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February 2015

Where were you when France fell? That was certainly a memorable day for those born in the 1920s.

Impregnable France, eternal France, the France of Napoleon, the France of Clémanceau, the France of the taxi cab offensive, the France of Verdun, the France of Jean d’Arc, indomitable France, this France dissolved in the powerful acid of the Wehrmacht.

‘Thank God for the French Army,’ said Winston Churchill in 1935, for it was the bulwark that stayed the German beast. Yet less than five years later it proved to be a wall in a Japanese house, made of paper.

In 1940 where was the France of Union Sacrée of 1914-1918 when all social strata, all social classes, all degrees of political opinion, all regions put aside their historic animosities and united without question against Les Boches? It was gone.

In the Twenties French politics descended into blood sport. With the ancient external enemy vanquished and emasculated, French political differences sharpened once again, each with a backlog of grievances to be settled. Without an external threat to encourage a degree of forbearance, cooperation, and restraint the gloves were off.

Any of this starting to sound familiar?

One’s opponents were no longer well meaning, but misguided, people. They were detestable enemies whose very name was sin. They were alien spawn to be eradicated right now, if not sooner. With such people compromise is impossible!

Internal enemies completely replaced external enemies and they were everywhere: in schools teaching pernicious doctrines from science to scholasticism, in trade unions practising black masses, in plutocrats dining upon working class babies….. No vituperation was enough! No exaggeration too far. No lie too big. From 1934 many observers thought civil war in France was imminent. When such a war began in Spain, they supposed the example would light the many powder kegs in France. Against that backdrop, the drama played itself out.

Yes, Mortimer, it is all starting to sound like the Tea Party and Fox News.

In the 1936 election some of the very many political parties actively campaigned under the slogan ‘Better Hitler than Blum.’ Léon Blum was the leader of Socialist party and he was feared more than Hitler. Ludicrous, to be sure, for Blum was a moderate to his finger tips and a true patriot and if any thing he was a brake on the hotheads in his own party. Blum, by the way, was a Jew, and the explicit attacks on him in parliament for his Judaism authorised a hate campaign in the press the like of which not seen before or since. His every gesture and word was sign of his nefarious plots. Compared to Blum, Dreyfus was small potatoes.

To the most right-wing parties, blocs, movements, and groups the real threat was Britain, seen to be constantly scheming to grab the French Empire. Albion was the enemy, not Hitler. And Albion’s agent was that Jew Blum and his ilk.

Blum did form a Popular Front government in 1936, striving to keep France out of another war. Though by then the die was all but cast. He depended on the votes of the Communists and the Radicals (centrists, despite the name). Neither was reliable, each had its own agenda.

In the last decade of the Third Republic political musical chairs is the only fitting description. The electorate was fractured into innumerable political parties which combined into coalition governments, briefly, to divide the spoils of office, and then lose a vote of confidence. An incoming minister grabbed everything thing that was not nailed down, cancelled all commitments of the previous minister, signed a raft of new commitments, and six months later was thrown out of office when that coalition failed. Democracy at work.

During one five year period there were eleven (11) ministers of defence. Each dedicated upon entering office to demolishing everything the predecessor had done.

Contracts to build tanks, were torn up. Though the government paid a penalty to the contractor, the tanks were not built. To secure as much popular support as possible, contracts for tanks, aircraft, artillery were spread widely. Instead of concentration on one fighter plane, France built a dozen different types around the country, with no economy of scale. But it bought votes.

One minister boasted that in France it took 18,000 man hours of work to build a warplane and a mere 5,000 man hours in Germany, proving the superiority of the French approach that generated more demand for labour! That Germany thus produced three planes to every one in France was beside the point.

In 1936 when German workers put in 60 hours week in defence industries, those in France were awarded a 40 hour week with much jubilation. That ratio of 3:1 does not capture it all. German industries were more efficient because they were centralised. Germany did not dabble with a dozen different kinds of warplanes but concentrated on only a few to reach economies of scale far beyond anything the French could do. Finally, the brutal facts of demography apply. Germany had nearly twice the population of France, the more so when it digested Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia.

It gets worse. The French Communist Party had worked hard to organise workers in defence industries on orders from Moscow. From the mid-1930s obedient to Stalin’s orders some of these workers sabotaged French war industries. Some of this sabotage occurred during the war in 1939! The Soviet policy was to make it easy for the Germans to go West.

In all of this the French army was complicit, though of course after the Defeat, the generals spent the rest of their lives lying about it. Ambitious generals had learned to play the parade of governments off against each other to win promotion and ever more gold leaf on the kepí. One general after another advanced his career by telling the ministers of the day what they wanted to hear. Dissent within the ranks was silenced, e.g., Charles de Gaulle was struck from the promotions list, posted abroad, and forbidden to publish his criticisms of military strategy along with several others.


Here is one singular example. Pétain blamed the Defeat on the politicians who had cut the defence budget. Hmmm. Class! Who was minister of defence when the defence budget suffered its greatest cut? Go on, guess! Phillipe Pétain! The generals blamed politicians, Free Masons, protestants, free thinkers, women wearing slacks, school teachers, physical education instructors, Jews, Albion, the Belgians, the Dutch, newspapers, journalists, novelists, travel writers….. Any one but themselves. Now back to the Third Republic.

When vitriol replaced argument in public life, the night creatures dared to reveal themselves: anti-Semitism became a public pastime. The Dreyfus Clock was turned back. The Communist Party of France openly acknowledged its obedience to Moscow. The plutocrats stole pension funds on a national scale. Political interference meant even those few police officers who were not corrupt could not investigate major crimes against persons or property. It does all seem like the End of Days.

All of this is a familiar story, what Horne adds to the picture was Gallic arrogance. As France was the fountainhead of European (read ‘World’) civilisation, others would rush to its side if ever the worst happened. This, Horne suggests, was one of the central, unspoken, shared assumption of every French government after 1919. It followed that no matter what the French did or did not do, the firemen would come. Though the firemen are lesser beings, they are useful, and they will come from England, America, Canada, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia…. to save us even if we set ourselves alight.

It seemed to this reader — though Horne does not say it — that part of the French response to the German offensive in May 1940 was that its generals, from Maurice Gamelin to Maxime Weygand, thought, moved, and acted on trench time. They were in no rush because after all trench warfare goes nowhere. If Gamelin took three days to think things over, there was no rush. Yet the German armoured Panzer divisions were moving 40 - 60 miles a day! By the time Gamelin made up his mind to authorise the French 2nd army to disengage and pivot, the Germans were no longer within striking distance. Indeed the 2nd army had already been forced to retire because the Germans had outflanked it. Gamelin used neither radio nor telephone but motorcycle couriers to communicate with his five armies.

Gamelin reacted to this pressure of time by delegating everything downward. He would make no decisions. Let others decided, and then be responsible for the consequences. But of course no one else could give orders to all the armies and generals involved but Gamelin. Very quickly each French army was left in isolation to cope as best it could alone. There was no coordination. Here’s an example. The British Expeditionary Force of General Gort was under the command of a French Army in Belgium. As the Germans were crossing the Meuse River, Gort had no orders, information, or contact from his French commander. None for eight (8) days. Is it any wonder he decided to stay close to sea.

Horne makes it clear that Hitler prevented the Germans from refighting the last war. He was the only head of state who had been in the trenches in World War I, though Churchill and de Gaulle had been, they were not heads of state until later. Moreover, Hitler was an autocrat who had powers no democratic politicians in England or France ever had. Got the picture?

Hitler loved machines and he reviled the trench warfare he had experienced. When he rebuilt the Wehrmacht he wanted tanks and airplanes. When an obscure German Colonel Guderian advocated tanks, Hitler promoted him to give his advocacy a wider audience.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-139-1112-17,_Heinz_Guderian.jpg Heinz Guderian

When French Colonel de Gaulle advocated tanks, he was struck from the promotions list and exiled to Syria. Germany built tanks, armoured cars, self-propelled cannons and concentrated them in regiments, divisions, corps, and armies. Mobility and manoeuvre were the watchwords.

The French were stuck in 1916. Their major strategy was continuous defence of the whole border from Switzerland to the North Sea. Not one foot would be yielded for one instant to the invader. The manpower needed to defend these hundreds of miles was gigantic. In addition, the commitment to static defence led the French General Staff, which reluctantly accepted those new fangled weapons of tanks and airplanes, to distribute them all along the line. Every division had a few. They were never concentrated, and once the shooting started, it was not possible to concentrate them, to deliver a resounding blow. Instead the tanks and airplanes went into battle in small groups. A German Panzer division of 200 tanks would encounter 200 French tanks in a week, but each time in groups of 5. No contest, even though individually the French tanks were technically superior. When 200 Panzers hit 5 Renault tanks, it was over in a muzzle flash or two.


In fact, the French manpower required for continuous defence was so great that there scarcely more than two divisions in reserve. This fact dumbfounded Churchill when he was told that. Note: very often the troops held in reserve outnumber those in the line, so that when the enemy attacks or retreats a large, fresh force can be unleashed.

The manpower shortage was produced by the strategy, but it was compounded by the politics of the Third Republic. To buy votes successive ministers had reduced military service and inserted exemptions of all manner. The exemptions were so numerous that when Paul Reynaud, a minister who feared the Germans and was serious about defence, cut 30 pages of exemptions from the conscription law, another 20 pages remained. Wine was deemed of national importance and anyone who worked in the wine business was exempt, etc. Renaud angered many people and was dumped from the job.

To his credit Reynaud kept trying and was prime minister during the fateful six weeks that led to the capitulation. His coalition cabinet was full of rivals and pretenders and he had little authority among them. Yet he persevered and in the final hour, he very nearly alone wanted to fight on. It is clear from Horne’s pages that the generals — Gamelin, Weygand, Pétain — gave up long before he did.

They yielded in part because they, and many others of the haute bourgeoisie feared a repeat of the Paris Commune in 1940. All French military police (Garde Mobile) had been concentrated in Paris to keep order, code for preventing a left wing revolution or right wing coup d'état.

At the eleventh hour they did prefer Hitler to Blum.

Horne lays to rest one of the myths of the War concerning Hitler’s order that halted the Germans short of Dunkirk. The German armour was miles in advance of infantry and artillery, many miles. Moreover that steel tip was by then at half strength, with battle loses, mechanical breakdowns, and the exhaustion of the men. Fuel trucks were finding it hard to get through the debris. A halt had been considered several times before. In addition, the German intelligence estimated only 40-50,000 Allied soldiers in the Dunkirk enclave, and the conclusion was that the Luftwaffe would suffice to disrupt any evacuation on that scale. It was also supposed that RAF's losses had been so great it could not cover any evacuation. Finally, because Gort, having withdrawn to Dunkirk, in good time had fortified his position against tanks. Ergo, Hitler decided to draw a breath. The halt was not a conciliatory gesture to the British nor was it a blunder. It made sense in the context.

Horne also emphasises that the Germans, surprised at the speed of their successes, had no plan for a next phase, namely an invasion of Britain. Nothing. Nada. Zip. So why be in a hurry?

The German were successful in part because the French assumed the strategic target was again Paris as it had been in 1870 and 1914, and never realised that the strategic objective was the North Sea, having first lured massive allied armies into Belgium and the Pas de Calais, and then cut them off, encircle them, destroy them, and only then move on to Paris.

PAZ17_10_Sichelschnitt-neu.jpg S

The vacillation of Belgium before the war played in the hands of the Germans. Belgium shifted back and forth between a French and British alliance and then neutrality. The Belgians did not want the Maginot Line extended to their frontier with France and lobbied hard against it. Yet, fearing arousing the Germans, they did not want an explicit alliance with France or Britain. Uncertainty all around.

photo_alistair_horne__main.jpg Alistair Horne

As to the book itself, Horne's command of the subject is complete. Highly recommended. However there are typographical errors in this the third edition which were there in the the first when I read years ago. Horne’s style is orotund. It takes him a long time to get to the point and the passive voice confused me more than once. More than half the book is devoted to the details of armies, movements, skirmishes, battles of little interest to me but in between there are shafts of insight into the people and events that repay the reader.

Do shirts grow on trees? Not often but sometimes. Let me explain.

On our quiet residential cul de sac stands a sapling and one morning when out with the dog, we noticed it had a shirt dropped over a lower branch. Hmm. It’s Newtown and we are inured to weird sights. We ignored it for a day, and then I stopped to take it off - thinking, though the thought was not fully formed, to put in the bin for tomorrow’s trash collection, removing another eye sore from the street.

Other eye sores have included mattresses dumped at the end of the street. No doubt some green voter thinks the mattress fairies will look after it. Detritus from home renovations. Nails which have given us more than one flat tire. As I said: Newtown, where a little bit of the wild West remains.

As I touched the shirt I realised it was not, as I had unconsciously supposed, a filthy rag but rather a clean, ironed, King Gee workshirt, and that it was heavy, heavy because there were keys in the top buttoned pocket.


Turning the shirt around to get at the pocket I also found a University of Sydney crest on it. Huh!?


In sum, there was a clean, near new, University of Sydney building and grounds workshirt with a ring of half a dozen keys on it. Wait! There is more.

The keys were security keys, those double channel that used to cost of a hundred dollars a piece to replace when I was head of department. I know this because Dr. Twit, a loser in every other respect, lost a key regularly. That was five years ago so now probably $200.


We pondered how anyone could lose the shirt off the back. We wondered why the shirt was so neat. Why it was dropped over the tree branch. Most of all, we wondered why it was so far from the University. We speculated how it might have happened but none of our ideas made much sense. (No snide remarks please!)

Because she was going to meet an old comrade in books for lunch on campus, on the way the Child Bride took the shirt to the Campus Security Office. There she was told, as the keys and shirt, were gratefully received, that nothing had been reported missing - there is a standing order to report lost keys immediately. Dr Twit was good at that.

The return of the shirt was a quick transaction and no details were asked or given, so we shall never know the next act in this drama. Let the imagination begin!

We may also imagine who King Gee was, because the King Gee web site is mum on the subject.

This is the Great Canadian Novel. It appears on every list. Critics make a name for themselves attacking it. Surely that is a sign of its place at the top of the tree.


It is ambitious, peopled with every type, and set against the backdrop of the two World Wars. The two solitudes are the Two Canadas. When MacLennan planned and wrote the book these were two ships that passed each other in the night, night after night.

Quebec is one and the other is English-speaking Canada.

The novel opens in rural Quebec in 1913, and rural Quebec then was Quebecois. The fertile plains along le fleuve Saint-Laurent, being the only land suitable for farming in Quebec, were settled by the Normans who came to Canada, there to be abandoned by the Parisiennes and left the mercy of perfidious Albion. Thus did Quebecois hate both the French and the English, and hold themselves to be unique.


Along the way the dominance of the Catholic Church in Quebec is manifested in ways that seem hard to believe today. Yet in 1960 most schools in Quebec were Catholic, offering little science, no English, and only to glad to see girls leave at 16. Though the role of the Church is emphasised MacLennan fires no cheap shots. It is a tragedy: a clash of sincere and opposing worlds.

Likewise the resistance of Quebec and the Quebecois to change is there. But not to change is to die, argues one character. So be it, intones another; then we die as God made us.

The island of Montréal is the exception to Quebec in every way and yet also the exemplar of it. It is the redoubt of the Quebekers who owned most of the province. These are English-speaking Presbyterians tracing back to Scotland; they who built McGill University for their children. For generations the Boulevard Saint Laurent in Montréal divided Quebekers from Quebecois. No one spoke of the border and every knew.

boul_st_laurent_panneau.jpg West of St. Laurent

Tourist, even today, spend their time on the English side of that line and never know. it.

The principle characters come from two families, the Tallards and the Yardleys. The action encompasses the anti-conscription riots of 1917 in Montréal, the Great Depression, and the advent of World War II. There are several threads to their interactions but the chief one concerns a Tallard who is that rarity - both an English-Canadians and a French-Canadian. That is his father was Athanase Tallard and is mother was Kathleen Morgan (an Irish Catholic woman who never learned to speak French). Anthanase and Kathleen married and raised a son, Paul. One then could say the book is a bildungsroman.

There are marvellous passages describing the landscape, that mighty river, the weather in sultry Montréal and the bitter snow of the winter along the river, the smell of crops, the sound of frosted grass cracking underfoot….

Each of the many characters is given the camera and treated with respect of a Frank Capra character actor. There are no one-dimensional plot devices among them, each is a well-rounded human being. But, but, but sometimes it does seem didactic. Every perspective has to be enumerated and considered, however little it might add to the truth of the story.

I read this in graduate school in the 1970s and formed a high opinion of it but had forgotten most of it. Time then to re-visit it.

MacLennan has always maintained that none of it is autobiographical, by the way. He himself was from Nova Scotia and his other novels are set there, like ‘Barometer Rising’ about the destruction of much of Halifax in World War I when in 1917 a munitions ship bound for England exploded in the harbour.

Quebec did change, first in Montréal when post war European immigration brought new people to Canada’s most European city who spoke neither French nor English and whose ambitious were not focussed on the tension between French and English. They came to North America for a better life for their children, and that better life spoke English. Their appetite for English is one of the proximate causes for Quebec French-language nationalism; it was a reaction to this third factor, an effort to capture them by the language. Earlier there had been Jean Lesage and La Révolution Tranquille in the early 1960s to bring Quebec into the Twentieth Century. Lesage and his most creative lieutenant René Lévesque put science in the school curriculum, took religion out of schools, encouraged retention in schools, placed a premium on technical subjects like engineering and accounting, lured ex-patriate Quebecois home, invested in the film industry to portray Quebec Nouvelle, borrowed to built Hydro-Quebec which still sells electricity to Toronto and New York City, and most of all spoke French….all in the name of Chez Nous.

maclennan-143.jpg Hugh MacLennan, school teacher by day.

THE novelist of Montréal is Gabrielle Roy whose books are studies of ordinary life with the weight and integrity of a Paul Cézanne still life. ‘Alexandre Chenevert’ (1954) is one of many of her many titles that has stayed with me. It has been translated and titled ‘The Cashier.’ A little gem in my view, small and perfectly formed. Her best know book is ‘The Tin Flute.’ There are many others, like ‘Where Nests the Waterhen.’

File this fact under extraordinary but true: she appears on the Amazon Canada web site, and has for some time now, as Roy Gabrielle! Figure that one out.

I said Quebec and Quebecois above to omit the million or more French-Canadians who live outside Quebec in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta. The sentiments that MacLennan charts may be found among them, too, but they have never participated in or warmed to Quebec nationalism. Every time the Parti Quebecois hits the headlines the French-Canadians in the Atlantic and Prairie provinces cringe. They want no part of the English-Canada blowback on Quebec.

A Danish drama courtesy of SBS. The title translates as Murk.

Murk cover.jpg

It is a study in ambiguity and the viewer's sympathies flow back and forth between Jacob and Anker. Is Jacob, the tall dark, handsome, and assured Copenhagen journalist, an obsessive nut case, while the fat, ugly, placid farmer Anker the victim of circumstances? Or is Anker a devious serial murderer several steps ahead of Jacob, who was right about him all along? Most of the action occurs in the village of Murk (indeed) in Jutland, flat, wet, brooding skies, the smell of farms (manure).... Be glad there is no Smell-O-Vision. [Remember that? Just wait; it will come again.]

Midtjylland 056 them ry .jpg

The local plod cannot believe Jacob's wild accusations, and he certainly is unstable by then. But Anker is on a mission and he cannot deviate....

With the resolution at the end, a number of loose ends arise: Did Hanne make the last phone call? Where is the razor blade or knife?

Maybe we need a little more of Anker to understand the mission. Is it because he, too, is outcast by his looks and so knows what his victims really want even if they never say it, may not ever say it. Why did Jacob keep waking up to answer the phone that did not ring?


In Denmark, one of the most regulated societies, could a serial widower like Anker pass unnoticed by the police, media, and the vigilantes of the blogosphere? Still less in the small villages where he passed. But what if he could….

Set in that wine capital in the period May - September 1940 when the world fell in on France.


In April 1940 in far away Bordeaux everyone laughed at the Phoney War and by September 1940 Jews went into hiding, tobacco went into the black market, jackboots were heard everyday and night, and an air of foreboding enveloped one and all. The night creatures emerged, thugs, hooligans, bullies, chancers, and their ilk. Decent people hid away as much as possible.

Death in Bordeaux.jpg

Bordeaux was in Occupied France and as a sea port it was especially occupied to keep people in as much as out, but it was administered by the French government that took up residence in Vichy.

The longstanding practice of posting newly promoted police officers away from home, the better to ensure their impartiality, meant that the Police Judiciare in Bordeaux had Alsatians who are half-German and half-French. Aside: The movement of the border in Alsace meant that in World War I Robert Schumann, later a French foreign minister, was conscripted into the German army and in World War II the French army, experiences that made him a life long proponent of European union. Back to the story.

The Gendarmes find a mutilated body and Inspector Jean Lannes arrives to investigate. There are too few threads to follow, and then too many. Political interference adds to the complications. Those problems fade into insignificance with the Defeat and the Capitulation in June 1940 and the subsequent arrival of the Germans. Yet Lannes continues to probe and push. His offsider Moncerre is a pit-bull on a chain, and Lannes has to restrain him at time. 'Not now, Mon Brave. Our time will come. Be patient.’

This is the first of a trilogy and the case remains open at the end. The book is well written and includes Lannes's home life, his fears for his children, his wife’s perseverance in the face of the unknown, the mixed attitudes of the Alsatians, the plight of Jews, the Stoicism of many, and the naked opportunism of others .…. All rendered in clear prose.

Massie.jpeg Allan Massie

Though it perhaps lacks the stifling atmosphere, and mastery of period detail, that Robert Janes conjures in the same period, it is much easier to read and follow than Janes’s cryptic prose, fractured syntax, and loose grammar.

I particularly liked Lannes instinctive response when on an official visit to Vichy he saw Maréchal Pétain walking in a public garden: Verdun. Respect. Salute. One old soldier pays tribute to another. Lannes has no taste for collaboration and sees no honour in defeat, but Pétain has more claim to respect than so many others.

Pedant’s note. The Vichy regime had administrative responsibility for the whole of France including the Occupied Zone and Paris. The reality of that attenuated with time and tide, but in the first days it was real.

Hitler’s New Order of Europe and in parallel Pétain’s National Revolution seemed credible in that time and place. The war was all but over. England would either succumb or make peace to save itself now that it no longer had French allies to die for it. The Third Republic and the French Revolution that it embodied had failed miserably. Time to turn from the past to the future. The young men and women in Lannes’s social, family, and professional circles are confused, dazzled, repelled, and attracted by it all. Will they do something stupid? Dangerous? Almost certainly. But which is more stupid and more dangerous defying the new reality or complying with it?

While there is much to’ing and fro’ing in Bordeaux, street names, cafés, hotels, Spanish Republican refuges, French refuges who arrive just before the Wehrmacht, the two most noteworthy events to happen in Bordeaux in the period the book covers are passed in silence. The first is the Dunkirk evacuation and the second is the arrival of the French government of Paul Reynaud from Paris. Let me explain.

Though distant Dunkirk is mentioned nothing more is said. Yet of the 350,000 soldiers evacuated from the Pas de Calais more than 100,000 were French. The war was still on and upon arrival in England they were put on trains and transported to Bristol, Swansea, and other ports where they were shipped to Bordeaux, on the assumption that the war would go on. All of this was done in a few days. They had no gear or weapons and the chain of command was gone, but they were able-bodied young men with military discipline and combat experience. I am not sure what happened to them in Bordeaux. I expect the malaise of defeat made it impossible for anything constructive to be done. Still the influx of 100,000 men with no shelter, food, etc. would surely have been remarkable.

Second, the Reynaud government declared Paris an open city in the hope that the Germans would not then bomb or shell it. That worked. It went on the road and stopped once or twice along the way before arriving in Bordeaux where it held its last meetings before it dissipated.

Another gem from SBS world movies, which I recorded years ago and just got around to watching. A feature film from Brazil without slums, guns, drugs, or violence, it is a rarity indeed.

(D) Sao Paulo_tcm530-378279.jpg

Brazilian film makers seem as fixated on guns as the prepubescent boys of Hollywood.


The film offers a set of character studies, and a daring one at that for the characters neither intersect nor interact, though we keep expecting that they will since that is the film convention invoked. Instead São Paulo Stories sums it up. Along the way there is a travelogue of São Paulo, much of it from the air, Google earth, and the streets, too. It moves slowly. The director is in no hurry and establishes the place before the people.

Centro_SP2.jpg Centro, São Paulo

Three sad, frustrated, and bereaved people make the best of it and get on with life. These are real people, not the products of the adolescent mind of a script writer. What a treat. By the end, Ênio reunites with his daughter. Pedro comes to terms with his grief. Lúcia quits her job and finds the cloud lifting.

There is one surprising almost staggering moment, and I suppose this is a spoiler of sorts. Be warned.

When Pedro and Lúcia pose for a picture against a great vista it seems they are reaching an understanding that they can help one another. Then later she discovers, by chance, that he has photoshopped her out of the picture and inserted his deceased girlfriend, and indeed perhaps the whole trip to the vista and the photograph had the purpose of getting that pose so that she, Lúcia, could be removed, or so she might well conclude. She is, to say the least, stunned, hurt, angry…. How would you liked to be photoshopped out of a picture by someone you cared about?

The opening titles and then first scenes establish the thesis. Oh, yes, there is a thesis in the film. It is that we and all around us flow through time and space, here illustrated with São Paulo’s road traffic.

highway-freeway-São-Paulo-traffic-Living-in-Brazil1.jpeg" The traffic

Enio at work.jpeg The traffic controller, Ênio, at work

Fluid dynamics provides a model for both traffic flow, and human interaction. There is no intent and yet there is order. Chance creates meaning, I would say, contrary to the title, in Portuguese ‘Não Por Acaso’ which is literally ‘Not by Chance.’ Whether that phrase has an idiomatic meaning in Portuguese, I cannot say.

The effort of Pedro to plan ahead his pool games, and of Ênio to foresee and avert traffic jams, and Lúcia to predict the commodities market, these actions can influence events, they can divert the flow, but they cannot change the fundamental dynamic. The sequence when Pedro realises his plan for the pool game is wonderfully rendered. It is the payoff of earlier preparations both by Pedro and the film maker.

hqdefault.jpg Philippe Barcinski

This film is Philippe Barcinski's first feature length movie and yet is assured and controlled as if by an old pro.

Varidesk has landed. Varidesk is in use! Varidesk?

In 1979 I read Scott Berg’s biography of 'Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius' (1978). On Perkins’s genius more at the end along with some other explanations of abbreviations and unusual terms used below.

berg cover.jpg

Perkins worked standing up.

perkins.jpg Max Perkins

When he joined Scribner’s one of the conditions he stipulated in his contract (I am trusting my memory on this, so check away) was that a standing desk be built into his office by the company. He may have used one earlier either as a journalist or accountant; this I cannot remember.

The standing desk was common in the 19th Century. Scrooge did not provide a chair for Bob Cratchit.

crachit desk.gif

Aware of standing desks, over the years I have seen a few. When personal computers were mounted on stands, as they were in the 1990s in the DOS days, I arranged the first one I got so that I stood at it for a few days but the stand just did not accommodate that and I gave up; the mature thing to do in that case. Of late I have tried standing at my desk and tilting the iMac screen up, and that works but my arms just are not long enough to do more than poke the keyboard or jiggle the mouse, which is enough when watching the TF2 News but nothing else.

From time to time I have read about standing desks as an antidote for we screen lumps who sit in front of a computer for hours and hours a day. I recognise myself in that characterisation. I have tried other remedies for the sedentary day. For years I put the landline telephone on a book shelf some feet from my chair so I had to get up to use it and stand while doing so. Good as far as it went. Now I have no landline and the iPhone never goes cold. I dare not put it somewhere because there it would remain until it rang. That is, I would forget it when it out of sight and go out without it. How then to ferret out crossword puzzle answers or reply when High Command calls?

Once I had classes to go to several times a week and (too) many committee meetings to attend. These got me up, and I always stood in classes for an hour or three at a time. The committee meetings were often in the quadrangle, a short hike away. The best part of these meetings was the walk there, but walking back was not so good since I often replayed the nonsense in my mind as I did so. I heard some of the most astoundingly bad arguments in some of the meetings. Really, the excuses students made for late work were better. But I digress…and find it quite enjoyable. I also had to go to the library a lot more than I do now though I still go.

These days there are no classes and committees and few library visits to stir me. I had thought to trek each day to a nearby delicatessen for lunch but that did not take. I had thought to go to one of the innumerable nearby coffees shops for an afternoon brew everyday, but… well, I don’t very often. When I have a visitor the yes but that is once a week at most. Sedentary. That is the word.

The health Nazis have again been extolling standing desks I noticed. A few journalist have tried one out and squeezed a feature piece out of it in one of the local rags. None of these accounts cover more than a week of using one and so hardly convincing, albeit a week is an eternity in a journalist’s attention span.

Most of the examples of standing desks are just that. A special purpose desk at which one stands, at which one can only stand. There is no sit option. It is all or nothing. Toss out my desk (and it is a special one, not from IKEA) and get a standing desk. If it does not work out, recover the desk. Huh? How would any of that work. Not well is the short answer. Yes, I know I could also pitch out my desk chair and get a stool to perch on, but perching is not sitting.

(Aside, RyanAir tried to get approval in the United Kingdom for flying passengers standing up and strapped to seat backs. That failed but I am sure it will come again, like Mitt Romney [just wait and see, remember cockroaches can survive for months on their backs]. If you think I am clever enough to have made that up, well thank you for the flattery, but if you look hard enough on the web confirmation will be found.)

Then along came Varidesk. [Sound of trumpets!]

One of the periodic surveys of the ills of sitting and the virtues of standing came along. There among the treadmill desks where the user powers the cell phone charger pacing along while typing away up top included the Varidesk. It combines a standing option with a sitting option. That got my attention.

(Best leave the treadmill desk in silence.)


I had a look at the web site, more than once, and now that clever user specific software is putting Varidesk advertisements all over the Safari screen, and Facebook, too. That advertising annoyed me but I am big enough to cope with annoyance, hardened by the experience of all those committees mentioned above. I measured. I posted questions on the Varidesk website which were quickly and effectively answered. I pondered some more. I discussed it with the Great One. I went around in Libra circles. That was in 2014. I delayed over Christmas and New Year.

Then I resolved that in 2015 I would get one and use it. My thinking being that the flexibility it offered of converting from standing to sitting and back meant I did not have to stand all day everyday. If I used it standing an hour a day, and yes I will time it for external discipline, I would be doing myself some good.

Come the new year I found a few reasons to put it off, but then in a mad moment I placed the order on the website, and bang! A New Years’ resolution fulfilled! Within a couple of hours a notice hit the email inbox to say it was on the way from a warehouse in Brisbane. I ordered a big one to accommodate the two monitors I use, figuring that half measures would be an excuse not to stand at all I closed that option. What I ordered was a brute of 48 inches in length and 50+ pounds in weight. (Unimetricians will have to convert that for themselves; I cannot be bothered now because I am in the narrative flow.) Then I got an email from the courier company saying it was en route. All good. Two monitors? One for the chapter text and the other for the references in EndNote (or sometime as a cricket match).

Here is the master plan. I ordered it to be delivered to the private office I use around the corner on the grounds that the courier would carry the brute up the one flight of 15 stairs plus the five at the front door. That was not something I wanted to do. It is easier to get things delivered to home since there is more often someone there at the times couriers arrive (often 7 am). When I ordered it for the office I filled out the box for special instructions, asking for a call ahead because if I am not in the office I am usually only a few minutes away [home, gym, park, coffee shop], but experience told me no one pays any attention to those boxes, which are there to comply with ISO9000 certification, not to be used. Still do what you can do.

Then, one day upon arrival at the office I found the courier’s card. I had missed him by 15 minutes. Blast it! I had assumed that the road trip from Brisbane would take another day and had made no special effort to be at the office early on that day.

I went to the courier’s website and rescheduled for a day I was sure to could stay in office all day. Fine. Expectations built. Then the day before the appointed day I got an email telling me it would be delivered that day! Crikey! I re-arranged some tasks to be sure that I could sit there in expectation….until 6 pm before giving up and going home. Nothing. Now what? Though there was no card had I somehow missed it again? I checked the website again and found a plethora of largely incomprehensible tracking information that left me none the wiser about what, if anything, had happened that day.

The next day about mid-morning I got another email saying it would be delivered that day by 5 pm. That sound very definite and I took root in the office with the balcony doors on the street wide open. Every time I heard a diesel engine throb I bolted to the balcony to espy the delivery truck. A surprisingly large number of diesel trucks traverse Erskineville Road and the tailback of traffic puts them within my earshot. Up and down I went. Not sedentary that day, I can tell you! Whereas on most office days I get 5000 steps that day I got 8000. (Yes, I measure my sedentariness with a step counter. Ever since I did a term paper on the Cartesian method in graduate school I have been a busy little measurer.) Up and down and at 4 pm nothing. It was Friday and Monday would be the next time it might come. Up and down I went.

Then [just when all seemed lost] …I heard another diesel in idle, much horn honking and I looked onto the street and saw a five ton truck double parked, not quite blocking traffic but passing it was challenge for eye-hand coordination with inches to spare. The truck bore no logo. There was a driver in an orange visibility vest walking around the truck and along the street looking for numbers. No GPS? I yelled at him. I yelled again. He looked up and we communicated over the street noise as peak hour traffic increased. He was the Varidesk fairy come to deliver. He wanted to drop it at the door but I played hard to get and told him I could buzz him in but could not leave the room. A lie. I wanted him to lug the brute upstairs and when I saw it come out of the truck I knew I was right. Some drivers might have resisted but this one did not, and in time he came along, after shanghaiing a passer-by to help him carry it upstairs. I signed his chit, gave him a drink of cold water (it was a hot day), and $10 for his trouble. Off he went.

I surveyed the massive box.


If the Varidesk within is four feet, the box was five feet long. Maybe a little more. It was by now the witching hour and I did not want to start unpacking it, so I left it and when home to report. ‘Brute?’ The box says 38.5 kilograms. That is over the standard airline limit for a heavy bag of 70 lbs.

The next day, Saturday, I dragged the beast near the desk, unpacked, and arrayed it. I managed to lift it onto the desk by using steps and lifting one end at a time. The steps were a foot stool and then a chair. And a lot sooner than I expected I had it in place and the computer back at work. I shifted the computer gear onto the book shelf behind the desk and then slid it onto the Varidesk. I did not have to turn anything off.

Unpacking it was a task. It was well cushioned by many specially designed pieces of double ribbed cardboard. Once all the packing was removed, I eased it out. I have kept the packaging. When I asked on the website if there was someplace where I could see a Varidesk in action I was told to keep the packaging and send it back if I did not like it because there is no display model in Sydney, or anywhere else. That is the business plan. The testimonials I had read on the Varidesk website were good and more varied and substantial than the journalistic accounts but all them referred to a month’s use and no more. That seemed too short to convince me, a honeymoon not a marriage.

I got it in place. I have moved it up and I have moved it down. Several times.

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I typed this standing to this point and I have now shifted to sitting. When it is elevated there are several different locked levels and I am testing them to find the one that works best for me. I will also have to get used to carefully bending down to open desk drawers so as not to clonk my head on straightening up. The same drill that is needed with the rear hatch of the Mazda.

IMG_1111.JPG See!

I will use my red owl egg timer to track my use. Did I say that already?

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There is also a companion app on the Varidesk website to time sitting and standing and I will explore that and report another time.

Bledders can expect further reports on Varidesk. Stay tuned.

The experience with the courier could have been worse. One courier company I have experienced drops the card without ringing the bell and dumps all deliveries at the nearest depot. Doing it this way means the courier moves faster and basically makes only one stop per depot zone. It thus offers a cheaper price for this lack of service. It also means I have to lug home the object of my desire from the depot, and sometimes that is quite a load. In this case impossible, doubly so because the local depot, a newsagent on King Street, is nearly inaccessible by car. It is no one’s job at the depot to help a punter get the goods into the car. That is very clear. To see the pile of boxes in the Aladdin’s cave at the depot is to understand, partly, why. There would be no end to it.

Explanatory Notes.

Perkins was the Scribner’s editor who discovered and brought to publication novels by William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Tom Wolfe. Readers owe him lot. None of these three was easy to work with or to convince Scribners' board to accept. Faulkner’s little world of Yoknapatawpha County did not light up New York City’s masters of culture. Fitzgerald never hit a deadline no matter how many times it had been extended and advances ran through his fingers as though he were one the rich characters in his novels. Worst of all was Wolfe whose prose poured like Niagara Falls, 900,000 words at a time to be cut into a novel a quarter that size by Perkins.

DOS is Disc Operating System that spun the disc and blinked a green light long before Windows.

'Unimetricians' are those who know only the metric system. Me, I am bimetric and can do inches or centimetres, pounds or kilogram.

TF2 is the Télévision Francaise 2, or just France 2. I record the evening news from SBS and watch it as my French lesson three or four times a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. It runs on SBS without subtitles.

Thomas Wolfe was a big man, nearly as big as his books. He was 6’ 9” and wrote on a standing desk of his own, an ice box. I have seen pictures of his composing in long hand on the refrigerator top and flicking the pages into a crate. He would do this for 36 hours at a time and then fall to the kitchen floor and sleep on a pillow he left there for that purpose. This crate might run to several thousand pages which would go to Perkins for typing and editing! Out of this maelstrom came ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ ‘Of Time and the River,’ ‘Web and the Rock,’ and ‘You can't go home again.’ Each runs to 500 pages after the Perkins fine tooth comb.

The Authors

About the Blog

Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

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