Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Book I Read in September

'Ink' by Hal Duncan
As I have discussed before, as I have aged, people increasingly have felt that I may have Asperger's Syndrome and as a result find it difficult to 'connect' with what they feel is 'normal' society.  Indeed this week, having introduced myself to my new manger, a colleague said 'of course, the rest of us live normal lives'.  Given her obsessions and zoning out to anyone else's words, we might contest her view of 'normal'.  Anyway, I provide this as an explanation of why I ended up reading this book having given its predecessor 'Vellum' such a bad review:  I bought the two books together, though fortunately from a charity shop.  Having been criticised at school for not completing a book ('Great Escape Stories' by Eric Williams (1962) largely because though a fan of the accounts of escapes from Colditz castle I found post-war stories had too much of a feeling of torture), I have always battled to any that I have bought and started to read.

Unsurprisingly, 'Ink' was no better than 'Vellum'.  It is 115 pages longer which is hardly a benefit.  It again contained loads of fragments typically featuring the same set of characters in multiple alternate worlds.  This time there was a parallel thread of a performance of Harlequin, Columbine, et al and parallels drawn between them and the book's characters and various personalities from ancient myths.  There is a pretentious bit at the end about how Duncan has drawn on various translations of Greek myths, but if that is the case and not simply an affectation, he has learned nothing from these works in terms of character, narrative or plot.  Instead there is simply a pile of fragments.  There are flashes of interesting ideas and settings.  One sustained one is set in Syria in 1929 in which the Ottoman Empire was able to hold on to the North of the country following the First World War and using weaponry provided by Germany is threatening the British hold on Palestine.  It is the first book I have read to feature the Yazhidi community, written before they attracted global attention from their suppression by Islamic State.

The two books promote a pro-gay agenda.  The killing of a gay character at the end of 'Vellum' is constantly analysed and recast throughout the early parts of 'Ink'.  Perhaps in 1975 this would have intrigued or even excited the reader, but in 2015 you are left feeling 'so what?'.  You need to do far more with the scenario than simply toss it out there and expect the reader to be thrilled by how daring you are being.  This is part of the problem, Duncan relishes showboating, grandstanding or whatever you want to call it.  For him showing off how erudite he can be, how he has read more serious books than you, how he can keep all these tiny balls of story in the air at one time is more important to him than actually producing a decent book,

Again a lot of good material seems wasted due to an utter lack of (self-)discipline by the author.  I mentioned before that he is a Michael Moorcock fan and references things like Rosenstrasse, Mirenburg and needle guns.  There are Moorcockesque references to drugs and rock groups.  So this is fan fiction on a large scale, 1115 pages of it in total.  However, it really lacks the deftness of Moorcock and the repetitiveness which is inevitable when fragments are piled so high, makes it much less than the sum of its parts.

I think that there is talent somewhere in Duncan.  However, his vanity has been flattered for far, far too long.  The fact that he was able to publish two such large books full of crumbs of stories shows this.  He needs to stop the grandstanding and shed the tired tropes that might have been daring forty or fifty years ago, but these days for anyone who is going to pick up his kind of book are on their cliche hitlist.  Gay characters are now simply characters, nothing more than that.  Their sexuality is a part of their make-up just as the height or hair colour or religion is of them and other characters,  It no longer warrants getting so het up about not least from the author.

I do recommend you do not bother with either 'Vellum' and 'Ink'.  I hope Duncan is not further pandered to with publishing contracts until he can actually write a story.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Worst 'Doctor Who' Episode Ever?

The internet is full of fans and haters of 'Doctor Who' so you might argue there is no need for another.  However, this blog has always been about getting the stuff stressing me, 'the tablets of lead' out of my system and into the 'waters' of the internet.  After a dormant period following some terrible days in my life, I seem to be re-engaging with blogging, so expect an erratic flow of new ideas.  The political scene is frightening at present with us beginning to see the shift to a more authoritarian state started by Blair but relished by Cameron.  We also see the return of the military threatening to overthrow the Labour leader if he was ever elected to power.  So far, so very mid-1970s.  So perhaps it is time to seek solace in a programme I started watching back then.

I was not massively excited to see the new series of 'Doctor Who' on Saturday, but I did take time out to see it live.  Ironically this was only for the woman who lives in my house, who has not watched it for eight years, to pause it because she was 'not ready'.  Unlike some, I have been quite content with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  I thought his first series was fine.  The first series with a new actor in the role is always a bit lumpy.  Perhaps only Christopher Eccleston came in without a hitch and then proved to have gone too quickly.  Thus, I was expecting even better for Capaldi's second series.  When I say an episode might be one of the worst ever, I have to say it has been a while since I saw those featuring Sylvester McCoy and so there might have been duller and/or more disjointed ones back then, that I have blotted out.  I am, however, still, traumatised by the liquorice allsort man even now.

Back to Saturday's episode. The opening scene with the mix of biplane and bow-and-arrow and the revelation of the 'hand mines' did not disappoint.  CGI has revolutionised television science fiction series.  The reveal of who the boy in the mine field was, was excellent, really triggering a potential moral dilemma.  I was happy. Then it was pushed aside.  We had someone looking like they had come from 'Hellraiser' in a bar from the seedier side of Tatooine and then the Shadow Proclamation and so on.  Yes, it might have reference Harry Potter a bit too much, but what was worse was how we got through so many good ideas very, very quickly, almost all of which could have been sufficient for an entire story.  I am sure many fans were watching thinking how they might develop any one of these into a story.  However, they were just tossed aside, not as a teaser but almost as if they were off-cuts from a script conference.

We got the frozen aeroplanes in the sky.  I could buy this too.  It felt a little Eccleston-era meets 'Torchwood' and 'Sarah Jane Adventures', but I was not averse to that.  Clara leaping on a motorbike in a skirt and powering off to UNIT, well I guessed that was to keep the younger viewers on board who might be lost in all the darkness that had proceeded.  Yet, again, another idea that could  have sustained an entire episode was burnt up far too quickly.

Missy appearing in the dreariest of Spanish squares was more wasted content.  From there it went down hill right to the bottom.  So many potential stories had been discarded.  The Doctor turning up with a guitar and a tank, trying to riff on 'Back to the Future' was an embarrassment.  He was supposed to be in 1138 CE (and no-one calls it AD these days!) but seemed to be at a medieval theme pub in the 1990s.  Look how well 'Time Crashers' did a joust to see what is easily available these days even without CGI for the actual event (only to get the participants in and out).

The return to Skaro was a good idea.  The 1960s version of the Dalek city was nice too.  However, these were yet more fragments.  All of the actors seemed lost in what was happening.  It had turned from something that hinted at so much into a pile of 'if only' strips of story that were tossed away.  There was the potential for an excellent opening episode and a number of middle-ranking ones.  Yet what was chosen was tired, confused and down right embarrassing.  I could almost feel the millions of people turning off.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Do Not Treat My Politics as Any Less than Yours

As anyone who has read this blog down the years will not be surprised, I am pleased that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour Party.  After the May 2015 election I did not have any expectation that the Labour Party will be re-elected.  The demographics are against them and as has been quoted before, the British public is Conservative and only occasionally votes Labour.  Indeed the New Labour it voted for was simply a pale blue version of the Conservative Party with a better publicity machine.  Corbyn is refreshing because he puts forward an attitude that many, if only a large minority, have felt have been missing from British politics (though clearly not the politics of Greece or other European countries) for so long.

It is not surprising that the right-wing media have attacked Corbyn on every basis from what songs he might sing to who he slept with forty years ago to his fashion sense to made-up policies they think sound poor.  In some ways I welcome that fact as it does suggest that they see him as a genuine threat to their distortions and scares peddled to the population.  If Andy Burnham had won, I doubt he would have attracted a fraction of the attention that Corbyn has done.

'The Guardian' feels that Corbyn and his camp could have rebuffed false accusations if they had had their 'media machine' set up quicker.  In some ways, however, I am heartened by the fact that it was not.  To feel an obligation to rebuff every last accusation as soon as possible is simply to play the game of the right-wing; it shows that you feel that you can be harmed by them, rather than ignoring the rubbish thrown at you because it is in fact nothing more than rubbish, often fabricated and always plastered with indignation.

Corbyn is facing a man who left a child unattended in a pub and has no grasp of how 95% of the UK population live.  Even when he is pictured on public transport, it is clearly faked.  Corbyn looks like he belongs on the underground train, travelling home from work, looking tired, like literally millions of other Londoners.  Part of the problem are the Blair years.  The Blairite government made themselves masters of media manipulation.  However, they also made themselves vulnerable by seeming to care whether one MP stepped off a very narrow line about a policy.  They created a context in which it is felt that unless an entire political party is full of drones mouthing exactly the same words on everything it has somehow failed.  This makes it very difficult for genuine debate to occur not just over the big issues but also the nuances within them.  That does not aid British democracy.  Why is it acceptable for the Conservatives to have a spectrum of opinion from people wanting immediate exit from the EU to those who want to stay in forever and yet even moderate differences on the issue are seen as a 'failure' by Corbyn.  I suppose because we lack a left-wing media.

The anti-Corbyn campaign has been so relentless that it is unsurprising that it is picked up unquestioned and every crumb used as gospel truth by a lot of the population.  I work where people generally have to have a decent level of education to be employed.  However, I have been harangued by the fact that Corbyn wants to wreck the UK economy by scrapping the Queen and he will abolish the Army the moment he comes into office.  Even then, to me such policies seem pretty rational alongside ones such as compelling schools to become academies and allowing the private sector to take over handling prisoners and hospitals.  Given how shoddy and expensive the British railway system is, why is it not shouted down whenever anyone suggests it is not re-nationalised?

I do not expect people to agree with me.  This is a democracy, there are different parties and there is a range of views within every political party no matter how the Conservatives and the media portray it.  Yet, Corbyn politics in a matter of a week have been made to appear illegitimate even to discuss and at best something very naive.  No other political leader has reinvigorated a movement in this way for decades.  Perhaps Sir Keith Joseph and following in his footsteps, Margaret Thatcher did for the Conservatives and that was forty years ago now.  Yet if I ever say anything positive about a Corbyn policy people titter as if I am foolish.  I would be happier to accept them being angry about my approach.  However, the right seems to be winning as it did in the 1980s by simply making Labour policies not seem a threat but simply not worthy of even considering and viewing anyone who proposes them as 'loony'.  It worked before, so I should not be surprised that it is working now.  It is exasperating for a number of reasons.

I could stand in a French or a Greek workplace and outline political views at odds with the people around me and they might disagree perhaps vocally, but they would not look on me as a child; they would not strip me of my right to hold that opinion.  To do so in Britain is a form of censorship which is in fact akin to the approach of dictatorships, not that of other mature democracies.  A further point is that I could state that the world was created in 7 days in 4004 BC; that dinosaur bones were laid in the strata by God to show man the passing of all things and that one day the righteous will be lifted into the skies during the Rapture and no-one would be allowed to laugh or ridicule my views without risking a disciplinary action for discrimination.  I subscribe to a political stance which is rational and in my view would be better for the bulk of people living in my country than the current policies.  Yet, because those very few who control our society and economy feel threatened by such views, they have schooled their minions in the population to ridicule and simply dismiss even the expression of that view.  Is it any surprise that people say Britain has only a partial democracy?

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Book I Read in August

'The Giant Book of Private Eye Stories' ed. by Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg
This seems to be another anthology I bought in the 1990s and have had lying around for a long time.  It was first published in 1988 but my edition is from 1997.  However, it must have been well loved before I got it as it looks to be older.  For such a broad topic it has a narrow focus.  Almost all of the stories are set in the USA and the one which is not, 'Busted Blossoms' by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1986) set on a ferry from Italy to Greece, features Americans.  Most of the stories are set in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, though some stray into other areas and when they go into the backwaters, they are particularly seedy, notably  'Iris' by Stephen Greenleaf (1984) about people buying and selling babies and 'Ride the Lightning' by John Lutz (1985) about people holding up petrol stations in rural areas which does have a good twist.  I suppose seediness is an essential element of the private eye story. 'Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg' by Bill Prozini (1985) himself is set in a hotel for retired men and is another which brings shabby life to the fore, when in others many of those involved are well off, hence able to afford a private detective.

The chronological scope is from 'Suicide is Scandalous' by Henry Kane (1947) to 'The Reason Why' by Edward Gorman (1988).  However, it is often hard to tell when they are set because even the stories set in the 1980s often have a feel that they date from thirty years earlier.  Only occasionally does this slice of the genre seem to recognise the march of time.  In part there are fewer references to the Second World War and occasionally there are references that suggest US society has moved on.  Even on that basis, some can be misleading, 'Death Flight' by Ed McBain (1954) which features an internal flight and buying travel insurance feels like it was written twenty years later.  Perhaps only 'Surf' by Joseph Hansen (1976) in which most of the characters are gay; 'She Didn't Come Home' by Sue Grafton (1986) featuring a female detective investigating a woman who has tricked her company and her husband and perhaps 'Greektown' by Loren D. Estleman (1983) set amongst an immigrant community suggest much change has occurred.  However, throughout the 'classic' style with a woman in trouble or causing trouble seeking to employ a burnt-out private detective persists drawn from what Philip Marlowe in 'Wrong Pigeon' (1959 - though written long before that) by Raymond Chandler or Race Williams in 'Not My Corpse' (I cannot find the date for this but it must have been between 1926-51 when the Williams stories were being published) by Caroll John Daly, would have experienced.

The 'hard boiled' language was also a characteristic of the American private eye stories.  However, at times you really need a translation for example from 'Diamonds of Death' by Robert Leslie Bellem:

'Dan Turner, movie hawkshaw, falls for stolen gem routine. Mitzi Madison slips snoop the hotfoot.'

Or from 'Wrong Pigeon': 'My checking account could kiss the sidewalk without stooping' or '"Suppose I got tossed in the freezer? I am out on a writ in twenty-four hours.'

Again no date, but must have been published 1942-50.  As the stories move closer to our own times, fortunately they drop the dated slang and do not seem to have anything much to replace it with.  The violence does not increase.  I guess for the post-war generation and perhaps given the level of murders in the USA right through the 20th century, there was no appreciation of any need to change.  Perhaps Pronzini and Greenberg were cautious in the stories they selected to avoid ones which would appear 'gritty' in the contemporary rather than 1950s sense.  There is that air of despair and of predestined fate hanging over the stories in the way which was common during the film noir era but faded from movies in the 1970s only occasionally popping up once more simply to be challenged, for example, in the movie of 'Minority Report' (2002).

There are some decent stories in this book, but they are rather diminished by how similar so many of them are.  This suggests that for a 'giant' collection, the scope is tiny.  The lack of private detectives from other countries does not help.  It seems the editors have a very narrow definition of what a private eye story entails, even though they recognise in the introduction that the genre started in Britain; there are examples from continental Europe and elsewhere too.  It seems that by having 26 stories (23 of which are written by men) they have set down what the genre should be and will brook no alternative.  Perhaps 'The Giant Book of Marlowesque Private Eye Stories' would have been a more accurate description.

On the positive side there are good examples of short story writing.  They demonstrate how you can use a small number of characters to provide an intrigue and even get in a twist.  Thus, they are good for those wanting to write short stories, a style of writing which is increasing in popularity with the rise of e-book readers.  However, it does show a static genre which over the course of fifty years saw minimal development.  There are far more female writers around in the genre now, so that at least leavens the rather stagnant style.  I suppose no-one can argue the genre was not successful.  This collection, however, despite good points, emphasis the picture of a style of writing in English which remained locked in a pattern for decades.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Pub Tour In Hampshire - Shawford Station to Hedge End Station

Despite going from pub to pub in a district is a sporadic though enduring hobby of mine, it is something that I have neglected on this blog.  In part it may come from lacking a digital camera for many years and then lacking a scanner.  I never see the point of having a camera on a phone and anyway my latest phone is now broken when the place where you put the charger got stoved in.  I do not believe it is almost two years since I last did a pub tour posting here: 

I did some up in the Midlands that I did not capture.  Now back in southern England I have done more visits to Hampshire, some distance away from where I am now living, but convenient for Bacchus to rendezvous with me (in both senses of the word!  Bacchus being the nickname of my best friend).  Our tour of Eastleigh was so desultory as to not be worth reporting.  Our return visits to Winchester have deserved better coverage than I have given them.  It is a good city, if you can stand the snobbier elements of the population, for visiting a range of pubs in close proximity with lots of food outlets across the spectrum in between.

This particular tour was prompted by my father who commented how many pubs there seemed to be in this stretch of Hampshire (Shawford lies 8 Km (5 miles) South of Winchester). Thus, I thought I would give it a go to see how many I could visit.  One warning, pubs in Hampshire seem not to open until 12.00, which has caused some frustration when in Winchester.  Thus, I planned my trip to start at 12.00 and was almost bang on.  It ran until about 19.30 and encompassed me drinking at 12 pubs, whereas it should have actually been 14, but more about the reasons for that in a minute.

Below is a crude map of the route.  The 'ßà' symbol represents the railway stations.  Shawford is a very small station but you can get trains there from Winchester and Eastleigh or Southampton.  You can also get the 69 bus which runs between Winchester and Fareham.  It stops in the centre of Twyford rather than Shawford.  The 69 and the 8 buses are your bale-out vehicles if you tire on the route.  Once you reach Fair Oak you can take the 2 to Eastleigh if you cannot stand any more.

Map of the Route
Round numbers refer to the text about the pubs below

Shawford Railway Station exit

1. The Bridge, Shawford
This is right by the station dominated by a high bridge across the valley.  This area is criss-crossed by rivers and navigations and you would think would be popular with walkers.  However, it would seem to be favoured by well-off Hampshire residents. There is a high-class patisserie opposite the pub.  I did not go into the heart of Shawcross itself which lies to the West of the railway, instead I was heading East.  The pub is Chef & Brewer but seems a bit less mechanical than some of those places.  I suppose because being so tucked away (the station platform is so short everyone has to move into the front carriage to get off) the clientele is well known.  Large garden.  Food clearly a focus as with the bulk of these rural pubs, ironically with a 1940s menu at present which I imagine is common across the Chef & Brewer pubs at present.  It was also in full-flow in terms of customers when I got there at 12.00, a different experience from other pubs in Hampshire I have visited.  It was one of the only pubs I have been in, where I felt under-dressed.  It is clear locals 'dress for lunch' even in a pub.  I drunk Kronenbourg 1664 which was available in most places I went to.

The walk to Twyford is very pleasant, crossing the river valley and looking to the next village in the distance.  I believe the name 'Twyford' comes from 'two fords' and that is suggested by the village sign. To the South there is a large private estate called Shawford Park.

Scenes along the Road from Shawford to Twyford

Central Twyford

Now, you may wonder why I have featured a post office and general stores.  One thing is that it sells local produce.  Though if you are on this tour, I suggest not buying free-range eggs!  More important for this trip is the 'Bean Below' cafe which you can see the sign of to the right of the traditional phone box.  This is a cafe actually beneath the post office.  The entrance to it is up that side road, not through the post office.  It has some nice basic food and if you need a coffee it is worth a stop.  Apparently its cooked breakfasts are renowned, but it only opens at 09.00 on the weekend.

From this sign, I realised that I had left my visit too late and could have once encompassed another Twyford pub in this tour.  I suppose given how many are closing down each month these days I was very lucky to be able to get to the ones I did.

2. The Phoenix, Twyford
This was a welcoming pub.  Very much a down-to-Earth place run by a middle-aged couple.  Basic food here, lots of jacket potatoes.  However, like most of the pubs on this tour, some interesting beers.  I am not a bitter or real ale man, but I was surprised by the choice along the route.  This seemed like the pub for the locals who are not snobby.  They seem to run a lot of events like bingo and things for charity; the landlord was getting ready for the fire-walking in the garden that evening.  Much cleaner and alert than many pubs of this kind.  The roadside face looks dusty but go in and you will see it is kept well-tended, no doubt one of the reasons it has survived.  I had a guest lager, I think from a micro-brewery.

3. The Bugle Inn, Twyford
'The Bugle Inn' is across the road from 'The Phoenix' but is clearly pitched at a very different clientele.  As I continued on this tour I was becoming conscious of how simply in pubs you can be exposed to the British class system.  In none of them did I feel unwelcome, but maybe my oddities set me outside many assumptions, people simply cannot put me into any particular category.  Saying that I was dressed in shorts and shoes from Asda and the shirt I had on had come from C&A which closed down in Britain over a decade ago.  The hat was from Marks & Spencer, but I was hardly in designer wear.

'The Bugle Inn' is an upmarket gastro pub.  Like almost every pub I went in, it has stripped floor and the usual accoutrements of leather sofas.  They did expect me to be staying for lunch.  It was quite with a very spacious and light bar area.  I drunk Staropramen in here; in an iced glass.  It was the just on the verge of pretentious.  Unlike 'The Bridge' it attracted couples rather than well-off families.  Looking around it did seem rather where you would come if having an affair. All the staff are young women dressed in black, apparently selected for being waif-like and with long hair.

Between Twyford and Colden Common

I was impressed by this barn, it looked like somewhere that might have been fought over at the Battle of Waterloo.

It is not unusual these days to find Thai and Indian restaurants in rural areas.  This one is still marked on online maps as 'Rimjhim' but as you can see is known as Banaras.  I imagine it is run by former Gurkhas or their descendants given the connection between Winchester and those troops.  I know some people insist on a curry when on a pub tour and this is a good opportunity, they do a 2-course set lunch for £8.95.  So if you did not fuel up at 'Bean Below' this might be worthwhile dropping into.

There is a farm shop along the road selling eggs and honey as well as live chickens and ducks.  Looking at the eggs I would doubt they are free-range and if they are the chickens are not getting a very varied diet.  I was not impressed by them at all.

4. The Black Horse, Colden Common

On the maps this area is shown as Twyford Moors but there is no sign of that designation, rather you are shown as being in Colden Common.  From a distance this pub looked open, but when I reached it, it was clearly closed down, but perhaps only recently.  As you can see other properties are up for sale here, so given what I saw elsewhere on this route, it will all be levelled and made into expensive, cramped housing.

5. The Rising Sun, Colden Common
Having missed out on a drink in 'The Black Horse', scraping the edge of Colden Common which seems to be a very large 'village', I took a detour off the main road, following one of the brown signs which are common in this area, mainly indicating pubs, golf clubs or equestrian centres.  Fortunately it was a short walk into the village.  Though the day was advancing, I was surprised to find myself as the only customer.  This looks like a 'housing estate' pub which has lifted itself pretty well up to the next rung on the ladder, without becoming a gastro-pub.  It has a pool table but it also has leather sofas.  Given there seems to be a lot of housing around it I thought it would be busier.  Maybe it has fallen between two stools, not sufficiently posh for those who might go to 'The Bugle Inn' but too uppity for those who might frequent 'The Phoenix'.  It was a spacious place with friendly staff, though that might be because I was spending money.  I did see a three-generation family re-packing their car at length and it seemed they had been in for lunch; the man had even taken one of the menus with him!

Between Colden Common and Fishers Pond

Despite what it shows on the map as the area being 'Fisher's Pond', the apostrophe for Fisher's was missing from every sign I could see.  I went past this pleasant church which looked like it belonged in an Alliance area on 'World of Warcraft'.

6. Fishers Pond, Fishers Pond
This is a large, rambling pub, named after the area it is in, with its own river and both a swan and a black cat which have adopted the pub.  It was by far the busiest I had visited, exceeding even 'The Bridge'.  It is above all a family pub for middle income families.  Perhaps the styling of the pub was why they were here rather than a short distance away in 'The Rising Sun'.  It is stone floors and that grey paint which seems universal if you have pretensions of grandeur viz 'The Bugle Inn' and the exterior of  'The Rising Sun'.  Lots of small children running around.  I was pleased to be able to get Staropramen here.  I must say that the staff were friendly and seemed to be very competent in dealing with the complexities thrown up by large families ordering food, moving tables, etc.  I imagine the place would collapse if they were not.

7. Queen's Head, Fishers Pond
This pub is right next door to the 'Fishers Pond'.  It was slightly more down market, looking like a 'housing estate' pub in style and with the food it provided.  Again, like many of the pubs I went in on this walk, it was spacious.  The staff were friendly, but the customers few.  Probably a good place to escape to if you cannot stand the noise of children next door.  As in Twyford, it did strike me as odd that two pubs were so close together, but I suppose they deliberately target different sorts of customers.

After Fishers Pond you have a steep climb up a hill which has caravan sites - in fact there are quite a few right along the route both for mobile and static caravans.  If in need of some non-alcoholic input there is a cafe in the garden centre at the top of the hill.  Once you reach the flat you are heading into Fair Oak which is not really well supplied with pubs.  None of the three I visited, I would recommend.

8. Fox and Hounds, Fair Oak
I must apologise for the picture on this one.  Maybe the result of being six pints, a bowl of peanuts and a packet of salted cashews (provided in error) up to this point.

This place aims at being very much a 'family' pub.  However, it is rather a down-market place which I imagine attracts customers from the numerous housing estates of Eastleigh.  It is run by quite an intimidating one-legged ex-military man.  The 1980s style red leather sofas and the fish tank are worth seeing.  However, you are probably best off in here if you like pool or darts.  The signs suggest there is an issue with underage drinkers.

9. The Cricketers Arms, Fair Oak
Fair Oak, though small, is well equipped.  It has a fancy Indian restaurant, an Indian takeaway, two Chinese takeaways, a cafe, a tearooms, a large Tescos for a petrol station, a Morrisons and another convenience store.  So if you need to refuel or get more cash or have something other than beer, it is fine.  The two pubs sitting opposite each other in the centre of the village are very disappointing.

'The Cricketers Arms' exterior is the best part of the pub.  Inside it is very shabby.  The barmaid's young daughter had taken over one corner for her plastic slide and my-little-ponies.  The barmaid was far harder to find and even the locals had difficulty in getting served.  I know it was the middle of the afternoon, but even so they were losing money as a result.  Much of what was on tap was 'off' and so I ended up having bottled Becks.

10. The Old George
While in 'The Cricketers Arms' it was all about horse-racing with customers and staff heading out to the betting office on the main road which apparently only recently opened, across the road in 'The Old George' it was about football.  Again not unusual on a Saturday.  The service was far better in this pub than its rival.  The place had a bit of a stark feel to it and when you see the list of bands playing you understand while it feels a little like a venue out of hours.  I could imagine it would be a lot better in the evening when a band was playing.  I imagine the clientele changes too.  It was not as bad as 'The Cricketers Arms' but I felt I had come at the wrong time to see it at its best.

Having been disappointed in Fair Oak, I decided not to follow one of the brown signs down to the 'New Clock Inn' on the western edge of the village.  In part because that was the direction in which Eastleigh lay in and I knew from past experience that pubs in Eastleigh lack character.  Everything is national chains and the town shuts down early.  I pressed on instead into Horton Heath and was glad that I did.

11. The Lapstone, Horton Heath

I crossed the border from Fair Oak to Horton Heath, a little apprehensive about the quality of the next pub.  It turned out to be very pleasant.  The customers seem to be people who feel themselves better than those in Fair Oak and dress up to come out, certainly the women.  This had a more mixed clientele in terms of genders since I had left the 'Fishers Pond'.  It was a little like 'The Rising Sun', stripped floors but not to the extent of being a gastro-pub.  It is awkward to get through the front door.  I was back on Kronenbourg 1664 here.  They seem to specialise in curries and have a good range of them.  It is right next to a farm and apparently sheep appear in the field you can just see.  However, this felt more like an adult pub rather than a 'family' pub.  It be that I was now into late afternoon.

Just a gathering of birds I noticed as going through Horton Heath.

12. Brigadier Gerard, Horton Heath
This is a pretty if modern-styled pub at the other end of the ribbon village of Horton Heath.  Its pizzas are apparently acclaimed.  However, it had a mix of local drinkers (who would not move an inch to let you get to the bar) and families eating out, though with less frantic manner than at 'Fishers Pond'.  They also do takeaway pizza, The staff were very friendly.  The pub is named after the racehorse which itself was named after stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.

13. Farmers Home, Durley
Now, my next pub should have been 'The Southampton Arms' on the edge of Hedge End.  However, reaching the roundabout which would have turned me South-West towards it, I was tempted by another brown sign.  This pointed North-East to the 'Farmers Home' and 'The Robin Hood'.  There was a lack of apostrophes to show how many farmers were involved; the sign suggests just one.  Having had a good experience at 'The Rising Sun', I thought another detour would not do any harm.  However, there was no indication of distance and it turned out to be quite a hike.  From 'Brigadier Gerard' to 'The Farmers Home' proved to be farther than from 'Fox & Hounds' to 'Brigadier Gerard' without stopping points on the way.  Furthermore, in contrast to my route so far, though at times I had had to cross the road to reach a pavement, down this road, at times there was none and lots of well-off locals powering their 4x4s towards me as I clung to the edge of the road.

I was quite relieved to penetrate right into Durley which turned out to be another of these villages that covers many hectares.  There is a cafe-bar at the equestrian centre I passed but at this stage I was recognising my error and wanted to reach the pub.  It turned out to be very pleasant.  Again a mix of eating in the garden and people drinking seriously, with local children but not too noisy.  Mobile phone reception is poor there, but it felt nice to be in a real village rather than sitting on the edge of another housing estate.  Having reached my twelfth pint and had some far-too-large pork scratchings, I bottled out the rest and got a taxi to Hedge End station (hence knowing mobile phone reception was poor, though not non-existent).  How much farther on 'The Robins Nest' is and whether it is still open I could not find out.  The brown signs tend to last years longer than the locations they point to.

14. The Southampton Arms, Hedge End and 15. Shamblehurst Barn, Hedge End
These would have been the last two pubs on the trip if I had not taken the mistaken detour to Durley.  The former is a 1930s-style pub looking like a large mixed use pub like the 'Farmers Home' and certainly above the Fair Oak level in quality.  'Shamblehurst Barn' is a Hungry Horse pub though built into an old barn, looks like a 1980s housing estate pub of the kind the Hungry Horse chain favours ('New Clock Inn' back in Fair Oak is one of theirs too).

Right, so in the space of 11Km (7 miles) you can get through fourteen pubs in this area which is a pretty good figure outside of a large town.  The countryside especially in the early part, is attractive.  The pubs vary considerably in the type of customers they favour so you might pitch your tour to what sort of person you are and where you might fit in.  The weak stretch is clearly Fair Oak, so you might just want to grab some food there and power on into Horton Heath.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Chinese Need to Get Used to Being Spoken to in Poor Chinese

Like the majority of people working in an organisation which employs people from around the world, I am used to conversing with people who have a strong accent when speaking English or make incessant grammar errors - 'feedbacks' is used so often it is almost being adopted in English itself.  Unlike the character on 'The Fast Show' I do not pick up every error and I make an effort to comprehend the accent.  This is because I am grateful that the person is speaking to me in English and not expecting me to know Thai, Turkish or even Spanish in order to have a conversation with them.  This is a price British people have to pay for being so poor at learning foreign languages and indeed having a schooling system which increasingly does not even teach them.  The 13-year old boy who lives in my house stopped learning any foreign languages at the end of Year 8 (12-13 year old class), having done French just for two years.  He is an intelligent child going to a school of 1200 pupils but there is so little language teaching that it is a minority subject.  Reports show a steady fall in language learning in the UK:  with fewer pupils taking even European languages let alone Asian ones.

Now, I am constantly meeting Chinese people.  I have no idea how many Chinese are currently visiting or working in the UK.  The bulk of the ones I run across are students.  However, of course, because of the UK have had a colony in Hong Kong, there are people with Chinese heritage, predominantly Cantonese rather than Mandarin speakers and generally thoroughly integrated into British society.  I am not discussing Chinese assimilated in the past, but people from mainland China who are in the UK.  Now I spent 18 months learning Mandarin.

I was poor at the writing but pretty good at the language to the extent that I could say where I came from, talk about my family, ask directions and order a complex meal.  I honed my accent by using CDs and copying dialogue in movies.  Thus, I would expect that I would speak Chinese with an English accent and probably sound quite a bit like the Chinese equivalent of those people I speak to regularly from a range of countries, who have a strong accent and make errors.  However, every time I try please or thank you or excuse me, I get a blank expression from Chinese visitors as if rather than attempting their language I have gone into Ukrainian or Somali.

I used the common Chinese phrase 'shi bu shi' [pronounced 'shur boo shur'] it is a phrase attached to the end of a sentence to make it a question 'yes or no?'.  Mandarin word order does not change, it is subject-verb-object all the time, so you need question suffixes to show you are asking a question rather than through moving the verb around as often happens in English.  The quote was relevant to the setting but the Chinese man turned to me and said - 'what is that, something in English?'.  He did not recognise it as a basic phrase from his own language.

I  know that the Chinese are a proud people who value their culture.  I know that they row with the Taiwanese over who speaks and writes 'proper' Chinese.  However, I have yet to meet a Chinese person who is willing to put in the effort to comprehend other nationalities speaking their language in the way that English speakers often do on a daily basis.  This runs contrary to the schemes to introduce Mandarin to schools and to open up Confucius Centres to promote the teaching of Mandarin.

If the efforts of people who have taken time to learn the language are simply dismissed then there is no incentive to learn let alone develop skills in the language.  It seems I will never even reach a workable level in my lifetime.  I know there is all this argument about the fact that an outsider can never be fluent, but I am not looking for fluency, I am looking to work at the level many people use English when speaking to me.  It may not be perfect, but we can function.

Why does this matter?  Well, the Chinese population is only 25% of the global population so they are going to meet a lot of people who speak something else.  China has a public relations problem.  It is both noted as being one of the only remaining Communist dictatorships yet is also operating as a neo-colonial power particularly in Africa and Central Asia.  To be so frosty to those trying to speak the language is to put even more distance between the country and those others it has to deal with.

I do wonder if there is a delight in the exceptionality of the use of any Chinese language in a Western context and that Chinese visitors like the fact that their hosts cannot comprehend what they are saying.  It seems that they worry that if they give a centimetre of recognition that someone else even knows a bit of their language, they will have lost that privileged position.  It is like the Russian nobility speaking French when the servants were around.  I have also noted a similar phenomenon with Afrikaans and Flemish speakers.  They get very upset when you reflect back some of the details of their language to them.  It is as if you have broken the 'code' they are using and thus are suspicious.

I have no idea whether Chinese visitors will change their attitudes.  However, I am sure their government, given the money it has put into promoting Mandarin skills in the West, would wish that they were not so dismissive of the efforts of other countries to speak their language and at least be as accommodating as many British are when people speak to us regularly in 'bad' English.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Books I Read In July

'Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars' by David Chandler
It might appear strange to read a dictionary right through.  However, its vignettes of individual commanders and descriptions of numerous battles plus essays on political and military trends of the time, it is an engaging book.  It was first published in 1993 (I read the 1999 edition) but the style of language is of a book thirty or forty years older than that.  Effort is made so as not to make all the accounts sound the same.  The author's prejudices in favour or against particular commanders is not muted.  What is striking is how the wars allowed men from very ordinary backgrounds to rise to the heights, especially in the French Empire.  It also highlights the hazards that they faced in terms of wounding or death.  Aside from the very partisan descriptions of the commanders, the most serious flaw is in the maps.  These have been brought over from Chandler's earlier book, 'The Campaigns of Napoleon' (1973) without modification.  Consequently the units indicated and especially the commanders shown on the maps do not correspond with the account of the battles included in this book.  As a result they add little to your understanding of the battle and in some cases simply confuse matters,  A reasonable book but one which has suffered from reusing too much material with updating it and ensuring it corresponds to being presented in a new book.

'The Headline Book of Spy Fiction' edited by Alan Williams
I do not know what it is about spy fiction which encourages anthologies of this kind.  I read something similar back in April 2013 - 'The Faber Book of Espionage' by Nigel West (1993): see  This one is equally as uninspiring.  Published in 1992, it covers extracts from novels, some very short, and short stories from 1845 to 1981, though most are from the early to mid 20th century.  John Buchan features a great deal as does John Le Carré and Graham Greene.  The extracts are grouped into categories to illustrate different facets of spying as covered in fiction.  Some of the extracts are very weak, notably from Desmond Bagley's 'The Freedom Trap' (1971) which is an epitome of a pot boiler with a terrible McGuffin and a poor chase over Iceland.  The extract from 'Kim' (1900-01) is the wrong one as it covers nothing about Kim's spying activities and simply focuses on his schooling.  Overall, despite some effort at diversity the collection shows the lack of variety in spy fiction and that even seventy years on from Buchan's work it still focuses on well-off white men, facing hazards and winning through.  This sorely neglects how it was often a genre to question imperial pretensions, not simply of the UK but in part the USA and USSR too.