THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Dijon to Alessandria

Tuscany  - 1Today was bliss. The sun shone. I drove with the roof down on France's great roads to the Mont Blanc tunnel, stopping to drink in the scenery a couple of times. Rising up to the tunnel entrance cooled me down, as did the tunnel itself. Then it was out into brilliant sunshine and less brilliant roads populated by two of the three categories of Italian motorists; the ones who like to express their appreciation of my car and the ones who see her as a challenge. I didn't meet the third category — the ones in police cars.

There was a brief hold up — the first of the trip — on the Italian side of the tunnel. I don't know whether there had been an accident or breakdown but we waited for a while — long enough for me to get hot and put the roof up so as to enjoy the air conditioning. Then a kindly category #1 Italian directed me out of the line of stationary trucks and onto to a back route.

There followed a lot of "tunnelling" noisily in low gears for musical effect. This was much appreciated by category #1s but set off a couple of category #2s in (would you believe it) a SEAT and a Skoda! I was happy to provide entertainment for both categories as long as I could steer clear of #3. I can give a young man no better gift than to tell his girlfriend how he passed a Ferrari in his Skoda today. I was that young man once (though it was a Wolseley not a Skoda) and it makes me smile to think of it.

Then we reached the plains between the Alps and my destination - Alessandria. It was cool and pleasant on the autostradas and I stopped briefly to put the roof down again. Italy looked gorgeous as I sped along and having skipped lunch I began to look forward to a better meal tonight than I had last night in Dijon. That was my fault. I didn't feel like getting dressed up to eat out alone and so cheaped out on French fast food. What a waste of a day in the food capital of the world! I shall make no such error here as the hotel has a highly recommended restaurant. My progress map is updated here. Tomorrow I have a shorter run to Florence and have two choices. I can drive Speranza past her birthplace or take the coastal route. What do you think? 

Tuscany - 1

On the Road Again [NSFW]

Even I am tired of politics now. Everyone is, except perhaps Arlene Foster and her merry band at Westminster. I saw her speak about Brexit in London before the election and she didn't strike me as the monster the Left-Liberal Establishment is portraying. In fact she seemed quite Auntie-ish – albeit more in the mould of Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha, than Aunt Dahlia. She's more patriotic than is now fashionable on the mainland, but I have not learned to admire treachery yet. She's hard-headed on the subject of the border with the Irish Republic after 2019, but one can hardly fault her for that.  

I am not sure why I keep fact checking Leftist hysteria, by the way. If you're not them, you're a Nazi. I get it. And you can't persuade them otherwise because (a) they don't care for facts and (b) they'll scream so loud they won't hear them anyway. I guess I am just a Modern, not a Post-Modern, and therefore fond of both the rationality and truth that Post-modernism rejects.

So the blog is in travel mode again. I didn't blog about my visit to New York City last week. I was worked hard on a photographic workshop. Nary an F-stop was mentioned. It was all art theory and all the more challenging for that – at least to my practical mind which rather tends to confuse Art School-speak with bovine excrement. I was mentally stretched however and that can rarely be a bad thing. 

The only NY contribution I can offer to travelogue mode is this image from the Body Notes event in Times Square that happened while I was studying nearby. It was a very SJW-ish occasion to promote "positive body image" on the part of people for whom (and I am no work of art myself) that sometimes requires a large measure of delusion. Over 100 exhibitionists showed up to be painted with "meaningful" slogans and – though I am not sure that's what the organisers were hoping for – it was amusing.

The young lady pictured was so visibly demanding attention it seemed churlish not to give it. The bodies framing hers were rather more typical of the event. She seems to be overcoming her negative body image problem quite well. Call me a lawyer but I rather enjoyed the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against the banning of a previous such event because paint on bodies = artistic free expression and is protected as such by the First Amendment. The City Authorities duly rolled with that punch this year, providing a fenced space where "free expression" could occur without more delicate citizens (or the children of regular ones) having to encounter it. Needless to say, a few excited exhibitionists could not restrain themselves from leaping said fences to offer naked "selfies" with passing New Yorkers.

Body Notes_09_01

After a brief break back home to launder and pack, I set off early this morning for the Eurotunnel. I am driving to Tuscany and back to take part in yet another photo-workshop. This one will, based on past experience, involve more actual shooting and I shall share some images here. I can't promise naked ladies, however, blue or otherwise. 

I had a wonderful run to Dijon, my first overnight stop en route. The weather was so warm I had to put the roof up for the hours before and after midday, but mostly it was a top-down (but not topless) experience. Tomorrow I shall set off bright and early to continue my journey through France and into Italy. If you are interested you can follow my progress here

Homage to Catalonia

2016 September Porrera-001I rose early in Zaragoza to rendezvous with my host in Catalonia at noon. Things didn't go well. My splendid modern hotel was in the part of town developed for Expo 2008 and none of the roads were in Speranza's database. Her satellite navigation system is a banal piece of software. It can be user-upgraded when installed in lesser machines but Ferrari has inexplicably (a) blocked the necessary downloads and (b) failed to issue any updates itself. Spain has spent a lot of money in upgrading its infrastructure recently. I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of days crossing what my system thought were open fields!

I managed to get myself lost for a while until I realised that all I needed to do was follow the signs for the autovia to Barcelona. I made matters worse by not understanding that the rather clever Spanish roundabouts have a road through the centre but require you to exit if you actually want to use the junction. I didn't grasp that until AFTER performing a – probably unauthorised, though not expressly forbidden – U-turn somewhere in the suburbs to get me back on the right path.

All this  ineptitude cost me my effort in rising early (and sacrificing breakfast not to rise even earlier) and put me under time pressure. Nonetheless I stuck to my plan to get off the autovia and drove to Catalonia on two lane highways meandering through hills, forests and beautiful countryside. A few "Ferrari moments" to overtake trucks struggling up steep hills put me ahead of the game again and I arrived twenty minutes early.

Then I had another bout of ineptitude to make Enzo's ghost cringe. While admiring how much her language sounded like an odd meld of Spanish and French, I almost entirely failed to understand some directions from a kindly local. I drove through the winding, uneven and constantly narrowing streets of the village where I am spending the weekend until a brief moment of connectivity with Google Maps showed me my hotel was down a lane to my left. I could see what looked like garage doors at intervals, including one at the far end where the hotel was. If the locals could manoeuvre into their garages, I reasoned, I must be able to drive down their street. Wrong. My host, whose winery I am here to photograph, arrived to find me stuck. Laughing, he told me that the "garage doors" were entrances to workshops and/or wineries. No-one had ever tried to drive down there before. Less than ten minutes after arriving in town, I was a local celebrity.

With my friend's help I reversed gingerly back up the steep hill, folding in my wing mirrors just when I needed them more than ever, and succeeded in escaping without a scratch. I parked in the car park outside the village and headed off in my friend's car to begin my photo-assignment.

La Priorat is home to one of Spain's only two DOQ wine appellations – signifying the highest quality. Rioja is the other and better known. An old business friend from my days in Poland now lives in Barcelona and, among his other ventures, is co-owner of the region's most modern winery, producing splendid whites and reds. Speranza being safely parked for the day, I had occasion to sample rather a lot of it in the course of the afternoon. My friend hauled my equipment around on a fun, all terrain, diesel powered buggy that could climb the vineyard's steep terraces. I now have the keys for that so that I can get about tomorrow.

The harvest is in progress. My immediate task was to photograph the staff sorting the grapes – the only process that won't continue over the weekend. I was then shown around the estate and talked through the production process so that I could understand what I was photographing. The passion of the young man in charge – a PhD in chemistry – for the scientific execution of his ancient task was impressive, as was his connection with nature. He's a happy, relaxed and sociable guy, more than happy to explain everything to a viticultural novice, but he confessed he had not been sleeping for the last few days because of the harvest. The crop is good and his vines are groaning with high quality fruit but all it would take was a hailstorm and one was forecast. As we worked, there was a magnificent thunderstorm in progress and his anxiety was a tangible presence. The threatened hail didn't turn up, fortunately, and the vines welcomed the heavy rain.

I had great fun with the photography, with catching up with a friend I haven't seen for fifteen years and with getting to know the young winemaker. Exhausted, we locked up the premises and adjourned to a local hostelry to sample Catalonian cuisine. The chef had – as her husband confessed in waiting on our table – an obsession with making "marmalade" out of odd ingredients to garnish her dishes but despite that affectation the fare was rustic, tasty and wholesome. My friend and I had every more abstruse discussions about politics, science, philosophy and "spirituality" (though we never succeeded satisfactorily in defining this last) over a great meal and terrific local wine.

I retired happily to my bed in the heart of a beautiful medieval village having enjoyed a fun, civilised evening. Life is good and – for all the discontents usually paraded here when the blog is not in travel photography mode – I am a very lucky man.

THINK - The Economics of Change | Institute of Economic Affairs

THINK - The Economics of Change | Institute of Economic Affairs.

I thought some of you might like to watch in full the talk at the IEA's "Think" conference last year that was referenced in my previous post. Dr Stephen Davis, the IEA's Director of Education, talks about driverless cars, 800 year life-spans and (which I forgot to mention, but is fascinating in its own right) "vertical farming".  

Apparently, and here's a fact to confuse a libertarian, the war on drugs has led to advances in horticulture. Driven underground, those cultivating illegal drugs have developed techniques that could lead, if more widely applied, to mankind feeding itself using 10% of the land currently being farmed. Great areas of the planet could be returned to prairie, steppe or forest. Of course it's also possible that we will simply feed ten times the number of humans from the same land and/or (I suppose, deviating imaginatively from Dr Davis's script) use these techniques to colonise other planets.

Libertarians foxed by the idea that suppressing an activity can enhance its efficiency will take cheer from the fact that these advances have only become available because several US states have legalised cannabis – at least as "medical marijuana". As the marijuana farms become public, other growers can both marvel at and copy the innovations the former criminals made in secret. 



From Frankfurt to Poperinge via Ghent and "Wipers"

We skipped breakfast at our mediocre hotel on Saturday morning; reasoning that €18 each would buy a better frühstück en route. I drove Speranza out of Frankfurt onto the autobahn and we found a suitable place within 20km. We breakfasted Teutonically on rösti, eggs, sausage, bacon and coffee.

Then the Navigator belied his nickname and took the wheel. He had driven Vittoria back in the day so had some prior experience. This was his first drive in a Ferrari however and it was straight out onto an unrestricted autobahn! In his first 20 minutes, after acclimatising himself to Speranza's controls and the road conditions, he hit 150mph.

He found the concentration involved tiring. There are lots of other performance cars driving at high speed on the autobahn, but there are also more modest vehicles popping in and out to overtake. One needs one's wits. Still I don't think his stress compared with my own; sitting by his side while he gave my pride and joy a thrashing! I am no natural passenger.

We took the northerly route to our overnight stop near Ypres. This was to avoid the congested Brussels ring road, but also to have more chance for autobahn excitement. We switched seats at a fuel stop and I drove the last few (speed-limited) German kilometres to the Netherlands and then on to Belgium.

Ghent and Ypres-1 Ghent and Ypres-2   Ghent and Ypres-6  Ghent and Ypres-7

We took an afternoon break in Ghent; a pretty town I had never seen before. We found a central parking place and – after I had drunk a local coffee with inexplicable fruit puree in the bottom – strolled through the pedestrianised centre and along the river. Some of my photos are above. Don't ask about the shoes suspended above the street. I have no idea what that's all about.

We then continued to our home for the night, making another stop to visit the Menin Gate. I am old enough to have had long conversations with a British soldier who probably passed through Ypres ("Wipers") on his way to the front and lived to tell the gory tale. He was my late wife's grandfather and one of my favourite humans. He was shot going over the top during the first Battle of the Somme and lay for hours in no man's land until the daily truce to recover bodies. He was found still to be alive and - after a bottle of whisky as anaesthetic – had a bullet removed with a bayonet.  He was the happiest man I ever knew (as well as one of the kindest) because he decided that day – at the tender age of 16 – that every subsequent hour of his life was a gift to be enjoyed.

Ghent and Ypres-8 Ghent and Ypres-9
I had not expected to be much moved by the Menin Gate. The Great War's warriors are gone now. It is as thoroughly history as the Napoleonic or Boer Wars. However, I thought of Mrs P's granddad Joe as I stood at the massive memorial with its hundreds of thousands of carved names. I thought of how they died and shed a surprising tear. Then I realised he would have laughed and told me to enjoy my wonderful life.

After refuelling for the first stage of Sunday's run home, we drove to our B&B. It was an eccentric but friendly little place in the hop-growing village of Poperinge. While I freshened up for dinner, the Navigator enjoyed a beer from hops grown in the field across the road made in a nearby brewery. 

It astonishes me that little villages in France and Belgium can sustain serious restaurants, while my own home town in Wales can only support a chip shop, an Italian, an Indian and a couple of Chinese take-aways.  Our restaurant had two Michelin "macarons" and a chef – Franky Vanderhaeghe – who is a slightly mad genius.

We threw ourselves on his mercy and ordered the "degustation menu". He combined flavours I would never have expected to work and left us in a culinary ecstasy. It was a perfect end to one of my life's best days. I could wish you nothing better, gentle reader, than that you should have many such experiences. I bet you have never heard of the village of Elverdinge until this moment. I suggest you sear its name into your memory and build a stop at the Hostellerie St Nicolas into your next continental journey!

Almost a reunion

I collected Speranza from Joe Macari in Wandsworth yesterday. The team did a terrific job repairing some small damage I had done in the South of France. They service and maintain modern Ferraris and Maseratis but they are really specialists in rebuilding and/or restoring classics. Not only do their skills with carrosserie reflect that specialisation, they actually brought the job in below the agreed budget.  Thank you, guys.

They were also a great help with the Great American Road Trip of 2013. Not only did they fettle Speranza, but they recommended the company that shipped her to the States and back and the broker who organised her insurance. Mr Macari himself, a veteran of the Gumball Rally, also helped by coaching me how to deal properly with an American State Trooper. I met a few of those guys and they all seemed to appreciate his work. I certainly parted friends with all of them, which I have never yet achieved with a British policeman. 

When I picked her up there was a nice example of my previous car parked nearby, a Maserati Granturismo. As I move my registration plate from car to car I thought for a while that it might actually be Vittoria herself. On closer inspection, I realised the red seats had black stitching, not Vittoria's more elegant white. Still it was nice to have the chance to take a photo I missed at the time.

Lady Astor's Roller and other old stuff in my head

Rolls Royce used by Churchill restored to former glory after sitting in garage for decades (and it's now worth £250,000) | Mail Online.

Nothing to do with civil liberties, I know, but this article makes me smile for a petrol-headed reason. The car belonged to my great uncle and I knew it as a child. The article doesn't explain WHY the car was so cheap when he bought it. As he told the story in my presence years ago, it was donated to the Army for war use, but its fuel consumption precluded practical use. So as not to offend the Astor family, it was converted to a truck by cutting off that rear compartment in which I later slumbered. My great uncle bought in in that state, reasoning (as all around him scoffed at his idiocy) that "No-one will have scrapped part of Lady Astor's car."

Sure enough, after years of searching, the rear end showed up in a garage somewhere and he bought it equally cheaply. Reuniting the separated parts magically increased the car's worth (in the real estate business, that's called 'marriage value') and he then made money renting her out to TV and film companies. Those included (as mentioned in the article) the makers of my then favourite show, "The Avengers."

My great uncle was my grandfather's partner in building the company that - as a reward for their war service - an ungrateful nation stole from them in 1946. Their business became part of British Road Services (the trucking equivalent of British Rail) which was eventually privatised as the National Freight Consortium. After merging with Exel, it was ultimately acquired (ironically) by another state enterprise - Deutsche Post and is now part of its subsidiary DHL. It has all come a long way from a company founded on a small loan by my great grandfather (a publican) to his sons. Were it not for a ridiculous and now discredited (everywhere except in Guardianland) political theory, who knows where it might have taken my family?

My grandad and his brothers used that small loan to buy their first of several Sentinel steam trucks. My grandfather's first of many convictions for speeding involved breaking a 5mph limit in front of Chester Castle in just such a road-going locomotive. He was arrested by a policeman on a bicycle. I remember him telling me the story and regret that I forgot to ask him if the stoker was fined too on such occasions. The example of a Sentinel in the picture once belonged to my great uncle and I remember my grandfather regarding him as hopelessly sentimental for having it painted in the confiscated company's old colours. My grandad was not a man for regrets and had little patience with nostalgics.

My great uncle's son was the chap who took the teenaged me out for a ride in his Dino and therefore triggered the long chain of events that led to me buying my Ferrari. We are meeting up in the North at the end of this month for me to return that favour of 40 or so years ago by taking him for a ride.

So much for my happy, if possibly imprecise, memories. I assure those readers who are (inexplicably) not petrol or steam-heads, that normal service will now be resumed.

Smoking on motorbikes

Continuing my theme of distentangling honest-to-Stalin Leftism from good old-fashioned British Puritanism, I was looking for an image to illustrate something Mrs P. and I noticed yesterday. Out on the town in Shanghai, we saw many motorcyclists riding (legally) without helmets and smoking en route.

Oddly enough, I couldn't find a suitable photo, but I did find these.



Let the debate between outraged statists and on-the-back-foot libertarians begin.

h/t Videogum and  DJ Mick

Motoring peace, cease-fire or truce?

Coalition will "end war on the motorist", Transport Secretary pledges - Telegraph.

This is a wonderful time for the optimist. New ministers set out their stalls in a positive light, saying the things we want to hear and - possibly - setting us up for disappointment.

One reason I may never return to Britain is that it is such a miserable place to drive. It is under provided with roads and bedevilled by speed cameras. The latter are a tax not a safety measure. They cause more accidents than they prevent, because they distract motorists from the job in hand. The speed limits were set in the days of the Morris Minor and take no account of the fact that a modern car can stop in the same distance from a higher speed than such a car could from 30mph.

In short, the British authorities' attitude to motoring is both puritanical and grasping.

I am no boy racer. I am a guy in my 50s with a clean licence and (touch wood) a good safety record. When the Maserati Corse team tried to teach me how to drive hard on a track, they couldn't overcome the safety reflexes instilled by 30+ years of staying alive behind the wheel. All I want is to have reasonable discretion in the use of my car on terms that I take responsibility for any mistakes I may make.

The test of the new Minister's seriousness is this; will he resist the special pleading of the puritanical single issue fanatic who will whine at him to "think of the children?" Or will he accept that accidents happen, people are best taking responsibility for themselves and that no-one wants children (or anyone else) to die?

Watch this space.