This is the view from Brian's kitchen window in London.  Observe the tiny figure just to the left of the narcissi; it's a solar-powered Queen.  Each morning, she welcomes Brian by waving and wiggling her bum.  She was a Christmas present from Hildie and Brian loves her very much indeed...
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My old friend Brian has sent me a cutting from London’s Evening Standard.  It’s a letter sent in by a genius called Aubrey Bailey, who deserves a medal the size of a very, very big frying pan.

It’s headed Clear As Mud….

‘Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East?  Let me explain.

We support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State - but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we like.

We don’t like President Assad in Syria.  We support the fight against him - but we don’t support IS, which is also fighting against him.

We don’t like Iran but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.  So...some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, who we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.

If the people we want to defeat are defeated, they might  be replaced by people we like even less.

And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.

Do you understand now?'


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I’ve also received this beautiful viral email from Eric and Jean, who run the Commercial in Tantobie.

'About six miles from Maastricht, in the Netherlands, lie buried 8,301 American soldiers who died in ‘Operation Market Garden’ in the battles to liberate Holland in the autumn and winter of 1944-5.

Every one of the men buried in the cemetery, as well as those in the Canadian and British military cemeteries, has been adopted by a Dutch family who mind the grave, decorate it, and keep alive the memory of the soldier they have adopted.  It is even the custom to keep a portrait of ‘their’ soldier in a place of honour in their home.

Annually, on Liberation Day, memorial services are held for ‘the men who died to liberate Holland’. The day concludes with a concert.  The final piece is always Il Silenzio, a memorial piece commissioned by the Dutch and first played in 1965 on the 20th anniversary of Holland's liberation.

It has been the concluding piece of the memorial concert ever since. This year the soloist was a 13-year-old Dutch girl, Melissa Venema, backed by André Rieu and his orchestra (the Royal Orchestra of the Netherlands).  This beautiful concert piece was composed by Italian composer Nino Rossi.'

You can watch it by clicking on the link below, or by cutting and pasting the link into the Search box of your Browser.


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Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 26 February in Newcastle.  And not before time.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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My favourite way of getting to France is overland, by train.  Others might find an 8-hour train journey, with two changes, a bit daunting but I love trains so much that, if a choice was always available, I would go everywhere - anywhere - by train.  In truth, one of the things that makes flying to Lyon from Edinburgh so attractive is the rail journey up the coastline from Newcastle (and the tram ride into Lyon at the other end, naturally).

An unexpected bonus on my outward journey this time was a chance meeting with Celia Imrie (no less) on Eurostar.  She is a splendid - and strikingly beautiful - lady and is graciously used to star-struck reactions of the sort she got from me. 

Her on-air presence is unmistakeable; although she’s best known for her role as Miss Babs with Victoria Wood in Acorn Antiqes, I last heard her on Radio 4 as Aunt Lilly in the very best comedy show that Radio 4 has broadcast for decades - Bleak Expectations.  I loved her all-too-brief appearances in it and told her so.

She was on her way to Nice to finish writing her first novel.  It’s called Not Quite Nice, it’s out next month and I’ll be buying a copy.  So will you, if you know what's good for you.

I think I’m in love...
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Life in France is sliding back to a semblance of normality now - although, as I’ve discovered, some things will never be the same again after Charlie Hebdo.  Already, worrying stories are emerging of Muslim schoolkids who refused en masse to honour the ‘national silence’ a week ago; of their attacks on the kids who did; of ‘copycat’ robberies in supermarkets by masked Muslims oathing vengeance like the Charlie Hebdo murderers.

There have already been masked Muslim personal reprisal attacks, too.  So, ‘to be on the safe side’, most people have removed their Je Suis Charlie posters and banners from view.  You can’t be too careful...

The only public Je Suis Charlie banner I've seen in 6 days.  
It adorns a building on the Place Bellecour, Lyon's grand central square.

It’s not over yet by any means, especially here in rural France, away from the Parisian news spotlights....
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And so to Lyon again - one of my favourite places on the planet.  And this time, it had an extravagant new surprise for me.

Lyon lies at the confluence of two of France’s greatest rivers - the Saône and the Rhône - and a shiny new museum has just opened on the spit of land where the rivers meet; the Musée des Confluences (naturally).

It’s an astonishing experience, outside as well as in.... 
Weird or what.
(It's the architecture I'm talking about...)
This is the new tram-bridge outside the Museum.
Lyon's trams have cowl-shaped ends so that they look like giant silkworms - a deliberate acknowledgment of the importance of silk manufacture in mediaeval Lyon.

The floridly extravagant lobby of the new museum.
It's been heavily criticised, even by lovers of modern architecture.
Personally...I loved it the moment I walked in.

As for the museum's contents...well, they're harder to 'pin down' and make serious judgments about.
There are culture-based artifacts like this small army of buddhas...
 ....to these Polynesian head-dresses...

...and these terrifying Pacific Island masks

There are examples of more modern human ingenuity, too.
This is a Jacquard loom.  Its introduction caused riots amongst Lyon's weavers - they threw their clogs at it to mess up its internal workings.  The French for 'clog' is sabot - which is why such actions are called 'sabotage'.

The rest of the museum seems to consist of artistically-presented examples of systematic cruelty, though.  Stuffed birds, mounted butterflies and moths...
 ...including this sadly thought-provoking display...
 ...and this jungle of dead antelope...

There's also a mammoth's skeleton, of which this is my favourite view...
I love you, too

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And I can't leave France without saying a very, very big MERCI to Ludo, his wife Vero ('Mam') and their son Julien ('Juju') for giving Serge and me such an unforgettable day yesterday.  In return for the home-made jams I gave them - courtesy of my brother and his wife - I was given a bottle of St Germain elderflower liqueur.  

Fair do's. 
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 This image was grabbed from French tv's helicopter coverage of the Paris demonstration.
The centre is a mass of people slowly moving towards Place de la Republique, just off the top of the picture.  The stone, cenotaph-like structure in the middle is the Porte St Denis, one of the ancient gateways in to Paris.  The flat I stay in when I'm in Paris is in shot, just to the left of the Porte.

This picture, and the one below, is of Place des Terreaux in beautiful Lyon later on Sunday.  Again, it is crammed with people - 350,000 of them packed into the city centre.  Lyon's art gallery is on the left.  Ironically, the floodlit fountain on the right was designed by the same man who designed the Statue of Liberty.
My amazing friend...
...and his home-grown solidarity
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Two weeks have passed since the murderous atrocities in Paris and already the cause of ultimate freedom of expression seems to have been lost. 

It didn’t take long at all for the world’s politicians to hijack the popular mass surge of sorrow, protest and quiet horror in France and shape it to their pernicious ends by identifying with its sentiments in favour of free speech and against murder and violence.  This was specially evident at the breathtakingly moving public march in Paris three days after the first murders.

There in the crowd, waving and smiling, was Isreal’s Benjamin Netanyahu.  His vigorous pro-peace stance must must have interested the many Palestinians sitting in the rubble of their homes, mourning the loss of friends and family.

The callous and almost unimaginably cruel regime of Saudi Arabia was represented on the march in Paris, too.  Raif Badawi will have appreciated that.  He has recently been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for publishing a liberal website.

The Russian foreign minister was there, too.  Russia still habitually arrests and jails anyone who voices criticism of Vladimir Putin, in writing, cartoon, song or street protest.

Egypt’s government has jailed Al Jazeera journalists who have been rude about them - but that didn’t stop the Egyptian foreign minister from marching in favour of freedom of expression.  Je suis Charlie mais je ne suis pas Al Jazeera.

There really is no depth to which these shameless and cruel people will not sink.  Their mephitic presence besmirched what was otherwise an emotional and deeply-felt popular protest of defiance and determination.  They happily and hypocritically joined a protest which they would almost certainly have banned in their own countries.

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The cause is lost in other ways, too.

Already, mealy-mouthed pundits are giving voice to their sickening appeasement throughout the media.  We’re being told that people’s ‘sincerely-held religious beliefs’ should never be ridiculed, that the Parisian cartoonists should not have been surprised by the Muslim attack last week - and even, from some quarters, that they ‘kind of’ got what they deserved.

Self-censorship is in full swing.  Although Charlie Hebdo’s satirical images of Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism and even Buddhism have been shown by the media, no-one has put their head above the parapet and shown the abusive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, whose murderous thugs have thus achieved their aim.

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo - an openly anti-religious magazine - described themselves as ‘addicted to the pleasure of displeasing’.  No institution, however lofty, self-satisfied or even sacred, should be beyond pillory, satire and ridicule.
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There is one final, and much more personal, aspect to all this.

Islam is the most viciously and vindictively homophobic religion on Earth.  Many of the ‘moderate’ Muslims with whom I come into daily contact would quite happily stand by and watch me get stoned to death or beheaded for being gay.  Given a free hand and a mask, they would probably take part themselves.

For many, many gay men, the very idea of a ‘moderate Muslim’ is as ludicrous as the notion of a ‘moderate Nazi’.
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Serge est Charlie
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Hildie and her daughter Kel - my favourite souvenir photograph of Hildie's birthday

Last week - on January 8, to be exact - we gathered in Dipton to celebrate Hildie’s birthday.  Sensibly, I didn’t make a note of the names of everyone who attended and I couldn’t remember all of them afterwards.  So I had to ask the Birthday Girl herself to send me a list….

* Mary Tweddle (Hildie’s sister)
* Kelly  Flood (Hildie’s daughter, who travelled up from Manchester)
And Hildie’s friends...
* Liz  Page
* Ann  Magee
* Trish  Fagan
* Margaret  Perryman and
* Doris  Reay

I’m delighted to say that there were three visiting truckshunters, too.
* Dave Shannon
* Vivienne  Mitchinson
and, of course, yours truly.

This impressive turnout meant that the house was full and happy.  I was full and happy, too, because the food was almost all home-made and quite extraordinarily delicious. 

There were Christmas crackers with paper hats, virtually pointless favours and really, really awful jokes.

One of my most fondly-remembered highlights, though, is the lengths to which Hildie’s sister Mary went to get the perfect photograph - which is what she’s doing here….

And this is the result…

A very big Thankyou to everyone for giving Hildie such a great party!
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At the party, Vivienne showed me what must be a highly unusual personal memento.  It’s an old postcard of Bede Burn Road in Jarrow; the sort of postcard that local historians bankrupt themselves to obtain these days.

It features houses, cars, a bus and four young lasses on the pavement.  The one in the middle at the front is Vivienne herself. 

She hasn’t changed a bit, has she?
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And Dave mentioned a poem I once read out, at his request, on the Nightshift.  It’s called Snowflakes and was written by the heroically-named Mary Mapes Dodge.  And here it is…

Whenever a snowflake leaves the sky,   
It turns and turns to say ‘Good-bye!   
Good-bye, dear clouds, so cool and gray!’
Then lightly travels on its way.   

And when a snowflake finds a tree,
‘Good-day!’ it says, ‘Good-day to thee!   
Thou art so bare and lonely, dear,   
I’ll rest and call my comrades here.’   

But when a snowflake, brave and meek,   
Lights on a rosy maiden’s cheek
It starts. ‘How warm and soft the day!   
‘T is summer!’—and it melts away.

Isn’t it nice?   
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Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 26 February in Newcastle.

I’m looking forward to it already because a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
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But before we finally say Goodbye to 2014...

These pictures from Europe have been chosen by a photographers' website as the very best of 2014; there is a photo from most of the member states of the European Union.


General Patton looks out over his men

 'Clean Monday' in Cyprus

 Spain (Menorca)

 Bruges, in Belgium


Wouldn't you know it!

Krka National Park

 Norway (on the left) and Sweden



A sheep path

A sand-sculpture

 A coastal abyss in Portugal

Light pillars

 Dawn over Poland


(where this 5,500-year-old wooden axe was dug up)



(where this 3,000-year-old chariot was dug up)

The Christmas tree is built of logs

Beaver-damaged trees
The Helsinki 'beer floating' festival

A flyover for cyclists

Czech Republic
The Prachov Rock Stairs

A (modern) underwater sculpture of Jesus

Unfortunately, the photo chosen to represent the UK - a picture of the Northern Lights over Newcastle - turned out to be a fake.
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