Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's a small spy world

In 1964 and 1965, I worked as an assistant English teacher at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Then Christine and I were married in May 1965, and I had to think about earning my living. Through a friend of friends, I found myself working as a French/English translator for an electronics company named CSF, which stood for Compagnie générale de télégraphie Sans Fil, which can be translated literally as General Company for Telegraphy Without Wires. The company was founded in 1918, whence its old-fashioned name. For me, it was quite a boring job, because I had to translate highly technical stuff that I didn't necessarily understand.

The CSF had built the Cyrano radar system installed in the nose of Mirage jet fighters from Dassault, and most of my work consisted of translating the user manuals for this military stuff. Funnily enough, I learned that Australia happened to be a client for these early Mirage/Cyrano systems, but I never had any contacts with compatriots during the four dull months I spent at CSF. I remember meeting up with CSF engineers who were associated with a man named Henri de France [1911-1986] who had invented the Sécam TV standard. The CSF had also invented an early version of an audiovisual jukebox that displayed a video at the same time as the song, but it was a commercial flop. During my brief stay at CSF, maybe the most amusing job I had consisted of translating a speech to be made in England by the big boss, Maurice Ponte [1902-1983], who was a celebrated personage in French electronics history. His speech included words of apology for all the faults in his English. This seemed silly to me, because normally there wouldn't be any English errors at all in my translation.

Retrospectively, I'm not surprised by the idea that French companies such as CSF interested the Soviet Union back in 1965, because the Communists wanted to become independent in all the high-tech domains, and they imagined they could achieve this goal by stealing and copying Western inventions. Inversely, companies such as Thomson-Brandt and CSF—which would merge, a few years later, to form Thomson-CSF—looked upon the Soviet Union as a possible customer in the field of domestic electronics. So, it was normal that professional people on both sides of the Iron Curtain should become acquainted.

According to what I learned from a French TV documentary last night, I may well have been a colleague of this engineer, Jacques Prévost, back in 1965. But I have no recollection of ever running into him at CSF.

At that time, there was a sleazy Russian "diplomat" named Vladimir Vetrov stationed in Paris, and he became acquainted professionally with Prévost. Vetrov, an alcoholic, smashed up an embassy vehicle while driving in a drunken state. Normally, this accident would have put an end to Vetrov's diplomatic career. Well, in circumstances that remain fuzzy, Vetrov asked Prévost if he would be kind enough to get the automobile repaired, discreetly and rapidly. Prévost—who had never, at any moment, been an adept of any kind of espionage, neither industrial nor military—obliged, and thereby won a Russian friend for life.

To cut a long story short, years later, Vetrov—who had never forgotten the kindness of his engineer friend in Paris—started inundating spontaneously the Thomson-CSF representative in Moscow, Xavier Ameil, with tons of top-secret documents. Exceptionally, the Russian traitor asked for nothing in return. Vetrov had grown to hate his native land, and he had only one desire: to cripple the Soviet Union by giving away as many of their confidential documents as possible.

Not long after the documents started to arrive, the French secret service let the Thomson-CSF employee get back to his ordinary work, enabling French specialists to step in to take delivery of the huge quantity of documents that Vetrov was still supplying. They invented an English code-name for the Russian traitor: Farewell. Soon after, François Mitterrand kicked out 43 Soviet "diplomats", and Ronald Reagan was informed of all the precious stuff that had arrived in France. The rest—the crumbling of the Soviet Union and Communism—is world history...

Concerning the intelligence that played a fundamental role in the fall of the Soviet Union, the CIA has little to brag about today, since almost everything was handed to them on a brass plate.

Click their website banner to see a brief article on the Farewell affair.

The moral of this story is that, unlike the incredibly complex tales invented by espionage authors such as John Le Carré, a huge real-life affair resulting in the divulgation of top-secret files can be triggered by trivial events. Such an affair can start from almost nothing: a drunken driver, disgruntled about how his native land is behaving, who gets his automobile repaired by a foreign friend. And yet it can blow up into something big enough to overturn an empire and an ideology.

You remember the fable about the runaway slave Androcles who removed a thorn from a lion's paw. Later, he came face-to-face with that same lion in a Roman arena, whereupon the lion rewarded the kindness of Androcles by refusing to eat him. And they left the arena as liberated friends, to the applause of the Roman onlookers.

So, if ever, late at night, you come upon a drunken foreigner who has just rammed his vehicle into a lamp post, be kind to him. Call a pickup truck to tow the damaged automobile to a garage, and take the guy back home to your place to let him sleep off his drunkenness on your couch. You never know: your name could go down in history as the unwitting instigator of an earth-shaking revolution.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rural roots

Once, when I was chatting about family-history research with my father-in-law Jacques Mafart, he told me that such investigations would inevitably be dull and fruitless in the case of his ancestors. "Although I don't have many facts concerning my early ancestors in Brittany, I'm fairly sure they were all members of ancient Breton farming families who rarely moved far away from the villages where they grew up." As an Australian, whose ancestors had left the Old World and sailed out to the Antipodes (just as I had made the reverse trip—in largely more comfortable conditions—in 1962), I wasn't accustomed to the notion of ancestors remaining fixed in the same place and leading the same kind of agricultural existence for generation after generation. I was conditioned into considering that ancestors were primarily, if not necessarily, pioneers who spent their time jumping from one spot on the globe to another, and changing constantly their lifestyles. To put it bluntly, in spite of all my personal family-history research, I had never really learned the profound everyday sense of the concept of roots. Rural roots...

Napoleon Bonaparte described England (borrowing an expression invented by the Scottish economist Adam Smith) as a nation of shopkeepers. I don't know if anybody got around to making such a sweeping generalization, but France might have been described, at that time, as a nation of farmers.

Today, as you cross the French countryside in high-speed trains that are a modern marvel of engineering, you can still see to what extent France has remained a great agricultural nation. Rural France is a vast patchwork quilt of pastures, fields, woods and vineyards, crossed by a dense networks of highways, roads, lanes and tracks. Seen from the windows of a train, the French countryside is a splendid visual poem, evolving subtly at all times of the year. Personally, whenever I travel by train in France, I never bother to bring along something to read, because it's always an intense visual pleasure for me to spend my time watching the magnificent landscapes. The various buildings on each farm property, even when glimpsed fleetingly for a few seconds, tell stories. You obtain at a glance a train's-eye view of what kind of a family it is: their basic agricultural activities, their relative prosperity or poverty, the nature and state of their residence, their life style...

With roots like that, it's hardly surprising that one of the biggest happenings of the year in Paris is the agricultural show.

For politicians, it's a must to show up and be photographed at the Paris agricultural show... otherwise they run the risk of losing the support of the vast hordes of electors with rural roots, including those who still live on the land. In years to come, no doubt, politicians will find it more worthwhile, from an efficiency viewpoint, to be seen at technology shows. For the moment, though, it still pays to drop in to the biggest farm in France. Jacques Chirac—seen here in 1975, when he was the prime minister—played a major role in elevating this annual visit to the rank of a sacred ritual.

Charles de Gaulle had evoked jokingly the difficulties of governing correctly and calmly a nation that produces 246 varieties of cheese. Chirac, on the other hand, took pleasure in taking the reins of a nation with countless varieties of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, etc. Young people laughed at Chirac when he referred to a computer mouse (apparently an unknown item in his personal environment) by the rural term designating a field mouse. But everybody forgave the French president for not being a computer geek. On the other hand, people would have been discouraged without the reassuring image of Chirac fondling farm animals, and chatting with rural folk as if he were one of them... which he was, in a way.

For Nicolas Sarkozy, the obligation of visiting the agricultural show, and trying to caress tenderly the nose of a cow as if it were a woman, is a cross he must bear.

The president knows full well that nobody in France is likely to imagine their president as a rural lad, so he doesn't have to take himself too seriously... which is fine for everybody, since the phenomenon of Sarko taking himself seriously is even more unpleasant than stepping into fresh cow shit.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Radio voice of my childhood

A month before I was born, on 24 September 1940, the Nazis had started to bomb British factories, aerodromes and communication links. Then they got around to daily raids on cities such as Liverpool and London. As a young child at Waterview in South Grafton, I must have been immersed in the wartime radio broadcasts, because the voice of Vera Lynn and the words and music of her songs are as vivid in my mind today as if I had just been lulled for the first time by their soft tones and rhythms.

It's amazing for me to learn that the grand old lady is alive and well today. On March 20, she'll be 92.

Maybe it's because of the following song that countless Australians of my generation learned that the English Channel was bordered by tall white chalk cliffs. Those of us who have problems in trying to imagine blue-feathered birds in the English sky must understand that Vera Lynn's symbolic "bluebirds" above the English Channel were in fact Spitfire fighter aircraft.

The haunting refrain of Vera Lynn's following song—no doubt her greatest success—was a prayer for the safe return of soldiers:

The great English cities were blacked out at night so that Nazi bombers would not be able to find them. The bombs, too, must have cut off the electricity in many places. So, the image of awaiting the return of the lights is both a metaphor of peace and a reality.

I'm surprised at times to realize that, although I was a child out in the Antipodes, the events and the spirit of this harsh period appear to have marked me.

History, heritage and tourism

Last week, Natacha phoned to suggest that I might watch a TV evening on Corsica. Although she has always lived in her native Provence, Natacha is linked to this unique island through her maternal ancestors, and she has often looked for superlatives to tell me about the magnificent landscape and the spirit of Corsica.

"All they're ever asking of visitors, " explained Natacha, "is to respect scrupulously the Corsican people and their culture."

That sounded fair enough to me. In any case, although I've never set foot in Corsica, and have no current plans to go there as a tourist, I decided to drop in on the TV evening about the place that is often designated as "the island of beauty". Well, I ended up watching in amazement a splendid documentary (I said already, in my previous post, that French TV can be incredibly good) that obliged me to reflect upon the bundle of themes summed up in my title: history, heritage and tourism. And the outcome of my reflections was both novel (for me, that is) and positive.

To my mind, these three concepts are different but closely linked:

— In general, history should interest and concern anybody who agrees with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in The Life of Reason: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I realize, of course, that many people are totally uninterested in history. They would never go out of their way to visit a place solely because of its links with the past, nor would they lift a little finger to contribute to the conservation of historical edifices, artifacts and archives. They do not seek to understand, let alone appreciate, the past. In fact, they want to have nothing to do with it.

— What we refer to as heritage might be thought of as the particular subset of history that has unfolded, as it were, in your back yard. Not necessarily your geographical backyard (so-called local history), nor even your biological backyard (genealogy), but at least a backyard that you've personally "adopted", in the spirit of a foster parent who has decided to take care of, and bring up, a child.

— Finally, as far as tourism is concerned, most often it lies outside the domains of history and heritage. People don't visit Disneyland or Las Vegas, nor even the French Riviera, for reasons linked to history or heritage. But countless serious tourists (I prefer to refer to them by means of a lovely old-fashioned term: pilgrims) visit various precious spots on the planet in a quest for vestiges of past events, past constructions, past societies, past individuals...

The TV documentary that Natacha advised me to watch was entitled Gardiens des trésors de Corse (Guardians of the treasures of Corsica), and it concerned the guardianship of three different kinds of Corsican treasures: exotic specimens in the marine sanctuary of the Lavezzi Isles, ecclesiastic architecture and, last but not least, Corsican haute cuisine.

In the first domain, the guardian is, to a large extent, a maritime policeman, constantly on the lookout for tourists whose incursions into the protected site might harm the precious fauna and flora. In the third domain, cooking, I was struck above all by a variety of Corsican beef cattle with striped tiger-hued hides, which devour the foliage of wild olive trees. Apparently, the meat is pure nectar, but the proud grazier refuses to sell his beasts to mainland butchers unless they drop in personally at his property. Then there's a variety of fat little black pigs, who run around freely on the slopes. Transformed into smoked hams, their creamy fat is said to be even more succulent than the red meat. As I write, my mouth waters...

The part of the documentary that most impressed me concerned the restoration of ancient churches in the Castagniccia (chestnut) region, south-west of Bastia. This work is supervised and financed to a large extent by the republican authorities in charge of old buildings. But the profound sense of the word "heritage" is made manifest by the involvement of the local people, whose attitudes towards the restoration projects are expressed superbly in the documentary.

Many of these rural Corsicans are religious in an old-fashioned Mediterranean fashion, which involves the adoration of statues, the kissing of painted icons, and colorful processions through village streets. Needless to say, this kind of fervor leaves me cold personally, because I wasn't brought up in that kind of atmosphere and, even if I had been, I would have surely abandoned such practices as soon as I grew up. But the marvelous aspect of this relationship between the Corsican folk, their religious traditions and their ecclesiastic heritage is the fact that, in their minds, all this is strictly "for real". They're not putting on a show for tourists. They probably don't give a damn about outsiders, leaving that for hotel-keepers and restaurant-owners. And we hear constantly about the ways in which the local folk often react to new settlers from the mainland. To my mind, that's the right of these native Corsicans: their birthright. To a lesser extent, I've encountered the same kind of reactions since settling down here at Choranche.

Corsicans look upon the history and the heritage of their island and their culture as if they were taking care of a dearly-loved child, protecting him from harm and teaching him to grow up in the best imaginable circumstances. Admittedly, it's easier to appreciate history and heritage when your native cocoon happens to be a green island in the Mediterranean, rather than a sad wasteland. The TV documentary made it clear that there is much natural beauty in Corsica, but countless generations of Corsicans have no doubt enhanced that beauty through their works. Today, they are justly proud of their past. They have nothing to prove to anybody, no excuses to make, no lessons to receive. In a nutshell, they're authentic.

Monday, February 23, 2009


I've often expressed the opinion that French TV can, at times, be incredibly good: a powerful medium in the hands of exceptionally talented creators with humanistic ideals. Admittedly, it's not like that all the time. You can find shit on French TV... but the ratio of good stuff to bad stuff is vastly superior in France to what I've seen elsewhere.

Last Friday evening, I watched a documentary by a French journalist, Daniel Grandclément, on the plight of children in Koranic "schools" in a village of Senegal named M'bour.

The documentary was so powerful, and some of the images were so terrifying, that I was left speechless... and I remain literally in that state. I simply don't know how to react in the face of those ugly images of young undernourished kids wincing in pain when they were whipped on the bare back and frail shoulders by a cruel adult guardian who uses this pedagogical method to inform the victim that he has made a mistake in his recitation of the Koran.

The children's misery is accentuated by the fact that they are poorly fed, dirty and dressed in rags, and they clearly don't get enough sleep.

The documentary certainly presented clearly the frightening conditions in which these poor kids are surviving. Maybe powerful TV messages of this kind can give rise to miracles. In any case, nothing short of a miracle could righten the terrible wrongs of M'bour, and attenuate the children's suffering.

Fabulous legends

There are countless reasons for visiting Paris, which include the possibility of climbing to the top of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, taking a boat trip along the Seine, or spending an evening at the Crazy Horse. [Personally, during my thirty or so years in Paris, I never did any of those three things.] As far as I'm concerned, one might decide to spend time in Paris solely in order to visit the medieval museum of the Hôtel de Cluny in the Latin Quarter.

Here, in the curious vault-like setting of a circular room with dimmed lighting, you can gaze upon the six magnificent tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn.

Now one comes upon them by chance, among chance corners, and is almost frightened to be here uninvited. But there are others passing by, though they are never many. The young people scarcely even halt before them, unless somehow their studies oblige them to have seen these things once, because of some particular characteristic they possess. Young girls one does occasionally find before them. For in the museums there are many young girls who have left the houses that can no longer keep anything. They find themselves before these tapestries and forget themselves a little.
Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke

The tapestries were commissioned by a wealthy judge in Lyon named Jean Le Viste, and woven in Flanders towards the end of the 15th century. These masterpieces are extraordinarily beautiful. They exploit a narrow palette of colors—mainly reddish orange, greenish blue and pale gold—but the hues are blended exquisitely to produce enchanting visual poetry. The themes are strangely sensual, although we cannot readily decipher the coded language of the scenes. One wonders, obviously, why the fair lady is accompanied constantly by that exotic white beast with a huge horn jutting out from its forehead.

The most mysterious of the six tapestries is the one shown above, in which the elegantly-attired lady stands in the opening of a luxurious tent labeled with an enigmatic inscription: A mon seul désir (To my desire only). She has removed her necklace, and is placing it in a jewel box held by her maid. Is she simply starting to undress, or does this ritual removal of the necklace have a deeper signification?

Not surprisingly, the beauty and the mysterious nature of these amazing medieval creations gave rise to legends about their origins. I'm particularly fond of the most ancient and tenacious legend, because it places the origin of the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn in the immediate vicinity of my home alongside Pont-en-Royans. Funnily enough, although the story I'm about to relate culminates in a fictitious explanation concerning the reason why the tapestries were created, almost everything else in the tale is perfectly authentic. Like all good stories, this one will take a little time to be told... particularly when it's me, the story-teller.

One of my earliest blog articles, appearing on 23 December 2006, was entitled When is a castle not a castle? [display]. I pointed out that there's an ancient watchtower on the slopes of a nearby mountain, just above Pont-en-Royans, at a place designated as Three Castles. It has that name because, once upon a time, from that observation point, you could in fact see three great castles down in the valley, in the territory known as the Royans. In my article of 20 June 2008 entitled Old times, forgotten places [display], I evoked the greatest of these three castles, called La Bâtie, which was the home of the Sassenage lords. Today, it has totally disappeared. But the ruins of one of the three ancient castles still stand, at Rochechinard, seen here:

In the 15th century, this fairy-tale castle received an unexpected and exotic guest, and modern authors are still writing books about him. Everybody has heard that the great Byzantine city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, whereupon its name was changed to Istanbul. In fact, many scholars consider this event and this date as marking the end of the Middle Ages. The conqueror of Constantinople was named Mehmed II. He had made it clear that he wished to be succeeded by his second son, Djem Sultan, also known affectionately as Zizim. Understandably, the elder son, Bajazet, didn't like this idea one little bit. So, after Mehmed's death, Bajazet chased his brother away. Zizim sought refuge in Rhodes with the knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.

The grand master of that order was Pierre d'Aubusson, from the Château de Monteil (known today as Le Monteil-au-Vicomte, to the south of Guéret, and to the west of the great tapestry town of Aubusson). Acting no doubt with the approval of the pope, Pierre d'Aubusson actually kidnapped Zizim, in the vague hope of using him as a hostage capable of playing a role in the recovery of Constantinople. So, poor Zizim, who had dreamed of becoming the prince of Istanbul, found himself transported to France.

A senior member of the knights of the Order of Saint John was a certain Charles Alleman, whose family owned the castle at Rochechinard, not far from Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans, at the delightful spot where the Bourne runs into the Isère. One thing led to another, and our Zizim soon ended up as a permanent castle guest at Rochechinard.

At this point in my story, the plot thickens through the inclusion of a delicate dose of sexy spices, or spicy sex (depending on your tastes, if I may be excused for using that soupy metaphor)... To appreciate this new dimension of the tale, you need to know that, just down the road from my place, at the time of Zizim's extended holiday in our charming countryside alongside the Bourne and the Isère, the village of Pont-en-Royans happened to be the home of one of the most beautiful noble females who had ever appeared on the surface of the planet Earth. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the lady in question, but I can tell you that her name was Philippine de Sassenage, and that she was the fourth child and second daughter of Jacques de Sassenage, the lord of the Royans. She was such a stunning female that people had given her the Grecian nickname Helen, evoking Helen of Troy. But I hasten to add that her three sisters—named Françoise, Huguette and Isabeau—were said to be equally attractive. Here's a contemporary description of Philippine:

"Her face was oval. Her mouth was small. Her eyes were profound, black and full of spirit. Her physionomy was happy, and her character was surprising. She was only sixteen years old when she emerged from the convent at Saint-Just where she had been educated. Upon her return to the family castle of La Bâtie in the Royans, she was pursued by a crowd of admirers, including Saint-Quentin, Baron de Bressieu, Philibert de Clermont, the young man of Hostun, the lord of Claveyson, the lord of Murinais, and several others." We are told that Prince Zizim "soon joined in, increasing the number [of admirers] by placing his Ottoman pride at the feet of lovely Philippine".

Now, we've almost got back to the tapestries. There are just a few final phases in our complicated story. At about the time that Zizim started to fall madly in love with Philippine, his crusader keepers decided that he should be moved to another region: the Creuse department in the center of France. [I drive through there, with immense pleasure, every time I visit Christine in Brittany.]

The crusader folk arranged for the construction of a tower to house Zizim in the village of Bourganeuf, not far from the family castle of the individual who had betrayed Zizim in Rhodes: the knight Pierre d'Aubusson. Zizim remained imprisoned in his tower at Bourganeuf for about four years, giving him ample time to forget about Philippine before being bundled off to Rome, where he was imprisoned and finally poisoned.

I return, at last, to the tapestries, which became the focal point of a lovely legend. Maybe this legend was fueled by the fact that the patronymic of Pierre d'Aubusson evokes a great tapestry town in the Creuse. Maybe the legend reached a climax when the famous tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, inherited by descendants of the judge Jean Le Viste, were hung for a century or so (before being purchased in 1882 by the museum in Paris) in the Château de Boussac, not far from Aubusson, Bourganeuf and the region associated with Zizim.

According to this legend, the tapestries are so splendid, so ethereal and so mysterious, that they were surely a gift that the Turkish hostage Zizim had commissioned for the most beautiful creature on Earth: his future bride Philippine de Sassenage.

One final word. It is said that, if he had been liberated and given the opportunity of marrying Philippine, Zizim would have gladly abandoned his Islamic faith to become, like his wife, a Christian. In such circumstances, the crusader armies would have surely helped him defeat his evil brother Bajazet and obtain the throne that his father Mehmed had bequeathed to Zizim at Constantinople. Lady Philippine and her exotic Turkish unicorn Zizim would have surely changed the entire future course of world history. And today, we would have hordes of tourists from the Bosphorus and the eastern Mediterranean flocking to Rochechinard to take photos of the place where it all began...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

DNA test

To celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, I finally decided to order a DNA test. As everybody knows, the results will reveal the particular species of monkey from which I descend, and the jungle in which my ancestors lived, maybe even the kind of trees in which they built their homes. Besides that, this DNA test will no doubt confirm that I have an exceptionally high level of extremely healthy and active intelligence genes, and that I was genetically endowed to be a really superior guy from every point of view. Based upon hard facts, the test will no doubt also explain scientifically (for those who were not already aware of this particular aspect of my being) why I've always had a terrific sensual effect upon beautiful women, a little like Julio Iglesias (but without the singing) or George Clooney (without the Nescafé ads). And I'll be getting all this great information sent to my doorstep, direct from Arizona, for no more than 120 euros.

Well, the results of the test might not be quite like that. So maybe I should set aside my wishful thinking and describe the DNA test in a more modest down-to-earth way.

[Click the logo to visit the Family Tree DNA website.]

I lost no time in choosing a company to carry out my test because, in the genealogical domain, there aren't really very many companies around. The laboratories that you hear of in the news—when scientists talk, say, about cracking the genome of Neanderthals or the possibility of cloning furry mammoths—are not concerned with the DNA of ordinary mortals such as you and me. Most of the high-profile companies that advertise their high-priced services in DNA analysis are medically-oriented, which means that they're capable of obtaining personal data about your genetic makeup that might just prevent your descendants, one of these days, from purchasing life insurance, finding a partner and procreating, or even getting certain jobs. Apart from that, though, it's great to know yourself better from a health viewpoint. As far as genealogy is concerned, most people seem to agree that the Arizona-based company called Family Tree DNA is the ideal door to knock on, because they propose an infrastructure enabling you to meet up with other individuals with comparable DNA profiles.

One of the first sobering things you learn, when you step into the domain of genealogical DNA tests, is that specialists refer to the precious molecular fragments used in their analyses as junk DNA. Now, this doesn't mean that they think your ancestors are trash. Even if a living prince were to use DNA testing to confirm that he descended from a long-dead king, this would be done by means of junk DNA. The adjective "junk" simply draws attention to the curious fact (well, it's curious for newcomers) that the fragments of the DNA double helix yielding the most information as far as family links are concerned lie outside the all-important sequences of genetic coding that determine what kind of hereditary makeup we have. Between the genes, in our lengthy strand of DNA, there's a vast quantity of chemical "noise" (to borrow the term used by communications engineers), which doesn't play any role in determining our inherited nature. Well, this junk part of our DNA reveals certain patterns that remain constant from a father to his sons. These patterns get copied in the Y-chromosome, found only in males. Consequently, if the DNA of two males happens to contain identical patterns of this kind, that means that their paternal ancestral lines reach back to a unique male individual.

What does this mean at a practical level? Let me give you an example. In an article written in August 2007 entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I mentioned an old pump organ that I discovered (and actually played) in the village of Blandford.

The label on the instrument mentioned a William Skivington, proprietor of a local music shop.

The UK census of 1861 mentions this fellow and his family, and refers to him as a piano tuner. I'm surely a relative of this individual, who lived from 1827 to 1912, but I've not yet been able to determine our exact links. Now, let's imagine an unlikely discovery. Let's suppose that, inside the organ in the Blandford folk museum, we happened to find a trace of blood that had been left there long ago when William Skivington hit his thumb with a hammer while repairing the instrument. Normally, if this fellow were indeed a distant cousin of mine, we should find that junk DNA recovered from the spot of blood in the organ has the same markers as in my own DNA test.

OK? Well, that fictitious scenario does not in fact describe the usual way in which genealogical researchers go about using the results of DNA tests. Although this approach would be theoretically sound, we don't generally go around searching in pump organs or cemeteries for specimens of the blood of our supposed ancestors. I would be more interested in coming upon a fellow who's living today, let's say a certain Fred Skivington settled over in Canada, who is convinced—through sound documentary evidence—that he is a descendant of the Dorset piano-tuner William Skivington. In such a situation, if Fred's DNA markers coincided with mine, then this would reveal that I, too, am related to the William of Blandford.

I'm obliged to admit, though, that it would be very tempting to have an opportunity of fossicking around in some of the ancient tombs over in the village of Skeffington in Leicestershire. You never know what kind of junk you might dig up there...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Portrait of Queen Victoria

From time to time, I continue to investigate (just for fun) the mysterious portrait of a young Queen Victoria, inherited by my friend Sheridan. When I last visited England, a year and a half ago, I dropped in at an arts school in the London suburb of Hampstead, known today as the Institute, which I mistook for the Hampstead Garden Suburb School of Arts and Crafts, whose former principal was Ernest Heath [1867-1945]. The director of the Institute told me that the two schools had nothing in common, and he suggested that I contact the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington concerning Sheridan's plaque. Before I could do so, I needed to set down clearly, in the form of a website, my speculations concerning the plaque. And that's what I've been doing over the last few days.

[Click the image to visit my new website.]

Before building this website and contacting the museum (which I intend to do immediately), I had to get over an amusing obstacle, in the form of a legend that arose in Sheridan's family context in Australia. According to this legend, one of Sheridan's female ancestors was an adolescent friend of Victoria, and the ceramic plaque was a personal gift to her from the queen, maybe at the time of the marriage of Victoria and Albert. To evaluate this legend, which is surely false, I was helped greatly (in a negative sense) by an excellent study of Victoria's adolescence written recently by a US professor of English from Texas, Lynne Vallone.

It's a fascinating detective exercise to examine a certain situation, constructed around a legend, in order to separate the factual wheat from the mythical chaff. In the case of Sheridan's legend about a friendship between two adolescent girls, one of whom was a commoner and the other a princess, the emerging truth would appear to be far more gratifying. My conclusions are outlined in the new website. I'm convinced that Sheridan's ancestors in London were related to a celebrated line of creators who were appointed engravers and painters to British monarchs, including Victoria. That's more interesting than having an ancestor who was merely a teenage friend or bridesmaid of the queen...

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Aussies like to refer to tradesmen as tradies, firemen as firies, etc. To designate individuals who desire to lead an existence surrounded by trees, leaves, bark, etc... I've invented the word leafies. In a typical leafie home, leaves are literally part of the decor.

In polite Aussie terms, leafies might be designated as environmentalist militants, greenies, who've created lobbies against protective burning. Leafies are romantic citizens who like to sit on the balconies of their homes in the wilderness, guzzling beer and admiring the sunset, while the bushfires advance.

Today, we must designate these naive ideological leafies as murderers. Leaves or lives? That is the question...

Friday, February 13, 2009

A lord and his lady

The name Shaftesbury might not ring a bell with many people. It's a small town on a hill in the southern English county of Dorset.

In 1973, Shaftesbury's steep street was made famous by a TV ad for a brand of bread named Hovis:

Curiously, the commentator speaks with a North Country rather than a Dorset accent. This publicity was followed by several funny spoofs. Here's one of them:

In my articles written in August 2007 entitled End of English excursion [display] and Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I described my genealogical pilgrimage to Blandford, which is not far away from Shaftesbury.

I've often been intrigued by the fact that the names Skeffington and Shaftesbury have almost identical etymologies. Let me explain. The remote ancestors from whom I acquired my Skyvington surname were Normans who sailed across the English Channel with William and usurped a Saxon settlement (tun) in Leicestershire whose patriarch was called Sceaft, meaning shaft. Maybe this Saxon elder had earned this name through his skills in spear-throwing. In any case, this fellow was not an ancestor of the Norman invaders who chased the Saxons away. The Anglicized name of the place where my Norman ancestors settled down, Skeffington, was simply a reminder of the original Saxon name. I have no reason to imagine that any of the original Saxons mated with the Normans invaders, giving rise to offspring with genuine Sceaft genes... because I'm a lousy spear-thrower. In the case of Shaftesbury, too, the Norman invaders appear to have usurped a Saxon stronghold (burg) created by a patriarch called Sceaft.

Apart from that, whenever Shaftesbury and Dorset are mentioned, I think immediately of the beautiful face of Nastassja Kinski in the film Tess [1979] by Roman Polanski. In fact, although the novelist Thomas Hardy [1840-1928] located Tess of the d'Urbervilles in Dorset, Polanski's movie was actually shot in the north of France. Now, I'm letting myself get led astray...

In the 17th century, a Dorset fellow named Anthony Cooper, with no outstanding qualities or world-shaking talents, nevertheless persuaded the king to name him the Earl of Shaftesbury. Later, his descendants left the town with the steep hill and moved to a tiny place in Dorset named Wimborne St Giles, where they erected a red-brick mansion, and transformed themselves into posh aristocrats.

The Shaftesbury earldom still exists. As in all old families, some peers were fine men, whereas others were nincompoops. [Young readers might need to look that word up in an old English dictionary.]

In France today, we're hearing a lot about the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, whose decomposed body was found in April 2005 at the bottom of a rubbish-strewn ravine on the French Riviera. He had been strangled in November 2004 by his brother-in-law, Mohamed M'Barek, now serving a 25-year jail sentence.

Last night, at the end of an appeals trial in the splendid Provençal city of Aix, the late lord's third wife, Jamila [shown in the above photo with her barrister, at her first court appearance, in May 2007], was sentenced to 20 years for complicity in this crime.

Getting back to etymology, we might say that the outcome of the appeals process in Aix-en-Provence confirms that Shaftesbury—as they say in the classics—got shafted. The ingredients of this sordid affair [wealth, sex, cupidity, stupidity, crime... themes that you can look up on the web] form a more dramatic cocktail than anything the Dorset novelist Hardy would have ever imagined. Polanski, on the other hand, would surely be capable of tackling such powerful stuff.

LOOKING BACK UPON THIS BLOG POST [notes written in January 2016] : Back at the time I wrote this post, some seven years ago, I was interested primarily in the name of the village, Shaftesbury, because I had heard that this word had a similar etymology to my own surname, Skyvington. Both names evoke settlements of tribes of ancient people designated by a term that stands for the shaft of a spear or arrow. I used to be intrigued by the fact that Shaftesbury is close to the territory of my Dorset ancestors named Skivington, but I now believe that any Shaftesbury/Skivington similarity is purely a coincidence. While writing the blog post, I became intrigued by the character of the celebrated politician Anthony Ashley Cooper [1801-1885], 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Then, of course, I was intrigued by the unhappy ending of a recent head of the family, murdered by a brother and sister who are now in prison... no doubt for years to come. But I had no reason to suspect that my humble blog post would lead to so many enthusiastic reactions from individuals, apparently Americans, who seem to look upon themselves as members of the same noble family as Lord Shaftesbury.

Microsoft decides to open stores

Microsoft has just announced plans to set up a chain of stores to sell their products directly to consumers, in the same way as their competitors Apple and Sony. It goes without saying that Microsoft will strive to imagine a unique style for its future stores, reflecting the specific character of the company and its products. It would be, not only a pity, but a marketing error, if a Microsoft store were to resemble any old Apple boutique or Sony shop.

So, the guessing game is now on, to imagine what a future Microsoft store will look like...

Death of Gavroche

My dear billy-goat Gavroche has finally met his death... maybe yesterday, on Darwin Day, but probably a few days earlier. I've just discovered the remainder of his carcass on the snow-covered grass under the walnut trees. Last night, I became aware that something was wrong when my flashlight revealed that Sophia was racing around madly and barking in the vicinity of the donkey hut, on the edge of my property. I'll never know what killed my little friend, but chances are he got kicked in the head or crushed by the donkey Moshé.

Over the years, I had become extremely fond of that smelly little beast, who was truly part of the Gamone landscape. Often, I felt bad about not finding him a female goat, but I didn't want to bring about a situation in which the property would be transformed into the home of a herd of goats. Meanwhile, Gavroche had developed the habit of visiting the feral sheep whenever he was moved by a sexual urge. All in all, I think that Gavroche lived well here at Gamone, where he roamed in liberty across the slopes. But I was aware that, in wandering around constantly with his temperamental and massive mate Moshé, and often jostling the donkey as if they were equals, Gavroche was living dangerously.

Je suis tombé par terre,
C'est la faute à Voltaire,
Le nez dans le ruisseau,
C'est la faute à...

Announcements in genetics

Over the last 24 hours, the Creator seems to have joined in the Darwin Day celebrations by performing a neat little act of synchronicity, in the form of two interesting announcements in the genetics domain.

First, an official French report states that, according to recent research, genetically-modified corn can be consumed with no risks by humans.

Second, scientists in Germany reveal that they have fully reconstructed the genome of Neanderthals.

This good news suggests that if—as I hope—we end up cloning a new community of Neanderthal citizens, we should have no trouble in feeding them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day

A few evenings ago, I saw an extraordinary 50-minute French-language TV documentary entitled Espèces d'espèces (Kinds of species), explaining how humans are cousins of countless creatures, organisms, plants, bacteria, etc. We have in common the undeniable fact (unknown, of course, to Charles Darwin) that we're all built out of strands of stuff called DNA.

An ingenious underlying element of the movie, which exploits superb graphics, was a novel representation of the "tree" of species in the form of a kind of big spherical cauliflower, which could have been mistaken for the fat brain of some mysterious giant creature. In fact, this "tree" might indeed be imagined, metaphorically, as the brain of a primordial virtual species that we can call DNA. The root of the tree has a lovely name: LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of the myriad DNA-based species that have existed on the planet Earth.

Although this has nothing to do with Darwin Day, that name reminds me, of course, of one of my favorite songs. So let me use that association as a pretext to celebrate Darwin Day by including in this post the famous song of Suzanne Vega... who is certainly one of the loveliest specimens of Homo sapiens I've ever admired.

Getting back to the "tree", we're obliged to admit that Homo sapiens is nothing more than a tiny blob on the outer surface of the cauliflower "cortex". We are neither more nor less important (whatever that might mean) than countless other blobs representing everything from whales, elephants and giant oak trees down to tiny insects and unicellular organisms such as bacteria.

Today, we can't evoke Darwin without thinking of one of his most brilliant offspring (metaphorically speaking): Richard Dawkins.

The TV documentary described an excursion that consisted of moving back from our Homo sapiens blob, down into the heart of the cauliflower, in pursuit of encounters with the ancestors of our various cousins. This is the same fabulous journey imagined by Dawkins in his book The Ancestor's Tale, mentioned in my article of August 13, 2008 entitled Exotic pilgrimage [display].

If you click on the portrait of Dawkins, you can see a delightful talk on atheism... which is so closely associated with Darwinism and the DNA species "tree" that I tend to think of them as part and parcel of a unique philosophy of enlightenment. And here's another nice Dawkins video:

To end this birthday post, here are links to an imaginary interview with Darwin [access] and a Scientific American article on the legacy of Darwin [access].

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I've always been aware that, here at Gamone, I'm basically a lawless hillbilly. And if I don't respect many laws, it's often because I ignore whether the laws really exist, and how they're formulated and enforced. If there were an old-fashioned sheriff in charge, he would surely arrest me and hang me from a tree.

Take the case of my former flock of sheep, for example. When I arrived at Gamone, there was an unwritten law (which I learned from local folk, including the veterinarian) according to which a neo-rural resident such as me, who wasn't a professional grazier, could maintain a flock of up to a dozen or so sheep, to keep the weeds down, and to provide him with lamb meat. But this tolerance ended in the aftermath of a European outbreak, in 2001, of foot and mouth disease. So, before I left for a short vacation in Australia in 2006, I called upon a butcher friend to slaughter most of my sheep. However we left a young ewe and three tiny lambs. Well, to cut a long story short, these animals were frightened by a dog, and they escaped from my place and finally set up a new home on the slopes of a neighbor's mountain property, where they have proliferated in a feral state. Recently, the veterinarian confirmed that, if I were intent upon eliminating these sheep (which is not exactly the case), the only plausible solution would consist of organizing a posse of friends armed with rifles. Unfortunately, I don't have enough armed friends to carry out such an operation.

Meanwhile, there's another subtly different approach. At the annual luncheon of the senior citizens of Choranche and Chatelus, I found myself seated alongside a neighbor who, with his sons, is one of the last surviving hunters. (My children and I have always referred to his property, strewn with decrepit vehicles and rusty machinery, as Tortilla Flat.) He seemed to suggest that, if I felt that these sheep were capable of provoking accidents by wandering onto the road (which has always appeared most unlikely), then I should simply write a letter to the president of the local hunting association informing him that I would refrain from reacting in any way whatsoever if ever stray bullets happened to hit the sheep. The general idea is that such a letter would normally have no visible existence, and the president wouldn't even reply in any way whatsoever. But I could expect the sheep to start to disappear quietly and mysteriously. In these circumstances, my letter would only reappear publicly if ever I decided to take the hunters to court (a theoretical possibility) because I had the impression that they were shooting my sheep. As you can see, it's a murky approach to problem-solving.

Another example of my hillbilly behavior concerns the burning-off of dead grass and weeds in spring. At Gamone, I decide personally to perform these operations at appropriate moments of the year, and I operate section by section, in such a way that there's never a wide wall of flames. By "appropriate", I mean that I judge that there's not enough wind to cause the flames to escape, and there's still enough dampness in the vegetation to prevent it from reacting like explosive tinder.

The reason I'm talking about rural laws in France, written and unwritten, is that I've been learning a lot, over the last few days, about astonishing rural laws in Australia. More precisely, in the wake of the sickening fire tragedies that are still unfolding in my native land, I've been trying to comprehend what went so terribly wrong, and why. Obviously, for countless reasons, there's little in common between my tiny property on the slopes at Gamone and the vast bushlands of Australia. But I've been making an effort to grasp the nature of the situation in Australia.

If I understand correctly, hillbilly behavior such as mine would be unthinkable in modern Australia, where rural laws of all kinds are abundant and rigorously enforced. On the other hand, I've discovered that not everybody in Australia considers that all these laws are "good".

In rural Australia, the vegetation that could be consumed by fire in a particular zone is referred to technically as fuel. And the process of eliminating excess fuel is referred to as prescribed burning, shown in this photo:

One of Australia's leading specialists in the domain of bushfires is David Packham, of Monash University. In one of his websites, he shows an Australian country property in which excess trees and other fuel have been removed in such a way that the house would be almost 100% survivable, as he puts it, in the case of a bushfire.

In the following photo, on the other hand, there's a house, hidden behind the vegetation, which would have a survivability near zero in the case of a bushfire:

In my eyes, the first photo looks like any old property that could be found in France, whereas the second photo is that of a strictly Australian situation, unthinkable here in France.

Packham is particularly outspoken concerning the bushfire tragedies that have just hit Victoria: "Absolute irresponsible mismanagement has been the environment in which a lot of Australia has been operating for the last thirty or forty years, and we just cannot go along like this unless we're happy to accept the sorts of disasters we've had." He has accused environmentalists of behaving like "eco-terrorists waging a jihad" against prescribed burning. It's a fact that future legislation will stigmatize controlled burning as a key national threat to biodiversity. If this draconian legislation were to go into action, as planned for 2010, then controlled burning would be considered henceforth, from an ecological and environmental viewpoint, as a "key threatening process" whose nasty effects are to be likened to those of global warming, land clearing and feral cats, pigs and foxes.

In fuel-filled landscapes where Australia's indigenous flora and fauna are encouraged to thrive in luxurious liberty, we have seen that homes and their human occupants can be wiped out by flames in less time than it takes to race outside and get into the family automobile. It will take me some time to acquire an informed opinion on this weird situation in Australia. Meanwhile, even if I were capable of uprooting myself and moving to the Antipodes, I must admit that I'm quite happy to remain a Gamone hillbilly.

Light and darkness

I'm employing this pair of words metaphorically to designate clarity and obscurity. And the theme of my post is a petition that has just been launched in favor of the German theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now known to Christendom as Pope Benedict XVI.

Readers of my Antipodes blog are probably aware that one of the only things in common between Joe/Benny and me (please call me Billy) is the fact that we have both recently acquired dual nationalities. Joe was German, while Benny now has a Vatican passport. Similarly, Billy was Australian, while William now has a French passport. I've looked hard for other links and common features between us, but this domain remains murky. The Holy Ghost has refrained from inspiring me and enlightening my quest. [Notice the subtle way in which I've started to insert the light and darkness metaphors into my discourse.]

You've realized, no doubt, that my profound sense of Christian charity has prompted me to publicize the above-mentioned petition by papal defenders. But there was method in my madness. At the bottom of the petition website, there's a fabulous set of web banners: a colorful collection of links to everything that's Byzantine and medieval in the way of today's distinguished Catholic sheep... or should I say goats, in honor of my genetically-engineered friend Jeanie [display]?

Those interested in holy rocket science could spend an entire afternoon browsing through all those lovely links. With a bit of chance, you might even learn how to make fire by rubbing sacred wafers together... but I advise you to keep a flagon or two of the blood of Jesus on hand to quench the flames if ever they attained Aussie bushfire proportions.

Seriously, what some of these folk would appear to crave for is obscurity. The neat thing about Latin, particularly if you're not a Latinist, is that you have no idea whatsoever about the sense of what's being said. This is a truly great solution for those who consider that the ways of God must necessarily remain mysterious. And lots of fuddled old-timers think that way. Ignorance has always been bliss. And there's no better way of installing a shroud of profound ignorance than to chant about existence in a mysterious language.

Meanwhile, there are those who would like to see the light... for example, concerning the exact way in which the Nazis exterminated Jews. Years ago, a Californian literary agent pleaded with me to sit in on the trials of Robert Faurisson in the law courts of Paris. I did so, for professional reasons (you might say), and soon became most confused, because vain attempts to cast light upon Nazi darkness gave rise rapidly to more murkiness than ever. The Nazi barbarians concluded their exterminations by putting out the lights, as it were, so that no meaningul traces would remain of their unspeakable acts. Blinded by ignorance and confusion, we would-be observers have no other choice than to accept the shroud of obscurity. And society condemns those—like Faurisson and his ecclesiastic adept Richard Williamson—who would dare to lift theoretically a corner of this terrible shroud by vain and painful promises of dubious assertions of facts, and false enlightenment. This is neither more nor less than the law of civilized society, designed justly to attenuate the pain of victims.

Fortunately, in ancient history, the light is falling at last upon scenes and situations that were once obscure. We now know, for example, that Jesus was essentially a Jew, and that Christianity was preceded by a lengthy and rich epoch of Judeo-Christianism, of which the Apocalypse of John is the purest expression. The apostle Paul then stepped into the picture to develop early Christianity as we commonly imagine it, incorporating Gentiles. Retrospectively, it goes without saying that the idea that Jews might have perpetrated deicide, through the Crucifixion, is mindless bullshit. So, many naive Catholic traditionalists whose web banners are displayed in the context of the above-mentioned petition concerning our quaint but curious German pope might take a more serious look at their Christian culture.

Seriously, I've always considered that all Christians who can do so should spend at least a few weeks in Israel, which is truly a land of light, capable of dispelling archaic Christian darkness. Many things, in the Holy Land, become clear. Other things, alas, are doomed to remain forever in darkness. But, since time immemorial, this pilgrimage to where it all happened has been obligatory. It teaches you to open your eyes and see. To discard darkness, and place yourself in the light.

Admittedly, it's not yet, exactly, the light of Science. But the Holy Land is an excellent beginning. Judaism is an ancient system, and we all know that Jews didn't drop down in the last shower of rain. Modern Israel, too, is an exceptionally smart nation, accustomed to facing and solving life-and-death problems. I can't think of a better place to start one's quest (as I once did) for enlightenment.

Vision of a city

This extraordinary but frightening photo (which I've modified slightly) of the great Victorian city of Melbourne, taken from burnt-out Kinglake by David Geraghty and published today in The Australian, is truly apocalyptic. We reasonable human citizens, residing in nice suburban sites or resolutely rural places (such as me at Gamone), would appear to be moving into a terrible era (global warming?) in which Hollywood horrors will be enacted, de facto, before our unbelieving eyes.

In what words would you describe this apocalyptic vision to a child? Maybe your own offspring...