mercredi 26 décembre 2012

Aliens on Bugarach? Bollocks. This was the real thing

As it happens, the year of  The Mountain Upside Down Fiasco marked the end of a real space era:  the deaths of Neil Armstrong, stargazing eccentric extraordinaire Sir Patrick Moore, and now the Master of Supermarionation, Gerry Anderson.

Thunderbirds are Stop. It's a poignant moment for anyone like me who grew up in the 60s: Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. They were all deeply Fab.

We grew up preparing for the first Moon landing in 1969. It was a tense time, but we only needed early cardboard editions of Doctor Who and Oliver Postgate's magnificent The Clangers to complete our Space Education.

Whilst in no way wishing to belittle Neil's giant step for mankind, these wonderful shows probably proved a lot more fun in the long run than the real Moon. Having verified that it was, as previously surmised, a large boulder, even Nasa rapidly ran out of reasons to go there.

The earliest Anderson show I remember was Stingray, an underwater adventure where the first hot crumpet on British children's TV was a mermaid called Marina. It also featured the line which became the longest-running fart gag in British schoolboy history: "Gee Troy, the gas!" Troy being Troy Tempest, the hero who, like all true TV heroes in those days, had to be back on next week.

Then there were the Thunderbirds 1-5: 1 was a rocket aircraft and 3 a space rocket, 5 was a space station, and 2 (pictured) was a air transport thingy with 4, a little yellow submarine, inside it. All this gear belonged to International Rescue, run by Jeff Tracy from Tracy Island, with a weekly brief to save either the world, or at the very least some substantially important person or part thereof.

The glam was provided by Lady Penelope who possessed legs rather than a fish tail, which was probably less confusing for other young male cast members who fancied her. She also had a Rolls with the immortal registration number FAB1. Apparently Rolls-Royce supplied a genuine RR radiator grille for close-up shots.

We all had some sort of Thunderbirds toy at home. The show was a massive hit and had seriously successful merchandising for its day. I think I only ever got far as Thunderbird 2 with a minute plastic Thunderbird 4 inside, though I did know one rich kid who had the lot because his dad worked at Rugeley B power station.

I have a small confession to make. Despite being utterly familiar with the term Supermarionation for the last 47 years, I have never known precisely what it meant. In fact it was an electronic system, connecting the voice soundtrack to the lips of the puppets, giving a much more realistic lip-sync.

This explains why the puppets had such abnormally large heads, having to hide all the electrics inside. As micro-electronics advanced and shrank, later puppets looked distinctly more normal.

Anderson advanced into more alien territory with Captain Scarlet. This is why it was obvious to anyone of my generation that Bugarach was a non-starter. I mean to say, never once did I hear "This is the voice of the Mysterons" emanating from the bowels of the mountain. Stands to reason, dunnit . . .

samedi 22 décembre 2012

Well son, where did it all go wrong . . . apocalyptically?

Now is the End, The End Of The World!

 . . . Er, it's not quite The Great Conflagration I've been expecting . . .

Which as any fule kno is from Beyond the Fringe, and which is pretty much where those in authority seem to have to been for the last week or two, given an embarrassing lack of apocalypsy. I suppose that's what you'd call it if you suffer from Apocalypse.

Personally, I think this partly down to LLMF or Lack of Loon Moral Fibre. If this this had been a Summer Solstice affair, we probably would have been inundated with thousands of new age Loons sitting up all night getting stoned, talking total bollocks, playing djembe drums incredibly badly, and finally nodding out after daybreak, having ascertained that the fengshuli thiswatche of the new rising sun was correctly aligned with the mystic hyperflume of its delta rays.

Don't understand? Don't worry, I just made it up. Bet it was hard to tell the difference though . . . As is it, I think Winter Solstices are more about curling up with a premature mince pie and a well-thumbed copy of The Mabinogion. Most of the Loons obviously thought so too.

They stayed at home in droves, leaving rain-soaked Bugarach, both mountain and village, to an army of journalists, and 150 Gendarmes with nothing better to do than rush around in their polished leather cavalry boots, in the hope of getting a leg over a fragrant hackette.

However that did mean they weren't around to nick the rest of us for speeding, which what they normally do most of the time. It's an ill wind . . .

In these straightened times for newspapers, you wonder who's going to cough up for this un-story: Yea I prophesy much smiting of expenses, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be loud thereof.

Still there's always a way round these problems. You just need a new angle. How about: Mayan calender bonanza - Britain wins 3,000 years more SHOPPING!

I have this recurrent evil thought that one day in a month or so, the Prefecture will suddenly wake up and send a bill for all this pointless kerfuffle to Monsieur le Maire de Bugarach, Jean-Pierre Delord. That should give him a nightmare or two. 

But for now, Authority seems even more barking than the Loons they were trying to protect from themselves. It's true that some sort of competent presence was necessary to prevent ill-equipped idiots from either falling off the mountain or becoming trapped in its caves.

However the Prefecture's decision to ban all live gigs in the area on the day after the world didn't end, in case it sparked an outbreak of après-Loondom, makes you wonder just who has been sampling the waccy-baccy. 

I kid you not: my mate Olivier's bar gig in Quillan has been annulé for that very reason. I honestly don't think he's likely to spark a mass suicide; he can actually sing . . .

Personally I spent the 21st putting up shelves for my mate Raymond's dear old mum, who has probably seen a real catastrophe or two in her 88 years, and makes the best cup of tea and a bickie in France. 

Certainly I could see no cogent reason to be outside on the kind of grim and ghastly day that makes Blaenau Ffestiniog look like paradise. Or maybe I just have no sense of occasion.

Armageddon - so why didn't it happen? My own theory is that the Famous Flat Sopranos of Deux Pics en Choeur Saved The World - for us, for our children, for our children's children, for posterity and of course Atonal Damnation. Well, why not? They destroyed the aliens with country and western music in Mars Attacks. If it's good enough for Tim Burton . . .

And actually our beloved Café de Fa came up with a cracking End of the World film night: Mars Attacks coupled with the French comedy classic La Soupe au Choux (Cabbage Soup), starring the late Louis de Funés, who used to be France's nearest thing to a Carry On star.

In the film, Monsieur de Funés makes contact with aliens by means of gigantic farts, generated by the aforementioned soup. Just about sums up the whole Bugarach experience . . .

mercredi 19 décembre 2012

Hack defies Armageddon disguised as carol singer

Actually I am a carol singer, a regular member of the Bugarach village choir Deux Pics En Choeur.
It’s our job to get on with the usual Christmas gig, while all about us the world isn’t ending yet. Small Apocalypse, not many dead, though it’s rare that I have fight my way up the hill to the village past four Gendarmerie vans. That’s usually a year’s worth, hippy drugs busts included.

The powers that be have posted lots of official documents with reams of small print citing every French law since Napoleon decreed that no-one was to end the world without his say-so. Presumably this means a Total Exclusion Zone around the village until the crisis is resolved one way or the other.

On the map, said TEZ looks just like a giant rabbit. Spooky, eh? Possible references include the Wicker Man, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Harvey the Pookah or the fact the main drag out of the village up Col du Linas looks a bit like the ear of a big bunny.

The choice is yours, though I ought to point out that the Holy Grail is big business around here in between Armageddons. In fact the choir’s name, which vaguely translates as Choir of the Two Peaks, refers to both our magic mountains. The other is called Mont Cardou and Jesus Christ is buried under it. Allegedly . . .

Unlike Bugarach, Cardou has all its rocks the right way up, but if you can conceal a body under it, you’re a better man than I am. Presumably, if someone starts a Second Coming Prophecy, then Mont Cardou will also have its 15 minutes of fame.

I am surprised to discover that the gig is in the foyer or village hall instead of the church. This may be due to the EOTW crisis, or that we’ve been having a bit of a stand-off with one of the local curés (French vicar) on the grounds that he doesn’t think gospel music and Catalan Christmas carols sound religious enough. Or it maybe because the foyer has central heating.

A few stray journalists wielding long lenses come in to escape the cold and general lack of apocalyptic activity outside – our End of the World première. Realising that we really are going to sing, they leg it quick. Bastards.

That’s odd really, given that the choir is led by Valerie Austin, longstanding residente anglaise de Bugarach, and veteran of an exponentially-increasing number of British press interviews.

We haven’t had a lot of luck fame-wise. We were supposed to be in a French TV documentary about ordinary people being ordinary while all about them the world wasn’t ending. At the last minute the producer told us they couldn’t get copyright clearance on our theme tune. Of course it may have been his way of telling us that the musical director had unfortunately noticed our sopranos’ unique ability to reach the end of any song a whole tone flat.

It’s a shame the hacks dipped out on us. They missed Monsieur le Maire de Bugarach, Jean-Pierre Delord, telling everyone what a bunch of twats they were. On the other hand, he praised us singers for so warm-heartedly bringing seasonal cheer to the village old ducks, without shoving a camera up anybody’s nose.

I’m a bit pissed off that the Mairie contrived to organise the gig the day before the Total Exclusion Zone comes into force (Wed 19 Dec). I was all set to relate how I ran the gauntlet of gendarmes and troops, just to bring the last chorus of Gloria in Excelsis to 50 beleaguered pensioners. Still, it’s not the end of the world.

mardi 11 décembre 2012

God rest ye merry . . . Catalan crapping Santas

This being the fourth year that Ye Merrie Blog has broached the subject of Christmas, I would not wish to bore you with more of the same old stuff.

Thus it is that, not without trepidation, I present a foray, an exploration even, into that peculiarly Catalan Crimbo tradition, the Caganer, or Crapper.

First let's be clear about Catalonia. Whilst modern Catalonia is in Spain, historically it stretched into France, and indeed finished but a few kilometres south of Fa. To this day, many folk around Perpignan regard themselves as Catalan rather than French, and woe betide anyone who fails to tell the difference.

None of which explains the deeply eccentric Catalan tradition of placing this little figurine the Caganer rather unexpectedly into Nativity scenes. So there you have it: Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men, the odd camel or two, and this little chap having a dump.

Apparently it's been common practice for at least 200 years but no-one knows why. Naturally there are a number of theories: One is that the Caganer is the great leveller, because however posh we are, we all have to poo. Another is that the figure represents the fertility of the earth.

The local Catholic church is surprisingly tolerant of this thriving custom. And given that devout Catholics routinely process through Perpignan on Maundy Thursday wearing full Inquisition regalia, that's saying quite a lot. NB: Readers with religious sensitivities should note that I am not making this up. 

Of course, there are rules: The Caganer should not placed in full view in the Nativity scene; that would indeed  be disrespectful. Spotting the Caganer makes a bit of fun for the children, and presumably helps to avoid them getting bored during the service.

The original Caganer, as pictured, represents a Catalan peasant, but you can buy all sorts of celeb models this days, it's a nice little earner for the ever-entrepreneurial Catalans. There's famous footballers, Prince Charles, Nicolas Sarkozy and of course Santa Claus.

I understand that His Holiness the Pope is a particularly strong seller, though Caganer makers hasten to point out that it's an honour rather than an insult to be modelled; rather as the only thing worse than being in Spitting Image was not being in Spitting Image.

It has to be said that Catalans seem obsessed with crap at Christmas. There are also the Caga Tios, or Christmas logs. These are "fed" with sweets in the days leading up to Christmas. Then you all gather round and sing a traditional ditty, inevitably a scat vocal, and beat the log with a stick until it shits sweets to the delight of all the children.

And nobody knows why they do that either . . .

samedi 1 décembre 2012

'Ere we go, a quick chorus of La Marseillaise

Am back in the village of Fa after ten frankly exhausting days in Barmyville sur Mer – alias Marseille or France’s second city.

Even a couple of months down the line, I am still not sure what to make of a Mediterranean metropolis which appears to wear its entrails on the outside. 

I’ve vaguely tried comparing it to the two other second cities I know well, Barcelona and Brum. Barcelona is also by the sea and, er, that’s about it . . . 

Being a West  Midlander, Brum makes a certain sense born of long experience and even some town planning, while the Catalan capital has a definite structure and logic.

Marseille doesn’t. It sprawls truculently, jammed against the sea by the giant hand of its surrounding hills and the dizzying cliffs of Les Calanques, soon to be a national park. Imagine multi-coloured and multi-cultured rice pudding squodging out between those great craggy fingers, and that’s about as close as I can get.

I would recommend Marseille to anyone seeking the colourful, the atmospheric, the piquant and the certifiably insane, especially if your hand luggage is no heavier than a briefcase. If it is imperative to use a vehicle or do anything involving, shall we say, full-time gainful employment, forget it. You will waste most of your day going the wrong way down impossibly steep and impossibly narrow one-way streets that often turn impulsively into staircases. As these all have a stout steel handrail down the middle of them, trying an Italian Job is not recommended.

I’ll admit it’s difficult to string a dozen fleeting impressions into any coherent form. Marseille is – mad. This is a city where:

* You cannot buy a ballpoint pen. You ask for a newsagent/stationer’s and people look at you baffled; there isn’t one. After an hour’s hopeless search, an adorable shop assistant gave me hers and I gave her two euros for a coffee and her smile.

* You cannot buy a street map. Everyone who lives in Marseille either knows where they are or doesn’t care if they don’t.

* McDonald’s in the Vieux Port or old harbour, i.e. smack in the middle of the city centre, employs about four people, one of whom is a head honcho in a suit, who stands around being important and watching the other three being steadily crushed to death by mounting queues of the deafeningly ravenous.

*Everything is being dug up. One day they will have a nice new tramway, the latest thing in modern urban transport. They already have people who simply leave their cars in the middle of the road if they can’t park, other people who continue to stand talking in the middle of the road oblivious to HGV drivers trying quite hard to flatten them, and a one-way system that would baffle Einstein. Tram or no tram, I feel that endemic traffic chaos will not give up without a fight.

On the other hand, Marseille has the best local radio station I have ever heard and I didn’t get murdered. Radio Marseille Outre-Mer plays African music, latin, salsa and classy funk all day every day, reflecting the city’s rich ethnic mix, and that the port has for thousands of years been a gateway to France from all over the Mediterranean

It can’t be all bad, standing high on a roof terrace, surrounded by the swaying wreckage of a thousand decrepit Roman-tiled roofs, being lured by the beat, steadily out to sea and the beckoning Sahara.

Apparently it’s quite easy to get murdered in Marseille. But if you’re simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, generally speaking it’s an accident. Most murders are local mafia killings between rivals who already know each other. My mate Raymond went for his first big job in Marseille, with a high-powered outfit and an all-day interview. 

Pausing for lunch, he nipped into a nearby café, and was annoyed to be barged into by a great gorilla of a man. Being young and full of attitude himself, Raymond was about to give the guy the sharp end of his tongue. He saw the gun just in time. The gorilla wasted the café owner against the wall, seriously injured an assistant indiscreet enough to be standing next to his boss, and dashed out again.

Returning somewhat shaken to his interview, Raymond was surprised to be offered the job. To be honest, I was more surprised that he accepted it . . .

I spent my time living in Marseille’s old quarter Le Panier, or The Basket, a labyrinth of steep and tortuous streets, bordering on Le Vieux Port and looking out towards the landmark 19th century basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde. By the end, I could just about get the trusty Kangoo in and out, only going the wrong way down two or three one-way streets, breathing in hard, and removing both wing mirrors. The long-term solution would be to buy a donkey.

The other trick is to do all your business between 6-7.30am, so you can get safely back before the traffic jams and someone nicks your parking place. Feeling your way through the suburbs in the half-light reminds you forcibly that, in these difficult times, other people are a sight worse off than you are. 

Outside the big builders’ merchants stand groups of men, mainly Arabs and Africans. At first I thought it was some kind of demo. Les Marseillaises just love to strike; it’s costing the modern New Port a lot of business. But actually these men are just waiting, waiting, in the hope of a day’s work. Many have no papers which means, if they’re lucky, they’ll labour all day for 20 euros.

Le Panier has a charmingly self-contained life of its own. It’s even the location for its own French TV soap. The quarter is peopled mainly by students and young families, and a disconcertingly visible rat population. Every morning at 6am, council workers whang the fire hydrants on max, presumably to try and drown them. It doesn’t work. 

There’s a couple of lively bar restaurants. At one of them I sat in with the local samba group. But my life-saver was a little boulangerie cum pizza place, invariably staffed by the same couple seven days a week, and apparently never shut. I concluded that they must have given up sleep as an unacceptable luxury. 

Every Sunday night they have mercy on shell-shocked American tourists, unable to believe that in France’s second city, everywhere else is shut. I have to say that rather threw me too.

Le Panier is the great survivor, unlike the old north quayside of Le Vieux Port, which was destroyed by the Germans in 1943. Thousands of its inhabitants were killed or deported, including 4,000 Jews. 

Today the quays are lined with restaurants, most of them offering the Marseille classic bouillabaisse. Devout foodie that I am, I had to give it a try, equally devoutly wishing that I had sufficient local knowledge to find a real restaurant. Inevitably I failed and had to make do with standard tourist fare. 

Bouillabaisse was originally cheap fish soup, made by the fishermen for themselves. It uses bony fish species that they couldn’t sell to posh restaurants. Later on, bouillabaisse became fashionable so rich people ate it too. These days many of its characteristic fish species have become rare, so cheap it ain’t: You can pay up to 60€ a plateful. The one I sampled was basic with only three sorts of fish and seafood, and potatoes in a yellow Provençale vegetable soup, traditionally coloured with saffron.

It wasn’t quite autumn when I arrived back in Fa. The butter was becoming a little harder to spread, a sure-fire indicator of whether it really is colder. But I walked in the sunshine through the hills above the village, still to the accompaniment of butterflies. To be honest I was glad to be home.

dimanche 20 mai 2012

Snake in the house? It must be nearly summer

Just to liven up an otherwise calm and placid dimanche matin, I was summoned by Claire to notice an unexpected presence in the front hall: C'est à dire, Vicki the visiting viper. 

Snakes like it damp, so I suppose that a super soggy Ascension bank holiday is as good a time as any to find one, the first we've had in the house in ten years.

Your ever-drole correspondent is never one to make a drama out of a crisis, so I should point out that said serpent was only about four inches long. Of course it might have been more alarming if it had successfully taken up residence in the cupboard under the stairs, to be discovered later and larger . . .

I tactfully ushered Vicki out of the door and into the storm drain with the aid of a broom. I don't think baby viper bites are particularly dangerous, but I wasn't feeling reckless enough to find out the hard way. Auf wiedersehn pet!

dimanche 15 avril 2012

Beware: Suits can seriously damage your health

In the early summer you couldn’t move in France for giant pictures of men in suits and women in more suits. This was because we were having a presidential election. Should Sarko survive? Or would hot-tip Hollande hustle his way in? Did anybody care?

A rogues’ gallery des cons en costumes even festooned the Mairie wall at Fa. They claimed to be of different flavours; left, right, centre, green, far-right, far-left, off the planet etc, but were all exactly the same: i.e. bureaucrats.

The only one that caught my eyes was the green candidate, advertising her two major rallies; one is in Paris, the other in
Grenoble. Being it's quicker to fly to the UK than to get to either place from here, I ask myself: what on earth has this got to do with us? Alternatively, should you be an ardent green intent wasting all that fossil fuel to attend your rallies, how would you live with yourself afterwards?

The biggest drawback with British politics is having to vote for a politician. In
France the problem is being stuck with an un-choice of ten bureaucrats. Not one of them understands that all ordinary people want is less paper and more jobs. If any of them do, not one of them is in the slightest way capable of achieving it.

Most people I know said they had no-one to vote for. An underwhelmed nation yawned . . .

In the event  Le Grand Suitissimmo himself, self-styled Monsieur Normale, François Hollande won. This was with hindsight inevitable, as the already forgotten Nicolas Sarkozy pretty much had to lose, having promised absolument everything to absolument everybody whilst delivering on about 2% of it.

Actually Hollande isn’t quite as normale as he makes out. For a start his full moniker is François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande, which even gives Charles Philip Arthur George a run for his money, and strikes me as being just un peu pretentieux for any genuine homme du gauche . . . bet the Hollande family didn’t go sans culottes when he was a lad.

In addition to being the 24th President of France, I’m intrigued to find that he is also ex-officio Co-Prince of Andorra. So perhaps his dear old père knew what he was doing when he lined the boy François up with all those names.

Having become Le Prés, Hollande and les Socialistes then went on to gain an absolute majority in the legislative elections, accompanied naturally by lots more giant pictures of men in suits and women in more suits. These days the two elections are run one straight after other in France, which does have the potentially intelligent effect of having Président and legislature both on the same side, politically-speaking.

In this case, the boy François has carte blanche to wipe such modest achievements as Nicolas Sarkozy may truthfully lay claim to, straight off the face of la belle France, and indeed he is rapidly doing so, even as we speak. In some ways it’s a bit of a shame; Sarkozy did understand the need to bring the French economy kicking and screaming into possibly even the 19th century. He just didn’t do anything about it.

So then, Sarko, where did it all go wrong? Well son . . . you really mustn’t make all those promises without fulfilling at least a few of them.

You really shouldn’t abolish (as promised) an unfair tax on the millions of self-employed who voted you in, and instantly replace it with another unfair tax of exactly the same amount.

It wasn’t too bright to try to give your son a seriously cushy top industry post, when his only qualification was being related to you. Even le petit Sarko twigged this one and refused the job, realising it would reduce any shred of cred he may have possessed to zéro.

And of course the hot wife card never played quite right. Personally I’m a big fan of la belle Michelle, intelligent, well-informed, derrière délectable, loved by all and frankly one of Obama’s biggest assets. Madame Carla on the other hand just made Sarko look over-privileged, even if it was mostly her dosh. Tant pis, c’est fini. Comment te dire adieu?

So Fa, so good . . . such a lovely day en plein soleil

In Fa it were always raining . . . except on days when it were fine.

We are having a prolonged outburst of weather. This is quite normal at this of year, and we shouldn't grumble, because all that lovely rain is essential, if we are later to avoid running out of water.

Nonetheless, it's always disconcerting to be bloody freezing in April, and it came as a distinct relief to feel the sun on our backs on Easter Monday, for the first time in five years or so.

I'll admit that I've been less than brisk in bringing this minor matter to your attention, but after all this is Fa, so where's the hurry? Here we see my mate Georges and my mate Peggy among the usual suspects, gaffing on happily over un petit coup de vin after our traditional omelette.

dimanche 8 avril 2012

Suffering French total curry deprivation? Don't panic

When an Englishman feels a little homesick, it is only natural, if not very logical, that he should seek solace in a cuisine hailing from a different continent, a mere 5,000 miles away, c'est à dire - le curry.

At the first sign of a touch of the Madhur Jaffreys, he is inclined to break into a cold sweat. He has used up the last of his stash of curry sauces and here, ensconced in his petit coin français, you either can't buy them or they're ludicrously expensive.

Wrong. Whilst the French themselves are not terribly switched on to Indian cuisine, all you have to do is to locate your friendly neighbourhood Arab supermarket. North African cuisine (delicious in itself) shares almost all the common Indian spices.

France has a large and, in general, badly-paid Arab population, so not only can you obtain these spices, but you can also buy them as staples, i.e. €1.50 for a decent-sized bag, rather than €4 for a few specks in the bottom of a pretty packet.

It's useful to know the French/Arab names, though such labels as cumin, coriandre, paprika, fenugrec and cardamom (green) are not exactly rocket science. Then there's fenouil/fennel, canelle/cinnamon. I'll admit it took me a while to twig curcuma, which is turmeric. I think the only stuff I regularly use that I haven't sourced here are black cardomoms, curry leaves and tamarind.

While you're about it, why not invest in a packet of ras el hanout and some harissa. Ras el hanout is a North African basic spice mix not a million miles from a garam masala, so you can start bringing an oriental flavour to Mediterranean foods.

is a chili paste, allowing you to spark up your meal to your own taste, brilliant on kebabs. Talking of which, if you want a decent kebab in France, then look no further than your nearest Arab quarter; though in Toulouse, it's practically the standard takeaway.

It's also a good dodge, should you invite French friends to try a proper curry. I've generally found French people unaccustomed to hot dishes; so you can make the curry mild and lob a dollop of harissa into your own. Some like it hot.

mercredi 4 avril 2012

Top tiresome classic novels: No1 - Jude the Obscure

It has to be said that yer man Hardy's last novel is one of those books in which all the main characters could do with a good slapping.

I have had a copy of the aforementioned tome floating about on my bookshelves for longer than I care to remember, and last week I finally got around to reading it.

Of course, the hapless Jude Fawley has the crowning misfortune to be lead bloke in a Thomas Hardy novel. But despite the list of handicaps, with which he is liberally endowed even by Hardy standards, does he have to be such a prong?

It's tough enough on a penniless working class orphan circa 1860 that he has a driving ambition to study at Christminster, alias Oxford, university. But the biggest problem with the chap is that he's none too bright.

Jude is a born no-hoper. At no point in his short existence does he possess the slightest hope, professional or personal, except when suffering one of his frequent bouts of self-delusion. Even given dear old Tom's legendary penchant for unremitting gloom, this does tend to flat-line the plot rather.

Then there are the women in his life; the Borgias couldn't have concocted a more toxic pair than Arabella and dear little Sue. I can't help feeling that Hardy must have been suffering a profound bout of misogyny when he dreamed up these two, on account of his own less than thrilling marriage. The first Mrs H obviously thought something of the kind and hated the book accordingly.

Arabella is a heartless, rustic slapper. She's none too bright either but nonetheless possesses enough animal cunning to con Jude into marrying her not once but twice. The first time she's supposed to be pregnant but actually isn't. According to Arabella, any reasonably intelligent husband should be perfectly happy to give up literacy and splash out most of his dosh on her, in exchange for a reasonably regular spot of rumpy-pumpy. But Jude is not like this.

Even more unfortunately, the real love of Jude's life is dear little Sue, a neurotic prick-teaser who is slightly brighter than Arabella, but an even bigger all-round pain in the arse. The major point of the book is supposedly to question the morality of Victorian marriage. However it's quite clear that dear little Sue would make life hell for any bloke stupid enough to have anything to do with her under any circumstances, marital or otherwise. She is simply All-Time World Champion Commitment Phobe.

In order to make Jude's life hell, dear little Sue first marries the unfortunate schoolmaster Phillotson, for no cogent reason whatever, other than to make his life hell as well. Phillotson is the sole character to wise up by the end of the book and thus escape his share of the slapping.

Having discovered that being kind to dear little Sue causes him to lose his job, his reputation and render himself almost destitute, Phillotson finally gets tough when his awful wedded wife decides to make Jude's life even more hell than usual by coming back to him. He makes dear little Sue swear on the bible to stop pissing him about and demands his marital rights in full. It's all a bit tacky but I can't say that I altogether blame him.

Just to cheer things up along the way, Hardy arranges the death of all four of Jude's children, in a scene so melodramatic as to cause blushes in the doom-laden fleshpots of Albert Square.

Jude is left with no alternative but to expire tragically and inevitably by means of a heady brew of pining and wasting. Arabella doesn't give a toss and has already lined up her next suitor. Apart from that it's all quite fun.

I can't help thinking that Hardy was born too early and missed his true vocation. If he'd lived today, he could have enjoyed a fine career as a scriptwriter for EastEnders and made a fortune out of the psychopathically miserable Essex Novels.

You may have gathered that I wasn't just too convinced by Jude; give me The Mayor of Casterbridge any time. Michael Henchard may well be a congenital tosser but you can't help admiring his guts.

A nice gourmet touch: hachis parmentier de mouton

Très exotique hein? Well, not exactly mon brave. Le hachis parmentier de mouton, so I'm reliably informed, is French for shepherd's pie.

I must admit that I've long been harbouring a craving for this most traditional of English dishes, beloved of dear old Keef Richards and moderately dear old Jeffröech Archcreep. The problem is that Intermarché and its fellow supermarché suspects do not stock minced lamb.

They all have giant cow-grinding machines for churning out steak haché, but nothing for lamb. Mind you, when you consider that dismantling one of these things must be akin to cleansing the bowels of hell, I can quite understand their reluctance to whop through half a kilo of retired sheep, just for me.

Then last week my mate Deb bequeathed me a mincer. A quick wind of the handle and in no time at all, a suitable wodge of tranche avec os (slice of leg of lamb) came mincing out of its nether regions.

Meanwhile the wild herbs are once again flourishing on the slerpes of the age-old hills of Fa, so it was my first chance this year to use fresh thyme, rosemary and bay leaf, thus adding a certain Gallic élan to our nosh anglais basique.

So . . . Hachis parmentier de mouton: first peel two shepherds (the old ones are the best ones . . . I nicked that one off Graeme Garden in about 1977 . . .)

*Peel your spuds, cut up and start boiling for the mash.

* Fry up your mince, onions and garlic.

*Add sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf.

A muslin bag or similar is a good idea for the rosemary, because it's not ideal to leave the rather tough leaves in the sauce afterwards. You can simply retrieve the thyme sprigs and bay leaf before adding the mash topping.

*Add a third of a teaspoon of nutmeg, a teaspoon of paprika, veg stock cube, a slosh of red wine, a cup of water and salt and pepper to taste.

*Bring to boil then simmer for 20mins, keeping an eye on the sauce, you don't want it thin and watery, but obviously it shouldn't get dry either.

*Finish the mash, adding butter, milk, salt and pepper to taste.

*Spoon mash over meat sauce, put in hot oven for 20 minutes to crisp up the topping.

I should have served it with peas but I forgot.

A snippet with parsnips:

I may previously have inferred that I am not a great fan of parsnips. However this is merely because I don't subscribe to English Ex-pat Christmas Craving Syndrome, a pernicious complaint if ever I came across one. I will admit to having considered them deeply overrated, but just lately I have experienced a parsnip epiphany.

Girlfriend Claire and I were dining out at the Café de Fa, when the guest chef served a delicious parsnip purée, deftly seasoned with cayenne pepper. This set me to pondering the evident sweet and sour possibilities of said vegetable.

As it happens, parsnips, alias les panais, have rather caught on in France; there's a bit of a fashion for rediscovering vintage veg just at the mo. So you no longer have to be an anglais suffering yuletide narcotic trauma to find them.

Having applied the allegedly mighty brain for a day or two, I came up with a handy veggie dish:

Cajun Parsnips with chickpeas and tomatoes

*Dice up a couple of decent-sized parsnips, three tomatoes, an onion and three cloves of garlic

*Fry the onions and garlic

*Add the parsnips, tomatoes, a 400g can of chickpeas, veggie stock cube and a mug of water.

* Season with a teaspoonful of Cajun spices and salt to taste. I'm bullshitting here a bit as I'm still investigating Cajun cuisine, however my packet contains dried thyme, pink onion, garlic, paprika, oregano, black pepper, white mustard seed, cayenne pepper and cumin.

This is definitely a dish where hot chili is supposed to bounce off the sweetness of the parsnips, so regulate the cayenne pepper to taste. Seasoned headbangers can lob in a couple of fresh chilies.

*Chop in some fresh coriander, though you could substitute fresh parsley if you're stuck for the coriander.

I always like to use some sort of fresh herb if humanly possible. I find that you can use parsley to suggest the freshness, while also using the dried version of the herb you actually want.

*Cover, bring to boil then simmer for 30 minutes, or until the parsnips are tender. As always, watch the water content of the sauce. Stir occasionally.

*Serve on its own, or with good bread and butter, or rice, or a bit of side salad.

Bon appetit!

jeudi 22 mars 2012

C'est une petite touche de Maigret et le film noir

I can honestly say that I've never been much of a car nut. So long as my dear old delinquent Kangoo continues to go from A to B without pathological expense, that'll do me.

Given the general state of the world, the economy, and my humble bank balance, I can only pray that the aforementioned ageing heap manages to keep it together for quite a while longer.

But a mate of mine the other day posed the question: What would be your dream car? And, leaving aside the obvious retort of anything with cheap spares and no bloody awful modern electrics, I have to admit that I'd really like one of these lovely old Citroëns.

To us anglais, the car is inextricably linked with L'Inspecteur Maigret, as one of them had a starring role in a famous Beeb version of Simenon's 'tec stories.

They actually made the Citroën Traction Avant from 1934 to 1957, and it certainly is a classic. For a start, as is usual with Citroën, it's technically intriguing. As the name suggests, it's front-wheel drive, which was deeply exotic in 1934, and still by no means standard in 1957.

Along the way, the car gained associations with just about anything dangerous - gangsteurs françaises, Le Résistance and the Gestapo: the full two-reels-worth of film noir.

Girlfriend Claire and I came across this immaculate example, appropriately parked in front of one of Canet's wonderful art deco seafront houses, and positively reeking of atmosphere. Bien romantique!

It's all a question of four-part harmony, you know

I have to admit that I've started singing again. And why not? It's a harmless activity that costs nothing, and isn't as bad as it sounds.

I'd been feeling the urge for quite a while, so I quietly slipped back into the august ranks of mes amis de Deux Pics En Choeur. They're a stalwart and cheery bunch who make up for, with warm-hearted good humour, any occasional frayed-ness at the edge-ness that may creep in technically.

Actually I can't now recall any good reason why I stopped going to choir in the first place, because after only a few weeks back in the fold, all is as it ever was.

As always, each rehearsal before a gig is an unmitigated disaster, and as always, the gig mysteriously comes out alright on the night. Our sopranos still possess their unique ability to drift down by a semi-tone and a bit, thus eviscerating the harmony. I never have worked out quite how they do this, but this sacred skill continues to be handed down, yea even unto the seventh generation.

Our regular suspects hail from all over the haute vallée. Most are still wanted by the gendarmes for cruelty to decibels. We're mostly French with a sprinking of English, German, Dutch, Danish, and my old mate Stan, cellist extraordinaire, representing the Nicedays Murca.

The choir has a nicely varied repertoire of our local traditional occitan music, chanson française and negro spirituals. I'm glad to report that an unfortunate infiltration of Andrew Lloyd Webber has been surgically removed from the programme during my absence.

Instead, we're learning some gorgeous Renaissance riffs by one Orlando di Lasso. These harmonies really are sublime. It's truly amazing just what you can do by means of the deft manipulation of a floating C sharp. Nearly 500 years old and so cool it's not true.

I suppose that all sounds a bit anorak. But basically, if these sounds don't make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, you may well possess all the musical sensitivity of an autistic house brick.

mercredi 4 janvier 2012

adieu to molesworth kartoonisst ronald searle, 91

it is indeed a sad moment as the last hous marks the parsing of one of its finest sorces of inspriation eg the joly d. kartoonisst ronald seale who brort to life the imortal nigel molesworth.

Tenacious adherents to the dear old chron will recall that nothing delights me better than to quote molesworth at the slightest provocation.

It turns out to be more appropriate than I previously realised, as Searle had lived in France since 1961, working regularly for Le Figaro Littéraire and Le Monde. Searle launched the curse of st custard's on an unsuspecting world, together with author Geoffrey Willans, in 1954.

Earlier he created the even more notorious girls of St Trinian's. He drew the second published cartoon whilst a PoW in Singapore during the Second World War. Less well-known are his drawings of emaciated fellow prisoners, a poignant record of the cruelty inflicted by the Japanese on their captives.

Given such an ordeal, Searle richly deserved the massive success that soon followed after the war. But the celebrity treadmill became too much of a burden, and he threw it all up to start again in France, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Me, I've loved molesworth since I first encountered him, appropriately enough, in an English boarding skool at the age of ten. His wisdom immediately became an indispensable guide to everyday life, and to this day, remains so.

* my learned correspondent eg basil fotherington-tomas (hullo clouds, hullo sky etc) refers me to the guardian's appreciashun