Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome : 1889

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British Travel Books  : Number 7

Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog!

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Stephen Moore as George, Michael Palin as Harris and Tim Curry as J in the BBC’s 1975 production

We don’t think of it as a travel book. We think of it is a comedy classic, an encapsulation of a quieter, slower time, a national treasure. And it is all of these. It is the book that has made me laugh more than any other (though I have read it in the wrong mood and not found it funny at all), a book that has inspired several attempts to capture it in film (much the funniest is Stephen Frears 1975 version with Tim Curry, Michael Palin and Stephen Moore as the heroes), a spectacular popular success panned by critics and several stage shows. But it wasn’t planned as such. “I did not intend to write a funny book, at first.” wrote Jerome K Jerome.

It was meant to be a guide book, a history of the river interspersed with the occasional personal anecdote. Jerome was an aspiring writer with an eye to a book that would sell. Boating on the river had become a popular pastime. He thought a factual travel guide full of a retelling of history, geographical, topographical  and navigational detail, recommendations for accommodation and refreshment would find a market. To keep it fresh and original he lightened it with moments of “humorous relief”. He’d rowed the river often in the company of his friends George Wingrave and Carl Hentschel. Like many a travel writer since he cobbled their various jaunts into one trip from London to Oxford. The journey described is essentially fiction but that’s ok. You’ll find the book in the fiction section. The editor of the serialising magazine (Home Chimes) liked the story better than the travel detail. The book became a novel. The guide book stuff was largely blue pencilled and one of the best loved books of the late Victorian period was born; more by accident than design.

Jerome becomes J, George remains George and Karl Henschel takes on the persona of William Samuel Harris and enters the canon of English literature as one of the great comic characters. And of course, there is also a dog, Montmorency. I’ll leave an exploration of Three Men in a Boat as a comic novel for another place.

Three Men in a BoatYet it remains a book whose main attraction is travel. Very few travel books have inspired so many to follow in its plash marks. Take a couple of friends in a boat anywhere between Teddington and Oxford and someone will shout from the bank “Are you doing a three men in a boat?” It does what all good travel books aim to do. It takes you there, allows you to picture the scene, smell the dew, soak in the sun and shiver in the breeze and, above all else, makes you want to get out on the river.

The prose is heavy in stylised Romanticism, faux melancholia and deliberately over-wrought description, yet it paints a lovely picture. Despite editorial demands the author’s love of the Thames shines through in its lyricism.

“One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked and I drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene – the grey old church with its clustering ivy and its quaint wooden porch, the white lane winding down the hill between tall rows of elms, the thatched-roof cottages peeping above their trim-kept hedges, the silver river in the hollow, the wooded hills beyond.” The scene is close to Thomas Gray’s Country churchyard both geographically and poetically.three-men-in-a-boatAt other times he can be found giving practical advice. “We reached Sunbury lock at half past three. The river is sweetly pretty just before you come to the gates, and the backwater is charming: but don’t attempt to row up it.”

As ever the explanation is given in the form of a delightful and very funny anecdote.

Sometimes he gets very close to the practical guide to the river he originally intended.

“We sculled up to Walton, a rather large place for a riverside town. As with all riverside places, only the tiniest corner of it comes down to the water, so that from the boat you might fancy it was a village of some half-dozen houses all told. Windsor and Abingdon are the only towns between London and Oxford that you can really see anything of from the stream. All the others hide round corners and merely peep at the river down one street; my thanks to them for being so considerate, and leaving the river banks to woods and fields and waterworks.”

At still other times we get Jerome the light historian:

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Jerome K Jerome with Montmorency

“From Marlow up to Sonning is even fairer yet. Grand old Bisham Abbey, whose stone walls have rung to the shouts of Knights Templars, and which, at one time, was the home of Anne of Cleeves and at another of Queen Elizabeth, is passed on the right bank just half a mile above Marlow Bridge. Bisham Abbey is rich in melodramatic properties. It contains a tapestry bed-chamber, and a secret room hid high up in the thick walls.The ghost of the Lady Hoby, who beat her little boy to death, still walks there at night, trying to wash its ghostly hands clean in a ghostly basin.”

And so it continues capturing time and place in a narrative as rich and varied and flowing as the Thames itself. And it feels different each time it is read. With Heraclitus we cannot enter it twice. The book changes according to the age you read it, who you read it with (it is one of the very best books for reading aloud), what mood you are in or what the weather is like outside. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.

The real pleasure in Three Men in a Boat is in the comic presentation, the wonderful cast, the selection and telling of the most delightful anecdotes, in the laugh-yourself-inside-out comic timing. But the wonder of the book is the journey and the description of the journey. It should be firmly filed under fiction in any respectable library, but I am more than happy to include it in this series of travel books.

Quite simply one of my favourite books of any genre.

Journey Through Britain by John Hillaby 1968

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British Travel Books Part 5

As far as I regard myself as a travel writer I owe a great deal to a lot of other writers but none more so than to John Hillaby. This is the man who brought travel writing within reach of the ordinary mortal. The man who showed that you didn’t have to be fluttering in exotic places and the man who finally struck the balance that has been adhered to by almost all who came after him. He is very much a part of his own story but not the star of it. He’s present but not obtrusively so. At any point the reader can swap places with him and imagine themself as being there. Something you can’t say of many. He provides the eyes and ears and we do the looking and listening. He disappears from the surroundings every bit as much as we do ourselves.

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John Hillaby on the very first day of his walk on the Cornish coast. Careful planning can reduce the size of your rucksack.

The balance is between the journey, the traveller and the things we encounter along the way. Hillaby lets us experience the entire route, the changing faces, the rain and the shine, from Cornwall to Caithness. He is our expert, sharing knowledge to make us expert too. It’s the same technique that has made Bill Bryson so popular. No coincidence that Hillaby is one of very few travel writers Bryson references, and about the only one he does with esteem. The key is a tremendous amount of research. To become an expert before we even set off and to build on this expertise as we experience it all and then to put on a third layer of study once we come back. Hillaby was an almost permanent fixture in the London Library for weeks and months before he set off. Bryson does the same and it’s the model I’ve followed.

It was stunning, almost awe inspiring to be travelling through the pages with one who seems to know so much. It’s the journalist’s art. To become an expert in order to share that expertise. Lazy writers can rely on Wikipedia these days. But it shows. It is also entirely pointless. The acquisition of knowledge and understanding is why we travel. It has to be real if it is to serve any worthwhile purpose. There is no substitute for delving deeply into books, articles, papers. Both Hillaby and his more celebrated successor work the hard yards. Both are from a background of newspapers; rigorous newspapers; The Times, The Independent, The Manchester Guardian. Papers where facts matter more than prejudice; where the story takes precedence over the storyteller. (I’m talking about the pre-murdoch Times here though I have to admit that even under the steely gaze of its current proprietor it is probably still Britain’s best newspaper if you want to know what is going on (though you may have to filter it first).

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Land’s End

We were blessed with great travel writers in the middle of the last century: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris and Eric Newby to name but three. They were brilliant wordsmiths with the common touch. But they wrote about places you simply couldn’t visit unless you were very privileged. I’m not sure I’d claim that Hillaby was right up there with them in terms of literary merit (though the boy could write) but he was the first to bring this readable style, this researched expertise and his gentle personality to bear on The British Isles. When he set out to walk from Land’s End to John O’ Groats in 1968 he was by no means the first to do the walk. But he was the first to make it a truly shared experience.

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“If…you decide…to walk across your own, your native land they tell you it’s been done  many times before. Men have set off on foot, on bicycles, on tricycles. Somebody even pushed a pram from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.” Journey Through Britain p10

What made John Hillaby’s walk different was that he was going to avoid all roads (he mostly succeeds) and he was going to turn the walk into a beautiful and inspiring book. He isn’t interested in whether it could be done. The beauty of the book is in its human size. An average human; someone very like the reader. We can be inspired by those whose talents, strengths and abilities dwarf our own. I’m more inspired by people who more resemble myself, in all my great mediocrity, achieving remarkable things. Hillaby is an almost perfect Everyman figure.

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Tintern Abbey

“For me the question wasn’t whether it could be done, but whether I could do it. I’m fifty. I’m interested in biology and pre-history. They are, in fact, my business. For years I’ve had the notion of getting the feel of the whole country in one brisk walk: mountains and moorlands, downloads and dales. Thick as it is with history and scenic contrast, Britain is just small enough to be walked across in the springtime. It seemed an attractive idea. There was a challenge in the prospect.” (ibid)

He expected to be one of the last to do it. In fact he is probably responsible for thousands of us amateur writers and wanderers for setting our personal challenges. Challenges which, in this age of blogs and social media, can be professionally recorded and shared following the Hillaby model.

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Hillaby looking across a loch at Beinn Eighe

By the time the book was planned I was 9 years old. I’d already clocked up several Lakeland peaks, sections of the newly created Cleveland Way and a day or two’s slog along the Pennine Way. My dad liked walking as a day out sort of activity and I liked walking along side him. He taught me how to use a map and compass and he took me to the sort of places where you need them. It instilled a life long passion for getting from A to B by the oldest method of all; that of putting one foot in front of the other. I imagine that John Hillaby came by his love of the hills and byways in the same manner. It is a love that shines through. This man likes walking in the same way that I do. The exercise, the way it allows you to get to places cars or bicycles can’t take you, the freedom, the aches and pains. And the country he walked through has changed remarkably in that time. 

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Long distance paths are a new idea. In 1968 the path may have followed established rights of way but that didn’t mean that a right of way was provided. Landowners and farmers were yet to be shown the advantages of having walkers cross their land. I know of a farmer who still keeps a bull in a field to deter ramblers from a path where they are legally entitled to wander and which is clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map. In 1968 there were fewer paths and more obstacles. This book played a part in increasing the former and eliminating many of the latter.

He crosses many counties. The intention of avoiding walking on roads and Bridal Ways is a considerable challenge all along the way but it makes the story. He spends the vast majority of his time alone; so much so that when on Wenlock Edge he copes with the heat by indulging in a few miles of naturist strolling. No exhibitionism here. He was a shy man enjoying the freedom and would have covered up at the slightest hint that there was anyone else about. That there wasn’t anybody else about shows how times have changed.

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Base of a Glenelg broch

I like the information we get along the way. The storyteller’s art is an ancient one and the storyteller has to know where to start and when to stop; when to satisfy expectations and when to surprise. All that time in the British Library allows him the choicest fruit from obscure stories and the journey is heavy-laden with such offerings. We pass tin mines and are given a history lesson, pass stone circles and are amongst the archeologists. And all the time his feet move through Cornwall, across Bodmin Moor and into Devon and up onto Dartmoor. The history is brought to life and the present set out before us. It really is the next best thing to walking it yourself, and certainly whets the appetite.

I’ve covered much of the ground myself, either on foot or on a bicycle and these are the sections I liked the best. Because they confirm what I’d felt from the first paragraph. That all is true (incidentally the sub-title of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII which  is far from an accurate record). I’ve read the book twice. The first time was the best part of 30 years ago. I picked it up again to skim read in order to write this piece. There was no skim reading. I began at the beginning and pretty much didn’t move until I reached the end. I liked and admired the book the first time around. I loved it the second. Simply because it is telling the truth. No rosy wash, no fictionalised encounters, no effort to present himself more heroically.

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Thurso

He’s excellent company, a truly admirable man, a fine writer (who had to work hard at it, as elegant prose apparently didn’t come easily) and a trail blazer. I’m not sure what he’d think of the mass participation charity fund-raising walks of today. He wasn’t one to condemn. He’d have admired the aims and the exercise and struck off in a quieter direction.

Journey Through Britain has been out of print for some time now but it is still relatively easy to get hold of a copy for a few pence and the price of the postage. If you began your walking life in the middle of the last century and want to re-live what it was like back then, if you enjoy knowledgeable company and a sense of challenge, all written in language, which if it isn’t literary, is at least a fine impression of literary, then I think you’ll enjoy it too.

 

All photographs are from the book.

In Your Stride by A.B. Austin

Travelling Companions Part 4 (A series of posts looking at British Travel Books)

In Your Stride by A.B Austin. Illustrated by Margaret Dobson.

This is a curio. Published in 1932 by Country Life Ltd (I’d guess the magazine people. It started publication in 1897) and written in the previous year if we are to believe the author. Plenty of reason to trust what the writer has to say but plenty of room for doubt.

Perthshire Hills by Margaret Dobson

Perthshire Hills by Margaret Dobson

The idea was to write a walkers’ guide aimed specifically at city dwellers, and of all city dwellers, particularly those who live in London and who have limited leisure time. Austin hoped that the book would become an essential item in every ruck sack. I have absolutely no idea how many copies were sold. It is still possible to get hold of it but it has obviously been out of print for a very long time. My guess is that the magazine backing would have ensured a decent print run but this is some way short of being a forerunner of Alfred Wainwright.

There is something of the Wainwright about this book though. The author has the same companionable manner, the same quiet authority and the same way of describing things in terms almost of their Platonic ideal rather than in simple past tense narrative. The tense is indeterminate. Often fluctuating between subjunctive, conditional and a vague imaginary tense often used by teachers of creative writing when using a technique known as visualisation. Instead of saying something like,”the valley is long and slopes broadly in an east-west axis with pasture, crops and trees” he says things more along the lines of. “Imagine a sloping valley, which might be trimmed with trees. A man would have to be fit and healthy to traverse it in a single day.” Everything is described in terms of ‘could’ or ‘should’ (what Hector in the History Boys refers to as the tense of possibility). It is endearing, even charming for a while but 250 pages of it becomes vague, unspecific and even doubtful.

Crown Inn Amersham by Margaret Dobson

Crown Inn Amersham by Margaret Dobson

A second complaint is a common one among amateur writers dealing with the natural world. My mother was excellent at describing nature if you walked with her along country lanes. Put a pen in her hand however, and suddenly the world is full of joyous birdsong, babbling brooks and brooding mountains. Why does the natural world bring out the flowery poet in so many writers? My friend Mike and I walked a long distance footpath as part of our outdoor education certificate. On the route he was good company and a user of good plain English. “That hill was steep”, “There’s some weather coming over from the west, we’d better find some shelter” or “This view is beautiful. That must be Teignmouth down there”. Walking the route was only half of it. We had to produce a walkers journal and it was as though he had been injected with a shot of second rate versification. “The path continued up the slope like a disappearing snake.” “The deep silence of the night was broken only by the scuttling of mice and perhaps the occasional screech of an owl” (the reality is that he was spark out for 8 hours after downing 6 pints of Flowers’ Original) or “The distant horizon shimmered with hope for the longed for coast where cliffs and sandy beaches and children’s voices awaited our arrival.” Austin is so determined to draw London’s young men and women into the countryside that he out flowers the florist in his prose. The world he describes often has more in common with Narnia than Dartmoor or the Peak District.
“If the night has been frosty, the cart-ruts in the rides crackle underfoot and the lichens are crisp to the touch, but usually the treetops stand inverted in the little pools and the lichens are spongy and moist. As you walk, nothing seems awake but yourself. The rustle of your foot against the bracken bruises the quiet and the parted branch springs back behind you like a sleeper resenting disturbance, returning to his pillow with a petulant jerk.”

The Head of the Loch by Margaret Dobson

The Head of the Loch by Margaret Dobson

There’s money to be made in describing the countryside thus. Many are attracted by sylvan glens and green pastoral. They think this is what Wordsworth and Coleridge saw. Country Life, The Dalesman and even the aforementioned Wainwright created a world whose attractions were significantly imagined. A.B. Austin wasn’t an amateur. He was a journalist; and a successful one during the 20s 30s and 40s. His journalistic skills are further reason to doubt the voracity of the content of the book. Firstly he has the ability to write convincingly about whatever subject the editor pushes in his direction. Secondly he is able to make it sound exciting and enticing. He lacks modesty and begins his trek by covering in an afternoon what it took Mike and I three days to cover. (Granted we stopped at more pubs). By the time he gets into the Highlands of Scotland or the Pyrenees he is covering vast distances at night before being invited into lonely farmhouses where he is immediately given the best seat by the fire, his glass charged, his bowl filled and locals gather round to listen to the exploits of a stranger walking among mountains that are their everyday workplaces.

Like many a journey it begins well but the last twenty miles is a slog to read. It may all be as true as mathematics but quite frankly, by half way I’d stopped believing it. That doesn’t mean I’d stopped enjoying it. There is something here. Maybe aspiration, maybe encouragement, maybe raw enthusiasm that is found in good teaching. A little more plain writing. A little more letting the magnificence of the outdoors speak for itself and there is a good book here.

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The best chapter is the first one “The Art of Loitering” where Austin sets out his agenda as a walker. “There are three kinds of walkers, and only one is a loiterer within the dictionary meaning. There are those who walk with grim determination as if the world were a sanded track marked in laps of twenty or thirty miles to the day. There are those who walk with a bleak purpose, far enough to coax the appetite but not far enough to derange the digestion. And there are those who walk because they can’t help it, because walking is for them part of the business of living.”
It sounds good but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny either as premises of a reasoned argument, or as an all embracing catalogue of those who like to walk. His key argument is that to truly enjoy walking there has got to be time to take in the environment you are walking through. You have got to have time to loiter. Unfortunately ‘loitering’ as a verb has come to have many negative connotations but we mustn’t condemn an idea simply because time has overtaken it.

Moonrise Over Exmoor by Margaret Dobson

Moonrise Over Exmoor by Margaret Dobson

A final thought on the copy I got sent via eBay. It’s a 1932 edition especially bound by the Lanark Library Service. In some ways it ought to be a collectors piece but it cost me less than £2. It rested on the shelves of Lanark Library for over 80 years and was taken out twice before being “formally de-accessioned” in 2013. Almost the best bit of the book is the instructions to readers pasted inside the front cover. I reproduce it in full.
“This book is lent for a period of FOURTEEN DAYS and must be returned at the expiry of that period or not later than any other such date as may be stamped on the date slip. An extension of this period may be granted at the discretion of the Librarian if application for such extension is made not later than the date on which the book is due to be returned. Fines may be imposed at the rate of 2d per week or part of a week for any period the book is kept beyond the period allowed.
Readers are requested to take every possible care of the books lent to them: damage caused to a book whilst in the hands of the reader must be made good by the reader.
If infectious disease breaks out in the home of the reader, it must be reported immediately to the Librarian who will give instructions regarding the return of the book. Books which have been in contact with infectious disease must not be returned to the Library until disinfection of the house has taken place and no book will be issued to any reader in whose home infectious disease is known to exist.
The attention of readers is drawn to the special facilities of the Library for the provision of books in all subjects. Any book of a special nature may be borrowed for a period of one month. Application for such books, accompanied by the name and full postal address of the reader, may be made to the County Librarian, Hamilton.

Hamilton Library

Hamilton Library

I feel as though I have entered another world.

Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Dell Stratford

Two Gentlemen of Verona : Sun and Moon Theatre : The Dell Stratford

6th August 2016 

A dazzlingly bright and sunny day for two performances of a lesser known (everyone has heard of it but not everyone knows what happens in it) Shakespeare play in the Dell Theatre. This is the RSC’s outdoor stage across the lawns from The Royal Shakespeare Theatre and The Swan and just across the road from The Other Place. A beautiful setting by the banks of the Avon with the church where the Bard rests just behind the trees that provide the backdrop for the stage.

This post is largely to share some  unedited photographs with members of the cast, as well as to celebrate a fabulous day out. Some more pictures and a review of the production will follow in the next day or two. I hope they go some way to capturing the pace, energy, laughs, tears and torment that attracted the biggest audiences I have seen at this venue. A huge success and congratulations to all who took part.

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Melissa Barrett as Julia

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The cast in dappled sunlight

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Turio serenades Silvia with the energetic backing of Richard Sparkle and The Jingle Bells

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The RSC staff counted 160 in the audience at the beginning of performance one. And over 200 by the end. The second performance attracted even more.

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Chris Harknett as Proteus and David Johnson as Valentine

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Hannah Clancy and Sam Pike wearing a tank top that I’m sure used to be mine.

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David Johnson as Valetine and Kathy Towns as Silvia

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George Bradley as Launce with Dotty Dog making her stage debut as Crab

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An unscripted entrance and exit

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Shakespearean spaniel!

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Melissa Barrett and Jessica Holyoake

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Part of the success was down to excellent use of the performing space and placing some of the action in amongst the audience

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My favourite picture

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A splendid time was guaranteed for all.

Neither Nowt Nor Summat: In Search of the Meaning of Yorkshire by Ian McMillan

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Travelling Companions  3  (A Reflection on British Travel Writing)

Before I get to a review of the book, a brief introduction for the benefit of those who may never have walked the hallowed acres of God’s own county. If you’re reading this in England you’ll probably be aware of Ian McMillan and you’ll certainly be aware that Yorkshire is unique. Not necessarily because it is better than other counties (though for a Yorkshireman this is a fact so beyond dispute as to be accepted as an acknowledged truth along with the Ten Commandments and the Rules of Cribbage!) or because it contains, in and of itself, something that is both quintessentially English, and a nationality all its own. All of this may or may not be true.

Yorkshire is the biggest of the English counties, the most culturally diverse and one of the most attractive. It contains extremes. Empty moorland, precipitous cliffs, wide sandy beaches, pulsing cities, mill towns that were once the cradle of the Industrial Revolution but are now suffering neglect and poor municipal decision making, wide fertile farmland and many lovely rivers. You’ll never be short of someone to point out your personal defects in Yorkshire. You’ll never be far from equal measures of free thinkers and bigots. It is a county of great writers: three Brontës for starters, great painters (David Hockney for one) and great musicians (Frederick Delius was from Bradford). It has given the world more than its share of pop musicians, actors and famously (at least in Yorkshire), if it had competed as a country in its own right, it would have come 12th in the medal table at The London Olympics  with 7 gold medals, 2 silver and 3 bronze.

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Hutton-le-Hole. (The picture is genuine and unposed. The car did drive through the village as I was taking a few photos.)

People from Yorkshire are known to say things like “There are only two sorts of people in the world. Those who come from Yorkshire, and those who wish they did” and mean it. People from elsewhere have an oft repeated saying (loathed by Yorkshire folk) that “You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much!” Legend (purely apocryphal) has it that an old gentleman from Richmond North Yorkshire died and ascended to the pearly gates of heaven.

“Where are you from then?” asked St Peter.

“Richmond.” replied the man.

“Richmond Surrey or Richmond North Yorkshire?” asked the saintly gatekeeper.

“North Yorkshire, though I usually refer to it as the North Riding.”

“Oh dear.” said St Peter.

“Is something wrong?” enquired the man.

“No. nothing wrong. It’s just that after spending your life in Richmond North Yorkshire, you might just find heaven a little disappointing.”

It is known across England as “God’s County” or “God’s Acres”. Again these are terms usually used by those born in Yorkshire. There is also a huge rivalry between Yorkshire and its western neighbour, Lancashire. Yorkshire was the centre of the wool trade. Lancashire was cotton. Yorkshire has Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford. Lancashire has Manchester and Liverpool. Yorkshire has Scarborough, the world’s first seaside resort. Lancashire has Blackpool which became one of the biggest and most popular. More than anything there was the Wars of the Roses. A long lasting series of fifteenth century civil war battles fought under the banners of York and Lancaster. Lancashire being the Red Rose County and Yorkshire favouring the White Rose. Both sides can claim victory or defeat. The conclusive battle of these Wars was the Battle of Tewkesbury (fought hundreds of miles away in Gloucestershire) and won by the Yorkists, which placed Edward IV (possibly Edward V) and certainly Richard III on the throne of England. Richard was eventually defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the essentially Lancastrian armies of Henry Tudor (henceforth Henry VII). Henry married Elizabeth of York which combined both households and also combined the red and the white into the Tudor Rose which is half one and half the other.

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Rievaulx Abbey

All of this gives grounds for rivalry until you look more closely at where the various armies came from. Geographical Yorkshire and Lancashire had very little to do with it. In fact the Yorkists drew many of their soldiers, generals and donors from west of the Pennines while the House of Lancaster had strongholds in God’s County. It’s all very confusing to anyone but a Yorkshireman. He doesn’t need historical facts to prove him right. Being right is something you are born with in the three Ridings.

What about Ian McMillan? Well he’s a very well liked poet, thinker, broadcaster, playwright and educationist. He’s always lived in Yorkshire, speaks with the broadest of vowels, supports Barnsley Football Club and has an authenticity to be envied. He knows his stuff. But he also has a sly sense of humour and you can never be truly sure when he is defending Yorkshire with a straight bat and when he is playing with a great deal of the right hand side of irony.

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Ian McMillan: The Bard of Barnsley.

The book takes McMillan on journeys (mostly day trips taken with friends or on public transport as McMillan endearingly and admirably doesn’t drive) to the extremes of Yorkshire. He’s in search of what it is that makes Yorkshireness unique and he keeps asking himself the question “Am I Yorkshire enough?”

Of course you can no more define Yorkshireness without stereotype than you can define Texan or Australian or Japanese. The book becomes an enjoyable series of excursions without any great attempt at anthropology or behavioural science. He loves Yorkshire. He loves being Yorkshire. He hates being told he makes a living out of being ‘Yorkshire’, but to a large extent he does. But he is very good at it. He’s a little way short of being a JB Priestly or an Alan Bennett in the pantheon of writers who were peculiarly Yorkshire but, if not a national treasure, he’s a Yorkshire treasure.

Here’s my review.

This book wanders. This book meanders, as the poet goes on a search for Yorkshire and what makes it what it is. He looks for the epic in the seemingly trivial and often is in danger of the delivering a trivial epic. There are certainly long stretches of the book that show no evidence of the editorial blue pencil. At times it is difficult to distinguish McMillan’s search for meaning with that of his fictional Yorkshire neighbour, John Shuttleworth. Except McMillan is a storyteller and Shuttleworth a story; and Shuttleworth often that bit more believable. McMillan is certainly guilty of making up a lot of his anecdotes (so it seems to me) or liberally refining them to suit his purpose. The body language of his prose as much of a giveaway as a Yorkshire batsman taking a close interest in the crowd after the ball snicks his bat on the way to the wicketkeeper’s gloves and the umpire’s finger stays down.

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Thirsk Racecourse

When he stops waffling he is suddenly very good indeed. And very funny. If you go and see him perform he’ll delight you, make you laugh, a lot. I’ve seen him several times and will go again. And he makes you laugh here when he hits the nail on the head. When he stops trying too hard to be “The Bard of Barnsley”. When he stops embroidering his prose with rich homely similes or dropping in a fancy poetic term (about every seventeen pages) to prove his bona fides.

To point out the many contradictions in the text is to point out what is meant. Yorkshire is a contradiction. It’s the ugliest county and the most beautiful. It isn’t posh but has some of the most unbearable snobs on God’s earth. It’s got local hairdressers where you can have your arse bored off by the same conversation every time you pop in for light trim. It also has some of the country’s most respected universities. A place where you can confuse ordinary people for characters and characters for ordinary people. And it’s true and honest. But what would I know? I’m a Lancastrian.

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The Halifax Piece Hall

I like his search for a perfect pork pie. I like his search, with poet Steve Ely (a very different type of poet; stronger, grittier, more complex and with something that truly captures what it is to be Yorkshire) for the poet Ted Hughes. I’ll be off to Roche Abbey very soon to sit by Laughton Pool and read his poem ‘Pike’ in the likely knowledge that I am at the very spot where it was inspired. I like the parts of the book where he tells the story of his journey simply and without the cap and bells of poetic device or rambling anecdote. And I like these parts of the book enough to overlook the parts of the journey when you want to shout “Are we nearly there yet?” or “Gerron wi’ it!” It’s like being in Yorkshire. Lots of grit and grot but when you look up, a glorious old mill or a castle on top of a hill and the sun coming out from behind a cloud.

23346413I’m not sure that extended prose is McMillan’s strong point but he has an undoubted love of words which is infectious. He’s charmed and entertained audiences for 35 years without ever saying a great deal. And that is a strength. Some might say he’s got away wi’ it. Managed to have a good life without ever having to get a proper job. He doesn’t like being called a professional Yorkshireman but he wears the badge with pride. I kept thinking the book “were going on a bit” but now I’ve finished it I’m beginning to miss it. Pinning down what makes it good (and it is good) isn’t easy. Like Yorkshire itself.

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.

 

 

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