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Chouchin
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      16.12.2009 11:51
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      Master of humorous writing

      It has been some decades since I dipped into the world of Wodehouse, so when I saw this on a second hand shelf two questions occurred to me. Firstly, had I ever actually read this one, and secondly, and more importantly, do these books stand the test of time? Or had the world and I changed so much that it would all seem silly and pointless?

      I needn't have worried on the latter score. Jeeves and Wooster are eternal. The books are never out of print, and each succeeding generation produces a televised or radio version: Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price on TV in the 1960s, Richard Briers and Michael Hordern on radio in the 1970s and TV again in the 1990s with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Jeeves even had a search engine named after him, now sadly and uninspiringly just called ask.com. This longevity is unique for light-hearted humorous writing and indeed Wodehouse's style is unique and inimitable. Stephen Fry has said: "You don't analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour." Still, some analysis is required if this review is not to come to a shuddering halt.

      Joy in the Morning (which I hadn't read before) is a complete middle-of-the-road Jeeves and Wooster offering, neither pippin nor purler, as Bertie might say. It has a typical plot and all the usual elements of the Wodehouse world, so it's no surprise that it was first published in 1947, right in the middle of Wodehouse's output. One of the challenges issued by Wodehouse-lovers to Wodehouse-sceptics is to summarise the fiendishly complex plots, and I had a go at this one but abandoned it. It would take too long and would spoil it for you; that, and, to be honest, it's way too difficult. But like all his stories, despite events coming thick and fast, there's not a single superfluous detail and the sheer craft of making it all come together is beautiful to behold.

      Of course it's silly and pointless, but, and this is the thing, it's not silly and pointless in the world Wodehouse creates and sucks you into. So we accept happily that Bertie's friend Boko Fittleworth tried to ingratiate himself with Lord Worplesdon (Bertie's uncle) in order to marry his ward by producing joke spiders at lunch; that because of that Bertie "agreed" to insult Lord W so that Boko could leap out in his defence and get back in his good books; or later, having got his permission to marry, Boko would drive back from a fancy-dress dance unaware that Lord W was in the back and lock him up in the garage for the night. It all makes perfect sense in the context.

      The context has its roots in upper class society in England between the 1930s and 1950s, but the world Wodehouse depicts never actually existed. For a start, "it's a small world" as Bertie remarks to Jeeves early on in this book, consisting almost entirely of Bertie's relations, friends with silly ass names and their servants in London and the home counties. Nobody works for a living unless it's writing books or being a corporate magnate. Instead they spend their days extricating themselves from scrapes with all the intensity of UN Security Council deliberations. The outer world does not impinge at all. Earlier books made fun of the 1930s fascist movement with Roderick Spode and his "Black Shorts", but there is no social comment implicit in Jeeves' being the ideas man and Bertie, Boko, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, Stilton Cheesewright et al being, well, a few sandwiches short of a picnic. When Jeeves replies "Indeed, sir" to Bertie's comment about a small world there is condescension but not contempt. Jeeves, the auto-didact who reads Spinoza for pleasure, pulls all the strings and controls his alleged superiors, but he is not undermining the class structure in the process, just providing amusement.

      And it's a world where there is no sex, sorry. In fact, when the word "sexy" appears in this book, in reference to a fancy-dress outfit, one is somewhat startled. There is plenty of love, and most of the stories involve getting one or other infatuated lover paired up with his infatuee. Two pairs, in the case of J in the M. But it is all about love's young dream, not steamy couplings. Unusually, you do wonder whether the Boko and Nobby pairing which figures here will last the distance, with Nobby being totally clear-eyed and exasperated by Boko's ability to mess things up. With Bertie, of course, the situation is reversed. He is always trying to avoid being dragged up the aisle by totally unsuitable women.

      But the women get different treatment. You wouldn't trust any of the chaps to organise the proverbial raffle, and if even Bertie thinks Stilton Cheesewright is "wood from the neck up" you can be sure he's not one of England's brightest. The women, however, are not idiots and tend to fall into the "good egg" category, like Nobby, or the "blue-stocking", like Florence Craye, or ... whisper the word ... the Aunts. Bertie's parentage is unclear - he may even have sprung into being as a fully formed, immaculately dressed chump - but his immediate kin include his fearsome Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha, women who can make grown men tremble three counties away. Aunt Agatha does not actually appear in this book, but the potential threat of her presence is enough to direct events, like some invisible force field.

      But is it funny, you ask. Yes, it's funny. It's laugh-out-loud funny, snortingly funny, don't-read-it-on-the-train-or-you'll-need-to-stuff-a-handkerchief-in-your-mouth funny. Analysis of humour is nigh on impossible, so let me try out on you a kind of key Wodehouse-ism: "Aunt calling to aunt like mastodons across the primeval swamp". If that simile doesn't immediately make you laugh out loud with pleasure at its inventiveness and supreme aptness then you probably won't enjoy these books. Another often quoted one (and Wodehouse must have liked this because it reappears in J in the M) refers to Honoria Glossop's laugh "like a steam-riveting machine". I don't think I have actually heard a steam-riveting machine in operation but I know exactly the sound he is trying to convey. Much of the humour derives from his inventive use of language; without it, the stories are just farce-on-paper, amusing but not outstanding.

      He gets a lot of play from the clash of two different styles of speech. Jeeves is a man for whom circumlocution and precision were invented, whereas Bertie's vocabulary is more limited and of the "what ho" variety. Wodehouse is also, like Jeeves, annoyingly well read. The books are awash with literary quotes and classical allusions, correctly attributed by Jeeves, and garbled and misquoted by Bertie which adds to the fun. Put these two extremes together and drop them into the farcical and trivial situations Wodehouse dreams up and you get some sublime moments. Asked to confront his uncle to further Boko's suit, Bertie, instead of simply saying "No way", comes up with, "I don't know if you're familiar with the phrase nolle prosequi?" The inevitable response is "Nolly what?" Somehow, though, written down out of context, the whole thing becomes a nolle prosequi. You have to embrace it as a whole.

      So go read and enjoy. This is not one of his vintage efforts, and some of Jeeves' solutions lack the quirky originality we expect, but it will give some hours of pleasure and what more can you ask?

      Toodle-pip!

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      • More +
        27.11.2009 20:52
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        Nice, but not for the navigationally challenged

        There is an apocryphal recipe which begins "first catch your chicken". Equally, "first find your hotel" is pretty much a prerequisite for staying there, never mind writing a review about it. During my perambulations around Europe I've had some real tough ones to find, including some navigational challenges which have threatened divorce. These days, armed with Google maps and mobiles, the thrill of the hunt is lessened somewhat, so it was a surprise to come up against a brick wall on this one. Blind alley would be a better metaphor. We were in our usual configuration: he doing the higher intellectual stuff of map-reading; me, as a mere rude mechanical, doing the driving. We knew the hotel was in the old town, by the river, we had the hotel phone number and maps large and small.

        From the point at which we found the bridge we intended to cross was pedestrian only things went downhill. And uphill, and downhill again. By the time we were on our third circumnavigation of the narrow, cobbled and, at other times, charming old town of Bamberg tempers were fraying. As we stopped, yet again, to read the street signs and phone the hotel, concerned citizens tapped on the window and offered help. It's just over there, they said, but it's tricky to get to. Indeed. Just 50 yards from our destination I had to ask once more. The chap gave me a funny look but by then I didn't care.

        So it is to the hotel's credit that half an hour after arriving hot and frazzled I was feeling much more relaxed. But before we thankfully put the car away for the night and the rest of this review, I have to tell you about the parking arrangements. Car management is an important issue if you're staying here. This is a typical central European old town with very little space, so a car park is out of the question. Instead, the hotel has artfully built two garages into the structure, with fearsome looking ramps and hydraulics and stuff. Peering down into the depths, I wondered what happened if your car was at the bottom and you wanted a quick getaway next morning. Presumably they think of that. We left our jalopy and keys gratefully with the receptionist and rediscovered it next morning reversed up a narrow ramp that I would never have attempted. Rolling down the ramp was fine, but getting round the tight corner in the direction we wanted to go was not. Picture the scene: relaxed holiday-makers enjoying a late Sunday morning breakfast in the sunshine, interrupted by the growling of a car in low gear and then being asked if they would mind moving their table back. And just a little bit more. To their credit they were very gracious about it.

        Whether or not all the guests arrive in a state of hyper-irritation I couldn't say, but the reception is certainly very warm and welcoming. A young lady (all the staff were young, multi-tasking, and seemed to work all day and all evening - I hope they were well paid) showed us all round the hotel, explained where everything was, what time meals were etc. This didn't stop us immediately turning the wrong way when we left our room. We weren't having a good day navigationally speaking. But the hotel is a bit of a warren. It is both in, and of, the old town, being on the site of a former mill, and consists of two separate buildings linked at ground and first floor level. One of the buildings is on the bank and the other stands in the river which runs over a weir at this point, hence the mill. Inside, though, it is totally modern.

        Our room was a deluxe double, as opposed to a plain vanilla double. Triple rooms and suites are also available. Like the rest of the hotel it was very modern and light with white walls, light wood, brushed metal fittings and a minimalist design. It was L-shaped, with the en-suite bathroom in the infill of the L, so there was a small lobby area which opened out into the room. That description, however, gives the impression of its being much bigger than it actually was. In truth it was rather small. Fortunately we were only staying for one night as I think any longer and it would have felt distinctly cramped. The bathroom only had space for a shower, not a bath, and there was nowhere to put one's lotions and potions which I always find really irksome.

        As this was summer, in central Europe, on a river, we were pleased to see mosquito netting over one panel of the window, so we could have that part open and not stifle or be bitten to death. The heat generated in the shower room, however, was something else. It got to be like a sauna in there, so no chance of my lingering for hours, not without becoming a shadow of my former self, anyway. Nevertheless, the room had everything we needed, it all worked, and the bed was very comfortable.

        Visiting the old town from here is, of course, a short walk, and getting around on two feet as opposed to four wheels is a breeze. This is not a review about Bamberg, but I have to mention what a delightful place it is, with its highlight of the old town hall sitting on its own island in the river. In fact, the only other thing in the river, at least in this stretch of it, is our hotel, and one of its main selling points is its panoramic restaurant terrace with views on to the town hall.

        To which terrace we repaired for dinner. There are evenings which one can look back on when everything was just right - the food, the service, the setting - and this was one such. It was a Saturday so the terrace was full, with a pleasant buzz. The young staff bustled about, efficient but not over-formal, and as night fell the town hall was illuminated. The hotel kitchen has a good reputation and the food was very good indeed. I won't recount it course by course because the point was that it was part of a whole, and that whole was memorable. When the weather isn't kind the indoor restaurant also has a view, but then I think the ambience would be quite different. The river frontage in Bamberg is not opened up and developed - in fact here and there it could do with some tidying - so there is no row of bijou cafés and restaurants in which to sit and enjoy a summer evening, which makes the Sankt Nepomuk rather special. And it doesn't fail to make the most of it.

        So overall there was excellent, good and not so good. I'd give it 8/10 for the restaurant and 5/10 for the room which at Euro146 was a bit over the top for the space on offer. I'll decline to rate the access and parking and put that down to an off day.

        But why St Nepomuk you're asking (and if not, why not?). I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't enquire at the time and had to do some retrospective research (and me a seasoned Dooyooer too). St John of Nepomuk was a 14th century Czech saint put to death by King Wenceslas (no, not that one) for refusing to divulge the secrets of the confessional. Wenceslas had him drowned in the river Vltava, so by one of those tenuous saintly associations he is considered as a protection from flooding. What better saint to have beside you on a river bank. If you find yourself in Prague you will see a statue of him on Charles Bridge. But even better, he has his own website (www.sjn.cz/eng) - how cool and modern is that? He'll be writing on Dooyoo next. Watch out for the user name Johnny Nepp!

        Reunited with our problematic vehicle we set off next morning, remarking that at least now we knew the way. But no, we had to stop and ask again. Twice.

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        • Private Schulz (DVD) / DVD / 36 Readings / 32 Ratings
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          02.10.2009 11:06
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          A comedy drama of its time

          They don't make TV programmes like they used to, do they? Mind you, nothing's what it was - education, health service, yoof. No proper standards any more. As for the banks! Well, point proven. Now when I was young ....

          By now everyone over 50 is nodding in agreement and everyone under 25 has tuned out. Actually, I don't buy into that rosy-glowed view of the past stuff. Many things are better now, and much of the rest is simply ... different. Except for the banks, obviously. And TV drama. Good, made-for-TV drama, as opposed to corsages-and-carriages adaptations, is hard to find these days, and that strange hybrid, comedy drama, is virtually extinct.

          One member of the species that Mr C and I are fond of reminiscing about is Private Schulz, first broadcast in six episodes in 1981. A couple of years ago I went on-line to see if it was available on DVD. It wasn't, then, but what I did find was a coterie of like-minded Schulz enthusiasts. Some had precious videos of the original broadcast; others had seen it repeated on satellite in the middle of the night. One or two had written to the BBC asking, nay demanding, that it be made available on DVD. Last year our wishes were granted and the DVD was released.

          The story is set in World War 2 and is based on a real SS scheme called Operation Bernhard. The idea was to undermine the UK economy by forging millions of pounds worth of banknotes and dropping them from planes. (Toxic debt and sub-prime mortgages hadn't been invented then; they would have saved the SS a lot of trouble). Many would be handed in by honest citizens, but many more would find their way into circulation. Over £100m of forged notes were produced although the dropping from planes idea was abandoned. They were used for purchases of foreign goods and paying spies and agents. The Bank of England became aware of their existence, of course, and declared them the best forgeries ever seen. Not surprising, as the SS had ready access to master criminals conveniently penned up in concentration camps. The forgers were scheduled for termination after their work was done, but in the chaos of 1945 they all survived.

          So a wacky story, perfect for a comedy drama. In this treatment, credit for the original idea is ascribed to Schulz, a small-time conman brimming with ideas who finds himself as a private in the SS because of his language skills. We follow him through the initial idea, the setting up of the counterfeit scheme and the attempts to distribute the forged cash. But he is more than just the ideas man. With his lowly position and Everyman name he represents the little guy constantly dumped on from above: he takes the rap when things go wrong, and gets no credit when they go brilliantly right. We watch him moving through and after the war trying, and failing, to (a) get his hands on some of the forged cash as everyone else is, and (b) get laid, as everyone else also is. Despite the setbacks, of which there are many, he is always planning, trying to find a way round obstacles, never down-hearted for long. Like a modern Candide he keeps bouncing back, even as cataclysmic events rage around him, and never harbours a grudge.

          Michael Elphick is perfect as Schulz. His round, open face and rubbery features are ideal for conveying expressions of hurt surprise and righteous indignation as his best-laid plans go awry, morphing into cautious optimism and calculating shrewdness as another proverbial light bulb goes on in his head. The acting prize, however, belongs to the late lamented Ian Richardson as Major Neuheim. You may remember him best as Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, but I prefer him in this role because it displays all his versatility and encompasses both the dramatic and the comic. With that thin ascetic face and long patrician nose he is every inch the archetypal SS officer, but he is part master-race and part on-the-make, protect-my-backside bumbler and this comic combination is delightfully portrayed by Richardson taking it just far enough not to tip over into farce. A plot device also allows him to play two other roles and as this composite he represents Schulz's nemesis, the one thing that is always getting between him and a quiet, rich life. Richardson is spell-binding in his virtuosity and sheer screen presence, Elphick is the perfect foil and they are ably supported by Billie Whitelaw and a host of well-known character actors of that era.

          So the story was quirky, the script witty and taut, the acting wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it again, right? Er, well no, not exactly. Like cold leftovers, it wasn't quite the same: good, but not tip-top. I've been pondering why and decided it came down to two things.

          The first problem was the direction. The pace was so slow, almost glacial at times. I wanted to shout, "oh, do get on" at several points, not because I knew what was coming next (I couldn't remember much of the detail), but because the story-line seemed to linger in the wrong places and hold up the dramatic thrust. Yet when the action did flow it was superb, which made it doubly annoying when it came to a shuddering halt. Scenes with background groups seemed to be the worst. Although the settings looked authentic enough, they were peopled with one or two token, stiff characters who succeeded only in being a distraction. If asked to write about this series in 1981, I wouldn't have included "slow direction" in my account, so why does it strike me like this now? Have our lives speeded up to such an extent that even a slow-paced TV programme jars? Or is it just a matter of fashion, dictated by fast action movies? Whichever, the directing style has not aged well.

          The other problem is broader, and concerns the vexed question of comedy about the SS and concentration camp inmates. "'Allo 'Allo!" was the subject of much hand-wringing over this issue, and that was out-and-out farce with every side ridiculed equally. In the comedy drama genre of Private Schulz we are in more danger of finding the combination of the cuddly Schulz and the bumbling Neuheim relatively harmless, even with extras in their concentration camp uniforms in the background, wrapped as we are in the overall feel-good ambience of the production. Perhaps in an effort to jerk us out of this cosy world, each episode is interspersed with contemporary newsreel footage, both British and German, and later American, to remind us of the broader picture. But it remains entertainment designed to make us laugh. I like to think I can resist the loonier strictures of the PC brigade but I felt a bit uncomfortable with this, again not something I was aware of before. It's interesting that our sensitivities are more heightened now, although I don't think it's made us a more caring society. That discussion, however, is for another time and place. Suffice it to say that it wasn't enough to be a major issue, for me, but anyone offended by "'Allo 'Allo!" won't like this.

          There is a film treatment of the story in "The Counterfeiters" ("Die Fälscher"), a 2008 Austrian-German production, and Radio 4 recently ran an interview with the sole surviving forger. It is a story which, not surprisingly, generates interest and is perhaps best told straight with no fictional overlay. I was a little disappointed with my re-visit, but apart from the specific drawbacks I mentioned I probably over-hyped it in my mind and there are still some sublime moments. Catch Private Schulz if you can, but don't go out of your way. And remember nothing's what it was, not the banks, not TV programmes and certainly not nostalgia.

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          • More +
            25.09.2009 11:34
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            A castle - or maybe a cité

            How do you like your castles? Do you go for grey, forbidding, lurking hulks with curtain walls and implicit violence? Or something more refined like a French chateau, more curlicues than crenellations? Do you like to poke about in weed-grow ruins or do you prefer your castles with a roof and coats-of-armour furnishings? What about size - a small tower to guard a pass, or a full-scale fortress covering a large area and a lot of history? The point I'm making is that "castle" encompasses a wide variety of structures and a range of purposes. So on my first visit to Prazsky Hrad, Prague Castle, I was prepared for any or all of those things, but what I found didn't really fit even this flexible definition. In fact, I've been trying to find a better word than castle to describe the complex (apart from "surprise", obviously). The best I can do is the French "cité", or, less good, "citadel". Both those go some way towards describing a collection of military, religious and administrative buildings dating from various periods and whose relationship to each other is more locational than functional.

            Before going inside to try to make sense of it all, I recommend taking a long view of it from a distance. You will probably emerge from the metro at Malostranska and immediately look upwards to get a glimpse. Unfortunately from here you won't see a great deal - too close and at the wrong angle. You need to be further away. Across the river in Staré Mesto, the Old Town, the view is restricted by narrow streets and tall buildings, plus you've got other things to look at over there. So aim for somewhere in the middle - Charles Bridge, or a boat on the river (nice on a hot summer afternoon). Now you can see the structure clearly: a long, low group of buildings running along a rocky outcrop with defensive-looking masonry at each end, not unlike the hull of a ship. It was first built in the 9th century to protect the ford below and for that its position is ideal. You might also be struck by the rows of little windows dotting the exterior walls, giving it a colander-like look, but we'll come to the windows later. Dominating the whole caboodle, towering above the low-rise surrounding buildings and complete with spires and buttresses, is a gothic cathedral. Looking northwards (from your left to right) you'll see something that looks like, and is, a basilica. Eventually, at the far northern edge, are a tower and some battlements - a castle at last.

            It has been described as the "largest medieval castle complex in Europe", but that's only half right. While the size is not in dispute, "medieval" is not apt, as wars, fire and individuals' desire to make their mark all contributed to rebuilding in the 12th, 14th, 16th and 17th centuries. It is still in use today by the President of the Czech Republic. What it does provide, better than any text book, is a potted history of Prague and its importance in the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later as you wander round the Old Town you will be able to add flesh to the bones of what the castle has to tell you.

            Let's start with the big, dominant cathedral which appropriately was put there by a big, dominant ruler. You can't go far in Prague or the Czech Republic without coming across Charles IV. It's his bridge, his university, his town in the north of the country and his countless squares and streets. Although a 14th century King of Bohemia and later Holy Roman Emperor he was modern in outlook and a great builder, not just in the bricks and mortar sense. He and his father John of Luxemburg fought with the French at Crécy, against another father and son combination Edward III and the Black Prince. It was partly that experience which led to his pragmatism and dislike of fruitless gestures. He ordered the construction of this cathedral in 1334, on the site of an existing Romanesque church, to contain the relics of St Vitus.

            Why St Vitus? He was a popular saint in central Europe. People used to dance at his shrines, hence the name St Vitus' Dance given to Sydenham's chorea whose sufferers display involuntary muscle movements. As well as the patron saint of dancers and entertainers he also guards against animal attacks and lightning strikes, among many other things. So a very practical and useful saint. You won't learn this in Prague; remember you read it here (courtesy of Google).

            The cathedral is "transitional gothic", so not quite the full flowering you get in the finest English and French gothic cathedrals, no delicate tracery vaulting or soaring lightness. Nevertheless it is a very nice place to be. It is stuffed full of art treasures and has a crypt of Bohemian kings (including Charles), but I thought the nicest part was the chapel of St Wenceslas (yes, that Wenceslas) which contains his tomb. It is covered in semi-precious stones which sounds way too ornate, but the dark reds and greens produced an understated opulence I found very beautiful.

            Let's move forward nearly three centuries to the early 17th, the age of most of the buildings you see in the courtyards around you. It is also the time of Rudolf II, another modern, though quirky, Holy Roman Emperor, but notably less successful in the actual business of ruling. His courtiers despaired of his interest in "wizards, alchemists and the like" while he sought to make of Prague a renaissance city, attracting, no doubt among a host of witch-doctors and snake-oil merchants, the astronomers Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Here in the castle you can see his Court Chamber.

            Unfortunately while he was happy as a virtual recluse in Prague Castle, Europe was sliding into the unrest of the counter-reformation, which brings us neatly to the windows mentioned earlier. The Czech assassination method of choice is defenestration, a poncy latinised way of saying chucking people out of windows. It is effective, of course, but surprisingly not always for the victims, some of whom survived. In 1618 the defenestration of two Catholic governors and their secretary unleashed the Thirty Years War, which in its Europe-wide devastation rivalled anything the 20th century produced. You can see the very window and obelisks now mark the landing spot. But by then they were well practised. In 1419 they had done exactly the same thing, flinging out a collection of town councillors to start the Hussite Wars. Later when you stand in the middle of the Old Town Square admiring the statue of Jan Hus, and seeing Hapsburg building frontages round the square obscuring church façades, you can reflect that the castle was where it all started.

            Meanwhile we continue strolling through the castle and the centuries. Like most of Prague, the focus is largely on the exteriors and the ensemble, rather than individual interiors and the interest is by association rather than what you actually see. There are no exquisite furnishings, no beds where monarchs slept. The interior of St George's Basilica is no longer a church but a collection of Bohemian art. Where there are portraits they are of Hapsburgs, a graphic illustration of the outcome of the Thirty Years War and an empire that lasted until 1918.

            As did the castle, and indeed still does, although the major events of the 20th century - the creation of Czechoslovakia, the German invasion, the declaration of a communist republic, Prague Spring, the new Czech Republic - took place elsewhere in the city. Nevertheless two further points of interest bring us up to date. Golden Lane, at the northern end of the complex, is a street of former and indeed current artisans' houses, though now mainly of the tourist sort. Nevertheless its collection of brightly coloured Hobbit houses and cobbled paving is still charming. Kafka lived in one of them for a time, in the shadow of the castle. How apt. Then moving from the sublime to the ridiculous there is the changing of the guard. Vaclav Havel when he was President was responsible, apparently, for the sky-blue uniforms with white cravats. In this get-up, complete with dark glasses and long hair, they look like the bodyguard of a South American drug baron. The Brigade of Guards would have a fit. The bits of ceremonial heel-clicking take place in the front courtyard with the backdrop of the baroque façade. Your time is better spent admiring that, or indeed the fine view over the city.

            There are more buildings - a toy museum, a powder tower - and some I've only alluded to. Overall it's an eclectic mix and therefore difficult to rate. It's not strikingly beautiful, or awesomely impressive, or even the sum of its parts. I hesitate to use the word "interesting" which has overtones of "worthy and boring" but, like the castle itself, I struggle to find a better description.

            Some practical points. Firstly, getting there. Back at Malostranska metro station you need to get up the hill. You can walk, of course, but my advice would be to save your legs for the castle itself and instead take one of Prague's excellent trams two stops up the hill. Next you have to decide whether to buy a ticket, and if so which of several options. A ticket is not essential - you can wander all over the complex and into St Vitus Cathedral for free (although there are usually queues for the latter). There are three levels of ticket, depending on which and how many buildings you actually want to go inside. For this purpose Golden Lane is considered a "building" and fee-paying. The ticket office usually has a patient queue of people while all these options (including family tickets and audio guides) are explained in the appropriate language to every visitor. Finally, you will be one of many visitors. Although the complex is large there are bottlenecks, and if you are irritated by umbrella-wielding tour leaders and forests of arms brandishing digital cameras, best go at a quiet time of year.

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            • More +
              17.09.2009 13:07
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              The best TV viewing I can remember

              Were any of you old enough to be reading newspapers during the Watergate scandal? If so, you may remember that the papers were full of not just Nixon and Deep Throat, but other key people with exotic names and titles like Bob Haldeman, Chief of Staff, John Ehrlichman, Domestic Affairs Adviser, John Dean, White House Counsel. The newspaper articles had little explanatory panels explaining who these guys were and what they did. So involved were they in the scandal that they all did time in jail. Since Nixon there have been (quick check on Google) seven presidents, and presumably at least that many Chiefs of Staff etc. Of these I could name precisely none, not even the present incumbents. But never mind, instead I have Leo McGarry, Toby Ziegler, Josh Lyman, Sam Seaborn, C J Cregg. Yes, folks, I have discovered West Wing.

              So have I been living under a stone for the last ten years, I hear you ask. In my defence, I have to say that I was not unaware of the series. But there are many programmes I am aware of, that I would not dream of wasting a second of my precious allotted span watching. Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity, Deal or No Deal, EastEnders, Lost, the X Files, anything with Simon Cowell, anything with Gordon Ramsay - I'll stop before this becomes a serious digression and I lose my thread. I wasn't even moved to get WW: my husband brought it home one day, showing a hitherto unsuspected brilliance of insight. We were so grabbed by it that we were watching two episodes a night, for several nights in a row. We had to call a period of cold turkey and put it away for a bit. Now we've got it under control at one episode a week. (Thursdays. 8-ish. Don't ring).

              I think my viewing experience of WW falls into two parts: the first episode, and all the rest. The first episode, which was also the pilot, set the scene with a bang, and the strengths and weaknesses of the series were evident here. Frankly, I was floundering a bit. It was fast moving, quick-witted, and assumed the viewers were intelligent adults with an attention span longer than a nano-second. So naturally I was caught unawares. To be fair, as the pilot it was also a little raw, unbalanced and the actors were not totally into the skins of their characters. But it soon settled down to become one of the most enjoyable TV series I've ever watched. At times it's so good I could hug myself.

              For fellow stone-dwellers out there a brief bit of scene-setting. We are in the early days of a new administration led by President Jed Bartlet, a Democrat and liberal academic economist with a fondness for the classics. The story line revolves round him and his inner circle of advisers as they grapple with international, national and personal issues. I like to think it was written as an antidote to Dubya, as a representation of the kind of ideal president we would like to have before Saint Obama came along. Bartlet has the vision of Kennedy, the statesmanship of Roosevelt, the charm of Clinton, the family values of Carter. But as well as those qualities he also has faults and problems, to make him a fully rounded human being. The whole tenor of the administration, however, is one of trying hard to do their best and maintain their principles in the face of the inevitable events which threaten to derail them or at best demand compromises.

              It is actually a soap, in that it has running themes affecting the same characters over a series of episodes. But comparing it to EastEnders is like comparing Dickens to Dan Brown: it is so far at the upper end of the spectrum it is out of sight. So let's stick to drama as a definition, especially as part of its effectiveness lies in its deployment of classical dramatic devices. This programme takes no prisoners, so I won't either. I'm going to invoke Aristotle (President Bartlet would approve) and his unities, of place, time and action. Proper drama, the Great Man said, should take place in one location, in a period of 24 hours and have one theme. Of course, since Aristotle's time we have been round the loop from these classical restraints, to the relatively unstructured Shakespearian model, and back again several times. But for sheer drama you can't beat the claustrophobic tension engendered by what is effectively a ticking clock in a small space. WW frequently has a timescale running, counting hours or days since or until something has happened or will happen. Equally, most of the action is, unsurprisingly, in the West Wing, the administration offices or the Oval Office itself. It does, of course, venture out to other locations, but the best stuff all happens literally in the corridors of power.

              Unity of action would have no point in an on-going series such as this, and in any case, it's often the side-by-side action of the internationally important and the mundane that produces its strokes of genius. But just to stick with Aristotle for a bit longer, his drama was the clash of gods and princes. You can't have drama without Big Issues and these aren't found among the peasantry. He wouldn't have got on with EastEnders at all. In our more egalitarian times, the equivalent is the leader of the western world, and the Big Issues all around - race, terrorism, drugs, welfare, gun crime, equal rights - are intrinsic to the action, not just artificially tacked on to an everyday story of country or city folk. What happens matters, and is all the more dramatic for it.

              Where we finally part company with Aristotle (you'll be relieved to hear) is with the humour. To Aristotle drama was tragedy, comedy was something else, and the two didn't meet. In WW the humour is sharp, topical and so, so clever, but also surprisingly wide-ranging. It's not just pointed barbs and plays on words; at times it ventures into the burlesque and even farce. And gets away with it. The balance of humour varies across the episodes so that the tenor of each one is slightly different, ranging from the dark "Take This Sabbath Day" to the richly comic "Celestial Navigation". The conjunction of drama and humour has long been acknowledged, both in fiction and real life, as the contrasts accentuate the effect of each, but the range of comedy in this series is so wide, yet always finely judged.

              It gets away with it, as I said above, because if there is one quality the series exudes it's self-confidence. Can you imagine a British TV episode with a title "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"? It's pacey, witty, clever, does what it wants on its own terms and if the viewer can't follow what's going on, too bad. There are no compromises, no meeting halfway, and it's enormously refreshing after the fudge and dumbing-down of most British TV output. The genius of the screenplay is matched by the direction which makes great use of moving shots through cutaway walls as characters walk down corridors or from office to office. It conveys a sense of urgency, keeps the pace of the narrative going at a lick and at the same time emphasises the unity of place I was going on about above. In one instance the camera looked down on a character from the ceiling of a small office, a perfect metaphor for being boxed in, as indeed the character was.

              I haven't mentioned the actors who, to me anyway, were mostly unknown apart from Martin Sheen as Bartlet. Each show usually has a special guest and I don't know them either, except the old-timers like Jay Leno and Karl Malden. Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman) and John Spencer (Leo McGarry) both appeared in a mediocre Harrison Ford film I saw recently but they were minor actors, as I suspect they all were before WW. None is outstanding and that is actually a virtue in that there is no dominant figure, no big ego to skew the emphasis. If one character is central at any time it is because of the narrative drive, and that character is not always the president. Sheen as Bartlet has great screen presence, as demanded by the role, but his rather short stature, softness around the eyes and mouth and air of vulnerability ensure that we remember he is human not just an all-powerful figure-head.

              Now, in the interests of balance I ought to mention weaknesses. The difficulty is that I don't want to imply that these are in the slightest way detrimental to the brilliance of the series. They matter not a whit; I mention them for the record. Firstly, it can be a little too schmaltzy for British tastes, especially in the Christmas episode "In Excelsis Deo" (more Latin!). This is not a fault, just a difference of culture, but I prefer it when it's meaner and tougher. Then there are two characters whose personae tend to be contradictory: Toby Ziegler is the most taciturn, buttoned-up Communications Chief I've come across in real life or fiction, while Josh Lyman manages to be both the class clown and a ruthless, hard-dealing Deputy Chief of Staff. This makes them interesting, but not totally believable. And finally, to scrape the barrel, when we are introduced to Charlie, the president's bag-man, we are told his mother was a police officer shot and killed in the line of duty. Charlie looks after his little sister, but if he's at the president's side 24/7 who is looking after her?

              Since it ran from 1999 to 2006 there are many DVD compilations of WW divided up into series, volumes and seasons. This is the complete first season of 22 episodes on 6 discs, available on Amazon for £8.97 compared with a jaw-dropping RRP of £61.99. It's the best ten quids' worth of entertainment you'll find and, joy, there are lots more seasons after the first. I have the second one, right here ...

              So, to sum up, I liked it. As always, I look forward to your comments, but with two provisos. Firstly, you can say what you like about the review (and I know you will) but I won't brook any negative comments about the series itself! Secondly, no unintentional spoilers like "it goes downhill after this". Just remember, Aristotle would have enjoyed it. He might even have managed a smile!

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                10.09.2009 11:39
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                Of literary interest

                I am. This is one scary woman. Consider. She was the founder and lynch-pin of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers, artists, and poets which is now a by-word for intellectual élitism. She was married to a poet (Leonard) and her sister and brother-in-law (the Bells) were artists. She herself was an experimental novelist, essayist and critic. She is so highbrow her hairline is invisible. Nor was she easy on the personal front. Depression accompanied her throughout her life (she drowned herself in 1941) and she was bisexual- she had a relationship with Vita Sackville-West of Sissinghurst fame. Fancy being sat next to her on a long-haul flight. What would your opening conversational gambit be? "Do you fly often?" To which she would probably reply: "Only on the gossamer wings of my fancy, to soar, but never attain ..." Or something.

                Anyway, it was about time to see what all the fuss was about. Of course I was full of preconceived notions of what to expect. And largely they were proved correct, although there were one or two surprises.

                If you know one thing about Virginia Woolf, it's that nothing happens in her novels. So I'm giving nothing away - there is nothing to give away - if I tell you that the book is about Clarissa Dalloway preparing for a party one June day in 1923. It starts in the morning as she goes to buy flowers and ends in the evening after the party. In between we are treated to a series of thoughts, day-dreaming and associations going through the mind of Clarissa, and the minds of characters whose paths she crosses, and characters whose paths cross the paths of ... and so on. She sits at the centre of a web of inter-relationships, with some characters very close to her and others connected to her by only very tenuous links.

                The internal action that goes on in the heads of the characters is presented in a "stream of consciousness", a technique of which she was a fore-runner. Experimental for its time, it unpicks the psychology of the individual as if they were on a psychiatrist's couch, revealing their innermost selves by what they think. By the end of the novel we should understand everything about them.

                Does it work? Yes and no. The internal action is described by means of a series of observations, often with a simile or metaphor, some of which are quite elaborately and lengthily constructed. Each little observation, or part of the image, is separated by that much neglected piece of punctuation, the semi-colon. In fact there are more semi-colons on the page than is frankly healthy in a confined space. The result is that some sentences can run to half a page and the reader is left rather breathless as image is piled on image. Here is an example:

                "... as if all this fever of living were simplicity itself; and myriads of things merged in one thing; and this figure, made of sky and branches as it is, had risen from the troubled sea as a shape might be sucked up out of the waves to shower down from her magnificent hands, compassion, comprehension, absolution ..."

                Not all will find a sympathetic response with every reader, and that particular group didn't work for me. When it does, though, it can be striking, distinctive and original. Two instances - when Mrs Dalloway is considering her own sexuality, and the workings of the mind of someone in the grip of depression - are especially powerful, largely I think because they come from personal experience and are written with the heart. Quite a lot of the rest of it is written with the head.

                But as a technique of character description it is very effective. The reader starts with a blank canvas with only a name, a title, a relationship, and gradually layers of colour are added, a nuance here, an illumination there. Characters' own self-revelations are highlighted or contrasted by the observations of them by others. By the end of the novel I felt I had the measure of Mrs Dalloway and the rest of the cast, with one exception. Woolf allows herself a dramatic device to kick-start the action, or rather the reflections, of the day. Mrs Dalloway has a visit from an old flame, Peter Walsh, whom she hasn't seen for years. I really didn't know what to make of him at all; I didn't understand his reactions or his emotions (note the semi-colon there, it's catching). In the end, I simply found him a bit wet, but as a conduit to Mrs Dalloway's past he had a useful function.

                Indeed quite a lot of the introspective musings refers to the past. We are reminded of time passing as the day progresses, marked by a clock striking, often Big Ben ("... the sound glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound, like something alive which wants to confide itself, to disperse itself, to be, with a tremor of delight, at rest ...". Oh dear, that one didn't quite work, did it?). If there is a theme in the novel, other than its experimental format, it is the weight of the past bearing on, and defining, the present. Just the sort of thing to bring on a depression.

                And still looking beyond the stylistic novelties, it would be wrong to say that nothing at all happens. There is an event in the middle of the book which in its sharply physical unexpectedness jolts the reader out of the image-filled cocoon the author has woven. Likewise when Woolf temporarily abandons the long, semi-colon-rich sentences for terse ones the contrast and change of pace is startling. For that matter, there is a great deal of dialogue, meetings, to-ings and fro-ings. The characters certainly don't address each other in fanciful imagery and the dialogue can be crisp, if a little oblique.

                At two points where this external, as opposed to internal, activity is going on - the event already alluded to, and the party at the end - Woolf's technique of observational phrases exactly prefigures a cinematic treatment. The scenes unfold before you like a film, illuminated from different points of view, now an intimate tête-à-tête, now a wide-angle view of the whole scene, little snatches of conversation, episodes involving all the characters. At the party scene the addition of the thoughts of the domestic staff give a quite different dimension and their "contribution" helps to create a sense of bustle and atmosphere.

                Overall, a praise-worthy novel, with some good stuff in it, but not a book to curl up with for an afternoon. Reading too much at once is like over-indulging in chocolate; the imagery is just too rich and, in the end, frankly tiring. It was said of Wagner that he had "lovely moments, but awful quarters of an hour" and that could equally apply here. But one can admire it for its many virtues, and for the fact that Mrs Dalloway's perambulations run parallel to those of Dedalus and Bloom wandering through Dublin. So one for the literature students, and those of us who need to lay a few fears to rest!

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                • More +
                  03.09.2009 12:21
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                  Lovely example of Roman villa remains

                  "Secluded, detached villa in 200 acres with river frontage. The property has been extended and now affords spacious family accommodation as well as domestic staff quarters. Warm air under-floor central heating throughout. Through dining room with decorative tiled floor. Suite of bathrooms with hot and cold plumbing and sunken baths. Excellent decorative order with many unique design features. Farm buildings. Viewing highly recommended."

                  So might a fourth century Romano-British estate agent, with one eye on his commission, have written up this villa. Nearly two thousand years later the current owners, English Heritage, had the decorators in to redo the layout and displays, and they were just as keen that we should view it. So off I went.

                  I'm sure "locus, locus, locus" was the mantra then just as much as now, as this is a most charming and peaceful location. It's fortunate in that it remains secluded - no modern housing or industry crowds up around it or indeed is visible from it at all. In fact, if you pick your spot, blotting out the car park and the unfortunately placed railway viaduct further down the valley, the view will not be dissimilar to that enjoyed by its original occupants. Watling Street (now imaginatively renamed the A2) ran/runs from Richborough on the Channel coast to Canterbury and on to London, crossing rivers flowing south to north towards the Thames. Two of these rivers, the Medway and the Darent, have several villa sites in their valleys because of the closeness to the trade and transport route. Lullingstone is on the Darent, a small river which can dry up completely in summer. Not when was there though; it was chuckling along busily, as little English rivers should, winding through willows and alders and with water meadows beyond. A really lovely spot.

                  Unfortunately, the exterior of the building we are presented with today does not proclaim past glories. It is a purely functional structure covering the villa site and housing the administrative offices. But no matter, the interest lies inside. The entrance, ticket office and shop occupy the north side, and from there you go into the site itself. The east, west and south sides have wooden walkways round them and there is also a second, upper level on the east side so you get various perspectives. What remains of the original walls is very low, so you can easily "see" into all the rooms from every angle. It's like looking down on a floor plan, and, like all floor plans in my experience, seems to make the building smaller without the height dimension.

                  So what are you looking at? Well, the stone-built construction dates from the first century AD and it was extended and the internal layout changed round at various times until it was a sizeable villa. Sadly it suffered a common fate, being destroyed by fire (in the early 5th century) and that was the end of it. Soil sliding down the hillside behind covered and protected it until it was excavated in the 1940s and 1950s. Nothing is known of the families who lived there, other than that they were reasonably well-to-do and worked the surrounding land with their domestic servants.

                  In truth, it requires a great deal of imagination, or a historian's detailed knowledge, to peer down into these dark rectangles of living space and try to populate them with life, love, argument and laughter. Some of the functions can only be guessed at, e.g. "probable bedroom", but the specific shapes of the bath suite are recognisable and connoisseurs of Roman remains will recognise the wobbly piles of hypocaust tiles. Part of a flight of steps leading down into a cellar is a nicely distinct feature. I also like the fact that the whole perimeter, of the main building at least, is distinguishable, unlike other, larger villas at Fishbourne and Bignor where only a part has been excavated. So far, interesting enough, but two specific features lift it into the "distinguished and unique" bracket.

                  The first is the mosaic floor in the triclinium, or dining room. The largest room in the house, it opened out into an apse at the top and was the room for receiving, feeding and impressing guests. Two lovely mosaics survive, almost complete, depicting mythical scenes of Europa and the Bull and Bellerophon and the Chimaera. Between the two scenes are decorative panels, including swastika shapes and key patterns. The colours are gold, deep red, ivory and black; the details are fine and the lines are flowing. I liked them very much. I've just had a look at what the guide book had to say and it was rather sniffy, admitting that the lines were "simple and effective" but pointing out the errors the mosaicist had made as experts like to do. Well the almost impossible to spot errors did not detract from them for me, and there was an excellent view from the upper floor right down on to them.

                  The second feature is rather more problematical. A clue can be found on the wall of a room just inside the entrance - a painting in a niche of a water nymph. During excavations thousands more pieces of painted plaster were found in the cellar and painstakingly reconstructed. One of the reconstructions is said to represent a chi-rho, a symbol for Christ, and the other a frieze of "orantes" or praying figures with arms upraised. From this evidence Lullingstone has been acknowledged as one of the earliest sites of Christianity in the UK, over 200 years before St Augustine arrived. But you look in vain for these relics during your visit here, for they are in the British Museum. All you can see at the place where they were found are photos and diagrams. Similarly two marble male heads have also been carted off, and copies made for display at Lullingstone. How irritating is this? The things that make the site unique are not here. Suddenly I have some sympathy with the Greeks' "give us back our Elgin Marbles". (Well only some. If they were in Greece I doubt I'd ever see them!).

                  Later on a visit to the British Museum I made a point of seeing the Lullingstone stuff. It was, not surprisingly, in the room dedicated to Romano-British relics, of which there is a considerable amount, some of it truly stunning. So our paintings and heads were a little lost among the riches, and were difficult to appreciate out of context. The site at Lullingstone loses because its unique findings are elsewhere, and the British Museum loses because the significance is not fully brought out and there is no information about the site. A sign next to the display said "Donated by Kent County Council". Well thank you, KCC. The marble heads are labelled as only "on loan". Can we have them back?

                  And what of the paintings themselves? They are displayed with the original bits of painted plaster mounted on a board, and the missing bits added in. From a distance they look amazing, but close up you can see that the proportion of "actual" to "assumed" is something like 10/90. With the chi-rho image it is a little better, more like 30/70. In short, to an amateur like me it is almost inconceivable that they got from these bits to that completed image. A write-up, either at Lullingstone or the BM, on the process and deductions would be fascinating and instructive. However, we must just admire both the original artwork of byzantine-looking, haloed, robed figures, and the brilliance of the 20th century reconstruction.

                  Meanwhile, back at Lullingstone, there's more to see. A mausoleum behind the villa yielded several graves and grave goods of jewellery and a game with counters. Many pottery, bronze and glass containers were also found. These are well displayed with good descriptions, along with panels describing life and times and some very useful images of what the villa probably looked like. A short film on a screen hung over the site is well produced, and the relevant areas are illuminated as they are mentioned. Some kind of directional sound means it does not interfere with other visitors. If you take the kids, there is a good children's section with a quiz, dressing up clothes, and making mosaics out of tesserae. This mosaic-making is popular at Roman sites, but it's good fun. So I elbowed a couple of eight-year-olds out of the way and had a go.

                  If I have an issue with the whole layout, it's with the lighting. Obviously the site has to be covered, but does it have to be so dark? There is no natural light at all; instead there is a series of spotlights which dazzle but do not illuminate, and the remains of the villa are dark enough to start with. Trying to read my booklet I was either struggling to find an angle for it to be legible, or shielding my eyes from a piercing beam. Bignor and Fishbourne have glazed side walls which I would wholeheartedly recommend here.

                  Also a little strange was what is not visible. In the excavations of the 1940s they uncovered a granary, then covered it up again. It now lies under a patch of grass next to the car park. Up on Hadrian's Wall they get very excited about granaries. One is being uncovered at Vindolanda, and at Corbridge the two granaries with their huge buttresses, raised floors and mullioned windows are a pride and joy. Why not leave this one exposed? Despite all those years of Time Team there's much still mystifies me about archaeology.

                  So I have some moans, but overall it's well worth a visit. The whole site is small enough to get to grips with and the mosaics and finds are a delight. Stepping outside again one can't help but admire the location once more. It's easy to envisage the owner on his verandah in the evening forgetting for a while his worries about economic stability, education, health, rising prices. Nothing much changes. Least of all the view.


                  Practical details. Lullingstone Villa is just outside the village of Eynsford. Follow the signs from the centre of the village. Don't worry when the road narrows down to a country lane and the signs peter out. Keep going, keeping the river on your left and when the road stops you're there. Don't go to Lullingstone Castle (of recent TV series fame) as there's no direct route from there. Much of the visit is on one level, but there are steps up to it and up to the upper level. There is a small lift. Opening hours vary through the year and are on the English Heritage website.

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                  • John Lewis CCJ100JLU / Juicer / 37 Readings / 35 Ratings
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                    26.08.2009 19:35
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                    A great little machine for the price

                    Let me start by saying that you don't really need this product. Life of a perfectly reasonable quality can go on without one. On the hierarchy of needs it's up there with gas barbecues, classical music mobile ring tones and Dan Brown novels. They're there, so have them if you must. And when it comes to freshly squeezed orange juice, I'm afraid I must. I like my juice straight from the fruit, complete with bits of pulp, pith and a few small pips to give it body. I am not alone. If any of you follow the acerbic, annoying, but always readable Michael Winner restaurant column in the Sunday Times, you'll know he feels the same way, although I like to think that's our only point of resemblance (at the moment - I'm working on the millionaire thing). I'm sure there are others of you in this select band, so read on.

                    A one-fruit wonder

                    The other thing to make clear at the outset is that although this extracts juice, it is not a Juice Extractor. No. Searching for one of these on Google, you may find yourself absent-mindedly typing in "juice extractor" and an array of attractive products will appear, every one of which will say sternly "not suitable for citrus fruits". Juice Extractors pulp fruit into smoothies and such like; this is a much more exclusive bit of kit and is, of course, a Citrus Press. So here we have a single-use, somewhat superfluous machine with an identity problem, possibly endorsed by a fat bloke selling car insurance on TV. Onwards.

                    The fruits of my labour

                    I bet all of you have lurking at the back of your kitchen cupboard a plastic juice squeezer consisting of a cone which sits on a collecting dish. Why don't I use one of these, save on kitchen space, electricity and minimise my carbon footprint? Well, I'm weak and feeble and citrus fruits can be real tough cookies, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. The blokes in the house wouldn't dream of getting their fingers sticky, but we all want more than a teaspoonful of fresh orange juice for breakfast. I've had an electric citrus press for years now, and when the last one cashed in its pips I reverted briefly to manual labour. For a few weeks it was like a morning workout, and I was shaping up to become a one-sided Popeye until I called a halt and found this machine.

                    It's good to torque

                    Torque is defined as the force which produces rotation. Amongst petrol heads it is considered a Good Thing, something to do with the mysterious workings of the internal combustion engine. Here, the greater the torque, the more the cone twists against the flesh of the fruit to extract the juice. The electric citrus presses have the same basic shape as the manual ones - a cone on top of a juice collector. A motor generates more power, hence more torque and more juice. Some fruit halves are left as clean as a whistle. It still needs some human input: you set it going by pressing the fruit half down on the cone (there's no on/off switch) and can help it along by squeezing the fruit against the cone as it's rotating to extract more juice.

                    Rocket-proportioned...

                    All my citrus presses have had the same basic design: motor at the base, juice collector on top, cone on top of that and recently a dust cover to fit over the cone to prevent an interesting admixture of crumbs and dead flies livening up your vitamin C. This particular appliance stands a bit taller, at about 8½ inches, and at first I marvelled, wrongly, at how much juice it would hold. A full 6 inches of this height is motor, leaving the juice collector a relatively shallow 2½ inches. In terms of payload to propulsion think Saturn V rocket. Unlike similar machines which tend to be squat and plastic, this is sleek, the motor section brushed stainless steel and the base and juice collector rocket black. It looks lean, mean and handsome and would not disgrace your elegant kitchen. It positively enhances mine. It also has a trick up its sleeve, or, more precisely, tucked under its dust cover.

                    ....and turbo-powered

                    When you've squeezed your fruit as normal, put the dust cover over the cone and press again. The dust cover makes contact with connections round the outside rim which switches on the turbo power. The motor develops a deep-throated roar, spins faster and extracts more juice from the pulp and pith left on the cone. I think this dual-purpose is really neat, practical - and effective. It's surprising how much more juice comes out, proving my point that torque is all.

                    My cup runneth over?

                    No, it doesn't, not even if you're feeding a family of ten for breakfast. Even though the collector is quite small (and a previous one I had was so deep I don't think large areas of it were ever sullied by juice) it has a hinged spout which you leave open when you're juicing, so there's a constant flow out. And into a glass, assuming you remember to put one there, a mistake you make only once. The advantage of the hinge is to stop drips as you're swapping glasses, and when you're done.

                    Does it take the strain?

                    The design of the filter section has to be a compromise between letting the maximum amount of juice through and holding back as much bitty stuff as possible. From my vast experience of these machines, to err on the side of keeping out the pips means not enough juice comes through and you have to stop every few minutes and clear out the pulp that has gathered. Those of us who like fresh squeezed juice tend to also like the bits that come with it and I'm pleased to say this model has no truck with the no-bits brigade. If you feel moved to sieve freshly squeezed juice I would say you need to get a life and live with tetrapaked reconstituted gloop.

                    Coming clean

                    The upside is that it's dishwasher proof. The downside is that there's pulp and pith all over everything, including the inside of the dust cover. I recommend rinsing this out right away, as dried citrus pulp has the bonding power of concrete. Get it out of the sink drainer as well. The brushed stainless steel section needs a wipe to keep its good looks.

                    Are there any lemons?

                    Well, nothing's perfect, so yes, a couple. The faster spin generates such a centrifugal force that the pips and pulp are flung to the outside of the cone section, which has a concave edge, and are a bit of a fiddle to extract, to put it mildly. In the interests of factual correctness, a small digression follows. When I pointed this phenomenon out to the aforementioned blokes-who-won't-get-their-fingers-sticky I was treated to a longish discourse on the fact that centrifugal force doesn't actually exist. It's simply we morons being misled by our senses: the pips and stuff are actually following a straight line while the rotating cone is moving away from them and there is no centripetal force (which does exist) to hold them in place. Or something. Fascinating, although some help in cleaning out the effects of the not-force would have been more practical. Obviously this not-force also chucks the juice out of the spout as the cone is rotating, but even at turbo-speed some is left in the collector. Something to do with flow dynamics, no doubt. I haven't asked. So to get every last drop you have to remember to tip and pour.

                    The final segment

                    In the £10 - £20 price range I would definitely recommend this. At one time John Lewis didn't sell electric citrus presses at all, but eventually produced this one under their own brand. The next stage up is a more commercial thing with levers, and that's a whole different kettle of physics. Now I expect you're all feeling a bit hot and bothered with all this talk of squeezing flesh, not to mention scientific conundrums, so can I suggest a glass of fresh orange juice?

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                    • Bosch SMS69L Logixx / Dishwasher / 43 Readings / 38 Ratings
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                      27.11.2008 22:05
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                      An time-saver with a few imperfections

                      Was there ever a more problematical appliance than the dishwasher? It has a virtually impossible job: washing brittle objects which can't be moved during the process and having to deal with food residue as well as water and detergent. It is accused of not being able to wash half the dishes and those it does are not properly washed. It takes forever to do a load. It's noisy and needs constant injections of fluids and powders like some sickly elderly relative. Add to this the high initial outlay and it's a wonder anyone bothers. Indeed, many don't. Dishwasher ownership is about 1 in 4, lower than any of the other white goods. I used to wonder if I could dispense with my machine next time it broke down. Then it did, and I (re)discovered my answer. Unless you convert to paper plates, washing-up is a continual chore with no redeeming features whatsoever. I am convinced that if we didn't have to wash up we could have cured all the major diseases by now and be well on the way to sorting out global warming. Talking of which, using a dishwasher is actually environmentally friendly, but more of that later.

                      So there I was, dishwasher defunct, or reparable only for an eye-watering sum, and soon persuaded I needed a replacement. Enter, to a fanfare of trumpets and sighs of relief, the Bosch SMS69L. Seven years after my previous dishwasher purchase, had the technology improved? Let's consider the problems I described above.

                      1. Noise. One thing that has been obvious as I moved through the years and models is the noise reduction. I thought my previous one (a Miele) was the tops, but this is better. It is simply barely noticeable, a background hum that merges with the other ambient household noise like PC hard drives and the central heating boiler. It's quieter than my fan oven. Bosch says it operates at 40 decibels, less than normal conversation. I believe it.

                      2. Does it wash all the dishes? Yes, in theory, if they fit in the machine and are not specifically non-dishwasher proof. In practice, all models recommend against crystal, wooden handles, hand painted ceramics and silver. Personally I would add to that non-stick pans. Then there is the vexed question of glassware. Over the years I found out the hard way that dishwashers will eventually make your glasses go cloudy. In the short term glasses will emerge looking sparkly clean, like the images on many dishwasher products, but gradually they cloud over, like a British summer day. You can either accept this, and replace your glasses every 6 - 12 months, or add them to the pile of to-be-hand-washed.

                      So how does this machine do? It has a glass protection system, but mark this. I didn't know it had one until it was in and operating. The digital read-out informs me at every full wash cycle that the glass protection system is in operation. Despite having researched this model and read the instruction booklet before using it (note that, chaps) this was the first I'd heard of it. Internet searching has since come up with nothing to say what it is and how it works. After several months the glasses still "ting" with sparkle. If it works long term then this alone would be a reason for selecting this model. But why is Bosch so coy about it?

                      3. Does it wash the dishes properly? No. Most of the dishes are fine most of the time, and it's better than my previous model. Dinner plates and cutlery are a problem. I am far from being ultra-fussy, but even I have to pull out items for further soaking and hand washing. I don't expect it to clean burnt on residue, but surely cleaning plates and knives is what it's for.

                      4. Fluids and powders. No advance on the add detergent every time, plus rinse aid and salt when needed scenario. Tablets, liquid and powder are all OK. What is new, is the ability to pre-set the rinse aid and salt levels to suit your water hardness. Living in a hard water area, I now find that I'm topping up with rinse aid and salt far more often than before. Will this prolong the life of the machine and ensure better results for longer? We'll see. I'll get back to you in five years.

                      5. Programme length. There are plenty of programmes, ranging from the auto intensive to express with a pre-rinse option. Times vary from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours so if you're in a hurry it's back to the washing-up bowl. But that's not the point. You set it going and forget about it while you do something more rewarding (like writing consumer reviews). You can even programme it to start at a particular time. Programme timings are also indicative rather than prescriptive. The model has some clever sensors which measure the turbidity of the rinsing water to sense how much cleaning is still required, and adjusts the timings accordingly. So if your plates only have a few crumbs on them the same programme will take less time than if it's trying to deal with congealed curry leftovers.

                      6. High initial outlay. This is one of the top end Logixx range and the price is around £425. Obviously it's worth shopping around. Generally I think you get what you pay for with dishwashers and with the complexity of their insides it's worth paying as much as you can afford.


                      There are other features worth mentioning although some come in the "bells and whistles" category, and would not necessarily affect your purchasing decision. Racks are varied and adjustable so you should be able to fit any combination of dishes. Having had a cutlery tray, as opposed to a box, in my previous model I was keen to have one again but couldn't find one in the Bosch range - until I opened the machine! Another thing they kept quiet about! Honestly, somebody needs to talk to their marketing department.

                      The control panel is neatly tucked away inside the door giving a smooth uncluttered front. The finger tip controls emit a beep to let you know they've received your instructions and will now get on with things. Also in the panel are warning lights if salt or rinse aid need to be topped up. I would rather these were more prominent as it's quite easy to set it going without noticing one of them is on. What's that red light, I thought the first time I noticed it, and how long has it been on?

                      Once it's going your machine will message you. Admittedly its conversation is limited to what it's doing, how long it's going to take and the fact that it's protecting your glassware, all in a digital read-out in a small panel. If you open the door while in operation it gets a little tetchy and tells you to close it. If this repetitive "aren't I a clever machine" spiel drives you crazy you can turn it off.

                      Other programmable features include half load, intensive zone and hygiene extra. Intensive zone is useful as you can put some really dirty stuff in the bottom and it gets more of a going over from the lower spray arms than the top layer. Hygiene extra gives a hotter rinse if you want items to be squeaky clean, like chopping boards or baby bottles. All the dirt has to go somewhere, but the three levels of filters (coarse, fine and micro) are easy to disassemble, clean and reassemble.

                      Of course it's white, but is it green? The water industry likes dishwashers as the more efficient modern appliances use less water than washing up by hand. This model's clever sensors detect turbidity, as I said above, and if the water's clean enough it gets re-used for rinsing. The variety of programmes means temperature and water volume can be controlled to suit the load, i.e. no overkill. With delayed programming you can take advantage of cheaper energy at night (and the noise won't keep you awake), and it's got a heat exchanger to help heat the water. It is, not surprisingly, recommended by the Energy Savings Trust.

                      So I think 4 stars for this. It wins on quietness, programme range, looks and energy efficiency; it loses on price and aspects of its performance. Less development needs to be put into features like hygiene extra and digital read-outs, and more into the basic cleaning operation. But on the whole I wouldn't be without one, and I'm getting along fine with this particular model. I wonder if I could teach it to hoover?

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                        29.10.2008 10:38
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                        A delight, for an hour or so

                        As the Grand Old Man of British letters and unofficial Writer Laureate, it is fitting that Alan Bennett should have chosen the Queen as the subject of this story. Not that this is his first foray into royal subject-matter: the Madness of King George was a successful play and film. But George III is a dead and gone figure of history. The Queen is very much alive, and writing a fictional piece about a well known public figure is quite a different proposition. The result, however, is an absolute delight.

                        The premise - and this is no more than appears on the dust jacket and summaries - is that the corgis wander off and the Queen, in hot pursuit, follows them into a mobile library parked at the back of the palace. Persuaded to borrow a book, one thing leads to another and she becomes an avid reader. It is the consequences of this new-found interest that form the focus of the story.

                        The first scene of one and a half pages is worth quoting from as it sets the tone and lays the themes for what follows. No more quotes after this, though; I don't want to spoil it for you.

                        The scene is a state banquet for the President of France.
                        The Queen: "I've been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet." [Pauses for the national anthems]. "Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point ... was he as good?"

                        Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the President looked wildly about for his Minister of Culture. [...] The President put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.

                        And I thought, it's going to be a lovely read. I like to think that Bennett got his inspiration from watching one of these state occasions and wondering what on earth they talk about. This opening tells you what's coming. Humour, of course. Witty, incisive, a light touch, but barbed. Not the humour of an angry young man flinging satirical thunderbolts at the establishment but finding its targets nevertheless. And the targets: royal protocol, expectations of royalty, fear and suspicion of "high culture", the power of books to change an individual. More themes for satire are added later: mass market fiction, politicians and civil servants, treatment of the elderly, and if there's a common link, it's that we make assumptions about people based on our expectations of them.

                        That's a lot of content for a small book, and small it is. At 120 pages it's a novella in length but not format. From the opening vignette, to the final set scene with its long speech by the central character, the action proceeds episodically as if in a play, and there are some wonderfully comic set pieces The impact is also conveyed mainly by vocal interaction between the characters. No surprise there: it's as a playwright that Bennett is known.

                        But how do you put words in the mouth of the Queen? The Duke might at first seem a more promising mouthpiece but he only gets a bit part. The point is that she is a completely blank page. We know everything of her, but nothing about her - a perfect canvas on which to paint increasingly complex swirls of ideas, emotion and growing self-awareness. At the same time the "voice", even if fictionalised, has to be authentic, and Bennett with his superb ear for dialogue pulls this off brilliantly. This is the author of "Talking Heads", a collection of monologues which ran on TV at the end of the 1980s, in which a single speaker by apparently innocent remarks about an everyday situation reveals his innermost thoughts. The Queen speaks in short sentences, very direct, at times quite tart, eschewing jargon and metaphor. There is inevitably some use of "one" although that phases out as she discovers her individuality. And it's not just the Queen; all the other characters are perfectly captured, characterised and indeed caricatured through their speech. No names are named, but it's always clear who is intended. We do not need to be told which Prime Minister is being referred to.

                        But if the Queen is the main character, books are the stars of this show. Or, more specifically, reading books. "Books Do Furnish a Room" was the title of an Anthony Powell novel (which doesn't figure here) and that has been the Queen's relationship with them up till now. The distinction is frequently drawn between the ability to read and actually reading. Plus, of course, Bennett gets to have fun with selecting the books and authors with which to "furnish" his Queen. What would you choose, given a reading virgin Queen to select for? The picks are an eclectic mix but the effects he ascribes to the new reader are increased self-awareness, new depth of emotions and heightened sensitivity. Truly mighty pens indeed. Are we really the sum of the books we have read, or does it only work if we have not acquired these emotions elsewhere? As the Queen becomes more "normal" she becomes less queen-like. She crosses the divide into empathy and leaves monarchy behind.

                        Book selection is a tricky business. Even if you don't buy into the idea that books have the life-changing effect they have here, your choice of reading matter still says a lot about you, and Bennett is openly derisory about popular choices such as Andy McNab and Harry Potter. Of course, although from impeccable working-class roots, and a professional Yorkshireman, he is nevertheless a huge intellectual snob. Even the vocabulary he uses, such as "glabrous" quoted above (= bald, to save you looking it up, as I had to) sets him apart from the average bestseller paperback writer. On the other hand, he is also fairly scathing about the literati and it's interesting that the Queen learns nothing from them. They are all too self-absorbed. Her early guide, before she finds her own way, is a kitchen boy who is universally mistrusted by the palace establishment, and who fits in with neither the palace nor the literary world. Who does that remind you of? And it's also a position the Queen is heading towards. That's what books do for you.

                        Finally a memo to publishers. There is a credit crunch on, and a £6.99 cover price for a 4½" x 7½" paperback of 120 pages of largish print is a rip-off. It's so small I had difficulty finding it on my shelves when I wanted to look something up for this review. The last book of Alan Bennett's I read, a hardback version of Untold Stories, was so heavy it made my wrists ache, so there's no lack of material which could have been included to make a longer volume. One or two of his Talking Heads monologues would have sat very well with this story. Amazon sells it for £3.68, and I got it for £2.99 when it was a Times book of the week recently, but even so I would suggest trying your local library, if they still stock books.

                        This quibble aside, it is definitely recommended. A short read, but a happy one!

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                          02.10.2008 15:49
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                          An old-fashioned museum with lots to see

                          You can't go far in Cambridge without bumping into a Fitzwilliam. There's a Fitzwilliam Street; little Fitzbillie's is a popular tea shop. A distant cousin, Fitzwilliam College, sits aloofly on the outskirts. But the paterfamilias of the clan, square and majestic in the centre of the city, is the Fitzwilliam Museum. With its classical columns and pediment it looks like the British Museum, without the crowds. It also gives off a "to be taken seriously" aura. This was the place where a hapless visitor tripped over his shoelaces and in the course of his ensuing prat-fall brought down three priceless Qing vases. The museum sued for criminal damage. Crazy, eh? (Well the vases were). So one expects to be informed, even awe-struck, but not "entertained" or "engaged", and certainly not invited to push buttons on an interactive screen.

                          So the first thing that met my eye in the entrance hall was the offer of an audio-visual guide with hand-held computer. So much for first impressions. The second and far more striking thing was the entrance hall itself, which could qualify as an exhibit on its own. Stretching the full height, three floors, of the building, it is panelled, gilded, painted, decorated and marbled, but far from feeling over-cooked it presents a cohesive whole which, although ornate, does justice to the space to be filled. The effect is enhanced by twin flights of wide stairs at each side.

                          To get to this point, the visitor has walked up from street level and is now on a mezzanine floor. From here one goes down (back to street level) to antiquities, or up to paintings and drawings. "Antiquities" is how the staff in the museum describe the section, but more accurately it is artefacts and objets d'art covering periods from ancient Egypt to 19th century ceramics via renaissance weaponry and mediaeval coins. Similarly the paintings cover schools world-wide from the 13th century to the present day. It is truly a magpie collection, very traditional, and unlike the more modern museum concept which focuses on one specialism. So it is very much of the time of its founder, the eponymous 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, who started his collection on a European Grand Tour and continued adding to it throughout his life. After he bequeathed it to the University it grew further by gift, purchase and bequest so that the museum's remit remains broad. Unfortunately for the review writer it makes for problems in conveying a coherent impression, partly because there is so much, and partly because one reacts differently to each collection. So bear with me as I cherry pick my way round.

                          I started downstairs, and the first displays you meet can indeed be labelled "antiquities". Here in a high-ceilinged room flooded with light is case after case of Greek, Roman, Cypriot, Cretan remains. Very interesting - that most damning of praises. If ever there was an instance of less is more, this is it. The display is so huge it's a jumble, and judging by the locked drawers down the sides of the room, they could turn this lot over several times. More focus, I was saying to myself, and when I did find some focus, it was refreshing and informative: a display of how the traditional black and orange Greek pottery was created. A combination of science, skill and judgment, since you ask, commodities we could have done with in the curators of this section.

                          It got much better after this, but while I'm in critical mode I will just sound off about the labelling. In a recess on the staircase down to antiquities was a piece of a bas-relief frieze which I stopped to look at. Assyrian, 5th century BC (although I may not be remembering that right) the label said, with a priest holding a pale. A pale? A pale what? Or a misspelt bucket, or a pale beyond which someone was cast? Should I rule out the adjective, as weren't these decorations originally brightly painted? Weren't Sennacherib's legions "gleaming in purple and gold"? You see the strange byways incorrect use of language leads the reader. Slightly irritated, I went down a few more steps to a similar frieze, same origin, same date, with a priest holding a ... pail. And yes, the bucket was clearly defined in this one. Other misspellings cropped up elsewhere, though without the same incomprehension. How many akademix dus it tak to run a spel cheque? One to do it, one to conduct a peer review, thousands to argue over sources and usage and none to get it right.

                          But it got better very quickly as I went into the Egyptian section. I was met by a huge statue (an upright sarcophagus lid) of Rameses III, about 12 feet high, and thought, wow - an expression which never left me as I went round these excellent displays. The sarcophagi were as bright as if they had been painted yesterday. The grave goods were delightful in their detail, and the information about the individuals stunning. All round these centrepieces were displays of everyday items, including some beautiful bits of jewellery I could happily have walked away with, and clear expositions of what customs pertained in the various (to me) complicated eras of Egyptian history. Full marks here. A master class of its kind.

                          On past the ceramics - sorry, not my thing - and a quick glance at the weaponry, and then to another highlight, the Rothschild Room with its medieval coins and manuscripts. This small room is totally enclosed within the museum, has no natural light and the artificial light is muted. It is, in fact, as dark as the Greek and Roman section was light, and the impact is not just allegorical but perfect for the display of these items. Everything glowed in here, the jewelled colours of the illustrated manuscripts and the rows of gold coins, offset against the background darkness. There are important items here, like the chunky Anglo-Saxon brooch found in Faversham, and an Edward III gold double florin, one of only three in existence. But as someone whose handwriting has been compared to a spider on crack, it was the perfection of the manuscripts that drew me, as they always do. I left amazed, not for the first time, at the level of artistry, certainty and devotion that underpinned these works.

                          Where next? Upstairs to the pictures. It is always a pleasure in a new art gallery to see which paintings come off the wall at you and demand your attention. There was no shortage of big names and important periods clamouring to be seen, but the Dutch, Italian Renaissance and landscapes, among others, will have to wait for another time. Two galleries had my attention. The first had a small but perfectly formed collection of Impressionists, as fine as any I've seen. It has Renoir's Place Clichy which was so lovely I've completely revised my impression (hah!) of Renoir who I previously thought blowsy and flouncy. There was Monet's Poplars, a great swirl of blue and green, more movement than I remember seeing in a Monet picture before. The rest of my time in pictures was spent in the portraits. This again meant some serious revision on my part, as I discovered how much I enjoyed these. I've never been to the National Portrait Gallery - never got round to it, didn't feel I missed anything - but that will be corrected. In the hands of a great artist a portrait painting writes a whole book about an individual. Hogarth's civic worthies, quite apart from their surprisingly modern appearance, spoke of respectability, struggle, pretension, hidden secrets, humanity. But I spent longest in front of the Countess of Southampton by an unknown artist. She was a patron of Shakespeare, and having recently read about her in Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare biography it was lovely to meet her here, almost in the flesh. It took Ackroyd pages of narrative to convey an idea of the intelligent, no-nonsense, charming fixer who was captured here in a single image. Admittedly a large image, almost full-size, which caught her about to take a step forward, as if into the room with you. She was sporting a big frock and patrician expression, and I bet her voice carried miles. Terrific.

                          A few practicalities. The weird slow-motion shuffle we all adopt when going round galleries and museums I find particularly tiring, so I was glad to find a nice café on site. It's in an extension to the original building, and partly glazed so it's very light and airy, especially as one of the original exterior walls is now on the inside. The shop is next to it. No photography is allowed in the museum. I know this for a fact having been told off for snapping some stuff. Sorry, I didn't see the signs. Even after that, when looking for the signs, I still didn't see them. But you are allowed to take photos of the entrance hall. Best of all, it's free.

                          Now I have to consider if it does its job. But what is its job? To provide a resource for academic research - certainly, and a glance at the acres of archives on its website shows that what we see on display is only a fraction of its collection. The Fitzwilliam Iceberg. To inform - yes, good, even excellent, in parts, but could be better in some sections. To entertain and delight - well I was entertained and at times delighted. I would guess there's something here for everybody, although I wouldn't recommend it for children with the exception of the Egyptian section. I would like to have it on my doorstep to drop into frequently for half an hour or so and concentrate on one or two items. Then I might get to grips with that Greek and Roman stuff.

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                            09.09.2008 16:50
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                            Top emperor!

                            "Empire and Conflict" is the title of this Hadrian exhibition, although I think, if asked, most people in the UK would find "Emperor and Wall Builder Extraordinaire" more appropriate. So associated is he with walls, there was even a brand of paint called Hadrian (a "deep gloss paint" if I remember rightly) - how humiliating is that? Of course, the wall-building is a very parochial view of a vast empire that covered most of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and of which we occupied a small corner.

                            I like Hadrian. I've visited his Wall and the forts along it, and many years ago went to the ruins of his enormous villa at Tivoli, outside Rome. He (along with perhaps Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius) is a beacon of light among the megalomaniac perverts or over-promoted stop-gaps which most of the other emperors were. That's not to say he wasn't ruthless, power-hungry and cruel, but at least he had vision and interests which extended beyond fornication and incest. So unusual is he that he is often referred to as "enigmatic".

                            Unlike other recent major exhibitions like the Terracotta Warriors and Tutankhamun, an exhibition about Hadrian has no collection of objects from one specific location to focus on. Roman emperors did not leave behind artefacts. They had (hopefully) ideas and vision, but concrete works tended to be of such size that they have to stay rooted in their locality. So how do you convey visually the public and private sides of a major historical figure? Well, pick some linking themes, as the organisers have done here, and try to illustrate them by associated objects, displays, models and diagrams. A sort of grown-up "show and tell". The question is, does it work? Let's go inside and see.

                            The leaflet you are handed at the entrance tells you the exhibition is divided into sections: a new élite, war and peace, architecture, Antinous (his Greek male lover) and succession. It certainly smacks you in the eye when you walk in and see the remains of a colossal statue of the man - the head and a right foot about the length of my arm. This was found only a year ago, in Turkey, and forms the opening salvo as it were. There are, of course, several other (complete) statues - Hadrian as a warlord, Hadrian as a god - and a charming head of him as a young man with curly sideburns. You become acquainted with his features, the beard, the peculiar ear lobes, and that, together with some detail of his family who made their money shipping olive oil from Spain (cue artistic display of oil jars), makes him seem almost normal. Rich, well-connected, but normal. Then you look at the map of the empire he controlled, and again at the huge statue, and you realise this was no "first among equals" but a world ruler with absolute power.

                            This takes us neatly into the war and peace section. We are told that when Hadrian became emperor (in 117AD) "the empire was in turmoil". Well apart from the early days of the Augustan Peace, it was ever thus. Considering its size, and the quality of some of the emperors, it's amazing it lasted as long as it did. Hadrian was a consolidator, setting external boundaries and quelling internal dissent. To illustrate this, the exhibition has focused on just a couple of trouble spots: our very own Hadrian's Wall, and the ruthless suppression of the Jewish uprising in Jerusalem. The problem is that anyone who has been to the Wall probably knows a great deal more about it than is related here. There are some inscribed milestones, one or two Vindolanda writing tablets and a map. More importantly, it was neither a trouble spot, nor a bastion of peaceful co-existence. It was simply a demarcation line and frontier customs boundary, which saw some unrest but mostly grudging acceptance. On the other hand, the Jewish uprising was a major conflict which the Romans put down in their usual ruthless, efficient manner. There is some interesting stuff here from this rebellion, and a reminder that a teenager with curly sideburns can grow up to organise the killing of hundreds of thousands when the need arises. But the idea of quelling turmoil and establishing peace is not well illustrated because it doesn't encompass enough. Internal factions plotting against him - and there must have been plenty of those - do not figure.

                            So we come to the love interest, Antinous. Antinous drowned "in mysterious circumstances" in Egypt, and thereby hangs a tale we will never get to the bottom of. Hadrian himself may have been implicated. Hadrian was apparently devastated, inordinately so. Palace officials who undoubtedly thought he'd "get over it" were probably taken aback to find Antinous deified, a cult of Osiris-type worship built up around him, and poems written. The power and intensity of the emotion is very well conveyed here. Having this episode as a separate section serves to almost isolate it from the rest of his public and private life, and made me wonder if Hadrian was able to compartmentalise it, and get on with ruling. Was this ability one of his strengths?

                            The section on the succession felt like a bit tacked on the end just before the exit. Other than saying he planned his succession once, and then again, I'm not quite sure what this section usefully tells us. In any case his successor, Antoninus Pius, started expanding the empire again, abandoned Hadrian's Wall and built another one further north, the Antonine Wall linking the Forth and Clyde, so not much continuity there. His legacy, on the other hand, is still with us, and very well demonstrated in the architecture section which is appropriately set in the centre of the exhibition area. (What is it with powerful rulers and architecture? Wasn't Hitler an architect?) We're not talking about the Wall, which was just a military structure of a kind seen elsewhere in the empire, but new visions in building. Models and diagrams of the Pantheon in Rome and his Villa at Tivoli show just how original he was in his thinking and designs. The dome of his rebuilt Pantheon became an inspiration for Renaissance architects centuries later.

                            Despite our familiarity with the Romans, unless you're an expert you're still going to need quite a lot of detailed explanation of what you're looking at. The commentary here is admirably lucid, even though it does verge on the Janet and John level occasionally. The words are clearly printed on large placards, which is just as well, given the gloom and the crowds. The Museum has chosen to use the Reading Room for the exhibition, a very nice space, but not a large or well-lit one. The black backgrounds and moody spotlighting are very artistic but while they offset the large objects well, I found myself peering myopically at the smaller ones. And the crowds - inevitable, of course, with a well advertised event and well known historical figure, but it got very hot in there. All in all not a good environment for taking notes with the aim of writing a review!

                            In an effort to control the flow of visitors tickets are issued on a timed basis, at ten minute intervals. You can buy your ticket and book a slot on-line in advance. If you turn up on the day without a ticket you'll have to wait, but when I was there a couple of weeks ago the wait was only about an hour and a half, and it's not as if you can't occupy yourself at the British Museum for a bit. You also save yourself the £1 advance booking fee (ticket price is £12).

                            To round off your visit, the restaurant is offering a Hadrian-themed menu. So two stuffed dormice please, easy on the fish sauce, ice cream to follow and can we have a sofa by the window! No reclining, alas, nor even dormice, but there was fish soup, wild boar and grilled figs. The bread was served not with butter but with a bowl of olive oil. I'm sure they do that all year round, but it was particularly appropriate for Hadrian. I thought this was an excellent idea, and think of the possibilities. All the Asian cuisines, hot chocolate to celebrate the Mexicans, bison roast for Native American week, and the Egyptians ... what did the Egyptians eat exactly?

                            However, munching on my figs, and reflecting on the exhibition, what did I think overall? I've listed some drawbacks in my visit as described, but I think mainly the concept was a difficult one. Hadrian lived to the age of 62, ruling for 21 years over one of the largest empires the world has ever seen; add to that the complexities of his character and personality and it's virtually impossible to distil all these facets into a visual display. The exhibition quotes again the "enigmatic" adjective but does not really do much to solve it. He remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery and I fear that to really find out more about him you're going to have to do a lot of reading. That's not to say it's not worth going. It's enjoyable, well set out and informative within its limitations and you can't fail to be fascinated by the man. You've got until 26 October. Go there, velis et remis!



                            Some practical details. Opening hours are 10am to 5.30pm (last entry 4.20pm). The exhibition is in the British Museum Reading Room which is in the centre of the new Great Court at the British Museum. Ticket prices are £12, £10 for children 16 - 18, students and the disabled, £25 for a family ticket. A £1 booking fee applies on-line, £2 if ordering by phone. An audio guide is available for £3.50 (£3 concessions). There is a special opening for disabled visitors on 3 October at 9am. The exhibition is on one level on the ground floor, but there are steps at the exit. Large print and Braille editions of the guide are available.

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                            • Audacity / Multimedia / 47 Readings / 42 Ratings
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                              21.08.2008 18:21
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                              All-in-one music recording and editing software

                              So you've been dancing to the music recording industry's tune over the last few decades and now have a motley collection of music in every medium from vinyl through tape cassettes, minidisks, CDs to MP3 files. Plus, of course, all the associated hardware to enable you to listen at home, in the car, on the train. What you really, really want (is that on your iPod?) is to standardise, digitalise and generally sort everything out, isn't it? You have the hardware, obviously, and probably enough length and variety of cable to wire up a small state. But these alone will not give you good results without some decent software to do the clever manipulating stuff. You need Audacity.

                              There are many, many good things to say about this product, but let's start with the best. It's free. It costs nothing, nada, nix, nichts, zero. It's what computer people call open source software, freely available software including coding so you can change, enhance or configure it as you wish. Go to http://audacity.sourceforge.net. Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems are all supported, and the file size is about 2.5MB. New releases and updates are also available at the same site with guidance about stability and recommendations for user ability.

                              So now you have it, what are you going to do with it? If any of you have already come across it, it was probably, like me, through acquiring a USB turntable to convert vinyl LPs into digital files. Many such turntable packages include this software and if they don't, you'd be well advised to get it and use it. Analogue to digital conversion of anything, be it images or music, is not totally straightforward to achieve the best results, but this software puts the facility of a basic recording studio at your amateur fingertips. And, of course, it's not just for converting stuff; even if you were born in the CD era you'll still want to download, edit and customise your sounds and as long as the source can be fed into your computer, this software will give you top results.

                              I won't take you through how to load it, access it and all the screen options presented. We'd be here for way too long and if you're interested after reading this review there are tutorials on the website which explore all the possibilities in detail. I'm going to stick to an overview and apply my three idiot-guide software tests: is it user-friendly and intuitive; will it perform the full range of functions I require from basic to advanced; is there a help function which is easily available and understandable. Normally I add a fourth: is it good value for money, but that's already been answered. Did I mention it was free?

                              So user-friendliness. The basic screen is configured so that the main function buttons have the familiar forward, back, stop, pause and record symbols on them. This is reassuring for the newbie as well as making it instinctive to use. Other settings are accessed from drop-down menus of the kind we are used to, and the edit function includes unlimited "undo" and "redo" which is no end of use. Pressing the record button sets the source playing which you can hear through the speakers, and at the same time the wave form of the sound appears on the screen, divided into minutes and seconds. It looks like a series of earthquakes on a seismograph. It's a bit more techie, even a little daunting, but you soon become familiar with the patterns which is the key to the cleaning up and sorting out process later.

                              A couple of stages, unless you're a sound engineer in which case you're unlikely to be using this, are less instinctive and you'll be well advised to follow the manual or tutorials. Before recording you have to set the sound effect to "normalise" which automatically adjusts the volume. There are, of course, many other sound effects possible which you can play around with at a later stage. To optimise the sound after recording you need to remove any background noise such as hiss or crackles in music, or intrusive environmental noise in voice recording. Such extraneous noise shows up by a different wave pattern. You select the section simply by highlighting it with the mouse, and you tell the software to remember it! How neat is that? Having done it once, you don't need to do it again until you restart; selecting the option noise removal will do it automatically. I have actually managed to almost completely erase a bit where the stylus stuck in a scratch on an LP. You can repeat the process over and over until you're happy. Obviously with a scratch it needs a bit of work, and is not totally, but as near as dammit, perfect. Bits of background hiss are soon fixed.

                              Well now you've got over an hour's worth of good quality sound, but you need to be able to identify individual sections or tracks. Back to the seismograph, you can zoom out so that whole sections of the earthquake pattern are on screen. The links between the wave activity are the silences between the tracks. Simply draw a line and label it. It can be edited later if necessary.

                              Overall I'll give it 4/5 for use-friendliness and intuitiveness, although to be fair this soon rises to 5/5 with practice.

                              Next: does it do everything in one package or are other add-ons necessary. I've described the basic recording and clean-up procedures and that might be all you want. But if you explore the possibilities, you might be tempted to try a little sound mixing. Strip out the vocals; enhance the bass; overlay a different sound effect; change the pitch without affecting the volume; create a podcast. Addicted to ringtones? Use this software to generate some new effects to wow your friends, if that's your thing. (Personally I think that mobiles and mobile ring tones are part of a fiendish alien plot to drive us all mad before taking over the world. But anyway.) These are all available in the basic package. If you want more advanced enhancements, the website offers more bells and whistles in the form of special effects and some fine tuning adjustments which I have to confess are a bit over my head. A point to note is that the output file is in .wav format, an uncompressed format. To save and store easily on whatever output medium you choose - CD, DVD, iPod, computer file - you need a compressed format such as MP3, and for this you need another download. There's one available on the Audacity website, or there are plenty of others available. So is it complete, covering the whole range of requirements? Well what you get is way more than most of us would use, so we'll ignore the MP3 conversion and give it 5/5.

                              Third point, you're stuck and want help. The booklet that came with my USB turntable was commendably brief, but covered all the basics in clear English with good screenshots. All the information was there to convert LPs using the turntable, with the website details if you want to do more. The website has tutorials which are easy to follow. Trust me on this - I could follow them, and sound transfer has always been an unilluminated corner in my brain. For reasons I won't bore you with, I used to have to copy from VCR to VCR, but getting the audio in and out correct was more by luck than judgement. If you're still stuck, there are some FAQs and also a forum where you can post a query and somebody, somewhere will be able to answer it. Definitely 5/5.

                              But before you all rush off and crash the site, I will just sound a small note of warning. It's not a fault of the software, but it is quite a time-consuming process. To check you are happy with the recorded sound, you have to listen to it - many times if you are doing something complicated like adding a sound effect. There's no way to speed this up; the time it takes a track to play is real time. If you want to set stuff to record, go away and leave it and come back to a finished product, then you don't need Audacity. On the other hand, it seems a shame with all this technology available not to optimise your sound quality. You've got the fancy speakers, and probably the fancy headphones as well, but if the basic quality isn't there they can't work miracles. And what's wrong with whiling away an hour or two listening to your favourite music in your free time? The software's free too - did I mention that?

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                              • Lilac Tree / Plant / 50 Readings / 48 Ratings
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                                21.05.2008 16:37
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                                A joy of spring

                                Syringa vulgaris is known as lilac to its friends, of whom there are many. Latin names may be useful descriptors but they lack poetry, don't they? "Syringa", I learned in the course of preparing this review, is from the Latin meaning "pipe" or "reed" and was so called because the wood was used to make pipe stems. "Vulgaris", in plant parlance, would translate as "common", but it carries undertones of nasty and tasteless. The lilac is certainly neither of those things, but it is common, in the sense of widespread, in the UK. Judging by the number of "Avenue des Lilas" I have driven past in France it is common there too, and in a Donna Leon novel I read recently, set in Venice, the heady scent of lilac in spring was a recurring theme. Boston has a Lilac Sunday when it throws open its arboretum to picnickers to celebrate the lilac so it's happy across the water too.

                                But if syringa vulgaris is not very evocative, lilac immediately conjures up a colour and a scent. Lilac is a specific pale mauve shade, much beloved of old ladies, but lilac blossom ranges from white through cream, pale blue, lilac, mauve to deep purple. And the scent, while delicate and floral, is distinctive and all-pervading. Rupert Brooke liked it:

                                "Just now the lilac is in bloom
                                All before my little room"

                                a memory I can empathise with, as the scent of lilac takes me straight back to my childhood bedroom with the lilac outside. Proust and his madeleine, me and my lilac, same thing really. We just tell it differently.

                                The other great thing about lilac is its timing. It's part of that great late spring burgeoning, after the spring flowers are over, when overnight whole vistas become a profusion of green, white and yellow. T S Eliot couldn't help acknowledging the joy it brings, when all he wanted to be was miserable:

                                "April is the cruellest month, breeding
                                Lilacs out of the dead land"

                                The blooms form at about the same time as the "candles" on the horse chestnuts, and initially they look very similar sitting upright and tapering to a point. But then all the little tight flower buds on the lilac burst out to form a heavy blossom and the weight pulls the flowers down so they point outwards at a 45º angle. The tree looks like it's exploding. There they will stay, wafting their delicate scent over you, for several weeks. Lilac flower heads are often referred to as "panicles". My dictionary defines this is as a "compound raceme, as in the oat". None the wiser, I searched on-line dictionaries and came up with "a cluster of flowers in which flowers are borne on stalks that branch off larger stalks" and "type of inflorescence where the flowers bloom from the bottom up". In short, a cluster of small flowers which make a big flower head, and which open from the base first. Like a lupin.

                                A native of south east Europe, it is particularly suitable for small gardens, being a small tree or a large shrub, so you can have a bit of height without it being overwhelming. Ours is 10 - 12 feet high, and this is typical. They like a fairly rich soil (especially chalk) and a sunny spot. Just because it's a tree, though, doesn't mean you can stick it in the ground and leave it. No plant that isn't a weed can look after itself, unfortunately. Well, maybe mint, but that's practically a weed anyway. Here's your to-do list:

                                Early April: feed with bonemeal and cover with a mulch of compost
                                Early June: remove dead flower heads
                                Early August: remove suckers
                                Mid August: take cuttings if required
                                October: best time to plant a new lilac, and prune established trees

                                Garden advice books are never happy unless they've got you out there every waking minute, so I asked my gardener (a.k.a. my husband) what was really necessary and what was a counsel of perfection. He doesn't feed our tree (although we have reasonably rich soil), and prunes and removes suckers only when necessary (not every year). Removing dead heads is a must, though, and even then the tree will have the occasional rest year when the flowers are less profuse.

                                There are, inevitably, many varieties and shades of colour, including those with double flowers and two-tone colours. GM reigns in the flower world. Double flowers are defined as having 8 petals, single flowers have only 4 and so the bloom appears less profuse. All the lilacs we've had in our gardens have been inherited, so I don't know the varieties, but they have been double headed, single colour which I prefer. For white blooms "Madame Lemoine" is recommended as a double, "Maud Notcutt" as a single; for a true lilac colour "Katherine Havemayer" and "Albert Holden"; and for a deeper lilac verging on purple "Charles Joly" and "Congo".

                                Buying a lilac plant from a garden centre, about two feet high, will cost you about £25. Alternatively, the suckers transplant very well and if you know someone with a tree they should be happy to offload their suckers (there's joke skulking in there, but we'll let it lie).

                                For the flower arrangers amongst you, lilac flowers make a lovely display. I pass this on without any personal experience as on the rare occasions when I stick flowers in a vase that's what they look like - flowers stuck in a vase. Trim off the leaves and just use the flower heads, or panicles as you can call them to show off.

                                Are there any downsides to this plant? Well it might make you sneeze. Some hay fever sufferers find it sets them off so it might be as well to check before you plant. But hay fever being the individual ailment that it is, means that even if you do suffer, lilac may not be a cause. At this time of year oilseed rape has me wheezing and gasping but I can happily stick my nose in a lilac flower (sorry, panicle).

                                So, give or take a few sneezes, what's not to like? Lovely colour, beautiful scent, relatively easy to grow. I managed to bracket Rupert Brooke and T S Eliot within a few lines, a world first - only lilac can do this. Song-writers have also been inspired, think of the musical Lilac Time, and hum a few bars of "We'll gather lilacs in the spring again". They don't write about laburnum or forsythia, do they (though admittedly these are tricky to work into a lyric). You won't find a Shakespeare quote with lilac in it as it didn't reach these shores until the 16th century, but let's end with an unexpectedly lovely quote from Truman Capote: "The true beloveds of this world are in their lover's eyes lilacs opening". Isn't that nice?

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                                • More +
                                  09.05.2008 09:22
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                                  All art is an illusion?

                                  Can I interest you ladies and gentlemen in prehistoric cave art?

                                  Not a patronising question, but one addressed to myself. Last summer we spent a couple of weeks in Les Eyzies in the Dordogne and visited seven world-class sites of palaeolithic paintings, engravings and sculpture. How to review these? An overview? Too much of a list. A group of two or three similar sites - ditto. One site, but which? Finally I decided on this site which is distinguished in the extent of the art on display, the visitor experience and has, unusually, a whiff of controversy. So, if I fail to interest you in the art, you can cut to the story at the end.

                                  In the immediate vicinity of the small village of Les Eyzies, in the Dordogne, there are about 150 caves with evidence of palaeolithic habitation, and of these about 25 have some kind of parietal (i.e. wall) art. This is an enormously intensive concentration of art, so it's no wonder a village with less than 1,000 inhabitants has the title of "Palaeolithic Capital of France" and is home to the National Museum of Prehistory.

                                  Where to start? For the casual visitor, Rouffignac might be the ideal site. Some of the smaller caves offer long, ill-lit treks over frankly treacherous ground to see some dimly perceived markings which might or might not be a herd of rhinos. Here at Rouffignac you are transported on an electric train about 1 km into the depths of the cave, and when you get there the evidence of cave art is overwhelming, in-your-face, so that you can only gape at its extent.

                                  A quick, but necessary, recap of what we are looking at, when it was created, and by whom. Time-wise, we are talking about 15,000 - 40,000 years ago, a long time span but things developed a little more slowly then. This is the palaeolithic era, the old stone age; tools were unpolished stone, but nevertheless could be quite small, delicate and "fit for purpose". People lived not IN caves, which were dark, cold and potentially dangerous, but in overhangs at the mouths of caves. Called "abris" in French, these overhangs are found in the Dordogne and Vézère valleys, so providing plenty of des res for our ancestors. They knew a good location when they saw it; it took us Brits till the 20th century to rediscover the Dordogne.

                                  The art, however, IS in the caves, not the abris. (A major exception is the bas relief horses at Cap Blanc, but that is not our subject here). These guys took flickering animal grease lamps, little clay pots of minerals for colour, animal hair "brushes" and stone engraving tools and penetrated into the depths of the caves, sometimes hundreds of yards, to do their painting, drawing and engraving. Why not paint in comparative comfort outside? Why did they paint what they did? Why did they paint at all? The first of endless questions about this art.

                                  So concentrating on what we do know, we see images of the world around them, but not landscapes and only rarely people. The overwhelming imagery is animals - reindeer, bison, rhinos, mammoths, aurochs, bears. These beasts fed them, provided clothes, grease and oil for lamps, bones for tools. Also common, but not so easily explained, are geometric shapes called "tectiforms" - a house-shaped outline with a v-shaped pitched roof. Tribal markings, signatures?

                                  Thanks to carbon dating of material found above and in front of the art, it can be dated fairly accurately. Given scientists' delight in taxonomy, the era is divided into sub-cultures, each named after a "type-site" many of which are in and around Les Eyzies. So the earliest Mousterian culture, dating from about 40,000BC takes its name from the village of Le Moustier (you can see the well-defined abri from the road), and the latest Magdalenian culture, from 20,000BC when most of the paintings were done, is derived from La Madeleine. Inevitably there are sub-divisions within these, e.g. upper, middle and lower Magdalenian.

                                  And the rest, despite the reams of research, is speculation. Were the cave interiors places of mysticism and magic, separate from the living quarters outside? Was the creation of animal images there a kind of prayer for success in the hunt? As these were large and dangerous animals were they simply evoking their fears? Or is the urge to create art intrinsic in human beings? As is the case down the ages, some paintings are better than others, and styles vary considerably, although the main "style" is a cartoon-type sketch. They also used natural cracks and projections on the stone's surface to create bas relief effects or to depict a feature such as an eye.

                                  Any palaeolithic experts amongst you will, by now, be aghast at that quick gallop through what is a highly complex period, so let's move swiftly on to the visit itself.

                                  Off we go. Choo, choo! Something a little incongruous about an electric train full of tourists to look at 20,000 year old art? Or possibly no more incongruous than driving miles in a car to get there, putting on walking boots, equipping yourself with a torch and penetrating into the darkness as if you were recreating palaeolithic conditions. Whichever way you look at it, there is an enormous gulf between us and them.

                                  First stop is a frieze of rhinos on your right. About knee height, they are traversing left to right. But the main attraction is at the end of the line, the "grand plafond" or "great ceiling". Here the cave widens out into a small circular chamber and every available square inch is covered in drawings. It is a veritable explosion of creativity, a mad canvas of a demented stone-age scribbler. All the usual animals are here, although mammoths predominate. Rouffignac has been called the "cave of the hundred mammoths; in fact there are 158 representations of mammoths. The drawings and engravings are in all sizes and in various stages of completion, and on the great ceiling they overlap and intermingle frantically. Distinctively drawn, deftly created, these are "cartoon" characters, in which a few lines evoke accurately an easily identifiable object. The style is actually very modern.

                                  You are allowed to alight from the train and given plenty of time to wander around and gaze. The guide is very knowledgeable, points out the highlights and answers questions. On the journey in, so as not to pre-empt what you are going to see, he describes the geological formation of the cave; on the way back he discourses on the palaeolithic lifestyle, and the speculations about the whys and wherefores of the art.

                                  So you're duly astonished by what you've seen, the Sistine Chapel of cave art. Or is it? Let me introduce you to two characters, one English, one French, central to this little story.

                                  Anybody heard of Glyn Daniel? If you remember a TV panel game from the 1950s in which he appeared called "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral" then you are even older than me. Glyn Daniel would, I think, have been a natural in today's TV academic personality cult. Eminent in his field, but a great communicator and bon viveur, he wrote a little book (sadly long out of print) called "The Hungry Archaeologist in France", a title that says it all. The hotels and restaurants where he relaxed after a hard day's archaeology still exist today and can still be recommended. Prince Charles studied under him at Cambridge, and in Daniel's hotel of choice in Les Eyzies, Hotel Les Glycines, there is a photo of Charles emerging from the hotel, no doubt his idea of slumming it on a field trip. He (Glyn Daniel, not Prince Charles) also wrote detective fiction in his spare (!) time, which is relevant to all this.

                                  Abbé Henri Breuil was one of that breed of 19th century clerics found in both France and the UK, who helped along the development of many fields of scientific discovery. Educated, and with time on their hands, they could observe and catalogue and contribute conclusions. Abbé Breuil was fortunate in being in the right place just as the true age of cave paintings was being realised. His priestly calling was abandoned and instead he became the leading cave art expert of his day. He was central to the exploration and analysis of virtually all the caves we know today and wrote "Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art", still a seminal work.

                                  By 1956 when Rouffignac was being announced to the world, Breuil was nearly 80 but still active and still the "grand homme" of French archaeology. He visited Rouffignac and declared the paintings genuine. The owners of the cave then invited a group of 30 archaeologists of world standing, including Glyn Daniel, to examine the art and sign a declaration of authenticity. Many signed it. Daniel did not.

                                  Why? Daniel applied not only his academic expertise but also his detective instincts to the accounts of when the paintings were discovered. Unlike Lascaux, which was discovered by chance when an unfortunate dog fell down a hole, many caves like Rouffignac had been known about for centuries; the importance of the paintings had not been appreciated and earlier generations had often helpfully added their own graffiti. Rouffignac is a huge cave system - two Dutch explorers in the 18th century got lost and died in it - and was well known to caving aficionados. Already extensively mapped and annotated, there was the added impetus of the other cave painting discoveries in the early years of the 20th century, which generated a root and branch search of the Dordogne. So why did it take until 1956 to find what is one of the most extensive collections of this period?

                                  Prosecution witnesses say it wasn't there to be discovered. One caver reports seeing more drawings progressively appearing in the 1940s. Another wrote a letter to the Sunday Times stating categorically that no paintings existed in 1948. Yet another, from the Cambridge University Caving Club, told Glyn Daniel that on their expedition in 1939 they saw nothing.

                                  Defence witnesses retort that these people are cross that they missed an important find. Many of the "believers" quote evidence of 18th and 19th century signatures overlying the drawings. As experts they also point to the nature and style of the art, and its similarity to other sites.

                                  There is, of course, an intriguing third explanation. There WERE one or two small drawings that WERE missed by explorers, but these have been considerably added to by more recent copies.

                                  What do I think? Dunno. I have no expertise to judge their authenticity simply by looking at them. To me the whole ceiling is quite unlike anything I've seen elsewhere, but then other sites like Font de Gaume, Combarelles and Cap Blanc are all equally different from Rouffignac and each other. I will, however, add my twopennyworth to the mystery by relaying what it says on the website: nowhere else has such a profusion of mammoths depicted - bison, horses and rhinos are much more common - and mammoth bones are one of the least common of animal finds.
                                  What is true is that 50 years after its "discovery" it has been accepted into the mainstream as one of the great sites of the area - I can find no current references to the possibility of its being a hoax. Still, it does give the whole visit an added frisson.

                                  Details: Rouffignac is about 18km north of Les Eyzies, just follow the signs. Opening times are 9am - 11.30am and 2pm - 6pm July and August, 10am - 11.30am and 2pm - 5pm April, May, June, September and October. Tickets are 6.10Euro for adults and 3.80Euro for children (6 - 12 yrs). There is no advance reservation as at some of the smaller caves, so in the high season you may have to wait a little. There is a shop and display at the entrance and (if I remember rightly) some vending machines; outside is a shaded picnic area. Take a jacket as it's cold in the cave. Because of the little train, this is one of the few such sites suitable for anyone with limited mobility. Photography is not allowed.

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