Three startling views from aeroplanes...the Grand Canyon, Siberia and London
In this blogposting…
*The World: A Truckshunter Geography
*The Message of the Bells
The world, you’ll find, is your oyster…

Let’s begin this new venture with a deafeningly loud round of applause for the Republic of South Sudan, which - as of 11 July 2011 - is the world’s newest country.

Here are some facts about the Republic of South Sudan.

It has a population of about 6.7m who live in an area of 619,745 sq km.

And that’s about it, really. Two dry statistics which tell us only the very basic basics about this newly independent territory and which remind me of the kind of geography we were taught at school: area, population, capital city, main industries, exports and imports and er…. Bob's yer uncle.

Not only do textbook facts like these tend to be on the soporific side of boring, but they also tell us next to nothing that we’d really like to know about the country in question. They certainly don’t quench our traditional truckshunter sense of curiosity and wonder.

Back, for example, to the Republic of South Sudan. What are the words of its National Anthem? What is its favourite comedian? What’s at Number One in the South Sudanese Top Twenty? What language(s) do they speak there and how do you count from one to ten in it/them?

Does it have a teenage pregnancy problem? What’s its highest mountain called? What kind of films do they watch and who’s their favourite film-star? Was anyone famous born there - even before it became the Republic of South Sudan?

Do its citizens like it? What’s the weather like, generally speaking? Should we go there for a holiday? What do they eat and drink there?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s stuff like that makes Geography such an interesting subject.

Which is why I’ve decided to launch our very own ‘alternative geography’ - a skewed or sideways look at the 193 member states of the United Nations. Our Truckshunter Geography will follow the wayward trail laid down by Paul and me on the Blue Bus programme and maintained on The Nightshift - namely, there’s always more than one way of looking at a subject AND you can make anything sound interesting if you try hard enough.

I’ve already started my ‘research’, in an informal kind of way, and have made some thought-provoking, if fairly trivial, discoveries. There are no farms at all in Singapore, Vatican City, Monaco or Nauru. Fully 50% of the population of Uganda is under 14. The people of Papua New Guinea speak over 800 languages between them. Turkey has lost more wars than any other country on Earth.

And once you start, it's well-nigh impossible to stop.

Hungarians refuse to eat oats. The English drink 23 times more tea than the Italians. Taiwan and Luxembourg are the only countries in the world where there are more mobile phones than people. And amongst Australia’s annual sporting events there’s a Cockroach World Championship, a Nude Olympics, a National Pig Race and a Beer-Can Regatta...

Now that’s what I call real geography.

We’ll be starting our survey of The World As We See It in a couple of weeks’ time with the country that comes first alphabetically on the UN’s list: Afghanistan.

You may think that it would be virtually impossible to find anything truckshuntery to say about that unhappy country - but you’d be surprised. There’s a lot more to Afghanistan than perennial conflict, big shaggy dogs and opium poppies.

Feel free to join in. Google can provide you with a list of UN sovereign states. After that, it’s up to you to dig up some ‘Well I never!’ facts about them as we go along.

Like….the first country to give women the vote was New Zealand (in 1893)...Tonga once issued a postage stamp in the shape of a banana…I could go on. And I intend to.

And you never know; in a few months we could have a best-selling 'airport' book on our hands, packed with the irresistible lure of the trivial and the unexpected - grist to out truckshunter mill.

Together, we can show how weird and peculiarly fascinating our world is.

Or we can try.

This list of mottoes inscribed on English church bells - collected by a man called John Potter Briscoe for an 1883 book called Curiosities of the Belfry - has been sent to me by yet another anonymous emailer. I rather like it…

*Fear God and obeai the Qwene (Artlingworth, Northamptonshire, 1589)
*Arise and go about your business (St. Ives, Cornwall)
*I ring at six to let men know
When too and from thair worke to goe (Coventry, West Midlands, 1675)
*A trusty friend is harde to finde (Passenham, Northamptonshire, 1585)
*Bee not wise in your owne conceits (Yardley Hastings, Northamptonshire, 1723)
*Labour overcometh all things (Glentham, Lincolnshire, 1687)
*Rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep (Orlingbury,
Northamptonshire, 1843)
*When you die
Aloud I cry (Owmby, Lincolnshire, 1687)
*I call the quick to church and dead to grave (Calstock, Cornwall, 1773)
*When you hear this mournful sound
Prepare yourselves for underground (Hough-on-the-Hill, Lincolnshire, 1683)
*Mankind, like us, too oft are found
Possessed of nought but empty sound! (Bakewell, Derbyshire, 1798)

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 24 August at the Tanfield Railway, on the road between Sunniside and Stanley.

It’s the only place to be seen that day.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
Three genuine signs posted on a wonderful website called Illiterate Britain. I once drove over one of those warnings painted directly onto the road; in nice, big letters it said SOLW...
In this blogposting…
*Seven Stories
*A Brief History of Time
*The Cuthbert Gospel: Part Two
Now go forth and…

A friend recently reminded me of the clever joke built in to the name of the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle - ‘Seven Stories’. Every work of fiction ever dreamed up apparently fits into one or more of the seven categories listed below - the basic ‘seven stories‘ of all fiction.

I’ve tried to think of a book I’ve read - fiction, of course - that doesn’t conform to these types, and can’t.

Can you?

1 Cinderella
Unrecognised virtue at last recognised. It's the same story as the Tortoise and the Hare. Cinderella doesn't have to be a girl, nor does it even have to be a love story. What is essential is that the good is despised, but is recognised in the end - something that we all want to believe.

2 Achilles
The Fatal Flaw. The ‘hero’ has every virtue and/or power imaginable - except one, which becomes his/her downfall. This is the basis for almost all classical tragedy, although it can be comedy too, as in the old standard Aldwych farce. Even Superman falls into this category!

3 Faust
The Debt that Must be Paid; the fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later.

4 Tristan
That standard triangular plot of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. This, too, can be tragedy or high comedy.

5 Circe
The Spider and the Fly. Evil takes its time to trap and consume good.

6 Romeo and Juliet
Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy either finds or does not find Girl: it doesn't matter which. The sexes don’t matter much these days, either.

7 Orpheus
The Gift Taken Away.

I’ll be interested to hear from you if you think you’ve read a work of fiction that does not fit into any of these categories…

Kev has sent me this hugely enjoyable ‘brief history of time’...

3050 BC
A Sumerian invents the wheel. Within the week, the idea is stolen and duplicated by other Sumerians, thereby establishing the business ethic forever.

2900 BC
Wondering why the Egyptians call that new thing a Sphinx becomes the first of the world's Seven Great Wonders.

1850 BC
Britons proclaim Operation Stonehenge a success. They've finally got those boulders arranged in a sufficiently meaningless pattern to confuse scientists and historians for centuries.

1785 BC
The first calendar, comprising a year with 354 days, is introduced by Babylonian scientists.

1768 BC
Babylonians realize something is wrong when winter begins in June.

776 BC
The world's first known money appears in Persia, immediately causing the world's first known counterfeiter to appear in Persia the next day.

410 BC
Rome ends the practice of throwing debtors into slavery, thus removing the biggest single obstacle to the development of the credit card.

404 BC
The Peloponnesian war has been going on for 27 years now because neither side can find a treaty writer who knows how to spell Peloponnesian.

214 BC
Tens of thousands of Chinese labour for a generation to build the 1,500 mile long Great Wall of China. And after all that, it still doesn't even keep the neighbour's dog out.

1 BC
Calendar manufacturers find themselves in total disagreement over what to call next year.

79 AD
Buying property in Pompeii turns out to have been a lousy real estate investment.

St Patrick introduces Christianity to Ireland, thereby giving the natives something interesting to fight about for the rest of their recorded history.

Leif Ericsson discovers America, but decides it's not worth mentioning.

Lady Godiva finds a means of demonstrating against high taxes that immediately makes everyone forget what she is demonstrating against.

Arabic numerals are introduced to Europe, enabling peasants to solve the most baffling problem that confronts them - how much tax do you owe on MMMDCCCLX lira when you're in the XXXVI percent bracket?

The Inquisition is set up to torture and kill anyone who disagrees with the Law of the Church. However, the practice is so unChristian that it is permitted to continue for only 600 years.

1456 - An English judge reviews Joan of Arc's case and cancels her death sentence. Unfortunately for her, she was put to death in 1431.

As a result of my questions and comments in posting 291, Sid kindly pointed me in the direction of the Independent Catholic News website. An article there describes how the British Province of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) has ‘decided to sell the Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the St Cuthbert Gospel to the British Library’.

It goes on to say that ‘the £9m sale price has been agreed with the advice of Christie’s’.

Father Kevin Fox said that ‘the British Library will ensure that the manuscript is available for people from around the world to view, either directly or online: ‘People will be able to see the Gospel set among the Library’s other treasures of the Christian faith and of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art.’’

As for the questions I asked about its provenance - they are answered, too. ‘The book passed into the hands of a private collector after 1540 when the Cathedral priory [at Durham] was dissolved. By the 18th century it was in the possession of the 3rd Earl of Lichfield, who gave the book to Canon Thomas Phillips. He in turn donated the book to the Society of Jesus in 1769; they have owned it ever since...

From 1979 the Gospel has been on loan to the British Library where it is regularly on public display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The British Library, as a national institution with outstanding expertise, is uniquely placed to house and conserve the Gospel.’

I found this article deeply unsettling. Firstly, because, in order to make the Jesuits look charitable, it is peddling a half-truth. The sale of the Cuthbert Gospel has only been ‘agreed‘ with the British Library if the Library can come up with the requisite £9m. If it can’t, it is my understanding that the Jesuits will sell the Gospel to the highest bidder.

All that stuff about everyone being able to see it in its proper and most appropriate setting is mere blather. They’re going to sell it - whether to the British Library or not. They want their pound of flesh. They just don’t want you to know that.

Even worse, though, is the fact that they’re selling it at all. After all, they did nothing to earn it. They didn’t even buy it themselves. It was given to them. Why can’t they conform to the teachings of the man whose name graces theirs and simply give it back? It would generate far better publicity than they’re getting at the moment.

I think, though, that I am being naive. To expect an organisation called the Society of Jesus to behave in such a generous, charitable and deeply Christian way is obviously expecting a little too much.

Our Grand Summer AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 24 August at the Tanfield Railway. It’s a great venue with lots to see, take photographs of and talk about.

And it offers a rare chance to meet Neville, who works there and who is the greatest living historian of British comedy I have ever met (but that’s only because I’ve never met Roy Hudd). His Norman Evans and Sir Stanley Unwin are to die for.

If you’ve never been before, why not screw your courage to the sticking-place and come along? Why not put your better judgment to one side and take the plunge? After all, what’s the worst that can happen?


So - be bloody, bold and resolute. Sweep aside all other considerations, like poverty and debt, and make your way to the Tanfield Railway. You won’t regret it. At least, not very much.

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In L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

(for ‘the story so far’, see postings 279, 280, 283, 286 and 288)

If I were to challenge you to come up with the names of, say, ten European rivers that were famous the world over, you would probably come up with something like….the Thames (naturally), the Severn (perhaps), the Seine (also naturally), the Rhine (definitely), the Rhone (if you want to stay on my good side), the Loire (probably), the Danube (longest of them all), the Tiber (because of Rome, of course), the Volga (at a pinch) and the Po (for its sheer sonority).

If you were being a tendentious patriotic smart-arse, you might choose the Tay or the Wye or the Shannon or even the Tweed. Less patriotic, but just as know-it-all, would be to choose the Elbe or even the Guadalquivir (on which stands Seville; that’s me being a know-it-all name-dropper).

I can guarantee, though, that you wouldn’t put the Sorgue on your list.

It has roughly the same proportions as the Gaunless or the Aln and flows as sweetly and almost as unnoticed in the great riverine scheme of things. It doesn’t crash down steep mountainsides in gushing torrents, it doesn’t feature in any waterfall-hunters Top Ten, it has no Olympic-standard rapids and even the fishing is barely average, or so I’m told.

Nevertheless, it’s quite definitely a river that I would include on my list - and I wager you would, too, if you’d been to Fontaine de Vaucluse as we did the next morning.

We left ‘sleepy old’ Apt as quickly as we could, stopping only to buy some obligatory candied fruit. The journey west and north was adorned here and there with temporary roadside stalls set up by local farmers at this time of year, each one groaning with cherries, apricots, peaches or nectarines. It made a change, I thought, from the carrots and cabbages I was used to seeing on such stalls in England. It was like being in a foreign country!

We were making our way to the part of Provence known as the Vaucluse, the ‘closed valley’, and as we approached Fontaine, I realised how it got its name. The river’s twists and turns became more and more extreme as the sheer rock faces that contained it closed in on both sides. Eventually, their tops became invisible to us as the gorge narrowed even more until, quite suddenly, we found ourselves at the closed end of this extraordinary and dramatic valley. Before us rose the foot-slopes of Mont Ventoux (‘mountain of winds’), which rises to over 1,900m (6,200ft) and is known as the ‘Giant of Provence’.
And nestling in its shadow is the small, gorge-girt town of Fontaine de Vaucluse, named for the feature which marks this area out as very special indeed.
A little to the north of the town rises the sheer cliff 240m (787 ft) high that closes off the valley.

The feature of the valley, though - celebrated throughout France and by cognoscenti elsewhere - is what goes on far, far below this rockface. For this is by far the biggest wellspring (‘fontaine’) in France. In fact, it’s the fifth largest spring in the world.

Its statistics are mind-boggling. Its average water-flow is 22 cubic metres a second, which often rises to over 110 after heavy snow-melt. That’s an average of 630 million cubic metres a year. Which is a lot of water gushing up out of the ground all at once - and all the time! Most of the rivers I am familiar with rise as teeny-weeny trickles on deserted upland moors - like our local ones, and even the mighty Thames, do - so the fontaine here comes as a bit of a shock.

But its volume and power are only half the story. It’s famous in caving and geological circles for its underground origins and dimensions, many of which remain a mystery even today.

It was only via images from an underwater camera robot (belonging to the splendidly-named Spelunking Society of Fontaine de Vaucluse) that its secrets were partially revealed in 1985. The camera sank to a depth of 308m - that’s all of 1,010ft below ground. And what it found there was even more staggering: a vast underground basin of at least 1,200sq m (1,300 sq yds) that collects the run-down water from Mont Ventoux and the nearby mountain of Lure.

And the fontaine is the only exit point for all that water as it’s pushed up to the surface from its deep and utterly mysterious underground basin. Which is why it gushes out so fiercely, as you can see.
And, when it surfaces, it does so as the River Sorgue. And that’s why, dear reader, I would feel compelled to include it in my Top Ten.

Fontaine de Vaucluse was a spellbinding place - but we still had a long way to go, including a long drive home to Beaujolais. And Serge had one more place he wanted me to see. It’s a lovely little town just a few miles downstream, originally built on a small island in the river - L’Isle sur la Sorgue.
It’s a smashing old place full of narrow lanes, weird shops, artists’ studios, and a very ancient basilica church three sizes too big for the town. It’s greatest charm, though, are the many canals into which the river has been divided as it flows through. These were used to turn waterwheels, some of which still survive, overgrown with moss and water-loving plants. They are extraordinarily picturesque, as you can see in the picture at the top.

The town was busy and the weather was very warm indeed. I decided to sit beside one of the newly-landscaped canals and watch the swans for an hour, coffee to hand. We watched the world pass us by as our Provencal holiday drew to a close.

Before we left for home, we checked that we had enough souvenirs of our time in this genuinely enchanting part of the world. Apart from candied fruit, that could only mean one thing: Rose de Provence, the best-kept wine secret in France. It’s as light, as gentle and as refreshing as Provence itself.

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Carrots...in Aarau (top) and Creances
In this blogposting...
*Murphy's Law and Peter's Awful Truths
*Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know
*Yet Another Numbers Trick

I’ve had a smashing email from Peter, in South Shields. He tells me that, due to a recent personal experience (about which he remains tantalisingly silent), he was reminded of the truth of Murphy’s Law; namely, that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

But he doesn’t leave it there - that would be so uncharacteristic of him, after all. Instead, he says he has researched the subject of ‘Murphydom’ (as he calls it) amongst his friends and family, as well as in books and on the internet, and has come up with a subsidiary list of Awful Truths - the ‘unavoidable and deeply regrettable facts of life for which we generally only have ourselves to blame’, as Peter succinctly puts it in his email.

I therefore proudly present to you Peter’s Awful Truths...

* Nothing is as easy as it looks.
* Everything takes longer than you think.
* If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most
damage will be the one to go wrong.
* Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.
* Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
* When things just can't get any worse, they will.
* Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it only makes it worse.
* A shortcut is the longest distance between two points.
* Once you open a can of worms, the only way to re-can them is to use a larger can.
* Negative expectations yield negative results. Positive expectations also yield negative results.
* You never find something until you’ve replaced it.
* When your cat has fallen asleep on your lap and looks utterly content and adorable you will suddenly have to go to the toilet.
* Anything that begins well, ends badly and anything that begins badly, ends worse.
* When all else fails, read the instructions.
* It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.
* No matter how much you do, you'll never do enough.
* What you don't do is always more important than what you do do.
* You can't tell how deep a puddle is until you step in it.
* The cream rises to the top. So does the scum.
* There are two types of people: those who divide people into two types, and those who don't.
* You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can NEVER fool your mother.
* No matter what goes wrong, there is always somebody who knew it would.
* The first place to look for anything is the last place you would expect to find it.
* You can always find what you're not looking for.
* If you don't care where you are, you aren’t lost.
* In order for something to become clean, something else must become dirty.

I love this list of Awful Truths so much that I’ve taken the liberty of adding two of my own:
* It’s always further than you think.
* The earlier you set out, the later you arrive.

Thanks very much for the list, Peter. They really are all true; and they really are all awful.

If anyone would like to add to Peter’s list, feel free. Just send me your Awful Truths in the usual way - see below.

Our next AGM will be the Summer Special - and once again, we will be gracing the Tanfield Railway with our presence. Please try to get there if you possibly can - at 1100 on Wednesday 24 August.

After all, you’ve had plenty of notice!

* A lake called Llyn Maelog, on the Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Mon), has been given ‘village green’ status.
* Women who want the best chance of conceiving have been advised to floss their teeth regularly.
* The maternal ancestors of polar bears were originally from Ireland, according to recent DNA research.
* The State of California has just passed a law defining what a hot-dog is, namely: 'a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in a casing, and which may be served on a bun or roll.' It has also decreed that a hot-dog may also be known as bologna, frank, frankfurter, garlic bologna, knockwurst, red hot, Vienna or wiener.
* There are 46 types of ladybird in Britain and gardeners can now order them by post.
* Cows have best friends within a herd and get stressed when parted from them.
* Turkey has by far the highest murder rate in the world.
* The Creances Carrot Festival (in France) will take place on Saturday 13 August. There will also be a Carrot Festival in Aarau, Switzerland, on Wednesday 2 November (see pictures above, from last year).
* Forty is the only number whose letters appear in alphabetical order.
* UNNOTICEABLY has all five vowels in reverse order.

Write down any number; for example...

Count up the number of even and odd digits, and the total number of digits:
10 5 15

String those together to make a new number, and perform the same operation on that:
1 4 5

And keep iterating:
1 2 3

You’ll always arrive at 123.

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I read this at The Guardian online yesterday; it’s worth a blogposting all to itself...

'A £9m appeal has been launched by the British Library to buy the oldest intact book in Europe, a palm-sized leather-bound copy of the gospels buried 1,300 years ago in the coffin of Saint Cuthbert.

The Cuthbert Gospel, on loan to the library since 1979, is regarded as of such importance that the National Heritage Memorial Fund has raided its reserves to offer a £4.5m grant, half the purchase price and the largest single acquisition grant in the library's history. The Art Fund and the Garfield Weston foundation have each promised £250,000.

If the appeal succeeds, the library has agreed that the Gospel will be displayed half the time in Durham Cathedral, where it was found with the body of the saint when his coffin was reopened in 1104.

The gospel is still in its original 7th century leather cover, which has survived in perfect condition.

It is believed to have been buried with St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne in 698, and survived the journey when the monks fled from Viking raids two centuries later, taking with them their treasures, the body of the Northumbrian saint, and sacred objects he had owned. After several stops, and more raids, the saint and his Gospel were buried in what became the great cathedral of Durham.

Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, described it as ‘an almost miraculous survival from the Anglo-Saxon period, a beautifully preserved window into a rich, sophisticated culture that flourished some four centuries before the Norman conquest.’'

I don’t really know where to start with this one.

I take some (perhaps misplaced) pride in the extent and depth of my knowledge of the north-east; indeed, that’s what got me my first broadcasting slot on the BBC on Paul’s Saturday show. Over several decades, I’ve absorbed information almost by osmosis - the area’s people, places, dialects, buildings, heroes (forgotten or otherwise), stories, myths and legends.

I’m not daft enough to claim pre-eminence in this respect. There are many, many other people who know a lot more than I do, as my time at the BBC showed me! I did, however, think that I knew enough to be able to say that, if the oldest intact book in Europe originated here, I would know about it.

And yet I didn’t know about it. This Guardian item came as a bolt from the blue. I’ve never heard of the Cuthbert Gospel. I’m not only ashamed of that fact; I’m puzzled by it, in exactly the same way that I didn’t know about the Zurburan paintings at Bishop Auckland until the Church Commissioners threatened to sell them.

If Europe’s oldest book originated on Lindisfarne and still exists, why have I - and, I imagine, a great many other people - never heard about it? If it’s been on loan to the British Library since 1979, why has it not been displayed in the north-east?

I love the British Library and have visited it twice. It is the essential custodian of many of England’s most valued, most historic and most important documents. But I sense a rather smug and arrogant attitude is being displayed here, just as it is with the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Library does not ‘promote’ items like these in its possession in case, I suspect, they engender a sense of local ownership and thus campaigns for their return.

We hear about them only when the Library needs cash to ‘save them for the nation’. Hence the offered trade-off; ‘give us money and we’ll let you display the Cuthbert Gospels in Durham Cathedral’.

Like many other local people, I have other concerns, too.

I don’t suppose we’re allowed to know who owns the Cuthbert Gospel at present but I’m anxious to find out why it is not in public ownership already.

And why is its owner being allowed to sell an item of such outstanding cultural significance - significant not just to north-east England or even to England generally but to the whole of Europe and thus to the world? Have we no laws (as, for example, the Greeks, Italians and French have) to prevent the potential loss, through export, of an item quite as priceless as this?

If we haven’t - why not?

It isn’t often that I seriously ask you to take whatever steps you can to make your voice heard in the wider world. But this is serious. The Cuthbert Gospel must be saved - and that’s not an easy thing to have to do in straitened times like these. Here’s a list of people you may care to email or write to. I’m sure you can think of others.

Your MP
The Prime Minister
The Queen
The Archbishop of Canterbury
The Bishop of Durham
Your local council
Lord Sugar
The Chairman of a big local company - Greggs, Fentimans...
Stephen Fry

If you’ve never done anything like this before, try it just this once. You never know; yours might be the email or letter that tips the balance.

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These stunning pictures all won awards at a recent wildlife photography competition. They show, from the top, American bald eagles, an African elephant, wildflower-covered hills in the USA's Saint Luis Obispo National Park, a green-crowned brilliant hummingbird confronting a green pit viper in Costa Rica, and an osprey in Norway.

In this blogposting…
*1,001 Buildings To See Before You Die
*Stranger Than Fiction
Go for it…

Time once again for the next ten ‘buildings you should see before you die’, as recommended in the lovely book I got for Christmas.

The buildings in the book are in chronological order. This list brings us up to 1429.

If you’ve seen any of them, or plan to, please get in touch. I’m delighted to say that, with numbers 81 and 86, my tally has gone up to fifteen!
81 - Royal Alcazar, Seville, Spain (above - the figure in the picture is my friend Kathy)
82 - Qutub Minar, Delhi, India
83 - Swayambunath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
84 - Temple of the Floating Stone, Yeongpung-gun, South Korea
85 - Jong-myo Shrine, Seoul, South Korea
86 - Golden Temple Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
87 - Trullo Stone Houses, Apulia, Italy
88 - Gur-i Emir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
89 - Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Beijing, China
90 - Hospital of the Innocents, Florence, Italy

National totals so far are:
Italy 18, France 7, Egypt 5, England 5, China 5, India 4, Spain 4, Ireland 3, South Korea 3, Syria 2, Croatia 2, Iraq 2, Japan 2, Uzbekistan 2, then 1 each for Afghanistan, Armenia, Cambodia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Isreal, Libya, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, USA, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

I was pleased indeed to see that the author of 1,001 Buildings To See Before You Die has included the Golden Temple Pavilion in Kyoto. Simply typing out its name has brought back some very special, and particularly vivid, memories for me.

The only long-haul journey I’ve ever made - the only time in my life, in fact, that I have ventured outside Europe - was in 1998,when I spent a momentous and unforgettable two weeks in Kyoto.

As you can probably imagine very well, it was an experience entirely outside anything I had known before. Even at the time, long-haul holiday destinations were not uncommon, except for me. ‘Ordinary’ people were already used to spending time in exotic places like Bali, India, Thailand and many others. But, until my adventure in Japan, the most exotic and far-flung place I had visited was Istanbul - which was, I thought, about as exotic as I was ever going to get.

Japan, though, was in a different league altogether. I had to lay to one side almost all of my preconceptions and prejudices - and especially my ‘cultural inheritance’ - and take on board a whole new raft of behavioural standards and social attitudes. It was all extremely ‘invigorating for the soul’, not to mention the taste-buds, and I’ve just spent a blissfully happy hour reading the travel journal I wrote about it at the time.

(You’ll have gathered that I like writing travel journals! Committing my memories and thoughts to paper is, for me, as important as taking photographs.)

I was surprised to discover, within a very short time of my arrival, that the concept which the Japanese seem to have perfected - and which ‘the West’ seems not to have even a basic grasp of - is ‘harmony’. In that stiflingly crowded country, you are never, ever very far from an oasis of meticulously planned calm and tranquillity - engendered and enhanced by what the Japanese consider to be ‘harmonious’.
And the most perfect example of this concept that I came across was the Golden Temple Pavilion.

I can do no better than quote the words I wrote in my travel journal at the time. I make no excuse or apology for the melodramatic nature of the language. What I wrote is exactly what I felt at the time…

‘Everyone loves, and can be deeply moved by, their first sight of a sensationally beautiful work of art. In my limited experience, I have felt awestruck on a number of very special occasions. Wells Cathedral, especially inside. Hunt’s The Scapegoat. Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Carreg Cennen Castle in South Wales. The Lady of Shalott. Durham Cathedral, of course.

To this charmed list - and up very near the top - I must now add Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple of Kyoto.

We walked along a short, curving path through the trees - and there it was. Three storeys high; only about 50 feet. About the same in width and depth, too. And with a ‘typical’ temple roof.

The top two storeys - and this is what first threatens to stop your heart beating - are covered with gold leaf. It shimmers. It seems to illuminate the day. It seems to make onlookers bronzed in their stupefaction. It is seriously unbelievable.

It stands on a platform which juts out into a small lake. The lake in turn is part of an incredibly well-manicured and elaborately-landscaped temple garden. The trees, the well-placed boulders and small, ornamental stone pagodas, the temple and its reflection in the still waters of the lake - none of it could conceivably be improved upon.

It impressed not with its grandeur or overwhelming splendour - part of the shock to the system made by a first view of Durham Cathedral - but by its deceptive simplicity and by the care and love with which it was born and nurtured daily by both man and nature.

It made me feel that I may never have confronted perfection before and may never do so again. It really did. I was enthralled. I was rooted to the spot. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say to Brian or Fukumoto-sensei. There were dozens of other visitors looking at it and they were as silent in stupefaction as I was.

As you may have gathered, I still find it inordinately difficult to describe how I was feeling then. I remember, though, feeling utterly helpless.

And I remember finding myself crying, probably with the awful thought that I would - sooner or later - have to turn away from it.

After a few moments, I realised that the Swedish lady standing near me was crying as unselfconsciously as I was. We looked at each other, smiled and hugged. What else can you do? We neither of us said a word.

I’m crying now.

Very, very slowly - after what seemed like several hours - I recovered and noticed that Brian, Fukumoto-sensei and her daughter Hiromi-san (who’d come with us for the day) had gone. Fukumoto-sensei had apparently suggested that they walk on and leave Ian-sensei in the peace and harmony of his thoughts.

I followed them along the lakeside path and then away into the trees. They were all talking, but I wasn’t really listening. In fact, I wasn’t listening at all…’

Kev has sent me these priceless gems which someone has gleaned from the newspapers…

Commenting on a complaint from a Mr Arthur Purdey about a large gas bill, a spokesman for North West Gas said, 'We agree it was rather high for the time of year. It's possible Mr Purdey has been charged for the gas used up during the explosion that destroyed his house.' 
(The Daily Telegraph)

Irish police are being handicapped in a search for a stolen van because they cannot issue a description. It's a Special Branch vehicle and they don't want the public to know what it looks like. 
(The Guardian) 

A young girl who was blown out to sea on a set of inflatable teeth was rescued by a man on an inflatable lobster. A coast guard spokesman commented, 'This sort of thing is all too common'. 

At the height of the gale, the harbourmaster radioed a coastguard and asked him to estimate the wind speed. The coastguard replied that he was sorry, but he didn't have a gauge. However, if it was any help, the wind had just blown his Land Rover off the cliff. 
( Aberdeen Evening Express) 

Mrs. Irene Graham of Thorpe Avenue , Boscombe, delighted the audience with her reminiscence of the German prisoner of war who was sent each week to do her garden. He was repatriated at the end of 1945, she recalled. 'He'd always seemed a nice friendly chap, but when the crocuses came up in the middle of our lawn in February 1946, they spelt out 'Heil Hitler.’'' 
( Bournemouth Evening Echo) 

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Not long for this world...
In this blogposting...
*Things That Will Disappear In Our Lifetime
Lead on, Macduff...

I recently received this thought-provoking list from Kev. His email (which I have edited slightly) begins…

‘Whether these changes are good or bad depends in part on how we adapt to them. But, ready or not, here they come…..’

1 The Post Office
Get ready to imagine a world without the post office. It is so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term. Email, TNT, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the Post Office alive. Most of your mail nowadays is junk mail and bills.

2 The Cheque
Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with cheques by 2018. It costs the financial system millions of pounds a year to process cheques. Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the cheque. This, in turn, will contribute to the death of the Post Office. If you never pay your bills by mail and never receive them by mail, the Post Office will go out of business.

3 The Newspaper

The younger generation simply doesn't read newspapers. They certainly don't subscribe to a daily delivered print edition, which may go the way of the milkman and the laundry man. As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it. The rise in mobile internet devices and e-readers has caused all the newspaper and magazine publishers to form an alliance. They have met with Apple, Amazon, and the major cellphone companies to develop a model for paid subscription services.

4 The Book
You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages of. I said the same thing about downloading music from iTunes. I wanted my hard copy CD. But I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music.

The same thing will happen with books. You can browse a bookstore online and even read a preview chapter before you buy. And the price is less than half that of a ‘real’ book. And think of the convenience! Once you start flicking your fingers on the screen instead of the book, you find that you are lost in the story, can't wait to see what happens next, and you forget that you're holding a gadget instead of a book.

5 The Landline Telephone
Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don't need a landline phone anymore. Most people keep it simply because they've always had it. But you are paying double charges for that extra service. All the cellphone companies will let you call customers using the same provider for no charge against your minutes.

6 Music
This is one of the saddest parts of the change story. The music industry is dying a slow death. This is not just because of illegal downloading. It's the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it. Greed and corruption is the problem. The record labels and the radio conglomerates are simply self-destructing. Over 40% of the music purchased today is ‘catalogue items’ - traditional music that the public is familiar with; older established artists. This is also true on the live concert circuit.

7 Television
Revenues to the networks are down dramatically. Not just because of the economy. People are watching tv and movies streamed from their computers. And they're playing games and doing lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching tv. For the most part, prime-time shows have degenerated to lower than the lowest common denominator - although some gems still are produced. 

8 The 'Things' That You Own
Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future. They may simply reside in ‘the cloud’. Today your computer has a hard drive where you store your pictures, music, movies, and documents. Your software is on a CD or DVD, and you can always re-install it if need be.

But all of that is changing. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all finishing up their latest ‘cloud services’. That means that when you turn on a computer, the internet will be built into the operating system. Windows, Google, and the Mac OS will be tied straight into the internet. If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud. If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud. And you may pay a monthly subscription fee to the cloud provider.

In this virtual world, you can access your music or your books or whatever from any laptop or handheld device. That's the good news. But will you actually own any of this ‘stuff or will it all be liable to disappear at any moment?

Will most of the things in our lives be disposable and whimsical?

It makes you want to run to the cupboard and pull out that photo album, grab a book from the shelf, or open up a CD case and pull out the insert.

9 Privacy
If there ever was a concept that we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy. That's gone already - a very long time ago. There are cameras on the street, in most of public buildings - and even in your computer and cellphone.

You can be sure that, 24/7, ‘They’ know who you are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinates and Google Street View. If you buy something, your habit is put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect those habits. ‘They’ will try to get you to buy something else. Again and again.

All we will have left that can't be changed will be memories….

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with Kev’s assessment of the future here, although personal privacy is assuredly a thing of the past and the writing is certainly on the wall for the Post Office and the cheque.

I’d like to know what you think. And is there any other aspect of our lives that you think is on its last legs?

Get in touch.

And thankyou, Kev.

Almost every family in England has been touched by the effects of Stroke, including my own. But the most pernicious damage it causes could sometimes be avoided if more people knew how to recognise the symptoms shown by someone who has had a stroke.

A friend of mine has sent me this copy of the latest advice given out by the experts. Please read it and try to remember it. It could mean the difference between life and death.

*Ask the individual to SMILE...

*Ask the person to TALK and SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE coherently - something like ‘It is sunny out today'.

*Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS

If he or she has trouble with ANY ONE of these tasks, dial 999 immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

*You could also ask the individual to STICK OUT THEIR TONGUE
If the tongue is 'crooked' - if it goes to one side or the other - that is also an indication of Stroke.

Thanks, Kathy.

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Hildie and the Iron Man

(For ‘the story so far’, see blogposts 279, 280, 283 and 286)

National symbols of one kind or another are usually ways of expressing affectionate satisfaction for the land of one’s fathers (and mothers) without tipping over into rabid, jingoistic xenophobia so beloved of The Daily Mail and its ilk ( - if that revolting organ does indeed have an ilk).

After all, it would be difficult for the patriotic heart to swell with nationalistic fervour when its national flower is knapweed (as it is in Germany), bear’s breech (the National Flower of Greece) or even plain old rice (which is the National Plant of Laos).
The National Flower of England - and also...er....

In England we are, of course, enamoured of the rose, which has been our National Flower since Tudor times, although I’m not entirely sure quite what Henry VIII would think if he knew that it was also the National Flower of Bulgaria, Slovakia, Cyprus, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Iran, the USA and Iraq - where the current conflict is therefore a tripartite Wars of the Roses on a truly 21st-century scale.

Wales shares its National Plant honours evenly between the daffodil and the leek (of all things), France goes for the lily (which replaced its heraldic cousin, the fleur-de-lys, after the Revolution), Switzerland and Austria, perhaps unsurprisingly, have chosen edelweiss whilst the noble tulip is claimed by the Netherlands (of course), Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey (where it originated).
The lovely Golden Wattle - National Tree of Australia

Trees, being inherently rather grand and imposing in themselves, feature strongly as national symbols - even appearing on the flags of particularly arboreal countries. Haiti’s features a palm tree and Sri Lanka’s has the leaves of a pipul tree (charmingly added to the flag in the 1980s because of its pacifist, Buddhist associations).

In this class, the two best known tree-flags must be Canada’s, which would seem positively naked without its maple leaf, and Lebanon’s - the name of whose National Tree is the only one I know of to mention the country itself, thus ‘returning the compliment’: the Cedar of Lebanon.
The Cedar of Lebanon - of Lebanon

It’s worth mentioning, in passing, that in researching this posting, I was delighted, nay flabbergasted, to discover that my most favourite tree of all - the amazing gingko - is one of the National Trees of South Korea.

Animals and birds feature strongly, too. When a government is feeling all soppy and sentimental - or when they want to sneak an unpopular measure into law - they adopt a native species as the ‘officially recognised’ symbol of the nation. (The only exception I could find to this rule of nativeness was England, whose National Animal is the Lion, a beast which has never set foot in England except in a zoo or a circus.)
The National Bird of England

The National Bird of the USA, for example, is the Bald Eagle, whose status as such has not helped its survival; it’s been hunted almost to extinction in the country that is supposed to honour and treasure it.

The National Bird of France is the Cock (stop sniggering at the back). France has had to adopt a domesticated bird as its symbol because Frenchmen (and, presumably, women) regularly and frequently go out into the countryside and slaughter all the wild birds they can find. Hence, the only really safe French birds - albeit temporarily - are cooped up in the farmyard, being National Symbols for all they’re worth and keeping their feathers crossed.

I think, though, that it’s time to expand this harmless concept of national identity. I can see no reason why we can’t have National Insects; I would immediately nominate the Midgie for Scotland and the Wasp for England.

And we could boast of our National Food; Spotted Dick (or something thick with suet) for England, Paella for Spain, Sausages for Germany - though sadly not Swiss Rolls for Switzerland. My researches conclude that they were invented in the 1930s - in Denmark.

And it occurred to me, whilst I was enjoying my Provencal holiday, that some countries - well, alright, one country in particular - need a National Month. That country is France and its National Month, without any doubt at all, ought to be August.

As they are with many things, the French are fixated on August. It is so sacredly important to them that they elevate it almost out of conventional time. August is not a month like any other in France; it is….August, ‘mois d’aout’.

In August, the whole country seems to up sticks and move somewhere else for a while. Autoroutes are as crowded and as silent as car parks. The countryside and coast hold their collective breath for the shock invasion of motorhomes, caravans, tents, trailers with boats on them - and millions of Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens paying homage to August by all leaving the cities at the same time, going 20 kilometres or so and then stopping at the tail-end of an embouteillage - a French traffic jam. As with ordinary jams, the French do traffic jams like no other nation on Earth.
A pay-point on the 'autoroute de soleil' in August

The autoroute de soleil - the motorway from Paris to the south of France - runs within a few hundred metres of Serge’s house. Last August I spent many happy hours standing on the overbridge watching thousands of Parisians on the southbound side going absolutely nowhere at all. Later in August, you can watch them doing the same thing on the northbound side. And remember - French motorways are not free. They pay for this stifling purgatory!

Asking the French why they ALL persist in taking their holidays at almost exactly the same time is a risk that is frankly not worth taking. I’ve done it, and I know. They look at you as if you’ve just admitted to ritual necrophilia. It’s a look that combines total bewilderment with silent rage and is normally directed at anyone foolish enough to criticise French cuisine - or to ask why they all take their holidays at the same time, and often, in the same place.

Picture postcards of the beaches of the Cote d’Azure in August look very similar to those of Blackpool, Scarborough or Brighton - or even Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - in the 1950s. Countless indistinguishable bodies squeezed cheek by jowl on dirty sand in hazy, polluted sunshine.
August on the Cote d'Azure

How lucky it is that the French have no notion at all of ‘personal space’.

For outsiders, there are however two upsides to this ludicrous French obsession with August. Firstly, if you want to visit Paris, or almost any other city - go in August. They will be virtually empty of citizens and will, accordingly, look after you very well indeed.

Secondly - and most importantly for my Provencal holiday - the French never go anywhere except in August. So if you want to visit, for example, Provence - go at any time of the year you like except Sacred August. In either case, you will have your destination to yourself.

As we did visiting beautiful Provence in May…..

The mysterious 'Village des Bories'; Serge's blog says more about 'bories' (spepere.blogspot.com)

Much of this holiday diary is concerned with things I didn’t see as well as those I did. Not far from Gordes, for example, lies a well-known French ‘heritage site’ - the Village des Bories - which consists entirely of dry-stone buildings. They’re thought to be about 300 years old, are almost (but not quite) unique - and I didn’t see any of them. I suppose I’ll just have to go back a few more times.

We had seen our next destination from the hilltop at Gordes - this happens all the time in the Luberon; each hill and promontory is crowned with a seductive-looking village, visiting which leads on to the next and the next. In the this case, it was to Roussillon.
A corner of Roussillon

Roussillon is the reddest village I’ve ever seen. All the buildings are red and the very rock on which it sits is red-ochre sandstone (as you can see below). At first sight, it’s astonishing - and it stays astonishing for as long as you’re there. Narrow red lanes, red squares and terraces, red walls and red roofs.

We went for a wander, chose a suitably red fruit sundae and sat down to watch the officious, and highly inefficient, car park attendant exert her authority as only minor French officials can - by creating problems, failing to solve them and blaming everyone but herself. It was very enjoyable indeed.
The rock of Roussillon

It had been a long day. We had travelled from Le Vieux Cannet to Cadenet, Lourmarain, Bonnieux, Menerbes, Oppede le Vieux and Gordes to Roussillon. (What a truly elegant list of place-names that is! French is truly an awe-inspiring language.)

So even though Roussillon is locally famed for its cuisine, our overnight destination was calling us. I felt quite sad as we drove away and down into the valley behind the village - but not nearly as sad as I felt when we arrived at our destination.


The Lonely Planet Guide to France describes Apt as ‘sleepy’. I can think of at least a dozen other adjectives it could have used. ‘Nightmarish’, yes. ‘Sleepy’, no.

Many people expect the Market Place in Durham City to be the civic equivalent of the Cathedral and Castle on the hill and cannot be blamed for feeling let-down when they discover that it isn’t.

Apt is like that. It is the ‘capital’ of the Luberon, so my expectations were high. It is the world’s biggest producer of jam and candied fruit - both of which score highly on the list of people-friendly industries; more emotionally and aesthetically acceptable and satisfying than, say, shipbuilding or coal-mining.

And yet somehow, Apt contrives to be the Provencal equivalent of Walsall, Barnsley or Middlesbrough. It isn’t just bland; it is the only place I have ever visited that could be described as ‘perniciously dull’. It closes its psychological doors to natives and visitors alike. Even as early as 8 in the evening, everything was shut - cafes, restaurants, tobacconists, paper-shops, undertakers…

The walk from the hotel to the the town centre became more and more intimidating and somehow ‘unsettling’, as if we were on the deserted set of a 1930s French film-noir. A narrow, polluted and overgrown river cut through the scrappy town square where a few desultory locals sat outside the only open bar pretending to enjoy themselves. I half expected them to turn towards us like Provencal zombies and give pursuit.

It is impossible to adequately translate the word ‘creepy‘ into French, which is a very great pity. Because - notwithstanding all its candied fruit and confiture - that’s what Apt is.

Apt is creepy.


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