Cyathea dealbata, also known as the 'silver tree fern' or simply as 'silver fern'...
...and a 'koru', an unfolding frond

It was exactly two years ago today that I caught my first sight of New Zealand; my flight from Sydney descended slowly and gently over the Southern Alps, which seemed to extend infinitely in all directions as far as the eye could see.  Young, jagged snow-lidded peaks cut by steep-sided gorges and valleys.  The sight of the mountains and fjords - and the thought that they were going to be my adventure playground for the next 15 days - quite took my breath away.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the best two weeks of my adult life were about to begin.  But that’s another story...

The following day, as I set off to explore the wonders of this amazing country in my campervan, I quickly realised that a parliamentary election was underway.  There as here, big ugly hoardings adorned with oversized photoshopped pictures of middle-aged politicians proclaiming empty slogans lined the roadsides and gratuitously blocked far too many of the views from my campervan windows as I drove along.

And there as here (again), there were endless vapid interviews on New Zealand radio with would-be MPs promising the Earth in return for the power to make decisions and control other people’s lives - ever the goal for such weasel-worded tributes to vanity.

As I listened - and chatted to the people I met - one subject seemed to crop up time and again.  The identity of New Zealand itself.  How best (they were debating) should a young and vigorous nation - which had long outgrown its dependence on the ‘Mother Country’ and had demonstrated its muscular individuality many times - represent itself to its own citizens, as well as to the rest of the world?

And now, two years later - and as you may have heard - one of the debating points I remember hearing about has surfaced.  What’s to become of the National Flag?

Just to remind you - here’s what it looks like now...
Many New Zealanders have problems with this design.  The inclusion of the British Union Flag seems outdated and inappropriate for a country that 'flew the nest' decades ago - and which, coincidentally, lies about as far away from Britain as it's possible to get.

The four stars of the Southern Cross are acceptable enough - except that, with the 'union jack' in the corner, they make the flag difficult to distinguish from that of Australia.  This fact alone is enough to give New Zealanders nationalistic palpitations, such is the (often unfriendly) rivalry between them.

All of which has prompted the new government to fulfill one of its electoral pledges; to invite New Zealanders to submit designs for a new National Flag.

And they have - with a vengeance.  After all, how often do a country’s citizens get the opportunity to take part in something as momentous as this?

Hundreds of designs have been submitted; and they’ve featured everything from laser-eyed kiwis to cartoon rugby balls - rugby being the official state religion in those parts, of course.  In due course, the inevitable government committee whittled them down to a long-list of 39.  Namely...

If you’re lucky, you should be able to see that certain ‘themes’ predominate in the chosen designs - specially the Silver Tree Fern frond which New Zealand has adopted as its (so far) unofficial logo.  It’s good to see quite a few korus there as well.  The ferns themselves are unique to the country and some of its surrounding islands and grow everywhere - and to spectacular, tree-like proportions.

The most impressive use of the frond design I saw when I was there was on an Air New Zealand aircraft, which was painted black end-to-end with a Silver Fern frond painted white along the side.  It looked very, very lovely.

So...the government’s flag committee got to work and whittled their long list down to four contenders.  Which means they rejected a couple of my favourites...

Although it's far too similar to the current flag, I think this design is terrific.  If they don't want it, I'll have it...
Here are the final four...

In common with most New Zealanders, I was a bit disappointed by the selection on offer.  They’re all perfectly acceptable, of course - but a bit ‘dull’ compared with many of the rejected designs.  Such has been the outcry there that the Prime Minister has agreed to add another design to the shortlist:  the so-called Red Peak....

And there you have it.  What do you think?

If all goes according to plan next May, the people of New Zealand will vote in a referendum to decide which flag to adopt and - so far, at least - they’ve been assured that the vote will be binding and final.  Whichever flag wins will be formally adopted as the symbol of New Zealand to the world outside.

As liberating and as democratically inclusive as this process is, though, I have one minor regret about it all.

While I was there, I saw this flag flying in many places - specially on North Island...

But it can’t be used as the country’s new flag - because it’s already been ‘taken’ (as it were).  This striking and evocative design is the National Flag of New Zealand’s Maori people.  And I reckon it's the best of the lot.
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News that the myopic buffoons at TF1 have shot themselves in their collective French feet by dispensing with the winsome services of Claire Chazal (see above, posting 573) - one of their country’s (comparatively few) trésors nationals - has brought back many happily wayward memories for me, as well it might.  Since her inexplicable dismissal was announced, I’ve realised she’s by no means the only aspect of life in France that my ageing mind has dredged up since my regular visits there withered and died a few months ago, and all of which I miss terribly.

O les souvenirs….

Awful.  Truly, truly awful.  Shallow, glitzy, superficial pap.  It’s only when you watch foreign tv generally, and French tv in particular, that you value the BBC, which God defend and preserve.

The ONLY exception to this rule was the wonderful Mme Chazal and now even she isn’t around to redeem French tv from its skewbald slime.

...which is so unutterably bland that it may as well not exist at all.  It’s not even worth ignoring.

Bars, banks, shops, offices, museums and galleries will offer you what passes for a welcome in France - except when you actually want to make the most use of them, at which times they lock the doors, pull down the shutters, fold their arms resolutely across their Gallic chests, show the palms of their hands and utter a volubly silent Non!

Do not seek to do anything meaningful or rewarding between about 1130 and 1430 or after about 1800 on weekdays - or at any time at all on Sundays - because most avenues of pleasurable activity, regarded as normal everywhere else in the universe, will be closed to you.

There are pockets of rebellion.  Some shops in Paris and other large cities stay open all day (except on Sundays) and in areas with heavy English expat populations (like the Dordogne), some supermarkets open for about 20 minutes at dawn on Sunday mornings to keep incomers supplied with porridge oats, instant coffee and lard.

As if to compensate for this weakness, though, the charmless opening (ie closing) hours of French businesses are slowly creeping into Mondays, too.  Attention! 

Parisian drivers either charge around like frenzied demons (because there appear to be only 37 parking places in a city of 100,000 drivers) or don’t move at all for hours and hours (specially on the notorious péripherique, Paris’s laughable ring-road, on which traffic can remain motionless for geological aeons; fossilised Renault 5s have been unearthed below the dinosaur strata).

Such is the shortage of parking spaces that, as is well-known, Parisians street-park with the handbrake off so that their vehicles can be shuffled forward and backward by newcomers who want to increase the available space from a few inches to eight feet.  I have seen this done - it’s why all French cars are designed with BIG bumpers.

Speaking of which….I am perpetually puzzled at the rarity of Citroën 2CVs.  (Be careful not to pronounce it ‘Englishly’.  It’s not ‘sit-run’, it’s ‘sit-ro-en’.)  You’d expect the natives to cling proudly to their 2CVs in defiance of common-sense but, disappointingly, they don’t.  Come to think of it, you don’t see many Citroën (‘sit-ro-en’) DS19s either - that’s the sleek, arrow-shaped beauty that Maigret used to drive on black-and-white tv years ago, and which won a Gold Medal as one of the 20th century’s best designs of anything.  See the sexy streamlined sleekness in the photo above.

The vintage car craze is a lot less crazy there than it is here.  You’re much more likely to see a 2CV in this septic isle than you are in the country of its birth.  It is, after all, a balsawood frame clad in what may as well be aluminium foil, with added wheels and an impossibly tricky gear-change.

To be honest, drivers outside Paris are usually terribly polite, even when they are extremely drunk (which they very often are).  Everyone gives way to everyone else, traffic stops when you’re waiting to use a zebra crossing (which the French call a passage clouté - a ‘studded crossing’ - although it would be much more fun as a passage zebrè with balises bélichas), nobody jumps red lights or parks where they shouldn’t.

All they need to do is fit their cars with indicators and the job’s done.

The French language is the linguistic equivalent of Durham Cathedral or Edinburgh’s entire city centre - undeniably and unignorably magnificent.  I have, quite literally, sat and just listened to it for hours on end.  It flows like a silver river and is as musical and as expressive as birdsong (on the one hand) and some phantasmagoria dreamed up by Berlioz (on the other).  It lilts and sways, rises and falls, like the countryside in which it’s spoken - they’re a perfect match.

It contrives to be the best language on Earth to have a flaming row in and to make love in.  Occasionally - this being France - at the same time.

France has not had a good year so far - and it’s only September.  Its people have had to sustain the shock of brutal and frightening terrorist attacks, a shaky economy, rumbling public discontent and an ever-flowing tide of peculiarly nasty racism and anti-Semitism.

On several occasions, it has only been their deep-seated belief in the eventual goodness of all things French that has rescued them.  After Charlie Hebdo, the French public’s mass outpourings of grief, resistance, solidarity - of liberty, equality and fraternity - could not possibly have happened anywhere else on Earth.

Unlike some other nationalities, the French do not believe that they are innately superior to others; they believe that they are innately different.  And this unconquerable self-belief has sustained them through many storms.

In truth, je suis encore Charlie.

Despite a turbulent revolutionary history that has now lasted for well over 200 years, the French are surprisingly deferential to people they regard as their ‘superiors’.  This usually means anyone who can be regarded as an ‘official’ or a member of the aristocracy, which survives and thrives in France, 1789 notwithstanding.

I have seen grown men, sturdy in body and mind, wilt at the self-righteous gaze of a post-office clerk or a town-hall bureaucrat.  It’s genuinely astonishing.  Anyone who can be even remotely regarded as a ‘public official’ could easily spend all day having forelocks tugged in their direction.  And they do.  And they love it.  Which is, I suppose, why so many people aspire to being an ‘official’ of some kind…

Mind you, if you’re not an ‘official’, all bets are off.

Outside Paris, you are generally offered the polite deference perceived as accruing to total strangers.  Within Paris, however…

At first, it feels like you’re actually being treated with contempt or, at the very least, brusque intolerance.  No wonder brusque is a French word.  But you quickly learn to temper the insecurity and paranoia this gives rise to when you realise that all Parisians behave like this all the time.  The City Council has even had to launch an advertising campaign to encourage its citizens to be nicer - not just in their dealings with tourists but with each other.

On the other hand, though, everything you do - from dunching someone in the street to slaughtering their child’s pet kitten - is forgiven by saying Pardon!, which is the French equivalent of ‘I’m soooo sorry!’  It seriously doesn’t matter what you do - dismiss a lovely newsreader, forget to say Bonjour (an otherwise unforgivable sin), get a grammatical gender wrong, stand on someone’s foot, blow Gitanes smoke in their face, absent yourself from a wedding or a funeral, tell someone how ugly they are, be nice about the English (but not about the Germans)….all you have to do is say Pardon! and you’ll be graced with a winning and indulgent smile.

But remember…Desolé! - literally ‘Sorry!’ - doesn’t cut it.  It just has to be Pardon!

You could, in fact, retire to France and live out your days there knowing only Bonjour! and Pardon! and using them liberally.  I’ve thought about doing that very thing many, many times.

It seems I miss France quite a lot, huh?  It’s time I went back there to immerse myself once again in its gloriously ineffable Frenchness.

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If a picture paints a thousand words...this one just about says it all.
This was truly a very, very special moment indeed for me.  One of the best.
I reckon it's worth a blogposting all on its own.

But, just for good measure, here's great-nephew Arthur with his Mam - also taken today.
Isn't he just AMAZING?
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A very BIG, great-uncle style, Thankyou to everyone who's been in touch about Arthur.  I've passed on your good wishes.

And isn't it nice to hear from Natasha again - after all this time!  Hi, Natasha.

Oh the places you'll go....
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You turn your back for a moment….you take your eye of the ball for the merest blink of an eye….you allow yourself to be distracted by trivia like family weddings and births...and all hell breaks loose.  The world you knew and loved and cherished is turned upside down and nothing - like, absolutely nothing - will ever be the same again.

I’m distraught to have to tell you (as if you didn’t know already) that tragedy has struck my beloved France.  One of those steadfast everyday certainties which framed the lives of my French friends - like bad driving, almond croissants and reflexive verbs - has disappeared forever.

Yes (sob) - TF1 has sacked Claire Chazal.
TF1 is the French equivalent of BBC1 and ITV1 combined, only omitting the best of both.  It is the moving wallpaper which passes for French television and which has ‘adorned’ Gallic living rooms - unchanged and unchanging - since the 1950s.

It’s only redeeming feature was the wonderful Claire Chazal.  She of the come-hither eyes and the come-hitherer smile.  She who, just by breathing the word ‘Bonsoir’, gave purpose and meaning to the otherwise humdrum lives of countless Frenchmen and - in roughly equal amounts - disgruntled the supposed objects of their domestic affections.

For almost 25 years, a gentle mist of dreamy longing has descended every Sunday evening at eight o’clock sharp on innumerable French households as the silken-voiced Mme Chazal told the nation what had been going in the world since the last time they saw here a week ago.

She was la reine de l’info - the ‘queen of news’.  To be honest, she was its impératrice - its empress.  It would never have occurred to anyone to question anything she said, for either its veracity or its impartiality.  She was an oracle of instantly believable reportage and, if she’d told her viewers and admirers that it was Monday and not Sunday, they would have believed her at once.

She did not do this by being pompous, smug or self-important.  To be unfashionably sexist for a moment, I think she rather embodied the stereotypical view the world seems to have - in her case, rightly - about the status and style of older French women.  She was a broadcasting icon of the highest water not because she felt the need to be coquettish or maternal or schoolmistressy or over-coiffured or self-consciously fashionable.

She embodied the perfect combination of relaxed authority and drop-dead seductiveness to draw you in and keep you hooked until her final bonne soirée.  She left you longing for next Sunday.

She was so much more than a mere newsreader.

She was...she is….Claire Chazal.

TF1 have left a trail of unmendable (mostly male) broken hearts from Carcassone to Calais, from Nantes to Nancy.  They must be out of their managerial minds.  I have half a mind to go over to France and picket their studios…

O la vache!
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 Say Hello to Arthur William Scott.
He was born late last night and is the first child of my niece Anna and her husband Mike.
Which makes him my great-nephew.
Isn't he l o v e l y?
(Mike, by the way, is the man jumping for joy in one of the wedding photos on blog 568.) 

Here he is with his mam, who is also lovely.
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 A rhinoceros?  Afraid not...

Last Christmas, a particularly thoughtful friend - and someone who knows my philological weakness very well indeed - presented me with a book called Foyle's Philavery.  A philavery is a list of unusual words and this one was compiled by Christopher Foyle, who is the grandson of William Foyle, co-founder of the wonderful Foyle's bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road.

This philavery has had to wait its turn amongst my heaving shelves of unread books - until now.  Over the last few days, I've gotten into the habit of flicking methodically through a few of its pages each morning with my coffee and porridge; and I've only just reached the end of A.

This is a small selection of some of the words that have appealed to me most, either because of their innate loveliness - alula, mmmmmmmm - or their surprising definitions - who'd have thought that there would be a 'proper' word for 'having no arsehole'?

And who even knew that there was a disease that affected the roots of turnips?

a rhinoceros

extravagant expenditure on food and drink

the study of mites and ticks
lacking a brain; or lacking intelligence or intellectual abilities
slightly sour in taste; or rather sharp or caustic in speech
excessive; intemperate; irregular; disordered

having or making no angle

wakefulness; sleeplessness

relating to alliums - onions, leeks, chives, garlic

a group of small feathers that grow on the first digit of the wings of some birds

a spongy tumour or wart on horses or oxen
a disease affecting the roots of turnips
having no anus 

like autumn

the quality that makes something or someone worthy of trust

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I happened to be down on Newcastle's Quayside today - just as the Millennium Bridge performed its daily ballet.  I keep forgetting what a startling work of art and engineering it is.
(For the uninitiated, the bridge opens at midday, every day.)

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Two brooms were hanging in the cupboard and after a while they got to know each other so well, they decided to get married.

One broom was, of course, the bride-broom, the other the groom-broom.

The bride-broom looked very beautiful in her white dress.

The groom-broom was handsome and suave in his morning suit.

The wedding was lovely.

At the reception after the wedding, the bride-broom leaned over and said to the groom-broom, 'I think I am going to have a little broom!'

'Impossible!' said the groom broom.

Wait for it...

'We haven’t even swept together!'

(Don’t blame me - blame Brenda.)
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A friend pointed me in the direction of an ingenious website that featured these ideas for 'the most frustrating designs for everyday things'.  They made me smile...

I want to possess them.  All of them. 
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