Tour de Francophile


Yes, it's time for another year of helicopter shots, crazy motorcycle near-misses and weird French love messages whitewashed on the road. Michel lovehearts Francoise. Lance Armstrong takes EPO. That type of thing.

I had to pause this year in honour of the annual drug allegations and remind myself one more time why I love the Tour de France so much. Despite all le dopage, as they call it on French TV. (This year I actually finally paid the £370 and got the french man round to install french tv so that i can watch the Tour in frenchie. That's how much I love le cyclisme.)

In my case, the fact is I absolutely love France, and the very eccentric view you get of that great country when you view it entirely from above during a bicycle race. Especially when you are in the company of sports commentators who have copious notes. The oldest thatched church in France is about to come into view! Hurray!

The Tour de France is a curious sporting event, because it takes world class riders and sends them through ordinary, everyday lives. Hundreds of people line the streets in each village as the cyclists come through. And there are their houses! The little vegetable gardens! The swimming pools! It's a sort of aerial record of France's commitment to the good life. And here are these incredibly professional finely-tuned athletes on these incredibly expensive finely tuned bikes and we're just going to make them cycle over... some cobbles!!

Brilliant, 100% brilliant, and you'll never make me think otherwise. And I haven't even mentioned the sport.

James Cameron's 'Avatar': A great big cartoon for grown-ups with a 1950s script

3D glasses got big! This is us on Friday night in the London IMAX, waiting for a sneak 15 minute preview of James Cameron's long-awaited 'Avatar'. Jim C has been talking about making this movie for a long time, almost since before 'Titanic', and it's quite amazing to see it all on screen at long last. The CGI is like watching a cross between a great big cartoon for grown-ups and the best of all possible computer games; but the script is, ahem, pre-post-colonial, to say the least. 

The film's opening has a hard, military feel, as Jake Sully, a soldier disabled in combat, arrives at a distant planet. Here he will be allowed to work as a soldier again: Sigourney Weaver's Dr Augustine has a system which will let him use his mind to control an external body. Jake's new body is fairly humanoid in appearance, but for me there's way too much whiff of Jar Jar Binks, the irritating quasi-Caribbean CGI alien who singlehandedly ruined Phantom Menace. Though the 3D bits are spectacular. 

It's once Jake gets out on the planet itself that the film takes a distinct turn for the worse. Jake strikes up a working relationship with a 'sexy native' called Neytiri, who speaks English (conveniently) but in half sentences reminiscent of 'me Tarzan, you Jane'. The rules of the alien jungle are explained with painful and obvious cringiness, as in scenes involving Jake mastering a bucking bronco pterosaur: "How will I know if he's the one for me?" "He will try to kill you," says Neytiri, in a surprisingly complete phrase. 

I just would have thought we'd got past having movies where the stupid but brave outsider is taught by the wise and innocent native. Especially one speaking this kind of broken English. There's something so deeply offensive about it, especially in the context of the clear references to current American imperialist adventures which litter the scenes we saw from the front of the film. There's been reams written about the crap English and crap accents non-white actors have been made to speak in movies about colonial settings over the years, and it's amazing that Cameron's team have chosen so totally to disregard it.  

 James Cameron has made great films ( 'The Abyss' stands as the most magical and strange of underwater fantasies) but I think this one scores high on the visuals and low on story and script. Perhaps the studios who funded the film knew all along that the film's core audience would be non-English speakers; and that therefore, in their calculations, the quality of the script never really mattered. Roll on December, when we can see if their maths was correct. 

Can book swapping topple the mighty book group?

I went last night to Windsor, for the first Firestation "Book Swap", organised by prolific blogger, Bookseller columnist and publisher Scott Pack. I was expecting a good evening, because Pack's blog writing is funny and thoughtful, as is that of his co-host, blogger and author Marie Phillips. Both instructed us to bring along a book to swap with a stranger. The evening turned out to be delightful for several reasons, not the least of which was the free homemade macaroons. Mmmm. 

The invited guests were Jessica Ruston, new glamour novelist on the block (let's swiftly distinguish between glamour novelists and glamour models - Ruston's book is a sleek, sexy black and silver affair about the world's most luxurious hotel); and the Observer's Robert McCrum, who was charmingly bossy about what we should all be reading: Strunk and White, "essential", and [addressed to me] "The new Anne Tyler, what on earth are you thinking of, swapping that?". "I've read it," I stutter, "so someone else can have the enjoyment now?". I sink into my seat and am glad the houselights are so bright they make picking out individual audience members nice and difficult. 

All the writers present got asked questions right off the normal book event radar - ranging from "how long could you manage without the internet?" to "I've just wormed my cat, how long will it take to work?". But for me the best bit was the book swapping. Despite having to do it under the hawkish and possibly disapproving eye of Robert McCrum, we all threw ourselves into this with enthusiasm. Everyone had brought top quality things with them - an old Faber Rupert Brooke got swapped for Emma Darwin's latest historical fiction; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Flat Earth News by Nick Davies and Netherland by Joseph O'Connor were also all on offer. One girl wandered around saying sadly, "I can't get anyone to swap with me", but when she revealed what she was trying to swap, her failure became more clear: it was an account of the sex abuse investigations in Pitcairn Island in the 1990s. Still, by the end even she had found a home for her uncheerful offering. 

I found the whole event really heartening. It was lovely to hear from the writers, but chatting to people about what they'd been reading and why they were giving it away was the most interesting part. And I like the democracy of swapping, as opposed to the totalitarian rule of the book group, where you have to spend time reading someone else's choice even if you know you will hate every minute of it. In the case of the bookswap, I came away with such goodwill towards everyone involved - just the sort of mood in which people buy lots of books. I can't help thinking this is exactly the kind of blog-linked, local event that publishers should be really encouraging, a sort of odd cross between a public reading and a book group. Plus those delicious macaroons....

The next book swap is scheduled for September 17th, in Windsor Firestation Arts Centre, tickets £5. 

Evolutionary rash breaks out in Cambridge


There's a funny rash that has broken out here in Cambridge, of orange neck ribbons. And sky blue book bags with a curious graphic reptile creeping across them. There are hundreds of people walking around town wearing them proudly. (I even saw Richard Dawkins in full garb earlier.) The orange neck ribbons and free giveaway book bags are entitlements you get free when you pick up a week's ticket for the Darwin Festival, and they are signs of the town's enthusiasm for the great man, which has overcome enough people to fill Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall, plus an overflow area in the Law Faculty's lecture theatre. 

To be fair, it's not just Cambridge, England which is enthusiastic about Darwin. There are people here from Minnesota, Japan and Cambridge, Massachusetts, too. The occasion is one of the biggest gatherings ever of Darwin scholars in one place, and the discussions range from Darwin's observations of his small children, to (tonight) Terry Pratchett talking about Darwin's influence on his Discworld books

Yesterday's high points for me were a fabulous talk by Gillian Beer, the Cambridge academic who has showed in the past how deeply influential Darwin was on the writers of his time, such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Yesterday she talked with great power about how language is a strange and anomalous tool with which to describe the beauty and variety of the natural world. And of course, Prof Dawkins, who gave the audience a wonderful hippyish compilation powerpoint of video of animals swimming, running and trying to eat each other, whilst talking about Alfred Russel Wallace and Patrick Matthew in a way quite at odds with his normally waspish public image. 

Today continues with Matt Ridley, the writer famous for Genome, Nature Via Nuture, and his chairmanship of Northern Rock, and this afternoon I'm going to Jim Secord's session "From Penny Post to Podcast" about how changes in the speed and nature of communication change scientific progress. Can't wait to report back on that one. 

There are a few tickets left for the overflow and also for some of the surrounding talks, so if you live nearby, why not check out the website


Beevor bashing

Distinguished military historian Anthony Beevor has a new book out, in case you hadn't noticed. According to the Guardian editorial today, it's "immaculately timed", which makes it sounds as if he just happened to think of a book about D-Day five minutes before publication. I'd actually imagine it's something more like "machiavellianly timed", and that he and his agent planned it over lunch together about four years ago, rubbing their hands together with glee at the idea of a book to time with the anniversary of the start of World War Two. Eager Beevor!

Anyway it turns out that, just like the real things introduced back into Scotland last week, this Beevor is the subject of a considerable amount of controversy and er, haters. In the beavers' case, it's farmers. In Beevor's, it's the massed forces of the internet.

People always say the internet dumbs things down. One place that isn't true is in the field of military history. Take Amazon, for example. The legions of amateur Amazon reviewers of literary novels and cookbooks alike content themselves with gently critical paragraphs, occasionally griping that they didn't really like the characters/ recommended amount of cream cheese. Not so in military history. A review of a mere seven paragraphs containing no corrections of faultily-labelled tank squadron photos? Political piffle!

Reading the Amazon reviews of the new Beevor book you can't help thinking that little warcraft-loving fingers all over the land have been itching to get their hands on Beevor's 'D-Day' and start ripping it to bits. After all, isn't that what summer is for? So while the Observer, Independent and Sunday Times all praise Beevor's fine narrative history, the nethead militarists reckon up his mistakes, horrified at the absence of omniscient fact-checking.

Yet Max Hastings, much-cited as an alternative to Beevor, said this weekend that he loved it. As, no doubt, will about three million other people in the near future, who find Beevor's filmic style brings events to life in a way no other military writer can. As for the netheads, my advice would be to anyone who sees them in the vicinity: don't approach them, and above all, just don't mention the war. 

Is Anthony Steen right - are we all just jealous?

I would like to think I’m a reasonable person. That I can take a walk around a stately home without thinking about the financial measures that enable members of the aristocracy to stay put in gigantic houses. (Or, perhaps more poignantly, the measures which got them the gigantic houses to begin with.)

I don’t think any of us have a problem with Anthony Steen, MP, growing rich off the back of his own hard work and then rewarding himself by buying a big country house. We all like a bit of a flick through Country Life, and when I look at the amount of windows and lawns he has under his jurisdiction, I mostly just think about the work it would be to keep them all in good shape. 

But today Steen was responsible for a hilarious outburst where he declared the real problem is that we are all ‘just jealous’ of his ‘very, very large house.’ And presumably, of his massive acres, planted with over five hundred trees, all of which has cost some £87,729 to maintain over the last four years.

I’m going to have to pull him up on this. I love trees, but I am not jealous of someone having a lot of them per se. I mean, I covet Michael Heseltine’s arboretum in an abstract sort of fashion, but if he asked me to take over my shoulders would sink under the weight of all that responsibility.

What I do have a problem with is Anthony Steen putting in expenses claims to look after his trees. If you are going to take a paternalistic, old-fashioned Tory line that it’s okay for some people to be richer than others, then you need also to accept that you are responsible for the trees. Not me, and not my fellow taxpayers, but you. You can’t be top of the heap one minute, and then claiming benefits the next.

Actually, when I walk around somewhere like Stowe I do start off feeling a sort of envy. But in the end I feel grateful. In the past there was a completely iniquitous system of land ownership, which I regret, but the result has been the preservation of these amazing landscapes for us today. Someone took responsibility for that. They took land, and money, but they also took responsibility.

You don’t have to in any way condone that system of land ownership to be grateful for the landscapes themselves. I would simply like there to be more interpretation at the gardens themselves – for example at Stourhead, where a whole village was relocated as the garden was made – to explain how this masterpiece of English gardening was created. The world is unfair, and we are never going to change that completely. But the public hate those expense claims because they go beyond their simple, common-or-garden concept of justice. Which in essence, boils down to this simple homily: if you are one of the lucky souls who get to live in a ‘very, very large house,’ it’s your job to do the garden.

A Chelsea preview preview

Even though I'm paid to know this kind of thing, I didn't. It turns out that my much-prized Monday Press Day ticket to Chelsea is actually a worthless piece of trash in the eyes of the real cognoscenti, who all book in for a Sunday peek at the showground. "Sunday is for work, and actually seeing things," one longtime insider told me, "Monday is just a social event."

I feel about two foot tall. Well I have learnt my lesson. Next year I will be hassling the RHS press office for the highly-desirable Sunday wristband (as construction is still officially in progress, I will also have to wear a high-viz vest, one of my favourite fashion items in this fluorescent-loving summer). 

In the meantime, I am still getting vicarious thrills from Tim Parry's elegant shots of the (Sunday) showground - see more at his Flickr page. 

Photo copyright Tim Parry, all rights reserved. 

Never mind the Chelsea Flower Show, what about David Cameron's wisteria?


In these thoroughly exciting times of ours, it's rare that gardening makes it onto the front page of the newspaper. Of course there's always a bit of kerfuffle in Chelsea week due to the exciting presence of CELEBRITIES (and for those with a Heat!icultural mentality, go quickly right now and download Martyn Cox's celebrity Chelsea Bingo card).

But not usually in the political news, no.
All that has now changed.
Due to the revelations which have been liderally pouring out of Westminster for the last few days, we now know precisely how much David Cameron had to cough up to have a wisteria removed from his Oxfordshire home (yet surely such an act would be against local Cotswold bylaws?).
I thought readers might enjoy a brief selection of all the horticultural costs charged by our esteemed representatives in parliament...
  • Bristol MP Dan Norris got a strimmer
  • John Gummer £9,000 on gardening including removal of moles from the lawn. Well, they can be pesky creatures. A year, for four years. That's, um, £36 GRAND.
  • David Heathcote-Armory spent £380 and got hundreds of sacks of horse manure. Now this man I respect.
  • Nick Clegg - £760 to repair the garden path. Ooh, and he's taking us down it...
  • Margaret Beckett - £600 on hanging baskets and container plants. In total, she had £6,500 for gardening, including dismantling a rockery.
  • Lembit Opik sank to a new low - £12,ooo including decking. Ugh.
  • Douglas Hogg - £2000 to 'clear the moat around his house'! I'm not kidding.
  • Sir Michael Spicer - £7,000 for maintenance including 'hedge-trimming for a helipad'. He later described the claim for a helipad as a 'family joke'. Oops!
  • Alan Duncan (oh he really has been naughty - he heads the freaking committee in charge of overseeing expenses) £3,194 on gardening in March 2007. For a gardener to garden 16 hours a week in grounds of less than an acre. £6 an hour, which is criminal in itself, I think, plus £598 to fix the ride-on mower.
I don't know what you think about all this, but I can't help laughing.
One thing strikes me though - all these MPs could do with a bit of help. I mean, wisteria is a bit of a challenge, but don't remove it! Learn to prune it properly, and get all the benefits. £680 Cameron paid to remove it from a chimney, when it could have just been kept under control to start with. And Douglas Hogg could simply have consulted Vita Sackville-West. Next time, can we send David Cameron et al to gardening class?

What to do when you inherit a moat

Flicking through Vita Sackville-West this afternoon, I came across this bit which has to be one of my favourite quotes from her ever:

"March 2, 1952

It sometimes happens that people inherit, or acquire, an old dwelling house or cottage with a pool or even with the remains of a moat. Presumably, such surroundings are highly picturesque, and the fortunate owner wants to make the most of them. So I thought I would devote my next two articles to this rather special problem."

She wants you to plant waterlilies, Forget-me-not, Calla lilies, and then on the moist banks a Beth Chatto-like selection of species Primula and Japanese iris. 

Anyway if any readers of this blog have this rather special problem perhaps they would consider inviting me over for a nice cream tea. In the meantime I may try and catch up with poor Sarah Raven on I-Player or possibly just watch this again.