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.

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.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 18: Distorted Maps of the Earth Providing Fantasy Worlds

As I noted back in April, it is surprising what can provide authors or gamers with potential fantasy worlds:

The one I am featuring today was actually a map from a pub showing where the wines they sold came from, well, perhaps on an alternate planet, because its resemblance to Earth is only in passing:

I have removed the wine details.  However, it shows a pretty different Earth.  Much of Europe is compressed, notably France and the Iberian Peninsula.  The British Isles have become a peninsula  Africa has shrunk a great deal and the Red Sea is far longer but there is really no Persian Gulf.  The Mediterranean is no longer closed meaning from ancient times reaching Asia by sea from Europe would have been common. Arabia is as large as India but Sri Lanka and Madagascar are missing.  The Mediterranean is open to the Atlantic and South America is a short distance from Spain, suggesting it would have been discovered sooner.  It is smaller and farther North than in our world.  North America, in contrast is farther away from Europe; Greenland is smaller. Novaya Zemlya is likely to only be as cold as Nova Scotia.  The two Americas are separate, so the 'passage' to China, though narrow, is there,  Wildlife on South America developed differently to that of North America, until, in our world 3 million years ago.  In this world they remain separate, leading to big differences between the creatures in each.

Australia is even larger than in our world and closer to South-East Asia.  Indonesia is reduced to two large islands which would have provided easy stepping stones for people to reach Australia.  Possibly it would have been colonised by Indians or Chinese.  New Zealand is a single, large island off the coast of Australia and so is likely to have been colonised sooner and its wildlife is likely to have been far closer to that of Australia.  Japan is really a single island, farther South in our world.  The gap from Asia to North America is greater.  The greatest loss is of the entire Continent of Antarctica plus many of the Pacific Islands including most importantly, the Philippines.

Overall, this is a wetter Earth with smaller continents.  It is a world in which there would be greater diversity between the animals on different continents.  Despite the larger bodies of water, peoples are likely to have moved more easily from continent to continent with South America explored by Europeans in the Ancient or Medieval times.  Australasia is likely to have seen waves of migrants down the centuries.  The climate is likely to have been wetter and more moderate.  The Pacific would be a vast empty ocean probably only crossed between the Americas and Asia in modern times.

Seeing this map reminded me of the map for the tabletop game, now an online game too, 'Warhammer'.  It was a distortion of Earth.  Now that the game is going to be reborn with a new set-up, it seemed a good time to look at what they have had for the past thirty years or so

Unlike the one above, Antarctica (Southern Chaos Wastes) is huge even compared to our world.  Given it reaches so far North some parts of it might be tropical, or at least temperate.  North America (The New World) and South America (Lusatia) are more strongly connected and the Galapagos Islands have become a huge archipelago; the Falkland Islands are larger too and there is an island off South America.  Once again Europe has shrunk an the Mediterranean is open to the Atlantic.  Arabia (Araby) has ended up in West Africa and the Urals stretch into North Africa (South Lands).  India (Ind) has withered but Sri Lanka and especially Thailand-Malaya have grown. From there it is only a short Indonesia is missing and there is a reduced Philippines.  Japan (Nippon) is father South a broader central island with only small islands around it.  Britain (Albion) is a single large island, but colder than in our world, more on a par with Iceland on our planet.  There are large islands (Elf Kingdoms) across the Atlantic.  In subsequent maps at least one of these is portrayed like the classic views of Atlantis.  These islands would have made trans-Atlantic travel far easier, though South America is more remote from Europe.  In the game it has been settled by reptile aliens who have a kingdom similar to the Aztecs but with more advanced technology and enslaving humans.  The Dark Lands are interesting and seem to equate to Afghanistan-Iran in our world with a gulf and a number of islands.  There is a suggestion that the Northern Steppes connect to the New World and Ramalia and the Northern Chaos Wastes provide another connection.  Thus, it is possible to circumnavigate the planet overland even if it is through Arctic lands.

This would be a drier planet with more land mass and a smaller Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.  Crossing the world by land or sea in pre-modern times would be easier.  However, there are likely to be greater swings in temperature between summer and winter for much of the planet.  The drier climate might mean large deserts.  With the huge mountain range in Eurafasia there might be vast lakes not shown on this map that would moderate the climate in that region.  Though for most of the world animals and people could move around overland there are isolated islands on which different plants and animals might have developed.  Given how far North the Southern Chaos Wastes stretch it would be expected that they would have diverse plants and animals different from other continents, even setting aside the chaos aspects.

These two examples show that we can simply take the world we know and make it fantastical.  In the 'Warhammer' case this has been the basis of a very successful game franchise for three decades.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

How One Image Can Suggest An Alternate Reality

The other day I came across an image that I had not seen for thirty years:

It is a cover from the US version of 'Vogue' magazine of April 1918.  When I saw it last it was printed on a mirror, in a 'cloakroom' of a large house in a Surrey suburb.  I think this one from the 1970s as I remember more pink in it than the image above:

The thing is, I was very conscious that it had been produced in April 1918, at a time when the USA had been in the First World War for 12 months.  It seemed so wrong that something so decadent could have been produced when such carnage was being witnessed.  Aside from that, the portrayal of peacocks so large that they could be ridden on was clearly fantasy.  Thus, the way my brain processed it was to envisage that somehow it had arrived from an alternate reality in which there had been no First World War, the USA or anyway, somewhere using cents had a decadent society and rideable peacocks did exist.  

Then it reminded me of the 'Dancers at the End of Time' series of novels by Michael Moorcock that I read in the 1980s in an omnibus edition; I had a copy of the one shown below, so you can see where that idea might have come from:

The books were 'An Alien Heat' (1972), 'The Hollow Lands' (1974) 'The End of All Songs' (1976) and then as is typical with Moorcock the setting and characters featured in other books, notably 'Legends from the End of Time' (1976) a collection of short stories; 'The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming' (1977) and 'Elric at the End of Time' (1981) two short stories featuring Moorcock's most famous fantasy anti-hero turning up in the End of Time milieu.  The stories feature a range of bizarre though largely sympathetic decadent characters in a kind of soap opera of various activities.  They live a very baroque life with the ability to change any matter at the touch of one of their rings, drawing on the immense power of cities built millenia before.  The cover reminds me of the song 'Ride a White Swan' by T.Rex (1970).

No-one writes this kind of fiction any more and even, as I noted with Hal Duncan's 'Vellum' while publishers may permit Moorcockian style work to come out, its time is passed and anyway even in homage these days it is laboured when Moorcock was epigrammatic.  I have no idea if George Wolfe Plank (1883-1965), the artist who produced the cover ever had any thoughts of alternate realities or whether he simply wanted to produce elegant, fantastical imagery.  A 1923 cover of a woman with a household dragon and another one of a woman on a zebra-unicorn suggests certainly a love of the fantastic.

Anyway, my simple idea with this posting was to recall an image which though I imagine it never had that intention, triggered off many thoughts of very different worlds and also in terms of writing, how a single image can generate ideas for a short story if not an entire novel.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Book I Read In June

'Vellum' by Hal Duncan
Back in March I criticised the fragmented often incoherent nature of 'Hawksmoor' by Peter Ackroyd. All that I said about that book applies to 'Vellum' in even greater amount. There are basically three characters but it is difficult to pin down even what their names are. They appear in scraps of text set in a range of historical and fantastical settings. They are mixed up with characters and stories from ancient mythology. There are some interesting ideas such as the 'vellum' being a kind of book which structures the multiverse and using it, people can travel into various times and realities. The book also includes a half-hearted reference to a battle between various angels and between them and demons which seems to have been borrowed from the US television series, 'Supernatural', though it might be in reverse as the episodes covering those themes were broadcast after this book was published in 2006. There is no resolution to the story for any of the characters. Instead there are numerous incomplete stories thrown together in apparent random order.

I have seen an online review which likens the book to the Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock: 'The Final Programme' (1968), 'A Cure for Cancer' (1971), 'The English Assassin' (1972) and 'The Condition of Muzak' (1977). This is not entirely accurate as 'The Final Programme' has a coherent narrative. In contrast, 'A Cure for Cancer' is described as 'essentially a collage of absurdist vignettes' and this description would fit 'Vellum' well. It seems Duncan is aware of the Jerry Cornelius books, the character is referred to by name at one point and elsewhere one of Duncan's characters wields a needle gun, the favoured weapon of Cornelius. The thing is that Moorcock was writing at the height of the era of the drugs- and hippy-influenced culture when authors were experimenting with different forms of writing. Duncan is writing thirty years beyond that period when it is clear that for most part that approach to writing has been set aside. Certainly the acclaim on the book sleeve about Duncan's work being radical or innovative is misplaced, in many ways it is revival of an old style around when he was a child (he was born in 1971). One saving grace of the Jerry Cornelius books is that they were short, around a quarter of the length of 'Vellum' at 500 pages in the edition I read.

Duncan has some great idea and the opening scene of a protagonist stealing the 'Vellum' could have let into a fascinating book. However, it appears that Duncan lacks many of the skills needed to write an actual novel and instead has sold what was effectively the scrapbook that all authors have of ideas, characters and fragments of which some grow into true books, others do not. He has been incredibly lucky to get his scrapbook published. If he could have written a book as good as 'The Final Programme', he would have been deserving of acclaim. However, it seems he has a long way to go before he becomes a novelist despite the fact someone has given him a publishing deal.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Returning To Sables D'Or

Six years ago, I produced a posting about my childhood memories of holidaying at Sables D'Or Les Pins in Brittany in northern France:  Conscious that I do not have a great deal of holidays left and seeking something that would not end in the kind of disaster my holidays usually do, e.g.:

I decided to go back to Hotel De Diane in Sables D'Or and sit there for a week.

The holiday was largely a success.  I aimed to go with Condor Ferries which use catamaran ferries that should shave three hours off the travel time across the English Channel.  However, being relatively small vessels they are affected by the weather much more than traditional ferries.  On both the outward and return crossings the sailings were cancelled.  In the end I had to return by Brittany Ferries, taking nine hours in total, but a very reliable service.  As it was, the Condor Ferries service saved no time.  In the last couple of years they have ended their sailings from Weymouth and from 2014 ended direct sailings from Britain to France.  Instead you are taken to the Channel Islands where you have to wait at least 2 hours, sometimes overnight, until a shuttle ferry from France arrives to take you the final stage.  Thus, the time saving is lost and often you will have to pay for accommodation on Jersey or Guernsey.  This rigmarole is repeated on the return journey.

Anyway, the ferry difficulties shifted my holiday by a day and meant me paying for another night in the hotel in France.  I also was very sick on the outward crossing.  It has become apparent that in contrast to my youth I now cannot sail on board a ferry even in calm seas without becoming ill.  I put it down to the inner ear infection I caught in Berlin some nine years ago.  It has affected the woman I was travelling with then in a different way but she has still had to abandon motorcycling.

In many ways the resort is similar to that portrayed above.  It was opened in 1924 and despite modern technology retains old world charm.  The houses shown in the picture are still there and it seems many French have holiday homes in the area as do some British.  Rambling, horse riding and golf, despite being things I did not engage with, remain important in the area.  The casino is still there, but did not seem open while I was in town.  Sitting between St Brieuc to the West and St Malo to the East, the hinterland is traditional rural France with quiet roads and pleasant villages with locations for horse riding and fishing.  The coast is a mixture of rocky headlands and large beaches from which the tide goes out a long way.  In June most of the visitors were the elderly there for the walking.  There were quite a few Germans in camper vans too.  I am sure it gets much busier once the school holidays start.

My parents stayed at the resort in 1965, 1966 and 1972; family friends also stayed there in that era.  I am not sure now if the Hotel De Diane was the hotel they visited, because it is run by the Rolland family, who have held it for four generations and that is not the name of the proprietors that my parents knew.  I think in fact they stayed at the much larger hotel less than a metre away next door.  It, however, has now closed down.  The Hotel De Diane, named after a valley rising from the town, is compact and has an award-winning restaurant which has good food though a small menu.  Everywhere seems to have been affected by nouvelle cuisine and it is very difficult to get anything traditional.  I suppose this is a result of catering schools and inspectors in France.

The hotel is modern inside and nicely appointed; the staff are very friendly - many seem to be from the Rolland family.  There is a waitress from northern England in the restaurant who shows off how people can have different characters when speaking different languages.  She squawks at British guests in English and speaks softly to the French guests in French.  A good place if you want somewhere quiet to stay.

Hotel De Diane, Sables D'Or-Les Pins, eastern Brittany, France

At this time of the year the beach which is immense at low tide, as can be seen below, is largely deserted.  There is an onshore breeze and some people sail or windsurf.

The Beach at Sables D'Or at Low Tide

The tiny chapel, seen in the picture at the top can still only be reached at low tide.  It is a real mission to reach it across the rocky causeway.

Chapel on the Islet of St Michael at Sables D'Or

The small town of Sables D'Or-Les Pins has a few restaurants of different standards, a couple of pizzerias and creperies.  Erquy down the road remains a functional town still with a fishing fleet.  Like many towns in the region it has a very large, very clean beach.  In fact how clean the beaches was stunning to me though I am familiar with award-winning ones on the South coast of England.

There are some sights to see.  I returned to Fort La Latte which I mentioned in my previous posting.  The battering ram from the movie 'The Vikings' is now properly displayed.

Fort La Latte

Prop Battering Ram used in the Movie, 'The Vikings' (1958)

I enjoyed visiting the historic town of Dinan and for some reason found Lamballe a town which houses France's national stud, very pleasant too.  St Malo old town is a tourist attraction but did not seem overwhelmed by it.  This maybe because I was early in the season.



St Malo

Even St Malo which has a commercial port has a long, attractive beach, it seems compulsory for towns in the region.  Being an adult rather than a child, I had freedom to go where I chose.  Unlike many members of my family,   My car did great service getting me around the countryside.  Drivers in rural France seem more patient than their equivalent in the British countryside who always seem offended that you are simply there.  My sat nav despite containing maps of France pleaded that it lacked the memory to cope, so I ended up map reading which did me well.  I only had difficulty entering and leaving St Brieuc where the drivers were impatient at me looping the roundabouts and where, anyway, the roads were disrupted by road works and diversions.

I found some other interesting places, St Jacut de la Mer is a town with very little bar a modern looking abbey.  However, being a narrow peninsula it is lovely and quiet and I can recommend the 'Awawa' restaurant run by a young couple.  The food there is delicious.  I did not have a bad meal anywhere I ate but this one really stood out.  Jugon-les-Lacs almost due South inland from there, is also very pleasant.  The lakes are artificial but you could not really tell.  As with a lot of the region, I saw loads of wild flowers everywhere and many more bird species than I even see North across the Channel in Dorset and Devon.  It must be a great area if you enjoy walking or cycling.  There was a cycle race open to teams and individuals of all levels while I was in Sables D'Or and a cycle rally in St Malo too.

One thing that struck me was how difficult it was to pick up radio stations that did not play old fashioned French music.  It was as if I was in an American's imagination of France.  I even ended up with a Breton folk channel at one time.  The rocky outcrops of the area seem to play havoc with reception.  I found no petrol station with any staff.  You generally have to pay by debit card and this can get complicated.

The main street of St Jacut de la Mer

Interior of 'Awawa' restaurant

Wild flowers in St Jacut de la Mer

Street in Jugon-les-Lacs

Jugon Lake seen from Surrounding Hills

As you can see from the shot of Jugon-les-Lacs there is a flaw in my camera, a chip in the glass right in the middle of the lens.  I had to replace it.  However, on the balance of what has happened on holidays, this one turned out to be better than the large majority.  I was able to both indulge in nostalgia for my youth and discover new places.  I also found a region, which certainly outside St Brieuc, is very quiet and relaxing to travel around and visit places.  It may be that going early in the Summer helped with this and it would be a different story in August.  No holiday in the area is going to be a staggering experience but it can be restful and that is what I really needed.  Last year's experience meaning I came back even more stressed then when at work, needed to be avoided and returning to Sables D'Or provided that.

On one hand, given this success I began thinking about possibly venturing further afield.  However, I fear now that one success has bred complacency.  Furthermore, there are few places I have been where things have not gone wrong, so I have little idea where I would go next.  I do, fortunately, appear to have broken a 7-year bad run of holidays.  Perhaps I need to go back to the pattern of the 1990s when I only had a holiday every 5 years so as to reduce the risk.  That would mean, however, I have only 1-2 holidays left.  I suppose I should be grateful this one went well.

P.P. 18/07/2015
I came across another postcard of the next beach East along from Sables D'Or and show it here with a picture I took this year to show how little has changed.

I was stood among the pines shown on the postcard, but zoomed in from there to focus on the beach, but you get the feel for it.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Books I Read In May

'Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Memoirs Part 1)' by Thomas Mann
I was careless when buying this book.  I had thought that it was set in the early 20th century and expected a story about a confidence trickster; something a little like 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' (1929) by Alfred Döblin.  However, this book is set in some unnamed years in the late 19th century and is whimsical rather than gritty.  Though the protagonist does steal some jewellery in fact he spends most of his time working as a lift attendant and waiter.  He is then employed by a Luxembourgish marquis to pretend to be him on a world tour so that the marquis can remain in Paris.  The 'Memoirs Part 1' element only appears on one of the interior pages of the book, not on the cover so I was disappointed when the book stopped abruptly when the hero was about to leave Portugal and I have no idea what happens next.  However, I have no desire to find the second part of the book.

Despite Krull having many skills that would make him appropriate to be a criminal, he carries out little crime, so it is a very different book to what I expected.  It is light-hearted.  It is heavily overwritten there are sections which go on for pages simply talking about Krull being assessed for military service, touring the natural history museum in Lisbon and a letter to the marquis's parents.  They go on and on adding nothing to the story.  In many ways this made me feel it was a pastiche of novels of the period that this story covers.  However, being published in 1954, it has sensibilities of the mid-20th century so features more sexual references, including homosexual, than would ever have been seen in a novel published 60 years earlier.  The writing is engaging for the most part, but the book does not really go anywhere and because these are supposed memoirs the character fails to develop.  Overall it was unsatisfactory and it shows me to be more careful in judging a book by what is written on the cover.

'Great Tales of Detection. Nineteen stories chosen by Dorothy L. Sayers', ed. Dorothy L. Sayers
This collection of short crime fiction does what it says in the title.  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was herself a leading crime novelist as well as religious work, feminist essays, translations and poetry.  This book was published in 1936. A worthwhile essay at the start reflects over the development of crime fiction which was almost a century old by the time Sayers was writing.  She highlights aspects such as the 'fair play' rule, i.e. that no evidence on which the solution is based has not been signalled to the reader previously, even though deus ex machina remains permitted.  The stories selected reach from 'The Purloined Letter' by Edgar Allen Poe (1844) to 'The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem' by C. Daly King (1935).  I do wonder if the latter was part of the inspiration for the Inspector Clouseau character in the 'Pink Panther' movies.  'Clou' is the French word for nail ['seau' means bucket], the detective in the story, Trevis Tarrant, has a Japanese  manservant called Katoh; Clouseau has a Chinese manservant called Kato/Cato [the spelling changed after the first movie featuring the character].

What becomes apparent from this collection is why the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie written in this time period has remained popular, it is of far better quality than a lot of the competitor books/stories out there.  There are some crime authors featured who remain renowned today, notably Poe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton of the Father Brown stories; to a lesser extent Ernest Bramah as well as one each from Christie and Sayers themselves.  The others featured are largely unknown today.  What is largely lacking is any sense of drama even when the reader sees from the perspective of the murderer.  Perhaps at best, 'The Avenging Chance' by Anthony Berkeley or 'Superfluous Murder' by Milward Kennedy could have featured in a collection of 'Tales of the Unexpected' kind collected by Roald Dahl.  However, in large part they are presented as intellectual exercises.

Sayers herself was criticised for having stories too dependent on specialist technical details and characters that were simply a series of stereotypes. The stories from the mid-19th century in the collection even seem like philosophical tracts rather than even the kind of puzzle crime stories that are still familiar, these days categorised as 'cozy' by Amazon.  Many of the stories have very contorted set-ups to allow the 'impossible' murder and weaponry which even when you know it, seems incredible.  There are a few highlights such as Collins portrayal of an arrogant junior detective in 'The Biter Bit' set out as a series of letters between three police detectives.  However, in general this book simply reassures you that you are not missing out much if you stick to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot/Miss Jane Marple.  Overall, a curiosity but with little to engage the reader certainly one from the 21st century.  Sayers's essay is probably the highlight.

'The Great War' by John Terraine
This is a book published in 1965 at the last peak in publications about the First World War.  The edition I read came out in 1983.  Terraine was heavily involved in the BBC television 26-part series also called 'The Great War' (1964) but as he makes clear this is not the book of the series.  It is very short, only 195 pages in the edition I read.  Thus, it could make a useful book for someone who wants a quick, adult-orientated coverage of the war.  However, I am reluctant to recommend it even for that because of how partisan it is.  Terraine rightly adheres to the view that the war was largely the result of German aggression, a view that was being reinforced in the early 1960s and which he adhered to twenty years later.  However, he neglects the enthusiasm among the British elites for going to war and ironically the hostility to it both in Parliament and among the public.

Terraine says that he excusing the generals from the undeserved blame that they had received. Alan Clark's 'The Donkeys' on this issue had been published in 1961 and Terraine is known to have argued with the makers of the BBC series about this focus. Ironically, in this book Terraine is uncomplimentary and at times condemnatory of almost every general he writes about. The only ones who are spared his harsh criticism are the Russian General Adjutant Aleksei Brusilov (1853-1926), the Australian General Sir John Monash (1865-1931) and above all, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, (1861–1928). In fact, his support of Haig, leads him to utterly dismiss his predecessor Field Marshal John French 1st Earl of Ypres, (1852–1925) and to portray the forces of France as poor throughout in not bowing to British objectives at all stages.

Terraine fails to portray the Gallipoli Campaign as the utter fiasco that it was which ironically means he is more condemnatory of the Allies efforts at Salonika in Greece.  He rightly notes that the Dominion troops notably the Canadians and the Australians were both the spearhead and the backbone of the 'British' forces in the last two years of the war and also how many troops fighting the Ottoman Empire took up.  Like many commentators of his time he over-emphasises the role played by American forces, perhaps with an eye to the US readership.  He also neglects to note that the period of greatest British success, 1918 was when its casualty rate reached new highs.

Overall, though not apparently inaccurate, this is very imbalanced book with Terraine's prejudices being all too apparent throughout and shaping, indeed distorting his recounting of the war.  He goes against what he says he is going to do and condemns the generals the way many others would only sparing Haig and less than an handful of others from being derided.  He also shows the kind of Western prejudices prevalent in histories of the time in behaving as if the Russians were all ignorant and lazy and the Ottomans utterly incompetent from a racial basis despite how difficult they made British advances on all fronts they were engaged with them.  This was not a good book in its time and is not required now.