Monday, November 30, 2009

Happy hound

Late Saturday afternoon, my dog Sophia raced out into the dark and started to bark in the direction of the crest of the hill up behind our house. I could hear a faint tinkling indicating the presence of a hunting dog that had no doubt lost its way, so I started to call out to it with a few typical French terms. I judged by the intensity of the bell sounds, along with the direction of Sophia's regard, that the animal seemed to be zigzagging down the slopes towards us, and I soon glimpsed its shadow moving down along the road from my spring. Meanwhile, Sophia had stopped barking, because she concluded that the situation was hardly threatening. The hairy little gray and beige visitor with long drooping ears continued to sniff around everywhere, searching vainly for a recognizable odor. Finally, I coaxed it towards me and stuck a bowl of water under its snout. Being careful not to make a move that might frighten the dog, I soon got around to stroking its head and inspecting its collar, with a badge informing me of the owner's name. I quickly attached the dog to a chain and offered it a bowl of food... much to the disgust of Sophia, in no way an altruist, who no doubt found it alarming that her master might feed an alien animal. The visitor was not only lost, but thirsty and hungry. And now it had come upon a fellow who was giving it water and food, and attaching it in a way that indicated that he didn't intend to chase the intruder back out into the dark unknown. Consequently, within five minutes, I had made a firm friend. The dog started to wag its tail furiously with warm pleasure, and jump up onto me, licking my hands. As you might imagine, I was charmed into giving my new friend another bowl of food. For the happy hound, this was unexpected good fortune. After all, before then, it had been sniffing around up on the slopes in a place whose only occupants are my donkeys, which is hardly a successful achievement for a hunting dog. It even jumped up towards Sophia, indicating that it wished to play, whereupon Sophia barked gruffly at the intruder, in the harsh style of a stiff old aristocratic lady warning an excited young rural wench that she should mind her manners.

I phoned a local hunter, who then contacted the owners: two brothers from a neighboring village. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at Gamone. Everybody was happy. The joyful hunters and their lost hound were reunited. Meanwhile, the dog and I had become friends, no doubt because it had food in its belly. Even Sophia, stretched out in her big wicker basket in the warm kitchen, was relieved to find this unseemly intrusion being brought to an end.

Yesterday evening, another happy dog story unfolded on French TV. Host Michel Drucker was conducting a show with the immensely popular ex-president Jacques Chirac, celebrating his 77th birthday.



The idea of giving him a dog had emanated from several people in Chirac's circle of family and friends, including his wife Bernadette.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Google Wave address

I've just received my invitation to use Google Wave, which might be described as a new kind of shared email tool. It's particularly interesting when a group of several individuals wish to communicate with one another on a common subject.

For those who have this tool, and might like to communicate with me about one thing or another (maybe themes from my Antipodes blog), my Wave address is

william.skyvington@googlewave.com
[That looks like an ordinary email address, but it isn't!]

For those who haven't yet received an invitation to join Google Wave, I still have 4 or 5 invitations left. If you're interested, contact me at

william.skyvington@gmail.com
[That's an ordinary email address.]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Damnable Irish Catholic behavior

A bulky report, published yesterday, reveals the findings of a nine-year probe into child abuse in Ireland's Catholic institutions. The results are damning in the sense that church authorities actually sought to protect their ecclesiastic pedophiles in a shroud of secrecy.

In my recent article entitled Repetitive Aussie apologies [display], I expressed my hesitation (rightly or wrongly) in believing that the situation of orphans in Australian institutions merited all the formal apology fuss. In the Irish context, I'm not at all so reluctant. It's clear that Irish Catholics have put on a genuine horror show, right up until the start of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the German pope has been scheming with the Anglican chief to come to a deal about which Christians should belong to which camp. I often wonder: How much longer is all this Christian poppycock going to last, against a background of inhuman treatment of innocent youth? My guess, unfortunately, is that it's still going to last a hell of a long time, because Christianity and all its trappings remain terribly respectable in our Western societies. Few people have the courage to express themselves authentically, to stand up and declare publicly that the prince of Rome is as naked as a raped child.

POST-SCRIPTUM: For decades, I've been thinking about setting foot in Ireland: the land of many of my ancestors. But, every time I more or less make up my mind to go there, an incident occurs, causing me to change my mind. An eloquent example: Back in the summer of 1987, I was thinking about visiting Enniskillen in County Fermanagh in the hope of finding traces of my Kennedy ancestors. Then a bomb exploded... Recently, I've got around to thinking once again, for the Nth time, about dropping in on nearby Ireland. Unfortunately, yesterday's report is another bomb that has exploded. If I were logical, I should simply put a cross on Ireland. When the smoke subsides, though, I'll no doubt start thinking, once again, about going there. All those nagging Irish genes...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Next stop Fremantle... for my son

I've just received a phone call from my son François, from the Paris airport. He's about to step onto a plane for Perth in Western Australia. Tomorrow, he has a room booked at the Norfolk Hotel in Fremantle.

François and I used to go there often for drinks in the beer garden during the fabulous season of the America's Cup in 1986, when we were both sailing regularly on the 12-meter wooden yacht Zigeuner, which used to sail (before World War II) on the Isle of Wight.

The itinerary of his forthcoming TV episode will stretch from Fremantle up to Broome. On the surface, it doesn't sound like a typical ride for a fellow on a moped, but François informs me that the production team might admit (for the first time in the series) the idea of his hitching a ride on one of the huge lorries that move back and forth along the coast. My son (unlike me) is already well-acquainted with this western coastline of Australia, and he surely had a few major ideas in the back of his head in deciding to shoot the episode here.

ADDENDUM: When he's moving around on his moped journeys, François often finds an Internet connection enabling him to catch up on his email and read my blog. He might be interested to see this article that has just appeared in Télérama.

There is grandeur in this view of life

Today, November 24, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of a celebrated book:

Its author was Charles Darwin [1809-1882].

On the web, you can obtain free an entire copy of the original edition [display]. Here is the final paragraph of that momentous work:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In the most recent book by Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, the entire final chapter is devoted to a line-by-line analysis of the above paragraph. The words of Darwin and, today, Dawkins present a vision of life in which the primordial ingredient is expressed ideally by that great French word: grandeur.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Australian infrastructure enigma

As some of my readers know, I've been puzzled for ages by what I call the Australian infrastructure enigma, which can be summarized by the following question: Why does a nation such as Australia, with a high per capita GNI [gross national income], have such a low-quality infrastructure? Admittedly, it's a fuzzy question. The notion of the quality of a nation's infrastructure is difficult to measure, because there are countless components (urban transport, road and rail links, media, communications, education, public health services, defence, etc), and there's no obvious way of obtaining meaningful statistics enabling us to compare one nation's infrastructure with that of another. So, the overall quality of a nation's infrastructure remains vague in much the same way as its standard of living or its so-called quality of life. But, even though we may not be capable of measuring this concept in a rigorous economic style, we have ample opportunities of evaluating it subjectively. And I think that most compatriots (particularly those who've traveled abroad) would agree that Australia's infrastructure is often somewhat backward. As banal evidence, I continue to cite several concrete cases of poor infrastructure that I've encountered personally:

— Australia's Internet infrastructure is substandard.

— Sydney's transport system of trains and buses is obsolete.

— NSW country train services are unsatisfactory.

— Certain major NSW highways can be deadly.

— Certain bridges (at Grafton, for example) are antiquated.

At the other extremity of the infrastructure scale, I've talked here in my blog about vast subjects such as Australia's submarine system:

Australia's submarines [26 December 2007 display]

Australian arithmetic [2 January 2008 display]

And I've also evoked a taboo subject, nuclear energy:

Nuclear energy [27 December 2007 display]

If I were the president of Australia [5 October 2009 display]

Some time ago, in the context of a naive and now-defunct web forum of so-called Aussie bloggers, I made a tentative attempt to place this subject of our nation's poor-quality infrastructure on the forum's agenda... and I got promptly censored, as if it were too touchy a question to handle publicly. Maybe it is.

I often suspect that the underlying problem is of a profound political nature, based upon the fact that our nation caters primarily for foreign capitalists who wish to amass personal fortunes by investing in Australia's gigantic mineral resources. An observer might ask rhetorically whether the Australian people are truly reaping the benefits of all the precious stuff that these capitalists are ripping out of the guts of our dear wide brown land.

I love a sunburned country
A land of sweeping plains
Of ragged mountain ranges
Of drought and flooding rain
I love her far horizons
I love her jeweled sea
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me

To put it bluntly: Are companies operating in Australia being taxed heavily enough? That's to say, heavily enough to provide the Australian people with a decent infrastructure. Well, the answer seems to be no. Results of a recent joint study by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Bank paint a devastating picture of Australia's business tax system, whose complexity is ranked as 47th in the world. Concerning the total tax paid by Australian businesses, we're in the 127th position in the world, out of 183 nations whose economies were examined. So, to my mind, there's no great secret about why Australia should be rolling in wealth and yet incapable of putting a decent bridge across the Clarence River of my birthplace.

I declared recently, in my article entitled Repetitive Aussie apologies [display], that Australia needs a republican political revolution. This may or may not be true. But meanwhile, before launching a bloody revolution, it might be worthwhile to look into a simple and essential business tax reform.

Great public-relations gimmick

If you ask French people what they were taught at school in the way of English, they'll often reply that they learned how to say "My tailor is rich". (I imagine that this anecdote stems from a widely-used textbook example.) Consequently, generations of French students have grown up believing that the English-speaking nations are full of wealthy tailors. For a student of the French language (who may not have ever heard of the tailoring profession), I would propose a similar sentence: "Mon supermarché est sympa", where sympa is short for sympathique, which could be translated as friendly. It's certainly true that the supermarket at Chatte, where I do most of my shopping (except—as I explained in my previous article—for stuff such as exotic rose bushes), is not only friendly but smart, too, at least from a public relations viewpoint. Look at the wall of portraits they've just installed in the vestibule of their entrance:

In the middle of the portraits, the big sign says "Thanks to all our local producers". Then, in case you didn't get the message that our friendly supermarket is thanking all its local producers, the expression "local producers" is repeated in red letters. Now, it's a fact that the 69 faces could well be those of local producers of all kinds of foodstuffs: meat, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, etc. But does the word "local" mean "in the nearby Dauphiné region"? Or could it maybe designate French, as opposed to non-French, producers? I regret that the supermarket has not gone one step further by actually identifying each individual, and indicating the commune in which he/she operates.

In any case, I noticed that this large wall of portraits has an immediate effect upon customers entering the supermarket. With few exceptions, people stop and scan through the portraits, no doubt searching for a familiar face. After all, in an agricultural region such as St-Marcellin, almost everybody knows a handful of farmers. The portraits have been expertly executed, no doubt by a talented photographer. Most faces are smiling, visibly happy, and shot against greenish backgrounds that evoke prairies, spring fields of fruit trees, gardens packed with ripe vegetables... A customer, encountering this wall and its intended message, has the inevitable reaction that he/she is about to step into a wonderland of delicious food products, akin to a Provençal market in summer. It's a great idea. And I hope this public-relations gimmick will make the supermarket and all these nice local producers as rich as English tailors.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ordinary excursion

To complete the future rose garden that I've been creating, which will comprise two dozen different bushes, I needed to obtain the final four bare-root plants. The French-language website of the Laperrière horticultural firm informed me that they would be able to supply me with exactly the varieties I was seeking.

So I decided to visit them, in the village of Saint Quentin Fallavier, up in the north of the Isère département, not far from Lyon. From Choranche, the itinerary crosses a broad band of rolling wooded hills above Saint-Marcellin, the Chambaran, which means "barren fields".

On the northern edge of these hills, you drive through the narrow main street of the village of Saint-Etienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, birthplace of the celebrated bandit Louis Mandrin [1725-1755]. You cross the plain of the Bièvre, the site of Grenoble's airport, then you reach the town of Bourgoin-Jallieu, famous for its rugby exploits and its native son Frédéric Dard [1921-2000], author of the crime novels signed by the legendary police commissioner San-Antonio. From that point on, the driver senses that he's moving into the outskirts of the international airport of Lyon, named Saint-Exupéry, hub of a vast European road/rail transport network.

I had no trouble finding the Laperrière rose gardens: a horticultural oasis of greenhouses tucked between huge warehouses on the side of a busy road with a constant stream of lorries. It's an unexpected location for the enterprise, founded in 1864, of a dynasty of distinguished rose-growers.

The ancestral know-how of the Laperrière family could no doubt flourish on any decent-sized patch of flat land in a mild climate. When I parked my car in front of a big greenhouse serving as a boutique for the few customers like me who drop in at the enterprise (instead of purchasing rose bushes at a retail outlet or through the Internet), an elegantly-attired grey-haired lady with a pearl necklace emerged from the nondescript old house that serves as the firm's offices and came jogging towards me. "No need to run; I'm in no hurry," I called out. Still jogging in her high-heeled shoes, she replied: "No worry; it's my daily exercise to keep me in form." I was soon to learn that my jogging shop assistant was in fact Monique Laperrière, a friendly and knowledgeable dame de la rose.

I often imagine activities that would surely infatuate me if only I were to be offered a second life on the planet Earth. Rose creation is certainly one of them. Specialists in this domain are alchemists, on a par with the genetic engineers who manipulate DNA. But they are closer to the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel [1822-1884] who created the foundations of modern genetics. They use an artist's paintbrush to practice artificial pollination, then they patiently harvest and sow the seeds of the resulting plants. Much later, they select the finest specimens of their new roses and graft them onto sturdy wild eglantine plants. So, when we choose a rose bush for our gardens, we're looking at the tip of an iceberg that has been forming for some six or seven years.

Leaving Saint Quentin Fallavier, I decided to visit, for the first time, the nearby village of Crémieu.

From a touristic viewpoint, it's a rare pleasure to be able to saunter through a quiet medieval village on a sunny afternoon.

The title of this article evokes a banal outing. After all, I merely drove to a neighboring village to do some shopping. But I would prefer to speak of a luxurious excursion. In Latin, the concept of luxury indicates "excess". It's a fact that, during my outing, I happened to be excessively happy. It was the excess of being able to drive through ancient places, in magnificent landscapes, in the company of a curious mixture of spirits: the ghost of a romantic bandit, then that of a fabulous author, the presence of contemporary industry, including a dynasty of creators of roses, and finally a lordly Dauphiné domain. Yes, at rare moments, an ordinary excursion can be purely luxurious.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

European dignitaries

Herman Who? Baroness What?

Herman Van Rompuy, that's who: the 62-year-old prime minister of a charming land named Belgium, with two coexisting cultures, Flemish and Walloon (mainly French-speaking, but with a distinct German-speaking fringe). And the 53-year-old English lady Catherine Margaret Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, that's what. So, stop acting like Henry Kissinger when he used to complain that it was all very well trying to establish contacts with Europe; he said he simply didn't have the precise name and phone number of a chief who could speak unequivocally on behalf of Europe. From now on, if you want to contact Europe, simply call either Herman or Kate.

Herman might look like an absent-minded professor. And his lady has the allure of the strict mistress of a finishing school for daughters of the aristocracy. But, believe me, he and the baroness of Upholland (up what ? you might be wondering) are surely capable of painting the town red... whatever that might mean in the case of a vast entity such as Europe.

One would expect that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known in the revolutionary France of May 1968 as Danny the Red, would like that idea. But his current color in European politics is strictly green. In any case, Cohn-Bendit has expressed total disenchantment concerning the election of the Herman + Catherine couple. Danny used an ugly French adjective to designate Rompuy-Dompty. He described him as falot (rhymes with shallow), which is akin to our English word fellow. In English, you might say that falot could be translated as "a dull fellow".

As a cross between a native Aussie bloke and an adoptive French mec (translatable as guy, or maybe dude), I've always been intrigued by the terms used to designate males. Long ago, when I was working with IBM in Wigmore Street, London, my Liverpudlian colleague Larry Doyle gave me a precious linguistic lesson concerning an attractive female secretary named Sarah, who had surely been causing sparks of lust (or whatever else you might like to call it) to illuminate my Antipodean eyes. "What you've got to understand, Bill, is that Sarah is not the kind of English girl who's looking for a man. She's out to conquer a chap. As an Aussie, you might not necessarily be familiar with English chaps, and English girls who've set their eyes upon this domain." With Larry's help, I soon became quite proficient at recognizing both chaps and female chap-huntresses... but it wasn't a subject that interested me greatly. At that time, I was starting to become infatuated by another exotic female category that Larry designated as birds... but that's a long and complicated story.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Repetitive Aussie apologies

Australians are special people. When I returned to my native land in 1985 for a lengthy stay, I was alarmed to discover that many of my compatriots were victims of a mysterious physiological affliction known as RSI: repetitive strain injury. In a nutshell, Australians who had developed the habit of using their hands to perform repetitive manual tasks enabling them to earn their living (a hugely ordinary situation throughout the planet Earth) found themselves stricken down with mysterious painful symptoms that prevented them, alas, from carrying on their work. Having just left France, I was intrigued by the fact that this affliction appeared to exist only in Australia. Was there a demoniacal "magnetism" in the geographical specificity of the Antipodes that was dealing a cruel blow to Aussie workers, and making them incapable of working repetitively at a given task? Maybe it had something to do with Vegemite consumption. I wondered, but I never found an answer to my interrogations. Meanwhile, I returned to France, where people were still working manually as usual...

These days, there's a new epidemic in Australia: a compulsive need to apologize... to accelerate the "healing process" in all kinds of domains. On 13 February 2008, the Australian prime minister apologized formally to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children who were removed forcibly from their family context in order to be brought up in a Westernized environment. On 16 November 2009, the same prime minister apologized formally to a second group of citizens, referred to as Forgotten Australians, designating individuals without parents (for many reasons), placed in institutions... and maybe abused in one way or another.

From my observatory in France, I remain highly skeptical concerning the well-foundedness of the current Aussie media razzmatazz about Kevin Rudd's apology to these so-called "forgotten Australians". It all sounds rather silly to my European ears. Sure, there were sad cases of infants without parents, kids being abused, adolescents without guidance, etc. But was it worse in Australia than anywhere else on the sad planet that emerged from World War II?

To my mind, my compatriots would do better to concentrate upon the sole political problem that faces modern Australia: the fact that our gigantic resources (mainly mineral) have been raped by international capitalists who don't even leave enough in our nation's piggy bank to build a decent infrastructure of roads, railways, defense systems, etc. Australia doesn't need apologies. It needs a violent political revolution of a left-wing kind (maybe with blood) and new republican thinking.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pergola finished

I've finished the construction of my rose pergola. The final tasks consisted of reinforcing the four corners with diagonal struts, to make the structure as rigid as possible, and installing a "roof" composed of a network of steel cables. The result is a sturdy graceful structure, which is already supporting six healthy young rose bushes (no flowers now, of course): Albertine, Blush Rambler, Madame Alfred Carrière, Chevy Chase, Lykkefund and Paul Transom.

At the same time, I decided to remove the bird house from the top of the pergola and erect it in a more secluded corner of my garden.

Those dangling balls are bird food (mixture of fat and seeds) sold at the local supermarket. On the tiled roof, to hold water, there's a rectangular earthenware bowl that once contained a bonsai fig tree given to me Natacha and Alain. I finally "liberated" this tree by planting it in my garden, where it's now a meter high and growing happily alongside another fig tree given to me by the same friends.

I am now awaiting the feast of St Catherine, on 25 November, to plant a few dozen rose bushes in my future garden.

Catherine of Alexandria, who was allegedly martyred in the year 307 on the torture device that we designate today as a Saint-Catherine's wheel, was not herself a gardener. But her feast has become a time-honored rendezvous for French gardeners, simply because it happens to fall at the right horticultural moment of the year for planting bushes and fruit trees. In fact, Catherine has had her time cut out through her roles as the patron saint of barbers, cart-builders, rope-makers, drapers, school pupils and students, wool-spinners, millers, notaries, wet-nurses, orators, philosophers, plumbers, potters, preachers, knife-sharpeners, tailors, theologians, wood-turners and marriageable spinsters. Sadly, the Catholic Church appears to have doubts concerning her earthly existence. If ever the Church were to proclaim officially that Catherine is merely a figment of the imagination of pious pilgrims in the Sinai Desert, then I consider that we adulators should rapidly reinvent this absolutely necessary lady, totally and wholeheartedly, so that her non-existence would be no more than a fleeting instant of non-time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Naive politician, stupider than usual

Normally, here in France, I live in a warm aura of admiration of the overall intelligence, culture, worldliness, common sense and (last but not least) altruism of elected citizens. The truth of the matter is that French voters have invented and installed an amazing array of bullshit detectors, which means that a political candidate has to be very smart to get through them. Well, I have the impression that a certain politician named Eric Rouault has just got through them.

Here's the story, which lies right in the middle of the time-honored realms of French culture and literature, not to mention politics.

Marie NDiaye [don't ask me how you pronounce that surname] is a brilliant 42-year-old French lady of letters who grew up in Paris (like my children, of the same generation as Marie). Well, she has just been awarded the prestigious Goncourt literary prize for her latest novel.

Background information. In a July interview, Marie NDiaye aired her personal views about the nation of Nicolas Sarkozy. "I find that France monstrous." After evoking the fact that she, her writer husband and their children have preferred to reside in Berlin, Marie explains: "We left just after the [presidential] elections, mainly because of Sarkozy. I'm aware that this might appear to be snobbish. For me, the atmosphere of police surveillance and vulgarity is detestable. As for Besson and Hortefeux and all these individuals, they're monstrous." And Marie added subtle explanations that might be expected from a great writer, culminating in a political quote signed Marguerite Duras: "The right wing is death."

Enter our brave politician Eric Raoult... who's not exactly about to be awarded any kind of literary prize. In fact, he seems to be about as dumb as cows that used to have their rumps caressed, at agricultural fairs, by Jacques Chirac. Raoult doesn't give milk, but he was overcome by an urge to moo madly about Marie because of her supposedly offensive words concerning Sarko. He sent a crazy letter to the minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand (who surely had more than enough in his work basket), suggesting that individuals who win the Goncourt Prize for French literature should be obliged by law to respect the president and the republic.

Eric Raoult should wake up to reality. Censorship went out of fashion long ago in the French Republic. And there's no way in the world that censorship might be revived in the exemplary context of liberty of a prize-winning novelist.

Run, Rupert, run!

My Aussie compatriot Rupert Murdoch—infinitely richer than me, like all these self-made Waltzing-Matilda true-blue buggers—is raging. He has declared war on Google, because he thinks they're burgling news from his media empire.

As for Google, business as usual. They point out that they're merely sucking in (my verb, not Google's) Rupert's headlines and a few explanatory sentences, which they follow by a link to the original Murdoch stuff. Google is a gentleman. Be that as it may, Rupert seems to hate Google's guts, and he's threatening to do all sorts of nasty things, of a vague nature, such as specifying that his websites are out of Google grounds. "Please go ahead," reply Google. "You're free to do as you like." Personally, I don't think Google should talk like that. They're making Rupert see red. He's an aging traditionalist, and God only knows what he might do in the way of hara-kiri.

Voice of a blind black angel

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a 39-year-old Australian. Not an adoptive Australian, like me and my millions of white compatriots. An authentic Australian.

Gurrumul, who speaks only a few words of English, sings in the Yoingu language of his ancestors. He is currently touring Europe. The following song overwhelms me by its mysterious simplicity and beauty.



In Germany, John Kennedy once said: "Ich bin ein Berliner." Overcome by the universal strains of the music of Gurrumul, I make an equally exaggerated emotional declaration: "I'm an Australian."

New dimension of news

Keenly-awaited revelations are being made at present (which means right now) by 82-year-old Charles Pasqua, former French minister of the Interior under both Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand. A few days ago, Pasqua was condemned to a year's jail for his role in the sale of arms to Angola.

While writing, I'm tuned in to the website of the Le Monde newspaper which is providing me with a live textual transcription—minute by minute, almost sentence by sentence, accompanied by short comments from journalists—of Pasqua's press conference. The latest time indicated on the website clock is a mere minute less than the time displayed by my Macintosh, which means that I'm truly obtaining live information. And every time that the website is displaying a textual update, it warns me by producing a weird woodpecker noise. In other words, I'm obtaining a textual account of the Pasqua press conference in real time. It's certainly an impressive Internet achievement. This sort of technology would be fabulous if the entire planet were awaiting the words of a prophet or a savior... but it's surely a little too overkill in the case of the lukewarm revelations promised by Pasqua.

At the instant I'm writing (15 h 55), somebody has just asked Pasqua whether Sarkozy was aware of these illegal arms transactions. Good question. Alas, Pasqua's reply is hardly world-shaking.

As you can see from my words, I'm not yet totally convinced that naive observers such as myself can benefit greatly from this kind of super-live Internet display of press conferences. But I might very well end up changing my opinions on that question. So, be patient. After all, don't forget that you're listening to me live! I need time to reflect...

BREAKING NEWS: I'm amazed to realize that I've already published a blog article on Pasqua's press conference before it's even finished! It's 5 minutes past 4 o'clock, and a journalist has just described Pasqua's revelations as a damp firecracker. I won't be offended if anybody uses similar criticism for the present blog.

Monday, November 9, 2009

When a wall gets knocked down

On the evening of 9 November 1989, we were seated in front of the TV at Christine's place in the rue Rambuteau, watching the momentous events that were unfolding in Berlin. Christine's brother Lan had dropped in. Emmanuelle, 23, and François, 20, were also concerned by what was happening in Germany. Suddenly Lan took a few banknotes out of his wallet, turned to his nephew and said: "François, you shouldn't miss out on this. Here's some cash. Jump on a train to Berlin and join in the fun." My son didn't need any further coaxing. The following day, he was in Berlin, participating in the joyous wall-demolition party. His uncle's suggestion had given François an opportunity of sensing at close range the gusts of the great wind of change that had started to blow across Europe.


I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change

In Berlin, a few days ago, a symbolic wall composed of a thousand polytstyrene dominos was erected. This evening, Lech Walesa will initiate its fall by toppling the first domino.



Today, twenty years after the fall of the so-called Wall of Shame, it's funny to find that, while many former agents of Erich Honeker's grim Communist fortress are earning a living by selling their filmed comments to the media, other nostalgics—some 12% of the folk in the so-called "democratic republic"—consider that a replacement wall should be rebuilt.

It might be said that walls of all kinds (to keep some people in, and others out) are a sad symbol of humanity. One of the first walls in recorded history surrounded Jericho. Today, that same land is crossed by a new wall, which is bigger, longer and more ugly. We humans are essentially wall builders. So, it's a nice interlude when, at a rare moment in time, a wall gets knocked down.

WALL-BREAKING NEWS: Move aside, Gorbachev! Get back to your shipyard, Walesa! Cut your speech-making, Reagan! Return to your family, Bush Senior! Put your cello back in its case, Rostropovich! Make room for another illustrious wallbuster!

This amazing photographic evidence has just come to light revealing that France's Super Sarko played an instrumental role, twenty years ago, in breaking down the wall in Berlin. Let's face it, our dynamic and ubiquitous president has been almost everywhere and done nearly everything. If ever he were no longer there—constantly solving problems, taking care of humanity, and even wielding a hammer and chisel if the need arises—then the globe would surely grind to a halt.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Judging a book by its cover

When I was a kid in the 1940s, the world was a nice friendly place, full of nice friendly puzzles. When we picked up a glossy magazine, we were thrilled to be faced with the metaphysical challenge of deciding, for the Nth time, which of two identical twins was sporting a high-priced professional hairdo, and which one had settled for an affordable do-it-yourself perm using a product from the Toni company.

Maybe I should correct my opening sentence. Let's say, more accurately, that the world was almost a nice friendly place. But everybody was aware that this world had recently been marked indelibly by the barbarities of a monster named Hitler and his henchmen. In amassing piles of human hair at Auschwitz, the Nazi barbers were not concerned about who might have had a Toni.

In the case of these twin book covers, which one is the real thing? I can't answer that question, because neither book has been published yet. They won't be coming out until 17 November. For the moment, we can only judge them by their covers, and everybody knows that this is an unwise operation. But, since we've got nothing better to do...

In the case of both books, the photo on the cover depicts the same real—all too real—person: Sarah Palin, a former governor of Alaska who could have easily and rapidly become the most powerful leader on earth. All she needed, to attain this status, was a simple series of two events: (1) Barack Obama is defeated in the presidential election by John McCain, and (2) the winner of this election disappears abruptly from the political arena, for one reason or another.

My God, when you look back on those recent dangerous days, it was as if America were a drunken driver at the wheel of a big powerful automobile on a dark and busy highway.

Fortunately, there was no accident. Nobody got killed. Not even injured... apart, maybe, from the poor young guy named Levi Johnston, who no doubt chose an unsuitable moment to establish a deep contact with a potential First Vice-Daughter (where my use of the term "vice" has nothing to do with an implied lack of virtue).

The author of the future book on the left, entitled Going Rogue, is the heroine herself, Sarah Palin. As you can see, there's a nice friendly blue sky behind her. Concerning the title of the future book on the right, Going Rouge, the wording is quite close to the other title, but I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean. A French reader might be forgiven for imagining that it's a book about Sarah Palin's leftist tendencies, and the great conspiracy theory concerning her links to international Communism, symbolized by the dark storm clouds in the background of the cover image. But something tells me that this guess is probably wrong. Maybe the rouge in the title designates the crude reddish cosmetic powder that some women put on their face. So, maybe we should look closely at the two book covers, and ask a fundamental question: Which twin has the bad makeup?

As you can see, I don't really have much solid information to give you. So, maybe you might prefer to look at the website of the people behind Going Rouge [display], where you can already place an order for the future book. And, while we're awaiting these books, here's a video that throws a little light on the subject:



Did I say "light"? Red light, of course.

Public health

Seeing these proud and happy and faces, I feel like opening a bottle of champagne and raising my glass: Amérique, à ta santé! [Health warning: Alcoholic beverages must be consumed with moderation.] But there's still a long road ahead before the bill is transformed into effective law.

Here in France, a major step aimed at reducing the financial deficit of the public health system consists of requiring physicians to prescribe so-called generics rather than the original and expensive brand-name medicaments. For years, like millions of other people, in France and elsewhere, I've been taking the inhibitor of blood thickening named Plavix, in its familiar blue packet.

I would imagine that the giant French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis must have spent a tidy sum of money in the invention of the name Plavix, which would be fit for a luxury sports car. This product has always had the reputation of being particularly expensive... but this has not prevented it from becoming one of the most widely-prescribed medicaments in the world.

Well, a few days ago, the local pharmacist gave me the generic product that is proposed as a substitute for Plavix.

I almost broke out laughing when I discovered the name of the active molecule, which will be used universally for all generics intended to replace Plavix: Clopidogrel. Really, it rings in my ears like the name of some kind of supermarket soup for hungry horse-sized mongrel dogs that make a clip-clop noise when they canter. On winter mornings, after going out for a pee, I'm sure that Sophia would be delighted to get stuck into a steaming bowl of smelly Clopidogrel: the super synthetic dog food that's guaranteed to make your mongrel puppy as big and strong as a horse. Maybe, to promote the replacement of Plavix by this generic, health authorities might look into the idea of getting a rap group to put together a Clopidogrel-inspired slam, or a country singer could imagine some kind of Dylan thing: "My baby's gone and left me with the Clopidogrel Blues."

Meanwhile, as I finish my glass of champagne, I hope that all the citizens of Barack Obama's new and just society will soon have access, at last, to all the Clopidogrel and other great stuff that they need for their good health. In making that wish, I do not suggest that public health is merely a matter of low-cost pharmaceutical products. It's also, of course, a question of being able to receive treatment from excellent medical personnel, associated with great hospitals.

PS After having joked about the clumsy name of the generic product (which appeared already, in fact, on the Plavix packaging), it's only fair that I should mention prices, indicated explicitly on both packets. A packet of Plavix costs 56.82 euros, whereas the price of a packet of generic Clopidogrel drops to 30.75 euros. That's a huge difference. One wonders retrospectively where all that extra cash went, and why.

Incidentally, if anyone were to inform me that I might be breaking some kind of French law in talking publicly (and naively) about these pharmaceutical products, I would of course delete the present article immediately... but I don't see why this should be the case.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Childhood challenges

I watch French TV regularly, since I often find it entertaining and enriching, indeed excellent. For me, the ultimate luxury is the possibility of being advised to watch a particular program through a positive review written by my daughter Emmanuelle, published in her Télérama weekly. Lately, an additional luxury has appeared: the thrill of watching the one-hour travel documentaries signed by my son François, moving around in exotic foreign environments on his moped. (He has just returned from Vietnam, and his forthcoming TV moped mission will be in Australia.)

Last night, I watched a splendid one-hour documentary about the 75-year-old French comedian Guy Bedos.

Inventing a play on words for this funny man whose personality and disposition are profoundly serious, Emmanuelle described Bedos as "the gayest of French melancomics". A childhood memory, at the age of two or three, consisted of seeing his mother striking his handicapped father with a hammer. On the surface, Guy might be describing a witch, rather than his physically-attractive and forceful mother... but there is no trace of hatred in his calm words, merely a constant and immense despondency. "I try not to shame the young man, indeed the child, that I once was. That's one of my golden rules: Never destroy that child that was once inside me." His method, as a stand-up comic, consists of creating humor out of sad stuff. Often, his words are violent, but he explains: "I only attack powerful individuals such as the pope, the president of the republic, or members of government who happen to be important, unpleasant and dangerous."

Yesterday, by chance, I also encountered the wonderful words of another Frenchman who evokes his childhood. I'm referring to a small autobiographical book by 69-year-old JMG Le Clézio (Nobel prize for literature in 2008), who describes his father. Just as Bedos was faced with a wall of misunderstanding on his mother's side, Le Clézio discovered comparable obstacles on the side of his father, who had developed a detestable armor-plated character through toiling for decades as a medical doctor in French colonial Africa.

Guy Bedos is a pure specimen of the Mediterranean, brought up in Algeria, and settled now in Corsica. As for JMG Le Clézio, he's often presented as a native of Nice, but his ancestral soul is pure Breton. Few observers would be tempted to evoke these two French celebrities (what a silly word!) in the same breath, as I am doing now, for there doesn't seem to be much in common between them. But what struck me yesterday, when I was confronted by both of them in the space of a few hours, was the way in which they appear to have exploited their artistry (another silly portmanteau term), not so much to seduce an audience, but rather to handle vast purely personal challenges that arose during their childhood. This corresponds to my own belief that many writers often work primarily, if not exclusively, for themselves.

Watching the mushrooms grow

A lawn like mine, capable of growing edible mushrooms, but hidden at this time of the year beneath a damp cloak of autumn leaves, can give rise to trivial problems.

First, I find myself glancing out through the window every now and again, countless times during the day, looking for signs of mushrooms. When I actually sight a few tiny mushrooms, the situation is worse still, in that I find myself darting out onto the lawn, many times a day, to see if they're coming along fine. You might say that I get around to actually watching them grow... at a speed not much faster than that of grass.

Finally, whenever I'm walking around out there, I'm constantly afraid of putting my boot on a tender mushroom that's half-hidden beneath the leaves. And everybody knows, of course, that there's nothing more blood-curdling than the scream of a mushroom writhing in pain with a crushed cap or stem.

The only solution, I think, is to pick and cook them as soon as possible... so I can get back to concentrating on my blog. I might point out that their aroma, in the frying pan, reminds me of mushrooms that my father used to gather and cook for us when we were kids at Waterview. We would eat them on buttered toast.

Memorable cassoulet

A fortnight ago, when the weather turned cool and damp, I had a sudden urge to carry out a cooking experiment. I wanted to see if I could successfully prepare the famous cassoulet dish from south-west France, which looks like this:

Back in my Paris studio in the rue Rambuteau, I often used to heat up canned cassoulet, but I had always imagined (wrongly, as it turned out) that only an expert chef could actually prepare this dish. I discovered, luckily, that the Leclerc supermarket in Saint-Marcellin stocks all the essential ingredients, including Toulouse sausages, garlic saucisson, ribs of pork (both natural and smoked) and the special white beans known as cocos (which actually come from the Paimpol region in Brittany where Christine and François live). The recipe is quite elementary, but the cassoulet needs to simmer for a few hours. It's best eaten a few days later, after being covered in breadcrumbs and baked in an oven. The results of my cooking experiment were excellent. Using minimal quantities of ingredients, I nevertheless ended up with four dishes similar to what you see in the above photo... and I kept three of them in the freezer.

Now, why have I got around to writing, today, about my home-made cassoulet? Well, this afternoon, I returned to the huge Leclerc supermarket to do my regular shopping, and I dropped in at the busy counter where they sell ham, sausages and cold cuts of all kinds. I was surprised and thrilled when one of the female employees, recognizing me, asked: "How was the cassoulet?"

In this kind of situation (which is not uncommon), I believe that shop employees whom I don't know personally are capable of remembering me, not so much because of my physical features, but as a consequence of the mixture of my accent and the actual words I use, which is somewhat unexpected, indeed weird. Somebody with a strong British accent like me would normally be expected to use relatively simple phrases, with limited French vocabulary, and the speaker might be forgiven for making mistakes. Instead of that, the lady found me making precise requests for various ingredients and insisting, for example, on the fact that I wanted the traditional sausage from Toulouse, pork ribs both smoked and natural, etc. In other words, I'm sure it's the unusual contrast between my accent and my actual language that renders me "memorable"... in the sense that an employee in a busy supermarket (at a counter where customers have numbered tickets, and wait in a queue) is capable of recalling that a guy with a foreign accent, a fortnight ago, purchased the ingredients for Castelnaudary cassoulet. Needless to say, a trivial happening of this kind is most pleasant for me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Not exactly good friends

As of today, the first volume of the memoirs of Jacques Chirac is in the bookshops... but the media have been giving us snippets for the last few days. It's title is rather soccerish: Every step must be a goal.

Chirac is not tender (to say the least) with former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, for whom he was a prime minister from 1974 to 1976. For a naive observer such as me, capable of imagining for an instant that leaders belonging to the same political party surely get along more or less well together, it's quite a rude shock to learn that a president and his prime minister can actually hate each other's guts.

Talking about Giscard, I find that, these days, he's looking more and more like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

In my recent article entitled French presidents are funny fellows, I mentioned Giscard's fluffy tale about a romantic affair between a French president and a young English princess [display]. In a quite different domain, Giscard has been getting most angry about the proliferation of electricity-generating windmills throughout the French countryside. That evokes the behavior of another famous opponent of windmills, Don Quixote, seen here in artwork from Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker (in the role of Sancho Panza):

It looks like Giscard taking Sarko on a hunting excursion.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Undesirable comments

When a blogger allows anybody and everybody to leave comments, it's inevitably an open invitation to spammers and other polluters to send in their rubbish. For a couple of months now, I've been obliged to intervene regularly to trash Japanese comments that point to a porn website. Two other topics attract comments from fuckwits: creationism and hang-gliding history. Reluctantly, I've been obliged to make the Antipodes comments process a little more watertight.

Talking about undesirable comments, I've just received a friendly but naive comment to an article I wrote in September 2006 about my former friend Jean Sendy (who died in 1978). Interested readers can use Google to discover that Jean Sendy's work has been plagiarized for years by a notorious nitwit whose name I will refrain from stating here. In any case, I don't intend to reply to the above-mentioned comment. As Jacques Chirac once advised a fellow-politician: "Never mention explicitly the name of an opponent, to avoid giving him publicity."

Dish towel on fire

When a merciless conflict is about to erupt between two individuals, there's a saying in French: Between the protagonists, the dish towel is on fire. Well, today, we can smell a burning dish towel between French prime minister François Fillon and his beautiful 32-year-old state secretary in charge of sport, Rama Yade.

The young lady disagrees with a government plan to deprive professional sportsmen and women of a certain big tax cut. This morning, the prime minister stated explicitly and publicly that Rama Yade's behavior was not in harmony with governmental solidarity, and that she would have to face up to the "consequences" of her lack of discipline. This surely means that, sooner or later, France's most popular political personality will be kicked out of Fillon's government... which, to put it mildly, would be a great pity.

Incidentally, I should explain that the above-mentioned saying—le torchon brûle—only seems to evoke a burning dish towel, when you take the words at their face value. Although the word torchon does in fact designate a dish towel, it also evokes a potential disaster that might be "torched": that is, transformed into a blaze. Besides, when French kids play a kind of hide-and-seek game, a seeker is said to "burn" if he approaches the hidden player. So, saying that the torchon is burning simply means that a conflict is imminent.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Autumn hues and mists at Gamone

In the space of a few days, the leaves of the giant linden trees at Gamone have turned pale yellow, and started to fall. There has been no autumn wind yet to blow them away (it will come soon), so the lawns are covered with a golden carpet.

Often, the Cournouze is lost in matinal mists above the Bourne.

Later in the morning, at the far end of the valley, mists rise above the great geological saucer known as the cirque (circus) of Choranche.

In my imagination, I too am changing color in harmony with the environment, like a chameleon. My thoughts are becoming autumnal. The ideas and even the words of summer have started to drop away, as they must, like dead leaves. Soon, my mind will need to adjust once again, as usual, to the challenges of cold, solitude and hibernation...