Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New blog-display formats

In the latest version of my BLOG VIEWS menu (in the right-hand column, just below the biographical block with my photo), you can now choose between 7 possibilities.

The classic and magazine formats are new.

BREAKING NEWS: When you choose the classic format, you'll find that there's room on the page for a wide ad, of a size that you don't usually encounter in my blog. Worse still, at present, this ad space seems to be occupied (at times) by the following publicity:

I've just submitted a complaint to the Blogger forum stating that I don't approve of the presence of this ad in the middle of my blog. Meanwhile, I advise my readers who use Macs to be very wary of this MacKeeper product. What does it mean to "clean" a Mac? What exactly is a "dirty" Mac? I've just heard of a case (my ex-wife's Mac) in which the above-mentioned product seems to remove stuff that's not really "dirt" at all. On the contrary, the shit can start as soon as this stuff has been grossly removed from your Mac.

FINAL DECISION: I've finally decided to request the complete removal of ads from my blog.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ask for evidence

The British charitable trust Sense about Science has just launched a promotional campaign on the theme of the constant necessity to ask for evidence, about all claims.

Normally, among rational human beings, this necessity should itself be evident. Sadly, though, we know it isn't. Mindless believers, Taliban-like fundamentalists, quacks and snake-oil salesmen abound. Their common characteristic, which they often share unwittingly, is a total disrespect for evidence.

Last night, in the USA, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis.

There was no evidence proving that this man had ever committed the murder for which he was condemned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Front page of the New York Times

The English biologist Richard Dawkins was featured yesterday on the front page of The New York Times, and the excellent article was prefaced by a casual video.

Métro animals

Readers have often heard me evoking the fascinating concept of an upside-down world [display] in which people, animals and other things don't seem to be in their right places. I've also pointed out that this concept has in fact inspired my Antipodes blog [display], right from the start. Viewed from France, folk in Australia seem to be walking with their feet in the air. And I would imagine that French people, seen from a Down Under viewpoint, would appear to be behaving similarly.

In French literature, the upside-down theme of anthropomorphic animals reached a summit in the celebrated Fables of the poet Jean de la Fontaine. In fact, they were an evolution of the oral fables attributed to the legendary Greek author Aesop. Every French schoolchild has heard these fables, and know some of them off by heart. So, the notion that moral tales involving animals can teach us virtue is deeply integrated into the French mindset. It's not surprising that authorities concerned about the decline of civility in the Paris métro have resorted to animals to obtain illustrations of bad manners.

This buffalo, barging into the compartment with his head down, is preventing people from getting off.

In a crowded compartment, this lazy sloth wants to sit down and spread his legs out:

This chicken is screeching out on her mobile phone:

Instead of paying for a ticket, this frog prefers to jump over the turnstile:

And, in a corridor of the métro, this llama is spitting out chewing-gum:

It's a pity, I feel, that the creators behind this campaign didn't think of looking around, on the contrary, for exemplary illustrations of nice animals behaving in a perfectly correct manner in the Paris métro.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Elixir for next Saturday in Auckland

It's an ancient French beverage, made from grapes. In my native Australia, it's known as plonk.

Full of this stuff, the French fellows won't let the Blacks mess around with them. They won't necessarily win the match… but they wouldn't feel too bad about losing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Phantoms of a lost paradise

Once again, I've finished rereading the excellent book on Provence by Lawrence Durrell, Caesar's Vast Ghost, published in 1990 just before the author's death.

And, once again, I'm trying to analyze the contents of this remarkable book—probably Durrell's most profound work, to my way of thinking—in order to set the various themes in their right perspective, and to determine why he decided to blend together several quite different styles of writing, ranging from travel and tourism through to history and philosophy, with twenty original poems and two or three hefty blobs of pure fantasy.

Back at the time that Durrell brought out The Alexandria Quartet, readers were warned amply that the novelist had in fact invented the people and the places that he wrote about. In other words, a visitor to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria would not encounter anything, today, that might be associated with the exotic context of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. Even in the case of Durrell's so-called travel books inspired by such places as Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus, readers should not imagine that they are being offered tourist guidebooks. Durrell's tales are hinged around the author's special relationships, not only with exceptional places, but with various colorful individuals. And a typical site, deprived of the author and his contacts, can become rather sterile. I'm reminded of the idea of considering the Bible as a guidebook to the modern land of Israel. Unfortunately, all the biblical personages disappeared long ago. And today, the places and people you encounter as a tourist in the Holy Land are not necessarily particularly "biblical" (whatever that might mean).

In the case of Caesar's Vast Ghost, on the other hand, I believe that we can truly take advantage, in a pragmatic sense, of Durrell's profound awareness and vision of Provence.

Durrell's book has little in common—at the level of both its form and its content—with a conventional guidebook such as, say, the excellent Michelin guide to Provence. They're not at all in the same writing category. But, although Caesar's Vast Ghost does not appear to be a tourist guidebook, I look upon it as a wonderful guiding book for visitors who would like to acquire a set of basic notions concerning the historical and cultural foundations of Provence, and the essence of this fascinating region. Without these notions, a newcomer to Provence runs the risk of being waylaid, sadly and superficially, by caricatural images of Provence. I see this happening constantly in the case of visitors who imagine naively, for example, that Provence is primarily a romantically pretty land for photographers. (See, for example, the olive tree and field of lavender on the cover of the Green Guide.) While it's a fact that sunny Provence can indeed be an ideal subject for photographers, it would be silly to imagine this fascinating region as little more than a giant set of colorful postcard images, whose inhabitants are generally beautiful, glamorous, quaint, rich, famous…

From the very first paragraph of Durrell's book, I was struck by the familiar tone of his description of his arrival in Provence, which evokes my personal memories of the '60s. Here are Durrell's opening words:

"My own version of Provence is necessarily partial and personal, for, like everyone else, I came here to fall in and out of love long ago, entering old Provence by the winding roads, the only ones, the old Routes Nationales, down the interminable corridors of cool planes in leaf, at the turn of the harvest moon…"

The most famous road, for visitors driving down from Paris, was the Nationale 7.

Generally, it led us through rural settings, and countless villages. But often, it forced us to drive through the main streets of busy towns.

Durrell arrived in Provence around 1957 with his future wife Claude, and they lived for a while in a house in Sommières, the Villa Louis.

A year later, they moved to the stone house north of Nîmes called the Mazet Michel, mentioned in my recent blog post entitled First encounter with Durrell [display]. And it wasn't until 1966 that Durrell and Claude moved into the big house in Sommières… where Claude died in 1967, and where Lawrence Durrell finished Caesar's Vast Ghost in 1990. This is the place at 15 Route Saussine mentioned in an earlier blog post entitled Old house in Sommières [display].

Durrell suggests that "the best way to strike up an acquaintance with […] Provençal towns is to arrive around daybreak, preferably on a market day when the place is full of sleepy vendors unloading their vans and trucks of everything you can imagine from pigeons and hams to olives and plums".

Early in his book, Durrell introduces us to two of his mates, Aldo and Jérôme, who are talking about the idea of writing a book on Provence. Aldo is said to be the owner of a dilapidated castle and vineyard near Beaucaire, and Jérôme is a beatnik of the kind that moved away from cities and roamed around in the south of France in the '60s. Frankly, though, I have the impression that these two personages are largely make-believe, made necessary by the author's desire to present the back woods of Provence as a decadent and decrepit place, on a par with Durrell's mythical Alexandria. Durrell attempts to make his readers believe, for example, that Aldo had once studied medicine, and that his passion for embalming led him to gold-plate dead human foetuses, which he would sell to a gypsy whom he had met at the famous fête at Saintes Maries de la Mer. One of Aldo's friends was "an old and somewhat impoverished Roman Papal Count", Reynaldo de Saturnin, who had asked Aldo to embalm the body of his daughter, so that he could keep her in a glass case.

Another of Aldo's strange former companions was a painter named Zoravis. When a bistro in Montparnasse claimed to be able to supply any beverage whatsoever that their clients might request, Zoravis asked for a glass of bull's blood. As soon as it was finally delivered (by a servant on a motor-cycle), the painter confirmed his virility by gulping down a glass of warm blood in front of his admirers. To my mind, those are the kinds of tall stories that Lawrence Durrell liked to spin in order to persuade his readers that he led a most exotic existence, surrounded by weird folk. Let's forgive him for this urge to invent unlikely characters. After all, Durrell was a story-teller.

Durrell analyzes brilliantly the ancient role of several forms of bull-worship in the culture of Provence, which emanated probably, in Greek and Roman times, from the religion of Mithra.

Since then, bull-worship has evolved into bull-fighting of one kind or another. In the arenas of Provence, there are both Spanish-style combats in which the bull is actually killed by a matador, and French-style events in which young fellows taunt the bulls while trying to flee without getting hurt.

In the midst of splendid places such as Marseille, Aix, Nîmes, Avignon, Orange, Vaison la Romaine, Saint-Rémy, Carpentras and Cavaillon, Durrell seems to consider that the heart of Provence is "dusty, sunburnt Arles at the end of its cobweb of motorways". And I agree with him totally. He draws attention to "the beauty of the Arles girls: each looks as if she had been freshly wished and love-minted to order".

Towards the end of Caesar's Vast Ghost, Durrell devotes an entire chapter to an amazing historical subject that is little-known in the English-speaking world: the evolution of the medieval art of courtship, as practiced by troubadours in the so-called "courts of love" in places such as Baux de Provence. This phenomenon was described in a celebrated book by the Swiss intellectual Denis de Rougemont, who was one of Durrell's close friends.

Durrell writes about so many fascinating themes in his book that I cannot hope to mention them all here in this short blog post. The most profound theme of all is the fact that most of the man-made marvels of Provence, creations of Caesar and Augustus, have lost their pristine splendor. Today, we witness no more than the remnants: a pale ghost of the Roman paradise.

As for the concluding chapter of Caesar's Vast Ghost—with a French title, Le cercle refermé—I've worked through Durrell's surrealist pages several times, trying to grasp what he was trying to say. I remain dumbly confused, however, by the author's weird descriptions of his romantic idyll in the company of the doll Cunégonde. It's worse than attempting to grasp the kind of relationship that might have existed fleetingly between a celebrated international economist and a humble hotel maid. The jumble of crazy words brings to mind a fuzzy derogatory expression that I remember hearing long ago, when I was a student: literary masturbation. The writer rambles on in an orgy of images, trying vainly to arouse his senses by the mounting fever of his choice of words. In the middle of this curious chapter, there are even smatterings of colloquial French, suggesting that Durrell has forgotten momentarily that he was writing an English-language book about Provence. There is much stoical despair in these 19 pages, as if the author were conscious of the fact that he was penning a testimony. But I can't help wondering whether Durrell would have retained this effusion of sad sexuality if he had been offered the luxury of calmly reworking his typescript in the company of competent editors and critics.

A trivial anomaly in chapter IX (Woman in Provence) of Caesar's Vast Ghost, concerning Durrell's friend and lover "Marie M-D", suggests that no such final editing ever took place. Durrell wrote:

… I knew the measure of her love because once she woke me long after midnight with a phone call, arriving almost at once in a taxi with a bottle of champagne and flowers to tell me: 'Darling, Anaïs is dead. I didn't want you to hear the news from anyone but me.'

There's a problem here. Marie Millington-Drake died in 1973, whereas Anaïs Nin didn't die until 1977. So, the messenger who arrived at Sommières in the middle of the night in 1977 was either Marie's ghost or another of Larry's girlfriends. Or maybe Cunégonde.

Corny French train movie

I'm not sure what this dual movie—apparently produced by the SNCF (national French railway system)—is supposed to prove… because I didn't have the courage to watch it through to the end.

You can click to make the movie fill up your entire screen, so that you won't miss out on any of the fine graphic details. And you can also click to highlight one side of the dual screen rather than the other. Besides, if you click the ABOUT button, you reach a page that invites you to download, for free, the original music of the movie.

Please let us know if you think this movie should be nominated for some kind of cinematographic award…

Friday, September 16, 2011

Good idea for a hat

Here's a picture of the kind of hat I have in mind:

Let me refer to it as an iHat (even though I would imagine that this term is already being used out in the wide world). The top hat style—which is just one suggestion among others—has the advantage of offering a rigid lightweight structure to house both the electronic components and the wearer's skull. The size of the hat and the position of the flat screen would have to be adjusted so that it could be worn by people who don't necessarily have receding Neanderthal foreheads.

The front section of the hatband conceals an elegant pull-down keyboard. Inside the crown of the hat, above the top of the wearer's head, there would be ample room for the power source and a rich assortment of components.

To help pay for the high-tech hat, the wearer might decide—from time to time, when he's not himself working with the iHat—to display publicity in the style of TV ads, aimed at viewers seated opposite him in public transport, waiting rooms, etc. At sporting events, the screen might display the colors of the team that the wearer is supporting.

Interesting and beautiful variants of the iHat could be designed for special occasions, such as weddings or horse races of the Ascot kind.

Naturally, people wearing particularly exotic iHats equipped with high-powered electronic devices emitting intense electromagnetic radiation would be advised to have their brains scanned from time to time, just to be sure there's no damage.

It would be advisable to secure the iHat to the wearer's neck by some kind of metal chain or cable. It would be silly if a valuable iHat were to be blown off by the wind and crushed by an automobile, or grabbed by an evil strike-and-run hat thief.

No problems

It's easy if you try.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Glowing cats

Over the last week or so, countless articles in the media have described the use of fluorescent kittens in a US laboratory—the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota—that carries out research aimed at protecting humans against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

I'm amazed and happily impressed by the apparent absence of critical fuckwit comments of the following kind:

Fluorescence isn't mentioned anywhere in the Bible. What is God going to think of this diabolical research?

What are cats going to think about the nasty idea of being fluorescent? Won't it screw up their ability to sneak up on mice?

What are certain human beings going to think about being expected to glow in the dark if they want to avoid catching AIDS?

Isn't there a danger that this green fluorescence might rub off onto the hands of children who cuddled such cats?

Seriously, many articles fail to explain—not clearly enough, in any case—that the jellyfish gene responsible for the fluorescence has nothing whatsoever to do with the monkey gene (obtained from a Rhesus macaque) that is being tested, using laboratory cats, in the fight against AIDS. The fluorescence thing is a mere marker. The kittens have been genetically modified in such a way that, either both genes—the jellyfish gene and the macaque gene—are present together, simultaneously, or both genes are absent. When lab workers, using a microscope, come upon cells that glow (extracted, in that case, from a kitten that was fluorescent when illuminated by a light source), then they can be sure that those cells also contain the all-important monkey gene. For the moment, the experimental work is carried out only upon fluorescent cells, to determine that they do indeed resist AIDS. Later, the moment of truth will be attained when live glowing kittens are injected with the feline form of HIV, referred to as FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). If everything worked well, it would be good news for cats. And the next step would consist of seeing whether the monkey gene could be used successfully upon humans… none of whom would be expected, of course, to glow in the dark.

Finally, I'm not sure that my brief attempt at explaining this research is any better than what you find in tabloid stories about fluorescent cats.

Feathers in Sarko's hat

It's a bit scary to see that Nicolas Sarkozy is visiting Libya today, at a weird moment when the ousted dictator Gaddafi still remains at large, apparently protected by a certain number of supporters. But it's easy to understand why Sarkozy finds it a good idea, at this precise moment, to fly in and out of this Mediterranean land.

With the French presidential elections looming, liberated Libya will be a fine feather in Sarko's campaign hat. Besides, images of the visit will no doubt dominate this evening's TV news in France, at exactly the same moment that viewers are getting ready to watch the very first debate between the six candidates for the Socialist primary.

Here are the results of the latest opinion poll, published this morning in the French press:

Incidentally, on the subject of Sarko, it's interesting to discover that the poor man's hair is rapidly turning gray.

That, too, will be a significant asset in the forthcoming presidential campaign. The Socialist favorite François Hollande is some six months older than Sarko, and he has a receding hairline. But I can already visualize the wise old gray-haired Sarko treating Hollande condescendingly as a politically-inexperienced youngster.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Myths versus truth

In my recent blog post entitled Children's books [display], I indicated that Richard Dawkins has a book for children coming out soon, on the theme of evolution. Last night, he was interviewed on this subject by the BBC.

Back in touch with Durrell

In my earlier post entitled First encounter with Lawrence Durrell [display], I think I made it perfectly clear that this British novelist was truly a hero, for me, when I ran into him in the summer of 1963, in Nîmes, by an amazing stroke of luck. Once upon a time (not so long ago), before my enlightenment by great 21st-century scientists such as David Deutsch and Richard Dawkins, I even used to designate my chance encounter with Lawrence Durrell as an obvious manifestation of the mysterious phenomenon referred to as synchronicity. That's to say, I was convinced that some kind of yet-unexplained convergence of our respective destinies had caused our paths to cross, for an instant, on a sunny morning in Nîmes. With a small additional dose of imagination, I might have even concluded that the magnificent blocks of stone in the ancient Roman arena had surely contributed—in ways yet unknown to science—to the focalization of our itineraries upon that particular point in Alexandria-Quartet space-time: Nîmes, 18 July 1963. It all sounds so nice, in a fuzzy way (of which Durrell himself might well have approved), that I'm a little sad to admit that I no longer believe an iota about so-called synchronicity. Be that as it may, I'm relieved to realize today that there are infinitely many mysteries in the Cosmos that are infinitely more astounding than the silly synchronicity idea... and I take pleasure in deliberately spicing up my sentiments with the "infinitely" adverb.

Immediately after that encounter with Durrell, three major events took place in my life.

(1) I worked for a while as a seaman on a Greek cargo ship [display].

(2) I returned to Paris and started work as an English teacher at the Lycée Henri IV [display].

(3) I met up with my future wife.

Curiously, an indirect but undeniable outcome of these three events was that I totally abandoned my fascination for Durrell and his formerly-exhilarating Alexandria Quartet. Instead of dreaming romantically about the inhabitants of a make-believe city in Egypt, or trying to imagine Durrell's life in places such as Corfu, Rhodes or Cyprus, I became more interested in the realities of modern Greece. In particular, I fell in love with the island of Tinos [display]. But I was rapidly convinced that there was one outstanding nation on the shores of the Mediterranean, and it was neither Greece, Egypt, Spain nor Italy. That nation was France. Its capital was Paris, where I would be spending the next three decades. And its Mediterranean port was the ancient Greek settlement of Massalia (designated by my friend Natacha as Marseille)... the official European capital of culture in 2013.

At this point, if my story is to be meaningful, readers need to know that, in 1965, I married a French girl, Christine, whose maternal ancestors were essentially Provençal. In the summer of 1968, with our 18-month-old daughter Emmanuelle, we drove down to meet up with Christine's grandparents at their home in the village of Saint Sériès, in the Mediterranean département of the Hérault, not far from Nîmes.

This was an excursion of immense joy: my discovery of Christine's marvelous maternal grandparents, and of their Languedoc province.

One day, Christine's grandparents happened to speak to me of a certain British writer who lived nearby, in Sommières. They told me that he had a reputation of spending most of his time as a boisterous drunkard in local taverns. I soon gathered that they were speaking of my former literary hero, Lawrence Durell, whom I had encountered 5 years earlier in Nîmes, when he was living in a stone cabin up in the vicinity, north of Nîmes, indicated by a green bubble in the above map. Needless to say, I set off immediately, to see if I could meet up once again with Durrell in Sommières. I located the property, but Durrell himself was not there. So, I missed him.

Meanwhile, for years, I had started to realize to what extent the mythical novelist of my late teenage years in Sydney had ceased to concern me directly, if at all. Today, retrospectively, I can understand perfectly why this was the case. Durrell had fascinated me at a time, back in Australia, when I still believed in romantic Mediterranean legends. But I had grown up since then, and I realized that Durrell was merely an adept story-teller: no more, no less. But certainly not an authority on authentic present-day Mediterranean society… which was better described to me—devoid of the romantic trappings of literature—by Christine's splendid grandparents. Her grandfather had worked for the French military as a specialist in explosives.

Christine's ancestors were real Provençal individuals, with authentic Mediterranean genealogies, not mere figments of the fuzzy imagination of a British novelist. Consequently, by "the force of things" (a splendid existentialist expression that I've always admired), I ceased to be a dyed-in-the-wool Durrellian (if ever I were). I became, modestly, the Australian-born husband of a lovely Breton girl (born, in fact, in Cognac) whose mother was Arlesian. Besides, incidentally, Christine told me she loved the French translations of Durrell's novels.

Meanwhile, my second face-to-face encounter with Lawrence Durrell took place in the Latin Quarter of Paris, in the early 1970s, when the novelist was exhibiting his talents as a painter, identified as Oscar Epf.

On that evening, I was thrilled to meet up with the 20-something daughter of the writer/painter, Sappho Durrell. Back at the time of my initial encounter with Lawrence Durrell, in Nîmes in 1963, Sappho was a child.

That evening, in Paris, she was an elegant young woman, sporting a magic name: Sappho Durrell. While her father chatted diplomatically with visitors, I preferred to enter in contact with Sappho. I told her, of course, that I had met up with her father for the first at Nîmes in 1963. Then I explained how I had come upon their family mansion in Sommières, in 1968. I half-expected that I would hear the profound reflections of the writer's daughter concerning life in a small Provençal town such as Sommières. Instead, at that instant, I was utterly stupefied by the spontaneous reaction of Sappho Durrell, who replied casually in the style of a mindless suburban brat:

SAPPHO DURRELL: "We refer to my father's place in Sommières as the House of the Addams Family."

I had no idea who might be designated by Sappho's "we", but I was immediately shocked (the term is true) by the fact that this young woman, daughter of a great British novelist, with the privilege of living with her illustrious father in the heart of Provence, might dare to allude to such cheap foreign shit as an American TV series. I concluded immediately (maybe wrongly, but first impressions count) that, intellectually, there was little to be acquired from Sappho… who may or may not have inherited significant genes from her Alexandrian mother Eve Cohen, a victim of depressive schizophrenia.

Years later, Christine's brother Lan Mafart, aware of my interest in Durrell, happened to be traveling around in the south of France, and he sent me a lovely photo of the entrance to Durrell's house in Sommières:

Lan also sent me a postcard from Sommières, with an image of the ancient rectangular keep on a hill above the capricious Vidourle:

Here, on the other side, is the text (in French) of Lan's postcard, written from the Café du Commerce:

Lan wrote: "A pale lightbulb shines upon the entrance to the house of Lawrence Durrell. The flakes of paint are like dead leaves forgotten by the gardener." In a cynical vein, Lan notes the absence of "camping-cars in the driveway", meaning that Durrell's home is no longer, apparently, a place of pilgrimage (if ever it were).

The most striking aspect of Lan's postcard is the date: 17 February 1990. On that day, if I understand correctly, Lawrence Durrell was in fact working inside his great bourgeois home on the manuscript of his final masterpiece: Caesar's Vast Ghost — Aspects of Provence. And the writer himself would be dead before the end of that year.

Today, when I learn that Sappho Durrell hung herself in London in 1985, and that she left papers suggesting (in terribly indirect terms) that her father might have straddled her incestuously, my immediate reaction is: crazy Addams-family talk!

I simply cannot, for a moment, imagine why Larry—surrounded constantly by hordes of seductive females—might have suddenly decided to fornicate with his 15-year-old daughter. Inversely, I can well imagine why Sappho might have decided, later on, that it would be nice if she were to make herself interesting (Durrell's daughter was a budding writer) by injecting make-believe sex into the alleged relationship with her father. After all, wasn't that a bit like what her old man had been doing, for ages, to add spice to his stories?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Abuse victims target Vatican

A complaint was lodged this morning urging the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate Benedict XV and three senior Vatican officials concerning the possible concealment of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests.

The ICC will now have to decide whether it has jurisdiction in this context. Even if the outcome of this preliminary investigation were negative, as is likely, the ICC will be obliged to respond explicitly to the two American advocacy groups that filed the complaint: the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. And the ICC's response will inevitably raise public awareness of these questions.

First encounter with Lawrence Durrell

When I left Australia for Europe in January 1962 on the Greek ship Bretagne, I was traveling light. But I had nevertheless found room in a corner of my two suitcases for The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I had purchased the four Faber paperback editions at Clay's Bookshop in Macleay Street, near Kings Cross, and it was out of the question to abandon these precious novels in Sydney.

Besides, our ship would soon be sailing alongside Durrell's Mediterranean world of Egypt and Greece, and I had planned on rereading the Quartet during the voyage.

During my first year and a half in Europe, I lived in Paris for 8 months, and then in London for the harsh winter of 1962-63, working in both places with IBM. I carried on reading Durrell, particularly his wonderful books on the Greek islands. Finally, at the start of summer in 1963, I said goodbye to my colleagues in London and set off wandering around as a backpacker, staying in youth hostels. First, I dropped in at Canterbury, where I wanted to visit the tomb of the 14th-century archbishop Simon Mepham, whom I imagined (and still do) as a vague paternal ancestor.

I was amused to think that 14-year-old Lawrence Durrell had once arrived here, in the heart of the superb county of Kent, to study at Saint Edmund's School.

After this rapid pilgrimage, I crossed the Channel by ferry from Dover and hitchhiked from Calais down to Nantes. I then spent a fortnight staying in hostels and moving slowly from Nantes across to Tours and down to Poitiers and Beaulieu-en-Dordogne. At Saint-Brévin-les-Pins, I was fascinated by a French girl who took me out on an excursion to the local market to buy fresh fish, which she then prepared expertly in the simple kitchen of the youth hostel. I've often thought, retrospectively, that it was then that I was charmed, for the first time, by the subtle blend of simple beauty and provincial pragmatism (quite the opposite of sophistication) that characterizes so many young French women.

Meanwhile, I had heard that my hero Durrell was settled in the south of France in the vicinity of Nîmes, which I imagined naively (I was still totally uncultivated in the domain of French geography) as a Provençal village. Early on the morning of Thursday 18 July 1963, a truckdriver took me into Nîmes. I remember being dispirited, as we approached Nîmes, by the sight of clusters of dreary residential buildings, which hardly corresponded to my vision of Durrell's hometown. The truckdriver let me off at an intersection where a signpost indicated the direction of the centre ville. Twenty minutes later, coming upon a huge antique structure (the Roman arena), I realized that I had surely reached the center of Nîmes.

The streets surrounding the arena were quite busy. Most of the pedestrians seemed to be local folk: employees rushing to their jobs in offices and shops, women engaged in early-morning shopping, and adolescents obliged to spend the school vacation in their hometown. There were many tourists, too. Like me, they were clearly overwhelmed by the massive proportions of the ancient Roman structure. The local people, on the other hand, walked past quickly without ever glancing at the stones; they were far more interested in the likelihood of running into friends. For me, this busy scene was far removed from my expected idyllic image of a village square with a tiny church, a stone fountain, and a couple of bistrots whose outdoor tables were shaded by plane trees. The scale alone overpowered me. Nîmes was no village. It was a big town, if not a provincial city. Clearly, this place had nothing to do with the austere Durrellian environment I had imagined on the basis of a few photos I had come across in books and literary magazines.

Feeling somewhat lost, and a little disappointed by the dimensions of the place, I decided to stroll around the stone walls of the Roman arena in Nîmes. On the far side of the vast square, there were several large cafés, where black-uniformed waiters were organizing the rows of tables and chairs out on the pavement.

At this early hour of the morning, there were not many clients, merely a handful of old men reading newspapers. I walked towards the largest café, which was almost empty. A single customer was seated in the sun at one of the tables in the front row. He was sipping a beer and gazing out at the Roman edifice. I recognized him instantly. I had found my novelist. Without hesitating, I walked towards him.

ME: "You're Lawrence Durrell. No?"

DURRELL: "Please be seated. What can I get you to drink?"

I asked for a beer. Durrell got up and walked back up into the café to order my drink. When he returned, I was in a rather confused state of mind, and I attempted to mumble out explanations about why it was totally extraordinary that I should run into him here, of all places, less than an hour after my arrival in Nîmes.

DURRELL: "It's most unusual for me to be sitting in a café in Nîmes at this hour of the morning, but I had to bring my car in for repairs. So, I simply have to wait around until it's ready."

We spent about half an hour together, on that sunny terrasse, talking about various trivial things. I was a naive young man of 22, and that was no doubt the first time in my life that I had found myself in a face-to-face conversation with a celebrity such as Durrell. (Later, during my three or four years in the French TV world, this kind of encounter would become commonplace.) I made a conscious effort to avoid behaving like a wonderstruck fan, but I'm not sure I succeeded. Durrell told me that he had family friends down in Tasmania who had the habit of sending him a crate of home-grown apples every year. That anecdote made me feel more at ease. I sensed immediately that, in the contemporary Tasmanian domain, Durrell's awareness was probably limited, like mine, to that single item of information: they grow apples. Fortunately, I was not yet sufficiently impregnated with all the intricacies and mysteries of the Quartet to be able to raise any interesting questions. So, there was little chance of my boring Durrell at that level. On the other hand, I did make a point of telling him, quite truthfully, that one of the aspects of the masterpiece that had attracted me from the start was the four-dimensional relativity-inspired thing, since I was more-or-less familiar with modern physics. I remember having the impression that Durrell was visibly happy to hear me say this. (I've since learned that various well-intentioned critics were quick to point out that this alleged structural aspect of The Alexandria Quartet does not really stand up to any kind of rigorous scientific analysis.) Durrell spoke of a recent visit of his friend Henry Miller, who was apparently a little ill at ease with the primitive outdoor lavatory at the Mazet Michel. Finally, when Durrell left me to pick up his car, I still had trouble convincing myself that I had actually been chatting with the author of The Alexandria Quartet.