Monday, October 30, 2006

All at sea

I guess you'd have to call it that when you've just spent several seconds pushing your mobile phone up and down the mouse-mat wondering why the cursor doesn’t move.

There was a terrific musical called ‘Jamaica’ (I think), with Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban, that I never saw but played the disc almost smooth. The opening number is ‘Big Boat in de Bay’, and I sing it every time I wake up and there’s a cruise ship out there. DG says great song, crap singer. (There are three there today - boats, not singers.)
There was a fireworks display last night. Nothing unusual there – there’s one nearly every week - but this one was on the ship. Or is it a ship? It’s more like a floating city – 138,000 tons, 15 decks, 3,114 passengers – ie. half the population of Villefranche. It’s the Voyager of the Seas and is so big it’s obscene - but beautiful.
I’m a fan of cruising, but not on this scale. But the fireworks were magnificent – moonlit night, sitting on terrace with a glass of cool crisp white, every bang echoing to and fro among the surrounding hills. Been reading a few reviews: ‘take Immodium’; ‘dirty’; ‘service non-existent’, and the like. Seems the whole thing looks much better from on-shore than on board. So I’ll stay up here and keep my illusions.

There’s a man in Antibes - just along the coast - who sells nostalgia. He’s called Jeffrey of London and his products are things that are not commonly found in French supermarkets, but without which many expats can’t exist: Heinz baked beans and salad cream, Bird’s custard, Oxo beef cubes and the like. I’d say surely gastronomic change is what coming to France is about – except that we do bring two things with us: tea bags – the French ones are too weak, even if they're English exports; and dry ginger ale – local ginger ale isn’t dry at all and ruins your Jack Daniel's. So if you're passing this way with room in your case…

Only in Texas

As we approached the departure gate for our (wrong) flight, you could hear a buzz of excited chat like a passing squad of colourfully-clad French cyclists.
Which I suppose it almost was in a way. The whole of the rest of the passenger load was taken up by aging Texan couples festooned in the iconography of Harley Davidson: HD T-shirts, HD sweatshirts, HD bomber jackets and, of course, HD baseball caps. I presume their nightwear is similarly emblazoned.
I keep expecting to hear a horde of hired Harleys hubble-bubbling along the coast road, but they haven’t appeared so far. Probably still looking for their luggage - (American Airlines this time, not BA).

Talking about Texas, I know everything’s bigger there, but I think this is a commode too far. It's about the Great John Toilet Company of Loredo - I see they’re advertising ‘the ultimate WC for modern Americans’. It has 150% more contact area on the seat, an extra wide base to prevent tipping, ‘unique side wings (whatever they are) to prevent pinching’. And here's the killer: it supports loads up to 2,000lbs, or 143 stone. I like that 'no tipping' - I never do except in France, where you have to.

Which reminds me, if anyone in the US is reading this, Delta are running a competition, the prize for which is a round trip JFK/Nice. Here’s the link. Good luck.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The X-ray Factor

It’s nice to be back on the Riviera and not feel like an impostor – now at least the first half of my handle is true. Got in last night and our bags arrived this morning and we celebrated this reunion with lunch at Michel’s. I once asked him why the apostrophe – since it doesn’t occur in French – and he said it’s because he wanted it to look English, and both he and his wife are called Michel(e). I didn’t try to explain about the plural apostrophe - I just hope Lynne Truss never sees it. But he does do a fantastic grilled sea bream which I guess is the main thing.

Greeted by Daniel, our newly-friendly newsagent, as we bought our Sunday Times – three times the price in England and half the size – and he thanked us for the plug. Now half the world is flocking to Villefranche to see a cheerful marchand de journaux.

As you get to the departure gate at Heathrow you come upon a mountain of confiscated cigarette lighters because someone once carried liquid explosive. Now they go to new levels of lunacy every time there’s a new scare – after PanAm 003 and the exploding radios they went wild about electronic stuff in your luggage. Then it was beards and back-packs. Then they caught that guy with the explosive sneakers, and they forgot about electronics and back-packs - now you have to take off your shoes in public and go through the metal detectors in your stockinged feet while your shoes go through an X-ray machine.
One only hopes they don’t catch anyone with explosives in his underpants.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I'm no Scrooge but...

The world is divided into two types of person: hoarders and non-hoarders. In general I see the former as male and the second as primarily feline, though my wife disagrees. According to the pre-nup I get custody of the garden tools.
I have a friend who has complained for 26 years that his wife threw out his thesis. Did he want to read it? Well, no, but…
All this is brought on by the arrival of the new baby. I firmly resolved that, instead of keeping old vinyls safe and warm in the garage while the four-wheeled metallised liquid silver goddess sits outside exposed to wintry rain and a bunch of the least continent, steel-piercing crows you ever dodged, things have to change.
My brother was a hoarder, his wife a chucker-out, and he was barely in his grave before his old jazz vinyls started to arrive – boxes and boxes of them – to join my own collection, much of which it duplicates. How could I throw them out or E-bay them to heaven knows what sort of indignity?
The all-breathing, condensation-proof car cover arrives tomorrow.

Christmas looms. It seems to loom more heavily every year. And the more affluent people become, the more presents other people buy them. Surely if people can afford to buy more things, the other people should be buying them fewer presents? Festivities and family reunions, yes – excessive eating and drinking definitely - but presents? They have to be wrapped, ribboned, labelled and delivered - trees felled, fossil fuels burned, ozone layers depleted… Dickens must be turning in his grave – I don’t think this is what he meant at all. I should declare an interest here: I don’t like shopping.
But if you really must buy me something, my list is at Harrod’s.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hearts and Minds

El Parque del Amor

The park stands high on the coast of Peru, looking down at the Pacific Ocean below. Lima is a poor city and very crowded, so there isn’t much privacy for a young couple in love. So the municipality – or the church? - has solved the problem in a unique way – by providing a ‘love park’ for them. And to help them to get into the mood, the whole park is overlooked by a statue of a well-built, reinforced concrete pair in an advanced state of snog. Hold on, you say, ‘those two don’t look like a young couple’. Well, you do get the occasional voyeurs.

There’s a garden in Lima, Peru
Where young couples wander, and woo
They gaze at the shore
And swear love evermore
- that is, till they meet someone new.

I’ve had some very complimentary things to say about our NHS in recent weeks, and I don’t retract a word of them, so exclude the wonderful women of Newbury from anything I may say next. But, as Hitler used to say, no more Mr Nice Guy.
On August 14, my GP referred me to our local hospital for a stress test, in which they attach wires to you, put you on a treadmill, and keep racking up the angle of elevation and the speed until you either explode or take off into orbit. A bit like going back to work, in fact.
I got my appointment last week – a couple of months after the referral – and went along, equipped with shorts and trainers as suggested – and they said I should take an ECG first. While I was having the ECG the guy said, ‘did they tell you the treadmill wasn’t working?’
My next appointment is in December. I’ll try to stay alive as I don’t want to miss it again.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cut off in its

This is the logo of the Chilean Everton. They were founded - well of course - by a fellow-expatriate scouse and are known as 'Los Ruleteros'. Apparently it means roulette wheel. I sometimes think our Everton plays like that. But we won 2-0 on Saturday.

My blog passed 50,000 words last week - since January. I don’t mean ‘passed’ in the physiological sense – or do I? – but it was a very sobering moment. I mean, that’s half a novel. So why haven’t I written half a novel? I know blogging is more fun and more sociable, but the end result is, as the man said when his wife caught him in bed with a dwarf, I’ve decided to cut down for a while. Who knows, in ten months’ time I may have written half a novel.
So here goes with the new, fast-track, economy-size bog:

I had this great post I was going to do on Friday 13th, and forgot. Now I’ll have to wait until January – by which time I’ll have forgotten what it was again.

My study is on the ground floor. The kitchen is on what Americans call the second and the* civilized world the first floor. In the kitchen is a cookie jar that makes a very distinctive sound when you remove the lid. We also keep the sugar in a matching pot.
The DG very kindly brings me a mid-morning and mid-afternoon cup of tea with a chocolate digestive biscuit. It’s a very cosy arrangement, (well, for me anyway). So no problem, you would think - and normally there isn’t.
But sometimes, when I’m working, she decides to replenish the sugar bowl. Immediately, my digestive juices start to flow and I sit here slavering like one of Pavlov’s dogs – when it’s not tea-time. How can you work with a mouse-pad covered in saliva?
Answers on a postcard, marked ‘Conditioned Reflexes’.

* I deliberately left out ‘rest of the’ – just for fun.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In Darwin's surfprints

Great day today: the British Library put the whole of Charles Darwin’s monumental works (except the Galapagos diaries, which were stolen) on-line for the first time. It was his trip in the Beagle that started the whole thing. I’d always wanted to follow that voyage but there were a couple of problems: first, he took five years to do it, and secondly he had a Royal Navy ten-gun, three-masted brig at his disposal.
With only a two-week holiday, and no brig, we decided to follow only the bits that Darwin travelled more than once: around Cape Horn from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Valparaiso in Chile, via the Falkland Islands and the Chilean fjords. Being brigless, we had to travel by passenger liner. I took Darwin’s diaries along for company.
The delight of the diaries is that they can be enjoyed as tales of adventure: he was engulfed in a locust swarm in the Cordillera mountains, dodged hail-stones ‘as large as small apples’ in Bahia Blanca, was caught in an earthquake in Valdivia in Chile, and threatened by man-eating Indians on Tierra del Fuego. Oh, and the odd revolution.
On Christmas Eve, like Darwin, we anchored off the Falklands. Even at the height of summer, it’s a bleak, windy place. This is not its only resemblance to England: it has pubs selling fish and chips, red telephone boxes and streets with names like Margaret Thatcher Drive. Darwin called them ‘these miserable islands’ and couldn't understand why their ownership should have been so bitterly contested in the past. That’s funny, neither could we.
That evening, just as the Beagle had done 170 years earlier, we headed west towards Cape Horn, which we reached the next day - Christmas Day. Still living the Darwin dream, we leaned into chilling wind and rain, the Atlantic on our right and the Pacific on our left, and photographed the hostile southern tip of the American continent.
The journey around the Horn took us three hours. The Beagle pitched and rolled – and was still in the same place 19 days later. From there it took the Beagle 25 more days to reach Chile’s southernmost island, Tierra del Fuego. We docked in the capital, Ushuaia, that evening, in time for Christmas dinner.
The highlight of this whole trip was to be to sail in the wake of the Beagle through the fjords, including the Beagle Channel itself . It lived up to its promise. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, on whose lower slopes are deep ravines filled with glaciers that form sheer cliffs at the water’s edge. As the mist cleared from the surface of the water we could watch the continuing process of dispersion. A loud crack would be followed by a huge lump of ice breaking away from the cliff, creating a mini-tidal wave as it plunged into the water, where it would float away to join convoys of turquoise-coloured icebergs surrounding the ship. ‘It is scarcely possible to imagine,’ wrote Darwin on January 29, 1833, ‘any thing more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers.’
Darwin called Santiago’s scenery ‘a never-failing source of pleasure’, but awoke next day to find someone had stolen his mule. Another unscheduled parallel with his trip was that I was mugged. I had a cold, and had walked into a little park to find somewhere to dispose of my used tissues. As we stepped into the darkness, someone pushed me violently to the ground and a hand went into my jeans pocket. Darwin’s ghost must have been watching over us - I got up to see the bloke running away, clutching a handful of soiled toilet tissues.
The theft did not colour our impressions of Santiago any more than did Darwin’s. ‘Never did I more deeply enjoy an equal space of time’, he wrote. We’re with you there, Charlie.
Only one regret – that we couldn’t have stayed longer in Valparaiso. Any city whose football team is called Everton must be worth a closer look.

Cinematic clichés 2

Like nostalgia, the movie business is not what it was.
In the old days there was always an A and a B movie, so I watched a lot of B movies. You knew where you were with the characters because they were always the same. Casting did not exist as a profession because not only were the characters the same; they were always played by the same actors.
I miss those old cliché characters. Wise old nice guy/priest: Edmund Gwenn or Spencer Tracy; bad guy turned good: Cagney; pugnacious little punk: Leo Gorcey (who made over fifty films as a Dead End Kid or a Bowery Boy); freckle-faced young rascal: Alfalfa Switzer. (I always wondered what alfalfa was – turns out it’s the type of grass Europeans call lucerne.) Wily old fox: Charles Laughton; irascible old man with heart of gold: Monty Woolley, Raymond Massey; ruthless career woman: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis.
Not many Hollywood stars came from Liverpool, but Gentle Middle-aged Moms were always played by Dame May Whitty, (who won two Oscars as GMMs).
Drunks came in two classes – rich and poor. I can’t remember the name of the poor one, but the Society drunk was always Robert Benchley or George Sanders.
My favourite was the tragi-comic Sancho Panza who faithfully served a dozen or more cowboy Quixotes - like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers or John Wayne - and specialised in dispensing home-spun philosophy and dying in the last reel from a bullet that had been intended for the white-hatted, clean-cut hero in whose arms he died. He was always played by Gabby Hayes.
Sancho Panzas went out with Tonto and political correctness, but most of the other roles are still there: for Bowery Boys read West Side Story, for loquacious drunk read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Look Back in Anger, and for flawed heroes and heroines there’s always Streetcar.
Maybe the writing’s better today, but the characters are so complex you don’t know where you are. With Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, Martin and Lewis, you knew who was the straight man and who the clown, and they told you when you had to laugh. But what do you do with two guys sitting on a bench for two hours waiting for someone who doesn’t show up? Or a sketch about a dead parrot?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rejection is good for the soul

New writers tend to get discouraged when they submit work for publication and it comes back with a rejection slip. I remember being mortified when a piece of which I’d been particularly proud came back with ‘Can’t use this’ scrawled across it. Was it too long, too short, not their type of thing – or was it just plain bad? They didn’t say, but I learned something from it: never send anything to that paper again.
That’s my point – you can always learn something from rejection. Even no answer at all is a lesson. When I started to write, my acceptance rate was one in 27 submissions, so I must have learned something. I learned which magazines not to submit to: which magazines use only staff writers; which only accept stuff from celebs (whether they wrote it or not); and which schmucks will turn your article down, and then pass a copy to a friend to write up your idea (You can spot that the staples have been moved.) And of course you find out who likes your stuff.
I sent my book to 31 carefully-selected publishers and agents – before number 32 almost bit my hand off.
I still get rejections, but they’re much more polite these days. They address me by first name, and they explain why. They say ‘Thanks for sending us the piece. Sorry, but we just did a feature on one-armed archery – but don’t stop sending us stuff’. I don’t think I became a significantly better writer – I just started to look at things from the other side. How do you learn that? Rejections.
Just like life really.

Couldn't make it to the Vilnius (Lithuania) Jazz Festival last weekend. What is it about the Baltics and jazz? I think it’s a kind of reaction after Russian and German occupation – neither Hitler nor Stalin liked jazz. And look what happened to them.
There’s this artist who’s holding an exhibition in London. What’s his medium – oils, watercolour? Neither - it’s toast. True - he burns sliced bread with a blow-torch, then scratches his pictures in the black toast. Bet it doesn’t half make a mess in the sink.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Forty years on

Ask an Englishman what happened in 1966 and he'll tell you that England won the World Cup. But ask a Welshman and it will be a different story. At about 9.00am on the morning of Friday, October 21, 1966, a waste tip started to slide down a mountainside in South Wales. The first obstacle in its path was a stone farm cottage, which it crushed, killing all its occupants. Like some giant triffid, it continued its descent towards the small mining village of Aberfan, 600 feet below. It was harvest festival time, and the young pupils of Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at their school assembly.
Although it was sunny on the mountain, it was foggy in the village, and visibility was only about 50 yards. The workers higher up had seen the slide start, but had no way of raising the alarm because their telephones were not working: the cable had been stolen so many times that they had stopped replacing it. But as the slide picked up speed so quickly, it was unlikely that a telephone warning could have saved lives.
Down in the village, no one saw anything. But everybody heard the noise. As the thirty-foot high pile of stones and rubble, weighing half a million tons, approached, it sounded, as a witness recalled, ‘like a jet engine’.
By the time the noise ceased and the slide had come to rest, it had engulfed the school and twenty houses. 144 people died in Aberfan: 116 of them were school children between the ages of seven and ten. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School and five of their teachers were killed. It took a week to recover all the bodies.
The tribunal set up to investigate the cause of the disaster called it ‘a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by […] men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction’. It concluded that ‘the blame for the disaster rests wholly with the National Coal Board’, owners of the tip.
The Aberfan disaster touched the hearts and consciences of not only Britain but the world. By the time the Disaster Fund to aid the village and the bereaved had closed, nearly 90,000 contributions had been received, totalling £1.6million. In today’s money it would equal at least fifty times that figure.
It was believed that the cause of the disaster was a stream under the tip which had become swollen and made the waste unstable. The existence of the stream was well known locally - but Coal Board officials claimed to have no knowledge of it.
A final outrage was that, as the National Coal Board refused to accept responsibility for the disaster, the fund had to pay £150,000 towards the cost of removing the remaining tips that overlooked the village. The Coal Board eventually agreed to refund this money – 31 years later, and without interest.

Today, on the site on which the old school had stood, Portland stone arches surround a memorial garden. Its blooms are predominantly pink and blue, to commemorate the 116 girls and boys who lost their lives here, on that last day before the half-term holiday, 40 years ago this week.

Four legs good
There’s a notice on the wall in Windsor Library that reads ‘Guide Dogs Only’. The first thing you notice is that the place is full of people, so clearly a lot of two-legged beings are ignoring the instruction. Secondly, if the Town Council hopes to deter dogs of the non-guiding variety from entering, they should have noticed that the sign is placed too high on the wall for any dog – guide or otherwise – to see. Furthermore, since very few dogs can read, it is not possible for either type of canine to heed the instruction, whatever its elevation. And finally, since the owners of the only type of dog permitted to enter the library are blind, they too will be unable to read the sign.
So what’s it doing there?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Great Day in Harlem

I went into a bar in Tallin, Estonia, because I heard some jazz coming out, and there on the wall was a copy of a photo that I have on my kitchen wall - a present from my son.
It was a good clue to the age of the bar’s proprietor - because this picture would not mean much to anyone who’s not a sixty-plus-year-old jazz fan. (I.e. anyone who reads this blog.) But to those who are it was the most significant jazz portrait ever made
The photograph was taken in August, 1958 in front of a 126th Street New York brownstone, and the 57 characters in it include the top jazz musicians of the day.
For jazz lovers, these were the best of times, and Esquire magazine commissioned the picture for the cover of a special jazz edition. It was taken by Art Kane, a young freelance designer, and it was his first photographic assignment.
The biggest challenge was not so much artistic as logistical: how did they manage to assemble together on one day so many top jazzmen and women? Jazz musicians travel a lot and work very late, and on any given morning, would normally be sleeping off the exertions and excesses of the previous night. (One of them said he never knew there were two ten-o’clocks in one day.)
But there they all are, gathered by chance – or instinct - according to their instrument of choice, and roughly in their positions on the bandstand. Drummers and bass players at the back – Buddy Rich, Art Blakey and Charlie Mingus; trumpeters on the right – Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Bunny Berigan; saxophone players to the left – Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins; pianists Thelonius Monk and Marian McPartland in the middle, and, in front, the singers – Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Rushing. Others are gathered according to their affiliations and egos: bandleader Count Basie sits on the pavement right in the front. Anyone interested in jazz should see the documentary called A Great Day in Harlem, produced by a lady named Jean Bach, on the making of this photograph.
Sadly, most of the musicians in it are now dead, and the photographer himself committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 79.
But they are all commemorated in that picture on my kitchen wall – and there they’ll stay, until either I join them, or until some other old jazz-lover steals it.

Those fiendish Frenchies will steal anything.
But they have gone too far this time. Not content with having stolen from us the sandwich, Earl Grey, bacon, horse-racing, football, Jane Birkin, Petula Clark and Concorde, they have now founded La Féderation Française de Conkers, and are sending their best 22 conkers players to compete in the World Conkers Championships –in England, of course. (Bet they’ve marinated their conkers in quick-setting concrete.)
Why can't they steal Tony Blair?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Blue Moon

Sad about Stuart Pearce – he was a breath of fresh air when he came into football management. He managed the way he used to play: enthusiastic, energetic, tough but fair. And never missed a thing that happened on the field.
Then there was the Ben Thatcher incident, when one of his defenders violently tackled an opposing player in a thinly-disguised career-threatening attack. It was time for Stuart to show his mettle. Would he take this opportunity to start to clean up the reputation of football – and of Manchester City - by disciplining Thatcher?
Sorry. Stuart 'never miss a thing' Pearce, borrowing from the vocabulary of such greats as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, ‘didn’t see the incident’. (Or, presumably, footage from any of the 20-odd TV cameras.)
Last week his Light Blues were playing the Dark Blues of – as it happens – Everton, at Goodison Park. In the 90-minute match, Everton led 1-0 until the 92nd minute, when Manchester City scored, making it 1-1. City’s Joey Barton, a nasty piece of work with form for violence on and off the field, decided that a bit of triumphalism was called for, and dropped his shorts in front of the Everton crowd.
Another chance for Stu to show some Management – and decency, you might think, as an example to the millions of young kids who watch these games.
But no: ‘I didn’t see the incident myself’, Stu told the BBC after the game. Yet in yesterday’s Times he was able to say that he hoped the FA would not ‘unfairly punish’ Barton, because ‘I was pleased to see him give his shirt [to a disabled fan] and pleased to see his team-mate Nicky Weaver come over and tell him to pull his strides up’.
Funny that – the ‘shirt’ event took place immediately before the mooning, and the Nicky Weaver incident just after it. In between, Stu (‘never miss a thing’) Pearson suffered temporary sight loss, but before and after, he had 20/20 vision.
Welcome to the club, Stu.

As Virgil – former pilot of Thunderbird 2 – once said, beware of people with diminutive first names, unless they’re jazz musicians or comedians. If the guy also has a diminutive surname, (as in Charlie Haughey), he could be double-dodgy. If he’s also a politician, he’s likely to be dodgy squared. (I know the maths doesn’t support that, but it’s a metaphor.)
OK, so we’re talking Bertie Ahern, Irish Prime Minister (and successor to Charlie Haughey) for the last nine years. Bertie, a former accountant, has apologized to the Irish Parliament for accepting about $80,000 from businessmen when he was Ireland's finance minister. ‘It was a misjudgement’, he said. ‘It’ has been various things. First it was ‘only $60,000’, then 'a speaking fee’, then ‘an unsolicited gift to help me over my separation’ then 'a loan’. Now, it’s ‘a misjudgement’. I may not have them in the right order there, but you get the point, which is: keep an eye on those diminutives.
So if you see green truck with ‘Eddie Stobart’ on the side, get in the outside lane.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Happy Saint's Day, Francis

I had long wanted to go to Assisi, but while Pisa, Florence and Siena are all more or less handy to the autostrada del sole, Assisi was always just a little out of the way. But I remember, when I heard the news of the earthquakes in 1997, thinking selfishly that they couldn’t let it be destroyed before I had seen it.
We did get there eventually. Having spent longer on the road from Rome than we'd intended, by the time we wound our way up to the top of the hill it was almost dusk. Like many such non-decisions, it proved the best - it was the perfect time to arrive. It had rained earlier, but now the rain had stopped and the setting sun behind us floodlit the Basilica of St. Francis in all its Gothic glory. The last of the tourists busses had left and the little shops of the town were making their last attempts to dispense their religious tat before closing.
Thankfully, the Basilica itself was still open, and we were able to visit it alone and in peace.
Why are we thinking of Assisi? Partly because it’s my blog, partly because I saw this old Zefferelli film called Tea with Mussolini recently, about a bunch of middle-aged expatriate English women trapped in Tuscany by WW II. (Usual suspects: Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench, plus Cher and Tomalin for the US market.); and partly because in Assisi today they’re holding the annual celebrations of the life of St. Francis. It’s his Saint’s day - so to Franks around the world, from Sinatra to Lampard: Buona festa!
Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone in 1228. Two years later Francis's body was brought here in secret for fear of looting by tomb raiders and buried in the unfinished church.
The tragedy of the earthquakes of September 1997 was not that I almost didn’t get to visit the Basilica, or even that ten people were killed and many injured by falling rubble (they were mostly archeologists investigating the damage caused by an earlier ‘quake). It was the damage done to the magnificent frescoes, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, by great Florentine and Sienese masters like Giotto, Cimabue and Simone Martini (one of whose works, you will recall, is in Liverpool). When we got there, some of the works were still not visible because of the danger of further falls and some were still being repaired, but we were able to enjoy many of their works, amazingly fresh after 600 years.
By the time we had to leave the Basilica it was almost dark and we had made no plans about where we would eat or sleep. Funny - although I have complete recall about Assisi, I have no memory at all of what we did afterwards.

What’s the sell-by date of revenge?

A guy walks into a school in an Amish town in West Pennsylvania with an automatic pistol, stun gun and 600 shells, sends the boys outside and shoots the girls, killing five and injuring six, apparently in revenge for some slight inflicted on him when he was a pupil twenty years ago.
You have to wonder how long people can hold revenge in their hearts – and why? What good does it do them? And who suffers most – the victim, who suffers briefly, or the poor sod who's nurtured it for twenty years?
I’ve never seen much point in revenge. I had trouble accepting The Count of Monte Cristo: loved it until Edmond escaped from the Chateau d’If, but couldn’t follow the rest of it.
This is the third reported school shoot-up in the US in a week. There’ll no doubt be the usual discussions: you know, gun control versus the constitutional right to bear arms, then it will all die down.
The Democrats are trying to get a bill through the Pennsylvania legislature that will restrict the purchase of hand guns to only one, per person, per month. Charlton Heston would turn in his grave (if he were dead) - don't they realise that this means you will be able to buy only twelve guns a year? How many schools do they expect you to shoot up with twelve guns a year? (Or you could pop over to Ohio.)

Our more perceptive readers will have noticed that the posts are fewer and briefer of late. (In fact many have expressed gratitude.) It’s not laziness or lack of subject matter: the reason is purely technical - we have only one PC between us right now, so we have to wait until the other has finished before we can get on. Things can get pretty nasty.

Does Sir Cliff Richard read my blog? I haven’t noticed any significant increase in my Barbadian readership, but you have to wonder. Following my recent post on the subject of the Blair family’s All Goin’ on a Summer Holiday chez Cliff, the lisping knight has officially denied that he has ever discussed with T. Blair the possibility of bringing in legislation that would give him twenty years’ extension of his copyrights.
On the contrary, says Cliff - he allows the Blairs their annual cavort at Condo Cliff (when they’re not at Chateau Berlusconi) because he thought Mr B. looked ‘careworn’. If you want careworn, Sir Cliff, take a look at my picture – and oh yes, I’ll need the loan of Blair Force One to get there.

Let's hear it for British Airways media relations folks. Got a reply from them (see worldsworstwebsite) in 24 hours! Many thanks guys.

Monday, October 02, 2006


It’s officially autumn, but the skies are clear, the sun is shining on the coast and there’s an enormous cruise liner in the bay. Because it’s the deepest natural harbour on the Med – it used to be the base of the US Sixth Fleet until General de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO - the ships can come in so close to shore that you can hear the passengers of the ocean liners being given their orders for the day.

Funny how, even for the retired, days of the week still have their original significance. Saturday is the day we don’t shave (not me anyway – don’t know about her), buy the Times and try to finish the crossword (successful yesterday, but only thanks to dictionary, Google and Thesaurus Rex); Sunday is the day we don’t set the alarm for 7am, which allows us to wake naturally at 5.45 - and we go out to lunch by the sea. We could do any of the above on any other day of the week but we don’t.
So, it being Sunday and the second anniversary of Tony Blair’s unsuccessful heart surgery ( he survived) we decided to honour the marina at St.-Laurent-du-Var and watch the yachties sailing the same bit of water they sailed the previous Sunday, while we ate dorade royale (sea bream) grillée with a chilled rosé.

I am currently accepting nominations for the world’s worst website. My own nominee, British Airways, ( should win in a canter. (This is its new, vastly improved version.) They ask for your life history, then cut you off as you push the ‘Confirm’ button. You want to change your departure time; they put you back to the beginning and you have to give your life history again. They give you the price of the cheapest flight on any one day – but when you go to book it, you find that it gets in after midnight, and all the other flights that day cost four times as much.
Yesterday I wanted to know the cost in money or frequent-flyer miles to upgrade a reservation. After many infuriating attempts, the web site said, ‘to upgrade an existing reservation you must call the following number…’ I called it, and after I got through the cascade, it told me to go to the web site.
A month ago I asked a fairly simple question: ‘If I am unable to travel for compassionate or medical reasons, can I claim a refund of the airport ‘taxes’ that BA did not have to pay?’ They offered precisely 399 answers, none of which applied, and a month later I’m still waiting for an answer – though, to be fair, I did receive a questionnaire asking if I had found the response (on a scale of 0% to 100%) useful!
I know their flight network is more complex, but you have to wonder why they can’t just hire the guys who built the easyjet site.
Oh dear, I’m ranting again: pass the rosé.

Daniel, our local newsagent, has barely grunted at us in for the past seven years - proprietors of newspaper shops have to pass a special grumpiness test and Daniel must have qualified at Seven Dwarfs - or is it Dwarves? - level. But I put him in an article in France Today, and although he couldn't read it we're now soul-mates - addresses me by name and wishes me a good day. I'll have to put the boulangère in the next article.