Saturday, March 31, 2007

Gimmick hour

Before Sydney switched the lights off, I hope that somebody was thoughtful enough to warn pleasure boaters in the dark waters of the harbor to be sure to get the hell out of the way of careening cats. Jeez, if those Sydney ferry cowboys were called upon to navigate, say, in the waters of Venice or the port of Marseilles, there would be large-scale manslaughter.

Talking about gimmicks, I regret that the French newspaper L'Equipe decided to bring up that doping story concerning Ian Thorpe, which seems to serve no useful purpose.

White rock, gray creature

Back in Australia, I never really knew what altitudes were all about, because we all lived more or less at sea level. And I didn't learn much about this concept as long as I stayed in Paris. The weather people often tell us that there'll be snow above such and such an altitude. Here's a picture of the Cournouze (from my bathroom window) that demonstrates what they mean:

An hour ago, now that I'm subscribed to the Free ISP [Internet service provider], I was able to phone my 91-year-old uncle Isaac Kennedy Walker in Coffs Harbour on the northern coast of New South Wales, and talk with him at length. Last year, before traveling out to Australia for a month, I asked the barber-woman at St-Jean-de-Royans to shave off all my hair, otherwise my wispy straggles float around in the breeze. My uncle was alarmed to see me bald. I don't know whether the following photo of an aging gray creature at Gamone is likely to reassure him:

David Hicks: future Aussie celebrity

Wow, this 31-year-old boy's in for a bright future! But he's only got nine months to put his celebrity act together, to start learning off by heart just the right things to say in interviews, the right clothes to wear, the questions to brush aside, the answers that attract audiences, when to joke, when to be serious, how to sign contracts to skin a kangaroo for a Japanese or American TV crew, where to invest his earnings...

Sorry, Irwin, it's time to get your heavenly arse out of the arena. Tina too. There's no way of combating this new wild beast. His fighting credentials are infinitely better than those of existing gladiators, including even Mad Max and the blond girl who married a washed-out hillbilly. If only David can sign up Mori as an agent...

Bloody lucky Australia! The country hasn't lost a single boy in Iraq (thank Allah), Howard and Bush are convinced that the sun shines out of each other's arsehole, and here we have in our own Taronga [Sydney's zoo] the only existing real-life specimen of a genuine home-grown terrorist, with direct links to Godfather Osama.

Flucki cuntri! [texto for fucking lucky country]

Friday, March 30, 2007

Miracles happen

It would appear that a miracle was brought about on 2 June 2005 through the intercession of the late head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John-Paul II. The Frenchwoman who benefited from that miracle happens to be a member of this same Church: Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a 46-year-old nun. That's the Catholic way of keeping things in the family.

The story, which spans over two months, is straightforward. By the time John-Paul II died on 2 April 2005, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was already gravely affected by Parkinson's disease on the left side of her body. Being left-handed, she could no longer write, and her trembling left arm dangled at her side when she walked. A month and a half later, on 13 May 2005, the new pope, Benedict XVI, wiped away the traditional delay of five years in the canonization process concerning his predecessor. The next morning, like a team of footballers preparing themselves for a forthcoming match, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and her fellow nuns got stuck into a heavy-duty program of praying aimed at persuading the heavenly soul of the departed pope to do something about the nun's affliction. In spite of all their prayers, on 2 June 2005, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was in such a state of suffering that she asked her mother superior for permission to abandon her physical duties. This request was refused. Instead, the mother superior demanded curiously that Sister Marie Simon-Pierre should use her pain-racked left hand to write the name of the deceased pope. As might be expected, the result was unreadable. But later in the evening, alone in her cell, the nun felt a sudden urge to perform the same writing exercise, and she discovered with amazement that, this time, the result was... miraculous. The following morning, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre informed her mother superior and the members of the community that her Parkinson's disease had indeed disappeared. A miracle... which the Church is now examining scrupulously.

Talking about miracles, I've often imagined a fabulous thought experiment: the resurrection of my father King Mepham Skyvington [1917-1978]. Now, that would be an authentic miracle, which would convert me instantly into a Believer. But that's not the point of my scenario. Let's imagine that my resuscitated father, out in his native Australia, were to be placed in front of a webcam, and that his friends were to tell him that he could now communicate in real time with his son over here in France. I would imagine that Dad would see this as magic... or, in ecclesiastic terms, as a miracle.

If we were to quiz enlightened Church people about the notion of miracles, many would admit that universal Science cannot be opposed concerning almost everything that has happened, is happening or will happen in the Cosmos. But they would then mention an addendum à la Leonard Cohen:

There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

They would claim that there are exceptions to Science, and that some of these exceptions can be described as Miracles.

Exceptions? I don't like exceptions of any kind. Imagine a murderer who defends himself as follows: "In general, I've always believed that killing was an unpardonable crime. But, in the case of my victim, I made an exception." Or a child rapist: "Sure, I believe in general that children should be protected from people like me. But this kid was exceptionally appealing."

In democratic societies, laws prevent citizens from saying certain things. I know little about legal systems, and I certainly don't have the vocation of a lawmaker, but I often feel that there should be some kind of a French law concerning people who would blab out publicly, at the start of the 21st century, their ridiculous beliefs about allegedly magic events. To call a spade a spade, I'm shocked by the fact that a French nun should be seeking the spotlight because her Parkinson's disease disappeared "miraculously" (in inverted commas). Medical researchers should be given time to advance suggestions (if they can) about why this astounding event might have occurred. Meanwhile, talk of magic and Christian miracles is stupidly outrageous, and should be outlawed.

Normally, this might be a big deal, except that [once again, an exception] few people today in France or elsewhere really give a folkloric fuck about what this nun or the Roman church might be claiming. Maybe it was Jesus himself who descended miraculously from his cross and gave this mindless nun the power to write the name of the pope. Who knows? Who cares? Let's have done with clownish popery. Meanwhile, Science moves on...

Thinking about things

At the age of 18, when I met up with the IBM company in Sydney and started to learn how to be a computer programmer, I was amused and intrigued by their famous motto: THINK.

In fact, it's an ambiguous imperative. On the one hand, thinking is a profound and mysterious human activity. So, the IBM verb sounded in my imagination like the Socratic imperative: Know yourself! [When I encountered IBM, I had just completed a year of Greek philosophy at Sydney University, and I was totally under the charm of the great Socratic adage: The unexamined life is not worth living.] On the other hand, IBM's founder Thomas J Watson no doubt introduced his THINK slogan with more down-to-earth considerations in mind: Think twice before making a business decision. Reflect at length about all the options that are available to you. Master the situation with which you are dealing. Try to be smarter than your business opponents. Etc.

In any case, I preferred the more lofty notion of thinking. Besides, just one step away from IBM's electronic brains, there was talk about a new science named cybernetics invented by Norbert Wiener [1894-1964] and the exciting challenges of a strange discipline known as artificial intelligence. As the great Alan Turing [1912-1954] asked, somewhat rhetorically: Can machines think?

I've started to write an autobiographical account of my adolescent years, culminating in my encounter with computing and my subsequent move to the Old World (rendered easy through my professional experience in programming). Up until now, I had been using the word Antipodes (title of this blog) as the title of my early autobiography. Now, while the antipodean concept is ideal for this blog, I've always realized that it was not quite the right word for my autobiography. In particular, I wanted a title that might evoke the encounter with IBM that changed the course of my life. And the title should also evoke the fact that my adolescence was dominated by constant thoughts, of an inevitably hazy kind, upon the nature of the cosmos. About all things bright and beautiful.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dwarf tossing

I seem to recall that this kind of game used to be practiced, long ago, in Aussie pubs or clubs... but I might be confusing Australia with Patagonia or Dilbert's Elbonia. This degrading sport still goes on here at Gamone, as this fuzzy photo reveals:

When Moshé uses his powerful jaws and teeth to grab the skin on the spine of the midget goat Gavroche (also known as Sex Machine) and twirl him around in the air like a frisbee (while the second donkey, Mandrin, admires the show), the most amazing thing is that the stubborn buck comes back for more, as if he liked that rough donkey treatment. Maybe, once upon a time, when our human ancestors were young, that kind of gripping and tossing was love play. Still is?

Switch from Wanadoo/Orange to Free

This morning, as planned, I switched abruptly from Wanadoo/Orange to Free. The Internet connection worked immediately, with no need to reconfigure anything whatsoever. I now have a new basic e-mail address [which I invite you to use instead of]:

[Normally you should be able to click that address to e-mail me.]

Funnily enough, my telephone is not working yet. That's a really antipodean (upside-down world) situation. Normally, the old-fashioned phone works perfectly, but the Internet connection is screwed up for mysterious reasons. For the moment, at Gamone, it's exactly the opposite. My Free connection to the Internet seems to work perfectly, but my phone is not yet operational. Patience! I have confidence in Free. They're the highly-professional people who've been giving me free webspaces for years, along with all the state-of-the-art bells and whistles in the way of PHP and MySQL.

I'm reminded of desert island questions such as: If you were stranded on a desert island with either the works of Shakespeare or the Bible, which would you choose? [Personally, I would choose WS.] Here, the decision is more high-tech: If you were stranded on a desert island with either the Internet or the telephone, which would you choose? The fact that the present message in a bottle is reaching you is an indication of my obvious choice.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Early blog articles

I've often been annoyed by the fact that my older blog articles seem to disappear into oblivion. This, of course, is an illusion. All my old articles are all still there, but readers don't necessarily know how to access them. I've noticed, for example, that friends to whom I've sent the address of my Antipodes blog often reply with an appraisal of the tip of the iceberg: that's to say, the last few articles that are normally displayed. But some of these friends seem to ignore that more and more of my blog articles (posts, as they are called) end up being stored away in the Antipodes archives, where you have to make an effort to access them (as I hope you will).

Yesterday morning, I evoked this problem on the Blogger forum, and I received a most useful reply from a sympathetic Italian blogger referred to as Lady Luck. [Click here to see her blog.] Valentina (that's her real name), who knows everything about blogging, suggested that I use the simple concept of labels. So, that's what I've done. For example, as you can see, the present post carries a label: Valentina. Normally, from now on, my blog readers should be able to use this labels device to browse through all my articles. Thanks, Lady Luck.

Vote for the planet Earth!

I've translated into English the flyer for a big outdoor reunion in Paris, next Sunday at the Trocadéro, organized by the Nicolas Hulot Foundation. If you feel like listening to Nicolas explaining in French his ecological pact, click here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Books about Provence and the French Riviera

I don't wish to appear foolishly pretentious, but I still believe that the most readable English-language book about Provence and the French Riviera is the one by Jean Hureau that I translated for his French publishing house back in 1977. Over the thirty years since then, in my (biased) opinion, this tourist guide has hardly—as they say in French—developed a face wrinkle.

That book was a funny writing affair. When I first browsed through the original, after having signed a well-paid translation contract, I was horrified. Jean Hureau's French was excessively syrupy and mushy. I had the impression that he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the places about which he was writing that he had abandoned all sobriety and constraint. As we used to say in vulgar and misogynous Aussie parlance, his written expression was all over the road like a mad woman's shit. I quickly concluded that there was no way in the world that I could simply translate literally Huleau's descriptions dozens of cities, towns and villages. I could generally understand what he was trying to say, but he wasn't using the kind of words and phrases that would go down well in English. So, I decided to do the only thing possible. Instead of attempting to carry out an almost impossible task of translation, I would carefully read the multiple elements of Hureau's text—which had the merit of being well documented—and then I would simply rewrite each description from scratch, in my own words.

When I finally submitted my "translation" to the publisher, they gave it immediately to somebody whose job consisted of evaluating my work. He/she apparently read through my typescript, found it not only readable but well-written, and told the publisher that I was indeed a good "translator". That's why they then gave me a contract to write a tourist guide on Great Britain.

Since 1989, most English-speaking visitors arrive in Provence with a copy of Peter Mayle's book in their luggage. Over half a million copies sold! The observations are informative and thorough, but it's superficial writing, like articles in a weekly magazine. He describes a gay and quaint Provence inhabited by stereotypic French individuals who belong to a sun-drenched lavender-scented adult fairy tale. I guess it's great if you're a tourist or a newcomer, and you like and believe that kind of story.

By far the most profound treatment of Provence I've encountered (thanks to Natacha) is Caesar's Vast Ghost by Lawrence Durrell. It's a mixture of poetry and history, with a little madness thrown in for good measure. At times, I had the impression that Durrell might have been half-drunk when he was writing, particularly in the final chapter, whose heroine is a full-sized latex doll named Cunégonde with the features of a sexy Provençale. I recall that, when I dropped in at Sommières long ago in the hope of finding Durrell at home (which was not the case), the village people all warned me that he was more often drunk than sober. The best-written sections of his monograph take up the theme, introduced by Denis de Rougement, of the invention of courtly love in Provence. Durrell talks of Avignon, Arles and Aix as if these magic places transmitted aphrodisiac waves, or exuded a vaporous love potion. Ever since running into the great novelist/poet in Nîmes in 1963, and hearing him talk about Provence, I've never doubted his words on this subject.

Turbulence ahead

I'm about to change my ISP (Internet service provider). After many years with the French national provider named Orange (formerly Wanadoo), I'll be moving to Free, mainly because it's cheaper and their phone service is wider. Above all, most Macintosh users in France swear by Free.

As soon as I change ISPs, my old e-mail address will become obsolete. So, from now on, please use one or other of the following addresses:

If all goes well, I'll be able to use Free in the next few days. However, I prefer to be cautious, since anything could happen. If the worst came to the worst, I could even enter a blackout zone (as they say in the astronautical domain) in which my blog and e-mail would go into temporary hibernation. So, if ever I seemed to disappear from the Internet and/or phone world over the coming days, don't be worried. Naturally, if the blackout were to persist for longer than expected, I would get around to sending out lovely handwritten postcards with photos of Pont-en-Royans and nice French postage stamps.

Guilty plea... to try to get out of Guantanamo

Yesterday, trying desperately to get away from Bush's notorious and ignominious Guantanamo penal colony, Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty to a charge of material support for terrorism. This courtroom sketch shows Hicks seated next to his sympathetic military defense attorney, Major Michael Mori:

The prisoner has let his hair grow long so that he can use strands of it to cover his eyes to protect him from the light that is turned on permanently in his cell at Guantanamo. Isn't that trivial anecdote straight out of a horror movie? Doesn't it back up one's feeling that the Bush administration, traumatized by 9/11, has lost all sense of moral relativity?

The truth of the matter, I fear, is that most Americans, preoccupied as usual by their own egocentric challenges (these days, the possibility of running short of petroleum gas for their automobiles), probably haven't even heard of David Hicks and the unjust way in which his case has been handled. As far as ordinary Australians are concerned, their passionate attempts to insist upon a fair deal for David Hicks have been typically marvelous, right from the start, and it's a terrible pity that the Australian people's concern and indignation have never been relayed adequately to Bush & Co. In the words of Brett Solomon, executive director of GetUp!: "The Australian government didn't have the guts to intervene and ensure a fair trial for David."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Sharing power in Northern Ireland

Normally, these two allegedly Christian leaders wouldn't share a piece of bread if they were hungry, let alone power. Like many of their fellow countrymen, they haven't evolved much at a religious level over the last four and a half centuries, since the days when England's Henry VIII decided to break from papal allegiance, and found a new church, so that he could get rid of his wife Catherine of Aragon. Be that as it may, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein made a promise today that they will share power in Northern Ireland starting on 8 May. The world will be watching them, warily.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Crying in the wilderness

The other day, my friend Eveline (who stayed in my house when I went out to Australia last year) informed me that an artist friend, a wood sculptress whom I don't know, was interested in an old dead tree behind my house. I realized immediately that she was referring to the dear old object—a dead cherry tree—that I've always called Crying in the wilderness.

The form of the dead tree reminds me of the famous man in a white shirt in Goya's celebrated Third of May 1808 painting.

What is the world coming to, you might ask, when artists start to become interested in dead trees? It's coming to awareness, sensitivity, perspicacity, feeling, empathy, etc. In a word: humanity.

Boring spectator sport

Back at the time of the Olympic Games of 1956 in Melbourne, I remember my aunt Nancy telling me excitedly that one of the amazing surprises of their new tool called TV was the fact that it brought swimming races right into your living room, because you could actually watch the swimmers in the pool. Big deal. For me, TV swimming remains the most boring spectator sport that I can imagine, because you can't understand anything apart from the excited words of the commentator. And you simply wait for the times in hundredths of a second. I should be super-excited about the prowess of Laure Manaudou, whose first name sounds like gold in French. The truth is that this mindless love-struck youngster is just as boring as the sport in which she excels. French commentators, with nothing to say about this silent juvenile wonder woman, complained that Laure might have at least inscribed AMOUR rather than LOVE on her left palm.

There's an even more boring sporting phenomenon than swimming. It consists of wandering into a Sydney pub, say, on a Saturday around midday and being confronted by dozens of video screens relaying matches of all kinds (rugby, horses, dogs, etc): the object of betting. Last year, shocked by this spectacle, I was tempted to cease considering myself as an Australian. Sport as gambling commerce. It's simply all too boring.

Half the local Aussie population is leaving!

Sheridan Henty arrived in Pont-en-Royans in May 2003, having purchased a huge village house on the banks of the Bourne that was rebuilt in 1955 after the Nazi bombing of 21 July 1944. The original owner was a maquisard named Hugues Reynaud du Charmeil, killed in the bombardment.

When I first met up with Sheridan (an inevitable encounter in an environment where we were the only two Australians), I was amazed to learn that she was the sole descendant of the famous Henty brothers who left England on the barque Caroline and reached the Swan River, Western Australia, on 12 October 1829. [I remember that date because my brother Don was born on 12 October 1941, and our father died on 12 October 1978.] This tiny fuzzy drawing, executed by James Henty, shows the Caroline anchored off Rottnest Island:

Shortly after Sheridan's arrival, I learned by chance that my ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860] had reached Sydney on that same ship, working as a steward, on 6 August 1833. So, there we were in Pont-en-Royans, two shipwrecked Aussies whose ancestors had reached the New World on the same vessel.

Unfortunately, Sheridan has discovered that she cannot carry on living in Pont-en-Royans, so she has sold her house and will be moving back to Paris in the next few days. Yesterday, there was a delightful farewell luncheon for Sheridan in an excellent village restaurant.

Meanwhile, Sheridan Henty has given me officially the task of obtaining a valuation of her mysterious and magnificent ceramic plaque of a youthful Victoria. [Click here to visit my website.]

Back at school in South Grafton, we children learned that the Hentys couldn't stay for long in Western Australia because their English animals, brought out on the Caroline, ate poisonous weeds and died. So they left for what would later become the city of Melbourne, and they got involved in Tasmanian whaling. Here in the Royans, there are no poisonous weeds, but Sheridan is leaving us all the same. When a Henty moves, there might be great changes, as in the old radio saga of When a girl marries. In any case, whales in the Seine should be warned of impending danger.

Max gets mad about the Mayas

American sheilas should know that you don't fuck around with us Aussie blokes about ancient history, particularly when we've got Firm Convictions. And we all know that Mel Gibson has always had Firm Convictions, even about biblical stuff such as the treatment of Jesus. Mel knows what really happened. Don't ask me how or why. I have no answers. We must simply believe in Mel.

Last Thursday, Mel dropped in to a Californian university to talk about his recent film Apocalypto. Alicia Estrada, an assistant professor of Central American Studies, complained about the fact that Gibson's film presented the Mayas as savages. The academic passed the microphone to a Mayan representative, Felipe Perez, who made the mistake of speaking his native tongue, Spanish. This created a disturbance in the audience. There were boos and cries: "This is America. Speak English!" In spite of his having posed as a specialist on the Mayans, Mel Gibson revealed that he too was not a man of many tongues: "I can't understand what you're saying." In the confusion, microphones were turned off, and then turned back on again, enabling Mad Max to sum up the situation. Turning towards the eminent academic Alicia Estrada, Gibson blurted out: "I think you're a fucking troublemaker, so fuck off."

I'm not sure that many researchers would be prepared to adopt Gibson's blunt method of handling scholarly questions, which we can sum up in Mel's Mad Maxim: Fucking troublemakers should fuck off!

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Over the last six months, my acquisition of English-language books has increased considerably because of the ease of getting them through the local branch of Amazon. Meanwhile, for old stuff of a historical or genealogical nature, the Gallica service of the BnF (bibliothèque nationale de France) has been useful at times, but not as much as I would have hoped. [Click here to see this service.]

A new system named Europeana has just gone into action. It is the French contribution to a future European digital library with an ugly but logical name: BnuE (bibliothèque numérique européenne). It goes without saying that this European initiative aims explicitly to counteract the dominance of Google Book Search in this domain. If you want to read, not only Racine and Hugo, but also Shakespeare, Dickens and Dante, then Europeana is the place to go. [Click here or on the banner to visit the website, whose interface is only in French for the moment.] For the moment, the catalog of Europeana is not very rich, compared with Google's present achievement of a million scanned books. [Click here to visit Google Book Search.]

If everything goes as planned, the great advantage of Europeana, compared with Google Books, will be the possibility of downloading fragments of a book in text format, so that they can be pasted into the user's work.

For me, the subject of books reveals that I remain a very old-fashioned fellow. While I love to see stuff flashing up onto the screen of my Macintosh, I must admit that there's nothing better, on cold evenings, than to sit in front of my open fireplace, with my bare feet up on the hearth, and a good book in my hands.

I remember our potter friend Maurice Crignon pointing out that the "three eights" system applies, not only to ordinary folk (roughly: work, personal affairs and sleep), but also to monks (even more roughly: their daily schedule of prayers, worldly activities and sleep). Well, I've created a personal three-part breakdown for my daily existence. It's not an earthshaking invention. The early moments of the morning are for thinking. The main part of the day is for writing or working on my computer. And evenings are for reading, or watching a little TV. I'm convinced that the human brain functions in a way that encourages this particular time-based division of operations.

Ordinary, all too ordinary

I've finally learned how to pronounce the name of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Once you get into the habit of pronouncing the syllables smoothly and rapidly, they just roll off the tongue: mah-meud ah-mah dee-neuh jad. A couple of days ago, he was interviewed for the first time by French TV, and he came across (in an erratic context of language translation) as a very ordinary guy. Too ordinary, in fact, to be true. The French often apply a silly expression to individuals who talk as if they might be sneering slightly and trying to avoid an authentic contact. They say that he/she has a tête à claques (slappable face). Watching him trying to avoid the direct questions asked politely by the calm French journalists, I couldn't help feeling that it would be fun to slap Mahmoud's bearded face. But I realize that my reaction is a variant of an obsession whenever I see a guy sporting a beard like a banner, for alleged religious reasons. I feel like taking out a can of pink aerosol paint and giving his beard a few spurts, to make it stand out even more clearly. [For red and purple robed cardinals of Rome, I would use white paint, or maybe simply the traditional technique of cream tarts.]

We learn this morning that Ahmadinejad won't be visiting New York as planned to address the UN Security Council. He claims that his delegation couldn't get their US visas in time. If it's true that the US embassy in Switzerland was sluggish in supplying these documents, it's indeed a shocking predicament, like missing a train because the ticket seller had stepped outside for a smoke. Let's await explanations.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Howard speaks out on brutality

I don't usually see Australian PM John Howard as a positive leader on the world scene, but I must admit that I liked his rough style of talking about Zimbabwe and its president Robert Mugabe:

"Frankly, I've run out of patience. Most people have run out of patience about what's happening in Zimbabwe. We pussyfoot around far too much using diplomatic language. This man is a disaster. His country is just a total heap of misery."

Above all, we must applaud the courage and pragmatism of Australia's consul in Zimbabwe, Mark Lynch, who protected Sekai Holland—a female member of the MDC opposition party (Movement for Democratic Change) whose husband is Australian—by driving her to the airport and putting her on a plane to Johannesburg.

Howard described the context in which Holland had been bashed:

"The police are using brutal tactics. They're bashing up opposition politicians. They're fracturing skulls. They're behaving in a totally unacceptable fashion."

What a pity that Howard didn't use this kind of direct language in describing the treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. [Click here for further photos.]

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Second-hand creativity

I've often denounced a parasitic offshoot of creativity that takes an existing instance of genuine inspiration and reworks it insipidly to produce a pale copy. The example I've always used when whining is that of blue jeans. Once upon a time, the first adolescents who were so emotionally attached to their battered old pants that they refused to throw them away, even when they had holes at the level of the knees and buttocks, were authentic creators, who had invented a new sartorial concept: that of clothes with worn threads... not only at the seams. A variation on this theme was the case of kids whose jeans were a shade too long, so that they tended to put their heels on the cuffs of their pants, which would soon become threadbare and scruffy, often muddy. Another example of the bond between youngsters and their jeans was the idea of using a needle and thread to attach some kind of personal emblem to this mass-produced clothing whose aspect had become standardized. Some kids sewed on a cloth badge of one kind or another, but the most brilliant invention consisted of devoting time and effort to embroider a colorful message to observers, maybe admirers: the wearer's nickname, or the name of his /her idol or loved one. Imagination was in power, as Parisian adolescents wrote on the walls of the city in May 1968, and there were no limits to the ways in which young people might express spontaneously their attachment to this second skin: their jeans.

Then the marketing men and the industrial product designers stepped into the picture... and that's where the annoying phenomenon of second-hand creativity took over. They invented nasty techniques to mass-produce artificially "used" jeans, to make them look discolored and threadbare, to "personalize" them with badges and embroidery...

The notorious Hillary 1984 video (whose author has just been unmasked) provides us with a typical case of second-hand creativity. [Click here to see it on YouTube.] The primordial Macintosh ad, which ran on TV 23 years ago, was an extraordinary and daring work of creation. No such praise can be attributed to the messy mashup that has nevertheless just scored over two million hits on YouTube. This pale copy carries no clear message, but it manages to make Hillary Clinton look good in her Big Sister role. Meanwhile, the anonymous author was frankly dishonest when suggesting that the video might have been produced by Obama's team.

The concept of second-hand humor is similar to that of second-hand creativity. What I mean is that somebody invents a great joke, and then other dim-witted folk believe they can be funny by constructing insipid variants of the initial story. Some kind of general principle seems to be at play, meaning that second-hand things are inevitably dull. In the village, the witty innkeeper once invented a disdainful description for the endless series of new girlfriends, often mature ladies, whom his buddy used to bring along to the bar on the back of his motorcycle. The innkeeper referred to them by a French expression that can be translated as second-hand women.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Missing word

There's an ordinary French word that nobody, apparently, has ever bothered to translate into English: francophonie, meaning the existence of French, in many societies throughout the world, as an everyday operational language. Let me fill in this gap. Since the use of telephones is referred to, in English, as telephony, there's no reason why the use of French should not be called Francophony. Yesterday, March 20, was Francophony Day for 200 million French-speaking people throughout the world: a celebration organized by OIF [Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie]. Among other things, Francophony Day reminds us that the next Tour de France and Bastille Day are less than four months away.

Vernal equinox

My house at Gamone looks eastwards onto a vast half-circle of cliffs, which means that, throughout the year, I'm particularly conscious of the changing spot on the horizon where the morning sun first pokes its nose up above a cliff. Today is the vernal equinox: the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. This morning, the sun appeared over the distant cliffs at the far end of the valley of the Bourne, directly in front of my house, and it had more than enough room to rise in the sky without hiding behind the Cournouze. The only problem is that the weather has remained so overcast today that I didn't see much of the sun at all.

Since settling down at Gamone, I've realized retrospectively that the evolving itineraries of the sun, and even the existence of the seasons, were aspects of the environment of which I was totally unconscious during my adolescence in Australia. I believe that my only vague awareness of the points of the compass was due to the fact that I grew up in a town named South Grafton, so I concluded that the place called Grafton no doubt lay to the north.

Unfortunately, in the pre-Alpine region of the Vercors, the night sky is invariably cloudy, which means that it's not an ideal place for star-gazing. I'm not at all sure that Galileo, if he had lived here at Gamone, would have got around to inventing the telescope. Worse than that, in view of the massive nature of the cliffs around the Circus of Choranche, it's not at all unlikely that Galileo would have carried on believing that these gigantic walls of stone remain stationery, and that the sun actually does the moving, gliding over the top cliffs. That's how it looks to me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

War effort

This famous photo shows Princess Elizabeth changing a lorry wheel during World War II. The 19-year-old heiress to the throne had joined the Auxiliary Territorial Services with the same rank as a second lieutenant. By the end of the conflict, she had become a Junior Commander capable of driving military vehicles. And today, it's quite possible that Prince Harry will soon be serving in Iraq.

In the Los Angeles Times, the Bush family biographer Kitty Kelley has just written a scathing article whose provocative title is indeed an excellent rhetorical question: Why aren't the Bush daughters in Iraq? [Click here to read the article.] In other words, why aren't they setting a moral example of patriotic service by playing some kind of meaningful role in the allegedly "noble" war being conducted by their father?

Discovery Channel

During the night, a centimeter-thick veil of snow covered everything at Gamone, from flowering shrubs through to my automobile. Apparently most of France has been hit by this cold spell.

Only two days ago, the television showed us Alberto Contador riding along magnificent sun-drenched mountain roads to his victory in the Paris-Nice race. It's amusing to recall that Contador's US employer, Discovery Channel, was in the limelight a few weeks ago because of a happening that had nothing to do with cycling. They're the people who aired the controversial documentary, produced by James Cameron and directed by Simcha Jacobovici, about a tomb near Jerusalem that contained bone boxes labeled Jesus, Mary, etc.

I don't know what the Spaniard Alberto Contador thinks about Discovery Channel's version of the Jesus story. Three years ago, he had a terrible fall in the Tour of the Asturias. With his jaws shattered, and suddenly racked by convulsions, 21-year-old Contador was taken to hospital in a critical state, and many observers, including fellow cyclists, feared that he might not survive. So, in Christian terms, Contador's brilliant performance in Paris-Nice on Sunday might be thought of as a miracle, a resurrection.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Not strawberry weather

Over the sunny weekend, I started digging up the earth for my strawberry patch. This morning, the plants were sitting on the floor of my living room, waiting to be taken out and placed in the earth. And then the sun disappeared behind low clouds, the sky turned gray, and fine hail started to fall. Ten minutes later, the hail had changed into rain and then snow. Not exactly the kind of weather for planting strawberries.

Opposite my house, on the other side of Gamone Creek, a dense wood on a steeply-sloped section of the hillside is a haven for roe deer. Over the last week or so, I've been enthralled by the non-stop symphony of bird calls emanating from the somber trees, which will be transformed into a mass of greenery in spring. In the precociously warm weather (according to the calendar, it's still winter), I had the impression that the birds were singing for joy. This afternoon, under the snow, they're still singing, but the tones are subdued and the melodies less strident, as if the singers were a little alarmed, or at least confused. Like us all.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fourth anniversary

On Friday, the French PM Dominique de Villepin visited Harvard University, invited by the political science professor Stanley Hoffmann. Four years ago, that same Frenchman spoke to the United Nations in New York about the dangers of a US invasion of Iraq. A major American newspaper said that, over recent years, everything has changed except Bush's conviction that he can win the war in Iraq. Something else that has not changed during the last four years is France's conviction that this terrible and costly fiasco is not a war that can be won. By terrorists, maybe, but certainly not by Bush.

In the realms of international diplomacy, no politically-correct head of state or his ministers would ever refer to their foreign counterparts by means of derogatory personal remarks or judgments. The representatives of the Republic express themselves with a quality known in French as réserve. Besides, they avoid any remarks that might be interpreted as interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. For those reasons, it would be unthinkable for Jacques Chirac or Dominique de Villepin to react in the way as Australian PM John Howard when he recently blasted the US presidential candidate Barack Obama. But the fact that no French leaders refer to Bush explicitly as an idiot doesn't prevent onlookers from reading between the lines and guessing that this is what they think. One has the impression that nobody in France is keen to talk to Bush any more, or even talk about him. He seems to have become a kind of international nonentity, and people are simply waiting for him to go away, or be chased away.

Getting back to Dominique de Villepin, it's hard to guess what he's going to do with himself after the departure of Chirac in a month or so, because this man has never been an elected politician, and it would be funny seeing a former PM striving to pick up votes in a provincial electorate. During his American visit, somebody asked him whether he felt like becoming an expatriate... maybe in the USA. "No, " replied de Villepin curtly, "I'm too French."

Rugby victory for France

For many French TV viewers, yesterday was a busy day. First, at the start of the afternoon, there was the second-last stage of the Paris-Nice cycling race. Then there was a grueling series of three major rugby matches. Personally, I decided to turn the TV off and drive to St Marcellin to buy some plants: a flowering shrub and strawberries.

So, it wasn't until much later in the day that I learned that France had thrashed Scotland, and that England had failed to beat Wales. It's encouraging that France, as host nation of the forthcoming World Cup, has at least emerged victorious from the European six-nations tournament.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Cheese and wine portrait

Whenever Natacha finds me eating cheese and drinking wine, she has an urge to take a posed photo. Unusual behavior, no? The cheese and wine must send out photographic waves, or something like that.

Our dogs

These lovely peaceful photos of Sophia and Jojo on the kitchen floor were taken by Natacha on Sunday 11 March. It was clear to me, from the first moments I saw the dear old hairy dog, that he was in a poor physical state, although he didn't appear to be suffering, and was apparently perfectly alert. At one stage, while I was preparing a salad, Jojo even pointed his long snout up towards me, indicating that he would like a slice of tomato. That amused me: a dog who likes tomatoes. At one point, outside on the lawn, Sophia pranced around her friend, trying to coax Jojo into racing around with her. But Jojo's racing days were over.

On Sunday, though, I would not have imagined that, within three days, Jojo's life on Earth would be over.

Gifts from Provence

Whenever Natacha and Alain drive up here to Gamone to see me, they always bring along gifts. In an earlier post, I mentioned the sexy religious biscuits. They also supply me regularly with fine Marseilles olive-oil soap from the famous Le Sérail manufacturer founded in 1949.

On Sunday, they also brought me a lovely bonsai fig tree, grown by Natacha, which I've placed on the kitchen window sill between a pair of tiny jacaranda trees (also grown from seeds from Provence).

Like Christine and my daughter, Natacha knows exactly the kind of reading material that is sure to interest me. In other words, I'm fortunate in that these close friends from Marseilles take care of me.

Mediterranean Bondi

There's an article in the Australian press about a pair of promoters who would like to transform Bondi into a Riviera-style place like Nice or St Tropez. I'm reminded of a joke. An American tourist is admiring the green lawns of Oxford University. He asks a gardener: "What's the secret for having lawns like that?" The gardener replies that there's no great secret. "You simply water the grass regularly, then you mow it from time to time and you run over it with a roller. You simply keep on doing that for a few centuries."

Antique Nice was founded by the Greeks half a millennium before Jesus Christ, and developed by the Romans. Today, it has become the fifth largest city in France. It's crazy to imagine that a couple of hotel-owners could magically transform Bondi into an ersatz Nice. Paraphrasing the words about a drink that's supposed to imitate whisky, you might say: It looks nice, it tastes nice, but it just ain't Nice.

As for St Tropez, that's a different kettle of fish. It used to be a quaint fishing village until celebrities such as Picasso, Françoise Sagan and Brigitte Bardot moved in there. Unfortunately, apart from the blue water, the physical setting of Bondi doesn't look anything like that of St Tropez. I really don't believe that people can suddenly decide to invest money with a view to making such-and-such a place look and feel like another famous place... unless, of course, we're talking of Disneyland creations. [On French TV, I recently saw a copy of an English village reconstructed in China, God only knows why.]

There's saying in French that probably exists too in English: "If my aunt had balls, she would be my uncle." If Bondi could suddenly acquire a Mediterranean look, charm and sophistication, it would indeed be a Riviera resort.

Terrorist Willy Brigitte

The trial in Paris of the 38-year-old French terrorist Willy Brigitte and his condemnation to a nine-year prison sentence were not treated by French media as front-page news. I have the impression that the French authorities have been a little irritated all along by the notion that they were dealing with an affair that should have normally been handled back in Australia, where the alleged misdeeds took place. Besides, there appears to be little solid evidence proving that Brigitte was really planning to attack various sites in Australia: for example, the Lucas Heights reactor and the Pine Ridge installations. At the most, there were several suggestions that he intended to do so—otherwise he would not have been condemned here—but no firm proofs. It was good though, retrospectively, that the professionalism of alert French anti-terrorist investigators forced drowsy Australian authorities to wake up to the risk of local terrorism. When I was in Sydney last year, though, I was never aware of the presence of armed police at strategic sites such as the Harbor Bridge, the Opera House, train stations and Kingsford Smith airport. In talking of armed police, I don't mean plain-clothed cops with concealed revolvers, who would never trouble a determined terrorist. I mean groups of uniformed officers, wearing bulletproof vests, who are openly toting combat weapons.


Although I've placed these two objects side by side, they have nothing whatsoever in common. The thing on the left is a stone statuette about a foot high, which my cousin brought back from an African medical stint. It represents a man seated on the ground with his legs folded up against his abdomen, and his hands held up against his face: maybe a position of prayer or meditation. The second object is in fact a sweet-smelling biscuit, about six inches from tip to tip, with religious connotations. Made in Marseilles, this traditional delicacy is meant to symbolize the legendary boat that brought four saintly women, including Mary of Magdala, from the Holy Land to the southern coast of France. Last Sunday, Natacha gave me a box of these biscuits.

Back in Paris, a rough girlfriend once saw the statuette and asked me what it was. I told her I thought it was some kind of African phallic symbol. I don't think my mate understood what I was talking about: "If you want my opinion," she replied, "it reminds me of a prick." The slit biscuit reminds me of something of the same kind. Don't you think the two objects look nice together?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In a field of olive trees

An old dog in a field of olive trees
walking away from his mistress Natacha,
seeking a wall to contemplate
in silence and solitude, like a monk.

Jojo has finally found his wall.

Juliette, gracious philosopher

In The English Patient, alongside Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche was simply sublime: the quintessence of joyous and profound femininity. The prestigious French weekly Télérama has just made Juliette their cover girl. The journalist asked Juliette what she thought retrospectively about playing the role of Mary of Magdala in the recent film of Abel Ferrara.

Inspired thoughts do me good. I'm thinking of Taoism, Suffism, poetry or Biblical texts. This calms an inner suffering. Without it, I would be suffocated. I don't believe in materialism. I don't believe that the body and spirit are separated. We are incarnate beings, but also possible beings, and this is proved by our dreams. When I played in Abel's film, it was important for me to say that Mary Magdalene had another role with Jesus than those prescribed by the Church. The fact that we've discovered, hidden under the sand, a gospel by Mary Magdalene is, for me, a total revolution. The vision of the teachings of Jesus through the eyes of a woman is fabulous... but nobody talks about it.

Yes, Saint Juliette, we should talk about such essential things.

Pirated software

Friends of mine are often intrigued (in an admiring sense, I think) by my fundamental opposition to pirated software, for profound political, moral and religious reasons. They know that Saint William—if I can be allowed to speak of myself in the third person—makes a point of paying for every bit he uses (that last phrase sounds better in French than in English) and will only stoop to using unauthorized software products if they happen to drop off the rear end of a truck winding its way up along the Gamone track. Which is perfectly legitimate. As the saying goes, we shouldn't look at gift horses in the mouth while trying to lead them to drink.

For years, I've advanced the theory that the greatest element of Bill Gates's business sense—which enabled him to become the richest man on the planet—was the fact that, in the beginning, hordes of i-peasants like me were frankly invited to rip off Microsoft products. I used Word and Excel for years, but I don't recollect having ever sent off a check to their manufacturer. For the time being, all this great stuff was free. We became addicted. And the name of our dealer was Microsoft.

Today, it's quaintly funny to hear the top Microsoft executive Jeff Raikes saying explicitly that, if people are going to pirate software, then it's best that they pirate Microsoft software. Personally, I would agree entirely if only there were any Microsoft software that's worth pirating. Today, on my Macintosh, I've got a copy of Word, to be used on the rare occasions that antipodean friends might send me stuff created with this ugly antiquated software gargantua. As for the rest, I sincerely admire Bill Gates for his great philanthropic initiatives, but I wish he'd stop thinking of himself as a computer guy. To my humble mind, today, Microsoft is definitively out, while Linux and the Macintosh are in.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rambo caught with his pants down

I belong to a generation of Australians who've known for ages that our customs and police authorities are bloody good at dealing with pommie pervs, wog poofters, alien riffraff, etc, and the nasty stuff they might attempt to bring into our sunburnt country. I recall the case of my friend Geoff who returned home from France with a small bag of canned foie gras given to him as a departure gift from his friends in Paris. Fortunately, alert customs officers at Mascot intervened in the nick of time and confiscated all that dangerous stuff before it poisoned any innocent Aussies.

Eugene Goossens was a world-famous conductor in charge of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In 1956, when Goossens was returning from a European tour, alert customs officers at Mascot found obnoxious pornographic material in the musician's luggage: photographs, prints, books, a spool of film, some rubber masks and sticks of incense. Nasty stuff! Just imagine the kind of places where a guy with a rubber mask could stick a stick of incense! Fortunately, the authorities collared this uncouth culprit before he could corrupt Australian youth.

Two years later, a diligent Sydney cop detected a wink in the eye of the celebrated pianist Claudio Arrau, pissing in a Hyde Park urinal. The musician was promptly arrested. Enlightened young Australians must find it hard to imagine that such a travesty of ordinary moral justice could have occurred, half a century ago, in the city that now sports the world-famous Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Today, the world learns that alert customs officers at Mascot have just caught Sylvester Stallone with his pants down. The facts are ugly. Aussie mothers and fathers are advised to make sure that their kids don't hear about this affair through the Internet. Rambo's luggage contained 48 vials of the human growth hormone product Jintropin, made by a Chinese pharmaceutical firm. Internet publicity informs us that this miraculous product enhances sexual performance, reduces body fat, increases energy, removes wrinkles, boosts muscle mass and "regenerates major organs that shrink with age". That last reference is surely an allusion to Stallone's nose, which got severely battered in countless Rocky films.

A distinguished Australian professor of linguistics commented [private communication] upon the Stallone affair:

It wasn't so much the confiscation as the way it was done that bothered me, particularly the body search plus the Warm Aussie Welcome:... "Woi doncha jus tell us where it is mate and save yourself a lotta trouble" snarled the Delightful Young Customs Officer who then proceeded to go through my address book looking for the "names of known supploiers".

Monday, March 12, 2007

Political beast

In French, the expression "political beast", applied to an individual with inborn talents for pursuing a political career, often in spite of huge obstacles, is not at all derogatory. On the contrary, it underlines the existence of rare skills, stubborn determination and natural gifts in the art of being a politician.

Ever since 1967, when Georges Pompidou invited 34-year-old Jacques Chirac—whom the prime minister nicknamed "my bulldozer"—to become a member of his government, this dynamic individual has been recognized by everybody, whether they like him or hate him, as a pure specimen of a political beast. Just as a dairy farmer can generally identify each of his cows, it has been said that, in his native Corrèze region, Chirac knew the names and backgrounds of countless rural folk. For example, if a farmer happened to tell Chirac that his aging mother was not in good form, then the next time they met up, maybe months later, Chirac would inquire: "Tell me, Gaston, how's your mother getting along these days?"

When my daughter was a little girl in Paris, she was offered a trivial but striking demonstration of Chirac's power of identifying people. Campaigning for the prestigious job of mayor of Paris, Chirac spent half-an-hour in the Rue Rambuteau, in the heart of Paris, which had been our home address since the end of the '60s. The candidate was shaking hands with every person he encountered, and nine-year-old Emmanuelle stepped into the line to await her turn. The giggling little girl was then proud to inform her schoolfriends in the street that she had just shaken hands with Chirac. A few minutes later, noticing that the candidate had crossed over onto the opposite side of the street, where his hand-shaking contacts concerned shopkeepers, Emmanuelle decided that it would be fun to see if she could succeed in obtaining a second hand-shake from Chirac. This time, to my daughter's amazement, Chirac made a smiling remark, proving that he had remembered her : "Ah, my little girl, I see you're a keen supporter!"

Last night, watching Jacques Chirac informing the nation on TV that he would not be running for a third presidential term, most viewers surely had the impression that they were witnessing a historic moment: the end of the reign of a prince of politics.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Older than America?

For isolated hillbillies such as Sophia and me, the daily arrival of the postwoman in her little yellow automobile is a major event. Often, she's the only human being I see during the entire day. The individuals who carry out this job in small townships such as Pont-en-Royans end up playing a vital role at the level of social cohesion, because they know everything that's happening in the community, and they concretize the bush telegraph system (referred to, in France, as the "Arab telegraph"). Many rural residents call upon the postperson to mail their letters and parcels, and they pay for the postage the following day.

A few years ago, I happened to say offhandedly to Martine—who's been our postwoman in Choranche for ages—that I was thinking of killing my old chooks [hens, for non-Australian readers], which had stopped laying eggs, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it. Now, it so happens that Martine is a pure country girl from down in the south-west corner of France, and she can kill a chook just as easily as delivering a letter. After finishing her postal work, at midday, she came back up to Gamone and gave me a marvelous hands-on demonstration of slaughtering a chook, plucking it and preparing it for the oven.

Talking about our postal service, I've always been intrigued by a stone carving in the façade of their post office in the main street of Pont-en-Royans. 1490, that's a hell of a long time ago. Does this really mean that the two-story building that houses the post office of Pont-en-Royans was erected two years before Columbus discovered America? Probably yes, but we can't verify this hypothesis since the crazed revolutionaries of 1793 burned all the ancient archives of Pont-en-Royans.

All the archives? Well, not quite all the archives. Sitting here on my computer, there's a digitized ten-page parchment that describes in detail the medieval real estate of Pont-en-Royans. In this tiny fragment, you can clearly distinguish the word Pontis in the upper left-hand corner. Sure, it's not easy to plow through fuzzy medieval Latin. Personally, I have a lot of trouble in deciphering this stuff. As far as I know, no scholar has ever yet attempted to analyze and translate this parchment.

If ever I were to put together funds, find specialists and succeed in organizing a serious deciphering effort for these priceless Royans parchments [as I've been trying to do for the last two years], would they finally tell me whether the post office building was really two years older than the America of Columbus? No, not at all. The parchments were written around 1350. So, America and Martine's post office at Pont-en-Royans were still well over a century away in the future.