John Lichfield: Our man in Paris

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The Independent Online

This is the story of a white bullock called Alain, who is the last link in an unbroken line of cattle stretching back at least 1,000 years.

Alain is a large, white Charolais steer (in other words a bull with no balls) who belongs to Marcel, a neighbour in our hill-top Norman village.

"Alain", christened by another neighbour, a retired postman who adores animals, is an immense, dopey creature who rarely moves. He stands in his field and stares at passers-by in the sullen manner of all cows and most teenagers. When he retired from dairy farming, Marcel retained a few beef animals to keep himself busy and to qualify for a hill farming subsidy from the EU. He has been selling the cows off gradually. Alain is the last one.

Since we bought our house in the Norman hills seven years ago, both the small dairy farms in the village have closed. As recently as the early 1980s, there were four working farms in the village (pop. 17). Now, other than Marcel's hobby farm, there are none. The fields are let to young, ambitious farmers from neighbouring villages who use them to graze beef cattle and, increasingly, to plant wheat, maize and rape.

Since we came to the area, cereals and pesticides and weed-killers have advanced year by year from the valley bottoms higher into the hills. They have driven out hedges and cows and especially - sadly - the tricoloured, white, brown and black, Norman breed of dairy cows which helped to make Calvados one of the greatest milk and cheese-producing areas in the world.

Our village is typical of the region and of France as a whole. The myth, often propagated in the British press, that France is still honeycombed with tiny "inefficient" farms, living on EU subsidies, is absurd.

In Calvados alone, 400 farms disappear each year. The number of dairy cattle in the département which gave the world Camembert and Livarot is falling by 10,000 animals a year (40 per cent down in the last 20 years).

By my reckoning and local researches, our village has been a farming community since William the Conqueror lived down the road in Caen. It has been a village of some kind since the Stone Age. Cows - resident cows, belonging to villagers - have lived here for 10 centuries, at least. Leaving aside the shifting population of young cows from other villages - mere bovine tourists - Alain is the village's last cow.

The other evening as I strolled down the lane with my two small daughters, we found Alain standing beside the "gate" from his field to the "main road". Both terms are relative. The gate consists of four strands of barbed wire on sticks. The road has an average of one car every 30 minutes.

Alain was unusually agitated, for him. There were young cows frisking in the next field. As we turned away, he took a huge leap - probably the most strenuous piece of exercise he has ever undertaken - and landed painfully astride the barbed-wire gate.

I ran, equally an unusal exercise for me, to warn Marcel. He is the least friendly of all our neighbours. He never smiles except when, in his capacity as deputy mayor and chairman of the commune's "festivities committee", he presides over a fireworks display or sausage grilling. Then Marcel wears a straw cowboy hat and a grin. We call him the Chairman of Fun.

Marcel was extremely grateful that I had informed him of Alain's plight. If he had escaped onto the road, he could have caused an accident, for which Marcel would have been responsible.

"Usually, he is very calm. He gives no trouble," he said. "The other cows must have excited him. In any case, he will be going in July. He's my last one, you know."

Yes, I knew.

Alain is Marcel's last cow, after 70 years of farming, man and boy. He is the village's last cow, after 1,000 years of "inefficient" agriculture: ie farming with hedges, without chemicals and on a human scale.

Fruit passion

My wife Margaret, who is Irish, has an infinite and creative ability to remember and pursue grudges. More than a year ago, the Algerian-run greengrocery near our apartment in Paris sold her a rotten, €9 pineapple. She went back to the shop. The greengrocer, shown the brown core of the fruit, said it was "perfect". Although Margaret had been an almost daily customer, he refused to give her another pineapple.

Since then, she has made a point of walking past the shop with her nose in the air. The owner has stared mournfully out, without a word.

The other day, desperate for potatoes, she went in. The greengrocer sold her the potatoes. Then he handed her a large, juicy pineapple, still without a word.

Ireland 1, Algeria 0. Grudges can bear fruit.

Attention à gauche

I recently visited La Cité du Train, the new French railway museum in Mulhouse in Alsace, which is highly recommended for all unreconstructed train-spotters (like me) who happen to be in eastern France this summer. Whilst there, I discovered an oddity, which shows how much France (never mind Europe) is still not one country. French trains, like British trains, have always taken the left-hand of two tracks. German trains have always travelled on the right.

The railways in Alsace were built while the province was part of Germany (1870-1919). To this day, trains in Alsace take the right hand track. When SNCF trains arrive from the rest of France, 86 years after Alsace became French, they cross over from the left to the right.

Isn't that fascinating?