Share this page on

gold Status gold (Level 9/10)

torr

torr

Trusted by 846 members
See member statistics

‘It's not only the most difficult thing to know one's self, but the most inconvenient.’ (Josh Billings)

Reviews written

since 29/08/2002

394

Lyonesse - Jack Vance 27/08/2016

Fantastic

Lyonesse - Jack Vance Had he lived to see it, Jack Vance would today have celebrated his 100th birthday. Somehow this seems yet another reason to remember his work – on top of his boundless imagination, captivating style and prodigious output. He wrote at least 60 books, probably more, depending on how you count them. Some may be lost or unattributed to him, since he toyed with numerous pseudonyms, especially for his crime mysteries. Under his own name he wrote mainly Science Fiction and Fantasy, or in the grey area between the two genres (in Vance’s case not such a grey area; all the colours of the rainbow are to be found there, plus others that the rainbow can only envy). Lyonesse is his best-known work of pure Fantasy, but even then the question arises of whether it is one work or three. The first novel published as Lyonesse was later supplemented by two sequels and tends now to be referred to by its sub-title, Suldrun’s Garden, whilst they are called The Green Pearl and Madouc respectively, with the name Lyonesse being used for the trilogy as a whole. Just to be clear: it is solely the original Lyonesse, aka Suldrun's Garden, that I am reviewing here. The trilogy is listed separately on Ciao as The Complete Lyonesse. Sting in the tale From her birth Suldrun was a disappointment to her father Casmir, king of Lyonesse. Not content with being born a girl when he had ordered a male heir, she compounds the felony by a wilful disregard for her education in the accomplishments required of a ...

What do you think of the Olympic Games 2016? 19/08/2016

It doesn't bear thinking about

What do you think of the Olympic Games 2016? What do I think of the Olympic Games? My first thought is that ‘think’ and ‘Olympic Games’ have no business sharing the same sentence. Surely, the whole purpose of the Olympic Games is to relieve us of the need to think. Instead, for two weeks every four years we can switch off our brains and watch wall-to-wall coverage of sports in which most of us are not usually in the least bit interested, accompanied by mind-numbing commentary interspersed with predictably platitudinous interviews with the competitors, whose blinkered dedication to their disciplines seems to have relieved them too of any time or need to think. And all this coverage endlessly repeated until it blanks out any cogitative process in white noise. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sports fan. I always have been and I’ve always assumed I always would be, my addiction so ingrained as to withstand any corrective treatment, even the aversion shock-therapy of an overdose of exposure to the Olympics on TV. But, I fear, the BBC seems to be coming up with more potent formulations every time, so potent that that my addiction is beginning to quake in its trainers, wondering if it can stay the course. Absence of thought I was prepared for, even prepared to welcome, but this is beginning to feel uncomfortably close to brain-washing. I am somehow reminded of The Clockwork Orange, in which the protagonist is counter-productively ‘cured’ of his love for Beethoven. Mugs’ Games Personally, I blame London 2012, when two ...

Ventimiglia Outdoor Market, Ventimiglia 12/08/2016

Bargain basement on the Italian Riviera

Ventimiglia Outdoor Market, Ventimiglia "Welcome to Italy, where beauty has no limits" proclaims the slogan atop Ventimiglia’s municipal website, bringing a smile to my lips. Many places in Italy are indeed beautiful, but Ventimiglia is not – to my mind at least – among them. This is not to say it is without interest. The old town, Ventimiglia Alta, perched on its hilltop above the Roia River, dates back to Roman times and retains many mediaeval features, but is neglected and even shabby in places. The modern town on the far side of the river shares only the shabbiness, being flat, architecturally uninspiring and fringed by a gravelly shoreline where it faces the Mediterranean. Only the inland backdrop of mountains makes it in any way beautiful, but every town along this coast shares that backdrop and many offer more appealing foregrounds too. The Italian Riviera has always been less pricy and pretentious than its French counterpart, but Ventimiglia takes the contrast to the limit. Booking websites reveal that it is characteristically cheaper to stay in Ventimiglia than in the nearby Italian resorts of San Remo and Bordighera, let alone in Menton across the border into France, and there is a reason for this relative cheapness. Every Friday, though, even in the depths of winter, you will find the front at Ventimiglia heaving with throngs of visitors. What attracts them is not the gritty beach and uninviting sea, but the Outdoor Market that extends a good kilometre along the lungomare (promenade). It is a byword ...

Open Garden Squares, London 04/08/2016

The semi-secret gardens of London

Open Garden Squares, London London is among the world’s most rewarding cities to wander round, as any Londoner – and even some visitors – will tell you. Partly this is because it has so many overlapping but distinctly different districts, each with its own individual character, history and architecture. Partly because it is mostly accessible and safe for pedestrians, but with plenty of public transport on hand when needed. And partly because it is one of the greenest of cities, replete with parks and gardens. Of course, not all the gardens are open to the public, or at least not often. Particularly frustrating to the casual wanderer are the tantalising green spaces at the heart of so many of the elegant squares scattered around the capital, which look ideal for a short sit, respite and reflection – but which turn out to be barred to all but a few privileged residents. I’ve heard them called ‘secret gardens’, but this is a misnomer, since they are visible to anyone from the outside, though not from within. Some, alas, remain ever inaccessible, but with many others there is an exception: the annual weekend in mid-June that is designated London Open Garden Squares Weekend (referred to as OGSW from here on). Fair and square Initiated in 1988, the OGSW scheme will complete its twentieth season next year. During that time it has grown to encompass over 200 gardens across the capital. These are mostly close to the centre – the organisers recognise 13 different clusters, almost all in Inner London – but ...

Brexit: what's next? 06/07/2016

When the Brexit hits the fan

Brexit: what's next? In two months’ time we shall have a new Prime Minister, whose most pressing and difficult task will be to pilot our nation through the uncharted waters of separation from the European Union. As I write it looks unlikely that this Prime Minister will be one of those who were at the forefront of the Brexit campaign. If so, this would in one way be a pity, since they will not therefore have to take responsibility for clearing up the mess they have created. In another, it would be a relief to see none of them rewarded with high office for the irresponsible dishonesty with which they campaigned. Whoever the new PM proves to be, the prospects facing them will be daunting. So far as we have been told, no plan exists for disengagement from the EU, or for mitigating the collateral damage that will result. Even the Leavers had no plan recognisable as such. The “Action Plan” they published was nothing of the kind, but a flimsy farrago of wishful thinking – shorter and less detailed even than this review. Let’s hope that Cameron’s government had a contingency plan for what to do if they lost, and that the new government will inherit it as a basis for developing their own. If not, our future looks as incoherent as it is dire, but let’s hope so anyway. And, while we’re hoping, let’s try to formulate what a good plan might look like for navigating our way through the swamp into which we have been steered. The divorce settlement First on the agenda will be negotiating the terms of our ...

How will you vote in the European Referendum? 21/06/2016

Trade talks

How will you vote in the European Referendum? Glad to see this topic is now listed. How shall I be voting in the referendum? REMAIN, in the hope that nothing like what follows ever actually takes place. “Good morning, Chancellor Merkel. Boris Johnson here, you know, the new British Prime Minister.” “Good morning, Mr Johnson, and congratulations on your appointment.” “Thank you. But do call me Boris. And may I call you Angela? I hope we’re going to be friends.” “For now, I think it is better if we keep to the formalities.” “But you were on first name terms with Cameron, weren’t you?” “Yes, but then David and I were colleagues, working together as heads of government within the European Union. Since you will be taking your country out of the EU, that will not be the case with us.” “Yes, well, that’s rather what I wanted to talk to you about. You know, arrangements between Britain and the EU after we’ve left. Trade and all that sort of thing. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to work out a super-duper deal, best thing for everyone.” “Your hopes, Mr Johnson, are not my concern. And it is not the correct protocol to speak with me about this. You should be addressing the Commission in Brussels.” “Well, yes, I understand all that. But it seemed worth having a quick word with you first, just the two of us. After all, everyone knows that it’s you Germans who really pull the strings around Europe, so if you and I can see eye to eye on what needs to be done, I’ve every confidence you could get the rest to fall into ...

If we were given a referendum on the European Union would you vote for the UK to stay in or come out? 07/06/2016

The mourning after

If we were given a referendum on the European Union would you vote for the UK to stay in or come out? Having tried, and failed, to persuade Ciao to list "the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership" as a current debating topic, I’m posting this piece under the most relevant, if outdated, existing heading. Obviously, we do have a referendum, and therefore still time to vote to avoid what follows. 24th June 2016. Grey and drizzly, a typically British day dawns over Downing Street, where you, David Cameron, reluctantly stir into wakefulness. You’d hoped and believed that it wasn’t going to happen, but it has. Your referendum gamble has failed, and in a typically British display of wilful contrariness, the electorate has voted to leave the European Union. Sickening to reflect that a cynical campaign based on distortion, half-truths and the odd blatant untruth has prevailed. But you, David Cameron, can’t even legitimately complain about that, considering the tactics you’ve been party to in previous campaigns, perhaps nothing quite so downright dishonest, but dishonest enough just the same. In any case, faux-patriotic fantasy has won the day, and as your punishment for defeat you find yourself still stuck in the real world and saddled with the task of picking up the pieces. You could, of course, resign and leave the mess to someone else, but to whom? Discredited by defeat, you will no longer have much influence and, in its current mood, the Tory Party would probably insist on plumping for one of the triumphant Brexiters. With Michael Gove lacking popular appeal, the ...

What are your favourite bank holiday activities? 06/06/2016

Ducking out

What are your favourite bank holiday activities? “The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off,” or so said American basketball coach Abe Lemons, and I have come to share his feelings on the matter. Without the pressure of going to work, every day becomes much like every other, pleasantly relaxed but unexceptional. If you want to stay at home and do nothing, that’s fine. If you want to go on an outing – to the seaside, perhaps, or a museum or a stately home or even an amusement park – that’s usually fine too. Usually, but not quite always. For just occasionally you will set off on such an outing to find the roads to the relevant attraction jammed, the carpark packed and the place itself filled to overflowing with competing visitors. Only then do you realise that your plans have had the misfortune to coincide with a bank holiday, and that you should have stayed at home. Having been paying uncharacteristically close attention to the calendar lately, I notice that tomorrow is a bank holiday. I have to confess that as I have grown older my attitude towards bank holidays has changed. There was a time, not so long ago, when I was unreservedly in favour of them, and the more the better. A fine-tooth trawl through my reviews here on Ciao would reveal that I have not only welcomed the celebration of those that already exist but have suggested that extra ones should be scheduled as follows: every April to perpetuate the one introduced for the royal wedding five years ago; at the End of Spring (formerly known as ...

Côte d´Azur (France) 04/04/2016

Côte of many colours

Côte d´Azur (France) The older I grow, the less clear-cut are my opinions. So equivocal have I become that I’m not even sure whether to interpret this as a symptom of (i) early-onset senility, the brain gradually turning to mush, or (ii) late-onset wisdom, or sense of proportion at least. Is it possible to have a sense of proportion about the Côte d’Azur? When I first wrote about the region, thirteen years ago, I thought not: “You either love or loathe the Côte d’Azur. There is no middle way. Like all places that are extremes of their kind, it excites extreme responses, both for and against. “Take Cannes for example. Five minutes on La Croisette – the promenade – at Cannes is enough to confirm me in my life membership of the loathers. The place is so insufferably pleased with itself. The swanky hotels, each with its private parasoled stretch of beach across the palmy boulevard, down which red Ferraris and black-glassed Mercedes cruise, their numbers swelled by stretch limos during the Film Festival. The posh apartment blocks that blister the leafy hill behind the town – ‘Californie’ as it is locally known. The ostentatious white yachts in the harbour with their ostentatious bronzed owners noisily treating cronies to champagne. The fur-clad widows escorting their fur-clad poodles for a promenade and a coiffure. What’s not to dislike? “To me, Cannes reeks of having been fashionable for far too long; indeed, of having reached a point where it can regard itself as above fashion and able to look ...

A Braijade Meridiounale, Menton 23/03/2016

Off the eaten track

A Braijade Meridiounale, Menton Menton, as you might expect for a resort on the French Riviera, is packed with eateries, including some swish fine-dining establishments priced to match. Personally, I’m no keener on swish fine-dining establishments than I am on the swisher resorts on the French Riviera, especially when they’re priced to match, so I always try to sniff out some swish-free value off the beaten track. And in Menton you don’t need to go too far off the beaten track to find it. In fact it can be found just a hundred metres or so along the main street of the old town, so you’d imagine many diners would discover it – but few appear to do so. Peering down the narrow Rue Longue from the gateway to the old town, you can’t actually see A Braijade Meridiounale or any other café, shop or restaurant. It lies just out of sight round a bend in the road. At night, the whole area falls eerily silent and its ill-lit alleys are peopled by shadows, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that prospective diners find the prospect forbidding and are deterred. Instead, they keep to the bright lights and hubbub of the newer, more resorty part of town. If so, that’s their loss, and, alas, the restaurant’s, even if it does make it easier for those who do find their way to the Braijade (as I shall refer to it from here on) to secure a table. Ambience and decor The restaurant fronts onto the Rue Longue, with three or four tables outside, doubtless a pleasant place to sit in summer, since the street is pedestrianised, but ...

Menton 12/03/2016

The likeable face of the Côte d'Azur

Menton When I wrote the original version of this review, some thirteen years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about Menton. It was the one place on the Côte d’Azur that I liked, unequivocally. Compared with glitzy Cannes, bustling Nice, money-mad Monte Carlo – or any of the other resorts along this overdeveloped, over-priced, too-long-fashionable coast – Menton held an altogether subtler and more powerful appeal. “Why?” I asked myself. “What’s so different? There are big hotels in Menton too, some with pretensions to swankiness, and apartment blocks, and yachts in the harbour, and pricey restaurants. There are widows with rinces d’azur, fur coats, gold jewellery and poodles in such numbers that one has to wonder what they’ve all done to attain such widespread widowhood. There are even specimens of la jeunesse dorée, although they look slightly lost, as if on their way to Saint-Tropez they somehow pointed their Porsches at the wrong slip road off the autoroute. “Subtly, though, the entire ambience is different, and induces a different mood. Menton is not flashy, nor even assertive. It is calm, relaxed, at ease with itself. Rather than being arrogantly above fashion, the town simply seems so self-possessed as to be impervious to it. You sense it has a long and comfortable history as a place of peaceful pleasure, and is content to remain just that, adapting to the ebb and flow of the times as necessary but never really altering.” Plus ça change All of which made it slightly ...

This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein 16/02/2016

The bigger issue

This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein What can we humans, as a species, do to overcome the most daunting challenge facing us today? That challenge is, of course, that all the practices we have come to rely on for our prosperity have grown to the point where their incidental impact on our natural habitat is threatening not only that prosperity, but our very survival. In other words, what can we do to avert the consequences of man-made climate change? Veteran campaigner Naomi Klein presents her own answer in this sometimes brilliant, but ultimately unconvincing, book. Mission statement Klein’s book is subtitled ‘Capitalism vs. the Climate’, foreshadowing the thrust of her case: that climate change and other environmental depredations are largely the fault of capitalism and are being irresponsibly aggravated by capitalists, who resort to all kinds of cynical propaganda and lobbying to obscure these facts and to prevent remedial action being taken. Multinational corporations, particularly those in the extractive and energy industries, are arraigned as the prime suspects behind this quasi-conspiracy. “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming,” Klein asserts, “but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.” Hers is a case that needs to be answered, though this statement does rather imply that her essential purpose is to seek arguments for changing the ‘rules of capitalism’ rather than to present an ...

What's the best way to celebrate New Year's Eve? 31/12/2015

High on the Hogmanay

What's the best way to celebrate New Year's Eve? Oh lawks, it’s New Year’s Eve again. Too soon for my declining brain The world’s spun off another year, Spring, summer, autumn gone, I fear, And winter well into its stride. Indeed we’ve just had Christmastide – We’ve supped and drunk and overeaten This bitter season’s pill to sweeten And keep the icy chill at bay; Now here we are at Hogmanay. For yes, it’s New Year’s Eve again, That’s what our calendars ordain. Some celebration’s surely needed Before the old year’s superseded. If happy, it should be rewarded By being off the stage applauded, Whilst if you’ve found it were pretty dire Be glad it’s scheduled to expire, Giving you cause to shout hurray And raise a glass on Hogmanay. A glass? Of whisky? Or champagne? It scarcely matters; I’ll abstain From neither, no, nor even beer If that’s on hand to toast New Year. But where, with whom? Now there’s a question More to the point, for all ingestion For its enjoyment much depends On what you do and who attends; For there is truly many a way To celebrate on Hogmanay. When one is young and fit one’s main Object in life – need I explain? – Is meeting with the other sex, So New Year parties only vex If they do not include the chance To chat up talent, flirt and dance, Whilst midnight’s strokes are but the first Of many strokes, till, fit to burst You yield yourself to nature’s sway For an orgasmic Hogmanay. Such youthful ardour need not wane Once one is paired, but it is plain The urgency ...

Castries Market, St. Lucia 11/12/2015

Calypso Commerce

Castries Market, St. Lucia Sometimes, I find, you need a break from the beach. Not that I normally spend much time on beaches. There is only one place on earth that I go to laze around on the seashore watching the waves, and that is the lovely West Indian island of Saint Lucia, where I happen to know a hideaway hotel perfect for the purpose. But even when relaxing at the East Winds Inn* I occasionally become restless and want to see something of life outside its secluded grounds. At which point the time has come to venture out to the island’s capital, Castries, where there is plenty of local life to be found. Be happy Ideally, this restlessness takes hold on a Saturday, when Castries is at its most animated, above all because it’s market day. In truth the market is open every day, but it is on Saturday mornings that it really comes alive, when local producers bring their fruit, fish and vegetables to sell in an informal trading area behind the main market hall. In addition, an adjacent street is temporarily closed to traffic and is occupied instead by stalls selling all kinds of household goods and clothes. Both these areas jostle with colourfully-clad buyers and sellers amid a clamour of voices haggling, chatting and exchanging greetings. Meanwhile, the permanent market buildings, which chiefly house stalls offering handicrafts, souvenirs, T-shirts, hats, wraps and similar ware for tourists, are relatively quiet, unless there is a cruise ship docked in Castries harbour, when they too come to ...

Fattypuffs and Thinifers - Andre Maurois 20/11/2015

Does size matter?

Fattypuffs and Thinifers - Andre Maurois While searching on-line for Christmas gifts for my grand-nephews (you didn’t take all that stuff in my last review about trees literally, did you?), I was overjoyed to discover that Fattypuffs and Thinifers is back in print. When I last looked a few years ago, I could find only second-hand copies, but now there is a new paperback edition available to enthral a new generation of youngsters. And oldsters too, as I found on re-reading. Double trouble The story starts with the Double family, who are happily united despite a superficial difference in appearance and temperament. Mr Double and elder son Terry are thin, energetic and uninterested in food, whereas Mrs Double and younger son Edmund are fat, gluttonous and easy-going. Out playing in the woods one day, the two boys discover a cleft between two rocks, from which a mysterious escalator descends deep below the earth. Taking it, they emerge at length into a subterranean world, divided into two contrasting nations. The boys are separated, and skinny Terry is assigned to the Thinifer Republic, whilst chubby Edmund is directed to the Kingdom of the Fattypuffs. Fortunately, both have every reason to feel at home in their respective destinations, especially when taken under the wing of prominent local families. Terry finds himself lodged with the household of Mr Dulficer, Professor of History at the Thinifer National Academy, a gruff, demanding but essentially well-meaning host. Here, he is versed in the Thinifer way of ...
See more reviews Back to top