Wednesday, 28 July 2010

74. La sauce HP

28th July 2010. HP Sauce used to be found on most tables in Britain.. and the label had a lengthy list of ingredients in both English and French. This was probably the first time that many Brits had come across the French language and I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who used to sit there as a kid attempting to read the French ingredients. In this clip, the late great Marty Feldman takes it one step further - in the manner of Jacques Brel or Charles Aznavour:

Monday, 26 July 2010

73. Calm before the storm..

24th July 2010. Beautiful day here today - cloudless blue sky and it looks like being a perfect day on the river. I'm just getting ready to leave for my Saturday morning row up the Nive.

While I'm away, here's something to keep you occupied for a minute or two. I don't normally do online tests (compatability, intelligence, personality etc) but the other day I came across this intriguing Personality Test. On completing the questions, I found the result described me remarkably accurately. It's aimed at people who are in the job market but it's none the worse for that. Try it and prepare yourself to be astonished.

Here are three for listening to late at night - Chet Baker with My Funny Valentine, Thelonius Monk and 'Round Midnight and, to finish up with, the great Charlie Parker with Summertime:

Feel like a dreamlike flight over Paris..? The fifteen minute video that you'll find at the link below has Madame (une vraie Parisienne) transfixed.. she's watched it at least half a dozen times - if not double figures - to my knowledge.. I had wondered out loud at Post #39 if a film tribute to Paris had ever been made along the lines of Woody Allen's opening credits for Manhattan. Stunning photography coupled with some highly nostalgic music (by some of the greats - inc. Piaf & Brel) are combined here to produce a memorable fifteen minutes. Step right this way - and be prepared for something special..

26th July 2010. Walked to the post office in town this afternoon and the final preparations for the Fete de Bayonne are in full swing.. Heavy lorries loaded up with fairground rides are parked in key locations. Fast food shacks are springing up everywhere.. The usual wandering souls (and their dogs), who appear (as if by magic) when crowds are expected, are here too - looking for a pay day. The park benches had some late risers stretched out on them this afternoon. I think the population of the town has already doubled in size with many more to come.
The start is less than 48 hours away now - at 2200hrs (French time) on Wednesday night. You can watch the scene outside the Town Hall live on this webcam.. (you'll have to click the refresh button after 3 minutes) Following the opening ceremony, there's the Mother Of All Firework displays at 2210hrs right in the centre of town... watch the clip below at 0:40 - it's as noisy as the opening 15 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" - and again at 5:30. In the Pays Basque, fireworks come in just the one flavour - deafeningly LOUD!!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

72. Villa Voisin

17th July 2010. I mentioned in an earlier post that I've become increasingly interested in the Comet Line since I found out that its operations in the South West of France were controlled from a house just a few minutes from here.
The Comet Line was a secret network established during WWII by Andrée de Jongh ("Dédée" or the Little Cyclone), a brave 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of helping shot-down Allied airmen to escape and evade from the Low countries down through France, over the Pyrenees to Spain and hence to return to Britain via Gibraltar or Lisbon. The activities of the Comet Line in the Pays Basque were co-ordinated by an indefatigable Belgian lady - Elvire de Greef - known as "Tante Go".
"Tante Go"
She and her husband Fernand lived in nearby Anglet in a house known as the Villa Voisin. In researching the Pays Basque end of the Comet Line, I finally managed to pinpoint the address of the Villa Voisin and I drove there today. By the way, my comments on the Comet Line are not intended as an exhaustive account of the activities in this area by any means. I'm aware that in naming names that there are many others who remain un-named. My admiration for all those who helped is unbounded and without reservation.
Villa Voisin

The Villa Voisin is located at the end of a discreet cul-de-sac in the centre of Anglet, set back from the lane. It's an anonymous, drab villa hiding behind closed shutters and and surrounded by a small garden. It appears to be unoccupied at present. Affixed to one of the gateposts is a simple marble plaque (left). It was with mixed emotions that I finally found myself outside it. Those immensely courageous people who'd operated the Line from it had known the highs and lows of a secret life on the run against a ruthless enemy - the need for eternal vigilance, the constant fear of the heavy tramp of boots outside that preceded a late night hammering at the door. Counter-balancing that however, they'd shared the adrenalin-fuelled comradeship, the knowledge that they were fighting for a better world and the satisfaction of knowing that they were both defying the invader and contributing to his defeat by helping hundreds of escaping airmen to evade capture and return home to fly again. In the three years it oper­ated from 1941 to 1944, the Comet Line saved hundreds of Allied airmen and soldiers to evade capture and return home. It's difficult for us today to imagine the kind of world that made the Comet Line necessary.

Looking at the house, I found myself wishing that I'd known Dédée and "Tante Go". Christened the Little Cyclone by her father, by all accounts Dédée was clearly someone very special indeed - possessed of an inner fire and an unquenchable determination to "make a difference". Knowing that hundreds and thousands of Allied airmen were going out over occupied Europe night after night in their bombers to destroy the Third Reich that had occupied her country, she'd felt compelled to join the fight and to take the same risk as them (many would say an even greater risk) in playing her part in ridding Europe of the scourge of tyranny. After having made 37 crossings of the Pyrenees with her precious cargo of airmen, she was captured in January 1943 as a result of a betrayal, interrogated by the Gestapo when, in a gallant bid to save her fellow Comet members, she admitted to her disbelieving questioners that she was indeed the central controller and organiser of the entire network. She was later deported to Ravensbrück and later the appalling Mauthausen where she somehow managed to survive for two years until the Liberation.

After the war, she was awarded the George Medal (scroll down the link) by King George VI following which she moved to the pre-independence Belgian Congo, then to Cameroon, next to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, working in leper hospitals and finally to Senegal. In failing health, she eventually retired to Brussels where she died on 13th October 2007 aged 90.
The Basque guide who led parties of airmen across the mountains for the Comet Line was the legendary Florentino Goicoechea (above). By profession he was a smuggler (alleged to have been wanted by the authorities on both sides of the border!) and, when awarded the King's Medal, he was described as being 'in the import and export business'! He looks like someone you'd want on your side in a tight corner. Here he is again in 1965:

I'm no great believer in medals, awards or citations, but if medals are to be awarded, I think we should make sure the right ones are given. Dédée and "Tante Go" (and others) received the George Medal (right). I would have said that the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry, would have been more appropriate, given their achievements and the risks they took. After all, they chose to involve themselves, to risk their lives. They could have just kept their heads down and carried on with life and no-one would have been any the wiser. Theirs was not a courage born of the heat of battle and over in a flash but rather it was a cold courage that was measured, a solitary courage, aware of all the terrible risks they were taking (no Geneva Convention or prisoner of war camps for them) and yet they continued the fight for years. I know the VC is intended for military personnel only but who would argue that they were not involved in a military undertaking. I would have made an exception in their case and I firmly believe that all three (and others) fully merited the VC. 

Another safe house was provided by Jean and Marthe Dassié, a family of activists in Bayonne. Their 16 year old daughter Lucienne ("Lulu") was also involved and, after being captured with her parents in 1943, she and her mother spent 2 years in Ravensbruck, a name that still sounds fearful today. Her father Jean survived the horrors of Buchenwald only to die aged 50 within days of being reunited with his family in May 1945. Here are a few lines by Kipling written after the Great War but they apply equally here.

They are too near to be great,
But our children shall understand.
When and how our fate was changed
And by whose hand.

The "Trois Couronnes"
I'm planning to participate in a 3 day "March over the Mountains", around the distinctive Trois Couronnes (above) and down into Spain, that will take place in September to commemorate the south western Comet Line. The route will re-trace exactly the path taken by Dédée and Florentino and the escapers from Urrugne in France to Renteria in Spain. Now in her eighties, "Lulu" telephoned a couple of days ago to provide some information about the event. It will be a great honour to meet her.

Here's Le Chant des Partisans - (the Partisans song) - which leaves listeners in no doubt as to the views of the occupied population:
21st July 2010. Let's enjoy a happier mood now with the Buena Vista Social Club playing Chan Chan live in Amsterdam:
To finish up with, here to take you home is Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces with Maria Elena:

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

71. Summer music

11th July 2010. The telltale signs that the Fêtes de Bayonne is approaching are starting to become visible around town.. Council workmen are erecting barriers on central reservations and roundabouts to stop parking; big signs have appeared warning the unwary that the centre of town will be closed to traffic; in the Place des Basques, barriers have been installed to enforce orderly bus queueing (dream on!). What is the Fêtes de Bayonne, I hear you ask..? Imagine a cultural spectrum with say, a Welsh Eisteddfod at one end and the San Fermin festival at Pamplona at the other.. The Fêtes de Bayonne lies somewhere between the two.. Normally, Bayonne's population hovers around the 40,000 mark but over the duration of the Fêtes, well over a million visitors will descend on the town.. the overwhelming majority of whom will be dressed in white with a red sash around the waist and a red neckerchief.. I must admit to finding it slightly disturbing when walking through town during the Fêtes and everyone's dressed the same. It's something to do with the loss of individual identity of the public. (Rightly or wrongly, I always draw a mental parallel with Germany in the 30s) Here's a short clip that gives a flavour of it:
This next clip features a song close to the hearts of all in the Pays Basque, but especially Bayonne.. 
Here's some of the madness.. not sure what you'd call this beast.. it's not a bull but I don't think you'd want to get involved in an exchange of views with it! (it's actually a cow) Of course, I abhor these kinds of degrading spectacles - I'm an animal lover - and it doesn't sit well with me to see some poor animal surrounded by an excited mob intent on tweaking its tail or whatever. However, if there's a choice to be made between staging bullfights (where the death of the animal is the goal) and the kind of thing shown below, then regrettably I'd have to say that the latter activity would be preferable.
San Fermin is currently running as we speak and buses are available (Bayonne-Pamplona direct) in the Place des Basques to take people.. Yesterday I saw a few passengers getting off the Pamplona-Bayonne bus looking very much the worse for wear! And quite a few waiting for the next one. Today promises to be a big day in Pamplona.. One, it's the Sunday and so those who are still working can attend and two, Spain are in the World Cup Final.. which is today.. If Spain win, I think Pamplona will erupt!

We've decided that we're going to take a break from the Fêtes de Bayonne this year. Our neighbours kids are keen participants and they invite all their friends back in the wee small hours. The first year we were here, we only had single glazed windows and we discovered the hard way that a group of 15 or so French teens and twenties, hyped up on the occasion after a few Sangrias, can generate a fair amount of noise out in the rear garden - all talking & no-one listening in the classic French manner! We could hear the pop as corks were still being extracted at 6am.. That first year they finally called it a night at 10 in the morning.. Even now that we've double glazed the house, the hoots and the hollers still penetrate our bedroom. This year therefore, we've booked a hotel in the mountains for a few days. It's not that we're a couple of old fuddyduddies.. but we like our sleep!

14th July 2010. Summer would not be complete without Bastille Day - 14th July - which, by a freakish coincidence, happens to be today! The presenter on Télématin (breakfast TV on France2) introduced his report on the glittering Défilé (military parade) that will take place on the Champs Elysées later on this morning as "the most beautiful army in the world marching down the most beautiful avenue in the world". I have to admit on mature reflection that he's right. It's arguable that a Scots Pipe band should be up there with them but, hey, let's be charitable on this day of days. We're not talking about military capability or effectiveness but the French military, on days like these, does look good. I've often wondered why other nations (such as the US or the UK) are strangely reluctant to parade their military.

Anyway, setting all these arguments aside, I enjoy watching the spectacle every year and, as always, the parade on the ground is preceded by a fly past. This clip of the 2009 parade - when the Indian military was strongly represented - runs for about 1.5 hours. The legendary French Foreign Legion make their appearance at 44:15 - they are traditionally the final unit to appear on foot with their distinctive slow march, with the pionniers (combat engineers) carrying axes on their shoulders and wearing leather aprons. Time now to make yourself a coffee, get comfortable, watch the clip and then tell me afterwards if the France2 presenter was right or wrong:

Thursday, 8 July 2010

70. Road to Laredo

8th July 2010. Last Monday we decided to make a foray into Spain - aiming for a place called Laredo (Cantabria) situated between Bilbao and Santander along the northern Spanish coast. We took the new motorway (a combination of the E-70 & the A-8) - a spectacular and, no doubt, expensive road that threaded its way left and right through and around the tree-covered crumpled hills and jagged mountains. Cutting its way through contorted layers of stratified rock that were near the vertical in places, the road passed through innumerable cuttings and tunnels and over some impressive bridges and viaducts. The severely folded landscape left precious little room in the valley floors for expansion in an outward direction and therefore the cramped towns and villages had  to resort to making extensive use of apartment tower blocks - which looked slightly incongruous. The road itself was a continuous series of curves and bends and it was hardly possible to take my eyes off the road ahead. I drove at ~100km/h despite the speed limit being 120km/h which, given the twisty nature of the road, seemed a little optimistic.

If ever there is an international competition for the town or city where the planning process has clearly broken down and the result is a complete eyesore, then Bilbao would be an odds-on 'cert' to reach at least the semi-finals. This (below) is the Bilbao Exhibition Centre and the photo doesn't reveal its true awfulness.. It looks rather like one of those regional logistical depots for a major supermarket chain.. but in the middle of town.

Is this a museum or the box it came in..? Joking..! All observers seem to agree that this - the Guggenheim Museum - is a stunning looking building which we still have to visit.. (Edited to add: Madame since been there - but I can't see how we can both get there with the dog).  
To be fair, we only drove through and we didn't get to explore the old town which is clearly alive and well:
Moving swiftly on, we soon left Bilbao behind us and off to our right, we caught glimpes of the lapis lazuli sea. Arriving at Laredo, it's clear that the hotel and apartment building boom of the 70s and 80s in Spain hadn't passed Laredo by. It had obviously once been a delightful old fishing port with a natural harbour but the new part had increased its size perhaps eight-fold.
Lunchtime approached so we found a restaurant with a cool terrace. I felt like declaiming to the waiter in booming Shakespearean tones: Go, get thee in, and fetch me a stoup of liquor*. Instead, we ordered their set 12€ lunch, which included a welcome bottle of chilled rosé, of garlicky gambas followed by an assortment of grilled fish, squid and yet more gambas on skewers.. with ice cream afterwards and coffee. 

* lines from Hamlet I think

This absolute shower (or shar as Terry-Thomas would have pronounced it) - aka ZZ Top - were playing at Les Arenes (the bullring) this evening. Unfortunately we live just a few hundred metres from it and so we had to endure an evening of total carp (sp?) played fortissimo..

Sunday, 4 July 2010

69. Mystery in faded ink

4th July 2010. Madame has a number of her father's books - one of which is Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars. Her father earned his pilot's wings in the mid-1930s in the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force) and, like Saint-Exupéry, later served in North Africa with the Free French where apparently they knew each other. Saint-Ex's writings on aviation would, no doubt, have been close to his heart.

I picked this particular volume out of the bookcase this afternoon and, on opening it, I found a poignant inscription written on one of the opening fly sheets:   

For Tooks -
I think this may do for reading in our hut by the sea. I hope you like it as much as I do "Island in the Sun". With love from K.S.M.
                                                                                                                                             Summer 1940
(click on the image to enlarge it)

Who knows now who "Tooks" and K.S.M. were.. It sounds to me as though Tooks was in the flying game - and Summer 1940 was a particularly dangerous time to be involved in it.. I can well imagine that a couple in wartime would invent an imaginary hut by the sea where they could temporarily escape reality during their precious time - together or apart. There's a story waiting to be written here.

In different handwriting - in the corner of the same page - someone, probably a bookseller, has written £7 (1940) 1/5. We'll never know. I did a quick search for "Island in the sun" but I was unable to unearth any reference to it that made any kind of sense - given the date of the inscription. I would guess that Madame's father bought the book sometime in the post war period for £7. 

I stumbled across this little gem on YouTube - a gypsy jazz-style rendering of Dark Eyes - by 3 talented kids - each around 12 years old. Well worth watching!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

68. Defecting to Aviron Bayonnais

3rd July 2010. Yesterday, I was aware all day that the date held some significance for me but for long enough I just couldn't make the connection. Until suddenly voila!* I realised that it was 38 years ago to the day that I joined the RAF. It's no good asking myself where had the years gone because they've gone, and very enjoyable they were too for the most part. Pas de regrets

* Or viola as one of my friends used to spell it! "Until suddenly a stringed instrument..."? Naa, it doesn't work does it?

Setting the breakfast table this morning, I had another rare moment of lucidity! I remembered setting the table as a kid - it would be the cloth, then the cutlery and then the salt and pepper cruets. I suddenly realised that I no longer automatically set out the cruets. This is one of the ways in which living here has changed me. I can remember my father showering his food with salt and pepper (I think this was an old army habit from the war) and so we grew up doing likewise. Madame always used to flinch when I did it.. It's one of those habits which is very hard to break but somehow I've managed it.

This morning I went down to the Aviron Bayonnais - the other rowing club in town - for an outing. For the last couple of years I'd been sculling (although they call it rowing in French) and I don't really derive much satisfaction from it. Rowing - or "ramer en pointe" - is with one oar - and it's what I grew up with. It's easier if I let Wikipedia explain the difference!

There are two forms of rowing:

In sweep or sweep-oar rowing, each rower has one oar, held with both hands. This can be done in pairs, fours and eights. Each rower in a sweep boat is referred to either as port or starboard, depending on which side of the boat the rower's oar extends to. Usually the port side is referred to as stroke side, and the starboard side as bow side; this applies even if the stroke oarsman is rowing on bow side and/or the bow oarsman on stroke side.

In sculling each rower has two oars (or sculls), one in each hand. Sculling is usually done without a coxswain, in quads, doubles or singles. The oar in the sculler's right hand extends to port (stroke side)(babord in French), and the oar in the left hand extends to starboard (bow side)(tribord in French).

We took an eight out - it's so long since I've rowed I could hardly remember if I was bow side or stroke side - I guessed stroke side but after a while it didn't feel right so I guess I must have rowed bow side. What a pleasure it was to row again.. We had a good long hard outing - first up the Nive and then back down again and through town (as above) and then on until we reached the Adour where we rowed downriver as far as the "Skat", the stealth gin palace (mentioned in Post #67).
I came back to the clubhouse with my t-shirt wringing wet. We then had a quick apero! And blisters in different places on my hands with the change to rowing. I think I'm going to enjoy this club!

I've often wondered if hydrofoil technology could be applied to rowing and/or sculling and here it is:
4th July 2010. Happy birthday America! And, as a small tribute to that most American of art forms, here's a link to TSF Jazz, an FM station in Paris that plays nothing but cool jazz 24/7. I've just tried it this morning but there appears to be a minor snaggette with their streaming. If you can't get it to work, it's definitely worth coming back to to try again in a day or two's time. If not, this will give you a patriotic fix!

Meanwhile, for all the readers of this blog in the US - this is for you.. the band of the Coldstream Guards playing the Star Spangled Banner outside Buckingham Place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (sorry about the poor quality):
And if that doesn't do it for you, then this clip of 150+ kilted porridge wogs (as they were affectionately known in the RAF in those far-off non-politically correct days!) surely will: 

The Duke of Wellington said: "I don't know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me."

 I love that little flourish at the end!