Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Montparnasse: the Parisian Dark Tower

ed. note added 7th Aug 2007: a certain image-search program is wrongly directing folk to this page.

If Montparnasse is not what you were seeking, please scroll down to Search Labels in the right hand margin.

If instead it's the home page you seek, with my latest post, please click on the following link:

Dreams and Daemons Home Page

Enjoy your visit. Comments welcome, even on non-current topics.

Now back to that Tour Montparnasse:

There was an article in yesterday's Independent. Paris considers itself to be short of high rise office space, placing it at a commercial disadvantage to Moscow and London.
(Moscow ? What about Frankfurt ? Or Beijing or Mumbai ?)

So it is planning to add a super-skyscraper to the collection of towers already bristling on the skyline at La Défense. The tallest, to be known as La Phare (The Lighthouse) , scheduled for completion in 2012, will be be 300m high ( almost a 1000 feet in old money), just 20 m shorter than the Eiffel tower.

The central area of Paris is blessedly free (almost) of that scourge of the London skyline – namely the stick-out-like-a -sore-thumb solitary skyscraper. London knows all about those, ones that are hideously out of scale and character with their surroundings.

A year ago, our beloved Deputy PM John Prescott (aka Jabba the Hutt) was reportedly intent on adding some more. Is it too much to hope those plans have been shelved with the loss of his departmental responsibilies for the "environment" .

But there is one exception to the idea of Paris as a harmonious unblighted feast for the eye. It's called the Tour Montparnasse ( see picture above - but don't on any account click, unless you want to enlarge it still further).

This furoncle gets its own entry in Wikipedia, from which some of the following is cribbed.

Built between 1969 and 1972 and 210 metres high, it was ( and may still be ?) the tallest building in the whole of France. But Parisians were so appalled at the sheer brutality of the architecture that it remains to this day a one-off, at least within a 2 mile radius or thereabouts of Notre Dame. All the more recent skyscrapers are further out, notably at La Défense, the Parisian business quarter that is the equivalent of Canary Wharf.

But from the tourist's perspective, the Dark Tower does have one big advantage.

From its enclosed viewing deck (see picture) or windy roof terrace one gets an unbeatable view of Paris, with the bonus that it includes that other iconic tower - the lacy steel one, that Parisians hated at first, but now regard, along with the rest of the world, as a national treasure.

Apologies by the way for the quality of my pictures . They were taken last year, on a grey March day.

Whereas........ if you join the queues to go up the Eiffel Tower, what do you see – the hideous one ! The moral, then, is obvious.

I expect you know that the boxy Arch at La Défence is carefully lined up so that one sees it through the Arc de Triomphe, some 2 miles distant. It's a clever and ambitious idea that, don't you think ? – to create sight- lines that counter the feeling of being trapped in a concrete jungle, even the superior kind of concrete that constitutes the French capital.

The Montparnasse Tour is also said to be lined up with the Eiffel Tower and La Defense. But as sightlines go, it's missing one small ingredient that would lend it impact, like the Champs Elysées/ Ave Charles de Gaulle etc. !

Here are some other pictures from the roof.

The one above is Montparnasse railway station. This is the one you use if you are going to Britanny. Apparently the station is surrounded by Breton creperie, allegedly there for the benefit of Bretons who might feel homesick within 2 minutes of arriving in the capital.

The next one is looking along that artery known as the Rue de Rennes, (mentioned in Day of the Jackal) towards the Seine and the Louvre.

The last one (above) is the stately and charming Jardin du Luxembourg, with Notre Dame behind.

I was not until yesterday, reading Wikipedia' s entry on the Montparnasse tower that I came to hear of the man dubbed the "incredible spider". It's the Frenchman Alain Robert who scales skyscrapers with nothing more than his hands and his feet. And he's done some 70 of the world's most famous. Britain (typically) paid him to do 1, Canada Square ("Canary Wharf") as a promotional stunt.

What makes things bizarre beyond words is that early falls in his youth broke, or smashed, not only his wrists, ankles and pelvis but left him, as a result of head injuries, with (wait for it) vertigo. Yes, vertigo ! Mind you, I confess to having some confusion as to the precise meaning of the term. Until yesterday, that is, through researching this post.

I had always assumed vertigo to mean " fear of heights" or the symptoms that accompany fear of heights, such as stomach butterflies, paralysis etc. (all of which I get when up a ladder painting bedroom window frames). Well, I was wrong, it seems. Fear of heights is called acrophobia, whereas vertigo is dizziness, disorientation etc , not exactly what you want when climbing, but perhaps not totally incapacitating. In none of the online references is there any mention of fear. Which is just as well for the likes of that spiderman: how could anyone scale a multi-story building with virtually nothing to grip onto if he was scared rigid ? Personally, I don't think I could even bear to watch. Is there a medical term for over-empathising, to the extent that you feel that it's YOU up there, hanging on for dear life, picturing oneself as stawberry jam on the pavement below?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Blogger's needlessly steep learning curve

It was with a degree of trepidation that I "migrated", as they say, from Mark 1 to Mark 2 ("Beta") blogger. There was an instant payoff - photographs were suddenly accepted without murmur or protest, instead of being spat back after a 5 minute delay. But one knew there was bound to be a sting in the tail, and it didn't take long to show itself.

It's to do with those Labels (see list on right). They are an excellent idea in principle, showing the range of topics that one has touched upon over the weeks or months. Getting the Labels to display in Beta's supposedly user-friendly Layout mode was not the problem. It was the fact that one's hit meter and Technorati tag ( a kind of link to the Greater Blogosphere) disappeared when one tried to use Layout. Why ? Because the first step in using Layout requires starting from scratch with a new page template -even if it's only to stay with the present one . And that wipes the slate clean !

In the old system, add-ons like hit counters etc were a bit of a pain to instal . First one had to go online to find the authorising html code, which then had to be inserted into one's Template, heaven knows where, and it was trial and error finding precisely where it should go.

So, one thought to oneself, is it beyond the wit of man (or acned youth ) to come up with a system where one enters the html code into a kind of temporary holding receptacle or vehicle, and then leave Blogger software to do the rest, inserting it into the Template where necessary.

Well today, after two frustrating weeks, I discovered that such a receptacle does indeed exist. It's just that Blogger can't bring itself to use so mundane a description. Instead it calls the html container a "widget". And to make matters worse, it throws this term at one without bothering to explain what it means. Presumably one is supposed to know intuitively. Speaking for myself, I thought "widget" was a generic term for a gadget, device, invention, gizmo whatever, generally something tangible, concrete, discrete and three-dimensional, not some little bit of utility software . What's the point of having a little program to reduce anxiety and stress if you then go and give it a silly name that disguises its role, thereby creating a whole lot of hassle for layfolk without IT diplomas ?

Is there a compulsory module for web designers entitled " Essential preliminaries for winding up those punters ?"

Once the semantics are made clear, it's a doddle. In fact I used Blogger's question-answer facility first, and here's how the correspondence went:

Help. I recently upgraded to Beta Blogger. But when I tried to add a list of Labels using the new Layout, I lost both my hit counter andTechnorati icon. So for the moment I am back on the old template, trying to figure out what to do next. Other bloggers say that one can copy and paste from old to newtemplate, but it's not clear where to insert in the new template ( and am I right in thinking that the code is different language, with all that widget stuff etc ?).Blogger's Help file is no help whatsoever, with all the gobbledegook about attributes, widgets etc. Can anyone tell me how to get transfer my existing hit counter and Tech' into a new Layout template - in plain English, please ? Thanks Colin B

Ed. Nov 28, 16.30 Correspondence deleted at request of author. A misunderstanding - the specialized email address caused me to think it was advice from BlogCentral !

And finally, this help (the clincher) came from Chuck ("nitecruzR") on Blogger's Q/A facility:

Hi Colin,
Most hit counters, and the Technorati icon, are all coded in plain old HTML / JavaScript. You should be able to simply copy the code for each page element right into a new HTML / JavaScript page element in the Page Layout wizard.

Now here's the incredible thing: when you go to Beta's layout page, looking for HTML/JavaScript, as suggested above, there it is, in a box, plain to see, ie:


Add third-party functionality or other code to your blog.

But do you notice something (apart from more unwelcome gobbledegook) ? Nowhere is the box or its text identified as one of those "widgets". And nor for that matter are any of the other 11 or so receptacles for html code. In other words, the whizz kids at Blogger have coined a term that is vague and non-intuitive, have bandied it around in all their Help files on the assumption we would all know what it means, and then failed to use it themselves where it is most needed. The perverseness of these people doth pass all understanding !

When in due course they arrive at the Pearly Gates, I hope St. Peter will set them a never-ending series of puzzles and conundrums to solve, barring their entry to Paradise, while we, the long-suffering victims of their dismally mislabelled jargon-laden earthly wares, will be in full view, letting our hair down, whooping it up, enquiring politely through the railings as to what might be causing the hold-up.

PS Added Tue 28th. I've just discovered something worth mentioning about Beta Blogger. If you sign into your Beta account with your name and password ( aka Google account) and then visit the blog of someone else who has moved to Beta, you will find that any comments you have posted to that blog have a dustbin symbol underneath. In other words, one can have second thoughts, and erase any comments written in haste ! Not that any of YOU would ever be guilty of such a thing.......

PPS. One of the irritations in using Beta is having continually to identify oneself with name and password. I must be doing this a dozen times a day or more. Log- in details are kept in the system's memorywhile one confines oneself to shuttling between one Beta blog and another. But they are lost as soon as one moves off to a non-Beta site. What is particularly unforgiveable, given that Beta is tied in with Google, is having to sign in again after doing a Google search, which this blogger typically does several times a day. This system needs to be made a lot more user-friendly.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sky News and its misreading of newspaper headlines

The first thing I do each morning after switching on the laptop is to go to Sky News's splendid daily home page feature. It's the internet equivalent of the display of newspapers outside a newsagent. I like to scan the headlines from across the entire spectrum of the UK press, thus quickly apprising myself of what is flavour of the day.
But sadly there is a downside to this, and it's been there now for too long. Far be it from me to jeopardise the supply of someone's bread and butter, but the person who writes Sky's little comments on each paper's front page is not quite, how can one put this, not quite the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Today was a case in point. The Mail on Sunday was the third of 7 Sunday newspapers to be given the quick once over. You can see the headline: "SUSHI BAR MAN IS NUCLEAR WASTE EXPERT".
And what was Sky's comment ?
"The Mail on Sunday claims the former KGB agent who died last week is a "former nuclear waste expert".
So someone who works for Sky, despite all their journalistic exposure, has confused Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy ( who finally succumbed last week to poisoning with radioactive polonium-210) with the contact that he met in the sushi bar.
The Sky staffer concerned seems to have missed entirely the strap above the headline that reads: "Exclusive: mysterious past of last man to meet dead Russian"
So anyone reading Sky News who does not check what the Mail actually said, will go away with the idea , perhaps, that Litvinenko was a victim of his own expertise, and indeed may speculate whether it was an accident or possibly even suicide.
To complicate matters, there is indeed one newspaper that is suggesting the latter, claiming that Litvinenko may have been prepared to sacrifice his own life simply to spite President Vladimir Putin, whom he reportedly knew personally from his KGB days.
But that angle does not get a mention in the Mail article, so Sky's hapless editorial assistant cannot claim that as an excuse.
I would not be taking this harsh tone if today's was an isolated incident. Sadly, it is not. These misreadings, misinterpretations of newspaper headlines have been going on sporadically for many months.
From time to time, I have felt sufficiently aerated to contact Sky and point out these errors (both as regards the headlines and home page generally). The result is the same in all cases : no correction is ever made. All that one ever receives is an auto acknowledgement thanking one for the interest, and that can take a week - or even two- to arrive. I no longer bother using Sky's contact facility.
Now you listen here, Sky News: those newspaper headlines can be thought of as a kind of shopwindow for UK journalism. They are read by folk abroad as well as at home. In using facsimiles of the front pages to brighten up your home page, you have a duty and responsibility to interpret those headlines correctly. Instead, what do you do ? You advertise the defects of your human resources department, the shortcomings of Britain's education system, or possibly both.
If you want someone, once described by his younger brother as a "news junkie", to write your comments, then I offer my services - for a modest fee.
ed 9.30 pm Sunday: It's 10 hours since sending an email to Back came the usual autoacknowledgement, but the object of the complaint has remained up all day. There is clearly no system for making corrections in response to user comment. If Sky News won't take its responsibilities seriously, then why should anyone take SkyNews seriously ? What a casual slipshod organization !
The Mail on Sunday opened a thread on Alexander Litvinenko, but has posted only 2 comments. The one I sent, pointing out SkyNews's cockup, did not get published. The sticking point is probably the inclusion of one's blog URL. Both the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday appear to be blogger-averse.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The view across the bay from Antibes into Italy

It’s time to address another burning issue of the day. How far into Italy can one see from Antibes ?

Every tourist guide I have looked at so far, bar one, gives the same answer : the Bordighera headland ( see map below). Follow the blue line on the map from left (Antibes) to right (Capo S Ampelio peninsula and Bordighera).

Sorry, it does not enlarge on clicking (possibly because it's been photo-edited)

The exception is Michelin’s Guide to the French Riviera, which has this to say:

(From Pointe Bacon on the Cap d'Antibes) one gets ........"a view of Antibes and Fort Carré extending across the Baie des Anges in front of Nice to Cap Ferrat and even Cap Martin near the Italian border. "

In other words, one follows the red sightline on the map, which does not even get as far as Italy !

Well, Monsieur Michelin, you may make good tyres, but your geography is awful. You see, Cap Martin is largely hidden from Antibes behind the Cap Ferrat peninsula.

But there’s another point worth mentioning: Cap Martin is a mere 35 km (approx 22 miles as the crow (seagull ?) flies from Antibes. That's less than the width of the English Channel at its narrowest, and we all know that the white cliffs of Dover are visible from France on a clear day.

I was in Menton yesterday, that splendid Riviera town which is the last one before the Italian border

Here’s the view from the steps of the Cathedral, and yes - it is certainly the Bordighera peninsula that is the furthest one can see into Italy from Menton.

The next picture is the same view, on full zoom, from the promenade, taken with the benefit of a clearer sky.

One can just make out the raised clump of white buildings near the tip, which is Old Bordighera

But why do folk assume that what's true for Menton must be true for Antibes also ? Do they never look at a map ?

Bordighera is emphatically not the furthest one can see from ANTIBES. If you look at the map, one can see that next headland further east should be visible (follow the yellow sightline). It’s called Capo Nero, on which is situated the small resort town of Ospedaletti.

Here are two aerial pictures I took last year, on a flight heading eastwards out of Nice. The first is the Bordighera headland.

Most of the development is close to the shore line. There is little, not much, extending up the hills behind, but little of Bordighera itself is visible from Antibes, due to it being below the horizon.

Here is the next headland going east. It's a lot more dramatic. It has steep terraced sides, with greenhouses and other structures that are easy to spot and identify through binoculars or telescope from afar (if one knows what to look for).

Patient work with binoculars has confirmed without a doubt that it is this prominent headland that one sees on a clear day from Antibes. It is Capo Nero on which sits Ospedaletti . It is a few kilometres further along the coast than Bordighera.

Here is a sharper, lower angle picture of Ospedaletti off the internet, which I used to confirm identification:

Every guide book, then, that I've seen is wrong. And I would guess they will probably continue to stay wrong, given the tendency of received wisdom in books to be endlessly recycled. The pessimist in me says this blog won't make one iota of difference !

Just to the north of Ospedaletti, the autostrada (A10/E80) crosses a viaduct and goes into a tunnel. One can see it my aerial view. Both the viaduct and tunnel entrance are visible through glasses from Antibes . And what an eery sight it is to see the endless convoys of HGVs, through the heat haze. Do you recall that memorable scene in Lawrence of Arabia, in which Omar Sharif gradually emerges wraith-like from the desert. ? That’s how those HGVs look, viewed from 35 miles away across the Med.

Note I have not said that Capo Nero is the furthest one can see into Italy. More on that for another day, says he with a gleam in his eye.

Ed. Late addition: if you look up "Bordighera" in Wikipedia, you will find a photograph taken from Bordighera's little harbour, looking east. And guess what is in the background ? Correct: Capo Nero, with Ospedaletti just visible as a huddle on the shoreline.

The map below shows the relationship between the Capo S Ampelio (Bordighera) and Capo Nero (Ospedaletti) in close up. This one has not been edited, so should enlarge on clicking.

To conclude: here are some pix taken yesterday in Menton that give a flavour of the place.

Up and till yesterday, I had only seen swallows on the wing, and was beginning to wonder if they ever roosted. Well, they do, on the upper stories of that fine belle époque hotel, the Palais de Toutou.

In the close up, you can see one on the wing, and several roosting.

Swallows are a discriminating lot, by the looks of it, liking to rest up in style , before heading back to winter in Africa. They presumably go via Corsica and Sardinia to minimize the time spent over water.

They say Corsica can be visible (just) from the Riviera mainland on clear cold days, especially February. I’ve seen a photograph taken from the celebrated Baou de St. Jeannet (the so-called Balcony of the Riviera, an iconic limestone outcrop , much favoured as a subject by painters). In that photo, Corsica's mountainous profile is just visible on the far horizon. We weren't able to see the so-called Ile de Beauté yesterday, or even its mountain tops , but there was maybe a hint of the island's cloud cover .

Here's the last hairdressing salon before the border.

I thought it had a nice name, with a certain ring to it. Anyway, we passed it on foot, heading towards to the border, where, just 50 metres beyond, we located Italy's first strategically-placed, correction, shamelessly placed, cut-price liquor store. It was deliberately sited, needless to say, to lure folk like ourselves across the frontier. Experience has taught us that one can buy spirits in Italy that (don't ask me why) are unavailable in our part of France, like Captain Morgan rum for example. And the excise duty is much lower too, so we have the equivalent down in this corner of France of a "booze cruise" in reverse.

Buggeration: no Captain Morgan. Looks like we'll have to wait for our next trip to Ventimiglia.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The MSM and those token gestures to bloggers

There have been two examples in the last 24 hours of what I would call token gestures on the part of the MSM towards us bloggers.

Sunday Times

The first, the more serious of the two, concerns an error in the Sunday Times, 29th October 2006. In a feature on that awful Corfu tragedy, in which 2 children died of carbon monoxide poisoning, it was confidently asserted , under the heading "Carbon Monoxide: the Facts", that the gas was heavier than air, and so built up as a layer from the floor.

That in fact is totally wrong - the gas is lighter than air- which I immediately pointed out here the same day, and then reproduced the short letter of correction that I sent to the ST the following day.

And then nothing happened, till last Sunday, 3 weeks later. I missed it, as I expect most readers did, because it appeared as a small item, at the botttom of "News in Brief" on Page 2. It read:

Correction The report "Lost to the Silent Killer" (Focus, October 29) incorrectly said that carbon monoxide was a heavy gas that built up from the floor to affect sleeping people. In fact, it is less dense -thus lighter- than air.

It was , in fact, an email from the ST Letters editor that alerted me to the fact that a correction had finally appeared.

But why did the corrction not appear, attributed, on the Letters page ?

Could it be because my letter included a link to this blog, saying that here was where the reader could find precise numerical data ?

Yes, of course it was self-publicity, but it also helped to keep the letter brief and uncluttered with numbers. So was that a mistake on my part?

And why the 3 week delay in making their correction for something that could have been confirmed on Google in a minute or two ? And why bury it on Page 2, column 1 ? An attempt to save face ?

Daily Telegraph

The second example is less serious, but it mentioned here, as a miniscule contribution to the sum total of blogging trivia.

Yesterday I sent a one-liner to Ceri Radford's latest post to her Telegraph blog. It was a somewhat crass response to her most treasured Hamlet soliloquy, and an even more irreverent swipe at the modern TV soap.

The box for entering one's text asked for one's "Home Page", assuming one had one. So I entered wondering what would happen.

Apparently nothing, at first glance. There was no visible reference to the URL. But on closer inspection, one noticed that one's name was in a microscopic pale-blue font, whereas others were in a grey. Clicking on blue names did indeed bring up one's blog. Fame at last !

That's a nice feature, but one that I suspect is little known outside the blogging fraternity. It's a token gesture, no more, to us. But it's so inconspicuous as to pose little risk of any casual visitor to the Telly's blogs being diverted away from the mighty Main Stream Media !

Monday, November 20, 2006

Blair and Bush : who was using whom ?

Spot the worried military strategist

As indicated yesterday, this ain't a political blog, although it could easily turn into one, but for enormous self-discipline.

By way of a self-denying ordinance, I said I would restrict myself to just 1 post in 7 being ostensibly political. Today's was supposed to address the so-called "special relationship" , a matter close to my heart.

Some of yesterday was spent googling the ups and downs of Anglo-American dealings since 1946. That's when Winston Churchill delivered that Fulton Missouri speech of his, with not just one, but two memorable phrases (Iron Curtain, Special Relationship).

But one look at the Daily Telegraph this morning, and
David Rennie's interview with Ségolène Royale's mentor/political advisor, one Gilles Savary, convinced me that this was not the best moment for any Brit, even this near-anonymous one, to be writing about the special relationship. To be airing one's misgivings about the friend and neighbour across the street, when there's a new kid on the block pelting both our front doors with stones might be seen as poor timing .

According to Ségo, who others are describing as a foreign policy neophyte, Blair's Britain is America's "vassal". Yes, "vassal". How's that for wit and subtlety ? It's the same word, by the way, in French as in English, with the same meaning, ie. a person who owes allegiance and service to a feudal lord . And it's apparently because of the overlord-vassal relationship that Britain agreed to join America in attacking Iraq. Oh yes, and did so without first asking France's permission. Or Germany's. Or the EU's. So we're guilty on two counts simultaneously – one of not having an independent foreign policy and two, of having an independent foreign policy. Yes, you read that correctly.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraq invasion, to use the word " vassal" to describe Britain's position vis-à vis America seems incredibly banal, gauche, facile and maladroit (or , as the French might say, banal, gauche, facile and maladroit). Is this to be the political vocabulary of an intending French president ? Punch and Judy name-calling ?

Semantics, indeed politeness aside, is Britain really America's vassal ? That particular feudal description may be a new one, but appears to be drawn from the same list of Roget's Thesaurus synonyms as others we hear with monotonous frequency (poodle etc).
Isn't Ségo (or her mouthpiece) forgetting one thing. By no stretch of the imagination could Tony Blair be described as a squeamish pacifist, one who had to be pressured into deploying his country's military.

Blair is cut from a very different cloth from one of his predecessors, that avuncular pipe-smoking Harold Wilson. It was the latter , you may recall, who succeeded in keeping Lyndon Johnson at arm's length, and in so doing kept Her Majesty's Armed Forces out of Vietnam. Whereas it was our Tone, no less, who first began beating the drums of war when Serbia threatened Kosovo, who urged the Americans to intervene militarily, and who the sent in the RAF to bomb a European capital, something we have not done since WW2. See
BBC report, 1999.

The idea that TB was press-ganged into joining in the attack on Iraq is a commonly held one. It supposes that GWB nobbled TB in the emotionally -overwrought aftermath of 9/11, subjected him to a loyalty test ("you say you love us, now prove it") and then railroaded us into the War on Terror.

But that is, I believe, a faulty analysis. The key to understanding Blair's relationship with Bush is not servility but vanity. Vanity writ large. Mr. Tony "He -Who-Can- Charm- the- Hind- Leg-off- a -Donkey" Blair is, in fact, a closet Lord Palmerston. He revels in delivering ultimatums to Johnny Foreigner, in earnest moralising language. And woe betide JF if he doesn't quickly heed the warning. Because if he turns a deaf ear, then the gunboats, or their modern equivalent, follow in short order, bristling with the latest laser-guided weaponry.

Now Lord Palmerston, or his like-minded successor Disraeli, would never have dreamt of going to war without first consulting the Queen. That is, of course, the bare minimum demanded under our constitutional monarchy. And where Queen Victoria was concerned, probably nothing less than her whole-hearted approval would have done.

But it doesn't seem to work remotely like that in modern Britain. TB has taken the role of PM further down the path towards de facto presidency. The Cabinet seems little more than a rubber stamp. The constitutional monarch is seen by His Toniness as a purely ceremonial role, in competition for public adulation. No-one must ever be allowed to cramp his own style or freedom of action.

Whatever TB expects from his Tuesday meetings at the Palace ( which he allegedly regards as an imposition) Her Maj's blessing or support appears not to be vital for his mission. And thus it continues unchecked, the sending of UK forces into various dusty corners of the world, apparently to rescue Islamic tribesmen and/or insurgents from themselves.

It would appear that Mr and Mrs B, with the help of the odd guru or two, need no further counsel from anyone outside their own magic circle to be convinced of the rightness of their cause.

All they need is that vital green light from Washington, to avoid a Suez type fiasco, the result of foolishly leaving the senior partner out of the loop.

Blair is emphatically no vassal, politically or temperamentally, and never has been. To describe him in those terms is a monumental misjudgement of the man's character.

Blair is in reality a control freak, obsessed with his place in history, as a successor to Churchill and Thatcher. The truth is that while Bush has been using Blair to add an Old World stamp of approval to his simplistic world view, Blair has also been using George Dubya to advance his warrior credentials. Each needs the other. It's political symbiosis. Or mutual complementation - each serving to make good the deficiencies of the other.

The end result - Iraq - is one of the greatest catastrophes for British foreign policy in living memory. It makes Eden's Suez adventure look like a team-building paintball exercise.

But for a French politician, and an aspiring President to boot, to portray Blair's Britain as America's vassal is to resort to the cheapest of gibes. One expects better of the supposedly discriminating, sophisticated French mind. Particularly that of this new kid on the block, one who should be aiming to create a good first impression. But hasn't.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Dreams & Daemons - one month old today

It’s now a month since I started Dreams and Daemons (“ D&D ”) . Posting at least once a day has certainly kept this retiree busy, and re-created some of the sensation of being back at work – the need to plan ahead, indeed progressively further ahead as one uses up the easy options, like “ My Meteo Clock” for example .

It’s been interesting following Google entries build up under “D&D. Initially there was only one – a reference to a 1935 paper in the Journal of Philosophy:

“In contrast to both the Kantian and the phenomenological formalisms, which would apply to dreams and daemons as well as to normal human experience, ...”

I knew I’d seen “Dreams and Daemons “ before somewhere ! And please believe I’ve done my level best to maintain a scrupulous balance between Kantian and phenomenological formulations ..........

At the latest count there were 108 Google returns , some 20 in the condensed listings. The utilitarian posts ( Meteo Clock,) are the most frequently cited, and/or linked to other sites, but these are early days in that department.

There have only been been a few Comments so far (today excepted !). Profuse thanks to those who have contributed. But there’s been some misunderstanding, judging by what I read on another blog.

The main battle so far has not been to win public acclaim or ratings. It’s with myself : to keep the show on the road, and to assemble a portfolio of posts on a variety of topics, if that’s not too grand a term.

Looking at some other blogs that do attract Comments in plentitude, they are often one-liners that are little more than “Hi, nice photo”, while others function as chatrooms, though whether that was the blogger’s intention is another matter.

In time, I hope to attract interest from folk who have pursued a link to something of interest, buried maybe deep in the archives, who might then explore around a bit more, and find perhaps that they share my 'take' on this world of ours – inquisitive, sceptical, and unashamedly irreverent, disrespectful even, when one discovers things are not all they seem to be.

This blog will not be everyone’s tasse de thé, and was never intended to be. Those who think I am prepared to “lose my soul” in pursuit of a few more Comments have maybe taken a snapshot of a day or two, and perhaps have failed to realize that I am constantly experimenting with different styles and presentations, both up - and downmarket, so to speak, if only to avoid being prematurely classified as having this or that type of blog.

If comments were that important, I could have twisted a few arms, or even invented a contributor or two. I have not. A blog does not need to become an instant forum, even if the latter can be fun. A no-holds-barred forum can become a form of torture too, depending on the sort of folk who take up residence.

However, the time has come to change gear, from high-revving first to a smoother second. Daily posting is fine for starters, to build that superstructure of content. But there’s a big drawback. It leaves little time for networking among other blogs ( or posting to some MSM forums) . If one does not seek the company of other bloggers, why should one expect interest in return ? So starting from now, posts will appear, on average, every other day. But the gap may be longer if it‘s a topic needing more careful research . Or when writing suddenly becomes a burden, as it does from time to time. Not so much writer’s block. More writer’s cramp.

On average, each run of 7 posts (ie per fortnight) might break down roughly as follows:

1. A political topic

2. A science or health topic

3. Something with local flavour ( Antibes and environs) or travel-related.

4. Something oddball or quirky.

(We inheritors of the Goon Show, Monty Python etc. take our responsibilities seriously to keep the genre alive, till the next Spike Milligan or John Cleese comes along. Keep trying Ricky Gervais, Peter Kay et al, but you’re not quite in the same league as yet. )

5. An opinionated piece, assisted in that by my outspoken pal from the hippocampus.

6. Something from the personal archive of recollections, anecdotes etc.

7. A report on someone else’s blog.

Note then, that this is not a focused blog. It’s a fairly broad brush thing. As such it’s never likely to be a high-profile blog. But it was never intended to be.

But there are one or two respects in which this one might achieve a higher profile than many other individual blogs.

(a) Firstly, the author has published in science, so has experience of developing a viewpoint, and then sticking his head above the parapet.

(b) Although ostensibly a researcher/academic, he has wider experience across the entire spectrum - a stock of anecdotes on which to draw.

Eg: I once worked at B&Q for 9 months as a so-called “Customer Advisor” (a misnomer if ever there was).

And I worked in W.Africa (2 years) and the USA (2 years) , so have seen things at first hand from both a "Third World" and "First World" perspective. The USA was marginally preferable. But not by a long chalk : one of fairly modest length, in fact. Stubby, you might say. And the beer in Ghana (Club, Star) was definitely better. And served at the right temperature !

Friday, November 17, 2006

So what do YOU make of that term "Anglo-Saxon" ?

Note from Colin (hippo's keeper) added Saturday Nov 18th

It seemed like a good idea at the time: to let the inner nerd speak. He needs his occasional day out, same as the rest of us. But to spare you having to plough through his leaden prose (in autumnal chesnut below ) here's the gist of his message.

"Anglo-Saxon" has numerous connotations, none of them flattering.

It implies:

(a) a barbarian war-like disposition

(b) the idea that the English are outsiders, not indigeneous to Britain

(c) The English-dominated government in London has no mandate to speak on behalf of the whole of Britain

(d) the English are genetically of mixed blood and, ipso facto, unknown, untrustworthy quantities

(e) the English are too given to acting as poodle to those other "Anglo-Saxons", namely the Americans.

So when you refer to us, Frère Jacques, as "les Anglo-Saxons", don't expect us to share your little Gallic joke. What joke ? Where's the humour ? Whatever happened to the Entente Cordiale ?

Well, you do disappoint me, boys and girls. Only one response to my questionnaire so far, and that from the boy who always has his hand up.

Now if he is capable of an original "take" on the expression "Anglo-Saxon" , as used by the French to refer to ourselves, then I'm sure YOU too could come up with something original if you tried.

Or are you going to let that clever boy do all your thinking for you ?

But here are three more views on what Anglo-Saxon means, outside of its strict historical context.

1. The Anglo-Saxons arrived as foreign interlopers. Even if they had been entirely peaceful, they ended up somewhere they didn't belong. Anglo-Saxons are not true Britons. The true Britons , we used to be told (mistakenly), are the Celts, ie the Scots, Irish and Welsh. Ipso facto, the modern day English are not authentic British, but a foreign strain. They are your worst nightmare, the transient, the traveller, who deciding he likes his new abode ("Good 'ere, innit ?) becomes first a squatter, and then sets up home in your backyard.

And here's a point where I find myself partially in agreement with that solitary commentator: on no account will the French risk offending their Celtic friends and/or ancient allies by speaking disparagingly of the British. Better to avoid that blanket term, and instead speak sniffily of the "Anglo-Saxons". When in doubt, use coded language.

2. The Anglo-Saxons were not peaceable interlopers. Far from it: they were warlike invaders who subjugated the native Britons. "Briton" is in fact an Anglo-Saxon word that means "slave". Ipso facto, the term "Anglo-Saxon" is a reference to our supposed belligerence and bellicosity, still manifest 1500 years later, we are told, in the behaviour of our football hooligans, Margaret Thatcher's re-taking of the Falklands, her taming of the unions, Blair's military campaigns in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

3. The Anglo-Saxons were a hybrid entity - a genetic cross. Put crudely, that means the modern English are mongrels. As such they have a unique mix of genes that is peculiar to the English. So when the English appear to think or act differently from mainland Continentals, one should not waste time in trying to reason or understand. They are "Anglo-Saxons" who behave the way they do, because it is hard-wired into their DNA.


So there you have it, class: already we have three distinctly different interpretations, and that's not counting the one we have already. You see, I have made no mention of our transatlantic cousins, the Americans. That's an aspect that appears to weigh heavily in the mind of our single Commentator.

But none of these interpretations, note, are in the least bit flattering. All can be made to sound pejorative.

What a handy expression, then, to have: "Anglo-Saxon" : a multipurpose, coded insult, one that can always be passed off lightly, if challenged, as a cheeky historical allusion, but which really comes down to one thing : the English are NOT ONE OF US.

We Brits are generally an easy going lot. We're not given to getting worked up about the tags, labels, that others apply to us. But can we afford to be so relaxed, philosophical about one that can be taken to mean so many different things ? And one, moreover, that according to Stephen Oppenheimer, reinforces a mistaken view of history and genetics, ie that the English are not native to Britain ?

We warn our own children of the dangers of racial stereotyping which can lead to demonising, then persecution. So why should we acquiesce to the misuse of a label that has ceased to have any meaning in modern society ? Why have we allowed others to lift a geographical term from our British history, that can now be used quite freely in the politest of society as a snide, derogatory NATIONAL PUT-DOWN ?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Close encounter with a foreign HGV

Hippo’s had only one response so far to his questionnaire, and is not a happy hippo. He’s been furiously scribbling away; so brace yourselves for some tetchiness later in the day. Better still: humour him with a comment or two.

Anyway, here’s something completely different to be getting on with. One can’t allow these tiresome pedagogues to dictate the agenda ….

There was an item on the news two nights ago about the hazard created by foreign HGVs on British roads. It’s to do with their left hand drive, and poorly mounted wing mirrors.
See related story on BBC London by Sarah Harris.

Presumably there’s potential for UK trucks to create similar havoc on Continental roads, but that didn’t get a mention !

Watching this news item, there was much grim-faced nodding in the Berry household, as we listened to one lucky-to-be-alive front-seat passenger relate his experience. You see, we had a similar, though less serious, experience on the M25, some two and a half years ago. And here are the photographs to prove it !

The motorway had been busy, with all three lanes occupied, and we were essentially trapped in the middle lane (not hogging it). Our speed differential brought us level with the juggernaut, and we then gradually moved broadside - always an unenviable position in which to find oneself.

My wife spotted it first. The truck was drifting over into our lane, with the gap closing rapidly. What does one do in such a situation ? Sounding the horn is useless on a motorway, we are told. Brake hard, and you risk a rear end collision. Swing into the fast lane, and the possible consequences don’t bear with thinking about.
In the event, I flashed the headlights furiously, feathered the brake pedal ever so lightly just enough to flash the brake lights, and then braked progressively, as hard as I dared. All this was done in less than a second or two , but it seemed much longer, especially to poor Mrs.B in the front passenger seat.

We were very lucky. The truck took off our wing mirror, but spared the bodywork and, more important, Mrs.B. We were spared the fate of the guy on the TV – his vehicle had been bodily shunted into the fast lane. The driver and passenger were both very lucky to be uninjured.

But I was one very unhappy bunny. It should not have happened, and there was the small matter of insurance. It was a rental car, and we had opted for a budget deal, where one pays the first £600 of damage. We were later to have that sum deducted by Avis from our credit card while the repair work was done, and the bill decided.

Meanwhile, back on the M25, red-mist hippo briefly intervened, and I found myself, automaton-like, pursuing the truck in the slow lane, flashing my headlights, and gesticulating at the driver to stop. Finally, he had to slow for a tailback, and deigned to pull over to find what all the fuss was about.

As you see from the photographs, it was a Czech lorry, and the driver’s English was limited , though not as limited as my Czech. Anyway, he had some standard paperwork for dealing with such mishaps, and I had made sure he could see I had photographs of his vehicle and its registration.
The picture at the top shows the lorry driver, with our car and Mrs B in the background.

The bill when it came wasn’t as bad as we feared. But when Avis tried reclaiming off the haulage company, on our behalf, their letters went unanswered.

We just feel lucky to be still in one piece, or spared a much bigger bill. But there are two points I would make. First, if it had been my own vehicle, I like to think I would have instinctively hit the hazard warning lights, to alert following vehicles to our predicament, and make harsh braking or sudden lane-changing an option. But I was in a strange vehicle, and hadn’t made a mental note of the location of that red triangle button. I will, next time.

Second, experiences such as ours are becoming more frequent, we are told. That being the case, it should not be possible for foreign companies, least of all fellow EU members, to dodge the consequences of their drivers’ actions by failing to respond to correspondence.

If someone fails to file a tax return on time, there’s an automatic fine, at least in the UK. One feels there ought to be something similar at EU level for companies or private citizens who try to evade their legal obligations.
It’s all too easy for them to drag their heels in the sure knowledge that if it’s a minor incident, claimants will grow weary and let the matter drop. We did.

Is "Anglo-Saxon" an impolite term ?

Here are some questions from my pal hippo for you to ponder on - and to contribute a comment if you feel so inclined.

1. Why do the French refer to us on occasions as Anglo-Saxons ?

2. Who is included in that description - is it just the English, or does it include the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish ?

3. What is the term "Anglo-Saxon" intended to convey that is not adequately described by the term British, English etc ?

4. Is the term Anglo-Saxon intended to be pejorative ? If so, mildly or strongly ?

5. Anglo-Saxons are described in some history books as 'barbarian invaders'. Is the term Anglo-Saxon synonomous with barbarian ?

6. When the French refer to Anglo-Saxon economics, which of the following countries is included: : Britain, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa ?

7. If it is OK to refer to Britons, or British-derived stock as Anglo-Saxons, would it be equally OK to refer to the French as Franks, Gauls, or Normans ?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Re-discovered. Our 'Britannian' heritage

Gradually, little by little, the full implications of Oppenheimer’s obituary to our "Anglo-Saxon" identity sinks in. For those new to this site, look please at two earlier posts on this blog ("Discover your inner Basque" Part1 & Part 2).

To recap, briefly, there's a Professor Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University who has painstakingly gathered sophisticated, high-tech genetic data proving that the British are just as indigenous to Britain as the Aborigines are to Australia, or the Inuit to the Arctic. Forget all that nonsense, he says, about Celts being the true Britons, or the English really being “Anglo-Saxons”, relatively new arrivals from the land of the Angles (Denmark) or Saxony on the north German plain.

All of us, he says, English, Scots, Welsh, and even the Irish ( yes the Irish as well, bless their little linen socks ) are for the most part descended from Basque immigrants. It was these hardy folk, Europe’s great survivors, who migrated from their homeland, in the Pyrenees, and who re-populated Britain after the last Ice Age. But it happened so long ago (15,000 years) that Britain was then still part of Continental Europe, joined by a land bridge.

So the new arrivals would have had to make some effort to get on with their new neighbours. At some point these Basque settlers dumped their own language in favour of the local lingua franca (hardly surprising, one might think, looking at the complexity of Basque, at least to our eyes and ears: Basque is like no other language).

In so doing the Basques became 'proto-British', in exactly the same way, many millennia later, a group of Scandinavian settlers in northern France adopted the local language, dropped their own, and in so doing became proto-French. We call them the Normans ( a good name because it alludes to their origins).

Oppenheimer has some other surprises too (while straying away from hard genetics into more contentious areas of linguistics): he believes that English is NOT derived from a 5th century Germanic tongue, brought in by Anglo-Saxon settlers, as we were told at school, but from an earlier Germanic tongue that was established well before the Roman invasion.

So our genes are mainly (typically 80-90%) indigenous, rather than foreign imports. We are not mongrels, Heinz 57 varieties, forced to console ourselves with the thought that what we may lack in ethnic authenticity, in finely groomed pedigree status, we hopefully make up for in hybrid vigour.

Whether we consider ourselves as English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, we are all “British”. Ah, but meaning what, you may ask ? A second generation Jamaican living in Manchester is British, but is unlikely to have Basque genes, and is indeed very happy with the ones he has got. Whilst not especially enamoured of my first name, I’d have been very happy to have Powell as a surname, all nicely preceded by General, with gold braid, chauffered limousine and salary to match ! Yes, Colin (“Coe-leen”) Powell has a Jamaican Mum and Dad.

So if we want to talk meaningfully about our origins in pre-history - our roots- what we are clearly lacking is a word that is a collective for the indigenous population of the British Isles , ie GB and Ireland (Eire and Ulster) prior to the arrival of more recent immigrants.

But I can't think of one, off the top of my head. So let’s invent one, for the purpose of this exercise, to avoid possible confusion, and likewise to avoid giving offence to the many splendid folk of so-called New Commonwealth origin. Many of them have contributed in numerous ways, large and small, to modern British society.

How about “Basque-British” or simply “Basquish” for starters?

There's one drawback : 15,000 years is a long time to be separated from one's antecedents. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Actually, there's quite a lot we share in common - raising sheep, fishing, building ships etc. But the problem has been that language of their's. A lot of Brits have learned to speak Spanish, both Castilian and Catalan. But how many do you know how can speak Basque ? As I say, we've lost contact with our forbears. The linguistic phone went dead a long time ago. We both of us hung up. So few of us will rush precipately into calling ourselves Basquish.

So while we gradually get back on speaking terms, let’s look for a different name for ourselves, enlighted with Oppenheimer's research and scholarship.

There are many folk these days who make no secret of their dissatisfaction with the term "British". I know I do. It’s too vague to mean anything useful. Some have now retreated back to their "footballing" national identity.
That’s been true of the proud Scots and other minority nations for a long time. More recently, the English have begun describing themselves as such, ie English, and rediscovering the Cross of St. George, and places to hang it on their windowsills.
Some of this resurgence of nationalism has been spurred on by Scottish devolution, the unresolved Lothian question, and the fact that your Scottish aunt gets better treatment north of the border from the so-called NHS. Many of us, then, view the retreat into, say Englishness, from Britishness, with some regret, and with a degree of suspicion that with it may come a hidden, rabidly right-wing political agenda.
And there are those of us who, while ready to dump "British" as an outdated label, regret seeming to distance ourselves from our fellow members of the United Kingdom. There's a sense of having thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Here’s a suggestion. The Romans had a
name for the island that we call Great
Britain. They called it Britannia. And what
did the Romans ever do for us, apart from giving us a regal-sounding name ?
Well, as you see, they put us on their map of the known world. And that was just for starters.
So why don’t we, descended from the original inhabitants of Great Britain, nay the entire British isles, who are possessed largely of aboriginal genes, so we are told, start calling ourselves Britannians ?
Why ? It's the heritage thing, stupid. It's so as to stop feeling as if we were Johnny-Come -Lately's. Like Tartars off the Central European steppe. And it would provide a welcome, re-invigorated reconnection with our national icon Britannia who graces our coins, and some of our stamps.
And there are one or two fine statues of that charismatic lady (Maggie Thatcher Mark 1 ?) in London and elsewhere. Or am I thinking of Boadicea ? Never mind, the two look a bit similar, chiselled features an' all and no one ever questions the British credentials of that warrior queen. It was, after all, she who anticipated James Bond's inventive pal Q in the axle-mounted blade department by about 2000 years, putting the Romans to flight. Well, for a while, at any rate.
So that's the problem sorted then, as far as the English, Scots and Welsh are concerned. Oh yes, and the Cornish.

But that leaves the problem what to call the Irish ? Oh dear, there's just no escaping that Irish Question.

Well, one thing's for certain. The inhabitants of the Irish Republic (Eire) will probably not be rushing to celebrate their genetic kinship with us Brits, so are not a problem.

The difficulty as ever, is with those folk in the north, they of the Scottish antecedents, we are told. Although before that I understand they were Irish, like, you know, Irish Irish. (It’s all so complicated ! ).
The Irish may not be Britannian, in the Roman sense of the word, but let's not get hung up on Latin semantics: if the Irish want to be called the same as us, then let them (just as they presently call themselves British, despite there being a touch of geopolitical licence there).

The Romans called the island of Ireland “Hibernia”. By this reckoning, the Rev Ian Paisley could be described as “Hiberno-Britannian”. I'm sure he's had some less flattering descriptions in his time. But in the event that even he, with his formidable tongue, might find "Hiberno-Britannian" too much of a mouthful, he might prefer to go on calling himself an Ulsterman, or just plain British (on the assumption that he won't be confused with the Paisleys who divide their time between Brixton and Kingston. Kingston, Jamaica that is).

All this semantic ground-work is in preparation for tomorrow’s post. It’s to placate a little fellow who’s been crashing around on a certain hippo- campus for days, staging endless protests, sit-ins, waving placards, having tantrums, demanding instant solutions, immediate redress.
I'm now a model of composure, I'll have you know.

So what’s got hippo so worked up ? Well, I'll tell you. It began with his reading about Stephen Oppenheimer. And it progressed from there. And it's all come to be focused on one little word. Correction: two hyphenated words. It’s that term that the French have for us, whenever the subject of economic and social policy differences arise, which is like – every day. You’ve guessed it. Anglo-Saxon.

Yes, hippo demands action and redress. And if he doesn’t get it, then you know what ? He’ll start to retaliate in kind, by referring to the French* as, guess what ? Normans !

Read what hippo has to say tomorrow, dear friends.

*Well, the northern ones at least. Not my antiboulenc* next-door neighbours, perish the thought. Some of our best friends (now) are French.
Antiboulenc, in case you were wondering, is the old Provencal word meaning “belonging or pertaining to Antibes” . My wife is active in the Antiboulenc Society. The modern rendering is Antibois, a term I avoid. Can’t risk having the party hostess think I’m teetotal.

Bird's eye view of the Marina (Baie des Anges) and Cagnes Hippodrome

This is by way of a holding post, pending something more substantial - and, dare I say - mildly controversial . Expect something later in the day. These two pictures are aerial views from the Berry photo-archive of the two places mentioned in the previous post. The first is the Marina Baie des Anges, with the Cagnes Hippodrome race course just hoving into view behind the nearer of the two wing nacelles .
That's a life-time first for me - to write nacelles.
I think it's the right word. Ought to check really. But it seemed better than "thingy".
Thingy is a girly word - usually a euphemism of first resort. *********************************************Click to enlarge (oops)

The second, taken a few moments later, is

the race course itself , venue for the food fair
Bit of space here that needs filling up. No, none of this is double entendre, I assure you. What do you take me for ?
Because of the way it's designed, lamellar (leaf-like) , is that the correct term ? - everyone with an apartment in the Cagnes ziggurat gets a sea view. The apartments are all traversant, as they say in estate agent speak, so one gets a view in both directions. One also benefits from breezes coming from the interior (mistral or tramontaine ) or off the sea (called ?), an important consideration in this part of the world.

Geeks corner. Nothing is where it should be. The text is reduced to a skinny trail down the side of the pictures, and the captions are separated from the pictures. Why ? Because in draft mode, one gets a full width page, but when one hits the Publish key it belatedly inserts "About Me" details, squeezing everything else to fit. I have checked the three other Blogger users I look at regularly (Sarah, Angela, Colin R. ) Like me, they all have "About Me" shown prominently, so it's not pure narcissism on my part to have it where it is: it help to break up the page and create interest. But it's time Blogger's draft page knew what the other hand was doing, and delivered on its claimed wysiwyg user-friendliness.

Calm down dear

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ideal Food Exhibition (Part 2)

Still with me ? Good, here we are, still at the
Cagnes Hippodrome, for the Salon du Palais Gourmand ("Ideal Food Exhibition").

Here's a view of the western end of the course. In the background, towering above the trees is that somewhat controversial landmark, visible for miles around, and directly under the flight path to Nice Aeroport, namely the Marina Baie des Anges. Or as we call it, the ziggurat.

With all that splendid food on display, we thought we would try the sit-down menu on offer. It was brought to us by a Castelnaudary restaurant, the Hotel de France, which had been awarded the concession.
I had the cassoulet - tender long-cooked beans
with goose, and Toulouse sausage. My wife says they are
haricot beans in English, which is a bit redundant as descriptions go, apparently, given that haricot means "bean". So what you see in the bowl was "bean beans". Anyway, never mind the semantics. It was very tasty, though cooled rather too quickly in the November air.

One nice little incident to relate: shortly after I took the picture on the right, the French couple at the next table got up to go, and offered us their unfinished bottle of wine - gratefully accepted. Ah the freemasonry, and camaraderie, of food connoiseurs !

My wife's meal, just visible in the background,
was duck - a mix of hot duck gesiers and foie gras

I must mention the bread. Now that's something that's always been a sore point with me. French bread - especially the baguette- is one of France's great gifts to civilization. But it does have to be eaten quite quickly, while still crusty. Thereafter it goes leathery. So why do so many restaurants plonk down a basket of bread that has been sitting around for hours ? Why do the French tolerate it ?
Anyway the bread we were given was delightful - a sour dough recipe, with moist springy crumb.
So afterwards, we set off in search of more good bread.

And guess what we spotted next: another Basque
food stall - one that was doing bread ! Just the thing, we thought, to fortify the inner Basque . Sorry to keep banging on about that, but it's one of those limpet ideas - so to speak - given everything we've been told about being "Anglo-Saxons" and having the French constantly label us as such.

Well, we bought one of those loaves and took it home, but it was nothing special - a bit on the dense side. But there's a lot that I'm now prepared to forgive the 'old country'. I just wish their extremists would stop their bomb attacks.

Candy floss ! Now there's something I hadn't seen
in years, decades even. So we stood and watched how it was made. The lady was pouring sugar down the hole in the central reservoir, that was spinning at high speed.
But what was happening inside that reservoir to make the candy floss ?
These days, thanks to the Internet, one can get instant answers to this kind of thing within seconds. Apparently the sugar is quickly heated till it melts, and then the centrifugal force pushes the melt out through lots of tiny perforations to create those cotton wool threads. What kind of mind dreamt that one up, one wonders ?

The modern machine seems much faster than the ones I recall from fairgrounds as a child, but
maybe the quality has suffered somewhat. Modern candy floss doesn't seem to have
quite the same sparkle. Ah, nostalgia ain't what
it used to be !

One final picture: could not resist taking one of what was on sale outside.

Shortly after this blog began, a denizen of one my previous blogging haunts described it, in his typical put-down fashion, as a poubelle site, ie a rubbish bin.

Well, R of O, if you are reading this, I'll have you know that this poubelle, like the Zuny in the picture, is not just any old rubbish receptacle.

The Ideal Food Exhibition (Part 1)

I trust you did a double-take on today's title. Ideal Food Exhibition ? Is there such a thing ? Well, according to Google, the expression has only been used once before, and that was in a 1949 proceedings of the Dail, the Irish Parliament. But it seems an apt expression for yesterday's excursion.

It began by catching the train at Antibes, going in the Nice direction, and getting off 3 stops along the line, at Cagnes-sur-Mer. As we approached the station we spotted the race-course, sandwiched between the track and the sea, with a promising number of marquees, our destination.. Coats were being put onto horses, long before sundown.

We had a mile or so to walk, with the above sign confirming we were going in the right direction, ie to the "Hippodrome de la Côte d'Azur. Regular visitors to this blog, all three (?) of them, will know what I mean when I say that a small inner voice said " Hey, that looks interesting" on seeing the sign at the bottom.

Closer still, at the edge of the race -track, was a
banner advertising the event to which we were the beneficiary of free tickets: The Salon Du Palais Gourmand", or as I prefer to call it, The Ideal Food Exhibition - a kind of Olympia in miniature, a temporary and makeshift temple to France's great obsession.

We went into the main marquee, and were first hit by the heat and fug, despite it being an autumn day with a hint of crispness in the afternoon air. And the next thing to strike us was that flag, the one I'd now recognize anywhere, thanks to researching this blog's previous topic.

Yes, it was none other than the Basque flag, would you believe it ? Naturally I wasted no time in introducing myself to my long lost cousins. There was much nodding and beaming, but little comprehension I suspect: Stephen Oppenheimer does not appear to be a household name as yet in Biarritz. More about our prehistoric kith and kin tomorrow, in Part 2 of this epistle.

In passing, don't those wares of theirs look just delicious. But that was the trouble - everything was so tempting, and the euros were flying out of our pockets at a rate of knots.

Suddenly my wife moved off, as if drawn by a strange force. It was the violet- chocolate stall,
calling her from afar.

There was a delightfully home-made look about the packaging and presentation. We wondered if the violets, or the flavour thereof, might have come from Tourrettes-sur-Loup, up towards Grasse, which specializes in the cultivation of that flower, but the labelling was somewhat vague, apart from a reference to Nice. Curiously, the French version of my wife's favourite confectionery is made inside out, ie, chocolate on the inside, and violet-flavoured sugar coating on the outside. Very tasty all the same.

There were far too many delectable offerings to capture here. But I do love to see the olive displays. We have a little book somewhere that goes into olive culture - a fascinating business, one that could be the subject of a future post here. I had always assumed that green and black olives were different species. Not so, apparently. It's to do with the time of harvesting, the black ones having matured on the tree.

We then stopped by at a stall that was offering free samples of a novel wine called Hypocras from the Pays d'Oc, and described by the nice lady as a "medieval drink". It was spiced we were told, ie vin épicé. I was a bit reluctant at first, being somewhat conservative in my wines. But two small sips, and hey presto, there was an instant convert, parting with his €10. The initial sensation was that of cinnamon, not too powerful, but hints of other things besides.

The following ingredients were listed in small print on the label: Vin, Cannelle, Gingembre, Muscade, Cardamom, Miel, Sucre, Eau de Rose, Orange and Macis. I'll need to get the dictionary out for some of those. But one thing is certain: those folk in the Pays d'Oc have devoted centuries of experimenting and tweaking to get the balance of fruit and spice just right.

The alcohol content is described as 12%, not a fortified wine as one might have expected. But the lady says it will keep for a year in the fridge after opening, confirmed on a little set of notes. But as my wife says, it's unlikely to last that long in this household.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Discover your inner Basque (Part 2)

This is another of those "piton posts". It's not that there's insufficient material for Part 2 of the fascinating Basque-connection. Quite the contrary- there's too much, but it's all dry textbook stuff. Whilst this headbanger is still afflicted with a daft mission to explain, that does not extend to boring the pants off the few brave souls who venture to this site. So you will be spared the details of mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) and Y chromosomal DNA, used to track maternal and paternal genes respectively back to prehistory - amazingly to our beginnings in East Africa, some 150,000 years ago. Suffice it to say that these forms are chosen because they stay aloof from the general mixing-up of genes that occurs each time a new individual comes into this world. His or her DNA pattern is said to be "highly conserved".

The story of the breakout from Africa, first to the Middle East, and then Asia, Siberia, N. and S. America etc is a fascinating one (see link below), but you will be spared for now a lot of spiel on migration patterns. But I may tack something on to the end, say in a day or two.

For the moment, it's mainly pictures. Like the map of the Basque region (above) which is mainly in N. Spain, but extends across the border into France.

And a reminder of that Basque game pilota. The following passage is filched from Wikipedia.

Pilota in Basque and Catalan, pelota in Spanish, or pelote in French (from Latin pila) is a name for a variety of court sports played with a ball using one's hand, a racket, a wooden bat (pala), or a basket propulsor, against a wall (frontón in Spanish, frontoi in Basque, frontó in Catalan) or, more traditionally, with two teams face to face separated by a line on the ground or a net. Their roots can be traced to the Greek and other ancient cultures, but in Europe they all derive from real tennis (see Jeu de Paume). Today, pelota is widely played in several countries: in the Basque Country and their neighbours; in Valencia where it is considered the national sport; and in rural areas of Ireland (Gaelic handball), Belgium, North of Italy, Mexico, Argentina and other American countries.

The Basque flag. OK, so we Brits are derivative. But our flag as well ?

Screen capture from an excellent website: a virtual global journey of man over the last 160,000 years

And do we have our Basque genes to thank for our reputation for fair play ?
The Pamplona Bull run
Final note: prompted in part by a comment received yesterday. This blog is staying well clear of politics on this particular topic: what you see here should be seen purely as a response to Stephen Oppenheimer's genetic tracing sudies. This blogger has no position on the matter of Basque separatism, except to say that he abhors violence and terrorism as a means of pursuing a political objective. He also despises attempts by States to deny their ethnic minorities a reasonable degree of political autonomy, especially to those having their own language and distinctive cultural identity. Sadly, what one man sees as reasonable may be seen by another as a dangerous concession.