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Every Tuesday I go to a two hour French Conversation Class.  It’s at my daughters’ tea time so I am invariably late and flustered when I arrive, but I so enjoy my chance to speak French.  We are a motley crew of people, all of whom have a deep love of France and many of whom have lived there for short periods, or married into the country.  One young man comes with his mother.  Several are retired.  We include a general practitioner, a renegade Czech who allegedly fled his country during the Revolution and reads everything through a magnifying glass the size of a plate, an engineer at the local nuclear powerstation, a telecommunications research engineer, a retired polyglot and a couple of local businessmen.  I continually count my blessings that a class so perfectly suited to my language ability should be offered in my provincial home town. 

Our tutor is French and the Head of Languages at the local college of further education.  He is … excellent, no other word for it.  Full of enthusiasm, very organised, flexible and approachable.  And probably prevented from running this course next year because it is technically run by our local council, not the college that employs him, even though it takes place in a room provided by the college, and even though it is one of the high points of the tutor’s week to teach a group of such an ability.  This year he managed to arrange the course without anyone noticing until it was too late.  Next year he thinks he will be more closely watched.  We have spent several weeks talking about student demonstrations in France, so are already collecting our cauliflowers to use as weapons if need be.  We are all very keen to continue such a wonderful opportunity.

last week we had to give a short presentation to our peers on a chosen subject.  I chose to talk about the recent wedding I attended in Burgundy – lots of material, and little preparation.  Other people chose subjects as diverse as a novel and a film called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the Tour de France.  Then we adjourned to the language lab to hear an extract from a radio programme about an event which happened in November 2006 and which threw millions of people into the dark. 

A large newly built cruise liner, the Norwegian Pearl, was navigating the river Ems in North Western Germany and as a precaution the German electricity supply company decided to suspend operation of a very high voltage cable that crossed above the river.  The German network is part of a pan-European network comprising 27 countries currently, with a list of wannabees, such as Syria, Jordan and Libya, queueing up to join.  It notified its nearest neighbour, France, of its intention to shut down the line, but there was inadequate co-ordination amongst other suppliers and distributers of electricity with the result that the electricity which could not be routed via the German cable caused a surge in other networks.  The surge threatened to cause the other lines to overheat, and so emergency shutdowns occurred.  Each shutdown reduced the capacity of the network, producing futher surges and shutdowns.  In all 10 million households were left without electricity, of whom half were in France.  The breakdown highlighted both the interdependence of so many countries and also the poor communication between suppliers. 

The Norwegian Pearl

The disruption was, however, also a reflection of an inherent drawback with electricity: it is impossible to store.  A Gas pipeline may suffer catastrophic disaster interrupting supply, but gas may also be stockpiled so that a few day’s supply is kept in hand.  At this point our Czech friend piped up.  He told us about a pumped-storage hydroelectric station in the Czech republic which uses electricity in slack periods to pump water uphill to a storage lake.  In periods of high demands the water is then allowed to flow downhill again, operating turnbines which generate cheap hydroelectric power.   At least, our Czech friend gave us the outline, but the engineer at the nuclear power station gave us the detail.  He told us about two power stations in Wales that operate the same system, and there are another two in Scotland.  Although each centre uses more electricity than it produces, the output is produced at peak times when it can be sold at peak rates, whilst the electricity is consumed mostly during the night when it can be bought at cheap rates, close to zero often.  What is being stored is not the electricity, but the capacity to generate electricity cheaply.  Elecricity is not “stockable“.  Electricity output of these plants is about 70-85% of the electricity input. 

There is an additional benefit of these hydroelectric stations to the grid as a whole – they even out demand.  That is to say, they increase demand on conventional power stations during slack periods (because they call for electricity to pump the water uphill) and they reduce the demand in peak times.  This ensures that convention powerstations, which operate best when kept running consistently, may continue to operate at peak efficiency. Demand can be very quickly satisfied too. The Welsh power plant at Dinorwig can supply 1320 MW of power to the national grid in only 12-16 seconds if there is a sudden surge. This is quick enough to rescue a network in meltdown and compares with a conventional power station which takes at least 12 hours to reach full power from cold and needs 45 to switch to the grid if they are on “hot standby”

Pumped storage was first used as long ago as the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland.  The Czech Republic had one of the earliest plants built on modern lines at Stechovice in 1947 although this original station was closed in 1991 and a newer plant with reverse turbine technology built in its place.  Globally Europe has a 32GW capacity for pumped storage hydroelectricity.  This compares with a capacity of 19.5 GW in the US.  Twice as much electricity in Europe is accounted for by pumped storage hydroelectricity (5.5%) than in the US.   Centres are expensive to produce, especially if the optimum geographical conditions do not exist naturally: ideally there will be a large body of water close to a mountain with a good connection to the national grid.  All possible sites have been exploited in the UK and similarly in the United States.  Further suitable sights may exist in the developing world, but the huge capital costs remain a disadvantage.

Et voilà!  A la prochaine fois.

More: Wikipedia




une panne d’électricité – powercut

à tres haute tension – very high voltage

sauter – to trip

un reseau – network

des moyens d’urgence – emergency measures

une centrale électrique – power station

un black-out

une coupure – interruption to supply

en surcharge – overloaded

l’effet domino/l’effet papillon –

délesté – taken out (electricity … of the network, from le lest, ballast)

la capacité de production – generating capacity

stockable – storeable

la kyrielle – chain (of events)


Getting married in this recent French wedding was a long affair.  The service included Holy Communion and was conducted almost entirely in Latin, save for the vows exchanged by the bride and groom.  Four priests officiated.  Mass lasted over two and a half hours and included the Litany of the Saints, a long exchange between priest and congregation when a seemingly endless list of saints were named and prayed to.  The ancient church, dedicated to St Bernard, dominated the city, crowning a hill on the outskirts.  To hear the whole building swell with the voices of the hundreds in the congregation who had sung these verses all their lives was to want to kneel and pray.  I reflected that we had spent part of the previous weekend with our friends celebrating Holy Communion in Greek.  The beauty and universality of these ancient languages took us away from the here and now, stripped away our everyday concerns and left us with only wonder and awe.  Charpentier’s Veni Creator was God’s introduction.

I don’t get to vote in the American Presidential elections, and I haven’t yet decided who I would vote for in the fantasy world where it was my decision, but I read this piece by author Tawni O’Dell whilst I was in France ten days ago.  it was published in Libération.  I don’t know if it was published originally in English: if so, I cannot find it, but a translation appears at the end of this post …

Barack Obama, quelqu’un en devenir, avisé et solide

Un soir après les primaires, dans ma petite ville de Pennsylvanie, je prenais un verre avec des amis et je me sentais «amère» (1) : je venais de voter pour Barack Obama, ce qui faisait de moi une «élitiste». Il y avait un ancien ouvrier sidérurgiste de Pittsburgh parmi nous, cependant : cela nous rendait-il plus proches du spot télévisé caricatural que je venais de voir à la télévision, dans lequel Hillary Clinton sifflait une rasade de whisky au milieu d’ex-prolos de Crown Point ? Techniquement, Obama venait de perdre la consultation électorale démocrate locale et pourtant, en tant que native de Pennsylvanie, je mesure que ce qu’il a accompli dans cet Etat si particulier ressemble fort à une remarquable prouesse. Nous autres Pennsylvaniens ne sommes pas de grands amateurs de changement, franchement. Je connais des gens de ma ville natale qui attendent encore aujourd’hui la réouverture des mines de charbon qui ont fermé leurs puits il y a trente ans. Nous restons l’une des rares contrées des Etats-Unis où il faut encore acheter (hors de prix, à cause des taxes) son alcool dans des «magasins d’Etat» aux horaires totalement ringards. Nous ne sommes pas conservateurs, pour autant : circonspects, plutôt.

Première femme à briguer la présidence avec quelque chance, Clinton ne se distingue que par sa tenue vestimentaire des hommes politiques professionnels qui en ont fait de même avant elle. Son tempérament, son histoire personnelle, son appartenance à un clan politique solidement établi, ainsi que sa propension à recourir aux attaques venimeuses et à jouer les gros bras avec des déclarations souvent irresponsables, appartiennent à une tradition que nous connaissons trop bien. Elle fait partie de l’establishment. Elle nous maintient en terrain connu.

Barack Obama, lui, personnifie un énorme changement. Sa carrière politique est encore en plein essor. Il apprend en chemin. Il a des certitudes mais il est aussi quelqu’un en devenir. Un risque. Bien que ses détracteurs aiment souligner pesamment son manque d’expérience, il a déjà démontré auparavant, et durant cette longue campagne électorale, qu’il était intelligent, maître de soi, avisé et «solide» dans le vrai sens du terme, sans avoir besoin de rodomontades hollywoodiennes à propos de «rayer de la carte» tel ou tel pays. «J’ai toujours pensé qu’avoir la “peau dure”, c’est d’abord de ne pas s’en vanter», remarquait-il récemment. Tout le monde peut se proclamer patriote à la petite semaine en s’épinglant le drapeau américain à la boutonnière, mais il n’est pas donné à n’importe qui de se faire insulter et railler pendant dix-huit mois sans répliquer sur le même ton, et c’est ce dont Obama a été jusqu’ici capable.

On peut feindre beaucoup de choses. Pas l’intégrité intellectuelle et morale. Le matin des primaires en Pennsylvanie, il y avait deux prospectus électoraux sous ma porte. Sur le premier, le sénateur Obama se contentait d’encourager les électeurs à aller déposer leur bulletin et d’expliquer où trouver la liste des bureaux de vote ; il ne demandait même pas explicitement de voter pour lui, bien que la publication porte sa signature. Le second, émanant de Clinton, reproduisait hors de tout contexte la citation désormais fameuse de Obama à propos de «l’amertume» des gens des petites villes de Pennsylvanie, lors d’une réunion privée à San Francisco. «Est-ce vraiment ce qu’il pense de nous ?» demandait la candidate en grandes lettres d’un rouge colérique, puis : «Barack Obama nous comprend-il, nous et nos valeurs ?» Une fois surmontée ma déception dégoûtée devant ce nouvel exemple de campagne négative, je n’ai pu m’empêcher de penser : «Désolée, Mme Clinton, mais vous ne faites pas partie de “nous” non plus. Et n’essayez pas de faire semblant. C’est insultant».

L’Amérique est un immense pays, d’une grande diversité ; nous ne sommes pas une masse uniforme, même si nous manifestons un enthousiasme rare à nous réunir autour de notre drapeau. Un candidat à la présidence est «l’un de nous» en ce qu’il est américain, voilà tout : jusqu’à quand les prétendants à la Maison Blanche se sentiront-ils obligés de nous prendre pour des imbéciles en prétendant être «exactement comme nous» ? Si Obama rencontrait mon beau-frère partant à la chasse au chevreuil dans son pick-up, je suis presque certaine qu’il dirait : «Je n’ai pas de porte-fusils sur mon véhicule, moi, mais je ne vois aucune objection à ce que vous en ayez un» ; quant à la sénatrice Clinton, je suis prête à parier qu’elle s’exclamerait : «J’en ai un, moi aussi ! Je le jure ! C’est juste que je ne l’ai pas avec moi aujourd’hui.» En tant que romancière dont les livres veulent décrire les désillusions et l’optimisme obstiné des gens du pays minier pennsylvanien, la brutalité et la solidarité manifestées par ces communautés en crise, je n’ai pu que sympathiser avec Obama devant les critiques distordues que lui ont valu ses propos sur l’état d’esprit de la Pennsylvanie profonde.

En Amérique, nous avons tendance à appeler amour de son pays natal le refus de considérer les défauts de celui-ci, et à taxer d’ingratitude ou d’élitisme ceux qui osent dire que tout n’est pas pour le mieux dans la meilleure des villes, le meilleur des Etats ou la meilleure des nations. Aimer, c’est d’abord accepter ; c’est continuer à aimer «en dépit de», et pas seulement «parce que». Les êtres qui inspirent mes romans peuvent être victimes des circonstances, d’un contexte économique et social dans lequel ils ne trouvent plus tout à fait leur place, mais jamais de l’autocomplaisance. Et je pense que ce sont ces mêmes personnes auxquelles Obama pensait lorsqu’il a mentionné ces résistances au changement perceptibles au sein d’une certaine partie de la population américaine. Il a évoqué ces gens qui «se raccrochent à leur fusil de chasse, et à la religion, et à l’antipathie envers ceux qui ne sont pas comme eux», antidotes à la frustration d’avoir vu la plupart des emplois industriels supprimés il y a des années. Cela a toujours été le cas ; simplement, c’est plus évident aujourd’hui parce que c’est tout ce qui nous est resté. La Pennsylvanie ouvrière a perdu ses emplois mais aussi son identité ; personne ne meurt de faim mais tout le monde est touché par la pauvreté spirituelle. Quand on se sent trompé et battu, on se raccroche à tout ce qui permet d’oublier la défaite : ces communautés ne sont pas mues par la colère, mais par une fierté meurtrie. Amers ? Oui, mais surtout fatalistes. Des décennies après la fermeture des mines, après un temps où accomplir un travail exténuant, sans certitude du lendemain, avait modelé une philosophie de la vie, la mentalité collective reste dominée par la certitude incontestée que tout ce qui nous arrive échappe à notre contrôle. Et c’est justement pourquoi le succès d’une personnalité comme Obama, même en Pennsylvanie, montre selon moi que nous sommes enfin prêts à nous confronter à la fatalité, à nous forger un nouveau destin.

Si Obama est élu, je ne m’attends pas à voir soudain apparaître une Amérique plus ouverte, plus solidaire, «meilleure». Ce que je désire pour mon pays, c’est exactement ce que j’attends de mes enfants : qu’il se montre à la hauteur de ses potentialités. Ce soir-là, dans un bar avec mes amis, aucun d’entre nous ne s’est montré particulièrement impressionné que Clinton puisse vider un whisky cul sec, puis avaler une bière – en anglais, on appelle cela «a boilermaker», «un chaudronnier». A la place, nous nous sommes demandé ce qu’elle aurait pu faire pour paraître plus «Pennsylvanienne de base» : aller chasser la marmotte, cracher du jus de tabac dans une boîte de conserve vide ou s’attabler devant une potée à la cuisse de porc. Et nous sommes tous tombés d’accord sur un point : si la sénatrice était capable d’avoir conscience de sa propre amertume, et de savoir la dominer, elle serait un petit peu plus en mesure de devenir «l’une des nôtres».

(1) Allusion à une réflexion d’Obama sur «l’amertume» des Pennsylvaniens, ndlr.


Dernier livre paru en France :Le ciel n’attend pas,Belfond, 2007.


Traduit de l’américain par Bernard Cohen

Tawni O’Dell, Libération, 02.05.08

Translation from the French

One evening after the Primaries, in my small town in Pennsylvania, I had a drink with friends and I felt “bitter”: I had just voted for Barack Obama, which made me an “elitist”.  There was a former steel worker from Pittsburgh among us, however: did this made us more like the caricature that I had just seen on television, in which Hillary Clinton knocked back a bumper whisky in the midst of ex-proles from Crown Point? Technically, Obama had just lost the Democratic local elections and yet, as a native of Pennsylvania, I appreciate that what he has done in this particularly odd state seems such a remarkable feat.

We Pennsylvanians are not big fans of change, frankly. I know people from my hometown who are still waiting for the reopening of coal mines that shut their shafts thirty years ago. We remain one of the few parts of the USA where we still have to buy (unaffordable, because of taxes) alcohol in State liquor stores with totally ridiculous opening hours. We are not conservatives, so to speak: cautious, rather.

The first woman to have a real chance of running for the presidency, Clinton only sets herself apart by her dress code of the professional politicians who have done the same before her. Her temperament, her personal history, her membership of a firmly established political clan, and her propensity to resort to venomous attacks and to use strong arm tactics often with irresponsible statements, belong to a tradition that we know too well. It is part of the establishment. It keeps us in familiar territory.

Barack Obama – he personifies a huge change. His political career is still growing. He learns as he goes. He has some certainties but he is also someone in the act of becoming. A risk. Although his detractors like to heavily emphasize his lack of experience, he has already shown before, and during this long election campaign, that he is intelligent, master of himself, wise and “solid” in the truest sense, without needing a Hollywood bucking bronco in order to “wipe off the map” this or that country. “I always thought that having a “hard skin” is not something to boast about,” he said recently. Anyone can call himself a patriot for a few days, sticking an American flag in his buttonhole, but it is not given to anybody to allow himself to be insulted and made fun of for eighteen months without ever responding in the same tone, and yet that is what Obama has so far been capable of.  

We can fake a lot of things. Not intellectual and moral integrity. On the morning of the Primary in Pennsylvania, there were two electoral manifestos under my door. On the first, Senator Obama was content to encourage voters to go cast their ballot, and to explain where to find the polling station;  it did not even explicitly ask that we vote for him, although the publication bears his signature. The second, from Clinton reproduced, out of context, the now famous quote from Obama about the “bitterness” of people from small towns in Pennsylvania, during a private meeting in San Francisco. “Is this really what he thinks of us? “ she asks in large angry red letters, then:” Barack Obama – Does he understand us and our values? ”  Once I had overcome my disgust and disappointment at this new example of a negative campaign, I could not help thinking: “Sorry, Mrs. Clinton, but you are not part of ” us “neither. And do not try to pretend. It is insulting. ”

America is a vast country of great diversity: we are not a uniform mass, even if we demonstrate a rare enthusiasm to come together around our flag. A presidential candidate is “one of us” because he is American, that’s all.  Since when do the contenders for the White House feel obliged to treat us like idiots by claiming to be “exactly like us “? If Obama met my brother leaving to hunt deer in his pick-up, I am almost certain he would say: “I do not have a gun carrier in my car myself, but I have no objection to you having one “, while Senator Clinton, I am ready to bet, would start up ” I have one, me too! I promise! It’s just that I haven’t got it with me today.”   As a novelist whose books try to describe the disillusionment and obstinate optimism of the people of the Pennsylvanian mining country, the brutality and solidarity shown by these communities in crisis, I have been able to sympathize with Obama before those twisted criticisms that his remarks on the mindset of deepest Pennsylvania have earnt him.

In America, we tend to call patriotism, love of our country, the refusal to consider its defects, and to charge with ingratitude or elitism those who dare say that not everything is for the best in the best of cities, the best of the best states or nations. To love is first of all to accept; it is to continue to love “in despite of”, and not just “because of”. Those individuals who inspire my novels can be victims of circumstance, in an economic and social context, in which they no longer quite find their place, but they are never the guilty of attribution bias.  And I believe these are the same people whom Obama was thinking about when he mentioned the apparent resistance to change within a certain part of the U.S. population. He referred to these people who “cling to their shotgun, and religion, and antipathy towards those who are not like them,” as a reaction to the frustration of seeing most of the blue collar job eliminated years ago. This has always been the case; it’s just that it is more evident today because that’s all that that we have left. The PA worker lost his job but also his identity; nobody dies of hunger but everybody is affected by spiritual poverty.  When we feel deceived and beaten, we cling to anything that helps to forget the defeat: these communities are not driven by anger but by a wounded pride. Bitter?  Yes, but also fatalistic. Decades after the closure of mines, time gone when doing a hard day’s work, without the certainty of the next day, had shaped a philosophy of life, the collective mentality is still dominated by the undisputed certainty that everything that is happening to us is beyond our control.  That is precisely why the success of a personality like Obama, even in Pennsylvania, shows to me that we are finally ready to confront the inevitable, to forge a new destiny for ourselves.

If Obama is elected, I do not expect to see an America suddenly appear that is more open, more caring, “better”. What I wish for my country is exactly what I want for my children: that they realize their full potential. That night, in the bar with my friends, none of us was particularly impressed that Clinton could down in one a whisky, then swallow a beer – in English we call it “a boilermaker.”   Instead,  we wondered what she could have done to appear more ” truly Pennsylvanian”:  go hunting marmot, spit tobacco into a can,  or sit down in front of a pot of pig hock.  And we all agreed on one point: if this Senator was able to embrace her own bitterness, and learn how to overcome it, she would be a little bit closer to becoming “one of us.”