Charlie Hebdo

I knew Charlie Hebdo well from my many years in Paris, though I usually just scanned it more than reading it, preferring as I did and do Le Canard Enchainé, also satirical but with more political background stories.

I still well remember what was perhaps Charlie’s most irreverent and arguably tasteless headline. A little background is needed. There had been a catastrophic dance-hall fire in France, with 149 people killed at what was described as “un bal tragique” (a tragic ball). In the same week, Gen. de Gaulle died at his country house at Colombey-les-deux-eglises.

Charlie’s headline : “Bal tragique a Colombey: un mort.” “Tragic dance at Colombey: one dead.”

TV says that Charlie Hebdo is to publish as usual next week, with a print run of one million.

That’s the way to beat these people ….

Nothing whatsoever that we cherish in our lives arrived by way of the ‘sustainable’. Every step along the way, every resource, every technology, every process was in some way unsustainable – but a stepping stone to the glories of the modern age.

Discovering and utilising in short order islands built of guano was hopelessly unsustainable, but brilliant – and fed millions of people. Digging up fossil fuels could only ever end up an unsustainable error… apart from it transforming life on earth, doubling the span of man’s existence and thrusting us into the future of beautiful clean thorium reactors and energy stored in caverns of molten salt.

Without unsustainable practices we would be nothing – cowed and afraid to put our feet on the ground for fear of leaving ‘footprints’.

Down with the sustainable! Let us live fully today and make our descendants both proud and thankful!


 “The serene chaos that is Courage, and the phenomenon of Unopened Consciousness have been known to the Great World eons longer than Extaboulism.”
“Why is that?” the woman inquired.
“Because I just made that word up”, the Master said wisely.

–Kehlog Albran, The Profit


 As Groucho Marx said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.”


“The government has lost the confidence of the people …. the government must elect a new people”.

Berthold Brecht.


It was a (not funny) joke among us students that every word in Arabic had at least four meanings:

1. Its principal meaning
2. Its opposite
3. Something to do with camels
4. Something to do with sex

Choosing the right word — in any dialect — was difficult. And then you run into the words that are perfectly fine in one dialect and grossly anatomical in others. As FSOs [U.S.  Foreign Service Officers]  were always shifting among countries and dialects, the errors were inevitable.

Posted by John on LanguageHat May 2, 2012


“Come, and take choice of all my library, and so beguile thy sorrow.”
(Shakespeare – Titus Andronicus)

Quoted by Even Hartmann Flood, Senior Academic Librarian, Trondheim, Norway (on Project Wombat).


“Oh don’t the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong
And isn’t your life extremely flat
When you’ve nothing whatever to grumble at?”

–W.S. Gilbert

More at some later time …

I am engrossed in an extraordinary book, which I earnestly recommend to any music lover. It is “Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach” by (Sir) John Eliot Gardiner, a generous and perceptive Christmas present from my sister-in-law.

I can think of no one more suited to write this portrait than Gardiner, one of the supreme musicians of the modern era, and clearly, from this book, not just a musicologist too but a man of vast culture.

The book opens with the illustration below.  It is an engraving designed by the English organist Augustus Kollmann, and published in the first edition of the Allegemeine musicalische Zeitung in 1799. It depicts Bach as the sun, with his surrounding triangle, and the rays, carrying the names of German musicians of the time deemed by Kollmann to be worthy of being placed near him.

In the caption, Gardiner notes that “Haydn is said ‘not to have taken it amiss, nor that he was placed next to Handel and Graun, still less that he found it wrong that Joh. Seb. Bach was at the centre of the sun and hence the man from whom all true musical wisdom proceeded.’ ”

It was fascinating to investigate the engraving and discover the musicians a contemporary placed in Bach’s solar rays.  Many of them were unknown to me – I do not pretend to  more than an ordinary lover of classical music’s knowledge. C.H. Graun, equated with Handel and Haydn. Van Hall, Korzbuch, Quanz. Seidelmann, Türk, Naumann.  Some, of course, I recognised. Telemann, Mozart, Ditters (von Dittersdorf), Gluck .

I found it so interesting that I suggested it to a presenter on BBC Radio’s classical channel as the possible basis of a programme, or indeed series, and the idea is now before the Powers That Be.



But that is a diversion from the book. Gardiner’s extraordinary scholarship and research gives it marvelous depth. He explains the complicated Bach family structure and its musical accomplishments, and the influence of various members on “our” Bach’s life from his infancy. He develops the legacy of the Thirty Years War and the complex religious build up to Lutheranism, the overwhelming director of Bach’s life and music.

“In September, 1742, Bach, then aged fifth-seven, bought a de luxe edition of Martin Luther’s complete works in seven volumes. According to a little note in his own hand about ‘these German and magnificent writings of the late D.[octor] M.[artin] Luther’ that had previously belonged to two distinguished theologians … he had paid ten thalers for them.  On his shelves he already had fourteen fat folios of Luther’s writings … besides many volumes of sermons, Bible commentaries and devotional writings by other authors, most of whom cited Luther generously.”

Gardiner then injects a note of humour, as he often does, when he noted that the price Bach paid had been “clumsily altered to ten thalers from a figure likely to have been twice or even three times as much … was Bach too embarrassed to admit to his wife the full price he had paid – amounting to perhaps half a month’s salary?”

I cannot write a proper review of the book here. That would take many pages of the LRB and far more expertise than I possess.  Gardiner analyses Bach’s works in absorbing detail, looking back to influences from earlier composers in Germany and Austria,  to the development of opera in Italy, or to Bach’s great expertise in the practicalities of church organs.  He had helped repair work on them from at least the age of eight, when he was small enough to climb into the pipe stack to check pipes an adult could not reach.  He finds evidence of Bach being commissioned, at only 18, to make a critical survey of a new church organ. He was of course a great organist, but Gardiner also brings out his experience as a boy soprano chorister, and explains the major influence of music in schools in Thuringia at that time.

I could quote endlessly from the book, so I will simply repeat my exhortation to buy it.

And reading it in this technological era brings a huge bonus. I have a certain amount of Bach in my CD collection, but no choral works. But every piece of music I have so far found mentioned is available on on YouTube …

I will leave it to you to discover from the book the meaning of its title.



I’m struggling with the new (to me) WordPress system and wasn’t able to put photos into the earlier piece. So this continuation is enlivened with some.

These little devils are bell pulls.  They are sticking out their tongues ...

These little devils are bell pulls. They are sticking out their tongues …

Of course, our stay in Venice wasn’t just conversations. We walked,  and walked, which is one of the two ways to see the city.  And we took some vaporetto rides to profit from the amazing sunshine.  The Biennale had just finished, and some of the statuary shown during it was still in place. Like these owls, outside an elegant palazzao on the Grand Canal:

Venice owls

But mostly we walked. We know much of the central island, but were not very familiar with Cannaregio, the district from the railway station towards San Marco which includes the Ghetto. It has it’s own very posh shopping street, much wider than those leading away from San Marco towards Rialto.  But it’s also a village, like each sestiere (quarter) of the city, with little shops and a big, by local standards, supermarket.  Given the overall level of prices, it was nice to see that they were very reasonable in the supermarket.  Not all Venetians are wealthy

It’s a surprise – but shouldn’t be – to find yourself looking into a window full of power tool, screws and door furniture, or a ship’s chandlers. After all, this is a real city, not Disneyland.

Drama above

Drama above

This dramatic church was in a very narrow street and I couldn’t get a complete shot of the striking statues. But others have. I hope this gives at least an impression of the Ospedaletto, formally the Church of Santa Maria dei Derelitti – indeed, of the Derelicts. It was a refuge for the homeless and sick, one of Venice’s four original hospitals, and still cares for old people. There is interesting background here with a good photo of the whole amazing facade at an angle I didn’t catch.

Further along, towards the Fondamente Nova, we struck gold. One entrance is through La Scuola Grande di San Marco. The ground floor is empty but for two rows of marble columns. But the first floor had been re-opened just a couple of days before, after long restoration.  The elaborately decorated ceiling was just breathtaking, panels of red and gold surrounded by blue, intricately moulded and patterened.

Around the walls are a huge library of medical tomes of all ages, with cabinets of old medical instruments (which we declined to examine) in the centre. It was the vast canvases on the walls of the Chapter Hall that – after the ceiling – captured our attention.

Grateful thanks to veniceblog.blogspot.com  for this wonderful view, far better than I could have taken.  The impression of the ceiling at this angle is all gold, but from below, there was as much red.

Grateful thanks to veniceblog.blogspot.com for this wonderful view, far better than I could have taken. The impression of the ceiling at this angle is all gold, but from below, there was as much red.

More to come …


Night in Venice

Night in Venice.
Winter. Silence.
Not just cold.  Freezing.
Not just quiet.
Absence of sound.

No surruses of traffic, train, aircraft at 30,000 feet.
Even, this night, no wind.

The N line vaporetto must be running
but rumbling, grating burst of reversing, dock bumping
Does not reach the narrow calle.

Shout. Ugly. Pause. Two. Threefour. Cursing. Drunk or mad?
Silence. Green hands. 4.17

Thud thud thud. Heels dopplering off stone. Flags. Walls.
Man. (Women click. Or clack).

Dress in Venice

It’s been a long time since I posted, for a variety of reasons. I am back, because we have just had five excellent days in Venice, remarkably sunny, but cold to freezing.  Long johns, however, made walking a pleasure and vaporetto rides along the Grand Canal a sheer delight.

A rule we have for Venice made the visit even more enjoyable than usual. Dress smartly, and the odds are that you will be taken for a Venetian, until you open your mouth, whereon you may, as we were, be treated more or less as an equal, an unusual tourist at least. The service is better and friendly in a subtle way that differentiates from just “happy to see you to take your money”.

Dressing smartly, when one is our age and it is late in the year, means a smart overcoat, jacket, shirt and tie, and shoes for me, and similarly appropriate for Madame, with the added chic of a fur hat.  But a sports coat, shirt, tie and shoes, never trainers, at any age gives you a chance of being mistaken as a non-tourist.  Not overtly gaping at the amazing sights around every corner helps too, and murmured conversation.

Never, ever, wear a rucksack, especially with a bottle of water protruding…

In the week, we were only bothered once by the incessant “Gondolé, gondolé” invitations addressed to every obvious tourist.  And then only when we spoke English in the hearing of a couple of gondoliers. And our ‘dress code’ led to a couple of very interesting conversations that would simply not have happened otherwise.

Of course, it’s different strokes…  You may not care about anything but just enjoying the city, especially on your first visit, particularly by dressing as comfortably as you can, down to the trainers, because Venice is walking, and I can’t fault that.  It’s just our peculiarity. And having worn a tie throughout my working life, I am totally at ease with that, though many people rather suddenly no longer seem to be.

So what were our interesting encounters ?  First, another digression. I cannot praise highly enough (I believe I have before) Venice Osterie by Michele Scibilia, the must-have guide to eating in the city, other islands and (a little bit) on the mainland.  We have never, ever, had a bad experience using her guidebook, but we had some truly dreadful ones previously. Of course there are excellent spots she does not mention – we found two during this stay – and each edition swops some in and out, for variety. It is only sold in two places in Venice, the train station and the small information office and (excellent) bookshop at the main San Marco vaporetto stop – the little elegant, white, domed building, previously I suspect an orangerie, on the left as you face inwards from the lagoon.  Or see if the book is in your local map and travel bookstore.

Our first unusual conversation was over dinner in da Remigio, in Castello, much favoured by the locals, some of whom exchanged hugs with the waiters on arrival, with much banter. Our neighbours at the six-place table arrived just after us, he in a suit, with open-neck white shirt  but an elegant silk scarf, she as formally dressed as my wife. Both, we suspected, in their late-50s, though it is definitely getting more difficult to tell ages of people who are ‘of a certain age’.

After polite nods, they got on with three swift courses of antipasto moistened with small servings from a bottle of Soave – it was not half finished when they left.

After about 20 minutes, he suddenly turned to me and started talking in excellent English.  We had been summed up as unusual tourists, potentially interesting.  Oh, it was our seventh visit to Venice. Where were we staying ? The Priuli nearby? Excellent choice. They lived around the corner, had been coming to da Remigio for 40 years.

The talk quickly turned to politics – it was the day Berlusconi was dismissed from the Senate.  He was interested that I followed enough Italian politics to recognise the names of party leaders and one high-profile would-be leader, and ask about other aspects. His wife smiled a lot, but her English was clearly not up to a lot of our conversation and he sometimes translated for her.

I had the usual foreign reaction to Berlusconi, but he tentatively defended him. “Of course, he went mad over the last five years, but he did a lot for Italy – high speed trains, new autostrada, and he found the money for MOSE.”  That is the giant project of 53 underwater gates that will rise in the three entrances to the Venetian lagoon and hold back the aqua alta, the high tides which several times a year flood much of the city to a greater or lesser degree.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/venice/10376184/Venice-tests-massive-movable-flood-barrier.html

“After all, he was prime minister for a record time, and 10 million people voted for him.” Clearly, our neighbour was one of them.

MOSE would be the saving of the city, he had no doubt. People would invest – though there seemed to us no shortage of restoration projects on decaying palazzos – there would be an influx of foreign residents.  It would become an international city. Already, he said, many of their friends had moved away, and they had a number of English friends as Venice residents now.

Talk veered to the economy. Italian banks, he said, had mostly avoided the derivatives shambles and were not in bad shape.

“Sienna,” I said. He roared with laughter, said to his wife : “Strordinario, this gentleman really knows Italy.” Well, I said, as a retired journalist I do try to keep in touch with events, and we talked of the collapse of the Monte di paeschi di Sienna, which claims to be the world’s oldest bank, with a $4 billion hole through bad management and worse governance.

Finally, as they were preparing to leave, he pointed proudly to a lapel pin.  We had taken him to be a lawyer, a notary or some such.  “I’m a professional sommelier.”  With much handshaking and beaming smiles all round, they left.

I was to hear different Venetian views of Berlusconi the next day.

This was the situation in the road outside our house in northern France a week ago.

There was a similar snowdrift 50 yards along in the other direction. But even if we could have reached the main road, it was effectively closed, even with chains/4×4/winter tyres, etc. It was snowplough country only.

We came with the idea of opening up the house after the winter, it being supposed to be spring. The day after we arrived, the snow started, and we hunkered down in front of the fire. Though the snow has now gone, we are still pretty much hunkered down, as it has not risen above 5 degrees, with a bitter east wind making it feel minus something. I am resolutely ignoring what the bill will be for the electric heaters we have to use …

The house being mainly wattle and daub (adobe) we never put in central heating as it would dry out the walls too much. They would then crumble and would have to be replaced with brick. We were rarely here in winter, and not at all for the past three years, so it wasn’t an issue.

During our three and a half days snowed-in, we had plenty of food, though the wine was running low ! We never lost electricity, as some in Normandy did, so the Internet worked and so did the satellite TV, and we have books aplenty.


Compare and contrast this picture,  taken from a similar angle but just missing the hedge to the right, with the heading picture of the blog,. Where is spring ?

It’s the worst we have known it for some 35 years, when we were snowed in for five days, but that was in February. Locals remember that, but also 1986. We weren’t here then, but on our yacht on the Seine in Paris (in which we lived for 18 years). And we knew about the winter there – huge ice floes floated down the river, which was within a couple of days of freezing over, and it was -20C at worst.

We are promised continuing bitter weather until at least the middle of April, by which time we will be back in London and starting a trip around the West of England – presuming it is accessible…

The View from the Shard

Europe’s tallest building, London’s Shard, was completed recently – 1016 feet, 309.6 metres high. It’s by Renzo Piano and is a welcome change from the unimaginative slab-sided blocks so often put up by greedy developers – but then it is financed by Qatar, which can afford imagination. Some people loath it, but I find it dramatic and exciting.


A friend sent me a link to a marvellous site where a photographer has constructed a 360 degree picture of London from the top (more or less) of the Shard.  http://www.willpearson.co.uk/virtual-tour/shard-360-dusk/

You can rotate it slowly or faster (beware of motion sickness …), look up or down, and zoom a considerable degree to close-up on buildings or see distant sights.  The Houses of Parliament are rather obscured by the photograph’s watermarks, and because they are behind the London Eye giant ferris wheel, but the photographer having made this amazing panorama available, he’s entitled to protect it.

Further down the website there are other very interesting panorama views of parts of London, one showing City Airport and just how tight the runway is – there is a special steep descent and ascent for which pilots have to be especially trained.  That sounds a bit stomach-tightening, but I’ve flown in and out of there and didn’t really notice.

For those who don’t know London, I’ll just explain one thing.  The battleship moored on the Thames close to the Shard is HMS Belfast, a retired Royal Navy light cruiser which is now a floating museum (and a great visit).

There are some stunning pictures of the building itself from The Telegraph’s site (from which the photo at the top comes) which is here


On Arts and Letters Daily, to which I am addicted, I found today a wonderful story explaining in some detail how the precious collections of ancient manuscripts and books in Timbuktu had been saved from the destructive rage of the Islamist occupiers.

As you may remember, the first reports as the French were advancing on the city were grim. As the Islamists prepared to flee, they had torched or otherwise destroyed some of the libraries.  As they had earlier destroyed many of the holiest Sufi shrines, because their austere Salafist belief was that they were idolatrous, it was easy to believe.

Shortly after the French took over, the reports said that it was not too grim. Many of the manuscripts had been saved.

Now the Harpers article relayed by ALDaily today explains what actually happened – that hundreds of thousands of items were packed in small metal trunks and buried, secreted in secret rooms in the mud-walled houses, or sent by boat upstream on the Niger to the safer areas of the south of Mali.  Every trunk was coded to index its contents.

One man, whose family has one of the major collections in private hands,  organised this immense work – and retains one of the keys to each of the double-locked trunks.  He was interviewed in the capital, Bamako, where he and his family had taken refuge after fleeing Timbuktu ahead of the Islamists. He did not disclose to the interviewer, who had previously met him in Timbuktu, where his keys were …

The Islamists did trash and torch some libraries, but they were in fact empty.

It is an inspiring story which I commend to you.  You will find the link to it on the left-hand side of the ALDaily page, under Nota Bene, which is always a fun read. And also on the left-hand side is the most amazing collection of links to magazines and newspapers throughout the (English speaking) world.

My Commonplace Book

Some excerpts from my commonplace book (kept on my computer and not, as it should be, in elegant handwriting on a Regency desk):


The first law of science: for every observable effect, there is a physical cause.


“The psychology of bad decision making is rooted in confidence based on incrementally bad behaviour without adverse outcomes.”


FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed —-
BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

Christopher Marlowe‘s play The Jew of Malta,


There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

Raymond Chandler


I’m accustomed to my deafness
To my dentures I’m resigned
I can cope with my bifocals
But, Oh dear, I miss my mind.

Doctor Sparrow, Warden of All Souls

One cataract I’ve had corrected
The other in two weeks too
To specs I’ll be unconnected
But I still must stay close to the loo

Barry Anderson


David Broder, the former Washington Post commentator, defined what a newspaper was.  He called it:

“… a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours … distorted despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you … to read it in about an hour.”


“He first deceas’d; she for a little tri’d
To live without him: lik’d it not, and di’d.”


More at some later time …