Writing Portfolio

11.12.14

Fulham away

If you make a habit of going to football matches over a period of many years, you will note that there are some games (quite a few of them, in fact) that do not linger in the memory. You know you went to them (perhaps because you’ve kept the programme or the ticket), but you can’t for the life of you say with much certainty what happened, or even who played. All those damp nil-nil draws and scratchy defeats have a habit of merging into one over time.

Surely this phenomenon is not confined to Watford fans alone.

Then there are the games that stick in the memory. These tend, in my experience, to be either away games, big games (cup semi-finals, etc) or the ones where something truly memorable happened on the pitch.

Away games can be memorable because of the journey there, and the fact that they offer a chance to visit parts of the country you otherwise wouldn’t go to; in my particular case, the cities of Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield are places that I have only been to for football-watching reasons. They’re also memorable because, well, away fans always seem to be having more fun. There are less of them, so they feel obliged to make more noise.

The famous games, of course, are the ones where you remember most of the action (usually, but not always, because your team not only wins, but wins well) and can, years later, be proud to say “I was there”.

Sometimes a game sticks in the memory because it is both a famous result and an away fixture.

Last week, I went to such a game.

Earlier this season, Dad and I agreed that we’d go to an away game. The options were, for the sake of convenience, quickly reduced to the London clubs in the Championship. Of these, I ruled out Brentford and Milwall on the grounds that I’ve already been to those two. Charlton Athletic was ruled out because, by the time we’d agreed to do an away game, that one had already taken place. That left Fulham, to be held on the first Saturday in December. Or, after Sky Sports had decided to televise it, the first Friday evening in December.

To be honest, I was not optimistic. Fulham, so I learned from the BBC Sport website, had a pretty good home record and, having previously seen a very lacklustre Watford get beaten at home by Derby County, I reckoned we’d do well to get a consolation goal.

Our journey to Craven Cottage was by Tube. As we got nearer to our destination, we started to notice more and more people who were clearly heading in the same direction; a couple of lads in Fulham tracksuit tops who took note of me in my yellow, black and red scarf and paid me no further attention; as we alighted at Putney Bridge, one of them commented to the other about the large number of Watford fans who’d evidently turned out for the game. As the relative silence of a large number of people filing through a Tube station was broken by a chant of “YOU ’ORRRRNS!”, it was fairly obvious who was going to be the louder contingent.

We made it into the ground a minute or so before kick-off; unusual for us, but such is the price of a second pint in the pub before heading out to the game (thankfully, the designated away stand, the Putney End, is the one closest to the afore-mentioned Tube station). Already, the away contingent was in the mood for a party. Whatever else happened, we were going to do our best to enjoy ourselves.

The usual chants of lacklustre home support are always a popular away fan target; the Fulham contingent, among whom empty seats were conspicuous, were the target of such ditties as “You’re supposed to be at home” (to the tune of ‘Bread of Heaven’) and “Your ground’s too big for you” (to the tune of the Italian national anthem).

Located right next to the River, Craven Cottage has something of an old-fashioned air, what with the triangular gable atop the Johnny Haynes Stand (itself one of the oldest remaining stands in the League) and the continued presence of what looks like an actual cottage in one of the corners – it’s called the Cottage Pavilion and houses the players’ changing rooms. A reminder of how football grounds used to be as so many of them – Vicarage Road included – continue to be redeveloped.


But never mind what was happening in the stands, or even the aesthetic quality of said stands; what about on the pitch? Contrary to my expectations, Watford were all over the home team. Three corners in the first ten minutes – surely it was only a matter of time before we scored?

Things happened quickly from thereon after – football matches can be like that, long and drawn out if dull, over too quickly if exciting. Watford score from an Almen Abdi free kick, and minutes later we got a penalty when Matej Vydra was bundled over by their goalie – who got sent off for his troubles. Captain  Troy Deeney scored from the spot, and Watford were 2-0 up within the first 20 minutes. We away fans changed our tune, the tune of the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit ‘Sloop John  B’ in fact:
                We’re winning away,
                We’re winning awa-a-ay,
                How shit must you be?
                We’re winning away!

Watford remained in firm control, with Deeney getting a second. He’s had quite the career, what with having done time for affray before becoming the first Watford player since Luther Blissett back in the Eighties to score more than 20 goals in two consecutive seasons (he was our Player of the Season for 2013-14).

As the players trooped off, Dad and I realised that we hadn’t made use of our seats; like everyone else in the away end, we’d been on our feet for the whole half. We’d be on our feet for the whole of the second half too. The last time I stood for an entire game, it was due to terracing.

For the second half, Watford were attacking in the direction of the away end and a mere five minutes passed before the goal of the night – Abdi again, the man who originally came to Vicarage Road on loan from our sister-club Udinese, with a stunning shot from outside the box. The (substitute) goalie didn’t even move. 4-0. Dreamland. Especially if you’re away from home.

Watford remained on top, with chances from Deeney and Fernando Forestieri (another one from Udinese!) going begging. Fulham had the odd shot on goal but their hearts weren’t in it.

Towards the end, the chants in the Putney End became more varied and took on a decidedly retro quality as we extolled the virtues of Elton John’s Taylor-made army, Luther (no surname required), Steve Palmer (who, so we used to allege, only smoked marijuana), Micah Hyde (he was here, he was there, he was every-f***ing-where) and Tommy Smith (he got the ball, he scored them all). All the while, the team were stringing together moves of over a dozen passes before an utterly demoralised home team. How long ago that Derby game seemed now!

Then, after the fourth official had announced how many extra minutes would be played, the passes moved forward, and suddenly Deeney was through with only the goalie to beat. He didn’t mess around, and the Putney End erupted once again. If you want to know what that sounded like, you can listen here.

On the walk back from a truly memorable evening (much more memorable than the last 5-0 game I attended!), I found that ninety-odd minutes of continuous shouting had given me a sore throat – something that hasn’t happened in a footballing context for quite some time. I had also thoroughly enjoyed myself – and it’s not every game for which a Watford fan can say that. Away games: I should go to these more often.

4.12.14

P.D. James

Authors have a habit of living on through their works long after they’ve died. The likes of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming (to say nothing of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc) still adorn the shelves of bookshops the world over, acquiring new readers long after their literary output has ceased. Like their living counterparts, some are defined by the genre in which they wrote, others less so.

P.D. James, who died last week at the age of 94, will be best remembered for her crime novels but she was always more than a crime writer. To her, it was perfectly possible to write good fiction that happened to come under the heading of ‘crime’. There are people who look down on crime writers and indeed crime fiction as a genre (those people don’t know what they’re missing, if you ask me), but from a literary perspective one really couldn’t look down on a writer as erudite as P.D. James.

Indeed, some of her books – always a treat to read – transcended the murder mystery genre; Innocent Blood dealt with a girl who finds out that her parents were murderers (James was not the sort of author to neglect looking at what effect the act of murder would have on ordinary people caught up in the story), while The Children of Men is best described as dystopian science-fiction.

But it was her other interests as well that made her more than a crime writer. P.D. James, who worked for the NHS and later the Home Office for many years, was also a Booker Prize judge (hardly a position one would usually associate with a crime novelist), a BBC governor and a Tory peer (she sat in the House of Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park). Five years ago she grilled the Director-General of the BBC on the Today programme, and earlier this year she was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to the Guardian opposing Scottish independence. She was also a committed Anglican, which explains the church-related theme running through several of her works, and not just relating to her principal detective being the son of a rector – for example, the two bodies (one an MP, the other a tramp) at the start of A Taste for Death are found in a church vestry, while Death in Holy Orders is mainly set in a theological college in rural East Anglia – a location also used for Devices and Desires (the title of which was derived from a passage in the Book of Common Prayer; James, apparently, was rather put out when hardly anyone picked up on this after the book’s publication).

Similarly, her main protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was somehow more than just a detective – he was also a published poet and, being a cerebral type, was often compared to Inspector Morse (and like Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, P.D. James was never a one-novel-a-year author; her 19-novel output was spread between 1962 and 2011).

P.D. James always had a lot to say in her books about human experiences – even minor characters had interesting backgrounds, and to her mysteries were all about clues rather than coincidences. There was a great quote from her in an article in the Globe & Mail written just after her death by a reporter who’d interviewed her on more than one occasion, and it sums up her approach not just to her novels but to life in general: “The underlying message [of mysteries] is that no matter how difficult problems are in life – in your own life or in the life of a country or society – in the end they can always be solved, not by divine intervention or good luck, but by human intelligence, human courage, human perseverance.”

19.10.14

Canadian pie



Last weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving (which is more a celebration of the harvest than its American equivalent), and in accordance with tradition we had some relatives over for a turkey dinner followed by pumpkin pie.

Allison had to specially order a turkey breast from the butcher – it’s not something they usually sell in October, although as we’ve ordered from the same butcher for several years now, they are well aware that any order for turkey at this time of year will probably come from Canadians! I made the pie.

The recipe I used was originally clipped from one of Allison’s Canadian cookery magazines – from an advert for Robin Hood flour to be precise. This meant that the recipe for the crust simply called for Robin Hood Flaky Pie Crust Mix; without this to hand, I just used the short crust pastry recipe from my Mum’s old lemon meringue pie recipe. This meant that I was seriously mixing my weights and measures, as the pie crust recipe (being a British recipe) calls for the ingredients to be measured by weight, while the rest of the pumpkin pie recipe (being Canadian) has the measurements by volume (even for the butter). As I have learned from previous recipes, a cup in Canadian baking terms is a specific measurement (250 ml) – you can’t just use any mug to measure things out. This is a mistake most people only make once.

I also found that I didn’t have to blind-bake the pie crust (as I would’ve done for the lemon meringue pie), as the filling itself needs to get baked before the topping is added.

Ah, the filling. Just about everyone who makes pumpkin pie uses tinned pumpkin purée, mainly for the sake of convenience (apparently it takes many hours to render the raw ingredient down to the required consistency). However, there are two types of tinned pumpkin in Canadian supermarkets, pumpkin pie filler and pumpkin purée. Filler is the ready-made stuff that you pour straight from the tin onto the pie crust and bake, while purée is the one you have to mix with other things to make the pie filling.

I’ve been told that no self-respecting Canadian uses the pre-mixed filler, so I combined the puree with a few extra ingredients – brown sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg and salt – before pouring it over the crust and sticking it in the oven (15 minutes at 220°C, then 45 minutes at 180).







The topping, which also needed to be mixed, was a combination of oats, brown sugar, chopped pecan nuts, flour, cinnamon and melted butter. With the topping added, the pie is baked for a further 20 minutes. 


We served it up with whipped cream that had had some icing sugar mixed in.

Pumpkin pie: our annual autumnal treat!

18.10.14

England, England...



Last week I went to Wembley – not for the first time, but this was my first full England international.

I have been to games at Old Wembley (most memorably, Watford’s 1999 play-off triumph) and this wasn’t even my first experience of New Wembley (I’ve seen Saracens play there a couple of times). In terms of England, I’d previously seen schoolboy and under-21 internationals, and I have of course seen the England cricket team in action many times. But the full, senior-level England football team? This was a first.

The opposition was the not-so-mighty San Marino, a minnow side ranked joint 208th (ie. joint last) in the FIFA rankings. England, by the way, are 18th. The domestic equivalent (based on league positions at the time of the match) would be Newcastle United playing Harpenden Town. The final result could not possibly be in doubt; just about everyone going to the game did not merely expect that England would win, they knew it (an unusual experience for me to say the least; you just don’t get this sort of feeling on the way to Watford games).

The question, therefore, was not would England win but by how many goals, and whether San Marino might manage to defy expectations and get a consolation one for themselves. This, after all, has happened before – back in 1993, they scored after just eight seconds; what everyone forgets is the seven England went on to score, not that any of it mattered as we failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

Not that qualification for the 2016 European Championship is going to be problematic, for the tournament has expanded to 24 places, presumably to ensure that none of the big teams can ever fail to qualify. England have been given the easiest of groups, from which qualification would be nigh-on impossible to screw up – even for a side that did as badly as England did in the World Cup this summer. In other words, my first England experience would be the most predictable game in a predictable qualification group.

On the international stage, minnow teams like San Marino seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to remind people of the variety of countries that exist in this crazy world (FIFA, by the way, has more members than the United Nations). Also, they can form the basis for humorous travelogues like Charlie Connelly’s Stamping Grounds and Tony Hawks’s Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (quite why no-one’s done this with San Marino yet is a mystery to me). It must, though, be pretty cool to be Sanmarinese, if only because (as I mused in the pub before the game), the country has such a small population that any man between the ages of 16 and 40 who’s half-decent at football would be in with a shout of playing for the national team. This is the sort of national team that is an argument in favour of some sort of pre-qualifying round for the Euros and the World Cup.

Alighting at Wembley Park station, there were a few desultory England chants, many kids excited at being taken to see England (despite the following day being a school day) and the odd sight of people draped in the light blue and white flag of the opposition. Among the usual array of items on sale along Wembley Way – scarves, badges, poorly-printed tee-shirts – were half-scarves. These are scarves in the colours of both teams playing; half in the white and navy (and red trim) of England, half in the blue and white of San Marino. They also carried such important information as the venue (“Wembley – The Home of Football”) and the date of the encounter. Something of a one-off souvenir, then. They were, from what I could hear from the retailers, going for £10 each.

I don’t get half-scarves. Why would anyone at a football match want to wear something that includes the opposition’s colours? When, exactly, did they become a feature of big games? And who buys them – neutrals who can’t decide which team to support (unlikely), or people who want a souvenir of that particular game? Is this the sort of thing that gets given to the people in the corporate boxes along with the complimentary programme? Do people collect half-scarves from the matches they’ve been to in the same way that people collect programmes?

Getting into the ground itself – a vast improvement on the crumbling old edifice it replaced, it must be said – the atmosphere felt strangely flat, and that wasn’t just because the bars in the stadium were not serving alcohol due to a UEFA rule of some sort.

That’s right – there was no beer.

Usually, for football matches in England there is a ruling about the sale of alcoholic beverages which would strike many attendees of other spectator sports (or of football matches in other countries) as odd. This rule states that you cannot consume your booze within view of the pitch – you have to consume it while standing in the crowd by the bar, which isn’t great (I have on occasions flouted this rule by bringing a hip-flask with me, which also breaks the rule about smuggling booze into the ground). Also, it is a proven fact that beer sold inside sports venues is hideously over-priced. Even so, not serving beer at all strikes me as somehow wrong.

This being 2014, I complained about this on Twitter. To my surprise, someone I’ve never met ‘favourited’ my tweet. Note to self: Using hashtags on Twitter really does work.

Rather surprisingly, the ground itself was more than half-full; a total of 55,900 people had come to see the match. It didn’t feel like that, though. I cannot help but think that this was the sort of game that would have been better held at a smaller venue; there are, of course, numerous arguments for having England games at various venues throughout the country, and I think that would be a very good idea, but this notion is of course trumped by the fact that the FA is still paying off the money it blew on rebuilding Wembley. Money comes first.

Being behind one of the goals, I and my fellow-England fans each had a small, plain white banner tied to our seats with an elastic band. These, we were informed, were to be held up when the band (one of the Guards regiments, no less) played the National Anthem so that our end of the ground would look like a giant Cross of St George. This would inspire the team and look good on the telly. It might’ve worked, too, had the band not played a setting of the National Anthem that was almost unrecognisable. We in the stands didn’t even realise they were playing God Save the Queen until about half-way through!

The atmosphere struggled to get going as England made a few desultory efforts against San Marino’s defence-heavy outfit (this is a team that, having only scored 19 goals in their 24-year existence, has largely forsaken attack in favour of as many defenders as possible; a legacy of their having to play every game against teams hoping to score seven or eight times). Down to our right, a middle-aged bald man shed his shirt and tried his best to gee everyone up with a couple of repetitive chants. Some joined in, others made adverse comments about the size of his beergut. Still, his rendition of God Save the Queen was more in tune than that of the Guards band.

The deadlock was finally broken after 25 minutes, and from thereon it really was a question of how many goals would England score (five, in the end). That said, one (the first) was scored after their goalie got bundled over (I’ve seen goals disallowed for less), another was a penalty and one of the ones in the second half was an own goal. England, of course, dominated play but I reckoned the best player out there was the busiest; the San Marino goalie, an accountant called Aldo Simoncini. But for him, they goal tally could’ve been in double figures.

Maybe it was the predictability of the encounter, but I found it hard to motivate myself to cheer on the team. I could understand why some supporters opted to ironically cheer the rare San Marino expedition into England’s half of the pitch, and cheer loudly whenever Joe Hart got the ball (he, apparently, won the online vote for man of the match, receiving 63% of the vote; Jack Wilshere, who was declared man of the match by the ITV commentators, got 11% in the same poll, in which one presumably could not vote for opposition players). At one point there was more interest in the obligatory Mexican wave (which went round the ground three times) than in the events on the pitch. A few blokes even stood up to applaud when a Sanmarinese player got substituted late in the game; I don’t recall that happening with the England substitutions.

Despite the large crowd (not large by Wembley standards, of course, but at 55,990 it was still more than the capacity of most Premier League grounds), the atmosphere felt flat. We’d expected England to win, and we’d got that. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing. Evidently, I prefer football matches where I can’t comfortably predict the outcome in advance.

As I queued for some post-match chips on Wembley Way while everyone else streamed towards the Tube station, I heard the guys selling the half-scarves trying to flog them at half-price. There were few takers.

2.10.14

Swimming with a loon

The air was warm, the sky blue, the water refreshingly cold. Not the coldest Canadian lake I’ve swum in, but my third of the summer. We were at Lake Rosseau on a glorious autumnal day with, interspersed among the evergreens, The Colours running riot – glorious riot; thousands of maple leaves turning yellow, then amber, then as red as the one on the Canadian flag – by the shoreline. This is the heart of Cottage Country, and we were staying with Allison’s aunt and uncle who own a cottage mere yards from the shore of the lake. Before we’d headed north, I’d declared that I would swim in every lake we stayed by, and by diving into Lake Rosseau I’d made it three out of a possible three.


I swam out from the dock with a powerful front-crawl, which quickly turned into a leisurely front-crawl as my generally sedentary lifestyle kicked in. I switched to back-stroke, my strongest stroke, and then the breast-stroke, my weakest. I tried to see how long I could hold my breath under water, and lasted around five seconds at a generous estimate. I was on holiday – swimming in a lake somewhere in Ontario, without a care in the world.

As I made my way back to the dock, I could vaguely make out the shapes of Allison and Uncle Bill standing on the dock. I assumed that they were watching me, the only one who’d wanted to swim in the lake in late September. I was wrong.

Allison called out: “Nick, there’s a loon!”

I know, I thought. We’d seen two of them, one in striking summer plumage with black head, striped neck and chequered back, the other in drab winter dark grey and white. Probably a pair, given that, like swans, loons mate for life. They were a hundred or so yards away from us as I’d taken a running dive off the dock. It may have been autumn, but these summer visitors were going nowhere fast; loons are among the last birds to fly south for the winter. “There’s two loons out on the lake,” Uncle Bill had quipped, “and a third one’s about to join them.”

While I tried to splutter a response, Allison called out again: “He’s right behind you!”

Eh?

Turning around, I beheld through my myopia a dark-coloured, duck-like object heading straight for me. As it came closer, its dagger-like beak and large head identified itself to me as one of the loons; the winter-plumaged one, who’d evidently decided to see who else was swimming in the lake.



There I was. Getting very close to nature – just a few feet from one of the great symbols of the Canadian wilderness. Swimming alongside a bird for whom swimming is a way of life.




It didn’t end there. As I got out of the lake, the loon continued along by the side of the dock. Mike, Uncle Bill’s neighbour, caught sight of him as he sauntered over to wish us good morning. He too was taken aback.

“What’s this? You got a pet loon now, Bill?”

His surprise was understandable. Most birds, and this includes loons, have a healthy wariness of people, an ancestral memory that even from a distance these are predators, to be avoided at all costs. This loon, however, didn’t seem that bothered. He (or she) continued to swim around in the shallows for a few minutes before doing the unthinkable. It got out of the water.


Collectively, we gasped.
                                                                                                                                    
Unless they’re nesting (and even then they’re very close to the water’s edge), the only time loons get out of the water is when they’re taking off. They don’t wander onto the land – their legs are so far back that they can only walk with difficulty; indeed, the bird’s very name is a reference to this fact. Yet here was a loon getting out of the water, and in very close proximity to four people. Two of whom have spent many summers by the shores of Canadian lakes and seen countless loons, but never out of the water.

We concluded that it had to be ill, but close-up it looked fairly alert, shuffling itself around so it could face the water as the rest of the family came out to have a look while Uncle Bill went to report a sick loon to the animal protection people.



The loon, who in close proximity appeared to be going through the moulting process, was still there, not minding the cars whizzing past on the nearby road, when we went out for a boat-ride several hours later. When we came back, though, it had gone – according to Mike, the animal protection people had not showed up, so it must have simply swum away.



PS: This blog-post was subsequently re-posted on the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s ‘Land Lines’ blog, which has some incredible stories about the natural world in Canada.
 

29.9.14

The bird of the North

Travelling through ‘Cottage Country’, that belt of land north of Toronto where many Canadians (and, indeed, quite a few Americans) own holiday-cottages by the shore of the region’s many lakes, I have not only experienced wonderful hospitality and the truly breathtaking sight of The Colours (it’s that time of year), but also the opportunity to see birds which I would never see back home.

There are chickadees, cardinals, blue herons, turkey-vultures and American black ducks. No North American bird, though, is as fascinating as the loon.

I refer in particular to the common loon (gavia immer, also known as the great northern diver); the four other species of loon listed in my field guide do not tend to be found in Ontario (preferring, as they do, to summer in the far north or on the west coast).

Loons, which spend most of their lives on or under water (they can dive deeper and for longer than all other birds) require near-pristine conditions to nest, so their presence on any given body of water is often seen as a sign of the good condition of said lake; their numbers declined heavily in the Sixties and Seventies but since then, conservation efforts (such as the banning of lead weights for fishing in addition to restrictions on hunting) have led to a revival in loon numbers – even on lakes which have a lot of cottages.



This is very significant, as the loon is highly symbolic of the wilderness – or, as it is known in these parts, the North. You know you’re in the North when you hear the call of the loon emanating from somewhere out on the lake.

There have always been links between loons and native folklore; for example, the loon is said to be the messenger of Kuloshap, the creator-god of the Algonquin people. Indeed, no bird – with the exception of the eagle – features so prominently in folk tales and legends. Central to this place in legend is the bird’s call, usually described as ‘haunting’ or ‘eerie’. The loons actually has four calls: “Wails, tremolos, yodels and hoots ... together, the four calls add an air of magic to the often silent world of the wild. Together, they are the sound of the North.”

The loon’s high status continues to this day, for it is both the provincial bird of Ontario and the state bird of Minnesota, and even features on Canadian money – which is why the one-dollar coin is popularly known as the ‘loonie’.

No trip to Cottage Country is complete without getting to see and hear the loon.

Sources:
Fred J. Alsop III, Birds of Canada (Dorling Kindersley, 2005)
Doug Bennet & Tim Tiner, Up North: A Guide to Ontario’s Wilderness from Blackflies to the Northern Lights (McClelland & Stewart, 1993)
Robert H. Busch, Loons (Whitecap Books, 1999)

19.9.14

A tale of two statues

In the course of my wanderings around Toronto, I have come across two very different statues with British connections, both of which have graced this fair city since the Sixties and which were installed amid some controversy.

Toronto’s civic authorities are housed in the very striking building that is City Hall, which was built in the Sixties and consists of two curved towers surrounding a council chamber that looks like a flying saucer (despite being almost fifty years old, it still looks really modern in a cool kind of way that most Sixties tower-blocks never achieved; these towers, by the way, are depicted on the city flag). In front of this is a large bronze sculpture that is unmistakably the work of Henry Moore (1898-1986). Three Way Piece No. 2 (The Archer), better known simply as The Archer, weighs 2½ tons and is in Toronto thanks to Viljo Revell, the architect of City Hall, who had won the international competition to design the new building and who in the early Sixties approached Moore with the suggestion that one of his works would complement the new building.






Moore agreed, and a suitable design was chosen from among his maquettes (the small models that he made before starting work on the big sculptures), but the proposal to purchase the work with public money became hugely controversial and was vetoed by the city council; the money was eventually raised by private subscription and it was unveiled in 1966. Touched by this gesture of public support, Moore donated over 200 sculptures and drawings to the Art Gallery of Ontario; these formed the basis of the AGO’s Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, the largest public collection of Moore’s work in the world.

Over in Queen’s Park, by contrast, is something a little more traditional – an equestrian statue of King Edward VII. This feature, which is located in the northern section of the park and constantly seems to attract the attention of passers-by wondering who the guy on the horse is, was never intended for Toronto and is in fact there almost by an historical accident – even though it depicts the man who (when he was the Prince of Wales) opened the park, Toronto’s first, in 1860.

The work of Sir Thomas Brock (1847-1922; his most famous work is the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace), this 1919 five-ton masterpiece of imperial pomp was originally unveiled in Delhi to commemorate the 1911 Delhi Durbar at which his son, George V, was officially proclaimed Emperor of India (in return, he announced that Delhi would henceforth replace Calcutta as the capital of India).



It survived Indian independence for almost two decades – presumably while the Indian government figured out what to do with it – before being taken down in 1967 and given to the City of Toronto. The man behind this move was the then Governor General of Canada, who had previously been the Canadian High Commissioner to India, although a private art collector had to come up with the money to have it shipped to Toronto, where the same city authorities who’d had to deal with the controversy over the Moore sculpture now had to decide where they were going to put what must be one of the most impressive re-gifts in history. This was not without its own controversy due to the the statue’s rather obvious colonial overtones; some said that the money that would need to be spent on installing it would be better spent on melting it down and commissioning a local artist to use the bronze to make something a bit more emblematic of modern Canada, while one wag suggested it could be made into a climbing-frame.


After both the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario turned it down, the well-travelled statue was re-erected in the park to the north of the Provincial Legislature in 1969, over a century after the man it depicts had opened the park.

16.9.14

St Lawrence Market

We’re in Toronto, and on our first morning we went to the centre of town to visit the St Lawrence Market. This old-fashioned covered market and local landmark is not only a mecca for food-lovers of Toronto but has been hailed by National Geographic as the top food market in the world. Not in North America. The world. (Borough Market, by the way, came tenth.)

Located in the part of town known as Old York (York having been the name of the settlement established here by Governor Simcoe in the 1790s; it was renamed Toronto in 1834), the market has been running for over 200 years.

The items on offer on the lower level are a fair reflection of modern Toronto’s diversity; as well as coffee from just about anywhere in the world (they’ll even grind it for you should you so wish) and many varieties of rice, you can get perogies, crêpes, souvlaki, spices, meat pies, Chinese food, more preserves than you’d care to name and all sorts of other tasty treats here. Up on the main level butchers, bakers, fishmongers and cheesemongers (who do a good line in cheeses imported from places like England, France and Italy as well as Canadian cheeses) co-exist side by side in St Lawrence, where the only problems appear to be people who suddenly stop to look at things, as well as the perennial dilemma of what to buy, and who to buy it from.




We found a wine merchant who seemed very happy to talk about the various Ontario wines he had on offer; a few samples later and we were walking away with a bottle of ’13 Riesling (Ontario Riesling being somewhat less sickly-sweet than its German counterpart) and a ’12 Trius Red (a blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc and Merlot; it’s superb, and surprisingly mature-tasting for a two year-old wine).


For lunch, the crowds seem to know that the Carousel Bakery is the stall to head to; this is the one that is best-known for serving up the Torontonian take on the bacon roll that is the peameal bacon bun (“Experience this Toronto tradition, eh!”). Cut much thicker than a regular rasher of bacon, peameal bacon is made from boneless pork loins rolled in ground yellow cornmeal (originally, ground yellow peas were used, hence the name), and it is a Toronto speciality which harks back to the time when the city was nicknamed ‘Hogtown’ due to the large number of pork processing facilities that existed here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It’s delicious and filling, but don’t just take my word for it; when Anthony Bourdain came here for The Layover, it’s what he had for breakfast.



The wares on the various seafood stalls looked fantastic –live lobsters, sushi-quality tuna steaks, wild salmon from British Columbia, scallops, oysters … we went for the mussels (from Prince Edward Island) which were on display in a large tank of water, from which our order was scooped out.





The butchers are masters of their trade who are happy to guide customers in the ways of all the different cuts and varieties that can be had. Should you want some mustard to go with your newly-purchased meat, there’s a stall for that where you can sample dozens of different types; I even found a couple that I rather liked (and I speak as someone who, as a rule, doesn’t particularly like mustard).




Elsewhere, two fruit-and-veg stalls compete for trade side by side, under a sign reminding customers that “We’re two separate stores”. One can only imagine the arguments that occurred before that went up! We purchased a few items from one of these places which, later that day, joined the mussels in a delicious moules marinieres.

St Lawrence Market: Gourmet’s paradise. A Toronto must-visit.

6.9.14

Meatopia 2

Meatopia returned to the Docklands this weekend, and having been impressed with it last year, we returned to Meatopia, the carnivorous foodie festival where everything is cooked over wood or charcoal.

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On entering a Tobacco Dock that was decidedly less smoky than last year (those issues having evidently been sorted out second time around), we were greeted by no less a person than the founder of Meatopia, Josh Ozersky. I’m impressed by the fact that with all that must be going on at a big event such as this, he found the time to mingle with the punters.

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We had, of course, come for the meat and we were not disappointed. We got to try Charcoal grilled Flat Iron Steak with anchovy butter (courtesy of the ever-excellent Hawksmoor), Tasty Pig & Beef Bits Taco (The Greenhouse Tavern of Cleveland, Ohio), Korean BBQ Pork Belly (Judy Joo of New York), Meatopia Double Smoked Cheddar Dog (Shake Shack; I really need to go to their place on Covent Garden) and the Burger with comte cheese, pulled Beef Ribs, Baconnaise – a real thing, it seems – & smoked chillis (Tommi’s Burgers). All were superb, and as an added bonus we did not get caught up in any two-hour queues this time.





 


According to Christian Stevenson (a.k.a. DJ BBQ), the master of ceremonies at the demonstration area that is the Cutting Room, the organisers had far more chefs, restaurants etc interested in cooking than there were spaces (this despite the event being spread out over two days), so they were having to turn would-be barbecue-ers away.

Liquid refreshment came courtesy of Fuller’s, which has recently created a craft lager called Frontier. This is not something that has come up on my beer radar, despite the fact that I have been known to frequent Fuller’s pubs (although the fact that I usually go for bitter may well have played a part in my not noticing that they’ve branched out into lager); hand-crafted over 42 days, it’s a good refreshing pint.

We got to see an entire cow being spit-roasted, presumably for the benefit of those who will be attending tomorrow.  

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Music was provided by a seven-piece band called the New York Brass Band who played instrumental versions of 1980s hits. The tuba-player, who appeared to be the one in charge, did not sound American when he announced his band, but he got a laugh by saying that they are in fact from York. 

As for demonstrations, we got to see two guys from a fun-sounding Sussex-based organisation called Hunter Gather Cook butcher a deer carcass on the stage, serving up some wild venison carpaccio in the process along with advice about how to go about hunting deer and butchering venison, the latter being possible to do in your back garden. Not that I’m getting any ideas, of course.

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The highlight of the day was Dario Cecchini, the master butcher of Panzano who has cropped up on this blog before (if you’re going to go to Tuscany, I highly recommend eating at his establishment in the afore-mentioned small hilltop town located between Florence and Sienna where his family have been butchers for eight generations). With his American wife Kim providing the translation, Dario expertly butchered a hindquarter of beef (and not just any piece of beef but one that had been hung for 45 days) while discoursing on his philosophy of treating the whole animal with respect by making sure that all parts of it are used (which, of course, ties in neatly with the whole nose-to-tail philosophy behind Meatopia) and quoting from Dante’s Inferno. The sushi del Chianti that he served up was delicious, although so popular was this with the crowd that I was lucky that Allison, who was sitting closer to the front than me, was able to get a couple of pieces!

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Meatopia 2014 was, I am pleased to report, a highly enjoyable foodie experience.

15.8.14

Fantasy football

This season, for the first time in many, many years, I will be taking part in a fantasy league. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about this sort of thing (a bit too anorak-ish for me, I’ve always thought), but there’s one at work this season so I decided to give it a go.

I have no idea how I will get on, having tried to base my selection on whether someone has previously played for Watford and giving up after finding four Premier League players thus qualified (Ben Foster, Adrian Mariappa, Ashley Young – no relation – and Andros Townsend) before going for a couple of big names (Sturridge, Yaya Touré) and then getting stuck for ideas and impulsively buying a Swansea City defender.

If nothing else, it should make watching Match of the Day more interesting.

7.8.14

Back to Southwold

Last weekend, for an all-too-brief time, Allison and I went back to Southwold. We’ve been going there for several years now, originally as a day-trip while staying in a nearby village but more recently staying in the town itself. What with its back alleys, art galleries, occasional antique markets, the pier, the lighthouse located in the middle of the town, the iconic painted beach huts and those old cannons overlooking the sea, it’s rather old-fashioned in some ways with its emphasis, as a holiday destination, purely on the British seaside experience without the mass crowds. It is, let’s face it, a small town and the fact that holiday-makers seem unusually prone to jay-walking is better explained by the narrowness of the pavements than the sheer number of people.

This Suffolk town has a refined, almost genteel air to it not present in some of the larger seaside towns, which has led some to nickname it Hampstead-on-Sea; appropriately, one of its most famous residents was a certain George Orwell, who also lived in Hampstead for a time. Literary connections aside, the fact that Southwold is home to the Adnams Brewery is an added bonus, with many having commented on how the smell of malt from the brewery somehow blends with the sea air. The pubs, needless to say, are excellent.

On the birding front, I was on the look-out for the swallows after what we saw last year; this time, we were a bit early to see the baby swallows all lined up and ready to fly, but we did see them poking their heads out of the nests high in the rafters of the car park roof.


Down on the part-sand, part-single beach it’s clear that there are some aspects of the British seaside experience that never change. Windbreaks, sand getting everywhere, cups of tea, beach cricket, gulls on the lookout for spilled food and loud children are all present and correct. Some folks rent out the beach huts to keep all of their stuff in (I always wonder how many people decide to break the rules and spend the night in these huts in order to save on accommodation costs), while the rest of us lug our things from the car, the hotel or the B&B. Even the relative lack of mobile phone reception on the beach lends the place a timeless air.



But it cannot be denied that Southwold itself has changed in recent years as more holiday-makers discover its rather quaint charms. Tellingly, what was once a rather good second-hand bookshop on Pinkney’s Lane is now a letting agent, while a couple of independent booksellers closed down a few years ago (one cannot help but imagine Orwell turning in his grave at the very thought). In recent years, Tesco and Costa Coffee have both opened up shops in the town – the latter in particular attracting opposition from the residents of a town that already has several places where one can drink coffee – while Waterstone’s has gone down a slightly different route and opened an outlet with no company branding present (it’s simply called Southwold Books).

What hasn’t changed, though, is the inescapable fact that when you leave, you find you’re already missing the place by the time you’ve made it to the A12.

29.7.14

Evensong

London, being London, is home to many places of great historical interest, some of which can be found in the most unexpected places. Yesterday, I found myself in an oasis of (relative) tranquillity just yards from the bustle of Fleet Street which is home to one of London’s oldest churches. This area is known as the Temple, and it has the feel of a sleepy, old-fashioned university college. I, it seems, am not the first person to think this; back in the 1920s, H.V. Morton commented that the Temple "brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age."

It’s not really sleepy, of course – it’s one of London’s major legal districts and those seemingly quiet (and, in most cases, listed) buildings are for the most part barristers’ chambers. At its heart, though, is the Temple Church, rare among English churches on account of its being round (well, the original nave section is) and famous for its effigies (not tombs) of medieval knights. It’s a beautiful old building, and this first-time visitor was most impressed.

It dates back to the 12th century when it was built by the Knights Templar, who modelled it on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (which is why the nave is round); although the Knights Templar were abolished in 1307, their legacy lives on in the name of this particular part of London, and the curious fact that the priest-in-charge is not called the vicar but the Master of the Temple.

History has been made in the Temple Church, for it was the venue for negotiations between King John and the barons, which led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. William Marshal, the knight who ensured that the Magna Carta was reissued after John’s death, is buried there. It has featured in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 and The Da Vinci Code (that last one led to a vast increase in the number of tourists coming to have a look around; the Master has even written a book debunking the myths propagated by Dan Brown). It survived the Great Fire but was badly damaged in the Blitz, after which it was restored.

Unusually, the Temple Church is a peculiar, meaning that it is a church that does not come under the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it is located. This is not due to anything concerning the Knights Templar but because the Temple Church is the chapel of two of the four Inns of Court (the two with ‘Temple’ in their names, naturally). The most visible sign of this unusual status is that the Master and his acolytes get to wear scarlet cassocks.

So what was I doing there yesterday? The answer can be summed up in one word: Evensong.

I’ve not been to evensong since I was a chorister at John Keble Church; back then, evensong was an occasional Sunday evening affair (more often than not, evening prayers were a ‘said’ service and so did not require the choir); Temple Church, by contrast, has a cathedral-style choir that does regular choral music performances in addition to services, and has even featured on the Proms.

This particular evensong was held to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Although Britain didn’t enter the war until 4th August, 28th July marked the anniversary of the first declaration of war, that of Austria-Hungary on Serbia; five days earlier, the former had presented the latter with a series of demands that were intended to allow their authorities to investigate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, although some of them were so unreasonable that they invited rejection. In fact, the Serbs accepted all but one demand, the request that the Austrian police be allowed to operate within Serbia itself. The result of this rejection was the outbreak of war.


And so, to the accompaniment of some truly lovely choral music (including the Last Post, the Magnificat, an anthem based on the 90th Psalm and the Old Hundredth, the last of which I remember singing as a chorister, at evensong most likely), we commemorated the start of the war.

16.5.14

What if...

Theorising about what might have happened had certain historical events gone the other way has long been a popular subject-area for authors, with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a detective story set in the Berlin that Albert Speer would have built had the Germans won the Second World War, being the lead example in an increasingly crowded market.

Into this arena has stepped C.J. Sansom, author of the best-selling Shardlake series of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. These have cemented his reputation as an historical novelist par excellence, but now he has moved into the field of alternative history with Dominion, a thriller set in 1950s London – the twist being that this is an imagined London, in a world in which Hitler won.

Like Fatherland but unlike, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Sansom’s alternative world is not one in which Operation Sea Lion was successful – citing Richard Overy’s factual work The Battle of Britain in the historical notes at the end, he reckons it would’ve failed had Hitler tried it – but one in which Lord Halifax became Prime Minister in May 1940 instead of Winston Churchill. Rather than fighting on as really happened under Churchill, in this alternative reality Halifax sued for peace after the fall of France, signed a humiliating peace treaty (referred to in Dominion as the Treaty, always with a capital ‘T’) and was replaced by an ageing David Lloyd George who took on the role of a British Pétain. Britain got to keep the Empire, but otherwise became subservient to Nazi Germany.

The bulk of the novel is set in 1952, by which time the collaborationist government is headed by Lord Beaverbrook, with the likes of Oswald Mosley (whose fascist party has been the main beneficiary of rigged elections), R.A. Butler and Enoch Powell in the Cabinet. The Conservative and Labour parties have both split into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions – as has the Church of England. The police have become heavily politicised – the violent Special Branch Auxiliaries are for the most part little more than Blackshirts given official licence – and captured subversives are routinely handed over to the Germans for interrogation in the basement of Senate House (which has become the German Embassy). The press, radio and TV (the post-war reintroduction of the latter having happened much earlier than in the real world) are under tight government control. Britons of the Jewish faith have been increasingly persecuted, and the government has recently given in to German demands to have them deported. Among the collaborationist elements of this dystopian society are the Scottish nationalists, whose support has been ensured by vague promises of devolution and national revival.

Elsewhere, America has been isolationist for over a decade, there is mass unrest against British rule in India, Hitler is dying and the war against Russia, although initially successful (with Operation Barbarossa starting earlier than in reality, Moscow was captured and Stalin publicly executed), has become an unwinnable, drawn-out conflict on an unimaginably vast scale.

Churchill is on the run as the elderly figurehead of the Resistance – which, like the resistance movements of Occupied Europe, contains people of many political persuasions (from crusty retired colonels who would probably be more at home in an Agatha Christie whodunnit to ardent communists) whose only unifying factor is opposition to the Nazi-friendly government.

One Briton living in this world is David Fitzgerald, a civil servant at the Dominions Office who has for the past couple of years been covertly passing confidential information to the Resistance – and that’s not the only secret that he has been keeping from his wife. David, it turns out, is an old friend of Frank Muncaster, a timid geologist who unwittingly learns of a great and deadly secret that would be of vast benefit to the Germans – provided they can get hold of him. He has been committed to an asylum, and the main part of the plot concerns a plan by the Resistance to ensure his escape before he gets sent to Senate House for interrogation – while trying to stay ahead of the Gestapo’s top man-hunter Gunther Hoth, aided and abetted by a pro-fascist British police officer. As this cat-and-mouse sequence plays out, the Great Smog of ’52 envelopes London.

Sansom has done a fantastic job of imagining an alternative, terrifyingly dystopian version of 1950s Britain. It is a highly convincing account of the dark forces (most notably, anti-Semitism) that may have been unleashed had a key moment in British history gone another way, combined with a good, solid spy thriller that will keep the reader guessing until the last few pages. If you want my honest opinion, I reckon that, as far as alternative history thrillers go, this is actually better than Fatherland.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, no work of historical fiction can be truly detached from the time in which it is written, and the same is, I think, true of works of alternative history as well. The present always has an influence on those who are writing about the past, both the real and imagined versions of it. In Dominion, a key point that Sansom wants to make is of the dangers of nationalism as a force of division and potential destruction – now as well as in his reimagining of the recent past. 

Specifically, as a supporter of the Better Together campaign, the Edinburgh-born Sansom has a warning about the dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. It is no coincidence that the SNP is depicted as collaborationist in this novel (it had opposed conscription in 1939, and Sansom notes that in occupied Europe nationalist movements were encouraged by the Nazis in return for their support, with puppet governments being established in, for example, Slovakia and Croatia). In his historical notes at the end, Sansom states that: ‘A party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the National Movement should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have often meant in Europe.’

A warning from history...

16.4.14

Walking the line of history

Paris is a city for walking – much more so than, say, London. When we go to Paris, we do a lot of walking, sometimes because the distance between two places doesn’t look to be that much on the map (indeed, Paris is, generally speaking, a more compact city than London), sometimes because a lot of walking is required merely to change lines at your average Métro station. Either way, a visit to Paris tends to involve a lot of walking, and I have the statistics from my pedometer to bear this out.

There are many walks that you can do around Paris, and I don’t just mean the one in the morning to the nearest boulangerie. When we were in Paris last weekend, we purchased a book containing the routes for twenty walks in the city (one for each arrondissement) which I look forward to reading in advance of our next trip there!

The focus of this post, though, concerns a straight-line walk that takes in several prominent landmarks and a lot of French history. I refer to the Axe historique (‘historical axis’), the line of monuments, squares and thoroughfares that stretches out from the centre of Paris to the west.

It begins at the Louvre, the former royal palace (built in the seventeenth century to replace the old medieval fortress) that became a museum during the 1790s and is today the most visited museum in the world. Oddly, it’s one that I’ve never felt the inclination to visit, probably due to the vast crowds and the notion that the sheer size of the place means that I probably wouldn’t know where to start. It is said that it would take nine months to see every piece of art in the place, so surely a mere afternoon can’t do it justice? But I’ll go there one day; after all, we’ll always have Paris, won’t we?

The main entrance to this mega-museum is the Grande Pyramide, the glass structure in the courtyard that was built as part of President Mitterand’s expansion project for the Louvre in the 1980s, and is today surrounded by queues of tourists all wanting to get in so they can see the Mona Lisa. By the way, the Grande Pyramide (which does indeed have an inverted counterpart below ground) does not actually have 666 panes of glass – this was an urban myth perpetuated when it was built, and was later popularised by The Da Vinci Code.


Moving away from the Louvre, the axe heads west towards the Jardin des Tuileries, but just before you get there you have the first of three arches, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. This was Napoleon Bonaparte’s original arc de triomphe, built to commemorate his victories up to 1805 when he triumphed over the Austrians and the Russians at Austerlitz (the British are not alone in naming a railway station after a famous military victory) and modelled on the Roman Arc of Septimus Severus, which can be seen today in the Forum in Rome. Subsequently, the diminutive Corsican decided that he wanted something bigger and embarked on the construction of a much larger triumphal arch, although that would not be completed until the 1830s.

From the smaller, original arch, the axe continues through the Tuileries, the formal garden originally created by Catherine de Medici in 1564 and which became a public park after the Revolution (although it had in fact been open to the public since 1667). The queen of Henri II and the mother of three more Kings of France, Catherine de Medici was a political intriguer (well, she was a Medici) and a great patron of the arts – most of what she collected is now in the Louvre. She is also credited with giving French cuisine a kick-start by bringing in her own cooks from her native Florence – a cultural import continued by her cousin, Marie de Medici (the wife of Henri IV). French chefs took on the recipes and sophisticated cookery styles of the Italian upstarts, and the rest is histoire.

The Tuileries used to be the gardens of another royal palace, which stood in what is now the space between the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the gardens. This, the palace to which Louis XVI was moved in 1789 so that the revolutionaries could keep a closer eye on him and which was the residence of the kings and emperors of the nineteenth century, was burned down by the Paris Commune in 1871. This in turn left an empty space between the northern and southern wings of the Louvre, thus opening up the courtyard to the Axe historique.


The gardens remain, however, to be enjoyed by tourists and promenading Parisians. Here can be found many sculptures amid the trees, while those looking for a museum on a smaller scale than the Louvre can take in the Musee de l’Orangerie (of which more in a future post). There are also various snack-stalls where you can get a croque-monsieur or a crêpe and have lunch amid the flower-beds and the statues before continuing through the park, looking ahead along the Axe historique while trying not to think about how dusty your shoes are getting.


Standing directly on the axe as one leaves the Tuileries is the Egyptian obelisk nicknamed ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, although this one has nothing to do with Cleopatra, having been made over a thousand years before she was born. Nor is it really connected with the one in London (or, for that matter, the one in New York); this one dates from the 19th Dynasty (1292-1189 BC) and originally adorned the Temple of Rameses in Luxor before the rulers of Egypt presented it to France in 1826, and when it arrived in Paris in 1833 the king, Louis-Philippe, placed it close to the site of ... well, I’ll come to that in a moment, but while we’re on the subject of the Citizen King it’s worth noting that he was also responsible for the nearby Fontaines de la Concorde, which were heavily influenced by the fountains of Rome.

Both obselisk and fountains are located on the Place de la Concorde, the square laid out in the mid-eighteenth century. The eight female statues in the corners of the square represent what were at the time the eight largest cities in France (aside from Paris itself): Brest, Rouen, Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Strasbourg. During the period between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, when Alsace-Lorraine was occupied by Germany, the latter was covered in black on state occasions.


Despite its peaceful name, the Place de la Concorde has a violent history, being one of the key locations of the guillotines during the French Revolution. It was in this square that Louis XVI met his end in 1793; subsequently, the likes of Marie Antionette and Charlotte Corday (the woman who killed the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat while he was having a bath) lost their heads here, and then it was the turn of the revolutionaries Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulines (among many others) as the Revolution became the Reign of Terror – which ended with another execution, that of the arch-revolutionary Maximilien de Robsepierre.

After braving the traffic, it’s onto the Champs-Élysées. Initially, this wide boulevard is bordered by trees and it has a peaceful air that almost (but not quite) belies the large amounts of traffic on the Place de la Concorde and the six lanes of the street itself. Before long, though, the trees give way to the (very) high-end shops and the vast crowds of people who’ve come to look at them.

Originally intended as a tree-lined extension of the Tuileries Gardens, it became a fashionable avenue by the late eighteenth century, with the current buildings owing much to Baron Haussmann, the man who redesigned Paris during the period of the Second Empire (1852-70). Much-described as “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, the Champs-Élysées is certainly one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. The street’s size and proximity to several major landmarks has long made it the venue of choice for military parades, including (notoriously) the German victory parade in 1940 and (famously) de Gaulle’s parade to mark the Liberation in 1944. It still hosts one every year on Bastille Day, while since the 1970s it has been the street on which the Tour de France ends.

If the Champs-Élysées is the most beautiful avenue in the world, then the roundabout at its north-western end must surely be the most insane roundabout in the world. A total of twelve roads meet at the Place Charles de Gaulle (after whom it was renamed in 1970; originally, it was the Place de l’Étoile, which explains the name of the nearby Métro station). This was planned long before the invention of the motor-car as part of Baron Hausmann’s redesigning of Paris, which did away with the old medieval streets and introduced the grand, straight boulevards that we know and walk along today.

At the centre of this place is the Arc de Triomphe – or, to give it its full name, L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étiole (there being, as previously stated, an earlier triumphal arch). Bonaparte commissioned this massive monument in 1806, and it took three decades to build. The reliefs depict key battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while the names of French victories of that period are engraved on the pillars. So big is this arch that, in 1919, an aeroplane was flown through it.


Appropriately given the military theme, directly beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the many soldiers of the First World War with no known grave. This is topped by an eternal flame, said to be the first such flame to have been lit in Europe since Roman times.

This was where our walk along the line of history ended, but from here the Axe historique stretches out beyond the city itself to the business district of La Défense, in particular its Grande Arche which was built to commemorate the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. The approximate shape of a cube, this is the third, largest and final arch of this particular line of history.