Saturday, March 30, 2013


Over time, I've got around to considering that a passionate birdwatcher cannot possibly be an entirely bad person. So, the appointment of Andrew Parker as the new head of M15 (the United Kingdom's domestic security service) is no doubt good news for law-abiding Brits.

                                          — photo AFP/Getty Images

Am I alone in finding that Parker's facial features remind me of Dilbert? I know it's a mistake to judge a spook by his external appearance (which might have been manipulated deliberately, to mislead evil observers), but I can't help wondering whether his thick glasses, no doubt indicating a case of myopia, are an ideal device for spotting sleazy individuals and other varieties of exotic birds. In any case, if only I knew his personal address, I would happily share with the birdwatcher-in-chief my recent experience involving an encounter with a splendid big-beaked Hawfinch specimen [display]. But I hasten to add, to remove all possible insinuations, that I have no reasons to suspect that the bird in question, during its brief stay at Gamone, was entailed in anti-British activities of any kind whatsoever. One never knows, however. And I prefer to leave this question up to a specialist such as Parker.

PS Apparently the name of the fellow in question is indeed Andrew Parker, even though a certain British newspaper pointed out that it had been asked not to supply readers with the name of the new head of M15.

Chain-saw attack of the Sun King's elephant

If this story had emerged in the press next Monday, I would have concluded immediately that it's an April Fool's Day tale. We learned this morning that an unfortunate animal in Paris was incapable of resisting the attack of a maniac armed with a chain-saw. In any case, the beast in question—an elephant that been given to Louis XIV in 1668 by the king of Portugal—had been dead for ages, and was residing in peace (up until last night) in the natural science museum in the Latin Quarter.

The 20-year-old attacker, who had succeeded in crudely hacking off the elephant's left tusk, was captured in a nearby street by police who had been alerted by the unfamiliar morning sounds of a chain-saw inside a museum. We must of course presume that the alleged chain-saw assailant is innocent, at least up until a law court were to condemn him. Whatever the precise description of the crime with which he'll be charged, the fellow will be better off than if he'd been charged by the living beast itself, back in the days of the Sun King... who would have promptly had the culprit drawn and quartered for daring to touch the tusks of the royal elephant.

Bridges that let boats through

As a boy, I used to ride my bike across the two-tiered bridge (road/rail traffic) over the Clarence River between South Grafton and Grafton. So, I often watched the heavy span of our bridge being raised to allow a river boat through.

This mechanical spectacle impressed me greatly, because it involved a degree of tremendous power that had no common measure with the other everyday events of my life. I was incapable of fathoming the means by which this gigantic segment of steel could be raised laboriously—in a litany of metallic creaks, clangs and groans—into a vertical position. The only mechanical engineering devices that measured up to the power of the massive bridge span were steam locomotives, which were a familiar sight at the South Grafton railway station.

After a trip to Brisbane or Sydney in a train drawn by such a locomotive, your hair and clothes were sprinkled with specks of coal dust, and the passenger's grimy body exuded a smoky smell. Having arrived at your destination (often dazed after a night with little sleep), your first wish was to get under a shower and change into clean clothes. I remember the first arrival of a diesel locomotive at South Grafton, around 1952. For the entire community, it was an exciting event. The railroad department invited people aboard for a free return trip across the Clarence River, to the little-used station at Grafton. An aspect of the new train that impressed me immensely was a dispenser of chilled water in paper cups.

My grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] started Grafton's Ford dealership in 1925.

At that date, the bridge over the Clarence did not yet exist. So, vehicles were transported across the river by a steam ferry.

At the South Grafton end of the crossing,  in 1881, my Irish great-great-grandfather Michael O'Keefe [1831-1910] had purchased the Steam Ferry Hotel.

After his death, it was inherited by his son-in-law James Walker. Renamed Walker's Hotel, and rebuilt after a fire, it became South Grafton's best-known hotel, and still stands today.

Meanwhile, train carriages were floated across the Clarence River on a ferry, the Swallow.

The bridge that we know today was opened in 1932. So, one of its earliest users would have been my father, Bill Skyvington [1917-1978], riding his bicycle across to the dairy farm of the family of his future wife, Kathleen Walker [1918-2003], in Waterview, on the outskirts of South Grafton. In those days, there wasn't much vehicular traffic between the northern and southern banks of the Clarence.

This lack of heavy traffic was just as well, since automobiles were likely to drift over the central line when turning around the bridge's two nasty corners, one at each extremity, designed to allow the presence on the lower level of the bridge of a relatively straight railway line. At the Grafton end of the bridge, in Kent Street (where we lived in the '50s), there are two massive concrete viaducts leading up to the bridge: one for road traffic and the other for trains.

That's to say, the low railway viaduct (in the background of the above photo) was aligned with, and at the same level as, the main central segment of the bridge. Motorists, on the other hand, had to turn a corner at the top right-hand point of the higher-level vehicle viaduct (in the foreground of the photo) where it joined up with the main linear segment of the bridge. Here's a view of the southern corner, taken from the level of the railway line and pedestrian crossing:

And here's a view from the southern bank at a time when the Clarence was flooded:

In the following view, looking back towards the bank at South Grafton, you can see that the archaic structure is covered in rust:

The following two photos (which I found on the Internet), apparently taken through the front windscreen of a truck (equipped with a heavy steel protective grid, seen in the lower half of each photo), reveal that the Grafton Bridge is totally obsolete and indeed dangerous with respect to modern road traffic:

Here's an aerial view of this same South Grafton end of the bridge:

The following amateur videos illustrate the unique setting of the bridge:

At the end of this first video, click to view the same author's second video (labeled XPT2), which includes the experience of crossing the bridge in a motor vehicle. Then there's this train-driver's vision of the bridge:

It was recently announced that plans are under way for a second bridge at Grafton. But the existing 80-year-old bridge (whose moveable span ceased to function long ago) will remain in service.

I was reminded of our antiquated bridge across the Clarence when I saw this photo of the fabulous suspension bridge that was opened in Bordeaux a fortnight ago.

The big three-masted barque that was present at the opening ceremony is the Belem, launched in 1896.

POST SCRIPTUM: As if our dear old bendy bridge didn't have enough problems already with its traffic saturation, blocked lift-span and rusty metal, The Daily Examiner revealed an additional ailment here.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dog pen

It would be unthinkable for me to drive the Kangoo with Fitzroy scrambling around freely inside, because my dear highly-emotional dog has no idea whatsoever of when it's appropriate or rather inappropriate to scramble up onto me. To put it bluntly, he would be quite capable of deciding, on the spur of the moment, to take the wheel. The primary task on my Kangoo agenda consisted therefore of measuring the boot, purchasing timber and constructing a pen for Fitzroy.

The day before yesterday, Serge Bellier came along with his miter saw (in French, scie à coupe d'onglet), which looks like this:

Rapidly, Serge cut the timber into the calculated lengths. Then I used screws and wood glue to assemble the pieces into something that looked like a baby's playpen. Yesterday morning, I placed it in the boot of the Kangoo, and padded it out with mats and a cushion.

Fitzroy can scramble easily into the pen, and he can then see me while I'm at the wheel. We did a test excursion down to the banks of the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans. Fitzroy (who had almost no experience of car travel) caught on rapidly to what the system was all about, and everything worked wonderfully well.

Next, we drove up to Presles, where I was able to meet up with Sylvie and her Welsh husband William (from whom I acquired my dog in September 2010, as described here). I discovered that they have a four-months-old son, Lohan. As for Fitzroy, he met up with a couple of familiar members of his Border Collie family.

One of the dogs had a litter of six pups, and William told me that the mother would lose no time in making it clear to Fitzroy that she didn't want to see him nosing around her pups. Within a few minutes, the noisy action-packed way in which this simple message was transmitted to Fitzroy, and received by him clearly, was most spectacular. Even within a small family circle such as this, where the dogs know each other well, they communicate with one another in such a direct fashion that it looks to us, superficially, like a violent dogfight. The subsequent attitude of Fitzroy proved beyond any doubt that he had received the message, loud and clear. He had understood in an instant that the female didn't want to see him hanging around in the vicinity of her pups. Ah, if only I were able to use this kind of canine technique (I would need to learn how to snarl and bare my teeth) to transmit my wishes to Fitzroy in such a highly-efficient manner...

Cosmic egg

I may be wrong (I hope so), but I have the impression that few people today are aware of the amazing scientific achievements of this humble Belgian priest, Monseigneur Georges Lemaître.

You can read all about him here. In a nutshell, he (rather than Edwin Hubble) was the inventor of the theory of an expanding universe, initiated by the Big Bang.

Several decades ago, when I first heard the wonderful story of the origins of our existence, I was enchanted by Lemaître's explanation of an incredibly small and dense so-called "primeval atom" containing all the ingredients of the future universe. A little-known US physicist of Russian origins named Ralph Alpher (assistant of the famous Russian-born cosmologist George Gamow) came upon a delightfully mysterious name for this mythical entity, which we can hardly hope to imagine by means of our primitive Earth-oriented brains. He called it the ylem. But I prefer the charming metaphor of a cosmic egg.

In the 1960s (at about the same time that Lemaître died in his native Belgium), another fabulous scientific-invention story was unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic, at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey.

The engineers Arno Penzias (right) and Robert Wilson (left) were attempting to fine-tune a so-called horn antenna, designed to capture radio signals bounced off a satellite.

No matter how hard they tried, however, they kept picking up background static. There's a famous anecdote about how they imagined, at one stage, that the disturbance might be due to the presence of pigeons that had nested inside the big metallic structure and left some mess. After clearing away the nests, feathers and piles of shit, the engineers went one nasty step forward and shot the pigeons. But the antenna persisted in picking up mysterious non-stop microwave radiation, which seemed to emanate from outside the Milky Way.

At that same moment, at nearby Princeton University (50 km as the pigeon flies), three astrophysicists—Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles and David Wilkinson—were reaching the conclusion that the Big Bang, if indeed it had taken place in the way they imagined, should have bequeathed to us an omnipresent radiation. And their calculation of the theoretical value of this so-called cosmic microwave background coincided with the annoying static picked up by the horn antenna at Bell Labs. Although Penzias and Wilson hadn't been looking for such an entity, they had in fact detected the glow of the archaic cinders of the Big Bang.

The innocent pigeons slaughtered at Bell Labs in the 1960s were to become the world's first Big Bang martyrs. In their sacrificial nest, scientists would come upon the Cosmic Egg. Today, the memory of Monseigneur Georges Lemaître might be symbolized and celebrated by the following simple but extraordinary image:

Planck map of the cosmic microwave background.

This lumpy egg-shaped image represents the state of the expanding universe when it was about 370,000 years old. At that moment, for the first time since the Big Bang, there was light in the Cosmos. This image—in which hotter regions are orange, and colder regions are blue—was released a few days ago by the European-led research team behind the Planck space probe.

Strange fruit

Whenever a village is flooded, small boats arrive on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere.

Then, as soon as the floodwaters subside, the small boats disappear magically. One might wonder where they've gone. Where are they stored, up until the next flood, awaiting their reappearance? It's a mystery... as Christine liked to point out from time to time (so our children tell me).

In Pont-en-Royans, an old photo shows us a small boat on the Bourne, with fishermen.

These days, there are no longer any boats on the Bourne. I suspect that boating has become hazardous because of surges of fast-moving swirling water whenever the operators of the hydroelectric dam at Choranche decide to open valves releasing huge quantities of accumulated water. As in the case of flooded villages, the same question might be asked: Where have all the boats gone?

Yesterday, while wandering along the right bank of the Bourne, I found a partial answer to this question. At a spot roughly behind the head of the fisherman in dark clothes, I came upon an old boat (maybe the one in the photo) that had been hoisted up into the branches of a tree.

[Click to enlarge]

Although the context is far removed from the happy context of boat fishing on the Bourne, I was reminded of the title of a celebrated song by Billie Holiday, evoking the ghastly massacres of black slave workers in the American South.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Billy has a Kangoo

OK, the vehicle I brought home yesterday is not a kangaroo... but maybe the next best beast, named Kangoo (because of its spacious pouches).

Renault Kangoo

Friday, March 15, 2013

Big-beaked finch has flown

An adjective that amuses me in the case of wild birds is "sedentary", which evokes a vision of a couple of tiny birds that have just flown in from Africa.

The male bird says to his wife:
"I don't know about you, dear, but I'm exhausted. In any case, I like this place. I got the address from a finch I ran into down in Morocco. He told me it's called Gamone, and the owner provides a regular stock of sunflower seeds. Why don't we settle down here for a while?" 
 And the female bird replies:
"Sure, dear, you're preaching to the choir. You know I've always told you I wouldn't mind leading a sedentary existence, at least for a while, instead of our usual jet-set lifestyle, traveling constantly from one land to another. I'd be happy to just sit around in the sun... as soon as it appears. And I'm sure we'd have more opportunities to spend time with the kids."

It's time that I got around to naming correctly the beautiful bird that stopped here at Gamone for a week or so. I used to referred to it disrespectfully, here, as the "Galapagos guy". That was a silly nickname, because everybody knows that the passerine birds studied by Charles Darwin on the Galapagos were not in fact real finches.

My ex-wife (and constant friend) Christine Mafart succeeded rapidly (I don't know how) in identifying my big-beaked visitor. He was a Hawfinch [Coccothraustes coccothraustes, known in French as a Gros-bec casse-noyaux]. I use the past tense "was" because I think my bird has finally flown, after a brief stay at Gamone. I'm left with a set of splendid images of this exotic big-beaked creature, while hoping that he'll retain my address for a visit next winter.

This morning, I found another family of finches hanging around in the same area.

These dark little birds don't match the majestic beauty of my glorious pink-legged big-beaked Hawfinch... who liked to tap on my bedroom window, imagining his mirror reflection as an alien bird. I hope he'll be back here at Gamone in a year's time.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Work for a doctoral scholar in French history

Once upon a time, if you had asked me what the word "terrier" means, I would have said that it designates the kind of little dog you see in the celebrated painting of His Master's Voice. As a boy in South Grafton, I used regularly a spring-driven 78 rpm gramophone to play vinyl records, many of which carried the familiar image of the fox terrier.

Ignoring languages and etymology, I could not know that our own lovable smooth fox terrier on the farm at Waterview derived his name from the fact that he was an "earth dog" (Latin terra, "earth"), capable of burrowing into the ground in search of foxes.

Upon my arrival here in Choranche, a couple of decades ago, I heard of a second meaning of the word "terrier": a register of parcels of land whose owners owe allegiance (or taxes) to such-and-such a lord or superior body. That definition isn't meant to be rigorous.

In the space of a few years, by accident, I've stumbled upon two separate terriers concerning the Royans region in which I live. And, in both cases, I've obtained an authorization enabling me to publish, through a website, the original documents of the terrier in question. Each of my bulky Flash-based websites takes a while to load.

• 14th-century terrier
Established by the Sassenage family in 1351-1356. website
• 18th-century terrier
Established by the Order of Malta in 1780. website
In the context of French history, it's exceptional that two sets of precious documents of this kind, covering a time span of four centuries, have survived, and are available today for study. The investigation of these two quite different terriers would surely be a fascinating theme for a doctoral scholar, maybe attached to a university in the UK or America. I would be happy to handle requests for further information from interested researchers.

Primroses in the snow

The burgeoning primroses of Gamone were surely surprised to discover that, during the night, flakes of late-winter snow had fallen upon their delicate cream petals.

This chilly remnant of the cold season will no doubt stimulate the tiny flowers, and incite them to hurry up in their urge to welcome the approaching spring. As they might say in Rome (if their Latin was as elementary as mine, and if they weren't preoccupied by other less natural arrivals): Habemus primulam, primum tempum. The primrose has arrived and, with it (soon, in any case), spring.

Owner of Gamone in 1823

For the first time in ages, I drove up to Grenoble yesterday and spent an hour or so in the archives. In the context of my research concerning the history of my house at Gamone, this short visit to the archives was most fruitful, in that I succeeded in obtaining the name and identity of the man who owned my house and property at Gamone some two centuries ago. Let me explain how this happened.

A few years after crowning himself in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, on 2 December 1804, in the presence of the pope Pius VII, the emperor Napoléon Bonaparte created the interesting concept of a national cadastre: that's to say, a vast map indicating the ownership of every fragment of real estate in France. Here in the corner of the Isère department where I live, the Napoleonic cadastre was only published—as indicated in the following oval title box [called a cartouche in French]—on 19 March 1823, a year or so after the death of the former emperor on the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.

[Click to enlarge]

Here's an outline of the central parcels of the Napoleonic cadastre for my house (parcel #717) and land at Gamone:

Today, my property includes parcel #723 (a former vineyard) as well as a group of additional parcels up in the top left-hand region of the map. As indicated in the diagram, I discovered yesterday that my Gamone property was owned in 1823 by Michel Grégoire Tézier [1761-1833], the mayor of the neighboring village of Pont-en-Royans... shown in this spectacular panoramic photo that I found on the web:

[Click to enlarge]

Now that I've unearthed the identity of this eminent landowner (who had used his personal fortune to acquire real estate that came onto the market in the wake of the French Revolution, when the great religious establishments were disbanded, and their possessions sold), I should be able to move further backwards in time, and discover the exact identity of the owner of Gamone on the eve of the French Revolution.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Basic vegetarian rissoles

My gastronomical enthusiasm for supermarket minced steak (for my standard chile con carne dish) was dampened by the recent horse-meat affair. And vegetarian urgings emerged in my imagination. Unfortunately, such urgings remain largely cerebral, rather than making my mouth water. That's surely a cultural failing due to the fact that I've never really been initiated by friends, restaurants and fine cooking into the marvels of meals without meat. To be totally honest, I lived for years under the ridiculous illusion that vegetarians were weirdos with visceral links (maybe there's a better adjective than "visceral") to astrologists, alchemists, religious ascetics, Seventh-Day Adventists and six-day bike-riders. I imagined that you would only have to ingurgitate a few vegetarian dishes and you would soon find yourself refusing, not only pork, but alcohol and vaccinations. Retrospectively, I realize to what extent I've often "reasoned"—even as an adult—in a ridiculous mindless fashion, governed by a set of stupid superstitions, no doubt developed during my boyhood. So I hardly need to explain that I remain, for the moment, an uninspired and uninformed vegetarian cook: the equivalent of the proverbial husband in the kitchen who can't boil an egg.

Back in 2011, I was proud to have unfathomed, as it were, the secrets of a mythical meat dish from a Greek restaurant of my student years in Sydney [access]. Today, my culinary achievements, far more modest, are presented in the following dull photo, which would be rejected instantly by any self-respecting cooking magazine or website.

Here, there is no horse meat. Indeed, there is no meat of any kind whatsoever. My delicious rissoles are fake steaks, concocted out of soy protein and dried cereals (oats, wheat, etc).

I was interested to learn that it's easy to store such uncooked rissoles in the deep-freezer. And they can then be cooked easily and rapidly on an iron grill plate placed above my gas burners, with a little olive oil.

As you can gather from the presence of the two bottles in my photo, I tend to be a heavy-handed user of both Worcestershire sauce (like my Walker uncles out in Australia) and soy sauce... which explains why my vegetable mixture (deep-frozen product) has a blackish look. Basically, though, the above meal is unadulterated (clearly-identified ingredients), tasty and healthy.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What is there in common...

... between me and the Sistine Chapel?

Did I hear somebody say that, what's in common is that both William and the Sistine Chapel are fine examples of Renaissance splendor? Well, if you insist... but that's not the right answer. I'll give you a hint. The answer to my question has something to do with our respective roofs (or rooves, if you prefer).

Here's the answer.

Like me, the people at the Sistine Chapel are installing a new chimney on their roof.

Here's my Gamone chimney, which I intend to install as soon as possible.

I don't know what brand of chimney the Sistine Chapel has decided upon, but I can assure them that the French-manufactured Poujoulat product is excellent.

As soon as my new chimney and wood stove are installed, I intend to test the system by burning some old papers. If all goes well (that's to say, if the chimney joints are all OK), then I should see white smoke emerging from my new chimney. (If not, it's my house that's likely to fill up with white smoke.) Now, to avoid potential misunderstandings, I want to make it perfectly clear, by means of the present blog post, that I have no intention whatsoever of electing an antipope at Gamone. On the other hand, I cannot deny that I've often thought that my dog Fitzroy has all the necessary qualities for that job. There's a technical problem, though. Fitzroy has not yet become a cardinal.