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since 29/08/2002


Segovia, Spain 20/03/2015

City on a hill

Segovia, Spain When planning a short holiday to the historic cities of central Spain the question quickly becomes which, if any, to leave out if you are to give sufficient time to those included. Obviously, you must see Madrid. And you’d be remiss to miss the former capital, Toledo, its mediaeval centre encircled by walls high on a hill above a loop in the River Tagus. The ancient university city of Salamanca offers more than enough of note to justify the extra journey westward. Segovia, though, you might just be tempted to regard as dispensable. In my view, that would be a mistake. You only need a day or two to see Segovia, but it will be a day or two well spent. The city of Segovia… …has existed from pre-Roman times, occupying as it does an eminently defensible hilltop between two rivers. The Romans first made it a provincial centre and built the aqueduct that remains its most impressive single monument, in the face of some formidable more recent competition. Intermittently important through the Middle Ages depending on the state of play in the long-running struggle between the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain and the Moorish south, it emerged with powerful fortifications protecting a warren of streets and squares. Long stretches of the walls remain to be seen today, although the Alcazar, the fortress that surmounts the furthest crag of the hill, is barely 150 years old, the original having been destroyed by fire. It is no less worth seeing for that. The third of the city’s major ...

UK Election 2015 13/03/2015

It depends what you mean by 'win'

UK Election 2015 "Who will win?" is the question posed by Ciao. A tough one. Predicting the outcome of British general elections is a notoriously hazardous business. It is not enough to study opinion polls and try to gauge the public mood. Thanks to our absurd, undemocratic electoral system, the share of popular support for a political party does not equate to the number of seats it will win in the House of Commons, nor necessarily to its prospect of forming a government. Twice since World War Two the party with the most votes did not secure the most seats and consequently found itself out of office. Minor parties strong in local areas gain a disproportionately large share of seats, whilst larger ones with widely, thinly spread support are under-represented. These anomalies affect the overall outcome. From opinion polls to polling day The observations above do not mean that public opinion, as measured in polls, is irrelevant, just that the pollsters’ findings must be modified when trying to predict which party might ‘win’ (win in the sense of being able to form a government). So let’s start with the current polls, which have Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck with about a third of the popular vote each, UKIP with 13-14%, the Liberal Democrats around 8% with the Greens a point or two behind, and others, Scottish Nationalists included, with just 5-6% between them. By the time polling day comes, I doubt any of these numbers will change radically, but would expect the Conservative ...

San Miguel Market, Madrid 06/03/2015

Market forces

San Miguel Market, Madrid There are two features of life in Spanish cities that I admire and envy. The first is that markets – everyday street or covered markets that sell fresh food and other household consumables direct to the public – continue to survive, whereas in Britain they seem to be in an inexorable decline. I wish I could say “thrive” rather than “survive”, but there like here they have come under competitive pressure from supermarkets and online retailing, even if it is not yet so acute and they have resisted it better than we have. The second is that the Spanish have the pub crawl down to a fine art. Indeed, so refined and artistic is their version that it should not really be described as anything so crudely British as a pub crawl. Rather it is a sociable progress from bar to bar, taking a drink at each while keeping hunger at bay by nibbling a pincho in one, a tapa or two in another, perhaps a whole racion at a third. By late in the evening they may feel ready to sit down for a full meal, but just as likely not, because they will have consumed a full meal’s worth of snacks by then in any case. In Madrid, there are several areas particularly well-known for this admirable activity, which should come as no surprise since the Spanish capital has the highest density of bars per head of population of any city in the world. The Calle Cava Baja and the Plaza Santa Ana boast notable concentrations of bars close to the city centre, but now they have a new competitor, which is neither a street ...

Are Video Games To Blame For Real Life Violence? 17/02/2015

The blame game

Are Video Games To Blame For Real Life Violence? When you reach my age you begin to lose count. I’ve lost count even of the number of things I’ve lost count of, but one of them is certainly the number of times I’ve heard a perceived contemporary social ill be blamed on a contemporary popular fad or pastime. Take violence for example. I can remember this being at various times the fault of violent comics, books, films, television programmes, DVDs and now video games. Not to mention being further egged on by a background sound-track of jazz, rock’n’roll, punk, hip-hop, rap and probably new musical trends of which I am blissfully unaware. Seemingly it was always thus. Doubtless in the Elizabethan era folks would grumble darkly: “No wonder there’s so much violence around. These new-fangled plays you hear of – Hamlet and Macbeth – the stage ends up piled high with bodies. What sort of example is to set the kids? And then there’s those minstrels with their lutes. And as for madrigals, don’t get me started.” Of course you could, and I’m sure many people would, argue that there is a difference between the plays, comics, books, film, tv and DVDs of the past and the video games of the present, in that the former are all passive media, inactively read or watched, whereas the latter are interactive, with the player as a participant in the simulated violence. Which makes it a bit surprising that such board games as Cluedo and Risk in which we used to participate in my pre-electronic youth were not blamed for the murder and ...

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story - Rick Bragg 04/02/2015

A whole lotta shakin'

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story - Rick Bragg What are we to make of Jerry Lee Lewis after all these years? As one whose musical and social awareness was just awakening as the rock era dawned in the 1950s, I like to remember him as a talismanic figure – uncontrolled and uncontrollable, a breath of fresh air blasting through the stuffy confines of the times. His music, in which pulsating piano both complemented and competed with pulsating voice, was not just relentlessly rhythmic, it sounded always on the verge of running wild. His private (or rather, unashamedly public) life certainly ran wild, scandalising the custodians of established order, while he was not so much defiant as insouciantly dismissive of conventional restraint. Moreover, while other idols of the time faded, or like Elvis drowned in a saccharine swamp, he rocked on regardless, not often in the singles charts but in albums and live tours. What could one fail to love, or at least admire? Well, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, quite a bit, though the visceral appeal remains. Another place, another time Rick Bragg, author of this ‘authorised’ biography, is predictably among the admirers and apologists. In such a position it must be hard to be anything else, especially when Bragg notes that he has “seldom enjoyed sitting beside a man so much, hearing his life told out loud”. Like Lewis, Bragg comes from an impoverished small-town southern-state background, which must not only have helped establish empathy, but also resonates in the tone and texture ...

The Charlie Hebdo Attacks 19/01/2015

The price of freedom

The Charlie Hebdo Attacks Among the many graffiti, posters, slogans, cartoons – and the ubiquitous Je Suis Charlie signs – to be seen in Paris last week, one struck me as more thought-provoking than most. It was hand-scrawled on a flag at an impromptu shrine and (roughly translated) read: “I am not Charlie. I am Ahmed, murdered policeman. Charlie mocked my faith and my culture and I died in defence of their right to do so. Liberty!!” The reference is to Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim policeman of Algerian extraction, shot as he tried to intervene in the attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. At face value this reads as a stirring endorsement not just of the man’s courageous action, but also of the over-arching value of free speech. On the other hand, it could be interpreted ironically, tacitly questioning the justice of relying on noble self-sacrifice in defence of an ignobly exercised freedom. After the initial upsurge of sympathy, support and solidarity for the satirists of Charlie Hebdo, subsequent debate has focussed on two main topics: 1. Is freedom of speech an unconditional right, or does it come with a concomitant responsibility to use it with restraint? 2. How best should free societies respond to such attacks? Is freedom of speech an unconditional right? Affixed to a wall near the Charlie Hebdo offices was a copy of to a cartoon by Cabu, one of the dead, bearing an amended caption: Peut-on encore rire de tout? (“Can we still laugh at everything?”). It shows a host of ...

Everything that starts with R ... 06/01/2015

Resolutions renewed

Christmas Stories 16/12/2014


Everything that starts with F ... 05/11/2014

Once more with Feeling

What Has Made You Happy Recently 29/09/2014

Seasons to be cheerful 1-2-3

London: A History in Maps - Peter Barber 18/08/2014

Capital charts

London: A History in Maps - Peter Barber Most books are valued, if at all, for their contents. A few can be valued purely for their beauty as artefacts. Here’s one that I value for both. Since it was given to me last Christmas I have spent many hours poring over it, only constrained by a concern that I might soil it with clumsy handling or grubby paws. Of course, if you’re not interested in London, in history or in maps, you probably wouldn’t share my enthusiasm for the contents, and might simply regard it as a handsome volume of the ‘coffee table’ variety. Personally, I find all three enthralling and enjoy the the well-thought-out way in which this book intertwines them. If you share any, or all, those interests you too might find it worth seeking out, even though it is not cheap. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t let my copy anywhere near the coffee table with all that coffee around. The Maps (and other illustrations) The idea of compiling the book arose from an exhibition about London staged at the British Library in 2006-2007 in which historic maps featured prominently. Peter Barber, the Library’s Head of Maps, took on the task of organising its production, with the help of the London Topographical Society. Unsurprisingly, then, the maps are the mainstay of the finished volume, though they are supported by many other prints, manuscripts and photographs, all held together by a relatively small amount of explanatory text. This is not so much a history book illustrated by maps as a map book with just enough commentary to ...

Which Are Your Five Favourite Cities In The UK? 12/08/2014

Unearthing urban memories

Which Are Your Five Favourite Cities In The UK? “You can't love a city if you have no memories buried there.” (Marina Tavares Dias) * May I admit to being ambivalent about cities? The word conjures up much that is admirable and exciting in human experience, but much that is threatening and repellent too. Cities are centres of civilisation, of great architecture, art, culture and sport. They are also centres of hassle and hustle, pollution and crime. City life is not restful, and as I grow older I value restfulness. Of course, not all cities are big and bustling. Some, especially among our ancient cathedral cities, are quaintly small and even tranquil. Increasingly, those are the ones I like, but my favourites remain those where I have the warmest memories buried, memories I am happy to unearth. In picking my top five, I also feel that I should aim for variety, because I am still young enough to value variety, even above restfulness. Oxford. Yes, I’m afraid so, the home of dreaming causes, lost spires and clichéd descriptions generally. “Oxford is the most dangerous place to which a young man can be sent,” said Trollope, which should be enough to whet any young man’s appetite, and maybe those of young women too. In my time at Oxford it was the vogue among undergraduates to make cynical fun of the place (it’s probably always the vogue among undergraduates to make cynical fun of the place) and I did so, but in point of fact I enjoyed it enormously, and still enjoy revisiting. With effortless ease, it combines vibrancy ...

Haut Koenigsbourg Castle, Orschwiller 01/08/2014

Dual heritage

Haut Koenigsbourg Castle, Orschwiller Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle perches atop a steep hill in the heart of Alsace. Behind it to the west rise the Vosges Mountains, while to the east it looks out across the flatlands of the upper Rhine valley towards the hills of the Black Forest on the river’s further side. For most of its history this was turbulent country, a disputed battleground between local lords such as those of Swabia, Lorraine or Burgundy and their remoter suzerains from as far afield as Paris, Vienna or Berlin. Many a hill is still topped by a castle or the remains of one. Of these, Haut-Koenigsbourg is among the oldest and most interesting, as well as being in excellent condition to be viewed today, though it can hardly be said to be one of the best-preserved. Over the centuries, it has been reduced to rubble several times, and been rebuilt to suit the victors’ purposes. Sometimes the victors were French, sometimes German and sometimes at pains to assert their independence from both. Its very name – ‘High King’s Castle’ in a mixture of French and German – tells you something about its past. The career of a castle Like nations, castles come in many kinds. Apart from age and size, they differ in style and purpose. Some are grim and business-like, existing only to fight; one thinks of the crusaders’ Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. Some are frivolous and decorative; one thinks of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Many were not so much fortresses as rural retreats, stately homes or propaganda statements. In the ...

Summer Holidays: Best Memories and Places 08/07/2014

Le Camping

Summer Holidays: Best Memories and Places Great, a chance to bore you all with some of my old holiday snaps. But first a confession, if only of eccentricity: I don’t particularly like summer, and I think it’s far from being the best time of year to take a holiday. Spring and autumn, when destinations are less crowded, less pricey and less hot, both beat it all ends up. But no time of year is truly bad for holidaying, and I cherish warm memories – as well as overly hot ones – of summer holidays from when I was a child, and from when my children were children, in both cases when the tyranny of the school year made holidaying in summer unavoidable. My own boyhood holidays have been tangentially covered in other reviews, apart from which I have hardly any snaps of suitably antique vintage, so I’m going to concentrate here on our family holidays when my boys were young. From 1980, when my elder son was just one year old, until the late 1990s our main annual holiday was always taken by car and our main accommodation was our trusty family tent. At first we chose camping for economy, later for preference. We camped in Britain, Spain, Italy, Luxemburg, Germany, Slovenia and Croatia, but our holiday dairies tell me that France accounted for two-thirds of our nights spent under canvas. “How nice to be back home in France,” my elder son, then seven, remarked as we re-crossed the border after our first foray into Spain. He voiced a family sentiment. France is a wonderful country for camping, as it is for holidays of any ...

Brazil 2014: What are your predictions? 30/06/2014

It's a toss-up

Brazil 2014: What are your predictions? One of the more ridiculous, or perhaps one of the more endearing, characteristics of humanity is that we never learn from our mistakes. Four years ago I made the mistake of committing to the public domain in a Ciao review my guesses as to outcome of the 2010 World Cup, guesses so awfully, even awesomely, awry that I like to regard them as endearing, though others may simply have thought them ridiculous. And now I’m making the same mistake again. In the forlorn hope of not looking quite so ridiculous this time, I have restrained my guesswork until the tournament is down to its last ten contenders. Ideally, I would have waited longer, perhaps until the day of the final, when even I would have stood a 50:50 chance of being right, provided I entrusted the verdict to a coin toss rather than my own flawed judgement. But Ciao’s “Topic of the Month” deadline put paid to that. So ten it is, and here are my prognostications, together with those arrived at by tossing the afore-mentioned coin (an Ecuadorian 50 centavo piece, the geographically closest surrogate to be found in my possession for a Brazilian Real, and moreover neutral, since Ecuador are already eliminated). Heads for the favourites, tails the underdogs. Unfinished business from the Round of 16: 1. Argentina v Switzerland. I have a sneaking suspicion that Switzerland are a better team than they are given discredit for, and Argentina a worse one, but this doesn’t mean that Switzerland are better than Argentina, still ...
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