Showing posts with label autobiography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label autobiography. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Half a century ago

In September 1962, I was spending my final fortnight with IBM in Paris. After seven months working as a computer programmer in the IBM Europe headquarters in the Cité du Retiro—a few hundred meters away from the Elysées Palace of the Général de Gaulle—I had the frustrating impression (which later turned out to be false) that I hadn't learned much French.

For the next three months, I would hitchhike around France and Spain before moving across to London for another IBM job, in the UK company's Wigmore Street headquarters. For the moment, in Paris, I must admit retrospectively that I had not yet heard the new sound that was emerging on the other side of the English Channel.

However I had vaguely sensed that lots of things were happening in London at that time. It seemed to be the place where the action was.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A river and a bridge

My mother’s eldest brother, Eric Walker, liked to point out in his typical loudspoken manner that I was conceived under Bawden’s Bridge, located to the west of Grafton on the Glen Innes Road, some 20 kilometers beyond the home of the Walkers at Waterview.

He never made it clear, though, how he had obtained that trivial piece of knowledge. Besides, I could not understood why he seemed to take pleasure in shouting out this information every now and again. I can imagine a scenario in which Eric (a 29-year-old bachelor nicknamed “Farmer”) had accompanied his 21-year-old sister Kath (my future mother) and her 22-year-old boyfriend Bill Skyvington (my future father) on an excursion to Bawden’s Bridge. Counting nine months backwards from my date of birth, I imagine that the excursion must have taken place around Christmas 1939. Maybe the trip to Bawden’s Bridge was a family outing on the warm afternoon following the traditional midday Christmas dinner of spiced roast chicken, potatoes, pumpkin, steamed pudding and bottled lager. It is perfectly plausible that my future parents, inspired by the balmy atmosphere on the banks of the splendid Orara River, decided to find a secluded shady spot under the lofty span of the bridge where they could make love. Did they realize that Kath’s big brother Eric was spying on them? I shall never know. In any case, Eric was probably not accustomed to seeing live demonstrations of human sexual activities in the environment of the dairy farm at Waterview, and this chance happening starring his young sister must have impressed him greatly.

If anybody were to ask me what I thought of my parents’ choice of Bawden’s Bridge as a place to conceive me (which is not exactly the kind of question that people often ask), I would reply unhesitatingly that it was an excellent decision... although I am aware, of course, that they probably did not really do any explicit choosing. It was the sultry atmosphere and their passion that did the deciding.

The Orara—a tributary of the Clarence—is such a splendid river that one of Australia’s best-known poets, Henry Kendall [1839-1882], even celebrated it. Had my uncle Eric been a lover of poetry (which was not the case), here are verses from Kendall’s poem that he might have recited, in the shadow of the old bridge, while the young lovers went about the task of conceiving me:
The world is round me with its heat,

And toil, and cares that tire;

I cannot with my feeble feet

Climb after my desire.

But, on the lap of lands unseen,

Within a secret zone,

There shine diviner gold and green

Than man has ever known.

And where the silver waters sing

Down hushed and holy dells,

The flower of a celestial Spring —

A tenfold splendour, dwells.

Yea, in my dream of fall and brook

By far sweet forests furled,

I see that light for which I look

In vain through all the world —

The glory of a larger sky

On slopes of hills sublime,

That speak with God and morning, high

Above the ways of Time!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bush humor when I was a Waterview kid

This is the cover of a famous Australian weekly magazine, Pix, dated 23 September 1946 (the eve of my 6th birthday). The woman is the US actress Rita Hayworth [1918-1987], and we see from a news heading on the cover that she has just started a "new dance craze". I would imagine that they're referring to the jitterbug, which had been spread throughout the planet (including jazz clubs in the Latin Quarter of Paris) by the American GIs. Pix was a popular photo-journalistic magazine with a huge readership: nearly a million Australians.

At home in Waterview, Pix was regular reading for everybody, along with The Daily Examiner and The Women's Weekly. As a child, I probably wasn't particularly excited about Rita Hayworth and the jitterbug. The item that amused me most of all in Pix was the regular cartoon by Eric Jolliffe, whose specialty was Aussie outback humor… or funny bush drawings, as we would have said. The central personage was a rough rural fellow known as Saltbush Bill, who was always attired in a felt hat and black waistcoat.

Saltbush Bill lived with his large family in an environment that might be thought of as harsh and primitive, where he was perpetually faced with typical bush problems.

To a certain extent, we rural folk at Waterview were probably in mild empathy with Saltbush Bill and his caricatural milieu. Snakes in tree stumps, for example, were an everyday affair… like spiders, heat, dust, flies and backyard lavatories, etc. I hasten to point out, however, that we knew nothing whatsoever (for geographical reasons) of a dimension that was constantly present in Saltbush Bill's universe: the Aborigines, inevitably depicted by Jolliffe—in a way that would be ethically unthinkable today—as incredibly primitive. If ever Saltbush Bill appeared in an urban environment, it was usually a matter of finding solutions to his rural problems. Here, for example, he's dropping in on the local blacksmith:

[Click to enlarge slightly]

The caption is typically banal, since words played a relatively minor role in Jolliffe's work. Saltbush Bill informs the blacksmith that the name of his old horse is Flattery, "because it never gets me anywhere".

PARENTHESIS: I'm intrigued by the construction technique for the post-office roof. I don't recall having seen anything like that in Australia. Apparently the external wooden frame is intended to keep the sheets of corrugated iron in place. As a guess, I would imagine that the purpose of this technique was to avoid the use of nails, since there would have been several obvious advantages in not using nails. First, you didn't need to have a system of solid rafters capable of receiving roof nails. Then you didn't have to puncture the corrugated metal, allowing rain to leak in. Finally, you didn't have to go into town and purchase nails. I would imagine that the external framework was tied together with wire or string. And, if the metal sheets got blown off in a storm, it would have been easy to put them back in place.

Now, just to make it clear that my authentic family environment was only remotely associated with that of Saltbush Bill, here's a photo of my grandfather Charles Walker [1882-1937], attired in a fine Sunday suit and shiny shoes, with a watch chain stretched across his waistcoat, and a cigarette in his left hand:

[Click to enlarge slightly]

As they say in the movies: All characters appearing in Jolliffe's work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moving into a troubled city

Last Thursday evening, a fascinating TV program concerning the long and tumultuous career of the former French police chief Maurice Papon [1910-2007] reminded me retrospectively that I was surely a naive and uninformed Antipodean when I first arrived in Paris on Sunday, 4 February 1962. In particular, I was totally unaware that the French nation was in a state of undeclared war with her former colony, Algeria. On Monday, 12 February, a week after my arrival in Paris, I started working as a computer programmer with the European headquarters of IBM. Between these two events in my narrow personal existence, the tragedy of the métro Charonne had unfolded. Papon's police had pushed leftist political demonstrators down the steps towards the underground station (not far from where my daughter now lives), without realizing that the steel grid was closed, resulting in the death of nine individuals.

On that cold day, I was wandering around in the Latin Quarter, searching for an item of clothing that I had never possessed back out in Australia: an overcoat. Since I was incapable of understanding French-language newspapers, and had no access to TV, I was unaware that a tragedy had taken place over on the other side of the Seine. In any case, I was quite unaware of the Algerian conflict in which France had been bogged down for years. Among other things, I had never heard of the bloody events that had occurred in Paris on 17 October of the previous year (at a time when I had just celebrated my 21st birthday, out in Sydney, and was looking forward excitedly to leaving soon for Europe on the Greek vessel Bretagne), when Papon's police simply executed spontaneously and brutally an unknown number (between tens and hundreds) of Algerians who appeared to sympathize with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and tossed their bodies into the Seine.

Within a few days of my settling down in Paris, I was brought face-to-face with the realities of living in a city in which plastic explosives were being detonated by insurrectionists, intending to draw attention to nasty events on the other side of the Mediterranean. One evening, as I opened the door into my tiny hotel room in the Rue des Ecoles (just a few hundred meters away from the Sorbonne), an explosion destroyed a bookshop on the other side of the street. I remember the familiar horn signals of police vehicles against the delicate tinkling (like proverbial Xmas sleigh bells) of glass fragments falling from shattered windows in the vicinity of the targeted bookshop. A few days later, when I arrived at the IBM building in the Cité du Retiro (just near the Elysée Palace), I learned that an explosion had occurred there during the night. A month later, everything calmed down overnight when the president Charles de Gaulle signed a peace agreement with the FLN on 18 March 1962 at Evian-les-Bains, in the French Alps.

Meanwhile, IBM France (whose headquarters were located at the Place Vendôme) had given me an identity card.

By that time, I had moved into a tiny so-called "maid's room" at the top of the Hôtel du Pas de Calais in the Rue des Saints Pères.

An aspect of my professional situation at IBM that amazed me was the effort they were devoting to the challenge of my obtaining a French work permit. The procedure was set in motion by an initial visit to the Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité. This was the headquarters of the domain of de Gaulle's police chief, Maurice Papon: a vast stone building alongside the Seine, just opposite the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, built around a square courtyard.

I was accompanied to the préfecture by a curious Frenchman who was surely being paid by IBM to assist foreigners such as myself. Within the precincts of the police domain, he seemed to be on friendly personal terms with many members of the clerical staff. Consequently, we were never obliged to line up in queues, or even wait to be received by prefectural personnel. I was amused by a trivial gimmick that my guide exploited constantly. In his coat pockets, he seemed to have an ample supply of American filter cigarettes. Whenever he ran into somebody he knew, his initial gesture consisted of offering him/her a cigarette, which was inevitably received with a smile, and immediately lit up. (Office employees all smoked furiously at that time.) Clearly, this gift of a cigarette was some kind of symbolic trick (a code?) intended to indicate that he had a job to do (organize my request for a work permit), and needed help from his friends.

I would not actually receive the desired document for another three months. During that time, IBM arranged a contact for me in London (since only a French consulate in a foreign land could actually instigate the issue of a work permit to a non-French individual), and it was planned that, as soon as this London contact received a consular request demanding my presence for an interview, I was to drop everything I was doing and jump onto an Air France Caravelle bound for London, enabling me to turn up at the consulate as if I had just taken the London Underground to get there. That trick—which necessitated no less than three return trips to London—enabled me to carry on working for IBM in Paris in spite of the fact that I did not yet possess a work permit. Obviously, everybody—both at the Paris prefecture and at the consulate in London—knew that I was playing a silly game, but we were obliged to behave like that in order to obtain the precious document in a manner that was superficially legal… which was finally issued to me on 15 May 1962.

Over the years, since then, I've often thought back to those first three months at IBM in Paris (where I would remain for another four months), and I've always wondered how a US company in Paris might have got around to employing a French fellow such as my guide, whose job consisted of leading me through the curious procedures that would enable me to become a regular employee in France. Well, it was only last Thursday, in the middle of the TV program about Papon, that I finally received a plausible but totally unexpected (and not particularly nice) explanation. At some time after being named Préfet de Police in March 1958, Papon called upon IBM France to develop a modern punched-card system (not yet using a computer, if I understand correctly) to handle the "management" of the tens of thousands of potential FLN activists residing in metropolitan France. In other words, for Charles de Gaulle and the French police hierarchy, IBM may have been considered as more than just an ordinary American business corporation. And there may have been vague reasons of one kind or another for treating foreign IBM personnel as VIP workers.

We must not, however, exaggerate. If the French authorities had really wanted to make it easy for me to work legally in France, they would have simply handed me a work permit, instead of expecting me to wander around in their red-tape world (of the Paris prefecture and the London consulate) for three months before issuing me a lousy temporary work permit. In any case, it's almost certain that many French visionaries (including de Gaulle) sensed that the intriguing computer phenomenon, represented ideally by IBM, would no doubt play a role in the industrial, scientific and economic future of France.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that the work for which I was employed by IBM Europe (programming the IBM 1401 computer), from 12 February 1962 up until 28 September 1962, had nothing whatsoever to do with the above-mentioned punched-card project carried out by IBM France with a view to controlling the Algerian population residing in France at that time. IBM was an emanation—as is well known—of the Hollerith punched-card company, whose most celebrated primordial exploit in data processing (as this activity came to be called) entailed the use of punched cards to process the results of the US census of 1890. So, there was nothing particularly exceptional in Papon's use of this same punched-card support, some 70 years later, to store data concerning people in France. As for Maurice Papon, he was finally condemned and jailed for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during the Nazi Occupation, and he was also stigmatized (but never actually pursued in a law court) for the murky aspects of his treatment of Algerians. But it would be an absurd deduction to imagine that there might have been anything intrinsically evil, a priori, in the above-mentioned IBM punched-card project. On the other hand, all this precise and well-organized police data concerning FLN suspects, placed conveniently at the fingertips of Papon, would have certainly made it easier for him to perpetrate evil deeds.

Pots and pans

It would be dishonest of me not to admit that, towards the end of winter at Gamone, a certain number of innocent pots and pans tend to pass the final weeks in a state of grubby purgatory, like neglected orphans, awaiting the return of sunny conditions, when the master of the household might at last deign to clean them up and store them away.

For reasons that might have something to do with my childhood out in Australia, I'm particularly fond of being able to leave stuff out in the sun to dry : freshly-washed clothes, above all, and pots and pans. I also get a kick out of sun-drying edible products such as bay leaves and green walnuts (after they've been soaked in brine, with pickling in view).

On the other hand, I've always known that it's not a good idea to envisage leaving myself out in the strong sun for hours on end. I neither bake golden brown nor even dry out. I simply get sunburned. My dear mother would have been enchanted if her son could have been transformed by the rays of the sun into the lovely look of a bronzed Aussie surfer. On one sad occasion, when I was a child, my mother's encouragements at this level led to my ending up in hospital with third-degree burns. She herself belonged to a Down Under generation who apparently admired people with dark brown leathery skins, inevitably crisscrossed by ridges and wrinkles. Maybe my own lifelong fascination for fair girls with a light-olive facial complexion and soft milky skin might be a reaction against my mother's esthetic tastes. In any case, I'm convinced that my personal dermato-genetic inheritance is strictly Scandinavian, probably brought down to Normandy by a fierce red-faced Viking warrior adorned in a broad-rimmed hat, with yucky reindeer fat smeared across his tender nose.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Photos from my time at Cap France

My friend Yves Tallineau has just sent me a couple of photos dating from 1969, when we were working together in Paris in a software company named Cap France. More precisely, we were operating an in-house training department, located in the Avenue du Général Foy (near the St-Augustin church), aimed at teaching groups of fellow employees of Cap France how to program the IBM 370 computer.

In those days, programmers usually told computers what was to be done by recording programming instructions in the form of punched cards. These were produced manually (generally by the programmers themselves) on IBM card-punch machines. Here we see one of our trainees punching cards for her program, which was probably developed in the Cobol language.

As an extra task, Yves and I once produced a couple of audiovisual presentations concerning the company's two software products, called Autoflow and Sysif. In the following photo, I'm using scissors and adhesive tape to edit an audio tape on a Revox tape recorder.

In fact, at that time, I was attending evening classes organized by Pierre Schaeffer in the musique concrète studios of the research service of the French Broadcasting System. That explains how I had become proficient in audio tape editing.

A few months after the time at which this photo was taken (towards the end of 1969), I decided to leave Cap France and accept an offer to work as a salaried engineer with Schaeffer. As a result of that change in my professional existence, I soon became involved in computer music, television production, artificial intelligence and writing. But that's another long story.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Final family

After fiddling around in genealogy for over a quarter of a century, and getting held up joyously for many years by maternal rural bush-ranger ingredients from Ireland, I've finally got around to starting to set down in words the essential paternal stuff.

The truth of the matter (which isn't necessarily "true" in any sense whatsoever) is that I've always felt that my dominant genes were essentially English. They're labeled Skyvington and Pickering: the surnames of my paternal grandparents. I would be incapable of proving (if this idea had any sense whatsoever) that my Skyvington and Pickering genes overpowered, as it were, the recessive X-rated Walker and Kennedy stuff in my DNA (not to mention the wild Hickey contribution). I'm convinced that this is what happened... but I'm ready to be contradicted.

The modest family-history typescript upon which I'm embarking will concern two marvelous individuals whom I've always referred to as Pop and Ma: Ernest William Skyvington [1891-1985] and his wife Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964].

For a long time, I had imagined that Pop came from a celebrated family whose origins coincide with the arrival of William the Conqueror in England. I still believe, more than ever, that this was the case.

But I'm amazed and delighted to discover that Ma, too, through her Pickering antecedents, was hugely ancient English... and that her ancestors included an aunt of Jane Grey.

So, I intend to write their Anglo/Australian story.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sisyphus road act

Long ago, shortly after my arrival at Gamone, I learned that it can be a mistake to imagine that the weather at Choranche, at a particular moment, indicates the climatic conditions I might expect to discover five minutes later on, further up or down the road, if I were to decide to leave on an automobile excursion. For example, this photo I took today reveals that everything's fine as long as you stay on the lower slopes of the Cournouze:

After reaching the church of Châtelus, though, you would suddenly find yourself driving through snow.

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I set off for Valence. A few hundred meters down from Gamone, I was called upon to do a Sisyphus road act. Maybe certain particularly bright blog readers have guessed what that means. I simply stopped my old Citroën on the slopes, got out and carried a big rock up to a place alongside the road where it would do no harm. Whenever the temperature climbs a few degrees after a cold period, rocks thaw and can roll onto roads.

In the environment of Greek gods and goddesses, Sisyphus (depicted in the above painting by Titian) was in fact a mere mortal, but he seemed to have special high-quality links with divine beings... much like the kind of exceptional relationship that exists these days between a humble sinner such as the pope and the Holy Trinity, if you see what I mean. At an earthly level, Sisyphus was renowned for having built the city of Corinth, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. Alas, his cherished city was conquered by Theseus... the famous Athenian whom I mention briefly in my website that allows you to stroll virtually though the labyrinth of Lucca [access]. During the conflict, Sisyphus was killed and he went directly to Hell, where he was assigned the task of moving a big boulder up to the top of a mountain, and then letting it roll down again.

Insofar as Sisyphus is condemned to repeat this task endlessly, the French writer Albert Camus seized upon this assignment as an ideal symbol of existentialist absurdity. The book by Camus on the theme of Sisyphus played a primordial role in bringing me to France.

Now, getting back to the rock I moved off the road this morning, there was a tiny but interesting consequence. At exactly the moment I got out of my car and walked towards the rock, a four-wheel-drive truck halted alongside me. It was driven by a young guy named Frédéric, who has disliked me intensely ever since I arrived in his native commune of Choranche. This animosity was brought about by a trivial incident. Every winter, ever since he was a young teenager, Frédéric has been driving the family's tractor with a snow plow, to clear the roads of Choranche after heavy snowfalls. Well, during my first winter at Gamone, Frédéric dragged his snow plow across my lawn and tore up inadvertently a drain that I had spent a day or so installing. I was furious, and I complained about this accident in a letter to the mayor. To cut a long story short, Frédéric has never talked to me since then... up until this morning, when he came upon me doing my Sisyphus act. Maybe Frédéric never imagined that an urban gentleman such as me would be capable of performing such an altruistic act as stopping my automobile in order to remove a rock on the other side of the road: that's to say, a rock he might have hit. Whatever the explanation, Frédéric smiled at me in a friendly fashion, for the first time in fifteen years, and thanked me for removing the rock.

In his evaluation of the arduous task of Sisyphus, Camus may have gone a little too far. My personal experience suggests—as I've just indicated— that rolling a rock is not necessarily a totally absurd operation.

By the way, the personal autobiography on which I've been working lately, entitled Digital Me, opens with the following extract:

At that subtle moment when a man glances back over his life, Sisyphus, returning towards his rock, contemplates the series of unrelated actions that has become his fate, created by him, combined in his memory’s eye and soon to be sealed by his death. Convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, he is therefore advancing still. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! We always return to our burden. But Sisyphus teaches a higher fidelity, which negates gods and raises rocks. He, too, considers that all is well. This universe, henceforth without a master, appears to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, forms in itself a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dream blogging

I was awoken early this morning by an amazing dream, in which I was actually putting together the elements of a blog article: in fact, the one that I'm about to write. I'll describe the dream in a moment. Before that, I need to provide two essential items of information.

First, I happened to talk on the telephone yesterday with Christine concerning my recent article entitled Virtual visit of places of my youth [display]. Although I didn't bring up this aspect of the Google Maps situation in that article, I was surprised that the municipal authorities in Grafton would allow such photos of private homes to be displayed publicly on the web. I haven't got around yet to examining this privacy question in a deeper and wider fashion. For example: Could Google fly around my house at Gamone in a helicopter, taking photos to be displayed on the web? In the interesting phone conversation that I had with Christine on this theme, she made a pertinent general remark. She said that most normal people would dislike the idea of regularly publishing quite personal stuff in a blog such as my Antipodes. The corollary is that an individual such as me is exceptional (in the same way that a porn star, for example, is exceptional) in getting a kick out of parading himself in public, as I do, by means of a personal blog.

The second item of pertinent background information is that, before falling asleep last night, I was engaged in thinking (as is often the case these days) about the related subjects of genealogy and genetics. Before switching off my computer, I even stuck up a piece of cardboard in front of the screen containing the enigmatic expression "no hurry", and an arrow pointing to the title of the autobiographical stuff I'm writing. This was intended as a reminder of an essential revelation that struck me last night (but not for the first time): namely, the gigantic periods of time taken by Darwinian evolution to forge us into the animals that we are today. Indeed, evolution has never been in a hurry.

In my dream, I was wandering around, a little lost, inside a giant ultra-modern passenger liner. I was particularly impressed by the fact that even the form of handrails on the staircases between the various decks had evolved, through technological progress, in such a way that it was now impossible to lose one's grip and fall down the stairs. I found myself guiding a woman with a baby. In one of the lower decks, I was pleased to be able to lead her to a big room that was fully equipped with all kinds of modern installations for baby care. This was no doubt an evocation of a sea voyage between France and Australia with my wife and baby daughter.

The scene then shifted to the Paris métro, where I needed to consult a métro map in order to find my way. This was surely an evocation of my use of Google Maps to visit my birth place in Australia... along with the fact that I've been using this tool a lot lately to obtain an idea of the mill town of Walton-le-Dale in Lancashire, where my O'Keefe and Dixon ancestors worked before immigrating to New South Wales. Curiously, in my dream, all the maps that I found on the walls of the Paris métro were in fact distorted and abridged maps of Australia! I couldn't understand why this should be the case, but I had the impression that it was some kind of complicated marketing affair of a touristic nature.

Then I suddenly found myself producing personal genealogical charts for a blog article that was designed to indicate why indeed I was "condemned" by my genetic makeup to be the kind of individual who takes pleasure in talking about himself in a blog. In an amazingly detailed fashion, I was convinced that I knew the precise nature and origin of the circumstances that had transformed me into such an individual. Let me describe the situation, exactly as it appeared to me in my dream.

— On my paternal side, I felt that I was born with a chromosome containing a "bookkeeping" gene, which caused me to have an obsessive desire to record everything that was happening around me. Although I had tended to forget this aspect of my grandfather and father, I realize that I was impressed by their very real bookkeeping skills and habits. Besides, it was my grandfather who introduced me to the use of a manual typewriter. Later on, one of the earliest software devices I developed on the Macintosh was bookkeeping software for my personal bank account, which I named Le Compte est Bon [the accounting figures are correct]. Obviously, it's a short step from bookkeeping to obsessional blogging. In my dream, I was convinced that neither my brothers nor my three sisters possessed this paternal chromosome containing the "bookkeeping" gene.

— On my maternal side, I had inherited a chromosome containing a "talkative" gene, which made me wish to tell stories constantly and publicly about myself and my life. The origin of this chromosome with its "gift of the gab" gene was the Irish convict Patrick Hickey, and it came down to me through his daughter Ann, her son and her grandson, both named Charles Walker, and finally my mother Kathleen Walker. Once again, I felt that there were prominent cases (such as my mother's sister, and probably my own brother and sisters) in which this chromosome had not been passed on to descendants.

— Here I come to one of the surprising technical aspects of my dream. My obsessional passion for blogging was a direct consequence of neither my "bookkeeping" gene, on its own, nor even my "talkative" gene, on its own, but of the mutual interaction of each gene upon the other. In other words, to become an obsessive blogger, I needed to possess both genes, each of which reached me autonomously in a distinct chromosome.

Last but not least, in my dream, I realized that I would need to make it clear, in my blog article on this subject, that the two genes, left to their own resources, would have never transformed me into an obsessional blogger were it not for the computing context in which I had been nurtured as an adolescent, from the age of 17.

So, there you have it. I've just written the blog, exactly as it was dictated to me in this morning's dream.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


On this 26th day of the month of January, my parents were married.

Armed with this date, smart readers will be able to calculate that the foetus whose presence would erupt upon the universe under the name of William Skyvington, on 24 September 1940, was already a few weeks old (bless the poor little bugger) when Dad and Mum walked up the aisle at Christ Church Cathedral.

On this twenty-sixth day of the month of January, in 1994, I signed the legal documents concerning my purchase of Gamone. So, I've been here for fourteen years.

This afternoon, we oldtimers of Choranche and Châtelus got together for our annual dinner. Among other things, I got back in contact with my English friend Patricia, CEO of Photonic Sciences, widow of our friend Adrian who piloted his jet aircraft into the English earth a few years ago [a long and touching story, which I must relate one day].

For me, personally, it was a momentous day of celebrations. Somebody said it's called Australia Day.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Over half a century ago

Starting in 1950, Australia dominated the Davis Cup for a period of four years, first with the duo Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor. Then the young Australians Lewis Hoad and Ken Rosewall took over. In Melbourne in 1953, Hoad and Rosewall beat the US players Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert.

The 1954 finals in Sydney gave Seixas, 31, and Trabert, 24, a chance to get even with the 20-year-old tennis twins Hoad and Rosewall.

And that's exactly what they did, in the first two days, in a series of four-set matches.

Back in those final sunny days of December 1954, my paternal grandparents [Pop and Ma, as we called them] had invited me to drive down to Sydney with them to watch the finals of that Davis Cup tournament at White City Stadium. I seem to recall that we attended the doubles match, on the second day, since that was the kind of social tennis to which we were accustomed back in Grafton. For us, it was hard to imagine a game of tennis in which the server wasn't gazing in the direction of the backside of his partner (often of the opposite sex), crouched near the net. Singles matches appeared to us as unusually solemn and solitary events, in which you didn't even have somebody to chat to during the calm periods while your opponents were collecting the balls for the next stroke.

On 28 December 1954, at the splendid lawn courts between Kings Cross and Edgecliff, I got autographs from the four players.

This 1954 tennis tournament in Sydney remains in the local history books as a much-publicized event, probably because of the hero status of Hoad and Rosewall. Personally, I wasn't greatly surprised to see the young Australians defeated. Physically, they looked like young Australian sportsmen of the kind one could see anywhere. Seixas and Trabert, on the other hand, appeared to me as Martians, particularly when seen up close. They seemed to exude a mysterious mixture of power and sporting wisdom, quite unlike the naive grins of the Aussie kids. I had the impression that, for these superior Americans, tennis was not just a game; it was their business.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Not used to Europe

Yesterday morning, Sophia started to bark, the bell rang and, when I scrambled downstairs, I found a fellow delivering the new phone directories. He spoke to me immediately in English, which is unusual in this corner of the world:

Fellow: "Mister Skyvington? Here are the new phone directories."

Me: "Thanks. But tell me: How come you speak such good English?"

Fellow: "My mother taught me. I'm English. Born and brought up in the UK."

I liked the subtle humor in the bit about being taught English by his mother. This anecdote makes me realize that I'm not yet fully accustomed to everyday possibilities opened up in recent times by the creation of Europe. Indeed, it's perfectly simple and banal for an English guy to decide that he's going to live in the south of France and earn his living working for the French postal service... particularly with a short-duration job contract for the delivery of phone books.

In the future, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find an English fellow coming along here to read the electricity meter... which is not exactly one of the most sought-after jobs in France. Here at Gamone, first of all, the electricity employee has to locate the meter. If I don't happen to be here to inform him of its whereabouts (attached to the far side of an electricity post about twenty meters down from the house), it's quite possible for a newcomer to conclude that there's no meter at Gamone. And the employees who come here to read the electricity meter are inevitably newcomers, because few people would ever wish to retain such a job from one period to the next. The employee then has to figure out how to make his way down the slopes to the post with the meter. Finally, he has to struggle through the thorny blackberry bushes that usually surround the meter. I cut them back whenever I have time, and think of doing so, but they always seem to have grown back in all their thorny glory by the time the electricity employee arrives here.

Incidentally, French people often congratulate me on my fluent French [which I speak, nevertheless, with a strong foreign accent, which is often a mystery for my hearers]. Inspired by the English guy this morning, I really must get into the habit of explaining, simply and truthfully: "My ex-wife taught me." I've often recalled her first lesson. I had just informed my future wife, in faulty French: "Je veux te marier. [I want to marry you.]" She replied: "Two problems. First, only a priest or a mayor can use the verb 'to marry' in a transitive fashion when they say, for example, that they married Peter and Jane. As for Peter, he would use the verb in a reflexive fashion, and say in French: 'I married himself with Jane'... if you see what I mean. The second problem, Willy [as she called me], is that I'm not at all sure that I wish to marry myself with you."

Monday, September 24, 2007

September 24, 1940

On 24 September 1940, my peephole into human existence was opened at a maternity clinic with the glorious name of Runnymede, evoking the historic water-meadow in Surrey where Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215. My Runnymede of 1940 was located at Grafton in Australia, and the only document that got signed thereabouts was my birth certificate.

Although I have no clear recollections of the circumstances in which this photo was taken, I'm practically certain that it shows my mother Kathleen holding me in front of her Walker family house in Waterview. This is the same charming house that appears in this photo [of much the same epoch] of Kath's champion cyclist brothers Johnny and Charlie:

While claiming that a blogger such as me has every right to use this powerful communications medium to celebrate narcissistically his own birthday, I hasten to add that other events of an infinitely more consequential nature were unfolding on the planet Earth in September 1940. In any case, as Elton John once put it: I'm still standing!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

New role for Big Blue

I was intrigued by this striking French ad that asks: "How can zeros and ones help New York police to arrest criminals?"

An instant later, I was a little surprised to learn that the question was being asked by my former employer, IBM.

I wasn't sufficiently interested in this subject to click on the banner in the hope of receiving an answer to IBM's question. So, I still ignore the way in which zeros and ones can help New York police to arrest criminals. But this ignorance is not likely to prevent me from sleeping soundly at night.

Back in 1957, when I started to work with IBM Australia as a Fortran programmer on a magnificent electronic beast called the IBM 650, the corporation had the habit of recalling in its public relations that punched cards had been used successfully for the first time in the 1890 US census, which could never have been processed correctly and on time were it not for Herman Hollerith's ingenious invention, adopted by IBM in 1928.

For those of us who worked in those pioneering days of computing, our 11th commandment, applied to our precious stocks of punched cards, was: "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate." And we were no doubt the only individuals who knew the meaning of the verb "to spindle" (to poke a hole through paper documents with a metallic spike).

Times have changed a lot since then. Nobody uses punched cards any more, except maybe in a few old Jacquard weaving looms. IBM has ceased to be the master of the computing universe. Today, everybody knows that Microsoft markets software called Windows, Word and Excel, whereas Apple offers a machine named the Macintosh as well as delightful gadgets called the iPod and the iPhone. I wonder how many ordinary people would be capable of naming a single hardware or software product manufactured by IBM.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Thinking about things

At the age of 18, when I met up with the IBM company in Sydney and started to learn how to be a computer programmer, I was amused and intrigued by their famous motto: THINK.

In fact, it's an ambiguous imperative. On the one hand, thinking is a profound and mysterious human activity. So, the IBM verb sounded in my imagination like the Socratic imperative: Know yourself! [When I encountered IBM, I had just completed a year of Greek philosophy at Sydney University, and I was totally under the charm of the great Socratic adage: The unexamined life is not worth living.] On the other hand, IBM's founder Thomas J Watson no doubt introduced his THINK slogan with more down-to-earth considerations in mind: Think twice before making a business decision. Reflect at length about all the options that are available to you. Master the situation with which you are dealing. Try to be smarter than your business opponents. Etc.

In any case, I preferred the more lofty notion of thinking. Besides, just one step away from IBM's electronic brains, there was talk about a new science named cybernetics invented by Norbert Wiener [1894-1964] and the exciting challenges of a strange discipline known as artificial intelligence. As the great Alan Turing [1912-1954] asked, somewhat rhetorically: Can machines think?

I've started to write an autobiographical account of my adolescent years, culminating in my encounter with computing and my subsequent move to the Old World (rendered easy through my professional experience in programming). Up until now, I had been using the word Antipodes (title of this blog) as the title of my early autobiography. Now, while the antipodean concept is ideal for this blog, I've always realized that it was not quite the right word for my autobiography. In particular, I wanted a title that might evoke the encounter with IBM that changed the course of my life. And the title should also evoke the fact that my adolescence was dominated by constant thoughts, of an inevitably hazy kind, upon the nature of the cosmos. About all things bright and beautiful.