Radio 5 Live media tart

October 24, 2007

I just did an interview on Radio 5 Live calling Michael Bright a bully and a tyrant. I said some other sensible things too. When it becomes available to listen to again online I’ll link here.

Thursday morning update: Radio 5 has put the wrong programme up. Instead of being yesterday’s it is the day when Gordon Brown had his first PM questions after ruling out an election and the M25was shut all day. Bloody useless BBC. I am struggling to get an email through to them too.

It’s going to be a Bright, Bright, Bright sunshiny day

October 24, 2007

The trial of former Independent Insurance boss Michael Bright and his co defendants has interrupted my holiday.

Tom Broughton, editor of Insurance Times, called yesterday to tell me that Brighty had been found guilty and I got a text from Stephen (Poke) Womack, a former editor of Post Magazine, this morning with the news.

I have just check the Post Mag special Indie trial website (link opens a new window) and found out that Brighty got seven years.

I had the pleasure of spending a day at his trial and watching as it slowly dawned on him who I was.

This is what Private Eye’s Street of Shame (link opens a new window) had to say about his role in my departure from Insurance Times all those years ago.

Well that has brightened up my day.

D-Day for postal workers

October 24, 2007

At Arromanches, north of Bayeux, British forces built a false port, including harbour walls and bridges, to enable the fast transfer of military supplies to the allied troops liberating France in 1944. It is a fascinating story and one we learned in great detail today (Tuesday). We also visited the British War Grave in Bayeux, where nearly 4,000 war dead are buried.

The great French military leader Napolean Bonaparte once said: “An army marches on its stomach.” It was the great British war time leader Winston Churchill who recognised that fact when planning the liberation of Nazi occupied France beginning on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Each soldier needed about 40kg per day.

Books and films about D-day and the liberation of Europe concentrate on the derring-do, the battles, the paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines and the sabotage of the resistance movements throughout Europe. Even the tales of the D-Day landings concentrate on the troops disembarking waist deep in water and under fire from German gun placements. Whether it’s the Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan, the fact that hundreds of thousands of troops were able to fed and watered, supplied with ammunition and even able to send mail and receive parcels from their families back home is just presented as a given. In fact it was an enormous feat of British engineering and ingenuity.

As Kate pointed out – now she worked on Building magazine – it was probably one of the earliest examples of large scale prefabricated construction.

Churchill knew that the invading forces would need a port to ensure their supply chain. All the calculations proved that capturing a port from the sea would be too tough a battle and too costly in terms of human lives. The alternative was to build a new port. It was a madcap idea and Churchill told people not to tell him it was impossible because the difficulties were obvious. They went away and did it, creating what became known as the Mulberry.

British construction and engineering firms built huge concrete hollow structures over a period of several years and then hid them from prying German spies by sinking them in rivers, including the Thames. Another 8,000 workers also built clip-together roads that could float on the sea. They built seven miles of the things, using 110,000 tonnes of steel. As part of the D-Day flotilla, these were all extracted from the hiding places and carried across the Channel (it took 132 tugs to carry the prefabricated concrete bocks).

Building a harbour began the bay after D-Day. First a dozen or so ships that had sailed across just for this purpose, were scuppered and sunk, forming a barrier against the worst elements of the tide, then the huge concrete blocks were lowered in place to create a harbour wall. But with shallow beaches, ships could not get close to the shore so, inside the harbour, floating jetties were created and the floating bridges extended to the shore, enabling empty trucks to drive from the land onto the floating docks, received their cargo from the supply vessels and then drive back to land.

This enabled armies to surge into Europe and fight to regain ports from the land. What was meant to be a temporary measure of no more than 90 days, lasted for many weeks longer than expected and nearby ports were not taken and secured (often they had been mined) for months. Eindhoven (I think) was the first major port secured, with other Belgian and Dutch ports and then Le Havre, following) and only then was the Mulberry port at Arromanches closed down in October 1944.

You can see the remaining bits of the Mulberry harbour in the sea in the background.

Molly jumping in ruins of Mulberry harbour on the beach at Arromanches

Kate walking on the beach at Arromanches with Mulberry harbour remains

The museum on the coast there is a bit tacky but full of detail and well worth the visit. It also puts into perspective the “world” nature of the phrase world war. Troops, airmen and sailors from Belgium, Norway, Greece, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and many other countries were part of the liberation force. Their flags fly outside.

various flags flying

But the unique monuments are to the supply-side staff – even postal workers, for example – who carried out such vital “back-office” work, keeping the frontline troops well stocked and in touch.

plaques to the postal and other workers

A similar harbour was built further down the coast (at Utah or Omaha beach – Cannot remember) by the US but severe storms wrecked it because the yanks had not been so careful with the scuppered vessels and first blocks, leaving Arromanches (near Gold beach) as the sole supply port.

In a classic example of recycling, the floating bridges (four of the seven mile total had already been lost in the storms) were then taken in land to be used to replace bombed and mined bridges.

You can still see many of the concrete harbour blocks though, and, when the tide is out, go and play among some of the drifted sections in the sand.

The war grave is on the circular bypass round Bayeux but they have cobbled 100m or so of the road and imposed a 30kpm speed limit. The respect shown for the efforts of all those involved is still palpable.

war graves

numbers of war dead in Bayeux cemetary

Just so you know we haven’t gone all melancholy, Molly found a place today that sold what it called and “after Eight” pancake. This involved chocolate, cream and some green mint chocolate chip ice cream. So she was happy.

You come to France to find a nice farmhouse and to eat pancakes but all you get is gites and crepes!

Green with envy

October 23, 2007

I want to come here on my motorbike.

  • The roads are empty
  • They twist and turn
  • There are loads of green lanes

I know no other member of my family will have felt that today (Monday) led so clearly to that decision but I have been driving the car round these windy roads with everyone telling me to slow down because I can just see myself riding my bike round the, long, windy, perfectly tarmaced, twisty lanes.

We also went for a walk this afternoon through some potentially interesting biking territory. According to James’s website (link opens a new window) many of the tracks we walked are open to bikes and other off-road vehicles. I certainly saw motorcycle tyre tracks just on the edge of the village. With so many byways being closed or reclassified in the UK, France looks a haven for those of us who, like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, like to get our bikes muddy.

The walk was great. The kids moaned at the prospect but Kate assured them I was only a mile or so – probably though a genuine misreading of the map. It was at least four miles. We walked out through an archway opposite the bakers and down to a funny little building over a river. This has just been re-roofed by what is it? What purpose does it serve?

roofed water feature
roofed water feature from reverse angle

A right and a left put us on another great path for biking and walking. Molly moaned about not having appeared on the blog so here she is:

Molly and Joe on a track
Molly close up

And, to be fair, here’s supermodel son Joe:

Joe in profile

Joe had been “desolate”, as the shop attendant had described him, when a visit to Decathlon earlier in the day had found it devoid of rugby balls. No wonder the French went out of the world cup in the quarter finals – no balls. But Molly had bought a pink mini-basket ball. This entertained us most of the way round the walk, passing, bouncing and catching it between us.

After a very long straight track across wide open fields we turned left on a road into somewhere called Le Moulin. I suggested we might want to go out and paint the town red. That joke would be as close to Ewan McGregor as I am likely to get.

We missed a planned turn off – these tracks are not signposted and often appear to be driveways to people’s houses. So we walked on to Sallen, up a short track and left to Le Haut Digry. Again, a planned left turn looked like a private driveway so we walked round three sides of the property to pick up the track all the way back to Courmolain.

Definitely some tyre tracks in the foreground here:

Track with tyre marks in the foreground

An evening of Scrabble followed. The four of us had hands each but I teamed up with Molly and Kate helped Joe. Molly and I had the highest individual scores.

Ever wondered why there are never any photos of me? Because even when someone does try to take one I have to struggle to hold Joe to prevent him from putting bunny-rabbit ears over my head.

Chris, Molly and Joe

All part of life’s rich tapestry

October 21, 2007

“It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry,” is one of my overused phrases (whenever I break another limb, for example). I also loved Carol King’s Tapestry album my mum used to play (and which I bought on CD many years later), in which she sings: “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue.”
Today we visited the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which is not, actually, a tapestry but a very long bit of embroidery (some say an embroidery of the truth). What Wikipedia says about it (link opens a new window)

It is fabulous. Kate and I visited before we were married and I remember being fascinated by it then. The presentation has improved tenfold in the 15 years since. Even the kids were absorbed. As we walked slowly along it, our handheld terminals detailed in English the different scenes and historical facts and all of us found ourselves pointing to intricate details on the “tapestry” itself.

Joe had studied the battle of Hastings last year at school but to see it in real life still brought it home. Strangely the way kids in England now study this involves some lame excuse about Harold having already fought the Vikings in York before rushing south to lose to William, purely because Harold’s army was tired and malnourished. We just cannot take the idea that those French cheese-eating surrender monkeys actually beat us. This is stark contrast to the French who, out of respect for the liberators of WW2 renamed several streets in Bayeux after UK and US WW2 leaders and generals, such as Churchill.

The main thing about the Bayeux tapestry is it gives me a chance to recount on of my favourite jokes:

Harold with an arrow in his eye from Bayeux Tapestry.
William the Bastard, as he was known – Guillaume le B√Ętard see Wikipedia again (link opens a new window) was standing on the beach of Normandy with his invasion army. He turned to his axemen, pointed to a tree and cried: “Axemen of France step forward and show me your skills.”

The axemen stepped forward an hurled their axes. The axes whooshed and swirled and turned and thudded into the tree in a dead straight vertical line down the centre. There were whoops and cheers and hats thrown in the air.

William turned to his javelin throwers. Pointing to another tree he called: “Spearmen of France, step forward and show me your skills.”

The spearmen stepped forward and furled their weapons. They swooshed through the air, landing in a dead straight vertical line in the centre of the tree. More cheering and more throwing of hats.

Finally William turned to his archers and pointed to a third tree and called: “Bowmen of France, step forward and show me your skills.” The archers stepped forward in two rows. The first row knelt down. All the archers pulled an arrow from their quiver, attached it to the bow, pulled back and let fire. The arrows went everywhere, Axemen and spearmen ran for cover. William was thrown from his horse.

When the chaos calmed down William was heard to cry: “For Christ’s sake, you’ll have someone’s eye like that!”

Passport to success

October 21, 2007

Just a quick memory: When we arrived at the ferry port for our lines crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe with LD Lines (link pens in a new window) Kate handed me four passports, which I handed on to the ticket officer. Just as he put them down I noticed one was a slightly lighter shade of red than the others.


A quick investigation of the passenger door found the missing proper passport. The one we had handed over belonged to Molly’s Build-Bear-Workshop (link opens a new window) Hello Kitty.

front of Hello Kitty's passport details of inside of Hello Kitty's passport

Swing low, sweet chariot

October 21, 2007

My mum rang on Friday. I know I am nearly 42 but she still worries about me. She rang to warn me that Friday would be the worst day of the year for travelling. On top of it being half term, there would be thousands of England rugby fans travelling to Paris for the world cup final. As is so often the case, Mum was right. The traffic was worse than a normal Friday night and the ferry was awash with white England shirts.

It was a bad night to be travelling as a family. There were pockets of England fans everywhere you went on the ferry, determined to stay up all night laughing, joking and drinking. And when rugby fans drink, the inevitable happens: they sing. So while all we – and hundreds of other passengers – wanted was a quiet night, instead we had to listen to drunken conversations. We were then serenaded to the sound of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the national anthem and a brief chorus or two “The hair on her dickydido went down to her knee,” (and some other rugby favourites).

The net result was that when we got off the ferry and started to drive in relative peace and quiet, everyone fell asleep, which was unfortunate as I was meant to be driving a right-hand drive hire car I was unfamiliar with on the right-hand side of the French motorways. We pulled over twice so I could doze off in the driver’s seat and then finally pulled in to buy another very strong coffee and bag of E numbers (M&Ms) to keep me awake. And at one of these stops, Kate lost the toll ticket for the motorway so we had an interesting bit of explaining to do at the peage.

We arrived safely in the end. Unpacked, lit the fire in the kitchen – just look at the warmth that thing chucks out:

log burning stove glowing red in the kitchen, surrounded by comfy chairs

We turned on the water and the electricity and – a top priority given that night’s rugby match – sorted out the telly. Then we set of for St Lo as James had reminded us that Saturday was market day.

Shopping in English markets means trying to identify which trader will give you fruit and vegetables that look anywhere near as good as the ones they display so neatly at the front. In France you can pick up your own and most market traders will even carve you a slice of this and lump of that for you to taste before you buy.

So, while Kate and I topped up on fresh spinach, several different types of in-season mushrooms and some other staples, Joe was checking out various cheese counters (he calls me Wallace, from Wallace and Grommit, because of my love of cheese but he is like father, like son). A trip to Carrefour followed and then home, with no intention of leaving for the rest of the day.

We feasted on fresh mushroom soup, rustic bread and the cheeseboard. I had a couple of Pelforth Brunes while cooking the soup and a glass of red wine with the cheese. But Kate discovered the glass to die for:

Kate holding large goblet of white wine

This really should start a round of Danny Kaye-style conversations along the lines of: “The Chalice from the Palace has a potion with the poison but the Flagon with the Dragon has the brew that is true”. Wait, it has all changed…… Well you have to have seen the film (The Court Jester or something like that I think?).

We then explored the village and the kids watched a DVD of Flushed Away that had arrived from Amazon rentals just before we left home – it was scratched and kept freezing, annoyingly – while I parked myself on the sofa and slept soundly for an hour and half (thank you Monsiour Pelforth).

The spinach went into an omelette, which was served with some melt-in-your-mouth new potatoes and everyone had a bath at some point during the early evening – and what a bath. This is Joe enjoying his moment of luxury.

Joe in the bath with candles behind him

I arrived to find candles lit and some lavender bath oils Kate and Molly had chosen while out shopping earlier. It ensured we watched the rugby from what smelt like a teenage girl’s bedroom (let’s face it I am making up that analogy – when I was a teenager I was never attractive enough to be invited into any teenage girls’ bedrooms).

I took a bit of video today with my new camcorder toy (sorry, that should be vital piece of work equipment). But I cannot fathom how to get it onto my computer. That may be Sunday’s challenge, in which case you will get to see what the village looks like in more detail.

One final word on the rugby. Joe and I watched it in French. At the end of the day South Africa deserved to win. England gave away too many penalties and their lineout was rubbish. But even the French commentator seemed to think the referee had questionable parentage. As a rugby referee myself I am not allowed to criticise a fellow arbiter of law, so either he saw things we watching on the telly did not, or he did not see the things we saw and you can only give what you see. And I know that the fourth official has more a camera views than the TV crews but it looked like a try to me.

One final, final thing on the rugby. When you are Nelson Mandela you can wear rugby kit and everyone in the world will still know who you are. President Mbeki looked like some over-zealous rugby fan had run on and stood at the end of the line of grandees. Most of the England players appeared not to know who he was and either ignored him or shook his hand as if he were some drunk at the end of a wedding line-up.

There’s always an insurance angle

October 21, 2007

A “conversation” on the forum for Honda trailbike riders (link opens a new window) some months back resulted in a private message pinging its way to me from one jaqueslemac (that’s not so strange – I once shared a hotel room in Italy with someone I’d never met before whose website handle was piguglyshandydrinker). The message said, menacingly: “I know who you are.”

And he did too. I had been editor of weekly trade magazine Insurance Times (Link opens a new window) and chair of the Financial Journalists’ Group (FJG) some seven or so years back when James Duffell (for Jaqueslemac is he) had been running the highly regarded press office at Norwich Union (link opens a new window).

As editor of the industry’s tabloid, I had my share of run-ins with the sometimes embattled James (no matter how good a PR you are it is sometimes difficult to put a positive spin on a gaff-prone company). But I suspect the fact that I awarded James best press office in a financial services company two years running after the FJG gave journalists a free vote on the matter, boosted his salary, bonus and bank balance hugely.

In fact, it is why I don’t feel at all beholden to James for letting me stay in his fantastic French farmhouse. I look back now and recognise my contribution to its purchase.

And that is the subject of this blog: James and his wife bought a French farmhouse and James effectively ducked out of the rat race for a while to spend a lot of time and effort doing it up. The farmhouse is called La Basse-Cour and James wrote a lot about its renovation in the Observer. You can find out more about this at the farmhouse’s website (link opens a new window).

James and I had arranged to come here last weekend on our bikes (James had a Honda Dominator but now has a Triumph Tiger. I have a Honda Africa Twin). But a last-minute work commitment meant James had to work the weekend in Norwich so we cancelled. In the meantime, I asked James about my family visiting and he said yes. So here we are.

This is the house, from the courtyard: