Sunday, July 30, 2006

Only in America 2

Everton are playing in Dallas, where it's 100 degrees F. (Don't over-exert yourselves, guys - you've got to play Liverpool on September 9.)
If, like me, you're on tenterhooks - whatever they are - awaiting the result of the Club America game, you may wish to calm yourself by reading this in today's NYT.

Hope we're not making Villefranche too popular.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Only in America

It’s all happening in the USA right now. Tony Blair is on his way to Washington (George needs a shine), competing serial killers are loose in Phoenix, three British bankers suspected of skulduggery in the Enron affair are in Houston, France Today published my article on Villefranche-sur-Mer - and Yes! Everton are in Dallas.
The competing killers are running neck and neck, having scored five and six respectively. If it were here William Hill would be running a book on them.
The point about the expat bankers is not whether or not they are the world’s biggest sleazeballs – the US courts are no less competent than ours to decide that, and probably less venal. The point is whether the three should be in Houston at all. They are there because American courts can demand the extradition of Brits without the intervention of a British court, while British courts can not call for extradition of American suspects without the approval of an American judge.
But I doubt if that’s what Tony will be discussing with George today (or Condoleeza if George is busy) - it’s not a matter that Rupert Murdoch feels strongly about. Nor will they discuss the appropriate number of Lebanese civilians who have to be killed before they can discuss a cease-fire. It’s either to ask him to stop addressing Britain's elected leader as ‘Yo Blair’ - or to ask for our colony back.
Yes, the Blues will be kicking off against the Mexican Club America on Sunday afternoon at the internationally renowned Pizza Hut Park in Dallas. Ticketing arrangements are ‘Show up at the gate’. Hurry before it sells out.
As further evidence of American good taste, the San Francisco magazine France Today ran my Villefranche story last month.
Hurry before it sells out.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

You're Tallinn Me

Just to update the image of Estonian Air: we travelled in their only B737 and it was clean, the service friendly, the seat pitch reasonable (for Economy), food (plastic-wrapped sandwiches) an acceptable 45EEKs, (£2, €3 or $4) - and we arrived on time both trips.
I should explain about the ‘we’ – it included four women, none of whom was the DG – but it’s a long story so I’ll do it another time. Suffice for now to say that she’s still the one and only.
Tallinn itself is magnificent: so much to see, artistically and architecturally; smiley people; statuesque Nordic women with long, straight blonde hair and carriage reminiscent of Russian ballet dancers (which some of them might well have been since 40% of Tallinnians are Russian) and legs like those on the Rockettes whose dressing room I once overlooked from my Sixth Avenue office. Like St. Petersburgers with calf muscles. It must be all those stairs.
A city 900 years old and independent for only 15 years, its older parts are fascinating. In the 14th century Tallinn had the tallest building in the world – but they didn’t know much about lightning conductors in those days. Architectural gems at every turn (12th century to arts nouveau and deco and churches of every faith: R.C., Lutheran, Russian Orthodox - see pic) – and crumbling Stalin-era concrete.
Food surprisingly international in range, for a city of 400,000 people – and more variety than Budapest. If you stand in the 15th century Town Hall and look around the square you’ll see not only Estonian and Russian, but French, Italian, Indian and many others.
But above all, nice, gentle people – even the stag weekenders are well behaved.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Lady with the Lamp

‘Absolutely appalling service level on both legs of the journey. The seats were exactly the same as the tiny ones in economy. The food was some dreadful salmon thing with chocolate (I use the term loosely) dessert. The crew were unfriendly to the point where they were almost offensive.’
This, quoted by was the experience of Mr. Wallace, a Business Class passenger between London Gatwick and Tallinn, on Estonia Air. I mention it because I’m making the same trip with Estonia Air this afternoon – in Economy.
The plan - if I survive the air trip - is an artistic, architectural and culinary weekend in the town – which I’ve never visited before – plus a quick trip across to Helsinki. The DG will be doing a Florence Nightingale
Fingers crossed for both.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Breath-catching moments at Lord’s 2

The match was drawn.
No, it didn't rain: five full days were played. But it wasn't enough time to finish the match. (It was that artist's fault - kept stopping play to get the expressions just right.) The next England/Pakistan match starts Thursday in Manchester. Don't hold your breath for a result.

Breath-catching moments at Lord’s

Spent the whole of a sunny Sunday at Lord’s, the home of cricket, watching Day Four of the England/Pakistan Test match. After the recent histrionics of World Cup football it was great to see people enjoying nationism-free sport - for the fun of it. It must be the last sport in which everyone wears exactly the same uniform: all white.
Turning to my left during a rare lull in play I saw the only other person on the pitch apart from players and umpires: an artist painting them. At an international cricket match! (How does he get them to stand still? And how would we know?)
The beauty of a five-day match is that when you get home on days 1,2,3 or 4, someone always says ‘Who won?’ (We’ll know tonight.)
But it doesn’t matter a lot. England’s captain is off injured, as is the stand-in captain – but no matter, the stand-in for the stand-in (pinch-hitter) scored 138 runs. Our star swing bowler (a kind of knuckle-ball exponent) is also off injured, but the stand-ins did well and of course the game will depend on them in the end.
But a great day, meeting up with old Aussie friends and consuming copiously of chilled beer and Côte du Rhone.
Can’t wait to know who wins.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Danube's not blue

There must be a right size for a ‘long weekend’ city. Madrid, Rome, Paris, London, NYC: yes, wonderful cities all, but a weekend would be too brief – a bit like having one M & M. When Goldilocks was trying out the beds; one too big, one too small, one just right; she must have had Budapest in mind. It’s just right: pocket-sized – population 2 million – big enough to have an interesting history, magnificent buildings, lots of galleries and museums (picture is by a 19th century Hungarian artist called Mihaly Munkacsy) an Opera House and views of the Danube, but small enough to almost get around it in a day.
It has that relaxed air characteristic of former Communist countries – a sort of ‘OK I’m doing this job but there’s nothing in the rules that says I have to enjoy it’. That sounds unfair – the absence of the ‘Hi, my name is Bruno and I’ll be your waiter for the evening’ treatment is probably something to be thankful for. And there are some friendly places – the Jazz Garden for example. That’s how jazz clubs are - the place was booked out, so we ate in an adjoining room wired up for sound.
The food in Budapest is certainly unforgettable in quantity terms - you need at least two stomachs. We chose one restaurant for its ‘lighter touch on Hungarian food’. It was true - I only had to leave three pork chops on the plate. But prices are tasteful – except for the tourist traps on the Buda side of the river. One for your ‘must not see’ list is called Arany Hordo, picturesque and with one of those in-your-soup gypsy bands for true Magyar atmosphere. It serves appalling nosh at outrageous prices and then they tell you they don’t take cards and when you tell them they should have mentioned this earlier, they say well they do but their machine is broken. Then when you insist, they reluctantly accept your card. (So we reduced the service charge to something more appropriate - ie, nil.) But then there’s the Rivalda, not 400 metres away, with excellent food and no Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. Another good one and then no more talk of food was a small family-run discovery called Pesti Vendéglő.
Sorry, we did not do the thermal baths. Yes, I know – Niagara without the falls, Hamlet without the Prince etc. – but it was in the nineties and humid, and we thought it would be better in the autumn.
In other words, we loved Budapest and we’re going back.

Mi scusi

What is it with Zidane and Italians? He apologized for head-butting an Italian player in the World Cup Final – but then said ‘Je ne regrette rien’. I’m not sure how that counts as an apology. (His coach said he didn’t see the incident: which game was he watching?)
Still, it’s better than Zidane’s lack of repentance when given five weeks’ suspension for head-butting another Italian in 2000. Or when he stamped on a Saudi Arabian’s back in the 1998 Finals. Perhaps he thought that, as France went on to win in 1998, leaving his head-print on Materazzi would bring his team luck again.

Friday, July 07, 2006

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

A few days ago I noticed that our on-line wine supplier, Tesco’s, has a Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais on a very special offer, so, being partial to the odd lightly-chilled Beaujolais at this time of the year – and a cheapskate - I ordered a couple of cases for delivery next week.
Then I heard on the French news that Duboeuf – the biggest Beaujolais shipper - is being investigated on the charge of having adulterated his Beaujolais with non-Beaujolais grape: cheap old Gamays and such. No wonder it was on sale. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

I was reminded of this when the story broke about John Prescott, our revered deputy prime minister (a sort of English Dick Cheyney but without the same air of scrupulous honesty) and his recent all-inclusive tours. John influences the future use of a multi-billion pound white elephant called the Millennium Dome – although he says he doesn’t. (I mean, what does a deputy prime minister NOT influence?) Hence it is interesting that he has spent a night at the ranch of the purchaser of said dome, who plans to turn it into a super-casino.
Now you may not believe this, but I’m not implying that the billionaire and the politician spent the evening sipping Gallo Brothers’ products while plotting the future revenues of the casino and the participation of the Yorkshire tripper therein . I’m only saying: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

It must be the anniversary season for battles. We’ll be off-line for the next few days - in Budapest taking the medicinal waters and commemorating our wedding. So hasta la vista, or viszontlátásra as it says in the Lonely Planet guide. Have a great weekend - even if France do win the football and the women's tennis.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Is it a bird?

- or O Henry!
Call me a cynic if you like, (and some do), but I get slightly suspicious when a footballer with a better sense of balance than Nijinsky goes flying through the air, arms outstretched like Superman, after the merest contact with a fallen defender. The latter would almost certainly have had sense enough to know that you don’t trip up world-famous strikers in the penalty box under the referee’s nose. Still, it won Henry’s team another penalty kick and spared us having to sit through extra time - and the less worse team won.
Portugal did make some contribution to football: the game has got people talking about the possibility of giving out red cards to divers, which can’t be all bad.
Pity though – I used to like Thierry Henry. As the DG and the bard truly said, ‘Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds’.

Some over-funded PR manager thought it would be a good idea to have a big celebration in Trafalgar Square to remind the world that it is a year since London heard it would be hosting the Olympic Games in six years’ time. (Yawn. I guess we haven’t had much to celebrate recently.)
But perhaps a little insensitive in view of the fact that tomorrow, 7/7, is another anniversary - of the day when four suicide bombers killed 52 people on London Transport.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ornithological observation

I think I’m being stalked by birds - or is that ‘storked’? Must’ve been watching too many Hitchcock reruns.
Apart from the ubiquitous blackbird – he’s still here by the way - reader(s) if any will remember my incident in Villefranche with the seagull who tried to hitch a ride with me on a 737. I’ve been physically attacked by a magpie and published an article on Charlie Parker.
NOW a huge raven has made his home in our gutter, right above the bedroom window, so that when he gets home he blocks out the light for an instant as he lands. (No, he doesn’t say ’Doors to manual’.)
The guy pictured came pecking at the window one morning, - a literary bird who knew his Poe: ‘While I nodded, gently napping, suddenly there came a tapping’. But he wasn’t your aggressive ‘Hey, open up’, Woody Woodpecker-type tapper; more an apologetic, ‘excuse me’ type of pecker (that’s in the English, not American, sense of the term). He would peck away – you can see the marks on the window – for about ten minutes, then, when we didn’t take any notice (which we couldn’t because that window doesn’t open) would go away and come back at the same time next day. He kept this up for several weeks, then left as mysteriously as he arrived. We didn’t even know who he was. Then, a couple of Christmases ago, DG and I accidentally gave each other the same presents: a book on British birds. So we looked him up twice. And it turns out he wasn’t even a ‘he’, but a young female chaffinch. But what did she want?
Maybe she wanted to fix me a date with Tippi Hedren.

It looks as if football is going to win in the end. Who would have thought that a Germany v. Italy semi-final with no goals for 120 minutes would be the best game so far – or that Italy would win it? So mixed loyalties for tonight: the theory that most cup-winning teams start badly and improve (unlike England who started badly and deteriorated) certainly seems to apply to France. But they are such poor winners – they’re still calling themselves world champions from their 1998 win, so will be unbearable if they win this. But I’d hate even more for the diving divas from Portugal to win. So it has to be Italy v. France for the final - or so a little bird told me.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Great British contributions to international culture

I hope that on this special day Britain’s efforts will not go unappreciated.
Had we not fearlessly bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour – sorry, harbor – for 25 exhausting hours back in 1814, Francis Scott Key would not have had the time to complete his poem.
So let’s hear it now, to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven:
‘O say can you see…’
Fabulous Fourth Ed.

Soyez le bienvenu, Thierry!

Well done, Thierry Henry, welcome to the band of thieves!
Watched the game with son and family. He had filled the house with banners, balloons and cold beers and DG made a cake with the flag of St. George picked out in strawberries. Fun with frustration - let's face it, we didn't deserve it.
Now that I’ve cooled down and can reflect dispassionately on the World Cup 2006 competition, I remember saying in an early post that I was worried that the Adidas beach-ball and poor refereeing might go some way to spoiling the competition. The ball is certainly playing its part – look at some of the better goals scored in previous competitions and ask if they would have been possible with this ball. As former England mid-fielder John Barnes so truly predicted: ‘there could be lots of misplaced passes and high and wide shots’. (Can be tough if most of your goals have to come from mid-field.)

But the real disaster is the refereeing. The odd game sticks in your mind because it was well refereed – it used to be the bad ones you remembered. And the control of the refs by the fools in FIFA: referees were instructed not to penalise diving – the simulation of injury with the objective of having an opponent yellow-carded or sent off. The result was that simulation became the norm, and the disgraceful histrionics, not only of the old hands at the game like Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelroy and most of the Italian team, went not only unpunished, but were rewarded. Even a formerly honest craftsman like Thierry Henry entered himself for the footballing Oscars, clutching his face like Claude Rains in Phantom of the Opera when nudged gently in the rib cage. (Not only was Henry’s performance rewarded with the carding of the opponent, but it won the free kick which put France 2-1 up.) Well done, Thierry – see you at the Cannes Film Festival.
As there is no evidence that Rooney stepped on Carvalho’s cobblers, (which I can only think, recalling the time Carvalho held the Arsenal goalie in a full nelson so that John Terry could head into an empty net, is a pity), he should not have been sent off for restraining the kibitzing Ronaldo when the referee failed to do so. Stupid, yes, but if stupidity were a red card offence our football grounds would be almost empty.
Matches covered by the BBC are better commentated and better analysed than those covered by ITV – and of course we are spared this new low in short commercials. And Yorkshireman Mick McCarthy, even to a northerner like me, is barely comprehensible. What would you make of ‘T’ref turned a blind ‘un’?*

But, best of all, now that Sven has gone into wealthy retirement and the McBrat is out of Wimbledon, we can enjoy the World Cup and Wimbledon as football and tennis competitions and not as holy wars.

* - The referee turned a blind eye.

Monday, July 03, 2006

When did you last see Goodison Park?

It could be a question that the Immigration Service could use as a test for true scousedom. Just say 'And when did you last see your father?' If he’s a genuine scouse he’ll know what you mean. It’s the name of the second most famous picture in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery (founded by Andrew Walker, a Liverpool brewer, in 1877 - thought you’d want to know). Most kids in Liverpool know it because nearly every school in the city has a print of it prominently displayed. (A disciplinary measure, perhaps, like the crucifixions in Catholic schools?) The painting depicts a boy dressed in a blue velvet jump suit standing in front of a large table faced by stern soldiers. A girl (presumably his sister), is in the background, crying. It’s a 17th century scene, and the boy’s father has been a supporter of the Royalists in the Civil War, and Cromwell’s men - the Roundheads - are obviously looking for the old man with the objective of decapitating him. (Fortunately Republicanism had a short life.) The picture was painted by W. F. Yeames (a non-scouse) and acquired in 1878.
The picture’s popularity is surprising in view of the fact that – as avid readers of this blog will know – Liverpool supported the Parliamentarians against the Royalists in the Civil War. They still do.
(Another Immigration Service test story: Dizzy Gillespie shows up at JFK without the necessary documentation but claiming to be the real Dizzy. An alert NIS official says, ‘What comes after Oop Bop Sh’bam?’ ‘A klook-a-mop’, says Diz, and is admitted in a flash. But you don’t have to believe it.)

With all these memoirs about the battle of the Somme, which began 90 years ago yesterday, I’ve been thinking about when I last saw my father.
460,000 British and Commonwealth troops were killed on the Somme, 20,000 French and half a million Germans – almost a million men in one battle. Walter was lucky – he was one of the boys who came home.