Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pigs' revenge

The Hebrew Bible stipulated that, for unexplained reasons, one could eat beef and lamb, but not pork. Then Matthew the Evangelist overturned the tables by claiming that what you put into your mouth was of little importance compared with what might come out of that same organ... in the way of words. So, epicurean Christians got stuck into pork.

Talking of pigs, the talented cartoonist Pierre Ballouhey [website] has kindly authorized me to reproduce one of his delightful drawings on the theme of the eternal distress of pigs.

Today, the world awaits a planetary affliction initiated by beasts that behave piggishly in the sense that they don't cover their snouts when they cough. It would be weirdly funny, in a tragic way, if a latter-day plague called Mexican Pïgs' Death were to destroy Humanity. I have the feeling that pigs are at last seeking their revenge for all those centuries of ham, chops, etc.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring renaissance

As well as designating an amazing era of Italian achievements in art and architecture, the term renaissance is everyday French for rebirth or revival. My title is somewhat pleonastic, since everything is reborn in spring, even old ideas, old loves and old illusions. I've often said that, as a native Australian youth living on the tropical eastern coast of the continent, I was simply unaware of the profound sense of the four seasons. I knew, of course, that we sweltered in summer, and that we no longer went swimming in winter, but that was about all. I didn't fully realize that Nature was a giant machine that operated cyclically in four seasonal phases. In fact, grasping the sense of the seasons was yet another of the myriad common lessons taught to me, generally in subtle ways, by my Breton wife.

A week ago, my neighbor Pierre Faure (the municipal employee) came along to Gamone with his huge tractor, at my request, and plowed rapidly the rectangle in front of the house. Since then, I've divided the area of 12 m x 6 m into four rectangles, with room in the middle for a future pergola covered in roses. The earth in each of the four beds, 2.5 m x 1.5 m, will be raised to a height of about 25 cm, and surrounded by wooden beams. Later on, I'll cover the alleys between the beds, and the interior of the pergola, 4 m x 2 m, with white limestone gravel. Before then, there's a lot of work to be done in preparing the soil, heaping up the earth for the four beds, and building the pergola. My first major task, next Monday, will consist of renting a rear tine tiller (in French, motoculteur) and going over the entire rectangle. So, I hope there's no rain before then...

Meanwhile, in the small plot on the edge of the lawn where I grow herbs, tomatoes and strawberries, the young fig tree that was given to me by Natacha and Alain has just sprouted, not only leaves, but a couple of dozen baby figs.

A few days ago, I drove to the nearby village of Beauvoir-en-Royans, not far away from Saint-Marcellin, on the banks of the Isère River. Little remains today of the elegant medieval castle that was the home of the last Dauphin, Humbert II, when he donated his vast Dauphiné province to the king of France, in 1349. A few years earlier on, he had set up a convent in the grounds of his castle for sixty monks belonging to the order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Recently, the ancient convent buildings were purchased and restored by an administrative consortium comprising the municipalities of Pont-en-Royans, Choranche and other communes along the Bourne River. At the end of May, the splendid buildings, referred to as the Carmes, will be opened as a museum dedicated to the dynasty of ancient Dauphins, and they will be surrounded by horticultural displays of native flowers and plants of the Vercors.

Just behind the Carmes and the ruins of Humbert's castle, a prairie of wildflowers extends to the gentle slopes of the Vercors. You might say that Choranche is located on the other side of that bank of mountains: not so far away, as the crow flies, from Beauvoir-en-Royans. But, at that place, there's no direct up-and-over route. To get home, I usually drive around the southern extremity of that line of mountains, through the villages of Saint-André-en-Royans and Pont-en-Royans.

That fragment of a map (in fact, a three-dimensional plastic wall map of the Vercors created by the French National Institute of Geography) has always amused me, because it shows Gamone in relatively big letters (I've inserted a red dot there) as if it were a significant spot on the globe... which it is, of course! The Bourne River crosses the map from east to west, passing alongside the Chartreux domain where the monks made wine (not to be confused with the above-mentioned monks of the Carmes, whose convent at Beauvoir-en-Royans lies just beyond the left-hand border of my map). Imagine a rectangle formed by Saint-André-en-Royans (upper left), Presles (upper right), the village of Choranche (lower right) and Pont-en-Royans (lower left). That is truly what you might call my home territory. The map also indicates my two mountains: the Bec de Châtelus (the pointed extremity of the Cournouze) and Mount Baret (which I admire every morning, to the south, through my bedroom window).

On the way home, at the place where the commune of Saint-André runs into Pont-en-Royans, I stopped for a moment alongside the charming manor-house that belongs to the family of my doctor, Xavier Limouzin. I've always considered the familiar silhouette of the pair of lovely circular towers, seen from a distance, as the first visual symbol of our territory called the Royans... which was once a modest principality, with a prince named Ismidon.

Turning my back on these humble "twin towers" of the Royans, I looked across the fields and slopes in the direction of Choranche... which lies in a hollow circus (geological term, indicating a circular valley surrounded by vertical cliffs) just beyond the central ridge in the photo, below the white walls of Presles, visible in the background.

As I soaked in this glorious spring scene, a flood of interesting thoughts entered my mind, unexpectedly. I realized that I have the privilege of living in a beautiful corner of France that was once inhabited, back in the Middle Ages, by fascinating historical individuals such as Prince Ismidon and the dauphin Humbert II. It was a territory that attracted monks, seeking peace and God. But it was also a land devastated by the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, during the second half of the 16th century.

Thinking of the cliffs and mountains, I said to myself that this land is not an easy place in which to get around. You can glimpse various localities, often just short of the visible horizon, that give the impression of being not too far away. And it's true, as I said, that a crow flying in a straight line would reach these places rapidly... just as jet fighters, in training flights, sweep over the entire Vercors so quickly that I often wonder whether the pilots have time to realize that they're flying over a fabulous landscape of snow-capped mountains and rocky abysses. Even though you can easily imagine a virtual itinerary from one spot in the Royans to another, it often happens that there are simply no routes in the areas that interest you. So, you have to discover indirect ways of reaching your goal. And, as you move, your instantaneous vision of the mountainous landscape evolves constantly, to an extent that often baffles me completely. Certain summits seem to rise, while other peaks descend out of sight. In a word, the mountains seem to move, magically. In this context, to succeed in going from A to B, you have to merit your journey, as it were. Living here can be a pleasant metaphor of the challenges of existence.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Funny Amsterdam

The civic authorities in Amsterdam have a side-splitting sense of humor. Look at this Photoshop montage they concocted for their forthcoming festivities for the late queen Juliana's birthday, characterized traditionally by the color orange (I wonder why):

France's queen of morality, Ségolène Royal, has become famous recently (as if she weren't so already) for making apologies to foreign nations and leaders concerning Sarko's faux pas. This time, she should probably apologize to Berlu for his being cast in this role as a drag-queenish duettist. Maybe she should apologize directly to the Dutch people, for their being obliged to see these clownish faces staring down at them from the walls. Or she could create a surprise by apologizing to the citizens of Italy and France for this shocking exploitation of the images of their cherished leaders. Ideally, Ségo could also apologize to readers of Antipodes, since the author is too dumb to do so, for their having to endure such a stupid blog article.

ADDENDUM: I was trying to be mildly ironical when I wondered out loud why Queen Juliana's birthday evokes the color orange. Every schoolchild of my generation in Australia learned that a Dutch prince, William of Orange [1650-1702], became William III of England. As a teenager, I remember my paternal grandmother telling me that we had ancestors in Ireland who were Orangemen, which was the funny term designating bigoted folk in Northern Ireland and Scotland who were members of the so-called Orange Order, inspired by the staunchly Protestant monarch.

The Orange term in the name of the Dutch royal house is derived, of course, from the ancient city of Orange in south-east France, which used to be a principality. For its Roman builders, that city had a Latin name, Arausio (designating vaguely an anatomical part of the head), which was later transliterated into Orange.

As far as the fruit and the color are concerned, the original Arabic term was naranj, which was later transliterated into the French word orange, at a time when the city of Orange had already existed for many centuries. Maybe the transliteration of the name of the fruit, of a crudely approximative nature, was influenced at a purely auditory level by the existing name of the city. The French name of the fruit and its color was then incorporated identically into the English language.

People might imagine that the French city acquired its name because it was connected in some way with oranges. This was not at all the case. So, there is no profound reason whatsoever why the queen's birthday in Holland should be associated with the color orange.

Observers might object that the arms of the city of Orange contain an explicit allusion to the fruit tree. In the relatively serious domain of heraldry, this is a case of a mild joke. The creator of the arms thought it would be amusing to take advantage of the homonymy, so he decided to include an orange tree. Why not? There are so many cases of this phenomenon in heraldry that it received a special name. Arms that exploit coincidental homonymy are described as canting arms (literally, arms that talk; in French, armes parlantes).

Today, it might be said that the Orange joke has come a long way... attaining a zenith in the comical photo-montage of Berlu & Sarko on bus shelters in Amsterdam.

Place of the skull

All four evangelists agree on the name of the place where Jesus was crucified. It was called Golgotha, which is a Hebrew term meaning the place of a skull. Note that the word "skull" is singular. There's no suggestion whatsoever that Jesus might have been crucified in a place strewn with skulls, in the plural. Golgotha may have got its name because it was a small hill that looked like a skull. In other words, a skull-shaped mound. Look at the following photo:

Does that image correspond to your vision of the place where Jesus and the two thieves were nailed to crosses? Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you prefer), that curious mound does not lie in the Holy City. In fact, it's a limestone outcrop located in a corner of the cemetery of Saint-Romans, a village about twenty minutes away from where I live, on the road between Pont-en-Royans and Saint-Marcellin.

Many Christian pilgrims who visit Jerusalem are frankly disappointed by the place that is alleged to be the real Golgotha. It simply does not correspond to what most people imagine as the place of the Crucifixion. Visitors are astonished to discover that, to reach Golgotha, they have to enter a dull-looking church and then walk up a tiny narrow staircase. It's as if a tourist in New York were to be told that the Statue of Liberty is in fact hidden away in a basement zone of Rockefeller Plaza.

In the Greek gaudiness of the official Golgotha, there's nothing in particular that might remind us of a skull. It's no more nor less than a kitsch bazaar. If ever you approached the site with surging thoughts of the terrifying tales of the final hours of Jesus as related in the Gospels, these mental images are soon chased away by the omnipresent garishness, and the bustle of excited Orthodox pilgrims who must find the atmosphere just right. It's a question of culture and sensitivity. Nobody brought up, like me, in the subdued harmonious ambiance of Anglican traditions could feel at home in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. On the other hand, I have no trouble envisaging their Golgotha as a great place for a good Christian fight.

In another corner of the Holy City, there's a place known as the Garden Tomb which corresponds more closely to the legendary image of Calvary on the top of a small hill. With a little imagination, the rocks at this place might be seen as skull-shaped... except that they're half-hidden behind an Israeli bus depot.

That faded photo, attached to a pole, is intended to show Protestant pilgrims what this particular "place of the skull" once looked like, at an unspecified date in the recent past, when the surroundings of the Garden Tomb might indeed have reminded passersby of a skull.

Frankly, between the Scylla of having a brass lamp thrown at me by an Orthodox monk, and the Charybdis of having a bus back over me while meditating religiously in the vicinity of a Byzantine rock tomb, I would find it far more fulfilling to embark upon a research project aimed at revealing that the real Jesus was whisked away at the last moment by CIA operatives and brought in chains and an orange jumpsuit to the village of Saint-Romans, where he died in mysterious circumstances.

When you think about, that name is surely a code that starts to explains various loose ends: Saint, because Jesus was saintly, and Romans because Pontius Pilate and his Roman employers were behind this whole execution affair. Admittedly, there are quite a few details that have to be filled in before we can expect hordes of pilgrims to start thronging to the cemetery of Saint-Romans. But I'm sure the local tourist authorities will help me to assemble the missing facts. Maybe a local stone mason and sculptor might be employed in remodeling a little that limestone façade, to make it look even more like a human skull. Here's a view of this fabulous site as it would be seen by approaching pilgrims, gazing with fervor across fields that have been plowed by humble pious peasants ever since Biblical times (which could be transformed at little cost into a vast parking zone):

The convenient thing about religious beliefs and traditions is that nobody ever expects you to be overly concerned about reality, or even plausibility. On the contrary, the taller the tale, the better it generally goes over.

Monday, April 20, 2009

For donkeys like us

This afternoon, I found this poster pinned onto a billboard advertising donkey excursions in the village of Beauvoir-en-Royans:

When I was a youth in Australia, I often saw this banner advocating cooperation... then I forgot about it, even though I now have a pair of donkeys who behave as indicated in the upper half of the poster. As I mentioned in my recent article entitled Donkeys and dog dishes [display], I've got into the habit—since my donkeys have been training me well—of giving them dishes of tasty factory food from time to time (in fact, less and less often nowadays, since they romp in pastures of lush green grass and weeds). Well, if ever both donkeys decide to attempt to eat in the same dog dish (which they often do, for strange reasons), the resulting violence is in no way a reflection of the charming harmony in the final scenes of the poster. On the contrary, there's a brief conflict characterized by flattened ears (a sign of anger), hefty kicks with rear hooves, and spilt food.

Maybe I should print out a glossy enlargement of the poster and show it to Moshé and Mandrin. Within five minutes, they would no doubt tear it to shreds, stomp on it and maybe even eat it. Now, that's a pity, because it's an excellent poster, which conveys a clear message for uncooperative donkeys... like us humans.

Not a leg to stand on

In recent articles, I've evoked the terribly grave subjects of torture and the assassination of civilians in the context of the disastrous crusade instigated by the former president of the USA. Today, I'm tempted to evoke this domain in a more flippant manner, through an anecdote that is funny in a macabre way.

That beautiful photo of the village of Herat in Afghanistan was taken by a US photographer in 1978, when that archaic land was imagined by foreigners as a place of a thousand and one exotic charms. In Paris, at that time, I used to eat regularly in a splendid little Afghan restaurant, and I imagined the country through its cooking: in a word, delicious.

Today, the press informs us of the extraordinary operation of a suicide bomber in that village. A disabled man, with an artificial leg, stumbled towards the governor's residence. His lurching steps were aggravated by the presence of a weighty pile of explosives packed into his hollow prosthesis. To call a graveyard spade a spade, the villager had decided to be a suicide bomber. But word gets around quickly in a village: faster, in any case, than the limping speed of a one-legged would-be terrorist. He was still within a few hundred meters of the governor's residence when security staff received a message concerning the impending attack. So, the police simply acted in a way that would be considered, in normal circumstances, as in very poor taste. They took aim at the artificial leg and fired. The blast produced a death toll of one. The disabled villager was henceforth more disabled than ever, in that the governor's compound was showered with a shrapnel mix of human body parts and fragments of what was once an artificial leg.

The press article informs us that there has not been any claim for the intended attack. That leaves the way open for doubt. Rather than condemning the perpetrator for planning to kill people, I prefer to imagine that he was fed up with strutting around on an artificial leg, and that he merely wished to commit suicide in as spectacular a way as possible. To go out in fireworks, as it were, along with his damnable leg, in an open place where he was not likely to hurt other villagers. If ever I learned that his act was recorded by a friend for YouTube, I'll attach the video to the present post.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ancient hospital, legendary surgeon

During my many years in the heart of Paris, I was mildly obsessed (I hesitated before using this word, but it's fairly accurate) by a great and ancient hospital on the Ile de la Cité, not far away from the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris: the Hôtel-Dieu.

I had always been fascinated by the way in which this hospital was perceived by Malte Laurids Brigge, the hero of the celebrated novel by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. Everybody knows that Malte was in fact Rilke's alter ego. Well, even before my arrival in Paris, Malte had also become my alter ego.

I’m afraid. You have to take action against fear when it lays hold of you. It would be terrible to fall ill here. If ever somebody were to take me to the Hôtel-Dieu, I would certainly die there. [...] This excellent Hôtel is very ancient. Even in King Clovis' time, people died there in a number of beds. Now they are dying there in five hundred and fifty-nine beds. Of course the whole business is mechanical. With such an enormous output, an individual death is not so thoroughly carried out; but that is, after all, of little consequence. It is quantity that counts. Who cares anything today for a well-finished death? No one. Even wealthy people who could afford this luxury are beginning to be careless and indifferent about the matter. The desire to have a death of one's own is growing more and more rare. In a little while, it will be as rare as a life of one's own.

In Rilke's time, the hospital looked like this:

At my habitual bar in Paris, the Petit Gavroche, I used to run into a cultivated old Swiss fellow—a former lawyer, whom we referred to, respectfully, as Monsieur Jean—who was also a Rilke enthusiast. One evening, he whispered to me excitedly: "I've discovered a small door into the Hôtel-Dieu that is often left open after midnight, for the night staff. Would you like to visit this Rilkean temple?" With a good few beers under my belt, it sounded like a great idea. It was a totally weird excursion, strolling stealthily in the semi-darkness of the vast corridors of this ancient hospital, while knowing full well that we shouldn't have been there. Behind closed doors, just a few meters away from us, there were wards where sick people were no doubt dying "in five hundred and fifty-nine beds". You might say that Monsieur Jean and I looked upon our visit as a kind of literary experience: an outlandish way of soaking up retrospectively the heavy atmosphere of Rilke's turn-of-the-century Paris. Luckily, we didn't run into anybody. Indeed, the hospital gave the spooky impression that it was deserted... and this enhanced the Rilkean aroma of our nocturnal excursion.

At the start of the 19th century, the Hôtel-Dieu was associated with a legendary surgeon: Guillaume Dupuytren. Born in humble circumstances near Limoges, Guillaume moved up to Paris at the age of twelve, to finish his schooling. His favorite pastime consisted of reading medical textbooks. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, by the age of eighteen, he had taught himself enough about human anatomy to be hired by the Faculty of Medicine for two separate jobs. On the one hand, he gave courses on anatomy to students. On the other hand, he was placed in charge of all the autopsies carried out by the Department of Anatomy. He learned so much through these dissections that he was able to publish a successful treatise on the subject. He was awarded his medical degree in 1803, and was immediately appointed as a surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu. He soon became renowned as the most brilliant surgeon in France, but his personality was so abominable that his colleagues feared and hated him. Indeed, he refused to speak with any of them, reserving his conversations for patients.

Well, even today, posthumously, Guillaume Dupuytren is treated rather disrespectfully by the young medical staff at the Hôtel-Dieu, who like to dress up his statue in all kinds of costumes and disguises.

On the left, Guillaume is wearing French Revolutionary pants, but he has an Elvis hairdo. On the right, as we can gather from the date and the US flag, he has become a blood-stained GI, wearing a metal helmet, on a beach in Normandy.

Guillaume can become a soccer player when the world cup is at stake...

... but he can switch to rugby, if need be, and even become the mascot (as indicated by the sash "en grève") of striking medical personnel.

One day, Guillaume's a surfer, then later he's the double of the French singer Michel Polnareff.

Sometimes, Guillaume even imagines himself as an exotic movie creature.

Malte Laurids Brigge would have been intrigued by all these individuals associated with the surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital:

For one thing, it has never occurred to me before how many different faces there are. There are quantites of people, but there are even more faces, for each person has several. There are some who wear the same face for years. Naturally, it wears out. It gets dirty. It splits at the folds. It stretches, like gloves one has worn on a journey. These are thrifty, simple folk. They do not change their face. They never even have it cleaned. It is good enough, they say, and who can prove the contrary? The question of course arises, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them. Their children will wear them. But sometimes, too, it happens that their dogs go out with them on. And why not? Faces are faces.

Lest we forget

Now that George W Bush is leading the quiet life of a wealthy and distinguished retiree, we must not fail to recall constantly the extent and ongoing consequences of his acts.

The association named Iraq Body Count [click the banner to visit their web site] has been maintaining plausible statistics concerning violent civilian deaths in Iraq during and since the 2003 invasion. I have placed an IBC counter in the right-hand column of this blog.

Friday, April 17, 2009

American torturers

Now that Barack Obama has released explicit data concerning the use of torture by US authorities, I'm convinced that, sooner or later, the American torturers—including the highest-ranking individuals who were responsible for condoning these horrors—will be brought to justice and punished. It's unthinkable that this sordid affair will simply fade away. It's only a matter of time...

After all, certain nations are still actively pursuing criminals whose acts were committed during World War II. Why should civilized societies simply wipe the slate clean concerning well-documented acts of barbarity that date from a few years ago?

BREAKING NEWS: An article, this morning, in The New York Times echoes precisely my feelings in this domain. It states that "new revelations are fueling calls by lawmakers for an extensive inquiry into controversial Bush administration programs". John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has evoked explicitly the idea of prosecuting senior Bush administration officials and lawyers at the Justice Department who condoned torture tactics. In any case, it's already becoming clear that, in years to come, George W Bush will be identified primarily—by students, journalists, historians and ordinary people throughout the world—as the US president who allowed officially the use of torture by interrogators. And Tony Blair and John Howard will be remembered mainly (if at all) as acolytes of this dumb US president.

Anecdote. To illustrate this blog article, I've selected the familiar photo of orange blobs of humanity planted like plaster dwarfs in a Guantanamo "garden". Last night, on the TV news, journalists illustrated their story on Obama's release of CIA data (designated in a prominent French daily as a "half measure") by a wide sampling of the stock of torture images. That's to say, French families and their kids, while finishing their evening meal, were treated to images of water torture, dogs snarling at inmates, the notorious female guard pointing jokingly at a mass of naked prisoners, the hooded man with outstretched arms in an electrified cloak, evoking a dead Christ taken down from the cross, etc.

The time has come to say things simply and clearly, so that our children will know and remember the truth. Bush authorized torture!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

French navy versus pirates

It's reassuring to learn that the French frigate Nivôse has succeeded in capturing eleven pirates off the coast of Kenya.

This French frigate is part of the Atalante task force set up by the European Union with the aim of combatting piracy in that region.

This morning, I read an interesting article in the US press that summarizes the various methods that might be adopted by merchant vessels to protect themselves against heavily-armed pirates. The basic premise is that merchant ships are not allowed to carry lethal arms... for many obvious reasons. One of the most promising anti-pirate techniques consists of installing remote-controlled fire hoses capable of washing off anybody who tries to scramble up the flanks of a vessel. Another solution would consist of installing an electric fence all around the vessel. Then there are a lot of science-fiction gadgets that are theoretically capable of deterring invaders without actually killing them. But by far the best solution of all consists of calling upon the services of a navy, because they've got all the right goods to deal with attackers. That, after all, is what navies were designed to do.

My DNA data

I guess I could say that this is the first official certificate I've ever received from an American institution. And I didn't even have to do any hard work to obtain it. Now, this is terribly personal information, like the image of my skull in one of my early blog articles [display], which greatly disturbed my longtime friend Odile. But there's no personal copyright attached to my DNA certificate, and I wouldn't mind at all if this data were to get stolen by all kinds of hackers and scientists with secret plans to clone me.

The Texan folk who tested me have also supplied a nice little map showing how my ancestors moved away from the territory of our African patriarch known as Adam, and finally ended up here in France... where members of the family were called Cro-Magnon long before they got around to adopting a nicer surname, Skyvington. Without wishing to appear snobbish, I'm happy they made that name change, because Cro-Magnons were as common, back at that time, as today's Smiths and Duponts.

My folk are indicated by the arrow marked R1b, which means that they followed a long trail through central Asia before getting here. In fact, it's a mere 25 millennia since they moved away from the territory marked R, located in the vicinity of modern Kazakhstan, and set off westwards towards Europe.

For the moment, I haven't found any genetic cousins (individuals with exactly the same marker values) with a surname like mine, but I'm trying to persuade various Skivington and Skeffington men throughout the world to get tested. This genetic genealogy adventure will be followed up in my specialized Skeffington Genealogy blog [display] whose banner appears in the right-hand column of the present blog. At an anecdotal level, I've mentioned there that I was proud to learn that Richard Dawkins happens to be one of my genetic cousins.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Death of a great author

The great French writer Maurice Druon, senior member of the Académie Française, died yesterday at the age of 90. With his uncle, the novelist Joseph Kessel, Druon wrote the words of the Chant of the Partisans, with music by Anna Marly, which was rapidly adopted as the hymn of the French Résistance. It contains the memorable stanza:

Comrade, if you're killed,
Another comrade will emerge from the shadows to take your place.

I first heard this chant in extraordinary circumstances, on 19 December 1964, when the ashes of the Résistance hero Jean Moulin were transferred to the Panthéon. On that day, while catching sight of the president Charles De Gaulle, I listened to a moving speech by the minister of Culture André Malraux that would go down in literary history as one of the most celebrated French orations of the 20th century. Mysteriously, towards the end of Malraux's speech, the strains of the great Résistance hymn emerged—softly at first, then louder and louder—from a massed choir in front of the Panthéon.

Much later, Druon wrote a vast series of historical novels entitled Les Rois Maudits [The Accursed Kings] describing the troubled lives of French monarchs from Philip the Fair to John II. These stories were adapted to form a fabulous TV series, a few years ago, which I've already watched enthusiastically on two separate occasions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A poem lovely as a tree

I think that I shall never blog
A tree lovely as a dog.

Paraphrasing the indelibly wonderful words of the US journalist and poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer [1886-1918], slaughtered on the insane battlefields of France, I would say that blogs—like news dispatches—are made by fools like me, but only Darwinian evolution can make a dog... or a tree, for that matter.

Kilmer, for his valor, was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) by the French Republic.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Country-music sisters in Australia

When I was a boy in Grafton, I was often in contact with a cultivated lady named Mavis McClymont, who was involved in urban affairs and also in charge of the public library. These days, in Australia, the McClymont surname refers particularly to three singing sisters from Grafton, grand-nieces of Mavis, known simply as The MyClymonts.

[Click the photo to visit their website.]

In their Chaos and Bright Lights album, the sisters reveal a beautifully clear country sound of Australian vintage. Besides, their fresh lyrics are pure country without becoming corny.

Their song My Life Again has overtones of Shania Twain.

Click the photo to hear a second extract, Shotgun, which has an infectious lilting melody. I like the unexpected style of the invitation to drop in: There's no shotgun hanging around my door tonight. Those words are incongruous in a land where you can now get thrown into jail for owning a rifle to shoot rabbits.

I'm convinced that these girls would be received enthusiastically here in France, where Australian country music is still largely unknown.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tough place for trees

At Gamone, life is not necessarily leisurely for trees.

If the trunks of this quince tree have a naked look, it's because the donkeys seem to enjoy gnawing away at its bark. Insofar as I've never tried to taste it, I'm incapable of suggesting why the animals seem to like this stuff. On the other hand, whenever the tree is loaded with yellow quinces, the donkeys are not attracted by the fruit.

The abundant blossoms on this small pear tree, on the edge of my lawn, indicate that there could be a lot of fruit this summer... provided that birds and insects don't attack it before then. If you look closely, you might notice a few strange fruit on the tree.

These old CDs, which flash in the sunlight, and clatter in the breeze, are an excellent device for scaring away birds.

Great guests on French TV

In the state-owned French TV organization, the staff in charge of handling guest-star appearances do a marvelous job. A few days ago, on the midday news, we were treated to a friendly interview with Lionel Ritchie, followed by a couple of songs, live.

The charming news anchor, Elise Lucet, who has the personality of an efficient office secretary, was totally awed to find herself being serenaded by Ritchie in an intimate setting.

This evening, the star-studded Saturday show hosted by Patrick Sébastien offered viewers a fabulous live appearance of the Village People, who give the impression that they're not a day older than when they first stunned world audiences with their delightfully tongue-in-cheekish YMCA and Join the Navy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Views from Gamone

Between my property and the Bourne, there's a rugged slope where I hardly ever venture, because the bushes and weeds are so thick that you need to be equipped with a machete, in places, in order to cut your way through. But the effort is worthwhile, because there are nice views of the Bourne valley from that place.

In the above photo, we're looking eastwards along the road that leads through the village of Choranche and then up onto the Vercors range at Villard-de-Lans. Even the familiar silhouette of the Cournouze looks different when viewed from this spot.

The following photo, looking due south, shows the homes of my closest Châtelus neighbors, whose geographical sector is named Gérassière.

The white house belongs to the Testoud couple. Through their kitchen window, they have an excellent view of my land at Gamone. Funnily enough, from my own house, because of the slopes, I do not have a global view of my property, so I've often been grateful to Jacques and his wife, over the years, for phoning to let me know that my donkey or sheep have escaped onto the road.

The place where I've taken these photos used to be planted with grape vines, and the ruins of the winegrower's stone cabin are still standing.

For Sophia and me, even though we're only a few minutes away from the house, this new perspective on the surroundings is a little like an excursion to a faraway land.

Incidentally, I was happy to receive a newsletter yesterday informing us that a local government association has just been set up to implement a major project designed to clean up the waters of the Bourne.