The Farthest (2017)

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 22.26.42In 1977. Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched to explore our solar system. In the 20 years that followed, they sent back fabulous pictures and data on the other planets and their moons, vastly expanding our knowledge of other worlds. Having done their job, they are now heading out into interstellar space and will encounter other stars in approximately 40,000 years time. They are still sending messages and images back.

In The Farthest (2017) this mission, and the people behind it, receive the attention they deserve. One of the curiosities is that 6 weeks before the launch it was decided to send a metal LP with encoded songs, messages and images (only 100 photos) in the event that other life forms should intercept the crafts. Chuck Berry is the representative of modern western music. And much to many people’s consternation, images of naked people were included to inform aliens about our anatomy. 

If memory serves – and this was not alluded to in the documentary – the English-language message of welcome to alien civilisations was recorded by ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim.

The question remains, do we want extra-planetary species to know about our existence and whereabouts? It is cheerfully optimistic to expect a tea party. As many dystopians have pointed out in recent years, the likelihood is that any alien species will be as rapacious as ourselves and our little Voyager invitation to them will be nothing less than an Invitation to a Beheading – namely, ours.

At any rate, an excellent documentary about one of the most marvellous scientific ventures of the 20th century.

Badgers Bike Squad Returns to Azay-le-Rideau

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 19.27.11Badger’s Bike Squad – Adrian, Steve, Yves and Bruno – did a round trip of 97km to Azay-le-Rideau and back, the second such trip this year. En route, we met a fellow cyclist, Philippe from Tauxigny, and pedaled together for half an hour with him. He told us about the Descartes bike club he belongs to and how they go on “very long” trips of up to 70 km – definitely not Badger-material, then! Anyway, we spent a nice time chatting to him until we parted ways. The route was long, hilly and hot, but a Ricard, some rosé and lunch in Azay-le-Rideau and an ice-cream from an excellent Italian ice-cream parlour soon revived our flagging spirits for the return. We lost Badger Po somewhere towards the end, but he reappeared a little later, looking somewhat disoriented, poor old chap. We ended back at Adrian’s place and Geraldine had made a cake to welcome the Badgers! As you will see from the video, the trip was not without its ups and downs… Click here to view it!

Streetscapes: The Bland Leading the Bland

P1120653Paris is famous for the Art Nouveau beauty of the 19th-century street furniture that grew out of Haussmann’s town planning, from the Wallace fountains – financed by the British philanthropist Richard Wallace – to newspaper kiosks, street lamps, railings, Morris columns for advertising, benches, and so on. Even the few remaining “vespasiennes” – named after the Roman emperor Vespasian, who purportedly introduced public urinals of this kind to Rome – are objects of outlandish beauty. On the Internet, there is a short film that can be viewed of Alfred Hitchcock visiting the one beside the Prison de la Santé in Paris’s 14th arrondissement. 

Old-fashioned English street furniture is no less striking. The red Royal Mail pillar boxes and red telephone boxes, matching the red double-decker buses, say “England” to everyone throughout the world. The telephone boxes, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, were a thing of beauty and it was one of the most asinine decisions ever in the 1980s to remove many of them because “they no longer meet the needs of our customers. Few people like to use them. They are expensive and difficult to clean and maintain and cannot be used by handicapped people”. Only some 11,000 remain of the previous 73,000. Admittedly, everyone has mobile phones now, but had they been allowed to stand they could have been repurposed as Internet posts, or something else. But there you go – England is an old hand at asinine decisions and allowing cultural wealth to slip like sand through its fingers.

The above relates clearly to Paris and London, but what about street furniture in the little villages of France? Up until recently, all was well. Most villages maintained pleasant fittings that were either 19th-century or in keeping with that time, from pretty lantern-style lamp posts to the bollards, benches, bus shelters and street dustbins. But now something is happening, and it isn’t nice. In Touraine, it is creeping in everywhere. The same uniformly tasteless or downright ugly intruders are ubiquitous. 

As one enters a village by car or bike, one sees a red tubular steel “7″, hung with flower baskets, and announcing “village fleuri” or some such redundant piece of information. The next thing are the plant pots. I mean those giant plastic plant pots that you can plant a tree in, and come either in a terracotta colour or more garish versions. There are new bollards, like something out of a science fiction film, and the benches are like barbecue grills and uncomfortable, apparently in semi-conformity with the “anti-sit/lie”philosophy and CPTD (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) theories from the United States, mostly related to discouraging homeless people from sitting or lying down and wordlessly instructing them to “go away”.

A case in point is the little village of Reignac-sur-Indre, near where I live. The main village square is in fact triangular, and boasts a friendly bar-café called La Joie de Vivre, a flower shop, a store run by the local dairy, a bakery and a now defunct butcher’s shop, with nearby a pharmacy and Superette mini-market. A year and a half ago, this square had nice fully-grown trees and a gentle, ramshackle appearance, with cars parked there, the occasional pizza van or fruit and vegetable seller. Then the municipal council decided to move in for the kill. The resulting changes were to cost them a quarter of a million euros – the money coming from the regional council, the state, the Réserve Parlementaire and the Commune de Reignac – and the result is disastrous. 

The nice old trees were pulled up and replaced with puny saplings that will take half a century to reach the growth of their predecessors, the parking was severely delimited, so nobody can actually stop there any more, and a sort of tiered cobblestone effect was introduced that seems more urban than rural, possibly with skateboards in mind. The plastic plant pots suddenly popped up everywhere, as did bollards that look like cattle-prods, the barbecue-grill benches, hideous smoke-stack-style rubbish bins, and a water fountain that was clearly inspired either by a black granite tombstone or by the monolith in 2001 a Space Odyssey. The red iron “7″ greets you as you enter the village and sees you off as you hurriedly leave, and the overall effect is absurdly brutalist and urban – showing no sensitivity to the beautiful old stone of this pretty village on the Indre river. 

The cherry on the cake is the Orwellian electronic billboard, which now glares down on nearly every village square. Why a little village of 1,000 inhabitants or less needs a giant lumino-kinetic electronic billboard to announce the date of a jumble sale or the opening times of the pharmacy is beyond me – but there it is, bulldozing sleepy little Reignac into the 21st century. In short, a quarter of a million euros to replace a gently shabby-chic beauty with brutish cast-iron hideousness. Bravo, Reignac… Photos of the atrocities can be viewed below. I am only grateful that my own village, being incredibly poor, has not embarked on this ultra-modern design binge.

Who decides these things? Well, the mayor does, and conscientious mayors also involve the municipal council. They then have access to “mobilier urbain” sites to choose their street furniture, and doubtless big-city designers who pop down from Paris on the TGV to pontificate, decree and line their pockets with euro-grants. 

It’s all so depressing.

In the 1970s, I worked for three months as an Information Officer at the UK Design Centre in London’s Haymarket. Apart from talking authoritatively to school parties about things I knew absolutely nothing about, one of my jobs was to lead visiting municipal bods to the archives and show them the catalogues of available street lamps or benches or whatever to adorn their home towns. The choice was wide and also ranged from the truly lovely to the downright unsightly, but at least there was a choice. More and more, the villages around here seem to be making the same decisions – from the red “7” to the giant plastic flower pots to the electronic billboards – as if in a blundering frenzy of unthinking mutual emulation. The iron space débris they’ve dumped on Reignac’s little square would be just about tolerable, or at least unsurprising, on some futuristic esplanade in a re-developed urban slum   – but not here, not in charming, picture-perfect rural France. 

This sort of crass municipal action reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Binsey Poplars, which is about how easy it is to destroy the beautiful. The poem was inspired by the witless felling of a graceful row of poplar trees near the village of Binsey, Oxfordshire, in 1879:

 
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
            Not spared, not one
            That dandled a sandalled
            Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
 
O if we but knew what we do
            When we delve or hew—
    Hack and rack the growing green!
            Since country is so tender
    To touch, her being so slender,
    That, like this sleek and seeing ball
    But a prick will make no eye at all,
            Where we, even where we mean
            To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
    Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
            Strokes of havoc unselve
            The sweet especial scene,
            Rural scene, a rural scene,
            Sweet especial rural scene.
 
P1120654
P1120662P1120661P1120660P1120659P1120658P1120657P1120656P1120665P1120664P1120663P1120655

Collectibles

P1120574When I was a boy, I collected matchboxes, the cards from tea packets, books, postcards, coins and stamps, as boys were wont to do in those distant days. As an adult, I started a collection of wristwatches before realising I’d never have enough money to really do justice to this pursuit. Today, I admire people who do collect – they are the assemblers, the archivists of our history – but my own interest in collecting is minimal. Nevertheless, about two years ago, I started a collection of “extremely small but interesting things” (of which more, perhaps, in a separate blog post), but this too fell into abeyance. And a year ago, I started picking up anything vaguely connected with cycling.

The reason for this last mission was twofold: first, I’ve been a keen cyclist for a year and a half now, and am – as many of you know – President of Badgers Bike Squad; second, I enjoy going to vide greniers (the rural jumble sales) just to look around, so this decision gave me a casual objective.

My collection is in its infancy, but here are a few items I’ve ferreted out (photos below). There’s a 1934 copy of Le Miroir des Sports, covering the Tour de France in that year.

There’s a small working model of a bicycle: this, the previous owner told me, came from a school where it was assembled, from a kit, by the children and served to teach them how a bicycle functions. Beside it is another tiny model bike I picked up.

There’s a plastic model Tour de France cyclist. Occasionally one comes across whole sets of these on eBay or in vide greniers, and they date from the 1960s. I once went to an arts and crafts fair in a little village hall and a man was there with a model landscape he had produced with scenes from the Tour de France using these tiny cyclists, along with the publicity cars, the crowds, the mechanics and so on. I asked him why he’d started collecting this stuff and he said he had no idea, he wasn’t even particularly interested in cycling. Some of you may have seen my plastic model at the end of the Badgers Bike Squad videos, in the company of two others: they are owned respectively by myself, Yves Krier and Steve Birkbeck, the three pillars of Badgers Bike Squad.

There’s a cycling trophy – and it’s rare to find one with a sculpted cyclist, they’re mostly just cheap plastic trophy cups in the sports shops.

There’s a pendant from Notre Dame des Cyclistes, La Bastide d’Armagnac. This is a chapel and museum devoted to everything related to cycling in the Les Landes département, housed in the remains of a 12th-century Knights Templar fortress. It was created in 1958 by Father Joseph Massie, inspired by the Chapel of Madonna del Ghisalio in Italy. 

Lastly, there’s a fabric badge inscribed International Badgers Club. This has absolutely nothing to do with Badgers Bike Squad, but I had to have it. It is in fact a worldwide club of scouting organisations that shares badges – hence “Badgers”. For the record, the word “badger” originates in the 16th century and almost certainly stems from “badge”, an allusion to the animal’s distinctive head markings.

If you go to vide greniers, please keep your eyes peeled for further items to add to my totally serendipitous collection.

By the way, look carefully at the cycling gear in the photo above from the 1934 Le Miroir des Sports and compare to today’s Tour de France cyclist. OK, they may be faster and more aerodynamic, but all the style has gone…

P1120573

P1120572

P1120576

P1120578

P1120577

Dog-Trotting and the Mother of Invention

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 16.43.49Think of a problem any problem. Someone somewhere will have found a solution or at least be working on one. The beauty of the Internet is that you can find those solved problems with a little canny armchair searching. My newly adopted dog, Marlowe, presented two immediate problems. He is very obedient but loves to race across fields towards the horizon, especially if he has spotted a grouse or a roe deer. When he’s far away, I whistle and call till I’m hoarse but, depending on the wind direction, he doesn’t always hear me, or pretends not to. The solution to this problem is simple: a whistle. More precisely, an Acme 211.5 dog whistle – recommended by all users as the most effective dog whistle around.

My other problem was combining dog walking and cycling. In the mornings, I’m faced with a choice: do I go cycling on my racing bike, then walk the dog, or the other way round; or do I take my mountain bike and dog, but stick to car-less tracks where he runs free. Most walking routes include bits of road, so I would fix his long lead to my handlebars and he would trot in front of me, often pulling me along like a horse and cart. But if he suddenly got distracted by potential prey in an adjoining field, another dog barking in a farm, or even the call of nature, causing him to veer to one side, he could easily pull me over and possibly injure both of us. Alternatively, if he suddenly stopped I would have to apply the brakes very sharply to avoid running over his paws. The latter nearly happened on more than one occasion. 

The solution is the Trixie Biker Set, as seen in the picture above. Marlowe trots alongside the bike at a distance that avoids collisions, the spring allows for a certain amount of tugging away from the bike, only to tug him back, and a double lead with a Velcro strap means that if he really does wrench away towards the side of the road, the Velcro will release him and not pull me and the mountain bike into the ditch. This piece of kit has passed all the tests and is wonderful! I would never use it on a busy road with lots of traffic, but on remote country lanes where a car passes every now and then, it’s perfect. It also means that we can do more road routes together, rather than constantly doing the same country track routes. One just has to keep an eye on the dog to make sure he doesn’t doesn’t get exhausted, and stop for breaks every now and then.

I’ve never used my blog to endorse or promote a product before, so this is a first – and no, I’m not on a commission, or a freebie-for-review deal, though I should be, come to think of it. I’m just happy that someone, confronted by the same problem as me, sat down and worked out a solution. Also, I like the product on the completely irrational basis that my first dog, when I was a child, was called Trixie.

On a note of warning, it seems that a certain dog-and-bike-owner in England, when using – or rather misusing – precisely the same device on the British roads, was convicted of dangerous cycling and ended up with a £3000 legal bill. Click here to read his tale. A former policeman friend of mine assures me the cops were quite right to convict him, and if you read the story you’ll see why. Which is why the Trixie Biker Set is – as I said above – not for busy roads, and certainly not for use with a dog that veers round into the middle of the road and cannot stay on the cyclist’s near-side. But for my purposes, riding with Marlowe on relatively unfrequented country roads, it is a real boon.

 

Hunting High and Low

P1120505On the basis that you can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, we opt to run with the hare. Animal cruelty takes many forms, some disgustingly sordid, others deceptively glamorous. I was once prevailed on to attend the corrida in Madrid, to watch six bulls being slaughtered in two hours – perfectly timed kills, every twenty minutes. Once the picador is on the scene, they never stand a chance.

The hunting of wild mammals (foxes, deer, hares etc.) was banned in the UK in 2004. In France it still thrives, and many English hunt fanatics simply cross the Channel. As in the corrida, a professional huntsman told me that the foxes or deer hardly stand a chance: they are essentially hemmed in. Hunting and bull-fighting would be fair game, in my view, if the hunter or bull-fighter stood an equal chance of being whacked.

Yesterday, there was a choice between a Sunday vide grenier and La Forêt des Livres – the annual book fair in Chanceaux-près-Loches, created by Gonzague Saint-Bris who was sadly killed in a car crash only a fortnight ago, an accident caused by his companion, who was driving, avoiding a wild boar on the road at night and ploughing into a plane tree.

Then a friend offered us free tickets to the Fête de la Chasse et de la Nature at the Montpoupon château and we decided to go, chiefly on the promise of demonstrations of falconry. It was a very hot day and there were thousands of people, hunting shade more than anything else, on a slope overlooking a rural circuit on which huntsmen paraded in their finery – hunting pinks, hats, and so on – on horses and with hounds. In addition there was a beer tent, lunch restaurant, and several stands for manufacturers of hunting horns and hunting garments – many of which came from the UK. Off to one side, one could practise archery, and the Montpoupon château – a hunting museum – was open, as was a tent where hunting paraphernalia was auctioned off.

The public attracted by this kind of event was largely middle-aged and tending towards the obese end of the scale,  so I felt quite at home. Perhaps to display a sense of “belonging”, many people came wearing vaguely huntsmanlike clothes – those little green sleeveless hunting jackets, the hats, the boots, or even shirts, ties and pullovers, in temperatures of around 30 degrees. I confess to having chosen a green short-sleeved shirt myself, and a hunting bag for my camera.

There was constant noise all day long, with the ubiquitous man-with-a-mike commenting on anything and everything – his voice blaring out of loudspeakers that seemed to be placed everywhere on black poles, a forest of noise. In addition, there was the worst oompah band I have ever heard in my life that was also deafening. And everywhere there were packs of beautiful hunting dogs, mostly Anglo-Français Tricolore hounds, slumped, lolling, drooping and sagging in cages, up to 45 to a cage. What happens to these creatures when they’re “retired”?

As for the falconry, if there was a demonstration we never saw it. What we did see was a stand with three very depressed falcons sitting on a makeshift wooden fence right next to the lunatic-asylum oompah band. Occasionally a man did the rounds and spat water into their faces to cool them off.

My own variety of “chasse” is “chasse à l’image”, as I hope the selection of photos below goes to prove. Nobody dies when I shoot, except possibly from embarrassment.

At Montpoupon, there was a certain beauty in seeing the fine attire, the well-groomed horses, the packs of hounds, racing along. It reminded me of scenes in an excellent 1972 British film with Peter O’Toole that nobody seems to watch any more, The Ruling Class. And yes, this kind of hunting is definitely stamped with a certain snooty elitism. You have to have deep pockets just to be able to afford the clothes.

In France, the other kind of hunting is the ordinary man’s shoot, starting in September. I’ve always felt ambivalent towards this. After all, the animals they kill are eaten – I’ve accepted a hare or a pheasant from a hunting friend in the past – and by comparison factory farming is a lot worse, murder on an industrial Gulag scale.

On the whole, this is a rural population of ordinary blokes with very red faces who hit the spirits at sunrise and, for the rest of the day, stagger across the fields with their dogs and consider that they rule the roost. It’s very difficult to walk your own dog when they’re around, and I’ve often been told that to go into this particular forest is putting my life in danger because they’re shooting wild boar with military rifles. Even the other day – long before the open season – a farmer told me to keep clear of my usual dog-walking patch on Saturday morning because they were having an authorised “battage” of foxes. It’s all reminiscent of the genuine British newspaper headline, “Father of 12 shot dead, mistaken for a rabbit”.

Anyway, the Montpoupon day had its highs and lows. The cold beer was nice. The auction was interesting and more fun than eBay. The dogs were sweet. The clothes stunning. The voice of the professional “animateur” and the loud rock music for when he wasn’t speaking left me with a screaming headache.

My personal hunt for images – “le chasseur chassé”, one might say – resulted in the following mixed bag of quarry. In that respect, at least, it was a happy hunting ground.

P1120512
P1120510
P1120390
P1120470
P1120393
P1120459
P1120446P1120410P1120451P1120383P1120482P1120455P1120382P1120370

Après nous, le déluge…

Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 18.29.58Watch the new Badgers Bike Squad video – Badgers Bike Squad on a Rainy Day! Badger Coach, Badger President and Badger X-Files – Steve, Adrian and Bruno, respectively – met in the oddly named village of Bourré (“drunk” in French) on an extremely wet August morning. Badger for the Day was Yannick, alias Badger Dunkirk. Together they cycled 83km in the pelting rain to prove once again their unwavering and almost masochistic resolve when faced with discomfort, pain and the elements, and their intrepid pursuit of victory over adversity, dementia and middle-age spread. Yannick does indeed come from Dunkirk but has a second home in Touraine. With next-to-no experience of long cycle rides, he was a rising star and showed grit, gumption and the Dunkirk spirit par excellence, though alas a few days later he managed to write off his bike and break his arm.

Après nous, le déluge…

Click here to view the video.

Badgers Bike Squad: The Courçay Round Trip

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 16.55.58In July 2017, Badger Coach, Badger Po and Badger Badger – aka Steve, Yves and Brice – did a round trip from Courçay that took them as far as Azay-le-Rideau. Badger President, aka Adrian, did not join them because his daughter Lizzie was visiting. However the Badgers called on Adrian and he and Lizzie tagged along for the tail end of their jaunt, entitling Lizzie to the title “Apprentice Badger”. Footage from Yves and Adrian, edited by Yves.

CLICK HERE to view the video.

The Gripes of Wrath, Pt II

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 12.53.41

Following the huge public success of my first blogpost in the Gripes of Wrath series, here are a few new grumbles about lazy language use and trite expressions that get on my wick.

To cross a line

As in “He really crossed a line when he said that”. Is this a police line, or one of those confidentiality lines they put on the floor in post offices and banks? Or is it another way of saying “going too far”, in which case who exactly drew the line and for what purpose? When I hear this expression, I am seriously tempted to cross that line just for the heck of it, and any other lines that people draw in front of me. How dare they!

Optionality

Heard on a radio programme about international food storage: “Storing grain gives us more optionality”. What’s wrong with “gives us more options”? However, I checked in the dictionary and “optionality” really does exist, so I’ve run out of gripe optionality.

To be in a bad place

“I was in a really bad place after my divorce, drinking, sleeping all day.” Conversely, of course, one can be in a “good place”. Don’t ask me why, but I have a totally irrational phobia for this expression, as for the use of “journey” for almost any life experience. On which subject, I also dislike the expression “It’s not the getting there, it’s the journey that counts”. I’m sorry but if I go on a journey, I really do want to “get there”. If you don’t, that’s your business. I think most rail, bus and plane commuters would agree with me on this one.

Need

For example “You need to go by foot. You can’t ride your bike here.” The increasing use of the modal auxiliary verb “need” to replace “must” or “have to” is just ridiculous. I have a strong suspicion that this comes from American police usage, when telling people what to do. Why should I “need” to go by foot? I need to ride my bike, but you’re telling me I can’t because of some piddling bye-law so, according to that law, I “have to” go by foot. Or is it “on foot”? Or both… Bloody hell, I don’t know.

Bringing you up to speed

“Good morning – it’s Warren Murray bringing you up to speed!” I presume that Warren Murray is presenting the news or something, and basically he is updating me on current affairs. I don’t see what it has to do with speed, unless I am in some kind of competition with other news addicts to have all the latest information at my fingertips and the whole thing is a bizarre race to be the best-informed.

Issues

“He has a lot of issues”, meaning emotional problems, strange attitudes etc. American therapist usage that shouldn’t have crossed the pond.

Closure

‘“I hope this sentencing brings some closure to the family of Mr Braithwaite,” he said.’ This is generally to do with deaths – bodies that haven’t been found, or culprits who haven’t been jailed. Mr Braithwaite’s family, satisfied with the outcome, can close the door on that episode of their lives and move on. I think what gets on my nerves with this one is that it comes from the jargon of shrinks and therapists, just like “issues” above.

Moral compass

“It’s interesting how one’s moral compass can shift when you become a parent.” Clearly, relating to one’s ability to judge what is right and wrong. Do you have a moral compass? Where? In your head? Up your jumper? When a metaphor is as tired as this one, it should be retired to the Sunset Home for Knackered Metaphors post haste.

Lock down

“The bridge is in lock down and the area around it is closed with bus routes being diverted, as armed police attend the scene and boats search the water.” Meaning “the bridge is closed”. More police jargon here. It just sounds more important, or makes the speaker sound more important. 

As Schopenhauer says, “One should use common words to talk about uncommon things.” That is, not the opposite…

On that note, I think I have reached closure.

Badgers Bike Squad: Bike Chat

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 13.28.47Yves was unavailable this week, so no GoPro footage. However, Steve, Adrian and Bruno set out from Adrian’s place on a round trip via Sepmes and Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, taking in lunch at the recently opened hotel-restaurant château, La Roche Ploquin, where they were the only diners. Adrian’s rear gear cassette broke down, so they stopped off at the truly wonderful Royal Bike Shop in Sainte-Maure – run by a former professional racing cyclist – which exports Colnago bikes throughout the world. The owner kindly fixed Adrian’s bike for free. On the home leg of our trip, in sheeting rain, Adrian had another problem – a rear-wheel puncture this time – but they made it through the downpour to Le Louroux, Saint Bauld and home. Not so much action in this video, then, but a lot of very serious aficionado bike chat, shedding stray beams of gilded light onto the arcane jargon and esoteric mysteries of this eldritch world for the uninitiated…

CLICK HERE to view the video!

 

© 2017 Adrian Mathews