Things that make me go “Ooh…”

Mont St Michel from a distance

On Sunday, I visited Mont St Michel (yes, again – that’s the second time this year!). This time, it was with a translator colleague for a guided tour. When we arrived at the car park, it was absolutely pouring down, but by the time we’d got across the causeway and up to the abbey, where we had to collect our tickets, it had pretty much stopped. However, the glum face of our extremely serious guide more than made up for the lack of rain.

Mont St Michel - view from the abbey roof

But it only took a few moments of his introductory speech for us to realise this was just part of a running joke that continued throughout the entire two hours of the tour. And it turns out that François Saint-James is as much of an institution as the site he knows so well.

As he took us right up to the roof of the abbey and deep into the crypts beneath it, he would periodically offer us the choice of visiting a part of the abbey inaccessible to the majority of visitors… or going straight to the shop. He also had some extremely forthright views on the superiority of Normans over Bretons, and which crêperies on the island were worth patronising (answer – there’s only one that actually prepares the crêpes fresh). 

Mont St Michel - flying buttresses
The lacework flying buttress at the very top is in fact a bridge

The tour as a whole was fantastic and highly recommended – you get to see some really interesting things, you get to cross the extremely fragile lacework stone bridge disguised as a flying buttress that leads to the roof, you learn fascinating facts about the abbey (normally involving bits of it collapsing. “One collapse every hundred years. Last collapse 1811. Keep together”, said Mr. Saint-James)… but the things that really made an impact on me were less obvious.

Mont St Michel - the archangel

The first was that you can visit the second church to be built on the site, Notre-Dâme Sous-Terre. This was once a normal roofed building, dating right back to 966, and forgotten for many centuries after the vast structure above it was constructed, which is impressive enough in itself. But when they excavated behind the double altars, they found a wall from the original church on the site – constructed in 709 by Saint Aubert. And if you go on this tour, you can touch the stones of this wall! Maybe this wouldn’t do anything for you, but I trained as an archaeologist, and to me there’s nothing quite as exciting as being able to put yourself in the place of the original inhabitants of a site.

My second spine tingling moment was in the monk’s refectory, where our guide demonstrated how the acoustics didn’t work for normal speech, but that they did for a kind of chanted speech id (there’s a word for this, but neither my colleague Nelia nor I can remember it!). He read a short section of the Benedictine rules – as would have been done during every meal the monks ate there – and everyone in the huge room turned to listen as his voice effortlessly cut through the background noise, like a beam of warm, magical light.

And the third moment, which actually came at the very start of the tour, was listening to the bell being rung in the abbey. For 11 minutes. At 11 am, on the 11th day of the 11th month…

Mont St Michel - secret garden

If you get a chance to do this particular tour (assuming you speak French, of course), it’s definitely worth doing. I think you’d have to do it several times before you took in all the information and sights that flood over you as you’re marched at top speed around the abbey, and it only cost 13€, which is just 3€ more than the standard, unguided entrance fee – and you effectively get that included in the price too! 

We’d both seen the abbey before so we decided not to go back and have a further look this time – and also by this time we needed coffee. So we went down into the town and headed for a crêperie I’d visited last time I was there. We drank our coffee, and when we tried to pay the owner refused, saying that it was on him because it was his last day open before the winter break. So all in all, we had a really great day out!

And of course I took some photos (all of the ones in this post, in fact) with my new camera, the Yashica Y35 too.

Mont St Michel - view from the cloisters
Mont St Michel - the light of the archangel

Yashica Y35 camera – first pics

A few days ago I finally received the Yashica Y35 camera I’d backed on Kickstarter more than a year ago.

This is a strange gadget that looks like a traditional film camera, into which you insert plastic “digifilm” cartridges to obtain different effects. The ones I ordered were as follows:

  • Black and white (of course!)
  • 200 ISO
  • 1600 ISO
  • 6×6
  • Yashica blue
  • In my fancy (a kind of 1970s colour effect, on which more below)

You could also order a fancy holder for your cartridges but they were rather pricey and in any case I have a couple of camera bags that these would normally fit in. However, I don’t have them with me at present, but I do have a spare (sealable!) plastic bag courtesy of an extremely rude woman at Southend Airport, so that’s what I’m carrying them in.

I gather the camera has had some pretty negative reviews, but other than a couple of slightly questionable choices in terms of design/build quality, it does exactly what I expected – it’s a cheapish, fun camera that makes you think differently about taking photos.

Given that my other cameras are a couple of Nikon 1 S1s and a 1982 Polaroid, I’m not exactly a typical gear head when it comes to camera equipment, so I think this fits pretty well with my photography style.

I took a couple of shots in the house (including the inevitable shadow selfie):

YASHICA - digiFilm in my fancy

YASHICA - digiFilm in my fancy

Then I went out on Friday to a nearby ruined castle and took a few test shots to try out the different “films”:

YASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm YASHICA blueYASHICA - digiFilm 1600

All of these were taken with the “in my fancy” digifilm, except for the last two, which were taken with the “blue” and 1600 ISO cartridges.

I’m pretty happy with these, I have to say. Yes, I could have obtained the same effects by mucking about with stuff in Lightroom and/or Photoshop, but I don’t do post-processing as a rule – and in any case I’d much rather have random effects created by the camera.

I’m not sure how much use I’ll get from all of the digifilms, but so far I’d say that this is a camera I’m likely to use quite a lot. It’s a neat enough size to fit in my handbag and seems to react reasonably quickly. And I’m used to shooting with a prime lens on my main camera, so the lack of zoom isn’t an issue either (I’m guessing this is throwing some users). In fact until I sat down to write this post I hadn’t even noticed it didn’t have one!

In fact I’ve used it since on a visit to another ancient monument. But that’s another story…

There’s no place like home

The really great thing about the UK is that visiting it always gives me so many reasons not to regret having left it in the first place.

Of course I often also get to meet up with family or friends, or encounter lovely new people, but such meetings could always take place elsewhere. And after Brexit they may well have to.

But it’s the grime, the pettiness and the sheer 1984-ness of the place that really shocks me every time.

Naturally there are bits that aren’t quite so dystopian. My native Isle of Man isn’t generally too horrible, for example… provided you stick to the unspoilt bits in the middle, rather than the vast swathes of detached luxury executive dwellings in non-vernacular styles and the almost continuous traffic jam of four-wheel drive vehicles on the Island’s tiny roads.

This time, however, I was in south east England – including three days in the hellhole that is London – and I was constantly reminded of Ford Prefect’s words to the Golgafrinchams. “You’re all a load of useless bloody loonies”.

I know, that’s a bit harsh. There are, I’m sure, plenty of nice people in London – indeed, I got to meet up with not only the aforementioned lovely new people at Procopywriters’ Copywriting Conference, but my best friend Nick, who currently has the misfortune of being stuck there for work.

But even nice people can be insane. And as someone who discovered the term “hypersensitivity” with an enormous feeling of relief and recognition, that’s what city dwellers very much seem to be.

I can just about cope with somewhere like Malmö (population 340,000), which even to my eyes is really only a large town. But once an urban area hits the million mark in terms of population, the levels of crazy seem to increase exponentially.

This time I didn’t even manage to get off the plane before the nausea set in. Flight Time, Flybe’s inflight magazine, is a macrocosm of all that’s wrong with the modern world. Aimed, presumably, at the affluent 30-something, there’s a lot of chat about design and branding, including, horrifyingly, with reference to Liverpool, a city I have a great deal of affection for. In the early 1980s it introduced me to the monstrosities of Conservative policies. In the late 1980s when I was at university in Wales, it was my jumping off point for the Isle of Man. And now apparently it’s a place where hipsters can experience world-famous brands.

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But the inflight entertainment wasn’t over with Flight Time. Because even the Flybe menu card had something to say about Britain in 2018, being a showcase for the current emetic tendency to describe everything in terms so sycophantic even a member of the Royal family might blush. (Or then again maybe not.)

First we have a posh pot noodle with a “hand-crafted broth”. What does that even mean? Are we expected to believe that there’s a chef somewhere on the plane carefully chopping herbs and reducing stock to make this exquisite offering (which would of course cause third-degree burns if served filled up to the brim like this).

More emetic branding

And then there’s that thing – and I’m sure there must be a term for it other than “we’re a bunch of culturless wankers and we’re pretending we still remember what history means” – where everything has to be tied to a particular locale and then drenched in treacle.

I present a delightfully delicious and drinkable beer, with, presumably, the character of an over-priced caravan in an insular, damp and windswept part of the UK mainland where the locals talk with incomprehensible accents. Whatever that tastes like.

Emetic branding in handy can form

And then I got on the train, and the bombardment became audible as well as visual, and still just as pointless. I mean, is it really necessary to tell people at every stop not to forget their stuff and to mind the gap? Does that actually even work? How many people who travel on those trains every day even hear the warnings any more? Or do they think “Ooh, I’m so glad that automated announcement cautioned me against leaving my belongings behind, because otherwise my handbag and all my shopping would still be on the train. Silly me. That’s the fourth time this week I’ve nearly done that”.

But that kind of thing, annoying as it is, pales in comparison with the frankly scary “See it. Say it. Sorted” campaign, which involves both incredibly repetitive announcements and posters, and which made me feel like I was in that sketch off Not the Nine O’Clock News (you know the one). I mean, why not just put up a big poster saying:

“Let’s get rid of these nasty foreigners!”

Every time I encountered this message I felt ashamed, not only to be British, but even to be anywhere near the UK, as if I was condoning it simply by being there.

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But the Brits do love a good sign.  Especially in Debenhams in Chatham, apparently.

And I for one was very glad they were there. Because I never expect hot water from a hot tap, and I certainly wouldn’t turn the tap off if there wasn’t a sign asking me to. What kind of person would?

But once again, the winner of the “Most pointless instruction” contest was a woman employed by Southend Airport. (Do they do special insensitivity training, I wonder?) Last time, it was someone stridently insisting we “Stay behind the yellow line” as we walked across to the plane, despite the fact that the yellow line ended right where she was pointing at it, leaving us with another 20 metres of tarmac to cover, unaided by lines. “I’m going to be so glad to get back to France”, muttered the smartly dressed and very Received Pronounciation elderly lady walking beside me. “They’re all just so stressed here.”

This time, the instruction was, if anything, even more intended only to bolster the ego of the issuer. It’s also a bit of a conundrum, to my mind. Because one of these bags is a sealed bag for toiletries, and the other, apparently, isn’t, despite a) being equipped with a zip and b) having been used to contain toiletries for travel on a plane many times (as you can tell from the state of it), thereby presumably putting every other passenger on that flight in danger, including people using Southend Airport.

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Now, my first thought was that this woman was just being a po-faced jobsworth. Indeed, my second, third and fourth thoughts were exactly the same. But I’ve just discovered that there may be a valid reason for demanding that toiletries are placed in a self-sealing bag. Apparently some security instructions contain this line: “Your plastic bag must also be airtight so that vapour testing can be successfully carried out on the contents”.

But once again, this is just so much bullshit. (In fact it’s just a continuation of the other flight security myths I wrote about a couple of years back.) In the unlikely event that the security check finds something dodgy in my toiletry bag, I’m pretty sure they’re capable of shoving it in their own sealed bag for vapour testing. Or are they saying that they can tell it’s not got holes in just by looking at it? In which case I’m off to join a UK airport security team to get X-ray eye implants. I’m sure they’ll make it easier to spot all those nasty foreigners, for a start.

 


PS – If you’re one of the nice people sharing my flight back to Caen, sorry it took so long to write this. I did warn you!