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Calvados

neon

So it's quarter past ten at night and here I am sitting outside drinking pommeau and watching the western sky slide from pink into blue. There is a word, watchet, which describes the colour perfectly. We're in lower Normandy at a tiny place called the Haras de la Hêtraie, both words of which I had to look up – the stud-farm at the beech-grove, it means. A knot of white horses cantering, or possibly trotting, nearby signals the studfarm, but whether any of these surrounding trees are beeches or not I don't know. My dad is good at trees and stuff but he says (he's here) that although he can spot a beech-leaf easily, the trees themselves are only obvious at a distance in autumn. He grew up in the wilds of Warwickshire, you know, hence my name.

I have just smoked a pipeful of coconut tobacco, which seemed to impress everyone. Lucky I practised. There is a piano in this little gîte, too, so I've been hammering out Tom Waits numbers and singing at the top of my voice, since the nearest neighbours are half a mile away in the 16th century château. Yes, my sister is over from Australia with her two boys, and it's the first time they've met Clementine so it's all fun and excitement. God it's nice to finally have a holiday.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

The prostrate milkmaid

neon
Being a parent is a bit like being on drugs. Instead of salvia or speedballs it happens to be sleep deprivation and adrenaline, but the net result is the same, so although it's a constant stream of highs and lows I'm never quite sure, when I come to explain it to other people, whether it's not just a function of me being stoned out of my mind on caffeine and paternal hormones.

So since it's Father's Day here, I suppose I should say something about the fact that I am one now.

We had a tiny little baby. She's called Clementine. Look:

tiny

holding hands

It's amazing, as you might expect, but also deeply bizarre and extraordinary in ways that had never occurred to me. To see your best friend grow another human being inside them for several months – and then to meet them – is one of the biggest mindfucks I can possibly imagine. It shakes you out of existential complacency, and reminds you that this life we have is fundamentally weird and fascinating.

For those who want details about the actual birth, we have very happy memories of it. We had a room to ourselves with views out over Paris, and seemed to be looked after by a team of interchangeably cute and tiny French nurses with button noses and calm voices. When the final contractions came, they dimmed the lights and to be honest, although there was a degree of shouting with exertion, it was a relatively chilled atmosphere compared to all the worrying beforehand.

In his autobiography, Christopher Hitchens says that when he first gazed on the face of his son, he thought, there's the person that will one day bury me. What a miserable bastard. I thought: Holy fuck, we made a tiny human! You hear so much about how new-born babies are supposed to look ugly and crumpled that I wasn't prepared for how cute and gorgeous she was immediately, with massive eyes staring round her at everything in the room.

What was much harder for Hannah than the birth was the breastfeeding, which it turns out is this whole area of human intellectual inquiry which I never knew existed. The books! The articles! The professional advisers! Our flat has seen a steady stream of government-funded lactation consultants and puéricultrices who approach the subject with knitted brows and scholarly pauses, as though you need a PhD just to get your baps out. The positions have names! Who knew that? They sound like sex positions, and some of them are even more uncomfortable. So far, Hannah has mastered "the Reverse Madonna" and "the Rugbyball", as well another one that we invented ourselves and which I'm calling "the Prostrate Milkmaid" in the hopes that this will find its way into the extensive literature.

Shall we have another photo? Here she is a couple of weekends ago in the park with H and her brother:

in park

You can see here how massive our baby is. Most babies' feet would end roughly where the green stripe is, but Clementine's are poking out of the bottom. It's very peculiar because Hannah and I are normal height, but Clemington Spa is in the 98th percentile for length. I guess she will be a basketball player or a model.

I am back at work now and deep into all the French election nonsense. Writing has dropped off sharply since getting babied up – only temporarily though, I hope – but here's a quick reading update: during my week with Hannah at the maternity hospital I bombed through Nicholson Baker's sex-positive folly House of Holes -- fun and cartoony and right up my street -- and then Hugo's Le Dernier journ d'un condamné, which at first I found way too Romantic and melodramatic, but which I ended up rather enjoying. The chapter where he talks about a nightmare he had, involving an old woman found behind a cupboard in his house at night, reads just like the treatment for a modern Japanese horror movie. Then I finished Peter Hopkirk's stirring history of Anglo-Russian machinations in 19th-century Central Asia, The Great Game, which made me want to read more Kipling, and also a mostly-dull history of France in the 18th century called The Great Nation. Now I'm halfway through GB Edwards's The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (herself_nyc! Have you read this?), which I ordered a couple of weeks back during a fit of interest in Guernsey English, and which is slow but unusual and interesting (somewhat bizarrely, it features in Harold Bloom's famous canon listing).

Carefree, wherever I may be

neon


Work needed someone to cover the Champions League final in Munich, and so naturally, as a non-German-speaker who hates football, I was chosen for the job. It was a long, grinding day yesterday – up at half-five for a flight and working till about three o'clock this morning.

I have never been to Bavaria before, and my impression of it from driving around in the countryside has been all thick grassy fields, families on bikes, villages dominated by cycle paths, and a general air of contented functionality beside which France looks quaint and England just shambolic. Munich itself has the feel of a big village, although it's only really today that I'm getting to explore – yesterday was given over to tracking down picturesque Chelsea fans, my particular job being to cover fan reactions on the streets.

I came out of the tube at Odeonsplatz in blazing sunshine around lunchtime, and immediately heard the telltale tuneless slurring of an English football chant emanating from a nearby street-bar. I ambled over to find plenty of the kinds of people you expect to see – fat lads with their tops off, clad only in spilled beer and Chelsea FC tattoos, clutching plastic steins of lager and chanting London-inflected strings of triphthongs at each other in the sunshine. I had expected the usual ‘One World Cup and two World Wars, doo-dah, doo-dah’, but apparently that's very passé now, football chants having moved on a bit since I last noticed them. When I arrived the entire bar was three verses into this:

There were ten German bombers in the air (in the air!)
There were ten German bombers in the air
There were ten German bombers
Ten German bombers
Ten German bombers in the air (in the air!)

Then the RAF from Chelsea shot one down (shot him down!)
Then the RAF from Chelsea shot one down
Then the RAF from Chelsea
RAF from Chelsea
RAF from Chelsea shot one down (shot him down!)

There were nine German bombers.... (etc)

Despite the questionable historical accuracy of this ditty, and others like it, the whole town centre was soon alive with terrace songs of one form or another. It was an impressive, though sometimes depressing, spectacle. All across the city, mobs of sunburned fans would spontaneously break into chorus, the favourite seeming to be this Lord of the Dance reversioning:

Carefree
Wherever we may be
We are the famous CFC
And we don't give a fuck
Whoever you may be
Cos we are the famous CFC

That one seemed strangely popular with the locals; perhaps they associate the tune with something else entirely. Another one that seemed to be everywhere was this, to the tune of The Entertainer:

Double, double, double
Jo-ohn Terry has won the double
Double, double, double
Jo-ohn Terry has won the double
And the shit from the Lane
Has won fuck-all again
Cos John Terry has won the double

The Lane is White Hart Lane, home ground of archrivals Tottenham Hotspur. Get me with my footy knowledge. And the double is a reference to the fact that Chelsea won both the League and Cup finals in the same year, or something like that. The stress scheme is a bit awkward, and the lyrics are very repetitive, and the less said about the rest of it the better, but there you go.

A lot of the fans had bunches of celery on their tables, and a couple of them were wearing sticks of it behind their ears. I asked what this was all about during one vox pop, obviously showing my total ignorance of the club football world, but the overweight gang I was talking to graciously explained by leading the pub in a bizarre but apparently well-known chant:

Ce-le-ry! Celery!
If she don't come, we'll tickle her bum
With a lump of celery

...at the climax of which, handfuls of the popular vegetable were thrown, hatlike, into the air, to promptly rain down on some confused Münchner bystanders.

Well a couple of hours of all this gave me plenty of pictures to send out to clients, so I cabbed it back to the office at Olympiapark, edited, uploaded, and went for a walk in the park while I waited for the match to start. I bought a beer from a stand by the lakeside, drank it on a hill, and fell asleep in the grass for an hour or so, lulled by the sound of a nearby goose and of a contingent of Bayern fans dancing to Robbie Williams.

I watched the first boring half of the match on the telly in the office, then caught the U-Bahn, or is it S-Bahn, I can never remember, back into town to look for reactions to the end. I found a likely-looking bar so full of Chelsea fans that they had spilled into the street outside, where they had set up a kind of temporary colony of chanting morons. Knots of polizei with riot helmets waited calmly a few feet away, looking a bit embarrassed on behalf of the visitors. Chelsea went a goal down deep into the second half, but then equalised a few minutes later, sending the crowd I was with into paroxysms of ecstasy manifested by setting off flares, burning a flag, throwing beer in the air (and all over my camera), and generally jumping around like the moshpit of a thrash metal concert. Whatever the fuck thrash metal is, I don't know, I'm balls-deep into my thirties here.

A drunk 40-year-old skinhead in a grey suit, with a gash across his extensive forehad, loomed out of the crowd, grabbed my camera and said something like "What the fuck's all this then, eh? The noos? The fuckin noos?" I wrestled my kit back off him and carried on, but he was more in the mood for a fight than I realised, and started shouting in my face a mixture of insults and incomprehensible bollocks– "Are you lookin for some? You wanna get your head kicked in? Are you a cunt? Are you? Are you a poet?" I denied both these allegations calmly (although I did want to ask him about this poet business) and stepped diagonally backwards a couple of paces until he could see the waiting police just behind me. He fucked off, but it had shaken me up quite a lot, and I decided to wander up the road to look for another bar where the atmosphere was friendlier.

By now the game had finished 1-1 after extra time, and I positioned myself precariously on top of a pub table outside another bar to film the crowd's reaction to the ensuing penalty shootout. I was hoping against hope that Chelsea won, not fancying my chances of avoiding the inevitable fighting that would result if they lost. Amazingly, Chelsea did in fact win the shootout – I could tell because suddenly the Theatinerstrasse had exploded into a mass of bouncing, screaming English fans, waving their shirts around their heads, crying with joy, singing at the tops of their lungs, beating their chests, and generally acting as though they'd all just been shot through with 40,000 volts. I tried to get some soundbites, but I couldn't get through more than 10 seconds of any interview without 15 people jumping in front of the camera and screaming hoarsely at me, so in the end I just surrendered to the moment and filmed all the fans whooping as though they'd had anything at all to do with what was a very lucky victory. After about an hour of that, with fans half-naked running out along the tram tracks through the town centre, or yelling obscenities at local girls, I couldn't bear it any longer and I squeezed on to a train heading back to Olympiapark to file footage by about 1:30. Finally I regained my car and drove back out of town to my hotel. Got to bed around threeish.

Now, the streets and squares of Munich are full of litter, hungover Londoners, and bikinied locals becomingly acquiring a weekend suntan. The shops are closed, but I am heading for the Alte Pinakothek, which has an excellent collection of Flemish Masters that I particularly want to see.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

neon

I finally forced my way through Durrell's Avignon Quintet. It is his centenary this year, something I only realised when I was halfway through. Considering the fact that I think Justine is one of the three or four greatest novels of the 20th century, this later collection of short novels was a massive disappointment. First of all, the writing is bad. Not just overwritten, but technically very weak. There are sentences in here that repeat themselves in the clumsiest way imaginable:

Here they were to bury themselves in the three-cornered love which had once intrigued Blanford and caused him to try to forge a novel round the notion of this triune love.

My god that is an ugly sentence. There are terrible metaphors and similes which are striking for all the wrong reasons – I see flicking back through my copy that I have underlined in horror the phrase ‘the dry marsupial pocket of the rarely used vagina’ which, if you can believe it, is even worse in context than it is in isolation. In the last book, Quinx, which came out in 1985 but reads like an experimental failure from the late 60s, there are long passages of pseudo-profound philosophising which go on for pages and pages and seem to mean almost nothing:

The day when Aristotle decided (malgré lui) that the reign of the magician-shaman was over (Empedocles), was the soul's D-Day. The paths of the mind had become overgrown. From that moment the hunt for the measurable certainties was on. Death became a constant, the ego was born. Monsieur came down to preside over the human condition.

If you think any of this makes sense in context, I can assure you you're wrong.

And yet. That said, in a weird way I have a kind of grudging respect for the beast. There are some crazy things Durrell is trying out in these works – the five books intersect each other in bizarre ways, so that some characters are creations of other characters, or versions of the same person in a new life. Mostly it doesn't work at all, but I still think this is what good novelists should be trying to do. Basically, if it had been enlivened by the kinds of beautiful sentences that we got in the Alexandria Quartet I would have been happy, but without that, it's just very, very dull.

Work has been fun this week. Yesterday I went to the Crazy Horse to film their new show, which has been designed by Christian Louboutin. It was one of those surreal afternoons where my job seems amazing: drinking free champagne all afternoon and watching girls take their clothes off in elaborate ways. Now usually I hate these Parisian cabarets – Hannah and I went to the Moulin Rouge a few weeks ago and it was one of the worst nights out I can remember – and something about the obviousness of watching women undress on stage depresses me; but there's something about the Crazy Horse, they just seem to pull it off with so much wit and irony that it always wins me over. Christian Louboutin was a very rambling interviewee however, and expressed disapproval at the old pair of trainers I was wearing – which to be honest I thought was pretty rich coming from someone who expects women to pay thousands of pounds for shoes that only acrobats can walk in. (He was wearing a red pair of Roller-Boats, which cost €1000.)

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

neon

Having a baby is supposed to make you think about your own maturity. Many expectant parents of my acquaintance decided to put away childish things – they cut back on the drinking, cancelled their bimonthly order for a quarter of Moroccan, and started going to bed at nine thirty to examine the footnotes to What to Expect when You're Expecting. I was vaguely looking for a quicker, less strenuous way of growing up, and after considering lots of self-improving options it finally it hit me.... I would get a pipe.

What could be more grown-up than that? Right?

I said all this to my friends before Christmas, and one of them took the hint. He sent me one. It's shiny and wooden and you assemble it like the Man with the Golden Gun building his golden gun. I got incredibly excited by this and went round the corner to the Tabac du Dôme (where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to buy his tobacco) to Get Supplies. It's a whole new world. I came back with coconut tobacco, pipe cleaners, weird matches, and a retractable implement called a reamer. ‘What the fuck is that?’ Hannah asked me. ‘It's a reamer!’ I boomed, making a gesture. ‘For goodness sake, if you're going to smoke a pipe, you have to have a reamer!’

(While I was in the shop, incidentally, the guy behind me had come in to try on some pipes. They gave him this little plastic thing that goes over the mouthpiece, and he meditatively popped a series of briars between his teeth, nodding his head, and assaying their heft and balance. It was awesome.)

So next time I had the flat to myself, I tamped in a bowlful of rough shag and fired her up. ‘Just firing up a bowlful of rough shag,’ I texted to about a dozen people. Wasn't it Schopenhauer, I reflected, who said that smoking a pipe dispenses with the need to think? Well maybe not exactly that, but he did say something remarkably similar in German, and his point was not lost. Puff puff puff. It went out pretty quickly, but I relit it. Puff puff. It went out again, and I relit it again. Then it went out, so I relit it. The pipe went out again; it was again relit by me. It went out. I relit. Out. Relit.

By now hyperventilating slightly, I leant on the kitchen work-surface and took stock of my supply of matches. It seemed to me that I would need approximately two boxes per pipeful. No wonder this is such an expensive habit.

Eventually, I got some kind of steady combustion going. I was standing in the window because I didn't want too much smoke in our flat, but I did get a few strange glances from people in the courtyard, squinting up at me, red-faced in my dressing-gown wreathed in coconut smoke. The flat smelled like an arson attempt on a Bounty factory, and I looked like Sherlock Holmes's idiot brother. I wondered if it was time to use the reamer.

When the smoke alarm went off, I decided to call it a day, feeling happy that I'd mastered the technique well enough to be able to pull it out on the next special occasion. The problem now with this habit is that, living in France, it's incredibly difficult to discuss it. Une pipe in French, as well as the obvious, is a slang word for a certain popular non-procreative sex act, and my language skills have so far been unable to get over this obstacle. Too few people talk about pipes, whereas popular non-procreative sex acts are the subject of most everyday conversations here in Paris, so that the slang meaning is basically now the primary meaning. For me to tell people at work that my best man got me a pipe for Christmas is to announce that I was festively sucked off by a sales manager from Maidstone, which, granted, may add a certain rakish charm to my otherwise bland persona, but isn't necessarily how I want to make smalltalk.

Basically, I'm starting to suspect this present is more trouble than it's worth.

A la ví’, a la vía, jelos!

neon

I am down in Provence with Hannah on what is apparently called, by certain subeditors and those who frequent certain prenatal messageboards, a babymoon. I was kind of worried that January would just be cold and wet down here, but actually, although we have to wrap up quite well, the skies are clear blue and the landscape is just as enticing as ever, with old walled towns everywhere you look surrounded by cute rocky hills, mediaeval forts, clumps of oliviers, and vineyards stretching off as far as the eye can see.

We did a few tastings yesterday, stopping at one or two of the some 300 wineries which surround the nearby village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For once we went on holiday with a car so we can actually buy plenty of it and take it back with us. Hannah, being pregnant, is demurely spitting out her mouthfuls as indeed you're supposed to do, whereas I am glugging them back contentedly so that by the third visit I was a little bit tipsy and not unreceptive to a delighted sales pitch from someone who wasn't expecting any visitors today. In summer this area is swarming with tourists, but we have it completely to ourselves: vineyard owners are unlocking the cellar doors when we ring the bell, and uncorking new bottles to show us what they make. Up the hill, the ruined castle itself looks amazing, and we drive up to clamber around it in peace and quiet. You know you're in an area with plenty of history when a 14th century ruin can be described as neuf.

I have been doing my reading on the 100 year period when the papacy was, bizarrely, based here in Avignon because of political instability in Rome. The papal palace in town is a massive, looming presence for such a small settlement, although despite what Durrell repeatedly says in the Avignon Quintet, I find its huge bulk rather beautiful, especially when it's being hit by the gold afternoon light. An intersection of two alleyways nearby marks the spot where Petrarch first saw Laura, thus beginning literature's most famous case of someone obsessing over a girl they've put on a pedestal without ever having properly met. I am reading his Canzoniere too. I am also reading something I picked up in town yesterday, a two-volume collection of the works of the troubadours in the original Old Provençal with French on facing pages, which I am somewhat unexpectedly enjoying very much indeed – I had not realised how deliciously secular and fun this tradition is. A lot of it goes back to very pagan fertility songs of the spring, and indeed the earliest lyric in the book is an anonymous song sung by all the married and unmarried women of a village who for one day could, symbolically or actually, it's unclear, hook up with any man they wanted. The chorus line is, A la ví’, a la vía, jelos! Roughly, ‘hit the road, jealous one!’ Even later stuff is not what you'd expect from courtly romances – one canso by Guilhèm de Peitieus includes the line

Enquer me lais Dieus viure tan
C’aja mas manz soz so mantel!

Which means, ‘May God let me live long enough to get my hands under her robe.’ You have to be kind of impressed.

The sun is out and I'm off to hunt out a breakfast.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

Some stuff I read in 2011

neon
My favourites from this year's reading:

Driss Chraïbi, Une enquête au pays
I try, in an increasingly desultory fashion, to keep up with Moroccan literature just because I used to live there and people assume I Know Things about it. This one is pretty great, a kind of police procedural reimagined as a piece of political philosophy. No wait that makes it sounds terrible. Anyway, I reviewed it on LibraryThing here.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
I bought this when I was working in South Africa but couldn't be arsed to read it till earlier this year. It's really very good, he's particularly strong on the ways in which apartheid made even black people think of themselves as second-class human beings. At one point Mandela is taking a flight in Ethiopia and he nearly gets off the aircraft when he sees the black pilot: ‘How can a black man fly a plane?’ What's also very striking is that Mandela was no Gandhi – he supported violent action against the regime, and in this book he defends civilian deaths caused by the ANC's militant wing (which he helped to set up). Very moving, very revealing. (Proper review here.)

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia
A science fiction award-winner about Stalin's Russia which succeeds brilliantly in its plan to use comedy and humour as vehicles for huge ideas about society and repression. Loved this.

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur
I finished this this year, having spent the last 18 months or so reading it on and off. A lot of my interest was linguistic – I love this stage of English, on the cusp between Middle and Modern. The prose is full of magic and craziness and conflicted knights and lubricious harlots and lots of confusing battles where people voyde their saddles and pull truncheons from their wounds. And so much beauty in the language. ‘In the grekynge of the daye Sir Tristram hente his hors wonders for to seke.’ Fuck yes.

Ovid, The Art of Love
Refreshingly even-handed in its treatment of sex. There is a certain amount of sniggering, but considering the state of European society for the subsequent two thousand years I thought his view of women and relationships was conspicuously modern and conspicuously pre-Christian, or, as Rebecca West would probably specify, pre-Augustinian. Famously, Ovid is pretty hot on the importance of making sure everyone involved gets their rocks off: ‘Sentiat ex imis venerem resoluta medullis / Femina, et ex aequo res iuvet illa duos.’ Which my existing 1929 translation renders cautiously as: ‘Let the woman feel love's act, unstrung to the very depths of her frame, and let that act delight both alike.’ My new James Michie translation is a bit more robust: ‘A fucked woman should melt to her core, and the pleasure / Be felt by both in equal measure.

Fouad Laroui, La Femme la plus riche du Yorkshire
There are lots of good Moroccan authors, and lots of good books about Yorkshire. As far as I know this is the only intersection of the two sets.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Mémoires d'Hadrien
Amazing, amazing prose. My French is (still) not fluent, but even I was riveted by the perfection of some of the paragraphs. It's sad and beautiful and very wise, I want to read a lot more by Yourcenar.

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor
It's what you expect from Nabokov: amazing writing, ludicrously convoluted vocabulary, and gratuitous paedophilia which he somehow, much to my annoyance, makes rather sexy. He just has a way of describing things in a totally new way – an erection, for instance: ‘The tall clock struck an anonymous quarter, and Ada was presently watching, cheek on fist, the impressive, though oddly morose, stirrings, steady clockwise launch, and ponderous upswing of virile revival.’ Well I mean you have to love that, don't you. I wrote a lot more about this one here.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
I find Freud is one of those thinkers whose ideas you dismiss when you first hear them – and then, two or three years later, you suddenly realise the bastard was probably right. There is something weirdly unscientific about this book, something a bit pre-modern in the dodgy methodology, but it's all very fascinating. I guess that's why Freud's remained crucial for modern writers and artists, whereas modern psychologists pretty much ignore him.

Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman
Fucking amazing. I read this in a oner on the TGV back to Paris after covering the royal wedding in Monaco and although I was sleep-deprived I couldn't put it down, I just laughed continually for about four hours. And also, just finally someone is actually taking feminism seriously and not being po-faced about it. Caitlin is also the funniest person on Twitter, where in the space of twenty minutes she'll throw away a dozen lines which most writers would be proud to have saved up for a novel.

James Kelman, Kieron Smith, Boy
I thought this was outstanding. A child's rambling narrative of growing up in Glasgow, I can't help comparing it favourably with the clasics of the genre like Catcher in the Rye or the early chapters of Portrait of the Artist.

Christopher Hitchens, Arguably
Hitchens was almost unique in having so many fans who disagreed with him so often. We didn't love him for his opinons but for how he expressed them. He didn't create a huge number of new ideas or arguments, but he was undoubtedly a genius when it came to rhetoric, and his phrases have a cumulative power that makes them hit home like no one else's. Plus, watching religious apologists getting Hitchslapped is a massive YouTube pleasure of mine.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity
Like a lot of atheists, I am kind of obsessed with religious history and have been since I was tiny. I've read a lot of books like this, but none which do it so well.

Edward St Aubyn, Some Hope: A Trilogy
Wow, what a writer this is. Where did he come from? These books stand in a very Waugh-like English tradition of social commentary and sparkling witticisms, but it's all overlying some pretty dark stuff on child rape and addiction. The middle book, about heroin dependency, was so realistic I kept having to put the book down because I was breaking into cold sweats, and yet it was also somehow very funny.

Great. With—

neon
I tried to take a break from LJ there, to concentrate on other writing. But all that happened was I started writing entries longhand in notebooks, which meant it took longer and now I can never find what I'm looking for when I go back over it.

Things have been busy in real life over here. Some people reading this will already know that I'm having a baby in the spring. A baby! A human one. I mean Hannah's doing most of the work, but I certainly contributed in the early stages. There is a lot of excitement and also a shitload of Stuff To Be Done that has kept me pretty busy and a bit frazzled. And because this is France, the whole thing is enveloped in a mountain of administrative challenges requiring a continual supply of paperwork – an attestation de grossesse, registration with some shadowy body called the CAF (something something familiales), and pre-booking a hospital for the actual birth which needs to be done practically as soon as you know you're up the duff.

Despite the fact that we live literally opposite one of Paris's most famous maternity hospitals, Hannah has decided to book us into a ‘more forward-thinking’ clinic on the other side of the city, where we recently sat through a long ‘acclimatisation’ meeting about what our ‘birth plan’ is. We didn't have a birth plan, beyond walking away with a healthy baby, so we just made up some stuff about having a supportive atmosphere which seemed to satisfy them. Hannah is assiduously studying vocab lists of daunting terms like par le siège, amniocentèse, and the ever-essential péridurale. Here she is with her bump, although I should note that some of this is due to third helpings of gluten-free Christmas pudding:



Feeling the little critter kick around inside her is just as astonishing as you'd expect, but also considerably weirder and more...nuanced than I was led to believe. There is a living thing inside her! It still freaks us out quite a lot – as well as providing several intervals of wide-eyed awestruck joy.

The rest of our life is fairly stable and viewed by us with cautious approval, if rarely outright excitement. Work is bubbling along and in the current climate we're happy to have plenty of it. We are trying while we can to enjoy all our quiet evenings in playing Scrabble and watching, on herself_nyc's recommendation, Friday Night Lights which is amazing. Eating out is still a big pleasure for us, but now H is pregnant there's a whole load more stuff she can't eat along with the gluten, meaning the set of edible dishes on the average menu has now shrunk to include little more than an orange juice and the charred, coal-like, bacteria-free remains of what might once have been a steak. The worst thing is that she can't even drink her way through it and has to watch me knocking back vodka martinis every night (we keep getting asked if she has any cravings; I used to say no, but now, more honestly, I say ‘Sancerre’). And France being France, with its 1950s views on gender relations, everyone is suddenly being incredibly nice to her but also irritatingly protective – when she allowed herself to order a small undecaffeinated coffee the other day the waiter refused to serve her. ‘It's all right, we're giving it up for adoption,’ I yelled, in a fury.

It's New Year, so I'm worrying even more than usual about my lack of creativity, and trying to work out how, given my current feeble levels of productivity, I'm ever going to get anything accomplished again in my private life after April when I'll be pretty much flat-out. But hopefully then, I'll have more exciting things to worry about.

Tags:

2012 books

neon

Lawrence Durrell, Livia
Edwin Mullins, The Popes of Avignon
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22
Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe
Lawrence Durrell, Constance
Lawrence Durrell, Sebastian
Lawrence Durrell, Quinx
Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Khéops
Matt Ridley, Genome
Nicholson Baker, House of Holes
Lucian Randall, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris
Victor Hugo, Le dernier jour d'un condamné
Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game
Colin Jones, The Great Nation
Alan Moore, Necronomicon
G. B. Edwards, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
Philippe Djian, Vers chez les blancs
Saki, Complete Short Stories
Anaïs Nin, Paris Revisited
John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy
André Malraux, La Voie royale
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
David Bellos, Is That A Fish In Your Ear?
Thomas Penn, Winter King
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

Ma‘layshi, shufshuufa!

neon
A drive southeast of Tripoli is like a trip to a completely different country. The traffic thins out and the suburbs give way to scrubland. Everything is ochre under a hot blue sky. Rebel checkpoints end about half an hour south of the city; after that, who knows what could happen. The worst-case scenario is a fake checkpoint run by loyalist forces. Two Italian journalists came across one of these the day I arrived, on a road west of Tripoli. Their driver was shot dead next to them, and they were held in a cell for two days. Ultimately let go. The loyalists are in a corner now, everyone mutters, and have nothing to lose.

The front line is weird. Soldiers here spend most of the day sleeping or firing their guns in the air to raise morale. I was there for three days outside Bani Walid and mostly it was pretty boring – just waiting around for the NTC deadline to expire. However, I was probably lucky. The day I didn't go, my colleague came under direct fire and had to shelter under a van with Jonathan Miller from Channel 4 News. He said it was the most terrifying 10 minutes of his life, although he didn't specify if this was because of the bullets or Jonathan Miller.

The whole area is incredibly hot with very little shade. The second day I was there, we were allowed a little further forward to where there was a small mosque and a little shop. I drank two litres of water, a cold coffee drink, two cans of 7-Up, a Schweppes Lemon, an almond tea, an alcohol-free beer, and a can of grape juice AND DIDN'T WEE ONCE. Sat in an old deserted schoolhouse on the top of a rise and edited my pictures there before sending them back with my tiny BGAN – it takes about an hour to send back two minutes of compressed footage. 

Even in the capital, gunfire is everywhere. It doesn't sound like fireworks or cars backfiring. It just sounds like guns. I hate guns. Yesterday, coming out of the medina, a rebel at a checkpoint fired a round of warning shots to get the traffic's attention, just a few yards from me. Very unpleasant feeling. Today, walking through the suqs, a kid came walking towards us carrying a sawn-off shotgun. He pointed it at a cat lounging in a pile of refuse and grinned. Later, a man walking in front of us was swaggering through town carrying a pistol, finger on the trigger. Last night, a terrific round of anti-aircraft fire went off just outside the hotel. There are guns everywhere, and they terrify me. They are too easy to use. No training is required to point and kill, and aiming is not as sophisticated a procedure as you might hope.

The medina: rubbish-strewn wynds, a ground of earth and sand, black bulbs of women walking with plastic bags of shopping, cats playing in litter, a smell of stale water and faeces, cross-streets glimpsed at the far ends of alleyways, light filtered by overhanging matting, a chiaroscuro peek at a tailor bent over an ancient Singer. The Libyan tricolor daubed on a corner, with a finger of green running down the uneven stone.

Graffiti is everywhere. GO WAY GADAFI LIBIA FRE. February 17. ليبيا حرة (Free Libya). THANK YOU NATO. There are Amazigh yaz symbols all over the place, apparently a sign of Berber identity which was illegal under Kadhafi. The old leader himself appears in a thousand caricatures on every available surface, sketched with sunglasses and crazy frizzed hair, usually labelled, derisively, as  شفشوفة shufshuufa, the curly-haired one. One of the big chants in the new Libya is معليشي شفشوفة (ma‘layshi, shufshuufa!), which is a very dialectal way of saying something like "excuse me, frizz-head!". You can hear people shouting it in this video at 0:12 and again at 2:00. There's more here at 0:44, which looks like it was filmed the night I was out recording (and frankly, internet, my pictures are better). The song they're all singing there is the new Libyan anthem, which I think you'll agree is stirring stuff.

On my last night in Tripoli I walked round Martyrs' Square again to soak up the atmosphere. Flags flying, people cheering, bands playing, horns honking, popcorn popping, girls ululating, and kids running around with smiles and candy-floss all over their faces. No special occasion, it's been like this every night since I got here. They love it. I love it. When my camera and my professional disinterest have been switched off, I can't help feeling that Libya is just the most fantastic country. I'm already planning to come back with Hannah.

I didn't have a chance to get many souvenirs, but there is one thing stuffed in the bottom of my bag. When I was interviewing the new Minister for Education a few days ago, he wouldn't let me film in his office because the walls are still lined with Kadhafi-era books. "What are you going to do with them all?" I asked. He shrugged: "Throw them away." Could I, I wondered, help take a couple off his hands...? He grinned at me and handed down a three-volume set from behind his desk. Checking it out in the hallway, I eventually deciphered that it was a copy of Kadhafi's famous الكتاب الأخضر – the Green Book itself. Not something that's easy to get hold of anymore in Libya, though god knows I was hoping no one checked my bag too thoroughly at any of the checkpoints.

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