New York, 2 January 2013

Down at the end of my French grandmother’s property ran a little train, the Micheline we called it. It was a rinky-dink train, one carriage (on rare occasions two), which chugged along at a venerable speed across the countryside from one market town to another, winding its way through vineyards and meadows, stopping at toy-town stations where stationmasters with moustaches, who smoked filterless gauloises and no doubt drank un petit rouge corsé in evenings, would agitate green flags and blow shrill whistles to let the Micheline continue on. This photo captures the rural idyll nicely.


I used to accompany my grandmother on her visits to town. We would walk down a long alley flanked first by peach and apple trees and then by black locusts, down to the end of the property where there was a big iron gate, which swung ponderously open; from there, it was a short five-minute walk to the station. In came the Micheline


I would help my grandmother in, the stationmaster would agitate his flag and blow his whistle, and off we went.

My mother used to tell me that during the Second World War, people were sent to my grandmother by the French Resistance for her to hide for a while; they would quietly slip in with the Micheline. My memory is instead of two old ladies, two sisters, Tante Chlothilde and Tante Marcelle, coming to visit via the train. They were first cousins to my grandmother. Both of them being widows, they always wore black. We would first see the Micheline chug by, then some ten minutes later two black silhouettes would be sighted slowly walking up the long alley. My grandmother would then walk down to greet them, speaking very loudly because one of the sisters was as deaf as a post.

Well, things changed. The road network got better, buses took over, and the line was finally closed down. I suppose the Michelines were retired like this one was


The rails were pulled up, and the weeds took over.

After a long period of neglect, the municipalities got their collective acts together and turned the railway line into a “Green Way”, for people to walk and cycle along. So now we have a quiet, carless, path that allows us to enjoy some of the most beautiful countryside on Earth (I admit, I’m biased).



All of this came back to me yesterday while my wife and I strolled along the High Line in Manhattan. We are talking of a very different context – urban rather than rural, large-scale rather than small-scale – but the historical trajectory is the same: a rail line that was once a vital artery of the city



falls victim to roads and trucks and is finally abandoned. It becomes derelict, overgrown by weeds


and is threatened with demolition. But good sense eventually prevails and the elevated line is turned into an elevated garden.









Micheline-3: Micheline-3:

Green Way-1:

Green Way-2:

High line 1-historical:

High line 2-historical:

High line derelict:

High line 1:

High line 2:

High line 3:

High line 4:


Beijing airport, 7 December 2012

Perhaps it is the tiredness that is seeping into my bones as I wait at the airport to take my third flight this week, or perhaps it is the piercing cold that has descended on the north of China these last few days, but I find myself in a melancholy mood. My last post on red hair is making my mind wander off to a sad tale of a young woman who lived and died long ago, decades before I was born.

My mother was the source of the tale, which she in turn had received from her mother. The events took place in the early 1900s, when my grandmother was in her early twenties. It was that moment in the lives of young women of a certain class – to which my grandmother firmly belonged – when their attention was increasingly taken up by their matrimonial prospects. If a woman was not married by her mid-twenties, she was considered an old maid and condemned to spinsterhood, which meant living with her parents for the rest of their lives and eking out a modest living thereafter off the kindness of her family; working was of course unthinkable. It was a fate to be avoided at all costs.

My grandmother was very friendly with the girl next door, who was close to her in age. This girl’s main claim to beauty was her wonderfully long, auburn, hair. The girl’s father was a wine merchant, as were many in that region. Perhaps too many, because he went out of business and was bankrupted. This was a catastrophe for the whole family, never more so than for the girl. For now there was no money for her dowry, and in those days a girl without a dowry simply could not marry (or could only marry beneath her station, which was unthinkable). The father compounded the calamity by committing suicide, to save his honour it was said.

A solution was found for the girl’s younger brother. He was placed with an uncle who was working in Romania, in the wine industry. But as I said, work was not a solution for the girl. She was faced with the prospect of passing the rest of her life with her mother, with no likelihood of ever marrying, living off some miserable amount of money.

But in this dark time, she met a man, who made promises. And she succumbed to his blandishments. He got what he wanted, but he reneged on his promises. She came to see my grandmother one evening to tell her all this. She stood in front of the mirror and looked at her hair, and said “No-one will ever be able to enjoy this hair after all.” My grandmother tried to comfort her, telling her that things would look better in the morning. The girl thanked her, hugged her and left. She was found a few days later floating in the river than ran through town.

I think of her every time I see the painting of Ophelia drowned, by the pre-Raphaelite Millais.


But I don’t suppose the girl looked nearly so nice when they hauled her out of the river.

Ah, they’re calling the flight. I might get to bed before midnight.


Ophelia drowned: