Monday, 3 February 2020

276. The dawn of a new era

19th February. I stumbled upon some early Dylan songs on YouTube earlier - and this album contains many of them.    

15th February. I see that the UK is reportedly in talks with the Chinese over giving Beijing's state-owned railway builder a role in constructing the HS2 high-speed rail line.

While this would probably represent the most cost-effective solution, it's a shameful indictment of just how much of the UK's ability to manage and deliver large infrastructure projects has withered away. Once upon a time, the UK introduced railways to a waiting world - and now, after decades of neglect, under-investment, years of muddled strategic thinking and the inability of UK politicians of all persuasions to think beyond the here and now - we've arrived at the end game. Chickens have come home to roost. Sadly, and tragically for the UK, it appears that we no longer have the ability to build a high speed rail network. Note, we're not talking about manned space flight here - but merely trains that can run at high speed - safely - on purpose built track. It's yet another worrying straw in the wind - similar to the RMS Queen Mary 2 being built at Chantiers de l'Atlantique, Saint-Nazaire and the more recent disquiet over Huawei's potential involvement with 5G networks in the UK. 

14th February. I heard a story on the radio earlier today that reminded me of something that happened to me fairly recently. 

I was riding on a train in the Paris Metro (one of those ultra-quiet ones with the rubber tyres) and I was standing by one of the doors swaying with the motion when I felt someone's eyes on me.

I looked up and an elegant Parisienne (somewhere in her forties) sitting a few seats away from me was giving me one of 'those' looks with a single raised quizzical eyebrow. (gulp!)

Being a Brit, I turned away (as you do!) to look out of the window - but a few moments later I turned back to look at her and her smokey eyes were still fixed on me.

At moments like this, it's inevitable that all kinds of scenarios flash through your (OK, my!) head.. but then she stood up and walked over to me and asked, "Would you like my seat?"

Why - what else did you think she was going to say?

12th February. Just back from a quick trip to the Spanish supermarkets here and my world toppled when noticed that Glenmorangie 10 year old (aka my favourite dram that I've been drinking for 45+ years) (I know - I'm a slow drinker!) has rocketed up in price - it's now 42€/litre.. I was at a friend's the other night and he offered me a glass of Speyburn 10 year old Single Malt. I normally add a splash of water to lengthen the taste but I didn't.. Even so, it struck me as an interesting dram and I resolved to see if I could find it in Spain.

Wow - and there it was - and at 23.99€/litre (£20.14 at today's rate - shorely shome mishtake!), it's just over half the price of Glenmorangie. I'll be interviewing the bottle shortly.. It gets quite a good review here

Well, I added some water to it - and it's clearly a Single Malt - but I'd have to say that it has fewer of those honeyed heathery notes of the sublime Glenmorangie - but then, it's not far off half the price. At £20 / litre I think it's excellent value for money. Madame is not so sure - but my question is how many drinkable Speyside Single Malts do you know at this price? Here's one I wouldn't thank you for - I'd say Speyburn is at least a step or two up from it. Judging by this review, the jury's still out on Speyburn. I'll have another go at it later in the week.

9th February. Here's a little treat for you - the 1964 Newport Folk Festival when Pete Seeger introduced a 23 year old Bob Dylan with his tour de force song "Hey Mr Tambourine Man" to a spellbound audience - a complex song that defies categorisation with its staggeringly rich imagery (starts at 1:14):

Here's Bob with the song from his "Bringing it all back home" album (1965). 

8th February. Post-match addendum: Well, I'm happy to admit that I got the outcome of the Ireland v Wales match wrong. In the end, Ireland ran out convincing 24-14 winners (video highlights here). I'm happy with that because I freely admit to not being a fan of Welsh rugby.

Calcutta Cup
In a windswept and rain-swept Murrayfield, England emerged victorious from a hard-fought 13-6 win against a well-motivated Scotland side in horrible conditions (video highlights here). It wasn't a match for the purists though but I suppose with a greasy ball and a swirling wind we were never going to see a festival of running rugby. I recorded the match but I can't imagine any circumstances that could possibly tempt me to watch it again - but well done England for a gritty performance - they were worthy winners of the Calcutta Cup played in appropriately monsoon-like conditions.

Here's England legend Brian Moore's podcast with his analysis of the weekend's matches.

7th February. The Guinness 6 Nations Rugby Tournament kicks off again tomorrow with all four Home nations in action. Ireland welcome Wales to Dublin at 1415 GMT - my money's on Wales to win - after which at 1645 GMT Scotland will fancy their chances against an England XV that was strangely out of sorts against France last week. I think this will be a very close match and the Murrayfield effect is not to be under-estimated. Eddie Jones will have done very well if he comes away with the points.   

I hope we're all allowed to be a little sentimental from time to time. Just as well - because I had Radio Nostalgie Best of 60s playing in the background this morning and Richard Anthony's version of "500 Miles" came on. I was once out in the Mid-West when I heard the distant wail of a train whistle at night across the lonely prairie.. and it seemed like the most evocative sound I'd ever heard. (More here).

I remember Madame telling me years ago that this great song had been one of her favourites - so here it is:
Here's an earlier version of Hedy West's song by The Journeymen in 1961.. 

4th February. This song of Bill Withers reaches out to me at the moment.
3rd February. The rugby world was stood on its head yesterday when England (2nd in the recent Rugby World Cup) was taken to the cleaners in Paris in just about every department by a young but very capable French XV coached by Fabien Galthié, Raphaël Ibañez and Shaun Edwards. The match finished 24-17.

England coach Eddie Jones made a rod for his own back by announcing prior to the game that England was going to visit severe brutality on the French - an ill-advised statement that to this armchair coach at least would serve only to inspire les Bleus. England were minus the Vunipola Bros and they also lost Manu Tuilagi after 15 minutes. It has to be said that England were woeful while France played a fluent aggressive match with creativity, quick line speed and safe handling. After the initial French onslaught, England looked shocked, clueless and a leaderless rabble - and it was only thanks to some individual brilliance by Jonny May that they were able to register some points - points that, in my opinion, flattered them. The normally reliable Owen Farrell had a rare off-day - perhaps as a result of a big 'hit' earlier that seemed to distract him.

Two French players stood out (but there were more) - Charles Ollivon, a powerful 1m99 (6ft6") flanker from nearby Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle who scored two tries and Antoine Dupont, who sparkled at No 9. I think the Wales v France match on 22nd February will play a major part in deciding where the title finishes up.
1st February. Yes, while I might be many miles away from England down here in the Pays Basque, even from this distance I can sense there's been a tangible lifting of the mood among the majority of the population of the UK. Of course, there are those who continue to re-visit old battlegrounds with their tired old arguments that we had to endure during the last 3½ years but soon even they will come to recognise that the banging sound they can hear is the sound that the Brexit horse has bolted for good from the EU stable. 

Thursday, 2 January 2020

275. The Hindsight Year

31st January. The thermometer on the terrace (in the shade) was registering a very welcome 19°C late this afternoon. I've just been reminded that it's "Chandeleur" on Sunday - in other words, crêpes-a-go-go! This means break out the fat boy pants!
One unfortunate result of our coughing and spluttering this past week has been the unavoidable cancellation of our long-awaited visit to our friends in Biarritz for ze Crunch! Always an entertaining day, full of laughter, comments, enlightenment and the pleasures of the table - but sadly, not this year. 

Tonight sees the culmination of 3½ years of political battling, obfuscation, foot-dragging and the use of any and every Parliamentary tactic (aided and abetted by a shamelessly partisan Speaker) designed to slow down and/or halt the democratic process resulting from the seismic outcome of the 2016 Referendum. At last, the country - prompted by the electorate - has democratically (that word again) chosen the path of self-determination instead of settling for the slow managed decline into insignificance preferred by many from the metropolitan political and media "elite". The preferred option of this elite for our country was for it to exist as a premium fare-paying passenger on the undemocratic EU gravy train that is heading for an idealistic dream of being a global power on a par with the US - but minus the fundamental democratic processes, checks and balances that underpin that Great Democracy. The impeachment case that currently beleaguers Donald Trump is evidence enough that even the president is accountable to the people and his actions are not above the scrutiny of the law. I hold no brief either for or against the incumbent - but this is exactly as it should be.

The world as imagined by John Lennon works fine in a pop song but watching the nation states of Europe subjugate themselves and the freedom of their citizens to this bureaucratic regime (run in Brussels by unelected opportunist political pygmies) in exchange for a few pieces of silver has been an unedifying spectacle. God help them.

If you read nothing else about Brexit, I would urge you to read this powerful piece by Melanie Phillips.. it says everything that needs to be said on this day of days.

This great hymn "Jerusalem" (based on a poem by William Blake) encapsulates what many of us think about our homeland - and it needs no introduction.. (it always sends a shiver through me)

As Martin Luther King Jr said, "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last."

28th January. The annual rugbyfest that is the 6 Nations tournament (English version here) kicks off this weekend. First up on Saturday, it's Wales v Italy followed by Ireland v Scotland - then on Sunday, we're off to Biarritz to watch France v England with A & V, our French friends - always an enjoyable occasion regardless of the outcome! Hopefully, it will be him shouting at the TV - not me.

Had a special treat yesterday lunchtime - Madame caught me by surprise when she served me with some truffled boudins blancs - served with sautéed apple - fresh from Montauzer's new premises smack bang in the centre of Bayonne (above). This was a major mmmm moment! (whatever I did to deserve this, I'm going to keep doing it - once I know what it was!)

27th January. The lunchtime news today led off with a report on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We're supposed to forgive and forget - but I feel unable to. I don't see how either are possible.

No choir practice for me tonight - I've somehow managed to pick up a bug over the past few days and my voice is not much more than a croak - plus there's are all the usual joint pains - and I'm coughing for Britain. Dr Glenmorangie's Patent Restorative has so far been unable to make an impact on any of my symptoms - we've had Whisky Macs and hot toddies but to no avail - so I guess I'll just have to keep trying.

24th January. Is the cold getting to you? Joints getting a bit stiff? Problems wid de articulamations? Here's the late, great Miriam Makeba with her global 1967 hit, "Pata Pata".. she'll soon have your feet tapping again!

21st January. Spotted in French Entrée magazine: "A study of data that has taken two years to compile has named the best – and worst – places to live in France. The Villes et villages où il fait bon vivre association assessed eight key areas: education, shops and services, health, sports and leisure, solidarity, quality of life, and transport. The 34,841 municipalities of France were ranked based on data provided by the National Statistics Office and, controversially, did not take residents’ views into account.

The winner of the coveted top spot of the category for towns or cities with more than 2000 inhabitants was Annecy, in the Haute-Savoie, closely followed by Bayonne, La Rochelle, Angers and Le Mans. In this category, Biarritz, Anglet and Pau also scored highly.

In the category for locations with fewer than 2000 inhabitants the top three were Peltre, Guéthary and Martinvast." Look up your village/town here.

I have to say that Annecy is a genuinely beautiful town set on a spectacular lake - we visited it a while back - but Bayonne is in the warm South! - and it's far more affordable - and it's a real living working community.. as opposed to Annecy which, without wishing to be unkind, had something of the feel of a retirement home.

It could be argued that those conducting the survey should have included climate, the job market and the property market as factors. One downside to Bayonne is the high humidity - and the Côte Basque is notoriously difficult from an employment perspective.

Still no reply or even an acknowledgement from Bill Wiggin MP to my email of 7th January proposing that the UK offers assistance to the Australian government to combat the fires raging throughout the country.

Haggis, clampit tatties & bashed neeps
(decode extra!)
This week will see the slaughter of thousands of innocent haggis in readiness for this coming Saturday when Burns Night (video here) will be celebrated throughout the length and breadth of Scotland as well as by all those exiled Scots around the world wishin' they were hame. This is also one occasion when this particular Sassenach wishes that he could be north of the border to enjoy this most über-Scottish of celebrations.

For those who curl their lips at the idea of eating this Caledonian delicacy, let me simply say that it is truly de-lic-ious - and it tastes even better when accompanied by a dram or several of mountain dew - aka the Great Scottish Blended or Single Malt Restorative Compound (you know what I'm talkin' about!). On a winter's night, what could be better?

Make no mistake - it has to be Scotch whisky. Would you consider buying a bottle of Polish claret, a Mexican Rolex or a pair of Chinese Levis? Of course you wouldn't. Yes, there are now several distillers around the world offering up their products and calling them Whisky - or Single Malt Whisky (here are but two examples - here and here) but trust me, we're talking chalk and cheese here. Buy a bottle to offer to your friends - saving the genuine article for yourself. I've tried both of the examples above and I can honestly say that they're not even close.

I remember one enjoyable Burns Night aeons ago when whisky was served before, during and after the meal. The funny thing was, the next day I suffered no noticeable battle damage - none whatsoever. For me, it's fatal to mix whisky with wine.       

I was down at the beach a day or two ago early in the morning to give Nutty his morning run and it was a bracing 1°C..!

I'm honoured and privileged to have been invited to the Château Vieux in Bayonne this coming Thursday for the Galette des Rois ceremony. The Château Vieux is situated in the heart of Bayonne and it's currently the Mess of the 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1er RPIMa) as well as housing the personal quarters of its Officer Commanding. I was there last year and there were a few lantern-jawed paras present who looked straight out of Central Casting! (think "Rambeau"!)

19th January. We went out to a concert yesterday evening to see David Krakauer and the Chamber Orchestra of Nouvelle Aquitaine at the Quintaou Theatre, AngletDavid Krakauer is an American clarinetist who performs klezmer, jazz, classical music, and avant-garde improvisation. To be absolutely honest, we both preferred the playing of the clarinetist in the orchestra to that of the soloist.

This is how the piece should be played (starts at 12.33) - with the clarinetist showing the instrument's capability to produce that wonderfully liquid tone. I'm no expert but to both of us, the soloist last night had the instrument shrieking in a way that didn't do justice to this great piece.

Still, we both enjoyed the experience of live music.. I've become so used to listening to music either from CDs or via YouTube these days that the difference was really remarkable.. particularly in the strings. I think YouTube recordings capture only the centre part of the frequency bandwidth required to give a faithful rendition of the sound. The experience made us both want to attend more concerts.

Meanwhile, here's one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel tracks..
15th January. Still waiting for a response (or even an acknowledgement) from Bill Wiggin, my MP, to my proposal that the UK takes the initiative in helping to provide whatever aid the Australian Govt deems necessary. Whichever way you look at it, this is a major catastrophe.

12th January. I offer this to you all as a freebie! - in full knowledge that it might not be your cup of tea.. It's Nostalgie Best of 60s - it's a good mix of great French and English songs from the 60s. You'll probably have to disable your ad-blockers to access the site from this link.

10th January. No reply as yet from my MP.

8th January. This is a beautiful contemplative piece from J S Bach - his Adagio in D Minor, BWV 974 - played here on a harpsichord by Olga Pashchenko - it starts at 2:50..

7th January. Given the extent of the Australian bush fires that have been - and still are - sweeping the country, I asked myself the other day why hasn't there been a coordinated international effort to try and bring these fires under control and bring assistance of all kinds to the community? Here in Europe there are countries - like France for example - that possess numerous firefighting aircraft (like these Canadairs) - and I remember seeing similar but more capacious aircraft in service in the US. From a practical perspective, it would be a simple matter to deploy jet-powered water bombers (like some shown here) to this distant region. It's also the northern hemisphere winter so there can be little or no requirement for them here.

Is it that Australia needs to ask for help from the international community first? This image below shows that Australia is a huge country. Surely we could and should all be doing more to help our friends down under? If the much bandied-about term "Global Village" is to mean anything, this ongoing human tragedy and ecological disaster demands a world-wide response.

Email your representatives / MPs / Congressmen  / Deputies and demand action! I've emailed my MP and I'll publish his response here if/when he replies.

Here's a video that originated from ABC Australia Central Coast that (Warning!) shows some harrowing, even apocalyptic, scenes.. It's hard to watch:
2nd January 2020. Here's a look at the Pyrenees as seen from the air - it's a video with a Spanish commentary - but it has some truly spectacular footage. Our part of the world comes in at 13:40..

Happy New Year! I can't believe we're already 20 years on from the Millennium. Remember all the media uncertainty and hype about Y2K and what might happen if all our computers went on the fritz?

My ears pricked up when I heard this playing on the radio earlier today - "Sheep may safely graze" by J S Bach - a piece that's long been a favourite of mine. Here, it's sung beautifully by the University of Redlands choir, California, directed by Mr J William Jones way back in 1957. Here are the lyrics:

Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful shepherd's sight.
Those who rule, with wisdom guiding,
Bring to hearts a peace abiding,
Bless a land with joy made bright.

(I think the choir sings another verse that I don't have the lyrics for) It's a benchmark performance and the Redlands choir is simply the perfect blend of voices, singing with conviction. I've listened to it more times than I care to admit to! I wonder how many of them are still with us? Enjoy!
If the YouTube player above is intermittent, - try this direct link to the source video.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir can always be relied on to provide a wonderfully polished performance and while they don't disappoint here, I just prefer the version above. 

Here's the same piece - but this time it's performed / rendered / mangled (you decide) on the Moog synthesiser. From the image of Herr Bach that appears early in the video, you could be excused for thinking that he'd been overdoing the Columbian Marching Powder!