The Road to Little Dribbling: Bill Bryson

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Travelling Companions 2

I seem to have decided on the pattern of reviewing these from most recently read and working backwards. Actually I’ve been enjoying the sunshine too much and haven’t had much inclination to sit, for more than a minute or two, in front of a computer screen if nobody’s paying me. This is one of my occasional extended reviews from Goodreads. Don’t be fooled by the unimpressed nature of the piece. Like many of you I am a big fan of Bill Bryson. I just don’t think much of this book. If you haven’t read any Bryson before and you’ve got a train or plane to catch then it will pass the time quite nicely. If you haven’t read any Bryson before, and there is a choice between this book and any other that he has written…choose the other.

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Here’s the review.

He’s become the Paul McCartney of travel writing; once sublime and now pushing out books that we buy because he’s given us so much pleasure in the past. Maybe it’s very clever writing: the ageing scribe and observer returns to look at England and finds it changed mostly for the worse and so reflects this in his prose; also changed for the worse. There are a few laugh out loud moments; but these are largely fart jokes. I don’t mind a curmudgeon and age suits this persona. I just don’t much like the name dropping multi-millionaire with friends in academe spending half a day in so many towns and then bemoaning that they’re not what they could be. My own home town of Barrow* comes in for a particularly sneering write-off when he walks along the economically depressed Dalton Road and is offended that there are some unemployed people there making the place look untidy with their dogs. Surely, after travelling many miles (there is no other way of getting to Barrow) he might have had a wander around the rather good Dock Museum (after-all he does like a museum in middle class towns), the glorious beaches and nature reserves of Walney or the silent splendour of Furness Abbey, the incomparable loveliness of the Roanhead sand dunes and the Duddon Estuary, even Devonshire Dock Hall; all within walking distance of where he was. No, a cup of coffee in a chain was his idea of the acceptable face of a town I am very fond of. It’s indicative of someone fulfilling contractual obligations but doing so grudgingly and with bad grace.

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I’m glad he finds fault with the political mind-set that sees cheese-paring as the route to making Britain great again (otherwise known as austerity, otherwise known as getting the poor to pay for the excesses and mistakes of the rich). We won’t improve anybody’s quality of life, or even save much money, by closing down libraries or removing greenery from urban plazas. But I’m afraid his outsider’s ability to spot the glories and weaknesses of British life has declined with passing years. Seeing the world through the windscreen of a car; and a big car at that; re-tracing steps he specifically says he won’t re-trace, re-hashing old material about the supposed delights of dried cake and hard biscuits, having a pop at a popular travel writer (in this case the pop-worthy HV Morton): it’s all a little tired. It isn’t a bad read but it is by no means a good one. Like Paul McCartney he re-invigorated his genre and delighted a generation. The old stuff is still worth the read (especially Notes From a Small Island and the wonderful Walk in the Woods) but this is the travel book equivalent of Red Rose Speedway.

HV Morton withEdward Cahill in 1950

HV Morton withEdward Cahill in 1950

The main criticisms of HV Morton (and it has become fashionable to find fault with old Harry) are that he made half of it up and the rest he painted with a rosy brush. (Putting aside his serial adultery and desire to see fascism established in England). I’m afraid Bill Bryson is guilty of both (rosy paint brush and inventing encounters, not multiple shagging and longing for the Third Reich to cross the North Sea). His meetings with people seem stage-managed and mostly fiction and his admiration of the English countryside comes across as shallower than it probably is; as well as touching the clichéd. I’m also surprised and disappointed that he’s reverted to the ‘short walk around and then into a pub for pints of lager before a curry and bed’ approach to exploring a town.

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The book opens with Bryson’s publisher pointing out the money-making possibilities of Small Island Part II. The book is little more than an exercise in cashing in. (Incidentally it does get a little wearing when this very wealthy man objects to paying a few pounds entry fee, and downright patronising when he tells us we really should be putting more into cathedral collection boxes and be raising money for charity). The title is supposed to be an evocation of the unique and slightly humorous quaintness of English place-names. It equally serves as a description of the contents and prose style.

You’ve made your pile Bill. You’ve made us very happy with your early books. Perhaps it is time to enjoy a well-earned retirement where dribbling can be, and should be, a more private activity.

*Also known as Barrow in Furness, but only by outsiders. (See also Kingston upon Hull).

Writing About England

Travelling Companions: A Short Series on Books About Britain

It was Jon who introduced me to travel books. He’d been further afield than me. I was rooted in England (with an occasional tendency to cross a Celtic border). He read of the Hindu Kush and southern archipelagoes. I didn’t think it likely I’d follow in his footsteps. Why not read about where you’ve been? he said and gave me Paul Theroux’s Kingdom By the Sea. Loved it. And I was off.

Up until then I’d found the planning of a trip as good as the travelling of it. I was invariably on foot, bicycle or a railway line. A railway journey around places I’d been, by someone who saw more than I did, made it a three stage thing. There was now the planning, the doing, and the reading about other people doing. To see the world through your own eyes is a very special thing to do. To see it through the eyes of others, especially the keener eyes of people like Theroux, Betjeman, Priestley, is almost better. Why stick to one life, to one journey, when a library allows you to have as many as you want?

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This was in 1987, still four years shy of Bill Bryson setting forth on his genre changing journey with Neither Here Nor There and eight years before his astonishing Notes From a Small Island put travel writing into the best sellers list. I tend to stay away from the crowds in all respects but blimey it was a good read.

From John Byng in the reign of the third George to Bryson the travel story developed three ingredients: the journey itself, the individual places visited and the huge presence of the storyteller. Byng may give you a passing glimpse of Bigleswade in the 1790s but he gives you a lingering insight to his thoughts on the journey. His reaction to a castle, a town, a mountain may take a sentence or two. His reaction to the sauce served with his chops is often a good deal longer. Bryson rarely fails to filter the factual through his own prejudices and ability to tell the real thing from the fake. (An ability that has waned considerably in the last ten years: the prejudice is still there – and often still amusing – but the judgement has diminished.)

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It seems (to me at least) time to pull the threads of my reading together. But where do you start and, more surprisingly, where do you stop? Starting is easier. Chronological is always a simple and safe plan. Either chronological in the order they were written or the order in which they were read. Either is fine. But where to stop? What constitutes travel writing? Where does it merge with local history or geography, national history or natural history? Is JB Priestley’s great book a travelogue or a capturing of place in time? And what about fiction? Doesn’t Middlemarch, or even Barry Hines’ Kes, capture the time and the place as well if not better than a man (it seems a strangely male dominated genre) on a horse/train/bicycle with a notebook? Who captures the essence of Nottinghamshire better than DH Lawrence or Dorset better than Thomas Hardy? Several of Dickens’ most popular novels (Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield) are disguised travel books. I’ve literally walked in the footsteps of Howard Spring and Ian McEwan and found it very familiar. And then there is poetry. Owen Sheers devoted an entire book to the way poets have produced their own portrait of Britain. Norman Nicholson captured the history of lakeland off the beaten track in his verses and then went back and captured it again in his prose. I could go on, and probably will.

This short series of posts is an act of filing, recording, cataloguing. It’s 32 years since Jon gave me the Paul Theroux. Since then I’ve been devoted to travel writing. I’d very much like to read an account of my own reading and I’m the only one who can write it. I’ve written a little of what I have seen of Britain. This is my English journey through  through other people’s eyes.

I’ll begin with the book that currently rests on my bedside table.

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Engel’s England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man by Matthew Engel

You’ll find this on the convenient tables in Waterstones where they put the books that are already selling well; a process helped by ‘buy one get the next half price’ stickers. It deserves its prominence. He’s a writer whose judgement is still clear, whose wry observational style is worth a chuckle or two per chapter, who isn’t afraid to call a monstrosity a monstrosity, greed greed and still see the beauty shining through. It doesn’t take long to get the Engel angle on a place. This won’t please everyone. Plenty of people will buy it in expectation of a rose coloured pastoral idyl.They will be partly satisfied. I’m two thirds of the way through and the only county he’s visited so far that I could live in (if I were to use this book as my only guide) is Derbyshire. But this balances well with my own findings. He’s attracted by the same things as me; living history, tradition, good independent shops, pubs with good beer and no television screens. He’s put off by the same things: dullness, waste, snootiness, lack of generosity. And I’ve come to the same conclusion. The only county I could live (happily) in is Derbyshire. Apparently he gets excited about London. I do too, but can only cope for three days at the most after which time I’m clamouring for simple peace and quiet.

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He’s the same generation as me and, for that matter, Bill Bryson. We all share the same fault. We remember all of these places as being different, and usually much better than they are now. We don’t go to Ulverston (to choose an example I know well and love dearly) and see the perfectly fine Sun Inn on Market Street and describe it as it is. We see what was there. We see the mess an architect made of the corner, the few sad stalls where once a market bustled, we see the inevitable Tesco Metro where we once bought pick and mix. Maybe it is time for travel books to be written by someone in their early twenties who sees a town for what it is now, not for what is was back when ten bob was enough for a night out with enough change to pay the milkman.

Engel’s England is a fine book despite this. His sense of nostalgia is kept in check by his perceptiveness and his descriptions are fair and honest. I’ve lived in Devon and North Yorkshire. I love them  both but I wouldn’t want to live there again and this book pretty much captures why I feel this way. (Mind you, if the right house came up in Scarborough I might be tempted.)

The key to this book is that he travels to the counties as history and geography created them. This is done strictly to pre 1974 lines. (The 1972 Local Government Act redrew county boundaries for the purpose of rationalising provision. Out went historic counties like Rutland and Westmoreland and in came places that nobody can place on a map; Avon, Salop, Cleveland, and regions like Hyndburn and Kirklees (Accrington and Huddersfield in old money)). Happily local pressure has got rid of some of these changes – Rutland was abolished in 1974 but made a comeback in 1995 – but a great deal was lost and very little gained by the changes. Not all were bad. I myself am a proud Lancastrian who saw my home moved into Cumbria. I’ve never liked the idea of Cumbria and certainly never felt Cumbrian. But a great number, especially of those who continued to live there, like their new addresses very much.

DSC_0830This leads on to another point for which Lancashire is a very good example. What happens to an industrial county when the industry is removed and precious little is put back in its place? Engel deals with this eloquently, with affection but sadness. I can see why my old friends and neighbours are happy to turn away from the few surviving mills and shipyards and point their futures at the mountains and lakes.

It’s a first class read. It’s funny and sharply observed. But it’s painful too. Unless it falls away badly in the last hundred pages (which I don’t expect it to) I recommend it heartily. Is it as good as Notes From a Small Island? It gives it a good run for its money and is certainly vastly superior to The Road to Little Dribbling.

In the Spring an old man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of food

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Mostly Concerning Food

We’ve had a couple of weeks of lazing about and doing things at our own pace. One of the real perks of a teacher’s job are the holidays. Let’s face it, they’re a big reason why I joined the profession in the first place. So I don’t see any reason why retirement from the classroom should stop me enjoying the fourteen weeks of getting up late, reading the papers, walking the dog and digging the garden that gave my academic year some balance. As the current Mrs Johnson celebrates another holiday I leave my plough shares where they stand in my non pedagogic furrows and I join her.

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It’s been an unusually early Easter. For those unaware of the discussions at the Whitby Synod of 664 AD, the date of Easter is fixed at the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Our current archbishop of Canterbury, a man with a small head that is full of vague fancies, thinks we should have a fixed date and this would suit Thomas Cook and Sons. For myself I like the movable feast. The one disadvantage is that an early Easter is often a cold one in these northern latitudes. This one has been particularly chilly.

Porridge has been the favourite breakfast but there are only so many dishes of hot oatmeal that you can photograph. No matter how warming the fare, a bowl of porridge looks like a bowl of porridge. No wonder the marketing people settled for a jolly eighteenth century fellow of Swarthmoor or a Highland hammer thrower. An occasional grapefruit has added zest to breakfast time and warded off scurvy for the 57th year in a row. Preparing a grapefruit is an absorbing and satisfying task. If done well it takes a little time but this is proper cheffing. The result are segments of morning freshness that slide easily onto the spoon. If done lazily, then the eating can be a tedious affair.DSC_0002

I’ve continued with the sourdough. Every now and then the starter beckons to me and I make up a loaf or two or a couple of pizzas. Still a way to go before I feel I’ve got it just the way I want it but everything so far has been very eatable and reasonable looking. Bread, cold meats, cheese, tomatoes and a cup of decent coffee. It’s what holidays were meant for.DSC_0003

Soup is another perfect accompaniment to good bread. This is a simple tin of chicken and pasta soup from Lidl. Unlike Heinz and Campbells it does actually look and smell like chicken soup made at home. It isn’t anything special but makes a tasty lunch with the sourdough loaf.DSC_0004

My new favourite. And this is from a supposed budget supermarket. The yoghurt is wonderful and the jarred plums are as sweet and tasty as if I’d picked and stewed them myself. The difference is that I couldn’t have done it for the price. It’s part of a steady transition from winter eating to summer. Always nice to follow the seasons.

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Kippers are an all year round treat. Preserved fish used to be a huge part of the British diet. Entire populations used to follow the herring shoals around the coast. Not just the fishing boats and fishermen, but coopers, rope makers, smokers and entire armies of girls and women who gutted and cured the fish. I’m reasonably adept at preparing round fish (as opposed to flat fish) for the pan. It takes me under a minute to head, gut and de-fin a herring. In the same time a fish girl would have done half a dozen. These days the herring fleet has practically disappeared from our shores and there are only a handful of real smokehouses left. They’re worth looking for. The kippers, smokies and cured fish from them are a world away from the dyed product I have on my plate above. It was fine, a decent breakfast, but left me ultimately dis-satisfied and longing for the real thing.

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My first attempt at a sourdough pizza. Passata, Wensleydale and anchovies. The sourdough makes a difference. A good contrast between the crispness of the base near the edges and the doughiness nearer the centre. Very tasty.

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Sourdough loaf and rolls. There are a lot of skills involved in making sourdough bread that don’t concern the yeast baker. I’m delighted with taste and texture but intend to put some time in on presentation. You need an extremely sharp blade to score the loaves before baking. I’m talking razor blade sharp and I’m reluctant (with my record of clumsiness) to have such a blade hanging around the kitchen.

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My casual (point and press) method of photography doesn’t do justice to this steak sandwich. Here I’ve captured the benefits of three things if going for a delicious and easy to eat treat of a sandwich. First to ensure the Maillard reaction to create that crispy, almost flame grilled texture on the outer. It’s done by high heat in the pan and leaving the steak long enough to cook the outer layers thoroughly and change their chemical composition. Second is to do what the French have always done better than the English, which is to leave it rare and third to let it rest for long enough for the juices to re-distribute throughout the meat. In England we used to talk about sealing in the juices. We were just plain wrong in this. Browning the outside does increase flavour, and range of flavours but it doesn’t seal anything in. Quite the opposite in fact. Conducted and radiant heat drive the juices out and evaporate them in equal measure. Far more juices are preserved in the centre of the steak and these will spread through the meat when resting giving the steak a tenderness to the teeth as well as pleasure to the tastebuds. (For further details see Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This Chapter 48. It’s a book that gets almost as much use in my kitchen as the Goodhousekeeping Cookery Book I bought in the 1970s.)

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A quick beef stir-fry. Onions, slivers of carrot, savoy cabbage, bean sprouts and even some sweetcorn kernels served up with noodles and coated with a sweet and sour sauce. Chunks of left over roast beef added towards the end of cooking. Served with rice crackers and decent soy sauce. Very easy, very tasty.

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Another spring time breakfast, another generous bowl of yoghurt with bottled plums and slices of orange and banana. It feels healthy as I eat it and it tastes wonderful.

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Some macaroni cheese served up with sausages and a baked potato. Perfect reward for a day spent cutting down a twenty five year old Leylandii hedge that had grown out of control.

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Easter means roast leg of lamb in many English homes. We have taken to enjoying vegetarian food for the big feast days, so the roast lamb was moved to a few days after. Generously studded with fresh rosemary from the garden and accompanied in the oven by songs on the ukulele. The Marmite jar has nothing to do with the meal. Must have been left over from breakfast time.

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Roast lamb with mint sauce (also fresh from the garden), new potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower with a cheese sauce…and gravy. A lot going on on this plate and I’m sure purists may say that there are too many conflicting flavours. All I can say is that it didn’t feel that way when I was eating it.

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When David is home we try to have a different breakfast every day. The traditional breakfast is always among the most popular. Here mushrooms and asparagus balance out the fat and salt of the bacon. The eggs are lightly fried. These are from Frances and Steven’s chickens and are far too nice to over cook.

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A big joint of beef goes a long way. Some roast, some sandwiches, some stir fried and some made into a beef curry. Recipe comes from Madhur Jaffrey. Pickle, chutney and raita are all shop bought. As are the poppadums. We have a couple of good restaurants where we have our Indian food cooked by people who know what they are doing but I do enjoy making a good curry every now and then. The house smells great for days as well.

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My third batch of sourdough. As you can see I’ve invested in a rising basket. Like the sharp blade, it makes a big difference.

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Another stir-fry. This one used a couple of rashers of bacon as the main feature, a bag of pre-prepared vegetables from the supermarket and some quickly boiled noodles. About 15 minutes from packaging to plate. I always make too much and always eat it anyway. I’m working hard on the house and in the garden. Calories get burnt up.

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We went a little daft over Christmas puddings after we bought a microwave oven in November. It is such an instant and tasty treat. Five minutes from packaging to dish and the cream comes straight from the fridge. It’s almost easier than opening a bag of crisps and a hundred times nicer. I used to make Christmas puddings but do so very rarely these days. A heck of a lot of work. They are much better than the bought ones but the bought ones are quite good enough.

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Thanks to investment in a range of rising baskets I have made my first ever baguette. It’s a sourdough loaf and was absolutely the best baguette I have ever had.

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The results of the sourdough baking so far have been fabulous. And I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. Thank you once again to Foodbod, Master of Something Yet and e-Tinkerbell (fantastic bloggers all) for inspiration and ideas.

Bon appétit.

Simon

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Part One

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To Be Hunted by the Man Who Was Your Friend

This is a remarkable film that has long been among my all-time favourites: sometimes my number one.  Not necessarily the very best film ever made but one that ticks off a lot of the criteria that make up a truly great film and which satisfy a whole lot more. It’s a bio-pic of the last three months of the life of William Bonney. It’s a death rattle flashback by the man who killed him. It’s a study of how lawful and legal often got tangled around the wrong side of ethical and decent.  It shows a view of New Mexico in the 1880s that doesn’t hide the faults. It was made in an America of 1973; a country that had just been shaken to the roots by the Watergate scandal, the resignation of a president, the tail-end (and the messy tail end at that) of an unpopular and unsuccessful war. And all of this comes through. A country where trust in leadership, decency and honesty had taken quite a beating. It’s a film starring one A list rock star with another hors catégorie rock star slotted in so comfortably that you see only the character and not the legend playing him. If you prefer Delta Blues and country music you’ll catch a few more familiar faces in the cantinas and haciendas. And a film of carefully assimilated paradoxes that are so perfect that, for once, the English language fails to find the concept of paradox puzzling; instead it becomes  a thing of beauty. It’s a film rich in binary opposition: opposites which oppose yet complete each other at the same time. A thing that is both itself and not itself. Two sides of the same coin. Looking up and looking down simultaneously. Age and youth, love and death, friendship and betrayal, freedom and confinement, natural against governed, clean against dirty, friend against friend and above all, life against death.600px-Pgabtk-saa

The story is simple. Those responsible for the enforcement of law and order around Santa Fe have hired ex-outlaw Pat Garrett to bring Billy the Kid to justice. It’s too well known to worry about spoilers. Garrett tells “the kid” what he’s going to do and asks him to leave the country. Billy initially stays, is captured by Garrett (and his posse), faces hanging but escapes. Garrett continues his pursuit and eventually shoots Billy dead. It’s an entirely one-way thing. At no point does Billy attempt to stop him, let alone attempt to kill Garrett. At the end of the very first scene of the film one of Billy’s gang asks “Why don’t you kill him Bill?” The answer appears simple but is redolent with meaning.

“Why? (long pause) He’s my friend.”James Coburn Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

 

There is no coincidence that key roles are played by rock stars, By 1973 rock stars had come to hold a similar role in society that outlaws  and gunslingers held a hundred years earlier. They live outside the normal rules of society, are perceived as glamorous, are able to break moral codes without attracting public opprobrium, and a very real expectation that their life will be spectacular and short. Billy is being deliberately compared to the musical heroes who had joined the recently deceased. In the few years before the movie was made Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and quite a few others had all died at the height of their fame and to the mass grief of hundreds of thousands. They encapsulated, in the minds of many, the hedonistic rush for pleasure and experience to be found in alcohol, sex and drugs and rock and roll. These cowboys are living a similar lifestyle. Whiskey is the drink of choice of all of the characters and it is always drunk neat and in large measures. They know that violent death is never far away. This is a  ‘live fast, die young and make a beautiful corpse’ style of living. The lead actor, Kris Kristofferson had always been a good looking fellow on stage or on screen. Here he is portrayed as downright beautiful. His followers look like rock stars and in some cases are: and his camp followers are all chosen from the front section of the catalogue. (Including Kristofferson’s then wife, the singer Rita Coolidge).

Bonney was 21 when he was killed and already famous enough to have read fictionalised novels of his own life and to have been on the verge of being granted a reprieve by the governor of the Territory. (One Lew Wallace played in this film by Jason Robards). Some think the pardon should have been given and would have been given if the governor hadn’t been so busy trying to get his book published…the book was Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ… an unusual juxtaposition by any standards).

Garrett and Billy had worked together on both sides of the law. The older man is described at one stage of the film as having been like a father to the Kid. The West shown in this movie is one that is rapidly changing. As in Shane, Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, the gunman is seen as anachronistic; the age of the outlaw drawing to a close as fences, railroads and telegraph poles tame the country more quickly and more effectively than any pistol or rifle. Garrett has seemingly accepted the change whereas Billy refuses to believe in it. In reality Garrett has chosen the option that will keep him alive. He talks of this in scene after scene. It has involved not only betrayal of his former friends, but also acceptance of a corrupt form of law based on the wealth and power of cattle barons; notoriously John Chisum. Billy will have nothing to do with it. The real life William Bonney certainly found himself opposing the big ranchers but whether it was for altruistic motives is debatable. Opinion varies from psychopath to latter day Robin Hood. The film chooses both. A man who has a huge sense of honour and decency and yet quite capable of shooting someone in the back.Pat-Garrett-Billy-the-Kid-3

There are many reasons for finding this a good film and several for finding it a great film. The photography is stunning, the casting wonderful, the acting of an astonishingly consistent greatness and the Bob Dylan soundtrack is both ground breaking and brilliant. What makes this an outstanding film is the way the moral balance is played. It constantly changes, is never simple; almost impossible to say what is right and wrong at any point and impossible to hold an audience position of accepting the moral judgements of each scene. To achieve this requires writing and direction of the highest order and acting to match. Kristofferson and Coburn are simply outstanding. The ensemble playing, faultless.

critique-pat-garrett-et-billy-le-kid-peckinpah3We meet both of them in the opening moments of the film as currently edited. Two scenes, one in 1909 and one in 1882 are intercut. In the earlier scene we see Billy and friends entertaining themselves by shooting the heads off chickens in an act of casual brutality that somehow encapsulates the reality of their existence. This is a life of forced excitement caused by excessive boredom. In the other scene we see the demise of Pat Garrett as an older man being gunned down by the very men who had hired him 27 years earlier to kill the Kid. As the film is cut, the first bullet to enter the old lawman’s body seems to have been shot by a smiling Kristofferson. The ghost of the dead outlaw returning to avenge himself upon the unhappy old man.

patgarrett-slimpickins.gifAs Garrett can be seen to have chosen life and Billy an inevitable death it is significant that the first death we are shown (of many) is that of the great betrayer. The question is asked throughout the film of what makes a life. Does living longer make a better life? Does fame or infamy? Does cramming excitement or experience or good deeds or bad deeds? Two things are mourned in the film and that is the betrayal of friendship and the loss of love. The most touching moment in the movie doesn’t involve either of the principal characters but is the death scene of Sheriff Baker, played by Slim Pickens (has there ever been a less likely looking or better Western actor?) who has walked off from a shootout, fatally wounded, to sit by a small lake where he is watched by his elderly, tearful Mexican wife (brilliantly played by Katy Jurado). The soundtrack is Knocking on Heaven’s Door. It is now one of the best known songs in the world but it is still a hauntingly beautiful accompaniment to the film. I’d never heard the song the first time I saw the film and I have rarely been so affected by a scene.

Katy_juradoDeath (often violent) is ever present in the film but this is far, far more than a feast of slow motion special effects shootings. Killings have the effect that they should have in films; they are shocking and awful. Not once do you feel any desire to cheer or blow out our cheeks in relief as someone is layed low. This is like Hamlet in terms of the rising bodycount heightening feelings of tragedy and waste.

The film failed to receive a single Oscar nomination. Like Heaven’s Gate in 1980 it was largely overlooked and like Heaven’s Gate has become to be seen as the masterpiece that some of us thought it was in the first place.

 

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Part Two

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Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?

For a film that is so famous (and rightly so) for its crackling verbal interplay and brilliant one-liners, there really isn’t a great deal of dialogue. Whole minutes, and groups of minutes, elapse without a word being spoken. It begins with a silent movie and ends with a freeze frame. In between there are three extended sections that break the conventions of the contemporary western circa 1969. The first, and perhaps the most celebrated, more closely resembles a music video than a scene from a movie, as  Paul Newman and Katharine Ross enjoy the delights of a pastoral bike ride accompanied by the song, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. The second is a photo  story montage of genuine shots of turn of the century New York interspersed with staged stills of Newman, Redford and Ross seemingly enjoying the delights of that city at that time; all to a ragtime score. The third is a second silent movie, but this time done in a sequence, of alternating long shots and close-ups, of the three settling into life as bank robbers in South America. All three are brilliantly done with memorable musical accompaniment (virtually the only music in an otherwise diegetic soundtrack) and all three have divided opinion as to how well they fit into the overall movie.

Redford and Newman with George Roy Hill

Redford and Newman with George Roy Hill

I’ve been on both sides of the argument in my time. I love the bicycle sequence but am unsure if it belongs in the film. I used to regard it as a pastoral interlude to lighten a storyline that otherwise might be a little bitter for a sixties family audience. (It is after all about two men who make their living by killing and robbing). George Roy Hill’s justification is that the movie needed some wholesome elaboration, or explanation, of the three way relationship between Sundance, Butch and Etta Place. Writer William Goldman also wanted to explain why Etta was close to both outlaws while being attached to just one of them. He was also aware of the little exploited fact that bicycles had been an enormous popular craze in the West during the 1890s. The scene has parallels with the roller skating scene from Heaven’s Gate. In both movies the film makers were being faithful with history in a way that surprised the audience while providing a musical highlight for each film.Picture 8

The music, in the bicycling interlude, is perfect from the opening ukulele strums to the dance of the clowns that ends it. I’ve always had my doubts about the lyrics though. Hal David claims that the words relate directly to the character of Butch, who is a happy go lucky optimist to whom bad things keep happening. Thus the raindrops are a simple metaphor and they are falling on his head. All justifiable but that doesn’t stop the line about a guy who’s feet are too big for his bed jarring in more ways than one.

The ragtime music to the photographic sequence is faultless and dripping with a nostalgia for days which are gone yet still yearned for. I love this part of the film. It comes at the end of a half hour relentless chase and we’re ready for it. The three actors are completely believable and very beautiful in the sepia tinged shots. It’s much my favourite of the non-naturalistic parts of the film. Newman and Redford are even more attractive in the smart tweed suits and bowler hats than as cowboys and Katharine Ross’s Etta Place wins my heart every time with her photo-plate loveliness.

maxresdefaultThe acting and the cinematography of the South American bank robbing sequence is also close to perfect but the music is horribly dated, and horribly dated to a certain genre of sixties films which often involved sports cars, scarves and the empty mountain roads of the South of France. The problem is the use of the human voice as a solo instrument using only the dub a dibba vocalisation and the upper vocal register. It’s a very white version of scat singing that was inexplicably popular at the time. Even as great a composer as Burt Bacharach fell for the trend. The silent film it accompanies is good enough to carry the tune but it isn’t helped by it.

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Taken separately the three sequences achieve different levels of success but taken in context they all work remarkably well  and add to the overall specialness of the film. Such sequences were new in 1969. They’ve been tried many times since but never as memorably as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Very few works of art are flawless and the greatness of many owe something to the beauty of the faults.

In choosing to film his story through alternating naturalistic and non-naturalistic scenes, George Roy Hill was breaking new ground. He was also drawing parallel lines with style and content. The film purports to be a true story yet plays around with what facts are known about the characters. The film seems to be taking us through a cinematic journey through the last years of their lives; from about 1895 to 1909 and yet it is played out to a soundtrack that includes a sixties country singer and a style of jazz that didn’t become popular until years after their apparent deaths. There is a degree of artistic licence, a degree of keeping onside with the censor and a fair smattering of altering the story to fit in with the anticipated tastes of 1969 cinemagoers.

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One battle that director and writer fought throughout the process was one of getting the balance right between comedy (non-naturalistic) and history (naturalistic). Shakespeare’s plays are famously divided by scholars into histories, comedies, tragedies and problem plays. William Goldman (writer) and George Roy Hill (director) created a film that fits all four categories. And they were very successful at it. So much so that, though aspects of the film have been much imitated, nobody has ever tried to copy it.

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At the beginning of the film a little notice appears which declares “Most of what follows is true.”  First it sets the film up as a history with a tragic ending. The tone of the statement is deliberately flippant without being unduly so. The comic strand of the film is thus set going. The notice originally read “Not that it matters much but most of what follows is true”. In fact, this notice remained until George Roy Hill became worried that the preview audiences were simply roaring with laughter for most of the two hours before being brought to a juddering halt by the ending. The balance was deemed to be too far in favour of comedy. The editing out of “Not that it matters much” was not the only change that was made, but can be seen as a microcosm of the larger debate.

How true is the film?

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Taken scene by scene, not very. Butch did lead a gang that was sometimes called The Hole in the Wall Gang. It did contain a man called Harvey Logan. He was better known in real life as Kid Curry. He didn’t look anything like Ted Cassidy (better known as Lurch from The Addams Family) and he never challenged Butch for leadership of the gang. They did rob The Union Pacific Train twice; both times using dynamite and the second time rather too much dynamite. The railway was owned and run by a Mr A H Harriman and the money on the train was guarded by a man called Woodcock. Harriman did appoint a super posse to bring Butch Cassidy to justice but as soon as he heard of this, Butch left the country. There was no knife fight for gang leadership and no long chase across sand, rock and canyon. Etta Place is portrayed as a school teacher in the film whereas she was probably a prostitute. They did go to Bolivia and may have been killed there. But they also went to Argentina and if you read accounts by relatives they returned to the USA in the 1920s and if you read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, they stayed in Argentina for many years after they were supposed to have been killed.

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Mr A.H. Harriman’s Super Posse did actually have their own train. Though they weren’t able to exit it quite as dramatically as in the film

The film is thus inaccurate as to many of the known facts and even more inaccurate to many of the disputed facts. And yet it could still be argued, and argued accurately, that most of what follows is true. Two American bank robbers were killed by the military in Bolivia in 1909 (or possibly 1911). No one knows who they were for sure. There were quite a number of American outlaws who decamped to South America once the railways, the telegraph, photography and organised detective agencies made it difficult for them to hide in the old West. It was actually a holiday humour trip into a Fort Worth photographers that spelt the end for the Hole in the Wall Gang. The photographer was so pleased with the image that he captured that he displayed it in his shop window, where it was spotted, the very next day, by a member of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Prior to this they had no real idea what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid looked like. Within a week thousands of Wanted posters were on display all over their old stomping grounds with their own images on them.

The Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch is front right (as we look at it) and Sundance front left. Harvey Logan (Kid Curry) is the fellow with the fine moustache.

The Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch is front right (as we look at it) and Sundance front left. Harvey Logan (Kid Curry) is the fellow with the fine moustache.

To paraphrase the style of the film. The lives of Butch and Sundance, and of a real woman called Etta Place are portrayed in the film and if the events don’t correspond exactly with the known facts of their lives then they correspond with the known or unknown facts of some other people’s lives. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, acting, directing and cinematography. It’s an eternal delight. It never fails to please and I look forward to watching it many more times before I reach my own Bolivia. And they don’t even have to make me an officer.

 

 

Sweet and Sourdough

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Mostly Concerning Food

Thanks to fellow blogger Master of Something I’m Yet to Discover (wonderful title) I have finally been inspired enough to have a go at making sourdough bread. She in turn had been inspired by a serious food blogger called Foodbod. I recommend both blogs heartily and will add links at the end. I won’t go into great detail. My days as a recipe writer are long gone and there are so many places  to get a better recipe than I could make up. I actually followed two as well as getting inspiration from the above.
DSC_0002I set two starters off at the same time. One was just flour (wholemeal) and water and the other was white bread flour and also had a grated (organic) apple in it. One was kept in a sealed Kilner jar and the other in a bowl with cling film over it. Both were doing fine until the particular bowl I’d used was required for something else. I continued feeding the one with the apple in and it was soon reproducing itself in a manner that would interest a writer of science fiction. Every day or so you are supposed to discard half and add new flour and water. It’s rather like having a pet. Not as good as a dog or a cat but a darned sight better than a stick insect or a Tamagotchi.

After the second feed I decided to simply add double the flours and water and keep the discarded half in a second jar. A decision that was fully vindicated when Master of Something said that it made wonderful pancakes…and it does!DSC_0005

Meanwhile back in the world of true homely eating. This (see photograph) was always one of my favourites. Both sausages and bacon are thought of as breakfast items: at least in England. Both are in fact much nicer served with potatoes and vegetables as a main meal. Even the traditional (over the top) “Full English” is improved if served with a portion of chips as a proper dinner.

The Cumberland sausage is a wonderful thing. The late jazz trumpeter and all round comic genius, Humphrey Lyttleton made tracking down the perfect Cumberland sausage a life long hobby. I thought I’d cracked it in as obvious a place as Marks and Spencer. For two years their Cumberland sausage was without peer in lands away from the Lakes. But alas, the photo before you shows what happens when you tamper with a winning recipe. Someone must have been reading a book and confused the words “generous grinding of” with “far too much of” in the context of adding pepper. I bow to no-one in my love of piquancy but pepper is a condiment, a spice. It’s there to enhance the flavour not smother it. These sausages were not the treat they should have been. I’d caution against them but as I’m not exactly the Frank Rich of the food world I don’t think Marks and Spencer need worry too much. Does anyone know where I can get a really good Cumberland sausage?DSC_0068

I’ve had a spate of eating steak. Tesco has recently been selling first rate sirloin steaks. I don’t normally have much time for Tesco. Despite (or because of) the presence of a massive store practically on my doorstep I very rarely go in. But a good steak is a good steak. An ideal treat for one and a perfect evening meal for two. Not much cooking…I simply follow the advice of Hervé This and Harold McGee.DSC_0112DSC_0074

While I was in Tesco I noticed oysters at 50p each. For a mere £3 I turned breakfast into a treat for one. Nobody else likes oysters. I got an oyster shucking kit for Christmas. Finally I can break into the shells without risking severe injury. I’m proud of it in an ironic way. It goes well with the fish knives and forks we inherited except that the kit is actually useful. It makes shucking oysters simple. I’m also very fond of it because it was a present from my daughter, and she’s wonderful.

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I may never have made any fancy breads before but I’m fond of eating them. My favourite meals are often simply bread cheese and tomatoes. It’s perfect as a picnic on a beach or for an instant lunch or even a reliable meal at a hotel where the catering isn’t up to scratch. I’d far rather have good bread and cheese in my room than a bad roast dinner in the restaurant. One of the big advantages of having supermarkets in every town is that you can invariably get good bread and cheese. Here is some rather nice cured ham. Yes I know it is fatty. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that the flavour is in the fat. (I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier.. the one about This and McGee).DSC_0001

One of the discussions we have, when the whole family gets together, is whether the large English pancake or the smaller American pancake is the better. Personally I prefer the former but this could be because it was what I was brought up with. Like pronouncing scone to rhyme with gone, it is simply the way I learnt it first. I love American pancakes but would walk past them if a little further down the line someone was cooking them like my mother used to… two or even three pans going at once trying to keep up with the hungry appetites of seven children. DSC_0003

Sourdough batter is perfect for the smaller trans-Atlantic cousins. I repeat my gratitude to Master of Something Yet for the idea. I improvised the recipe…well I simply added 2 eggs and a cup or two of skimmed milk to the sourdough starter I was about to discard. Beat it merrily and left it to stand. For how long? Until my wife and daughter got back from Sheffield. They are essentially blinis when made this way but with a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of lemon they were fabulous; simply fabulous. Even my mother would have loved these. Next time I’ll try them with maple syrup and the time after that…cream cheese and caviar!

It’s Mothering Sunday tomorrow. Must use the proper name. My mother in law would have been annoyed if I’d called it Mothers’ Day no matter where I placed the apostrophe. Simnel cake is the traditional treat for Mothering Sunday. It’s become associated with Easter but that is just plain wrong. As wrong as chocolate eggs for Whitsun or Christmas cake for bonfire night. Recipes will often include a series of marzipan eggs on the top. Ignore these. They are wrong too. The tradition of Simnel cake to celebrate mothers goes back a lot further than greetings cards, a trip to the florist and taking her out to a carvery once a year.DSC_0014

It’s basically fruit cake with a layer of marzipan halfway down. It cooks with the cake leaving a sweet almondy vein of enhanced flavour in the middle. A real treat and an ancient recipe.DSC_0016

Which brings us to my first attempts at sourdough bread.

I followed the recipe which told me to knead it for ten minutes which produced a wonderful, silky-smooth dough. I proved it once in a bowl for 5 hours and later for twenty hours. This was the part I had to improvise…because I wasn’t sure what the recipe meant. I was given a choice between making a proving basket or laying the dough on a floured cloth and placing it in a clean plastic bag. I loved the fact that it insisted on a clean bag. I’d been very keen to use a dirty one before reading this. DSC_0002

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The apparent black bread in the background might be another example of the blue or gold dress that caused an internet stir last year. I can assure you the bread was white when I photographed it!

I’ve baked bread often and know it is not overly forgiving stuff. Once it has risen it doesn’t like to be messed about with. I’d appreciate any advice readers may have on how to get dough onto a cloth and in and out of a plastic bag without messing the dough about. I just about managed it. I’m pretty sure the professionals do it differently though. 40 minutes in the oven, and a hot oven at that, produced a couple of fine loaves. Good crisp crusts on the outside, wonderfully chewy on the inside. Quite simply first class bread. Delicious with butter and even better with some well flavoured Cheddar.DSC_0008

I mustn’t forget to add my thanks to another blogger who suggested using sourdough as a pizza base (She’s Italian). My gratitude to you all.

 

Bon appétit. Simon

Sticking To The Sourdough

https://foodbod.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/pumpkin-seeds-rye-berries-oats-and-spelt-sourdough/

Starting Sourdough Starter

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I’ve never made sourdough before but I’ve certainly enjoyed eating it. These pictures show the starter just after I’d fed in the second extra portion of flour and water and again 20 hours later. I’m quite excited. It seems just about ready to have a go at making my first loaf. The only problem is that I am out of bread flour and it is snowing heavily outside. I really don’t feel like leaving the fireside, and getting cold and wet, just to go to the shops. The forecast is good. Maybe I’ll do some baking this evening. And yes that is Paul Hollywood’s recipe book in the background.

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The recipe said to discard half but I’m from the north of England. We don’t do much discarding. I started a second starter with a view to giving it away.

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20 hours later. The red lines show how much the starter has grown in a small amount of time.

 

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Part One

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Who are those guys?

Things were different in 1969 when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was first shown in cinemas. There was no big simultaneous release into thousands of theatres to try for, what we are now told is, “that all important opening weekend”. Films were released into a small number of cinemas, carefully chosen to give the film makers a good idea of the way the film was being received (no I’m not talking about previews; they’d already been done) and to try to build some momentum in terms of a public following, before it was released nationally. Word of mouth was the big sales technique back then, and word of mouth had movie goers flocking to see this film when it eventually opened across the country. From day one a strange phenomena surprised the theatre owners as members of the audience began to join in with the actors and speak the lines alongside them.butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kid-1969-splash

The tradition continues. It’s infectious. You couldn’t watch it today, with a group of friends, without someone just beating Newman or Redford to the punch in delivering such favourites as: “Who are those guys?” and “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals”, and “Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?”

As well as a script that would have been sharp and funny enough for the Marx Brothers, and which certainly inspired the wonderful two-way banter of Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre in M*A*S*H, you have the casting of the two most beautifully engaging, if not the two most beautiful actors that Hollywood ever paired. There is something so perfectly right about the pairing of Paul Newman (Cassidy) and Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid) that it is quite a stretch to realise that, as a duo, they were well down the list. At least Redford was. Newman was one of the top 3 box office stars in the world at the time (only Steve McQueen and John Wayne could compete), Redford was practically unknown*. He’d been around a long time mostly playing character roles on television and getting a starring break two years earlier in Barefoot in the Park. But that was a Neil Simon comedy; an adaptation of an off-Broadway hit, a good film but not heavy hitting box office. Twentieth Century Fox were strongly opposed to casting Redford in the film, certainly not in one of the leading roles. Director George Roy Hill was equally convinced that something in his laid back, laconic style made him the man for the part.

He got support from Steve McQueen who said he was prepared to play either role if Redford was in the film. McQueen was offered the part of Sundance and walked away. Newman was originally going to play Sundance. The part was actually written for him. The role of gang leader Cassidy was, amazingly with hindsight, written for Jack Lemon. When he was unavailable it was variously touted to Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas before someone had the idea of switching Newman to the role of senior partner. And we can all be very grateful that they did. Would the film have been as successful with Lemon and Newman, Brando and McQueen? I think not. Lots of people can rightly take credit for the success of the film, but without a few twists of fate the movie may well have quickly joined the ranks of the soon forgotten. And we would never have been able to respond to anyone saying, “I can’t swim!” by chuckling with Newmanesque sparkle before adding: “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you”.Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (12)

Everyone who has ever seen the film can remember the ending. The two stars caught running towards the camera in sepia tinted monochrome, guns blazing and facing their imminent death. The beginning is less well remembered but equally wonderful. It establishes a tone, a rhythm, a beauty. It begins as it ends, in black and white; it merges slowly into sepia and eventually into colour as we move from the urban and the individual to the wide open spaces of Wyoming and Utah and to the characters as a pair, a duo, a team. A couple?

The theatre lights dim. A black and white silent film is projected onto the left hand of the screen while conventional credits roll on the right hand side. The film is so well done that it can easily be mistaken for an authentic film of The Hole in the Wall Gang holding up a train in the 1890s.

Digression. Butch was one of only three outlaws who were aware of their own celebrity across the entire country. The others being Jesse James and Billy the Kid. The first feature film to be made about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1910. In this early film Cassidy and Longbaugh (real name) were killed. If the pair were killed in Bolivia (and this is disputed) then it took place in 1909 or 1911. It is entirely possible that Butch and Sundance sat in a South American cinema and watched their own deaths. George Roy Hill was so taken by the story that he filmed a second silent movie showing the pair, with Etta Place watching the silent film of their lives and exploits and with a long shot of Katharine Ross (as Etta) foreseeing the actual deaths of the pair and leaving the theatre alone. It isn’t known where this film is but it is strongly hoped that one day it will be released. It was shot as the intended ending of the movie.maxresdefault

Holding onto monochrome the film begins with closeups of Paul Newman studying something. The shots show either his face or the activity he is observing reflected in a succession of windows. The scene takes its time. The film is establishing both a pace and a convention that significant action, in this movie, is often in an observation, a glimpse, a throwaway remark. Eventually it is revealed that he is casing a bank and that changing times are reflected by the high tech security of that bank. While little seems to be happening, the audience are given a huge amount of vital information. That here we have a charming, witty and entirely lovable bank robber coming to terms with the advance of technology putting him out of business. Butch Cassidy was the last of the (great?) outlaws of the old West and the theme of anachronism runs through the movie. Banking and big business have suffered at the hands of robbers for years but they are now in charge and expect retribution.BC2USE

The next scene is equally slow but bursts into action in the end. It is an important scene as it has to introduce Robert Redford as a screen equal to Paul Newman, to establish his back story as the Sundance Kid and to introduce the casually happy approach to the dangers of their world, through dialogue that skips with wit, joie de vivre and acceptance of fate, that characterises the pair. The camera holds steady on a sustained close-up of Redford. And by sustained I mean for nearly a minute which is a heck of a long hold for this kind of shot. He’s mostly looking down, cheeks sucked in as he concentrates on his cards; lit from behind and the side to make ample use of shadows and to emphasise his dark clothing, broad brimmed hat and moustache. In the scene he is accused of cheating at cards; cheating so well that a card cheat can’t tell how he’s doing it. He’s both the centre of the action and a detached observer.Butch 2 Cards

The tension builds. It looks fairly certain that we are about to witness a death and quite probably the death of a major character. Cassidy appears and tries to mediate in the stand off. Sundance insists, irrationally, that the accuser must invite them to stay and then he’ll leave. It’s a variation of the “are you asking me or are you telling me?” convention of the independent minded western hero. Eventually Newman seems to resign himself to the possibility of his partner’s death (just as Sundance will do in a later scene), but his words have an electrifying effect on the other card player. “I can’t help you Sundance”. The accuser, played by Sam Elliott** in his film debut, quickly backs down on realising just who he has been tangling with. And as well as the conclusion of a brilliant scene we have Redford established as every bit the equal of Newman, Sundance as the equal of Butch and Butch established as having exceptional, but very human qualities of speech and humour and Sundance established as being a laconic straight-man as well as possessing the two super-human qualities that are conventions in the Western: brilliance at cards and speed with a gun. We’re five minutes into the film and a thousand feet deep already. I’d guess that anyone who watches the film this far will watch it through to the end.butch-cassidy-screen1-in-bolivia

*I know some will dispute this. I’m going on commentaries by George Roy Hill and William Goldman. They certainly regarded him as an unknown not only in casting but in the way they set about establishing his character in the film.

** Sam Elliott, who later became famous for his luxuriant moustache, never met Katharine Ross while filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but they eventually met and married.

And I was Rich Indeed

Mostly Concerning Food

If something is essential, then I believe that it should be made special. The wow should be in the ordinary. Sleeping, eating and breathing should all be elevated and celebrated. Beds should be frighteningly comfortable. Sleep nothing short of a nightly treat. As a trumpeter, I’ve always valued the joy of a good lungful of air. As a reformed smoker I enjoy it still more. If Joseph Priestley is going to spend his life discovering oxygen and its qualities then I am going to savour it and live a little richer. Food is simply one of the true gateways between this world and a much better one.

I’m not a gourmet. I do like to try things out and I have come to like things I would once have regarded as being “a bit posh” but I feel uncomfortable among truly refined diners or when the  food is over-fussy. I do like an oyster or a lobster but am equally content with a plate of sausage and potatoes or a good pie. I was brought up near Scrabster where lobsters were ten a shilling and crabs were given away. Oysters, even in London, were the food of the poor and added to meat pies as bulk to save on the meat bill. I’ve remained classless for most of my life. My qualifications and mode of income preclude me from being able to claim true brotherhood with my agrarian and proletarian roots (though that is where my heart lies). I’ve never been comfortable with middle class smugness or aspiration. These days I work for myself and spend as many hours with chisel or saw as I do with pen or computer. I have as much as I want to have and can thereby call myself rich indeed. I can be any class I want to be or none at all and I reflect this in my diet. One thing I insist upon is honesty whether it be in friendship, faith or food. Good ingredients well prepared and well cooked. Taste, texture and colour. And I’d prefer it if it did me good. If it doesn’t and its tasty, I’ll eat it anyway and compensate with an apple or an orange.

We keep the wow in the ordinary and spend the Johnson pound on a more comfortable mattress, a nicer garden and more exciting bag of groceries rather than on the cruise or the fancy car. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes but it makes me happy. Very happy.

DSC_0016How to make a sausage sandwich. Take a third of a baguette. Open it up and load with meaty sausages. Smear with English mustard and squirt with ketchup. Ideal drink: a mug of tea.

DSC_0018Couscous with peppers and duck. Ridiculously easy to make delicious meals with. If you gave a good chef some couscous and a few other ingredients on Ready Steady Cook they’d wonder what to do with the other 15 minutes.

DSC_0021In the foreground cauliflower cheese. In the background a really tasty, malty, seedy loaf from Lidl. Another way of reaching the culinary heights via the primrose path of dalliance.

DSC_0020The good, the bad and the Tall T. Untypical of my snacking food while watching westerns but nonetheless enjoyable …well, for the first five minutes… then the flavours seemed to change from those you’d expect to create in the kitchen to those you’d expect to create in the science lab. If you haven’t seen the film I recommend it.

DSC_0023This is more like it. Slices of baguette lightly toasted in the oven and served with Orkney crab paté. A squeeze of lemon juice does make quite a difference.

DSC_0025A bowl of porridge with Demerara sugar melting on top. (Not the same but very similar to a photo I put up a few weeks ago). I may well print this photograph and frame it and make it my entry for the Turner Prize. Entitled “Simple Happiness”.

DSC_0027Supermarket of current choice, Lidl, has much tastier and a better range of cured meats than any of its competitors. OK I didn’t try Fortnum and Mason’s or the Harrods’ food hall but they aren’t often seen as direct competition to Lidl in Darnall. It might be a loyalty thing but very few people seem to use both.

DSC_0028Savoury snacks from their bakery. That’s goats cheese on the left. Can’t remember what flavoured the twist but I can remember looking to see if I’d bought another. Very moreish.

(British modern adjective:so pleasant to eat that one wants more.
“a moreish aubergine dip”) Cambridge English Dictionary and an example of oxymoron.
DSC_0029I’m not sure but I think the chilli came out of a can. Not great on its own but not bad with rocket, grated Red Leicester cheese and soured cream in a tortilla. Eaten while watching The Good the Bad and the Ugly. A film worth making good food for.

DSC_0033They sell yoghurt by the pailful in Lidl and almost every customer (it serves a truly multi-ethnic customer base and is the happiest shop I know) buys a bucket of it. I’ve taken to doing the same. Next to porridge, yoghurt and fruit (in this case sour black cherries from a jar) is my favourite breakfast.

DSC_0035Croissants used to be my favourite breakfast but I found that one croissant was something of a gateway drug and soon I was gorging on three or four and finding (unusually for me) my stomach ballooning. I even used to load them with butter and jam. My hat! These bad boys are full of butter as it is. How on earth do the French remain so slim and elegant? If I was French I’d resemble Alec Baldwin.

DSC_0039So here is a photograph of some typical English health food. A venison pie with chips.

DSC_0041A second way of making a sausage sandwich. Toast pitta breads and open them up. Bung in a couple of sausages and garnish with Gruyere cheese. Eaten while watching 3:10 to Yuma.

DSC_0043Home baked wholemeal bread.

DSC_0045With cock’a’leekie soup with cream stirred in. Very nice.

DSC_0044And with cream drizzled. Much nicer.

DSC_0049A Monday roast dinner. One free range chicken spatchcocked and served Tudor style. It was never intended to all be eaten in one sitting. The birds actually made two other main meals. It was a very easy way to serve and added a little element of feasting. No bones were thrown over shoulder amid Brian Blessed impressions while eating this meal. (Even though a dog waited patiently just in case).

DSC_0053One of the other meals was this chicken risotto. Risotto is my current favourite meal. If heaven exists they will serve risotto.

DSC_0055Another of those special treat meals I make for myself when I’ve been working on the house or garden. Lamb chops with new potatoes, mange tout and mint sauce.

DSC_0056Seafood pasta. Tagliatelle with mussels, cockles, prawns and baby squid and creme fraiche.

DSC_0067I got the recipe for these off a fellow blogger who has an amazing site full of fabulous recipes for vegans. These are kale crisps. Lightly oiled kale leaves are roasted in a oven for 10 minutes each side  and then sprinkled with sea salt. Very moreish!

Hope she doesn’t mind me adding a link.

 

http://alittlesage.com

Bon appétit!

 

 

The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Part Two

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Radix malorum est cupidités (Greed is the Root of All Evil)

(May contain spoilers)

We get two perspectives on the characters in The Good the Bad and the Ugly. We get what seems like  distant, two-dimensional, long shots of each. And we get extreme close-ups. On the one hand we find out very little about the background (Tuco is the only character provided with any sort of a back story) of the trio and on the other we get so close to them that we can feel the heartbeat and motivation of the moment. We don’t only see the beads of sweat forming on brows and cheeks, we see the pores from whence they emerge.

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This duel viewpoint is mirrored in the cinematography of the film. Leone loved alternating extreme wide angle shots of forbidding landscape with extraordinarily penetrating close ups of people (particularly faces) who are as weathered and worn as the land they exist in. Like many directors, Leone was an art lover and it shows in his work. For George Stevens’ Shane, the template were the western paintings of Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington. For Leone it is unsurprisingly, more European, older, odder. These films are painted with the colour palette of Goya and informed by the truth seeking absurdities of the Surrealists with more than a touch of the famished world of Gustave Doré.

1280px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_marginMany westerns inhabit the world of the epic, few take it to such operatic extremes as The Good the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a forbidding genre not least because of the literary giants who have used it. A writer must have extraordinary ability or extreme self-confidence to enter a world populated by Homer and Milton. Some do. James Joyce transformed our approach to literature by finding epic qualities in Dublin on a June day in 1904. The western lends itself more readily than the urban novel to the epic. The greatness of the finest works of Cormac McCarthy is due to his ability to combine the immensity of landscape with an inner immensity of character that has something fundamental to say about the human condition. Of the recent film versions of his works, No Country For Old Men and The Road work better than All the Pretty Horses (which is in my opinion a superior novel) because the film makers have sought to embrace this epic nature.

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The two biggest influences on Leone both came from the world of films. John Ford’s discovery of Monument Valley and his decision to use it as location for many of his westerns was perhaps the single most important decision made in the history of the western. At the same time Akira Kurosawa’s (an admirer of Ford’s work) incorporation of the medieval, in his deconstruction of calendar time in his films, gave film-makers a way of echoing the story-tellers of past civilisations. Historic time gives way to story-teller’s time. You can put a date on The Odyssey but it would be meaningless. Devoted, pre-Darwinian students of the Bible may even be able to put a date to the events of Paradise Lost. You can certainly put a date to The Good the Bad and the Ugly (it is set during the campaign of General Henry Hopkins Sibley into New Mexico in 1862) but it defies historical time as much as it embraces it. Homer based his work on real events but he isn’t a reliable historian. The same can be said for Leone.

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The action may be set in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque regions in the 1860s but the protagonists are from the storytelling tradition. Clint Eastwood’s character originated in medieval Japan, Lee Van Cleef’s (having undergone a greater transformation than Eastwood’s from For a Few Dollars More) is out of the darkest pages of villainy. Eli Wallach is playing a native Mexican in the film but the roots of his character are European. You can find him in popular German folk tales of the 14th and 15th century as Till Eulenspiegel (the original merry prankster), in England as Till Owlyglass. You can find variations of the storyline from the film in legends from many countries. Three men set out on a quest that requires them to work together. If they do then they will all be enriched. But each has a chance of increasing their riches by disposing of one or both of the others. I find a delightful parallel in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale.

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Summary of The Good The Bad and The Ugly

Three men, who are comfortable with breaking both legal and moral laws for personal gain, each discover that a huge horde of gold has been stashed away by a man called Carson. Two of the men (Blondie and Tuco…the Good and the Ugly) had previously worked together on a long-running scam where one handed the other into the law in return for Bounty money and then freed his partner, often at the point where he was going to be hung. They have fallen out and take it in turns (power and status alternates in stories even more than in real life) to try to kill each other by the unusual tactic of making them walk an unendurable distance across a burning desert without water. By fortune they meet the dying Carson and each receives a vital but incomplete piece of information as to where the gold is buried. Suddenly they need each other again. Without the information that the other possesses, they have no chance of finding the gold. (One is told of the cemetery where the gold is buried and the other the name of the grave). The third man (Angel Eyes … The Bad) is independently on the same trail when he finds himself in a position of power over the other two. He tortures one and extracts that person’s information and makes a contract with the other. It leads them all to the cemetery and the possibility of them all becoming rich. Or it leads to the possibility of betrayal, double dealing and the best Mexican stand-off in the history of film. For more than a moment it seems quite likely that, in search of riches they are all about to kill each other.

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Summary of The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer

Three dissolute friends spend their days leading a life of perceived pleasure which involves breaking a good number of the deadly sins of the church. They drink, they swear, gamble, flirt, feast and generally enjoy an existence of uncaring debauchery. They hear a funeral bell and discover that the man being buried is a friend of theirs. They want to know how he came to die and are told that the killer is someone called Death. They vow to avenge their friend and to kill Death. First they must discover where death is and are told by an old man they will find him under the tallest oak tree in the forest. When they reach this there is no sign of Death but as they dig into the roots (a valuable metaphor for all storytellers) they discover a huge horde of gold: enough to make them all rich for the rest of their lives. True to character they decide that before transporting the gold they must celebrate and draw lots for who is to go into town to get the wine, food and provisions necessary for a suitable feast. The youngest is chosen and reluctantly leaves his erstwhile partners. He buys all the provisions required and returns loaded with all the necessaries for a party. Meanwhile the other two have had a conversation along the lines of why split the horde between three when they will get much more by dividing it two ways. They decide to kill the other when he returns from town. And indeed they do so. Unknown to them their partner had had the same idea and has laced the wine with rat poison. After killing the young man they drink the wine and die most horribly. And thus enact the old man’s prophesy that they will find Death under the oak tree.

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Death is never far away in The Good the Bad and the Ugly and neither is the entire storytelling tradition of a dozen cultures. The great storytellers give us something new or re-tell something marvellous from the past. The greatest storytellers do both and Sergio Leone was one of the greatest storytellers of our time and The Good the Bad and the Ugly is his greatest work. Mind you his other films are pretty good.

 

 

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