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torr

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""A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation." (Saki)

Reviews written

since 29/08/2002

362

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

Some memorable favourites

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 ...

National Garden Scheme, East Clandon, Guildford 12/03/2014

The Yellow Book Road

National Garden Scheme, East Clandon, Guildford The 2014 National Garden Scheme 'Yellow Book' is now out, just in time for a springwards turn in the weather. So now seems like a good time to update this review, with a full spring and summer ahead for anyone interested to enjoy the gardens made accessible under the scheme. It’s a sure sign of old age when you can’t think of a more pleasurable way to spend a summer Sunday afternoon than ambling around other people’s gardens. Still, if old age is creeping up in any case you might as well make the most of it and take pleasure in what you can. Just as golf is said to be a good walk spoiled, a garden tour is a good walk enhanced: by the change of scenery, by the change of pace as you pause to look around, and by the exchange of comment and conversation with the gardens’ owners and with other visitors. You don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy such an outing, though it probably helps. My wife, who is an avid gardener, certainly thinks so. My own viewpoint is that I like gardens well enough as long as someone else has done the work on them. Visiting other people’s gardens averts any danger – for that period of time at least – that I might be required to help in our own. Meanwhile, it’s as good a way of having a little gentle, non-strenuous exercise in the fresh air as any, and better than most. And if it can be done for the benefit of a good cause or two, so much the better. The difficulty is that few other people’s gardens are readily accessible in the normal way ...

Celebrating Chinese New Year 07/02/2014

The Year of the Monkey Puzzle?

It's Not Like That, Actually: A memoir of surviving cancer and beyond - Kate Carr 07/02/2014

What it's actually like

It's Not Like That, Actually: A memoir of surviving cancer and beyond - Kate Carr “I have never understood people who claim that their cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them. What on earth were their lives like before?” This passage caught my eye as I browsed ‘It’s Not Like That, Actually’ in a second-hand bookshop, persuading me to pick it up for my wife. Buying such books for her is something I do with some hesitation. Having been living with breast cancer herself for six years now, she has firm views on what is, and what is not, helpful in discussion of the disease. Anything self-pitying, euphemistic or evasive would have gone down badly, anything that suggested putting one’s faith in miracle cures – diets, herbal remedies, mysticism, whatever – worse still. And anything preachy, exhorting sufferers to accentuate the Positive (the P word, in my wife’s dismissive vocabulary) worst of all. Confronted with a menacing reality, her response has always been to face up to it squarely and steadfastly. So, in this book, is Kate Carr’s. As a result it chimed with my wife as few other ‘cancer books’ have. She found it engaging to read, easy to empathise with and even useful in relation to her own situation. She also thought, as I had hoped she might, that it would be useful to those close to cancer patients in helping them understand the viewpoint of the person with the disease, and to differentiate between what was truly supportive and what might, however well-intentioned, annoy or even undermine. Which is why I thought it worth writing this ...

Is global warming an urgent danger? 07/02/2014

Why bother?

Tablet Buying Guide: Your top 5 tips 07/02/2014

Keep on taking the Pils

Tablet Buying Guide: Your top 5 tips It’s good to see Ciao focussing on the truly momentous issues in the world today like Halloween costumes or – in this case – tablet procurement, rather than wasting precious debating topics on political, economic, environmental or ethical trivia. And at least I know something about tablets. I have, I like to think, a traditionally British attitude to consulting doctors. My upper lip resolutely stiff, I refuse to waste their time – or mine – over minor ailments, and only go to see them when convinced that my condition is imminently terminal. However well-intentioned, this approach can be self-defeating. Given the time it takes to secure an appointment at my local surgery, I would probably have died of any truly terminal condition long before a doctor deigned to examine me. Fortunately, so far at least (fingers crossed, awkward when typing) even my most alarming symptoms have proved to be only those of advanced hypochondria. So I come away from my rare visits to the quack outwardly sceptical but inwardly relieved to be given a clean bill of health, at least until the scepticism regains its grip on my imagination. Which leaves me with only those pesky minor ailments to worry about, and seek remedies for. My first step is to rummage around in my wife’s medicine cabinet with a view to picking out a few likely looking tablets to swallow. There, all conceivable female maladies are catered for, and quite a few unisex, but, in some obscure application of Murphy's Law, ...

10 Things I Love About Christmas 21/12/2013

On the thirteenth day of Christmas

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