Wednesday, November 30, 2011


In a blog post of 9 August 2010 entitled Sophia's future companion at Gamone [display], I explained that the elegant name Fitzroy, which I would give to my young Border Collie a year ago, was in fact the surname of one of my ancient ancestors: a bastard son of King John.

The term Fitz means "son of", and roy is Old French for "king". The bastard Fitz who was my ancestor—often specified as Richard Fitzjohn Chilham—is mentioned briefly in this delightful book:

Well, I often get around to imagining my dog as a descendant, not of a king, but of a wolf. So, I often call him either FitzLoup (in French) or simply FitzWolf. These reveries started recently in my imagination when I thought about an amazing story told by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale [pages 29-31] and then repeated in The Greatest Show on Earth [pages 73-76].

It's the story of an experiment carried out by the Soviet scientist Dmitri Belyaev [1917-1985] using a beautiful domestic animal, the Russian Silver Fox, bred for the fur trade.

[First parenthetical remark. What a horrible idea: killing such a glorious animal just to be able to transform its skin and fur into a coat.]

[Second parenthetical remark. The geneticist Belyaev was a man whom we might admire a priori, since he was sacked because he disagreed with the quackery of the Stalinist agronomist Trofim Lysenko.]

Belyaev's experiment was aimed at studying the concept of tameness in successive generations of his foxes. The basic experimental procedure consisted of offering food to fox cubs and trying to fondle them. According to their reactions, the young animals were classed in three categories:

(1) The wildest cubs would either flee or act aggressively, maybe by biting the experimenter's hand.

(2) Certain cubs would accept the food and the experimenter's caresses, but grudgingly, as it were, with no apparent enthusiasm.

(3) The tamest category of cubs would, not only accept the food, but exhibit a positive reaction to the experimenter's caresses, by wagging their tails and crouching down in front of him.

Only fox cubs in this third category would be used for breeding the next generation. And so on…

Not surprisingly, this breeding strategy produced cubs that were tamer and tamer. But the experiments resulted in consequences—we might say side effects—of a totally unexpected kind. The new generations of tame foxes started to look somewhat different to their relatively wilder genetic cousins. In a nutshell, the tame foxes started to look like Border Collies! Truly, it was magic… but simply genetic magic! While the silver foxes were being bred uniquely for tameness, their genes "threw in for free"—as it were—a whole host of genetically-connected features that were apparently linked rigorously with tameness.

Nature speaks to us with her eons of accumulated wisdom: If you want a tame fox, then what we have to offer you is a dog-like fox! Nature might have added: Take it or leave it! Me, I say enthusiastically that I'll take it, because my marvelous tame wolf is Fitzroy… whose fur warms me for a delightful instant when he jumps up onto my knees in front of the fireplace.

Often, I'm overwhelmed when I observe at close range the intense human-like gaze of Fitzroy, which has infinitely more profundity and meaning than the dumb expression of less-introspective animals.

Fitzroy is surely just a few magic chemicals away from being capable of discussing Dawkins with me… but that minor metamorphosis is likely to necessitate a few million years, to say the least, with all the risks of the long road. Frankly, Fitzroy and I tend to agree (not to mention the tacit approval of Sophia) that, for the moment, it's best we stay put.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Leopard

Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (translated into English as The Leopard) is one of the finest novels I've ever read. And the film by Luchino Visconti (which I watched for the Nth time on television the other evening) is a masterpiece that has not aged one iota since it was made in 1963. Maybe I'm basically a sentimental and romantically-inclined old fellow. Be that as it may, the scene where Burt Lancaster waltzes with Claudia Cardinale moves me today to the same extent as when I first saw this movie, just after my arrival in France.

[Click the video to watch it in YouTube, and increase the sound.]

Gamone cake

I started making this cake long ago at Gamone, and I'm still at it, particularly when the weather starts to cool down and I like to be reminded of summer fruit such as apples and figs.

The figs have emerged in fact from my deep freezer, while the apples come from a crate, sitting outside, that's more or less reserved for the donkeys. The cake is one of those upside-down things. That's to say, I lay out the fruit on the bottom of a cake dish and pour the cake mixture (eggs, butter, sugar and flour) on top.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sophia's pears

Every morning, one of the first things I do is to set off up the road with the dogs for Sophia's morning "business", which always takes place ritually at the same spot, on a track running down from the road. After that, we often continue up along the road for a while, just to stretch our legs. Inevitably, the dogs discover wild pears that have fallen into the grass alongside the road. Sophia likes to bring back such a pear as a kind of trophy, and then she looks for the right spot to start eating it.

Eating, for Sophia, has always been a solemn affair… on a par with cuddles for Fitzroy, or ripping up cushions.

Talking of Fitzroy, who often forgets to eat unless I remind him, his tastes can be curious. When I clean the ashes from the fireplace, Fitzroy hangs around waiting for a chunk of charcoal, which he chews until it crumbles into dust. He's also capable of devouring damp Kleenex tissues. From my earliest days here at Gamone, I instigated the pleasant wilderness practice of peeing out in the open, under the heavens, where there's nobody around (apart from God) who might possibly be offended. I now find myself reluctant to pursue this fine old tradition, for the simple reason that Fitzroy is there in a bound, ready to lap it all up, apparently with relish. I wouldn't want to poison my dear dog.

Teapots in my life

Here's an assortment of teapots that I've had for ages:

My favorite is the glazed stoneware object on the right, created by the potter Maurice Crignon. The little metal teapot with red hearts came down to my daughter as a memento of her aunt Catherine Vincent, and Emmanuelle then gave it to me. It remains my daughter's favorite teapot whenever she visits Gamone, because she can make herself a single cup of tea for breakfast, knowing that I prefer coffee. Manufactured in what used to be known as Yugoslavia, this lovely little object is unfortunately so light and round-shaped that it has a tendency to roll over if you touch it abruptly… which is not reassuring behavior for a teapot. And the thin metal radiates heat rather than keeping it in the brew.

Here are my two high-tech cast-iron made-in-China teapots:

They incorporate the excellent idea of a built-in tea strainer, whereas my older teapots require the use of a small spherical tea-container that is not very user-friendly. The big green teapot on the left is a family-size device, whereas the lovely little beige teapot (which I've just purchased, through the Internet) is perfect for me on my own, and particularly esthetic.

If you happened to read yesterday's blog post entitled Internet shopping [display], you'll understand immediately how I've succeeded in obtaining top-quality leaves of Chinese jasmine tea.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ghosts again

This distinguished Italian priest is named Gabriele Amorth, and for many years, he was the Vatican's chief exorcist.

He has become notorious for declaring that the Harry Potter books, in encouraging children to believe in black magic and wizardy, can lead to evil. He has also stated that yoga is a Satanic activity. Apparently it has never occurred to this silly old bugger that he too might be a practicioner of black magic and wizardy. He probably thinks of his exorcist activities as a branch of modern science.

The website of Richard Dawkins proposes a BBC documentary on paranormal phenomena (ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance and apparitions). It's quite an old show, since it was aired for the first time on British TV in 1987. But ghosts don't age, and the Virgin Mary remains just as strikingly beautiful today, in her frequent apparitions, as when she first appeared on the world scene two millennia ago.

The academic psychologist Nicholas Humphrey deals with four major happenings of a paranormal nature:

— On a wet Thursday evening, on 21 August 1879, a dozen or so lucky parishioners in the Irish village of Knock were amazed to receive the unexpected visit of a distinguished delegation of heavenly creatures: the Holy Mother of Christ (arrayed in white robes, like any self-respecting virgin, with a golden crown on her pretty head), Joseph (the carpenter father of Jesus) and John (the scruffy hermit who survived in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey, while baptizing visitors at an industrial cadence). In fact, for this exceptional visit to an Irish village, John the Baptist had tidied himself up, and attired himself in the white robes of a bishop. To honor their guests, the parishioners stood in the pouring rain for two hours, and got thoroughly soaked. As for the heavenly visitors, who had neither raincoats nor umbrellas, they didn't get wet at all.

— In 1977 and 1978, in a council house in the dull northern London suburb of Enfield, a single mother and her four children experienced terrifying poltergeist activity. Furniture moved spontaneously, and a girl levitated above her bed.

— In 1980, Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk was the scene of sightings of unexplained lights and the alleged landing of a craft or multiple craft of unknown origin. It was no doubt the most spectacular and celebrated UFO event in Britain.

— Finally, in 1985, the moving statue of the Virgin Mary at Ballinspittle in Co Cork (Ireland) drew throngs of pilgrims.

You'll need an hour and nineteen minutes to watch this video [access], which is quite amusing and instructive at times.

POST SCRIPTUM: And what do young people think about the declarations of the mad exorcist in Rome? Here's Harry himself on religion:

Internet shopping

Towards the end of my blog post of 12 June 2011 entitled Basic beverages [display], I mentioned my discovery of a shop in Valence named Pivard that sells many varieties of high-quality coffee grains, roasted in their big factory on the southern outskirts of the city. Since then, I've often found myself driving all the way to Valence and back simply to purchase fresh coffee. Now, when I take into account the time it takes for such a trip, and its cost in terms of gasoline, I realize that this excursion to Valence is somewhat absurd. So, I decided to look into the possibility of purchasing high-quality coffee grains through the Internet. I soon discovered that this solution was perfectly feasible, and that the prices were similar to what I had been paying in the shop at Valence. Besides, since proximity (within France) was no longer an issue, I could choose the vendor who seemed to offer the most interesting range of products. I soon discovered that, in Strasbourg (Alsace), an ancient establishment named Reck proposes three varieties of Ethiopian Arabica for which I've acquired a taste: Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harrar.

Sure, it would be nicer if I were to drop in personally and buy my coffee grains at the old Reck shop in the Rue de la Mésange, five minutes away from the great cathedral of Strasbourg. But being able to purchase such products through the Internet is indeed a convenient luxury.

I've always been fascinated by the atmosphere and aromas of ancient shops that sell tea and coffee. Thanks to my KitchenAid burr grinder, I can reproduce at least the aroma of freshly-ground coffee in my kitchen at Gamone. And the true pleasure, of course, is in the drinking.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Death of the soprano Montserrat Figueras

I shall never forget a balmy August 1986 evening in Venice, when Christine and I took the vaporetto across the Giudecca Canal for a concert of Baroque music in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The principal performers were the viola da gamba maestro Jordi Savall and his soprano wife Montserrat Figueras.

At that hour of day, the hordes of tourists had abandoned the islands of the Lagoon, and the concert audience was quite small. I had the impression that it was almost a private recital. Thanks to a rare amalgam of excellence—music,  artists and place—that concert in Venice was magic.

At the end of the evening, on the vaporetto back to the Piazza San Marco, we found ourselves standing alongside an unexpected pair of passengers, returning to their hotel: Savall and Figueras.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Donkey fur, donkey thoughts

The state of the donkeys' fur is like a natural barometer indicating that winter is not far away.

In the following photo, Moshé's ears are pointing back down towards Fitzroy, sensing the dog's movements, and the donkey seems to be saying to himself: "If that bloody dog tries to bite my hind legs one more time, I'll screw him."

Maybe Fitzroy sensed that Moshé might even be getting ready to transform his thoughts into action.

In any case, the dog reckoned it was no longer a good idea to hang around in the vicinity of the donkey.

Frequent view of Fitzroy

Several times a day, this is the view I have of Fitzroy:

That's to say, he's settled on the floor beneath a corner of my desk, and staring up at me while I work at my computer. From time to time, he gets tired of holding his head up, and he dozes for a quarter of an hour. When he's really bored, and wants to get out of the house, Fitzroy has developed an excellent technique aimed at letting me know that it's time to interrupt my use of the computer. As soon as I reach towards my mouse, Fitzroy simply raises his snout ever so slightly and bumps my wrist aside. When this happens, it becomes impossible to carry on using the computer, so I have to get up and bundle my dog down the stairs and out through the kitchen door.

Fitzroy has an even more eloquent way of letting me know that a break is necessary. He simply scrambles up onto my knees and places his head between me and the Macintosh. Clearly, there are limits to Fitzroy's patience with computing.

Celebrating November 22

Christine and I were legally divorced on 22 November 1977. Subsequently, the numbers representing that date, 221177, stuck in my mind to such an extent that I used them as a locking code on an elegant leather case that I purchased out in Bangkok, in 1982, when my children and I were visiting my aunt and uncle, Nancy and Peter.

[Click to enlarge slightly, then ESCAPE to return to blog.]

I've never really used this case in an everyday fashion, because it's a little too big for a briefcase, and far too small for a suitcase. In other words, it's one of those useless objects that gather dust.

Incidentally, let me point out (in case some of my readers might have overlooked the significance of November 22) that this is the feast day of Saint Cecilia, a 2nd-century martyr in Rome who is considered as the patroness of musicians. In Roman Catholic iconography, she is often depicted with a musical instrument in her hands.

Now, if you happen to have a friend named Cecilia (Cécile in French), I invite you to express your wishes for a joyful feast day by sending her the following delightful image of a saintly maiden.

Notice that two fingers of her right hand are outstretched, at the same time as a single finger of her left hand. This detail is important, since it refers to an observation concerning her incorruptible body, discovered long after her death. Her fingers were positioned in that way. Cecilia's followers said that clearly, by this posthumous gesture, the saint was indicating that she believed in the trinity.

WARNING: The theological sense of Saint Cecilia's finger message must not be confused with that of this saintly woman... whose body might well be somewhat more corruptible than that of Cecilia. While emerging from ritual matinal ablutions in the ocean, to cleanse her naked soul, this pious young lady uses her outstretched fingers—in much the same style as Cecilia—to affirm vigorously and unequivocally that she believes in one and only one god. Heathens refer to this body language as Fuck off!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Voices from the edge of the sea

Ever since my student days in Australia, I've been fascinated by Under Milk Wood, the celebrated play for voices by the Welsh author Dylan Thomas, who died in New York at the age of 39. The play reveals the acts and sentiments of a few dozen citizens of the mythical Welsh seaside village of Llareggub ("bugger all" spelt backwards), which is said to be based upon the real place, Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas spent the four final years of his life.

The title of this blog post—Voices from the edge of the sea—needs a short explanation. I've spent very little time in Wales (purely as a tourist), whereas I happen to be far more familiar with small seaside villages a little further to the south, in Brittany. And I like to imagine that the spirit of many Breton villages, looking out across the sea towards the British Isles, would be on a par with that of Llareggub, for the people in such places surely end up sharing the same kinds of visions and phantoms. For example, I can well imagine Milk Wood being located on the slopes above Plouézec, in the Côtes d'Armor.

Or, better still, above the tiny magical fishing port of Gwin Zégal:

Maybe my son François, who's a more experienced traveler than me, and a more expert witness, will tell me if he agrees with my amalgam of sites on the edge of that Celtic sea (once crossed in flimsy boats by ancient saints disseminating their faith) that separates Britain and Ireland from Brittany.

The Internet provides us with an excellent opportunity of appreciating this audio creation. Towards the end of the present blog post, I've included eight YouTube videos that present a BBC production of Under Milk Wood starring the Welsh actor Richard Burton. If you need the full text of the play, you can download it from this Gutenberg website. And here's a list (from Wikipedia) of the major characters in Under Milk Wood, which you can consult while listening to the play:

Captain CatThe old blind sea captain who dreams of his deceased shipmates and lost lover Rosie Probert. He is one of the play's most important characters, as he often acts as a narrator. He observes and comments on the goings-on in the village from his window.

Rosie Probert
Captain Cat's deceased lover, who appears in his dreams.

Myfanwy Price
Sweetshop-keeper who dreams of marrying Mog Edwards.

Mr Mog Edwards
Draper, infatuated by Myfanwy Price. Their romance, however, is restricted strictly to the letters they write one another and their interactions in their dreams.

Jack Black
Cobbler, who dreams of scaring away young couples.

Evans the Death
Undertaker, who dreams of his childhood.

Mr Waldo
Rabbit catcher, barber, herbalist, cat doctor, quack, dreams of his mother and his many unhappy, failed marriages. He is a notorious alcoholic and general troublemaker, and is involved in an affair with Polly Garter.

Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard
Owner of a guesthouse, who dreams of nagging her two late husbands. She refuses to let anyone stay at the guesthouse because of her extreme penchant for neatness.

Mr Ogmore
Deceased, Linoleum salesman, late of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard.

Mr Pritchard
Deceased, failed bookmaker, late of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard. He committed suicide "ironically" by ingesting disinfectant.

Gossamer Beynon
Schoolteacher (daughter of Butcher Beynon), dreams of a fox-like illicit love. During the day, she longs to be with Sinbad Sailors, but the two never interact.

Organ Morgan
Church organ player, has perturbed dreams of music and orchestras within the village. His obsession with music bothers his wife intensely.

Mrs Organ Morgan
Shop owner who dreams of silence, as she is disturbed during the day by Organ Morgan's constant organ-playing.

Mr and Mrs Floyd
Cocklers, an elderly couple, seemingly the only couple to sleep peacefully in the village. They are mentioned only during the dream sequence.

Utah Watkins
Farmer, dreams of counting sheep that resemble his wife.

Ocky Milkman
Milkman, dreams of pouring his milk into a river, 'regardless of expense'.

Mr Cherry Owen
Dreams of drinking, and yet is unable to as the tankard turns into a fish, which he drinks.

Mrs Cherry Owen
Cherry Owen's devoted wife, who cares for him and delights in rehashing his drunken antics.

Police Constable Attila Rees
The policeman, relieves himself into his helmet at night, knowing somehow he will regret this in the morning.

Mr Willy Nilly
Postman, dreams of delivering the post in his sleep, and physically knocks upon his wife as if knocking upon a door. In the morning they open the post together and read the town's news so he can relay it around the village.

Mrs Willy Nilly
Postman's wife who, because of her husband's knocking upon her, dreams of being spanked by her teacher for being late for school. She assists Willy Nilly in steaming open the mail.

Mary Ann Sailors
83 years old, dreams of the Garden of Eden. During the day she announces her age ("I'm 83 years, 3 months and a day!") to the town.

Sinbad Sailors
Barman, dreams of Gossamer Beynon, who he cannot marry because of his grandmother's disapproval.

Mae Rose Cottage
Seventeen and never been kissed, she dreams of meeting her "Mr Right". She spends the day in the fields daydreaming, and unseen, draws lipstick circles around her nipples.

Bessie Bighead
Hired help, dreams of the one man that kissed her "because he was dared".

Butcher Beynon
The butcher, dreams of riding pigs and shooting wild giblets. During the day he enjoys teasing his wife about the questionable meat that he sells.

Mrs Butcher Beynon
Butcher Beynon's wife, dreams of her husband being persecuted for selling "owl's meat, dogs' eyes, manchop".

Reverend Eli Jenkins
Poet and preacher, who dreams of Eisteddfodau. Author of the White Book of Llareggub.

Mr Pugh
Schoolmaster, dreams of poisoning his domineering wife. He purchases a book named "Lives of the Great Poisoners" for ideas on how to kill Mrs Pugh; however, he does not do it.

Mrs Pugh
Nasty and undesirable wife of Mr Pugh.

Dai Bread
Bigamist baker who dreams of harems.

Mrs Dai Bread One
Dai Bread's first wife, traditional and plain.

Mrs Dai Bread Two
Dai Bread's second wife, a mysterious and sultry gypsy.

Polly Garter
Innocent young mother, who dreams of her many babies. During the day, she scrubs floors and sings of her lost love.

Nogood Boyo
Lazy young fisherman who dreams peevishly of 'nothing', though he later fantasizes about Mrs Dai Bread Two in a wet corset. He is known for causing shenanigans in the wash house.

Lord Cut Glass
Man of questionable sanity, who dreams of the 66 clocks that he keeps in his house.

Lily Smalls
Dreams of love and a fantasy life. She is the Beynons' maid, but longs for a more exciting life.

Gwennie — Child in Llareggub, who insists that her male schoolmates "kiss her where she says or give her a penny".

To listen to the entire play, you'll need to dispose of an hour and a quarter. It's truly worthwhile...

PART 1/8

PART 2/8

PART 3/8

PART 4/8

PART 5/8

PART 6/8

PART 7/8

PART 8/8

Friday, November 18, 2011

Family-history breakthrough

Three decades ago, when I first became interested in genealogy, one of my basic motivations was to shed light, if possible, upon my strangely-spelled surname, Skyvington. I now know that, if the "y" in our name has always been pronounced as an "i", that's simply because it was in fact an "i" up until various parish clerks in Dorset started spelling our surname with an ungainly "y" during the first half of the 19th century. In the context of my direct ancestors, the first example of this anomaly is found in a marriage certificate of 1844, and this erroneous spelling was rapidly adopted within our family. Today, an observer might feel that the presence of a "y", pronounced as if it were an "i", looks old-fashioned and quaint in a superficial way… but I insist upon the fact that it is no more than a silly error, made relatively recently, by a careless clerk or clergyman. If it were easy to do so, I would be tempted get our name restored to its original spelling… but this would be a complicated and burdensome task, with few merits other than the pleasure of signing my name authentically (?) as William Skivington.

There's surely a fly in the ointment. The correct spelling of my surname is probably neither Skyvington nor Skivington, but rather Skevington. In my genealogical research focussed upon my patriarchal surname, I've succeeded in describing precisely no more than eleven generations.

[Click to enlarge slightly, then ESCAPE to return to blog]

After all the years of work I've devoted to this subject, it looks like a meager harvest. But the truth of the matter is far from disappointing, in the sense that I now have a reasonably clear vision of the likely itinerary of my patriarchal ancestors from the Saxon village of Skeffington in Leicestershire down to Dorset. We know, above all, that the various spellings of our surname—including the official (but not necessarily authentic "Skeffington"—are derived from a Scandinavianized form of the Old English Sce(a)ftinga tûn: "the tûn (village) of Sceaft’s people". Incidentally, as I've pointed out already, this means that names such as Skeffington and Shaftesbury have identical etymologies.

While we have no information whatsoever concerning the Saxon chief named Sceaft, we know that his name might be translated into English as "shaft", as of an arrow or a spear. So, he may have been a celebrated warrior. (Websites concerning the village of Skeffington persist in disseminating the erroneous notion that the name of the Saxon chief and his village had something to do with sheep.)

Besides, the above chart suggests that I might use the given name George as a hint when searching among earlier archives.

It's a fact that, in the 17th century in England, George was not yet a commonplace Christian name, since it invoked a Middle-Eastern Catholic saint whose cult had been brought back by the Crusaders. Even though George was supposedly the patron saint of England, he was probably not a homely personage who might inspire rural folk who were searching for a name for their son. In any case, it's a fact that, in the course of my research, I've come upon relatively few individuals named George Skivington (apart from my direct ancestors) or George Skevington. So, this George name could well play the role of a flashing beacon pointing to the possibility of ancestral threads.

In any case, I've just stumbled upon the kind of situation that I've been seeking in the Mormon database known as the IGI [International Genealogical Index]. Two distinct sets of Mormon records describe a marriage that took place inn the Lincolnshire village of Great Gonerby on 18 August 1648. In one set of records, the groom is designated as William Skevington; in the other, as William Skivington. In other words, the expert Mormon researchers were apparently incapable of deciding whether the man's surname should be spelt with an "e" or an "i". Now, an observer might say that this was no more than a trivial incident concerning a poorly-written letter, which turns out to be unreadable. But, in view of the normal exactitude and rigor of Mormon transcribers, I see it as much more than that. We have a case in which there appeared to be total uncertainty concerning the question of whether the individual's name was Skevington or Skivington.

In these circumstances, I am wondering whether this couple, married in Lincolnshire in 1648, might have been the future parents of my ancestor George Skivington [1670-1711] down in Dorset.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dogs to be merited

The other day, when Louis Arquer and I were talking with Roland Cottin, the former proprietor of the castle at Rochechinard, I happened to evoke my dogs.

[Click to enlarge, then ESCAPE to return to the blog.]

When I said that my second dog, Fitzroy, was a Border Collie, the regard of the former mayor of Rochechinard was suddenly illuminated as if I had informed him that I shared my abode at Gamone with an Arabian princess fit for the imprisoned prince Zizim. "Ah, I've always dreamed about owning a Border Collie!" In an instant, I was reminded that a privileged human like me has to merit, as it were, the presence of a dog such as Fitzroy (and my dear Sophia, too, of course, but in a slightly less technical sense).

The Welsh shepherd William who reared Fitzroy up in the French Alps had warned me that I would be acquiring a demanding dog, in constant need of affection, but I didn't really know, a year ago, what this might mean. Today, I'm happy to understand perfectly that Fitzroy is indeed a most demanding dog, who's happiest of all when he's just a meter or so so from my feet… as at the present moment, for example.

At a certain moment in the evening, Fitzroy seems to find it quite natural that he should exit the warm house in order to spend his night in solitude, out under the stars, in the vague company of the donkeys.

Truly, Fitzroy has become my personal guru. We have a highly physical relationship, based upon an abundance of cuddles, caresses and canine kisses. Silently (well, with a few occasional barks), my mentor Fitzroy has taught me to smile at life, and to seek constantly the energetic side of things. I would be happy to believe that I merit Fitzroy.

Ruins of a medieval castle

The ruins of the medieval castle at Rochechinard (near the villages of St-Jean-en-Royans and St-Nazaire-en-Royans) are mysterious and romantic, the kind of place that is best evoked by a poet.

[Click to enlarge, then ESCAPE to return to the blog.]

Viewed from a helicopter, the outlines of the three surviving towers are perfectly visible. But the view from down on the surrounding plain is not nearly as clear, particularly when the sun has gone down below the crest behind the castle.

[Click to enlarge, then ESCAPE to return to the blog.]

You sense the presence of a gigantic rocky mound, covered in abundant vegetation, but it's hard to distinguished something that might be described as a castle. On the other hand, for an observer who decides to take advantage of a sunny morning and scramble up the slopes to the west of the castle, the form and layout of the ruins become quite clear.

[Click to enlarge, then ESCAPE to return to the blog.]

Besides, in the background on the left, you have a glimpse of the splendid tiny church of Rochechinard. Anecdote: One afternoon, several years ago, on one of my regular visits this lovely little isolated village, I heard a chant coming from inside the church. When I edged the door open, I came upon an unexpected scene. A white-robed monk was chanting a mass in Latin for a congregation composed of a single individual: a woman kneeling on the flagstones in a corner of the chapel. I would imagine that this was a ritual memorial offering for a deceased member of the lady's family.

The ruins of the castle were purchased in 2055 by a Parisian gentleman named Louis Arquer, whose unusual profession consists of designing and drawing new series of postage stamps (for foreign as well as French postal authorities). Last week, Louis phoned me up to let me know that he was spending a week or so in the region, and he invited me to a private visit of the castle.


I was obliged to make it clear that I'm incapable of strolling alongside precipices, but Louis told me that I should be able to steer clear of any treacherous zones inside the ruins. On the other hand, there was a very real danger—falling stones from the castle—which meant that I had to wear a protective helmet, and avoid loitering in zones that Louis knew to be risky. Whenever I saw Louis heading off in the direction of an area on the edge of the cliffs, I made a point of staying where I was.

While moving through the central tower—the cylindrical Keep, which is no doubt the best preserved element of the castle—I paused for a few seconds to point my camera up at the ceiling, whose central area remains perfectly intact.


The following photo shows a corner of the first building in the castle compound, known—for obvious reasons—as the Cannon Tower.


Those artillery slots point down towards anybody approaching the unique entry into the castle domain, shown in the following photo.


In the background of the above photo, you can see that the second building in the compound—the cylindrical keep that I mentioned earlier on—also has cannon openings. The general idea was that, if ever invaders succeeded in avoiding blasts from the Cannon Tower, and breaking through the portal into the castle, then defenders in the cylindrical Keep would start to blaze away with the intent of actually demolishing the Cannon Tower, so that its stones, in falling, would crush the invaders. Apparently, this extreme situation never arose.

The shield of the noble Alleman family was carved on a huge block of stone sealed into the wall above the gate. The revolutionaries of 1789 obliterated expertly, with stone chisels, all allusions to French royalty: the fleurs-de-lys and the crowns worn by the lions.

Here's another view that reveals the mutual proximity of these diabolical twin towers, whose primordial combined role was purely defensive and indeed deadly.


The residential zones of the castle were located well beyond the defensive towers. In the following photo, Louis is stepping up into the section of the castle known as the Turk's Room, which is an allusion to an amazing but perfectly authentic story that I related briefly in my blog post of 23 February 2009 entitled Fabulous legends [display].


In 1482, in a battle for the throne of Constantinople, the two sons of the Sultan Mehmet IIBayezid and Djem (called Zizim)—set out upon yet another Cain and Abel act. And Zizim lost. The defeated brother then made the mistake of seeking assistance from the kindly Knights Hospitaler on the island of Rhodes… who promptly saw him as a potentially-valuable hostage, and decided to hang onto him. So, next, they had to decide what to do with their precious hostage. The French knight Charles Alleman suggested that his castle at Rochechinard might be a nice holiday home for Zizim, and that's where he ended up residing during the winter of 1483-1484. I'll let you discover (through my above-mentioned blog post) the romantically tragic rest of the extraordinary story of Zizim…

Today, an observer might ask: What is Louis Arquer hoping to achieve through his acquisition of this fabulous pile of stones? He answers this often-posed question in a realistic and convincing spirit.

[Click to enlarge, then ESCAPE to return to the blog.]

 Louis used to come here to the Royans when he was a child, to spend vacations with his grandparents. He would look up at the medieval castle, and dream of ancient times. And he hoped that the castle would never disappear, for that would be the end of his childhood dreams. So, he started already to imagine ways and means of making sure that the magic castle of Rochechinard would be eternal. Today, through a series of happy circumstances, the dreams of Louis Arquer have been transformed into a down-to-earth challenge of saving everything that can possibly be saved. That's what he's doing at present, with enormous personal energy and the help of a lot of friends, gathered together into an association. It's not a matter of restoring the castle, in the patrimonial sense of this term, but of doing everything that's possible to make sure that the magnificent edifice doesn't disappear completely.

Louis appears to me as an other-worldly dreamer endowed with a solid sense of our earthly realities: the kind of individual whom I admire, who strikes me immediately as a friend who speaks the simple truth. His adventure into the past—into the Arabian nights of Zizim in our Royans—is marvelous and almost impossible. But Louis Arquer will succeed, I'm sure, and fragments of Rochechinard will reappear simply, if not gloriously, one of these days, enrobed in their rich memories.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

America's Cup, new style

I think back nostalgically to the homely yachting atmosphere of Fremantle back in 1987, which I knew so well. These days, the America's Cup challenge is being transformed into a marvelous something that's just a step short of science fiction.

We must, of course, accept this fabulous metamorphosis, which is the outcome of an amalgam of wealth, ambition and imagination. In a way, these crazy folk—whose operations could never be justified economically, politically or even morally—are inventing tomorrow.

Donkey's nocturnal excursion


Fanette [on the left] has now been living at Gamone for over a year. I'm convinced that she likes the place, and feels comfortable in the company of her old gray mate Moshé. They're constantly together, rarely separated by more than a few meters. Whenever one donkey gets carried away with its quest for tasty weeds, and happens to move away from the other, they join up hastily as soon as soon as the anomaly is detected. If ever research were to identify the companionship gene in donkeys, it might be a good idea to insert it into our human genome...

My neighbor Jackie acquired three superb female donkeys. Their former owner is a lady down in Monaco, who happens to be linked at a personal level with our region. The three new donkeys (a mother and her two daughters) reside now in a large paddock just above the territory of Moshé and Fanette. I'll publish photos of these beautiful Riviera animals (a little evasive for the moment) as soon as possible. Naturally, the two donkey families soon investigated their proximity… from a certain distance. That's to say, they're still in the delicate process of deciding whether they should be close friends or distant neighbors.

Even a gentle, homely and faithful male such as Moshé can develop a sudden urge to set out upon a sexual adventure in the middle of the night. I was awoken by the cries of Fanette, anguished by the departure of her companion Moshé… through a gap in the electric closure due to a recent tempest. It's crazy getting woken up in the middle of the night by a screaming female donkey who doesn't like the idea that her old gray mate Moshé has stepped out into the dark with the intention of visiting the recently-arrived females. I walked out into the night with an electric torch, but I couldn't halt Moshé, who was adamant upon visiting the three females. So I went to bed.

The following morning, I had no problem in leading Moshé back home. I phoned Jackie, to apologize for all the nocturnal noise and strife… but he hadn't been disturbed. I told my ex-wife on the phone that everything was back in order. Moshé was no longer intrigued by the three new females. Christine (who's not really a donkey specialist) said I was naive…

Adieu, dear neighbor

For years, the first person I would see at Gamone, early in the morning, was André Repellin, whom we all called "Dédé". He had the regular habit of strolling slowly up the road that runs alongside my house. Up on the slopes above Gamone, he would gaze out upon the magnificent panorama of the valley of the Bourne, and the surrounding mountains. Then he would turn around and walk back down to his home, a few hundred meters below my place. If I happened to meet up with him on the road, Dédé would always greet me with the same exclamation: "Ah, William, you're particularly matinal today." Obviously, in Dédé's eyes, I didn't have the reputation of being an early riser.

Seven months ago, Dédé was totally stunned by the death of his unique daughter Françoise, after a lengthy bout with leukemia [see my blog post]. Except for rare moments of interest in the outside world (which I had the privilege of observing on several occasions), Dédé's enthusiasm for life appeared to have waned. And his spirits were dampened by the boring obligation of being driven to Romans and back, three times a week, for dialysis treatment.

Madeleine phoned me this morning to tell me, calmly, that her husband had passed away peacefully, in the middle of the night, at the hospital in Romans. She will be faced with the challenge of adjusting her existence to the absence of both Dédé and Françoise. Personally, I'm convinced that Madeleine has the required determination and moral stamina to deal successfully with this new situation.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Childhood memories of Waterview

In the dark lounge room of the Walker house at Waterview, there was an upright piano. I had started to take weekly piano lessons from an old lady named Maude McMenemy, whom we referred to as “Mrs Mack”. I recall waiting on her front verandah, listening to the end of an ongoing lesson and saying to myself that, if this were music, then I wanted no part of it. Maude Mack’s basic weakness was her own inability to play the piano skillfully and artistically. She would thump the keyboard angrily as if she were punishing the instrument for not producing beautiful sounds, and there was nothing in her teaching approach that might have inspired me to take an interest in learning music.

Once, in the middle of a lesson, there was an electricity blackout. Mrs Mack went into her kitchen and fetched a wax candle. No sooner had she lit it than the lights came back on, whereupon my teacher lamented: “Ah, I’ve wasted a match.” When my mother heard this anecdote, she was most amused. The exclamation about wasting a match became a permanent element of our Waterview repertory of humor.

At that time, at the South Grafton primary school, my schoolmates commonly assumed that I was enamored of a young lady named Nancy McDiarmid, who happened to be the daughter of the local Presbyterian clergyman. While it may have been the case that we were attracted to one another, I'm obliged to admit that I have no precise recollections of my yearning for her, or going out of my way to meet up with her. Be that as it may, we were suddenly thrown together through the piano, and the desire of Mrs Mack to have her pupils perform in public. It was decided that Nancy and I would combine our pianistic talents as duettists for a performance of a piece called Carnival of Venice at the forthcoming Jacaranda Festival in Grafton. I seem to recall that we practiced together once or twice at Nancy’s house up on the hill at South Grafton. For the actual performance—which went over quite well—Nancy looked cute in a pale mauve cotton frock (to match the color of our festival trees), while I sported a dark mauve necktie.

[Click to enlarge]

Meanwhile, I persevered with my scales and elementary pieces on the instrument at Grandma’s place. Obviously, for those within earshot—such as my uncles—the sounds I created were dull, if not unpleasant. One day, I discovered by chance that I could reproduce the melodies of songs I heard on the radio, and harmonize the music with my left hand using three chords: tonic, dominant and subdominant. Not surprisingly, the members of the Walker household found my improvisations slightly less monotonous than the scales. When I sensed that I was annoying my listeners less than before, this encouraged me to develop my skills in “playing by ear” (as this ability was described). From that point on, I lost interest in learning to read music and concentrated exclusively upon the art of inventing richer methods of improvisation. But I soon realized that I was clearly not marked out to become a competent pianist.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nice couples, nice tax

These days, people who hear of the Sarkozy couple would have normally imagined this duo:

There's an offspring. The extreme right-wing politician Marine Le Pen was offended by the fact that the given name of Sarko's child, Giulia, is not pure dyed-in-the-wool French. But this will surely not give rise to a revolution.

Meanwhile, the major couple in the news is the Merkozy duo:

And a little bit of the Obamazy duo:

The couple strolled together in the rain, at Cannes, in front of musicians of the French Foreign Legion.

Then, on the Friday evening TV news, Obama heaped praise upon the French president for his rôle in the current Greek crisis.

I've never been a fan of Nicolas Sarkozy, but I've admired his tenacity in dealing with this affair… even though nobody is convinced yet that all the basic problems have been solved.

Governments of progressive societies need lots of finance to improve the situation of their citizens, and it's obtained through taxation. To my mind, Sarkozy is on the right track when he advocates a Tobin tax on financial transactions. I would imagine that François Hollande, our likely next president, would also strive to install this good tax.