Friday, August 31, 2007

First word of a poem

Over the last couple of weeks, I've got back in contact with one of my earliest passions: the literature of Rilke. I discovered this poet when I was a young man back in Sydney, and my love of his work took on a new meaning during the many years I spent in Paris, which was also Rilke's adopted city for a while.

I'm looking into the idea of writing a cinematographic adaptation, in French, of Rilke's great novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This would not be an easy task, but I'm highly motivated to tackle this project.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Australian graves in France

On this evening's TV news, a lengthy sequence showed the arrival of the national Australian rugby team in France... in a graveyard!

What a terrible symbol for forthcoming failure! It's surely the Parisian embassy staff that engineered stupidly this immediate link to spooky Villers-Bretonneux, where panels list the names of some ten thousand Australians who died in France and have no known grave. As for me, as an Australian settled in France, Villers-Bretonneux is the last place in the world I would ever think of visiting, even as a pilgrimage, because it doesn't really seem to symbolize anything whatsoever of an authentic Franco-Australian nature. That whole affair was simply a huge planetary mistake. More precisely, I ask rhetorically the following questions:

— Before coming here to die, did these dead soldiers have anything to do with the spirit of the Old World, or the great European nation named France? Or were they simply obeying orders in a blind fashion?

— Had they ever heard of France?

— Did they know anything about French history and culture?

— Did they speak French?

— Did they have personal contacts in France?

— Today, should we think of these countless dead Aussie soldiers as a symbol of Franco-Australian relationships, or rather as the terrible price of stupidity?

It goes without saying that we have no answers to such questions. Over a year ago, however, I was alarmed when Australian friends informed me that tour operators, in the context of the rugby cup, were offering Aussie visitors—besides the Eiffel Tower—a mindless blend of wine tastings and war cemeteries.

Talking of Australian graves in France, here's one that has concerned me over the last decade or so, ever since my encounter with the Dauphiné region:

Christina Jager and her young brother Nicholas were students, residing in the fabulous village of Bruno and the Chartreux monks. They came here on purpose, and they chose a magnificent place to stay and study. But, one winter morning, while setting out in their automobile to the university city of Grenoble, these Australian students were blinded by the sun on the first bend in the road below Saint Pierre de Chartreuse, their vehicle left the road and they were mortally wounded. Over the last twelve years, I've rounded that innocent but treacherous bend on countless occasions. Every time I visit the great monastic village, I spend a moment before the grave of Christina and Nicholas, who died shortly before my daughter Emmanuelle was born. I've always imagined these two Carthusian kids—brother and sister—as my Australian forebears in the territory of Bruno.

Unhealthy compatriots

At a medical level, you might say, I would have thought it enough that Australian Internet news [my immediate informational contact with my land of birth] should reveal that equine flu had stopped the NSW spring racing carnival. But there seems to be worse news, of human kind.

There would appear to be what is referred to, in The Australian, as a "growing obesity epidemic". Now, this doesn't really surprise me in the sense that my French children and I first discovered the McDonald's phenomenon in Sydney, many years ago. Last year, during my brief excursion to Australia, I was shocked by specimens of obesity encountered everywhere, including my birthplace. In a South Grafton club, I witnessed a family of overweight monsters who appeared to be regarded as normal by the locals. At the place in Grafton where my dear departed father once sold spare parts for Ford automobiles, there is now a cake shop that distributes unbelievably heavy-weight luncheon stuff for workers. But my brief observations have little weight... you might say. So let me quote directly The Australian:

Almost all Australians are either eating poorly or exercising inadequately, while only five per cent meet national lifestyle guidelines, a new report shows. The landmark study of more than 16,000 Australians has painted a grim picture of a slothful, unhealthy nation falling short of its own recommendations for exercise and nutrition.

One in four—25 per cent—meet physical activity guidelines, while 55 per cent eat enough fruit and 15 per cent eat enough vegetables.

But an alarmingly small number—fewer than five per cent—met the criteria for all three guidelines, a statistic the University of Sydney and Deakin University researchers say is "extremely concerning".

At a personal level, I'm not directly involved in the problem to which I allude. I'm no longer directly concerned by Australia in general, because I've moved on. But I still react as if it were my birthplace [which it is] and my homeland [which it hasn't been, for ages].

I love a fat brown country...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brilliant French electricity corporation

Everybody in France is familiar with EDF: Electricité de France. They're the national electricity utility, whose shares were recently made available to private investors. We think of EDF as the athletes who climb up poles after storm damage, the engineers who play around with hydroelectric dams, or their colleagues who operate France's well-known network of nuclear reactors.

Well, believe it or not: EDF is also a state-of-the-art researcher in the exotic domain of Dead Sea Scrolls archaeology. It's a long story, which I'll try to summarize...

In 1952, in the caves above Qumran, searchers on the lookout for parchments—mostly leather, sometimes papyrus—came upon two mysterious rolls of copper, known today as 3Q15, the Copper Scroll.

Needless to say, researchers were totally unaccustomed to handling ancient stuff of this kind. Finally, after much discussion, the scholars sent the rolls to the Manchester College of Technology in England, where they were cut into rectangular sections. Photos of these strips then enabled a Polish ex-priest and scrolls expert, Josef Milik [whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally, fifteen years ago, in his Paris flat], to produce a first edition of the astonishing contents of the Copper Scroll. Without going into details, let's say that the Copper Scroll seems to describe vast quantities of gold and silver that might even be the mysterious treasure of Herod's temple in the Holy City, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Readers might be asking by now: How, when and where does France's high-tech electricity organization step into this ancient picture? Well, on the outskirts of Paris, EDF has an avant-garde laboratory called Valectra, which is no doubt one of the world's most advanced workshops for handling ancient metallic specimens such as the Copper Scroll. Today, two bulky and expensive books relate, in French, the story of the extraordinary collaboration between Biblical scholars and EDF scientists, culminating in the restoration and preservation of the Copper Scroll... not to mention its translation. You can also use Google to find many documents describing this fantastic intellectual and industrial adventure. Probably the most spectacular aspect of the EDF Copper Scroll project has been the production of perfect metallic replicas, enabling scholars and museum-goers throughout the world to come face-to-face with artifacts that resemble ideally the real thing.

Ignorance in God's Own Country

Stephen Prothero, of the religion department at Boston University, has just published a book entitled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn't. Here are several gems from a recent poll:

— Two Americans out of three don't know the name of the man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

— Only 50% of Americans can name one of the four Gospels.

— Less than 50% know the name of the first book of the Bible.

In a broader historical domain, Americans were asked to identify Joan of Arc. Some 10% replied along the following lines: "Did you say Arc? That rings a bell. She must have been Noah's wife."

Citizens of that pragmatic nation, where everybody is out to make a buck, were confronted with the following quotation: "God helps those who help themselves." Over 75% were convinced that this is a statement from the Bible.

In fact, it was the illustrious American statesman Benjamin Franklin—"a true champion of generic religion", as somebody said—who put forward this point of view. But everybody knows that what was good enough for Benjamin Franklin is, of course, good enough for latter-day insertion into the Bible.

Sydney skies

On the front page of The Australian this morning, we find this photo of an RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] jet fighter, illustrating an article with a shock title: RAAF may use 'lethal force' for APEC.

Australians in authority often take themselves a little too seriously, to the point of getting carried away with their self-importance. We saw a striking case of this behavior recently in the conflict between a self-righteous government member and the Indian doctor suspected of abetting terrorists. Today we find a member of the air force, in charge of protecting the airspace over Sydney next week, telling reporters that "any pilots entering the area without a permit ran the risk of being shot down". This excessive kind of cowboy talk, coming from a senior military representative, would be hilarious were it not alarming. The RAAF would do better to go about its assigned business quietly and expertly, with no spectacular but unnecessary buzzing of central Sydney, and no front-page stories in the media.

There is indeed a nonnegligible risk that an unfortunate private pilot might be unaware that special airspace regulations are in vigor over the Sydney region during the APEC conference. One can even imagine such-and-such a member of a visiting delegation with a civilian pilot's licence, who decides to rent a small aircraft and spend an afternoon with his wife, taking aerial shots of the Blue Mountains, while naively ignorant of the fact that a so-called "lethal force" is operating in the nearby skies. Imagine the huge diplomatic incident that would ensue if rescuers were to find that the wreckage of a small aircraft, blasted out of the skies by an RAAF fighter, contained the charred remains of a junior cabinet member, say, of Brunei, Peru or New Zealand.

Awesome movie

If you happen to have an open and inquiring mind, a good Internet connection and two hours of free uninterrupted time, and you're happy to be blown healthily out of your mind, like shit in a powerful fan, then click the following banner:

Not everybody knows that the German word Zeitgeist signifies the prevailing spirit of our epoch, indicated by abundant evidence, but not necessarily manifest. This celebrated movie is a terrifying masterpiece.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

No horses at next week's Sydney circus

This photo shows an unmounted policeman in Sydney, leading a horse that is probably suffering from equine flu:

That's the way it's going to be at the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] event next week. Not only will police horses be absent, but Laura Bush won't be there either, because she has a mysterious pain in the backside, or somewhere or other. As for Bush himself, he'll be arriving and leaving earlier than initially scheduled, which means that a lot of the advanced security planning carried out conscientiously by NSW authorities will have been a waste of time and effort. They've nevertheless purchased some kind of sophisticated high-tech truck capable of spraying high-pressure water on groups of protesters. The APEC circus will provide the authorities with an excellent opportunity of testing this equipment... provided, that is, that there are groups of real-life protesters. According to plans, it is highly likely that people in this category will in fact turn up in Sydney. On the other hand, if ever the planned protesters did a Laura, or stayed away from the APEC circus because they were afraid of catching equine flu, then the police would have no other alternative than to stir up pseudo-protesting among crowds of normally calm onlookers, so that they can be hosed down experimentally with the new truck. I've heard rumors that the most disgruntled abservers of all are the members of the famous Bondi Icebergs: the folk who make a point of going surfing every day, even at the height of winter. Apparently the APEC organizers have taken over their clubhouse on Bondi beach, in the context of some kind of luncheon for APEC dignitaries. Wouldn't it be funny if Icebergers, protesting because they couldn't go for their normal swim, were to get hosed down by icy water from the high-tech truck. They would probably whine that the water's too warm for their tastes.

Finally, there'll be a fireworks show, but the authorities are telling Sydney folk to watch it solely on TV. As for me, here in France, I plan to watch TV to admire, not only the fireworks, but the high-tech hose-truck in action. I had been looking forward to seeing George W Bush and John Howard dressed up in R M Williams clothes for the traditional end-of-conference photo. But this is unlikely, unless the organizers were to take a photo of Bush in Aussie cowboy gear before he leaves, and then use Photoshop to insert him magically into the final group photo. These days, everything is possible. But only one thing is certain: This gigantic APEC shemozzle is going to disrupt the normally calm life of Sydney for most of next week. I'm glad I'm not there.

Excellent web journalism

One of my favorite news sources on the Internet is the New York Times [click on banner to visit the website]:

They've created an amusing informational category named Freakonomics [click on banner to visit the website]:

Besides, they often display marvelous images, which I like to "borrow" whenever it's appropriate:

This delightful image accompanies a fascinating New York Times article [click on image to display the article] concerning the gesture of an upturned palm, employed as a signal in the animal kingdom. Great stuff!

Unlocked Apple iPhone

Hey, this is my 400th post to the Antipodes blog!

Ever since its arrival on the US market at the end of June, Apple's iPhone has been associated with a unique phone company: AT&T. Consequently, it has been out of the question for a visitor to purchase an iPhone in the USA and bring it back home to, say, France or Australia. And, as I said in my recent article entitled Apple's iPhone will be Orange in France [display], it appears that France's Orange phone company has been chosen to play the role of the unique iPhone supporter here in France.

Needless to say, over the last two months, the challenge of unlocking the iPhone has preoccupied hackers day and night. A young guy became a celebrity, a few days ago, by announcing that he had succeeded in unlocking his iPhone by means of a hardware approach: that's to say, involving the use of a soldering iron. But, as somebody said, nobody likes the idea of a solution that consists basically of brutally "wreckifying" your precious little gadget in order to unlock it.

The following high-tech website [click the banner] has just revealed that a purely software approach to unlocking the iPhone now exists:

Naturally, people are wondering how Apple and companies such as AT&T and Orange are going to react to this news. A little common-sense reasoning makes it clear that Apple is unlikely to grieve about this unlocking possibility. It was nice for the computer manufacturer to have established juicy exclusive-licensing contracts with the world's great phone companies in order to launch their device, but we should not forget that Apple's main business consists of selling elegant electronic machines... such as the iMac, the iPod and now the iPhone. So, the concept of an unlocked iPhone (unlocked, not by Apple, but by third-party hackers) is obviously great for business, because it will increase the demand for iPhones. So, AT&T and Orange might complain bitterly about the unlocking hack, but I wouldn't be surprised if Apple were to refrain regally from making any comment whatsoever about this news.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Not so speedy, Gonzales

Attorney general Alberto Gonzales, old Texan friend and colleague of George W Bush, has finally resigned, after accusations of screwing up a congressional inquiry into the dismissal of eight US attorneys. Friendly rodents of all varieties would appear to be leaving a sinking ship...

Iraq and Vietnam

My post of 28 January 2007, Memories of Vietnam [display], evoked the tenebrous precedent of the USA's defeat in Vietnam.

Today, there's something distinctly indecent in the recent allusions to this defeat expressed by George W Bush: "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid for by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like boat people, reeducation camps and killing fields." Then he asked rhetorically: "Will today's generation of Americans resist the deceptive allure of retreat?"

The aftermath of the US "withdrawal" [defeat] in Vietnam was indeed a ghastly mess. But Bush is cheating blatantly with both history and logic when he insinuates that it would be an error for the US to "retreat" for the second time, in today's bloody Iraqi quagmire. He seems to be saying that the only way of avoiding a repeat phenomenon in Iraq of "millions of innocent citizens" is for the US to "resist the deceptive allure of retreat". Now, this kind of pseudo-thinking is idiotically erroneous, to the point of being criminal, since there is no common measure to the dangerousness of the respective situations in Vietnam 1975 and Iraq 2007. I have the impression that Bush is a total moron in the historical and geopolitical domains. Comparing the potential consequences of his Iraq fiasco with the sad but relatively inconsequential [short-lived] US defeat in Vietnam is stupid, to say the least. But suggesting that the only way of avoiding similar negative consequences is to remain firm in Iraq is frankly grotesque. The truth of the matter, as everybody knows (except Bush), is that Iraq is an infinitely more lethal context than Vietnam.

Ever since Biblical times, the Middle East is potential Hell! Because of its territorial and religious conflicts, not to mention its oil, it's a constantly festering wound that could erupt at any instant into turmoil of planetary dimensions. Since Bush's invasion, Iraq has already discovered massive daily terrorism of the worst kind, which could rapidly infect other parts of this Old World.

Alas, the damage has been done [by Bush] and it is already too late to imagine that everything would revert to normal if US troops were to abandon Iraq overnight. As implied in my posts concerning the Baghdad visit of Bernard Kouchner, entitled French doctor in Iraq [display] and Kouchner on al-Maliki: He must be replaced [display], the leaders of the planet must enter into a subtle world of diplomacy, in the time-honored French traditions, to see what can be done about Iraq. The time of Texan cowboy politics is definitely over. And when the cowboy decides to see himself as a geopolitical historian, he must be diplomatically gagged... for the safety of the planet.

Grounded

Back in February 2007, I already wrote two posts about "astro-nut" Lisa Nowak, who allegedly attacked a romantic rival: Astronaughty female [display] and Trying to be serious about Lisa/Nasa [display].

In a Florida courthouse last Friday, Nowak apologized publicly to her victim. Then she begged with the judge to obtain the privilege of removing her electronic ankle bracelet, claiming that it hurts her ankle and interferes with her military boots. Besides, she said, this device is rented to her at an exorbitant fee, meaning that it cuts into, not only her boots, but her budget. Poor lady.

I know it's incorrect to judge people by their facial appearance. But I don't think I would feel at ease if I happened to be a former enemy of a determined Lisa Nowak, and I learned that she had been let loose.

Once again, this courtroom appearance has regenerated discussions on the fascinating question of whether or not the motorist Nowak, when she was crossing America in pursuit of her rival, was wearing diapers so that she wouldn't need to stop for a pee. And if she were, then exactly what kind of diapers did she use? Baby stuff, civilian adult products, or special astronaut equipment? As you can see, the questions surrounding this space-woman are quite down to earth. To hell with the heavens.

Rugby World Cup

I can't imagine the place or circumstances in which this charming photo was taken. In any case, there won't be any immediate conflict between the two supporters, because Australia and France are starting in different pools.

On the elegant official website [display], there's a countdown to the start of the opening match on 7 September, at Saint-Denis on the edge of Paris.

In the neighboring village of Pont-en-Royans, rugby is a popular sport. The village even has a team, which competes in local competitions. The main village café, called the Picard, is preparing for the forthcoming World Cup matches. The owner, my friend Jean-Noël, has installed big TV screens on his roadside patio, and crowds will no doubt be gathering there to watch the broadcasts. Everybody recalls the tremendous fervor in France associated with the World Soccer Cup, staged and finally won by France, nearly a decade ago, and people are naturally wondering whether things might happen in a similar fashion for the rugby. We'll see.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Kevin Rudd's a normal bloke

Howard supporters probably hoped that Kevin Rudd's reputation would suffer because of an old story about his spending a drunken evening in a New York strip club, while on a government-funded excursion to the UN. But those who unearthed and publicized this piece of ancient history have grossly miscalculated its effect. A phone survey carried out last week by the Australian firm Roy Morgan Research reveals that 87% of electors are not concerned by this incident. The feelings of electors were summed up in the following typical comments:

We're all human and we all make mistakes.

He's just a bloke, a normal Aussie male.

The comment I like best:

It doesn't affect how he runs the country. Just look at Bill Clinton.

On the contrary, for the first time ever, a majority of people taking part in the survey said they disapproved of John Howard's handling of his job as prime minister.

Cosmic video

I'm most impressed by this beautifully simple video:



The association of religious music with the images of astronomical bodies is most effective. Indeed, there's something vaguely "religious" in this vision of the heavenly bodies. Or maybe, inversely, there's something "cosmic" in that fabulous music. Or both.

Equine influenza

Little has been said yet outside of Australia concerning the outbreak of equine influenza, detected last Friday at Sydney's Centennial Park, close to the famous Randwick racecourse.

Finally, an informative website on this affliction, produced by the Queensland government [display], reveals that it's highly contagious, but apparently not life-threatening for horses or humans. A singular outcome of this viral outbreak is that there may not be any mounted police officers in Sydney to handle possible protesters during the forthcoming APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] conference, on 8-9 September. Worse still for most Aussies, if the outbreak of equine flu were to spread, horse-racing might be interrupted for a while.

Kouchner on al-Maliki: He must be replaced

A positive aspect of Bernard Kouchner's background as a medical doctor is that he's not afraid of pronouncing a fatal diagnosis, even though he has barely left the patient's home. The patient in question, judged by Dr Kouchner to be in terminal decline, is Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Kouchner's words to Condoleezza Rice, repeated in Newsweek, are blunt: "He must be replaced."

As for George W Bush, he recently described Nouri al-Maliki as "a good man with a difficult job". Another man who does not dare to cast aspersions upon al-Maliki is Australia's Alexander Downer, minister of Foreign Affairs, who declared: "His leadership is a matter for the Iraqis. It is not a matter for us. I don’t think we should be—after they’ve had a free and fair, democratic election—be telling the Iraqis who they should appoint as their prime minister. I could get into comments about different prime ministers and presidents around the world, but if they are democratically elected, let’s just respect the process and deal with the people who are there." Downer talks of Iraq as if it were just another ordinary democratic nation.

Meanwhile, an influential Republican senator, John Warner, claims that Bush will in fact announce, in his scheduled September 15 declarations, an initial troop withdrawal, of the order of 5000 men.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Clinton couple

A few evenings ago, a splendid French TV special on the Clinton couple attempted to harmonize Hillary's current bid for the presidency with her husband's tumultuous career in the White House. Insofar as I greatly admire these two individuals, I was thrilled to discover that the harmonization in question is perfectly plausible, provided that you make the effort to envisage Bill and Hillary as an unusual kind of couple: a political tandem.

According to themes developed in this excellent TV program, Hillary was never shocked primarily by the idea that her Bill might have done naughty things with a White House junior named Monica Lewinsky. For Hillary, that was simply Bill's male animal stuff. What really infuriated Hillary was that Bill's crude lies made him the political victim of the inquisitor Kenneth Starr, not to mention all the other Republican enemies who had wanted for ages to annihilate the Clintons. Bill's screwing Monica was a mere matter of taste and primitive behavior, whereas getting screwed by Starr was, in the eyes of Hillary, a major affair of unpardonable political misjudgment.

Today, retrospectively, it's highly plausible that the superior political beast, in the Clinton couple, has always been Hillary. Sure, she doesn't have Bill's charm and eloquence, but she would appear to be an intuitive political genius... in the same spirit as a Chirac, here in France.

After the tragic dumb Bush era, I'm convinced that Hillary Clinton will surely push America—with a little help from her friend—back up to its normal and primordial international role, as a great nation. I hope so.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pipole

That's a new French word: pipole. In fact, it's a humorous French phonetic spelling of the English word people. And this word designates talked-about individuals in general: celebrities, aristocrats, politicians, criminals, etc. Consequently, the expression presse pipole designates magazines that earn their living by tracking, photographing and chronicling such individuals. In fact, my post yesterday entitled Photoshop surgery [display] was typically pipole. And reports reveal that people magazines are immensely popular in France. A recent survey indicates that French vacationers scoop them up at the same time, and with the same regularity, as summer ice-creams.

For the moment, I don't have any new photos to display, but they're surely coming up... Don't forget that Europe is still globally on vacation. Apparently, one of France's leading pipole publications has just published paparazzi photos of François Hollande—general secretary of the Socialist party, and former companion of former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal—in the intimate company of his new flame: a journalist from the very pipole weekly Paris-Match. Not so long ago, the editor of that prestigious weekly got kicked out, inexplicably, after the publication of romantic photos of Madame Sarkozy with a gentleman in the USA. Today, it's less likely, of course, that anybody will lose their job as a consequence of this latest scoop pipole. I'll do my best to keep you informed...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Apple's iPhone will be Orange in France

There has not yet been any official announcement on this question, but it is becoming increasingly probable that Apple's iPhone will be handled in France by the national operator Orange, subsidiary of France Telecom.

I take this opportunity of pointing out, once again, that Orange happens to be the French ISP [Internet service provider] that has been blacklisted for over a year now [quasi-systematic refusal to deliver French emails from Orange] by the Internet idiots at BigPond in Australia.

Photoshop surgery

Nowadays, it's so easy and so common to use a computer to retouch photos [above all with the celebrated Adobe Photoshop software tool] that it should come as no surprise to discover that the illustrated weekly Paris-Match has resorted to this possibility in order to beautify the French president... who happens to be a dear friend of Arnaud Lagardère, owner of the famous weekly.

In the original Reuters photo [on the right], showing the president paddling a canoe on a lake during his recent vacation at Wolfeboro in the USA, there's an unsightly roll of fat at the level of Sarkozy's waist. In the retouched photo published by Paris-Match, this fat has magically disappeared.

In everyday French, which is a colorful language, a male with rolls of waist-level fat of this kind is said to sport "love handles".

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

French doctor in Iraq

On French TV this evening, it was interesting to hear the recently-appointed minister of Foreign Affairs, the former "French doctor" Bernard Kouchner, talking of his visit to Baghdad a few days ago. He considers that a solution for Iraq would necessarily involve the UN, but that it's still too early to envisage a conference on this question.

"France would be ready to support this approach," said Kouchner, "but not at the present moment. Besides, I didn't propose such a conference. I evoked the possibility of our participating in such a dialog. France has a right to be there. That's our place."

These remarks go in the same direction as Kouchner's assertion in Baghdad that the US, on its own, would not be capable of solving the problems of Iraq.

Photography lessons

A few weeks ago, just before my excursions to England and then Provence, I phoned my son in order to obtain technical advice on an aspect of photography with a digital camera. First, I must explain that, since purchasing a Nikon D70S over a year ago (prior to my voyage to Australia), I've tended to rely entirely upon the automatic possibilities of the camera. That's to say, I simply point it at my subject and push the button, leaving it up to the machine to calculate everything: focus, aperture and shutter speed. I wanted to learn from my son how to become a little less reliant upon the camera's automatisms, at least to the extent of deciding, for example, upon the desired lens opening. Well, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my son dislikes the automatisms of modern digital cameras. So, he turns them off and operates in a purely manual fashion. And that approach enables him to decide upon the exact subject that he wishes to shoot, as seen here:

There's no doubt whatsoever that François is interested here, not in the seashore, but in this section of corroded green hand-railing. Here's another similar example:

It's not the vast sea that interests François, but the tiny round pool at the foot of the crag with oysters attached to it. On the other hand, the presence of a small island in the background is a significant element of the global composition. But this island is of lesser importance than the pool in the foreground.

In the following photo, the woman in a scarlet gown, walking in a determined style towards the road, is the central subject:

But François has taken the photo at the exact instant that a girl is going past the house on a bike. Although the fuzziness of the girl on the bike indicates that she is not the main subject of the photo, she plays a role in the overall sense of the image. Maybe her presence explains why the red-gowned woman is heading towards the road.

In most of my son's photos [click here to visit his website], we find a constant interplay between these two aspects:

— reduction of the depth of field to put the accent upon a precise subject;

— integration of background objects so as to form a harmonious whole.

The effectiveness of his photographic approach and style is particularly apparent in the two series he did for the French weekly Le Figaro Madame: one in Morocco and the other for a luxury hotel in the sand dunes in south-west France.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Indian doctor and Aussie patient

This morning, I was happy to learn that Mohamed Haneef had succeeded, in a court appeal, in recovering his Australian work visa.

This young Indian doctor is surely an ordinary individual who has never been condemned of committing any crime whatsoever. The idea of being tempted to consider him as a terrorist is idiotic and grotesque.

Be that as it may, the Australian minister Kevin Andrews is not at all happy with the ruling of the Federal Court. As for me, I was satisfied to see a photo of this intriguing all-powerful Australian administrator:

Indeed, it's frustrating to remain aware of the existence of a curiously notorious individual without knowing what he might look like. Thanks to The Australian, I can now associate a physical image with the name of the man who declared that Mohamed Haneef couldn't pass an Aussie character test. Andrews, to say the least, has an intriguing face. To call a spade a spade, the stark face of Kevin Andrews, with its corpse-like rigidity, frightens me.

An Australian journalist compared Kevin Andrews with a notorious fictional character of the '60s named Maxwell Smart, an incompetent law authority who invented the shoe telephone:

Personally, I'm not sure that Kevin Andrews could invent anything whatsoever. He doesn't strike me as an inventor. He doesn't strike me as anything of a nice nature. Well, yes, his face does in fact strike me in a morbid sense. I wouldn't like to meet up with Kevin Andrews on a dark night in a remote alley, let along in a government immigration office. To put it bluntly, he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would wish his neighbor well.

Meanwhile, the amusing thing about this whole affair is that Haneef, sooner or later, will become a celebrity in Australia. People will be queuing up to obtain a consultation with this nice notorious Indian doctor. And many of his patients will be tempted to ask the same questions: "Who's this weird guy named Kevin Andrews? Why did he attack you? Do you think it's safe for Australia that such an individual should remain in such a prominent post?" By then, of course, I would hope that Kevin Andrews will have retired from active service.

Dismal old Woodstock

Growing old can be a surprising and dismaying affair at times. Like this evening, when I thought I might sit in, for fun and old times, on the TV transmission of the Woodstock film. Those of you who are a little older than my son [born in Woodstock year, 1969] might recall that it was a gigantic music festival in the state of New York, back in the days when the target of the USA's regular wars happened to be Vietnam.

After twenty minutes, the video bored me to shit, and indeed irritated me immensely. It sounded as hollow, today, as an empty packet of Pretzels at the Bush ranch in Texas. The truth of the matter is that nobody, any longer, is inclined to believe young Americans when they cry out about peace and love to the strains of Joan Baez. They've had high time, since Vietnam, to become dynamically intelligent... and they didn't make the necessary effort. I don't know why, and I don't really care. But please don't ever talk to me about "peace and love" bullshit made in the USA.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Salagon: a magnificent site in Provence

On the third day of my recent excursion in Provence, Natacha and Alain took me to a fabulous site in the Alpes de Haute-Provence: a simple stone structure in the middle of the fields, once a Benedictine priory, named Salagon, which was recently transformed into an ethnological museum. The buildings are surrounded by a set of thematic gardens, including a conservatorium of cereals and a medieval garden.

I was stunned by the beauty of the place, and impressed by the efforts of the various public authorities who have reinjected a cultural and pedagogical purpose into this site. Natacha [who took the above photo with the flowers] caught me in a pensive mood:

She also caught me taking photos, but my shots don't do justice to this splendid place... which was surprisingly free of tourists.

I was intrigued by the following external stone staircase, in a part of the priory that once housed farm animals:

Apparently the steps were deliberately designed in such a way that a monk and his donkey could walk up the stairs together: the man on the narrow steps to the left, and the donkey on the wider steps to the right.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pop's epoch

We always referred to our paternal grandfather, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], as Pop. That was a nice name for a grandfather back in the days when the word "pop" had not yet become a banal adjective as in "pop music". Today, if children were to refer to their grandfather as Pop, people would immediately imagine the old man as a Beatle.

If the younger generations of Pop's descendants were asked to put an adjective upon the 17 years he spent in his London birthplace before setting sail for Australia, some might be tempted to say Victorian, or even Dickensian. The latter term is rather anachronistic, since the image of Oliver Twist had disappeared from the London scene—except for special cases such as the poor London urchin who would become Charlie Chaplin [1889-1977]—long before my grandfather's birth in a well-to-do northern neighborhood of the city, Finsbury Park. As for saying that Pop's London days were Victorian, this is not wrong, since the great queen died in 1901, when Pop was ten years old [two years after the death of his own mother]. But, to describe the few adolescent years that Pop spent in London before leaving for the Antipodes, the most appropriate adjective is surely Edwardian. Besides, the atmosphere of his youth is excellently described in this delightful book [which can be purchased through Amazon], written by a former London policeman, slightly younger than Pop, who went to the same school as Pop in Woodstock Road, Hornsey:

The title of Rolph's book comes from a quaint "pea soup" passage of Bleak House by Charles Dickens [1812-1870]:

I asked him whether there was a great fire anywhere, for the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen. "Oh dear no, Miss," he said. "This is a London particular." I had never heard of such a thing. "A fog, Miss," said the young gentleman. "Oh, indeed," said I.

London is indeed a particular city. It is a great and moving place, like Paris or New York. But nothing, in that metropolis, is as elsewhere. Everything in London is particular.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Secret river

I'm fascinated by the story, related in The Australian, of the discovery of a so-called secret river called the Kallakoopah in the heart of Australia. [Click here to read the story.]

To remain geared to the universe, we humans need to discover things constantly, where the word "things" denotes both intellectual and material entities. One can imagine no more inspiring discovery than that of an ancient river.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ordinary village, extraordinary bookshop

When you arrive in Banon, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, it looks like a rather ordinary village, which hasn't yet been beautified by wealthy outsiders. It's not crowded with tourists, and there's a delightful bistrot in the middle of the village where you can sit in the sun and watch people and vehicles going past... which is surely a perfectly honorable occupation for a lazy visitor such as me.

But Banon has an extraordinary bookshop, called Le Bleuet. It's charming and enormous, with every kind of book you could imagine.

My children would surely appreciate the Banon bookshop, because the first thing I noticed upon entering Le Bleuet was the moped book created by François and Emmanuelle.

[Click here to visit the French-language website on this book. You might also like to click here to visit my son's emerging photographic website. For the moment, only the billiards theme has been completed.]

In the fabulous Banon bookshop, I bought a little book full of recipes for making herbal tea and infusions.

Intriguing Google findings

In the domain of Googling gurus, I think my friend Natacha must be some sort of a world champion. She's constantly discovering all kinds of weird things, including stuff about myself that I wouldn't even think of looking for. Latest example. There's a Google menu indicated as more, shown here, that puts you in contact with a tool called Books:

If you type in my name, you'll find a list of published documents that refer to me in one way or another. Well, I was amazed to see that the UK subsidiary of Amazon surrounds my name by stars and stripes and considers me as the author of a book on Iran, published in 1983!

Consequently, it would be perfectly plausible for George W Bush to consult me, one of these days, as a specialist on this complex corner of the globe, before he decides to attack Iran. Meanwhile, I'm starting to understand why I used to get interrogated and searched at length by security officials during my visits to Israel, because they might have imagined me as an Iranian agent. [No, on second thoughts, that couldn't possibly be the case, because the Internet and Amazon didn't even exist back in the days when I used to visit the Holy Land.]

There's only one minor discrepancy. It ain't me who wrote a book about Iran, but rather my former friend Jean Hureau, founder of the Jeune Afrique publishing house in Paris, which once employed me to write a relatively successful book about Great Britain. But, thanks to the diligence of Google and Amazon, this erroneous information will no doubt be recorded permanently on computers for posterity.

Juxtaposed excursions

It was weird to visit England and then Provence in the space of a fortnight. For those who are used to packing a lot of varied tourism into short periods (as in the case of Australian visitors, for example, on a global tour of the Old World), I suppose there's nothing unusual in visiting several countries in rapid succession. I was struck by an experience of this kind during my initial voyage to Europe, when our Greek liner Bretagne brought us into brief contact with Singapore, the Suez Canal and Athens, before dropping us off in Southampton. But, since then, I had lost the habit of changing almost overnight from one society and culture to another. To be more explicit, I've been leading an isolated lifestyle at Gamone for such a long time [with the exception of last year's Australian interlude] that I was unprepared for the shock of returning to noisy crowded London. Then, this shock was rapidly attenuated—like cold water poured onto a pressure cooker—by the relaxed three days down in Provence with Natacha and Alain. I should mention, though, that I didn't actually plan to juxtapose these two excursions, so that they might produce a counterpoint effect. It was simply the chance outcome of available dates.

On Tuesday, 7 August 2007, I was thrilled to find myself traveling down to meet up once again with my friends in Marseille. The following words, dashed off on my portable computer, reveal my excitement: "I'm writing this article in the high-speed train from Valence to Marseille, at eight o'clock on a sunny morning, with Sophia stretched out on the carpet at my feet. There's only one other passenger in the luxurious first-class carriage: a young woman seated on the other side of the aisle, who's also working on a portable computer. The train is speeding along through a dark-green wonderland of wooded hills, vineyards, agricultural fields, orchards, timber forests, streams, rocky ridges, silvery scrubs and low hills. The sun is still low in the eastern sky, which is pale blue and cloudy. From time to time, we pass alongside a Provençal village. At the moment I was writing that last sentence, the train crossed over the broad Rhône, and the conductor announced that we were about to stop for three minutes at Avignon. What a crazily frustrating idea: three minutes at Avignon! In fact, the modern train station is far out in the Provençal wilderness, several kilometers away from the celebrated bridge and the Palace of Popes."

Natacha and Alain took me first to an amazing cave in the mountains near Marseille, one of the holiest sites in Christendom: the Sainte-Baume, associated with an ancient legend according to which the New Testament personage known as Mary Magdalene once lived in the Marseille region.

She would have traveled from the Holy Land to southern France—accompanied by others, including her brother Lazarus and a saintly friend named Maximin—in a miraculous boat with neither a sail nor a rudder. After evangelizing the people of Marseille, Mary lived as a hermit in a cave on the face of a cliff of the nearby mountain range that is now known as the Sainte-Baume. And that's the place we visited last week, with my pilgrim dog Sophia leading the way up the ancient stony pathway.

After a strenuous climb, terminating in countless stone steps, we reached the vast cave, which has been transformed into a sanctuary, with a splendid panoramic view out over the surrounding flat countryside.

In the context of local legends concerning this venerated site, relics still have a role to play, even today. Here, inside the cave, is a large bone alleged to have belonged to Mary Magdalene:

When Natacha and I reached the cave, leaving Alain to stay with Sophia at the foot of the steps, the place was swarming with pilgrims, accompanied by members of the clergy, getting prepared for some kind of a service. A little girl in ribbons and bows pointed to the relic and asked Natacha what it was.

Natacha: "It's a bone of Mary Magdalene."

Little girl: "C'est dégueulasse ! " [How disgusting! That's the slang adjective made famous by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg at the end of Godard's 1959 New Wave film Breathless.]

After scrambling back down the rocky path, we drove to the nearby basilica that honors both saints, Mary Magdalene and Maximin, whose façade looks as if it might have been hit by a bomb.

This is where the alleged sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene was discovered in the 13th century, and her skull is displayed in the crypt.

The legends of Mary Magdalene in Provence might not be particularly plausible from a historical viewpoint, but they are rich and profound. As somebody said, the most convenient attitude consists of "accepting" these legends, at least while you're in Provence, even if this means discarding temporarily the notion that more than one Biblical individual might be concealed behind the generic name of Mary Magdalene, that her bones might have been transferred to Vézelay, or maybe that her tomb(s) might in fact be located in the Holy Land...