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"If you can't be a good example - then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." (Catherine Aird)

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since 29/08/2002


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 ...

Fort de Fermont, Fermont 08/06/2014

Under iron mountain

Fort de Fermont, Fermont Keep your eyes open as you travel across north-eastern France and you’ll see quite a few of them, like scabs on the landscape’s skin. Some, formed of rusty steel, masquerade as hummocks in the grassland, others formed of weathered concrete are half-hidden among hillside hollows. They appear isolated, at seemingly random intervals, but in fact they are just the outward traces of a labyrinthine network of communications tunnels, ordnance stores and underground barracks, all buried at a bomb-proof depth beneath. They are the turrets and gun emplacements of the derelict forts that were once the strongpoints of the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line. Immovable object Lessons are always learned from the experience of wars on how best to fight them. But military tactics and technology move relentlessly forward and the lessons are often out of date even before they have been fully applied. The tendency of generals to prepare for the last war rather than the next is legendary, and there is no better example of it than the Maginot Line. The lesson learned from the First World War – in which conscript infantry armies perished in their millions in costly assaults on defensive lines bristling with machine-guns and backed by artillery – was that defence had become, for the first time since Vauban, the best method of attack. Make your defences strong enough and your enemy would dissipate his strength against them until he was at last weak enough to be counter-attacked. No nation ...

Hôtel Le Château Fort, Sedan 28/05/2014

A genuine 'chateau hotel'

Hôtel Le Château Fort, Sedan The main reason for visiting the town of Sedan is to see the castle. A formidable edifice with claims to be the largest surviving mediaeval castle in Europe, it has also featured in more recent military history, and was therefore a natural candidate to include in a tour of the forts and fortifications of northern France. And the question of where to stay in the vicinity was easily answered by the fact that a former barracks at the core of the castle has now been converted into a hotel. Finding the castle… …assuming you are coming by road, should be a simple matter of following the signs to the centre of town and then to the castle itself, but it is worth paying close attention; my wife and I managed to miss one of the signs and went on an involuntary tour of local housing estates before finding our way back on track. The narrow main gate of the castle is controlled by a traffic light, seemingly stuck on red when we arrived, but a friendly staff member waved us through without even a portcullis descending on us. Once inside we found ourselves in a large central courtyard with plenty of space to park and no extra charge to hotel guests for doing so. The main hotel block… …is a flat-fronted five-storey building facing the courtyard, in uneven beige-cream limestone, rather featureless apart from the regular punctuation of small windows. Within, the ground floor has been decorated in light colours and clean modern lines, the only gesture towards the building’s age being that ...

10 Signs You're Getting Old 24/04/2014

The Mermaids Sing

10 Signs You're Getting Old Faintly astonishing though it is to remember, I was still a young man when I wrote the original version of this review, in my fifties. At my present age, I find it faintly astonishing to be able to remember anything. My age, as anyone who has closely studied my autobiographical reviews might have deduced, has recently staggered past yet another unwelcome milestone on its ever steeper and more tottering descent into senility. Not that I feel truly old, you understand. Chronologically challenged, perhaps, but not truly old. Some people – in the unlikely event that they wanted to flatter me – might say I’m still in my prime. Others – though this would probably involve bribery on my part as well as flattery on theirs – might even say I’ve not yet reached my prime, though to retain any hope of credibility they would have to add that I’m leaving it a bit late if I’m ever going to have one. The original version of this review was prompted by a quip from John Simpson on Have I Got News For You, when he said: “You know you’re getting old when you fancy the Chairman of the Conservative Party.” The reference, believe it or not, was to Theresa May, who was then chairperson of said party. How times change, eh. I can’t speak for John Simpson, but personally I find it impossible to imagine myself fancying Theresa May these days. That might, of course, be a sign of her age rather than mine, but at my age I can barely remember why I might have fancied her in the first place. Perhaps the ...
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