Saturday, December 30, 2006

My daughter at Gamone

I picked up Emmanuelle in Valence (exceptionally, the train from Paris stopped at the old station in the middle of the city) on Wednesday at the beginning of the afternoon. Half an hour later, we were at Gamone, where Manya was looking forward to a couple of relaxed days, away from her busy life as a journalist at Télérama in Paris.

Manya knows how to maximize opportunities for relaxing in an intelligent fashion. Most people would imagine that a computer is for working, a bed for sleeping and that, if you’ve just had a shower and washed your hair, then you might walk around in the sun to dry it. For Manya, operations of this kind can be combined efficiently and pleasantly.

She was amused to see me fiddling around with my recently-purchased machines for making coffee, bread and toasted sandwiches. I realize that I’m like a child with new toys. As my friend O said on the phone the other day, after hearing me describe these new kitchen gadgets: “William, you’ve gone all take-away.” And O, hearing me talk about home-made bread (a tradition at Gamone) and toasted chicken sandwiches (a suggestion picked up during my recent trip to Australia), seemed to be a little disturbed at the idea that I might have abandoned good old-fashioned French cooking of the high-cholesterol kind... which is a fact.

Besides talking in front of the fireplace, my daughter and I went out for several walks, including a climb above Pont-en-Royans to visit the medieval ruins I spoke about in an earlier blog. There are no crowds in this corner of the world. The first morning, my neighbor Dédé dropped in to say hello at breakfast time, but he was the only person other than me that Manya saw during her two days here.

The calm is conducive to relaxation and clear thinking. I believe that Gamone has always been reputed as a good place for a mind-cleansing spell. Manya knows that, here at Gamone, she can wash more than her hair.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The meaning of life

My title is misleading. A reader might imagine that I'm using the expression in the same style, say, as a distraught individual who cries out to a friend (or a priest or a psychiatrist): “Life has no meaning for me; I’ve decided to commit suicide.” There, it’s a question of “to be or not to be”: that's to say, meaning (or rather lack of meaning) à la Hamlet, à la Albert Camus:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

I first read those opening words of The Myth of Sisyphus when I was eighteen, out in Australia, and I was so impressed by the French Algerian-born author that I purchased several of his translated works, and even carried these books with me in my suitcases when I came to France in 1962... which was truly a case of bringing coals to Newcastle. Since then, I've totally revised my appreciation of the existentialist Nobel laureate. Like the US physicist Brian Greene [see The Fabric of the Cosmos], I’m no longer on the same wavelength—if ever this were the case—as Albert Camus. I don't, for a moment, consider that the pursuits of scientific research are mere "games" that should be put aside while an individual is deciding artistically (or otherwise) whether or not to blow his brains out. That suggestion, to my mind, is stupid, indeed grotesque. Besides, I'm not—and have never been—in the least bit suicidal. Human life on Earth—like all life in the Cosmos—is such a precious and fragile essence that one should not spill a drop of it.

The meaning of life is a clearcut affair for those who believe in Jesus... or any other divine entity, for that matter. Nonetheless, if a skull is ominously present, holding up the open Bible in this splendid depiction of Bruno in prayer (a curious visual reflection of the monk's own bald skull), this suggests that believers are constantly pursued by the gentle all-pervading presence of death, of human mortality. And this is normal. In extreme cases such as that of the Chartreux monks, whose earthly existence is characterized by a good dose of mortification, it might even be said that the global meaning of a monk’s life is to be found in the expected aftermath of his death.

But I said at the beginning that my title is misleading, since I was not referring to meaning of either the Hamlet/Camus or the Bruno kind. So, we might ask: What’s the meaning of “meaning” in my title? It’s a word whose archaic etymology is linked to the notion of mind. To look for the meaning of X is equivalent to asking: What do we have in mind when we refer to X? More precisely: What do we have in mind when we evoke the notion of living creatures such as plants, animals and Homo Sapiens?

That question found answers of a revolutionary kind in 1859, when Charles Darwin brought out a book with a long-winded title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Living creatures of a successful kind share a dominant feature. [That last sentence contains a hint of a pleonasm. If a creature is living vigorously—thriving, one might say—it is necessarily “of a successful kind”. Creatures that are not successful in life simply die out. Somebody once said that commuters only complain about trains that run late, whereas nobody ever talks about all the trains that run normally on time. On the great railway of life, it’s the opposite. We only meet up with creatures that have managed to get aboard the right train. All the rest disappear during the trip, and never reach their destination.]

As I was about to say, before getting led astray into talking about trains, thriving creatures share a dominant feature: that of being highly successful in the art of procreation. Years ago, when I was working in French TV, I found myself visiting the research laboratory of a French specialist in a bizarre discipline, linked to embryology, known as teratology: the study of monsters. He showed me his vast collection of malformed fetuses and babies, displayed in big jars of formaldehyde lined up on shelves along the walls of his laboratory. A teratologist uses a vocabulary of weird terms to designate the various kinds of monsters. If I remember correctly, “acephalous” indicates that the creature has no brain, and “cyclopean” means that there’s a single eye in the center of the forehead. I was impressed by a curious remark made by the teratologist: “Nature generally ensures that the most extreme kinds of malformations give rise to a creature that cannot survive. Consequently, we don’t normally encounter many striking teratological specimens in the everyday world around us.” Hearing these words, my mind flashed back to a lovely old Anglican hymn that we used to sing in the cathedral at Grafton:

All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.

[See a quaint presentation of the words and music at]

I wondered whether the hymn would sound so nice if we changed a line:

all things weird and terrible...

Procreation is essentially a matter of copying genes, which is a process that may or may not be carried out in a two-parent sexual situation. The replicator device at the basis of all life—plants, animals and Homo Sapiens—is the DNA molecule, whose structure was explained by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.

Shortly before then, a mathematician named John von Neumann, working in the USA, produced operational computer-type models of the replication process, summed up in a famous book that was published posthumously: Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. For those of us who were meeting up with the phenomenon of computers at that time [I first came in contact with IBM in 1957: the year of von Neumann’s death], the great Hungarian-born mathematician was something of a hero, because it was he who actually invented the fundamental concept of a stored computer program. And he also played a pioneering role in the theory of games... which may or may not have concerned the activities that Camus was designating in the quotation at the start of this post. We all felt that, in programming electronic machines to perform all kinds of tasks, we were exploiting an extraordinary art devised by von Neumann.

Today, if you were to ask me about the meaning of life, I would not hesitate in replying that one thing I have in mind (more than suicide or God or any other boring stuff), when I reflect upon the magic of all living things bright and beautiful (and otherwise), is John von Neumann’s work on self-reproducing automata.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


All the Earth is Mine is a yet-unpublished technico-political fable about large-scale earthmoving activities, primarily in Israel. I wrote a first version of this novel some fifteen years ago, before leaving Paris, and I completed this new typescript six months ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to contact literary agents in the US and the UK who might be prepared to read it, but I haven’t found anybody yet. So, up until now, I’m the only person on the planet who has read my novel. What a privilege! US publishing houses inform me that the best way of finding a literary agent is to use the hundreds of names, addresses and descriptions in an annual publication known as the Literary Market Place. Unfortunately, the purchase of a paper copy of this document runs into several hundred dollars, but I’ve noticed that I can pay just twenty dollars for a one-week subscription to an Internet version of this information, which would be an ideal solution for me. So, as soon as the holiday season ends, I intend to do this. In the course of a week, I should be able to download all the names and addresses I need. And after that, I’ll start a massive snail-mail operation aimed at finding an agent who’ll accept me.

This afternoon, I finally got around to discussing an infinitely more modest earthmoving operation with a local contractor, René. I would like to remove the present embankments located at both the northern and southern ends of the house. This would provide me with flat space to build a garage, and it would also eliminate the problem of trying vainly to keep down the weeds that grow on these steep embankments, close to the house. At times in the past, I’ve ventured onto these embankments with a hand-held weed cutter, but it’s a risky operation, to be avoided. At one stage, I used a ladder propped up against the embankments to plant all kinds of shrubs, but few of them survived. I have the impression that Mother Nature thinks you're joking when you try to grow plants on a steep slope. She looks down at me with a cynical smile and says: "Ok, my fine fellow. If you show me that you can lie down at such a spot, I'll do my best to make things grow there. But, if you're not able to lie down there, then plants won't be able to grow there either." In other words, you can't fool plants. They know the meaning of top and bottom, up and down. They know just as much about gravity as you and me and Einstein.

It’s all very well to simply let the grass and weeds grow wildly on these embankments, but this can turn into a fire hazard in summer. So, the ideal solution would consist of removing a lot of earth, starting well behind the house, in order to create more gentler slopes.

If I decide to accept René’s offer (which I should receive within the next few days), I’ll then need to demolish two buildings that I put up, several years ago, with my own hands, both of which would be in the way of the planned earthmoving operations: my wood shed and my hen house (see photos). I would rebuild a more sturdy wood shed alongside my future garage.

As for the hen house, I might be able to drag it further away from the house, and set it up once again... in which case I would use it to house creatures such as geese and peacocks. As part of my anti-cholesterol measures, I've given up eating eggs, and there's little sense in raising my own chooks (Aussie word for hens) for meat in a region such as this, where it's so simple to buy top-quality poultry.

René used a wheel device to measure distances enabling us to calculate the approximate volume of earth that needs to be moved. We reached a figure of about 550 cubic meters. Well, when you think about it, that doesn’t sound like a gigantic quantity of earth. It’s merely a square block, ten meters along each side, rising to a height of five and a half meters. Nevertheless, the visual consequences of scraping up that volume of earth on one side of the house, and depositing it on the other, are not likely to go unnoticed.

And what am I going to do with all that earth? People who live on the slopes of a mountain, as I do, have the wonderful possibility of increasing almost magically the area of flat land around their house... which is something unthinkable when you occupy a block of flat land with roads or neighbors on each side. We slope-dwellers simply use a common-sense method that was devised, at the dawn of agriculture, by people who wished to grow crops on hillsides. They would gouge out the earth and rocks so as to create a horizontal ledge spiraling around the slopes. And the gouged-out material would be used to form the outer rim of the newly-created flat area. In the nearby vineyards of Tain-l’Hermitage on the Rhône, there are splendid examples of this method. What this means, for me at Gamone, is that the 550 cubic meters of earth and rocks that René will gouge out of the hill behind the house will be simply dumped a few meters further on, in the direction of Gamone Creek, thereby augmenting, cubic meter by cubic meter, the area of what might be termed my “front yard”.

I get a tremendous thrill out of calling upon a splendid earthmover such as René (who once lived meagerly with his parents and brothers in the original house at Gamone, long before I arrived here) to reshape the surroundings... as he has already done, timidly, on two separate occasions. To my mind, René possesses the same kind of pioneering skills, aided by his heavy equipment, that enabled our predecessors to build (with a little help from a friend named Nature) a magnificent place such as Gamone.

When is a castle not a castle?

One would imagine that medieval history is a sufficiently serious domain of research to exclude the survival of spurious legends, particularly when it’s relatively easy to demonstrate their falsity. In the nearby medieval village of Pont-en-Royans, on the contrary, a legend concerning the existence of one or more local castles still persists, in spite of clear historical evidence (not to mention topographical realities) demonstrating that this legend is false.

I believe that the origin of this legend is the following drawing by Diodore Rouhault [1819-1874]:

This drawing is titled Pont-en-Royans, le château [the castle], and it certainly seems to depict the ruins of a castle on top of a peak, with a second construction on a lower neighboring hilltop. What’s more, the Napoleonic cadastre of Choranche dated 1832 [which can be examined in my French-language website at] indicates that the nearby mountain on which these ruins are located—a border zone between the communes of Pont-en-Royans and Choranche—was named Les trois châteaux [the three castles].

Today, fragments of ruins can still be found up there, but they are far less conspicuous than when Rouhault did his drawing, in the 19th century. Tourists who wander up there are surprised by the idea that medieval castles might have once existed up on the crags of rock above Pont-en-Royans.

The explanation for this diehard legend about one or more castles at Pont-en-Royans is simple, but few people seem to know it, or even want to hear it (for reasons I can’t understand). At no point in the medieval history of the village was there ever a full-fledged castle up above Pont-en-Royans. The construction whose ruins we see up there was a fortress comprising a watch-tower enabling soldiers to look out over the vast plains beneath Pont-en-Royans. And what did they see from their watch tower? First and foremost, they saw three splendid medieval castles named La Bâtie, Rochechinard and Flandaines (which no longer exist today). In other words, the place where the watch tower existed was known as Three Castles, not because there were three medieval castles up there (a topographical impossibility), but because you could see three castles from that lookout. In fact, the wealthy proprietor of the first of these neighboring castles, the Lord of Sassenage, paid the soldiers up in the watch tower so that they might take action (along with their numerous companions) if ever they caught sight of an approaching enemy.

I find it amusing that a place should be named, not for what actually exists there, but for what you can see from that spot, and that this naming quirk should confuse people for centuries on end.

There’s another more subtle reason behind the legend that a castle once existed at Pont-en-Royans. In French translations of medieval Latin documents, we find that Pont-en-Royans is designated as a château (castle). Consequently, many people have imagined, over the centuries, that this word was surely a reference to the castle(s) on the hill above the village. In fact, the word simply designated a walled village. So, medieval people who wrote about the local “castle” were simply referring to the walled village of Pont-en-Royans.

There are so many problems in the modern world that it’s almost relieving to turn one’s attention to medieval problems of this kind. Some observers would consider, of course, that I am bringing up questions of the same Byzantine kind as the sex of angels, or the number of these winged beasts that can be assembled on the tip of a pin. OK, maybe I’m getting carried away by the past. But what do I reply to summer tourists in the village, with their guide books open, who ask me: “Can you tell us where the medieval castles are located?”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Disturbing news

You can’t believe everything transmitted by the media. We now know retrospectively (a little too late for anybody to do much about it) that the concept of “embedded journalists” was invented by Bush & Co as a means of ensuring that media representatives would finally set aside their professional deontology and relate only the “news” (not necessarily sound) that US military men wished to disseminate. This diabolical concept was a foundation for media lies and disinformation. In persuading journalists to sell their souls in this way, Bush & Co had produced a weapon of mass deception. [This expression was invented by two witty American authors, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, whose books are presented in an excellent website, which incorporates a video:]

Today, should we believe the disturbing news revealed yesterday in the French press in connection with a documentary film that will soon be aired on French TV ? The film’s title, translated into English, is Bin Laden — Failures of a Hunt. It is signed by two journalists, Eric de Lavarène and Emmanuel Razavi, and produced by Hamsa Press and Ligne de Front. The rare people who have been invited to view private projections of this hot document say that it includes disturbing accounts by four French soldiers, whose identities were not revealed. Apparently, members of the French forces in Afghanistan had Osama Bin Laden in their gunsights on two separate occasions, in 2003 and 2004, but they nevertheless refrained from trying to capture him. Why not? According to the film’s alleged firsthand witnesses of these close-range encounters with the chief of Al-Qaeda, US military commanders gave no explicit green-light orders to the French soldiers to intercept Bin Laden. So, they did nothing. And Osama Bin Laden walked away, unaware of the fact that he could have been gunned down by French soldiers.

Before being tempted to draw any conclusions whatsoever concerning the strange facts related in this documentary, we must await confirmations that they are indeed authentic. For the moment, the French Ministry of Defense has denied vigorously that French soldiers were ever in a position to capture Bin Laden, and the film’s accounts are described as fabulation. So, we should remain skeptical.

Information of a similar kind was provided some time ago by a 43-year-old French specialist on espionage named Eric Denécé, director of the Centre français de recherche sur le renseignement [French Center for Intelligence Studies]. He claimed that French commandos in Afghanistan had spotted Bin Laden through binoculars during the first fortnight of September 2004, and that US military authorities had asked the bewildered French soldiers to refrain from actually intercepting America’s number-one public enemy.

Anecdote: The above-mentioned Frenchman, Professor Eric Denécé, is a member of the ethical committee in charge of a weird project concerning a so-called Spyland theme park, of the Disneyland kind, which is soon to be set up just twenty minutes away from where I live, alongside the highway to Valence. Near the top of the following website, there’s a button that enables you to download an English-language description of this amazing project:

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nowhere else to go

This often happens to me. I want to talk in English about a newfangled thing whose name I know in French, but not in English. In the present case, this problem has arisen with a woodwork power tool I purchased a couple of months ago. You grasp it in both hands, place it on a piece of wood gripped firmly in a workbench vise (British spelling vice), plunge the tool’s revolving bit down into the wood and draw it towards you. In this way, you can create a long narrow centimeter-deep slot in the wood. The tool is exactly what you need to build cupboard doors composed of a solid framework housing a light plywood panel. Well, up until twenty minutes ago, I had no idea whatsoever of the English name of this tool. Thanks to Google, I now know that it’s called a plunge router. Before then, if you had asked me what a plunge router was (we pronounce the word like rooter in Australian), I would have replied that it’s no doubt a guy who dives stealthily into swimming pools and does naughty underwater things to female bathers.

My plunge router was dirt cheap because (like the tea towels I recently bought in Sydney, with bush scenes about The Man from Snowy River) it’s made in China. Well, yesterday, while building a kitchen cabinet (to hold stuff associated with my recently-acquired espresso coffee machine and sandwich toaster), I dragged the plunge router a little too energetically (I tend to get carried away when routing, and I’m capable of underestimating the strength in my forearms) and the Chinese-steel bit snapped in two. If I make a point of indicating that the bit was made in China, it’s because I think we shouldn’t count too much upon the quality of steel products from certain faraway places. The router itself appears to be pretty solid, but the collection of bits supplied with the machine (all housed in an elegant wooden box) could well be less than perfect. So, I had to set off to a local hardware store that sells high-quality Bosch bits. Sure, the single German bit cost me almost half what I had paid for the entire plunge router, but it probably won’t break so easily.

A happy atmosphere prevailed at the hardware store, where they seemed to be having a Xmas party in the back offices. The charming young woman at the pay desk was all smiles and particularly friendly. The moment I opened my mouth, she questioned me (as often happens in France) on the origins of my spoken accent. As usual, I suggested that she might be able to guess where I came from. By that time, a male employee had joined up with the cashier, and they ran through the list of all the likely countries from which I might have come: UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, etc. Finally, when they turned to Scandinavian and Eastern European lands, I decided that it was time for me to give them the answer. When I said Australia, they seemed to be amazed, as if it were unthinkable that anybody purchasing a plunge router bit in Saint-Marcellin (home of one of the world’s finest cheese) could have possibly found his way there from the Antipodes. Then their amazement was transformed rapidly into typical reactions that I hear inevitably, whenever Australia is mentioned in France. Every French person would appear to have a cousin, an uncle, a brother-in-law or a close friend who now resides in either Sydney or Melbourne (rarely anywhere else in Australia). And details about this emigrant are inevitably followed by a profound personal declaration along the following lines: “My X and I [substitute husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc for X] have always dreamed about going out to settle in Australia.” I always feel like asking: “Well, what the hell stopped you? Lack of courage? Fear that you might fall over the edge of the Earth?” Naturally, I’m too well-behaved to ask questions like that, but I think them all the same. Meanwhile, I react by explaining that French people can make a lot of money Down Under by working in restaurants, bakeries, taxis, etc. But I also point out that, personally, I find France in general, and the Vercors region in particular, an absolutely fantastic place to live. Funnily enough, none of these French people who apparently dream about going out to the Antipodes have ever actually asked me if I could maybe give them an address or even a bit of down-to-earth information about how to handle emigration problems. So, I end up believing that their dreams are just that: ethereal dreams rather than concrete here-and-now projects.

I believe that, if an Antipodean dreamworld such as Australia (or New Zealand, or America for that matter) didn’t actually exist, French society would need to invent it. As things turn out, French TV actually reinvents Australia regularly by means of allegedly serious travel documentaries (most of which are produced by French film crews who discover Australia for the first time) that air a host of delightfully false suggestions. In the case of Sydney, for example, the cameramen use images suggesting that the Opera House is located at the end of every imaginable street in the metropolis. Another widespread item of fiction is that most city office-employees change into swimming costumes for a dip in the ocean at the end of their day’s work. (French visitors would be dismayed to discover crowds of dark-clothed workers thronging into Wynyard after the offices shut.) Some TV documentaries give the impression that typical jobs in Australia include caring for koalas, searching for opals, catching exotic seafood, manufacturing excellent wines, flying planes in the Outback, driving road trains, culling kangaroos or delivering mail in an old wooden motor boat. And there’s one professional activity that seems to reappear continuously in documentaries, as if it were a major activity: leading courageous tourists in a climb up the coat-hanger-shaped arch of Sydney’s bridge.

While the French need to have a bottled-up Australian dream filed away in their virtual medical cabinet (to be taken out and consumed only in the case of an emergency), I’m amused to see that Australians themselves do not seem to be accompanied by ever-present dreams of maybe going off to live on the other side of the world. Nobody ever seems to imagine that they might live anywhere else in the world apart from Australia. Indeed, if you were to bring up this question with Australians, I think that most people would reply immediately that Australia, in any case, is the best possible country on the planet. So, why would they ever dream of going elsewhere? In other words, once you’ve got as far as Australia, there’s nowhere else to go. I sometimes wonder whether such dreams have ceased to exist in Australia because it is in fact the finest place on Earth, or whether (more subtle explanation) Australians describe their land as the finest place on Earth simply because they are no longer capable of dreaming...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


If I were working on genealogy, I would speak of ancestors. If I were talking about olden days here at Choranche, I would use the French equivalent of an expression such as oldtimers or earlier generations. In general, I adore the word pioneers (which reminds me of 19th-century outback settlers in Australia), and I use it whenever possible to designate hard-working folk who have gone before us and paved the way for us. The generic term for all these people is, of course, predecessors.

A couple of years ago, my neighbor Madeleine lent me a small book about the history of Pont-en-Royans: the village a kilometer down the road from where I live. This book, published in 1961 (a year before I arrived in France), was written by a local schoolteacher named Sylviane Chaussamy. I was so interested in the contents of this history book, and impressed by the author’s enthusiasm about her native village, that I immediately scanned the 150 pages, printed out a copy for myself, and stored the files on a disk. And today, I’m proposing these files (in a PDF format) to interested people who visit my website about Pont-en-Royans.

While preparing these bulky files for downloading, I’ve been tremendously conscious of the fact that Sylviane, when she brought out her book (in her late fifties), was in fact assuming the role of a predecessor with respect to an unknown young man (me) on the other side of the planet, who could hardly read a word of French and who knew absolutely nothing about the magnificent Vercors region in south-east France and the village of Pont-en-Royans. Maybe, instead of designating Sylviane as a predecessor, it would be simpler to say that, in 1961 (when I was starting to think about the idea of maybe working one day in Paris with my current employer in Australia, IBM), I was about to fall into my role as a future successor—an inheritor as well as an admirer—of the devotion and research efforts of a French woman named Sylviane Chaussamy.

I have the impression that Sylviane’s book on Pont-en-Royans was, to a certain extent, a way of celebrating the life of her mother, Marie Ollivier-Pallud, who had been the headmistress in the same school at Pont-en-Royans where Sylviane started her career. In other words, Marie Ollivier-Pallud was not only Sylviane’s mother, but her vocational predecessor. On 29 June 1944, Marie Ollivier-Pallud was killed, along with eight others, in an absurd Nazi bombing raid on the village.

Today, in putting Sylviane’s book on the Internet, I have a profound feeling that I’m simply adding a few minor enhancements to my predecessor’s research and writing. In any case, there is a line of logical and necessary continuity between her work and mine, and I’m sure she would approve of what I’m doing.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Caves of Choranche

Nothing anguishes me more than heights and holes. By heights, I mean mountain ledges and cliffs. By holes, I mean deep gorges and abysses. Well, in settling down in a place such such as Choranche, I struck a jackpot of nightmares. It’s an empire of heights and holes. That’s the main reason why people come here... either to visit the famous limestone caves (like those of Jenolan in Australia) or because they’re keen on rock-climbing or caving.

Concerning the caves of Choranche, it's hoped that these extraordinary geological phenomena will end up being placed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites. This would be a godsend for local tourism. Not surprisingly, however, a handful of rural families—nearly all of whom are oldtimers in the region—have expressed opposition to the Unesco project, because they have the impression that they will be subjected to constraints such as no longer being free to erect farm buildings or create tractor paths through the woods.

In the case of caves, the question of property rights and obligations is amusing. To be considered as the legal owner of a vast underground network of caves, you only have to own the property where the unique exit is located. In the case of the local caves, their unique exit is located up in the cliff face above the commune of Choranche, which is why they are referred to as the caves of Choranche. But the kilometers of subterranean passages are actually located beneath the surface of a neighboring commune, Presles. Obviously, the owners of land that lies directly above the network would be targeted by new legislation introduced in the context of the Unesco project. In other words, property-owners in Presles would bear the brunt of constraints, even though the caves are located officially in Choranche. This apparent anomaly is an ideal pretext for kindling animosity between the native families whose ancestors worked in agriculture and newcomers who are more oriented towards touristic activities.

Happily, although I’m a perfect case of a newcomer from a foreign land (where “foreign land” means any geographical region on the planet located more than fifty or so kilometers from the village of Choranche), I find it easy to avoid being dragged into these squabbles. After all, it’s a spontaneous reaction for me to steer clear of anything and everything that’s connected with heights and holes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


This morning, Eric did some shooting around Choranche. He climbed up to the crest of the hill behind my house, where the panoramic view to the east is superb. My donkey Moshé galloped up, to see what Eric was doing, and they were quickly joined by my billy-goat Gavroche. Eric told me he got some fine shots of the animals and the landscape. Then he shot a short sequence, in front of the house, of me talking about Gamone. After that, Eric went off on his own in his automobile to shoot images further up the road, beyond the village of Choranche, in the Gorges of the Bourne. Half an hour later, when he returned to the house, Eric informed me that he had just escaped a calamity by a hair’s breadth. When parking his automobile on the edge of the mountainous road, he hadn’t put the brake on firmly enough. All of a sudden, he saw his automobile sliding slowly backwards. Eric tried vainly to halt the vehicle with his bare hands, but it carried on until it bumped into the stone wall on the edge of the road, causing minimal damage to the rear bumper and taillights. Back at my place, Eric patched up the damaged plastic with cardboard and adhesive tape, while reflecting upon what might have happened if there had been a break in the stone wall at the spot where the automobile was sliding backwards.

On the theme of mountain roads, I told Eric about a recent discussion with my son. Seeing me halt on a steep and narrow road because of an approaching vehicle, François said that, if he were at the wheel in this kind of situation, he would normally accelerate, instead of halting, because he considered that two vehicles could best move around each other “in the fluidity of their respective movement”. (This translation into English might not represent faithfully what my son was trying to say.) I remember being shocked by the point of view of François, who seemed to be appealing to some kind of magic beyond the realities of elementary arithmetic, as if the concept of fluidity could, somehow or other, reduce the widths of the two vehicles... almost like the famous Einsteinian diminution of length due to high velocity. Once again, it was a domain in which the distance between my son and me was a question of wavelengths.

Friday, December 15, 2006

With an eye on the future

Eric M Nilsson is a strange fellow in that he often seems to know what’s just about to happen. Once upon a time, he was making a documentary film in the heart of Stockholm, using the services of a newly-hired but not-very-bright Canadian cameraman. An ideal cameraman sets his machine in action just before the action starts, not after it’s finished. So, he needs to be capable—like Nilsson—of predicting future events. As far as the Canadian was concerned, this was not the case, and tension was developing between him and Nilsson. At the end of yet another’s day unsuccessful shooting, the crew went out to a restaurant for dinner, and they eased the tension by consuming a lot of red wine. The cameraman complained that Eric wasn’t giving him explicit orders on what had to be done. “Well here’s an order,” shouted Nilsson, who was both furious and slightly drunk. “Rendezvous tomorrow morning at 4.30 am on the central square of the city.” After a few hours sleep, and nursing a hangover, Nilsson wandered along to the central square, wondering whether his cameraman would be turning up. The Canadian was already there, shivering in the cold. At that time of the year, there was already sufficient light in the sky to contemplate filming, but neither Nilsson nor the cameraman could imagine what on earth they might shoot, since the square was totally deserted. “Point the camera at that door,” ordered Nilsson, indicating the entry into Stockholm’s underground train system, “and start shooting.” The machine whirred for two minutes, but nothing was happening. Later on, Nilsson would admit to himself that, at that moment, he wondered if he had not become a little insane as a consequence of his stressed and frustrated state of mind. Then the door opened, and a little fat middle-aged man emerged. He was wearing a hat and huge coat, and carrying a briefcase. At the top of the stairs, he took out an aerosol can of paint, walked towards a nearby marble wall, and wrote the words SOCIAL DEMOCRATIE. Without realizing at any moment that he was being filmed, he turned around and disappeared back down into the train station. Nilsson and his cameraman were amazed and elated. They had captured this extraordinary spontaneous scene. In the context of his future film (on the theme of the city of Stockholm), Nilsson was already convinced that these amazing images would start the ball rolling, as it were. In ways he only dimly imagined, the spray-painted words would surely become the departure point of Nilsson’s documentary on the city. However, later that day, when the rushes were developed, Nilsson was terribly disappointed to discover that the Canadian cameraman had been so disturbed by the idea of seeing something unexpected happening at the other end of his lens that he simply forgot to focus it. And the images of the little man with the spray can were totally unusable. Nilsson fired the cameraman on the spot. He then exceeded his budget by having to hire a competent cameraman who could predict the future, but the outcome was one of Nilsson’s finest documentaries.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Why? How?

My filmmaker friend Eric M Nilsson contacted me a couple of months ago, asking me to participate in a documentary of a philosophical nature for Swedish television on the sense of the two questions: Why? How? This is the distinction evoked by Richard Dawkins on page 56 of The God Delusion:

It is a tedious cliché (and, unlike many clichés, it isn’t even true) that science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions.

Eric arrived at Gamone yesterday, and we talked about the project during dinner last night. I suggested that he might like to shoot the interview in the fields alongside the splendid monastery of the Grande-Chartreuse, an hour away from my home. I felt that the background image of the great monastery would create a nice harmony. The thirty monks who spend their existence in that glorified prison, allegedly praying night and day for all of us on the outside, are convinced that the why question is valid, and their unique answer is Jesus. As for me, I explained on camera (like Dawkins) that the why question, applied to our human existence, is no more than a nonsensical alignment of words, not a valid question, and that science is obliged to carry on answering how questions exclusively.

Here I am in the snow-covered fields, answering Eric’s questions:

It was a delightful sunny outing. The only thing I regretted was that I hadn’t brought my dog along with us to participate in the discussion. Sophia could have clarified certain issues. After all, “dog” is “god” spelt backwards.

Village life

I was spoiled by living for many years in the heart of Paris, in the Marais neighborhood. Among other things, I was incapable, say, of moving to a small village in rural France, where your neighbors are perpetually looking over your shoulder. One of the greatest things about life in a metropolis is anonymity. On the other hand, I welcomed the idea of settling here in the wilderness of Choranche, where my closest neighbors (Madeleine and Dédé) are out of sight. Sure, if I fell off a ladder and broke my neck, it’s likely that nobody would find me for a week or so, by which time there wouldn't be much left to find. But you only die once, whereas you have to live with prying neighbors for years on end.

This morning, exceptionally, I did some shopping in the nearby village of Pont-en-Royans. A spirit of agitation and excitement had invaded the main street, because everybody was aware that the Big Move would be taking place tomorrow. Big Move? Yes, the local grocer would be moving into slightly more spacious premises some fifty yards up the road. Events of that nature are rare in a village such as Pont-en-Royans. It’s like dismantling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and reassembling it down on the Place de la Concorde. To mark the forthcoming event, I decided to purchase a couple of cans of red beans in the old shop. My casual friend Chantal, too, was doing some last-minute shopping there. In her typical flamboyant style, she threw her arms around me and exclaimed:

William, I haven’t seen you for ages. Where have you been hiding? Would you believe it: I’ve sold my café in St-Marcellin, and I’m now officially retired. I’m looking for a fifth husband, and I must inform you, William, that I’ve put you on the list of possibilities, with high priority.

Great, Chantal, let's call in on the priest,” I muttered, looking for words to express my dubious feelings about marrying this great blonde man-eater. Meanwhile, Chantal turned to the grocer, and asked:

You know William, I suppose? He's one of our most interesting citizens.

Before waiting for the grocer's reaction, I intervened by saying no: the grocer probably didn’t know me at all, because I rarely set foot in the village, since (as I said) I don’t particularly like village life. I’m a solitary being, like my dog, my donkey, my goat...

Of course I know him,” replied the grocer. At that moment I was about to be stunned by a trivial anecdote that demonstrated how you can leave lasting impressions on people without ever realizing it. “Several years ago, William came down from the hills with his midget billy-goat, for the village fair at Pont-en-Royans. He led the goat by a cord, as if it were a dog. And the two of them strolled silently from one end of the street to the other and back. Then they disappeared back up into the hills. I’ll never forget that apparition of William and his goat in the main street of the village, like a couple of Martians.

As for me, I had totally forgotten that, once upon a time, I used to go out walking (before the tourist traffic got too heavy) with my dog, my donkey and (more rarely) my goat.

As far as village life is concerned, another thing that disturbs me is that you often come upon weird people. You know what I mean: village folk. Strange backwoods individuals who wouldn't normally be at large in the relatively refined atmosphere of a civilized metropolis such as Paris. Like a guy walking a goat along the main street of the village...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Monsieur Hulot

In most of the films he directed, Jacques Tati [1908-1982] played the role of a comic character called Monsieur Hulot. This pipe-smoking eccentric, constantly attired in a gabardine raincoat and hat, was modeled upon a real individual: an architect who rebuilt Saint-Malo after the bombing of Normandy.

Today, the architect’s grandson, 55-year-old Nicolas Hulot, is rapidly becoming one of France’s most-celebrated personalities: not merely the familiar and talented producer of the spectacular Ushuaïa TV series on the wonders of the natural world, but now the leader of a dynamic program aimed at promoting ecological awareness in political spheres.

During my recent visit to Australia, I was surprised to discover that, whereas most people recall Commandant Jacques-Yves Cousteau [1910-1997], nobody seems to have heard of Nicolas Hulot, or seen his extraordinary TV work... which nevertheless exists now on DVD. Hulot is Cousteau in overdrive: an exponential power shift. If Cousteau were to be likened to a basic automobile, Hulot is in the Formula 1 category.

Nicolas Hulot, at the head of the 10-year-old Fondation Nicolas-Hulot pour la nature et l’homme, recently published a so-called ecological pact, which he has been proposing to candidates for next year’s French presidential election. Piles of this document are on sale in every bookshop and supermarket in France. The pact includes five engagements:

— Appointment of a deputy prime minister in charge of durable development.

— Imposition of a tax on carbon dioxide emission.

— Reorientation of agricultural policies.

— Organization of participative debates on environmental questions.

— Implementation of educational programs in ecology.

This afternoon, the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal met up with Hulot and expressed her overall acceptance of the measures set out in his pact. Meanwhile, Jacques Chirac had invited Hulot along to the Elysée Palace, earlier in the day, and asked him to be a member of the committee preparing a conference in Paris, on 2-3 February, aimed at setting up a World Environment Organization. There's no doubt about it: Monsieur Hulot, these days, is much in demand.

Besides the ecological pact, another little book, published in 1989, is a must for those who wish to understand the force that has been driving Monsieur Hulot in his fabulous media activities and his ecological crusade. It’s an autobiography whose title, Les chemins de traverse, might be translated as Crossroads. Nicolas relates the tragic story of the suicide of his brother Gonzague in the cellar of the family’s Paris flat. It was 18-year-old Nicolas himself who came upon the decaying body on Christmas Eve 1974, when he was helping his sister prepare the festivities. Gonzague had left a paper stating: Life is not worth living. And, ever since that discovery of his dead brother (which was not revealed to his mother and relatives during the entire Christmas evening, to avoid spoiling the get-together), Nicolas has devoted his existence to proving that Gonzague’s words were terribly wrong.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

My neighbor Madeleine phoned me this morning to ask what last night’s barking was all about. It’s a fact that my dog Sophia has been excitable over the last week or so, and more so than ever last night. For the last few months, many residents of Choranche and the neighboring mountain villages have been convinced that hungry wolves are roaming through our lovely woods during the night, searching for meat. And meat—as everybody knows—could mean more than innocent lambs (of which a certain number have indeed been devoured in mysterious circumstances since the start of autumn). Meat could mean us! So, in phoning me to make sure that Sophia wasn’t barking last night because she had cornered a wolf in my henhouse, Madeleine was simply being vigilant in an everyday sense, like looking to each side before you cross a road, or peering under your bed of an evening before jumping in, to make sure that nobody’s hiding there.

Back in the 18th century, in the nearby Lozère region of France, in a place called the Gévaudan, a mysterious wild beast terrorized the rural folk for three years. Can we be sure, today, that the beast of the Gévaudan didn’t leave generations of descendants that have been hiding away in lonely mountain caves (like those at Choranche) up until now? With monsters, one never knows. In any case, I’m quite excited about the current atmosphere of mild hysteria due to the alleged presence of wolves at Choranche. When I step outside for a late-night pee in the dark before going to bed, I imagine that a wolf might dash out from behind one of my giant linden trees, and devour me, and maybe Sophia too. The next morning, Madeleine and her husband Dédé would find nothing more at Gamone than a pile of clean bones.

To be perfectly honest, when Sophia started to get excited last night, I went outside to see what was happening, and I clearly heard the mournful barking of a roe deer (called chevreuil in French) on the other side of Gamone Creek. They’re solitary nocturnal animals, and the males bark in a strangely muffled way (like a dog with a blocked nose) to attract females. Madeleine was disappointed. “Are you sure it was a chevreuil? Are you sure it wasn’t the bark of a fox?” What she really meant to ask me was: “Are you sure it wasn’t a wolf?

The British geneticist J B S Haldane [1892-1964] imagined a fascinating dog story, retold by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Apparently experiments have demonstrated that dogs can use their muzzles to distinguish between two similar chemical products: caprylic acid and caproic acid, whose molecules differ by no more than two carbon atoms. In human terms, you might say that a dog distinguishes between these two products in the same style that we humans might distinguish between a pale pink ribbon and a medium pink ribbon. Now, there’s a third product called capric acid, with two more carbon atoms. Haldane suggested, as it were, that a dog might be capable of imagining the smell of this third product, without ever having actually encountered it, just as we could move from a pale pink to a medium pink ribbon, and then imagine a dark pink ribbon. When I go out walking with Sophia, I love to think that I’m in the presence of a high-precision molecular detector.

For ages, Sophia has operated as my high-tech alarm clock, trotting up to my bedroom and nudging me when she knows that it’s just the right time for me to wake up. In fact, the first thing I now do of a morning, when Sophia has eaten her morning meal and returned to the warmth of the kitchen after enjoying her first pee out on the slopes, and I’m making coffee in my splendid new De Longhi machine, is to ask her: “Tell me, did your snout happen to pick up any wolf molecules during the night?” Up until now, thank goodness, Sophia has never replied to that question with a firm yes. On the other hand, I must remain vigilant, because Sophia hasn’t actually said no, either.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Working with wood

I’ve spent much of the weekend building a kitchen cupboard out of 18 mm plywood, to be fixed to the wall above my refrigerator. Yesterday, after assembling the basic rectangular shell, about a meter and a half wide, and 40 cm high, I was annoyed to discover that I had made my measurements too carelessly, and the cupboard was a few millimeters too tall to fit in the space between the top of the refrigerator and the ceiling. So, I had to saw off the top side of the shell, drag out the screws, tear away the glued plywood and clean it all up in such a way that I could assemble a slightly smaller shell. That’s what I like about woodwork. If the structure you’re building is not coming along OK, you can usually break it apart and start again. For me, woodwork allows the same empirical approach that I use in computer programming.

Long ago, back in Paris, I used to know a remarkable fellow named Jean Sendy, who wrote books on scientific themes that might be described as esoteric. For example, Jean was convinced that extraterrestrial visitors had set up a base on the far side of the Moon, which had enabled them to alight on Earth and initiate a gigantic anthropological experiment, using a selected group of human guinea pigs: the Hebrews. When he was not writing on topics such as this, Jean used to earn his living translating English -language films into French, for directors such as Polanski. Well, one of Jean Sendy’s books won a literary prize, earning him a good sum of money, which he immediately invested in a rather unexpected acquisition for a Parisian intellectual. He purchased a huge professional wordwork machine, which he installed in the middle of the empty living room in his big flat on the upper floor of an old building in Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, near the St Eustache church. Using the machine, Jean set to work building the tables and chairs that would furnish his flat. When I met up with Jean (after hearing him talking on the radio about the origins of life), he had just finished building the dining room table, which was a masterpiece in joinery, incorporating several different species and hues of wood.

At that time, I had a young Jewish girlfriend named Nadine Blum, and Jean (whose ancestral origins were Russian and Christian) once spent an entire evening telling us how he had decided to study Hebrew in order to pursue his research into the alleged extraterrestrial background of Judaism. In fact, he was advising Nadine and me to do the same thing. That was around 1974. A few years later, in 1978, I heard (again on the radio) that Jean Sendy had died of cancer. And it wasn’t until a decade later, in December 1988, that I finally discovered the Holy Land and concretized Jean Sendy’s advice about the merits of studying Hebrew.

Since then, whenever I find myself working with wood (which is surely one of my favorite activities), I soon get around to thinking about Jean Sendy, lovely Nadine, the splendid woodwork machine in the middle of a Parisian living room, extraterrestrial Jewish missionaries approaching the Moon in spacecraft like Ezekiel’s celestial chariot, the Hebrew language...

Saturday, December 9, 2006

God bashing

In the UK, religion and the religious are being treated pretty roughly these days. A few weeks ago, Elton John was outspoken on this subject, saying: "From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings, and it's not really compassionate." Today, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a thinly disguised criticism of Muslim immigrants, saying: "Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain Britain. So, conform to it, or don't come here. We don't want the hate mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed." Blair’s explanations included a catchy slogan: "The right to be different, the duty to integrate.” Earlier this year, the Oxford professor Richard Dawkins (author of scientific best sellers such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker) made a brilliant attack upon all kinds of religions in The God Delusion.

In Iraq, a suicide bomber sees himself as a martyr who will be rewarded in paradise by being introduced to seventy-two virgins. This sounds like a ridiculous incentive. But is it more absurd than the religious motivations of a George W Bush who was led to invade Iraq because God apparently encouraged him to do so?

In France, the Catholic Church recently criticized medical research using embryonic stem cells, and this criticism was expressed shortly before the Téléthon: France’s gigantic annual call for donations. Most French people were angered by the attitude of the Church, and the president himself stepped into the arena in order to tell the Church politely to shut up.

The French philosopher André Comte-Sponville recently brought out a book whose title could be translated as The Spirit of Atheism, in which he advocates a new kind of “spirituality without God”.

There’s no doubt about it: In the Old World (particularly in the laic republic of France), religion is more and more often an unwelcome visitor. The graffiti is on the wall: God, go home!

Why have I created this blog?

I often find myself saying more or less the same everyday things in e-mails to several friends. Consequently, this blog could be a good way of avoiding such repetition. This doesn't mean that I intend to abandon the idea of sending e-mails to friends. It merely means that certain stuff can be outlined here publicly in my blog, and I can then talk about specific behind-the-scenes things in my personal e-mails. Another down-to-earth reason for this blog is that some of my friends have faulty e-mail systems, which often block my messages because they're judged to be spam. [This is notably the case for Australian customers of Big Pond.] Finally, another good reason for this blog is the possibility of my being able to express freely my feelings in domains that some of my friends judge to be taboo: for example, Aussie politics. So, I'm hoping that this new vector of expression (new for me, that is) will prove to be effective and pleasant to use.