Saturday, 28 November 2015


I suspect I have spent considerably more time in tour buses than in chauffeur-driven limousines.  Yet sometimes it's the rarity of things that makes them enjoyable. In the case of our airport transfer from Lyon to Chalon I have to say that Scenic did us proud. As a result of arriving quite early at the riverboat that was to be our home for the journey to the south of France, we had time for unguided wandering around the town, discovering some of its interesting features for ourselves.

Chalon owes its foundation to a conjunction of navigable river and major roads, though the road may have been more important to the Romans than to later ages since it pointed straight towards a vulnerable frontier.  

Nevertheless there are still picturesque sights that remind you of what the medieval town must have been like.  Here on the right is a photograph of the corner of Rue du Pont and Rue du Chatelet for example. For some reason this sort of thing does not sneak into the usual tourist snaps.

What does sneak in is the history of photography itself, because Chalon was the home of the inventor Nicéphore Niépce who, in addition to pioneering the internal combustion engine a half century or more before the people who became famous for it, also produced the first photographic image, even if it was a negative and he had trouble stabilising it.

The Cathedral of St Vincent has origins in the 8th century though it is the 19th century neo-Gothic facade that attract the photographers.

Inside (left) you can see the beautiful stained glass of the apse, which is still divided into three storeys so that the blindstorey and clerestory carry on right around the church.

I was busy experimenting with my new (to me) 28mm f.2.8 Ensinor lens, which turned out to be capable of pretty decent flashless indoor photographs once I got the hang of it. It certainly conveys the atmosphere of St Vincent's quite well.

I know it's selfish but I find the more commonly visited cathedrals harder to appreciate because the crowds leave so little of the reverent atmosphere and demand such an effort of concentration. Here there wasn't a lot of distraction.

Another interesting feature of Chalon turned out to be trompe-l'oeil decoration on buildings. The one on the left is perhaps a little faded, but certainly it could almost be a real flight of steps leading up to a real statue.  Maybe the artist has made the steps rather too steep and the statue too big, but it's still impressive.

Elsewhere you need to do a double take to check whether the person looking out of a window is a real person (and a real window).

But like any riverside town it is the river itself that dominates the local scene. Writing under grey, rainy skies in late November it is almost incredible to recall that we managed to visit Burgundy just as a heatwave arrived in France.

We aren't always gifted with such prescient organisation!

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Paradox of Tolerance

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them." -Karl Popper

There are many people today who are offended simply by other people having the nerve to disagree with them. In many cases the views they hold are so visceral that they themselves cannot entertain rational debate and seek every opportunity to close it down. In default of an argument they stigmatise opposition by abuse, as though to stereotype a particular view by lumping it together with some despised -ism should be sufficient to end all discussion.

The denial of platform movement which is sweeping UK universities (even Cambridge!) and is, I believe, present in an even more extreme form in the US where the desire to 'protect' people against being offended seems particularly censorious, is itself an egregious offence against freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is vital to civilised society.

John Stuart Mill made the limits of freedom of speech clear a century and a half ago in On Liberty. There exists absolutely NO right not to be offended. People who claim to be so offended by the peacefully-expressed views of other people that they demand such views be suppressed are themselves attacking a free society. People who claim the right to be offended on behalf of other people by the peacefully-expressed views of another person are on course to destroy free society.

Knowledge and understanding is only advanced when a challenge to received wisdom is not only permitted but rationally answered. Systems that allow no dissent or challenge in the end become hollow recitations of notions that even their adherents themselves cannot rationally justify. The unexamined becomes a dead letter, a meaningless mystical incantation.

How far backwards has humanity marched since Voltaire was able to disagree with what an opponent said but defend to the death his right to say it?

Since I am advancing this view peacefully and rationally I am within Mill's rules for freedom of speech. And if my view offends anyone, well that's just tough. I do NOT regret it.

By all means campaign for what you believe politically, artistically, religiously etc., but do it peacefully and do not destroy the good whilst in pursuit of the perfect.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Pour La Liberté

Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'etendard sanglant est levé!
L'etendard sanglant est levé!
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Vive La France!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The House of Peers

I love the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe in which we learn how the House of Peers does nothing in particular and does it very well.

So much of the UK constitution is anachronistic that it is always difficult to enact reform in one area without introducing anomalies somewhere else. Like a worn jumper, pulling upon just one thread can threaten to unravel the whole thing. We need only consider our haphazard devolution process which subsequently threw up the unanswerable West Lothian Question and has made internal relations within the UK very much worse.

The current concern has been aroused by the House of Lords defeating a government financial proposal.  By convention they are not allowed to do this.  I suppose it mighty have been a good idea if successive governments had thought about these conventions before appointing large numbers of party donors and superannuated political hacks to the red benches. Since they didn't, we now have yet another cry for reform.

If you want someone to fly a plane, you choose a pilot. Designing a building is best left to an architect and treating the sick needs a doctor. The same principle applies to any task that requires expertise. Government of the country however has for some reason been opened up to any megalomaniac, plutocrat or ideologue willing to put himself forward, with no qualification required.

It seems odd that we should be so exercised about achieving a well-constituted House of Lords when we make no efforts whatsoever to achieve a well-constituted Commons. Surely if the Lords is to consist of well-qualified people it must inevitably outclass the Commons?  Yet the latter will still govern because they are democratically elected (sort of).

A century ago when the long slow process of reforming The Lords began, Lloyd George described the house as “five hundred men, ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.” It seems to me that we now have something considerably worse.

Perhaps, like juries, availability for service in the upper house should be one of the obligations of citizenship and the membership chosen randomly from the electoral roll.

Of course such a chamber might still outclass the Commons