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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition 4/4/2002

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

4th April 2002

French Miscellanies Issue

In this issue

Upton-on-line explores a public transport solution in Rennes that would have Aucklanders drooling (if they could twist Wellington’s arm to fund it), the edifice virus plaguing France’s cultural monuments, French reaction to the death of The Queen Mother and finally a new feature: Diasporan of the Month. This month upton-on-line profiles Isobel Ollivier, the distinguished New Zealand translator of countless log-books left behind by early French explorers. But first…

…evidence of an Aussie takeover at Larousse

Upton-on-line spends more time these days than he’d care to admit, burrowing like a silver fish into the recesses of a large array of English/French and French/French dictionaries. One of them is the Larousse/Chambers dictionary published in the very same quartier in which upton-on-line resides. It’s an intermediate weight tome with a ton of useful idiomatic expressions to easy the anglophone along his/her way.

Upton-on-line had assumed that dictionaries were written by faceless people who generated limp Janet and John examples without betraying a shred of colour, place or humour. Imagine, then, his reaction to this little entry in the English to French section under ‘life’:

5 [Liveliness] vie f; there’s a lot more life in Sydney than in Wellington Sydney est nettement plus animé que Wellington; (p 503 Larousse Chambers Advanced French/English, English/French Dictionary, Paris 1999)

Are the proprietors aware of the vast cultural offence that some under-cover trans-lingual Ozzie has been allowed to perpetrate? Upton-on-line can only conclude that the editors hadn’t heard of Sydney either (although if pressed he would probably have to concede the point).

Public transport in style

As Auckland goes through another round of recriminations and navel gazing on its transport system, France’s fifth city – Rennes – has just opened its new Metro system. System is probably a slightly grandiose term for what is, in effect, a single line 9.4 km in length with 15 stops traversing the town from north west to south east. If you travelled from one end of the line to the other, it would take you 16 minutes. Open from 5.30 a.m. to midnight, the system comes replete with 122 security cameras and a special twenty strong force of metro police.

None of this in itself should surprise – not in a country dedicated for several hundred years now to grand public gestures on the grandest scale. (Upton-on-line wandered around the palace at Fontainebleau last weekend to get the feel for how a succession of Henris and Louis, not to mention Napoleon, rose to the challenge of housing themselves in the style to which earlier generations of French taxpayers were told they needed to be accommodated.)

But it was the justification offered to the present generation that raised upton-on-line’s eyebrows. Described by a local political operative as “a formidable tool to benefit the environment”, the new line is expected to increase public transport’s share of total passenger movements in the Rennes area from – wait for it – 10% to 13% over the next decade or so. And to cap it all off, the thirteen (!) teams of architects retained to realise this wonder include none other than Norman Foster of Hong Kong Airport and Reichstag refurbishment fame.

Going for broke

Even more mind-boggling are the financial considerations. The project, in all its magnificence has cost a cool 457 million euros (roughly NZ$900 million). At that sort of expenditure you’d imagine that Rennes, the capital of …err… Brittany, must have a population of a couple of million. But no, it’s smaller than Wellington. Just 213,000 people in the town itself or 375,000 if you stretch as far as you can before you’re engulfed by countryside. And do we have ratepayers mired in debt and about to launch a fresh round of revolution? Apparently not. The State has biffed in 372 million euros or around 80% of the cost. John Banks should get on the first flight to Wellington.

So there you have it: state of the art public transport for 48 million euros per kilometre or 1218 euros capital cost per person (but remembering that only 10% of journeys made by residents of ‘greater’ Rennes are made on public transport we’re talking roughly ten times that figure). It is scarcely surprising that the cost of the line has been termed ‘pharaonique’.

Still, the best things in this world aren’t cheap, and neither are they achieved without a struggle. Le Monde reports that during the construction phase the town was transformed into a giant work site involving pot-hole ridden streets, temporary barricades and subsidence leading to “evacuated residents, interminable traffic jams and furious business operators”. And, undaunted, the city fathers are planning a second line.

Whether it’s the way of the future remains in doubt. While underground trains are a feature of France’s biggest cities (Lyons, Marseilles, Lille and, above all, Paris), the only medium sized town to go for a metro is prosperous Toulouse with 650,000 inhabitants. The rest in the Rennes/Christchurch league are going for trams. At a third of the price per kilometre, it’s not hard to see why. But none of this is going to anyone to take the shine off Rennes’ king hit as far as its authors are concerned. It represents, says one local worthy, “the successful conclusion of a great political decision”. This, apparently, is what people flock to vote for in Rennes at least. All you need is the conviction to spend large enough and long enough!

Gigantism on the cultural front

It is not just public transport systems that seem infected with the Monumentosis virus. Cultural edifices are a guaranteed way to burn money, and France has done its share of proving the point. Four grand Paris-based institutions – the Louvre, the Paris National Opera, the Pompidou Centre and the National Library - gobble between them 315 million euros of state subsidy a year (that’s over NZ$600 million). With at least the two galleries being internationally known household names, it’s all in a good cause. But all (with the possible exception of the Opera which managed a rather good financial deal at the time the new Bastille complex was built) are said to be in financial trouble.

All have been the subject of simply massive refurbishments and extensions over the last twenty years (the Mitterand government had a particular penchant for large edifices). The Louvre re-development alone soaked up about 1.2 billion euros. But all are having trouble with their running costs. Upton-on-line was amused to read one critic lamenting the fact that it was part of “a very French syndrome, the Versailles one. In France, it’s all or nothing” he said.

He apparently hadn’t heard of the antipodean form of the virus, known to New Zealanders in its classical form at Te Papa, but perhaps better known in a mutant variety that afflicts the promoters of sports stadiums. With 25% of its galleries shut through lack of staff, the Louvre exhibits a classic political weakness that exists in every country – the desire to leave behind monuments rather than to fund the things that happen inside them.

France’s culture minister, Catherine Tasca, was at least honest about the political tactics involved:

“In this country, it’s easier to build than to find running costs. That’s a mistake. But without creating the tools one will never be able to develop the policies to put in place. I should point out, that the community has always found the wherewithal to enable them to function…”

The short of this, as upton-on-line understands it, is that if you manage to get the building built, it’s much easier to force everyone to swallow a policy to fund the activities they’re built to contain. This is not a chicken or egg tale. You provide the egg – then you put your chicken in it. Irresistible.

The French and La Reine Mère

Upton-on-line has been struck by the space devoted to the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Both the major dailies to which he devotes himself (Le Monde and Figaro) have given Her Majesty generous farewell.

It is the War that remains the point of emotional contact, albeit it an aging one. A distinguished member of the free French, Maurice Druon, KBE, writing in Figaro recalled a particularly strong affection felt by those who had, with de Gaulle, been exiled in London during the years of the occupation. Here is his recollection of his first encounter with her:

“She was forty; she brought with her an air of radiant freshness, for a queen must always smile, even in the most tragic of times. But you could tell from the look on her face that she was visibly moved as she looked at these young men who, for the most part, had got there at the risk of their lives so that they could risk them again – and many of whom would lose them. She was wearing, as a corsage, a tiny gold Lorraine cross. In this way she showed us that she loved us. And we loved her. She was our queen.

This little brooch, the symbol of our mutual engagement, I saw her wearing on every occasion I can remember. She had it on when she unveiled a blue plaque (the colour reserved for heroes) to the memory of General de Gaulle on the façade of number 4 Carlton Gardens which was his headquarters…

…God gave her such a long life so she could remain, as long as possible, an inspiration. She will be forever in the old hearts of the free French.”

Le Monde, given always to the most extensive and apollonian of utterances, found in the Queen Mother’s character an identification with some of the most deeply cherished characteristics of the English soul:

“Hopelessly in thrall to nostalgia, Albion cannot resist a world of grannies around whom turn cups of tea, the Times crosswords, tom-cats and speculations on the weather. Images inseparable from those of the post-war years, churned out in bitter-sweet kitsch films from Ealing’s studios.”

Having resolutely worked through her positive personal qualities, Le Monde’s writer (applying appropriate republican scepticism) then traversed the Queen Mother’s more questionable attitudes on such sensitive issues as her opposition to Churchill, at the outbreak of the war, her politically incorrect enthusiasms and, horror of horrors, her opposition to British entry into the Common Market. But again, the wartime record absolves everything:

“But her fundamental euroscepticism didn’t prevent the Queen Mother from a deep love of France. Received at Buckingham Palace in 1944 before his return to France, de Gaulle confided to her: “Ma’am, you and the King have been the only two people who have always demonstrated an understanding and humanity on my account during my exile in London.” … And when it came to the final of the World Cup in 1998, the old lady toasted the French victory over the Brazilians by breaking into the Marseillaise!”

By such gestures are ententes cordiales maintained.

Not surprisingly, it was the event the British media had prepared for for decades. The best coverage upton-on-line saw was in the Financial Times which was as sharp and anecdotally original as ever. The best had to be her attitude to Wallis Simpson as recorded by observers present when she and her husband, the then Duke of York, were invited by the new Edward VIII to view his new American station wagon. “While the Duke of York was sold on the American station wagon, the duchess was not sold on the King’s other American interest.”

Significantly, the FT’s commentary, and editorial, ended up asking what this means for the Royal Family – a matter that is by no means irrelevant to New Zealand as it places the Queen even more in the front line than previously. As its leader noted, the Queen Mother’s formula was a relatively simple one of –

“keeping out of politics, a traditional sense of public duty and morality, commitment to her family and an extravagant penchant for palaces.”

The question, the FT noted is, as ever, whether her heirs are capable of making the transition to the twenty first century as successfully as she was able to help the House of Windsor adapt to the twentieth.

Diasporan of the month - Isobel Ollivier

Isobel Ollivier is a remarkable New Zealander who has taken Gallic root deep in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Seine and the Ile de la Cité. She is the President of the Association France – Nouvelle Zélande, an august body of around 100 gallo-kiwis or kiwi-gauls depending on whose genes got mixed where.

On the French side, there’s a predictable mix of ex-diplomats, teachers and others who have undertaken missionary service in New Zealand on behalf of French culture. For the kiwis’ part, there is an eclectic band of individuals who have been ensnared by careers, romance or both. Founded in 1981, the association has ebbed (it actually sank for a few years in the wake of the Rainbow Warrior) and flowed (as its various pub nights attest).

Its raison d’être, beyond bonhomie, is to minister to the cultural links that bind the two countries, extending from the Katherine Mansfield fellowships to rugby. This last cultural activity provides one of the association’s most eagerly sought-after services – the procurement of tickets to France/New Zealand games.

But lest anyone picture Ms Ollivier as a marooned All Black cheer-leader trying vainly to persuade anyone who will listen that New Zealand rugby is still in the première league, her contribution to New Zealand is altogether more enduring – and fascinating.

Born in Blenheim, and moving as a young child between such heartland heart-string-pullers as Kaikoura, Methven and Dannevirke (her father was a stock agent), Isobel landed up aged 10 in Ruakiwi where her parents took up farming. (For those few unacquainted with this place, it is a remote valley on the north side of the Raglan harbour and one of upton-on-line’s favourite haunts).

Deposited for safekeeping (and education) in the Waikato Diocesan School for Gels, Isobel moved back south to Canterbury University for her undergraduate years (taking English and French). After a stint at training college, she taught in Darfield before undertaking her mandatory OE in Europe in 1974. She returned to New Zealand in 1977 and commenced her masters studies in French at Auckland University where her path crossed with that of Anne Salmond (now Dame Anne) who was at that sage in the thick of the research that would lead to Two Worlds and, later, Between Worlds.

Ollivier became entangled in that research as a translator, commissioned by Salmon to check the translations of extracts from the logbooks of early French explorers held in the Turnbull Library and used by McNab in his Historical Records of New Zealand Vol II (published in 1914). This swiftly led to a much bigger project when Ollivier leadingly observed that one could never be sure, looking at mere microfilm records, whether they were complete (the implication being that checking the originals would be just the ticket…).

In a flash Salmond had the money together and Ollivier was off to France to tackle the records of the five early French explorers who helped put New Zealand on the map outside the English speaking world - De Surville (1769), Marion du Fresne (1772), D'Entrecasteaux (1793), Duperrey (1824) and Dumont d'Urville (1827). What started off as short-term research for Salmon became, in 1982, a long-term academic project in Ollivier’s own right. It remains unfinished to this day notwithstanding the painstaking translation of manuscript material from the five voyages (the last, published last year, running to some 2000 pages).

D’Urville’s 1839 voyage remains untackled and Ollivier would be more than happy to hear from any reader who would like to make it a summer holiday project. It is painstaking work with the French and meticulously translated English texts laid out in parallel, all cross-referenced to the manuscripts. None of which fits particularly easily with earning a living as a professional translator and being caught up with family life which, as upton-on-line can aver, is never a simple matter in a place like Paris. (Ollivier joined the band of those bonded to the tricolor by a romantic occurrence and lives happily with architect husband Gilles Sainsaulieu and daughter Emily.)

Isobel doubts whether the doctoral thesis that was to grow out of the translation work will ever come about (upton-on-line is campaigning in the background) but whatever the case, she has given New Zealand – and France – authoritative access to hugely important sources of very early-European era New Zealand. This is bedrock academic and archival work without which sound scholarship is impossible. New Zealanders are indebted to her.

Meanwhile, this fifth generation New Zealander (first four ships, Canterburian and all that) oscillates (like so many Parisians) between her inner city pied à terre and an idyllic slice of rural France on the banks of the Cher, a grim hour and a half’s drive to the south in Loire country. There she may be found, of a summer’s afternoon, dealing with convolvulus amidst the old roses and perennials in her rambling garden. If this is how nautical log-book translators end their days, there could be worse career choices – or countries of adoption.

Readers interested in the Association France – Nouvelle Zelande can visit its website: or contact it directly by e-mail at

For a brilliantly presented website that describes a recent French encounter with New Zealand, visit:

© Scoop Media

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