Speaking of France...

To the untutored eye, this photograph may look fairly unremarkable - dull, even.  A road runs between some featurelessly pleasant fields.  In the distance there are woods and the merest hint of a farm or perhaps the outskirts of a town or village.  The road is fairly busy and there is a van in the right-hand field; it could be moving or simply parked there.

As I hope you’d expect, however, there’s a lot more to this picture than meets the eye.  In truth, it reveals something which - to me at least - is a surprising and regrettable aspect of French life.

Yes, we’re in France.  We are in Beaujolais, looking north on the old main road between Lyon and Paris.  We are on the edge of the town of Villefranche-sur-Sâone, which lies immediately behind us.  Ahead of us lies St Georges de Reneins (Serge’s home village, which you can see in the distance) and Belleville.

At great personal risk to myself, I pulled the car into the lay-by that you can see and quickly ‘snapped’ the picture.  I did this not because I think the view is memorable or interesting - it isn’t - or because anything dramatic is happening - it’s not.

The object of my attention is the white van in the field.  It is parked in exactly that place all day, every day (as far as I know) and performs a function which is still sadly regarded as essential and normal in France.

To all intents and purposes, the white van is a brothel.

Everyone who drives past knows it’s a brothel because it wears the accepted uniform; it’s white and it’s parked on a farm track facing a busy road from which it’s clearly visible - and with a conveniently placed lay-by.  Hundreds of vans just like this one are parked in very similar locations all over France.

Passing drivers in need of its occupant’s services need only glance at the van’s windscreen.  If it is partly obscured by a Venetian blind, madame is available.  If the blind is fully drawn, madame is busy.

in my photograph, madame must be available.  There are no cars parked in the lay-by or on the farm track.  Interestingly, the feint blue lights of two police cars are just visible on the road ahead of the farm track.  But madame need not worry; they are simply doing speed and safety checks.

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Mison Sere, winner of 'Mr Ugly', is on the left.  
Whereas the real ugliest man in Zimbabwe is on the right.

I rate this story as amongst the most macabre and ‘unsettling’ I’ve come across recently.  I’m not sure why it makes me feel so uneasy and unhappy.  It just does.

It seems that some of the crowd at Zimbabwe's annual Mr Ugly contest have complained that the winner was not ugly enough.

Winner Mison Sere wore torn overalls to compete but the runner-up and his supporters said his ugliness (see above) wasn't natural since it was based on missing teeth.

Mr Sere won $500 (£330) and plans to start a TV career.

Runner-up William Masvinu (above) has won every previous year of the competition. He took home £100 this year.  And apparently, his wife supports him.  Winning the competition in previous years has brought him fame (by Zimbabwean standards) and a few minor marketing contracts.  ‘To be rewarded is a good thing; this competition has done a lot for me; it's changed my life’, he said.

Now, Mr Sere is hoping for the same fame and fortune.  He said that he already goes around schools performing and, as he put it, ‘showcasing my ugliness’.  He sees winning the competition as a chance to make it onto TV.

The organiser, David Machowa, said that models make money from their looks, so ugly people should have the same opportunity.  And he hopes that the contest is just the start of it.  He is planning Mr Ugly World, to be staged in Harare in 2017.

Personally, I’m not sure if this is good news or not.  Or why.
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Three loud cheers for Andrew Neil - not something you’ll hear me say very often.  But this time, he very definitely deserves it.

His anti-IS tirade on tv has gone viral on YouTube.  I’ve watched it several times and have applauded loudly each time.  His list of historic French contributions to literature, music, sculpture, film, cuisine, education, language, science, philosophy, medicine and almost every other aspect of civilisation is deeply impressive, even though it’s by no means exhaustive.

Fortunately for Mr Neil, he includes Saint-Saëns, in whose honour I will once again be visiting Paris next month.

And I just can’t wait.

If you haven’t encountered his uplifting and inspiring statement of defiant contempt, you can watch it here.  (If the link doesn’t work, cut and paste it into your internet browser’s ‘search’ box.)

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Helene and Melvil...

[This is a re-edit of the blog I posted yesterday].

Antoine Leiris’ wife, Helene Muyal-Leiris, was among the 89 people murdered in the Bataclan concert hall in Paris nine days ago.

Here is Antoine's response.  It was broadcast by the BBC five days after the attacks.

'On Friday night you stole away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son.  But you will not have my hatred.  If the God for whom you kill so blindly made us in His image, each bullet in my wife's body would have been a wound in His heart.

I will not give you the gift of hating you.  Responding to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that has made you what you are.

You want me to be afraid.  To cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens.  To sacrifice my freedom for security.

You lost.

I saw her this morning [in the morgue].  She was just as beautiful as she was when she left home on Friday evening; as beautiful as when I fell madly in love with her more than 12 years ago.

Of course I am devastated with grief - I will give you that tiny victory.

But this will be a short-term grief.  I know that she will join us every day and that we will find each other again in a paradise of free souls, which you will never have access to.

And I will raise Melvil, our son, happy and free.  Because No, you will not have his hatred either.’

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Brenda has sent me another of her poignant jokes.  As a reminder about the fallibility of religions of all kinds, I reckon it’s worth a blogposting all to itself.

Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism, or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal: he'd have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they'd have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a 'silent' debate.

On the chosen day, the Pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.

The rabbi looked back and raised one finger.

Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head.

The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat.

The Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine.

The rabbi pulled out an apple.

With that, the Pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy.

Later, the Cardinals met with the Pope, and asked him what had happened.

The Pope said, ‘First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity.  He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there is still only one God common to both our faiths.

Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us.

I pulled out the wine and host to show that, through the perfect sacrifice, Jesus has atoned for our sins.  But the rabbi pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin.

He bested me at every move and I could not continue.’

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he'd won.

‘I haven't a clue,’ said the rabbi. ‘First, he told me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger.

Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews, but I told him emphatically that we were staying right here.’

‘And then what? asked a woman.

‘Who knows?' said the rabbi. ‘He took out his lunch, so I took out mine.

Thanks, Brenda.
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As I write, there’s a region of France - more south than north, more east than west - that’s going raucously and gloriously berserk.  There’s singing and dancing; the telling of risqué jokes; the swapping of scurrilous gossip; the construction of tall stories.  There’s good fellowship, acres of mutual common ground - and the kids are being indulged by being allowed not just to stay up and watch but to join in.

Most of all, though, there’s the scrutiny of full wine glasses, the sipping then slurping of the wine inside them, and the familiar hugs and smiles of righteous self-congratulation for another successful year.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Beaujolais Nouveau Weekend.

It began two days ago, on the third Thursday in November, as it always does.  This year’s vintage was released to the world with the usual fanfares - and the even more usual over-indulgence in the land of its birth; the gentle country north of Lyon and west of the Sâone where France’s most popular wine has been grown, harvested, fermented and bottled since Roman times.

Parisian wine ‘connoisseurs’ and their counterparts elsewhere, many of whom should know better, often turn their noses up at the mere mention of Beaujolais.  It’s too young when you drink it, it doesn’t age well, it’s too cheap, it’s too course, its ‘nose’ is too indelicate….

Poppycock.  Beaujolais is generally light, refreshing and - as British wine-experts say - extremely ‘quaffable’.  It is also by far the most popular wine in France.  It’s so popular in nearby Lyon that they float barrels of it down the Sâone to keep the thirsty citizens supplied.  And even in Paris, they drink more Beaujolais than any other wine.
I know that popularity does not equal quality - think of the Jeremy Kyle Show or the Daily Mail.  But this is a different kettle of fish.  We are talking about France and wine.  If Beaujolais wasn’t reliable, pleasant, slurpable and more-ish, the French wouldn’t drink it in such vast quantities.  And neither would we.

If you want to join in the celebrations, you can nip out for a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau over the next few days.  To avoid the premium that’s always charged on wine so-labelled, though, go for a regular vintage Beaujolais.  Try a Beaujolais-Villages (made and marketed by a co-operative of villages in the region), a Fleurie, a Brouilly or a Chiroubles.

Or better, you could splash out on real Beaujolais quality; try a Morgon, a Juliénas, a Chénas or a Moulin-à-Vent (‘Windmill’).  They’re rich, full-bodied, aged and quite expensive - even in France.

(I really got a kick out of drawing up that list, by the way - simply because I habitually visited many of the places on it!)

I hope the wine is flowing freely throughout Beaujolais tonight.  Now more than usual, French people need something to celebrate - and celebrate in style.
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Apropos of nothing in particular, a truckshunter called Mike has sent me some quotations which, he said, might provide me with ‘light relief’ - or at least distract me (and you) from the turmoil of the last few days.

He’s right - they did the trick.

I have long been of the opinion that if work were such a splendid thing, the rich would have kept more of it for themselves.
Lord Grocott

I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I will go to it laughing.
Herman Melville

There is an alchemy in sorrow.  It can be transmuted into wisdom which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.
Pearl Buck

The vitality of thought is in adventure.  Ideas won’t keep.  Something must be done about them.
Alfred North Whitehead

The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
John Adams

Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state.  Being in love shows a person who he should be.
Anton Chekhov

What others think of us would be of little moment did it not, when known, so deeply tinge what we think of ourselves.
Paul Valery

Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty.  Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.
Franz Kafka

To the most trivial actions, attach the devotion and mindfulness of 100 monks.  To matters of life and death, attach a sense of humour.
Zhuang Zi

The danger of computers becoming like humans is not as great as the danger of humans becoming like computers.
Conrad Zuse

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed.  Every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
Thomas Edison

Physical deformity calls forth our charity.  But the infinite misfortune of moral deformity calls forth nothing but hatred and vengeance.
Clarence Darrow.

Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.  A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying.
George Orwell

Your manuscript is both good and original.  But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
Samuel Johnson

I think that last one’s a cracker.

Just for good measure, Mike also sent me some of his favourite Groucho Marx quotations…

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.

She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon.

Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?

I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.

I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.

Either he's dead or my watch has stopped.

Thanks, Mike.  You made my day.

(Unlikely as it seems, Mike also sent me some information about a church he thought I might consider joining - of which more later.)
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My thanks to Vivienne for sending me this image of the symbol that has quickly come to represent the stoical and uplifting reaction of Parisians to Friday night's barbarities  

Over the weekend, I was privy to two splendid examples of defiant English ‘pluck’.

My friend John - who now lives in Paris - happened to be in London during the Paris attacks on Friday night.  He was spending some time with his sister and was due to travel back to Paris yesterday, via Eurostar.  I asked him if he intended to change his plans, specially as his home is within spitting distance of the attack sites.  The Place de la Republique, the Canal St Martin and the 11th arrondissement are all just a few minutes’ walk away.  I’ve wandered round those streets myself - often.

John’s reply to my question was typically phlegmatic, not to say scatological.  He scolded me for even suggesting that he might change his plans.  To be honest, his exact words (look away now) were ‘Fuck the terrorists.’

Coincidentally, Brian - my oldest friend and a balletmaster of international reputation - was due to travel by train to Paris on Saturday morning to do some teaching and assessment there.  Many years ago, he lived there for five years and fell in love with it (as you do) and enjoys these occasional weekend assignments there.

And again, it didn’t even occur to him to change his plans.  Cancellation or postponement were not even options.  He caught his train on Saturday morning, took the classes, stayed overnight in an apartment in the city centre, took more classes on Sunday morning and returned to London in the afternoon.  He may easily have said ‘Fuck the terrorists’ as well.

I’m undeservedly lucky to have friends like Brian and John, aren’t I?
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There are a couple of little tail-pieces to their stories.

Both men reported that the Eurostar trains they caught from London were uncommonly empty; a reflection of the regrettable tendency of so many people to be cowed by the actions of Friday night’s murderers, thus giving them precisely what they want.

Even more regrettable, though, is the taxi-driver who picked Brian up from Gare du Nord after his arrival in Paris on Saturday morning.  The normal fare to his destination is less than €30.  Because of the dislocation of public transport, however, the driver extorted €70 from Brian.
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A very big Thankyou to everyone who has enquired about our friends in France.  I can confirm that everyone is safe and unharmed - including Laura, Ada’s granddaughter, who is studying in Paris.  I have passed on your good wishes.

Thanks again to everyone.

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A couple of people have commented that my last blogposting was faintly Islamophobic.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear; arachnophobia is an irrational fear of spiders, NOT a hatred of them.

I do not fear Islam at all.  A better word would be Islamogyny.  Think of ‘misogyny’ and you’ll get the idea.

Hey - I think I’ve invented a new word!

Islamogyny.  Says it all.

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Durham Cathedral pays homage to the people of France earlier this evening
One day last winter I arranged to meet my brother for a coffee in the Town.  Although there wasn’t much snow, there was a very great deal of thick ice all over the roads and pavements.  As I crossed the road on my way to the bus stop, I slipped on the kerb and fell flat out on the pavement.

As well as the usual feelings of humiliation and shock, I also felt considerable pain in my shin and elbow, both of which had borne the brunt my fall.  After the initial gasp and yelp of the fall, I lay there moaning and groaning for a few seconds, trying to assess any damage and pull myself together!

A woman was walking toward me.  As is not uncommon in these parts, she was wearing a burqa and was thus covered from head to foot in black; not even her eyes were visible.  A formless, faceless black wraith…

What happened next astonished even me.

I was laying flat-out right across the pavement, moaning sorrowfully (as you do in such circumstances).

And the woman stepped over me. 

She didn’t divert from her chosen course at all.  She didn’t walk round me.  She just stepped over me and continued on her way.

I couldn’t tell whether she looked at me, of course, because you can’t.  But there was no are you alright? or are you hurt? or can I help you?  I was simply ignored.  I might as well not have been there.

In a way, her actions - or lack of them - did the trick.  I was so taken aback by what seemed like her unbelievable thoughtlessness - or even malice - that I forgot about how much my leg and arm were hurting.  I struggled slowly to my feet and walked very gingerly indeed to the bus stop.

I know perfectly well the religious constraints she was under.  As I understand it, she is forbidden to even look at - let alone speak to - any man she does not already know.  Preferably, the only men she should have any contact with at all should be members of her family.

I did not fall into either category and so her religion dictated that she ignore me completely, no matter how atrocious my injuries may have been.  I wondered afterwards what she would have done if I had called out to her in my distress.  Would she have stopped to help if, for example, she had seen me knocked down in a hit-and-run incident?  Or if she had witnessed me being mugged?

I needn’t have wondered.  The answer is No.  She would have continued down the street with a clear conscience, knowing that she had done God’s will.

To my mind, it is a short step indeed from ignoring a person in distress to causing their distress and then ignoring it.  And from there to causing distress so that you can ignore it - because it is God’s will. 

And from there to Charlie Hebdo in January and the carnage in Paris on Friday night.

Looking back now, I realise how lucky I was that day.  After all, it is an Islamic tenet that all non-believers (like me) should be killed.  She could easily have kicked me to death.  Or pulled a kitchen-knife from somewhere under the folds of the voluminous black tent she was wearing and stabbed me several dozen times.

My shock and distress that day are, of course, insignificant in the extreme compared to the Islamic slaughter inflicted on Paris yesterday and I don't intend to cause offence by comparing them.  Nevertheless, I believe that the same callous disregard for other human beings - the same unspeakable malice - runs in a straight line from one even to the other.

I wonder what that grotesque woman is thinking tonight…

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If you think I am wrong to draw these conclusions, say so. 

Think of the mediaeval savagery inflicted on Paris yesterday; think of the pernicious and hateful religion that prompted it; then tell me I am wrong.

Listen to the mealy-mouthed sophistical weasel-words of the many unapologetic imams who will be dragged into tv studios over the coming days and tell me that Islam is a peace-loving religion.

Tell me I am wrong.  But also tell me why you think I am wrong.

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I wish I could be with my friends in France….

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