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  • Unfinished Flag-Waving Thoughts.

    Back too normal? We’re not all as « Charlie » as we were. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there was a brief moment of national union. Politicians briefly left their entrenched positions for a moment of fraternisation in the no-mans-land of patriotism and from left to right, across the political spectrum, everyone was « proud « to be French– Where in some countries it comes as second nature to sing the national anthem and fly the flag, in France the good old red white and blue can be like a red flag to a bull for some - the good old republican tricolour, symbol of France and the colourful incarnation of our eternal republican values : Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité or Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – as if any translation was necessary. Republican values, French values and universal values. Why have a flag for universal values ? Yes, our dear old flag has been very visible over the past couple of weeks, even those on the far left have been flying it as if to reinforce their allegiance to the republican Trinity and even to display their national pride.

    Over the past couple of weeks, the French have been flying their flag in the same spirit as the Americans or the British. This nation, where just over 10 years ago, flag-flying was reserved for football supporters or those « misguided » few attending rallies for the far right Front National – for years, the good old French tricolour was the property of the far right – to fly the flag was to subscribe to the racist ideology of the Front National – the flag was marked with the indelible filigraine imprint of the Occupation, the Vichy Republic, anti-Semitism; bloody colonial wars – flying the flag was very suspect, any display of tricolour allegiance was synonymous of a subscription to the far right.

    Look back at footage of Socialist party rallies, up until 2006 and you won’t see a single French flag – it wasn’t until the 2007 French election campaign, when the socialist candidate, Segolene Royale started to wave the flag at her rallies, that the French left began to reappropriate the tricolour, grappling it away from the far right and retransforming it into the rallying national republican symbol that it once was.

    The French don’t do patriotism in the same everyday, second nature vein that the Americans do. For sure, the French are proud to be French, but they don’t do it in a lighthearted vein. You can’t just say « I’m French and that’s cool. » The French won’t say « I love my country. » They won’t run up the flag in their back yards. They won’t sing the national anthem with hand on heart. Ask a Frenchman in private if he is proud to be French, and he might say yes, then ask the reasons why and he will cite you oenological, gastronomical, philosophical and cultural reasons why being French is better then being anything else. We’ve got Camembert, Château Margaux, Voltaire, Jean Paul Sartre and Jean Paul Gaultier – good reasons to be French, but that doesn’t build a nation.

    I get the feeling that since the Charlie Hebdo massacre there has been a lot of rapid and misplaced nation-building been happening. The French are looking at their national soul.

    I suppose you have to look how each nation builds its soul to understand. The Brits have the weight of history. As Britain gears up for the celebration of Magna Carta, the nation’s historians are flexing their democratic muscles to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the first English « bill of rights » or was it just a few angry barons very much annoyed at a lack lustre king doing away with their aristocratic privileges? Of course what was the French revolution? It didn’t start with Parisians rioting in the street – the catalyst came when Louis 16th decided to trim away a few noble privileges to fill the bankrupt state coffers. The French nobles of 1789 didn’t want to pay taxes, so Louis XVIth had to call the French parliament to force through legislation to get the nobility the bear their share of the national financial burden, and the rest is history. I suppose all good revolutions star tat the top and not at the bottom – I suppose revolutions are like gastric flow, what might start off as a burp then works itself down through the lower body only to finish off again with another burp – though of a different nature (and odour)

  • Chez Charlie

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    Wednesday 14th January 2015. Exactly a week after tragic events that rocked and shocked France.

    January 7th 2015. 6.30am.

    Just a typical early January day. A slight chill in the early morning wind as I walk down to the post box to get the morning paper – The main preoccupation seems to be the Greek economy. My daily broadsheet bears the headline « Will Greece leave the Euro zone » - and then several pages of analysis on the repercussions if far left-wing parties win the up and coming Greek elections. On the inside pages, the results of a national poll – 57% of French people say they are optimistic about 2015. Br it opinion polls or the plight of the Hellenic economic plight, most French people are still struggling with the hard crawl back to work after the Christmas break. Dark, dismal, dreary January – national teaching unions and parents’ organisations are asking for a week’s extra holiday – the kids are too tired after Christmas, they can’t concentrate and the teachers haven’t had sufficient time to prepare new lessons – an extra week’s holiday. I’ll support that. Of course, it’s not all dull, this is Epiphany week an as such the French will be celebrating by gorging themselves on a few slices of Epiphany cake. It’s traditional, with colleagues at work or family friends and neighbours at home, this is the time to uncork a bottle of bubbly, share the Epiphany cake and wish everyone a happy new year.

    Come 11am, it’s clear that 2015 won’t be so happy. First reports are coming in of a « shooting incident » at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine « Charlie Hebdo ». At lunchtime the horrific figures are confirmed – 11 dead and 5 seriously wounded. In the afternoon, the death toll climbs to 12. At work, all work seems to have stopped; we stand round in the corridors looking at footage of the attack taken by CCTV cameras. It hasn’t taken long for the images to make their way on to the Web. Masked gunmen, calmly climbing into their car and « making their getaway » after the attack with all the nonchalance of a Sunday afternoon drive. A couple of minutes previously, one of the attackers has, executed a wounded policeman by shooting him through the head. The footage of the execution has also made its way on to Internet. We can see the policeman, prostrate, one arm in the air waving off the attacker. The policeman is pleading for Mercy and then …

    The rolling news coverage continues well into the night. The following day, in what the authorities qualify as an « unrelated incident » a member of the Paris municipal police force is gunned down by a man »of African origin » in the Montrouge area in the south of the capital.

    Throughout the rest of the week, 90,000 police, troops and Gendarmes are mobilised in the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers, who are eventually tracked down to a print works on an industrial estate just 25 kilometres to the north of Charles De Gaulle international airport. Come Friday the powers-that-be have established a firm link between the Charlie Hebdo Killers and the Montrouge killer who is holed up in a Jewish supermarket in the Vincennes area of Paris, he has ten hostages.

    Around 5pm on Friday, in simultaneous assaults on the Jewish supermarket and the print works, all the terrorists are « definitively neutralised » (a direct translation of the French term). In the Vincennes supermarket four hostages also lie dead, though they have been murdered during the siege by their hostage taker.

    The week in France when France changed forever. The slogan « Je suis Charlie went nationwide and then worldwide. Shops, offices, public buildings … everywhere you looked, the « Je Suis Charlie » slogan had appeared. On Friday and Saturday nights there were impromptu candlelit vigils for the week’s victims. On Sunday four million people took to the Streets in France’s towns and cities. They were not there to condemn terrorism, they were there to celebrate freedom, they were there to celebrate the values of the French Republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – even in the smallest farthest-flung village, locals gathered around their village war memorial to say « Je suis Charlie » - for once, everything was not confined to Paris. And in this nation where patriotism is often associated with the far right, out came the tricolour flags – the nation was a sea of red white and blue. Even the most virulent of critics who associate patriotism with nationalism, were out on the Streets, flying the flag and say « je suis Charlie » and « Je suis Français » and proud to be French, because being French is not just a question of culture, it is also a question of accepting those three most basic of republican values – liberty, equality and fraternity. This week too, the nation has been taking up the national anthem in spontaneous chorus – the good old Marseillaise, once almost considered as an embarrassment by some – has become the hit of the day

    What has changed in France this week – our normally fractious nation has found its own unique sense of republican national identity – it feels good to be French because France stands for freedom. For sure, this, the greatest expression of national cohesion since France won the football World Cup in 1998 won’t last. We will soon be back to our old ways – ever cynical, ever complaining, ever divided – but then this too is an essential part of the French character – we are a nation of complainers and pessimists – this is what makes us happy.

    What has changed? I don’t think anything has changed however the tragic events of the last week have awoken the latent republican that slumbers deep within the soul of every French person. There is a new national conscience about what it means to be French regardless of race, creed or colour.

    Surprising images from this week though – People in the street applauding police officers and Gendarmes. People in the Paris Métro actually talking to each other and at the beginning of a debate in the French Parliament – all the members, regardless of political allegiance, standing together for a hearty rendition of the French national anthem – not seen in living memory. This hasn’t happened since the end of World War One.

    And finally, just one week after the fatal editorial meeting, Charlie Hebdo, the iconoclastic, satirical magazine that was on its last legs – just 13000 subscribers, just 60,000 readers – has now gone worldwide. This week’s edition has gone from a print run of 60,000 to five million and already most of the shops have sold out. The irony is, had the terrorists not “killed” Charlie, it would probably have died a protracted financial death in relative national indifference – perhaps just a few minutes on the evening news to mark the passing of this institution. Tnaks to the terrorists though, Charlie Hebdo will now live on, greater than ever.

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    Sunday January 11th 2015-01-14

    Events of recent days have left me confused and pensive. There was no point in giving a day-by-day blog account of the events in the heat of the moment. I waited until it was all over before I penned my usual unchecked, rambling thoughts on what has happened.

    LOOKING BACK

    In future years, as we look back on the tragic and barbaric events in Paris this week, we will recall the journalists and cartoonists who were murdered, but what about Frederic Boisseau? – Not a cartoonist or a journalist, but a humble building maintenance engineer and the first victim of the ensuing carnage.

    FREDERIC BOISSEAU

    15 years of loyal service to his employers, SODEXO, on Wednesday January 7th, the 42 year-old father of two is told to report to 10 Rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement of Paris to carry out maintenance for a Sodexo client. Just another routine day, though this being Epiphany week, there might be a drink at work later on. We celebrate Epiphany in France, at home or in the workplace it is traditional to get together, uncork a bottle of bubbly and eat a few slices of New Year cake – what we call the Galette des Rois. I daresay if he hadn’t done it already Frederic had planned to celebrate with his wife and kids, or friends, and neighbours or colleagues.

    To Frederic, 10 Rue Nicolas Appert was just another of these faceless office blocks he was so used to working in. He had no idea of the companies working out the building. At around 10.30 as he was sitting at the reception desk, chatting with a colleague, the unthinkable happened. Surreal and frightening and ultimately deadly. I just wonder if Frederic didn’t look round for the hidden TV cameras. In burst two masked and heavily armed gunmen asking for the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Frederic looked at the building plan and told them they were on the second floor. He was promptly shot and died in his colleague’s arms. His last words before he died « phone my wife and tell her I love her. »

    The tearful and heart wrenching account of what happened during the last minutes of Frederic’s life, was given by his widow on a national radio station.

    VICTIMS OF THE WAR

    « What about all the innocent victims of America’s war on terror? » thundered one irate caller to a radio phone in programme on the day following the attack. « Iraqi and Afghan women and children killed in American drone attacks! » Yes, spare a thought for them and spare a thought for all those innocent victims from New York, to London, to Madrid – all those innocent everyday heroes who thought they were just headed off for another normal day: taking the kids to school, going to the supermarket – fighting your way through the morning rush hour mayhem. The ritual daily grind, the everyday hassle of just getting up, getting on and getting through. Just another reassuringly lousy day. It will be better tomorrow. We never think that there won’t be a tomorrow. We never think that someone is going to shoot us down. When we get on the bus or the subway we probably never give a second thought about suicide bombers. « What do you mean; someone is going to crash a 747 Jumbo jet into my office block! Are you mad? »

    Each to his job. Frederic doing his building maintenance, whilst the policemen assigned to protect the Charlie Hebdo building and its staff, stand guard on the pavement outside.

    AHMED MERABET

    One of the policemen killed was Ahmed Merabet. 11 years on the force, the 42 year-old of Algerian origin had just passed his exams to become an officer. A few more months, he would have been off the streets and studying hard at Police Academy. « An honest person and a good Muslim » his Brother-in-law told reporters at a press conference. Mr Merabet’s Partner along with his three brothers and two sisters were too upset to speak. Mr Merabet’s murder is all the more shocking – at first wounded by the assailants, as he pleaded for his life, one of the gunmen executed Ahmed with a bullet through the head.

    JUST ANOTHER DAY AT CHARLIE HEBDO

    Each to his job. At the editorial meeting, the leading lights of Charlie Hebdo are working on a special « Shariah » edition. The satirical magazine is about to take another swipe at radical Islam. It’s not the first time. In February 2006, the magazine ran a caricature of the prophet Mohamed on its front cover. There was outrage across the Muslim world and the offices of Charlie Hebdo at the time were burned to the ground as a reprisal In February 2014, the magazine ran another front cover « insulting » the Koran. Over the years though, Charlie Hebdo has taken a swipe at everyone who is anyone in public life, De Gaulle, Mitterrand; Sarkozy, Le Pen, were all targets for the magazine. Numerous religious leaders and quite simply religions themselves have also been mocked, satirised, criticised, debunked – until Tuesday 6th January 2015 though, no one had taken up arms against the magazine.

    THE STORY OF CHARLIE AND THE SPIRIT OF 1968

    To understand the ethos of Charlie Hebdo, you have to go back to May 1968. Those heady May days when…

    In the Quartier Latin in Paris, students have erected barricades, they are fighting running battles in the street with French riot police. Cars burn, paving stones and Molotov cocktails fly, the air is thick with teargas. There are similar scenes in all major French towns and cities. At the same time, there is a general strike. Workers all over France down tools and declare an indefinite strike for better pay and conditions. In one heady moment, union leaders espouse the student cause – freedom. Intellectuals of the day visit striking workers in their factories – Jean Paul Sartre himself goes to « lecture » striking Renault workers at their factory on the edge of Paris. Workers attend debates in the nation’s major universities where students are staging massive sit-ins, and at one point, General De Gaulle himself – president of the day is forced to leave Paris for Baden Baden in Germany – rumour has it that he will rally French troops stationed in Germany and come crashing across the Franco German border to « pacify » France. The May 1968 « Revolution » lasted 6 weeks, and finally collapsed when the workers went back to work after new deals on pay and conditions were stuck with the government and employers – yes, the revolution finished just in time for the French to go on holiday.

    Charlie Hebdo was founded in the wake of the « revolution », it’s job – to strike a blow for freedom, not that France wasn’t « free » in 1968. Freedom (or liberty at least) is written into the French republican contract « Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. » However the students of 1968 wanted a little more freedom in what was quite a constrained society. It’ was only 20 years since French women had been granted the vote. Abortion was illegal and contraception had only been legal since late December 1967, but the Pill was only available with parental consent. The age of majority was still 21 (though this was the case in the UK too at the time). Obligatory Military service for young men lasted two years. Then there was the question of censorship – the powers-that-be censored books, comics, films that were considered « unsuitable », especially those for the younger generation. Most American comic books had been banned since 1949 – an initiative from Madame De Gaulle. In music terms, anything coming out of the US or Britain took about three months to cross the Atlantic or the Channel. Enterprising French music producers would procure copies of British or American records and record a homegrown French version of the song before it became commercially available in France. Boys and girls were still educated separately. The youngsters of 1968 just wanted one thing – a little more freedom in a society that was pretty much still living along pre-war lines.

    IT’S FORBIDDEN TO FORBID

    The 1968 student « revolutionaries » had their fair share of slogans « Let’s be realistic and ask for the impossible » (Soyons réalistes. Demandons l’impossible) was one. By far the most famous « Il est Interdit d’interdire » (literally meaning « forbidding is forbidden » or « It is forbidden to forbid ») Charlie Hebdo was founded on this idea. Total freedom, no taboos and no subject was taboo. Charlie Hebdo (then known just as « Charlie ») was actually founded when its forerunner - a magazine called Hara Kiri was shut down and banned by the public censor.

    Three of the cartoonists murdered in the Charlie Hebdo attack, Wolinski, Cabu and Honoré were firmly of the 1968-generation. They cut their satirical teeth in the heady days of May 1968 and years afterwards continued to criticise, and satirise very much in the spirit of the period.

    Talking to those people (the baby boomers) who grew up in 1960’s France, it was a pretty dour place for a teenager. The country was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, there was full employment. The generation that had lived through the dark days of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation, were enjoying the « fruits of victory. » but they weren’t ready for « teenagers ».

    Though the War may have ended in 1945, fighting did not stop for the French. From 1948 until 1954, French forces fought a bloody colonial war in Indo China (Vietnam) finally losing not only the colony, but also 70,000 lives. Hot on the heals of the French Vietnam War, came the complicated, protracted and bloody colonial conflict in Algeria (reports say that up to a million Algerians were killed in the conflict along with 30,000 French soldiers.) The Algerian conflict brought terrorist attacks and riots to the streets of Paris – at one point there was even a revolt within the ranks of the French army and the very real threat of a Putsch.

    Charlie Hebdo was born on the back of all this. A generation of youngsters fed up with their parents wars and an older generation still trying desperately to hang on to their ideal of « la France Eternelle »

    Throughout its existence, Charlie Hebdo always fought against all those of any political hue threatened freedom of expression. Extremists from all sides of the political and religious spectrum.

    NO BRAIN MURDERERS ?

    Just a personal opinion – those behind extremist organisations, who can manipulate the weak-minded into becoming the foot soldiers of their cause – they have the brains, but those rank and file killers, suicide bombers, street fighters – they actually have pretty scant knowledge of the cause they espouse and an equally rudimentary knowledge of the enemy, other than the fact that they are the enemy.

    Results of recent research by the Department of War Studies at King’s College University, London – researchers who had spent months questioning convicted Islamic terrorists in prison, found that they actually had only the most rudimentary knowledge about their religion or about the Koran. I suppose it was the same for the Brownshirts in Nazi Germany – no matter about the ins and outs of Judaism or Communism – all the foot soldiers have to know is that Jews and Communists are better off dead. The foot soldiers of extremism only understand violence and how to mete it out.

    I suppose the real question I’m asking is, who were the brains behind this attack? Did orders from the attack come from a higher source, or was it genuinely two indoctrinated and seasoned terrorists who decided to wipe out Charlie Hebdo. What supposedly provoked the attack – the caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed – appeared on the front cover of the magazine back in 2006. They caused uproar throughout the Muslim world. Why didn’t gun toting Islamic extremists wipe out Charlie Hebdo back in 2006?

    A FEW QUESTIONS AND RÉPERCUSSIONS

    France is united. « On est tous Charlie ». Ordinary French men and women of all origins and all confessions have taken to the street in their millions in peaceful marches and vigils, firstly to condemn the massacre and also show the France is united. The irony is, that even those on the right and the far right who certainly did not hold Charlie Hebdo in their hearts – they are all Charlie too. Even Marine Le Pen – leader of France’s far right, populist, anti immigration party « Le Front National » has taken to the Streets. She too is Charlie. For sure here are s those riding on the back of the current Charlie wave for pure political and electoral capital.

    The thorny question of freedom, religion and multiculturalism. France (as I often point out) is a secular republic. Faith is purely a private matter and exterior signs of faith are banned in public places – no matter the dress, the headgear or the accoutrements worn by the believers, they cannot be worn in public places such as hospitals, employment offices, tax offices etc. Yet religion is a major part of culture and we want to encourage each person to express his or her culture – the French constitution guarantees people this freedom. Where are we now though? Critics are point to years of flawed immigration policy, the failure of the nation and the Republic to assimilate immigrants as a couple of the reasons for the rise of Islamic extremism. These attacks were carried out by Frenchmen – yes they had North African family roots, but they were second or third generation, so not Algerian, but French – born and bred in France – and so the same question that was posed in Britain after the July 7th 2005 attacks in London – where did we go wrong? Or were the attacks simply the work of a couple of ex-delinquents with a history of Petty crime and drug use, who just absolutely felt the need to « exist »? Are we dealing with true soldiers of the faith or were these killers of the Columbine or Dumblaine ilk? There are those questions we need to ask. Provably what we don’t need right now is yet another debate on national identity and what it is to be French.

    On this last point, as I start on the long administrative road in my demand for French nationality, I would say that being French is speaking the language, assimilating the culture and history and subscribing to that full set of Republican values, which are also very human values Liberty, equality and fraternity – and you can pretty much do that wearing a burqa, a kippa or a crucifix. And no matter what faith inspired garb you choose to wear is it so hard to accept someone else’s religion or point of view. In common with many others, I am starting to think that if you can’t accept France and her values of freedom and tolerance – you don’t have to take to the streets and kill innocent people, just go and live somewhere else. Where people get sentenced to ten years prison and 1000 lashes for writing a blog – if that’s your idea of heaven …
    A final thought – soccer.

    SOCCER THOUGHTS

    One of those strange repercussions. January 10th 2015. The Parisian soccer team – Paris St Germain (PSG) are playing against their Premier league rivals Bastia at the Bastia stadium in Corsica. Before the game, Bastia fans unfurl a huge banner bearing the words « Quatar finance the PSG and terrorism » - which as we say in French – « is not untrue. » In 2012 a Qatari investment fund « Qatar Sports Investments » bought the PSG. An investment, just like the other 10 billion Euros that Qatar has invested in major French companies, including Total, Vinci, Vivendi Veolia.
    For sure the Qataris are also buying up vast chunks of Paris (and London) – Wise investments. When the oil finally does run out, they’ll be needing the money. Buying a French football team or supporting terrorism – I think the Bastia supporters have a point, but their action serves only to trivialise and politicise the debate at a moment when France is enjoying an unprecedented spell of national unity. And what about Western regimes, haven’t e supported terrorist movement in the past? Or were they just freedom fighters.

    IRONY IN CONCLUSION

    The irony in this. In those heady days of May 1968, the Charlie cartoonists were railing against De Gaulle and the French establishment. Students were fighting running battles with riot police in the Streets of Paris. All in the name of liberty – and then those anti-establishment cartoonists became part of the anti-establishment « establishment » - revered iconoclasts, living legends – in the Charlie massacre though, they were « the enemy » - as much of an enemy as those French politicians who order French military intervention in Iraq and Mali and the Central African Republic – all to fight against extremist Islamic terrorists. The anti-establishment became the Establishment, and in their turn, the killers were tracked and killed by those very forces of law and order that the 1968 students fought against. We’ve come full circle, I think we have all become Charles, and there is the irony, we have all become anti-establishment .

  • Kissin', Pissin' and Mates for Life.

    What are the new year traditions where you live? Not in the sense of what do you do to celebrate the New Year, but what do you do on the chimes of midnight?

    In the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaikursk, on the first stroke of midnight, it is traditional for men to jump up and down on one leg and hit each other over the head with a brick, whilst the women roll on the ground feigning childbirth to mark the “birth” of the new year. Actually this is an absolute lie, but it seems more interesting than what the rest of us do.

    Out here in France, THE PLACE to be is on the Champs Elysées, clutching a bottle of champagne. At midnight, you uncork the Champers, drink it in vast gulps and then proceed to copiously kiss everyone around you on both cheeks whilst screaming “Bonne Année” at the top of your voice. You could probably do the same at the foot of the Eiffel tower or on the steps of Montmarte. Come to think of it, you could probably do the same in Times Square, Trafalgar Square, on the steps of the Sidney Opera House – any large and symbolic public place. Afterwards of course, there will be the firework display. Even in my corner of smalltown France, we are not immune to this New Year globalization. At midnight, we too will be with friends on a large downtown square, clutching our champagne and on the stroke of midnight … of course there will be a firework display afterwards.

    (Just a note on the Champs Elysées - since 2013, glass bottles are banned - despite the relative goodwill still prevailing at New Year, some proper do tend to lob their empty champagne bottles at the police - so, now, you have to pre-pour your champagne into a plastic bottle and just hope it doesn't go flat before midnight.)

    The difference probably comes therefore in the way we celebrate the passing of the old year. In France, Christmas is reserved for the family and New Year is reserved for friends. Standard New Year practise would be to go to a restaurant, then on to a disco, uncork the champagne at midnight, kiss everyone (male and female) on both cheeks, dance until dawn and then round off the night with a … piping hot bowl of onion soup (after which there isn’t much kissing)

    And I suppose you’ll be doing pretty much the same, but without the onion soup.

    Those curious new years I have spent – once at the Puerto del Sol in Madrid – my lady friend of the time thrust twelve grapes into my hand – with each stroke of midnight, we were supposed to eat a grape. That’s fine if they are seedless, but when they are of the large and well-seeded variety. Come the tweltfth stroke midnight, you have a mouth full of grape flesh and seeds. Before any serious kissing gts done, you have to digest the grapes, spit out the seeds or just discreetly spit out the whole lot (which I’m sure brings bad luck.)

    Back in my pre-ex-pat days (ie when I was a full time Brit instead of a full time ex-pat), New Year’s Eve was simple – you’d just go down the pub with mates. As midnight approached, you’d try to strategically place yourself near to some good looking girl, and come midnight and after the singing of Auld Lang syne, you’d slap a wet, drunken beer-stinking kiss on her cheek (whilst every other bloke in the pub was trying to do the same); Last orders half past midnight, chucking out time just before one and then you’d walk to the bus stop, hoping that the Kebab shop would still be open for a portion of chips. The one good thing about New Year’s Eve – walking to the bus stop, all the people that might normally beat you up just for looking at them, or rob you for a few pounds – they would just walk up to you and scream “Happy f*g New Year you B*d” in your face.

    The lasting memory of late teenage and early adult New Year celebrations are the number of people pissing everywhere. This is New Year’s Eve, the few public toilets are closed and we’ve all had too much too drink. The kerb is lined with men urinating in the gutter, shop doorways become public toilets and the more drunken members of this great male fraternity have taken up the highest and strangest positions for a pee – someone hanging off a lamp post and spraying the crowd below, a bloke of the roof of a car, someone else has climbed up a tree … All those meaningless but friendly new year conversations I have had with fellow male members of the species as we stand pissing anywhere and everywhere on New Year’s Eve. A few pints of urine pissed in bodily communion, and you are “friends for life.”

    Of course, I am more civilized now. I drink less and drive my family and friends downtown for the firewoerk display in my Volvo (Oh how sad we become) – But I’d still like an edgey and traditional New Year.

    As kids, New Year was a tile to mark our Scottish heritage. Mum would buy a tin of shortbread and we would all stay up to watch some ersatz Scottish New Year festivity on the TV. Minor Scottish celebrities with kilts flying, A whisky-looking fluid in their glass (normally tea) and plenty of Hogmanay songs – the whole programme just one hour and probably recorded in the middle of August. So I miss these New Year’s too as I miss the tradition of the “First Foot” – In Scotland, the first person over your doorstep in the New Year must be a tall, dark man who will generally bring you luck – he brings a piece of New Year cake and a lump of coal – may you have food and warmth for the ensuing year.

    I’ve tried to install the “first foot” tradition in France, but to no avail, however, I have now got all my French mates singing “Auld Lang Syne” (Correct spelling????)

    I wanted a last New Year word but words fail me.

    As for the best New Year IU have spent – in 1994. Nothing planned, we just all got together and new year happened.

    The worst New Year

    The year we had planned everything with posh food from a caterer and good wine – a disaster.

    Never plan for New year. It just happens and will always happen no matter what you do.

    Happy New Year folks.

    Ps – If you are in or near Azerbaikursk, don’t forget to bring a brick.

    PPS – If you are a totally ugly bastard, I do hope that you at least get the chance to kiss a nice girl.

  • Of Resolutions, Revolutions and Good Intentions.

    Resolutions and Revolutions

    It is that time of year, the turning of the year when we resolve to make ourselves better, fitter, happier healthier people. We decide, to give up bad habits, to divest ourselves of those physical or mental burdens that make us unhappy. We resolve to change our ways. We are full of good intentions. Ah yes, the good old New Year’s resolution, but never a revolution. Where there is a will there is a way and it will take us all our frail human determination to accomplish those goals which we have set ourselves, therefore we are not going to undertake anything too difficult that might just revolutionise our lives. Radical change? Heaven forbid. Just the act of going back to work after the festive blip is going to require a heroic effort.

    The return to normal life. I know on the first day back at work, everyone will be wearing glazed expressions of emptiness. It will be like a train station or an airport during a computer glitch or a system failure – transport staff put up large signs “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible”. We will all be wearing such signs until late January, when finally the last vestiges of Christmas decoration have been taken down and it finally feels like we are all “back to normal”.

    Hold on though, why are we all heading back to work when it is still officially Christmas? Why are we all slaving away? The Wise men haven’t arrived yet. Jesus is still in his manger and Mary and Joseph are still sitting in the stable. Christmas does not officially finish until February 2nd – Candlemass or Midwinter’s Day. Why are you ripping down the Decorations on Twelfth Night? You can leave them up until Candlemass. Yes, but isn’t it just a tad depressing, heading off to work on those cold January mornings with your tree and tinsel still up? Yep, what is worse than crawling to work in mid-january and passing shops and houses still festooned in their festive garb.

    Candlemass commemorates the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple. In a more “sinisiter” vein, it also marks the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after the birth of her son.

    Into the light

    Up until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the “purification” of young mothers was a common ceremony in some churches – it was called “Churching” – There was something inherently sinful in the act of procreation and something “unhealthy” about the act of childbirth, therefore young mothers underwent a purification ceremony before they were allowed back in church again, or allowed to take Holy Communion.

    This ritual purification dates back to biblical times. When Women weren’t allowed to worship at the Temple or Synagogue after childbirth. The length of time that women were excluded from worship depended on the sex of their baby. In the case of a boy, young mums got a 40 day ban that increased to 60 days if they had given birth to a girl. So, if Jesus had been Jessica, we might well be keeping our Christmas decoration up until late February.

    Of course Jesus wasn’t Jessica, but I am just wondering, if, next Christmas I could ask my employer for forty days off work for the festivities?

    Oh Lord! Can you imagine celebrating Christmas for 40 consecutive days.?

    40 days or 60 days. If Jesus had been Jessica, that would certainly have thrown the Christian calendar out of synch. Imagine Jessica spending 60 days in the wilderness – a – day long Lent. Of course this means that Easter would come 60 days after Ash Wednesday, meaning that Easter would fall firmly in Spring and we might actually get some decent weather for Easter.

    Candlemass, like all good Christian ceremonies is of course based on a Pagan Ceremony – Midwinter’s day and the Festival of Light. Time to light a few candles and bonfires to mark the halfway stage of winter and a slow return to longer days right up until June 21st – Midsummer’s Day, the point at which days start to get shorter. Seems a bit weird that those long summer days are actually getting shorter in the run up to winter.

    So, back to resolutions. I have decided to have daily resolutions or rather good intentions – that good old boy scout thing of a good deed a day. Some small act that will make someone else’s existence a little easier such as holding a door open for the person behind me, rather than letting it fly and shut firmly in their face.

    Yes, there are plenty of day-to-day things you can do. When you driving along a main road with a huge line of cars behind you, why not stop and let though the poor bastard who has been waiting all day to come out of a side road. Do the same at roundabouts, give way to a couple of cars. If every motorist just let one car through on a roundabout it would do wonders for traffic flow. In the same way, stop at crossings and let that little old lady across.

    Good deeds in shops. There you are at the checkout, a trolley laden with shopping and behind you, a fellow customer with just one or two items. Let the,frail little old lady with her tin of cat food go in front of you. Staistically you have longer to live than her. So you have the time as she pays for her cat food in one cent coins. For all those small good deeds you do, the one day that you need a good deed just to make life a little easier, well generally it happens just when you need it.

    And finally a good deed that costs nothing. A warm morning greeting with a smile for friends, neighbours and colleagues. You know, when you are down in the mouth with a bad case of the Monday morning blues, it just takes a smile and a heartfelt greeting from a colleague to make your day.

    Oh dear, this all sounds so trivial, but then you don’t need a spanner in the works to make the machine breakdown, sometimes just a grain of sand will do. I’m hoping my grains of sand will pile up and form into one long sun drenched beach, for this is also that time of year that we traditionally think about booking our summer vacation, and every year, the stress levels in our house go through the roof as I annoy my family with holiday plans. This year I’ll go with the flow and pick up something at the last minute. And so, to my final resolution – cease stressing those around me with my plans, fears, worries and good intentions.

  • The Inter Seasonal Neverland

    Into The Light

    There was the pre festive frenzy; that mad magical mayhem the buying presents, the laying in of seasonal victuals and decorating. Those days in the lead up to Christmas when we deck the halls and dress our day-to-day dwelling in the gaudy accoutrements of the season – lights, tinsel, gold and silver balls … they shine out keeping the darkness and creatures and spirits of the cruel winter night at bay. The lights shine like a beacon of hope – like the far off glow of lights at an inn, a reassuring sign of respite and sustenance for weary travellers. They shine out like a lonely star in the night sky guiding Wise men on their quest for a king

    Into the light

    This year though the lights have been fewer and dimmer. Those houses normally so lit up that they might be visible from space are invisible. Not a flicker, not a sparkle, almost invisible.

    No lights. No hope. For sure we have made it through another year. We are happy that it’s Christmas but in the grey days of winter there is a spirit of grey resignation, a palpable despondency.

    « Can’t be bothered with lights this year, » says a colleague at a somewhat sad and morose pre-Christmas workplace gathering. Too much effort, no time and an all-round lack of seasonal sprit. « What’s the point? » reiterates my colleague. « All that effort to put the bloody things up just so I can take them down a couple of weeks later. »

    The media thunder away about (what the French call) the ambient morosity. Economic crisis, global warming, global warring, « the highest unemployment levels for a decade » announces one stony-faced newsreader. Things are bad, worse than bad and they can only get worse still. OH PLEASE! Tell us some good news. There must be something that will cheer us up.

    Motion without Emotion

    In local shops and supermarkets, people are « going through the motion » without emotion. Crowds of shoppers stock up on mountains of victuals – Like that great Dickensian mountain of festive fare atop of which the sits the jovial ghost of Christmas present as he welcomes the mean and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, with a hearty Christmas laugh. A great belly laugh filled with reassuring relish, hope and merriment like the peal of bells on Christmas morning.

    Here though, queuing at the butcher’s counter there seems to be little appetite for Christmas, no matter how the rotund and red-cheeked jovial butcher tries to goad his customers with Christmas spirit. « Just a small turkey this year, » announces the lady in front in a voice as feeble as a small boy making a weak and wet excuse for his misdemeanor. Al the while, the lady tries to ignore the plump, majestic turkeys hanging above her. Turkeys in their festive finery, freshly-plucked save for a small feather collar, they hang lifeless, waiting to fulfill their one purpose in life – to adorn your Christmas table and satisfy your hearty seasonal appetite.

    Kafka Christmas

    I imagine all those sad shoppers sitting down to their Christmas dinner as if it were a funeral wake. I imagine them tastelessly and morbidly masticating their way through their festive feast in Kafkaesque ritual. Franz Kafka, that depressing playwright who was rumoured to chew every mouthful of food 114 times.

    Like Henry James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Kafka was a disciple of an early 20th century dietary fad known as « Fletcherism, » Horace Fletcher; an American health food enthusiast argued that every mouthful food should be chewed at least 100 times before swallowing. Food chewed down into a liquid state is easier to digest. Fletcher also advocated that people examine their own excreta to ensure they were digesting well.

    We are having a truly Kafkaesque Christmas. Oh, for a happy metamorphosis.

    As we masticate our way in misery through our festive food mountain, we know that at least half of what we have bought will end up in the bin as it creeps dangerously near to its « eat-by » date.

    Peeling Back the Layers of Christmas

    Thanks heavens for the children – those last true repositories of the true spirit of Christmas. Starry-eyed and filled with hope, redolent of the Christ child himself (so our priest claimed at his sermon on Christmas Eve) They eagerly await Santa, refusing to go to bed, until, drunk with fatigue they flop into their beds and come Christmas morning, the old chap. has been. Brightly wrapped present sit thick under the tree. The children jump on them, ripping off the paper and … Christmas is over.

    It’s all so quick and so unceremonious. After all the careful build up to this one moment, we reach festive climax and just don’t stop to enjoy it. We should carefully tear away the layers of paper on those gifts that have been so carefully, beautifully and lovingly wrapped. No, we just thoughtlessly strip away the layers of Christmas. Now you’ve got your gifts, what happens next?

    We take our gifts back to the shop, exchange them for something we really want, or just try and get the cash. We sell our gifts on the Internet. We negate all the love, the time and the effort that someone has put into offering us a gift. Those minutes, hours or even days someone spent choosing something they thought we might like, that time that they spent thinking about us, that tile that we existed in the hearts and minds of those who love us or like us enough to « make the effort ».

    New Heaven and a New Earth.

    And now the gifts have been given, sold and exchanged. The food eaten, thrown up or thrown out. The decorations looking just a little limp and the tree losing its needles, we enter the festive limbo, that inter-seasonal purgatory, where we err as lost souls, wondering what we can do until New Year brings some kind of salvation. That moment when we can finally enter the New Year as if it were a new realm. We hope for a new Heaven and a new Earth as the old Earth fades away. For sure at midnight on December 31st, everything will change for the better. New start, clean start, clean slate, resolutions, good intentions. Why do we place so much faith in a simple calendar change – a man-made manipulation of time?

    Never Land

    I like this inter-seasonal Neverland. It is a place/moment when time stands still. We drift on those post-Christmas currents that will “sail” us into the inevitability of New Year. Fight against the current all you want, in the end you just have to go with the flow, down to the river’s end and finally out into that great unchartered ocean that is the New Year.

    Purgatory

    Down on the banks of the mighty Loire – My chosen place of solitude. It is high tide and the current is flowing fast. No matter how fast or slow the river runs, it has only one destiny.

    I am not alone on this grey, windswept, drizzly day. We are several errant souls, pacing up and down contemplating the river. Lonely souls in this forlorn winter place. We exchange brief greetings if we come face-to-face, but we are trying to avoid each other, each lost in his or her own thoughts.

    DSC_0028

    In the late afternoon mist and drizzle my fellow walkers appears as ghosts. Perhaps they are. Trapped on this river bank as if in purgatory. Each ghost locked in its own time. Each lost soul waiting to cross the river.

    It is a supernatural place. Houses, restaurants and cafés all shuttered up for the duration until those happier summer souls return to make the place live again. It is like a sad seaside town out of season. Come the long sweet summer days, the cafés open for business. Holiday homers take down their shutters and throw open their windows to let in the summer world. Day trippers come here for picnics – spreading their chequered rugs, to eat, drink, laugh and then snooze off their wine in the afternoon sun. Anglers wade out into the shallows, casting their lines far into the water in the hope of catching a succulent fresh water fish. People mess about in boats and Sunday cyclists pedal their leisurely way along the bank, and at the end of the day, lovers sit “entwined” at the water’s edge to watch the sun set into the flows.

    I prefer this place in winter though. This riverside purgatory in its grey and ghostly guise. I like the shuttered-up houses – The sensible squat stout cottages that once belonged to local watermen. The many spired art deco villas that look as haunted as the errant lost souls on the bank. Rambling villas in various states of graceful decay. Crumbling mansions built into the remnants of old chateaux. It is all redolent of a bad B movie remake of the Shining.

    I like it here because we are in the nakedness of winter. The world has long lost its glorious summer raiment, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness has evaporated and withered away. This is grey winter – the grey skin that hangs on a skeletal winter world – all stripped and laid bare like a corpse awaiting the last rites before burial. In this inter-seasonal moment, Christmas has died like one of the Dickensian spirits and now we await the last rites of the New Year festivities.

    Redemption and Communion

    Winding my way home through the steep, vine-covered hill sides of the Sancerre region.

    I am always thankful that when God created this great good earth, amongst the flora and fauna he made to fill his creation, the Almighty saw fit to include the vine. What art and what foresight, giving Man the means to produce that nectar which our God Lord would take to symbolise his blood at the Last Supper. Every glass, every sip is a moment of communion, a moment for reflection and even a moment of redemption at the end of a hard day. What better time than this season to be in the vines, a few days after the birth of Jesus.

    At this cold and skeletal time of year, the vines are like the baby Messiah – naked and vulnerable. Steep and rolling hillsides as far as they eye can see, all covered in naked vines. Looking down from my vantage point it is difficult to believe that over the seasons, these vines will bear any fruit.

    Obscured by mist, the villages below become blurred, though sweet wood smoke rising from chimneys is a proof of the human presence. It is cold. It is time to head home for the sweet redemption that only a glass of good wine can bring.

  • TWISTED FIRST DAY WORK THOUGHTS

    Monday 1st September will be the first day back for millions of workers and school kids. The shock of "La Rentrée" (the French word meaning back to work or back to school). Here are some twisted first day work thoughts. They make sense to me. I hope they have some sense for you.

    First day back at work. Fumbling through the darkest recesses of my bag for my office keys. Not in the bag. Not in my pockets. Yes, I’ve left them in the car. Erm, where are my car keys? Where did I park my car? Premature Alzheimer’s? Short-term memory loss. I eventually find my car and my keys, that have slipped out of my pocket and have slipped down the side of the driver’s seat in the car – Or did I actually put them there for safekeeping?

    I unlock the office. The office is still there, in the general state of disorder that I left it six weeks ago. I still have an office. I presume I still have a job. After the long summer break, I still exist - well you hear so many «horror» stories about those who return to work and return to nothing, save a lap top, and a promise from their boss of a BRIGHT FLEXIBLE FUTURE (BFF) within the company.

    I remember a long time ago in one « organisation » I worked for used the BFF as standard practice to get rid of people. The scenario was always the same. Come late August there would be a sudden promotion (hooray) followed by a posting to Paris with a promise of a BFF. So, the newly promoted employee arrives, still having found nowhere to live in Paris. He is given a laptop, a ton of work, but no office, which doesn’t matter much, because our new flexible friend is going to be on the road all the time, working out of his car or crappy hotel rooms and … « by the way can you be on the other side of the world for Monday morning? » Of course you can if you travel through the weekend. So, you shut up and put up and then crack up and then leave or die young. A great way to get rid of someone in his or her early fifties.

    So, back in my disorganised office – WELL let’s talk about DIRTY DESKING. I frankly don’t trust someone with a clean desk.

    CLEAN DESK MEANS;
    THE PERSON ISN’T WORKING
    THE PERSON HAS NO WORK

    PERSON NOT WORKING.
    Meaning that they are waiting to do their work, or that the work has already been done, meaning that the person doesn’t have enough work or they are just too darn good at what they do and can do it quickly OR, what they do is well below their capacities and they should be in a post with more work and more responsibility.

    THE PERSON HAS NO WORK
    Meaning that they have finished working OR they genuinely have no work because they are incompetent.

    THOSE WHO ARE WAITING TO DO THEIR WORK – the kind of person who will sit round doing nothing all day, then work long into the night when everyone has gone home, just so the boss can see how hard they work. « Oh, I stayed until midnight last night … »

    Of course, no one will just sit and do nothing all day. Those who are CONSPICUOUS LATE WORKERS will first have spent most of the day, rushing round everyone else’s’ office, clutching a sheath of papers and complaining about just how much work they have to do and how late they have to stay to do it. This though, isn’t smart. Rush round for sure, but DON’T COMPLAIN about how much you have to do, but rather tell colleagues you’ve just popped in to say hello – we all like a social call, a handshake, a good morning smile -

    « Oh, would you like a coffee? »
    « No thanks. I’ve got to rush » (rain check time)

    You get the reputation of a friendly and even dynamic colleague, always on the move, but always a few minutes to say hello and have a quick chat. As for those who complain … well they just get the reputation of the miserable bastard who does nothing but complain. And were I the boss of such an employee, well I might send him or her on one of those numerous «MICKEY MOUSE » TRAINING COURSES for a spot of « remotivation » or I might just give the aforementioned employee the chance to leave – if you spend your life complaining, you are obviously overworked and unhappy and might just be happier somewhere else.

    Back at THE DIRTY DESK – well I am not suggesting that you leave your desk looking like your five year old has just decided to rustle you up a gourmet meal or redecorate the living room – I am talking about a programmed, reasoned and reasonable mess. Leave enough out on the desk to show that there is some kind of activity going on. Leave important looking magazines, reports and dossiers in full view and make sure that you have just enough (but not too many) sticky « Post It » notes, stuck in strategic places. Always best to leave out « To Do » notes, but also enough « Done » notes. Other good advice – Pencil in a few meetings in your desk diary and leave it open for all to see. If there is enough important looking mess, those who pass your desk will get the impression that you are always working. (And you probably are).

    Those with clean desks are generally highly organised and efficient – they get work done quicker than they should – these people are scary. Yes it is good to be organised, but never work too quickly. Make your work last. Even if you have very little to do, make it last. Spread the work thinly throughout the day. Procrastinate a little. No one likes a highly organised colleague who works to fast.

    BACK 2 WORK and …

    First mistake of the day - switch on the computer. At the best of times my office computer takes half a day to rev up, boot up, wake and just generally do shit, but the first day back after the summer. Well, computers are just like us. How would you feel if you suddenly had to perform technical wonders and you hadn’t been switched on for six weeks? Leave the computer time to « settle in » and go for one of those long « social walks » - meaning you walk round all the various offices and say hello to everyone – and don’t carry a bogus file with you so that you look important or just busy, you are genuinely there to say « Hello »

    Finally my computer has woken up and has loaded my e-mails – all the crap that people have sent me whilst I was on holiday. Come to think of it, my workplace

    HANG ON - my place of work has been closed for four weeks. Who has been sending me mails? I will hasten to add that most of the rest of France has also been closed down for the last month YES TRUE, but in every work place there is a skeleton staff. Those childless «stayers behind» who «man» (or even «woman») the workplace, when all THE REST OF US are on holiday. By “THE REST OF US” - I mean those poor bastards who have families and kids and have to take their holidays during the school holidays and have to pay school holiday rates for their place in the sun. NOT those who have no kids or whose offspring have flown the nest and therefore don’t mind working through the holidays – (and by work I mean answering the phone to tell everyone the place is closed.) AND who can take their holidays out-of-season far cheaper than the rest of us AND those who bugger off on holiday as soon as the rest of us get back. THOSE people who send « urgent » e-mails knowing full well that you are away, and when you finally et back you cannot attend to the issue addressed in the e-mail because the person who sent it is on holiday AAAAAAAAAAGH

    Well, it’s just the first day back. Another 88 DAYS like these and it will be CHRISTMAS.

  • No Slug Pub Round Here

    Back to work tomorrow. The summer (for me at any rate) is over, and it has been a wet one – “A good summer for slugs” as Regine from next door reminded me as she went to pick up her morning paper from the better box. Regine, being a keen grower of vegetables is certainly no slug friend “they eat all my lettuces” she rasps, adding that so far this summer, she has personally “dealt” with 1000 slugs.

    Regine is the kind of canny lady who would have her garden rigged with slug traps, but much to my surprise she tells me that she merely gets there slug and throws it in the bin.

    No traps? No slug pub? – That’s the best way to kills slugs – a bowl of beer buried in the garden. The slugs are attracted by the beer and then they fall in to meet a drunken if not watery end – a gastropub for gastropods! – suppose it’s not unlike George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, brother to Ricgard III and Edward IV – tried for treason and allegedly executed by drowning in a vatt of Malmsey wine – what a way to go.

    Having no veg, I don’t mind slugs or snails – Regine has dealt 300 snails this summer – though she doesn’t eat them. I suppose word has got round the gastropod world that a trip into Regine’s garden is certain death (though not by beer) – which is why all the slugs and snails seem to slither their slimy way into my little corner of God’s earth. I have no veg. I don’t have the patience to grow veg. I don’t kill slugs or snails. If I do happen to disturb any, during ardening I carefully transfer them to another, unkempt, humid garden corner. I don’t mind these little critters – live and let live. I think of the day that I might be reincarnated as a snail.

  • Watching THEM, Watching US

    Life's a zoo
    Went to the zoo yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My day of staring at animals staring back at me has prompted a few zoo thoughts.

    Zoo – A place where humans can see wild animals from a safe distance, whilst stuffing their faces with fast food.

    Zoo – A sprawling complex of shops and fast food outlets with a few animals.

    Zoo – An n amusement park or theme park with a few animals

    Zoos. Those places where humans can see the last surviving members of endangered species that are only endangered because of the their systematic destruction by humans

    Zoos – those places where animals can see humans in their natural environment – humans, pressed up against the glass of their enclosure, because zoos don’t have cages anymore, barred cages are redolent of prison cells and zoos are not prisons, they are places to observe animals in settings that are as close as possible to their natural environment. And so the animals stare out at the humans – stuffing their faces with popcorn and hot dogs, snapping away with cameras, knocking on the glass and shouting at the animals, trying to get them to move or perform animal antics. Why aren’t the monkeys leaping around? Why aren’t they hyenas laughing? Oh why don’t the lions roar? Why don’t the parrots speak? Why isn’t the bear singing? The kids are disappointed? « The animals aren’t like in Disney. » complains one disappointed child to his mum before walking off in a sulk.

    Oh dear, the way we have personified animals to the extent that kids are disappointed when they see the real thing. Oh the way those humans are so like animals. Two fat ladies eating bananas as they sit outside the gorilla enclosure. Kids monkeying around and having a food fight – Chimps tea party.

    The chimps don’t have a tea party anymore – it was though to be « degrading » - so they just sit round, staring at the humans outside as they do monkey impressions.

    Animals like humans. We’re not so far apart. There’s been a domestic incident in the puma cage. Mr Puma pads around in a sulky circle. Every time he approaches Mrs Puma, she rolls over on to her side, opens her legs and beckons Mr Puma to lie down for a cuddle, kiss and make up, but Mr Puma pads off again in his proud self piteous sulk.

    Down at the Hyena enclosure, one of the bored occupants is also walking round in a circle. At the end of each turn, he pauses to lick the glass separating him from us, and then resumes his round. He walks a well-worn path that is turning into a rut – almost trench like. Life in a rut? Depression? Do animals in zoos get depressed? Do they get therapy? Does this Hyena get a regular trip to the animal psychiatrist? A nice trip to the zoo might cheer him up.

    And come quarter to seven, a synthetic digitalised voice informs the visitors that the zoo is closing and they should be heading for the exit. So, what would happen if they locked the visitors in for the night and let the animals go home. « All animals are kindly asked to head for the exit, as the human zoo will soon be closing. » What a thought. What about signs « Don’t feed the humans ».

    I’m not sure who is better off, the animal occupants or the visitors. All that glass between US and THEM – is it to keep us safe from the animals or vice versa? They (the animals) are probably better off inside than us humans on the outside – at least they are protected from us, tough we like to think that we are protected from them – triple security glass to protect me from a racoon and a meerkat !!!

    No, the animals won’t run away. Would you? A large rent free enclosure, with all the bamboo you can eat and a legion of keepers to look after. In return – well you don’t have to do much, just sit there, move occasionally and be stared at by thousands of humans.

    And when the animals die off, why bother getting new ones, just fill the enclosures full of humans. We spend enough time watching TV documentaries or reality TV shows on how other live, I’m sure we would pay good money to see people nut unlike ourselves living out their lives in human zoos.

    Finally – a few zoo photos

  • Thoughts On Liberation

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
    We will remember them.

    The Padré is quite definitley drunk. The surfeit of red wine has loosened his tongue and we are now in full communion on his youthful sexploits with a girl from South East London. He obviously got the coming before he got the calling, but when he had been called, he was still coming – ah the sexual benefits of being an Anglican Vicar.

    Previous to his large intake of wine, the Padré was standing in a war cemetery pronouncing a glowing eulogy for an SAS commando, killed in July 1944. As he concludes, those that have grown old, lower their flags and banners whilst a trumpeter sounds the Last Post.

    We are in early September at the cemetery in the small French village of Villequiers in the Cher – right in the heart of France. There is one lone English war grave, with it’s white stone cross – around the grave, the surviving comrades of the dead soldier – those that are left and who have grown old - in their eighties and nineties – a handful of veterans paying homage to their “ever youthful” brother in arms.

    It started in May 1944 – 49 soldiers of the SOE (future SAS) were parachuted in seven teams of seven from Sancerre right across to Poitiers. The task of each team was to help and train the French resistance for the forthcoming Liberation. And organise “actions” to disrupt German lines of supply. – Anything to stop the Germans sending troops north to reinforce their numbers in Normandy when D Day finally came.

    So, every year, even though their numbers grow few, the brave young men of the SAS come back to France as old men and visit all those sites where they did battle in 1944. In solemn ceremony they pay hommage to their fallen comrades with words of pomp and comfort from the Regimental Padre, and then they all go for lunch – good French fare washed down with lashings of wine, and this is why the Padré is drunk.

    I am here, because it sometimes my privilege to come along and translate for the veterans. They sit with their former Resistance comrades and as old soldiers do, they reminisce on former battles. Brothers in arms, half the time, they don’t even need a translator. In spite of the language barrier, theold warriors understand each other.

    This is living history that is dying. This is the history that they never teach in schools and I am “honoured” to be with those who made history.

    On this, the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. I wanted to take time to dwell on all those everyday reminders. Those plaques, monuments and statues that are art of everyday life all over France – those tokens of rememberance that I walk or drive past everyday without stopping, without thinking –

    It starts on the way to work – I cruise into town on the ring road. A few hundred metres before I turn off there is a large sign on the road indicating the spot where the “Nazi Occupier” executed 40 French men and women from 1940 to 1944. The exact execution spot is not open to the public, it is now within the grounds of a secure local military installation. One day the place might be opened up. The local authorities might see fit to put up plaques with the names of those executed by the Nazis.

    In work; in my classroom. A reminder of an older war – the Great War. On the entrance to the building, the date of construction – 1914. My classroom, with its four metre high ceilings and 30 centimetre thick walls (that’s 12 to 14 feet high ceilings and 15 inch thick walls) – built in 1914 to store artillery munitions – there are several buildings like this on the base – Bourges is and was a major production centre for artillery munitions – though in 1914, though in 1914 they were making far more than today.

    A walk into town – passing what is now a large private school, but used to be the German Kommandatur. Darker memories further on – in a side street near the post office, the former Gestapo headquarters – an uninspiring building with a grey façade, it could do with a lick of paint. And where the Gestapo once interrogated and tortured, there is now an adult learning centre offering, amongst other things, yoga sessions and evening classes in foreign languages – not sure if they teach German.

    There are those official war monuments – a separate monument for each war from the 1870 Franco Prussian war through to the war in Algeria. On November 11th there are ceremonies at the Great War Memorial. On May 8th, there are ceremonies at the WW2 memorial. I’m not sure on which day local dignitaries and veterans hold ceremonies for the war in Indochina or the war in Algeria – those wars are still “fresh” and even a little controversial – wars that some might call “wars of independence” and other might qualify as “colonial wars.” S for the Franco Prussian war – it is far from living memory, but there are still those who pose flowers and wreaths on the war memorial. Perhaps we should pay heed the this Franco-German conflict, which in its way sewed the seeds for later conflicts. It was in this war that the Germans annexed the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine – the defeat of the French and the loss of territory nurtured a gnawing national hunger for revenge. Until war erupted again in August 1914, the inter-war generations were brought up in a spirit of revenge and taught to mistrust, even hate their German neighbours.

    On a walk round the lake, I regularly pass by a discreet, lone headstone, marking the place where a young man was killed by the Germans on September 18th 1944 during the battle for the Liberation of Bourges. I can’t remember his name, but as an ex-pat, as a Brit, living in my small town, it always feel stragnge that the War came this far, that Bourges was occupied, that this town qualified by many as being off the beaten track was occupied, fought over, liberated – people died for this place. The monument to our young friend lies on the far side of the lake between the car park and the tennis courts.

    It is the same though, when I drive cross country to see friends, or, as last weekend, just go for a drive, I regularly come across monuments to those members of the Reistance who fell in the bloody battles of August 1944. On the road to Marmagne, near the level crossing, a monument to four Resistance fighters, killed by German forces as they sought to may a charge on the railway tracks. Just last Saturday, coming into the village of Graçay – a stone plinth bearing thr nales of eight locals “betrayed” and then executed by the Wehrmacht on August 15th 1944.

    All over the countryside there are monuments to those who fell in August 1944. Why so many?

    It was a time without motorways and the roads as they were all went through this region – Bourges, Vierzon, Sancerre, Chateauroux – this region which is the geographical heart of France, by road or by rail, everything going from north to south or east to west came though the centre. We were one of the main crossroads on German army supply routes.

    In August 1944, roughly 250,00 Germans troops went through this region – by road or by train. The Resistance (with a little help from the SAS) were there to disrupt German movement as much as possible – attacking trains, attacking road convoys. The Germans were head north to reinforce their troops in Normandy. Some troops were going from West to East – to reinforce their lines from Nice to Strasbourg after the Allied landings in Provence. As they went, they must have realised that he War was lost and therefore didn’t hesitiate to … the Germans went with “nothing to left to lose” – they were not tender in their retreat.

    Round here ther were no large battles. This was not Normandy, this was not the Plateau de Vercors, this was everyday workaday Occupied France, where people still tried to go about their daily business, despite the War, but Resistance was strong and though the area had little strategic value it still attracted the attentions of the RAF – August 15th, the RAF raid on Bourges – an attempt to destroy the local aerodrome and the arms factories – 16 members or RAF bomber crews lie buried in our local war cemetery along with two Canadian Lysander pilots – I suppose the relative remoteness of this region and the very flat local geography made it a perfect place to land agents and supplies for the Resistance. It’s not written anywhere, but 15 kms out of Bourges, large flat fields served as regular landing sites for the RAF Lysanders. On August 12th 1944 one of the Lysanders was shot down – the 2 Canadian pilots are also in the local war cemetery. Yes, you think of those vast war cemeteries in Normandy or Picardy, but we too have our local Commonwealth War Cemetery where over 20 members of British and Commonwealth forces are buried.

    And so a few words on the Demarcation Line. It is always glossed over in history lessons, but, when the Germans invaded, defeated and then occupied France in May to June 1940, they occupied the North down to the Loire and the Cher rivers and they occupied all of the Western seaboard. That part of France from Bourges to the Med and up to the Italian border was not occupied by the Germans, but left to the French and ruled by a puppet government under Marshall Petain, exercising power from the spa town of Vichy in the Massif Central. Unoccupied Vichy France was administered by the French from June 1940 to November 1942. Strangely enough, Jews were not rounded up in Unoccupied France and the place did not suffer the same hardships as Occupied France. The “game” therefore was to get to Unoccupied France – an option open to many French people who could prove they had family ties in the “Free” zone. Needless to say, there was also a lot of illicit traffic – Jews, Resistants, refugees, who tried to pass into unoccupied France by clandestine means. The old Demarcation line lies just a couple of miles away from my house, and there are still those alive who tell stories of “passing” people from Occupied France into Vichy France – fake funerals, fake weddings – any excuse was good. I have a friend whose house lies directly on the old demarcation line. He has stories of his grand parents hiding British airmen hidden in the cellar ready to cross the line into Unoccupied France. And where did the airmen go afterwards ? Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and strangley enough, Lyons and all the region up to the Swiss border, because thatwas the part of France occupied by the Italians (yep, you didn’t know that the Italians had occupied parts of France - well they did up until 1943, and then after the Sicily and Anzio landings the Italians went home and the Germans took over (look up Klaud Barbie – the Butcher of Lyons on the web) – as for the Unoccupied Zone – the Germans occupied it in November 1942 after the Allied landings in North Africa.

    I reckon that’s enough history for now.

    Just to say that whilst we talk about the Liberation of Paris, whilst we will mark the Liberation of other major French cities, every town and every village in France was “liberated” at some point and every village bears the scars of war, in every village men have gone to war and never come home. In every village, however isolated there was an act of resistance, there was an execution, there was perhaps some kind of local atrocity, and I think in the British mindset, this is something that we find hard to realise. Britain got bombed, Britain suffered, but it never underwent the day-to-day attrition that was Occupation – Resistants, Collaborators and in the majority, just ordinary people trying to get on with everyday life in very difficult circumstances.

    Now don’t believe that everyone in France was in the Resistance – as mentioned, most people were just trying to survive, but there were probably more collaborators (however passive or active) than there were members of the French Resistance. The biggest flood of members to the Resistance came in 1943/1944 when it became obvious that German days were numbered. What fuelled the flood of members to the Resistance was when French males were forcibly conscripted for labour service in the Reich- thousands of French males went – some of them quite willingly, but thousands also disappeared, melting away into the arms of Resistance cells, even just living in forests hoping not to be picked up, with little thought of joining the Resistance.

    Well look back at 1944. Most of the killing of French Resistance members was being done by the French and not the Germans. The Vichy-run and Nazi inspired Milice – an interior French military force armed by the Germans and run by Vichy actually fighting the French Resistance. Most of the killing was Franco German but Franco French. There is a school of thought that says from 1943 onwards, France was actually in a state of civil war – Fascists against Communists – Vichy France against Resistance France – the old political cleavages of the 1930’s all armed up and willing to fight each other. I’m not quite sure if the French did more harm to themselves tan the Germans did to them. (Contreversial I know)

    Okay more history in another post. As for my town though, it was liberated by the French Resistance. Not a Brit or an American in sight.

    And in reference to a Great War – just 20 miles from my house, in 1917 there was a huge American camp and supply depot, and according to family legend, my wife’s great Grandmother went out with a Doughboy.

  • Be Nice to your Holiday Crocs.

    Inflatable

    The last day on the beach – deflating the inflatables – those inflatable objects and animals that have been purchased for the purpose of floating around in the sea. Those airbeds, dolphins, crocodiles that dad has blown up until his lungs almost exploded. I know (we say it every year) Next year we’ll bring a pump (but we never do) and as dad first struggles to find the air intake and then spend around twenty minutes with a small rubber tube in his mouth trying to blow life into a PVC crocodile, the kids stand round impatiently, screaming for their new rubber friend. Ah yes it all looks very clumsy, very perverse, but you are on the beach. Having inflated a good few floating friends in my time, it makes me wonder why anyone would actually bother with one of those inflatable sex toy dolls.

    Plastic Croc

    This year’s fashionable beach inflatable was an unfeasibly large crocodile. The beach was infested by lurid green, grinning inflatable crocs. As I surveyed the hordes of crocs lying in the sun, I wondered just how many would make it home to spend all year, lurking sad, lifeless, airless and crumpled in the darkest recesses of a cupboard? How any will simply “die” on the beach? Deflated and binned after use so they don’t have to be carried home. There’s enough “rubbish” in the car already without adding more.

    Crocs go home

    Binned Croc

    Hey folks. Be kind your crocs. You have bought them, given them life, loved them, played with them, and perhaps even given them names. They have become a full member of your holiday family. Wash them down; deflate them slowly (without stamping on them). Fold them up with love and take them home. Treat your croc well and he (or she) will be there for you next year. An inflatable crocodile is not just for the holidays, it is for life. I might just start a campaign to save holiday crocs.

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