Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Building a carport

Up until now, I've never had any kind of automobile shelter at Gamone. So, in winter, the car is often covered in ice and snow. At other times of the year, leaves and oily berries from the linden trees fall onto the car, creating a mess. A fortnight ago, I decided that it was time to build a carport. And the nice sunny autumn weather made it a pleasure to work outside. Last Saturday, I was thinking about writing a blog post with photos of the work in progress. That would have enabled me to explain that the construction of the carport hasn't left me much time for blogging. Then, on Saturday night, the weather changed abruptly. Heavy snow—rare at this time of the year—started to fall all over the Vercors range. By Sunday morning, the slopes of Gamone were covered in a thick blanket of snow. The lines of the electric fence around the donkeys' paddock had become heavy cylinders of snow, and they sagged to the ground, enabling Moshé to escape. Fortunately, he headed down towards the old sheep cabin, where I was able to lock him in for Sunday night. By Monday, the sky was clear again. The following photo of the Bourne valley presents an unusual mixture of leafy green trees and snow:

I've continued to work on my carport, although it's unpleasant to slosh around in the muddy dampness. I'll put up photos of my construction work as soon there's a bit of sunshine. For the moment, the structure is little more than half-a-dozen wooden posts set in the ground on the northern edge of the house.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dark age of cycling

I call it the Darkstrong epoch.

Others will evoke lies, cheating and bullying. Funnily enough, we cycling enthusiasts and observers in France thought it fabulous, at the time, that a New World offspring could arrive here as a conqueror.

People are confused, particularly those of us who admired Armstrong immensely. Some of us (such as Laurent Jalabert, manager of the French team) say that Armstrong was a great champion in spite of his doping... but that argument doesn't stand up to criticism. Others evoke his cancer combat... but is cheating a valid path to survival?

Others (including myself) are concerned primarily by the survival of professional cycling in general, and the Tour de France in particular. I'm convinced that they're bigger than a stealthy guy from Texas, a Republican buddy of George W Bush.

The most surrealist aspect of this whole affair is that Lance Armstrong persists in claiming that his critics have got things wrong. The situation is binary: Either the critics are totally off-target, or Armstrong is an evil liar (with a jail cell on the horizon).

Cycling is such a fabulous sport that it's a terrible shame that our horizons have sunken to this abysmal level.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Waterview folk: Howley and O'Shea

I've often thought that some of our greatest friends in Waterview (South Grafton, Australia), in the late 1940s, were the Howley family. I remember well the charming widowed mother, whose maiden name was Thelma Nasser [1886-1968]. I was told that she was Syrian, and indeed there were folk named Nasser from all over the eastern Mediterranean world. As for her late husband, Michael Howley [1883-1925], he was born in the Nambucca region, and probably of a run-of-the-mill English background. How did he meet up with a Mediterranean girl? Your guess is as good as mine. In any case, they were married in Redfern in 1907.

George Howley was born in 1908, Edward ("Teddy") in 1911 and Amy in 1913. The aviator Roger was probably born soon after, followed by Freddy in 1919 and Sammy in 1921.

We Skyvington kids knew the children of Amy and her estranged husband Joseph O'Shea, married in 1941.

Today, I'm amused to discover that Maureen O'Shea appears to be residing in the old Howley house at 279 Ryan Street (to the left of the house of Maude McMenemy, my piano teacher, whom we referred to as “Mrs Mack”). What's more, Maureen is an anti-CSG combatant, using knitting needles as her sole arm.

                                                                                    — The Daily Examiner

Who said we didn't breed revolutionaries in Waterview?

Just for the record, "a man called Freddy" (an expression I used in one of my family-celebrated childhood school texts about my encounter with a snake at Deep Creek) once showed me a huge jungle knife, and told me that he had used it to kill Japanese opponents. It's a fact that Frederick Howley [1919-1991]—an amusing friend whom I admired and adored—had been a member of the 2nd AIF [Australian Imperial Forces] in the Pacific. For me, Freddy Howley was a marvelous symbol of my Waterview childhood.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nonsense cartoon

Apparently Mitt Romney believes the kind of frightening nonsense expressed in the following cartoon:

It's scary to think that such a believer could become the US president, with control over a vast nuclear arsenal. Sure, we were more or less broken in to such a situation through George W Bush, but I'm convinced that Mitt the Nitwit would be far worse. It's really weird that the citizens of a great nation such as the USA would be prepared to call upon a Mormon moron to lead them.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins has just tweeted an interesting observation:
Mormonism is no nuttier than ancient religions, but they have the excuse of being ancient, not 19th-century fabrications.
I often wonder whether there's any hope for the USA. For that matter, I often wonder whether there's any hope for the so-called civilized world. I believe there is, but in a distant future. For the moment, we're moving through a dark age, which is likely to last for a long time.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pumpkin scones

In the middle of a hot summer, life's not easy for pumpkins, which crave for water.

But they survive, and perk up—as sprightly as ever—as soon as the sun goes down. Then, in autumn, the harvest is so impressive that you end up wandering what you might do with all your glorious pumpkins. Well, here's my well-tested suggestion: Make pumpkin scones !

First, you need to produce pumpkin purée. Slice the pumpkin into big pieces. Remove the seeds, but don't touch the skin. Place the pieces on a non-stick tray (called Tefal in France) and bake at 200 degrees for an hour and a quarter. Let the baked pieces cool, then detach the soft pumpkin from the skin and place the fragments in a big bowl.

To transform the baked pumpkin into a purée, the ideal solution is a a gadget such as you see in the above photo. (My daughter Emmanuelle first informed me of the existence of this inexpensive soup-making device, many years ago, and told me that it would change my life... and she was spot on.) I soon had a pile of pumpkin purée.

Pumpkin purée is great stuff in that you can ladle it into plastic bags, each bag holding a cupful of purée, and deep-freeze it for your winter scones. Now, let's look at the recipe for pumpkin scones. At one stage, you'll need an essential ingredient that Americans (world champions in the domain of pumpkin scones) designate as pumpkin pie spice. In France, this product is obtained by mixing together four familiar spices, shown here:

Here's the precise recipe:

— a tablespoon of cinnamon (cannelle)

— a teaspoon of ginger (gingembre moulu)

— half a teaspoon of nutmeg (muscade moulue)

— half a teaspoon of ground cloves (girofle moulue)

Add a pinch of salt and mix. Keep the mixture in a sealed jar. For each batch of pumpkin scones based upon the preparation I'm about to describe, you'll only use a teaspoon of the mixed spices.

Here in France, people who would like to try out superb Anglo-Saxon recipes such as scones are often mystified unnecessarily by the names of three basic ingredients, whose French equivalents are shown here:

For French readers of my blog, here are the explanations:

— So-called buttermilk is simply fermented milk: a Breton product designated as lait Ribot.

— Anglo-Saxon baking powder is simply the French stuff known as levure chimique alsacienne, sold in its familiar little pink paper packets.

— Anglo-Saxon baking soda is simply the French product designated as bicarbonate alimentaire.

In France, these products can be found in your local supermarket. Once you've got everything in place, the preparation of pumpkin scones is quite simple.

Dry ingredients. In a big bowl, mix together 2 cups (260 grams) of flour, a third of a cup (75 grams) of sugar, a teaspoon of spices (as described above), a teaspoon of baking powder (levure chimique), a half-teaspoon of baking soda (bicarbonate alimentaire) and a dose of genuine vanilla.

As far as the vanilla is concerned, a convenient solution is the sachet of powdered vanilla sugar. If you resort to the liquid extract, then a few drops should be added to the moist ingredients (described below). The nec-plus-ultra solution that consists of grinding dried vanilla beans from Madagascar is applicable if you happen to have a son such as my François who visits all kinds of exotic places on his archaic moped.

In the usual pastry-making manner, use a pastry-blender device or a pair of knives to insert 125 grams of unsalted butter (beurre doux) into the flour. Here's a photo of a pastry-blender:

Stir in a generous quantity of raisins (I prefer the soft white variety) and walnuts (from Gamone, of course).

Moist ingredients. In a small bowl, mix half a cup (an 8th of a liter) of pumpkin purée with the same volume of buttermilk (lait Ribot). Stir well.

Insert the moist ingredients into the big bowl of dry ingredients, and stir lazily until everything is humid: just enough, but no more. On a floured board, pat the dough into a flat slab, and cut out eight fragments. Place them in small non-stick pie cups of the Tefal kind: a must for pie-makers.

Flatten each scone in its tray, then brush the top surface with a mixture of an egg beaten with cream. Sprinkle the top of each scone with chunks of pistachio nuts or sesame seeds. Place the Tefal cups on a large Tefal tray, so that the underside of the scones won't be scorched. Bake at 200 degrees C for some 20 minutes. Here's the result:

In all modesty, I have to admit that these are surely the finest scones I've ever tasted. To be eaten with a glass of cool Sauvignon.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It's not about the bout with cancer

Up until the bitter end, I persisted in believing that Lance Armstrong was an extraordinary athlete and a morally upright gentleman, and that all attempts to accuse him of cheating and lying were doomed.

Alas, massive evidence—above all, from Lance's fellow-members of the US Postal team—forces me to change my mind. Abruptly, I've ceased to be a believer in The Boss.

In the context of this scandal, the most pertinent question today concerns the attitude of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) in Switzerland, which must react within 21 days to the charges against Armstrong formulated by USADA (the US anti-doping agency). Observers have often had the impression that the UCI has hoped continually, for the sake of world cycling, that Armstrong would succeed in keeping his head above water. But it will be hard for the UCI to deny the grave findings revealed in the bulky USADA report.

Meanwhile, as Armstrong continues to refuse to "come out" with any kind of mea culpa, his situation is becoming more and more isolated, if not pathetic. Does he consider that his life-saving role as a fundraiser within his Livestrong organization precludes him from stepping down into the dirty arena with former mates such as George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters?

BREAKING NEWS: In a comment attached to this blog post, I mentioned briefly the fact that members of Australia's GreenEdge team appear to be totally clean. Alas, the situation might not be as simple as that. Click here to see an article in The Sydney Morning Herald indicating the possible involvement in the Armstrong saga of Matthew White, sports director of Orica-GreenEdge. Click here to see a more recent article—which appears to have been published on Saturday, October 13, in Sydney—indicating that White has admitted his personal involvement in dope, and resigned from his professional cycling jobs.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The ancient blazon of the Skeffington family is composed of three bull's heads, displayed here in two quarters of the arms of Clotworthy Skeffington [1743-1805], 2nd Earl of Massereene.

The other quarters are occupied by the Clotworthy blazon. The dull motto Per angusta ad augusta might be translated as "Through hard times to prosperity". The supporter on each side is a Stag rampant. I've always been intrigued by the crest: a mermaid holding a mirror in one hand and a hair-comb in the other. This crest has appeared on the arms of Skeffington individuals ever since the Tudor lord Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535]. Here's another example of the Skeffington mermaid, which dates from the 16th century:

This memorial for the linguist Sir John Skeffington [1584-1651] of Fisherwick (Staffordshire) and his wife Ursula [1593-1658] is located on the wall of the ancestral church in Skeffington (Leicestershire).

A few days ago, the Gallica service (attached to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) offered us spontaneously a series of views of a fabulous little treatise on heraldic blazons that dates apparently from the period 1401 to 1450. Click here to see this document.

Inside this French medieval document, I was surprised to find an illustration of the famous mermaid.

I immediately called upon Google and Wikipedia to discover the meaning of the mermaid in a heraldic context. The key concept symbolized by the narcissistic mermaid is vanity, in the sense of the line from Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity." I evoked this theme in a blog post on 22 May 2012 entitled Is the Bible good English literature? [display]. If I understand correctly, placing the mermaid at the crest of a coat of arms is a way of stating that the owner of the arms is of a philosophical nature, inclined to look upon the human adventure in an existentialist spirit. Personally, as a descendant of the Skeffingtons, I like this symbol.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

London's Islamic bogeyman

As a boy in the northern London suburb of Islington, my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] used to play in Finsbury Park, while dreaming about going out to Australia in one of the steamships associated with his uncle William Mepham, and riding horses.

In those days, of course, there was no such thing as an Islamic mosque in the vicinity of Finsbury Park. And young Ernest would have never risked running into a grey-bearded personage in dark sunglasses with a steel hook for a right hand.

As of today, like my grandfather, Abou Hamza has changed continents. But it's America, not Australia, that has received this 54-year-old Egyptian guy as a guest, after a marathon legal battle of eight years. Besides, I don't imagine that Abou Hamza is likely to be doing much horse-riding in the USA. As a naturalized British citizen, this frail would-be terrorist will have ample opportunities of explaining to his American hosts why he's really a nice guy: a kind Islamic soul, as harmless as a lamb.

Pierrot wanted a wife

I devote time and energy to family history for two basic reasons. On the one hand, we have a moral responsibility to celebrate the lives of our forefathers. On the other hand, in the spirit of a detective, I'm thrilled personally by the pure problem-solving aspects of genealogical research.

In the rural French context where I settled down some two decades ago, I have no known ancestors, but I often carry out investigations of a family-history kind. I'm interested in the history of my house, and of individuals who were members of its various households. Today, we're accustomed to the idea that individuals and their families might move through several different houses, maybe located in different places. There's an obvious complementary notion: a particular house often supports the existences—births, lives and deaths—of numerous individuals and families.

[Click to enlarge]

Concerning the background of my old stone house at Gamone (which was in a deplorable state when I discovered it in 1995), I've already acquired quite a lot of information. I know above all that its occupant in the middle of the last century was Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957].

Indeed, I think inevitably of my predecessor Hippolyte whenever I gaze out upon the glories of the Choranche Circus and the Cournouze.

Naturally, I've been intrigued by this man Hippolyte, who once lived here in the very room in which I'm writing this blog post. I sense his presence constantly, not as a ghost, but as a factual figure of the past. The spirit of Hippolyte accompanies me whenever I wander around Gamone, and I have come to hallow his memory as if he were an ancestor. Which he is, of course, in a certain sense. I often come upon tiny and trivial elements of my Gamone existence (such as a fragment of metal from an agricultural device, for example) that cause me to believe that Hippolyte must have surely been at the origin of such things. I was only half-surprised therefore, a decade ago, when I came upon a daft oldtimer stumbling up to Gamone, carrying bottles of red wine in a grocery sack, who informed me that he wanted to "have a little drink with Hippolyte". After phoning his alarmed daughter, I didn't have the courage to tell the old man that Hippolyte had disappeared from Gamone half-a-century ago. But had he, really and totally?

I've just learned that Hippolyte's ancestors came from a nearby village named Echevis whose current population is around 60.

Arriving in Echevis, you have a vague feeling that you might have reached a tiny remote Paradise, far from the agitations of the world. And you're right. Besides, Echevis was one of the six villages involved in the amazing survey known as the Terriers du Royans, carried out on behalf of the lord of Sassenage in the middle of the 14th century.

Click here to access my French-language presentation of these extraordinary medieval documents, which are currently being transcribed and translated.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to mysterious Echevis for the nth time. But this time, I was like an obsessed pilgrim, because I was searching for the roots of my friend Hippolyte. And I struck up a conversation with an 86-year-old resident named Rochas. When I informed him that I was seeking traces of the Gerin family, he told me the terrible tale of Pierrot Gerin, who had been in love with Angélique. (I've been obliged to invent the given names of our characters, who have passed into obscurity.) Pierrot, mentally retarded, worked well for his widowed father, who did everything that was possible to take care of his son. But the caring father was taken aback when Pierrot informed him that he was in love with Angélique, and wanted to marry her.

"No, Pierrot, I can't allow you to marry Angélique and leave our home. As long as I'm alive, I must protect you, and take care of you."

One of Pierrot's dumb mates summed up the situation abruptly: "What a nasty bastard. As long as he lives, your father won't let you marry Angélique. Your only hope is to kill the old bugger."

That was bad advice for a simple-minded fellow such as Pierrot. That evening, he walked back down from Echevis towards the neighboring village of Sainte-Eulalie, to meet up with his father, who was returning from his agricultural labors in the valley. They met up in the middle of a series of five dark tunnels alongside the Vernaison, on the clifftops, known as the Petits Goulets (no more than two or three kilometers from my home in Gamone).

And Pierrot promptly pushed his dad down into the abyss.