Sunday, April 29, 2012

Red mountain and white blob

This is a recent specimen of a red Cournouze photo (untouched by Photoshop in any way whatsoever), taken from my bathroom window:

[Click to enlarge]

Here, taken on the same day, is a telephoto shot of the white blob in the first photo:

The "blob" is in fact the village of Châtelus. That's their church on the left. The big white building on the right, which shares a common wall with the church, is the municipal office and official residence of the mayor of Châtelus. In fact, since the present mayor has his own house about a kilometer away, the official residence is rented out to ordinary citizens.

Genetic cousins in England today

A couple of months ago, in my blog post titled Ring-ins [display], I evoked the existence of a significant number of out-of-wedlock births among my Dorset ancestors. It goes without saying that my observations were totally devoid of any kind of moralistic dimension. I wasn't scolding posthumously my naughty ancestors for cuddling furtively in the haystacks of Iwerne Courtney and rearing single-parent offspring who carried a surname, Skyvington, which was not in fact that of their biological father.

Cricket ground at Iwerne Courtney (photo David Squire).

My interest in such questions is inspired by two more subtle reasons.

— First, other individuals named Skyvington, living today, are interested in their origins. These people are likely to appreciate my Dorset research into recent Skyvington branches beyond my own direct ancestral line.

— Second, there's the question of our Y chromosomes. Up until now, this subject remains purely theoretical, because I seem to be the only person with a name like Skeffington who has put his Y-chromosome results in the database [access].

Well, a few days ago (on the same day, amazingly, that I heard about the family de Verdun), I was happy to discover that present-day Skyvington individuals in the vicinity of Worcester (named Stephen, Richard, Gary, Robert and Shaun) and Durham (named Robert, John and Graeme) would appear to be authentic genetic cousins, with exactly the same Y chromosome data as me. (For the moment, I don't have the addresses or phone numbers of any of these individuals.) It would be nice if some of these people were to obtain their Y chromosome specifications through, say, the Family Tree DNA company [access]. Incidentally, I believe that the best approach, costwise, is to order a test through the Skeffington group, whose page exists on the Family Tree DNA website.

For readers interested in the precise links between the English Skyvingtons in Worcester/Durham and myself, let me display a couple of genealogical charts. Their ancestor John Skyvington [1857-1901] worked as an agricultural laborer, at the age of 14, in Iwerne Courtney, before becoming a stonemason. But his principal vocation was the army, and he entered the ranks of a distinguished corps: the Royal Horse Artillery. It was no doubt in his role as a dashing mounted trooper that John met up with a young Scottish lady, Jessie Coulie (also spelt as Collie), who became his wife. Later, John was on active service in the Boer War.

Ambush at Sannas Post (Blomenfontein, 1900) by Terence Cuneo.

John is the person mentioned down in the lower left corner of the following chart (where I have retained the baptismal spelling of his surname):

The following chart, of an earlier epoch, mentions John's father George and his elder brother Charles, who was my 3-great-grandfather:

In other words, the couple at the top of this chart, John and Grace, were the most recent common ancestors of the English Skyvingtons in Worcester/Durham and myself.

Getting back to the man who served in the Boer War, there's a family legend concerning the identity of his wife Jessie Coulie. It was said that she was the daughter of a noble family associated with Guthrie Castle near Dundee, and that she was normally destined to wed an equally noble chap from India. To escape this fate, she eloped with John Skivington!

If John's wife never made it to India, his nephew Edwin Skivington (son of the Edwin mentioned in the first chart) ended up there in 1916, as a soldier with the 7th Hampshire Regiment.

A final detail concerning John Skyvington has caused me to meditate upon the quirks of fate. To enter the ranks of the Royal Horse Artillery, John must have been an experienced horseman. And I would imagine that he acquired his skills in that domain as a youth, working as an agricultural laborer in his Dorset village. It appears that John lost his life prematurely through being kicked in the head by a horse. Since it has been said that John was killed in the Boer War, we might imagine that this fatal accident took place in South Africa. But I would suspect that it occurred closer to his home in Somerset, for he was buried in the St Aldhelm's churchyard in Doulting.

Many years later, when I asked my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] why he had been tempted to emigrate to Australia, he told me: "I grew up with romantic ideas of a life connected with horses, cattle and sheep." Living in London, my grandfather looked upon horse-riding as a privilege of the wealthy upper classes, to which he did not belong. Evoking my grandfather's adolescent dream, I have used a splendid photo of horses in Australia on the cover of my paternal genealogical monograph:

If only young Ernest had been brought in contact with his few remaining rural relatives in the West Country, he might have discovered in one way or another, and almost on his doorstep, his mythical universe of horses, cattle and sheep. Instead of that, he sought that world in the Antipodes, in the legendary "last of lands".
They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry.
Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,

Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,

The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,

A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

                                     — A D Hope, Australia

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Strauss-Kahn seems to have caught a big fish

When he started to talk surprisingly about a conspiracy theory, Dominique Strauss-Kahn went fishing, for reasons that were not apparent. Well, he seems to have caught immediately a big fish. On the occasion of a public meeting at Clermont-Ferrand, in front of a few thousand supporters, Nicolas Sarkozy declared:
I say to Monsieur Strauss-Kahn: Explain things to the justice and refrain from imposing your comments upon the French. I respect profoundly the presumption of innocence. But, when somebody is accused of what he's accused, he might, with a minimum of dignity, have the modesty to keep quiet, to avoid adding to the indignity. Throughout all those scandalous and shameful episodes—New York, Lille, the Carlton, the Pas-de-Calais—it was honorable on the part of the republican right and the center to not get involved. They didn't exploit these happenings. They plugged their noses and didn't comment upon these happenings, because commenting upon such affairs was as if you "accepted them a little". But, in the middle of the electoral campaign, a week after the first round, when Monsieur Strauss-Kahn starts to give lessons of morality, and indicate that I am the sole person responsible for everything that happened to him, I say that too much is too much!
Well said, Sarko. But you're talking through the top of your hat, and nothing you say proves that there wasn't a conspiracy. Besides, the Sarkozian conception of the principle of presumption of innocence seems to be that everything's fine as long as Sarko himself has not decided personally that the accused individual might be guilty. A twisted interpretation, to say the least.

Personally, I've always believed firmly that there was indeed some kind of DSK conspiracy, whose outlines are impossible to trace yet. The whole idea of a successful conspiracy, after all, is that it should remain as fuzzy as possible for as long as possible. N'est-ce pas ?

Skeffington/Verdun links

Last night, in the excitement of publishing my article about our patriach Bertram de Verdun, I forgot to include a vital element of data: namely, explicit evidence of the existence of a Skeffington/Verdun link. I had mentioned rapidly a celebrated book:
Nichols, John
The History and Antiquities
of the County of Leicester
4 vols (1795–1815) London, Nichols & Son
What was the precise passage in Nichols that mentions explicitly an association between the Skeffingtons and a member of the Verdun family? Here it is (with possible spelling inaccuracies):
In the same year [1273], John lord of Verdun, at his death, held of the king in capite the manors of Cottesbach, Newbold, Skeffington, Tugby, Halifed, Belton, Gracedieu, Sharnford, Bocardescote, Sutton, Naneby, Bariston and Alveton, with their several honours and members; and Theobald de Verdun, his next heir, was then aged 22 years and upwards. This Theobald was afterwards constable of Ireland, and possessed the advowson of Skeffington in 1301, 1310 and 1312.
Here are the arms of the Verdun family:

The expression "in capite" means that, by the laws of England at that time, it was the king himself who gave these manors to John de Verdun. Towards the end of the extract, the term "advowson" indicates the right to recommend a member of the Anglican clergy for a vacant benefice, or to make such an appointment. Clearly, Theobald de Verdun ruled the roost in the village of Skeffington at the start of the 14th century.

Here is the seal of the Verdun family:

But what do we know about the Verdun family earlier on? If a Verdun fellow were so highly placed in the Skeffington village context at the end of the 13th century, then it's highly probable that his ancestors were already there at the time of the Conquest. That's to say, John de Verdun and his son Theobald didn't just appear in the village of Skeffington in the final quarter of the 13th century. Historical facts unmentioned by John Nichols add weight to that conclusion.

Voices from the Socialist past

Throughout the coming week, we can expect some spectacular fireworks (akin to the final five minutes in a yet-undecided rugby match) as Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande move towards the final moment of truth, next Sunday.

Their forthcoming TV debate will be followed by everybody in France. I don't imagine that there'll be a "winner" and a "loser", unless one of the candidates has a fit of madness... which is a perfectly serious possibility that must not be excluded a priori. And, even if one guy succeeded in knocking out his opponent, I'm not sure that this would change French voting opinion enormously. I believe that most people have already made up their minds, and it's Bye-bye Nicolas (along with your glitzy watches, your charming kids and your top-model wife).

The only thing I regret profoundly in the inevitable impending victory of the left is that Sarko was an adept of cycling, whereas Hollande is a dull soccer guy. OK, I'm a cycling snob, but I find it hard to imagine the president François Hollande watching with enthusiasm (necessary madness) a mythical ascension of the Ventoux. Unless Hollande can do something about this weakness (maybe there are training courses in this domain), his incapacity to go crazy about pairs of wheels on mountain slopes could well turn out to be a significant political handicap.

Meanwhile, we've just heard Dominique Strauss-Kahn informing us that his affair in Manhattan was some kind of Sarkozian setup.

Frankly, for the moment, I can't figure out why DSK chose the present crucial moment (between the two rounds of the presidential elections) to make this disturbing revelation. Is there method in his madness? For the moment, it's impossible to say... But who gives a fuck (apart from DSK, who's apparently good at giving that kind of thing)?

As for the opinions of the former presidential candidate Lionel Jospin, they're easier to understand.

Jospin claims that Sarko was using "the weapon of lies" in suggesting that 700 Muslim mosques in France had proclaimed that their flock should vote for François Hollande. Personally, I've never found it difficult to believe, nor even alarming, that Sarko and his friends might be tempted, from time to time, to play around with the truth.

I'm not saying that being a socialist in France today is a permanent cure against telling political lies... but it seems to help at times.

Spring cleaning

The brilliant French literary critic and former TV personality Bernard Pivot has just written a delightful tweet (which I've translated):
After the electoral campaign, a washing machine will be needed to clean up all the words that have been soiled, and a lot of mending will have to be carried out to stitch up all the torn words.
[Après la campagne électorale il faudra faire une machine à laver des mots salis
et du raccommodage des mots déchirés.
Beautifully said.

Anecdote: I share with Pivot a terrible cerebral affliction. We cannot remember faces! In fact, this handicap can be a godsend in various circumstances, and I believe seriously that it determines certain aspects of our love of words, of poetry. I've always realized that, whenever I encounter the visage of a nymph or a female angel, I see her for the first time in my life.

Many men, I suppose, glimpse Venus no more than two or three times during their earthly existence. They recollect nostalgically their first kiss, say, or their first vision of their future wife. As for me, I rediscover Venus almost on a daily basis. I used to say jokingly that I dreamed constantly of lovely maidens who worked in French bakeries. As I grow older, the situation is "worsening" in a way ("worsening" in inverted commas, and "in a way" only). What I mean to say is that my visionary horizons would seem to be extending, rather than receding (as one might expect). These days, I can be struck several times a day by the extraordinary beauty of a face, an expression, a smile, a word...

My life will be summed up: veni, vidi, Venus.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Ever since I started to investigate my paternal Skyvington genealogy, back in 1981, I've been obsessed by an obvious question:
Would I ever know the name and origins of the Norman knight—a companion of William the Conqueror—who might be thought of as the patriarch of our primordial Skeffington family in England?

Such an individual surely existed, and he had received the territory of the Saxon place called Sceaftinga tûn—the tûn (settlement) of Sceaft’s people, to be known later on as the Leicestershire village of Skeffington—as a reward for helping the Duke of Normandy to conqueror England.

But, in the list of names of the Norman knights who accompanied William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, I had no means of figuring out which one of them was our future patriarch. I often said to myself that, if only I knew the identity of "my" Norman knight, and if ever this individual happened to have descendants in France today, then these folk would be my "genetic cousins" (as they say in the domain of DNA-based genealogical research). I realized, however, that these were two big and unlikely if conditions...

The standard version of the story of the Skeffingtons was written in the 18th century by a plump English chap named John Nichols.

Nichols was a prolific professional writer who succeeded in churning out a vast collection of historical tidbits about the county of Leicestershire. In this context, it was natural that he should devote numerous pages of his History and Antiquities of Leicestershire to a presentation of members of the distinguished Skeffington family. At no point, however, was Nichols capable of indicating explicitly the likely identity of our 11th-century patriarch.

Nichols did however mention the existence in 1231 (that's to say, 165 years after the Norman Conquest) of an individual named Odo de Scevington, who owned lands down in Kent. Clutching at straws, I wondered if this individual might have descended from a celebrated personage with the same name: the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, represented vividly in the famous tapestry.

It was ridiculous of me to speculate about links based upon no more than a shared given name.  I had been momentarily enticed into imagining an association between the two Odo fellows because of another false reason, even more outlandish. Bishop Odo of Bayeux had a notorious habit, illustrated in the above image, of wielding a baton when he rode into battle. Now, the other Odo's surname, Scevington, evoked a Saxon warrior, Sceaft (meaning shaft, spear or baton). I was mesmerized into imagining that the battle skills of the legendary Sceaft had been inherited magically by the Conqueror’s wild half-brother. Need I point out that my family-history thinking at that time had little in common with rocket science?

Two days ago (on Anzac Day), for the nth time in three decades, I happened to be skimming through the Nichols pages on the Skeffingtons, and my attention was caught by the presence of a reference to a late 13th-century individual, "John lord of Verdun".

The term "Verdun" evokes, of course, the place on the Western Front in France where a horrendous battle took place in 1916, engaging the victorious forces of a certain Philippe Pétain. Maybe those nasty evocations of 20th-century military butchery had dissuaded me previously from bothering to look more closely into the Nichols mention of this unknown "John lord of Verdun". On Anzac Day 2012, however, I made an effort, but the weight of all the World War I stuff meant that Google in English wasn't particularly helpful. So, I switched to French, replacing "John" by "Jean". And almost instantly, the facts concerning our patriarch started to unfold before my astonished eyes.

The name of our likely patriarch is Bertram de Verdun. Today, his domain in the splendid countryside of Normandy has dwindled to a humble signpost on the outskirts of the town of Vessey. That should discourage any squabbles among us concerning rights to the family castle... if ever it existed.

The Verdun domain of our probable patriarch in Normandy is indicated by the red blob in the following Google map:

Chances are that Bertram's ghost got shook up a bit back at the time of the Normandy landings in June 1944, which took place not far away. After all, this was the splendid gateway into the eternal province of Normandy... or the eternal province of Brittany if you happen to be traveling in the opposite direction. The town of Vessey appears to lie alongside one of the rural roads I used to take—between Alençon and Dinan—back in my youthful days when I would ride my bike from Paris to Brittany and back.

The shield of Normandy is composed of a pair of golden lions (passant, as specialists say, meaning that the lions are running) with blue tongues and claws, on a red background.

Now, I can hear my readers saying that this Norman shield looks remarkably like the familiar banner of the kingdom just across on the other side of the Manche (the stretch of sea that folk on the other side persist in calling the English Channel).

Yes, it sure does, and that's not just a coincidence. The myriad of present-day associations of all kinds between Normandy and England were the consequences of the actions of a group of French tourists, in 1066, with names such as Guillaume, Odo, Bertram, etc. (If you're interested in this subject of heraldic emblems, click here to access an excellent Wikipedia article on the origins of various English coats of arms.) Even our respective languages reveal countless common features... which means that it's not really rocket science (I like that expression, don't I) when an English-speaking individual such as me gets around to communicating in French.

All the rumbling of canons on D-Day would not have alarmed unduly the ghost of an oldtimer such as Bertram de Verdun who had lived through the battle of Hastings, on the other side of the Channel.

After the Conquest, when things settled down a little in England, the Domesday Book reveals that our patriarch Bertram de Verdun was officially allocated enough earth to plant a vegetable garden on the conquered land (which happens to correspond exactly to my own activities at the moment of writing).

But what do we really know today about our patriarch Bertram de Verdun? Yesterday, following my discovery of this man, I was delighted to learn that a scholar at the Bangor University in Wales, Mark Hagger, has published a book about the family de Verdun:

For the moment, for me, this whole affair is totally new. So I know little about our Norman patriarch. Click here for an English-language Wikipedia article about the family, and here for the French-language version.

Another fascinating question emerges. Is it thinkable that our patriarch Bertram de Verdun might have descendants today in France and elsewhere? Well, to put it mildly, judging from what I've seen through a rapid visit to the Genea website, it would appear that the community of my so-called "genetic cousins" includes many present-day members of the old nobility of Normandy and France.
Les sanglots longs des violons
de l'automne blessent mon cœur
d'une langueur monotone.
 [Click here to see why I ended this article with those splendid lines of poetry.]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Quick and easy dessert

Tiramisu is a great Italian invention. To make this tasty dessert, you need little more than a 250 gram packet of mascarpone cheese, a few eggs and a packet of ladyfinger biscuits. In the variety of tiramisu I made for this evening's dinner, I incorporated fresh strawberries and sprinkled cocoa powder and sliced almonds on top.

I've always thought of tiramisu as a dessert that appears to be more sophisticated than what it really is. Admittedly, a lot depends on the nature and quality of your ladyfinger biscuits. In this evening's preparation, I used traditional Italian crackly sapori biscuits that I came upon by chance, a few days ago, in our local supermarket.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Online New York hawks

Like thousands of other bird-lovers throughout the world, I've been spending a lot of time, over the last few days, watching the couple of red-tailed hawks—named Ezra (male) and Big Red (female)—who are nesting on top of a metal pole (for stadium lighting) at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Click here to see the amazing live-video streaming organized by university ornithologists. For the moment, there are two healthy chicks, and a third one is due tomorrow.

Alongside the video, there's a dense and often interesting chat, whose tone and contents gravitate between expert hawk talk (including references to the fabulous ancient art of falconry) and dumb American trivialities ("Oh, they must be cold up there in the wind", "What are the names of the babies?", "Cornell University must get around to marketing T-shirts and coffee mugs with pictures of the hawks", etc).

For newcomers to the nesting behavior of hawks (such as myself), the video is highly didactic. You learn lots of things that can't be grasped by simply observing, say, a clucky hen on its nest. But most of all, I've discovered extraordinary aspects of the great struggle for survival in the wild (if we can be forgiven for suggesting that New York City is "in the wild"). For example, a few nights ago, the female hawk was spread out above her three eggs in a pile of snow that covered completely the twigs of the nest. The expert individuals moderating the chat explained that the female hawk had moved into what they referred to as "survival mode". That's to say, the bird "had realized that the situation was dramatic" (my inverted commas indicate that the hawk was not really engaged in conscious problem-solving cogitations) and that she needed to remain perfectly calm for as long as possible, so that the totality of her animal energy could be transferred to the precious eggs. And it was only when the snow started to melt a little around her warm feathers that she dared to adjust her position, and finally consume some food (pigeon meat) brought to her by her male companion.

Human onlookers of such a situation are constantly frustrated by their impossible desire to intervene, in the hope of making things easier for the hawks and their future progeny. We have difficulty in realizing that birds have been playing this aerial procreation game ever since they ceased being dinosaurs, and that they've had ample time to learn all the basic tricks. So, we must resist the temptation to offer them advice or assistance.

On the other hand, I believe I'm doing the right thing when I give the tiny wild birds of Gamone a helping hand in winter by providing them with a constant supply of sunflower seeds. Incidentally, I notice that the Common Tits (mésanges) have got around, once again, to using the nesting box that I built a few years ago. Click here and here to see that story. During their nesting season, it would be unthinkable of me to attempt to climb up and take a peek at what's happening inside that nesting box. But I came upon a nice photo that no doubt provides us with a good idea of the present atmosphere inside that box.

Click here to read the interesting BBC article that provided this photo.

First peonies of 2012

I'm thrilled to discover that all the 22 rose bushes and the 9 peonies that I planted back in 2009 have survived the harsh winter. There are no rose blossoms yet, of course. But yesterday, I was greeted by the first peonies of 2012 at Gamone.

My Adzuma Nishiki surely needs a lot more sunshine, and less rain and wind, to acquire a more rosy robust complexion.

24 HOURS LATER: Look at the difference, this morning, brought about by just a few hours of sunshine:

Donkeys are fond of plum trees

Grass is great for cows, but donkeys prefer by far the fresh leaves and delicate blossoms of plum trees.

A tempest has been blowing at Gamone over the last 24 hours. Personally, the wind always drives me crazy. I wasn't born to reside in the Rhône valley, where the Mistral can blow for days and nights on end. I guess I wasn't born to be a yachtsman, either, or a glider pilot. Windy cities are the worst of all, particularly when the presence of tall buildings focuses the wind blasts upon unwary pedestrians. But the donkeys can thank the tempest for breaking this branch and offering them this unexpected feast.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Owl attack

Owls are fascinating creatures. We hear them at night, and we know they're not far away. But we hardly ever see them. In fact, they are splendid living machines, designed to catch prey. Somebody said that you might describe an owl as a big pair of claws with wings.

This is a fine specimen of marvelous owl images that I found on Jerry Coyne's blog [access] titled Why Evolution is True.

This BBC video provides a highly didactic account of why owls are such expert killers:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Welcome to Science

There's real poetry in the real world
Science is the poetry of reality
Richard Dawkins

Friday, April 20, 2012

Final word, first word

Click here to see this final word—of a rather personal nature—that François Hollande offers his supporters on the eve of the first round of the presidential elections. Let us hope that this final word will in fact be the first word of a new era in France.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I love this photo, taken a year ago, which reveals the obvious sympathy, if not complicity, between the Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande (the man for whom I'll be voting next Sunday) and the ex-president Jacques Chirac. They're two rural gentlemen who would appear to be on similar wavelengths in many domains.

But we hear that Chirac, next Sunday, will be allowing his wife Bernadette to vote on his behalf. That's reassuring news for Sarkozy... who's more in need of good news (it would appear, according to the latest polls) than Hollande.

Two careers of Richard Dawkins

I would imagine that most people have heard, by now, of the English intellectual Richard Dawkins.

But it's unlikely that they've all made an effort to read Dawkins's books. Besides, those on the technical aspects of evolutionary biology can be quite difficult. The following short video makes it clear that Dawkins has had two careers, as it were: first, as a celebrated scientist, and later as an advocate for a world without gods.

Dawkins attempts to attenuate this "two careers" interpretation of his work by suggesting that the germs of his atheism could be found in his earlier books on biology. While this was certainly the case, such an explanation is likely to go above the heads of those observers who see the outspoken professor primarily as a strident atheist. Consider, for example, an amazing specimen of big-mouthed ignorance: George Pell, an Australian cardinal. Judging from the applause during his recent debate with Dawkins, the Catholic chief has a certain number of numbskull supporters.

[That's not the extract of the Dawkins/Pell encounter that I had hoped to include, but I don't have the courage to search through all the cardinal's rubbish in the hope of finding his statement about Neanderthals.]

I would like to make a naive confession. There are two aspects of the professor's behavior that I've never clearly understood. First, why does Dawkins waste his time taking part in an alleged "debate" with a religious guy who's so stupid that he would dare to place atheists in the category of monsters such as Stalin and Hitler? A guy who's so ignorant at the level of contemporary knowledge that he imagines that people like Dawkins think that Homo sapiens descends from Neanderthals? My second question is closely associated with the first one. What rare quality prevents Dawkins from ever exploding in anger when confronted with the ineptitude of a guy as dumb as Pell? How come that the professor can remain so calm and polite, and retain even a few fleeting smiles?

I suspect that Dawkins senses the existence of some kind of underlying long-term vocation or mission that gets him through all these constant challenges of dealing with ignorant numbskulls. I guess it's something akin to the talents, that in other walks of life, enable certain gifted individuals to operate ceaselessly as physicians, psychologists, judges, etc. In fact, it's an admirable expression of humanism and an outlook that might be described as intellectual democracy: the belief that every individual you meet up with has the right to be listened to, no matter how silly he or she might be. Dawkins seems to exhibit quite naturally a splendid kind of Christian charity... which is weird, to say the least.

Speaking solely for myself, I've never possessed this rare talent... but that's neither here nor there.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Urunga nightmare

Three months ago, I wrote a blog article titled In the early hours of an Australian Morning [display] about a fatal accident in which two people were killed on the Pacific Highway at Urunga in northern New South Wales. Like many observers, I had imagined immediately that the underlying blame for this terrible collision was no doubt the deplorable state of the Pacific Highway at Urunga. Everybody seems to agree that major investments would be required to transform the present road into a modern highway, safe for all categories of road users including drivers of giant trucks of the B-double category. And safe, too, for people who live alongside the highway.

Today, in the wake of that terrible night of Saturday, 7 January 2012—terminating at 5 am on Sunday, 8 January 2012—only the empty shells of the tragedy are visible. Here are the remains of the house in which 11-year-old Max McGregor died.

Max, from South Penrith, had been staying there with his parents in their holiday home, accompanied by his 14-year-old brother Bruce, who miraculously survived the disaster.

PHOTOS The above two photos of the destroyed house were taken by Frank Redward.

On January 27, a Urunga resident named Kath Black sent a comment to my blog:
That was our family home. My Dad and Mum moved there in 1937 and stayed there until Dad built the house next door and the granny flat behind. When we were kids, we would play cricket on that road, as there was not much traffic. My nephew owns it now, but the government has not kept up with the amount of traffic that travels that road.
In other words, Kath Black seems to suggest that, in the context of the terrible Urunga accident, the state of the highway was one of the factors at fault.

Here is the carcass of the blue Holden Commodore 1999-model utility vehicle, driven by 38-year-old David Levett from nearby Nambucca Heads:

The driver couldn't get out of that mess alive... and he didn't. But how come that he apparently steered his lethal way wildly, almost with determination, on the wrong side of the road, straight between the front wheels of an approaching B-double?

PHOTOS The above two photos of the blue ute were taken by Frank Redward.

In the case of a tragedy of this kind, before jumping to conclusions, one needs to reconstruct a representation of what actually happened. And a major witness of the terrible final instants of the catastrophe is a miraculous survivor: Trevor, the 51-year-old Queenslander at the wheel of a 2002-model Kenworth prime mover with a B-double trailer full of bananas. That night, Trevor was accompanied by a co-driver, his 31-year old Townsville nephew Tim.

Trevor was no newcomer to the B-double business: he has been driving heavy vehicles for three decades. On the eve of that fateful night, he had been completing his first four hours of driving with a new employer, and the load was 70 tons of bananas.

At around 8.30 pm, that Saturday evening, after picking up Trevor for his first run in the new job, Tim took the B-double out of Toowoomba. Their destination was the south: Sydney. Two hours later, in the vicinity of Dinmore, at the level of Ipswich, Trevor took the wheel. Four hours later, around 2.30 on the morning of January 8, they halted for a 45-minute break at a place I know well: Halfway Creek. (In the vicinity of my unique childhood mountain, Glenugie, Halfway Creek got its dull name because it was located midway between Grafton and the beach town of Woolgoolga.) After a snack and coffee, Trevor checked the tires and lights of his giant vehicle, then he drove off, while Tim crawled into the bunk, to sleep.

Just before entering Urunga, Trevor would have crossed the Kalang River at a picturesque place (whose natural beauty is surely enhanced in the twilight of a summer dawn) where the road and rail bridges run parallel to each other. In the following Google Maps rendition of that place, facing south, you must readjust your vision to allow for the fact that Trevor's B-double was being driven southwards on the left-hand side of the road, whereas the Google vehicle from which this image was taken was obviously moving in a northwards direction.

This crossing has always caught my attention for a roundabout reason. Up in my native town of Grafton, they chose a quite different solution. Road and rail traffic cross the great Clarence River on a curious two-storied bridge.

But I'm digressing. It goes without saying that B-double vehicles could never use the bridge at Grafton to cross the Clarence (maybe a blessing?) for the simple reason that it incorporates a pair of amazing road-traffic bends based upon the geometrical fact that trains can't normally be expected to turn corners, whereas motor vehicles can !

Driving through Urunga, Trevor recalled a slight incline ending in a bend to the left, where he changed gears in order to maintain his speed. I would imagine that the following Google Maps image provides us with a daylight version of Trevor's vision at that crucial moment:

At that point, at 5 o'clock in the morning, Trevor was suddenly hurled into what might be called a nightmare vision. While changing gears, he saw a dark blue utility coming towards him in the north-bound lane (on the right of the above image). When this utility vehicle was about 30 meters away from him, Trevor discovered with stupor that the driver suddenly turned to his right, straight into the path of Trevor's prime mover.

Today, in his memory of those fatal instants, Trevor recalls the utility vehicle on a direct collision course with Trevor's B-double. There was no avoidance on the part of the ute driver or slowing in speed. His vehicle impacted violently with the front of the prime mover, sending the truck on a direct line towards the houses and the people inside.

Trevor was not wearing a seat belt. In fact, many truck drivers prefer not to wear seat belts, saying: "You never know when you might need to get out of the cabin in a hurry." Today, Trevor can claim that he owes his life to the fact that he wasn't belted into his seat, since he was thrown from the driver's seat and out of the way of the timber and other debris crashing in through the driver's window of the cabin. However Trevor's pierced lung and broken ribs meant that he had to spend a week in the intensive care and surgical wards of Coffs Harbour Hospital. Today, he would appear to be recovering his spirits, while awaiting inspiration on how he and his wife Heather might possibly recover—psychologically and professionally—from this accident.

A minor anecdote caught my attention, and moved me concerning the ethical attitudes of this country truck driver who will inevitably live the rest of his life in the shadow of those two individuals who died suddenly in the early hours of an Australian morning. Trevor recalls his anguish, while being bounced about as the prime mover hurtled madly on its uncontrollable path of destruction, by his inability to reach down and access the emergency brakes for the trailers, located in a lower region of the cabin. In the days that followed the accident, Trevor said to himself constantly that, if only he had been able to get at those brakes, he might have been able to avoid the catastrophe. Finally, after technical inspection of the wrecked prime mover, experts told Trevor that the shock of the utility's impact had in fact broken the front axle of the prime mover, and pushed it back some 25 cm, where it cut through the B-double's system of hydraulic lines. So, even if Trevor had succeeded in reaching the emergency brakes, they would have been totally inoperable.

Political decisions will now be made concerning the advantages and possibility of investing in a costly bypass of Urunga. To an outside observer, the sense of this bypass theme is not obvious. At present, the Pacific Highway does not appear to go through the center of Urunga, as can be seen in the following map:

A month after the crash, it was revealed that the driver of the utility vehicle was nearly 5 times over the legal BAC limit [Blood Alcohol Content]. Police said that the amount was 0.245 over the Australian limit of 0.05. This means the driver would have consumed approximately 30 standard drinks before getting into his vehicle and driving off into the night.

Conclusion: In the case of calamities of this kind, the real culprits are surely certain drivers.

RIP Max McGregor and David Levett 

ADDENDUM: Basic information concerning this accident has appeared in an excellent local newspaper:

Click here for a short moving statement, published in that newspaper ten days after the accident, from Trevor's wife Heather.

BREAKING NEWS (January 11, 2013): Click here to access a fine article in The Sydney Morning Herald concerning the aftermath of this tragedy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

No time for niceties

To my mind, the ancient Greek concept of democracy is a useful but silly nicety. If we observe the tragic events of the 20th century, the theme of democracy was totally absent from the Goulag and Auschwitz. So, we might consider democracy as a nice abstract philosophical idea, but not as a ruling principle of events that actually took place.

It's theoretically reassuring to know (if you need to be reassured theoretically) that, in Norway, the following human specimen, Anders Behring Breivik, might be judged as if he were, to all intents and purposes (as the saying goes), a member of our human community.

Must we, in fact, waste time on judging Breivik? My answer is an emphatic no. This creature has decided to exist outside our commonly-accepted democratic structures. Today, I believe profoundly that Breivik should simply disappear, as societal detritus, without necessarily leaving any traces upon the radar screens of democratically-based societies, as often happens in archeology. This monster recuses society's judgment. To my mind, that arm raised in a defiant rightist salute should be broken... preferably, literally. That smugness must be abolished instantly, materially. I was dismayed by the fact that there don't appear to be any bruises on Breivik's nice clean Norwegian face.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Leonardo never stops fascinating us

I shall never forget my first vision of the valley of the Bourne, on a sunny Saturday morning in August 1993. Residing in the monastic village of St-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, I had driven down into Grenoble and then up onto the Vercors plateau through St-Nizier-du-Moucherotte, the ski-jump site for the 1968 Winter Olympics. The old ramp, no longer in use, still exists alongside the stone needles of the Trois Pucelles [Three Virgins], whose  towering silhouettes are familiar to the citizens of Grenoble.

The drive across the Vercors plateau, alongside the communes of Lans-en-Vercors and Villard-de-Lans, takes no more than 20 minutes. These delightful communes are often designated as "blue/green" by tourist people, because they attract all kinds of snow enthusiasts in the winter season, before becoming a paradise for hikers during the warm months, when the skies of the Vercors are often studded with colorful parachutes.

Driving down through the narrow gorges of the Bourne, on that first day of contact with my future homeland, I was intrigued by the subtle but rapid transition of the landscape from an alpine setting into the essentially Mediterranean environment of the lower valley. In the middle of that wonderful initiatory excursion, I halted, breathless with wonder, at the level of Rencurel, whose aspect reminded me suddenly of the Aosta Valley in Italy (where I had once slid off the road on my aging Lambretta scooter, resulting in a minor foot wound, on the way back from a trip to Greece in 1964). Above me, during those magical moments at Rencurel, no less than a dozen giant birds were circling in a slow visual symphony, devoid of sound. The spectacle of the great birds, gliding slowly and silently above the green slopes, was stunning. I was instantly captivated by the splendor of the Vercors.

I know today (having lived in this marvelous valley for the last two decades) that the birds I observed that day at Rencurel were probably Black Kites [Milvus migrans].

I say "probably" because they might well have been Red Kites [Milvus milvus], which also frequent this Vercors zone (frequent sightings at Choranche), but more rarely.

When I was a kid in my native South Grafton, I could never understand the dumb adult joke (and I still don't) that consisted of telling kids that they could trap birds by putting salt on their tails. Here in the Vercors, experts inform us that the obvious way of distinguishing ordinary Black Kites and the rarer Red Kites is to observe their tails. The tail zone of the Black Kite is rigorously triangular, whereas that of the Red Kite has a slightly concave lower perimeter. I invite you to judge for yourselves, while realizing that these magnificent birds evolve normally a few hundred meters above our heads, where an observer can't simply take out a ruler and evaluate the respective linearity of tail feathers.

Now, let's look at Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings and notes have been assembled into a set of 12 cardboard boxes known as the Codex Atlanticus.

These fragile documents are housed in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, where attempts have been made to halt their yellowing brought about by age and unexpected chemical pollution.

In the Codex, Leonardo reveals a curious personal anecdote:
I recall as one of my very earliest memories that, while I was in my cradle, a kite came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.
This anecdote fascinated an imaginative reader named Sigmund Freud. He was convinced that a little boy who dreams that a big bird has come down and struck its tail against his lips is surely of a homosexual disposition. There was a slight misunderstanding, however, in Freud's discovery of this anecdote. A German translator of Leonardo's Codex had designated the bird, not as a kite, but as a vulture. Consequently, Freud started searching for the theme of vultures in the life of Leonardo. In 1910, Freud even wrote a short study on Leonardo, in which he placed a great emphasis upon the theme of a "vulture" (I'm tempted to use Aussie baby talk, and call it a dicky bird) in Leonardo's childhood memories.

Freud was greatly preoccupied with Leonardo's painting, The Virgin and Child with St Anne, which happens to have been recently restored by the Louvre.

It's a fact that the bodies of Anne (in the background) and her daughter Mary (reaching out rapturously towards the baby Jesus) are so curiously intertwined that they almost form a pair of conjoined twins, and they certainly do not appear to be a generation apart. Freud claimed that the women taking care of Jesus represented Leonardo's "two mothers": that's to say, his biological mother Caterina, in the beginning, and then his stepmother, Donna Albiera. Later, Freud was overjoyed when a scholar, Oskar Pfister, detected in the painting the actual silhouette of a vulture, turned anticlockwise through an angle of 90 degrees. And, amazingly, the giant bird has a corner of its tail entering the child's mouth.

Personally, I read Freud's little book long ago (you can see that I bought it in London for three shillings and six pence), with amusement, and it was my first and last attempt to tackle anything written by the distinguished doctor, who has never been one of my intellectual heroes.

Another painting inspired by Leonardo has been in the news these days: the copy of Mona Lisa from the Prado museum in Madrid.

It has just emerged from a vast restoration process, which removed an ugly 18th-century layer of black paint that hid most of the all-important background features. Various technical details (such as minor corrections carried out by the copyist) strongly suggest that the copyist was actually working alongside Leonardo himself when the authentic Mona Lisa was being painted. Once again, the delicate question of the pros and cons of in-depth "cleaning" of great paintings has been brought into the news... to such an extent that most observers seem to be more interested in restoration techniques than in Freud's "dicky bird" theory.