Monday, 28 February 2011

123. High speed trains in the UK

28th February 2011. Whilst firing up my PC this morning I couldn't help but notice a BBC headline on the Google page that made my heart sink. It said: "Views sought on high-speed rail.." Aaaaagghh!

In case you're in any doubt, that little phrase marks the end of any hopes we might have had for a high speed rail service in the UK similar to the ones that have been built and are still being built across Europe. I've mentioned this project/aspiration/dead duck (select the one you want) before here and this latest pronouncement by the British government just confirms my worst fears. And here was I thinking that the purpose of government was to govern. They've been elected so get on with it! And coalition governments have exactly the same powers as the rest.

It's interesting to see how the idea of high speed rail travel is being sold to the electorate. Instead of declaring that they wish to build a high speed rail network that would serve the needs of the major UK population centres and would link up with the European high speed rail network, we are told that the government wishes to spend £17bn to save "around half an hour" from the journey time between London & Birmingham*. You couldn't make it up.

The real message should have been: Birmingham to say, Paris by high speed train in 3 hours, Manchester to Paris in 3½ hours or Glasgow to Paris in 4½ hours. Now doesn't that sound a lot more interesting? The problem is that the Home Counties-based civil servants (Sir Humphrey Applebys to a man) already have their high speed rail link to the Continent - and therefore they have absolutely no intention of spending millions to afford the same convenience to the proles who live north of Watford.. (Here be dragons etc)  

If you really wish to kill a project stone dead, then you start (or, you could argue, continue) an endless round of consultations with pressure groups, NIMBYs, those with bees in their bonnets and all the rest of the Luddite tree-huggers. This inaction posing as activity enables the Minister concerned to stand up in Parliament and drone on and on that progress is being made when, in reality, it's only the legions of transport advisers who are getting fat on the consultancy contracts - at our expense. Meanwhile, nothing will happen. And that's good news to those parsimonious skinflints at HM Treasury.   

And for all you lovers of compromise, the BBC link in the first para above provides the solution that will soon be staring at you all in the face: "Opponents argue that the £17bn scheme will be a waste of money and that updating the existing West Coast mainline would be a better investment."* (cue howls of derisive laughter!) Ah yes, the good old British compromise rides to the rescue. And don't, for one minute, believe that shortage of money is the real reason for the lack of action - only this weekend I read that we've been providing aid to Russia, China (yes, China!) and India among others. Apparently, the British government gave £170m in aid to China since 2005. Madness. 

Now breathe deeply and r e l a x.. (Nurse will be along shortly)

* Fans of "Yes Minister" will recognise these two tactics as worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby at his best. I love this quote: the unflappable symbol of a machine that has no gears, only brakes. Sound familiar?

This is something I found on YouTube.. reminded me of dawns I'd seen at airfields the world over:

And to finish up with, another nice sequence:

I'm reminded of the old story of the pretty girl being shown around the flight deck of an RAF transport aircraft during a long haul flight..

The four man flight deck crew perk up when she comes in..
She looks in awe at all the switches and dials for a few moments before asking innocently, "And what do all these knobs do?"

Quick as a flash, her escort replies, "Drink coffee mainly.."

Sunday, 27 February 2011

122. England step up a gear

27th February 2011. What a cracking game last night..! ("What game..?") (Wake up at the back there! The 'crunch' game between England v France in the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament)
England came out 17-9 winners in a closely fought match, full-back Ben Foden having scored the only try that was allowed. Mike Tindall had a try disallowed which I still think was a good 'un but that's how it goes. Chris Ashton also had one disallowed for a forward pass which was impossible to judge from the TV picture. There were some mighty tackles being made all over the pitch and some very tired bodies out there at the end of the game last night but by keeping a clean sheet as far as conceding tries are concerned, England proved that they can shut out a strong attacking side like France- even if on occasion they needed a helpful bounce of the ball to do so. At the end of the match we were all exhausted from the nervous strain of watching! 

We watched it with A & V at their house in Biarritz. A made me laugh - he brought out two enormous bars of Nestle Crunch!! He took the loss very well considering and I managed to stay on my best behaviour!

After V's delicious post-match dinner, we settled down to watch a film that I doubt many Brits are aware of - "La Grande Vadrouille" - with French comedy greats Bourvil and Louis de Funès plus one of my all-time favourite English comedy actors - Terry-Thomas.. An RAF bomber piloted by T-T is shot down over Paris - & what follows is pure French farce! For over forty years, until the release of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis in 2008, La Grande Vadrouille was the most successful French film in France, topping the box office with over 17,200,000 cinema admissions. We watched it in French but I found the humour and the French dialogue easy to follow. You can watch an English subtitled version of it here:
Here's a link to Part 2 and the remainder. (if you do follow this link, you can improve the picture quality by clicking on where it says 240p below and to the right of the screen and then selecting 360p - it refers to the number of pixels per inch I think)   

I've been meaning to mention this for a while but the French have a habit of taking English words and using them in a different way. The one that always catches my eye when I go for a haircut is shampoing. (And yes, that's how they spell it) It's pronounced "shom-pwang". Another one I hear all the time on the car radio are the non-stop ads for hypermarkets where they describe shops like Lidl as 'Ard Deescoont' (that's Hard Discount to you & me!).

Friday, 25 February 2011

121. 70th Anniversary of the Comet Line

25th February 2011. Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in the WWII escape network known as the Comet Line (mentioned before here). It was set up in 1941 by Andrée de Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of repatriating Allied aircrew shot down in the Low Countries by passing them from Brussels down through occupied France to the Basque country, over the Pyrenees, across into 'neutral' Spain and back to Britain via Gibraltar. They achieved miracles, returning some 290 airmen (out of a total of ~800 others) to Britain. The Comet Line helpers paid a high price for this - over 200 were shot or otherwise killed. 

An annual commemorative weekend (this year it's 9-11th September) is held here in the Basque country (as well as in other locations) and, over 2 days, participants retrace the same route taken by the escapees from Ciboure (set on the bay of St Jean de Luz) up and over the Pyrenees to Renteria in Spain. Last year, I had the honour of meeting Andrée Dumont aka "Nadine" and Bob Frost (story here in English & French) - both of whom appear in the videos below. It's difficult to reconcile the image of the charming, sparkling lady in her eighties of today with the grim reality of what happened to her. As for Bob, he's a very modest hero and a real gentleman with clearly the utmost respect for "Dédée" and the other helpers. As he says, if civilians were caught by the Germans giving aid to shot down airmen, they could expect the severest of punishments. Men were shot, women were sent to concentration camps in Germany - usually under the powers of the infamous Nacht und Nebel decree. Bob says that, in those circumstances, only exceptional people were prepared to take that risk. He then goes on to say that of that group of exceptional people, "Dedée" de Jongh was herself exceptional. That says it all. This year sees the 70th anniversary of the first successful "home run" by an RAF escaper.  

26th February 2011. Did 14km this morning in a coxless quad sculler that felt as though it was crewed by four total strangers. This often happens at the start of a sortie but things generally sort themselves out after a few km. Not this morning though. Made for an uncomfortable few hours. (Running total: 448km)

The general consensus from the rugby fans at the club (which is just about all of them!) about this evening's Le Crunch was that England were going to win by some margin. However, you never quite know with France - if they get the bit between their teeth, they're capable of anything. I'm still going for an England win but it's all set to be a fascinating contest both between the two sets of forwards and the talented backs. Let's just hope we get to watch a great game of rugby.

Just watched the anthems at the beginning of the Italy v Wales, I had to laugh at the singing of the Italian anthem. The crowd, the band and the players all set off at the same time and then it was a straight race to the finish! And I'm not sure who won! Very likeable people the Italians with an enviable way of life.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

120. Ze Big One or Le Crunch

3rd February 2011. If you don't know what I'm referring to by the title of this post, then you have to have been living on the Planet Zanussi for the last couple of weeks. This coming Saturday, in the third match of the 6 Nations rugby, England welcome France to Twickenham. To say this is an eagerly awaited match would be to seriously understate the case. It's provided the back page sports writers with something they can get their teeth into as well - especially in the wake of comments by France's coach - Marc Lièvremont.

France took the Grand Slam last year (ie, they beat England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales & Italy) and are so far unbeaten in this year's competition. It's fair to say though that they haven't hit the heights of which they are capable. They also suffered a morale-shattering defeat by Australia in November. On the other hand, a resurgent England - at last playing with pace, power, inventiveness and yes, promise, under Martin Johnson's leadership - now look like genuine contenders.

Key men? France will be relying on the dynamic Basque Imanol Harinordoquy to drive their attack whereas England will be looking to provide the exuberant Chris Ashton with some ball he can run on to.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, dive like a sack of spuds!
Both teams are going to be pumped up for this match and there are some very powerful players on both sides. As an example of what we might expect, here's a compilation of what's now known as "big hits":
We've been invited to watch the match with A & V, our French friends in Biarritz so, win or lose, I'll have to behave myself! These matches are always special - I just hope that as a spectacle it doesn't disappoint us. If you're asking me who's going to win, I'd have to say England. And I'm tempted to say by a clear margin.

"How many's that then..?"

By 15 points. (sticking my neck right out!)

Special pre-match bonus.. here's a reminder of an immense encounter between France & England in the 1991 World Cup quarter final in Paris. The French were playing in front of their President and were convinced that they were going to win. One of the highlights of a brutal game was this try-saving piledriver of a tackle by Micky Skinner on Marc Cecillon that stopped the rampaging giant Frenchman in his tracks and drove him back 5 yards..

I found this match report on the web:

Just as truly great players are often known simply by their first name – Gareth, Gerald, Jonah – some historic incidents are instantly recalled by the briefest of headline descriptions. Ask any England rugby fan this week about 'The Tackle' and they will immediately smack fist into palm and go all dewy-eyed about Mick Skinner's extraordinary 'hit' on Marc Cecillon in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final. It was a tackle par excellence, a game-changing moment and a symbolic moment of pure drama that belonged to the theatre. It involved two immensely powerful men, including one – Cecillon – whose life was to take a remarkable and tragic turn when he left centre stage and tried to live a normal life. Skinner shouldn't even have been there, according to some, having been controversially brought in ahead of Dean Richards, who had started for England at No8 in the pool matches.

Skinner was the Geordie lad-about-town who paraded in garish waistcoats, wore his hair unfashionably long and spoke dismissively of the 'girls' in the backs. He was 'large' – to use his favourite Geordie expression – in just about every conceivable way and roistered his way around the London and England rugby scene for a few years, enjoying the fruits of the amateur game.

He pitched up at the 1987 World Cup as a replacement under the impression, not altogether incorrect, that he was attending an end-of-season piss-up, but 1991 England had got serious under Geoff Cooke and the talented Skinner had knuckled down. Underneath the joking prankster was a smart man — a highly prized computer consultant assigned to the Met Police — a considerable athlete and raging patriot to boot. Cooke believed he could add a certain dynamism to the England back row that could just help take them to a World Cup title.

So fast forward to Paris and the Parc des Princes on Oct 19, 1991. England are playing France in the World Cup quarter-final and all kinds of mayhem and madness are confidently predicted. The commentators weren't wrong, they just underestimated it.

The French were on a mission and not just because they believed they could win the World Cup. Seven months earlier they had pitched up at Twickenham for a Grand Slam decider and scored three sumptuous tries – including that contender as 'greatest try ever' by Philippe Saint-Andre courtesy of Serge Blanco and Didier Camberabero – only to be denied by England's mighty pack, the boot of Simon Hodgkinson and, in French eyes, some dodgy refereeing. Revenge and retribution were on the menu as well as a World Cup semi-final place.

England knew that and, with their mean-machine pack, planned on getting their retaliation in first. Their early assault on the revered Blanco as he gathered a high ball and was thrown around like a rag doll still makes the hairs on your neck stand up and it set the tone for a brutally physical game. France possessed an ugly, brutish pack at the time and England matched them all the way.

And so it came to pass in the second half, with the score poised at 10-10 going into the final quarter, France were pressing for the try that would probably have opened the floodgates. A scrum-five was awarded and France were rock steady on their put-in, setting it up perfectly for Cecillon, a 6ft 4in rock from Bourgoin who eyed the line with relish.

Skinner read the situation perfectly and, more importantly, timed his bone-shattering tackle to the micro-second as Cecillon momentarily gathered himself before surging for glory. But there was more. It wasn't just that Skinner merely stopped Cecillon, he then proceeded to drive him back fully five yards, dismissing the Frenchman from his very presence. Oh boy, did the 20,000 travelling England fans like that. The siege had been lifted, from that moment you knew with certainty that nothing was going to stop England.

Skinner was on a high and the French nonplussed. The maverick Eric Champ – old mad eyes himself - clearly wanted to punch him into the next parish but, in a rare moment of discipline, opted for a strange staring competition as the two went head to head, literally. Skinner won that little stand-off as well and England went on to win 19-10. After the game the French completely lost it and coach Daniel Dubroca attacked New Zealand referee David Bishop in the tunnel. Dubroca resigned soon after. Their bluff had been called at every juncture but Skinner and his tackle was the catalyst.

Having come to serious rugby late, Skinner's international career ended on a high the following season when he played in all of England's Grand Slam games and scored a try in the decider against Wales. As well as his computer consultancy, he signed for The Sun as their rugby columnist; after his Paris heroics they had dubbed him 'Mick the Munch' and produced a video of the game's greatest tackles. In his mellow middle-age Skinner remains a rugby nut and is a massive supporter of the Wooden Spoon Society, the RFU's charitable trust for the game.

My last memory of Skinner as a player was watching him captain a scratch Blackheath XV at Loughbrough University in his declining years and handing out a masterclass to the young Tony Diprose opposite. Skinner then continued the teach-in at the university bar where he bought the impoverished students ale all night and happily passed on every last nugget of wisdom he had gleaned during his career. A top rugby man.

By all accounts Cecillon, a former France captain, was also a top bloke, a hard-core rugby enthusiast, though less flamboyant than Skinner, who was known for his calmness at all times. Rugby was his life, completely and utterly, and when age caught up with him and he retired in 1995 he struggled to cope, became depressed and started drinking too much.

It was then that his life came off the rails. In August 2004, after drinking all afternoon at a barbecue — police tests later revealed him to be five times over the legal limit — he grew moody when his wife, Chantal, refused to leave with him. Cecillon disappeared for a short while, then returned with a gun. He shot Chantal dead, pumping five bullets into her head and chest. There were more than 60 witnesses and it took 12 party-goers to subdue Cecillon and tie him into a chair until the police arrived to arrest him.

"Chantal, Chantal. Where are you? I need you," Cecillon cried from his cell until he finally sobered up the following day.

At his trial, which transfixed the nation, he broke down in tears as he begged forgiveness: "I ask for pardon from my wife Chantal. I loved her. Pardon from my daughters Angelique and Celine. Pardon from my mother-in-law Marinette... I never thought I'd do it." He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A real tragedy for Cecillon, his family and for French rugby.

What wouldn't I give to see someone in a white England jersey score a try like this one from Billy Whizz - aka Jason Robinson:

Now breathe deeply, think happy thoughts and r e l a x..

Saturday, 19 February 2011

119. Planète Cannes

12th February 2011. 16km this morning in a coxed quad sculler.. (running total: 434km) The outing finished up as a race over the last kilometre or so with an VIII sculler from the club.. which we could and should have won. Ah well..! 

19th February 2011. Last Monday we loaded up the car, stowed the pooch in the back and left a dripping wet Bayonne for a few days away in Cannes, in the south east of France. Looking at the route the day before on the Michelin web site, I'd been surprised to find it was 820kms - a bit further than I'd thought - about a 7 or 8 hour drive.
The road paralleled the Pyrenees at first which unfortunately were completely shrouded in rain, low cloud and mist. Our route took us south of Toulouse straight to Narbonne where we turned north east for Montpellier, past the sprawlopolis that is Nîmes, then across the Rhône to Arles (Van Gogh country), Salon-de-Provence, Aix-en-Provence and then through the Provençal hills, with their mimosa blossoms, to Cannes - which was also dripping wet! Here's a live web cam feed from Cannes.

And here's a picture of Cannes as we might have seen it - had it not rained continuously for the duration of our entire stay! Some very attractive traditional wooden yachts here..

Walking through the narrow rain-swept streets of the United Blingdom, many world-famous brands were in evidence in the glitzy shops - Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Prada et al. Exotic cars also prowled the streets, splashing past in a non-stop parade - Porsche Panameras (for those for whom an 'ordinary' Porsche simply isn't enough), convertible Bentleys and monster blinged-up Audi 4x4s with Gulf State plates. There were a few old sixties bangers around too - some had well restored bodywork - and none had their husbands with them!

To escape the umbrella-tangled streets, we walked out to the marina one day to look at some of the mighty luxury private yachts (ships?) that were moored stern-on to the quayside. I noticed in one yacht broker that one of the smaller ones was available for charter on a daily basis for 6,000€ a day! Meanwhile, the real monster yachts cost around half a million euros per week - but to me they lack any kind of appeal.

We had an excellent lunch at Le Caveau 30 one day. This restaurant with a thirties theme is well situated on La Croisette. Their 24.50€ lunch menu is highly recommended - I had the oysters and then the St Pierre (John Dory) with a bottle of Bandol rosé.   
After 4 days of continuous rain, we returned yesterday as the sun finally emerged.   

Thursday, 10 February 2011

118. Fuel prices

9th February 2011. As we're away for a few days next week, we went to Dancharia, probably the closest part of Spain from here, to fill up the car with cheap diesel. Haven't mentioned diesel prices for a while but today we paid 1.20€/litre - which, in UK £ sterling, equates to £1.02/litre, or for US readers $6.20 per US gallon. This was the highest it's been for a while so I thought I'd look at what motorists in other countries are paying at the moment..

According to this web site, US consumers are getting a terrific deal on gas prices - with US prices averaging out at only 56% of the price in Spain.

In France, I saw diesel at 1.27€/litre this morning. The price for unleaded according to this appears to be ~1.47€ (£1.25) which is very close to the UK mean..

Meanwhile, motorists in the UK must be getting used to the taste of willow in the back of their throats by now (the result of a cricket bat being forcibly inserted somewhere!) - I've just checked out the current UK petrol & diesel prices at a randomly chosen Esso station in the UK from here and they made my eyes water.. unleaded £1.27.9/litre & diesel £1.31.9/litre. Take a deep breath because this works out at $7.76/US gallon for unleaded and a whopping $8.01/US gallon for diesel.

Don't be feeling too pleased with yourselves in the US though.. because here I pay 1.70€ or $2.31 for a bottle of very drinkable Burgundy.. 

Returning home, the car was telling us that it was 21C.

10th February 2011. Dropped Madame off at the hairdressers in Biarritz this morning. There was a light mist rolling in off the sea which gave everything a soft focus look in the sunshine. It was a warm 22C.

Went for a ride along the Nive this evening - as far as Villefranque.. (20km)

Another Sinatra classic - this time from September 1961 - that's 50 years ago if you're counting..


Made in '83, "Local Hero" was a low budget film set in Scotland (and yes, that is Burt Lancaster!) that has since turned into a minor cult classic. Mark Knopfler wrote some memorable music for the soundtrack.. In case you missed it when it was first screened, one of these links should work.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

117. Calling a spade a tool designed primarily for the purpose of digging or removing earth..

6th February 2011. Those of a sensitive nature can skip the first part of this post..! Walking into town for the bread with the dog on this fine sunny morning I needed one of those small black plastic bags that the Town Hall has thoughtfully provided around town for dog-owners. Pulling one out of the dispenser, I couldn't help noticing the sign provided for our edification. With customary Gallic disdain for any terminological inexactitude coupled with their predilection for linguistic precision (Sir Humphrey would be proud of me!), it announced that these bags are intended for "déjections canines". It's clear that a sizeable number of the populace are having trouble even comprehending the sign, judging from the copious amounts of jections canines that decorate the streets. Given that France has the highest dog population in Europe, this adds up to more than a "hill of beans" - as Bogart might have said. You only need to look at this site to recognise that it's a problem in France.

It's not helped by the fact that many dog-owners live in flats in the centre of town and thus don't have gardens where their pooches can roam. Bayonne is otherwise a clean and litter-free town, as can be seen from this quasi-live video feed. Phew - let's move on!
Trois Couronnes
As it was a sunny and bright afternoon, we drove south down to Saint Jean de Luz to have a stroll in the early February sunshine. Along the distant horizon, the Pyrenees and the pale mass of La Rhune and the Trois Couronnes emerged above the silver blue haze like the faintest of shadows against an even paler blue sky.
La Rhune
Saint Jean de Luz was busy.. with many people sunbathing on the beach and even a couple of brave souls in the sea. We found a small gallery that was open that was showing some very interesting portraits by Joachim Hidalgo, a Madrid-based artist.. slightly reminiscent of Gustav Klimt.

7th February 2011. A few weeks ago I mentioned here the disturbing story of the decline in numbers of the world's honey bee population. Before you glaze over and move on, it's worth remembering that almost a third of global farm output depends on animal pollination, largely by honey bees. These foods provide 35% of our calories, most of our minerals, vitamins, and anti-oxidants, and the foundations of gastronomy. Yet the bees are dying – or being killed – at a disturbing pace. More here.. For those who can access UK TV, there's a Channel 4 film "The Last of the Honeybees" here. A quote from Albert Einstein on the matter: "if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live". In my view, the disappearance of the honey bee is a greater threat in the short term to the continuance of life as we know it on the planet than those posed by global warming, ozone holes, depletion of oil supplies, terrorism or whatever you want. The strange thing is that the fate of the world's honey bee population doesn't seem to be too high up on anyone's political agenda, anywhere.

The media buzzword for this phenomenon is "Colony Collapse Disorder" or CCD - which doesn't sound quite so threatening - so if you are lucky enough to hear CCD being discussed, at least you'll know what it stands for and why we should be so concerned. Like to know more..? Start herehere, here, then read what the USDA says here, and the  Scientific American here, a report from the Congressional Research Service here and finally here's what the EU is doing. I'd suggest you write to your elected representative without delay to:

1. Make sure that they are aware of the threat posed by CCD;


2. Ask what they are doing about it.

You can find out how to contact your MP (UK) here or your Representative (US) here.

Does the word Bugatti mean anything to you..? A couple were sold over the weekend by Bonhams in Paris for a substantial wodge. There's a nice little story and a video clip of one of them being driven here.. I'm unable to post the clip here unfortunately. I must say that I twitched when the narrator said the cars were Italian - I'd always thought they were French but looking at the Wiki page, I think you could be excused for saying Italian French or even German. These beautifully built, jewel-like cars were the Lotuses of their day.. built with lightness being the key to their performance. I think it was Ettore Bugatti himself who, at the time of the domination of the Le Mans 24 hour race by the supercharged Bentleys, declared that they were "the fastest lorries in the world!" From an English perpective, that's a real knuckle-clenching comment to absorb brought up as we are with the Bentley Boys legend - but unfortunately it's true.. The modern Bugatti company is now owned by - would you believe it - Volkswagen.

116. Six Nations

6th February 2011. Good result for the England XV in the opening match of the Six Nations on Friday night in a hyped-up Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. A very physical, aggressive and confrontational match with the Welsh was not helped IMHO by all the hype that went on before the game. I must admit to an intense dislike for all that pre-match hoop-la that we get these days. I think the worst two offenders for it are Wales and Scotland. On Friday night, we had complete overkill - with a Welsh male voice choir, sheets of flame that would do an oil rig proud, all the dry ice 'smoke' and lights at the players tunnel, Tom Jones hits belting out on the sound system, military goats et al.. To me it's all so unnecessary. I don't need to be pumped up artificially by all this nonsense. Don't mention warbling sopranos singing the anthems either.. aaagghh!

It's the same in Scotland - a lone piper standing up on the roof somewhere, more fireworks, smoke and mirrors, overflights by the RAF, and then that awful maudling "Flower of Scotland" - great when sung by the Corries before a crowd of 'folkies' - but, at the risk of annoying those north of the border, as a national anthem it leaves a lot to be desired - "And send them homeward, tae think again.." - in your dreams. What's needed is the rambunctious "Scotland the Brave.." Sing something rousing that lifts the spirits - not some dreary folk song cocking an eye to the past. Accept no substitutes. Here's a clip that captures all that's best about Scotland.. makes me shiver listening to it even now..

In the interests of balance (been watching too much BBC) I have to say, and it might be viewed as heresy in some quarters, but "God Save the Queen" wouldn't inspire me to crush a paper cup.. Needless to say, the ones that get my vote are the Marseillaise, Fratelli d'Italia, Land of my Fathers (Wales) and both of the Irish ones.

As I made my way down to the river early yesterday morning it was marginally less cold than it's been over the last few weeks - I hope we've seen the last of that cold spell. I went out in an VIII set up for rowing (ie, with one oar). It was one of those strange sorties that comes along every now and again when, with a club crew who have rowed together before, it didn't seem to matter what exercise we did or corrective action we took, the boat remained chronically unstable, without any of us being able to put a finger on what was going wrong. It made for an uncomfortable sortie. Did 12km (running total: 418km) 

Thursday, 3 February 2011

115. Fête de la Chandeleur aka Pancake Tuesday

2nd February 2011. Today was la Fête de la Chandeleur or, as we poetic Anglo-Saxons would have it, Pancake Tuesday - although strictly speaking, its correct title should be Candlemas, but between you and me, let's stick to Pancake Tuesday.. (I was way off here.. Lesley pointed out in a comment below that La Chandeleur and Pancake Day/Tuesday are two different things.. La Chandeleur is Candlemas but Pancake Day/Tuesday is Shrove Tuesday which is the day preceding Ash Wednesday and falls on 8th March this year. There'll be a test afterwards to see if you were paying attention!) 

Anyway, here's what pancakes look like here in France: 
This evening, Madame was ensconced in the kitchen for a good while - which was strictly off limits and Streng Verboten! to the likes of me and the dog. (Un Anglich in the kitchen..? Beh non!) She appeared briefly in order to raid the bookcase for a bottle of rum and other delights - making my nose twitch with the tempting smells that wafted out of the kitchen..
Draw your own conclusion!
Then, as if by magic, the pancakes started arriving.. first, the savoury ones.. with ham and cheese. Think I might have had two of those.. Next up, was one with a black cherry filling.. then I think I had - it all starts to become a blur round about this point - a chocolate one. Or was it two? Finally, with a drum roll, one that had been flamed in rum. Yum-yum - or as they say here - miam miam!

I remember Pancake Tuesdays from when I was a kid and they were always served with lemon juice and sugar at home.. which I'd still enjoy very much. 

In any discussion of pancakes, Pat Buchanan's crack about Bill Clinton during his first Presidential campaign always springs to mind - it ran something like: "Bill Clinton's foreign policy experience stems mainly from having breakfast at the International House of Pancakes.."
Here's "On Every Street" - a classic Mark Knopfler track that I haven't played in a long while: