Monday, February 27, 2012

Donkey feed buckets

This afternoon, I installed new plastic feed buckets for Moshé and Fanette.

I purchased these buckets through the Internet, since they're much better than anything I could find in local stores. They're made out of heavy-duty plastic, they have handles so that I can fill them with oats back at the house and carry them down to the donkey paddock, and they have solid steel brackets enabling me to slip them onto a thick wooden plank that's bolted to a pair of upright posts. So, the system appeared to be foolproof.

Alas, donkeys are no fools. When they had finished gulping down their oats, Moshé (on the left) used his powerful jaws to lift up each bucket and remove it from the supporting plank. Then he kicked them down the slopes, meaning that I had to scramble down the hill for 50 meters to get hold of the empty buckets, and then carry them back up to the house. That's exactly what I would like to avoid, particularly when the slopes are slippery or covered in snow.

Durrell centenary

Lawrence Durrell was born exactly a century ago, on 27 February 1912, in British India, where his parents were colonial expatriates.

He spent a few years at a secondary school in England, and then moved to the shores of the Mediterranean, where he spent his life as a poet and novelist.

I've evoked this great writer in several blog posts:

First encounter with Lawrence Durrell [display]

Back in touch with Durrell [display]

Phantoms of a lost paradise [display]

Old house in Sommières [display]

As an adoptive Provençal, with a profound awareness of the history and culture of that magnificent region, he would have been fascinated by this marble bust of Julius Caesar.

But Durrell died at Sommières in 1990, and it was only in 2008 that Caesar's splendid bust was discovered in the murky waters of the Rhône at Arles.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

French visitor in Australia

Recently, this emu at Taronga Park on the shores of Sydney Harbour was puzzled:

The bird couldn't be expected to know that the great French 34-year-old rugby international Sébastien Chabal (nicknamed the Caveman) was in Sydney on a working holiday. He had been invited as a guest player in the third-grade Balmain team in a match against Petersham.

Why not have fun while getting paid to visit Down Under? For the moment, Chabal has a bit of time on his hands, since leaving his last club in Paris.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


The erotic operation that English-speaking people designate curiously as blowing is generally looked upon, in France, as sucking.

It's also referred to as pumping.

And that brings me to one of the most celebrated anecdotes in France... which I heard for the first time from a professor during a class at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, many years ago. Most French people are aware of the exceptional circumstances in which the life of the 58-year-old president Félix Faure was brought to a joyous end. He had a 30-year-old friend, Marguerite Steinheil, known as Meg, the wife of an artist. On 16 February 1899, the president phoned Meg and suggested that she might drop in at the Elysée Palace towards the end of the afternoon. Well, they were engaged in a hot pumping session on a sofa in the Blue Room of the presidential residence when Meg was alarmed to discover that her lover had suddenly gone limp. Not just his organ, but all over. Clearly, Félix Faure had suffered some kind of major attack, and Meg was convinced that her man was dying. So, she called for help, while scrambling to get her clothes back on and preparing to abandon the palace before all hell broke loose. The president's staff arrived on the scene immediately, as depicted in this stylized magazine illustration:

The anecdote that has gone down in history is a bit hard to translate into English. It concerns the arrival of a priest who asked timidly, before being ushered into the room where the president lay dying: "Has the president retained his consciousness?" A secretary, imagining that the priest was referring to the young lady who had spent the last hour pumping sublime consciousness into the president, replied: "No, Father, she took off immediately down a side staircase as soon as she realized what had happened."

In French, the words for "pump" and "pomp" (as in "pomp and circumstance") are identical. And the everyday expression for an undertaker's activity is "pompe funèbre", literally funeral pomp. So, it was inevitable that people, aware of Meg's active role in the passing of the president, would get around to giving the young Angel of Death a charming nickname: the "Funeral Pump".

Today, if I was reminded of this historical event, it was no doubt because of the news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be spending the night at Lille in a police station, where he is being questioned about libertine evenings in a local luxury hotel, the Carlton.

For the moment, he hasn't been charged with any offense whatsoever, but anything could emerge from the intense ongoing investigations. A perspicacious journalist made an interesting observation. Let's suppose that DSK had never become involved with Nafissatou Diallo in a Manhattan hotel, simply because he had decided to leave for France instead of staying in New York. In that case, there would never have been a DSK Affair, and it is highly likely that Strauss-Kahn would have become, as planned, the presidential candidate of the French Socialist Party. Carrying our "what if" scenario one step further, we might conclude that the Lille affair would have still blown up. So, France would have been totally shocked this morning to learn that the popular candidate DSK was being held officially for questioning in a police station in Lille. In these circumstances, it is likely that DSK would have been obliged to abandon his presidential candidacy this evening. So, from a retrospective viewpoint, it was thanks to Nafissatou Diallo in Manhattan that the French Left avoided a catastrophic waste of time, energy and enthusiasm. We lost our illusions in time, well before they caused us to lose ourselves.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vulnerable electoral poster

Nicolas Sarkozy was not particularly prudent in his choice of this calm marine backdrop for his electoral poster, released yesterday.

Really, that vast stretch of calm empty water is an invitation to viewers to imagine ways and means of filling it in. The celebrated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza [1632-1677] claimed that "Nature abhors a vacuum". In his poster, Sarko has offered us a huge vacuum of water and sky which we all, naturally, start to abhor.

As soon as I saw the poster, yesterday, I started playing around with various possible parodies, and several marine themes jostled in my imagination. I thought about trying to incorporate this delightful image into Sarko's poster, but this composition of an iceberg and a fragile vessel above the ocean depths is narrow and deep, whereas Sarkozy's poster is wide and shallow. So, I abandoned the ship and gave up trying.

For those of us who don't like Sarko, and see his possible reelection as a catastrophe, the first image that springs into mind, to occupy the emptiness in his poster, is the great hull of the Titanic sliding gracefully into the icy waters of the Atlantic.

This theme is reinforced by the recent stupid wreck of the Costa Concordia on the rocky coast of the Mediterranean island of Giglio.

We soon learned that Sarko's photo of the empty sea was in fact a public-domain image of the Aegean. Now, Sarkozy surely regretted the divulgation of this trivial element of information, because the calm waters of Greece are not exactly an ideal symbol, these days, for a European political candidate.

Before the day was out, we heard that France's largest yacht, belonging to the media magnate Stéphane Courbit, had in fact just sunk in the waters of Greece.

And people started to wonder immediately if this were not the same luxurious yacht on which the newly-elected Sarkozy and his current wife had disappeared for a short vacation in the Mediterranean during the days that followed his victory in 2007.

No, it was the same kind of rich owner, and the same bling-bling lifestyle, but not the same boat.

Consequently, this morning, I was delighted to find that a host of excellent parodies had been created during the 24 hours that followed Sarko's presentation of his poster. Click here to see some of them. And here are some others (in which the humor often requires an acquaintance with all kinds of Sarkozian happenings):

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sad Valentine's Day tale

Certain simple stories are so poignant that they deserve to be shared.  I found this heart-rending tale on this morning's Le Parisien website.

For the last three months, Philippe had been working secretly in his suburban garage, of an evening, on a Valentine's Day gift for the lucky lady who has been his wife for the last 20 years. Here's a photo of the object, taken by one of Philippe's colleagues (in his cleaning firm) just as he was getting ready to leave the gift in a special place where his wife was sure to find it early yesterday morning, on her way to work.

As you can see, Philippe's gift was a metallic sculpture built out of odds and ends. The overall theme, superbly symbolic, is that of a giant padlock (an army surplus jerrycan) protecting a heart, which encloses two tiny brass figures, holding hands, representing Philippe and his wife. Now Philippe had given a lot of thought to the choice of an ideal romantic spot at which to deposit his gift, so that his wife would be sure to find it. Since she always got out of her suburban train in the heart of Paris, and then walked across the Seine on the Pont des Arts, Philippe decided that this was a perfect place for his gift.

Visitors from all over the world have given rise to a tradition of attaching love padlocks to the mesh of this celebrated bridge.

So, in the early hours of yesterday morning, Philippe left his giant padlock on the Pont des Arts. (The article doesn't say so, but I would imagine that Philippe used a conventional padlock to attach his sculpture to the bridge.) Then he went into a nearby café to wait until the precise moment at which he would wander nonchalantly out onto the bridge to meet up with his wife, on her way to work, and to participate in her joy at discovering her husband's marvelous Valentine's Day gift.

Alas, when Philippe returned to the bridge, half-an-hour later, at the time his wife was due to appear there, his giant padlock had vanished. Either it had been appreciated by a passer-by who stole it (a vagrant could sell the object as scrap metal and earn enough to buy a bottle of cheap wine), or maybe rather not appreciated at all by a passer-by who threw the object into the Seine.

To my mind, the story could have ended in a romantically-dramatic fashion. Philippe, driven to despair by his failure to transmit his message of love to his wife, might have jumped into the Seine. In actual fact, the article reveals that Philippe is already looking into a repeat performance of his gesture of love, in a year's time... when he plans to attach his new sculpture more securely to the bridge, and then wait around discreetly until his wife has arrived on the scene and witnessed the existence of her husband's gift. But will it still be a secret operation?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

King save the God

They're colorful creatures. Kept in a domestic cage, fed periodically on spiritual tidbits (cereal wafers and cheap wine, with holy water when the weather's hot), they're most often trouble-free, and their upkeep can even be fun when you show them off in front of friends on Special Occasions. But, believers are faced with an alarming question: Might these splendid specimens be an endangered species in modern Britain?

[I make an effort to refrain from all superficial ironical remarks concerning the mating habits of the red variety, and the dangers of allowing children to play with them. As for the violet variety, thankfully, it has always been sexually vigorous.]

Strident Richard Dawkins has just thrown a spanner in the works by his organization of a most serious survey on British religiosity [access]. You can be sure that, in the future, we'll be hearing a lot about these marvelous findings.

I've never met up with Dawkins, but he has become my unchallenged scientific and literary hero of all times. What would I need to do in order to persuade him to organize similar simple (?) surveys in lands that I love such as Australia and France?

In the case of Australia, I'm aware that Dawkins might need some time to get over this fabulous face-to-face encounter with a local elected lad, Steve Fielding, a "Strine craishonist": laughing-stock of the wide world beyond Down Under, and a symbol of self-sufficient idiocy in the face of intelligence.

Do fellow-Australians still in fact support today, by their votes, this embarrassingly empty-headed nincompoop named Fielding?

I'm impressed by this fabulous photo of dark clouds over Southwark Cathedral on Australia Day 2012 (Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly):

Nothing suggests that any of my ancestors might have ever been lost in spiritual bewilderment before the image of this southern London religious edifice. The Pickering people were all from thereabouts, originally, and particularly pious in various ways. But I'm not convinced that any of their long-departed souls might be disturbed today by Dawkins. On the contrary, I often tend to rediscover the fabulous reality of our genealogical and biological ancestors through Richard's instigation to marvel in the apparent mysteries of our fleeting window on the Magic of Reality [access].

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Herbal and homeopathic products

Last July, when my Choranche neighbors brought me home from the hospital in Romans after my stupid accident [display], Tineke dashed into a local pharmacy and presented me spontaneously with a couple of products (previously unknown to me) capable of relieving the pain that would inevitably beset me.

The small plastic tubes contain homeopathic pills based upon an astronomical dilution of the European wildflower called Mountain Arnica… which looks a bit like wild daisies, or a small variety of the sunflowers whose seeds are such a delicacy for our mésange birds.

The big tube contains a gel, based upon the same Arnica wildflower, but not at all (so I thought) of a homeopathic composition. I tested both products, and found that the gel was particularly soothing, although I'm incapable of saying whether its effects stemmed from the 7 percent of mysterious Arnica tinctura in the product or rather from the 93 percent of other simple stuff in the preparation: essentially a carbomer of the kind used to manufacture home-made cosmetics, and an excipient composed of alcohol (ethanol), sodium hydroxide and distilled water.

One of the first people to extol the benefits of Arnica was the German mystic Hildegard von Bingen [1098-1179], known to believers as Saint Hildegard.

She proclaimed: "If a man and a woman are in love, and somebody smears Arnica on the skin of one of the two lovers, then, when the Arnica has dried, the man and the woman become so madly in love that they go out of their minds." Far more powerful than eating oysters, a kind of medieval Viagra…

More recently, my former neighbor Bob, who used to be a prominent rugby-player at St-Marcellin, told me that Arnica ointment was used regularly to treat players who got badly bruised in a match. Apparently, a guy who had been thrashed to pulp on the playing field only had to get smeared all over with Arnica and he would be fresh as a daisy. And after the match, the bruised rugby-player's girlfriend (according to Hildegard) would have been feverishly rucked!

I have an excellent book on medicinal herbs in our Vercors region:

One of the delightful anecdotes in this book concerns the fabulous reputation of Mountain Arnica in the Vercors (as elsewhere). This plant doesn't actually grow here, because it requires granitic soil (whereas ours is calcareous), but people have heard a lot about Arnica, and everybody knows that its yellow flowers look like daisies.

Wise local folk reasoned as follows: If the yellow petals of the Arnica plant can produce such medicinal marvels, then why shouldn't the yellow petals of daisies work just as well? Consequently, Vercors peasants have got into the habit of macerating Buphthalmum flowers (wild daisies) in alcohol, naming it "Arnica", and using it as a miracle remedy for bruises, cuts, sprains, etc. Does it work? Of course it does!

The Arnica-based pharmaceutical products that Tineke bought for me are manufactured by an old family firm named Boiron, located in nearby Lyon. And when I say "family firm", this is literally the case. According to Wikipédia (in French), the president is a man named Boiron, the administrators are his brother and sister and their cousin. And board members include this cousin's husband and their daughter. Maybe this kind of closely-knit corporate structure has enabled them to test their products thoroughly upon one another…

Be that as it may, I was thrilled to discover yesterday that the Boiron products have just hit the headlines in the popular and respected US Jezebel website [access].

This is amazing publicity for French export products. And it's so much nicer than the idea (no more than an idea for the moment) of selling Rafale jet fighters to India [display]...

BREAKING NEWS: Not surprisingly, the Pharyngula blog of the celebrated US biologist and atheist P Z Myers has shot down the Jezebel article in flames [display]. His quantitative evaluation of the infinitesimal active agent in homeopathy is well-known and undeniable. I liked certain remarks concerning Boiron's herbal gel. Nobody seems to know whether or not it's a serious pharmaceutical product. On the other hand, if you like it, and it doesn't seem to harm you, then why not carry on using it? That's pretty lukewarm clinical advice, but I can't see how we might obtain a more informed judgment on the product. Incidentally, I'm intrigued to discover that the printed paper from Boiron attached to their gel affirms that it is a "homeopathic product". Are they suggesting that the actual Arnica in their tinctura has been diluted astronomically, as for their pills? Frankly, I have to admit that I don't understand what is meant by this claim. But I hasten to add that homeopathy is not a subject that interests me greatly. Live and let live...

Biting off a bit of water

Over the last week, when the weather was bitterly cold, I allowed Fitzroy, exceptionally, to sleep in the kitchen with Sophia. Inside the house, however, Fitzroy becomes rapidly bored, because he's a hyperactive dog (that's the adjective used by French journalists to describe Nicolas Sarkozy) who needs to race around and jump in the air, scrambling up and down the slopes of Gamone, snapping at the donkeys' hind legs, racing after birds (who surely can't imagine how an earthbound animal such as a dog could ever hope to catch an aerial creature), or killing field mice. Yes, Fitzroy has a distinctly feline feature: he's a skilled mouse-killer. It's true that I train him in this art as often as possible. You see, inside the house, I use a couple of metallic cages as mousetraps.

When the door of the trap springs shut, the rodent is simply imprisoned, but otherwise unharmed. Then, with the generosity of a Nero, I give the captured mouse a fighting chance of survival in a confrontation with Fitzroy. The other evening, I organized such a combat in the dark, on the snow-covered roadway. I used an electric lamp to see where I was walking, and to open the cage enabling the mouse to dart out with the speed of an arrow (or almost), but Fitzroy relied solely upon his sense of smell to locate the escaping mouse in the dark, pounce upon it, scrape it up out of the snow and break its backbone. In the style of a cat, Fitzroy will then toss the mouse in the air a couple of times, to see how it reacts upon landing. I believe that this is not merely a cruel game, but rather a way of evaluating the physical state of the captured prey. In the case of a field mouse in the snow, in plain daylight, Fitzroy's skills are quite spectacular. He will pounce into a heap of snow—where there's no visible sign of life—and emerge instantly with a mouse clutched between his teeth.

Inside the warm kitchen, Fitzroy usually squats Sophia's big wicker basket. But Sophia is just as happy spread out on the tiled floor, which contains electric heating. The problem, alas, is that Fitzroy's boredom is often transformed into vandalism.

He dissects minutely everything he can find. Let us not forget that, over a year ago, Fitzroy was no more than a pup when he destroyed my thick hessian and rubber doormat by tearing it into smaller and smaller fragments. Fitzroy is fond of applying this fragmentation process to smaller objects such as supermarket cheese trays, yoghurt containers and Kleenexes (preferably used). Since I'm rarely on the spot at the moment when the damage is being done, I can't really adopt a negative attitude that might inform Fitzroy that his vandalism pisses me off. So, I merely chase him out of the house and clean up the mess. If there's one word that Fitzroy does understand perfectly, it's the command "Out!". For him, it's an invitation to return to his normal pleasant outdoors environment.

Incidentally, talking about the dogs' environment, I'm always happy to rediscover that both Sophia and Fitzroy are resolutely winter animals, indeed snow creatures. Whenever they've got something on their mind such as the investigation of an unidentified external presence or odor or noise, they immediately ignore the fact that a Siberian snow blizzard might be sweeping across the slopes of Gamone. Finally, it's only when they've got nothing better to think about that they get around to thinking that life might be more pleasant indoors.

Yesterday afternoon, I was relieved to find that the temperature had become quite mild and the sun was shining. I took a few gardening tools up the road, to break up the thick layer of ice (a driving hazard for my neighbor) that had formed just below my spring.

A steady stream of water continues to emerge from a hose attached to my spring. Since this running water is a few degrees warmer than the frozen surroundings, it can actually be used to melt the ice. Now, Fitzroy has a theory about water streaming from a hose. It's cool and tasty, and Fitzroy reckons that a smart dog should be able to bite off a bit, to grasp between his teeth, as if it were an agonizing field mouse.

He jumps ceaselessly at the nozzle of the hose, with constant determination, trying to get his teeth firmly around the stream of icy water. There again, as in the case of Fitzroy's vandalism, I can't find the right words to communicate effectively with my dear dog. To be perfectly truthful, I don't wish to exclude totally the possibility that Fitzroy might come running towards me proudly, one of these days, with a short fragment of still-running water clenched in his mouth. That would merely make him a quantum-theory dog... which wouldn't amaze me unduly. Anything's possible...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Who's calling?

Thanks to Google Maps (which is an extraordinary device for a virtual globetrotter), I can wander leisurely through the narrow streets of the Dorset village of Shroton where my ancestors lived. Each morning, when they left their humble abode (in fact, the old village workhouse) to work in the fields as agricultural laborers, they would have walked past this elegant 18th-century farmhouse, on the other side of Main Street:

Maybe they even worked for the farmer Tom Crouch, who employed half-a-dozen laborers on his 120-acre property out behind the old white house with a thatched roof.

From time to time, when I get carried away by my genealogical research, my imagination soars into crazy realms. I find myself thinking that, if only I knew the number associated with that red telephone box, maybe I could put through a call, using my iPhone, on the off-chance that my great-great-great-great-grandfather John Skivington, or one of his lusty offspring, might be strolling by…

"Who's calling?" What, indeed, would I reply?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In Aussie slang, a ring-in is a black sheep in the family, the opposite of a fair dinkum offspring. And that reminds me of a joke.
The Reverend McKenzie (meaning "the fair one" in ancient Scottish) was a missionary in a remote settlement in the heart of the jungle. With his pale complexion and thick curly red hair, he stood out among all the black-skinned folk whose souls he was intent upon saving.

Outside the makeshift missionary church, McKenzie was engaged in a serious discussion with a local farmer, Jimmy Bongo, who appeared to be somewhat upset.

JIMMY BONGO: I tell you, Reverend, all our other children are pure black, like me. Then, a few days ago, my wife gave birth to a funny little fellow with a pale face and curly red hair. How can I explain this to neighbors in the village?

REVEREND MCKENZIE: God works in mysterious ways, Jimmy, and you have nothing whatsoever to say to the villagers in the way of explanations. Simply show them your herd of goats. They were all pure white. Then, not so long ago, when I happened to be visiting your farm on missionary duties, I noticed that your latest baby goat was jet black. We must not question God's decision to bring about the birth of a black goat in your white herd. Similarly, we must not question God's decision to provide you and your wife with a fair-skinned red-haired baby.

JIMMY BONGO: OK, Reverend, fair enough. Let's make a deal. I'll keep quiet about our red-haired baby as long as you promise to say nothing about that black goat.
Recently, I sent an email to a distinguished US scientist whose surname is similar to mine, suggesting that he might be prepared to get involved in genetic genealogy. I'm impatient to have opportunities of comparing my Y-chromosomes with those of various males with surnames such as Skyvington, Skivington, Skevington, etc. Well, this fellow explained to me frankly that he wasn't enthusiastic about genealogical research, because he considered that the frequency of cases of "ring-ins" is so high that genuine paternal lines rarely exist for more than a few generations. In other words, he was suggesting that, even though I might imagine that my Y-chromosomes have come down to me through a long and ancient line of males with surnames like mine, there were almost certainly countless points at which this Y-chromosome line was broken, when the latest genitor happened to be an outsider. On such occasions, most family members (except, say, the future mother) might have continued to believe that the most recent procreation was indeed the act of an authentic tribal male. How could they know otherwise?

For genealogical research and Y-chromosome testing to be serious preoccupations, I would need to be to be convinced that each of my male predecessors, for centuries on end, was a noble-minded gentlemen who never dreamed of jumping into bed with any female other than his lawful wedded wife. That's to say, my highly moralistic forefathers, prior to their marriages, would have shuddered at the evil thought of having sex with unmarried village maidens, or the wives of other males in the village. Once they were married, they produced offspring exclusively with their legal wives. And these sensuous ladies, no less moralistic than their husbands, would have resisted scrupulously any temptation whatsoever to welcome the warm caresses of lusty males who didn't happen to be their husbands.

It's because all my Skyvington ancestors were like that (n'est-ce pas ?), since the epoch of the Norman invasion in 1066, that genealogical research remains, for lucky me, a meaningful preoccupation. Indeed, I've often been somewhat ashamed to realize that I myself am no doubt the first Skyvington male since antiquity to have been capable of behaving loosely, at times, from a sexual viewpoint. But don't jump to false conclusions. I've always made a gigantic attempt to respect the Tenth Commandment:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. [Exodus 20:17]
Maybe I don't fully understand what the Good Lord was trying to say through his use of the curious verb "to covet", but I can vouch for the fact that I've never coveted my neighbor's manservants, nor his ox. And I paid cash for the two donkeys I've purchased since residing at Gamone. Back in Paris, it's true that things could waver somewhat, and evolve in unexpected directions, at the level of wives and maidservants (designated, these days, as au pair girls). But I honestly don't recall ever brooding glumly, for any length of time, in a frustrating state of sin that might be designated as coveting. In those days, we were more pragmatic...

Over the last month or so, I've been examining closely my Dorset ancestors towards the middle of the 19th century, at the time that England had developed the procedure of issuing official birth certificates. Well, all I can say is that the phenomenon of ring-ins among my Skyvington ancestors of that epoch was most prolific: almost to the point of turning a naive family-history researcher off genealogy… not for moralistic reasons, of course, but simply because, to make family-history headway, we're obliged to get involved in a constant puzzle of "Who slept with whom?"

I won't go into all the details here. You'll be able to find them soon in the Dorset chapter of They Sought the Last of Lands. Let me simply describe one outstanding case, in which the presence of a particular ring-in was handled in such a subtle way that I had to employ all the brain-power of a Sherlock Holmes (aided by a bit of luck) in order to concoct a plausible theory on who he was, and what might have happened.

Here's the 1851 census data for the 15 occupants of a household in the Dorset village of Iwerne Courtney:

This is a typical specimen of the kind of stuff I need to examine regularly, as a family-history researcher. It's an interesting sample which, incidentally, reveals the origins of various disparate Skyvington families throughout the world today… but I don't intend to discuss those questions here.  This was the household of John Skivington [1780-1858] and his wife Grace Pethen [1788-1861]: my paternal great-great-great-great-grandparents (at the same ancestral level as the vicar of Woodhorn, the subject of my previous blog post).

Observe line #9 of the census data, which indicates the presence of a 3-months-old baby boy named Atwill Isaac, designated as a grandson (of John Skivington and Grace). For a long time, I wondered who were the parents of this child, and why he had been given such a weird name. Normally, since that census had been carried out on 30 March 1851, we might suppose that this baby was born around Christmas 1850. I had the impression that the child's given name should be spelt as Atwell (which exists as a surname), but I could find neither a parish christening record nor a UK birth certificate for an Atwell Isaac Skivington, born at Iwerne Courtney in 1850.

A decade later, in 1851, the male head of the household had died, and only three occupants remained, as indicated by the census data:

The aging Grace, whose married name was now spelt Skyvington (with a "y"), had been left to look after two grandsons, no doubt ring-ins whose parents (known or unknown) were now residing elsewhere… if indeed they were still alive. And the younger boy's name was now spelt as Etwell.

Much later, in 1875, a marriage certificate reveals that Atwell Skivington (with an "i") married Mary Anne Langford in the seaside town of Christchurch in Dorset. Then, in the 1881 UK census, we find the small family of Atwell Skivington, a bricklayer, residing in the nearby village of Holdenhurst.

Notice that Atwell's birthplace is indicated as Shroton, which is the nickname for Iwerne Courtney used by local folk.

I remained curious concerning the identity of Atwell's parents. A fortnight ago, on the off-chance that I might find something interesting, I ordered a copy of a birth certificate for an unidentified William Skivington born in the small village of Iwerne Courtney in the final quarter of 1850. I was surprised to discover that it was an out-of-wedlock baby whose mother was Elizabeth Skivington, the 21-year-old daughter of my ancestors John Skivington and Grace Pethen, whose name appears in line #5 of the census data for 1851, shown earlier on in this blog post.

So, here are three dates in the existence of this child:

— 4 December 1850: Elizabeth Skivington gave birth to an out-of-wedlock baby in Iwerne Courtney.

— 17 December 1850: Elizabeth registered the birth of this son under the name of William Skivington.

— 30 March 1851: Somebody in the house of Elizabeth's parents informed the census officer that the baby's name was Atwill Isaac.

Then, as an adult, he became known as Atwell Isaac Skivington. Still intrigued by this unusual given name, I continued to wonder why Elizabeth would have registered rapidly her out-of-wedlock baby under the name of William Skivington, and then allowed him to be referred to as Atwell Isaac Skivington. Funnily enough, I was reminded of an affair that took place here, not far from where I live, many years ago. There's a fellow who has a quite ordinary name, which gives the impression that he belongs to one of the ancient rural families in this corner of the Dauphiné region. Well, I've often been intrigued to discover that certain local folk, when they're referring to this fellow, use an unexpected nickname, something in the style of "Gascon". (I'm refraining from indicating his true identity.) If I understand correctly, these neighbors are aware of the fact that the fellow in question was a ring-in,  and they prefer to refer to him through the geographical origin of his father, from a remote region of France, rather than through the ordinary name that was given to him, in an official manner, by the local girl who was the unwed mother of "Gascon".

With the help of my recently-acquired collection of Dorset census CDs, I started looking around for the existence, in the vicinity of Iwerne Courtney in 1850, of a young gentleman whose surname was Atwell, who might have become Elizabeth Skivington's lover, and the genitor of her baby boy. Lo and behold, I had no trouble finding him, because there was only one plausible candidate in Elizabeth's geographical zone.

John Atwell, in his early twenties (25 according to the census data, 22 according to his baptismal record), was an unmarried agricultural laborer from nearby Langton Long, just south-east of Blandford Forum. He was residing in the town of Blandford Forum with a widowed 70-year-old agricultural worker, John Painter, in narrow East Street Lane… which looks like a fine place for a bit of discreet warm cuddling with a village maiden on a wintry March afternoon in 1850, when it was impossible to work out in the snow-covered fields.

John Samuel Atwell was christened on 9 March 1829 at the All Saints church in Langton Long, which still stands today:

Here is his baptismal record, delivered by the Reverend J H Ridout:

In the village of Langton Long, judging from the number of christenings, there appear to have been quite a few folk named Atwell.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that I would be thrilled if living descendants of Atwell Skivington were to come upon the present blog post. If so, I hope they'll contact me.

BREAKING NEWS: I was mistaken in believing that there was no parish baptismal record for Atwell Skivington. No sooner had I published this blog post than I discovered the following entry in the new version of the Mormons' excellent FamilySearch website [access]:

Up until now, I had been obtaining data from the Iwerne Courtney website [access], which apparently hasn't yet put all its parish records online.

Notice that the spelling of Atwell's name is still screwed up there, in the church record. In such a context, it's not surprising that the time-honored Skivington spelling (with an "i") was transformed into Skyvington (with a ridiculous "y"). Ah, I still weep inwardly with remorse whenever I recall that my dear father had to go through life with a name such as King Mepham Skyvington.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Marvelous family-history encounter

A few days ago, a South African gentleman named Richard Frost from Tarkastad (Eastern Cape) contacted me spontaneously concerning one of my English ancestors: Henry Latton [1737-1798], the Anglican vicar of Woodhorn (Northumberland). This chart indicates how I descend from this clergyman:

The next day, Richard Frost sent me a portrait of my great-great-great-great-grandfather:

Richard Frost told me that his own great-grandfather, Sir John Frost [1828-1918], had represented South Africa at the opening of Australia's first parliament on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne, and was the minister of Agriculture in the government of Cecil Rhodes.

My unexpected contact with Richard Frost was the kind of amazing event that family-historians dream about. Today, we discovered that there's even an additional dimension to our encounter. You see, Richard was aware that this portrait had entered his family household through a female ancestor whose married name was Hannah Friend (the surname of Richard's mother). Besides, he was certain that this woman was a granddaughter of the vicar of Woodhorn. Well, it soon emerged that this woman's maiden name was Hannah Pickering. She was an elder sister of my great-great-grandfather John Pickering. So, Richard and I are in fact relatively-close genetic cousins of a kind.

Unbaptism ceremony

Bill Maher is in great form here:

Thursday, February 2, 2012


I'm almost certain (unless my memory is playing me tricks) that my dear father, who was particularly fond of my young sister Anne Skyvington (a few years younger than Don and me), used to refer to her in cuddly terms as "my little Angie Divey" (spelling?) as if he were referring to his divine Angela. Dad was earwashed (radiophonic variant of "brainwashed") by the refrain of a silly song, composed in 1943, which sounded like this:
    Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
    A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?
While hoping that my sister was in fact named for more noble reasons than this (which my genealogical research hasn't yet suggested, since there seem to be no Annes—or Donalds or Susans or Jillians, for that matter—among our recent ancestors), here's a plausible English transcription of these largely nonsensical words:
Mares [female horses] eat oats
And does [female deers] eat oats
And little ants eat ivy
A kid [baby goat] will eat ivy too
Wouldn't a ewe [baby sheep] (also eat ivy)?
That final line, of my invention, is highly conjectural. Maybe the poet was simply referring, in fact, to human kids. Was "ivy" maybe a US military slang term for something I haven't grasped? Here's a recent interpretation of this curious affair:

This morning, when I was pouring out doses of oats for my donkeys, and rejoicing in the fact that my dear Fitzroy seem to have got over a nasty four-day bout of diarrhea, I saw my dog diving into stuff I'd just thrown out as decomposable organic rubbish… and I found myself humming a crazy new stanza to the melody brought into my memory by the "donkey zotes":
Dogsey shit…
Meanwhile, I'm enlightened by a Google revelation concerning the existence of an old English nursery rhyme:
Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters
Nonsense—as our dear Mr Dodgson made clear—is good for you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Antipodes activity and readership

My Antipodes blog is not a particularly gossipy place. I'm a rather reserved kind of individual, and I don't go out of my way (as other bloggers do) to encourage superficial chatting in the comments section. On the other hand, I'm thrilled to receive momentous feedback (through personal e-mails from friends) about subject that have been introduced into Antipodes, such as this fuzzy copy of a letter to the Australian engineer John Dickenson announcing a major US award, which establishes officially his role as a pioneer inventor in the marvelous domain of hang gliding.

My initial blog post on this fascinating theme, entitled Grafton in aeronautical history books, appeared in Antipodes on 16 October 2007 [display]. Since then, the subject has been taken up expertly and profoundly by dedicated researchers such as Graeme Henderson and my French neighbor Stéphane Malbos. To find my various observations on this subject (inevitably superficial, since I've never actually practiced this fabulous activity), put dickenson in the search box up in the left-hand corner.

Is my native Grafton likely to accept fully this amazing role in aviation history? Probably not. It's a silly city, a dull-minded spot on the map of northern New South Wales, which has failed all recent attempts to identify itself as a significant place… even to the point of no longer existing officially as a city.

Today, my Antipodes blog has moved into cruising speed. I've appended a readership counter, whose contents remain private. Funnily enough, I often discover that Antipodes is never better than when I don't write anything new whatsoever ! The readership keeps pouring in, as it were, on many different (and often unsuspected) old subjects.

All kinds of subjects bring readers to Antipodes. For example, crowds of readers from all over the planet have been intrigued by my comments on the fake videos of New Guinea natives seeing white folk for the first time ever. This has certainly been the most "successful" Antipodes blog post ever. But, as I tried to point out explicitly,  this subject was totally screwed up in my Antipodes blog, for all kinds of reasons, and I was no longer capable of joining in all the social-network fun on this theme. In a nutshell, I discovered that a French law court had condemned somebody who had alleged that this stuff was fake. As soon as I heard that, I dropped the subject immediately, like a smelly hot potato. (Maybe "nasty hot turd" would be a more appropriate comparison, except that nobody usually picks up turds. Any better literary suggestions? Anne...) I didn't want to be a hero in a domain that I didn't necessarily master.

Another readership success was a blog post on the theme of so-called "professional bias" [display], which has attracted many US readers. Other great favorites were my blog posts on Lawrence Durrell [display] and those on the Ephrussi family in Austria [display].

Recently, a kind friend (in fact, my ex-wife) noticed that I hadn't written anything new for at least a week, and she may have imagined that my everyday existential despair had brought me to the verge of abandoning all further activities of self-expression. Well, not exactly. It goes without saying that I'll let all my readers know as soon as my existential despair has reached such a point…

Let me tell you a secret. I evaluate regularly but discreetly, day by day (even—indeed above all—when I don't write anything whatsoever), the readership of Antipodes, simply because it's my personal "business". So, I know what's happening globally… and I also watch the statistics of similar blogs by Aussie expatriates in Europe. If ever I were to detect that my daily readership was dwindling, or inferior to the above-mentioned blogs, I would be saddened, if not alarmed. But this has not yet occurred. Antipodes rules the waves, as it were.

Now, if ever you happened to be reading Antipodes primarily because you're interested in me and my dogs (which is surely the finest motivation of all), let me say that we're all fine. Sophia is aging in the style of a noble old lady, and Fitzroy is a noble young descendant... not of Sophia, of course, but of archaic wolves and dogdom in general. (What a splendid genealogical concept!) As for me, my ceaseless contemplation and meditations (of a non-Buddhistic and non-religious pantheistic kind, maybe "spiritual" if you're prepared to stretch the meaning of such silly words to breaking point... in the style of my former friend and neighbor Franz-Olivier Guisbert, my former wife and neighbor Christine, and countless other superiorly-intelligent folk) are surely more "noble" (a great adjective for dogs) than I as an individual could ever be. Meanwhile, in the proverbial nutshell, I carry on living happily, in good health and spirits, here at Gamone...