Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Big movie mess

My 93-year-old uncle Isaac Kennedy Walker—a former dairy farmer from my birthplace at Waterview, near Grafton—has been living for the last ten or so years in the Australian seaside city of Coffs Harbour. At that place, in the midst of the sunny slopes dedicated to banana production, a local guesthouse operator decided to erect a tourist gimmick, made of painted plaster, that soon became famous: the Big Banana.

This banana was in fact the first of a long series of Aussie big things, described on Wikipedia [display].

In France, most ugly monstrosities of this kind feature the Virgin Mary. You find big virgins from one end of France to the other, often at prominent spots in the landscape where everybody is obliged to observe these hunks of stone and concrete. Hopefully, future communities will surely dynamite them and use the rubble to build roads...


In the domain of big things, totalitarian states inspired by a personality cult have invented a spectacular gadget that has rarely been exploited in our so-called free democracies. This is the idea of erecting a Big Me.

In France, not so long ago, a guy was sly enough to take this interesting idea to its logical conclusions. An adept of yoga named Gilbert Bourdin [1923-1998], from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, founded a weird sect known as Mandarom. He settled in the superb Provençal landscape of Castellane and erected various pseudo-Tibetan statues including a gigantic representation of himself that could be seen for miles around. Finally, in 2001, after tedious legal wrangling, the French army dynamited this eyesore.

In France, the term "turnip" is used (God knows why) to designate bad movies, and everybody understands this curious metaphor.

In my humble view, the award for the Big Turnip goes surely to the film Australia by Baz Luhrmann, which has just opened in France.

On Boxing Day, I drove up to Grenoble, with my daughter, to see the English-language version of this movie. Frankly, I find it a bloody catastrophe, from every point of view. I have no positive evaluations whatsoever concerning this bundle of clichés tied up with pink ribbons. Above all, the entire final part of Luhrmann's overblown product, presenting a make-believe World War II conflict in Darwin, is technically appalling from a movie viewpoint. You can't believe an instant of it...

Someone said that the cinematographic encounter between the pale giant Nicole Kidman (former wife of Tom Cruise) and Hugh Jackman (the alleged sexiest man on the planet) has the sensual intensity of a Vegemite sandwich. Although I've never tried to eat this Aussie shit, that sounds like a pretty good comparison. The film is so ridiculous that I have nothing more to say about it...

Divine job

One of the most amusing, if not fulfilling, jobs I can imagine would be speechwriter for the pope. Let me explain. No matter what a run-of-the-mill author writes, his/her words will be appreciated (in the best of cases) by a handful of readers and denigrated by others. Concerning words to be pronounced by a pope, on the other hand, the writer can be certain beforehand that millions of listeners and readers will love the stuff, absolutely, because they consider it, a priori, as inspired and infallible words straight from the mouth of the Creator's personal representative on the planet Earth. His director of communications.

Talking of absolutely divine documents, let me display the latest specimen. It's an English translation of a fragment of the pope's Xmas address to the Roman curia gathered in the Sala Clementina on 22 December 2008:

Because faith in the Creator is an essential part of the Christian creed, the Church cannot and must not limit itself to transmitting to its faithful the message of salvation alone. It has a responsibility toward creation, and must exercise this responsibility in public as well. And in doing so, it must defend not only the earth, water, and air as gifts of creation belonging to all. It must also protect man against his own destruction. Something like an ecology of man is needed, understood in the proper sense. It is not an outdated metaphysics if the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this order of creation be respected. In fact, this is a matter of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, disdain toward which would be the self-destruction of man, and therefore the destruction of the very work of God. What is often expressed and understood by the term "gender" is ultimately resolved in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator. Man wants to create himself, and to arrange always and exclusively that which concerns him. But this means living contrary to the truth, living contrary to the creator Spirit. Yes, the rainforests deserve our protection, but man deserves it no less, as a creature in whom a message is inscribed that does not mean the contradiction of our freedom, but its precondition.

This is excellent prose, of a journalistic kind, and I can imagine the pride of the holy ghostwriter seeing the pope's face light up when His Holiness discovered the slick but sloppy sentence: Something like an ecology of man is needed... With a tiny bit of rewriting, that sentence might have been elevated to a memorable quotation that would go down in literary history. First, I would have used the term spiritual ecology, which sounds much better, frankly awesome. Second, I would have written Man with a capital letter, in italics, to give it a scientific biological flavor.

Talking about capitals, notice the subtle way in which the rewriter jumps back and forth between the terms creation and Creator. I'll let you guess which noun refers to a familiar day-to-day process described by scientists, and which one designates the pope's special pal. Personally, I've always been so utterly awed by the amazing complexities of the archaic process that I like to spell Creation with a capital... but I now realize that this is a dangerous habit, since there are a lot of crazy folk out there who've succeeded in monopolizing the expressions Creationism and Intelligent Design to designate the accomplishments of the pope's much-celebrated magical Creator: the big old guy with a white beard up in the sky.

It's the latter part of this extract of the pope's Sala Clementina address that has stirred up shit, over the last few days, in the international gay and lesbian worlds. Read it carefully, to see what the anonymous speechwriter of His Holiness is actually saying. Here's the keystone of the literary lobbyist's subtle art:

What is often expressed and understood by the term "gender" is ultimately resolved in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator.

The euphemism "self-emancipation" means, of course, assuming one's true sexuality. So, to call a spade a spade, the pope's Xmas speech turns out to be a blatant diatribe against homosexuality. Meanwhile, I reacted spontaneously: What the bloody hell is this word "gender" doing here? Gender, as we all know, is an ancient linguistic concept concerning nouns, which are often separated into formal groups designated as either masculine, feminine or neuter. Recently, it has become fashionable to apply the term "gender" to cultural differences between creatures of the opposite sex. For example, if a little boy likes to wear his sister's clothes, you might say (if you were incapable of finding a better way of putting it) that his behavior is of a female gender. But it's totally ridiculous to fall back upon the fuzzy gender concept, in human beings, as a criterion for distinguishing between those who have a penis and those who have a vagina. That difference (both the pope and his speechwriter should know by now) is called sex, and it's all a matter of so-called X and Y chromosomes... not to mention precise differences in the form of genital organs, which even the virginal pope, with a little bit of prompting, should be able to recognize.

I wondered whether the silly intrusion of this gender term might be a translator's error. Then I made an amazing discovery. The gender word has been included, in inverted commas, in the original Italian!

Ciò che spesso viene espresso ed inteso con il termine "gender", si risolve in definitiva nella autoemancipazione dell’uomo dal creato e dal Creatore.

The plot thickens! For me, it's clear. The pope's speechwriter is almost certainly an English-speaking priest, of Italian origins, who happens to be an inhibited homosexual. He can't bring himself round to talking of sex, so he prefers to say gender... even in the middle of a papal address in Italian! There's no other way in the world to explain the sudden production of so much pontifical rubbish. There's another clue as to the identity of the pope's speechwriter. He's clearly well-informed about ecological issues in Australia, because he refers both to the pope's recent visit and to the question of saving rain forests. So, maybe he's a homosexual Tasmanian priest of Italian origins.

Now, why am I so motivated by the idea of unveiling the identity of the speechwriter responsible for the pope's spectacular gender stuff? Well, ideally, if he were unmasked, he might get sacked for professional faults... such as throwing the word gender into a pontifical address. In that case, I might then be in a position to apply for this fabulous job. Meanwhile, I love this image of our electric pope, a real man's man:

I imagine Benny's bolts of blue lightning penetrating painfully the sin-stained backsides of gender miscreants...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Two virginity jokes

The first joke is factual. It concerns a delightful adolescent habit in the USA that consists of wearing a so-called purity ring and making a pledge of sexual abstinence up until one's marriage.

A survey has just revealed that serious young folk who have decided to make such a pledge and wear such a ring end up having premarital sex just as readily as everybody else. In other words, the purity rings and pledges are mere symbols of wishful thinking. But here's the joke... which would be funny, were it not distressing for those concerned. Whenever young people in this virginal category happen to fall into the screwing trap, they're likely to be confronted with more sexual problems than the others, simply because—like bad boy scouts who haven't respected their Be Prepared motto—they're overwhelmed by the consequences of sudden unexpected passion. They've never envisaged using condoms, which makes them perfect candidates for unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

My second joke is a nice little Xmas tale.

A young girl has just been examined by her doctor (or physician, as they say in the States).

DOCTOR: Well, young lady, I have good news for you and your male companion. In about eight months' time, you'll be the parents of...

GIRL: Excuse me for interrupting, Doctor, but I don't have a male companion.

DOCTOR: Let me put it another way. You'll be able to inform your most recent male partner that you're now...

GIRL: I'm sorry to correct you, Doctor, but I've never been involved with a male partner. I've never had any kind of relationship whatsoever with males.

DOCTOR: Then you've surely been receiving treatment in artificial insemination from a gynecologist...

GIRL: I'm sorry, Doctor, but I have no idea what you're talking about.

The doctor walks to the window, opens it and starts staring silently up at the sky.

DOCTOR: The first and last time this happened, long ago, a fabulous star appeared in the sky. This time, I don't want to miss it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Day of death in the Holy Land

It's absurd to apply the expression "Holy Land" to the tiny segment of hell on Earth named Gaza, where dozens have been dying in the wake of the alleged anniversary of the birth of a man of peace and love. In this bloody conflict, Palestinians in Gaza have been dying under Israeli missiles: some 200 according to this afternoon's count.

BREAKING NEWS, MONDAY MORNING: The Israeli blitz has so far killed over 310 Palestinians, including 51 confirmed civilian casualties, including women and children. There are more than 1400 wounded.

Here's a horrible haphazard video, with a taste of death:



For ages, people have been tiring themselves talking about what might be done to put an end to the terrible conflict between Israel and Palestine. Should there be two autonomous nations? Should a corner of Jerusalem be set aside as the capital of a future Muslim nation named Palestine? Should Israelis cool down a little about their alleged biblical rights to the land of milk and honey? Should Palestinians relinquish their matter-of-fact birth rights? What can be done to make these people, if not love one another, at least cease to hate themselves mortally? Is there any solution?

A first step in the direction of seeking a solution to all this hatred and bloodshed would consist of eliminating ancient religious antagonism. The planet Earth would need to have the political power to urge citizens of the world to wake up to life. Would this be possible? Sadly, I don't think so. Humanity is a tragedy.

Dog's Xmas

Whenever Emmanuelle drops down to Gamone for a few days, as is often the case, she looks after, not only her father (who takes pleasure in cooking for his epicurean daughter), but our dog too. Yesterday, I was attempting to save my virtual yacht in the Vendée Globe regatta from running into a calm zone... unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, Manya took Sophia out for a long walk on the slopes. And I used a long-focal lens to take a photo of them from my bathroom window.

OK, I agree. That's a terribly lazy approach to taking photos of your daughter and your dog. Quick, I need to throw in a few plausible excuses! As everybody knows, I'm getting on in years, and I can no longer step out boldly in the Xmas weather and wander around on the slopes. Besides, that silly computerized regatta is truly exciting but demanding. Ask my son François... who seems to have suddenly decided to pull out of the rat race and visit New Zealand.

For Sophia, apart from strolling around on the slopes of Gamone with Manya, it might be said that happiness is a sunny morning.

Emmanuelle is constantly aware that our dog, like all of us, appreciates acts of kindness... such as a Xmas gift of a soft pillow.

One of the nicest images in the Cosmos is that of a yawning dog leaning on a fat, soft, warm pillow on a sunny morning.

It's the canine equivalent of pulling out of the rat race, and indulging in lazy delicious sleep.

With lessons from my children and my dog (and Christine, too), it's not impossible that I'm slowly acquiring wisdom.

BREAKING NEWS: Over the last twelve hours or so, I've been receiving messages from alarmed observers, virtual skippers in the Vendée Globe regatta, who can't understand the circumstances in which my son suddenly turned his vessel in a northerly direction. Has he gone mad? Did he fall overboard, leaving a phantom vessel with nobody aboard? Is this some kind of a subtle navigational strategy aimed at getting back into the race? To say the least, the behavior of François was disturbing... and many of his fellow navigators have been worried, if not anguished. You know how it is. We round-the-globe sailors are a tightly-knit bunch. Many of us have left our wives, family and friends back in Brittany while we brave the oceans of the world on our computer screens... and we naturally get worried as soon as one of our kin gives the impression that something might have gone wrong. OK, we can always call upon the friendly Royal Australian Navy to intervene, if the worst comes to the worst, to get us out of trouble. But we don't necessarily wish to upset Aussie taxpayers. In any case, the good news is that my son François, on Kerouziel, is back in the race. The bad news is that he's going to miss out on an excellent opportunity of visiting New Zealand. In case readers don't know, that's the land where his paternal ancestor William Pickering [1843-1914], after whom I was named, did the basic surveying for the future city of Auckland. In that same land, more recently, a certain French secret-service agent named Alain Mafart, who happens to be a relative of my son's mother, Christine Mafart, organized the destruction of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior. As they say in the land of Confucius: That's the way the cookie crumbles. In any case, it's a fact that we navigators live in a crazy world where all kinds of exceptional events can happen... including encounters with vast zones where the wind no longer blows. That's sailing. That's life.

Hey! I'm wondering. Are Vendée Globe skippers allowed to sail with a dog aboard?

Laptops selling better than desktops

This charming photo (copyright Sipa) accompanies an article in the website of the Nouvel Observateur weekly [display] revealing that sales of laptop computers are now beating those of desktops.

Personally, I went to a lot of trouble to design a heavy steel-framed walnut-wood desk for my computer. I've had the same ideal office chair for some thirty years, along with optimal lighting. I envy the girl in the photo, who can apparently work efficiently while seated in the open air, on what looks like a wharf, with her laptop between her knees. Whenever I try to use my MacBook outside, the sunlight prevents me from seeing anything on the screen. And I would be incapable of typing if the machine were balanced on my legs. There must be some trick I've never learned. Or maybe it's a marketing trick.

Oysters for Jesus

As far as I know, oysters were not a biblical foodstuff. As members of the shellfish category, oysters are not, of course, kosher. But I don't think anybody in the early Christian world used to eat them. It wasn't until Roman times in France (Cancale in Brittany) and Britain (Whitstable in Kent) that humans got around to consuming this weird creature. Why is it, then, that people here in France have the habit of gobbling down huge quantities of oysters at Xmas celebrations?

On Xmas eve, for example, friends dropped in for a drink... with a bag of oysters, which I promptly opened. This morning, for Manya and me, I opened another couple of dozen oysters.

There are other traditional Xmas foodstuffs in France, such as chapon (castrated rooster) and foie gras, but I've always had the impression that the true gastronomic spirit for end-of-year festivities involves oysters. Why is this so? Is there some special reason why French oyster farmers have decided to concentrate upon this particular time of the year to bring their produce to market?

Oysters have always had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as an aphrodisiac product. That might be the reason why they're associated with this festival that celebrates the birth of a child. But this explanation has two obvious weaknesses. First, the season of lovemaking would have been nine months earlier on. Second, in the case of the offspring named Jesus, we're told that there wasn't any lovemaking at all. So, my theory's not very good. Maybe somebody has a better explanation for all these Xmas oysters...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Smoking gun

I recall a Dilbert story in which the pointy-haired boss got caught in heavy rain in the parking lot and turned up soaked at the office. Dilbert and his fellow workers convinced their boss that he should strip down to his underwear and put his suit in a microwave oven to dry in a few minutes. It sounded like a good idea. However, when the steaming suit was extracted from the oven, it had shrunk several sizes, and the boss looked even more bulky than usual for the rest of the day.

Thankfully, in France, most gendarmes are smarter than Dilbert's boss. There are exceptions, of course, such as these movie specimens in the fashionable Mediterranean port of Saint-Tropez:

Recently in eastern France, we heard of a real-world gendarme who would probably be ill-advised to tackle studies in rocket science. The young man was annoyed to discover that his Sig Sauer SP 2202 firearm had got damp while he was walking in the rain.

Back at the barracks, the gendarme put his gun in an oven, hoping that some warm air would dry it out.

Sadly, the elegant German-made semi-automatic firearm, composed to a large extent of synthetic polymers, melted into an ugly unusable mess.

An observer pointed out that certain gendarmes are accompanied by dogs. Maybe the authorities in charge of gendarmes should issue explicit warnings concerning actions that are strictly prohibited in the case of police dogs and their masters who've been caught out in the rain...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Australian liberator vessel

This evening on French TV, along with countless other followers of the Vendée Globe around-the-world yacht race, I was overjoyed to see an Australian warship from Fremantle, the HMAS Arunta, in the Indian Ocean down near Antarctica, moving towards the yacht of the Breton skipper Yann Eliès, who broke his leg on Thursday.

Click the image to see a short video taken by another skipper, Marc Guillemot, who had spent the last 48 hours hovering alongside the yacht of his stricken friend, but unable to assist him physically. As a privileged spectator of the rescue operations, Marc Guillemot was thrilled to receive a Xmas gift from the Australian marines in their dinghy: bread, fruit and a bottle of wine! Overcome with emotion, Guillemot explained that dozens of dolphins surrounded the yachts at the instant the Australian navy dinghy arrived on the scene. He added that, although he's not in any way superstitious, he looked upon the gathering of these dolphins as an extraordinary happening.

After the rapid and expertly-executed intervention of the Australian vessel and her crew of a hundred marines, the French prime minister François Fillon sent an appreciative message to his Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd.

This is a photo of the injured skipper, Yann Eliès, in the hands of his Australian rescuers:

Here he is in the dinghy, just before boarding the Australian frigate:

Yann Eliès comes from a Breton city, Saint-Brieuc, which I happen to know quite well. Christine grew up there, and our son was born there.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Trade shows v. Apple stores

For the last twenty-four hours, the international computer world has been thrown into a feverish state of agitation following a couple of negative but innocuous announcements from Apple:

-- First, the company will no longer be participating in the traditional Macworld Expo in San Francisco, 5-9 January 2009.

-- Second, Apple's CEO Steve Jobs will not be delivering his usual keynote address at that trade show.

Many observers jumped immediately to the conclusion that Jobs must have a major health problem, in the wake of his bout with pancreatic cancer. It's true that, on recent occasions, he has had a lean and hungry look, but that's surely because (as Shakespeare put it) he thinks too much. Me too, if I were Jobs, I wouldn't bother too much about trivial stuff such as shaving, eating and sleeping. If I were Jobs, I reckon that I probably wouldn't even try to win friends and influence certain kinds of people. But I would surely be intent, like him, upon pushing forward the limits of the personal computing revolution. Readers will have understood: Steve Jobs is my personal Che Guevara!

The official Apple explanation of this doubly-negative announcement is that the company is less attracted, these days, by old-fashioned trade shows, because they've been developing bigger and better marketing vectors, notably in the form of so-called Apple stores, which are sprouting up like golden mushrooms in various high-profile places.

While I understand that people might be nostalgic about the glamorous ambience of mega-sized trade shows, and the excitement of listening to a charismatic Steve Jobs preaching from such pulpits, I don't feel that this has much to do with the joyful efficiency of working/playing with Apple's superb products.

It's sad to say so: The people who get the most upset about unexpected news from Apple are rich shareholders, who often know fuck all about computing and don't necessarily give a shit about this phenomenon (except to calculate their dividends). Do they really care a great deal about the health of the man in charge of ideas, apart from the fact that it would be annoying to have to replace him if he were no longer able to work? That's not personal computing. That's personal greed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ancient house for sale

In the region where I live, one of the most interesting places is the charming medieval village of Saint-Antoine l'Abbaye.

In the Middle Ages, a knight returned here with a treasure from Constantinople: the relics of the 4th-century Egyptian hermit Saint Anthony, who is generally considered as the inventor of monasticism. The bones of a major saint, in those days, were immensely valuable, since their presence in a place could attract hordes of pilgrims: a permanent source of prosperity. In the village that now bears the saint's name, a great church was erected to house the relics.

Recently, I was contacted by a female friend of a friend who asked me whether I would be prepared to build a website aimed at selling her ancient house in this village, whose façade is seen here:

I believe that the kind of individuals interested in purchasing such an exceptional place (maybe from outside France) would necessarily be enthusiasts of history and ancient buildings. So, I put a certain accent on that aspect of the situation in the website that I've just completed... which you can visit by clicking on the above image.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dubya is departing

Certain individuals leave the scene rapidly, at the speed of gravity.

Others take their time, leaving wearily in dribs and drabs, with their tail between their legs like a scolded dog.

It must be strange for George W Bush to find so many nice folk—often former friends—having trouble hiding their joy abut his imminent departure. Yesterday, at the climate talks in Poland, Brice Lalonde of France told a joke:

A man drops in at the White House and asks to see Bush. "He doesn't live here any more," says the doorman. The next day, and the day after, the fellow returns to the White House and asks the same question, receiving the same answer. On the fourth day, the exasperated doorman says: "I've told you several times already. President Bush is no longer here." The visitor flashes a contented grin. "I know he has gone. But it makes me so happy to hear you say that."

BREAKING NEWS: In Baghdad, Bush got booted. In a surprisingly expert style, the president ducked two leather projectiles launched, one after the other, in an equally sporting fashion, by a 28-year-old Iraqi journalist named Muntader al-Zaidi.

Verbal message (in Arabic) accompanying the first shoe: "This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is the farewell kiss, you dog!"

Verbal message accompanying the second shoe: "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!"

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rats

Here at Gamone, I'm accustomed to the usual presence of a few rodents of a rural kind, which I hardly ever see. They've never disturbed me greatly, although I often hear noise from a creature in the attic who seems to be playing around with a walnut, no doubt trying to figure out how to hold it still while he gnaws into it. Naturally, on the rare occasions that a mouse decides imprudently to step inside the house, it doesn't survive for long, because I leave a few traps in strategic passage ways. To rid the attic of rodents, I once used to encourage the presence here of feral cats, but they're unfriendly animals and they don't necessarily spend much time in the vicinity of the house. Besides, they can breed exponentially, and the odor of cat piss in the attic is worse than the presence of rodents.

Paris, like all big cities, is a different kettle of fish. You often see black rats scampering around in train stations.

A few weeks ago, there was even a scary story in the press about a railway employee at the big Saint-Lazare station in the heart of Paris who was infected by the bacterial disease of leptospirosis (not lethal, if treated in time), maybe transmitted to him by the huge colony of rats that inhabit every nook and cranny of this station.

By chance, at about the same time that this incident was reported in the French press, I came across a news story about a fascinating experiment in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, on the shores of the harbor, where the splendid Taronga Zoo is located. The star of the project is an indigenous Aussie animal known as the bush rat.

These bush rats don't normally behave in the nasty manner of Sydney's black rats, which first reached Australia on European sailing ships. That's to say, bush rats don't transmit diseases, they don't gnaw the plastic shielding of cables, they don't venture into houses and they don't even climb trees to devour birds' eggs. All in all, they're charming creatures who behave themselves, most of the time, in a quiet and unassuming manner, with shyness. If I understand correctly, the only way in which Australians could hope to get in contact with bush rats would be to invite them along for an outdoor barbecue alongside the swimming pool... but it's not sure they would turn up.

The general idea of the project, to be carried out under the supervision of Grainne Cleary from the Taronga Zoo, is that bush rats will be released in the Mosman area in the hope that these local fellows will get involved instantly in terrible brawls with the alien black rats. Yes, I should have pointed out that the only thing that annoys a bush rat, driving him crazily aggressive, is to run into a black urban rat. In such circumstances, the bush rat abandons his normally calm behavior and attacks the intruder. And black rats, apparently, aren't nearly as tough as they're made out to be. So, the Aussie rats should normally thrash the foreigners and finally chase them out of town. That, in any case, is what should theoretically happen...

I sent off an email in the hope of obtaining more detailed information from the Taronga Zoo. I was wondering, of course, whether bush rats from Down Under could be imported one day into Paris train stations. If so, would the Antipodean rats become homesick? Would these Aussie exratriates succumb hedonistically to the joys of living in gay Paris? Or might they in fact, ideally, chase all the nasty black rats out of Paris? The zoo wrote back with a promise to keep my suggestion in mind, and concluded their email with a battle cry followed by a smiley:

Today Mosman, tomorrow the rest of the world ;)

Imagine me trying to import Australian bush rats into Paris. I would surely need to get an authorization from Nicolas Sarkozy himself. I'm trying to think up the best way of starting my letter. Maybe it would be preferable to adopt a direct approach, right from the start:

Dear Monsieur le Président:
Do you want me to implement a miracle solution to the rat problem in Paris train stations? All you need to do is to let me import a few thousand Australian bush rats into the great capital of France...

The idea of a miracle solution to the problem of rats brings to mind a poem that thrilled me immensely when I first heard it, as a child: The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Although this legend was originally Germanic, and transmitted by the Brothers Grimm, we English-speaking children discovered the tale through the lilting words of the Victorian poet Robert Browning [1812-1889]. The first few lines of the story are as peaceful as a romantic fairytale, but we are rapidly plunged into rodent horror.

Hamelin Town's in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost five hundred years ago,
To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity.

Rats!
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats.
And licked the soup from the cook's own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

As children, listening to our teacher's recitation of the start of this familiar poem, we would await the moment in line 10 where the vermin is about to be named for the first time. The teacher would halt deliberately for a moment, and look up at us, expecting an answer. We kids would then shout out excitedly in unison: Rats!

After Hamelin's aldermen refused to pay the piper, he charmed all the children of the town with his pipe, and abducted them. Today, if a filmmaker were to invent such a sordid tale about a disgruntled rat-catcher who meted out his money-oriented revenge by kidnapping a throng of innocent juveniles, his movie would surely be censored.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dog dances to Grease music

Corina sent me a link to this delightful video:



Besides the fine footwork, sense of rhythm and choreography, I love the dog's enraptured gaze, staring up constantly at his mistress.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stratospheric golf

My aunt Nancy Smith in Sydney reads this blog, and she's a keen golfer, like her husband Peter. (The adjective "keen" is a pale approximation for the word I really want: something more like "addicted" or "religious". Maybe Nancy herself will tell me the right word.) Now, I know that the stratospheric privilege for a golfer is to play at Saint Andrews in Scotland, where the game was invented. It's a truly fabulous place: a kind of earthly paradise for golfers... but also a splendid university city, which charmed me immensely back in the 1970s when I was writing my guidebook on Britain.

Getting back to Nancy and her favorite sport, I'm aware that she goes on regular excursions with her husband and friends to exotic faraway golfing places. Well, I've found them a fabulous place for their next outing, in South America, at an altitude of 3,292 meters.

Knowing the physical form of Nancy (an Irish Walker/Kennedy descendant, like me), I reckon she would thrash these Bolivian ladies.

It's marvelously funny (or maybe funnily marvelous) that the universe is full of so many injustices that deserve to be bashed, thrashed and hit on their silly heads by powerful clubs... and yet we prefer to mete out this punishment to poor innocent golf balls. I retain in mind the surrealist image (fuzzy anecdote related to me by my cousin Peter Hakewill) of my dear mother Kath Walker once driving into a cane toad with a wedgie...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Simpsons revisited

Last night, I posted an angry article concerning a few silly happenings in my native land, including a court case that has applied the nasty "pornography" label to virtual sex acts of a comical kind performed by the comic-book Simpson personages. This morning, although my irritation had not abated, I decided to erase my acrimonious article, since it's pointless getting hot under the collar concerning affairs that don't touch me directly. Now, since my readers no longer have an opportunity of being joyfully depraved by the porn images of Homer Simpson and his wife that I had included in last night's article, I've decided to make up for their absence by providing links to four amusing videos in which Homer and his daughter Lisa encounter the fascinating Apple universe. [I can already hear my friend Corina lamenting: William, in the way of porn, that's worse! ]

Video #1 : A dazzling Mapple Store springs into existence in Springfield Mall. Young Lisa is excited to discover a fabulous world of Mypods, Myphones and other marvelous Mapple gadgets.

The Comic Book Guy—who has the habit of eating messy food behind the counter of his boutique—comes into the Mapple Store to complain.

Mapple man in black: "Did you get peanut butter in your Ethernet port once again?"

Comic Book Guy: "No, I got mayonnaise in the CD drive."

Homer lingers in front of a glowing computer.

Mapple man in black: "I see you're admiring our Mycube. It's fueled by dreams and powered by imagination."

Homer: "What does it do?"

Mapple man in black: "You should ask yourself: What can I do for it?"

Mapple products are expensive. Lisa envisages buying Myphonies, which are fake earpods for those who can't afford a real Myphone or Mypod, but she balks at the $40 price tag. By chance, Lisa receives a Mypod from a disgruntled clown who got it as gift and doesn't know what to do with it. She's thrilled.

Lisa: "I'm a Mapple person!"

Mapple man in black: "We're all Mapple people."



Video #2 : Privileged customers in the Mapple Store are invited to a live announcement from the charismatic big boss of the Mapple Corporation: "It is I, your insanely great leader, Steve Mobs." However, just as the Chief Imaginative Officer is about to deliver his revelations, Bart Simpson fiddles around with the public-address system in the Mapple Store, enabling him to broadcast a totally subversive speech. The listeners are stunned.

Comic Book Guy: "Traitor, your heart is blacker than your turtleneck."

Rendered furious, he hurls a sledgehammer at the multimedia screen... evoking Apple's famous publicity of 1984.



Apple 1984 : Here's the original video, a landmark in publicity:



Video #3 : Meanwhile, Lisa Simpson receives her Mybill: her huge Mapple bill for downloaded music.



Video #4 : Kind Mr Mobs invites Lisa to become an employee of the Mapple Corporation. Her job consists of telling pedestrians in the street to "think differently".



For aficionados of the real company and its products, this is fine stuff, full of subtle insider humor.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Happiness is infectious

An amusing cartoon in a men's magazine shows a doctor examining a poor guy whose face and genitals are covered in ugly red spots. The patient reminisces sadly: "The thing that attracted me most about that woman was her infectious laughter."

A recent study on the theme of happiness, published in the British Medical Journal, concludes that the best way to attain happiness is to be surrounded by happy people. To my mind, that earth-shaking conclusion is on a par with the affirmation that it's better to be happy, healthy and wealthy rather than sad, sick and penniless. One of the researchers, the Californian political scientist James Fowler, hit upon an elegant metaphor, suggesting that the contagion of happy emotions within a social network is a little like catching an STD (sexually transmitted disease). He explained: "Happiness not only spreads from person to person but also from person to person to person. [...] For example, in a network of sexual partners, if you have many partners and your partners have many partners, you are more susceptible to catching an STD."

An observer might wonder whether research of this kind is truly scientific, or whether we should be skeptical of such would-be studies. A critic said: "Friends select people to be their friends based on similar characteristics, and potentially happy people choose to be friends with other happy people." Fowler reacted: "The whole point of science is that you want to capture a great idea but then retain healthy skepticism." I agree. Happiness is a great idea. If science can indeed capture what it's all about, then so much the better for science and for all of us. Meanwhile, I'm immensely happy to remain a healthy skeptic.

Complacency

Although the nature and extent of his planetary media achievements do not necessarily fill me with joy, I listened humbly, with the utmost interest, to the advice meted out by our most successful compatriot (from a financial viewpoint), Rupert Murdoch:

"At this time in our history, the gravest threat to Australia's freedom and prosperity does not come from war or terrorism, it comes from the comfort that can make us content. Today, instant flows of information, the advance of trade and the rise of economies that reward risk and enterprise, are all combining to create a world where the opportunities ahead would be greater than anything we've seen in human history. [...] With so much talent, with so many advantages and with so much potential, I can think of no greater sadness for this century than an Australia that was willing to settle for just getting by. [...] I am reasonably sure that the consequences will probably not be dire. In my mind, that's the problem."

Half a century ago, when I spent a couple of years at Sydney University, I recall that the big keyword that summarized all the apparent evils awaiting students of my generation was apathy, meaning the refusal to get involved in the major challenges of our human existence. So, if we are to believe Murdoch, nothing much seems to have changed greatly over the years. But who knows? Maybe it's a fine quality these days to be accustomed to lounging around lazily, endowed with the basic necessities for survival, while waiting for life to roll on. On the surface, it sounds zen.

Trashy recruiting video

In my October article entitled New approach to Australian tourism [display], I expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the "gotta go walkabout" theme for enticing overseas visitors to lose themselves Down Under. Today, we find far worse, for another national cause: recruiting future champions for the Olympic Games.

[Click the image to see the video.]

I have the impression that the local communication specialists who make such promotional videos (including, above all, the notorious "what the bloody hell" tourism thing) don't have the necessary creative talents to produce the right messages in the right style. The presentation of the fellow with the big mouth is vulgar and offensive to the British. Besides, the violent message at the end—"Let's rip the Brits to bits"—conveys a particularly nasty impression of the alleged Aussie Olympic spirit. Incredibly and embarrassingly trashy.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Anglican call for action

As much as I'm totally bored by Christianity in general, and Anglicanism in particular, I must admit that I still have a soft spot for the personalities of my childhood faith. For example, I recently sent a word of congratulations to our family friend Peter Catt, formerly attached to Christ Church Cathedral in my native Grafton, now the newly-designated Dean of Brisbane.

In the tradition of the South African Anglican prelate Desmond Tutu, gentlemen of this kin can achieve political results. Today, the obvious target of African intellectuals and militants, including ecclesiastics, is the notorious 84-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Ugandan-born John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, is a lovely man, maybe a little too peacock-like colorful for my tastes. He has just affirmed bravely in The Observer: "Mugabe and his henchmen must now take their rightful place in The Hague and answer for their actions. [...] The time has come for Mugabe to answer for his crimes against humanity, against his countrymen and women and for justice to be done. [...] The time to remove them from power has come. [...] The winds of change that once brought hope to Zimbabwe and its neighbours have become a hurricane of destruction with the outbreak of cholera, destitution, starvation and systemic abuse of power by the state. [...] In Uganda, we were beaten, tortured, abused and hundreds were murdered, but never did we starve to death or see the level of suffering which is to be found in today's Zimbabwe. [...] The people of Zimbabwe look to the international community, especially the SADC (regional southern African bloc), to heed the cries of their suffering and the voices of our own conscience. [...] The time for any negotiated settlement which leaves Mugabe and his regime in power is over."

Amen, my dear archbishop. And what does Australia's Kevin Rudd have to say about this Zimbabwe affair? When I was a youth, the people of Rhodesia were considered as our Commonwealth cousins. Were we thinking of the blacks or the whites? The latter, exclusively, I suspect.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Correlation between balls and brains

When I was a teenager in Australia, a good way of insulting a fellow was to call him a dickhead. I must admit, though, that I never really knew whether this was intended to mean that his head had the same shape as a penis, or an equivalent degree of intelligence, or a similar vocation in life, or some other more subtle resemblance.

Today, scientific research carried out in the UK has revealed that men of higher intelligence appear to have sperm of better quality. Results indicated that smart males who obtained higher notes in IQ tests tended to produce a greater quantity of sperm with greater mobility.

Now, if you're anything like me, I'll bet you were surprised to learn—in that last sentence—that mobility is an important factor in the clinical evaluation of sperm. We don't generally tend to imagine that these little critters need to travel to and from work every day, or that they like to go out driving in the countryside of a weekend. Well, the truth of the matter is that a lazy sperm who is not constantly up and about, in the style of an early bird catching worms, serves no useful purpose. The unique raison d'être of a self-respecting sperm is to track down an egg, crack it open and devour it in a single gulp, sunny side up. There's lots of tough competition from other sperms, who are totally lacking in brotherly love. In their search for an egg, they jostle and trample one another violently, like US shoppers stampeding into a Wal-Mart on sales day. Suffice it to say: May the best sperm win! We're talking of the most mobile young chap, in top physical form, with first-class sporting footware, at the wheel of the procreative equivalent of a red Ferrari. The brutal battle between competing sperms is a terribly vicious affair... like the Democratic primaries in the USA or the installation of a governing committee in the French Socialist party. Weak-hearted sperms, those that have let their regular gym work slip, those that drink, or those that have wasted their physical resources hanging around in bars with loose women, don't stand a chance. The quest for the egg, like the Graal, is even more terrifyingly Herculean than the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The "dickhead" epithet might therefore be a disguised compliment, designating a superior male with balls in his brain (or maybe rather brains in his balls), whose gushing intellect and spurts of wisdom have the same volume and mobility as his sperm. In any case, this correlation between superior intelligence and award-winning sperm has an interesting corollary. Normally, according to Darwinian evolution, top-quality sperm should have a greater survival value, and it should be giving rise to more and more offspring with superior intelligence. In other words, our planet should be subjected to a relentless phenomenon of ever-increasing intelligence. Spiraling brilliance, wisdom, creativity... you name it. Frankly, I don't know. From my personal viewpoint, I'm convinced that, in our marvelous modern world, there are indeed more and more... dickheads.

Helping my mate

A few days ago, my billy goat Gavroche got into a terrible brawl with my donkey Moshé. I had to rush down the wet slopes, wearing thongs and a track suit, to separate them before any harm was done.

When I reached the scene of the fight, Gavroche was still screeching, because Moshé seemed to be standing on him. I was quite worried, because I had the impression that Gavroche had trouble getting back up on to his little legs. I followed him around on the slopes for half an hour, and I was relieved to see that he was recovering his spirits slowly but surely. Finally, I tied a rope around him and led him back up to the house, where Moshé would not be able to restart the fight.

I felt terribly sorry that a quiet and independent little fellow like Gavroche could be the innocent target of a powerful giant such as Moshé. While meditating upon the injustice of life on our planet, and no doubt everywhere else in the Cosmos where something like DNA might be found, I rapidly cut up a bowl of red apples for Gavroche. This dish (my goat's favorite food... provided that the bits are cut up small enough to enter his tiny mouth) worked wonders on Gavroche.

Munching apples, Gavroche forgot all about his recent brawl and his trivial injuries, and I too abandoned my pessimistic philosophizing about what the Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno once called the Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida... the title of his major work, The Tragic Sense of Life in English, which marked me greatly when I was a student.

But don't misunderstand me. It's not because a bowl of apples can resuscitate a wounded Gavroche that I look upon our earthly condition as a joyful picnic or a musical comedy with a happy ending. On the contrary. The older I get, the more I sense the dominant presence of cruelty, pain and injustice in the world. But I'm comforted nowadays by the marvelous idea, often expressed by Richard Dawkins, that the world at large is never intentionally cruel, so to say... speaking as if the universe had "intentions". The Cosmos simply doesn't give a damn!

PS News from Spain about the dog Pif. Bob told me, a few days ago, that his daughter Alison and her dog are getting along fine in their new life on a ranch near Malaga. But Alison would like to see her dog put on more weight, and she tries to make him eat a maximum. That news doesn't disturb me greatly, because I've always considered Pif as a naturally lean and lanky dog. He'll probably shoot up suddenly like a massive beanstalk, when Alison is least expecting it. And she'll then have to feed him on prime steak. Bravo, dear dog! I know my Pif...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Milady has a prominent nose

Imagine a fellow who has been living alongside his lady for ages, admiring longingly and lustfully her physical beauty, and exploring intimately her body on countless occasions... without ever noticing that his loved one has a big nose. Why not? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, rather than in the nose of the beholden.

Mountains are like maidens. Up until now, I hadn't really noticed that my cherished Cournouze has a distinctly aquiline proboscis.

Clouds normally conceal, but an autumn mist has revealed the unexpected truth. So what? For all you know, chers voyeurs, I'm turned on by big noses. I've always found the Cournouze sexy. Maybe it's her voluptuous nose that has been arousing my Alpine libido all this time. The worst thing of all would be the idea that it's a Pinocchio nose, that of a liar. Indeed, if ever I were to learn that my dear Cournouze was unfaithful, and that she loved another solitary gentleman, not me, then I would surely succumb from a rare malady named Gamone Despair. But nothing proves yet that we are at the gates of this affliction. I think the real problem was an unusual spread of morning mist over the slopes of Châtelus.

Man created God in Queensland

I used sarcastic words concerning the Queensland politician and would-be photographer who has detected the wrath of God behind the planet's current financial fuck-up. But don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-Queensland. In fact, some of my best friends have been Queenslanders. Indeed, my father was born there, in Rockhampton, and his own father retired to a place on the Gold Coast, Burleigh Heads, that he thought of as the nearest approximation to Paradise on the surface of our planet. But I've often felt that Queensland thinking—and political thinking in particular—can be rather... well, different, as my mother used to say when she couldn't find an appropriate synonym for "weird".

I've just stumbled upon an enlightened Queenslander named Ronnie Williams: a musician, father of five, who doesn't like the idea that state schools in his native state are dispensing religious instruction in a surreptitious fashion. He blew up, in particular, when his daughter was asked to help make a replica of Noah's Ark at the local state school. Well, Ronnie Williams has set up an imaginative website named Renaissance of Reason. As a teenage adept of romantic pantheism, I was thrilled to discover that Williams invokes this same kind of thinking in the context of his movement called Infinite Deity (where the term "deity" appears to me as in bad taste).

[Click the image to visit the website.]

You know how wide-eyed smiling Evangelical groups have been stuffing God down our ears for ages with their syrupy musical stuff. Well, here's an amusing Ronnie Williams variation on this theme:




Some people might consider that Williams, too, is "different"... when he advocates, for example, "a simple Palaeolithic-inspired diet supplemented by a sensible vitamin and mineral regimen". Critics will say that we're in the same ballpark as James Bidgood, who suggested that we should seek explanations of the current financial mess in the Book of Revelations. I don't really know whether my compatriot is a serious intellectual disciple of great god-veering present-day thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. I would simply conclude that, like my father, Ronnie Williams appears to me as an inspired and intelligent Queenslander... of the quiet kind I appreciate.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lunatic at large

In the Aussie political arena, there's a recently-elected Queenslander who's bonkers: Big Bad Jimmy Bidgood. He's got kangaroos hopping all around in his head.

You'll see that the fiery background in this portrait (borrowed from the ABC and slightly retouched) is perfect. A few days ago, outside parliament house, a 28-year-old Latvian fellow doused himself in petrol with the intention of committing suicide by fire, to protest against the fact that his parents—who have been settled in Australia for 11 years—cannot obtain a permanent visa. At the moment the poor fellow was fumbling around trying to set himself on fire, Bidgood happened to be passing by. What did he do? Did he rush in to save the life of the desperate protester? No, Big Bad Jimmy dragged out his camera and took a photo of the guy. Later, when police and journalists arrived on the scene, Bidgood attempted to sell his photo to the press! Not surprisingly, Bidgood was sternly reprimanded by the prime minister Kevin Rudd himself, and ordered to apologize both to his parliamentary colleagues and to the family of the protester.

Taking advantage of his sudden notoriety, Big Bad Bidgood then decided to speak out his mind about the worldwide financial crisis. His words were startling, somewhat crazy: "I believe there is God's justice in action in what is going on here. We haven't seen the end of it. The ultimate conclusion is like I say, we look at Bible prophecy, we are going towards a one world bank and a one world monetary system. And if you believe the word of God and you read Revelations... you will see clearly what is being spelt out. We are in the end times."

I've always believed that, in my native land, there's something fundamentally wrong with many politicians. They often seem to look upon their vocation, not as a service towards the good of the nation and the well-being of their compatriots, but as a platform upon which they can elevate their personal status, particularly from a financial viewpoint. So, Bidgood's trying to cash in on the suicide attempt doesn't surprise me greatly. But the idea of exploiting the visions of St John of Patmos as guidelines for solving international monetary problems is a novel aspect of Down Under statesmanship.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fabulous Fanny

My blog-writing slowed down somewhat over the last week because I decided to spend a little time producing a readable presentation of the genealogy of my compatriot friend Sheridan Henty, whose ancestors came from Surrey and Kent.

[Click the image to access my work on the Heaths.]

A year or so ago, Sheridan gave me a copy of an old family tree, and I've been aware that, if I didn't document it correctly, it was likely to disappear, which would be a pity.

Amusing anecdote. The family tree states that an 18th-century fellow named William Heath was a gambler and a spendthrift, who ended up squandering all the inherited possessions of the ancient family. It then says that he married a girl named Fanny Seymour, a niece of the Marquess of Hertford. Now, that tale intrigued me, because marquesses are rare creatures in the English peerage, and I couldn't understand how a chap like William could have won the hand of a noble woman named Seymour, descendant of the 1st Duke of Somerset, brother of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. I felt that there had to be a hitch somewhere, so I set out on a quest to identify William's beloved Fanny.

I soon found a woman who matched the given description: a certain Anne Seymour [1748-1828], niece of the 1st Marquess. More than a dozen years older than William, she had married a nobleman named John Damer. After seven years of an unhappy marriage, her husband blew his brains out with a pistol in Covent Garden. Left to her own resources, his widow soon became a celebrated sculptor. She is known, in particular, for a marble bust of her friend Horatio Nelson. Her bronze bust of the great English naturalist Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook to Australia, is particularly imposing.

Anne Seymour Damer (as she is generally called today) studied under the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Cerrachi, who produced a life-sized marble statue (housed today in the British Museum) of his young pupil, attired in ancient robes.

Anne's closest confident was the effeminate Earl of Oxford, Horace Walpole, ten years younger than her. She was never the wife of William Heath. Besides, it appears that Anne preferred female partners. In any case, she was no doubt capable of infatuating her young admirer, and helping him spend what remained of his fortune.

Why, I wondered, would William have called his friend Fanny, rather than Anne? This morning, I discovered that a popular novel had been published when William was 9 years old. Although the story was in no way connected with Anne Seymour Damer, it probably enabled William Heath to fantasize.

Poor William! Not only was he carried away by a noble lesbian widow who surely preferred the cold touch of marble and bronze to the caresses of her young admirer. He had fallen in love with the heroine of a Georgian novel!