of all things French

One thing that both Derek and I were totally fixated on having was real French coffee in a real French café, with cognac and foul-smelling Gauloise cigarettes at hand, of course. This goal was to be attained as soon as possible because it would mark our arrival in France and, in our naïve minds, instantly immerse us in French culture. We probably even expected our excruciating schoolboy French to become fluent in the moment, allowing us to discuss the finer points of Sartre and Beauvoir with the locals.

It was mid morning when we spotted the most ideal café on earth. We were heading south through northern France, having endured a shocking channel crossing by new-fangled hovercraft. I was at the wheel when we drove onto French soil and was still nauseous enough from the rough seas to come off the first roundabout into the wrong carriageway of a motorway. We agreed that all that traffic hurtling towards us couldn’t possibly be in error, and proceeded to hold it up while we turned around. The ensuing insults and horn-blowing were quite upsetting and we had the impression that the Gauls would have preferred us to keep going while they weaved around us.

Cafe of our dreams

Cafe of our dreams

All was forgiven when we entered a quiet and tranquil village off the beaten track (we were quite lost actually) and admired the café of our dreams, perched in a sunny, picture-postcard setting at one side of the village square. It was a moment of great anticipation. Even the ladies had become excited at the thought of soaking up the atmosphere of beau monde de France.

After the sunshine outside it was quite shadowy inside the café, resulting in a little body shunting and toe standing as we shuffled around and peered into the gloom. A long wooden servery dominated the room and behind it we could make out an enormous lady dressed in a grubby white pinny. Derek, always the more courageous, called in a voice a little louder than the norm, ‘Bonjour, bonjour, comment vas-tu ma fille?’ Or I think that’s what he said. As my vision adjusted to the shade, my attention was distracted by the observation that the lady was extremely hairy, and sported, apart from thick black hairy arms, a moustache and beard. The resultant stony silence didn’t deter Derek at all, and before I could say anything he’d forged on, ‘Pouvons-nous avoir le petite café et cognac maintenant madame?’

The domino effect

The domino effect

In the corner, four men were huddled over a game of dominos. Their game forgotten, they stared, in a not discernibly friendly way, at the rude commotion in the doorway. I was torn between bolting and continuing the debacle. The latter won simply because the men were dressed in baggy grey outfits, brownish formless jackets and—wait for it—wore berets. So French! That did it.

‘Let’s just take a seat and see what happens,’ I whispered. The others were visibly relieved. No-one said a word, so we had nothing to lose.

The scraping of rude wooden chairs on the lumpy lino as we sat down seemed to fill the entire room with teeth-jarring noise but we eventually got ourselves settled. Derek had given one of the domino players a friendly nod which, although ignored, encouraged the group to begin playing again—in utter silence.

Thick strong coffee arrived in tiny cups. We’d never seen anything like this before. Nescafe was as sophisticated as it came in England. Four glasses of strongly smelling, foul tasting, urine-hued liquid followed. Derek and I lit a Gauloise, gave each other a triumphant wink, and smugly contemplated the scene. We’d made it. We were in France, amongst the French and doing things that normal French people did.

The black poodle

The black poodle

A number of glasses of so-called cognac later it began to taste quite good. We began to replan our route to take in more of these out-of-the-way places. They were obviously fun and interesting. We began to relax. We were experienced and successful travellers now. As my alcohol to blood ratio increased, I became more effusive, waving my hands and arms about in what I perceived, in my ignorance, to be the perfect Gallic manner.

The café had a poodle—a black, long-haired thing that spent its time scurrying around the tables in an ever-hopeful quest for titbits. It happened to be tootling by when, in one of my most vociferous moments, I made a strong point by energetically windmilling an arm. This was the same arm that had the hand attached that held a Gauloise. The cigarette’s smouldering tip brushed against the poodle’s forehead and stayed there.

It wasn’t until I lifted the Gauloise to my lips and noticed that there was no longer a lit end, heard the appalling racket of a dog reacting to its head being singed, and smelt the awful stench of burning fur, that I realised what had happened.

Bite this dust Mr Bond

Bite this dust Mr Bond

Derek and I leapt to our feet and, in trying to save the dog from further barbecuing, managed to upend the domino table which, sadly, was in the final, nail-biting throes of a game.

Thank goodness one of us could still drive. The getaway would have done James Bond proud.