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Ron McKay’s diary: scooters, Bolts, giant elephants and superdrugs … welcome to France!




Has Usain shot his bolt?

Today is Bastille Day, the French national celebration of unity, commemorating the 1789 storming of the fortress which held political prisoners without trial and which was the turning point of the French Revolution. As it turned out there were only seven prisoners inside, and none of them was political, but history sometimes turns out like that.

Today this is a military parade passing in front of unpopular President Emmanuel Macron, who will be hoping the rifles are loaded with blanks, before all manner of wassailing and jigging breaks out across the country.

It was surely no coincidence that on Friday, France launched the first of six new nuclear submarines, joining the nine it already has (with reassuring names like Reckless and Terrible). Their whereabouts is secret but I wouldn’t mind betting that, come October 31, one or two will be cruising off Dover.

Adopting a Gallic mien in the run-up to the day, and to commemorate the Auld Alliance and any other historical excuse to raise a toast, the Diary made a whistle-stop French tour.

So, to Paris where, among its many attractions, there is a new scourge. Electric scooters, which sneak up on you silently and leave you flapping in their slipstreams as some cocky young person glides past. The city is saturated with them, not my description but that from the office of the mayor, Anne Hidalgo. You can hire these “trottinettes” through mobile apps, for the equivalent of about 12p a minute, for up to 40 minutes of ride time at speeds topping 20mph.

In theory, you can be fined up to £100 for using one on the pavement but the law seems difficult to enforce. This saturation has also spread to several other French towns and cities as rival suppliers of these infernal machines compete for pre-eminence.

The latest competitor is slow off the blocks, which is not something usually associated with the world’s fastest man – co-owner of Bolt Mobility, the former sprinter and world record-holder Usain. His company was the eleventh to set up in Paris. But there’s an unresolved problem: one of the competitors has trademarked the Bolt name worldwide so Usain has had to rebrand as “B – by Usain Bolt”.

The Bolt – or B – scooters are already in several US cities. He wants to bring the scooter biz – claiming to be the great, green travel alternative – to the UK, starting in London and rolling out. However, there’s another problem. It’s illegal to use them on the roads and pavements in the UK. So has Usain shot his Bolt? Perhaps he’ll have better luck with the tiny, two-seater electric bubble car – the Bolt Nano – he plans to market in 2020 for less than £10k. Wouldn’t bet on it.

Ready or Nantes

Two hours to the west by TGV is Nantes, a former maritime city which has reinvented itself as a university and tourist spot, trading heavily on the legacy of its most famous son, the first science fiction author Jules Verne.

Stepping out of the station, presently being remodelled, it’s only a few paces to the Jardin des Plantes, a beautiful and extensive garden in the centre of the city, and not without its touches of humour, with topiary cut into animal shapes and outsize pieces of furniture dotting the paths.

The place is buzzing, and not because of the ubiquitous scooters, which you can’t hear of course, but because the two-month Voyage à Nantes festival is on until August 30. You can follow a 10-mile green trail painted on the pavements which takes you to 40 different and intriguing sites, from the picturesque castle of the Dukes of Brittany and Anne of Brittany, the only woman to be Queen of France – twice, and she died at 36! – to quirky art installations.

The city’s main thoroughfare is the Cours des 50 Otages, named in honour of French hostages who were shot by the occupying Nazis in 1941, although the figure has been rounded up, as there were 48 executed. But let’s not split hairs.

It’s crucial to make a trunk call, a ride on the 12m-high wood and steel mechanical elephant which carries visitors at a sedate pace around Les Machines de L’Ile, on the Ile de Nantes. It’s a bit of a trek from the city centre but public transport is excellent – and, this being cultural France, there are innumerable refuelling places, from pavement bistros to elegant restaurants, on the way.


Ron McKay: The Flying Tailor who jumped off the Eiffel tower


Antibiotic bonus

After eight years of research, and a dash of trial and error, a team at the University of Rennes has come up with what is likely to be the future of antibiotics. Resistance to the conventional drugs has been growing for more than 30 years with few new ones on the market, and those are derivatives of those in existence.

The Rennes team discovered in 2011 that a toxin in staphylococcus aureus, the most dangerous of the many variations of the bacterium, killed not only human cells and facilitated infection, but also other bacteria – a toxic and antibiotic double. It has taken eight years to split the two molecules concerned and manipulate one to create a new antibiotic devoid of toxicity.

The first development stage has been completed, but the next phase will involve human trials. It will take several years to bring the new family of antibiotics to market, but there could well be a Nobel prize on the way.


Ron McKay: When the starlings took over George Square


Musical mystery

Back home – well, across the Atlantic to be scrupulous – it will be 53 years this Thursday since the strange death of Bobby Fuller. His name may not be familiar but his most famous song is. I Fought The Law has been covered more than 50 times by the likes of Springsteen, Tom Petty and, of course, The Clash. The song was written by Sonny Curtis of Buddy Holly’s Crickets but the Bobby Fuller Four had the original, massive hit.

So far so interesting, but it is his bizarre and still unexplained death at the age of 23 in 1966 which is fascinating and perplexing. Fuller was found dead by his mother in her blue Oldsmobile car in the parking lot outside the family home.

There was a can of petrol inside the car and, apparently, a tube in Fuller’s hands which seemed to make it obvious that he had killed himself in the most bizarre and unlikely way by sucking in the fumes. After a cursory examination the police put it down to suicide, closing the case without even brushing for fingerprints or interviewing anyone.

However – and this is where the conspiracy theories begin – the car had only been there for less than 30 minutes when Fuller’s mother found it, yet the body was in an advanced state of rigor mortis, suggesting he had died elsewhere.

Theories around, but the scenario favoured by his brother Randy, who was the bass player in the band, was that Fuller had tried to back out of a deal with notorious record company owner Morris Levy, know as the Godfather of the US music business, and that Levy had arranged the death. Fanciful perhaps but, whatever the truth, Fuller’s death has certainly kept his name alive.

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