Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Repeats

Merry Christmas Everyone!

I've just had some VERY good news. so good I'm too superstitious to tell everyone what it is, just in case it happened in a parallel universe or something and my revealing what it is will prevent it from having happened in a quantum type Heisenbergy uncertainty principle-ish sort of way.

So instead of telling you my good news, which will have to wait a few days, here, as a present to my regular reader (hello Tom in Milwaukee!) is the very first post I ever posted on the Womble, a post which remains one of my faves.

A Rose By Any Other Name?

Sean Thomas reports on some terminological trouble in the Deep South of France.

It's like any little town in the rural south of France - only prettier. Old men play boules in the shade of the linden trees. Pretty girls cycle past with baguettes pointing from their rucksacks. In front of the Hotel de Ville three tricolores hang ostentatiously in the fine summer sun. In fact, it could be a Gallic vision of earthly paradise - if it weren't for one thing. The town's name is Tampon.

Sipping a pastis in his favourite brasserie, the fifty-something mayor of Tampon, Gaston Lefevre, explains the latest difficulties caused by the town's name. 'It started about about ten years ago, with these Australian backpackers. They came to Tampon, and they took photos. By the town sign.' Gaston finishes his drink, slapping it down on the zinc-topped bar. 'Pas de probleme! But then they tell their friends, and their friends aussi, and now every summer we have many hundreds of them. They come, they take the photo, they laugh and shout Tampon! to their friends, and then pouf! - they are gone. They do not even spend money!'

For such a small place, Tampon is quite haughtily historic. The river Lisiec has been wending its languid way through the vieux ville for nearly two thousand years. Louis XIV used to send his favourite bastard children here; he allegedly once came himself with the royal mistress. Closer to our own time, famous French footballer Michelle Platini recently bought a home in the sunny chestnut-woods nearby.

The people of beautiful Tampon are, consequently, not used to being laughed at: and the touristic kerfuffle over their name has punctured their civic amour propre. But what to do? After much deliberation, the town council has decided to petition the French State, via the Ministry of the Interior, for permission to change the name of the town.

Job done? Not in France. It turns out that under an obscure Napoleonic law - the 'Loi Tissiane' - any French city, town, village, or hamlet is forbidden to change its name, without the express permission of the Senate and the President. Such permission is, of course, almost impossible to get, given the stubbornly slow wheels of French bureaucracy. The upshot is that it may be many years, even decades, before Tampon gets its new, less 'hilarious' name.

It's a setback, but Gaston Lefevre tries to remain stoical. He says they can wait: the townspeople have been called 'Tamponniers' for twenty centuries. He is however burningly curious about one thing. 'You Anglo-Saxons, why do you snigger?' He sighs, expressively. 'In French, the word tampon can also mean what I think it means for you, a coussinet, the cloth for the female period. But we do not have hordes of French tourists laughing by our town sign! Only you English. What is this: your strange humour?'

The derivation of 'Tampon' is obscure. Some people think it comes from the Occitan dialect word tapon, which refers to the rags used to clean, and plug, medieval cannons. That would make some sense, as this part of the Languedoc saw many religious wars in the 13th and 14th centuries. Other scholars think the name predates the crusades against the Cathars and Templars, and is some kind of Celtic tribal name. Perhaps it once belonged to a proud Gallo-Roman chieftain.

But if Tampon's name is curious, there are others in this lost part of rural southern France which are even more intriguing. Not far away from Tampon, towards la ville rose of Toulouse, is the departmental capital of Condom. This town has been the butt of many jokes in the last few decades; but it bears them bravely, and even exploits the possibilities in its tourist merchandise. The same goes for the fishing village of Pubic-sur-mer, down on the sea near Narbonne. It was once favoured by great painters like Cezanne; now it's more famous for its naughty postcards emblazoned with the town's 'amusing' name. This name, of course, simply means the hill-by-the-sea.

And then there's the village of Cuntface. This pretty, straggling village is only twelve miles from Tampon, up the green wooded valley of the River Lisiec.

What is extraordinary about Cuntface, is that the locals do not seem to realise the striking double entendre. When questioned, for instance, the local pattisier, Monsieur Pejul, can only shrug. 'Oui, Cuntface? What are you looking at? Zis name is difficult for you? It means... ow you say?' Similarly blank faces can be found in any of the village's bars and cafes. The people of Cuntface actively deny any knowledge of the English meaning of the name; and look shocked when it is explained to them.

The same remarkable ignorance is shown in the neighbouring hamlet of Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Cunt-Buggery-Tits-Cock-Fucking-Wank-Arsehole. This is a tiny French farming village of some hundred souls, dwarfed by the Pyrenees above. It doesn't even have a bar, or a church, just a little shop, and a rather quiet cafe. In the cafe the local flic, the village bobby, looks puzzled when questioned about his village's extraordinary name.

'Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Cunt-Buggery-Tits-Cock-Fucking-Wank-Arsehole is a very nice place', he says, in his thick but charming mountain dialect. 'We are very 'appy here. I do see there is une probleme with our name. What does it mean? You mean it eez rude?'

Anglophone visitors to Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Fuck-Cunt-Buggery-Tits-Cock-Fucking-Wank-Arsehole may find such indifference perplexing - even risible. But they should remember that our English-speaking world has more than a few intriguing names of its own. Near the Leicestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, for instance, is the large village of Derriere-sur-la-Nez. Scholars are unsure why the villages and towns in this part of the foxhunting Midlands have unusual French names; no one has any idea at all why little Derriere should boast such a peculiar moniker.

Other placenames around the UK have similarly wry echoes for foreign visitors. Old Cojones, near Harrogate, sees busloads of chuckling Spanish tourists every summer. Beautiful Scheissedale, also in Yorkshire, gets dozens of German visitors, some of whom aren't there solely because it's in Herriot country. And what about Merde-Merde-Merde-Merde-Merde-Merde-Pissoir-Merde-Foutre-Batard-Pissoir!, a pretty little seaport just south of Alnwick?

Remember that next time you are laughing at a badly translated foreign menu.

Friday, December 14, 2007


An idiot, yesterday.

There is a piece in this week's New Yorker by frizzy haired pundit Malcolm Gladwell, all about race and IQ. The essay is trite, polemical, tendentious, and inane, if well-meaning - it basically rehashes old arguments against IQ. With more passion than conviction. But it does have one saving grace - it boasts perhaps the most absurdly embarrassing correction in recent journalistic history.

Here it is:

CORRECTION: In his December 17th piece, “None of the Above,” Malcolm Gladwell states that Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in their 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” proposed that Americans with low I.Q.s be “sequestered in a ‘high-tech’ version of an Indian reservation.” In fact, Herrnstein and Murray deplored the prospect of such “custodialism” and recommended that steps be taken to avert it. We regret the error.

Er, yeah. Ahem. *cough* Bit of an error there, chaps. Thought the New Yorker had "fact checkers"?! *stifles laughter*

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


A caracal.

Earlier this year I visited Namibia. For Audi cars. Here's what I wrote about it.

Saving the Desert Elephants

It's a wild and spine-tingling moment. The elephant is staring at me in a curious, slightly malign fashion. She's so close I can count her long eyelashes; one quick charge and I would be skewered, by a tusk, to the American authoress sitting next to me. I guess that would make us a kind of writerly kebab.

Why am I so disconcerted? It's not like I've never seen elephants before - I have. I've seen them in zoos and safari parks. I've even seen them in the wild - in the outback of South Africa, for instance, where they are so common they constitute a nuisance.

But this elephant is different, and maybe it's this difference that makes her unnerving. She's a Namibian desert elephant - one of the tiny number of elephants that have adapted to the savage climate and hostile landscapes of this furiously beautiful south African country. And what's more she's endangered: and it's part of my job to save her. Even if she is freaking me out with her shrewdly glaring eyes.

The group I have joined, in the harsh terrain of Namibia's virtually untouristed Damaraland, is called EHRA. It stands for Elephant Human Relations Aid. The agency was founded ten years ago by Johannes, a tough, sardonic, onetime South African soldier with unrivalled knowledge of this terrain - and a very long pony tail. He's sitting right now at the front of our four wheel drive, reassuring us that the elephants won't charge.

I'm not totally convinced.

EHRA's ambition is to save the precious desert elephants. They aim to do this by smoothing the troubled relationship between man and beast. The difficulty faced by the elephants is that they need water, and lots of it, to survive in this arid land. A thirsty elephant can consume hundreds of litres of liquid every day.

Naturally, the elephant herds gravitate to the richest sources of water in Damaraland. Which just happen to be the wells and pumps used by the local tribesmen and subsistence farmers.

The result is conflict. The elephants suck up the farmers’ water, and then the angry and desperate farmers go out shooting elephants - to save their livelihoods. If this continued for long, there would be only one outcome. No more desert elephants.

Which is where EHRA comes in. The agency recruits volunteers from all over the world to rescue the elephants - and have the holiday of a lifetime in the process. These volunteers spend a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of three months reconstructing water sources - building walls to protect the solar-powered boreholes - so that humans and elephants can learn to share the water. The "ellies" are given access to the water at various points, which saves them from damaging the actual pumps; the homesteading farmers get plenty of good clean water from a renewed and safeguarded source. And everyone's happy.

Everyone, that is, apart from me. I'm still being stared at by a wild mammal approximately the size of a post office. We're sitting in our open-topped 4WD down a shady sidecanyon. The herd of elephants we have encountered are busy scoffing their way through an entire tree - branches, bark, leaves, and all. Now we have interrupted them during lunch and they don't seem too chuffed. Can't say I blame them. Eventually the elephants give a snort of disdain, and slowly move on down the gorge, caressing each other with their trunks all the way.

For several more hours we track and assess the elephants as they move about the desert. It's a gruelling but exhilarating experience. The sun is hot and the mopane bees are annoying, occasionally we get bogged down in the sand of the arroyos, but I also know that I am a hugely privileged observer of one of Africa's last and greatest wildernesses.

As countries go, they don't get much more untamed than Namibia. A vast land almost as big as western Europe, Namibia boasts some of the world's driest deserts, sunniest mountains, and weirdest wildlife. On the extraordinary, fogbound Skeleton Coast - where the hot waterless desert meets the cold Benguela sea-current - there are beetles which stand on their heads, 2000 year old trees which burrow into the sand, and lions which hunt springboks in the life-giving mist.

Further inland are the plateaux - full of hyenas, jackals and ostriches which run across the barrens like alarmed Victorian spinsters. These interior regions of Namibia are also home to some unusual human communities. Like the Basters.

The name of these people literally means "bastards". Yet the Basters wear this apparently pejorative name with pride: because it tells them of their unique background. The Basters are the crossbred descendants of strapping Dutch settlers and petite Khoisan tribesmen who intermarried in the 18th and 19th centuries. The unusual lineage of the Basters makes them extremely beautiful - cocoa coloured, high cheekboned, sometimes blond yet simultaneously dark. They speak pure Renaissance Dutch and are fiercely Lutheran. They also like a drink.

But there are many such tribes in Namibia - ex-imperialist Germans, Lhosi, the herding Herero, nomadic Himbas, Caprivians, Owambo, Kavango. The nation is a patchwork of ethnicities, white and black, Christian and animist, African and European.

Here in lonely and beautiful Damaraland - between the coast and the mountainous heartland - the tribesmen are called, yes, Damaras. And they are just as intriguing as any Namibian ethnicity. The women sometimes go bare breasted; sometimes they wear big, vividly coloured dresses with bizarre flat hats. The Damara people are friendly, charming and aware of the specialness of their land and the elephants it harbours. They just need a little help to balance their precious ecosystem.

Help which they are going to get from me. Well, when I say me, I really mean everyone else in the group I have joined. The fact is, I have missed the first week of the two week EHRA rotation - and it's the first week when all the building work is done. The second week is dedicated to tracking and monitoring the ellies, and exploring the wilds of remotest Damaraland.

As we make camp that night - building our own fires, laying out our sleeping bags, barbecuing our meaty dinner, sitting around the roaring flames drinking whisky in the African moonlight - I confess to the rest of the group that I'm glad I missed the building week. Because it sounds too much like hard work. This rough camping is quite tough enough for me, without the need to construct rockwalls every afternoon.

The response to my confession is unanimous and dismayed. Every single member of the group - which ranges from gap year student girls, to thirty-something actors rediscovering themselves, to that lady authoress of a certain age - is adamant that the building work is essential to the whole grubby, challenging, punchy and enriching experience that is EHRA. As the gap year girls explain to me, it's during the wall-building in the hot African sun that the group dynamic is established. People learn to rely on each other (or not), they find out each other's virtues and weaknesses, they establish friendships and develop camaraderie, and all of it under the determined alpha male gaze of Johannes and his facilitators.

'We were so good at building the walls,' one girl breathlessly tells me, 'we actually ran out of cement!'

The others laugh around the fireside. There is certainly a very strong esprit de corps in this group. There are catchphrases and nicknames, in-jokes and gossip. This isn't a "holiday" for someone who dislikes close contact and teamwork: you're forced to rub along - but in a good way.

Nor is this a "holiday" for someone who needs their creature comforts. The food is basic but nourishing. There’s no showers, and the toilets are the nearest thorn bushes. If you want refreshing snacks you'd better bring them with you. The same goes for cold beer and wine - you may stumble across tribal liquor stores - then again you may not. But if you like to chill out with a nice Merlot after a hard day's elephant tracking, or a long afternoon mixing cement with a Zimbabwean artist, then my advice is to pack a couple of decent bottles in your rucksack, along with your sleeping bag, bedroll, wet wipes, loo paper, etc etc etc (the staff at EHRA will advise you on essentials. It’s quite a long list).

Surprisingly, one thing you probably won't need - even though I've packed one - is a mosquito net. The desert is generally too dry for mossies, which means you get to sleep out, in the open, underneath the dark African skies.

And what an experience it is. I've never seen so many stars, sprinkled across the blackness like a Tsarina's diamonds. The moon is a scimitar of silver. And every ten minutes or so a shooting star scores an exuberant gold slash across the heavens. It's such a giddy feeling I want to stay awake, but the day’s exertions and the tots of whisky have defeated me. I fall asleep to the sound of the mild desert breeze in the acacias.

Mornings at EHRA start early. Before dawn David the "Zimbo" artist is up and about brewing coffee. Lucy from Dublin is on breakfast duty (people take it in turns to make meals, do dishes, clean up, and so forth); as the sun peeps over the desert horizon she starts making the porridge. Soon the whole camp is alive with people scratching and yawning.

And it's not just the camp that's alive. As we have an hour to spare before we light out for the wilderness, I take a stroll into the bush. The dry wooded riverbed next to our camp is buzzing with critters. Guinea fowl trot from rock to rock. Songbirds warble in the tamarisks. Duikers, oryx and other antelopes skitter in the distance. And then I see a curiously bounding animal, ears pricked and eyes burning - it's a very rare feline called a caracal - all tawny and sleek.

When I go back to the camp I tell the others excitedly of my sighting. They are politely enthusiastic but maybe not that impressed. Some of them have already seen leopards, and there are rumours of lions hunting black rhino just a few kilometres downriver. This is real wild Africa - raw and glorious.

Soon we are back in our jeeps and heading into the toughest territory of all. For several hours we sloosh our way through a remarkable and hidden gem of the Damaraland desert - the wetlands.

It seems contradictory, to have an emerald swamp in the middle of a desert, but Namibia is laced with underground rivers. Indeed if these subterranean waterways didn't exist those water pumps wouldn't work half so well. Sometimes these aquifers rise to the surface, and when they do they create long green ribbons of life, in the middle of the sunburnt wilderness.

The sensation of driving down these linear fens is unique. Like tunnelling into Eden. Reeds crack against the cars, waterbirds flee the splashing wheels, more than once the vehicles get stuck in the sucking black mud and have to be towed free. And when the cars give up, the volunteers wade down the water course, worrying about leeches.

At last we emerge onto dry land. Almost immediately, Johannes spots some telltale spoor - big balls of elephant dung, as fibrous as a vegan's breakfast. The desert ellies are nearby.

For an hour we track them, on foot. The sun is setting. It seems we are out of luck. But then we turn a canyon corner - and run smackbang into a dozen elephants gathered around a waterhole. This is Mama Africa's herd, named for its dominant matriarch. The encounter is edgy. Big elephant ears are twitching. Johannes tells us the animals are nervous.

As darkness falls we beat a sensible retreat to the car. But again, as we drive along, we run into the animals. And this time it's serious. They are snorting. Johannes cuts the engine. He tells us that the ellies can get violent at night - they hate disturbance. In the twilight one of the female animals, Medusa, actually drops her head - and then she charges.

Hearts stop. I am sure Johannes is going to be pinioned on a tusk. Someone screams. But it's just a mock charge. A warning. With a shake of her head Medusa gives us another angry glance - before trotting back to her herd. We have survived.

That night we camp out of danger, up on the plateaux. When the sun rises I rub my eyes and look around the camp. We are lost in the middle of astonishing scenery - an endless vista of blue-tinged mountains and dreamy dunelands, threaded by tracks made by migrating elephants.

It's an awesome and uplifting sight. And it suits my mood. Because I am happy. In my own tiny way I have helped to save this landscape - and this ecosystem. I feel good, rewarded, and remarkably virtuous. And you don't get that buzz after a week in Marbella.

Monday, December 03, 2007

News from Egypt

Me, my mate, and the city of the Aten, Tell al Amarna. Yes it really is that bleak.

The Doomed and Monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten.


Very recently I spent three weeks in sunny Egypt. Now I am back in England, but tomorrow I am off to Rome to interview schizophrenic goalkeepers. I'm not joking.

One day soon I will post more fully on my recent Egyptian experiences. But right now I just wanna say this. As I blog, King Tutankhamun is in the news, due to a huge new show of his funeral goods in London - and I think I have discovered something pretty amazing about his dad.

Tutankhamun's father, as any fule kno, was the crazy, weird-looking pharaoh Akhenaten, who introduced monotheism to Egypt (specifically, worship of the Aten, the universal sun god).

A few days back I actually went to the lost city of Akhenaten, Tell el Amarna, in the remote middle Nile. This city was built by Akhenaten for him and his beautiful but loopy wife Nefertiti.

Akhenaten was madder than a bag of tadpoles. He had several daughters and had sex with most of them, as documents attest. He then buried the daughters in their own tombs at the back of Tell el Amarna. I saw these desolate tombs for myself.

For many centuries people have wondered what happened to Akhenaten's mummy. It apparently disappeared and has never been found. His own tomb is empty.

But now I think I've worked it out.

Let's go through the facts we have about Akhenaten.

He liked building, he looked like a nutter, he had a mad wife he loved very much, he had sex with his daughters who he then buried in the back yard.

He reincarnated as Fred West!

That's my theory! I know it's shocking but I think if you look at the facts it's almost incontrovertible. Akhenaten disappeared because he reincarnated many centuries later as deranged Gloucestershire odd job man Fred West.

I intend to present a paper on this to the British Musuem when I return.

Salaam aleikum.

Homicidal Gloucestershire handyman Fred West.