Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Coming clean on the matter of dust

Isn't she splendid ? Here's how she looked when we first laid eyes upon her in April 2002. No, not that startling piece of white ceramic kitsch in the foreground, at which even the dealer seems to be looking somewhat doubtfully. No, it's the antique galleon in the background that's the subject of this post. Here she is in close-up:

It was Antibes' annual Antiques Week, with the posher up-market stuff inside the pavilions erected along the Port Vauban. But the humbler brocante offerings spill over onto stalls lining the Boulevard d'Aguillon. That is Antibes' main tourist drag , with a string of Irish pubs and open-air restaurants.

The ship was well-nigh irresistible: the sails, despite being yellowed with age, look like real ones in miniature (see next picture), thanks to the weave, the stitching, and those stiffening fillets at the rear. They all combine to give an authentic scale-model effect, which you don't find on the modern made-in-SE Asia offerings.

And then there's the rigging, all painstakingly done, especially the rope ladders. I suspect the model was the handiwork of a real-life mariner, probably 19 th century, I would guess, done perhaps on his bunkbed on a long voyage. Every detail would have had to pass muster with critical fellow-crew members.

But as we handed over a wad of euros to the guy in the leather jacket, there was one factor that we had failed to take into account. Today, some 5 years down the line, it has become a matter for constant mulling over, especially with the arrival of each New Year.

And what might that be, you may ask ? Well, the picture below provides a clue.

Answer: cast your eye along the cotton bud to the end, which was dipped in liquid polish. The effect is to reveal that rich varnished timber lurking beneath many months accumulation of DUST !

But cleaning that tiny patch was just the beginning of the chore, starting with an easily-accessible part of the ship - the deck. Another 60 minutes of careful work would be needed to remove the rest of it, going into all those crevices, nooks and crannies, up and down the masts, along the spars, the bowsprits, pulleys, deck furniture. And then there's the thingumajigs , the wogglewidgets, and lots of other bits that probably all have proper names, of which I am profoundly ignorant, but am quite happy to make up if pressed to do so.

But how many times a year would you be willing, dear reader, to go through this routine ? Every month ? Every quarter ? If you are like me, you can probably think of more interesting ways to spend your time than meticulously dusting something so intricate and fragile, knowing that it's all got to be repeated later, over and over again.

Which is why, each January 1st, I look at that ship and ask myself : do I really want to continue with this performance ? And if so, at what intervals ?

Given that I don't have a personal Jeeves to attend to these chores, it comes down to three options:

1. Be extremely organized: set a date each month for cleaning the ship, so it never gets disgustingly dusty.

2. Carry on as usual. Only clean it spasmodically, as and when the spirit moves one, like when so much dust has settled as to give one instant gratification in seeing it before and after (as in the photo above).

In other words, clean it, at most, just once or twice a year: regard the cycle .... pristine....dusty..... disgustingly grimey...... back to pristine.... as the natural order of things, like the passing of the seasons . After all, we don't all rush out with a broom at the first sign of autumn and falling leaves. Or do we ? Oh dear, the Town Council sends people round to sweep them up. (And I've just recalled seeing ads in the paper for those overpriced gizmos that blow your fallen garden leaves into neat heaps . Does anyone actually buy those things, to sit in the shed unused for most of the year ?)

Or, if the truth be told, one could carry on as at present. Only do it under duress, like when one's expecting a visitor to the house - one where you want to create an instant impression of an immaculately maintained, well-ordered household ......... . Like the Queen, say, or a publisher .... So, on to the final option:

3. Consider that one has discharged a valuable public service, acting as trustee for an historical artefact. But take the view that perhaps the time has come to hand over one's stewardship duties to someone else. Another unsuspecting ... correction, another would-be guardian of our maritime heritage. In other words, take it back to the brocante, and see if one of the dealers will give me a good price for it. (Yeah, some hope!)

These are weighty issues indeed, ones needing an unclouded judgement for their resolution. No immediate decisions ought to be made so soon after all the festive celebrations, which went on last night till well after midnight, starting with those five over-rich courses at La Cascade in Antibes' Place Nationale .

There's plenty of time. In keeping with the planned change in tack for 2007 (flagged up in the preceding posts) I don't intend putting up anything new for at least another week.

So there's a few days in which to make the fateful decision on the future of my ship, as well as its present keeper - a New Year's resolution that serves as a kind of metaphor for the type of individual one intends to be in future. Yes, a defining moment has arrived in one's life. To be or not to be ? (organized, self-disciplined, that is, as distinct from a wastrel and layabout).

Here to conclude is a final picture of the ship, newly polished, handsome, magnificent. But has the time come to let it sail away ?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas trip to Luceram in the Riviera hinterland

I have previously posted pictures of the spectacular winter scenery we have in this part of the world. Spectacular and unexpected - given the glorious sight of that vast backdrop of snow-covered mountains behind Antibes and Nice. There's always a great excuse to venture into those hills and mountains at this festive time of year, which is to go and see the crèches at Luceram, a village some 18km due north of Eze, and about 40km as the crow flies from Antibes.

The first picture shows scenery on the way to Luceram . So far, it's just a light dusting of snow on the peaks, but a short way further on, there is deeper snow, right down to the roadside.

And here it is, the real McCoy(the snow that is) , a mere 45 mins drive from the Riviera beaches. Watch out: missus is in a playful mood.

This is the village of Luceram, viewed from the church. All these pictures should enlarge if you put the pointer on them and click (or tickle laptop touchpad) as appropriate. Sorry to keep saying this, but I continue to find other Bloggers who have been up-and-running for months without realising this).

ed: having said all that, I find these pictures don't enlarge. There's absolutely no rhyme or reason why it works sometimes and not others. And there's the matter of pictures that disappear from view hours or days after posting. Blogger's software developers really need to pull their socks up in the New year.

Click on the road at the bottom of the village (it's the entry route from the south) and you can just about make out a couple of tinsel hearts strung across the road. In fact, as you will see, the villagers have gone to some trouble to give the entire village a festive look. Most of the villages do in this part of the world.

You may recall my recent Christmas shopping expedition to Biot, the place for beautiful glass. We recently learned from our Nice-Matin that the Biotois (?) spent €66,000 no less on their street decorations, but let's not be mercenary. (Although in passing, I can't but help recalling the assembly given by a Deputy Head at a school near Slough in which he painstakingly computed the cost of the Twelve Days of Christmas in modern money. And we have just had a Christmas Card from "Uncle Ray" with a political -cum -mercenary message. The picture on the front shows a a throng of recently-appointed peers of the realm all living it up, over the caption "10 lords-a-loanin'".

Thinks: New Year's resolution: must stop digressing/going off at tangents in blogs. Who knows - someone might actually be reading this stuff ! And who was it on Louise's "Chocolates and Cuckoos" blog who claimed yesterday that I was someone unable to laugh at himself ? Answer: the same person who two weeks ago said he was resolved never to read my blog ! Sorry mate: bit of self-contradiction there: you can't have it both ways.

Luceram is a typical typical arrière-pays village, crammed with 15th century architecture and earlier, with these narrow, labyrinthine lanes, steep curving flights of steps, ancient doorways, and, at this time of year, Christmas decorations.

As already mentioned, Luceram is famous for its numerous crèches (nativity scenes) which the villagers install at various places around the village. They are not really my scene, I'm afraid, at least from a religious/philosophical perspective, but they do add a welcome splash of light and colour to what is otherwise somewhat cold grey masonry. Ladies with red jerseys and fur-lined hoods help brighten up the place too.

There's no shortage of history in these parts. This is the ancient xxxxxxx. It was built in XXXX, and played a major role in the Battle of Xxxxxx, and looks like it would benefit from a visit to a dentist. As you can see, there's no shortage of things for me to research in the New Year.

And here's where we had our pre-booked Christmas lunch. Sorry about the leaning camera angle. It must have been one of those post-prandial photographs !

Well, here we are back on the coast, after our day trip into the hills. This is the rue d'Antibes in Cannes, the place to go for that special Christmas present. At a price.

Well folks, this is my last post, this side of Christmas. If you have any comments, could you make them in the next three days ( by Dec 21st). We're spending Christmas with our family in England. I will then leave this site to accept comments by moderation only. Sorry to have to do this. As some of you know, up till recently I accepted all comments, including anonymous ones, but had to stop that, thanks to some clown who thought it funny to post what he thought to be my home address. So I've decided to play safe while away.

As already indicated, there will be some changes in the New Year. "Dreams and Daemons" will be for occasional posts ( once a week maximum). My new blog, called "Inside Antibes", will become my main daily blog, devoted mainly to monitoring the news in Nice-Matin ( local, national and international). I shall also be venturing cautiously back onto the Telegraph's blog, with a view (optimistically, perhaps) of using "Inside Antibes" to continue interesting discussions once they disappear from sight on the Telegraph. That, as some of you know, has been a sore point with this blogger, given that comments to Telly blogs now have to be made in a day or two, when they are then relegated to the dusty archives, where threads tend quickly to die the death.

How different from the good old days, when Colin Randall was blogging, and some threads went on ( and stayed visible) for many days on end . Shane Richmond seems pleased to have built up a team of 38 bloggers. A bad move, if you ask me. He should have restricted it to 15 max, and been ruthless with those that were underperforming. Some present Telegraph blogs are a waste of space, mentioning no names. And on that charitable seasonal note, I and that grumpy hippo, lodged in the hippocampus, wish you all :

A Merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous New Year !

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Can't we find a better name for "The Gherkin"?

I've mentioned previously the special place that is held in my affections by a certain iconic new building in the City of London. I shall refrain from naming it, for the moment, for reasons that shall become clear later. (Forget you read the title).

Here's a quick tour of some pictures I took last March ( same day that I went on the London Eye, described in a previous post).

Here it is, somewhat hemmed in , but still expressing its sheer unexpected individuality. This is a building that would grace any city, but is especially right, I believe, for the City, given its pre-eminence as global centre for financial services.
Something exotic was needed, to signal that London is at home with the foreign and the exotic .

Does that amazing chequered spiral skin remind you of anything ? To me , there are multiple associations, so that although the shape is simple, the surface pattern is complex. I'm reminded not only of a glossy snake skin, but of a Fabergé egg at the same time. And see how well it looks

against a building from Christopher Wren's era. Who says old and new cannot go together ? The Parisians proved it was possible with their glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.

The next picture shows it as seen at street level. Just look at those glittering panes. Did you know that all the glazing, except for the dome at the very top, is flat glass, not curved as one might suppose ? Isn't that part of the secret of its appeal - a kind of flinty sparkle that would not have been achieved - at huge additional expense- with curved glass ?

The next picture shows that street-level criss-cross lattice work closer up. Some have criticized it as being too fussy, especially in the way the door is framed. Maybe: it's perhaps not the building's greatest feature. But again, it makes it like few, if any other, buildings, and is such a refreshing change from the slabs of polished granite, or stainless steel frontages, that tend to dominate the City.

In fact, if you go right up to the building and look up, the pattern of shapes - with tapering struts, lattice work, opaque and transparent surfaces, are almost like one of those three-dimensional works of art that one sees from time to time. Well, in France, anyway. For me, no part of this building offends the eye. Every aspect is a treat for the visual senses - a stunning yet harmonious juxtaposing of simplicity and complexity.

So far, I have unashamedly raved about this building. Nothing new in that, you might say. So what's this guy's real beef. There's bound to be a sting in the tail.

There certainly is. It's the building's name. It pains me even to mention it here: "The Gherkin". Or worse still " The Erotic Gherkin".
How did this magnificent work of art, comparable in my view, with the Taj Mahal, ever come to be lumbered with so vulgar a name ?

Until recently, I thought it was just some wag, saying the first thing that came to mind, and somehow, God knows how, it gained a wholly undeserved currency and got adopted.

Oh, one thing at a time. First I must mention some other more official names. The "Swiss Re Tower" is one of them. Swiss Re, as we know, is an insurance company that presently occupies most of the building. But supposing Swiss Re itself had an accident, whether by Act of God or otherwise, without having , heaven forbid, adequate insurance cover. What will they call it then ? The Swiss (RIP) Tower ?
There's another, even more official name: No. 30 St. Mary Axe. Well, that doesn't have quite the resonance of No.10 Downing St, does it ? And we don't call St.Paul's Cathedral No. 30 Paternoster Square or whatever. So let's return to that other, more "popular" tag, The Gherkin . How exactly did it come by that name ? As ever, Wikipedia comes to the rescue. But I was well and truly gobsmacked by what I read there, so here it is, verbatim .

"The plan was notable for its highly unorthodox floor plan, which resembled — some would argue — a slice of a pickle. The sub-editors at the Guardian newspaper coined the term, erotic gherkin for the building. Although Trafalgar House abandoned this plan, the nickname has stuck ."

So it's not the external cigar shape that is being referred to. (Just as well, since most gherkins have ridges, knobbles or both.) It's the shape of an original plan, viewed in cross-section (it would seem). Reading between the lines, the original floor plan , subsequently binned, would have been shaped rather like a cog wheel, with protruding rounded-teeth - in other words the way a ribbed gherkin might look in cross-section.

But as stressed that plan was binned, yet that mocking name, coined by a Guardian sub-editor, stuck. Why ? What kind of inertia, laziness, lack of imagination and downright disrespect for architectural genius has lumbered us with a name referring to something that never got beyond the drawing board?

It leaves this blogger with a sense of impotent fury and despair that our society can be so crass as to mis-christen this incredibly beautiful addition to our capital city. Especially one that has won so many awards: in December 2005, for example, the building was voted the most admired new building in the world, in a survey of the world's largest firms of architects.

In the interest of balance, , one should mention that in June 2006 , it was also nominated as one of the five ugliest buildings in London by viewers of BBC London News who placed it fourth out of the five choices they were given. Personally speaking, I set little store by anything the BBC does to "test" public opinion, but will spare you for now my views on the BBC.

So what should it be, or have been, called ? Realistically, it's probably now too late for second thoughts now. Names stick, even bad ones, like mud. And that's where Foster Partners/ Ken Shuttleworth have been somewhat remiss . Or maybe they were too trusting of our cynical, seen-it-all-before, UK media. An essential part of those architects' planning process, given their stratospheric international reputation, should have been to endow it at the very outset with a monicker that dignified it, especially given its sombre origins as a replacement for the bombed-out Baltic Exchange.

Is it too late, one wonders, to organize a national competition, say with a £10,000 prize, for best Mark 2 name ? Well, that should concentrate minds, don't you think ? I'm sure the City of London could find just 1% of someone's City annual bonus .

Here's my suggestion, for what it is worth. As said earlier, the building reminds me of a Fabergé egg, and the egg is one of the most simple, beautiful, extraordinary shapes in nature. I would like to call it The Egg, pure and simple. But I can hear the protests. It's too slim and pointy to be called an egg.

I've tried googling for collections of bird's eggs to see if there is just one example of a slim egg, but there are few images available ( good in a way, since one does not want to encourage the despicable collecting of eggs).

But I then had an idea. This building rose from the ashes of the Baltic exchange. Well, ruins, actually. In other words, it's a phoenix, which as everyone knows is an imaginary mythical bird. But has anyone ever seen, or depicted, a phoenix egg ? One doubts it. Who's to say it is not slim and somewhat elongated. Who's to say it is not possessed of sparkling, mosaic-patterned shell, reminiscent of snake skin ? Problem solved: call the Foster/Shuttleworth creation the "Phoenix Egg". Or simply "The Phoenix" or "The Egg", depending on context, depending on desired nuance.

Calling it the Phoenix would send a signal that London has an indomitable spirit. You can blitz us, you can bomb us, but we'll make good the damage: if it's too severe, as in the case of the Baltic Exchange, then we'll use the opportunity to put up something better than was there before.

And the egg, apart from its delightful smooth symmetry, without edges or corners, is synonomous with the idea of birth and regeneration.

Final word: one can hear the objections. Surely the egg forms no part of the life-cycle of the phoenix, given that the firebird is born directly from the flames of its predecessor.

True, but if one reads Wikipedia, there is still a role for a phoenix egg:

" At the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix arises. The new phoenix embalms the ashes of the old phoenix in an egg made of myrrh and deposits it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis ("the city of the sun" in Greek)."

So the phoenix egg is a kind of fabulous sarcophagus for what preceded it. How very appropriate ! How respectful of historical continuity ! Admittedly London is not Heliopolis. But what's wrong with our thinking of London as a new "City of the Sun". At least let's show the world that we have not lost our sense of humour !

Ed. Dec 17th Once again, pictures (my own!) are disappearing off the site, being replaced with a blank space and small red cross. This means having to laboriously reload them. This is a problem that Blogger (Beta) is going to have to sort soon if it is to maintain credibility.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What got the President upset ?

There was a post yesterday by Toby Harnden in Washington on his Telegraph blog. The title was “Bush slams rude British reporters”. The gist was that the President has finally lost patience with the refusal of some of the British press corps to stand when he enters the room – apparently the only contingent not to do so.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of his allegedly getting irate with a question from Nick Robinson of the BBC

Video link

Well, watch it for yourself, although it's quite long.

(Click on the green link above , then be patient: it takes a few seconds for the video to get moving)

The pictures above are a couple of freeze-frames that I captured from the site.

Here's the latest of three comments that I've placed on Toby's blog. As you will see, I am profoundly sceptical about Bush's response, long and emotional though it was, being linked to discourtesy on the part of our Washington media scrum, deplorable though it is (in my view) that they remain seated.

Run that past me again

I have just watched a replay of Bush's answer to Nick Robinson of the BBC. Angry response ? That's not how I would have described it. An initially startled, gob-smacked, rabbit-in headlights response, maybe, and then an emotional, back-to-the-wall posture. But there was no obvious personal rancour, and certainly no reference, or even hint, of chagrin against those journalists who failed to stand up.Sorry, can't see what all the fuss is about (unless Toby *Harnden's report is coloured or influenced by what he might subsequently have heard from the White House Press Corps).

Colin Berry at 14 Dec 2006 10:42

* Apologies, by the way, for misspelling as "Tony". There's a lot of distracting (roof repair) activity going on around me as I write !

The two earlier posts in the thread were to point out (casting modesty to the winds) that it had been yours truly who had first raised the matter of our journalists' conduct at White House press briefings. That was back in August, when Alec Russell was the Telegraph's man in Washington.

He had posted on the subject of the 2008 Presidential elections. Feeling that some of the current jockeying and polemics might look somewhat irrelevant in 2 years time, I wrote the following:

Boring and boorish

I can't imagine that a London-based journalist for the Washington Post would be salivating at the prospect of a UK General Election that was two years away. Yet Alec Russell seems here to be in the throes of a bad case of the local Potomac fever. Meanwhile, back here on Planet Earth, attention is fixed on the tragic events in Lebanon. I could forgive Alec and his fellow band of UK journalists in Washington if there were some consistency in their fixation with wannabee US Presidents. The US President is, after all, a Head of State, a position comparable to the Queen, though far more powerful because it's not above politics. So why does the UK press contingent refuse to stand when the President enters the briefing room at the White House ? I know they don't stand for the PM at home, but Tony Blair, despite his posturing on the world stage, is merely the head of a Government, not Head of State, and is not elected directly. I'm sure Alec Russell would stand if the Queen entered the room. But what happened anyway to the old dictum, "When in Rome ....". It seems to me boorish and discourteous in the extreme for a few to remain seated, drawing attention to themselves, when everyone else is standing. Don't misunderstand me - this is not about abject submission to a superpower, it's about elementary courtesy and good manners. If you think I'm someone who kowtows to George W Bush or to the USA, then open a thread, Alec, on the so-called "special relationship", and prepare for a broadside, all guns blazing.

Colin Berry at 08 Aug 2006 08:31

So imagine my (pleasant) surprise when Alec took this subject as the topic for his very next blog. Here's what he wrote:

In answer to the criticism of one Colin Berry who asks why British journalists stay seated when President George W Bush enters a press conference, I have to say I share his irritation.
The White House press corps can be a touch too self-important and grand. But to stand up when the head of state enters a room is not to compromise your objectivity, it is merely good manners.
If Colin had looked carefully at the footage of the last Bush-Blair press coverage or indeed the Bush-al-Maliki press conference a few days earlier he would have seen The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent upstanding.
So is this something to do with working for a newspaper of a traditional hue? I don’t think so. At least it appears that the Number Ten press corps is divided on the issue and not down ideological lines.
The other day when the two amigos strode into the East Room more than half the British press corps stood, the rest shuffled in their seat and stared defiantly ahead.

So when Toby posted yesterday, I reminded him of the provenance of this topic. Here's what I said, and his immediate reply.

Been there, done it ....

This debate induces a strong sense of déjà vu. Remember Alec Russell, erstwhile Washington correspondent for the Telegraph, who used to blog here ? He posted back in August on the subject of that despicable British-bum-on-seat brigade.

How do I know ? Because I was the one who was first to give our discourteous fellow countrymen a ticking off: they more than anyone should know that the office of US President is more comparable to that of our monarch, as distinct from prime minister, and thus RISE TO THE OCCASION !

Colin Berry at 13 Dec 2006 17:10

Here's Toby Harnden's immediate reply:

Telegraph solidarity

Thanks for that Colin. It appears that Telegraph correspondents old and new think alike! Alec was my foreign editor for several years so maybe he helped instill the good manners in me (as well as my parents, of course). The new development I find particularly interesting is that Bush is personally annoyed by this. Also, it seems that views within the British press corps have hardened because virtually all the Brits remained seated last week. At the last joint press conference in May, as I recall, it was only a handful. And, according to Alec, in August it was split down the middle. At this rate, maybe the British ambassador will be remaining seated by the end of 2008!

Toby Harnden at 13 Dec 2006 18:02

Considering in retrospect that I came close to accusing Toby of plagiarism (which was certainly not my intention) then that's a very friendly and courteous reply. A worthy successor, wouldn't you say, to the breezy and congenial Alec Russell ?

Re Alec: one hopes fortune will soon smile upon him, if it has not done so already, given the shabby way that he, Colin Randall and others were treated by their bosses at Telegraph Head Office.

This post has to be somewhat "telegraphic" too, for reasons already mentioned.

Postcript added 15th Dec: received a friendly email yesterday from Toby Harnden. He concludes with the following welcome news re Alec Russell: "Alec is going to Johannesburg for the Financial Times so he has very much landed on his feet."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Spectacular (but problematical) panorama over Antibes

(This has had to be re-posted in its entirety, owing to the mysterious disappearance of the first 2 pictures above. It remains to be seen if this replacement suffers the same fate !)

The black and white photo you see above appeared in the Antibes edition of Nice Matin last Sunday. It's undated, but looks turn of century (19th/20th, naturally), possibly earlier. It was taken up at the highest point on the Cap d'Antibes, the so-called Plateau de la Garoupe, with superb views along the coast in both directions.

What you see is the orientation table, labelled with compass points, landmarks and other data. Nerdish nirvana !

Here's what the article said ( translation provided by J, my wife).

"Garoupe Plateau: the orientation table that does not run smoothly" (there's some word play there that does not translate smoothly, based on the fact that the table is wheel-shaped)

The geographical features shown on the viewing table on the Garoupe plateau are allegedly not correct. With ref. to the article "Under the flagstones" by M.Petiti (Nice-Matin etc) about the location indicator at the Garoupe lighthouse, one of our readers wanted to add a point.
"I've just found out about the forthcoming restoration shortly to be carried out. The table was made from Auvergne lava and its constructor lived in Riom. For a long while now I have been puzzled by the geographical features shown on this indicator. It reads: latitude: 48° 40' 50'' and longitude: 5°30. These are definitely not the exact coordinates for Antibes which are: latitude North 43°34 and longitude East 07°06. There must have been an error in the making........ (the writer then goes on to say that the coordinates are not the constructor's home town either, but relate to a place in eastern France, close to Nancy !). Still awake ? He continues:

"It would be good if this matter could be cleared up, and if there is indeed an error that it could be corrected during restoration. A word to the wise/in the right ear ....... "

Well, you can see the kind of thing that gets the Antibois literati going - and this is the new tabloid edition of Nice Matin !

Yawn provoking, perhaps, but for this Brit with a scientific (nerdish) disposition, there's a sting in the tail. You see, the street in which we live is named after the same local physicist/mathematician who back in 1927, had a hand in marking out that brass face of the table, with all those wildly inaccurate coordinates. I won't mention him by name, in case petit-fils de B. lives round the corner, and is bigger than me.

Well, if grandad did make a pig's ear of it, as would appear to be the case, then I might be tempted to campaign for the street to revert to its original name.

According our local fount of all knowledge to do with Antibes local history ( Gerard) the previous name, pre 1945, has nothing to do with blacksmiths, or stabling of horses, as commonly supposed, but signified that the original Roman aqueduct and later replacements passed along it. (There's a small surviving remnant of the original down near Port Vauban). Sorry, I'm digressing, as is my wont.

Anyway, our gloriously invigorating anticyclonic weather conditions are well established, with the same blue cloudless skies and superb visibility that you saw in my last post. So yesterday I thought I'd go up to the Garoupe, and get a picture from the same camera angle.

It's a brisk 25 minute walk, out of the Vielle Ville to the remparts, along the palm-lined promenades, and then the cardiovascular workout up the steep cobbled Chemin du Calvaire, past the dozen or so wayside shrines, each one a Station of the Cross, I understand, up to the church, lighthouse and viewing table at the top.

And yesterday's picture is alongside. As you can see, the tourists are still about, at least one of whom seems to think it's still August.

What you see is the view west, looking into the sun unfortunately, which obscures some detail (my lousy digital camera with bottle glass optics doesn't help, either despite being "state of the art" according to the lady in the Watford branch of Jessops).

Little has changed at first glance, except the vegetation which is now almost sub-tropical. Something that ought to have changed is the presence of those damn telegraph poles etc, that detract from the view (and photographs) of generations of tourists. Why can't they re-route the cable, or bury it ?

Just visible in the bay behind is the port of Golfe Juan, crammed with pleasure craft (the larger, better known Juan les Pins is closer, but hidden from view). Golfe Juan is where Napoleon disembarked his small band of die-hard supporters after escaping from detention on Elba. The first thing he had to do was find the small sign that reads Route Napoleon. It's easy to overlook in that bustling mile-long strip of commerce. From there he headed inland via Digne, Gap to Lyons. And the rest as they say is history . There's a Napoleonic museum at the end of the Cap d'Antibes, next to the Eden Roc hotel ( no credit cards accepted!), but I've so far failed to summon any enthusiasm for visiting it. When you read what his troops did to Venice .....

In fact earlier in his career Napoleon was billeted in Antibes,which has been a fortified town for millenia. His family lived in a small villa, apparently in somewhat straitened circumstances. He and his fellow soldiers were rarely paid on time. He even did a spell of porridge in the Fort Carré, having made himself temporarily unpopular with the revolutionaries in 1789.

I like to think that Napoleon would have coined an expression "Able was I ere I saw Antibes". But he wisely realised that he should save that for Elba, thus creating the best known palindrome. But it only works in English. Funny that. Maybe he was prescient.

Speaking of inscriptions, you may notice there's an addition to the upright of the viewing table (see photo) which does have an appreciative comment re Antibes.

It's from Guy de Maupassant and reads "Je n'ai rien vu de plus surprenant qu'Antibes debout sur les Alpes au soleil couchant" Translated (by me, and probably inaccurately) that reads "I have seen nothing more surprising than Antibes standing against the Alps in the setting sun. "

These days you're more likely to hear "It's good 'ere, innit".

If you click on the link to this website , you'll see it names Maupassant's view as 41st best out of 50 in the entire world. (Amazing, isn't it, what one turns up in Google searches ?). Trouble is their camera was pointing in wrong direction, away from Alps, towards the volcanic red porphry of the Esterel massif west of Cannes. Yes that's a good view as well, and from Garoupe, if you walk back and forth, you get to see both ! By that reckoning, Antibes' plateau de la Garoupe should by rights be up there in the top 20 !

Here's the view looking east, with one's back (and camera lens) to the setting sun. Click to enlarge. You can just about make out Antibes iconic "twin towers", originally built as lookouts as an early warning system against Saracen raiders. There seems to be something about twin towers that attracts the wrong element. They were built, incidentally, of recycled stone from the Greek and Roman era. The Cours Massena in Antibes, and adjoining streets, especially the coastal side, exudes history.

Beyond that, across the Baie des Anges, you can see the modernistic Marina development at Villeneuve-Loubet, mentioned in a previous post. With a pair of binoculars one can make out a string of well-known tourist destinations: Cagnes old town, St.Paul de Vence, Vence, Nice, Peille, Peillon, Gourdon, Tourrettes etc etc. It's almost the equivalent of a Google Earth satellite picture, viewing that vast panorama.

But there's an annoying downside. According to the guide books, the view from the Garoupe takes in a vast stretch of Riviera from St. Tropez in the west to the Italian frontier in the east. That's true if you are viewing from the top of the lighthouse (phare), as was possible some three years ago (somewhere I have the pictures to prove it). But then they went and closed the Phare for renovation. It stayed closed for months, if not years, and now they have stuck a sign on the gate saying it's closed permanently to visitors. Result: one can now see no further east than Nice. That's a great shame, and again, a whisper in the right ear is needed.

The original phare was destroyed during the war.

The one you see in the picture is a replacement, built by the American military. Inevitably, there's been some muttering, and suggestions that it ought to be knocked down, and replaced with one that is closer to the original, which was apparently round rather than square.

I've tried several times now to tidy up the layout here at the end, but Blogger's bug-laden software fights each attempt to do so, wiping the pictures off screen. Since there's no Edit Reverse, one has no choice but to tediously log off and then log back on again, losing any edits made in that last session.

There will be just 3 more posts before Christmas: one on winter trips into the mountains behind Nice, another on a coach excursion we took with the local Antiboulenc society along the coast to Genoa, and finally one flagged earlier on that (subjectively) gorgeous Swiss Re tower ("The Gherkin") and its architect, Norman Foster. I'll then say a few words about my plans for the New Year. They involve a change of focus and direction, for which I recently registered a new blog called "Inside Antibes".

Monday, December 11, 2006

Spectacular (but problematical) panorama over Antibes

Message added Wed 13th December: if you have come to this post via your Technorati feed, or similar, please click on this link.

There were problems with the first two photographs. The only way I could see to resolve the problem was to create a new post and upload the pictures a second time. So far, fingers crossed, things seem OK with the Mark 2 version above.

I have not deleted the original post, since it has some Comments.

Dec 16th. I am now deleting the redundant original post, except for comments.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Antibes under winter sun

Click on picture to enlarge

Here's a picture I took yesterday. It's that defining view of Antibes, the one you see on the picture postcards, and a favourite subject for generations of artists (eg see the Monet in the margin).

As you can see, there's a clear view of the snow-capped (pre-) Alps in the background. That's down to the mistral, which always brings cool*, clear air from the north. What newcomers to Antibes often don't appreciate is that some of the highest peaks that one sees behind the two Saracen towers are, in fact, inside Italy. For example, the tall peak that you see, halfway between the palm and the first tower, is Argentera (3290 metres); It's some 66 km ( just over 40 miles) from Antibes as the crow flies, and just inside Italy.

If you look at a map, you will see that although the Italian border begins some 30 miles east of Antibes, just beyond Menton, it curves in behind Nice and Antibes, before turning north.

There's plenty of snow, needless to say, at our nearest ski resorts, eg. Valberg, about 90 minutes drive away.

It's rare for those who visit Antibes in July or August to get a view of that stunning mountain backdrop. That's because of the usually persistent heat haze.

* The Antibois consider it "cool" right now, but it's all relative. The outside air temperature on our windowsill was 12°C first thing this morning. It's presently a pleasant 16.5°, at 13.33 local time.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Shopping expedition for Biot glass

Perhaps it's an attack of Blogger's Block, but there's to be no attempt today at writing a thoughtful , analytical or reflective essay. In any case, the gals are usually so much better at that sort of thing than we fellas (Colin Randall's Salut! excepted). Hopefully the block will pass.

In the meantime, I shall today content myself with attaching what is ,in essence, a series of captions to each of 7 pictures. Word of warning: it's anyone's guess where the captions will end up, thanks to the perverseness of Blogger's software.
The first picture is Biot village, just a few miles from Antibes where we live. In days gone by it was famous for its earthenware pottery. Nowadays, it's better known for its superb decorative glassware.

There are many so-called villages perchés in this part of the world, a defensive measure in bygone days against Mediterranean raiders who made a living from pillaging coastal settlements.
Each has its own character. What makes Biot unusual is that it is situated not on a conical hill, but on an elongated spur of rock. In other words a ridge or bluff. Once you've made the steep climb, you then have the odd experience of finding yourself on a long and fairly straight "high street" (second picture) with no sensation of being elevated, except for the occasional glimpse of sea and distant hills through narrow alleyways. Who can blame the locals for
wanting to create a homely closed-in feeling?

On the left of the village high street picture, you can see a building with the sign "Verrerie d'Art". That was the objective of our Christmas shopping expedition, because beautiful objects are created there, and sold in the adjoining shop.
The third picture is the kiln, in the basement, as seen from the street. That's where we found Mme. Guyot, busy parcelling up glassware for dispatch, no doubt as Christmas presents for some lucky folk.

The fourth picture is the shop itself. Even from the street, you can see it's an Aladdin's cave of light and colour.

It's a shop that we have visited and patronized on 4 or 5 previous occasions, for buying presents, showing visitors (Hello Janet and Judith, if you're reading this), and for building up our own modest collection.

I should say that as much as we like delicate fragile-looking glassware, eg Venetian, some bad experiences in the past (children, removals etc) mean we now confine ourselves to items that are a compromise between attractiveness and robustness, as you will see in a moment.

Here's what you see as you step inside(fifth
picture) . By the way, all these pictures should
enlarge if you click on them.

As you can see, one of the specialities of Pascal Guyot's shop are what I call "toadstool" table lamps. They are made from coloured glass (not pottery) but can only be fully appreciated when illuminated. Each lamp has two bulbs, one in the base and one in the "cap". The effect can be stunning, bringing a patch of cheerfulness to the dullest corner of a room. If you look on the lowest shelf of the next (sixth) picture, you can see a blue-green " toadstool "lamp. Two years ago we bought one in orange and green, Cezanne's colours, complementary to each other, and liked it so much, that we went back and had two
custom-made matching wall lights done in the
same style. Not cheap, but then we don't have
a wide-screen TV !

If I try to add more pictures, there's a risk they will not enlarge. So here's a link to just over a minute of movie footage, taken with the miniature digital camera (and thus not of camcorder quality) and then uploaded to the excellent YouTube. Isn't it amazing how all this
online publication is now free of charge !

And here, finally, are our purchases, past and present, on the dining table at home. There's our toadstool lamp, mentioned earlier.
And a delightful dish, a real splash of Provençal
colour, with a flowing wavy edge. How on earth
do they get that orange rim, one
wonders ?

Do you know what the tadpole-shaped objects are ? There's a set of six. Each is called a porte-couteau. They are somewhere to rest one's knife, between courses, without soiling the table cloth, given the French tendency (at least in restaurants) to use one set of cutlery. They would be a decorative feature, and talking point, on any table, but also serve a practical purpose in our household. We recently bought a set of deeply-scooped dinner plates, great for accomodating a generous serving of sauce. But there's one drawback. If one rests one's knife, it tends to slide down, handle an' all, into the sauce. Retrieving it can be a messy business. Well, we're now a six portes-couteaux household.

And finally, there also are some Yuletide prezzies for friends and relatives, all beautifully wrapped by Mme. Guyot. Let's hope we can get them back to England in one piece !

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A circuit on the London Eye

One of the curious facts of being born in West
London, within the sound of rumbling jets at
Heathrow, is that one is less likely to have “done” the London sights. Correction, one will have done the educational ones ( S. Kensington museums etc. , on school trips ) but probably not the Tower of London. Now why that should be is anyone’s guess. It’s possibly The Mousetrap effect: one knows it will always be there, so can be put off for another day. In the meantime, there are more immediate things to be done, like shopping on Oxford St, or a film or play to be seen etc. I was 45 when I finally looked in on the Crown Jewels, and (though I hate to admit it) at least 30 before seeing Tower Bridge in close-up.

But having watched the London Eye gradually implant itself on the South Bank, and the touch-and-go business of getting it up and running, I was determined to check it out, before something happened to it. I say that as someone who's been to the top of the Telecom Tower as well as Windsor Castle’s Round Tower. Both are now closed off to tourists, thanks to terrorist action, or the threat thereof.

But the queues for the Eye are notorious. Everyone knows that. So here’s my experience, and a tip for the impatient.

It’s one of those queuing systems where you keep having to go back on yourself, wishing you could just duck under the rope, and save yourself half and hour or more. What makes matters worse is having to listen to the almost non-stop recording that says only one member of a party should be in the queue.

As you get closer to the ticket booth, you see illuminated signs that say there’s an express check-in, at a price ! But here’s the rub – it doesn’t tell you where to go, it’s not visible, and one can hardly leave the queue to go searching.

In fact it’s right down at the end of the hall, but I only discovered that later. So that’s the tip. Save yourself an hour or 90 minutes, at least, by opting to be ripped off.

Even when you have bought your ticket, there’s another serpentine queue to join outdoors, but finally the magic moment arrives, as you and 24 others are ushered into a capsule for a memorable 30 minutes of your life.

One’s barely aware of movement, and there’s plenty of time to frame one’s pictures, although reflection off the curved glass diminishes the end result - as you can see below.

But you’ll see all the main sights, and a few more besides if you know where to look. They say

Windsor Castle is visible on a clear day. I was pleased to see the Swiss Re tower (aka the Gherkin), which I had visited earlier that day. That to me is just so amazing. To this blogger it's the second most beautiful building in the world (after the Taj Mahal), and will be the subject of a post next week.

Coming down is a bit of an anticlimax. So I spent some of the time on walkabout round the capsule, with the dinky digital camera in video mode.

Thanks to YouTube, it’s now possible to show you that somewhat jerky footage. Just click on this link LondonEye . You'll get a lot of tourist chatter too, if your speakers are switched on.

Final (off )note: whilst there is much to admire in London, I am not a Londonophile. This is partly because I dislike all large cities, preferring towns and villages.

But it’s also a dislike of the absence of a proper civic feel in London, outside of the Royal Parks (ironic, isn’t it, that we have to thank privileged monarchy for those precious few acres of space and amenity ? ).

Too much of London is noisy, traffic and pedestrian clogged. Too much of the architecture is predominantly Victorian, Empire-era, somewhat fortress like, with too many insertions of brash modern buildings that are out of scale or character.

London is an architectural free-for-all , reflecting certainly its laissez-faire mercantile history, and arguably what Ted Heath once called "the unacceptable face of capitalism".

Contrast London with the gracious layout of so many historic Italian town and cities, with piazzas, fountains, and friendly, inviting squares (without spiked railings or overgrown plane trees). It’s odd how it needed a terrorist bomb to replace the Baltic Exchange (an ugly building if ever there was) with the Swiss Re tower.

Sadly, and ironically, the words of John Betjeman spring to mind – “Come friendly bombs …..”.

Anyway, here's a link if you want to know more about visiting the London Eye.

I'll be blogging on Saturday about the hilltop village of Biot. We were there this morning, Christmas shopping for colourful Provençal glassware - always well received.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Shakira - Latin America's very own Madonna !

BBC's "Top of the Pops" towards the end used to be so irritating. It was like watching a non-stop commercial for itself, what with all those flashing TOTP neon lights.

Speaking for myself, I was not sorry to see it go. The whole thing had become too narcissistic and self-congratulatory. But there was a bit of backsliding last week when, round at a friend's house, there was a half-hour programme billed simply in the TV guide as “TOTP2 : Archive chart music featuring the Carpenters”.

Well, that was not something this Karen C fan could lightly pass over. I go into a kind of reverie whenever I hear that warm honeyed voice. Her death in '83, when she was just 32, was a huge loss to music .

As it happens the TV guide was misleading: she "performed" just one of her songs, Close to You, somewhat static on a swing, looking a bit lost, and presumably miming. But incredibly it was for me the first and only time that I had ever seen her "live" on screen, albeit as archive footage.

Much of the remainder of the programme was bizarre stuff from archives, mercilessly ungrainy. There was Ozzy Osbourne in the 80s, when he was lead singer for Black Sabbath, with those mad, mad scary eyes. And there was Robbie Williams in his Take That days, barely recognizable, and a few others ghosts from the past (Adam Ant etc).

I was half asleep at the end when a video began with a noisy boxing ringside scene. The camera then homed in on a sultry peroxide blonde, alone in the corner of the ring. On close-up it was a doe-eyed, wasp-waisted figure in a contour-hugging bright red dress. For a moment I thought, cor, they don’t make them like that any more.

And then she began to sing. Oh my, how she could sing. There was feeling, passion, all of which was enhanced by the attentions she was giving (and receiving from) a bull-necked boxer. One moment she was a siren, the archetypal blond bombshell. The next she was in angelic Florence Nightingale mode, tenderly patching up her man after a punishing round. A memorable juxtaposition of roles and images, one might say. Well, if one's a bloke, that is, still missing his Pan's People (from the glory days of TOTP).
Louise (yesterday’s comments under my previous post re rubbish-tips) says of Shakira that she's the kind of female who makes her teenaged son’s face go red. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be that age !

By the way, bravo Louise for taking the plunge with your own blog, which I've added to the Escape Route in the margin.

Well, I hate to admit this, since it shows just out of touch I am, but having been smitten, I straightaway went into trainspotter mode, carefully noting her name (Shakira) and just one phrase from her song ( "a woman’s heart"). And so to Google, fully expecting to find that Shakira had briefly been something in the 80s, and was now doing the club circuit in Las Vegas.

So imagine one's surprise to find that she’s in fact what might be described as Latin America’s answer to Madonna (though maybe not quite so overtly sexy). Shakira too has been going for some years, constantly re-inventing herself. Again, the TV guide was misleading: what I was listening to was, in fact, her latest release. It's one she has done in partnership with the highly talented musician/guitarist Carlos Santana.

If you want to see the video, just make sure the microphone is switched on, and then click the following YouTube link. The clip starts immediately with that boxing ring side scene.

Don’t be alarmed at the word “Illegal”, because that, in fact, is the title of the song (honest). Whether YouTube is infringing copyright (or permitting others to do so) is another matter. I seem to recall reading about some disgruntlement recently in the industry. But lawyers please note: I for my part am now far more likely to add Shakira to my Christmas present list than if the video had not been available online .
Her rendering of the lines below reminded me of the force and defiance that Alison Moyet used to bring to her performances.

"You don't even know the meaning of the words "I'm sorry"
I'm starting to believe it should be illegal to deceive a woman's heart"

Needless to say, there’s an entry for Shakira in Wikipedia . And what fascinating reading it makes too.

She’s Colombian, although her mother is Catalan, and her father a Lebanese- Christian -American. As a child she was somewhat shy, and took up belly-dancing, an integral part of Lebanese culture, to build her confidence. It worked !
Her name Shakira means "grateful" in Arabic, and came down from her grandmother.

To begin with, she performed entirely in Spanish, and was almost unknown in the English-speaking world. But in 2001 or thereabouts she took the brave decision to include English numbers in her repertoire, writing them herself, would you believe it ? Wikipedia says there were initially fears she might have overreached herself. But look at the lyric for “Illegal” .
Better still, listen. Amazing. For a non-native speaker, she puts a lot of our home-grown songwriting "talent" to shame.

That's one powerful song she has written and performed there. But with her voice (and those looks) I’d be content just hearing her sing from the telephone directory.

Anyway, Shakira's Illegal has made an impression on this blogger, as you will have gathered by now. By way of reward, she's been awarded the first musical slot in my new-look, invigorated margin . No doubt she'll be beside herself when she gets word of this latest accolade.
With Google, it's possible to access video and audio clips of her earlier work. Some of them I found OK, but others, most in fact, were not my tasse de thé. But one's tastes in music are obviously a very personal thing. I just happen to like melodic, soulful stuff. One could be a pessimist, or maybe realist, and suggest that Illegal may turn out to be a one-off, compared with her previous work, perhaps the only one that will be remembered in years to come.
I once bought a Neneh Cherry album on the strength of just one number ("Seven Seconds Away", the one she performed with Youssou N'Dour. (The link is again to YouTube for a free video clip.) There were one or two other quite memorable numbers, like Woman, but none in the same league as that haunting Seven Seconds.

Shakira had a number 1 hit in both the US and UK with "Hips Don't Lie" (such a curious title! ). According to Wikipedia, Hips Don't Lie was THE very last single to be played on TOTP before it was axed. Which kind of brings us full circle!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Dealing with the Dodgy Dumpers

There was an item in the Mail on Sunday last week that prompted today's post.

Some of the consortia that operate Britain’s rubbish dumps (aka recycling centres) are planning to install spy cameras. These are intended to catch those who misuse the sites in one way or another.

In fact, this blogger has first hand experience of the problem. It’s the result of responding to an ad in my local Home Counties newspaper some 5 years ago. I had taken early retirement, but had some time to kill before my occupational pensions began. The job was initially described as “Weighbridge Operator” at the local dump, and later the title became one of “Trade Waste Officer”, at least on the lapel badge. But as is so often the case where the laissez-faire UK employment scene is concerned, the real job, the one they said little about in the initial interview, was something entirely different, and altogether less cushy. It might be described as Site Vigilance Officer.

The official job was a doddle. I had a cosy steel blue cabin, next to the site entrance. Trade vehicles that were too high to get under the barrier would drive on to the weighbridge, be weighed before and after depositing their rubbish, and then be charged on the difference, according to a sliding scale. But on a typical day there would rarely be more than a dozen or so.

The hassle factor came from two other types of visitor:

1. Private householders, arriving in their 4x4s, or in hired Transit vans etc that were too high to get under the barrier.

2. Trade vans etc that were small enough to able to get under the barrier, but were trying to dump stuff that was not self-evidently waste from a private household (accepted without charge). Instead, it was trade waste, not necessarily objectionable, but from running a private business eg plumbing, landscape gardeners etc. Trade waste was not covered by household or business rates. It had to be weighed and paid for.

The first category caused no end of ill-will. Even if clearly non-trade, I was not allowed under any circumstances to raise the barrier.

Instead (see picture) the householder had to offload onto a trolley and push that some considerable distance to the appropriate bins. Rarely a week went by without being harangued on the iniquity of the system. I felt considerable sympathy, especially where older folk were concerned, but the (private) firm that operated the concession on trade waste/ recovery of scrap metal etc refused to budge.

But that was as nothing compared with the problem of the fly-by-night characters who tried tipping what was regarded as trade waste, and therefore chargeable. But try telling that to an estate agent, who brings a van, or even a private car, stuffed to the gunwhales with last season’s brochures. Or the small jobbing gardener with grass-cuttings or rotten fence posts. But the real problem were those persistent offenders with the sinks, toilets, engine oil, asbestos etc etc who would swear blind that it was their own DIY, or they were doing it on behalf of their dear old aunt.

There was an official procedure, which involved, as a last resort, getting them to sign a bit of paper, declaring it was their own waste, and warning that their premises were liable to spot inspection. But few were concerned when I pulled out the pad, knowing the risk of being visited or prosecuted was virtually nil. A different disincentive was needed to reduce abuse, that involved me using the little authority/leverage I had to best effect, but how ?

At home, I had a near-obsolete mid 80s Amstrad 1512 PC. It ran off 5.25 inch floppy disks, of which I had just two – the graphical user interface (icon) Gem operating system, which Microsoft Windows allegedly cloned, to put it politely, and a word-processing program. There was no spreadsheet or database software whatsoever.

But many hours spent with the fat, user-unfriendly book of words showed that there was a crude Mark 1 text editor on the operating system called Edlin.

Edlin allowed one to make lists, and to search those lists, similar to the software that we now take for granted on a mobile phone.

A week later, the guys on the site said I was looking grey and ill, but I had my database up and running. Whenever a visitor to the site seemed suspicious, I would enter his vehicle registration number into the computer along with a few details.

Then, whenever a vehicle approached the site that looked dodgy, the number would be quickly punched in, and any previous doubts/misgivings/suspicions would instantly pop up on screen.

(Everyone listed on the screen above was 100% legit' by the way. But you probably can't read the entries anyway. For some unknown reason, photos can no longer be enlarged by clicking, possibly because I have used up most of my quota on Blogger's server ).

And what a difference it would make if I could then saunter round casually to where the driver was unloading, and say “Back again, I see”. And when they affected that puzzled innocent look, that would be my cue to say “ Last Tuesday, if I’m not mistaken. Those old radiators. Oh yes, and the boiler from the week before”.

And if, as so often happened, there was another boiler being dropped, I would put it to the guy that he was “trade”, and ought to put everything back in the van, and come round to the weighbridge. If looks could kill, I’d be dead several times over by now, but I managed in 9 months to avoid physical confrontation (though there were several attempts at verbal wind-ups and it was a close run thing at times).

On another occasion, I’ll post here about the several months spent at B&Q, where again it was a case of being recruited on a false prospectus (”Customer Advisor”). No sense in mincing one’s words. That title was a cruel deception. Yet B&Q is usually held up a a role model for the rest of UK plc to emulate in being willing to take on older folk.

There were two events that made me hand in my resignation at the recycling centre sooner than I had intended: 1. a stream of vaguely threatening abuse from a particular white-van man, who might fairly be described as a low-life scumbag, coupled with the failure of my boss at A’ Secondary Metals to think constructively.

2. Having Mr. Big from the Council appear on site with his retinue, saying hello, and then immediately telling me out of the blue that I would soon get used to working on Saturdays. Up to that point, there had been a concession, allowing anyone to drive a van on to the site on Saturday, when the bar was raised all day. The Saturday option had helped to defuse many a situation with irate householders, especially the 4x4 drivers, but now, in one fell swoop, Mr Big was withdrawing that option, and assuming I would cheerfully do weekend work without proper consultation.

If Britain is to make use of its pool of workers who have reached a youngish NRD (eg 60, as in civil service jobs) or maybe taken early retirement, on health grounds, or to escape the rat race, then there needs to be a radical rethink in the way that older workers, many with management or supervisory experience, are treated and addressed.

One does not expect deference, or kid glove treatment, merely recognition that one is in transition between two entirely different lifestyles, and has opted for a solution intended to make that transition as natural and painless as possible. One does not expect to be treated as the shopfloor junior.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Are we the product of Intelligent Design, or molecular self-organization ?

Ed (added Dec 17th) : Sorry, the pictures have mysteriously disappeared, and I can't find the files to upload a second time. If this causes problems, please leave a Comment and we'll see what we can do.

The enthusiasm of this present government for City Academies was a puzzle to this blogger to begin with. Why should a made-good businessman, able to lay his hands on a couple of million, be able to found a new school, and even influence what is taught in that school, when we, the long-suffering taxpayers, are then required to stump up another £25 million ? What say do we get ?

There has always been a smell of No 10 cronyism about those academies, not helped by recent reports that some of those sweet-talked into pump-priming a City Academy were then approached to extend the largesse by giving loans to the Labour Party, with the prospect of their name appearing in the Honours List.

The more I read about Britain’s sofa government, the more it sounds like a return to the kind of mutual back-scratching Restoration society that Samuel Pepys described in his diary. And this from a Labour government !

However, this is not a polemic about Blairism. It’s more to do with what is presently being taught in all our schools, and not just the growing number of those dubious City Academies.

A report a few days back mentioned the growing incursion into classrooms of glossy literature, promoting so-called Intelligent Design (ID) as a respectable alternative to Darwinism.

First, let me state my own position: it is somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, although I'm still not quite sure where precisely. But despite being non-religious, I believe that no reasonable person should object to ID being raised and discussed in an RE lesson.

After all, what is it except a watered-down version of the altogether more wacky Creationism? It's only the latter which sticks to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, with “ingenious” explanations for dinosaur fossils and the like. ID, in contrast, does not deny that evolution occurred over millions of years, but maintains that it followed a Creator’s design, or template, rather than being the series of accidents envisaged in neo-Darwinism theory via random mutation and natural selection.

So what’s the objection to ID ? Does it really matter whether the progression from amoeba to City Academy sponsor was guided or not ?

Probably not, given that none of us depend totally on what we learn at school for our spiritual compass in life. We are exposed daily to new information, insight and debate in the media, that regularly challenge (or should) the kind of preconceptions we acquired at home or at school.

No, there is in my view little to worry about, except for one thing, and it is this. The proponents of ID are so convinced that their essentially religious view of the living world is the correct one that they consider it deserves equal billing with the Darwinist view in biology lessons.

It is not the purpose of this post to pontificate on how or where one should draw the line between scientific and religious speculation.

Anyone who has read (or tried to read) Stephen Hawking will know that the further one delves into the fabric of the universe, the harder it is to be certain about anything. The solid comfortable entities that we call atoms or molecules become ghostly, almost magical, entities, when one looks at the behaviour of the subatomic particles from which they are made.

But in an attempt to stay on terra firma, if indeed such a thing exists, I thought I would devote the final few hundreds of words to the subject of atoms and molecules, where there appears, sad to say, much ignorance and misunderstanding . And no thanks, says he, to the preponderance of arts graduates in the MSM, who shun any mention of real science, doing the reading public a huge disservice in the process.

Everything so far has been a preamble (dare one say a softening-up exercise) for the real reason for posting on this particular subject. It began the day before yesterday, with Ben Fenton’s two blogs in the Telegraph on the subject of ID, which rarely for the Telly attracted 36 Comments, including, towards the end, 3 of my own.
Ben Fenton 1
Ben Fenton 2

What caught my attention was the claim by Keith Thomas* that it was ridiculous to suppose that life-forms could have evolved without a guiding hand. He focused attention on their coded DNA template, akin as he says to a computer program, which could not have evolved, he says, as a series of random events. Ipso facto there has to be a great Computer Programmer in the sky !

Incidentally, I do not personally believe that DNA is the equivalent of a computer program. It's a coded recipe for making proteins, most of which happen to have enzymic /catalytic activity, speeding up particular chemical reactions, which is something quite different from what happens inside your laptop, but we will save that for another day.

*And belated apologies, Keith, for getting your surname wrong in one of my Telly posts

But it appeared to this retired biochemist that in all the current debate about ID, what one was seeing repeatedly was a mistaken public perception that atoms and molecules are like so many inert ballbearings, needing an outside shove in order to form the complex patterns and assemblies that one finds in living cells – as DNA, proteins etc.

What is not appreciated is that atoms, ions and molecules, the particles of chemistry, all have a tendency to self-organize. And given that there are weak forces between all molecules (van der Waals' interactions) that are ALWAYS , without exception, attractive (never repulsive), the trigger for this organization is often mere cooling, which slows the molecules down, allowing their essential "stickiness" to reveal itself.

The classic example is the snowflake, formed when water vapour condenses and freezes. The end result, as we know, are exquisite crystals, all with hexagonal symmetry. Yet each individual crystal we are told is unique, or nearly so.

But even at this level, dealing with H2O, a tiny molecule with just three atoms, there is complexity and mystery about the way these molecules self-organize. How come each of the six arms of the snowflake are identical. How does each one “know” how the others are developing in order to match their geometry exactly ?

The Wikipedia entry on snow geometry talks glibly about communication or “information transfer” between the arms. Well, if there are mysterious phone calls in the formation of a snowflake, perhaps scientists ought to try and understand that before addressing the subject of DNA !

It is fact that there are glaring gaps in our knowledge of everyday phenomena, simply because science, like politics, is the art of the possible. Scientists confine their studies to matters that are amenable to experiment: they do not waste time in banging their head against brick walls.

Anyway, here are a few graphics that summarise in pictures what we do know about water molecules, that describe how they are able to form ordered aggregates , but do not account for the artistic splendour of the end-result.

The individual water molecule is essentially V-shaped if one draws lines to connect the centres of the three atoms. The reason the water molecule it is not straight is due to the presence of two so-called lone pairs of electrons. They are invisible in the model, but balloon out into space, pushing the two hydrogen atoms (white) together. But these lone pairs can form hydrogen bonds to nearby water molecules , and behave therefore like “sticky” patches, allowing water molecules to form highly regular organized clusters.

The picture below shows a water molecule bonded with ( for starters) just four others in so-called tetrahedral geometry.

The process can be continued indefinitely, building up a three dimensional cage like structure from a series of hexagonal rings.

Why am I bothering to tell you all this ? To bore the pants off you ? Answer: it’s simply to make the point that molecules are not inert objects. They have movement (kinetic energy) at any temperature above absolute zero, that brings them together, a series of random collisions, and provided the collision speed is not too high, they then have the ability to stick together in a variety of patterns, allowing giant structures to be built up.

Imagine your child’s surprise if Lego bricks were tipped onto the carpet, and next day there was a model of a perfect pyramid, or even a feathery seaweed pattern on the carpet (see picture at top of a frost pattern on glass).

It would seem like a miracle, would it not ?, but molecules do this all the time, without any outside agency.

This is why chemists and biochemists do not immediately dismiss as absurd the idea that life-forms evolved by a series of chance collisions of atoms and molecules, over a long period of time.

That is not to say that the process will ever be reproduced in the laboratory. Who knows what the precise ingredients and conditions were that allowed the process to take place ? But it was not impossible in principle, and given the existence of a plausible mechanism, no matter how statistically improbable, they will prefer that to a defeatist line that in desperation invokes supernatural intervention.

That after all is what science is all about – seeking explanations in terms of known physical laws- instead of the religious opt-out . Or maybe that should have read "cop-out" instead. And that is why science lessons must be protected. ID is fine for the RE lesson, or the School Debating Society but should never be allowed to intrude into the school science laboratory.

Some may consider the views expressed here as an advocacy for atheism. Be that as it may, who's to say that it's not atoms and molecules - the building blocks of the material world - that are the crucial end-products of Intelligent Design ?

So intelligently designed, in fact, that a Creator can confidently leave them to their own devices, knowing that sooner or later, order, life even, will emerge from chaos.

If I were the religious kind, and thank the Lord I'm not sir, I would regard earthly molecules as God's seeds, lying on fertile star dust.