Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First photo of a human being

In our modern world of cheap senseless selfies and trashy paparazzi images, it’s nice to be able to look back at the first fellow who happened to get stuck on the wrong side of a photographer’s lens.

Click to enlarge slightly.

This image was taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839 in the Boulevard du Temple, Paris.

Thank God (for posterity) that nothing proves that the subject might or might not have been taking a leak with one leg raised upon a fountain, in the doggy style of our distinguished Aussie PM Tony Abbott.


Thank God, too, that the nasty Photoshop product had not yet been invented.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farewell to family history

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’ve just finished uploading the files of They Sought the Last of Lands to the IngramSpark platform in England. Here’s the cover, which I created this evening:

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There don’t seem to be any technical errors in my files (which are automatically verified by the IngramSpark robot as soon as they’ve been uploaded), so the book should be published very soon. Finally, with the index, it’s 384 pages long, whereas A Little Bit of Irish was only 266 pages long.

As of tomorrow, I’ll be packing up all my family-history archives and storing them away. It’s a funny feeling to think that this lengthy adventure is now terminated… except, of course, for my Skeffington One-Name Study, which will be not be a personal family-history document in the same sense as the first two books, but rather a kind of historical monograph.

In fact this Skeffington book is no longer the exciting challenge that it appeared to be when I first started looking into genealogy, many years ago. To be perfectly honest, I’m not particularly motivated by this Skeffington project, because I know already that this future book is unlikely to satisfy lots of people throughout the world who received the Skeffington surname in circumstances that I’m not capable of explaining. The only reason why I intend to continue this one-name study is that I now possess such a complete collection of documents on ancient Skeffington history that it would be a pity not to take advantage of them.

Above all, I continue to hope that a certain number of male individuals with our surname will end up providing Y-chromosome data, which remains the only sound method for discovering who’s who… as we’ve just seen in the context of the Courtenay Affair.

Friday, August 8, 2014

No glory in war


What a superb statement! I wish I had invented such a slogan.

So-called “Great War” celebrations are starting to drown us, while diluting the horrors in vain glory of the mindless Gallipoli variety.


It’s time to get back to old-fashioned common sense, summed up in the above slogan about no glory in war. This little video is a masterpiece:



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Punishment for sins

To punish people who have been led astray by sins of the flesh, God invented venereal diseases. And today, ever abreast of state-of-the-art medical science, He has updated His punishment to AIDS.

In the case of dogs, God simply invented fleas. Late yesterday evening, I wandered out into the balmy darkness for a pleasant breath of fresh air before going to bed. (To be more honest, for a pee.) My dog Fitzroy followed me out… then he promptly shot off into the night, as if he were on an urgent mission. When it became obvious that my dog wasn’t planning on returning home in the near future (a most unusual situation), I left the light on in front of the house and went to bed. Early this morning, Fitzroy was back home, in a rather scruffy state… no doubt after a night of fornication in a farmyard somewhere up on the mountain slopes in the vicinity of Presles. To restore his energy, he gulped down a dish of croquettes. Then I left him chained up outside (which he doesn’t mind at all) so that he could doze on the grass in the sunshine.

He has spent much of the day scratching himself, which suggests that he received a massive gift of fleas from his lady friend. This afternoon, I gave him a dose of the expensive Frontline Combo product (to destroy flea eggs, and repel ticks) and covered him in flea powder.

When I was a youth, young heterosexual males were in constant fear of catching “the Clap”, which was the slang term for gonorrhea. A lesser evil was the nasty creature known as the crab louse, which seemed to be keen on pubic hair.


An unskilled observer might well imagine that the canine version of this pubic-hair crab beast is the flea, but my zoology is probably faulty.


In any case, God made Himself perfectly clear. The only sound remedy for all these evils is Abstinence. I must try to get that divine message through to Fitzroy.

Free Assange now!

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Richard Dawkins has just retweeted a message from WikiLeaks informing us that, as of today, the UK has spent 7 million quid of taxpayers’ dough in their attempts to foil the asylum of Julian Assange.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pyrenean colors

In one of his recent TV documentaries, François Skyvington found himself in the middle of a wonderful world of colors in the Midi-Pyrénées region of south-west France. To start the ball rolling, he visited an amazing old laboratory that has preserved the ancient and secret know-how involved in using a local plant as a source of blue dye.


Wearing his trademark orange scarf, François gazed with fascination at the mysterious blue broth that was cooking in the cauldron.


Then a bee started to buzz in his bonnet. François wondered how his orange scarf might react to the Pyrenean blue dyestuff. No sooner said than done. He took of his keffiyeh and threw it into the vat.


I have the impression that François may have wondered, at that moment, whether he might have just made a foolish decision. As they say in the classics, curiosity can kill a cat. Maybe curiosity can destroy a keffiyeh, too…


At first, it looked as if no harm had been done.


But a minute later, the outcome was quite different. A change in color was taking place in real time before the startled eyes of my son.


Now attired in a blue scarf, François asked the lady if he might be able to put his moped in the vat of dye, so that its color would match the keffiyeh. But they all agreed that this might not be a good idea. So, François bid farewell to his newly-discovered blue world.


Happily, in the next scene, through the magic of movie-making, François had retrieved his original orange keffiyeh. Besides, he seemed to be moving around still on the same archaic moped. But can we be sure? Be that as it may, we then find our golden-helmeted hero wandering around in a field of sunflowers.


Next thing, he’s sipping a glass of freshly-pressed sunflower oil as if it were a delicious nectar… which, apparently, it is.


Things then get serious, as the dominant color changes from orange to red: of the kind that is supposed to infuriate bulls.


The local fellows told François that bulls see reds and oranges as if they were 50 shades of grey. But that seems hard to believe. They also explained that, if you happen to be confronted by a furious bull, the best thing is to simply jump out of the way.


And François was promptly invited to take part in a 5-minute crash course on how to become a torero.


Courageous or foolhardy, he was prepared to prove that he had learnt his lessons well. That’s to say, sufficiently well to survive.


Apparently he didn't feel at all comfortable while awaiting the bull's charge. Olé!


As I’ve often said, riding around France on a two-wheeled vehicle such as a moped can be a dangerous business…

Chromosomes reveal the truth

Initially, Old Bailey was the name of a London street...

Four years ago, in a blog post entitled Family-history shock [display], I described my chance discovery of this record of a trial at London’s Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey.

Click to enlarge

The trial had taken place on 24 October 1898. A man named William Skyvington, said to be 26 years old, had been charged with
feloniously forging and uttering an endorsement on an order for the payment of one pound, three shillings and eleven pence, with intent to defraud.
The accused man had pleaded guilty, and he was sent to jail for six months’ hard labour.

Here’s an old photo of one of the courts at the Old Bailey where criminal trials for London and Middlesex were held.


The accused individual was placed in the dock on the left. The jury was seated in the box on the far side, below a pair of large windows. On a throne beneath the wooden canopy on the right, alongside a sword of justice, an alderman (sometimes the lord mayor himself) represented the city of London, whereas the judge, sheriff and trial recorder were seated at plain desks in the far corner.

I wondered immediately if the criminal might have been my great-grandfather William Jones Skyvington [born in 1868, and therefore almost 30 years old at the time of the trial].


Four months ago, in a blog post entitled White lies of men in love [display], I explained that an English lady named Nicola Courtenay had sent me an e-mail indicating that her grandfather William Courtenay [who had died in 1959] often used “Skyvington” as if it were one of his given names. Since this “Skyvington” name is rather uncommon (resulting from a 19th-century spelling mistake that replaced a letter “i” by “y”), I was greatly intrigued by Nicola’s news of somebody having, as it were, “borrowed” our surname and used it as an aditional given name. The story simply didn’t add up. Above all, several clues in Nicola’s tale evoked authentic details associated with my great-grandfather. So, I was automatically tempted to speculate that Nicola’s grandfather and my great-grandfather might have been one and the same individual.

Well, to cut a long story short, a Y-chromosome test carried out on a DNA saliva specimen from a living male member of the Courtenay family has just proved scientifically (with no room whatsoever for doubt) that this was indeed the case. In other words, after vanishing from the northern-London context in which his son—my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985]—was born, William apparently decided to adopt the “Courtenay” surname, invent a fictitious identity (in which he claimed to be a member of the ancient and noble family of the Earl of Devon from Powderham Castle) and raise a large family.

Insofar as this Courtenay Affair provides us with specimens of William Skyvington’s apparent tendency towards mythomania, I am now convinced that the individual convicted at the Old Bailey in 1898 was indeed my great-grandfather. Besides, I had reached that conclusion prior to meeting up with the Courtenay Affair purely through the perusal of genealogical archives.

This morning, I retrieved a document from the National Archives designated as a calendar of prisoners, which mentioned the trial and imprisonment of William Skyvington. Here is the cover page:


An index includes the name of William Skyvington followed by the letters NL, meaning North London:


For the moment, I’ve been unable to determine (while awaiting clarifications from the National Archives) whether this means that William came from North London, or that he was now detained in a jail in North London. Further on in the document, we find the actual reecord of the trial.


It contains several interesting elements of information that did not appear in the Old Bailey record that I found 4 years ago. William was a “traveller”: that’s to say, a commercial traveler or salesman who moved around to contact customers. The term “well” means (as explained on the cover page) that William could read and write well. Above all, I learnt that he was jailed in Pentonville Prison in Islington (North London).


That’s to say, William Skyvington was placed in a prison just to the south of the family home in Evershot Road, not to mention Finsbury Park, his son’s vast playground. Star-shaped Pentonville was thought of as a “modern” jail, because it had been designed in the early 1840s by skilled carceral engineers.


But it was surely a nasty place.


Besides, William had been condemned to so-called hard labor, which meant that he had to toil daily at heavy manual tasks. Amazingly, we have here a photo of such inmates at Pentonville:


Then there’s a ballad sung by Pete Waters, with a catching refrain:
I was sent off for trial at the Bailey
And remanded to Pentonville Jail

The situation is funny (weird). For ages, I had concluded that, if I wanted to enhance my family-history writing with melancholy ballads about the hardships of a convict's existence, it was in New South Wales that I would find such stuff, in the context of my maternal ancestors from Ireland... and certainly not in the refined English context of the Skyvingtons.


Today, I must admit that the tables of my genealogical temple have been upturned. And I can't even blame Jesus...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Moped Facebook

My son François Skyvington told me on the phone this morning that his moped road movies are currently being aired on the Arte channel at a rate that often rises to four 30-minute programmes a day. Apparently the producer has set up a Facebook page here.


The problem is that my son, like me, is not a regular Facebook user. So, the situation is likely to be a bit frustrating for people who might wish to communicate with my son through Facebook. On the other hand, I have the impression that, if you click around, this Facebook page offers you various extracts from the series.

Bells of joy, bells of pain

When I was a child in Grafton, nobody ever talked to me about the churches of London. (These days, I’ve made up largely for the lost information.) But all the children of Australia were familiar with the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.


We were bewildered about the curious final lines of the nursery rhyme:
Here comes a candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
But we had fun in playing the game of Oranges and Lemons, and bringing down our arms to encircle the child who was consequently “caught out” at that moment.


Only later would I hear about public executions in London. The warder would carry a candle and ring a handbell in the early hours of the morning to wake up a condemned man.

The nursery rhyme mentions the church of St Leonard’s Shoreditch where my great-great-grandmother Sarah Jane Harris [1812-1889] was christened on 14 February 1812.


For several years in Paris, in the 1970s, I worked daily alongside Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995], inventor of musique concrète and founder of the research service of the French Broadcasting System (the context that enabled me to create TV documentaries in the USA, Britain and Sweden).


Pierre had taken the personal initiative, on the evening of the liberation of Paris (Thursday 24 August 1944), of broadcasting a radio message asking priests in the churches of Paris to ring their bells.

A century ago, on 1 August 1914, the front pages of newspapers were covered with the story of the assassination of Jean Jaurès (the subject of my previous blog post, here). Later on in the day, the walls of France were covered in posters announcing a general mobilization.


France was henceforth preparing for war. Over the next 4 years horrendous happenings that would lead to the deaths of 1.4 million French soldiers and a third of a million French civilians.


At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of 1 August 1914, the bells of the nation rang out a grim tocsin, warning that there were terrible events on the horizon.


This afternoon at 4 o’clock, the same tocsin will be rung throughout all the cities, towns and villages of the nation, to commemorate the centenary of the start of the participation of France in World War I.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Napoleonic cavalryman on moped

This week, the latest series of moped movies starring François Skyvington has been showing on the Arte channel. Sensing that they’ve created an exemplary TV style, with a finely-dosed blend of form and content, the production team has respected scrupulously the approach developed throughout their two previous seasons, which gave rise to a total of 40 half-hour documentaries (which are being aired by Arte on the same afternoons as the new series). The general idea is that François—wearing a yellow helmet and an orange scarf—continues to take advantage of his archaic orange moped to crawl around picturesque byways, where he meets up with all sorts of friendly and interesting individuals, generally in most spectacular places.

To fit half-a-dozen such encounters into a 30-minute documentary, and to maintain the smooth rhythm of each road show, the production people are obliged to condense events and to take constant shortcuts. Viewers are expected to accept the principle that François simply “runs into” all these fascinating people, places and situations. There is no time in the documentaries for didacticism or dreary explanations, which would of course be fatal for the harmony and entertainment value. Ordinary viewers are not likely to examine these moped documentaries with a view to planning their forthcoming family vacations. On the other hand, each programme comes across as an inducement to travel and an element of touristic motivation in the sense that TV viewers are brought in contact immediately with the essence of such-and-such a site and its people. François and his primitive old two-wheeled vehicle take us directly to the heart of the subject and put viewers in immediate contact with the spirit of place.

Click to enlarge

The 5 programmes aired this week dealt with Corsica. Not surprisingly, the man on his moped soon met up with the world of Napoléon Bonaparte in Ajaccio. Down in the street in front of the house where the future emperor was born, François was received by an honor guard.


Images on the screen were then metamorphosed magically, as TV viewers stepped inside the splendid Salon napoléonien in the city hall of Ajaccio. The emperor's marble gaze did not appear to be unduly disturbed by the arrival of one of his cavalry officers on a moped.


As for the awestruck expression on the face of the cavalryman, it suggested that his mechanical steed rarely brought him into such prestigious settings.


He wondered whether it was appropriate that a humble moped man such as himself should be attired in such a fine outfit, and surrounded by vestiges of Corsican imperial splendour.


Why not? He would have time enough, later on, to get back to his faithful vehicle and his yellow helmet and orange scarf on the rural roads of France. For the moment, he could savour calmly this exceptional situation.


Besides, there was no time for dreaming. Much was happening out on the battlefields, and the cavalry officer was obliged to adopt a firm tone of persuasion when discussing certain life-and-death military matters with his senior commander.





It wasn’t long before François left this imperial setting, and the yellow helmet reappeared on the macadam of the rugged roads of Corsica.