You can leave your hat on…

P1110332This blog post is by way of praise for Stéphane May’s hat shop – Chapellerie Maroquinerie May – in Loches, Southern Touraine. The store has been going for a period of time that can only be measured in donkeys and always has an excellent selection of men’s and women’s hats at affordable prices.

I bought my first hat when I was about 11 and I still have it. It’s a gentleman’s top hat, silky black, inscribed “West & Company Hatters 29 Cheapside London E.C. Also Foreign Agencies Extra Quality”. I purchased it to do magic tricks, and it still serves this purpose. It is sitting beside me now, on a bookshelf in my office, with my magic wand in it and my Sooty glove puppet – Sooty is my occasional assistant.

In 1976, I worked as a sub-editor on Radio Times magazine in Marylebone High Street, and just downstairs, David Shilling – following in his mother Gertrude’s footsteps – had opened his first milliner’s boutique, providing hats for stars, the aristocracy and Royal Ascot. Likewise, in Loches, Stéphane May has followed in the footsteps of his mother.

It is perhaps no coincidence that in my first novel, The Hat of Victor Noir, a top hat should feature prominently as the mainspring of the plot. My grandfather, like most men of his generation, wore a Homburg – popularised by Anthony Eden – and in his last years, my father did too, partly as a homage to his own father.

Screen Shot 2017-08-05 at 16.43.42As we know from old photographs of street scenes, 100 years ago men would not leave home without a hat. When and why did this change? The consensus is that there were two decisive factors: the proliferation of the private motor car, in which it is unnecessary and indeed cumbersome to wear a hat; and the Second World War, after which men often decided not to wear a hat “because I had to in the war”. Thus a once indispensable fashion accessory was consigned to history. Curiously, the far less useful and purely decorative neck tie is still de rigueur in certain circles and professions.
 
The plethora of hat styles is astonishing, as is the cultural semiology. From Gene Hackman’s porkpie hat in French Connection to Chaplin’s bowler, Holmes’s deerstalker or Indiana Jones’ fedora, no hat is free of associations.
 
My own taste in hats is rather limited. I have a Stetson silk newsboy cap for autumn and winter (6842501 Col 317) and a Stetson cotton newsboy cap for spring and summer (6841106 Col 71). Stetson, based in Philadelphia, is the world’s largest hat maker and their newsboy caps are beyond compare. Add to this five cycling caps (four of which are Rapha), and that’s it.
 
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The newsboy cap, as the name suggests, is associated with street urchins – as is the French name “gavroche” – or gangsters. It is also called a Baker Boy, Bandit Cap, Apple Cap, Eight Piece Cap, Eight Panel, Cabbie, Jay Gatsby, Fisherman’s Cap, Pageboy, Applejack Hat, Lundberg Stetson, Chiz Hat and Poor Boy Cap.
 
As for cycling caps, they evolved from jockeys’ caps, are easy to carry and, in the Tour de France, provided a convenient billboard for sponsor publicity. It is a tragedy that they no longer form part of the kit, since the obligation to wear a helmet, and even though they shouScreen Shot 2017-08-05 at 16.53.50ld be worn on the podium, cyclists often choose the less refined baseball cap. A cycling cap provides good protection from wind and sun, and can be worn frontally, with visor up or down, or backwards to protect the neck, but never sideways (click here for an article on cycling cap etiquette). Furthermore, it should never be worn when not cycling.
 
Nowadays, there are no rules and hat wearing is pretty much a free-for-all. I photographed a few items of headwear, and the related heads, at the Saturday morning market in Loches (see below). Straw hats, Panamas, baseball caps, flat caps all seem to be standard for men, while women’s hats come in all shapes and sizes.
 
So even though they are no longer mandatory fashion accessories, in the words of the Joe Cocker song, “You can leave your hat on”.
 
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To err is human, to purr feline…

P1110330It seems that some of our casual acquaintances, observing the Greta Garbo Home for Wayward Cats and Dogs from a lofty and somewhat condescending distance, consider that it is “ridiculous” to have so many residents. Of course this is nobody’s business but our own, but in the interest of improved public relations I would like to make a few points.

Firstly, most or all of our 11 cats would have departed for the great cattery in the sky were it not for Geraldine’s intervention. She has a background in animal protection going back many years, previously in the Paris region, and has sometimes braved considerable dangers to save an animal. Here in the country, all our cats lead free, happy lives, roaming where they please without needlessly propagating their species, since they are all sterilised. Geraldine is also a former zookeeper, and was once responsible for bigger cats than these in the Vincennes zoo. She has quite literally downsized.

Secondly, my mother was born in central Bohemia and brought up on her parent’s smallholding where living with many animals was part of normal, everyday life. She brought that love of animals with her to London. In our small suburban house, there were dogs, cats, budgerigars, guinea pigs, pigeons, hamsters, mice and anything else that needed to be brought in from the cold and tended to. Our visitors might be surprised to be greeted by someone with a mouse up their sleeve or a budgerigar on their head, eating dandruff and declaiming “I’m a pretty boy!”, but such was life at 21 Portman Avenue. 

Recommended reading for anyone unfamiliar with such a household is of course Gerald Durrell’s 1956 autobiography My Family and Other Animals. I used to work with someone who had visited the Durrells when they lived in Bournemouth and had indelible memories of their wonderful, exotic menagerie.

Thirdly, there is the question of numbers. At what point does one close the door and so “No more!”? This could be a budgetary consideration. I calculate that feeding a cat costs no more than 3 euros a month, though veterinary bills can be steep. There are also associations that help animals in distress, for example Gamelle 37 in our part of the world. But the numbers factor is also subjective. When I first met the core collection of cats in the Paris suburbs, I was taken aback by the number of them – confined in a small 8th-floor flat, whereas they now roam free. But this impression disappears once one gets to know the animals personally. This of course is the great lesson of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, in his relationship with the fox:

“I am looking for friends. What does that mean – tame?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.” 

“To establish ties?” 

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world….” 

Lastly, living with animals is not just an act of charity. There is two-way communication and, without pretending to be Dr Dolittle, there is a lot we can learn from them philosophically and emotionally. Praise for cats is almost a literary genre in itself, from Colette to Dickens to T. S. Eliot to Perec, and so on.  But reflecting on the numbers question, I am reminded of the excellent writer and philosopher Paul Léautaud (1872-1956) – one of the great candid journal writers (see photos below) – who lived in relative poverty in a house in Fontenay-aux-Roses and welcomed abandoned animals into his humble abode, including nearly 300 abandoned cats. Let us close with his words:

Mon Dieu ! J’ai déjà pas mal écrit sur les chats. Je puis écrire encore. J’en ai eu tant autour de moi. A aujourd’hui, pas loin de trois cents, je crois bien. Chacun avec sa physionomie, ses manières, son caractère particuliers. Tout comme nous autres humains, je l’ai dit souvent.

Le mieux, c’est que je n’en ai choisi aucun, puisque tous me sont venus des hasards de la rue, malheureuses bêtes perdues ou abandonnées par des maîtres sans conscience, de ces gens qui prennent un jour un animal, chien ou chat, par fantaisie, et celle-ci passée, le mettent tranquillement à la rue, exposé à tous les risques comme à tous les besoins.

Translation:

My God! I’ve already written a lot about cats. I can write even more. I have had so many of them around me. To date, nearly 300, I believe. Each with his own physiognomy, manners, his particular character. Just like us human beings, as I have often said.

The best thing is that I didn’t choose any of them, because they all came by chance from the street, poor creatures lost or abandoned by their masters lacking in conscience – those people who adopt an animal one day, a dog or a cat, on a whim, and when the whim has passed, they calmly dump the animal in the road, exposed to all risks and to all needs.

 
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The Greta Garbo Home for Wayward Cats and Dogs

P1110287At The Greta Garbo Home for Wayward Cats and Dogs, we have 11 cats and 2 dogs. In addition, there are two “outpatient” dogs. All of the cats are strays, abandoned by their former masters and mistresses. One of the dogs was adopted because his elderly mistress developed dementia. The two latest cats to arrive, Angel Cake and Baby Love, were almost certainly dumped from cars by the lumberjack’s woodpile at the edge of the hamlet. In France, it is almost a national tradition to dump one’s pets before going on holiday, for lack of other solutions – and not wishing to pay for a kennel or cattery. Thus it is that, in common with one of our neighbours, we have become a default refuge for homeless and needy felines. To take one example, Baby Love was found trembling and emaciated, eating insects that had been crushed by cars on the road. Now she has food, a bed, a nice home, and she is not complaining.

A word about the naming of cats and dogs. It has always been my practice to provide different names for animals, as the spirit moves me, and for different reasons. Thus:

Noisette: aka Noisy-le-Sec, Noisy-le-Grand, Noisy-Noisette, Big Chief Little Noise (the latter drawing on “Noise-ette”, little noise, and the obvious addition of Big Chief, as in Big Chief Sitting Bull, etc.)

Alec, the dog: aka Professor Lillolman. This is a reference to his ageing, because at 16 he is not as limber as even a year ago, but he can still go for a one-hour walk, has perfect eyesight and hearing. The name, misheard as “Professor Little Old Man”, features in Mel Brooks’ film High Anxiety.

Dahjeeling: aka Poupounette, Poops, Poopsy-Daisy

Girofle: aka Gigi, Girophare (this cat has rights that the others do not, and can go and do whatever it likes, by special dispensation, i.e. because she’s my favourite)

Angel Cake, so-called because his colouring is precisely that of British Angel Cake

Bergamote: aka Brocante

Baby Love has the particularly of needing to be called not by the name alone, but by singing the entire 1964 Diana Ross and the Supremes in a loud falsetto. She has learnt to respond to this.

Our latest friend, the dog Marlowe (alluding to Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, but also Philip Marlowe in the novels of Raymond Chandler and the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) was called Merlin by his previous owner: the change of name marked a change of ownership, while remaining close enough to the ear for him to make the transition without distress. Prior to this, we had been considering calling him James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, but it did seem a bit of a mouthful.

Other residents are Chataigne “le chat le plus gentil dans le monde”, Félicie (“Aussi!” – an allusion to the Fernandel song), Myrtille (who replies “Oui!” when asked “C’est toi, Myrtille?”), Pounia the hermit, Cassis the “Black Panther”, and so on.

Who am I forgetting?

The two outpatients are Jeff and Jeffco, brothers and border collies who live imprisoned in an abandoned pig farm, supposedly performing the function of guard dogs, though there is nothing to guard. We acquired visiting rights, bring them toys and take them for walks. One of the dogs, Jeffco, is stone deaf and only knows what to do and where to go by carefully observing his hearing brother whom he has been known to mistake for a female.

It has been suggested to me that it confuses cats and dogs to have more than one name. However, I maintain that it makes them more intelligent because on hearing a name being called they have to think (“Hold on, is that her over there, or me – wait… ah yes, it’s my third name!”) The mental exercise is akin to doing crosswords or playing Scrabble.

I searched for a long time for a name for the fictitious cat in the book I am presently writing and eventually settled on “Chairman Miaow.”

Any other suggestions of witty cat or dog names?

The Gripes of Wrath

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The mother of all…

The pope recently objected to the giant bomb dropped on Afghanistan being described as the “mother of all bombs”, saying “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is happening?” The expression was also used for a demonstration in Venezuela recently, “the mother of all demonstrations”. It would seem that this expression was popularized by Saddam Hussein, who in 1991 called the Gulf War “the mother of all battles” and that it is Arabic in origin. However, an Internet search will show how other uses predate this. I also object to the expression when used to mean “an extreme example of something”, rather than an “originator”, because it has nothing to do with mothers. It is the only matter on which I and the pope agree.

Here are a few other recent languages gripes:

Accident and Incident

An “accident” is now often called an “incident”, which seems to me to minimize its importance or impact: click here for an example.

Likely

The American use of this word where in British English we would use “probably” is fine – in America. However, it has now infected the British press.

Looking to do something

Used to mean “expecting to” or “hoping to” or “planning to”. What is wrong with the aforementioned verbs?

Protest

I have heard “in protest of”, which is awful. There is also a very widespread use of “to protest something” instead of “to protest against something”. Is this American? Whatever it is, I protest.

Appeal

Another example of the preposition “against” being dropped. “LuxLeaks whistleblowers appeal sentences.” I’ve heard this so many times that I’m beginning to wonder if it is right or wrong, or if the words “right” and “wrong” even apply.

Multiple

“The victims were shot multiple times”. What’s wrong with “many” or “several”?

CIA-speak 

For example, “taking out a highly valued target”. Press reporting on real-world incidents is increasingly contaminated by CIA-speak, no doubt from the movies. It is often euphemistic in the worst possible sense, the above use of “highly valued” being a case in point. The “value” of the human target is presumably in death rather than in life. I would welcome other examples of CIA doublespeak that are now common journalistic currency.

How are you? I’m good.

Once again, fine – in America. But please do not import this pathetic replacement for “Very well thank you”. In either case, it’s generally a lie.

Can I get…

For example, when ordering a coffee. In fact, there is something very Starbucks about this depressing Americanism. Corrections: “Can I have..,”, “I’d like…”, “Could I have…” etc.

To gift

The use of this as a verb with an object, e.g. “He gifted her with a diamond ring” seems to me recent and wrong. Or once again, is it just American?

Signature

“The New Yorker offers a signature mix of reporting and commentary”. In my book, signature is not an adjective, yet this is how it is increasingly used, and it smacks of advertising jargon – like the substitution of “apparel” for “clothing” in upmarket garment ads.

Scapegoat

“Germans have been urged not to scapegoat migrants, after an Afghan youth was arrested over the rape and murder of a German student.” “Scapegoat” is not a verb.

To reach out

This is a sickening one. “She wrote me a nasty letter and I tried to reach out to her”, “CNN has reached out to him for further information”. Meaning “contact”, or “tried to contact”, the visual image accompanying this usage has connotations of kindness, generosity, appeasement that strike me as sentimental and inappropriate.

In our thoughts and prayers

This fixed expression, following a death or disaster, is so common that it has become glib, though one must allow for the fact that offering condolences is one of the situations in which the only thing one can often do is trot out worn phrases. It’s like speaking in code.

To walk

“He walked back some of that language last week.” What happened to the verb “retract” or “go back on” or “take back”? What does this have to do with walking? Cf. “Please walk us through these numbers” and “to walk the talk”, all drenched in the ennui of the boardroom.

To think out of the box

Anyone who uses this expression is doing the exact opposite of “thinking out of the box” in that they are simply using a cliché. I am reminded of the man talking to his cat as they both look at the litter tray: “Whatever you do, do NOT think out of the box!” The expression “to push the envelope” is equally jaded. Why not say “to think out of the envelope” or “to push the box”, just for variety’s sake?

Insecure

The expression “food insecure people”, meaning “people who are starving to death” (is this UN-speak?).

Incomplete information

The accession of Trump to the US presidency has led to a lot of language relating to fakery and lies. Thus Michael Flynn: “I inadvertently briefed the Vice-President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.” I love the “inadvertently” and “incomplete information”, as if he is exculpating himself twice in the same sentence. We all know what he really means. Here is another nice example of contemporary doublespeak: “He said Sessions did not make any misleading statements under oath during his confirmation hearings, but that he could have been more accurate in his responses to lawmakers.”

Back in the day

This seems to be a way of saying “In the past”, with the subtext that this was a very nice time. Not to be confused with “back in the days when…” in a larger context, which is fine. The earliest example comes from a 1986 Beastie Boys song, and the OED says it’s African-American. I don’t like it, so please stop it at once.

How about we…

For example, “How about we go see a movie?” Instead of “Why don’t we…?” or “Let’s…” or “What about…?” I don’t see any objection to “How about going to a movie?”, i.e. followed by a gerund to make a suggestion. But the “How about we…” strikes me as wrong.

In the many cases where the expressions I dislike are of American origin, my objection is not to their use in America, but to their adoption by Brits. There are few things as pitiful as someone ordering a coffee with “Can I get a macchiato?” with a British accent. A little flag goes up in my head, saying “He’s trying to be hip. He’s trying to be the exact opposite of what he is.”

So there we go, some of my recent “Gripes of Wrath”, bearing witness to the rapid decay of language and the feeling that Orwell on this subject should be required reading in every school. With America being presided over by a one-man language-composter,  abundant quantities of putrefying gripe fodder are now available on a daily basis.

Please feel free to correct me or add to these in the Comments box.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Badgers’ Bike Squad Probes a 1946 Murder Mystery

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 22.12.11Two days ago, Badgers’ Bike Squad was thunderstruck but profoundly and even obsequiously honoured to be awarded the Prix de l’Humour in the prestigious Beaugency Film Festival – proof, and it was needed, that the three of us were not living in a hermetically sealed waggish universe of our own making. In this riveting new video, the plucky Badgers set off from Saint-Flovier on an 80 km round-trip through the Brenne region, on the trail of a true post-war murder story that still gets tongues wagging here and throughout the length and breadth of France. Who killed gamekeeper Louis Boitard? Why were Raymond Mis and Gabriel Thiennot deemed to be guilty? Why was the château owner Jean Lebaudy so keen on reaching a speedy conclusion to the case? These are just some of the questions that cropped up in the course of our ride and got our little grey cells pedalling overtime. The investigation, led by Badger Po and abetted by Steve, himself a former real-life detective, is – as ever – interspersed with spontaneous mischief, monkey business and misadventure, from Yves’ mascot hitchhiker to Steve’s complimentary suncream massage and Adrian’s exploding inner tube – which so resembled a pistol-shot that he thought a hunter was taking pot-shots at him. Murder and mayhem courtesy of everyday life and Badger Po’s painstaking research, musical accompaniment courtesy of Carl Orff, pre-spring sunshine courtesy of the western world’s blithe indifference to rampant global warming. For verily, après moi le déluge… Click here to view the video.

Badgers’ Bike Squad – With Apprentice Badger Brice

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 21.37.42March 2, 2017. The Badgers are joined by artist Brice Desrez for a round trip from Saint-Senoch, taking in Saint Flovier, Charnizay, Le Petit Pressigny, La Celle Guenand, Ferrière Larçon and Esves le Moutier. Will Brice remain a “Badger for a Day”, or is he made of sterner stuff? Indeed, is he destined to become a true Apprentice Badger? How far is Yves prepared to go in his increasingly convincing imitation of Po from Tellytubbies? On the road, can any of them keep up with Adrian? Watch the video to find out! The route is 51km but very hilly, with coffee-stops and lunch to ease the pain. Plus, a special feature on a daredevil aspect of Yves’ cycling technique – unique for its physical prowess and heroic intrepidity –  captured on video for the very first time! (Good job there weren’t any rose bushes around!)

Click here to view the video. 

Badger’s Bike Squad in the Parc de la Brenne

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 Click HERE to view the new Badger’s Bike Squad video.

This week, historian and impresario extraordinaire Yves Krier chose the route and took us to the Parc de la Brenne, one of the biggest and most serene nature reserves in central France, famous for its extensive lakes and the variety of birds. We rode our bikes from Preuilly-sur-Claise to Bossay-sur-Claise, Lureuil, Douadic, Rosnay, the Château du Bouchet, Saint-Michel-en-Brenne, Azay le Ferron, and back to the same café we left from in Preuilly.

Though Steve doesn’t like flat landscapes and had various things to carp about – except the excellent battered carp we had for lunch! – we enjoyed the trip, meeting interesting people, enjoying local culinary specialities, and engaging – as ever – in creatively inane conversations and intriguing misunderstandings.

Forget the Famous Five and Secret Seven. We are, as Yves has christened us, “The Three Dicks”, possibly without realising the impact of this phrase on anglo-saxon ears. A shame in a way. We started as the Three Musketeers, transformed into Three Men on Their Bikes, and now … The Three Dicks? Well, so be it. As Steve has decreed, in his infinite wisdom, “Death is the Only Condition in Which Surrender is Acceptable”…

Bloody hell, how did I get into this? Anyway, both Yves and Steve had a keen eye for the local bird life on this particular trip, as this modest video discloses.

Badger’s Bike Squad – Descartes Wheels

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A new Badger’s Bike Squad video is online: click here to view it.

Badger’s Bike Squad cycles a 73-kilometre round trip from Descartes, birthplace of the philosopher, through some of the prettiest villages in Southern Touraine and blessed with balmy weather. Steve and Yves engage in an insane competition to be the best historical storyteller, casting all respect for truth and honesty to the winds. This was Steve’s choice of route, and we all agreed that it was one of the best we’ve done. Thanks, maestro! For previous badgerish adventures, just type “Badger’s Bike Squad” on YouTube. If you work for HBO or Time Warner, please get in touch asap before the media jackals pounce on the movie rights in the imminent bidding feeding frenzy – gosh, it’s a jungle out there!

Click here: Badger’s Bike Squad – Descartes Wheels

Badger’s Bike Squad – Cold Warriors

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-09-18-23Another Badger’s Bike Squad video is online. Click here to view it!

Badger, it’s cold outside!

Badger’s Bike Squad braves temperatures around minus 4C, cycling 60 km from Saint Hippolyte to Bridoré, then on to Saint Flovier, Châtillon-sur-Indre, Le Tranger, and back to Saint Hippolyte. On the way, a stirring mix of adventures and misadventures, accidents and incidents, unexpected encounters, a couple of châteaux, some churches, a light sportsmans’ lunch, and the inimitable waggish jokes, franglais and badinage of the celebrated misspelt triumvirate, “les trois moustiquaires”: Badger (Resident President), “Slipstream” Yves-el Knievel (Cultural Secretary), St Eve (State-Registered Jester and Super-Hero at the Court of King Badger).

Despite a few slight cultural friction burns, deft feats of tact and humour – and the boundless good cheer of the Three Men on Their Bikes – help keep Anglo-French relations on an even keel to remain afloat another day! (Please contact us for our fees and availability for important international diplomatic missions and/or children’s birthday parties).

View the video.

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Badger’s Bike Squad – Dawn to Dusk!

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A new Badger’s Bike Squad video is online! 

Badger’s Bike Squad – Dawn to Dusk!

It was Yves Krier’s turn to define our route. He took us in the footsteps of the Plantagenets – La Chapelle du Liget, La Chartreuse du Liget, Le Corroirie. All interlinked 12th-century monastic foundations, with connections to the Plantagenet empire. However, he then got us seriously lost, almost to the point of missing lunch – a totally unBadgerish risk to take. We rode home at nightfall, dodging cars and trucks on a busy road and in the rain. Yves – we’ll buy you a watch and a map for your birthday! But thank you for your erudition, even if you did make it all up. And Badger’s Bike Squad survives to pedal forth valiantly another day…

Click here to view it.

© 2017 Adrian Mathews