11 July 2021

Location: Somerset

Day: Sunday

Weather: British (code for raining).

Activity level: Nil, none, nothing.

The entire household has been struck down with a severe bout of lethargy and general, can’t be arsed-ness. A week’s camping ‘holiday’ in torrential rain has left the teenagers traumatised and reluctant to get out of bed.  Those of us who did not have to endure the camping horror, have stayed up too late and still have to face the pile of filthy (i.e. wrecked) clothes, tent, equipment etc. that has been returned from Cornwall. 

This all seems to fit with the general history of 11 July, which appears to be the anniversary of a rather uninspiring set of events, the best of which appears to be the birth of Robert the Bruce (1274), the opening of Waterloo station (1848) and the publication of A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens, 1859).

Hopefully, we’ll be able to summon up the energy to see if the nation will be adding football defeat or glory to this list, tonight.

Here’s hoping we break the curse of 11 July and make it a sporting night to remember.

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Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72

What happens when talent, opportunity and stimulants collide

Every time I think about Hunter S. Thompson, an unbidden mental picture of The History Man’s infernal Howard Kirk hoves into view, probably because Thompson, like Kirk, is inextricably linked in the general consciousness with the so called ‘counter culture’ of the late sixties. But there the similarity ends. Kirk is a fictional fake and Thompson is the real deal; Complex, talented, mischievous, flawed. 

Genius.

The political and cultural scene in America around this time is fascinating and there are a lot of books out there that cover this period.

Thompson’s gonzo journalistic masterpiece, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 is a great place to start.

The book charts the rise and fall of Democratic Senator George McGovern in the run up to the November 1972 US Presidential election.  McGovern’s opponent is ‘Tricky Dicky’ the incumbent President, Richard Nixon.

Thompson’s immersion in the McGovern campaign feels total and his writing reveals a lot about his modus operandi. He’s the headline act in the book as much as any of the other key players. His forthright views and thoughts are given the same prominence as those of his subjects, reflecting his opinions on objectivity in journalism.

Is everything in it entirely true? Unlikely.

Do I believe Thompson’s assertions about Ed Muskie and Ibogaine? Possibly. But this is not a history text. It’s a happening.

Reading the book is like drunkenly perusing The Economist, whilst racing a Porsche. An adrenaline high with an uncertain ending.

Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1972, will be next on my reading list, but I greatly fear that the Pulitzer Prize winner’s efforts may not be such a white knuckle ride.

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Helpmates

Another, fine mess. Stan and Ollie get busy with the washing up.

If ever you’re feeling under the weather and want a quick pick me up, get on to YouTube and find a copy of Laurel and Harry’s Helpmates.

Shot in 1932, when the phenomenally successful duo were based at Hal Roach’s studio, Helpmates tells a simple story in its short 20 minute run time, but Stan and Ollie turn this into pure, comedy gold.

The plot:  Ollie’s feisty wife has gone to stay with her mother and while the cat’s away …the mice get busy on the phone.  Ollie throws a wild party, his home gets trashed and he loses all his money in a poker game.  Shortly after he wakes up on ‘the morning after the night before’, a telegram arrives announcing his wife’s imminent return signalling the start of a massive, under pressure, clean up operation. And the fun.

Stan and Ollie milk the situation for all its worth, with perfectly timed knock about sight gags, inviting the audience to sympathise with them by ‘looks through the fourth wall’. A running series of disasters reduces Ollie’s wardrobe to just a fancy dress costume and the film ends with Ollie, a ‘sadder, wiser and dizzier man’, sitting in the burnt out shell of his home, in the rain, complete with a black eye.

This film delivers the goods and you’ll be laughing from the moment Ollie’s gives himself a telling off, to the end credits. Not bad for a film that’s 89 years old.

Simple, smart, funny.

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Uncle Vanya

UNCLE VANYA by Chekhov ; Written by Anton Chekhov ; Directed by Ian Rickson ; Designed by Rae Smith ; Lighting by Bruno Poet ; at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, UK ; December 19th 2019 ; Credit: Johan Persson /

Back at the start of 2020, I tried to buy tickets to see a production of Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter theatre in London.  The dream combination of Chekhov and a stellar cast was just too good to be true. 

Not surprisingly, lots of other people thought the same. So, no tickets.

Then COVID struck, the theatres closed and the cast were sent home.

Fortunately, someone had the bright idea of re-assembling the company (with one change) and filming the play.  This must have felt like a strange dress rehearsal for the actors, but for Chekhov lovers, like me, ironically stuck out in the sticks, it has been a fabulous Christmas treat, courtesy of BBC4.

To make sure I got the most out of it, I read the play again, before I watched it.  

The Play

Like all Chekhov plays, nothing seems to happen and people bumble about in a seemingly unfocused way, then suddenly there is a crisis event which sends things off in a different direction.

In spite of the play’s title, the central character, for me, is actually ‘the Professor’, Aleksandr Serebryakov and the impact of his unfeeling, and blinkered selfishness, which begins more than twenty years previously:

  • In marrying his first wife (Vera Petrovna), the family are forced to borrow to buy the estate which forms part of her dowry.
  • Vera’s brother, Vanya, signs away his inheritance to benefit this arrangement for his sister. After her death, he continues to work on the estate (taking very little pay) until the mortgage is paid off. 
  • Vanya’s mother and the rest of the family support the Professor’s work by editing his notes, undertaking translations etc.
  • He takes no part in managing or looking after the affairs of the estate either before or after he returns to live on it, leaving all this to his daughter, Sonya (who has inherited the estate on her mother’s death) and his brother-in-law (Vanya, Sonya’s uncle);
  • He does not care how the family lives as long as they provide him with a regular income, which allows him to continue his sheltered, metropolitan life as an academic.
  • His second wife is an educated young woman who marries him for love, but he shows no sign of caring about her or how she spends her time.
  • He is happy to inconvenience others such as Dr. Astrov, by sending for him when he feels ill, then not seeing him, in spite of the distance the doctor has to travel to get to the Serebryakov estate.

The other two key characters are the unusual (vegetarian, tree planting, prescient) doctor, Astrov and Vanya himself, who early in the play indicates that the scales have fallen from his eyes regarding the Professor and his work (worthless). A third male character (Telegin) is a male counterpoint to Marina (the family’s old nanny).

The role of the four women characters appears to be that of illustrating particular traits. Responses to these keep the play moving:

  • Goodness and responsibility (Sonya);
  • Boredom (and beauty) (Yelena);
  • Sense and order (Marina);
  • Blind, hero worship (Marina Voynitska)

Things come to a head, when the Professor calls a family meeting to tell them that the estate is not providing him with enough funds to meet his future requirements. He expresses his desire to sell it and invest the proceeds so that he can return to dwell in the city.  The rest of the family don’t play a part in his future plans and he doesn’t seem to care that this will make them homeless.

Vanya, driven mad by this announcement, disappears briefly and returns with a revolver. He then attempts to shoot Serebryakov, but misses.

The final act deals with the fallout from this and the resolution of a number of plot strands such as the relationship between Sonya, Astrov and Yelena.

The play ends with the departure of Serebryakov and Yelena from the estate and a return to ‘normality’ for the remaining characters.

The Ian Rickson directed production does not follow the play’s initial stage setting directions, but is beautifully atmospheric, replacing the “outside tea table set” with a sort of vast decayed conservatory, which is provides a flexible backdrop which requires no real changes except lighting. The text has been updated, but nothing is lost by this (I own two different translations and there must be more).

Casting is pitch perfect with Richard Armitage as the (formerly?) handsome Astrov and Toby Jones taking the role of Vanya. Roger Allam does sterling work as Serebryakov. Actually, the whole cast are superb and it would be interesting to see what things would look like if they swapped roles.

Block out a couple of hours over the Festive period and enjoy a masterpiece.

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Museums: Responsibilities, Ethics and Education

In amongst the sailing boats, skeletons, swords and other sea faring ephemera, that form the current exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum (NMMC), are three or four small, easily overlooked boards which pose some very interesting questions about how we view the world and the academic processes that document and display the animals, plants and objects within it.

How we name things tends to influence how we think about them subsequently.

Therefore, it’s important that we trust the people who name things and the ways and means by which they come to their conclusions.

Consequently, it’s important that museums and scientists are true to processes of academic rigour and that facts are checked and re-checked before opinion is delivered. By this means, such institutions acquire trusted status. Following on from this, when museums then take exhibits and put them on public display, the same objectivity needs to be applied.

For the NMMC, this is interesting, as its current blockbuster exhibition, Monsters of the Deep, includes a big section on Cryptozoology, a pseudo-science which seeks to use documented historical folklore as evidence for the existence of cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster.  

In fairness to the NMMC, this part of the exhibition sits next to a ‘counterbalancing’ area devoted to the means of scientific research. I’m sure kids loved the thought of cryptids on the loose in the ocean, but does the inclusion and prominence given to Cryptozoology in this exhibition give it a legitimacy over and above the accepted methods of scientific research backed by direct observation and data recording?

If you were curating objects for a museum, what would you choose and how would you make decisions about what to include?  Ultimately, wherever there is choice, there is the risk of bias or lack of objectivity.

Add to this, other issues respecting collections which contain objects from other parts of the world and the ethics of retaining or displaying these items. 

Clearly, collecting, curating and exhibiting is a minefield.

The NMMC responds to these issues by concluding that museums are not neutral spaces and that their role is to provoke thought and debate.

I think it’s been successful.

Fascinating.

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Monsters of the Deep

Today we spent an instructive afternoon in Falmouth’s maritime museum.  Long a favourite with us, the museum is home to the quirky, odd and sometimes downright potty, things to do with seafaring matters.

Standing exhibitions take care of things like the pilchard fishing industry, shipping agents in Falmouth and Captain John Bull’s role in seeing off the dastardly Frenchies, but there’s always one big new exhibition every few months.  

Currently, this is Monsters of the Deep, which assembles a wide collection of ancient and modern objects in its quest to tell the story of man’s developing understanding of the deep areas of the ocean.

This necessarily takes in creatures that definitely didn’t live there (mermaids), creatures that do live there (Gulper eels) and creatures that might live there.

The Victorian’s were the first to really try and get a good grip on the science with the Royal Navy’s 1872 Challenger expedition.  This expedition set out to look systematically at a wide variety of issues connected with sea life and the oceans. Data about ocean temperatures, geology, depths, animal species and much more was collected from around the globe and the results of this ambitious scientific endeavour data became the foundation of modern oceanography.

A reasonable portion of the exhibition is given over to cryptozoology and the work of Bernard Heuvelmans.  With 95% of the deep ocean areas unexplored, its anybody’s guess what’s down there, but whether Heuvelmans was working on the right lines or not time will tell.  

Use(less)/ful fact of the day

Some squid varieties grow up to 20m long and have eyes that are 11 inches across.

Top tip of the day

Don’t poke about in the darker regions of the Mariana Trench.

Verdict?

Worth a look. You’re guaranteed to learn something (unless you just head to the cafe or the gift shop).

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Henry V


Randomly selecting things to read, sometimes comes up trumps.  This week, my random pick was Shakespeare’s great history play, Henry V.  

The events leading up to the battle of Agincourt, the battle itself and the ensuing peace process following the French defeat form the backdrop for this epic drama.

The dramatis personae that populate this medieval world, are a diverse group.

The play gives us a cross section of English society from the highest to the lowest. There are English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish soldiers in the English army. The French are represented by their nobles and courtiers who are attendant on the King of France, Charles VI.

As these characters interact, their prejudices, motivations, thoughts, plots and relationships are revealed.

At the centre is King Hal, a wild young man morphed into a religious, articulate and steely king, whose desire to claim France is the initial lever for action. When his claims are rejected by the French king and his son, the Dauphin sends an insulting gift of tennis balls as an accompaniment to the rejection, Henry takes the decision to raise an army and to claim his perceived birthright in person.

These events tell us a lot about Henry, as king. He’s ambitious and wants his claims to be taken seriously. He has pursued peaceful means to gain his ends as first priority, but when the French are dismissive and disrespectful, he acts decisively and courageously. He balances up the risk and rewards of possible actions.  

Other aspects of his character are highlighted when, early in the play, he talks to Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey (English nobles who have been bribed by the French to kill Henry before he leaves England) about the case of a drunken soldier who has spoken against him. Whilst the treacherous nobles advocate harshness, Henry speaks of mercy. Something which he cannot then apply to the trio when their plot is unfolded.

With the exception of the plotters, Henry is surrounded by a supportive group of nobility. The French, too, are cohesive in that they believe that they can easily beat the English, but the English land in France and encouraged by their orator King, successfully attack Harfleur:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit

To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.

Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!

Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,

Have in these parts from morn till even fought

And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:

Dishonour not your mothers; now attest

That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.

Be copy now to men of grosser blood,

And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,

Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;

For there is none of you so mean and base,

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

As Henry’s army marches across France, disease takes its toll and many of his soldiers die.  He takes the difficult decision to fight with tired, sick men rather than defer the engagement and lose the initiative.

By this time, the French have organised numerically superior forces (five times the English numbers) and confidently expect to smash the English. On the eve of the battle, they are impatient for daylight so that the fight can begin.  

Overnight, the English remain reserved and, in the light of the odds against them, resigned to what they must do.  Henry notes the mood of his troops, by walking amongst them anonymously.   As the prime architect of their fate, he must feel a huge responsibility for his army’s jeopardy.

But this is a king, who leads from the front and he rouses their spirits with an amazing call to arms speech.

The battle begins at first light on St Crispin’s Day. The events of the battle are reported back between the characters and the day ends with an incredible victory for the English. Whilst there are English losses, notably York and Suffolk, these are small compared to the decimation of the French, who lose many from the noble houses of France.  

The English take so many prisoners that there is a risk that his army could be overthrown if the prisoners can organise themselves, so he issues an order that all French prisoners should be killed. A controversial battlefield decision in a life or death moment.

The play ends with peace negotiations and the betrothal of Henry and Katherine, the French king’s daughter.

Verdict?
Scores 10 / 10.  Needs to be read multiple times to get the best out of it, probably with a GCSE study guide open as an accompaniment.

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Meal with a View

On Monday evening, we took out a mortgage and sat down to dinner at Michael Caines’ new restaurant and bar at The Cove in Maenporth, which opened just before the UK lockdown began in March.

There’s been a restaurant here for a long time and we’ve either stared it it from the fab beach, which is just across the road or we’ve watched it sail by the car windows as we’ve driven past, but for some reason, we’ve never crossed it’s threshold until now. Such is the pulling power of a celebrity chef.

Unlike Outlaw’s Fish KitchenThe Cove has parking next to the door, which means that hiking boots are not obligatory and you can wear high heels.  A point that was not lost on our party.

The restaurant sits slightly higher up than the beach, so you get a great view out to sea and across to St Anthony’s Head lighthouse which makes it a lovely spot to eat as the sun goes down.  There’s always a lot of shipping about, so if your dinner companions prove boring, you can always fire up marinetraffic.com and identify the tankers.

We ate quite early for us (6.45pm), but the place was reasonably full and by the time we left, it was at capacity.

The menu offered a fair spread and I would say, that there would definitely be something for everyone.  We all chose the six course tasting menu at £80 a head, to which we added a glass of champagne from Mr Caines’ own vineyard.

The tasting menu covered all the bases: a gallotine of quail, mushroom risotto, shellfish chowder, char-grilled fillet of Philip Warrens beef, a selection of cheeses, then a white chocolate and raspberry dessert.

This gave the kitchen a great opportunity to show their mettle.  I am not much of a meat eater, but the beef disappeared as easily as the white chocolate dessert and the risotto and chowder were first rate. Top marks also go to the dessert, which was zingy and light. Cleared plates all round.

Verdict?
Expensive, but definitely worth it.  We won’t be driving past in future.

Editor’s Note
Thank you to Visit Cornwall for their picture of Maenporth beach. I forgot to take a photo when we visited.

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The Best Chips, Ever

 

D8413E5F-31CC-4BD5-8CCF-69E7DF175601Someone once said that “when on holiday, money is an abstract concept” and consequently, you spend it like its going out of fashion.  Equally, there’s another principle that goes along the lines of “you get what you pay for”.

We’ve tested both concepts to the limit, by eating in two amazing restaurants in the last couple of days.

Yesterday, we booked lunch at Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen, in Port Isaac.

As we’re on holiday, nobody bothered to check about car parking arrangements in this tiny, beautiful little place and so no one was prepared for a long, very steep downhill walk from the main village car park to the restaurant.

Add in a rainstorm and no mobile phone service to give us directions and the trip started to take on different dimensions.  Fortunately, I’d taken an extra pair of shoes suitable for lightweight sightseeing and so my feet were only mildly cut to pieces.  By the time we reached the restaurant, we were soaked, had bleeding feet (me) and were a bit querulous.

The Fish Kitchen sits right on the quayside, so the fish is landed and makes about a 50m journey straight into the restaurant, which dovetails with the Outlaw ethos of quality and sustainability. The building itself is absolutely beautiful, both inside and out, but only seats a small number of diners (further reduced due to current restrictions).

Food wise, the only thing on offer is a six course tasting menu.  Not surprisingly, this is fish based, but if you call in advance, they can do a vegetarian option. We chose to eat both the fish and vegetarian.

And what a meal.

Freshness and quality shone through. Deceptively simple dishes had flavour, texture and were perfectly cooked and presented.

Scallops, Dover sole, lobster scampi in batter, smoked mackerel.  And the most amazing chips – crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. The dessert was a baked cheesecake with berries.  Normally, I don’t much care for cheesecake, but there wasn’t a crumb left on the plate, so I think I’ve changed my mind!

Front of house staff were very professional and efficient, but not very warm.  Perhaps that was because of our slightly dishevelled appearance and bleeding feet or because we ordered hot drinks with our meal, being wet and cold, rather than wine. Who knows.

It was worth it.

 

Want to find out more?
Try the Michelin Guide for details.

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Redruth

This gallery contains 4 photos.

The Family Unit (circus) has encamped itself in Redruth, a quiet backwater that was once dominated by tin and copper mining. These industries substantially declined by the end of the 19th Century, as the various ores began to be imported … Continue reading

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