Saturday, April 30, 2011

Royalty in Wonderland

The English are often just a short step away from Lewis Carroll's topsy-turvy world of the Mad Hatter.

In case you didn't recognize the girl with an octopus on her head, it's Princess Beatrice. Judging from his leer, the gentleman in uniform is visibly charmed by the azure curves of Princess Eugenie. Then there was that crazy ecclesiastical fellow who turned cartwheels in the abbey.

This propensity for measured outlandishness is a dimension of the British character that I cherish, maybe because I've often felt a bit of it affecting my own brain. I've even borrowed the following lines for the opening page of my Antipodean autobiography:
"You are old, Father William," the young man said,

"And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head

Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
And here's a real-life image of Alice:

I cannot end this evocation of yesterday's visions of Wonderland without reiterating the entire kingdom's fascination for the fabulous Formula I chassis of Pippa Middleton, which merits inspection from every possible angle: a triumph of the very best in British engineering. Admirers might visit the Pippa Middleton Ass Appreciation Society [facebook].

If I'm not mistaken, Shakespeare evoked a British monarch who once cried out: "An arse! an arse! my kingdom for an arse!"

Friday, April 29, 2011

Weird woman in the wedding throng

I'm afraid I'm about to let a drop of pollution escape into my marriage-free zone. I'm a little ashamed, of course. Please forgive me.

The French photographer Olivier Corsan was no doubt happy to provide his employer, the serious Le Parisien newspaper, with this intriguing photo of a most peculiar lady among the wedding onlookers in London. No doubt an eccentric English woman, with mauve hair, bedecked in heavy jewelry, with ridiculously ornate glasses.

The French have always been convinced that the English are a funny lot. Even in the context of English wedding clothes, however, the flamboyant appearance of this lady was sufficiently spectacular to attract the attention of the French photographer. Besides, I love the puzzled expression of the lady in orange in the lower left corner.

I wondered whether it would be worthwhile contacting the Parisian newspaper to inform them that this strange lady is in fact an Aussie comedian, Barry Humphries. But would I succeed in explaining succinctly to Parisian media people an Antipodean phenomenon such as Barry's alter ego, Dame Edna Everage? No, they would probably consider me as a pathological story-teller, maybe a dangerous dingbat, incapable of distinguishing a lord from a lady.

Now that I've polluted my marriage-free zone once, it won't be a great sin to pollute it a second time… with this curious bridal photo, which has appeared in today's French media:

It appears to be Kate Moss. And she seems to have mislaid her wedding gown. But what the fuck is it all about?

Hicks fights back

David Hicks—the Australian who was imprisoned and tortured in the US concentration camp of Guantanamo—is now assisted by a group of supporters who are contributing greatly to his healing process.

Click the banner to access the Guantanamo file of Hicks, made available by WikiLeaks. In the wake of the release of this data, Hicks and his supporters published a critical statement. Click the following banner to access a presentation by Jeffrey Kaye, in The Public Record, of this statement by the Hicks group:

Here's an extract of the book, Guantanamo: My Journey, published by David Hicks in 2010:

I awoke on a concrete slab with the sun in my face. I looked around and saw that I was in a cage made out of cyclone fencing, the same as the boundary fence around my old primary school. Internal fences divided the cage into ten enclosures, and I was in one of the corner-end cells. Around me, I saw five other concrete slabs with what looked like bird cages constructed on top. A fence covered in green shadecloth and topped with rolls of razor wire was wrapped around these six concrete slabs, able to house sixty unfortunate human beings. Hanging on the inside of this fence were signs saying, ''If you attempt escape, you will be shot'', complete with a featureless person with a target for a head.

All around the outside of the shadecloth, civilian and uniformed personnel cleared and flattened grass and trees. They poured cement and assembled the wire cages, calling them ''blocks''. There was nothing much else around us except guard towers boasting large, painted American flags and manned by armed marines.

My block was only the second to have been built, but that would change over time. As this prison grew out of the grass, more ''detainees'', as they liked to call us, rather than POWs, arrived. About a month later, around 360 of us lived in these outdoor enclosures. They were open to the wind, sun, dust and rain and offered no respite. The local wildlife was being disturbed as their homes were bulldozed to make room for the concrete blocks, and scorpions, snakes and 23 centimetre-long tarantulas tried to find shelter in what were now our enclosures.

My cage, like all the cages, was three steps wide by three steps long. I shared this space with two small buckets: one to drink out of, the other to use as a toilet. There was an ''isomat'' (a five-millimetre-thin foam mat), a towel, a sheet, a bottle of shampoo that smelt like industrial cleaner, a bar of soap (I think), a toothbrush with three-quarters of the handle snapped off and a tube of toothpaste. When I held this tube upside down, even without squeezing, a white, smelly liquid oozed out.

This bizarre operation was called Camp X-Ray. Our plane was the first to arrive on this barren part of the island, and we remained the only detainees for the first three or four days. We had been spaced apart because of the surplus of cages. Every hour of the day and night we had to produce our wristband for inspection, as well as the end of our toothbrush, in case we had ''sharpened it into a weapon''. These constant disturbances prevented us from sleeping. We were not allowed to talk, or even look around, and had to stare at the concrete between our legs while sitting upright on the ground. If we did lie flat on the concrete, we had to stare at a wooden covering a foot or so above our cages, which served as some type of roof. Apart from blocking the sun for about two hours around noon, the roof offered no other benefit.

Sitting or lying in the middle of the cage, away from the sides, were the only two positions we were allowed to assume. We could not stand up unless ordered to, and the biggest sin was to touch the enclosing wire. If we transgressed any of these rules, even if innocently looking about, we were dealt with by the IRF team, an acronym for Instant Reaction Force. The Military Police nicknamed this procedure being ''earthed'' or ''IRFed'', because they would slam and beat us into the ground.

I first witnessed the IRF team a day or two after my arrival. An MP stopped outside the cage of an Afghan, my closest neighbour at the time. The MP demanded to know what the Afghan had scratched into the cement. He had not scratched anything and could not even speak or understand English. I heard the MP read, ''Osama will save us''. The detainee had no idea what the guard was on about, yet the MP was furious when he did not respond. ''I'll teach you to resist,'' the MP threatened and stormed off. Suddenly six MPs in full riot gear formed a line outside his cage. The first one held a full-length shield. He entered the cage first, slamming the detainee, pinning him to the cement floor with the shield, while the others beat him in the torso and face. The last to enter the cage was a dog handler with a large German shepherd. The dog was encouraged to bark and growl only centimetres from the Afghan's face while he was being beaten. In later cases, the dogs bit detainees.

When they had finished, they chained him up and carried him out. His face was covered in blood. A few hours later an MP washed the blood off the cement with a scrubbing brush and hose. To add to that injustice, an MP told me some weeks later that he himself had scratched that statement into the cement before any of us had arrived at Guantanamo, while they had been training and awaiting our arrival.

Every two or three days a planeload of detainees would arrive. They were always made to kneel and lean forward on the gravel while being yelled at and struck in the back of the head. They had to balance in this position while one detainee at a time was picked up from the line, escorted into a block and deposited into a cage. Those who were moved first were lucky not to have to endure the stress position for hours...

It was around this time that helicopters hovered above, and very large groups of civilians walked through the camp to view us in our cages - specimens in an international makeshift zoo.

The first two weeks of Camp X-Ray was a blur of hardships: no sleeping, no talking, no moving, no looking, no information. Through a haze of disbelief and fear, pain and confusion, we wondered what was going to happen. To pass time and relieve the pressure on my ailing back, I chose to lie down rather than sit up. During the day I would look slightly to my right, focusing my vision just beyond the wooden roof, and lose myself in the sky beyond. It was an escape, so peaceful, so blue and full of sunlight. I gazed at the odd cloud and spied big, black birds circling high above, called vulture hawks. It was never long, though, before a hostile face blocked the view, screaming, ''What are you looking at? Look up at the roof.'' All I could do was sigh and avert my gaze from the infinite, blue sky to a piece of wood.

Guantanamo: My Journey,
by David Hicks (William Heinemann Australia).

Do unto others etc...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Early prototype

This photo comes from the Gallica online service of the Bibliothèque nationale française (French national library):

It has been suggested that these two men might have been Apple employees field-testing an early iPhone prototype.

Moving photos

The woman seen here, with her hair being ruffled by the breeze, is a New York fashion photographer named Jamie Beck:

Jamie and a graphic artist named Kevin Burg have enhanced the old-fashioned GIF format in order to make their photos move (a little). In the following photo, the model moves her eyes in a pleasantly realistic manner:

Here's a man seated on a bench, calmly browsing through a newspaper, surrounded by a busy but weird world in which everybody else has been frozen into immobility:

Jamie's photos can be seen on her elegant website, From Me to You [access].

TECHNICAL NOTE: To create this blog post, I first uploaded the three GIFs to a private webspace, then I transferred them from there into my blog.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From Gallipoli to Guantanamo

I was struck by the fact (no doubt a pure coincidence) that the contents of WikiLeaks files on the Bush concentration camp at Guantanamo hit the proverbial fan on the very day set aside by Australians for the celebration of our heroes of Gallipoli and the Western Front. Consequently, yesterday's media sites offered us countless photographic reminders, not of Diggers in slouch hats, but of miserable inmates in orange convict clothes.

Australia's annual celebrations of the allegedly glorious deeds of her dead soldiers have always irritated me, for three precise reasons:

— No past wars, whether won or lost, should be celebrated. They remain a source of deep reflection, particularly for historians, but under no circumstances should they be envisaged as a pretext for marching triumphantly through the streets. [Readers might ask me: And what about Bastille Day in France? My answer: It's a modern military pageant, and in no way a nostalgic evocation of past conflicts.]

— In the horrible context of the so-called "great" war of 1914-1918, it is difficult to find anything other than absurd butchery, enhanced by ample military blunders, often based upon the stupidity of the commanders. No cause for celebrations

— In drawing attention to the exploits of her Diggers, Australia runs the risk of downgrading all the other countless victims of 20th-century armed conflicts, many of whom were innocent civilians. To take just one example, is there a place in the Anzac Day marches for individuals wearing the striped uniforms of Auschwitz?

People might say: Gallipoli was one thing; Guantanamo was a different affair. Let's not forget that John Howard was a buddy of Bush, and acted constantly as if the Sun shone out of the Texan's anal orifice.

So, in a certain sense, Guantanamo remains a symbolic stain on Australia's recent political profile just as surely as it infects memories of the Bush war against "the axis of evil". For Bush and his cronies and lapdogs, all these men in orange were assumed to be eviluntil proven innocent (if ever). Even today, as the WikiLeaks data reveals, the files of Gitmo inmates are so inextricably fuzzy that Barack Obama is having a tough job trying to introduce some clarity into the situation, in the hope of shuttering this hell hole as soon as possible.

Beyond pure symbols, let us not forget that the Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib once wore the orange convict clothes, and endured the typical US treatment of Gitmo inmates.

Today, it is thanks to another Australian, Julian Assange, that we have become more aware of the unpardonable sins of many of the world's would-be leaders. This fellow has been celebrated throughout the planet. But is he an Anzac Day hero in his native land? That's like asking: Is there a place in the Anzac Day marches for individualslike Hicks and Habibwearing the orange convict clothes of Guantanamo?
[Click on the WikiLeaks symbol to access
the two Gitmo files for Australians.]

Monday, April 25, 2011

Books by Steven Pinker

In the fields of psychology and linguistics, the 56-year-old Harvard professor Steven Pinker is a brilliant thinker, writer and lecturer, on a par with Richard Dawkins in the domains of biology and genetics, and Brian Greene in the cosmological arena.

Pinker's theories and conclusions—based upon methodical analyses of experimental results obtained in field work and in psychological laboratories, often borrowed from colleagues—are totally revolutionary, indeed earth-shaking, and yet he seems to avoid being outlawed and branded as a horseman of the Apocalypse.

He succeeds in coming across as an unassuming academic who rambles on rapidly in a quiet voice, keeping a low profile: a kind of anti-Dawkins. Maybe his apparently peaceful attitude towards religion provides the professor with a reassuring homely bearing, enhanced by his marvelous mop of curly hair. In an interview for The Guardian in 1999, he said: "I was never religious in the theological sense. I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew." Whatever the reason, I'm intrigued that Pinker's utterly mind-boggling descriptions of the realities of humanity have not stirred up harsh opposition.

His ideas have been expressed in five wonderful easy-to-read books, which compose two parallel trilogies, as shown here:

The language trilogy, at the top, starts with the book that made Pinker famous: The Language Instinct (1994). Then it includes a technical book on linguistics, Words and Rules (1999), and culminates in The Stuff of Thought (2007), which envisages language as "a window into human nature". This same book plays a double role in that it terminates Pinker's trilogy on human nature, which starts with How the Mind Works (1997) and evolves through a beautifully blasphemous book (from the viewpoint of politically-correct behavior and thinking), The Blank Slate (2002). Click the above chart to access a talk of 2007 in which Pinker presents the themes of his last book.

In my article of April 2010 entitled God travels incognito [display], I spoke of a novel by Pinker's wife Rebecca Goldstein.

Use the search box up in the top left-hand corner of this blog to access other articles in which I've mentioned Steven Pinker and his books.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Flowers from Jerusalem

There are unusual things in my archives. This old card presents a hybrid "tree" composed of six tiny wildflowers from sites in the Holy City.

I've wandered through each of the first five places, but I'm incapable of recognizing any of the dried wildflowers. As for the monastery of St John in the Wilderness, my wanderings never took me as far south of the city as that. On the back of the card, the unknown pilgrim provides us with a brief explanation:

Christine came upon this card in one of her old books and, knowing that I'm an ardent admirer of the Holy City, she gave it to me. And it's the sort of thing that merits display on an Easter blog.

Talking of Easter, rather than evoking antiquated beliefs that have become totally obsolete by now, it would be better if we were to celebrate the men and women who once built the cathedrals.
Then Joshua called the twelve men […], out of every tribe a man: […] Take ye up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder […] that this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones? Then ye shall answer them […] and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.
Joshua 4 : 5-7
Last night, on the Arte TV channel, there was a fabulous French documentary concerning the construction of the Gothic cathedrals. For years, I used to walk several times a week in front of the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

In these old photos, the façade was still grimy… as I remember it when I first arrived in Paris, before Malraux got around to scrubbing it clean. I was fascinated above all by the leftmost of the three pairs of doorways, designated as the portal of the Virgin.

In the tympanum, the upper triangle presents one of the most amazingly Oedipal images in Christendom: Jesus is crowning a youthful female, about his own age, who gazes at him in adoration. That woman was in fact Mary, his alleged biological mother.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Video in websites

WARNING: This is a rather technical blog post. Maybe it won't interest many people. In fact, I'm totally unaware of the number of Antipodes readers who might be concerned by the construction of websites.

These days, to build websites (including those that can be viewed on an iPad), developers are encouraged to use HTML5. I've already mentioned the fact that I've started to play around with HTML5, to see how it feels from a developer's viewpoint. What I've done, for the moment, is to build a website that displays the following little movie (shot by Natacha last summer, and included here in its YouTube version):

To view this video in the context of my website, you'll need to use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari.

If you have such a browser, you can use this banner to access my website, and then click the VIDEOS button to display the movie. OK? Now, you might be saying to yourself: So what? Well, the rest of the present blog describes what is happening behind the scenes. If you're concerned by HTML5 development, then what I have to say might interest you greatly, because I have implemented a complete solution, which is not necessarily documented in an easily-accessible fashion. When I say "complete", what I mean is that you can view my included video either with Chrome, with Firefox or with Safari. (I apologize for making no attempt to propose a solution—if indeed this were feasible—that would work for people who persist in using an antiquated version of Internet Explorer, incapable of handling HTML5.)

To obtain this "complete solution", I've built three different versions of the video:

— For Safari, there's an H264 video file. This solution makes it possible to view my video on an iPad. For the moment, H264 seems to be the only format accepted by Apple.

— For Firefox, there's an Ogg video file. Normally, Firefox should be capable of handling Google's WebM format (which was recently accepted as a standard by the Free Software Foundation), but this doesn't seem to be the case yet.

— As for Google's powerful and elegant Chrome browser, it can accept either H264, Ogg or WebM.

To examine my code for the video tag, simply display the source code of the page with the movie.

Incidentally, when I speak of having built three different video files, I'm exaggerating a little. The original movie is an .mp4 file, fresh out of my camcorder and Final Cut Express. That's the version that works with the H264 codec. To obtain the Ogg and WebM versions, I used a delightful little free Mac app named Miro Video Converter.

Now, if you wish to understand all the HTML5 concepts behind this video stuff, then the perfect solution is this amazing online book created by a Google guru, Mark Pilgrim:

Normally, at this point, I should encourage my readers to shell out a few dollars to purchase a paper copy of Mark's excellent book…

Friday, April 22, 2011

Greenness and shadows

Although I continue to spend a huge part of my time in front of the computer screen—where I've been examining the interesting rapidly-evolving question of the inclusion of videos in HTML5 websites (which I will deal with shortly, briefly, in this blog)—I take advantage of the splendid weather to fiddle around out in the garden, where I'm planting a further assortment of perennials. The following photo shows my garden and rose pergola viewed from the northern end (as opposed to the view from the southern end, shown in my earlier article on the garden at Gamone).

The single word that best characterizes Gamone at this time of the year is greenness.

This abundant all-invading greenness came upon us quite suddenly, when we were almost not expecting it. The warmth, too, is surprising at this time of mid-spring. Figuring out that the forthcoming summer will no doubt be hot and dry, I decided to do a bit of preventive burning-off, a week or so ago, on rock-strewn slopes close to the house, between the roadway and the creek.

The dogs are happy to be able to romp around in the long grass.

Sophia is completing her second intensive session of antibiotics and cortisone, and I have the impression that she has been reacting positively. If it's a fact that she has some kind of a tumor in the upper region of the left-hand side of her snout, causing her to breathe audibly from time to time, then it's certainly not visible from the outside.

These days, I'm more concerned by news about Sophia's daughter Gamone, in Brittany. Christine tells me that her marvelous little dog appears to be prone to epileptic fits. Consequently, like her mother Sophia, she's now under constant medication.

As for Fitzroy, who has now been an inhabitant of the planet Earth for three-quarters of a year, the sun's rays have been initiating him into an awareness of a mysterious phenomenon of a new kind (for him): sharp shadows. An hour ago, I saw him dashing around furiously on a patch of bare earth alongside the house, trying vainly to capture the shadow of a butterfly that was hovering a meter above his head. Then we were all treated to a most disturbing big shadow, which flashed across the grassy slopes of Gamone, accompanied by a terrifying noise (enough to drive a dog crazy). It was the rapidly moving shadow of a Mirage 2000, maybe heading back up to the base at Dijon after a stint down in Gaddafi's combat zone. Fitzroy stood on the edge of our terrace, gazing in bewilderment at the point on the north-eastern horizon where the noisy aircraft had disappeared. I would have liked to be able to tell my dear little dog what it was all about, and maybe reassure him. But, before tackling the shadows of jet fighters, it would surely be better to start with butterflies.

Favorite recipe book

I would imagine that many individuals, keen on cooking, have a favorite recipe book. When I settled down at Choranche in 1994, I used to talk a lot about cooking with my friend Georges Pontvianne, owner of the Jorjane hotel-restaurant. I was amused to learn that, in the kitchen, Georges was accompanied constantly by his battered copy of an old-fashioned French cooking bible: the Escoffier, published in 1919.

Written for professional chefs, the Escoffier (360 pages in this new facsimile edition) does not contain a single image of any kind whatsoever. Moreover, it's not really a book of recipes in the conventional sense, but rather a set of terse indications concerning the essential ingredients and procedures for the preparation of every imaginable dish. But these summarized descriptions won't be meaningful unless the reader is already well-versed in the terminology and basic principles of professional cooking.

I've often wondered whether an English-language edition of the Escoffier might be a meaningful and successful publishing project. The main problem, of course, is that most modern readers are accustomed to enticing photos of the ingredients and prepared dishes, and they've forgotten—as it were—that cooking skills remain a kind of "science" based upon a set of axioms and principles, rather than a vast collection of instructions, data, advice, hints, tricks, etc, enhanced by colorful language and images. This way of looking at haute cuisine is particularly apparent when we watch TV shows such as Top Chef and Master Chef, where the actors are generally performing in the style of artists and engineers, but often with neither a script (memorized recipe) nor a blueprint, let alone a safety net.

My personal favorite recipe book is a little like the Escoffier in that it contains lots of words, and no color photos.

I seem to recall that Christine gave me this excellent little book as a friendly parting gift back at the time our marriage was breaking up, and I was moving into an independent studio in Paris (just across the street from the apartment where Christine carried on living with the children). With her typical practical sense, Christine surely realized that this gift of a good book on cooking was a charitable gesture akin to participating in the safeguard of a species in danger of extinction: the emancipated ex-husband. And it's a fact that I have indeed survived and—from a cooking viewpoint—maybe even thrived.

One of my favorite recipes in the Sylvie Marion book is a traditional Jewish delicacy which is remarkably easy to prepare, and very tasty: pâté of chopped chicken livers. Back in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, long ago, I recall the big dishes of this delicacy (usually accompanied by chopped boiled eggs and onions) in Jo Goldenberg's delicatessen in the Rue des Rosiers.

Besides the chicken livers and a couple of onions, there's one essential ingredient: goose fat (which I purchased in a jar at the local supermarket). You use the goose fat solely to fry the chopped-up onions. Meanwhile, the chicken livers are grilled slowly in an oven, then chopped up and left to cool. I gave a few hits of the pulse button of my Magimix food processor to mix the livers and onions—along with a handful of fresh chives, and seasoned with paprika and pepper— until they formed a homogeneous paste. Then it needs to be chilled for a few hours before being eaten on toast.

In the above photo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (current president of the International Monetary Fund) is preparing a huge slab of beef in his Washington apartment, while his wife Anne Sinclair (a celebrated French TV journalist) mixes a salad. Apparently, the future president of the French République (I hope) is particularly fond of pâté of chopped chicken livers, which probably evokes the cultural environment of his childhood in Morocco.

Yesterday, in deciding spontaneously to prepare this Jewish delicacy (for the first time in years), was I influenced by my favorite little recipe book? Or was I rather inspired by thoughts concerning my favorite presidential candidate?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gamone garden, a year later

This photo was taken a year ago, on 23 April 2010:

And here's a photo taken this morning, on 20 April 2011:

There's not much color yet, since it's too early for the roses. As you can see, I finally decided not to prune the thick upper rose foliage on the pergola… to see what happens.

I'm happy to discover that all my nine peony plants appear to be thriving. My doctor, who's reputed to be an expert gardener, had worried me when he told me he'd never succeeded in growing peonies at Pont-en-Royans. As at the same time last year, the earliest peonies to bloom are two splendid Japanese Suffruticosa specimens.

An interesting operation, this year, consists of judging the various perennials that I planted last year, often without knowing how they might react here at Gamone. I've discovered that two delightful little perennials are the simple ivory and shiny green Iberis and several colorful varieties of Phlox.

On the other hand, I realize that I planted certain perennials, such as Arabis [in French: Arabette], that are not particularly esthetic.

Some of my Arabis plants appear to be flattened out, and look like big bird nests. I suspect that Fitzroy could well have discovered that a soft sweet-smelling perennial is a fine place for an afternoon snooze.

I hasten to point out that I do not consider myself to be a genuine serious gardener, since it's not something that formed a part of my cultural upbringing in Australia. I'm what might be termed a dilettante gardener. On the other hand, it's a simple preoccupation that gives me immense pleasure here at Gamone... a little like strolling with the dogs, or admiring the mountains.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mining contracts in Australia

I often wonder whether my Australian compatriots are aware of the exact contents of the mining contracts that are enabling foreign capitalists to stuff them today and up until the end of time... unless a revolution were to occur (most unlikely in my conservative homeland).

Maybe they are… but I hear little critical fallout about the reasons why all this fabulous wealth has not yet transformed modern Australia into a prosperous nation (on the contrary) with an impeccable infrastructure and defense system. Sadly, as everybody knows, Australia remains a poor banana colony (not even a republic), incapable of defending herself against the least malicious intruder. But nobody seems to be worried…

Meanwhile, my ex-wife, my dear aunt and friendly observers accuse me of being, through my blog, un-Australian! Shit, I merely want to save the nation—my beloved birthplace—from sinking inexorably into the historical sands of forgettable mediocrity.

Talking to destiny

This fabulous photo by Nikki Kahn [published in The Washington Post of 16 March 2010] has been labeled "Life goes on". Why not?

[Click the photo to visit the Pulitzer Prizes website.]

The newborn's name is Destiny Dorival. I erupted in tears (literally) when I first gazed upon that beautiful little nose and mouth, determined to gain their rightful place upon our planet Earth. Welcome! Destiny Dorival was born in a makeshift maternity tent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the days that followed the earthquake of 12 January 2010.

Maybe, at some time in the future, an adult Haitian girl, Destiny Dorival, will come upon my present humble blog post. [Why not? You don't imagine that Google's gonna let its precious live data disappear!] Destiny might read Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, especially the episode of the death at Ulsgaard of the chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge, evoking an earthquake atmosphere.
For when night had fallen, and those of the over-wearied domestics who were not on duty tried to snatch some sleep, then Christoph Detlev's death shouted, shouted and groaned. It roared so long and so constantly that the dogs, at first howling in concert, were struck dumb and did not dare lie down, but stood on their long, slender, trembling legs, in terror. And when the villagers heard it roaring through the spacious, silvery Danish summer night, they rose from their beds as if there were a thunder-storm, put on their clothes and remained sitting in silence round the lamp until it was over. And women near their time were consigned to the most remote rooms and the most thickly partitioned recesses. But they heard it; they heard it, as if it had cried from their own bodies, and they pled to be allowed to get up too, and came, voluminous and white, to sit with their vacant faces among the others.
Through his evocations of the chamberlain's death, Rilke prepares us, as it were, for the most terrible moment of Malte's notebooks (which Destiny Dorival will appreciate, I hope):
And what a melancholy beauty came to women when they were pregnant, and stood, their slender hands involuntarily resting on their big bodies which bore two fruits: a child and a death. Did not the broad, almost nourishing smile on their quite vacant faces come from their sometimes thinking that both these fruits were growing?
Dear Destiny was born in the midst of death. An ordinary Rilkean affair.

POST SCRIPTUM: French-language readers of my blog who would like to receive a copy of my Rilkean movie script on Malte might send an email request to sky.william [at]

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moving into a troubled city

Last Thursday evening, a fascinating TV program concerning the long and tumultuous career of the former French police chief Maurice Papon [1910-2007] reminded me retrospectively that I was surely a naive and uninformed Antipodean when I first arrived in Paris on Sunday, 4 February 1962. In particular, I was totally unaware that the French nation was in a state of undeclared war with her former colony, Algeria. On Monday, 12 February, a week after my arrival in Paris, I started working as a computer programmer with the European headquarters of IBM. Between these two events in my narrow personal existence, the tragedy of the métro Charonne had unfolded. Papon's police had pushed leftist political demonstrators down the steps towards the underground station (not far from where my daughter now lives), without realizing that the steel grid was closed, resulting in the death of nine individuals.

On that cold day, I was wandering around in the Latin Quarter, searching for an item of clothing that I had never possessed back out in Australia: an overcoat. Since I was incapable of understanding French-language newspapers, and had no access to TV, I was unaware that a tragedy had taken place over on the other side of the Seine. In any case, I was quite unaware of the Algerian conflict in which France had been bogged down for years. Among other things, I had never heard of the bloody events that had occurred in Paris on 17 October of the previous year (at a time when I had just celebrated my 21st birthday, out in Sydney, and was looking forward excitedly to leaving soon for Europe on the Greek vessel Bretagne), when Papon's police simply executed spontaneously and brutally an unknown number (between tens and hundreds) of Algerians who appeared to sympathize with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and tossed their bodies into the Seine.

Within a few days of my settling down in Paris, I was brought face-to-face with the realities of living in a city in which plastic explosives were being detonated by insurrectionists, intending to draw attention to nasty events on the other side of the Mediterranean. One evening, as I opened the door into my tiny hotel room in the Rue des Ecoles (just a few hundred meters away from the Sorbonne), an explosion destroyed a bookshop on the other side of the street. I remember the familiar horn signals of police vehicles against the delicate tinkling (like proverbial Xmas sleigh bells) of glass fragments falling from shattered windows in the vicinity of the targeted bookshop. A few days later, when I arrived at the IBM building in the Cité du Retiro (just near the Elysée Palace), I learned that an explosion had occurred there during the night. A month later, everything calmed down overnight when the president Charles de Gaulle signed a peace agreement with the FLN on 18 March 1962 at Evian-les-Bains, in the French Alps.

Meanwhile, IBM France (whose headquarters were located at the Place Vendôme) had given me an identity card.

By that time, I had moved into a tiny so-called "maid's room" at the top of the Hôtel du Pas de Calais in the Rue des Saints Pères.

An aspect of my professional situation at IBM that amazed me was the effort they were devoting to the challenge of my obtaining a French work permit. The procedure was set in motion by an initial visit to the Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité. This was the headquarters of the domain of de Gaulle's police chief, Maurice Papon: a vast stone building alongside the Seine, just opposite the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, built around a square courtyard.

I was accompanied to the préfecture by a curious Frenchman who was surely being paid by IBM to assist foreigners such as myself. Within the precincts of the police domain, he seemed to be on friendly personal terms with many members of the clerical staff. Consequently, we were never obliged to line up in queues, or even wait to be received by prefectural personnel. I was amused by a trivial gimmick that my guide exploited constantly. In his coat pockets, he seemed to have an ample supply of American filter cigarettes. Whenever he ran into somebody he knew, his initial gesture consisted of offering him/her a cigarette, which was inevitably received with a smile, and immediately lit up. (Office employees all smoked furiously at that time.) Clearly, this gift of a cigarette was some kind of symbolic trick (a code?) intended to indicate that he had a job to do (organize my request for a work permit), and needed help from his friends.

I would not actually receive the desired document for another three months. During that time, IBM arranged a contact for me in London (since only a French consulate in a foreign land could actually instigate the issue of a work permit to a non-French individual), and it was planned that, as soon as this London contact received a consular request demanding my presence for an interview, I was to drop everything I was doing and jump onto an Air France Caravelle bound for London, enabling me to turn up at the consulate as if I had just taken the London Underground to get there. That trick—which necessitated no less than three return trips to London—enabled me to carry on working for IBM in Paris in spite of the fact that I did not yet possess a work permit. Obviously, everybody—both at the Paris prefecture and at the consulate in London—knew that I was playing a silly game, but we were obliged to behave like that in order to obtain the precious document in a manner that was superficially legal… which was finally issued to me on 15 May 1962.

Over the years, since then, I've often thought back to those first three months at IBM in Paris (where I would remain for another four months), and I've always wondered how a US company in Paris might have got around to employing a French fellow such as my guide, whose job consisted of leading me through the curious procedures that would enable me to become a regular employee in France. Well, it was only last Thursday, in the middle of the TV program about Papon, that I finally received a plausible but totally unexpected (and not particularly nice) explanation. At some time after being named Préfet de Police in March 1958, Papon called upon IBM France to develop a modern punched-card system (not yet using a computer, if I understand correctly) to handle the "management" of the tens of thousands of potential FLN activists residing in metropolitan France. In other words, for Charles de Gaulle and the French police hierarchy, IBM may have been considered as more than just an ordinary American business corporation. And there may have been vague reasons of one kind or another for treating foreign IBM personnel as VIP workers.

We must not, however, exaggerate. If the French authorities had really wanted to make it easy for me to work legally in France, they would have simply handed me a work permit, instead of expecting me to wander around in their red-tape world (of the Paris prefecture and the London consulate) for three months before issuing me a lousy temporary work permit. In any case, it's almost certain that many French visionaries (including de Gaulle) sensed that the intriguing computer phenomenon, represented ideally by IBM, would no doubt play a role in the industrial, scientific and economic future of France.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that the work for which I was employed by IBM Europe (programming the IBM 1401 computer), from 12 February 1962 up until 28 September 1962, had nothing whatsoever to do with the above-mentioned punched-card project carried out by IBM France with a view to controlling the Algerian population residing in France at that time. IBM was an emanation—as is well known—of the Hollerith punched-card company, whose most celebrated primordial exploit in data processing (as this activity came to be called) entailed the use of punched cards to process the results of the US census of 1890. So, there was nothing particularly exceptional in Papon's use of this same punched-card support, some 70 years later, to store data concerning people in France. As for Maurice Papon, he was finally condemned and jailed for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during the Nazi Occupation, and he was also stigmatized (but never actually pursued in a law court) for the murky aspects of his treatment of Algerians. But it would be an absurd deduction to imagine that there might have been anything intrinsically evil, a priori, in the above-mentioned IBM punched-card project. On the other hand, all this precise and well-organized police data concerning FLN suspects, placed conveniently at the fingertips of Papon, would have certainly made it easier for him to perpetrate evil deeds.