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.