mercredi 25 août 2010

A man must have his shed (with apologies to Arthur)

In these gory days of ever more gross and degenerate lard wagons, I could not help being delighted, thrilled and even entranced by the man who decided to take his garden shed on holiday.

What more perfect antidote could there be to huge, white horrible camper things than this transport of delight hailing from the département du Cher in northern central France?

Just imagine the conversation: "Chèrie, I cannot bear to leave mes bégonias adorables, they must come with us en vacances!"

Being anglais, I had to empathise with this beleaguered creature, who could not, even for one day be deprived of his precious refuge, far from the madding female crowd, from tea, from doilies, and fêtes de Ware de Tupper . . .

I actually went to the trouble of trailing the shed for several kilometres down the detested D118 to Perpignan in the hope of girlfriend Claire getting a decent snap.

As you can just about see, the wooden body is roped down onto the trailer with tension straps, so I figure it really was uprooted from its quiet little spot près de la compost heap au fond du jardin and whizzed off to double as a beach hut au bord de la mer. C'est le retour d'Arthur Jackson des deux abris!

* Désole à
Monty Python . . .

dimanche 22 août 2010

In talking of castles, lentils and lard wagons . . .

So castles made of sand/fall into the sea/ eventually . . . by James Marshall Hendrix, if I'm not mistaken. It's good to remember that our beloved Jimi was also a wonderfully laconic singer and a very poetic lyricist. Many rock fans tend to be dazzled by all the geetar pyro and forget the rest.

It has to be said that my mate Stan and I are not of their number; we've always had a vague plot-ette to do Hendrix: The Poetry one of these days. However I digress (cf Dai Gresser, the well-known tedious Welshman . . .). Actually I've just brought my own appallingly developed talent for digression to its perfectly-honed conclusion: Being Dai Gresser's only slightly smarter brother, I've digressed even before stating any valid point from which one might wilfully perform the act of digression . . .

Or not quite: I did manage to mention the word castle, which is where our story really starts. As you may recall, I live in God's Own Village, Fa, Centre of Known (and Unknown) Universe, en haute vallée de l'Aude, département de l'Aude, somewhere rather vague in southwest France.

Unbelievers (normally Anglytypes from Ongleterry, I must admit), have been known to suggest that France is ten years behind England. There again, the French say that the Aude (a sort of French county thing) is 20 years behind the rest of France, and the decidedly po-faced denizens of Carcassonne reckon l'haute vallée de l'Aude is 30 years behind the rest of the département.

Mind you, we of l'haute vallée consider any true son of Quillan to be positively Neanderthal so évidemment bigger fleas still have smaller micro-irritants to bite them on their minuscule bots . . .

But however deprived we may putatively be in other respects, we positively excel, gleam, exceed, optimise, maximise, or even profusely overflow in the matter of castles. That's to say, we've got a lot of them.

For this you have to blame the Cathars. Who they? you may ask. Basically they're a bunch of C12/13ish back to basics religious guys who took a dim view of the excessively deep Catholic cashtasticness of the period.

Unlike the Lutherans, up in Dutch-land, who had broadly the same point of view and lived to invent the Protestant Work Ethic and even inspire the dear old C of E in the image of William Blake etc; the Cathars were given a good kicking on the orders of His Holiness until they obligingly expired and became extinct. Today we're not even entirely sure what they did believe in, except that it was uncontaminated by used brown ones.

As any fule kno, matters came to a head in a last stand at the most famous of the Cathar castles, Montsegur. The remaining faithful were given the choice of (1) Jump off the notably impressive cliff on which Montsegur stands (2) Be burned at the stake. Apparently they all chose Option 1. Well I suppose you would, wouldn't you?

However these guys and guy-ettes didn't give up without a serious scrap or two, which is why we have a positive connoisseurness of castles to choose from here in the Aude. They all tend to be small, rough and architecturally basique.

But equally they're all perched up on some vicious spike of rock with an awesome view, well up on the ruined underware vertigo rating (see cols previous). It has to be said however that one may select a visit to them as from an extraordinarily rich and detailed wine list.

In choosing an itinerary for a visit by my esteemed son and heir Rhys and my mate Ian, I decided on Peyrepertuse, partly because it's close to the famed Gorges de Galamus and partly because I hadn't been there before either.

It provided the obligatory gnarled and craggy old ruin, steeped in copious sagas of blood, and possessing a suitable very long way down on most aspects. It also had a stunning display of falconry, as you can see in the photo by Ian Harvey of Rocktastic Pix.

Being as it is now les grandes vacances, we fought our way up the road to the summit in the face of a truly fearsome onslaught of lard wagons, as my astute fellow blogger Kate Hardy recently put it. As a term of abuse for camper vans, I thought it was unbeatable so for camper van read lard wagon from now on.

But to sum up, I really ought to justify my own headline and mention the lentils. My mate Ian is a devout veggie so it really was the moment for a quick improv lentil dish. So here we go:

Experimental Lentils

* Chop up a shallot or two, crush a couple of cloves of garlic and fry them in olive oil.

* Add a tin of lentils and don't forget to use all the gunge out of the bottom of the tin; it makes wonderful stock

* Add a veggie stock cube, paprika and black pepper

* For the herbs I wanted to try a bit of fresh tarragon in a purely veggie dish. I thought about fines herbes which ought to contain tarragon, parsley, chives and chervil. I hadn't got any chervil but I chopped in a sprig or two of the other three.

* Add a little water if the mixture seems a bit dry, bring to boil and simmer for five minutes

* Mix in two or three tablespoons of crème fraiche and simmer until it's all back up to temperature

* Add extra salt to taste if you like it that way. I always think that getting the salt right is vital to the success of any dish

* You could bung in a chopped mushroom or two but I can't remember whether I did or not.

Bon appétit!

* You can see more of Ian's pictures by clicking on Rocktastic Pix by Ian Harvey in Other Fun Links

samedi 7 août 2010

Confessions of a trainspotter - It's anoraks are go!

I'm sorry, this kind of trainspotting doesn't involve the mass consumption of exotic and illegal dangerous drugs.

We'll have none of those rough-hewn Edinburgh tones, as in those so impenetrable that you can't actually tell whether the narrator is wasted or not. This is McSwitzerland for Hols 4 anyway and thus, whoops, wrong country.

But the fact is that if you have any trace of anorakismo; either latent, blatant or carefully concealed from a previous existence, then Switzerland will bring it out in you.

For a start, you can't walk 200 yards in the place without tripping over some narrow gauge railway, tramway, cable car, funicular or vintage steam boat.

It's no good, you're back in the dream world of your first Hornby train set, as smashed to atoms on your bedroom floor at the age of three, and there's not a thing you can do about it.

Actually it's all remarkably sensible stuff, as you would expect of the Swiss. They have cunningly failed to smash up, close down or otherwise destroy these charming and useful forms of public transport.

This is partly because lots of people come to Switzerland to fall off mountains; normally either by climbing or skiing. Curiously they are willing to pay lots of money to do this, and a delectable selection of cantons (Swiss counties, various) offer a unrivalled choice of enormous pieces of rock, each one especially equipped to break your neck.

Come the age of the train, they realised that building lots of lines into the mountains meant that lots more people could go there, and that to this day it's a better of getting around in snow than using cars. Breaking your neck before you actually reach the designated zone is really not very sporting and not quite the idea.

The Swiss also have lots of hydroelectric power so you can use nice clean, cheap leccy to run the trains and reduce the number of cars. Amazing how many other countries think this is rocket science, especially Britain.

The top pic shows assorted grockels rushing for the 15.30 from Bretaye. They all want seats in the open turquoise carriage because that's another great way to take ace mountain pix without causing a car crash.

It's a great day out. You take the cable car up to 8,000 feet or so, wander about in the breathtaking scenery, then come back on the rack railway (line equipped with handy system of cogwheels and giant hacksaw blades nailed to ground that stops train from hurtling down very steep gradient to oblivion).

The vintage paddle steamer (lower pic) is a lovely way to voyage on Lake Geneva or Lac Léman as it's known in this, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Eight of these remarkably swift and elegant craft are still in service, though two are due for heavy overhaul and a shake-up in the local transport quango has raised a question mark over just when and if they will be rebuilt.

Pictured is the Montreux dating from the early 1900s. This has already been renovated, not, it has to be said, without a couple of cock-ups, as some prong abolished the second class refreshment room in the process, leaving not so much as a vending machine in its place. This means the crew can be paid to do nothing, while not serving the hordes of non-existent first class passengers.

The boat you really want is La Suisse, built in 1910; a lovely vessel still equipped with its original twin-cylinder steam engine, which you can see whizzing round in highly-polished splendour in the middle of the boat; another key moment of anorakismo.

For normal people there are great views, weather permitting, lots of little ports to visit, polished brass, wood panelling, decent coffee and that whole general air of being undeniably classy.

Strange boy not just obvious choice for cheesy wotsits

One of the great joys of headline-writing is the fitting together of completely unrelated subjects in a handful of words.

Curiously, hyper-bizarre artist H.R.Giger of Alien fame and gruyère cheese are intimately related: The Swiss Herr Giger owns the medieval Château St. Germain in the 400-year-old historic, walled village of Gruyères. And that is where in Hols 3 - Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, we found the H.R. Giger Museum. It's as odd a juxtaposition as you're likely to find anywhere but perhaps it does say something quite perceptive about Switzerland.

There is a huge paradox between the impossibly green and fertile uplands where the cute cows and perfect pine trees all queue up to audition for a Heidi movie, and the mountains themselves which are as dizzyingly spectacular and dangerous as any in the world.

While this leaves me still puzzled by what makes Switzerland tick, it makes sense of how a country that during its 200 hundred years of peace invented the cuckoo clock, also produced the nightmare world of H.R.Giger.

I can't pretend that the guy's really my cup of tea but I can't go to any country without wanting to see its top class pictures. The other hot contender in Switzerland is the huge Paul Klee museum in Bern but it was too far to go in the time we had available.

Apparently yer man Giger has suffered night terrors all his life and obviously it shows. His work seems to be at once futuristic and sci-fi while also being a throwback to the medieval art of gargoyles and gothic horror. His official label is bio-mechanical, which covers a great deal of violence and deeply peculiar sexuality; a very strange boy indeed.

The man is undeniably a highly skilled draftsman; he could certainly teach the pickled shark types a trick or two. He obviously has the means to say something even if you wouldn't give the result to your auntie for Christmas. Or maybe you would, if you've ever been arrested for possession of an offensive aunt. Your relatives, you're stuck with . . .

Girlfriend Claire is pictured in the distinctly vertebral atmosphere of the official Giger bar next to the museum. The coffee's safe enough but I'm not so sure about the local talent. Reminds me of that old gag about Brains S.A., beloved beer of Cardiff: They don't call it Skull Attack for nothing.

The modern gruyère cheese creamery is at a reassuringly safe distance from the old village. This is just as well. Imagine all those Alien exploding guts getting mixed up with their adverts for cheesy wotsits? Not exactly comfort food. I must admit that I never got any further with any of the Alien films than the famous John Hurt scene. I couldn't stomach it . . .

*The author would like to apologise for the use of gut-wrenchingly awful puns in the creation of this Oscar-winning blog entry.

lundi 2 août 2010

We shall fight them sur les plages . . . and all that

I spent a good bit of last week listening to a gigantic documentary about Winston Churchill. The intriguing thing is that I heard it on French radio; to be precise chez nos amis de France Culture, who devoted no less than 15 hours over five mornings to the subject.

While I haven't suddenly become Alf Garnett's stunt double, I couldn't help being both touched and impressed by this French take on the 70th anniversary of the battles of France and Britain; all served up with extreme lashings of Elgar at every slightest break, pause or excuse. I'm a great fan of top class cowpat music myself but Dash it, sir! There are limits . . .

It's not the first time that I've found FC making a better job of English history than we do it ourselves. When you compare this with the bigoted and childish rubbish that the Sunday Times put out a couple of weeks back about De Gaulle's wartime broadcasts from London under a headline about "General Bignose", it's positively embarrassing. If Harold Evans had a grave, he'd be doing about 10,000 rpm right now.

The French would seem still to have a lot of time for Churchill, possibly more than we do . . . This may have something to do with the fact that he apparently visited France more than 300 times, even before 1939, and thus has a fair reputation as a francophile.

It may also be because he made a good few broadcasts to the beleaguered French, actually in French; fascinating archive material which I didn't previously know existed. And possibly because Churchill seems to have got on fairly well with De Gaulle, until he was forced to side with Roosevelt who, for whatever reason, couldn't stand Le Général at any price.

After all, Churchill couldn't exactly afford to fall out with the guys who were going to pay for the invasion of Europe. And it has to be said that even the French seem to have found Le Général a bit of a pain at times in his latter day capacity as Le Président.

Actually possession of a sense of humour seems to have been the biggest obvious difference between our heroic wartime twosome. As far as I can make out, De Gaulle had none whatever whilst any number of reasonably well-informed English people can still roll out a brace of Churchill's best gags 45 years after his death.

Ever in the spirit of fair play, FC even used the one about Churchill's state funeral arrangements, which somewhat macabrely, were allegedly discussed with him while he was still alive.

It had been decided that the funeral train should arrive at Paddington. Officials then discussed whether De Gaulle, who had presumably got up various nez anglais as usual, should be invited.

"Of course he should be invited," said Churchill: "But the train should come to Waterloo!" Like all the best apocryphal stories, if it isn't true, then it ought to be . . .