Thursday, 3 September 2015

223. Memorial for 2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF

I've mentioned my interest in and involvement with a local association "Les amis du réseau Comète" ("The Friends of the Comet Line") in earlier posts here. The Comet Line was a network set up during WWII by Andrée De Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of enabling Allied aircrew who had been shot down in northern Europe to be repatriated back to Britain from Gibraltar. This laudable aim was achieved via a thread of volunteer helpers that stretched from Brussels, Paris, the Pays Basque and on into Francoist Spain.

The history of Comète contains many individual stories of heroism, courage and adventure by innumerable brave souls - both civil and military. These shining examples of 'grace under pressure' were counterbalanced by many unspeakably brutal acts by an opponent whose savage deeds were a barbaric throwback to medieval times. Several books have been written on the subject and there are also many personal accounts available online.

During the course of the annual commemorative weekend, "Les amis" retrace the old routes over the Pyrenees. Before other inland routes were pioneered, the original route taken by the Comète guides and the evaders led from Ciboure (close to St-Jean-de-Luz) up into the mountains before descending to cross the Bidassoa, the river that marks the frontier between France and Spain. After crossing the river, the evaders would make their way to a safe farm where they would be fed before taking a well-deserved rest.

During the course of reading the accounts of these crossings (one of which is Peter Eisner's excellent "The Freedom Line"), I became aware that two men were tragically drowned  during their attempt to cross the wintry Bidassoa on the night of 23-24th December 1943

One was Count Antoine d'Ursel, a Belgian civilian who had formerly been the head of Comète in Belgium. The other was 2nd Lt James Frederick Burch, USAAF, a 27 year old native of Terrell, Texas, who had been shot down in his B-17F over Holland on 10th October 1943.
2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF
(taken 4 days before being shot down)
Trying to ascertain the facts of this tragedy with any degree of reasonable certainty at this remove (70 years after the event), at a time when little or nothing was committed to paper (for obvious reasons), is made more than usually difficult by the circumstances of that night. 'After action' reports were written - but given the darkness, the language difficulties, that the river was in flood, the fact that the evaders came under fire from the Spanish side, the fear and the fatigue, it is not surprising that the accounts differ in the detail.

Count d'Ursel's widow later caused a memorial (right) to her husband to be erected on the banks of the Bidassoa and, as an example of how we can sometimes be blind to the obvious, I unthinkingly accepted the fact that there was no memorial to Jim Burch. It was only after reading more into the events of that night that caused me to ask myself "Why no memorial to Jim?".

I put this short video together to shed some light on what happened that night - best viewed in full screen:

Yes, there's a memorial to Count d'Ursel but, sadly and unaccountably, there is not one for Jim. We, in "Les Amis..", decided that even 70 years on, that his sacrifice and his passing merited a memorial so that future generations may be prompted to ask who, what and why. Accordingly, we have started a project to provide a memorial on the river bank to Jim Burch, the only aviator to lose his life while in Comète's hands. 

We have just found a stonemason who will furnish us with a granite memorial stone, engrave a suitable inscription and set it up at the riverside. We are therefore launching an appeal for donations to finance this project. At the time of writing (3rd September) we already have a healthy number of donations. The drop down menu below has 4 options: 10€, 25€, 50€ & 100€. Please give generously.. 

Donate to Jim Burch memorial

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

222. Farewell to a great lady

1st September. I've just been out with the dog and even though the temperature has dropped from the mid thirties to ~20°, the humidity is still right up there. According to an online site it is 86% right now. It feels like it too!

30th August. Another baking hot day - it was still 35° in the shade at 7.30pm.

Gracy Florence
It was the funeral of Gracy Florence, the former mayor of Espelette on Saturday, 22nd August. We met her 3 years ago when the annual Comète weekend saw us gather in Espelette. This small village that's Basque to its fingertips played a key part in the story of the Comète Line - as it was the focus of several inland routes that had to be developed after the arrests of Andrée De Jongh, the founder of the entire network, and others at Bidegain Berri farm (near Urrugne).

After a ceremony of remembrance in front of the War Memorial, Mme Florence had spoken without notes, simply and movingly, of the spirit that motivated those of the network. I remember that we were left afterwards with the impression that we'd been in the presence of a very remarkable woman.

The funeral was equally remarkable and that the church of St Etienne was packed to the rafters was in itself a testament to the power of her personality and the deep love and affection in which she was held by her family and her many friends. We'd arrived early at 8.50am and were lucky to find a pew at the back of the church. By 10am, it was standing room only with all three galleries packed. The service was in Basque and there was a Basque choir in place - and the power of their singing made for a deep and moving ceremony. I think many large lumps were swallowed by those present. What a way to leave this world - surrounded by friends and with singing like this that raised goose pimples on me. I'm sure the family would have been comforted by the strength of the feeling of the community around them.  

The chief mourners were led to their seats by the former rugby international Pierre Dospital (Peyo). A mighty Basque and legendary prop forward from the early 80s, he still possesses a formidable physical presence. He welcomed me into the church with a handshake that was akin to shaking hands with a jambon de Bayonne..! Yes, I may well be taller than him but he's built like a solid oak wardrobe! Would I have liked to have faced him in a rugby match as the two front rows locked horns? This picture (right) might provide the answer..

It struck me that Florentino Goikoetxea - Comète's own Basque mountain man who led so many aviators to safety across the Pyrenees must have been cast from the same mould. They make them tough around here. As I've often said here - the Basques love to sing.. and here's Peyo with his choir's version of that old folk song "The water is wide".. 

29th August.. Oops! Welcome to the "Egg on Face" Dept.. Looking on the bright side (I've never seen the point of pessimism), over the two matches England outscored France by 5 tries to 2. However, credit where it's due - France outplayed England for long periods and it was only after some substitutions that England came alive.. It would have been a travesty if they'd managed to win the game in extra time (as they threatened to do). In 2003, England went into the World Cup ranked No 1.. being diplomatic, I'd say that Stuart Lancaster has a few selection problems. The team he sent out looked like headless chickens for so long.. and straight from the kick off, France looked like they meant business. This is painful to watch if you're an England supporter. Fortunately it was a "friendly"..

I had an outing this morning in an octuple (an VIII sculler). With the humidity, it took only minutes before rivulets of sweat were dripping off my ear lobes, my nose and my eyebrows.. It made for an uncomfortable morning.. We did 17km and I was happy to see the clubhouse again.   

It's a baking 37° as I write.. the dog is flat out on the tiles and I'll be joining him shortly..

19th August. After returning from a couple of weeks away in the UK (6100km in 2 weeks), it's impossible to describe the sense of anticipation I felt at the prospect  at the first of the two friendlies between England and France last Saturday evening.

Here's Sam Burgess - all 6'5" (1.95m) and 18 stone (115kg) of him - extending the warmest of welcomes to two of the French team - captain Dimitri Szarzewski and centre Alexandre Dumoulin. He's the latest import to join the Union code from Rugby League and he looks a very powerful centre indeed.. If this is the Entente Cordiale, I'm all for more of the same in the second match to be played this coming Saturday. Please - no phone calls during the game!

It should be noted that winger Jonny May is the only player who keeps his place from the first match. The XV that coach Lancaster has selected looks extremely businesslike and I would not be at all surprised to see England run in a few tries. 

Some very familiar names appear: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester); J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton); J Haskell (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens).

I don't see France continuing the forward domination they demonstrated last Saturday. It should be a cracking match..

Monday, 22 June 2015

221. Le massif de l'Esterel

11th July 2015. Here's a short guide to the beaches between St-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye on the Côte Basque:

9th July 2015. The annual madness that is the Feast of San Fermin is well underway just across the border in Pamplona. In the third video you can see that slippery stone sets combine dangerously with a solitary bull.. Feel like proving your manhood? (or perhaps losing it!☺) Step right this way..!

Hemingway in 
Spain 1923
I don't pretend to like bullfighting - far from it - but, like it or not, it must be admitted that, in an increasingly homogenised world, the whole spectacle of the Feast of San Fermin at Pamplona is one of the last authentic remaining folk festivals in Europe. It combines the fascination of Mediterranean man with the bull, religious mysticism, alcohol, bravado and death. That's an unusual combination by anyone's standards. San Fermin gained much renown and notoriety via its promotion by Hemingway with the publishing of his book "The Sun Also Rises". Hemingway - a man who could have kept a psychiatrists convention entertained for several months - found that the excesses of San Fermin provided the perfect antidote for his particular personality. I'll leave it there!

I was in Biriatou on Tuesday - a village that's said of it that anyone finding themselves there is either lost or a local who lives there. One of the most charming villages I've found in the Pays Basque, it's on a bluff overlooking the river Bidassoa that separates France from Spain. There's an auberge that I stopped at for a coffee - the Auberge Hiribarran.. Unchanged for decades inside, with a dining room that overlooks a stunning view and with a "spoilt for choice" menu, it looks like a prime candidate for a visit!   

26th June 2015. This is a lady whose voice has the power to hypnotise.. She's also extremely funny..
22nd June 2015. Even if you've never sat in a rowing boat, I'm sure you'll enjoy this short video.. It's the explosive final of the mens' VIIIs from Varese in Italy yesterday. For years, Germany has been the reference - the VIII to beat - and yesterday they were beaten. After a race like this, none of the oarsmen would have anything left in the tank.. and there's only one thing that makes the total exhaustion worthwhile - and that's winning.    

20th June 2015. I was saddened to hear on the lunchtime news today of the death of that great American writer James Salter. I discovered his work only a few years ago and I wish I'd found it sooner. I greatly envied his ability in his first book ("The Hunters") to nail all the disparate elements that combine to form military aviation. If you're unfamiliar with his work, I would suggest that "The Hunters" would make a good starting point. His later books repay slow reading as they're densely written. At the moment I'm re-reading "Burning the Days" and taking my time.. line by line.. I found I missed the richness of his prose the first time around by my usual speed-reading and I had to learn to pace myself. He had the knack of being able to paint pictures with the minimum of words, his imagery was memorable and, perhaps most importantly, he had the uncanny ability to articulate our unexpressed thoughts - well, mine anyway. No-one else wrote quite like him.    

"Once in a great while, a talented writer survives combat to produce a work of literature. Rarest of all is a literary novel written by a blooded fighter pilot. In the English language, perhaps two works truly qualify. One is Winged Victory by Victor Yeates, who flew Sopwith Camels and brought down five Germans in the First World War. The other is The Hunters by James Salter. Salter tells the story of Captain Cleve Connell who arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill—sometimes under dubious circumstances — Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war."

If military aviation isn't for you, try "Burning the Days".. He wrote beautifully about France as the NY Times explains: "And for the evocations of places, and especially of France, "the incomparable taste of France, given then so I would always remember it. I know that taste, the yellow headlights flowing along the road at night, the towns by a river, the misty mornings." And Paris: "Early morning. Its cool breath astonishingly fresh. Its elegance and ancient streets, its always staggering price. The sound of early traffic. The sky blemishless and wide." This the expatriate's France: Salter knows that the secret is never to pretend you belong there."

Here he is interviewed in the Guardian.. and some of his quotes.

10th June 2015. Busy catching up with life after a week away in the Massif de l'Esterel. This is another of those blessed and much-visited corners of France and it's situated between the Mediterranean and Provence. We stayed at a hilltop hotel (with views to die for) near Les-Adrets-de-l'Esterel to the north of Saint Raphaël. I'll get around to posting a few photographs one day.. Meanwhile, have a look here.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

220. La Tantina de la Playa, Bidart

Thursday, 28th May. A few months back I was browsing YouTube looking for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 (2nd Movement) - a well-known piece that was one of my father's favourites - and I stumbled upon Yuja Wang's interpretation of this most lyrical of piano concertos. I'll never complain about China's exports again!

Here she is again with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 3 - a notoriously difficult piece:
For those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh for the Festival in summer, she'll be playing at the Queens Hall on 26th August. (Other concert dates here)

Monday, 25th May. Went to see Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" at the Theatre du Midi in Biarritz on Saturday.. The theatre is housed in the magnificent former Gare du Midi that served Biarritz during la Belle Epoque and it seemed to be sold out for the performance.

The former railway station has to be seen to be believed.. Built at a time when Biarritz was the preferred summer watering hole of many of Europe's crowned heads of state, the sheer style, power, originality and grandeur of its architecture is still able to induce involuntary jaw-dropping in all but the most jaded of onlookers. I've not seen another building quite like it anywhere. One hundred years on, we seem to have lost confidence in our ability to express the vitality and spirit of our age -  eg, look here and here - but that's another story.

There were over 400 musicians and choristes on the stage. I was familiar with the opening and closing movements of the piece known as "O Fortuna" but the other elements were all new to me.. I have to say that much of it was wasted on your correspondent.. in fact, I was enjoying a temporary out-of-body experience during it until Madame woke me up with a well-placed nudge..! Listen to the whole thing here and see what you think:

Tuesday, 19th May. Two things I've been meaning to do here.. The first is to post in date order - with the newest entries at the top.. Don't know why it's taken me so long!

The second is something I've also been meaning to mention here for a long time and that is the difference in the rules in France that govern the use of credit cards (like Visa) compared to how they are managed in the UK - and perhaps elsewhere. 

In the UK, the credit card companies would constantly dangle the benefits of gold and platinum cards in front of me. They were marketed there as indicating not only your financial but also your social status. (Question: why is it that this phrase - non modo... sed etiam- is the only fragment of Latin that remains lodged in some dusty recess of my skull some 55 years after it was embedded there?!)    

* not only..  but also..

Anyway, to continue, I also found that these glittering cards would arrive unasked for and that, unlike my salary, my credit limit was constantly evolving upwards - again, unasked for.. There was never any pressure to post a cheque to pay off the outstanding debt at the end of the month - and why should there have been? (as the credit card companies ratchet up their interest rates on outstanding credit balances and I suspect this is where they make their money.)

Here, as in so many other aspects of life, things are different. At the end of the month, my Visa Carte Bleue* automatically extracts the outstanding balance from my bank account - and running over the line into the red is Streng verboten    here. Simple. No more sleepless nights.. Works for me..

* It's a debit card but my bank account is only debited at the end of the month. I find this approach gives me more peace of mind as I'm not tempted (or allowed!) to let any spending carry over into future months.  

Sunday, 17th May. We had a recommendation from a friend a few weeks ago about La Tantina de la Playa - a fish restaurant that overlooks the sea at Bidart..(just to the south of Biarritz). We thought we'd try and find it yesterday and take a look at its menu. It looked promising so we booked a table for lunch today.

This is not somewhere that you'd find by accident, it being approached via a tangle of narrow roads before finishing up with a winding descent of the cliffs - with the sea within touching distance, front and centre.. (the address for your GPS is Rue de la Plage, 64210 Bidart) There was only limited parking space down below as we found today so after dropping off Madame and the dog, I squeezed through the tight press of manoeuvring cars and went back up the steep road and was lucky to find a vacant spot within the same time zone.. In the height of summer, parking must be a real problem.  

I think the restaurant has been repainted since the above photo was taken - but with the stunning views of the ocean outside, I doubt if many diners would be scrutinising the décor. The restaurant is on the upper floor of an admittedly unattractive concrete building (left) that looks out on the pounding surf below. 

I won't bore you with the details of what we had - suffice to say we'll definitely be returning. All I'd say is that if you are ever in the vicinity and are looking for a great seafood restaurant with a stunning west-facing sea view, La Tantina de la Playa will not disappoint. OK, I did say I wouldn't bore you with the details but this is what we had as a starter (minus the baked potato and tomato):
The only slight downside is that there's no set menu, it's all à la carte. Reviews here. As French diners traditionally vote with their feet, we were reassured by the fact that there wasn't an empty table to be seen.   

If you intend to visit with your current loved one (or soon-to-be loved one) for a 'special' dinner in the evening, the thing to do would be to look at the time of sunset at Bidart (try here - the things I do for you!) and try and book a window table for perhaps 45 minutes earlier..