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Postcard from France: in which this writer reflects on his lack of intelligence (or: stupid Anglais)

April 29, 2023

I’ve written a few posts lately about artificial intelligence, or more specifically about the chat engines with which ordinary folk like me can interact. I’ve mostly been skeptical about them, because I was expecting to encounter something scarily approaching sentience, whereas what I actually encountered was hardly much of an improvement on those infuriating help bots that pop up when your washing machine breaks or your printer refuses to work. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them started – on my request – conversing with me in the language of Shakespeare.

By way of balance, here’s a little story of human stupidity which shows that bots are not the only dumb beasts in the menagerie.

I love gardens but I hate gardening. If I was a wealthy landowner, I would be quite happy to sit on my terrace saying “carry on!” to my team of gardeners as they busily created beauty out of sculpted lawns and flower beds. A bit like Louis XIV at Versailles, in fact. Occasionally I might allow myself to be photographed fondling a flower, like King Charles or George Harrison. But actually doing the back-breaking work needed to bend nature to my will? Not my favourite occupation.

But since I’m a man of relatively modest means, at times needs must.

Thus it was when my wife and I took a trip – now just ending – down to our little farmhouse in rural France At this time of the year the state of the land shows how dramatically the growing season alters our environment. Fields have sprung to life. Green shoots everywhere. Here and there lavender and rapeseed. In the space of two months, our tiny domain has become a jungle. Or, to put it more mildly, a wildflower meadow dominated by foot-high dandelions lording it over daisies, buttercups and other weeds having their flowery moments of glory.

My wife loves it. It reminds her of the meadows that surrounded her growing up in rural Ireland. I hate it. I think of cricket, croquet and all the other opportunities offered by manicured lawns. When I look out over stretches of dandelions, I remember the disused factories of my native Birmingham given over to every passing seed that embeds itself into cracks between the concrete and tarmac. She wants wildness. I want order. An example of cultural differences between the English and the Irish? Not really. Irish farmers would be with me, I suspect, even though their fields presumably must lie fallow from time to time.

Normally my will prevails (at least when it comes to gardens). Re-wilding? Not in my back yard. We know a couple who come over and strim for us, so that we don’t have to venture out into the land clad in wellies. As in England, at this time of year Lot et Garonne gets plenty of rain, hence the explosive growth.

But this year, our friends couldn’t come. They were overwhelmed with work for their regular customers. So any taming of the jungle was down to me. My wife loves planting stuff, but she doesn’t enjoy things like mowers or strimmers. The one exception to that rule is that she’s long wanted us to have a chainsaw, something I’ve always vetoed, fearful as I am of an underlying nefarious motive.

When we bought it, the house came with a barn full of useful equipment. Actually, it’s a piggery, but I’m not allowed to say that. A petrol mower, two strimmers. A battery charger, an electric hedge trimmer, a bench saw for cutting logs and an array of rusting hand tools including an axe and a sledgehammer. Oh, and yes, a chainsaw, about which the less said the better.

The trouble is, as you will shortly learn, I’m useless with matters mechanical. Come the apocalypse, should I be unlucky enough to survive, I’d expire shortly thereafter through wobbly incompetence. DIY? Yes, I can use a drill, but I prefer masonry nails and a hammer. And do not speak to me about blinds.

Of the garden tools, the bench saw and the chainsaw are off limits. I have no desire to lose an arm. Our gardening friends got the mower up and running last time they visited, but now it doesn’t start. Which leaves the strimmers – the essential tools for meadow clearance. The little electric one died last year soon after I made my first attempt to cut a path between the house and the piggery. The petrol version would do the job, only it was missing the kind of head you need for vegetation. It was fitted with an alarming-looking set of blades you would use for uprooting hedges.

I’d failed to remember this when I took it to Vincent, our local repair guy. I could only mumble that there was a problem with the head. He sent me back with an instruction to find out what the problem was, and then he would fix it. So I duly contacted our gardener, who reminded me that it needed a head with nylon strings, not bloody great blades.

My technical French isn’t great, so with the aid of Google Translate, I went back to Vincent and told him what the problem was. Ah, he said. He went to a shelf and took off a unit which was just what we needed. I left the strimmer with him. Two days later he called to say it was ready for collection. After paying him his fifty euros, I took the device back, seemingly ready to go.

One small problem. I hadn’t a clue how to start the damn thing. It’s a German product, full of knobs, levers, bells and whistles. Over-engineered, you might think, in the manner of a Tiger Tank, should you believe the Brexit gospel of innate British technological superiority.

So here’s where my lack of intelligence comes in. As I stomped and cursed, my wife asked the obvious questions: “why didn’t you find out what the problem was before you took it to Vincent, and why didn’t you get him to start it for you before you took it back?” To which my standard answer to all such questions was “because I’m stupid”. Usually I say this with a sense of irony to stop the line of questioning dead, because I know I’m not stupid. But in this case there was no irony. I was stupid.

Rather than take the infernal machine back to Vincent for a third time, which would have been a tad humiliating, at my wife’s suggestion I went to the web to find the user manual. It provided me with precise instructions for starting it. After putting this knob in that place, pressing a couple of buttons and sliding a couple of levers, I pulled the handle on the string and the strimmer sprung to life. For about ten seconds. But this was good. It was firing, which was more than I got the mower to do despite the assistance of a hundred-page user manual.

So I pulled again. This time the handle came flying off. It was then that I remembered a warning in the manual to the effect that you shouldn’t pull it too hard or it will break. Once again, stupid me, though in my defence I would point out that what the manual failed to provide was a definition of hard. Still, it was a good hour before I was able to face my wife again.

But now I can take it back to Vincent with my head held high, knowing that there’s a defined problem for him to fix – even though I know he’ll take one look at it and once again condemn me for my stupidity.

Thanks to my manifest lack of intelligence, it seemed too late to prevent the garden from turning into an impenetrable mess of rampant vegetation, because we’re leaving in a day or so. Fortunately our gardening friends found a slot in a week’s time. They will clear the jungle in our absence.

All was not lost, though. In a nod to my post-apocalyptic future, I retrieved a scythe from the piggery. With that I’ve been decapitating dandelions like a bloodthirsty foot soldier of the Mongol Horde. At least those horrible downy heads won’t be able to seed yet more of their progeny around our stricken lawn. There’s something satisfying about the stroke of a scythe, even when it leaves a lumpy stubble in its wake. And as I slashed away, I felt a connection with the peasants for whom centuries ago it was the only method of gathering the harvest.

And thus is life in La France Profonde, far away from strikes and gilets jaunes, where my intellectual shortcomings go mainly unnoticed, except by my harshest critic and dearest friend. Oh, and Vincent, of course.

From → France, Postcards, Travel, UK

  1. Hi Steve,

    I’ve just bought a nearly new jet-washer at a farewell sale at a wonderful Mediterranean garden in Crete and carried it back to Kalyves. German.

    Having read your account of the strimmer, I’m fearful of connecting it to the garden hose and pressing Button A. Or B. Or any of the other buttons…….

    The reason that its nearly new is that the previous one would not work, so its owner threw it in a skip and lashed out on a new one with only 6 weeks left before they were due to depart Crete: then found out that the problem lay with the extension lead and they’d tossed out a perfectly good item of hardware.

    I’ll let you know the results.

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