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torr

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"Euphemism is a euphemism for lying." (Bobbie Gentry)

Reviews written

since 29/08/2002

377

Summer is starting, barbecues are reemerging from the sheds… But which is your favourite? A regular charcoal one or modern, gas/electric one? 24/07/2015

True to tradition

Summer is starting, barbecues are reemerging from the sheds⦠But which is your favourite? A regular charcoal one or modern, gas/electric one? As with most questions, you can address this one in at least two ways, the two that spring most readily to my mind being the practical and the romantic. From the practical point of view, there is no need to coax the reluctant brain out of hibernation to arrive at a conclusive answer. For ease of use, speed of lighting, heat control, cleanliness, environmental virtue and minimisation of the quantity of carcinogens generated by the cooking process, a gas barbecue wins every time. Against dirty, slow-lighting, unpredictable charcoal, gas is a shoo-in. Arguably for flavour too, though this is subjective, since some prefer the smokier charcoal taste. Leaving such personal preference aside, the competition is a mismatch, and I expect the bookies have long since stopped taking bets on the outcome. Even electricity would probably canter home ahead of charcoal for practicality, though personally I would lodge an objection with the stewards on the grounds that an electric grill does not strictly qualify as a barbecue, for which a naked flame is the minimum pre-requisite. But what a soulless, unromantic world it would be if our choices were determined by ease of use, speed, control, cleanliness, environmental virtue, carcinogen avoidance and suchlike trivia alone. To treat them as decisive in the case of barbecues is to lose sight of what barbecues are really all about. “They’re about eating,” the practically-minded might retort, “Eating food. Grilled food. Food grilled outdoors.” ...

Should Pluto still be recognised as a planet? 15/07/2015

Plutonic love

What is your view of the Greek economic crisis? 11/07/2015

Greek tragedy

What is your view of the Greek economic crisis? What would you do in the two following sets of circumstances? i) A few years ago you, together with others, lent a friend a lot of money, which they now can’t pay back, as they’ve already failed to pay back other creditors. Instead, they want you to lend them still more money. Reluctantly, you offer to do so, but only on condition that they take steps to sort out their finances and live within their means. Although this was also a condition of your original loan, they haven’t managed to live up to it, and without it you see little chance of ever being repaid. At the last moment they announce that they can’t agree without consulting their family, which they do very publicly, urging the rejection of your conditions and describing you as a bully and blackmailer in the process. With the support of their family they come back to you and demand the right to borrow the money on easier terms. Do you agree, or tell them to go and stew in their own juice, even though this means you may have to write off the original loan? ii) A few years ago, finding yourself in grave financial difficulties, you borrowed a lot of money from a group of friends, which they lent to you only on condition that you sorted your finances out. You’ve tried to do so, but it’s proved harder than you expected, especially as you were never convinced that what they asked was really the right way to go about it. Indeed, you think they’ve made life more difficult for you and you still can’t make ends meet. To keep ...

The Norwegian Fjords, Norway 24/06/2015

The scenic route

The Norwegian Fjords, Norway Which is better: a sea view or a mountain view? This is of course an impossible question to answer, since both have their own unique attractions, and the choice is a matter of personal preference. Although we both like both, my wife prefers above all to watch the waves, whilst I feel most at home when I have slopes and peaks to gaze at. So a trip to the Norwegian fjords, where towering mountains overshadow deep sea inlets, might seem like a natural for us. I’m tempted to say I can’t think why we didn’t do it years ago, though in fact I do know why, which was all to do with cost and practicality. Essentially, there are two ways to go. The first option is to tour by car/caravan/campervan. This was challenging enough even in the days when a car ferry crossed from Newcastle to Bergen, but that service has been discontinued. So, if you want to take your own vehicle, you must use a shorter crossing and face a long drive up through Denmark, Sweden and Norway before you even reach the fjords. You could fly and hire a vehicle locally, but that constricts what you can carry and is expensive. Indeed in Norway everything is expensive, including accommodation, food and – especially – booze (yet another reason why you might prefer to take your own vehicle with your own supplies). Once there the roads are few, circuitous and slow, not always reaching the fjords in the areas you’d most want to visit, so you’d have to allow extra time to do some strenuous hiking, or take trips on local ...

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton 06/06/2015

Not everything is illuminated

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton Towards the end of The Luminaries, one of the main characters, Walter Moody by name, falls in with an Irishman as he sets out on a journey. They agree to tell each other their stories to alleviate the boredom. “Moody was silent for a time, wondering where to begin. ‘I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ he said presently. ‘I’m afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.’ ” The trouble – if it is a trouble – with The Luminaries is that it is hard to tell which of these alternatives – if they are alternatives – the author has chosen to follow in her own narrative. Even to pose this question assumes, of course, that she has her own perception of the ‘truth’ of her story, in the sense of an immutable and coherent sequence of events that underpins what is related to the reader. Probably she has, but it is possible that she would regard such a foundation as unnecessary, even misleading. * Sometimes one writes a review in order to express what one thinks of the subject, at other times in order to find out what one thinks of it. This review is of the latter kind, so forgive me if it turns out to be a bit discursive. My excuse – apart from that of casting around to discover what I think – is that the book is more than a little discursive too. Indeed, I can’t begin to compete. When it comes to discursiveness, few are in the same league as the author, Eleanor Catton. She is, of course, highly regarded and The Luminaries has ...

What will it mean to Great Britain that the Scottish National Party claimed almost every seat in Scotland at the General Election ? 23/05/2015

Scot free

What will it mean to Great Britain that the Scottish National Party claimed almost every seat in Scotland at the General Election ? The thought will, I know, be quite unpalatable to many, but let me invite you for a moment to imagine you are David Cameron. You are ensconced in Downing Street contemplating what moves to make in the numerous games of diplomatic chess and political poker in which you are unavoidably engaged, one of which concerns the unruly sub-division of the realm known as Scotland. In public, of course, you make what you would like to think are the right noises about the place (why else, after all, has one been to Eton, if not to make the right noises?), but secretly you believe it to be utterly beyond the pale and an infernal nuisance. And as for the Scots, what can one do with such ingrates? Despite already getting more than their fair share of UK public sector jobs, public expenditure, seats in Parliament and influence over the affairs of the rest of the Britain, they seem unable to recognise when they’re well off and are still demanding more! You’ve half a mind to forget your own unionist orthodoxy and let them stew in their own unappetising broth: to tell them that if they’re so keen to rule independently their benighted windswept wasteland they should go away and get on with it. At this point, a mischievous thought enters your head (why else, after all, has one been to Eton?). Everyone keeps telling you that because those Scottish Nationalist oiks were so unaccountably successful in the General Election, you should engage with them more, keep the promises so rashly made at the ...

Montreuil-sur-Mer, France 01/05/2015

Hilltop haven

Montreuil-sur-Mer, France The first thing to note about Montreuil-sur-Mer is that it isn’t. “Sur Mer,” that is. The town – or at least the river that runs below its walls – may have been a haven for shipping in bygone days, but the Canche estuary has silted up since then, stranding Montreuil some miles inland. So if you’re seeking a seaside place to stay, best look elsewhere. Similarly, if you’re looking for vibrant, boisterous night-life, you’d probably find Montreuil far too quiet, even dull. But in all other respects, it makes an ideal base for an overnight or weekend visit just across the channel. Considering how small it is (fewer than 3000 inhabitants), Montreuil has more than its share of historic and architectural interest, ambience, scenic quality and surrounding countryside, places to eat and to stay, and accessibility for British visitors. Bygone days Montreuil dates back to Roman times, and became France’s most important channel port in the 9th and 10th centuries, when it was first fortified. Between them, though, the receding coastline and its exposed position on the frontier robbed it of its prominence. Having been frequently knocked about during the 100 year’s war and its aftershocks (Montreuil was the last French town successfully besieged by an English monarch – Henry VIII – in the long struggle between the two nations), it remained vulnerable in the ongoing confrontation between France and the armies stationed in the Spanish Netherlands. Inevitably, its ramparts and citadel were ...

What has the past five years taught us about the merits and demerits of government by a coalition rather than a single party ? 20/04/2015

When working together works

What has the past five years taught us about the merits and demerits of government by a coalition rather than a single party ? “Britain does not love coalitions,” said Disraeli, and history has tended to prove him right even if the reasons for that lack of love are hard to fathom. Distaste for coalition government is a peculiarly British trait. In most western democracies it is regarded as unobjectionable, even desirable, and is frequently the norm. Two-thirds of our EU partners are governed by coalitions, including some of the most politically stable and prosperous among them, Germany and the Netherlands for example. The past five years have given the British people experience of a coalition in action, and, if the opinion polls are any guide, there is a distinct possibility of another coalition of some complexion being formed after the forthcoming election. Coalitions used to be rare in Britain because the electoral system tended to produce decisive, if often unrepresentative, victories for a single party. But this tendency has weakened as the two main parties have lost their duopoly of popular support and smaller parties have won more representation. The time therefore seems ripe to consider the merits and demerits of coalition government – coalition government in general, that is, not specifically the one that has just reached the end of its term. It would be a mistake to confuse the principles involved with transitory judgements on particular policies or personalities. The case against coalitions Those who prefer to see a single party ‘winner’ emerge from an election argue that this leads ...

Raising Steam - Terry Pratchett 09/04/2015

Towards the end of the line

Raising Steam - Terry Pratchett “It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It's called living.” (Terry Pratchett) The late Terry Pratchett Those facing terminal illnesses are routinely described as “brave” no matter how they actually behave in the face of their adversity. Terry Pratchett’s case was one in which the description was entirely apt. An author who had cast Death as a comic character in his books, Pratchett regarded his own demise, which he knew to be imminent following a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's in 2007, in much the same spirit. Apart from devoting time and energy to charitable causes, especially the campaign to liberalise the laws against assisted suicide, he carried on his life as before in so far as he was able, continuing to turn out novels at a prodigious rate, dictating when he could no longer type. Of his own case, he simply said “I hope I can jump before I am pushed”, ideally “sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand.” It is not clear to what extent that wish was fulfilled, since all that has been reported of his death was that it was 'entirely natural and unassisted'. The Infrastructure of Discworld Raising Steam, the most recent of Pratchett’s works to be published, will not be his last. There is apparently one more manuscript still with the publishers and due to appear posthumously this coming September. That will be the 41st in his Discworld series, of which Raising Steam is the 40th. ...

Celebrating Easter 31/03/2015

Of buns and bunkum

Celebrating Easter Unless something drastic intervenes, Easter is set to put in its annual appearance this coming weekend. It seems worth celebrating by posting here another couple of instalments in my slowly-accumulating sequence of seasonal rhymes. Perhaps I should collect them together as Old Torr’s Almanac or something similar. If the second of the two pieces seems unusually cantankerous for a Torr, blame on my recent visit to central Spain, where the reminders of religious persecution still linger sufficiently to challenge anyone’s capacity for mutual tolerance, if only because one is reminded that historically it’s not often been mutual.*¹ The rigidly religious might prefer to look away now and read no further. 1. Good Friday The eggs may not be due till Sunday; Who cares? Today is Hot Cross Bun Day, So chocs and bunnies wait their turn, Well to the rear in line astern, While spicy buns take pride of place Home-cooked to trump the baker’s ace. The yeasty scent pervades the kitchen As hungry family gather, itchin’, Impatient in the way of sons, To sink their fangs into the buns Crammed full of raisins and sultanas (Ambrosial aids to reach nirvana Or – should I say? – a state of grace), So normally there’s not a trace Left from an oven-stretching batch All gobbled down with swift despatch. Which is a pity in a way Since they’d be tastier still next day, Toasted brown with butter spread – The bestest thing since unsliced bread. 2. Easter Sunday Now Sunday’s here it’s truly ...

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 corpses. 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 ...
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