The man responsible for Wednesday
In this blogposting...
* Pancake Day
* Feedback
* Leap Year and all that
* Hildie’s Joke
* The Legs of Lyon
* Argentina
Go on - I dare you...

Did you celebrate Pancake Day?  How many did you get through?
(However often I visit France, I just can’t bring myself to call them crepes.)

I have to make an unpatriotic admission here.  Much though I love English pancakes, I very much prefer the 'Scotch' variety - ‘drop scones’.  My goodness.  So delicious that they ought to be illegal.  I managed 7.
My preferred option
(on the Comments box of posting 341)
That really is one of the most extraordinary trails of bad luck I’ve ever heard.  I’m afraid it’s perfectly obvious that there’s either something you’re not doing or something you’re doing wrong - although I can’t imagine what this can be.  You aren’t a member of some ungodly cult, are you?  Have you broken several mirrors recently?

I would take Sid’s advice, if I were you.  Make it your business to touch a lot of wood in the very near future.

I’m so glad I’m not the only one sentimental enough to maintain the magpie traditions of my youth.  Although it does mean, as you say, that we spend an unconscionable amount of time asking after the wellbeing of birds who couldn’t care less about ours (touch wood).

And I suppose - in a generous light - the superstition about bees could be seen as an early recognition of something we now know to be true:  that they are much cleverer than we might tend to give them credit for.

But....why is no-one prepared to come forward and admit to the collar-touching tradition of my younger, more innocent days?  Or did it only happen in Peterlee?  Surely not...


So frustratingly, though predictably, inexact is the Earth’s wayward orbit around the Sun that, every four years, the naked apes that swarm over its surface must needs add an extra day to ‘make up the numbers’.  If we didn’t do this, we would eventually end up celebrating Christmas in high summer (as the benighted folk of Australia already have to) and stripping down to our bikinis in mid-November.

Making every fourth year a day longer doesn’t quite do the trick either, of course.  This is because each ‘lunisolar’ year is slightly less than 365.25 days long and adding a day every four years would thus cause our distant descendants no end of inconvenience and confusion.

Which is why, if a year is divisible by 100, it isn’t a Leap Year unless it’s divisible by 400.  1900 wasn’t a Leap Year; 2000 was.

Even this isn’t precise.  Someone whose job I want has worked out that, in 8,000 years, the calendar will still be one day out of kilter.

Researching this bit of esoterica sent me up many pleasurable, calendar-related, cul-de-sacs.  Why, for example (I found myself asking), are days so unevenly distributed amongst the months of our Roman calendar?  Why are there so many months luxuriating with 31 days while poor, weak, palsy-stricken February has to make do with (usually) just 28?

As with so many aspects of civilisation (including, incredibly, the distance between the lines on almost all the world’s railways), the blame can be laid squarely at the door of the aforementioned Romans.

The Roman year began, sensibly, on March 1 and the months ran predictably and alternately with 31 then 30 days, which left lowly February - the last month of the Roman year - with 29 days (or 30 in a Leap Year).  The months from March still follow this pattern as far as July.

The Emperor Augustus changed all that though.  July had been named after Julius Caesar and Augustus wanted the following month - in the height of summer - named after him and to have 31 days, like July has.

Being disinclined to argue the point, the Emperor’s calendar-wallahs immediately changed everyone’s lives forever by adding an extra day to August and taking one off February.

That one man had the ultimate ego-massaging power to alter the calendar is incredible enough; that we still conform to his vainglorious edicts, even more so.


My tireless and selfless researches on this subject also unearthed this excellent titbit on Wikipedia...

La Bougie du Sapeur, first published in 1980, is a humorous French newspaper published every February 29 - that is, once every four years.  Its next edition will be on February 29, 2012.  There have been eight editions of this newspaper to date.

The newspaper's name (literally, ‘The Candle of the Sapper’) is derived from a comics character, the sapper Camember, created by Georges Colomb in the 1890s.  In the story, Camember was born on February 29; so, when recruited into the army, he was 'just five years old'...

The paper was founded by Jacques Debuisson and Christian Bailly. Its editor in chief is Jean d'Indy. Each edition is printed in 200,000 copies.

In 2004, the seventh edition was accompanied by a Sunday special designed to be published on every February 29 that falls on a Sunday - once every 28 years. The next edition of the Sunday special is scheduled to be published on Sunday, February 29, 2032.

Profits of the 2008 edition went to a charity devoted to autism.

It is possible to subscribe to this newspaper, 100 euros for an entire century.

How wonderful is that!

I will be in France on this upcoming Leap Day and will do everything in my limited power to obtain a copy of La Bougie du Sapeur on all our behalves.


Hildie sent me this recently - and I for one don’t blame her for wanting to be rid of it.

Tired of constantly being broke and stuck in an unhappy marriage, a young husband
decided to solve both problems by taking out a large insurance policy on his wife with himself as the beneficiary, and then arranging to have her killed.

A 'friend of a friend' put him in touch with a nefarious dark-side underworld figure who went by the name of 'Artie.'

Artie then explained to the husband that his going price for snuffing out a spouse was £5,000.

The husband said he was willing to pay that amount, but that he wouldn't have any cash on hand until he could collect his wife's insurance money.

Artie insisted on being paid at least something upfront, so the man opened his wallet, displaying the single £1 coin that rested inside.  Artie sighed, rolled his eyes, & reluctantly agreed to accept the £1 as down payment for the dirty deed.

A few days later, Artie followed the man's wife to the local Tesco Superstore. There, he surprised her in the produce department and proceeded to strangle her with his gloved hands.  And the poor unsuspecting woman drew her last breath and slumped to the floor........

The manager of the produce department stumbled unexpectedly onto the murder scene. Unwilling to leave any living witnesses behind, Artie had no choice but to strangle the produce manager as well.

However, unknown to Artie, the entire proceedings were captured by the hidden security cameras and observed by the store's security guard, who immediately called the police. Artie was caught and arrested before he could even leave the store.

Under intense questioning at the police station, Artie revealed the whole sordid plan, including his unusual financial arrangements with the hapless husband, who was also quickly arrested. 

The next day in the newspaper, the headline declared .... 

(You're going to hate me for this .... )



Modern sculpture is often rightly criticised for being needlessly inexplicable.  This one, though, needs no explanation.  It stands proudly outside the Opera House in Lyon.
I love it.


The next port-of-call on our worldwide geographical tour-de-force will be Argentina - the only country on Earth that’s been told not to cry.  As usual, I’ll be very grateful for any offbeat and unexpected information you can find or already know.  What do they eat there?  How do they insult each other?  What’s at Number One?  What are they really good at?

Send me an email....


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
Unlucky indoors - but why?
In this blogposting…
* Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know
* Warnings in Arabic
* Mister Magpie
Read and inwardly digest…

Travellers on France’s TGVs are given a free magazine to while away the few short hours of their journeys.  With inspiration bordering on pure Gallic genius, the magazine is called TGV Magazine and is about as boring as these things almost always are - full of adverts for fitted kitchens and memory-foam mattresses or cod interviews with obscure, third-rate actors or authors.

The only thing that held my attention in this month’s dreary edition was a page of Did You Knows.  We would have called it This Month In Figures; they called it Les insolites du mois en chiffres - and it gives an interesting insight into the kind of things that French magazine producers think will fascinate their readers.  Thus….

* 2.5km - the distance travelled by bike by every Danish person every day…
* 125 - the number of portions of beef eaten in the world every second…
* 5,126 euros - the price of a lump of turf sold at auction by a Bosnian supporter after a football match between Bosnia Herzegovina and Portugal…
* 20 tonnes - the weight of a boulder (below) deposited by the Mayor of Quebec outside the home of his ex-wife after an acrimonious divorce…

* 13.6C - the average temperature in France last year…
* 210 million - the number of cinema tickets sold in France last year…
* 2.5 kilos - the amount of Brazilian cocaine found by police at Rome airport hidden in the prosthetic breasts and buttocks of a 23-year old model…
* 10 years - the prison sentence handed down to a Californian man for sexually abusing a chihuahua dog…

So now you know what engrosses French travellers as they hurtle through the countryside at 180mph.

This frankly unbelievable picture and back-story were emailed to me recently.  Worth it for the joke, though…

A new fuel tanker arrives on location somewhere in the Middle East. . . . . .

The Health and Safety manager tells the fleet supervisor to ensure that the tanker is clearly labelled Diesel Fuel and No Smoking in Arabic.

This is what he got…………………..

I surprised myself the other day by saying Good Morning to a magpie.  It flapped across the garden and I found myself greeting it deferentially and respectfully, which is what you’re supposed to do with magpies.  And seeing a solitary magpie is, of course, the most appalling bad luck, which can only be neutralised by being very nice indeed to the magpie in question.

The custom is more widespread than I thought and its intensity varies, too.  A friend who was with me at the time, and who comes from Buckinghamshire, berated me for not being deferential enough.  Where he comes from, you have to say ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie - how’s the wife and kids?’

Folklorists have suggested that the ill-omens attached to solitary magpies exist because they mate for life; thus, to see a lone magpie is a sign of sorrow and ill-fortune.  This also goes some way to explaining the first line of the magpie nursery-rhyme - you know the one…

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told…

As far as I know, though, no-one who interests themselves in such things has come up with an explanation for three, four, five, six or seven.

A Blue Bus listener once called with a continuation of the rhyme up to ten, but I’ve forgotten what she said.  If you were paying more attention than me and know the chant beyond seven, please get in touch.

In other cultures, far and wide, the magpie’s reputation is as a thief.  Indeed, Rossini wrote an opera with that very title:  La gazza ladra - The Thieving Magpie.  I reckon it’s about time this unfortunate bird was rehabilitated.  I’ve always quite liked them.  It’s just a shame that, locally, everyone thinks you’re talking about a football team.  That really is bad luck.


It’s not just magpies, of course.  Many other creatures make their way through the world unknowingly bearing the burden of human superstition - humans being what they are.

From my own misspent youth I can remember the awful significance attached to cats.  Except that my memories seem to be at odds with everyone else’s.  In my great scheme of things, black cats were good luck and white cats, bad.  Most people’s recollections put them the other way round.

Not that I had much of a chance of testing the superstition; I can’t recall ever knowing anyone who actually owned a cat when I was young.  People just didn’t have them.

Bees - like magpies - also had to be treated with respect.  Many folk kept a hive and, when a beekeeper died, it was absolutely essential to formally tell the bees of his death. If you didn’t, they would abandon the hive forever.

My Nana could remember visiting a house where someone had just died and being told that his wife was out ‘telling the bees’.


How superstitions arise and persist, in all the various forms they take worldwide, is a subject worthy of a university degree.  At truckshunter level, though, I’m just happy that they do.

In fact, I’m now racking my brains to think of as many as I can from my misspent - and ill-informed - youth.

Was it hawthorn blossom that should never be brought into the house?

Was it rowan (below) that was effective against ill-will or the ‘evil eye’?

Was it lilies that should never be given in a bouquet?

Ah yes.  They’re flooding back now.

Never cross your knife and fork on the plate.

Always get out of bed onto your right foot.

If you spill salt, pick it up and throw it over your left shoulder.

Never put shoes on the table, and remember that new shoes always creak until they are paid for.

The question that arises with all these wayward beliefs is - why?  What is (or was) it about hawthorn that made it so unlucky indoors?  Why the no-shoes-on-the-table rule?

The superstition that strikes me as the most mysterious and inexplicable of all, though, is collar-touching.

If a funeral passed by, it was necessary to touch your collar.  In fact, you had to hold your collar between thumb and forefinger until you saw a four-legged animal.  What would happen to you if you didn’t wasn’t even worth contemplating.

Looking at it now, with all the supercilious wisdom and cynicism of maturity, I find the bizarre complexity of this superstition utterly unfathomable.  I can think of no folkloric explanation for it and the few people I’ve mentioned it to tend to look at me with a mixture of sympathy and fear.

But I know I’m not imagining it because I still do it.  No funeral cortege glides past me without my holding onto my collar as if my life depended on it (which it may well do, for all I know) and scanning the street for a dog or a cat.

So, if I’m touching my collar when you see me, just point me in the direction of a four-legged animal as quickly as you can.


Writing this blog about childish beliefs and superstitions has given me a great deal of pleasure - of the ‘glowing, warm memories’ kind.  If you can think of any superstitions I haven’t mentioned - and there must be dozens - please get in touch.

Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
Our carers were sitting at a different table
In this blogposting…
* La vie en France
* Hildie’s One-Liners
Proceed at your own risk…

Sometimes, things go wrong.  There’s no power on Earth that seems able to prevent this phenomenon; nether you nor anyone else can stop it.  You may lock your keys inside the house or not remember the name of your closest friend or run over the cat.  Things like this happen - they just do.

And they did last Thursday.  Having carefully selected an exciting new venue for our 31st AGM - artistic, aesthetic, cultural, uplifting and amusing - we arrived to find it shut.

At least, the ‘business-end’ of it was.  Although its craft- and card-shop was open, the Newcastle Art Centre had decided - entirely without consulting us - to close its cafe for ‘essential renovation’.  You may be assured that I have written to the highest authority in the land about this and am expecting the appropriate reply at any time.

This did not, of course, help us as we stood shivering in the street so we decided, in typically assertive, truckshunter, style to adopt a hastily concocted Plan B - namely, to repair to the nearby Milecastle pub, there to drown our sorrow and disappointment in inexpensive but delicious coffee.
The four horsepeople of the apocalypse
‘We’, on this occasion, was Hildie, Vivienne (whose birthday it is on February 22), Neville, Ellie (who, incredibly, has just turned 69) and me.

I have to say that the last-minute change of venue did not succeed in dampening our spirits one iota - not one jot or tittle.  For over two hours we were engaged in catch-up chat, anecdote and conversation which meandered through a worryingly large - and occasionally almost surreal - range of topics.
Ripe for a saucy caption, methinks...

It was good to see everyone again, but especially Ellie, who isn’t able to attend AGMs very often and who actually mislaid Grainger Market last time round.

As usual, the photos are courtesy of the wonderful Vivienne, who thinks that we should hold a future AGM at Gibside.  And I agree; we should.

I’ve just come back from a few days in Beaujolais.  While I was there, I took genuine delight in shivering theatrically and saying how much colder it was there than it was in England.  After two years, the habitual French smugness about how cold and wet England is begins to grate a little, which is why I smiled broadly as I watched them not coping very well with frost as deep as snow and Siberian winds icy-cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey ( - a phrase which I attempted to translate without any success at all - Le vent Siberien est souvent froid pour gele les boules d’un sange de cuivres).

As a matter of fact, by that time the month-long freeze was getting beyond mere inconvenience in Beaujolais.  It hadn’t got above zero for almost four weeks and Pépère told me how desperately worried the local wine-growers were.  The usual limit for vine survival is about ten days of freezing weather, so this year’s vintage may well be a poor one. 

If this happens, the local economy will suffer very badly indeed; most of the vignobles are co-operatives so everyone sinks in the same boat, which is enough to wipe the grin off any gloating Englishmen’s face.

I was grinning very widely indeed, though, as we made a winter trip west into the sparkling, ice-clear hills.  I know I’ve mentioned the comfortable beauty of the local countryside several times before; I never tire of it.  The low foothills, draped with vines and orchards, fold and heave and encourage the road to venture ever higher to the west and north - to the highest point in Beaujolais:  Mont St Rigaud, a pyramid peak which, at more than 1,010 m (3,300ft), is slightly higher than England’s highest mountain.

Our attempt to reach the summit was ‘hampered’ - to say the least - by snow-drifts.  At one point, our normally trusty Renault 407 threw all caution to the icy winds and performed a balletic skid 50ft down an ice- and snow-covered farm track and ended up facing in entirely the wrong direction.  We took this as a hint and continued our descent.  The peak will have to wait for finer, and less alarming, weather.

Beyond Mont St Rigaud - to the west - Beaujolais changes dramatically.
Beaujolais Vert from Mont St Rigaud - in better weather

Imagine the region as an upturned oval shape, like an upended rugby ball.  Draw a line down the middle.  To the right - the east - is the Beaujolais of wine (and other crops) that leads to the lush watermeadows of the Saône.  To the left is Beaujolais Vert, where the mountains are more rugged and the vines are generally replaced by deep, dark and endless forest.

This was my first trip through these remoter parts of the region and it was magical.  Tiny villages that almost didn’t exist and with mellifluous names that rolled off the tongue like snowflakes. Pépère took pictures of some of them for me….

French place-names are one of the recurring pleasures I enjoy each time I visit.  Naturally, I have my favourites - those that are hypnotically easy on the ear and tongue.  Aix-la-Chapelle, Lac d’Annecy, Thonons-les-Bains, Perouges…

And closer to home there’s Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne (where we often visit the mediaeval market), Romanèche-Thorins (which has one of the finest wine museums in all of France) and - my all-time favourite - St Symphorien d’Ancelles, which has nothing but its name.  St Symphorien d’Ancelles.  Lovely.


The more observant - and perhaps better-read - amongst you may have noticed, amongst the jumble of names in the collage above, the name of Clochemerle.  A couple of weeks ago, I accidentally discovered that the lovely hillside village of Vaux-en-Beaujolais was used as the setting for one of France's best-known and internationally most poplular comic stories.

Clochemerle was written in 1934 by Gabriel Chevallier and deals with the farcical consequences of the pompous mayor's plans to install a new urinal in the village square.

All I know about the story is its name - I can recall it's being a BBC tv serial many decades ago.  Well, I've now visited the village that inspired it and I've bought the book itself (in English) so that I can immerse myself in one man's crazy view of Beaujolais village life.

If you've read it - or can recall the tv series - please get in touch.


Unimaginable cold notwithstanding, I felt compelled to make my annual pilgrimage to Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris on the way home in order to pay my respects to Saint-Saëns.  So who am I to be sarky about French weirdness when there is something vaguely but unmistakably insane about an ageing Englishman listening to The Carnival of the Animals on his headphones in a deserted and freezing inner-city cemetery?


Things are improving in Beaujolais now, at last.  I’ll be returning next week for a few days and - fingers crossed - I won’t need to take my fingerless mitts, my longjohns or my Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady hot-water bottle.


Hildie recently emailed these one-liners to me.  Prepare yourselves…

A book just fell on my head.
I've only got my shelf to blame.

A man hit me with a pint of milk and a block of cheese.
How dairy!?

I'm giving up my job as a deep-sea diver.
Too much pressure.

I found a load of plasticine on my driveway.
I don't know what to make of it.


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting…
* The World - A Truckshunter Geography
Read and learn!

...will take place at 1100 tomorrow, Thursday 16 February, at the Newcastle Art Centre.  We’ve never been there before and it’s a venue worth seeing in its own right.

It’s just round the corner from Central Station; there’s a map in posting 337.

Be there or be nowhere.  A splendid time is guaranteed for all.


As I write, it is deepest, darkest February.  It’s cold and damp outside, the nights haven’t quite drawn out as far as we would all like and most of the trees in garden and woodland are still naked and shivering.  It’s the middle of winter and hedgehogs - with admirable good sense - are still slumbering, dreaming of sunshine and apples.

There couldn’t be a better time of the year for us to escape the coughs, colds and sneezes of an English February and betake ourselves - courtesy of our world tour - to the next, rather exotic, port of call.

We’re off to the Caribbean.

Picture it.

The Gulf of Mexico, bounded to the north by the USA, to the south by Guyana and Venezuela and to the east my central America - Mexico, Panama and the rest.  But they will have to wait their turn on our truckshunter tour.

Look instead at the vast expanse of the Gulf itself, dominated by the two big, bossy islands of Cuba and Hispaniola.  Scattered across the sea to their east and south are the myriad islands of the Caribbean West Indies.  Amongst them, where the Leeward Islands turn south like stepping stones towards Jamaica and Trinidad, lie our next hosts:  the twin islands that make up the independent Commonwealth State of Antigua and Barbuda, whose colourful and happy flag you see flying above.

At only 441sq km, this is the smallest country we have visited so far - smaller even than tiny Andorra.  Taken together, Antigua and Barbuda are still smaller than, say, Bedfordshire - although they could give Rutland a run for its money.

In fact, only a dozen or so member states of the UN are smaller.  And, as we stroll in the February sunshine along any one of its reputed 365 palm-fringed beaches, we can take comfort and reassurance from the fact that even bright little places like this have their part to play in the world.


French and Spanish settlers were the first Europeans to arrive here, in the wake of Christopher Columbus.  It was the Spanish who named the islands:  Antigua (say ant-eagre) is Spanish for ‘antique’ and Barbuda means ‘bearded’ - the native Arawak tribesmen, who’d been here for a thousand years, wore beards and, for some reason, this surprised the Spanish.   They were just as surprised on Barbados, which means the same thing.

The Spanish didn’t stay long, though.  They disliked the Arawaks and thought the islands were too difficult to exploit.  Their departure left the way open for the British, who established a colony here in 1677, a status it maintained until as recently as 1981, when it gained its independence and joined the Commonwealth.

The Queen is its Head of State, which must seem quite odd to many of its inhabitants.  As if to prove the point, Antigua and Barbuda has two National Anthems.  God Save the Queen is used only on specifically royal occasions; the one you’ll hear most often is Fair Antigua, We Salute Thee.

As usual, I’ve included the lyrics here.  But, just for a change, I’ve also added a link to YouTube so you can actually hear the tune and sing along if you want to.  And why not?


Fair Antigua and Barbuda
We thy sons and daughters stand,
Strong and firm in peace or danger
To safeguard our native land.
We commit ourselves to building
A true nation brave and free.
Ever striving ever seeking
Dwell in love and unity.

Raise the standard! Raise it boldly!
Answer now to duty's call
To the service of thy country,
Sparing nothing, giving all;
Gird your loins and join the battle
'Gainst fear, hate and poverty,
Each endeavouring, all achieving,
Live in peace where man is free.

God of nations, let Thy blessings
Fall upon this land of ours;
Rain and sunshine ever sending,
Fill her fields with crops and flowers;
We her children do implore Thee,
Give us strength, faith, loyalty,
Never failing, all enduring
To defend her liberty.

Just click on the link, or cut and paste it into your browser - then give it everything you’ve got.  Specially the bit about girding your loins.


At just 87,000, this little nation is out-populated by Hartlepool.  But, as we’ve found out already several times, even ‘insignificant‘ micro-organisms like Antigua and Barbuda have claims to fame on the world stage.

Who would have guessed, for example, that Antigua and Barbuda has the highest female-to-male ratio on Earth; 55.6% of the population is female - a questionable recommendation as far as I am concerned. 

Or that one of its strongest characteristics is its collective addiction to internet gambling - puzzling, perhaps, given that  island paradises like this have so much to tempt natives and visitors alike outside.
The Cathedral at St John's 
There’s the capital city, for a start.  St John’s isn’t very big - unsurprisingly - but it is dominated by its wonderful cathedral, a rare example of florid British colonial architecture.
English Harbour 
Or we could visit English Harbour, a carefully preserved colonial remnant and one of the biggest attractions on Antigua.  To get there, we could take the road known as Fig Tree Drive, said to be one of the prettiest roads in the Caribbean.  Here is how one TripAdvisor visitor described it…

'It might be long way round, but it's the prettier route to take to get to English Harbour. There are banana plantations and mango trees, amongst the rainforest. There is also a small art gallery, and some locals usually have a stand set up selling local produce, bananas and pineapples. worth the drive.'

With all those beaches, palms and mangos, you’d expect to have enough to do already - but you’d be wrong.  Although there are only three inhabited islands - including tiny Redonda (area - 1 sq mile, population - 11) - there are over 60 others to try out, including ones with names like Cinnamon, Exchange, Henry, Johnson, Kid, Lobster, Nanny, Rat and Wicked Will.

If that doesn’t appeal, you could climb Antigua’s highest ‘mountain’, Boggy Peak.  It wouldn’t take long, though.  It’s only about 400m high.

An Antiguan 'black pineapple'
So….relax after your hard day’s exploring and sunbathing, listen to the steel pan bands playing some local zouk music and sample the islands’ special delights:  duckanoo (a dessert made of cornmeal, coconut, spices and raw brown sugar) and black pineapple (longer and thinner than the regular kind).  Afterwards, ‘fire a grog’ (partake of some locally-brewed rum).
And, as you gaze out across the fine pink beaches and over the lapping shore, you might want to bear in mind two other comforting facts about this latest of our destinations.

Firstly, almost all of Barbuda’s population of 1,100 share 6 or so surnames and can trace their ancestry to a small group of slaves brought there in the 1600s.  (Slavery was abolished here in 1834.)

And secondly - just feel the ‘Britishness’ of it.  The Governor-General (the Queen’s representative) is called Dame Louise Agnetha Lake-Tack and the Prime Minister is Baldwin Winston Spencer - three British Prime Ministerial names in one!
Dame Louise Agnetha Lake-Tack and...
...Baldwin Winston Spencer

Antiguan and Barbudan websites end in .ag and the dialling code is 001268 - just in case you want to look for a hotel or something.

See you there…..


My thanks as usual to the truckshunters who fed me so much information about this fascinating little country.  Next time, we’re back amongst the big fish again - in Argentina.

Get to work!


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting...
* Regrets
* Birdsong in the Trenches
* Wildlife at the Zoo
Proceed at your own risk...

Our next tumultuous AGM - and yes, it’s the 31st - will take place this upcoming Thursday 16 February at 1100.

The venue is new to AGMs - the Newcastle Art Centre.  It’s at the town end of Westgate Road, almost opposite the Assembly Rooms.  There’s a map in posting 337.

The Art Centre is a lovely place.  At the front, it’s a shop selling all kinds of locally produced cards, gifts and crafts.  At the back, it’s an art gallery and small cafe, which spills out onto a sheltered, hidden courtyard, where a unique sculpture will watch our proceedings and make sure we all have a splendid time.

It’ll be nice to see you there, whoever you are.

The Life’s Lessons debacle has itself turned into one of Life’s Lessons:  Real life is far more inspirational than anything dreamed up on the internet.

As if to prove the point, a friend of mine has pointed me in the direction of an amazing new book.  Its author, Bronnie Ware, worked for many years in palliative care for the dying as well as in various hospices.  In her book, she records the commonest regrets people expressed in the their final few weeks of life - and they make illuminating and sobering reading.

They are...

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expected of me.”
This, she says, was the most common regret of all.  Most people had not honoured even half of their dreams.

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
She says that every male patient she nursed said something like this.  They had missed their children’s youth and the companionship of their partners.

“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
So many people, she says, suppressed their feelings in order to keep the peace with others - and regretted it bitterly.

“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Many people regretted letting golden friendships slip away over the years.

“I wish I’d let myself be happier.”
Many people, says Bronnie, did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.

As a list of ‘If Onlys’, this is surely about as heartbreaking and as near-the-bone as it’s possible to get.  Again and again, I’ve wondered if these sorrows and regrets of dying people are so common because they are built in to ‘the human condition’ and that, ultimately, most of us tend to live our lives in a way that leads us inevitably to express regrets like these.

I’ve thought about them so much that I’ve paraphrased them to make them into a kind of ‘code’ of the best advice available, handed down by the dying to the living...

Be true to yourself.  Resist the temptation to live your life according to others’ lights.

Don’t work so hard.

Try to express your feelings whenever you can.  Do not hide them.

Stay in touch with your friends and other people you value.

Be happy.

Nobody’s life is easy and some people’s lives are crowded with torment and pain of one kind or another.  Even so, I believe that, somewhere amidst life’s trickeries and disappointments - its problems and hurt - this thought-provoking Code has a place.

The recent rather dreary BBC drama Birdsong has prompted a discussion in the Letters column of The Guardian about whether there really was birdsong in the atrocious battlefields of the First World War.

A reader wrote...

‘My father, an Oxfordshire lad who joined up aged 15 in 1914, once broke his almost total silence about the Great War to tell me about the goldfinches he had seen feeding on a few remaining teasels, and the sound of their singing in the wasteland between the British and German trenches.’

Enough said.

This, also from a recent Guardian, is sobering, too.  But in an entirely different way.

You can take the animal out of the wild (though that's not to say you should). But you can't always take the wild out of the animal. Every once in a while, visitors to zoos get to see rather more of nature in the raw than they had perhaps bargained for.

It happened recently at Colchester zoo, when Ash, a nine-year-old female barn owl, flew into a window during a display and landed, dazed and unsteady, on a ledge in the lion enclosure – where one lion knocked her to the ground, and another ate her. ‘It was over in seconds,’ a visitor told the local paper. ‘People were horrified. Women and children were screaming. My little boy was in tears.’

Similar shock followed an incident at Chessington World of Adventures last May, when 20 shaken visitors saw a baby bearcat or binturong – cute doesn't do them justice – being summarily ripped apart by a pair of lions after it dropped into their cage from a tree.

A binturong or 'bearcat'
Abroad, visitors to Ankara zoo in Turkey last March watched a Bengal tiger kill a lion, ‘severing its jugular in a single stroke of the paw’, while others witnessed a fatal attack by Balou, a male Syrian brown bear, on Klara, a female, at Stralsund zoo in north Germany in 2009.
A Syrian brown bear
And visitors don't see everything: no one, for example, was there to observe the fatal scuffle at London zoo in May last year that led to the death of a seven-month-old baby gorilla, Tiny, at the hands of a new silverback male.

Zookeepers witness more – and are, sometimes, victims themselves. In Britain, three elephant keepers were killed by their charges in three different incidents in 2000 and 2001. In Caracas zoo in Venezuela in 2008, a student zookeeper was killed by a 10ft Burmese python, which then tried to swallow him.

The following year, a rare white tiger attacked and killed a keeper at Zion Wildlife Gardens in New Zealand, in front of eight foreign tourists.

And very occasionally, of course, visitors themselves can get hurt. That's rare, though: not all zoo inmates are like Santino, a 30-year-old male chimpanzee at Furuvik zoo in Sweden, who every morning for the past 11 years has collected a small pile of stones to lob at the hated human intruders. Fortunately, chimpanzees have really bad aim.

Wild animals are wild. Even (or maybe, sometimes, especially) in zoos.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on Santino’s side.

Incidentally, if you Google for an image of ‘Santino’, as I just did, this is what you get...

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Six insufferable French thugs
In this blogposting...
* L a vie en France / Life in France
* The World

My by-now regular and frequent visits to France are a constant reminder of how lucky I am.  I live in an age when travelling is easy, comfortable and comparatively inexpensive (although I appreciate that everything is relative).  Being retired means that I also have the time to indulge myself by booking the cheapest flights (or train trips, if I’m lucky), making the journeys and spending virtually as long as I like in Beaujolais.

So things could, as it were, be a lot worse.

Now that I’ve become fairly familiar with the ways of France and her people, I’m often asked about the differences that have unfolded over the last couple of years between life there and life here in England, especially as my contact is with ‘ordinary’ people in the French countryside rather than with snooty Parisians lurking at tourist traps.

And often, these requests are couched in terms of ‘comparisons’.  Is French food really better than ours?  (No)  Are the French as smug as the English think they are?  (No)  Do the French dislike the English as much as we think they do?  (No)

I have said before that making glib comparisons and stereotypes of this kind is both unhealthy and unhelpful - before (often) proceeding to do exactly that myself.  But, in all honesty, the best way I can answer questions about life in France compared to life in England is to say that they are simply different, just as you’d expect from two countries with such diverse histories and cultures.

Naturally, after two-years’-worth of regular toing and froing (French readers who use online translators will have a lot of trouble with that last phrase), I’ve come to better understand the more outstanding differences between the way we do things here and the way they do them there.

So, notwithstanding all my previous provisos about classifying and patronising whole groups of people, here are some of the differences that have made the biggest impression.

In France, they know how to drink ‘properly’, as it were.  Beaujolais - famed worldwide for its wine - is my second home and I’ve had lots of opportunities to watch local people enjoying a tipple.  And ‘enjoying’ seems to be the key word. 

In my experience, the French do not, generally speaking, binge-drink.  And even when they do, they don’t.  I have been to events where everyone has had an awful lot to drink and yet nobody seems ‘blind drunk’; everyone just seems to get happier and happier and then stop.  The results of alcohol indulgence seem to be pleasure, laughter and conversation; I have never seen anyone as hopelessly palatick as almost everyone is in Newcastle at weekends.

The French are not, of course, alone in this talent for harmless and joyful intoxication.  Being hopelessly and violently rat-arsed seems to be a peculiarly British - even English - phenomenon.

The concept of a ‘police force’ originated in England and has developed in a uniquely English way ever since.  As a nation-community, we have collectively consented that there should be a civil power with the authority to arrest us if we break the law.  And between us - the police and the population - we have decided that, for the most part, our police ought to be polite, approachable and unarmed.

I am reminded of the uniqueness of these arrangements every time I visit France, where the police are virtually a branch of the armed forces.  Rightly or (often) wrongly, their word is unarguable law and is handed down with the po-faced severity you would expect of unaccountable street-gangs.

Two years ago, Serge and I wanted to watch the Bastille Night fireworks in the local town - but the bridge across the river had been closed.  The roadway was barred by a police car. Two gendarmes, a man and a woman, were leaning on the bonnet chatting and laughing with each other while over a hundred angry and disappointed people stood helplessly on the wrong side of the river.

The gendarmes spoke only to each other.  No-one approached them to ask why the bridge was closed; everyone just stood helplessly around, seething.  The gendarmes were, of course, armed to the teeth.  And they were smoking.  And it was perfectly obvious that to go over and chat to them would have been perceived as high treason.

In France, you do not ask a policeman the time or the way to the station or if he would mind posing for a photo with the kids.  If you did, you would never be seen again.

Trains were invented in England, too, although you wouldn’t know it by travelling on them.
(Or perhaps you would - they are so slow and old.)

There are now over 3,500 miles of super-express train lines in Europe, of which precisely 72 are in England.  And we only have those because it’s the line that leads to the Channel Tunnel.  By 2015, Europe will be criss-crossed by over 5,000 miles of new, fast railway lines.  Which is, coincidentally, the year that work will only be starting on our second stretch of line, all 83 miles of it.

It’s almost a cliche to be so critical of Britain’s railways but the fact remains - they are old, outdated (by several decades), slow, crowded, uncomfortable and expensive.  I grind my figurative teeth with ill-concealed rage each time I board the TGV in Paris to be whisked south to Mâcon - a distance roughly equivalent to that between Newcastle and London but covered in less than half the time and in far greater comfort and style.

Somebody, somewhere, ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for allowing Britain to become such a railway laughing stock.

French business opening hours are a law unto themselves, which is to say that, French-style, there appears to be neither rhyme nor reason to them.

To support such an uncompromising assertion, here is an extract from a local Beaujolais guide-book.  It’s a list of visitable restaurants, with their opening times….

Les Platanes de Chenas
Jul-Aug:  daily.  Apr-Jun and May-Sept:  closed Tue and Wed.  Rest of the year:  evenings by reservation only

Le Cep
Closed Dec-Jan and on Mon and Tue at other times.

La Terrasse du Beaujolais
Closed Mon and every evening.  Also closed from early Dec and through Jan.

Anne de Beaujeu
Closed Sun afternoons, Mon and Tue lunch and most of Feb.

La Voisinee
Open mid-Jun-Aug lunch and dinner, then just weekends and holidays March-mid-Jun and Sept-mid-Dec.

Auberge de Clochemerle
Closed Tue and Wed and most of Aug.

La Grande
Closed Sat, Sun and Mon

Le Telegraphe
Closed Sun, Mon and Wed evening.

I could go on, but I won’t.  I think you’ve probably got the idea.

There are, of course, many other ways in which life in France differs markedly from life in England, and some of them make uncomfortable and even unpalatable reading for the English.  And, amongst many other things, it’s those differences to which I look forward every single time I visit.

Which I’ll be doing in a few hours.

Our next AGM will take place at Newcastle Art Centre, which is attached to a shop and gallery of the same name at the bottom of Westgate Road, more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.  There are tables outside as well as in and a surprisingly fine sculpture dominates proceedings.

For the terminally confused, here's a map.
If you’ve never been - go!

The AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 16 February.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

It will soon be time to make our next port-of-call.  So get your research and thinking caps on and send me any wayward or spooky information you can about Antigua and Barbuda.  Do your worst!

And a big Thankyou to everyone who already has!

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Regina Brett, aged....er......90
In this blogposting…
* Life’s Lessons
* Paper Sculptures

My inclusion of ‘Life’s Lessons’ in the last posting seems to have stirred up something of a proverbial hornet’s nest amongst the more critical - not to say restive - members of our sacred congregation.  (If you want to see the list - and if your computer operates like mine - all you need to do is scroll down the page you’re on now.)

You may already have seen from the Comments box that alarm-bells sounded as soon as the source of the list was revealed as a viral email.  Val’s researches quickly showed that Regina Brett is not 90 years old but, instead, a sprightly 55-year-old.  As you can see, she looks even younger.

Nor is she a wise old ‘daughter of the soil’; she’s a highly-paid US newspaper journalist who therefore makes considerable amounts of money from dreaming up ‘heartfelt’ lists like these.

But Val’s comments were not the only criticisms I received.  Others included:

‘Ian, you must be joking.  I thought you were immune from these sentimental internet musings…’
‘This list is preposterous drivel; Ian - you’ve let your guard down’
‘What’s next, Ian?  Pictures of puppies and kittens to make us all go ‘aaaaaahhhh’?’
‘Lots of the items on the list are not just mawkish and saccharine - they are unrealistic, unhelpful and untrue.’

That last comment came via email from Mike in Melbourne (he who contributes so much to our Truckshunter Geography), who was particularly agitated by the list, as you can tell.  He went on to say that, for many people whose lives are hard, unhappy and poverty-stricken, the list will read like a sick joke ‘dreamed up by a comfortable, middle-class white American lady with nothing to do but concoct lists like this’.

His email certainly made me look at the list in a new light - especially the comments he made about individual items included on it.  And I’m afraid he’s right.  Commands to ‘forgive everybody everything’ are not just unwise but immoral.  And the advice to ‘Yield’ is simply incomprehensible.  Being told that ‘you already have all you need’ will sound hollow to the millions of people who don’t.

On reflection, I still think that there’s a lot of ‘good sense’ in the list.  But basically, that’s all there is - self-evident truths about which it does no harm to be reminded occasionally - but surrounded, in this case, by sugared, and often meaningless, sentimental homilies.

I plead guilty to a general - and hopefully temporary - lack of sceptical good judgement and stand corrected.

Here is a picture of a puppy and a kitten.


And now for something much more up the Truckshunter Street, as it were.

A friend recently told me about some mysterious paper sculptures that started to appear anonymously in several of Edinburgh’s city libraries.  This was the first one…

It’s made entirely of paper and stands on a book of poetry.  The note left beside it read:
‘We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture….’

Soon afterwards, others began to appear with similarly uplifting and (in my view at least) articulate messages.

I love looking at them and hope you do, too.
Thanks, John.

It’s time to start planning for the first AGM of 2012.  Hildie has suggested a new venue, namely the cafe in Newcastle Art Centre.  It’s attached to a shop and gallery of the same name at the bottom of Westgate Road, more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.  It’s lovely there, there are tables outside as well as in ( - you never know - ) and a surprisingly fine sculpture dominates proceedings.

If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat.

The AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 16 February and a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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