Writing Portfolio

29.11.13

Endeavour

Much though I used to like Inspector Morse, I never could get the crossword clues. It didn’t stop me from enjoying both the books and the TV series, though.

In print form, Morse – whose first name was not revealed until Death is Now My Neighbour (1996) – was killed off in 1999 in The Remorseful Day (as with Hercule Poirot in Curtain, the great detective left a letter to his less intelligent sidekick explaining the mystery), and he duly died on the telly when that novel was adapted the following year; John Thaw, the man who’d played Morse, died fifteen months later. His creator, Colin Dexter, vowed that he wouldn’t write another Morse adventure, although in 2008 he did write a short story, about Morse when he was a student, for the Daily Mail.

Its spin-off, Lewis, has been pretty decent but without John Thaw solving crosswords, driving his Mk. 2 Jag, drinking beer and, during the first half at least, jumping to the wrong conclusions (this may be why I liked Inspector Morse so much, as I am an habitual jumper-to-conclusions when watching detective shows), it just wasn’t the same. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I heard that ITV were planning on a prequel, centring on Morse himself in his early years as a police detective. It was to be called Endeavour, after his barely-used first name. Why are we revisiting him, I thought? Can’t we just let Morse lie, and move on?

The pilot aired in 2012, and was followed earlier this year with a four-part series. I didn’t get round to seeing any of it until ITV3 had an ‘Endeavour Week’ this week, showing all five episodes.

Guess what? I loved it. Shaun Evans does a great turn as the rookie detective (has there ever been a detective series concentrating on an inexperienced youngster rather than a cynical veteran?) with just enough hints at Thaw’s Morse to keep us going. No point going for a full-blown impersonation, after all, as this can be where we see the character traits form. I also liked Roger Allam as the down-to-Earth mentor, Inspector Thursday (more of a stage man, apparently, although I vaguely remember him from the second series of Ashes to Ashes and, appropriately enough, from an Inspector Morse epsiode). The mid-Sixties setting, cleverly removed from the ‘Swinging Sixties’ stereotype by virtue of going for classical music rather than the usual pop (this is Morse, after all) and also for its fairly drab-looking costumes (just how many shades of brown were there, back then?) reminds me strongly of the BBC’s sadly short-lived series The Hour, albeit with slightly less smoking.

I failed to spot Colin Dexter’s Hitchcock-like cameo appearances, though. I guess that means I’ll have to watch the show again.

24.11.13

Macbeth

When Allison and I decided to take in a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre earlier this year, the one criterion as to which one was that it had to be one we’d both studied at school. That way we’d both be in a position to figure out what was going on should we get lost amid the Shakespearean dialogue.

Thus did we end up watching Macbeth, or ‘The Scottish Play’ as it is apparently referred to by actors who have a superstition about saying the word ‘Macbeth’ out loud (for a particularly good send-up of this, I refer you to the Blackadder the Third episode ‘Sense & Senility’ – and for a good take on what presumably goes on behind the scenes in theatres with explicit reference to Macbeth, please watch the second series of Slings & Arrows; I still cannot understand why no British TV network ever imported that show; it’s not like we haven’t heard of Paul Gross).

It’s hard to believe that I had never actually seen a Shakespeare play performed live before – I guess I just assumed that actually going to see one in London was something only tourists did. Since this was my (and Allison’s) first live Shakespeare experience, we reckoned that we might as well go all the way and see it at the Globe.

Back in Shakespeare’s time, the Globe was one of several theatres on the South Bank, and they were located there because the City of London authorities had a problem with the staging of plays in the City, as crowd control tended to be an issue. The original was built in 1599, burned down in 1613 (when a cannon was fired on-stage) and rebuilt only to be closed down and demolished by the Puritans in 1644. The modern-day reconstruction was built in the 1990s and was the brainchild of the actor San Wanamaker.

The reconstruction aims to be as authentic as possible, and is constructed of English oak; no structural steel was used and so it is as authentically late-16th century as you can get; the Globe also has the only thatched roof to have been permitted on a new building in London since the Great Fire of 1666.

As for the play, I rather enjoyed myself. Macbeth seen live at the Globe was much better than Macbeth as studied in GCSE English Lit, and it got a lot more laughs than you might expect from a play about a warrior-turned-bloodstained-psychopath.

We went for the seats as we didn’t fancy standing in the pit for several hours. The seats are hard wooden ones, but at least you can hire cushions.

Another London experience completed…

23.11.13

Sansom and Scarrow



In terms of novels, I am all for thrillers and murder mysteries. Two very good ones that I’ve read recently happen to be set in Tudor times – although, as is usually the case with historical novels, there are quite a few nods to the present day.

First up is Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow, a standalone novel about the 1565 Great Siege of Malta – when the island fortress of the Knights of St John was besieged by the Ottoman Turks. At stake was the future not just of Malta – then as in the Second World War, a key strategic position in the Mediterranean – but of Christian Europe. Quite frankly, this is a key event in European history that should be more widely known about than it is.

Even so, there is of course more to Sword & Scimitar than the defence of what would become The West. The novel’s protagonist, an English knight called Sir Thomas Barrett, is a disgraced former member of the Order of St John who is summoned from rural Hertfordshire to return to help defend Malta. In addition to risking life and limb for a cause he has tried to forget about, he is given a secret mission to carry out on Malta by Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I. There’s a certain document in the Order’s archive on Malta that needs to be recovered at all costs, and to help with this task Sir Thomas is given an assistant who has a few secrets of his own.

In a sense, then, this is a spy novel that happens to be set against the backdrop of one of the most significant battles of the sixteenth century. There are dire consequences for England if the document falls into the wrong hands (far be it from me to spoil things by saying what the document is, as Sir Thomas is as much in the dark as the reader for the best part of the novel), although for much of the novel this is of secondary importance to the battle for control of the island – and should the Turks win, the consequences for all of Europe would in themselves be catastrophic.

Thanks to his ‘Eagle’ series of Roman-era novels, Simon Scarrow has a proven track record when it comes to describing historical fight scenes and he’s clearly in his element as the Knights’ situation becomes ever more dire in the face of unrelenting attacks by the numerically superior Turks.

This being a modern novel, blind faith is treated with some degree of scepticism by the main protagonist who, having seen at first hand the destructive power of religion – both in terms of the all-out war between Christianity and Islam and the persecution of Catholics in England – has lost his faith, something which enables the modern reader to identify with him.

Secrets concerning the stability of Tudor-era England are key to another recently-read novel, Sovereign by C.J. Sansom.

Unlike Sword & Scimitar, Sovereign is part of a series of novels – to be precise, the third in the Shardlake series of detective novels set during the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchbacked London-based lawyer who, rather like Sir Thomas, has come to privately doubt his faith and this, combined with having to endure endless mockery for his physical stature,  causes him to regard the sixteenth-century world he inhabits from a cynical viewpoint – thus allowing us readers to identify with him as an outsider.

Sovereign sees Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak (the brawn to Shardlake’s brain), in York. Henry VIII’s 1541 progress to the North – a region still seething with discontent following the Pilgrimage of Grace – is about to arrive in the city but Shardlake is actually on a secret mission to ensure that a key anti-Henry prisoner in York Castle gets taken to the Tower of London for questioning (obtaining information by torture being nothing new under the sun). Things start to become rather complicated when a local glazier is found dead, and Shardlake stumbles across a cache of documents that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Tudor claim to the throne (I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers, but it’s based on an historical rumour that’s been given TV airtime before now).

It’s always interesting to see how famous people from history are represented in the pages of historical novels. In Sword & Scimitar, Walsingham is shown as a sixteenth-century version of M, a role that Archbishop Cranmer appears to fulfil in Sovereign (in the first two novels of the Shardlake series, Dissolution and Dark Fire, this role was played by Thomas Cromwell, himself the subject of a recent Tudor-era novel, Wolf Hall). But where Sovereign takes things to a new level is with the appearance in its pages of the larger-than-life man whose personality and actions dominated the Tudor era.

I refer, of course, to Henry VIII. Even as an unseen character in the first two Shardlake novels, he cast a long shadow and left the reader with the impression that getting close to his royal personage was inherently dangerous (Dark Fire, of course, ended with the execution of Thomas Cromwell). I’d previously though that Samson was doing well to resist drawing him into the story, but for his third novel he takes the plunge, and brings out the big man – but only for a walk-on part at the gates of York, with the stench from his infected leg (if nothing else, the Shardlake books convey the smell of Tudor England to an unsurpassable extent) hitting the nose before he deigns to ridicule the man who is in fact working to save his realm.

Accompanying him is wife number five, the doomed teenager Katherine Howard (not so much young enough to be Henry’s daughter as actually several years younger than his eldest) who gets an unusually sympathetic portrayal here, and the impression we are given via Shardlake of her fall from grace is that she was a naive girl who was more sinned against than sinning (this is made more explicit in the afterword – all good works of historical fiction have one of these – where Sansom does his best to clear her name of the charge of adultery that is usually thrown at her). Sovereign is a well-written and well-researched novel (Sansom holds a PhD in History), but his obvious erudition never stifles the plot – as, for example, the author’s learning does in The Name of the Rose and to a lesser extent Wolf Hall.

Sovereign and Sword & Scimitar are both worth reading. They have timeless themes running through them that are as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century: The uses and abuses of power, clashes between civilisations and religious conflict all feature. They also pose some very modern questions. Can the state be trusted? How far do you go to defend what you believe in? Is information obtained by torture valid? Does the end really justify the means? And finally, if you have information that will probably plunge your country into chaos if it’s released, what do you do with it?

21.11.13

If you don't want to know the score, look away now

On Tuesday evening I should have been watching the England-Germany game. Instead, though, I was at a pub quiz which I’d agreed to attend without realising that it clashed with the football. Thanks to the ‘wipeout’ round (whereby if you get any of the questions wrong you don’t get any points for that round), we didn’t win.

Rather than catch up with what had happened at Wembley by looking up the score on my BlackBerry or watching the news on TV when I got home, I wanted to watch the game itself and reckoned that my belated football-watching experience would be enhanced by my not knowing the result before I watched it on the catch-up. This was, I decided, the perfect opportunity to try something that usually only happens in sitcoms. Could I, in the real world, go for a day without finding out the score before watching the game the following evening?

This particular escapade has long been used as a plot device in sitcoms. My favourite current sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, built an episode around this back in 2007 (being American, the writers of How I Met Your Mother did it with the Superbowl, but the premise is the same – having been obliged to miss the game, all of the main characters try to last the following day without finding out what had happened before watching a recording of the game after work), and back in the 1970s it formed the basis for an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (this time involving football, with the aim being to watch a highlights programme shown the day after the game, because that’s how they did things back then, but the principal is the same).

As I awoke on Wednesday morning, I realised that this self-imposed football news blackout would pose a few problems for my daily routine. I usually like to check what’s going on in the world on my BlackBerry first thing, but this time I couldn’t do so for fear that I might inadvertently see the sports headlines. And listening to the Today programme while having breakfast was also out, because at some point John Humphrys would stop his morning grilling of a politician and hand over to Gary-with-the-sport.

Once out of the flat, the biggest danger came at the Tube station where I encountered lots of people reading Metro. The proliferation of this free morning newspaper meant that I had to work hard not to pay attention to the reading-material of my fellow-commuters (which is tricky as Metro always seems to be more interesting when you’re reading it over someone’s shoulder), just in case I should unintentionally see the sports pages (and for all I knew that game might’ve been front-page news too).

I survived the morning commute with my ignorance intact, and followed it up by taking a different route from Moorgate station to the office – my usual route had to go, as it takes me past not one but two branches of W.H. Smith’s, both of which have the papers at the front of the shop.

Once safely in the office, I was faced with a major threat to my ignorance – the Internet. My job more or less depends on a computer, and like many an office worker I am prone to surfing the Net during an idle five minutes. Alas, the BBC website and all of the newspaper ones were off-limits, as was the superb Daily Mash (satirists have, of course, been known to take the piss out of footballers). Facebook and Twitter were out, too – someone was bound to mention the game. But at least accessing the Internet at work was something that was within my control, unlike going for a cup of tea which came with the risk of seeing a newspaper that someone might have left lying around in the kitchen.

Having survived the office, the last assault on my not knowing the score came with the Tube ride home. Now that the Evening Standard is given away free, it is as ubiquitous on the evening commute as Metro is in the morning. I kept my head down and was lucky enough to get a seat (that doesn’t usually happen), only to find that the man next to me was reading a newspaper. In desperation, I took my glasses off so I couldn’t see the paper – or anything else, for that matter.

This extreme measure ensured that I succeeded, and so it was that, twenty-three hours after the rest of the country, I sat down to watch the game blissfully unaware of the outcome. 

18.11.13

Curtain



David Suchet always said he was going to do an adaptation of every Agatha Christie mystery involving Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian detective with the little grey cells and the distinctive moustache. He also said he would bow out by playing the great detective in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

Curtain wasn’t the last book Christie wrote, and it wasn’t even her last Poirot mystery. She wrote it during the Second World War, when she feared she might die in an air-raid, and had it stored in a bank vault for the next three decades, during which Poirot appeared in print many more times. It was only in the mid-1970s when, close to death herself, she allowed its publication – thus bringing Poirot’s career to a close.

It certainly has elements of things coming full circle. An ageing Poirot is reunited with his ‘Watson’, Captain Hastings (“I say! Steady on, Poriot!”) at Styles, the country house where they solved their first murder (country houses are as associated with Agatha Christie’s works as they are with those of her contemporary, P.G. Wodehouse; I wonder what a crossover adventure in which Poirot encounters Bertie Wooster would be like?). Their final case has, it must be said, more twists than even the average Christie novel. Although well-known as Poirot’s sidekick, Hastings is conspicuous by his absence in most Poirot stories – Curtain marked his first appearance for many years – for he was used as a narrator and Christie tended to do better when telling a story from the third-person perspective.

Although I haven’t read any of her books for years, I still find Agatha Christie fascinating. The great detective writer with more than an element of mystery in her own life, almost forty years after her death she remains the best-selling novelist of all time, the sales of her books outdone only by Shakespeare and the Bible.

David Suchet was on top form for his final Poirot outing, as everyone had expected he would be (and what will he do now, after being Poirot for 24 years?). Hugh Fraser, best known for playing stiff-upper-lip Englishmen (Hastings aside, he was Wellington in Sharpe), got to do a bit of pathos, and I was surprised to see Philip Glenister going against his Gene Hunt type by playing the aristocratic Sir William (a rather large amount of British actors of the past couple of decades have been in Agatha Christie’s Poirot at some point). All in all, Curtain was a fitting end to a great series, and I highly doubt that there will ever be a Poirot to match David Suchet.

14.11.13

Jersey - the American connection

One historical fact that I heard more than once on Jersey concerns the reasons why a US state came to be named after it. I have friends who live in the state in question, so I thought the story was worth retelling.

During the Civil War, Jersey remained loyal to the Crown, and in 1649 the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir George Carteret, allowed Charles I’s sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York (respectively, the future Charles II and James II) to take refuge there. They stayed at the Elizabeth Castle, a landmark located in St Aubin’s Bay that is only accessible from the rest of the island at low tide. Built in the late 16th century, it was for many years the residence of the Governor of Jersey (one of the most famous of whom was Sir Walter Raleigh; he has nothing to do with this particular story but he does have American connections, being credited with bringing potatoes and tobacco to England).

It was while the future Charles II was on the island that he was proclaimed as King by the afore-mentioned Bailiff (in Channel Islands terms, the Bailiff was and still is the chief justice). Although Jersey later had to surrender to Oliver Cromwell, Charles never forgot that Jersey was the first of his realms to recognise him as King. When the Dutch colonies in North America were acquired by England in 1664, he decided that Carteret should be rewarded for his loyalty. He gave him the lands between the Hudson and Delaware rivers – which is how New Jersey came to be named.

12.11.13

Why the Channel Islands aren't French

I’ve just been to Jersey for the weekend – it’s a place I’ve always fancied visiting but I never really got round to going. So when Allison went there on business and I had the chance to fly out and join her for the weekend, I jumped at it. I found out many interesting things about the place, and none of them involve Bergerac.

Officially, Jersey is not part of the United Kingdom but is a self-governing Crown dependency (the same status as Guernsey – which has jurisdiction over most of the other Channel Islands – and the Isle of Man). It has its own parliament (called the States of Jersey) and makes its own laws – including financial regulation, which is why it’s so popular with tax exiles. Although sterling is the currency, Jersey prints its own banknotes (including a £1 note, which the Bank of England stopped doing in the 1980s) and mints its own coins.

Jersey’s actual status with regards to the Crown (and the reason why it’s not French) is an interesting one that has its origins in the Middle Ages. The Channel Islands were originally part of the Duchy of Normandy, and as such their link with England began with the Norman Conquest in 1066. When King John managed to lose his remaining French possessions in 1204, the Channel Islands were omitted from the list of lands he handed over to the King of France. No-one seems to know whether this was deliberate or accidental, although as they were not officially incorporated into the Kingdom of England I suspect it may be the latter. This non-incorporation, by the way, explains why they’re self-governing to this day. An historical consequence of this is that, whenever she visits Jersey, the Queen is informally referred to by the title Duke of Normandy. Going by the way she’s depicted on the pound notes, I’m guessing she’s happy with this arrangement.


8.11.13

Going for a coffee, Toronto-style

I thought that the British talked about the weather a lot – and then I went to Toronto. Granted, the weather changed a lot in the 12 days that we spent there earlier this year, but I did not expect it to be the hot topic of conversation that it was. Maybe it was just because the weather changed so much – it was May after all, and it varied from being warm enough to sit in the garden to heaving rain – but I had not expected to find everyone talking about it.

As well as talking about the weather a lot, Torontonians are also – to quote Jan Morris – ‘almost incoherently polite’ (I think she meant this in a good way, although much of what she has had to say about Toronto over the years comes across as a backhanded compliment). This is a city where you will receive an apology if you tread on someone’s foot while travelling on the TTC. These two traits combine when the visitor to Toronto receives apologies for the state of the weather. I call this the ‘colonial legacy gone wrong’.

One aspect of Toronto that was certainly not inherited from the old country – although given the multicultural plurality of modern Toronto you may need to specify which one you’re talking about – is the citizens’ love of coffee. There are many places where you can go for a coffee in Toronto, but this love is best symbolised by one fast-food chain which stands above all others.

If you were to catch the TTC out to Kipling Station and, on leaving it, walk west along Dundas Street (not that many people do), you’d come to a road junction that emphasises the point I’m working towards. On one side of the road is a branch of Starbucks that looks, well, just like you would expect any suburban branch of Starbucks to look like. Apart, that is, from the fact that it’s far from busy and the surrounding car park is empty. The reason for this lies opposite, where the car park at Tim Hortons is always full and there are usually at least half-a-dozen cars queuing for the drive-thru.

According to the Internet, in Canada Tim Hortons is bigger than McDonald’s, and is responsible for 62% of the Canadian coffee market (Starbucks, which is in second place, accounts for a mere 7%).

Why is Tim Hortons so popular?

The coffee is cheaper for a start, and there’s no messing around with frapachinos and skinny latt├ęs. If you just want your coffee with milk and sugar, you go to Tim Hortons (although Canadians are more likely to ask for cream). 

Although it is starting to make inroads into the USA, you can’t get more Canadian than Tim Hortons. It’s even named after an ice-hockey player, for heaven’s sake (and not just any player; a defenceman whose playing career spanned 24 years, he won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs in the 1960s).

Now I am usually a tea drinker by choice, but when travelling abroad I adopt a ‘when in Rome’ approach which means that I tend to switch to coffee when in Toronto. My preferred option in Tim Hortons is a ‘regular’ (one sugar, one shot of cream), although for a real hit there’s always the option of the ‘double double’ (two sugars, two creams). I have heard people ask for a ‘triple triple’ on occasions, although one does wonder if there’s any room for the coffee in such a drink.

One morning during our visit back in May, Allison and I were driving into the city to meet some friends when we stopped off for a coffee at Tim Hortons, as you do. We joined the queue for the drive-thru purely because it was also the queue to get into the car park (that’s how popular it is). After a few minutes sitting in the car, though, I started to wonder: What would be quicker – the drive-thru, or going in to get the coffee?

I left Allison in the car and joined an even larger queue inside. Things were not looking good until someone behind the counter shouted out that there was an express checkout for customers who only wanted to buy coffee. Most, it seems, were after some food as well (doughnuts, probably) – so I was able to get our coffees in double-quick time and thus prove that going into the place is quicker than the drive-thru.

An express checkout for coffee? No wonder it’s popular.

7.11.13

No picnic on Mount Kenya (part 3)



When I was unable to sleep during the night at Shipton’s Camp, all I could hear in our dorm was the sound of the mice scrabbling around on the floor. I did manage a few hours though, and was woken up by Jesse at around 3:10am.
           
I got dressed very quickly – tee-shirt, clean boxers, shirt, trousers, three pairs of socks, jumper, fleece, waterproofs, gloves and woolly hat. Everyone else, it seemed, was heading down via the Naro Moro route and so had to sort out all of their kit, which would be carried by the porters, while I didn’t have to bother as I would be coming back down the way I’d come. Which was just as well really, because I didn’t much fancy having to lug my kit all the way to the top, which I would’ve had to do as I was the only trekker who was too cheap to pay for a porter.
           
While getting ready, we all got a bit of a laugh at the expense of a group of Irish girls. They’d taken much longer than the rest of us to reach Shipton’s the previous day, and so their guide had decided that they’d better start before everyone else. By 3:20, though, one of them announced that they were running late. “Since when,” asked Jesse, “has 3:20 in the morning been late?”

After several cups of tea and some of my chocolate biscuits, Moses and I set off at four – after everyone else had left; he had reckoned that, given our pace on the last two days, we could still make it to the summit for sunrise. As we left the hut, I couldn’t see the gully we had to climb up, but I could see the pinpricks of light at various points from everyone’s torches. Sticking behind Moses, with my Maglite on and with the theme tune to Where Eagles Dare inexplicably playing in my head, I made my way to the gully.

Luckily, it wasn’t a scree slop and we made it up there with a steady, slow pace suited me at that altitude. Pole, pole – slowly, slowly in Swahili – is the unofficial motto of mountain-trekkers in East Africa. Well, I thought we were going slow but it wasn’t long before we passed the Irish girls, got out of the gully and onto the scree above it – according to Moses, another reason why the final ascent is always done before dawn is because that means you can’t see how bad the scree slope is. I have always disliked scree because you lose a pace for every couple you walk on the loose surface. Despite this, we still made good pace.
           
By around five, we caught up with Jesse and his guide, and subsequently we stuck with them and continued to make our way ever upwards in the darkness. By this stage, my hands were numb with the cold despite the fact that I’d kept my gloves on and had been constantly moving my fingers in order to help with the circulation. We couldn’t have been walking for more than forty minutes as an extended group until Moses stopped us. He explained that we were just below the final ascent, and that as we’d made such good time we needed to stop otherwise we’d get to the top while it was still dark! So we had a short break, during which I offered around some chocolate that I’d thought to put in my pocket back at Shipton’s. We sat facing east, watching a distinct glow appear on the horizon. The sun wasn’t up just yet, but there was enough light for us to switch our torches off – apart from Jesse, whose torch had died on him some time previously. It was in this grey pre-dawn that we made the final ascent.
          
 
We climbed to a saddle, from which we could see a glacier below – the same glacier that we’d seen when looking up from Shipton’s. Point Lenana itself cannot be seen from Shipton’s, from which it is obscured by an outcrop of jagged rock. This outcrop was now to our left, with Lenana itself to our right. And after a short scramble, we were on Point Lenana – 4,985m (or around 16,300ft) – and we truly felt that we had reached the top of the world.

           

The high-point itself is marked by a metal cross and a metal Kenyan flag, along with a couple of memorial plaques. Although my fingers were by now frozen, I got my camera out to take some photos – we could literally see for miles, although all that we could see for those miles was low cloud. But that’s missing the point – all that cloud was just so low compared to us! As we were on the peak itself, the sun rose – a fantastic experience, watching sunrise from the top of an African mountain. We all shuffled round so that each of us could get their photo taken on the high spot – and despite the wind-chill-induced sub-zero temperatures, everyone was really excited – sunrise at the summit! We’d done it!
           


Too soon, it seemed, we had to head back down, and it was therefore time for me to part company from the others, who'd be going down via a different route and then heading straight back to Nairobi. Jesse and I had exchanged e-mail addresses – though quite how we were able to write anything with our frozen hands I don’t know.
           
Walking down, and with my waterproof jacket now off as we were out of the wind, we passed the Irish girls who were still on their way up and looking as though they’d definitely bitten off more than they could chew (so to speak). I told them that they didn’t have far to go and that it was “totally fuckin’ worth it” – clearly I was still on some sort of adrenalin high as a result of reaching the summit – and the only one of them who had sufficient energy to respond called me a “bloody liar”.
           
Descending that scree was no fun at all, as I’d known it wouldn’t be, although Moses was most definitely in his element and I had a job to keep up with him – a job not helped by the fact that I had to stop to take my waterproof trousers off before the lower part of my body became drenched in sweat, as the sun was now well and truly up.
           
I reckon it took us an hour and twenty minutes to get down from Point Lenana. As soon as we got back, Moses went straight into breakfast-making mode (what a guy!) while I staggered into my dorm and tried to sort my stuff out. Breakfast was some sort of millet-based porridge which was great with plenty of sugar, followed by sausages, omelettes and pancakes. As well as being an excellent guide, that man was an amazing cook.
           
Over breakfast, I chatted to one of the Irish girls, who’d decided after about an hour’s walking that she wasn’t going to make it to the top, so she came straight back down to Shipton’s and went back to bed. Probably a wise choice in the circumstances.

After breakfast, Moses announced that as he’d now ran out of food he could carry some of my kit in his backpack. Just when I thought he couldn’t have gone up any higher in my estimation!
           
We set off at nine. Most people who trek Mount Kenya tend to take two days over the descent; I’d opted for one – from Point Lenana at sunrise, I’d be spending the evening in a Nanyuki bar with a well-earned bottle of Tusker beer. The trek from Shipton’s down to Old Moses took us just over three hours, and the pace killed off any lingering post-summit elation I still had. Nevertheless, I took great delight in telling anyone who I met going the other way that I’d stood on Point Lenana at sunrise that morning. One group of English students I encountered looked absolutely shattered, even though by the time I encountered them they were less than an hour out of Old Moses, and they had porters.
           
After lunch at Old Moses – I could’ve sworn Moses had told me he’d cooked all the food, so he’d obviously left enough behind to rustle up a vegetable omelette for our return journey – the walk back down to the park gates was fairly straightforward. I’d caught my breath back from the fast descent from Shipton’s, and after being fed and rested I flet good. Moses, by the way, seemed utterly unaffected by both altitude and pace  – but then, he did this for a living.
           
The final part of our walk became a bit of a nature trail. We saw loads of baboons, who seemed disturbed by some sort of predator lurking in the trees – Moses reckoned that there was probably a leopard nearby – along with several colubus monkeys and a blue duiker. There was also plenty of evidence of buffalo (hoof-prints), elephants (piles of poo) and spotted hyenas (more poo; hyena poo is easily identifiable because it’s white, from the bones of whatever animal they’ve eaten). Moses, who’d already admitted earlier in the trek to being an addict of wildlife documentaries, was a walking encyclopaedia as far as African animals and birds are concerned. Factor in his cooking skills and his expertise on the mountain, and I think that I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had the perfect guide for my Mount Kenya trek. Not bad considering that I met him on a street corner while he was touting for business!
           
We made it back to the park gates at four; I reckoned that, taking stoppages into account, I’d walked for nine hours that day, a fair amount of which had been at altitude.

Back in Nanyuki, I got my stuff back from the Montana Trekks office and checked into a room in the Jambo House Hotel where said office was located – on the grounds that I didn’t feel like lugging all my stuff any great distance. Even taking it all up two flights of stairs was a challenge in the circumstances though. After finalising the paperwork at the office – saying very nice things about them in their visitors’ book, generously tipping Moses and ordering my certificate (to be collected the next morning, I did what everyone had been talking about doing the previous evening. Still clad in my sweat-streaked walking-clothes, without even removing my boots in fact, and smelling like I hadn’t washed properly for a few days (because I hadn’t), I headed straight for the hotel bar and ordered an ice-cold bottle of Tusker. Beer has rarely tasted so good.

6.11.13

No picnic on Mount Kenya (part 2)

I was amazed at how warm I was on my first night in a Mount Kenya bunkhouse – especially as I only had a lightweight, two-season sleeping-bag. If Old Moses was anything to go by, the bunkhouses were evidently of better quality than I’ve been led to expect from reading my guidebook.

On the morning of Day Two, Moses excelled himself with a breakfast of omelettes, sausages and pancakes – by far the most substantial breakfast I’d had since leaving England. Jesse and Laurie seemed very jealous of this, until they got the same served up by their guides.
           
We set off at 7:20am, about ten minutes after Jesse, Laurie and their assorted guides and porters – I, evidently, was the only hiker who was cheap enough to want to carry his own backpack. We’d be walking a total of 14km (just over 8½ miles) and ascending 900m (just over 2,900 feet) up to Shipton’s Camp, the departure point for the (very) early morning assault on Point Lenana.
           
We were above the tree-line. Moses pointed out several different types of plants to me as well as birds; of the latter, we saw starlings of the slender-billed and red-winged varieties, and a female beautiful songbird. There were also several mountain chats, who get very close-up to you; Moses says that they are nicknamed ‘friendly chats’ because of this. I felt lucky to have ended up with a guide who is as keen on birds as I am.
           
For much of the morning, we walked along with Jesse and Laurie. At one stop, we had a clear view of the peaks of Mount Kenya – Lenana to the left of the two highest points, Nelion and Batian, which can only be climbed by mountaineers with the proper skills and equipment. We stopped at this viewpoint, and took some photographs.
           




The walk then became an exercise in contouring for the most part, rising by Shipton’s Caves and then becoming steeper as we made our way up to the camp itself. We arrived at 12:30 – not bad at all when you consider that the guides had all estimated that we would be there at 2! I felt tired but felt much better after a cup of tea (some things don’t change, even at over 13,000 feet). Even so, I had during the course of the day’s hike decided that if I was going to attempt Kilimanjaro after this I would definitely arrange to have a porter carry my kit.


           
That said, the only kit-related problem so far was that Moses had asked me this morning to help him carry some of the food – including an avocado. I wouldn’t have given this much thought, but the confounded thing split during the walk, meaning that part of the inside of my backpack got covered by a green slime-like substance. Luckily I kept all my kit in plastic bags, a trick I learned in the Scouts, but I still had to use some toilet-roll to clean the backpack out.
           
In terms of layout, Shipton’s Camp was similar to Old Moses – a collection of huts with separate accommodation for the guides and porters. The bunk-rooms were smaller, and there were a lot more mice, who all had black-and-white stripes on their backs.
           
In the afternoon we went on another acclimatisation walk, climbing a further 900 feet up, although we didn’t go up the gully that is the route up out of the camp towards the summit. Moses, who was still able to smoke at altitude (I’d decided to leave my cigarettes back in Nanyuki) reckoned that this would stand us in good stead for the following morning, and he even insisted that we stay up for at least 20 minutes so that I could get used to the extra altitude. 900 feet may not seem like a lot but there was a definite difference in the air compared to Shipton’s; I found my pulse racing and I was very short of breath.
           
Back down, Moses told me that we would have a 3:30am start the next morning; he reckoned it would take 2-3 hours to get to the summit, which has to be reached at sunrise because that’s the time of day when it’s least likely to be cloudy at that height. Looking up as he said this (at around 5pm), we couldn’t see anything for the clouds, in contrast to the clear skies we’d enjoyed on our earlier walk. In fact, on our acclimatisation walk we’d gone up the the cloud level, more or less.
           
I wished I’d thought to take a book with me, or at the very least a deck of cards, which would have been a great way to pass the time before dinner. All I’d brought was a Mount Kenya map-guide that I’d purchased in Nanyuki, and Moses has more or less convinced me that the information on the map is somewhat less than reliable. That said, I was the only trekker who had a map and everyone else wanted to have a look. Dinner was be served at around 6:30, and after that was an early bed-time for everyone. Only one man has bought a book with him, and it was a true story called No Picnic on Mount Kenya. This was written by Felice Benuzzi, an Italian who was taken prisoner during the Ethiopian campaign in the Second World War and sent to a POW camp in Nanyuki. There, he persuaded two of his comrades to escape with him, their only purpose being to attempt to climb Mount Kenya and then return to the camp.

There was plenty of conversation to be had over dinner, initially at how big the portions were. The guides – Moses was by no means the only one who doubled up as a cook – they had all carried fresh food up with them, and we ate very well. One bloke, a New York-based Englishman, even had a table-cloth laid out for him before his meal was served!
           
No-one stayed up for very long though – we would all have an early start the next morning. Before going to bed, the New York Englishman apologised to me in advance; my bunk was right next to the toilet, and as a result he was convinced he’d wake me up during the night.

To be concluded...

5.11.13

No picnic on Mount Kenya (part 1)

 Way back in 2005 I went travelling in Africa. Actually, that’s an understatement. Over the course of six months, I travelled from Cairo all the way down to Cape Town. When planning this trip, I’d made a list of things that I wanted to do there. Hiking up Mount Kenya came towards the top of this list. I could boast of some previous experience of trekking in the mountains, although in terms of high-altitude multi-day treks (in the Alps and the Pyrenees) I hadn’t done anything for several years.

By late August of 2005 I had made it down to a provincial Kenyan town called Nanyuki, which is located on the Equator. Nanyuki is also the nearest town to Mount Kenya, and it’s where a lot of the trekking companies are based. But where were they? I went looking, but I was looking on a Sunday and they were all closed. I resolved to go back the following day, but just when I was heading back to my hotel I was approached by a man in the street (near the bus station, as it happens) who asked if I was looking to trek up Mount Kenya. If you’re a mzungu in Nanyuki, that’s a fair assumption. His name was Moses and he worked as a guide for Montana Trekks (yes, that’s how it was spelt), based in the nearby Jambo House Hotel.



We got chatting, and after being taken to the company’s office (located on the ground floor of said hotel) I decided that there was no point in extending my search for other trekking companies. I’d found what I was looking for, and I’d even found the man who’d be taking me up the mountain – Moses, clearly a man who knew his stuff when it came to mountains in this part of the world, was to be my guide. It was a choice I would not regret; I wouldn’t usually recommend trusting a random local you meet on the street, but this time it paid off!

Anticipating some serious mountain trekking, I’d bought my hiking boots with me on the grounds that I hadn’t wanted to chance it by borrowing or hiring a pair once I got to wherever I would be starting my trek from. So far, said boots had been used for strolling around in the hills surrounding Aksum and on that day when I’d gone to the Blue Nile Falls. Now, I hoped, they would come into their own – as would the the waterproof jacket which had already seen African service in Gondar and the hitherto-unused fleece. I hadn’t packed everything I’d need for a proper mountain trek, though – for some reason I hadn’t thought to include such obvious essentials as gloves, a woolly hat and waterproof trousers when loading up my backpack in anticipation of going to Africa.

Luckily for me, though, Montana Trekks – like all good trekking companies – had taken this into account, and when I turned up at the office on Monday to book my trek and sort out payment Moses let me loose in their store-room, which was full of items that various backpackers had left behind over the years. I emerged with a pair of decent gloves, a pair of red, heavy-duty waterproof trousers (which he reckoned I’d only need for the summit walk anyway – and only then for protection from the wind) and a multi-coloured woollen ski-hat that I’d have liked to have kept. After arranging my trek for the following day, I went to a local general store to buy some snacks for the trek – to my delight, the place sold McVitie’s Chocolate Hob-Nobs, so I bought a packet of them along with some chocolate bars.

The following morning, I got to the Montana Trekks office early, and deposited my non-walking kit (which filled five plastic bags) in the store-room. Shortly after nine, Moses arrived and started sorting out his kit; he reckoned that my pack was too heavy but quite frankly I wasn’t sure what I could have left out of it. I’d decided to carry my own backpack, mainly because I hadn’t wanted to pay the extra money to have a porter to do it for me. For his part, Moses was carrying all of our food as well as his personal kit.

We would be trekking up to Point Lenana, which at 4,985 metres (16,355 feet) is the third-highest peak of Mount Kenya and the highest that can be reached without specialist climbing equipment.
           
Our transport to the Sirimon Park Gate was a Toyota saloon that had to be push-started. During the journey itself, our driver turned off the main road onto a dirt-track, which his car was patently unsuitable for. Was this the road to the Mount Kenya National Park gate? No. It turned out that Moses had decided that he needed to pick up an extra jumper from his home.

When we got to the Sirimon Gate after a journey that took over an hour, we completed the signing-in formalities with the rangers on duty. Moses had to show them his official guide certificate (complete with hand-print, as not all guides are literate) and sort out the park fees, while I had to show them my passport.
           
We got started at around eleven, and the walk itself lasted for about three hours. Using the Sirimon Route, which approaches Mount Kenya from the north-west, we walked through woodland for the most part along a very clearly-defined path. Moses pointed out several piles of elephant dung (apparently recent), and identified two types of birds for me – mountain chat and auger buzzard.
           
Old Moses Camp, our base for the first night was above the tree-line at around 3,300 metres (11,000 feet) above sea level; it consisted of several single-storey wooden huts. Once we got there, Moses made his way into the kitchen hut and got on with the business of preparing lunch while I claimed one of the bunk-beds for myself (us tourists were in a different bunkhouse to the guides, cooks and porters). I do not wish to sound ungrateful but I did not like the lunch at all – it was an avocado salad, and things probably weren’t helped by the fact that it looked disconcertingly like green vomit. The tea, made with sugar and condensed milk, was much appreciated, though.
           


As was expected, I wasn’t the only hiker at Old Moses – although I was the only one with Montana Trekks. Over the course of the afternoon, I was joined by a couple of Americans, some Irish girls and one other Englishman. He was called Laurie and he must’ve been in his sixties. In fact, he hadn’t been in England for years – he ran a commercial fishing company in Madagascar but had taken some time off to go mountaineering. He said he’d climbed Kilimanjaro the previous week.
           
Some time after lunch, Moses and I did an acclimatisation walk to help get me used to the altitude – we went up another 200 metres. The ground around Old Moses Camp seemed to be very boggy – although Moses assured me that it is not as bad as the eastern Naro Moro route, where ‘vertical bogs’ – I shuddered to think what those were – are a common feature.
           


I spent much of the afternoon chatting to one of the Americans, who was about my age. Jesse was from Colorado, although he’d been studying in Cape Town and after Kenya planned to visit Morocco and travel around Europe. Last week, he’d been down in the Maasai Mara, which I intended to visit after Mount Kenya – he’d had a great time there and showed me plenty of photos he’d taken of animal kills on his digital camera. Like everyone else apart from me, he’d arranged his trek from Nairobi.
           
After watching the sunset, we all sat down for dinner – prepared for us by our respective guides. My main course of meat-and-about-six-veg was immense, and the others were served with similar-sized portions.

It was a clear night, and the sky was full of stars. I felt a twinge of regret that I couldn’t identify any of the constellations.

To be continued...

4.11.13

Baked Hungarian pork chop

On the menu tonight was baked Hungarian pork chop, courtesy of Delia Smith’s One is Fun!. There are a couple of great pork chop-related recipes in this book (the other one is porc au poivre, which has a wine and cream sauce), and what I like about them is the relatively small amount of ingredients involved. Less is more. Simplicity is the key.


The oil pre-heats in an oven-proof dish (oven at 190°C/375°F) while I slice the potato and the onion. The chop is dried and then coated with the spices – a pinch of cayenne pepper and a teaspoon of paprika, along with some salt and pepper. Once the oven has pre-heated, the ingredients are layered in the dish – onions at the bottom, then the potato and finally the coated chop, which is sprinkled with caraway seeds and topped with a knob of butter. 



After half an hour in the oven, the cream is poured over and the dish then bakes for another 15 minutes.


And thus is dinner ready! Delia recommends having it with stir-fried red cabbage (there’s also a recipe for that in the book), but this time around I opted for broccoli instead.



Delicious!

One on One

Not so long ago, I had the pleasure of reading One on One: 101 True Encounters by Craig Brown. According to the puff-pieces on the cover, a lot of people have some very nice things to say about his latest book. Whether or not this is because these reviewers fear that if they’re mean to him in print he might choose to send them up in Private Eye, for which he writes the spoof ‘diary’ column, is not for me to speculate.

Brown may be best known as a satirist but he’s playing this one with a straight bat. The premise is startlingly simple: Take two people who have only met in passing and write about said meeting in exactly 1001 words. Then have one of those people meet someone else, have this someone else meet up with another person, and so forth – until the 101st encounter, when the last person meets up with the first, thus completing the circle. The result is (perhaps inevitably) good in parts, and overall it works.

There are some very good vignettes here, such as the murder of Rasputin, the Queen’s visit to the dying Duke of Windsor, Terence Stamp giving some unconventional advice to a humourless Ted Heath, the Beatles meeting Elvis (they’re star-struck, he’s jealous of their success) and Howard Hawks getting so confused by the plot of The Big Sleep while adapting it for the movie that he contacts Raymond Chandler for some assistance, only to find that the man who wrote the book doesn't know who killed the chauffeur either.

Some people come across as two-faced to say the least, the best example being Noel Coward, who compliments the Beatles to Paul McCartney's face while privately thinking they're a bunch of ‘bad-mannered little shits’.

And there are some intriguing what-ifs, the top two of those being John Scott-Ellis running over (but not injuring) an up-and-coming politician by the name of Adolf Hitler, and Harry Houdini being asked (but declining) to go to Russia to unmask Rasputin as a fake.

All in all, this is an entertaining book that casts interesting views on a range of people and can be read either in one go or by dipping into it at any chapter of the reader’s choosing.

2.11.13

Watching the football



The other night I went to the pub to watch the Brighton-Watford game on TV. It was quiet in there – it was a Monday night, after all – but the pub, not my preferred local it has to be said, had Sky and so was showing the match (it also had Deuchar’s IPA on tap – nice). As I’ve come to expect when going to the pub to watch the footie, I was the only Watford supporter, and the only other blokes who were paying much attention were Brighton fans.

The high point of the game was Fernando Forestieri’s shot getting cleared from what appeared to be behind the line. But the ref and the linesman didn’t spot it, so play continued and it wasn’t long before Brighton equalised at the other end. Gianfranco Zola was fuming, as no doubt were the many Watford fans who’d travelled down to the south coast of a weekday evening.

I was not so angry. This was mainly because, although the TV replay from an angle clearly showed that the ball had crossed the line, the verdict according to the camera directly above the goal showed that the ball hadn’t crossed the line – not so much a case of the camera never lying but of different cameras, like different eye-witnesses, seeing slightly different pictures of the same event. By watching the game on Sky, I got to see these images mere seconds after the event, and on that evidence, I rapidly concluded that, had the relevant technology been in place (as it is in the Premier League and in international matches), the goal wouldn’t have been given.

So on one level, it could be argued that I had a better match-watching experience than those who went to the game. But I was still a little jealous of the fans in the ground – for in my view, watching the game in a pub is a poor substitute to actually being there (especially when it’s an away game, getting to which can be an adventure in itself). It’s a question of atmosphere – at the match, you’re with several thousand fellow-supporters, and for ninety minutes you’re all together in a shared experience whatever the weather. You can shout, swear, cheer, groan and even (yes, even if you’re a grown man) cry a little, depending on what happens on the pitch. That shared communal experience is a key part of what watching football, or any other team sport for that matter, is all about.

The most recent football match I have been to in person was the Barnet-Wrexham game at the former’s new ground in Edgware last month. I do not claim to be a Barnet fan – I have supported Watford since I was seven years old, and I feel that fans of Premier League clubs who say they support Barnet as a ‘second team’ are being mildly patronising. But I do occasionally take in a Barnet match, and I really enjoyed the matchday experience at the Wrexham game (to sum things up quickly – Barnet went ahead early, spent most of the rest of the game trying to defend their 1-0 lead only to concede a goal with a few minutes left on the clock. Oh, and there were three sendings-off – all in the last five minutes).That experience was more fun than sitting in a not-very-crowded pub watching Watford draw 1-1 away to Brighton.

My conclusion is that watching the game on Sky is all very well, but being there is better.

Frankenstein



Here in East Finchley we are lucky enough to live a few minutes walk away from one of the oldest purpose-built cinemas in the country. The Phoenix dates from 1910, and is a local landmark which we love to visit.

Not so long ago they started showing screenings of theatre plays as well – which is great for those of us who couldn’t get tickets for when the plays were on in the West End. Earlier this year, we went to see The Audience (the one about the Queen’s weekly meetings with the Prime Minister, with the incomparable Helen Mirren as the Queen).

This week, as part of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the Phoenix showed Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Nick Dear’s play (itself based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel).

It starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, two actors at the top of their game who alternated between playing Victor Frankenstein and the Creature (one presumes they shied away from calling him the Monster as a result of the old A-level English Lit argument that the real monster of the piece is Victor for thinking he can play God). The version we saw had Cumberbatch as Victor and Miller as the Creature.

The production was sensational. I liked how it closely mirrored the novel – albeit without the introductory stuff about Captain Walton and how Victor’s childhood fascination with science led him to make a sentient being; instead, the play starts with the Creature’s ‘birth’. Johnny Lee Miller gave much pathos to a character that I’ve always felt has been short-changed by the popular Boris-Karloff-with-a-bolt-through-his-neck image of Frankenstein’s monster; this version, by contrast, can quote Milton. Cumberbatch was equally good as the medical student who gets carried away with his unorthodox experiment and is subsequently torn apart by guilt, despair and regret for what he has done.

Despite having been written nearly 200 years ago, Frankenstein remains highly relevant today – what with the advances of modern science in recent decades it still serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking things too far. This stage adaptation was an incredibly well-acted play which also serves as a great advert for modern British theatre. If they sold the screenings on DVD, I’d buy it.