Book review – A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is probably best known for his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  It won the Whitbread Best Novel Award in 2003, received a stack of other prestigious literary recognition, and has since become a hugely successful stage play.

I haven’t read Dog. Yet. It’s famously narrated by a 15 year-old boy with Asperger’s. Although Mark says it’s rather a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The book is not specifically about any specific disorder.

A Spot of Bother, published in 2006, is about George. 57 years old and retired, he just wants to spend time in the studio in his garden. But he has a nasty lesion on his hip, which he is convinced is cancerous. Even though the doctor tells him it’s just eczema. And he’s worried that his daughter Katie is marrying again – the practical Ray – for the wrong reasons. And his son Jamie is gay. And, oh yes, his wife Jean is shagging David, an old colleague of George’s.

George is something of an outsider. He sees the world in a surprising and revealing way. He has a breakdown. He edges towards madness.

Spot is a damned fine read. The plot canters on. Short sentences. Over 100 short chapters. But it’s all driven by the way the author peels away layer after layer of each colourful character’s  human frailties.

Darkly comic, Spot is brilliantly observed. Very funny. And a bit disturbing. Especially if you’re 57 years old and have recently retired. Like me.

But I haven’t got a studio in the garden. And my wife’s name is Gill. Although come to think of it, I did once work with a David…..

Bottom Gear

I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, or Top Gear. Or bullying, arrogance or violence. Or cars, for that matter.

But I’ll try really hard – as hard as Jeremy tries not to be controversial, or racist….or blokey – to be objective about his sacking from the BBC.

Yes, I know. Technically he won’t have his rich-as-Croesus freelance contract renewed so he’s not a BBC employee, but he’s still subject to their ethics and HR policies. And that’s the issue.

It’s ironic that after years of sailing oh so close to breaking broadcasting guidelines – and sometimes tacking across them – his demise comes from contravening internal BBC bullying and harassment policies. A bit like Attila The Hun caught shoplifting.

In these morally self-righteous times, you can’t slap your own child. You hesitate to pick up someone else’s if they fall over in the road…even if they’re crying like Gazza after being shown a yellow card. You can’t do your awful impression of Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, shaking your head from side to side while munching a poppadom in your local Bombay Spice restaurant. And you can’t talk about women as if Emily Pankhurst were still chained to the railings.

So Jeremy got away with the abusive slope jibe about an Asian. And other casual on-air insults about Mexicans, Albanians, Germans and Romanians. And public sector workers. And Gordon Brown. And the infamous Argentinian escapade. And the off-air eeny, meeny, miney, mo episode…..

But when he physically assaulted and verbally abused a senior colleague, enough was rightly enough. The BBC had no option other than to terminate their Star With An Unreasonably Large Contract, and walk away from the cash machine.

Jeremy is a brilliant journalist and broadcaster. His star – and bank balance – will continue to rise.

The Beeb will no doubt try to motor on with Top Gear. But without Jeremy will it be like a d’Artagnan-less Three Musketeers? Or Morecambe & Wise without the bald, funny one?

Only time will tell.

But can we please now start talking about something more important?

 

 

St Anton ski trip – age shall not weary us

Can you remember what were you doing in 2004?

Jose Mourinho was appointed manager for his first spell at Chelsea. M&S turned down a bid from Philip Green. Thousands of people were killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. And our ski gang went to St Anton for the first time.

We’ve just got back from our second trip to this Austrian skiing Mecca…and goodness, how life has changed.

Just 11 years ago we queued for the first lift every morning. We hurtled down the pistes all day, and danced on tables at the infamous Mooserwirt apres ski venue, clutching our oversized beers and singing along with the oompah band. We abused the all-the-wine-you-can-drink policy at our chalet, and still had enough middle-aged energy to go out and explore the town’s many late-night fun-spots.

That was then….this is definitely now.

The chatter was more about replacement hips and knees, dodgy hearts, tummy bugs and the current pension reforms.

We started late, lingered over long lunches on the mountains, and retired early to the chalet for tea, cake and a pre-supper snooze.

We had a token apres ski effort at the Krazy Kangaruh towards the end of the week, but we were struggling to stay awake beyond 9:30 every night, without some sort of contrived entertainment. Or a discussion about medication.

More pills were popped than in a 1980s rave at a disused factory on the outskirts of Croydon. But for pain-killing purposes rather than Ecstatic dancing and trancing.

Where did it all go so wrong…..can the ravages of time really have worked their evil magic that quickly?

Of course we had fun. How could you not in a cosy catered chalet, waited on hand and foot, gorging on cooked breakfasts, fresh cake in the afternoon and a hearty 3 course dinner every night, lubricated by unlimited wine?

And whilst we might not have slalomed our way down the slopes as energetically as we once did, just being amongst the towering snow-clad mountains is as rejuvenating as an ageing politician shacking up with a young researcher. Emotionally, if not physically.

In 2026 the ages of our ski team will range from a mature 78 to a positively youthful 64.

By then, we’ll probably have a token run each day – around 11:30 – but only after the nurse has handed out the drugs, and the masseur has rubbed everything down. Then we’ll hunt down the gluhwein and goulash soup on a sunny verandah, reminiscing about those glory years of our Franz-Klammer like escapades, before heading back to the chalet for tea and cake at 3, and an absurdly early night.

But you know what? The camaraderie and joie de vivre of the group generated over more than 20 years of epic ski holidays will outlive any human frailties.

And I bet Jose won’t still be managing Chelsea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie review – Suite Francaise

Another free preview screening, thanks to those nice people at Times+

Somehow everything tastes sweeter, feels better, looks sharper if it’s free. You feel like you’ve won a small victory in the middle of a long and challenging life, inevitably laden with more losses than wins. A bit like Millwall FC, if they were ever awarded a walk-over for someone playing an ineligible player against them.

So here we were on a Monday night at Guildford Odeon, along with a load of other grey-haired Times readers, spontaneously watching a movie for which we’d seen an enticing trailer just a couple of days earlier.

Gill had read the book, written by Irène Némirovsky, a few years ago. It’s an incomplete book, written in real time as the author, a Russian Jew, lived through the German occupation of France in the Second World War. It’s incomplete because she died in Auschwitz, and the manuscript only surfaced many decades later.

The movie must inevitably take a few liberties with the original text, in order to get it onto the silver screen….but Gill reckons the conversion has worked well.

It’s essentially a love story, but also makes some sharp observations about loyalty, betrayal, self-preservation and other very human emotions when the natural order of a small, rural community is put through a tumble-dryer.

A great cast tells the story well. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a buttoned-up French lady of a certain age to perfection.  The versatile Michelle Williams is her daughter-in-law, caught in a moral maze. And relative newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts is the reluctant German officer, a musician rather than a soldier and trapped between love and duty.

Poignant, romantic, sad and yet ultimately hopeful that not everyone is destroyed by war.

A nice escape on a Monday night. Especially as it was free.

 

 

 

Paris – 5 more things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are a few more ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city (with 5 others in an earlier article). Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a great book (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. La Grande Epicerie – rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres, 6th/7th arrondissements
Shopping and me are poor bedfellows. Normally, I’d rather carve a rustic pattern on my index finger with a Swiss army knife than go shopping on holiday.
But – quelle surprise – la Grande Epicerie du Bon Marché in Paris is retail heaven, even for a disbeliever like me, and drew me into its foodie bosom like a hungry child to its tea.
First opened in 1923 as the food counter for neighbouring legendary department store du Bon Marché, it has now – since an impressive makeover in 1999 – become “an unmissable treat, an unadulterated delight and a unique experience”. How true. With a scarcely believable 3,000 square metres of retail space, from which they sell 30,000 gourmet products, la Grande Epicerie is a cross between Selfridges and Harrods, but more chic and without the bling factor.
The entire ground floor groans with exquisite fresh produce – seafood, cheeses, vegetables, meats, fruit, bread, patisseries – and posh groceries, beers and ciders. Affluent Parisians shop here, but Silver Travellers can sit at one of the high tables, dotted discreetly around the emporium, and indulge in a dozen oysters, or an éclair crafted with as much love as Heloise showed Abelard.
Downstairs is the wine cellar, together with an intimate champagne bar and apparently “further hidden treasures in the vaults for more devoted connoisseurs”. I obviously wasn’t devoted enough to find those.
And on the 1st Floor you can drool over kitchen equipment, gleaming crystal and silverware that would adorn Versailles as fittingly as a small maison in Montmartre. There’s also a beautifully light and airy bistro, should all that food browsing whet your appetite for a lunch befitting the surroundings.
It was like a religious conversion for me, so I hope you’d enjoy this off-the-beaten-track gastronomic temple too.
2. The Montparnasse Tower – Avenue du Maine, 15th arrondissement
The Eiffel Tower draws tourists to it, “comme des abeilles à un pot de miel”. Not surprising, given its iconic design and closeness to the Seine.
But the lesser known “Tour Montparnasse” arguably provides better views across the whole of Paris, being located right next to the Montparnasse station in the 15th arrondissement. And definitely has shorter queues. What a shame it’s such an ugly structure, causing so much public outrage that building regulations were subsequently changed.
Completed in 1973, it stands 689 feet high and contains office space for over 5,000 Parisian workers. Visitors can pay €15 for the exhilarating 38 second lift ride up to the 56th Floor, where the whole city is spread out below you like a table-cloth for a picnic. And after a short walk up to the 59th Floor you can access the highest roof terrace in Paris.
Zut alors, what amazing views.
The graphic boards really help with orientation, although it’s quite strange trying to spot such large iconic landmarks as the Sacre-Coeur and Notre-Dame on the flattened horizon.
The size of the Montparnasse Cemetery took my breath away, as did the beauty and structure of the Jardin du Luxembourg. And you can also eyeball the Eiffel Tower to the north west, each structure co-existing like Cinderella and a Very Ugly Sister.
3. Musée de la Vie Romantique – rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement
Far from the madding crowd, enjoy an hour in quiet exploration of this tiny piece of historic and artistic Parisian life.
Tucked away, down a narrow cobbled street in the southern foothills of Montmartre – in a district known as “New Athens” – is an exquisite property that was the home of the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer throughout the first half of the 19th century. He hosted Friday salons, with guests including Delacroix, Liszt and Rossini.
Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.
Don’t expect the Louvre. You’ll see a collection of Ary’s paintings, some sculptures from his contemporaries and a collection of personal memorabilia for George Sand.
But free entry (although not always the case, according to Trip Advisor), an insight into genteel 19th century society in this interesting Paris location, and a delightfully peaceful tea garden make this a worthwhile detour en route to the more touristy Moulin Rouge or Montmartre.
4. Seb’on – rue d’Orsel, 18th arrondissement
Fancy a piece of real French cooking, in a small restaurant in the heart of Montmartre, with amazing food and none of the “hauteur” you get in more famous bistros?
Then head for Seb’on. Only open for 6 months, Sebastien in the kitchen, and Dorota out front, have worked culinary magic in the rue d’Orsel since opening just 6 months ago. They do everything themselves and already seem to have created a well-oiled, finely-tuned culinary machine.
In a narrow dining room with only 11 tables, the décor is simple. White-washed plaster and brick walls, a couple of mirrors, an old plaster “cabinet” displaying some wooden skittles, fire sticks, wooden balls and a glass lamp. And a couple of blackboards with the all-important – and often-changing – menu.
There are only three choices for each course. Here’s what I chose and really enjoyed on my final night in the city:
  • lentil salad with veal, a foie gras crumble and honey vinaigrette
  • supreme of chicken fermier with violette mustard, smashed potatoes with mushrooms and a (divine) chicken juice/gravy
How can such a humble chicken be elevated to such giddy, satisfying heights? And as moist as the crowd’s eyes after the guillotine has fallen on another innocent head? The smashed spud (écrasée sounds so much more exciting) – is superbly textured against smoothness of the fowl’s flesh, and is infused by a sauce that delivers a warm, satisfying depth of flavour beyond anything I’ve ever put over our Sunday roast at home.
After a few days of foodie excess, I stepped away from the sweets but those options were:
  • green lemon meringue
  • caramel and cream cake
  • mascarpone and lemon cream biscuit
Dorota speaks excellent English and there’s an English printed menu if you don’t want to fumble your way through the French blackboards.
My total bill, including a generous glass of vin rouge and a palate-stripping espresso was a reasonable €43. Magnifique.
5. Un Dimanche A Paris – Cour du Commerce St André, 6th arrondissement
Head here, in the heart of bohemian Saint-Germain, to worship at the altar of chocolate.
Tucked away, in an almost hidden cobbled street more famous for le Procope – the oldest bistro in paris – is this chocolate heaven.
Part laboratory, part shop and part restaurant, it oozes class from every sweet pore.
I was there too early for lunch, and succumbed only to a large thimble of hot chocolate so rich and perfect it should be illegal. Or used as an incentive for recalcitrant Parisian youths. Just €2.20 for a petit morceau of heaven.

 

Paris – 5 things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor,  a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are 5 ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city, with a few more to follow in a separate article. Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a book along the same lines (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. Cinema La Pagode – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

http://www.etoile-cinemas.com/pagode/salles/

What would you do to impress the woman you love?

Take her to dinner at the hottest place in town? Whisk her away to a château in the Loire for the weekend? Paint those shelves she’s been nagging you about for 18 months?

How about building a completely authentic Japanese theatre for her in the heart of Paris, with an ornate pagoda and a romantic garden?

Photo Jardin 2

Thought not.

But that’s exactly what Monsieur Morin, a well-to-do Director of nearby posh store du Bon Marché, decided to do in the 1890s. He commissioned architect Alexandre Marcel to use the finest materials from the fashionable Orient (China & Japan, rather than Leyton) to create a little piece of surprising magic in the 7th arrondissement.

La Pagode is now a beautifully restored independent cinema, showing interesting films either in the main salle Japonaise (212 seats) or in the smaller salle 2 (180 seats).

Look for the VO sign (Version Originale) to see films in their original language, with French subtitles.

Enjoy the romance and history of this quiet place, take tea or champagne in the bamboo-forested garden before the movie….and forget that Mme Morin left her generous husband in the year of the Pagode’s inauguration.

2. Coutume – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

https://www.facebook.com/Coutume

CoutumeRightly or wrongly, I’ve always had the impression that the French are resistant to change. Some of their cafés and bistros, for example, cling proudly to their 19th century origins, or refuse to dust the chair Ernest Hemingway sat in for 15 minutes in 1926.

So imagine my surprise at finding somewhere in Paris that has embraced 21st coffee culture, where you can find an espresso micro-lot or an extraction à froid as lovingly prepared and à la mode as anything now on offer in the global caffeine hot-spots of Melbourne or London.

Coutume is on rue Babylone, a quiet backstreet in the 7th arrondissement. Along with your caffeine fix, you can grab an excellent breakfast or brunch….but it’s the coffee most people are here for.

It’s a very cool, understated place that immediately – though sadly only temporarily – makes you feel 20 years younger. Shabby chic décor, plain white tiles that wouldn’t look out of place in the loo, and hip music playing quietly in the background all combine in perfect harmony with your espresso from Brazilian and Burundi blended beans.

Head to the communal table and Slow Bar at the back of the café to hang out with the real coffee cognoscenti, sipping an aero-press as you swipe your tablet screen or argue about French politics.

3. L’Affineur’ Affiné – rue Notre Dame de Lorette, 9th arrondissement

You’re not going to Paris to enjoy a low-calorie, cholesterol-free, clean-living few days, are you?

Cheese, wine and bloody red meat are as de rigueur in Paris as a hamburger in NYC. Or as a lettuce leaf on a Champney’s detox break.

Sober vegetarians, tear up those Eurostar tickets now!

Take some time out to worship at the altar of cheese at L’Affineur’ Affiné on rue Notre Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement, just south of Montmartre.

With over 120 fromages available, the charming young owners Morgane and Matthieu will help you decide what to buy from the shop for your picnic, or to take back on the train if you fancy an empty carriage.

But for a really good experience book a table and linger in the small restaurant for brunch or lunch. From a limited but interesting menu, I went for the 5-cheese platter. They serve up what they think is “thriving” that day, together with a matched wine, like a sommelier recommending a Monbazillac with the foie gras.

 

I enjoyed decent sized servings of Sainte-Maure (goat’s cheese from Touraine); Tartufo (truffle-infused Italian from combination of cow and sheep); Napoleon (sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees); Munster (creamy cow’s cheese from Alsace); and Roquefort (classic creamy southern French blue from sheep milk). All with excellent, unlimited artisan breads and a fruity jam. And a green salad to delay hardening the arteries for a few hours….

Eat in the recommended sequence. Drink a glass or two of matched wine. Die happy.

4. Shakespeare & Company – rue de la Bûcherie, 5th arrondissement

Love books? Hunt down Shakespeare & Company, a place with so much literary history you can hear Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller whispering in your ear…

Now located on the city’s left bank, just opposite Notre-Dame Cathedral, there are two separate entrances.

On the left is the antiquarian book store, with musty first editions and a space so so small they ask you to respect the 5-person limit.

Next door is the main shop, crammed to the ancient rafters with English-language books and well worth a couple of hours of your Parisian time.

The current premises were opened in 1951 by American Francophile George Whitman, on the site of an early 17th century monastery. I think some of the original floor tiles may still be there…

This reincarnation was founded to carry on the legacy of the legendary Sylvia Beach, another American who set up the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919, in nearby rue l’Odéon. Here the most famous writers, artists, poets and flâneurs of the day would gather, and it was only the occupation by the Germans in 1941 that extinguished the place’s literary spirit.

Today, Sylvia Whitman carries on the legacy of both her father and Sylvia Beach, preserving a very special oasis for book-lovers amongst more notable and well-trodden Paris landmarks.

Don’t leave without buying a book. They’ll affix a special stamp, insert a poem and a little piece of history from the many writers and travellers who have spent time at Shakespeare & Company for almost the last 100 years.

5. Hidden Paris Walking Tours – www.hiddenparis.fr

I’m sure all adventurous Silver Travellers enjoy exploring a city, wandering aimlessly from museum to museum, café to café, via labyrinthine streets and alleyways in which you’ll inevitably get lost.

But sometimes it’s also good to have a little local expertise to help you find your way around an area, and to dig deeper into the local history, culture, nooks and crannies.

Hidden Paris Walking Tours provide such insight, three Parisiennes leading walks around Montmartre, Saint-Germain-des -Prés, the Latin Quarter, Belleville and the Marais.

I went on the Saint-Germain tour with Eglantine. She led me and just two other inquisitive travellers through hidden alleyways, into exquisite chocolate shops and past the house where Monsieur Guillotin lived, practising his new invention out on sheep in the cobbled street outside. She showed us the cafés and bistros where intellectuals and artists have hung out for over a century. She led us into the covered market to chat with stallholders. And she took us to an underground car park, down several levels on a dingy staircase, so that we could see some of the original city wall from the 12th century.

90 minutes for just €20, and a discretionary tip. Good value for real local knowledge…especially if you can persuade her to give you the digital key that opens the door to all their own favourite secret places in Paris.

Movie review – Birdman

Well, that was a pretty exhausting couple of hours….

Birdman

Claustrophobic camera work, almost entirely in the dark innards of a Broadway theatre. Pounding drums and clanging cymbals a near constant sound-track. Intensely psychological narrative of an ageing movie actor, desperately searching for validation on stage whilst wrestling with his own alter ego.

This is not an easy watch. Last time I saw Michael Keaton was probably in Multiplicity, 18 years ago. A light comedy with a subtly heavier – almost Groundhog Day-like – message, he was cloned to help him cope with his busy life.

Since then, Keaton has starred in two Batman mega-hits, before opting out. Just like Birdman, although that was three.

So what’s real here, and what’s life imitating art?

This is a clever script, darkly acted, brutally directed, brilliantly shot and sound-tracked.

And it’s a lot more challenging than Multiplicity.