Friday, March 28, 2014

Genealogical pilgrimages

My highfalutin title simply designates touristic travel excursions motivated by family-history interests. So, a good example of a genea-pilgrimage (as I shall call them) was the recent visit of my niece Indiya to places in northern London, described in my blog post entitled Looking back on a London century [display]. And I hope I’m not being pretentious in imagining that the publication of my two family-history books, A Little Bit of Irish and They Sought the Last of Lands, might end up increasing the popularity of genea-pilgrimages in the context of my family and relatives.

Obviously, since neither of my books has been written in the spirit of a tourist guide, the steps involved in moving from the books to down-to-earth excursion plans would necessitate some work. Well, I’ve been thinking that maybe I have the personal responsibility of facilitating this work in one way or another. After all, I’ve had a minimum of experience in the domain of tourist guidebooks, through my Great Britain Today [Jeune Afrique, Paris, 1978].

Let’s refer to such an excursion plan as a Genea-Pilgrimage Guide (GPG). Maybe I’ll place such GPGs in the webspaces that have housed, up until now, the PDF files of the chapters of my family-history books.

As dumb as they come

Lots of dumb folk, thinking themselves smart, send fake comments to my Antipodes blog, with links to their own dull blogs. In doing this, they hope that their comment will get published and bring traffic to their own blog. Here’s a nice example, which deserves a prize for stupidity:
Anonymous has left a new comment

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I'll definitely be back.

Feel free to surf to my homepage: buying nail clippers () 
It so happens that I did in fact write a book on the subject of my blog post, which is full of pictures. Fake comments of this kind get filtered and they end up rapidly, of course, in my trash can. So, my family-history research is not going to help this fuckwit to sell his nail clippers.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Looking back on a London century

A century separates these two photos taken at exactly the same spot in a northern neighborhood of London.

The older lady was Martha Watson [1837-1915], while the young woman is Martha’s great-great-great-granddaughter Indiya Taylor, born in Australia. The following chart indicates that Martha’s married name was Mepham (which was loaded onto my unfortunate father as a second given name):

The second child, Eliza Jane Mepham, married a certain William Skyvington, as indicated in the following chart:

Their only child, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], went out to Australia in 1908 on a steamship named the Marathon.

Ernest, who was Indiya’s great-grandfather, became a prosperous businessman in Grafton (NSW), where he started up the Ford automobile dealership.

He once revisited the Old World and his native London in the company of his daughter Yvonne. In Paris, my wife Christine asked Pop (as we called him) to name the place that had most impressed him during his world tour. His reply: “Burleigh Heads.” That was the town on Queensland’s Gold Coast where he had been living in retirement for a decade or so. Pop had a great sense of humor, and that was his way of telling us that there’s no place like home. But the address that Indiya tracked down a few days ago was indeed Pop’s true home throughout his adolescence in London.

With technical assistance that I had obtained from historical authorities in London, Indiya was able to discover the quiet dead-end section of Mount Pleasant Crescent (called Mount Pleasant Road in Pop’s time) where the old Mepham house is currently numbered 72.

I’m amused by the symbolic aspects of the following photo, in which my lovely niece appears to be narrowing down her search for origins, while looking back upon a London century.

Incidentally, I should have normally published by now my genealogical book that talks about our London origins (amongst many other aspects of our family history). Its cover will look like this:

Publication is delayed, however, by fascinating last-minute news that I mentioned briefly in my recent post entitled White lies of men in love [display]. The potential “white liar” in question is the man whose name appears in the upper left-hand corner of the second chart: my great-grandfather William Skyvington. I’m hoping that the friends who have kindly revealed this curious affair—the Courtenay family in the UK—will be convinced that the only way of elucidating this enigma is to call upon modern science: namely, a Y-chromosome genealogical test.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring sunset

I took this lovely photo (untouched) from my bathroom window about an hour ago.

In my title, the term "sunset" is misleading, since we're actually looking towards the east, and the sun is setting behind us. But the last rays of the setting sun have hit the clouds above the Cournouze, producing the pastel hues seen in the photo.

Earlier on, towards the end of the afternoon, we had a short hailstorm at Gamone. It was interesting to see the seven donkeys racing down the hill to their shed, to seek shelter from the shower of tiny hailstones.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

White lies of men in love

In the context of my genealogical research, I was intrigued, if not amused, by the behavior of my ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860], probably a Scottish Protestant, who maintained that he was an Irish Catholic, ostensibly in order to be able to wed a 17-year-old Tipperary nymph, 15 years his junior. Religion can't compete with sexual passion!

Recently, on the side of my paternal grandmother, I heard of the astonishing case of John Pickering [1851-1926] who decided to call himself "John Latton", enabling him to wed a new wife (while holding on to the original one) and to create an entire parallel family.

Yet another case of this kind was brought to my attention, unexpectedly, a couple of days ago. Here’s the only photo I have of Devon-born William Skyvington [born in 1868], my paternal great-grandfather.

And here’s a photo of William’s son, my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], in his general store in the Queensland outback.

Whenever I quizzed my grandfather about what might have happened to his father, he had no clear answers… apart from suggesting that William Skyvington may have died in World War I. Needless to say, I found that answer unsatisfactory, because my great-grandfather would have normally been too old to get enlisted as a soldier. So, I concluded that we would probably never know what had happened to him.

Yesterday afternoon, I received an astonishing e-mail from a lady whose maiden name was Nicola Courtenay. She told me that the second given name of her grandfather was somewhat strange. He called himself “William Skyvington Courtenay”. After examining the bits of data that Nicola had included in her e-mail, I realized beyond any doubt whatsoever that her alleged Courtenay ancestor was in fact my great-grandfather. In other words, after the premature death of his wife (my great-grandmother) in London, William Skyvington had succeeded in convincing a young woman—his future bride—that he was a descendant of the celebrated Courtenay family: the Earls of Devon. Clearly, William had fallen in love, and he took the liberty of inventing this white lie to make sure that he would capture his beloved female. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

For a family historian, the annoying aspect of such identity changes is that there’s no obvious way of searching for them or even detecting their existence. There's no other method of discovering such an identity change than to receive an unexpected message from a total stranger. And shortly after such a contact, the “total stranger” has suddenly become one of your closest relatives, and an excellent friend. What a silly idea to imagine that genealogy is a matter of fossicking around among tombstones!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My son’s 3-day working holiday at Gamone

François Skyvington leads an extremely busy existence. Over the last few years, my son has been working almost non-stop on his 30-minute moped travel movies for TV. (The latest series will be aired on the Arte channel later on this year.) For the moment, he’s starting major building extensions to his house on the top of Brittany cliffs looking out over the English Channel. And he has also decided to create a high-quality diner-style restaurant alongside the main road between St-Brieuc and Paimpol. I therefore find it perfectly normal that François doesn’t necessarily have free time enabling him to drop down here to see me at Gamone. So, I was thrilled when he phoned me last week to say that he had decided to take the train from Guingamp to Valence for a 3-day stay. To get an idea of how long it was since the last time we had met up, you only need to know that, last Monday afternoon, François met my dog Fitzroy for the very first time.

In such circumstances, it goes without saying that I did not expect my son to spend any part of his precious holiday time in carrying out work around our house at Gamone. But I had not reckoned on the spontaneous desire of François to tackle all sorts of practical problems whose urgency he sensed immediately, as soon as he reached Gamone. First, it was a matter of reducing drastically the volume of the "bun" of branches (my son is preoccupied by BurgerTalk) on top of the pergola.

Finally, the 6 rose bushes composing the pergola looked like young Australian boys of my generation who had just emerged from a customary short-back-and-sides operation at the barber’s shop.

François then set about tidying up the Buxus sempervirens (European Boxwood) hedge that I planted long ago on the outer edge of my future rose garden.

François then set about pruning the various bushes of my rose garden.

He then tackled the huge task that consisted of removing all the wild vegetation (including lots of small trees) on the perimeter of my rose garden. You can detect the presence of this vegetation in the background of the above photos. To remove it, François used both my electric hedge-trimmer and my chainsaw. Thanks to my son's strenuous efforts, I can once again get a glimpse of the road that runs alongside Gamone Creek.

Finally, as if all that work were not enough, François drove the Renault Kangoo and trailer to a nearby quarry where we were able to gather up (manually) a stock of high-quality limestone slabs that will be an essential part of my future wood-fueled bread oven. Here you see François sitting on this nice little pile of stones, alongside the place where the oven will be built (this summer).

I was delighted to see that the relationship between my son and my dog was better than anything I might have hoped for. François was often amazed by Fitzroy’s serenity. Indeed, I like to imagine that my dog and I, through sharing constantly our experiences, are becoming similarly zen in parallel.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gamone beekeepers

Click to enlarge

On the left, my Gamone neighbor Jackie Ageron is wearing his special beekeeper’s jeans, designed to give the little beasts a fair chance in their age-old battles against beekeepers. With my colonial hardhat (similar to what I used to wear as a child in South Grafton), I look like some kind of a Choranche cosmonaut. It was my first hands-on contact with bees, and it was marvelous.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Love this lizard

Can you see him?

Click to enlarge

He’s dark green, like the foliage. With a long tail. He's not particularly apprehensive. He emerged at midday to bathe in the Gamone sunshine, plentiful at present. He's so delightfully antediluvian. I would love to call him Bill and invite him in for a cup of tea, with my dog Fitzroy.

Monday, March 10, 2014

New concept in speed sailing

A fabulous French catamaran named the Flying Phantom was introduced to the international sailing world at the Paris Boat Show 2013. Its revolutionary J-shaped foils cause the craft to rise up out of the water as soon as the speed attains 10 or so knots. And the cat then appears to levitate above the surface.

The manufacturer’s headquarters are located in the beautiful Breton village of Saint-Lunaire, near Saint-Malo. (What a delightful name for a Breton saint: Lunatic.)

The company has a splendid website.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

It could happen here or elsewhere

Today or tomorrow... We won't be asked to choose a date.

Brilliant exposé of everyday threats. Our ubiquitous enemy is …

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Two tickets for Gambais, one return

In my blog post of 22 March 2010 entitled First rural residence [display], I described a simple roadside house in the country to the west of Paris that Christine and I rented in 1968-9 for six months or so.

Our neighborhood had a funny name, Mocsouris, which seems to mean, nonsensically, “making fun of a mouse”. This place name, sometimes spelt Moque-Souris, surely has more obscure etymological and historic origins of which I’m unaware. In a cadastral document of 1825 from Brittany, for example, this name reappears with an even more curious spelling.

Our house was located on the edge of a neighborhood called Maulette, which lies between Mocsouris and the town of Houdan. Our baby daughter Emmanuelle decided immediately that, at a rhyming level, “Maulette” sounded a lot like “toilette” (body-washing in French). So, she started to refer to her towelling for washing, in the form of a glove, as a “gant de Maulette” (Maulette glove-washer).

Meanwhile, Christine and I imagined naively—as the renting agency had informed us—that our postal address was Houdan. Today, thanks to Google Maps, I realize that we were in fact residing in the commune of Gambais, which was associated with one of the most notorious serial killers in French criminal history: Henri Désiré Landru [1869-1922], who was guillotined for the murder of 11 women.

Our house in Mocsouris had a vast backyard, which was an ideal summer setting for our 2-year-old daughter. Today, thanks to Google and the curious demolition of a section of our former neighbor’s garden wall, Emmanuelle is offered a glimpse of her first backyard.

Click to enlarge

This neighbor was a prosperous farmer. Today, my primary recollection of this fellow is that he taught me a French noun: tâcheron. The word tâche means a task. So, a tâcheron is somebody who's employed to perform tasks. In reality, it’s a disparaging term, evoking the use of unskilled workers for a brief period, at a minimal cost, before their being cast aside.

Getting back to Landru, you can find out all about him through an excellent Wikipedia article [display]. The title of this blog post is a celebrated line attributed to the mass murderer. From his Paris apartment, he used newspaper ads to find lonely females, often widows, offering them marriage. Their first (and last) outing was a visit to his country house in Gambais. Landru had the habit, at the train station in Paris, of requesting two tickets for Gambais, but only one return. (I traveled daily on that line when we were living in Gambais.) As soon as a victim settled down in Landru's charming house in Gambais, she was strangled, chopped into pieces and burnt in a kitchen oven. Then Landru made arrangements for recuperating all the dead lady’s possessions.

I was reminded of this sinister individual through a series of astonishing old photos of Landru’s trial that Gallica (website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France) has just published on the Internet.

Some of the witty interventions of the “Bluebeard of Gambais” during his trial in Versailles have gone down in history.

— Denying that he had ever killed anybody at Gambais, Landru called upon the court to “show us the corpses”.

— Landru declared: “If the women I knew have anything to complain about, then let them step forward.

— When a woman in the crowded courtroom couldn't find an empty seat, Landru proposed gallantly to give her his place.

Police investigations into Landru’s crimes had been concentrated, understandably, upon his house in Gambais.

A dramatic exhibit during the trial was the actual cast-iron kitchen oven in which Landru had transformed his victims into ashes.

After Landru’s trial and beheading, this oven was auctioned. Its most recent owner is the popular French TV personality Laurent Ruquier, author of a play about Landru. The house in Gambais, too, was soon sold by auction. Its first owner transformed it into an elegant restaurant, with a delicately-chosen name: Au Grillon du Foyer (Homely Grill).

Later, it became, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary house. During the time that we spent at Gambais, Christine and I never went out of our way to locate the house in question. Consequently, it’s only today that I realize—thanks to Google—that we were in fact close neighbors. A few kilometers after our house in Mocsouris, you reach the village of Gambais.

On the right-hand side of the road, there’s a lugubrious church and cemetery.

A few hundred meters further down the road, Landru’s house is nested alongside a row of prim and proper modern dwellings.

Throughout his trial, Landru persisted in claiming—against tons of evidence—that he had never harmed anybody. At the foot of the scaffold, at dawn on 25 February 1922, in the grand avenue of Versailles, Landru's lawyer made a last-minute request. Would the condemned man finally admit, in the face of God, that he had indeed killed all those women? The artist replied politely, before stepping aboard his steel-blade jet for Eternity: "The answer to that question, dear lawyer, is part of my hand luggage." And the severed head of the Bluebeard of Gambais soon found its way (God only knows how) into a Hollywood museum.

If only I had known of this proximity, back at the time we were residing in Gambais, I might have delighted my dear mother Kath Skyvington with horror stories about Landru. Indeed, I was so ill-informed and absent-minded that I didn’t even think of taking my parents to Gambais when they visited us in Paris. In fact, I don’t believe that any of us have returned there as pilgrims over the last 46 years.