Monday, August 28, 2006

One Weak To Go ...

According to scientists, Spring is now arriving 2 weeks early. This must be why the month of August has become monsoon season in northern Europe. This summer has been truly appalling, as was last year, and I guess we just have to get used to it. Note to self, 'cash in on the better weather in July next year'. In May 2007, they'll be a new French President so we had all better be ready for yet more changes.

Usually the month when the French down-tools and stake-out a patch of national beach somewhere, this August has been one of the worst on record and don't the Frogs know it. With people wary of traveling too far from home, the locals have just put up with flooded camp-sites and popular holiday destinations.

For myself, August has been one long month of doing stuff for other people. Three weekends 'reserved' for others with free photo shoots for friends and family. The last 2 weekends alone, saw me spending over 14 hours on trains and my poor beloved has only seen me in living, breathing 3D for a few days a week. It's not that I regret giving my time to those concerned as I would gladly do it again. It's just that I'm knackered.

This is the final week of the holiday season and today I have yet another train trip. This time, however, I get to stay in one place for a whole 6 days with my beloved. The 5yr old is spending time at an equestrian centre but for me, it's back to the country house for as much sleep as I can pack in, good healthy food, a few games of tennis and numerous long walks.

No doubt it'll bloody well rain.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Egyptians, The New Irish ...

Two Egyptian men are patiently awaiting trial in Russia after numerous escape attempts, digging tunnels under various European borders using the tool of choice - shoehorns.

The men, apparently both in their mid-20s, started digging along the Belarus border with Poland. However, once in the land of the UK-bound plumber, they lost their way in a matter of hours and were confronted by more barbed wire. Now thinking that they were now looking across at German soil, the pair started digging again ... and ended up back in Belarus.

The pair were arrested by Belarussian border guards and a court later sentenced them to 10 days in jail. Prosecutors said that the would-be migrants didn't go for the easy option of using a spade as they thought that buying one in a shop would immediately bring them unwanted attention. Our intrepid tunnelers travelled to Belarus from neighbouring Russia a few months ago where they had nothing more than tourist visas.

But wait, it goes on ... when Belorussian authorities released the men from chokey, they put them on a train to Moscow, hoping that the Egyptians would never return. The two men got off the train hundreds of miles west of the Russian capital and decided to have another crack. Their second attempt was at the Russian and Ukrainian border. Clearly, these two were one spade short of a garden shed as those happy-go-lucky Russian border guards arrested them long before our escapee's hole got ankle-deep.

Something tells me they'll be back in the Egyptian desert giving camel rides to fat Americans in the very near future ...

Compatibility Test ...

When I was a youngster, the local Newsagent stocked boiled sweets, newspapers, periodicals, cigarettes and on the top shelf, the downfall of many an adolescent male, porn. It was only a matter of steps away from the optician.

Magazines, back then, were limited in both number and subject. Not like today's mass selection of specialist glossies, the sheer weight of paper burdening the shelves is enough to get Sting back into the recording studio. No matter your taste or chosen interest, there's a magazine targeted at you.

My nearest and dearest is an occasional magazine reader - normally crap women's stuff that helps pass time on a train - throw away 'glance specials'. Last week, still out at the country house, we loaded the 5yr old into the car and set off Rogny, a village with 7 river locks. Ten minutes into our journey, we stumbled across a pretty little hamlet and stopped for a coffee and a look-see. In the small store was a selection of magazines, not as varied as in most towns, but impressive nonetheless. For the princely sum of €3,50, she decided that the magazine 'Psychologies' was for her. Not because it held the secret to eternal happiness but because it had a quiz; 'Are You Sexually Compatible With Your Partner' - do you know your partner well enough, that kind of thing.

Returning home from the outing, the 5yr old went out into the garden to soak up the last hour's glow and we, the adults (?) sat down to do this bloody quiz. It is made up of one set of questions but two sets of answers. Two coloured boxes down each side of the questions where you mark down not only your answers but also the answers you think your partner may come up with.

As soon as all questions have been completed and his/her scores have been added up, comes the confusing table of hell. Basically, you run your finger along your score line and where it meets that of your partner, that's the final score. The box is a mass of coloured squares and has numerous outcomes. In the centre, believe it or not, are no more than a dozen tiny red squares. If your score falls in this area then (according to 'Psychologies' magazine) you're compatible.

After the 20 or so revealing questions, we added up the scores and ran two fingers along two differing score lines. With the very real chance of it all going up the pictures, bingo, red box. One happy and contented girlfriend.

Put it this way, if a magazine costing €3.50 makes her happy, then I am indeed, a very lucky chap ...


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stupid People ...

Pick a day. Any day. Like today, for example.

What's going on in the world and just how stupid can people be?

We start with some fall-out after the recent fighting in the Middle East. The Israeli bombing of an oil storage facility at Jiyyeh power station, south of Beirut, has since caused an oil slick stretching from the Lebanon to the neighbouring coastlines of Greece and Turkey. With possible clean-up costs of between $100-200m, the bill, say the Greeks, will be heading straight for Israel via the European Courts.

The French consulate in Moscow has sacked three employees following an investigation that they have been 'selling' visas to the locals. Another four resigned their posts. In 2005, the Consulate issued 272,000 visas, 10% more than '04 and double that of 2000. That fine bunch of 35-hour professionals, the French media, allege that officials at the Consulate were taking back-handers of up to 10 to 20 times higher than the standard fee of 35 euro (£23) in order to speed up the delivery process. You mean the Russians don't know a thing or two about bribery? Hell, they invented it!

Whilst driving around the city today, I have noticed that some tourists seem to think that a little red man standing upright with his legs together, means 'it's safe to cross'. I had thought that, universally, the little green man seen in full stride was the clue they were looking for (picture from the UK, where it all began in 1949). Apparently not. As traffic lights turn green and the mass of aluminium and rubber slips away in first gear, the shocked tourist seem incensed that their 'right to cross' has been removed. Scooter and motorbike riders get the best chance to dish out a verbal reprimand: "Red means 'Go' in your country, does it?". In defense of the pedestrian, cyclists regularly jump red lights, causing near-misses with the crossing hoards. One has a fiendish plan for a court case with a guaranteed cash outcome ...

The UK's Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, has denied saying that the Bush administration had been "crap" over the Middle East peace plan for the region (the Road Map). In a statement, 'Punchy' Prescott said that it was an inaccurate report of a private conversation "and it is not my view". It was also claimed that he went on to call Bush a "cowboy" ... Yup, thank you John, we know that.

Germany has now got the chance to act as Peacekeepers in the Middle East. However, they've started rowing as they don't want to come into contact with the Israelis. You can understand that one ...

Oh, and NASA have lost the original earth-recorded videotapes of their moon landing of July 21st 1969. Did Neil have a back-up handycam hanging around his neck like most American tourists? "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for the Japanese Home Electronics Market".


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Deep Pockets ...

So, the Israeli Government claim that they face a bill of $1.1bn, following damage caused by Hezbollah. Let's see those fund raising events take off Stateside!

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Government have said that they'd be looking at $2.5bn to re-build ... I SAID, THE LEBANESE NEED $2,5BN ...

Can I just remind those who don't read into these events properly, that it was Hezbollah who started lobbing rockets over the border and not your average Tarif, Dirar or Hakim ... who's homes, lives and futures have been bolloxed by the Israelis. Oh, and according to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine, "Israel had devised a plan for attacking Hezbollah, and shared it with Bush administration officials, well before 12 July ..."

Anyone who is surprised by that suggestion, please leave the room ...


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Glorious Victory, Despite Loosing More ...

On the May 7th 1945, General Alfried Jodl signed the unconditional German surrender document at Rheims, France. Germany had lost the Second World War. Official.

These days, however, it doesn't seem to be that clinical. Despite both Israel and Hezbollah agreeing to the UN ceasefire agreement, the pair of them are now claiming individual victory. Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is getting in on the act by announcing that "a new Middle East has emerged" as a result of what he called "Hezbollah's victory over Israel in southern Lebanon". Cuddly Uncle al-Assad also praised the "the glorious battle" he said had been waged by Hezbollah, and went on to say that "peace in the Middle East was not possible with the Bush administration in power in Washington."

I think we can all agree with his last statement.

So, a few figures to mull over;

Lebanese deaths:
1,130 - mostly civilians
No precise figures of Hezbollah dead
Lebanese displaced:
700,000 - 900,000 (from UNHCR and the Lebanese Govt)

Israeli deaths:
Soldiers: 114 (IDF)
Civilians: 43 (IDF)
Israeli displaced:
500,000 (from Human Rights Watch)

David vs Golliath. So, if you agree to a ceasefire, a stalemate in general terms with large loss of human life, there's cause for victory celebrations? Shame it took 34 days to get there.

It's Iraq all over again.


Monday, August 14, 2006

The Race Against Time ...

There are some polls in this world that I fail to understand - especially, the ever-popular online poll.

In one recent poll, for example, the search for 'The World's Most Naturally Beautiful Person' was topped by 71 year old Oscar winning Italian actress Sophia Loren. She pipped much younger contenders to be voted in at the top slot. Her secret, apparently, is down to love of life and spaghetti (?). Another key to maintaining her youthful looks is one known to the earlier ancient Romans - "the odd bath in virgin olive oil".

OK, she's still looking presentable at her grand old age but 'The World's Most Naturally Beautiful Person'? I very much doubt it. In the news release, they failed to publish the number of how many people voted, their ages or where they came from. She's 71, for heaven's sake, not 41. I apologise to anyone who finds this rude and improper, but as we get older we simply cannot expect to look the same 40 years later. Despite all those TV commercials that claim to smooth out the wrinkles, science is no quick-fix answer to the gradual workings of mother nature.

Earlier this year, Loren agreed to pose for the 2006 Pirelli calendar. The calendar often features models in the buff and was first published in 1964. Mimicked by many others, the Pirelli is only a limited edition with a distribution list of only 30,000 lucky recipients. Thankfully, the 71 year old will not be sprawled out on a hearth rug with her legs in the air but pictured dressed in lingerie and under a bed sheet. I find that the constant fawning over elderly celebs with: 'still looking gorgeous' etc, nothing more than patronising. Even the Archbishop of Genoa got in on the act who said that "although the Vatican opposed human cloning, an exception might be made in the case of Sophia Loren ...", Gosh.

Look at the two images below. Who, chaps, would you prefer to bed?

If you went for 'B', then I take it that you voted in this farcical online poll and that Matron will be up to tuck you into bed soon.

For adolescent males, their first sexual experience is often with a naughty magazine (or a calendar for that matter), beating themselves senseless over the delights of the female form and thoughts of the wonderful experiences that lie before them. Imagine a spotty 13 year old, locked in his bedroom, gently folding over the pages of his Dad's copy of the Pirelli calendar, only to reveal an image of someone the same age as his granny. It's enough to curb his appetite in an instant or scar him for life, turning him into ... well, let's not go there. There are many other Oscar-award winners I would prefer the 13 year old to exhaust himself over: Julia Roberts or Cate Blanchett? On the question of Oscars, it is interesting to note that Loren never won a little gold statue for any of her films but in 1991 was awarded a special Oscar for career achievement.

Patronising again?


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Tired Of Being Right ...

After painfully crawling my way through the latest batch of ill-informed comments from the beloved Hilton sisters, Debbie and Dom, I have now grown bored of their behaviour. Knowing that they will continue their well-meaning but badly-informed sniping, I will ignore them. However, this blog will still continue to allow 'anonymous' posting of comments - no pre-publication editing here. I just can't be arsed to read any more of the double D's entries as I've seen more brains in a butcher's window.

The World is full of newspaper columnists, critics and celebrities who are given platforms, nay paid handsomely, on both national and international scales, from which they may air their opinions (radio slots, daily papers and tv shows) and no-one bats an eyelid. Yet someone with a grasp on reality, a knowledge of current affairs and of average intelligence decides to share his thoughts on a blog and is branded a coward etc.

If you think that I have a low opinion of American attitudes, Debbie, please 'toon in' to the nightly outpourings of wealthy American tv presenter Jon Stewart on Comedy Central and, Dom, I suggest you do a little research into super-rich presenter and columnist Jeremy Clarkson, and see what they have to say on the topic.

In fact, just click here and see what others have to say.

I believe that you may well find your arguments in tatters.

In comparison to Stewart or Clarkson, my rants wouldn't even tickle the needle. So, if either of them push your buttons, then I suggest that you write to them in order to vent your spleens ... unless, of course, you're ... cowards?

The moving finger writes, and having wrote, moves on ... what, what?


Saturday, August 12, 2006

Leave The City Behind ...

If, like me, you live in the sprawling mass of a city, then you’ll appreciate that communing with nature is a privilege and, sadly, not a regular occurrence. The city is a dirty, noisy place where rats hold court in the sewers below, cockroaches plague most apartments, sparrows cough their way through the dawn chorus and the majority of pigeons are missing all or part of a foot.

Given any chance to open my wings and take in a good lungful of fresh air and I jump at the opportunity - first in the queue. This summer (if you could call it that), I was lucky enough to go cockle hunting on a beach in Normandy and spend 15 minutes alone with a wild beast in the Yonne region.

Two hours drive westerly, and Normandy is at your feet. A coastal region, lapped by the English Channel and famous for cider, the hard-hitting liqueur Calvados, the landing beaches of Operation Overlord and the mouth of the river Seine. The three of us were staying with relatives between the Bobo town of Deauville and celebrity-free Cabourg. The deserted morning beach is ideal for exercising racehorses and is a mere 5 minutes ‘à pied’ from the house, allowing for easy trips down to the waterfront - one of our party was 71 years old, another 5.

Decyphering a detailed timetable, we looked for the retreating tide and set off with a plastic bag, hand rakes and an appetite. There are points where the receding water leaves large-ish pools and slight lips in the sand. As the water heads out, cockles previously feeding in the shallows, are not taken along for the ride, but burrow a matter of inches below the sand. It is on these gentle upper slopes that we scratched and dug for half an hour.

A harvest of 60 firmly closed ‘coques’ in the bag and we turned towards the kitchen. Lunch was gloriously simple. Spaghetti and cockles, a drop of garlic and a bottle of chilled Rosé. Once the spaghetti was ready, it was drained and the washed cockles added to the pan. The heat gently cooks and opens the creatures, revealing their orange/white flesh. Every last morcel in that pan was finished off and it had to be the meal of the year.

A few days later, we waved a salty goodbye to the sea and headed inland for a 5-hour trip to the Yonne region. Situated south-east of the capital, the Yonne is farming heaven. Wide open spaces are the order of the day, where cattle, sunflowers, wheat and rape seed abound. The roads in this part of the country are usually taken up by tractors and their cargo of extraordinary farming implements. Our goal was a house on the outskirts of village, near the town of Charny. The population is in it’s low 100’s and the nearest neighbour is 1km away. Sheer bliss for those seeking solitudem an escpae after the constant roar of the city.

It is there, in the middle of nowhere, that I get the best sleep. ‘Driving them home’ for hours at an end and still have the need of an afternoon nap. When at home you habitually get 6 hours sleep a night, this is a revelation.

On at least one morning out there, I like to get up early and watch the sunrise from under the shelter of a tree on the edge a particular field. I can happily sit here for hours, listening and watching the birds, follow a family of hares going about their morning rituals and watch a pair of Hen Harriers as they circle above the fields eyeing their prey. If you’re luckt (very very lucky), you may well catch sight of a deer - or three - as they make their daily trip from the woodland behind, through the gardens and down into the lower wood where they spend their daylight hours.

At 06h30 I made my way out to my favourite tree, obligatory camera and 400mm lens in hand. The sun was slipping over the horizon, a light orange glow touching the outer reaches of the puffy clouds. The dawn was set off nicely with a mist of diamond quality. Long stalks, plants and grass sparkled in the early light. Settling down on a soft cushion of ivy, I sat for the next 45 minutes ... and it was perfect.

By chance I looked to my left and it was then my heart stopped - well, almost. Along a ridge by a felled tree, a deer (species unknown) was nosing it’s way through the grass. Occasionally lifting it’s head for a safety check and a look around, it was no more than 6 meters (20 feet) away but as the wind was blowing against me, the animal had no idea I was there.

With the viewfinder to my right eye, I took a shot. On hearing the shutter click, the deer looked over in my direction but didn’t seem startled. I took another shot. Again, he looked over. He walked down the ridge and made for a gap in the field directly in front of me.

He paraded up and down, from left to right, looking towards my shelter, sniffing the air around him. Every time I pressed the shutter, he stared in my direction. He took a few paces towards me, bent down to look under the branches of the tree, then backed off and peered sideways at me. All the time I was snapping away.

My introduction with this fascinating animal came to a close when he suddenly got spooked and went leaping and barking into the wood below. In all, I’d rattled off 56 shots with the ‘file info’ in the camera telling me that the first image was taken at 07h21 and the last at 07h36 - he’d stayed with me for a full 15 minutes.

It certainly didn’t feel like a quarter of an hour and was one of those moments that was over all too quickly.