Tuesday 26 January 2016

Oh yes, also, people died...

It's a hot and humid morning, the sea beyond my window is sparkling blue dotted with white boats, mirrored by a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds, the cicadas are buzzing down in the bush, the kakas are swooping along the valley which echoes with their harsh pterodactyl-like cry (you can't prove that comparison wrong) and I'm sitting here looking at a list of unpublished stories from last year, cursing terrorists. And the weather.
There are a couple about beleagured Paris, one about the sweet and unique little Pet Cemetery out in the suburbs, and another about exploring the 13th arrondissement with boundlessly enthusiastic local man Quan. There's another set in Turkey, a country of rich history, magnificent architecture, striking scenery, delicious food and friendly people but horrendously hostile neighbours, and one specifically about Istanbul where I stayed in a cute little hotel a minute up the hill from the Hippodrome with its - it was then, anyway - remarkably new-looking Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius where ten unsuspecting tourists were recently killed in a suicide explosion. Yet another tells about cruising the Greek Islands, in the waters where desperate refugees keep drowning trying to escape their ruined homeland.
There are others about the north of England - Yorkshire, Cumbria - which are currently due for another onslaught of wild weather, still sodden and crumbling as they are after the torrential rain and flooding that made Christmas a misery for those unfortunate enough to live by a river or on a floodplain. I've got one story set in Western Australia, where raging fires have consumed huge areas of bush, plus the homes built in it, almost as bad as the terrible conflagrations on the opposite side of the continent.
In all these locations I met nice people who depend on tourism for their livelihood, who are proud and enthusiastic about their bits of the planet and want to share them with visitors. I'm also pretty keen for my stories to be published, to repay my hosts with publicity, and also to reap a few pence (no exaggeration, sadly) for my work. But that's not going to happen while these places are, for one reason or another, in turmoil - editors, unfortunately, tend to play it safe rather than take a stand.
So maybe it's just as well that, South Africa in August apart, my horizons for this year are currently relentlessly domestic. There's a Grand Tour coming up, hitting all the visitor must-sees for New Zealand. Hopefully there will be nothing more dramatic en route than the mountains, lakes and fiords - but who knows, in these turbulent times? Watch this space.

Friday 15 January 2016

(Some) ups for Downton

Driven more by a sense of obligation rather than pleasurable anticipation, I watched the Downton Abbey Christmas special finale. I lapped up the first series (season, for Americans) and was keen for the second, but my enthusiasm dwindled rapidly thereafter. Catching up right at the end, having missed the next four series entirely, I found nothing to regret: the same insultingly short scenes (my concentration lasts longer than that, Julian Fellowes), the same clichéd characters and scenarios, the same self-indulgence, the same insouciance with regard to authentic dialogue. But, as ever, the costumes and the settings sucked me in - particularly as I'd been to both the main locations for the special.

Downton Abbey is, of course, Highclere Castle near Newbury, where I interviewed the lady of the manor, the rather intimidating Lady Fiona Carnarvon, back in 2011. It seems so ideal for the location that it's surprising it wasn't the obvious choice - there were competitors for the honour, despite its being so familiar to Fellowes, series creator and Carnarvon family friend. Happily for the (invisible) areas of the building that were then in desperate need of expensive renovation - the second storey was quite uninhabitable - the redoubtable Fiona won the day, and ever since has welcomed streams of visitors with their even more welcome wallets and purses. 

Besides the iconic exterior shots, most of the 'upstairs' filming took place on site, and the rooms that were featured are certainly worth seeing. The 'downstairs' scenes were shot on a set, as the real areas at Highclere weren't suitable - partly because of the unexpected Tutankhamen exhibition down there referencing the 5th Earl who funded Howard Carter and took part in the discovery of the tomb in 1922. That's worth seeing, too.

All this was very familiar stuff as I sat and watched the soap-opera unfold, all the ends being super-neatly tied up, each character paired up, their futures sorted. But it was fun to spot the other main location, 'Brancaster Castle'. Big, solid, ancient, impressive, it's actually Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, which I visited in 2014. The Percy family is still in residence after 700 years, amazingly, and the staterooms are both, well, stately, and very much lived-in, which is nice to see.

It's also very well maintained, thanks to unabashed commercialisation - there were wedding photos in progress, the party sporting kilts and medals for the men and trembling fascinators and very unsuitable heels for the women teetering over the lawns; plus it was used for a Harry Potter location and you can play an organised game of quidditch in the grounds - and rewards visitors not just with opulent furnishings and paintings by Van Dyck and Canaletto, but novelties like Oliver Cromwell's night cap and Elizabeth I's gloves. Go and see.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

There's no beating buckwheat

Who needs to go to Rouen? When you can get an equally good galette at the Little Frog Cafe in Oneroa, here on Waiheke Island, at the other end of the world? Today's was so good, in fact, that I ate most of it before I thought of taking the photo (sorry). In Rouen last year, I was much more focused (again, sorry) on taking photos, since I was working, so here you have my fried egg galette from there in all its untouched glory:
The chips and salad were there because it was lunchtime, not breakfast - but you knew that, by the cider, I hope. Both hot and crisp and nutty, tasting so much healthier than their pale and flabby crepe cousin. Not that I would turn one of them down, either...

On the other hand, although there is a surprisingly good sprinkling of French people on the island (as well as more Argentinians than you could shake a stick at), and a couple of genuinely French cafes, I must admit that Waiheke is a bit light on the colourful half-timbered houses that run riot in Rouen. You can't move for them in Normandy. The city's got a pretty fancy cathedral too; and I loved their clock.
And though the Ostend market on a Saturday here has got some good stuff (including yet another Frenchman, making crepes) they don't sell all those lovely Camemberts, and great slabs of yellow butter to ask for a chunk of, like they've got at their daily market. The history's pretty interesting, too, starring Joan of Arc but with plenty more besides.
No, galettes notwithstanding, I'm afraid there's no getting round it: travel is an essential part of the well-rounded life.

Friday 1 January 2016

In the final third, the answer is 3.14

As New Year's Days go, it could have gone better. Hot sunshine is the norm, but nothing the weather does these days, wherever you go in the world, follows the norm. Which is a worrying thought, but not one to dwell on on the single day of the year when everyone is urged to be positive. So I'm focusing instead on being glad that I'm in a comfortable house rather than a wind-shredded tent by a rising river, and have distracting devices close at hand.

One of them is the TV and, watching 'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian' I was pleasantly diverted by the locations, having been to many of them in 2014 on my first visit to DC. My second trip to Chicago that year provided me with a smug moment of superiority, when I glimpsed in the background of one scene Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting, which I saw at the Art Institute there, where it has always hung, ie not in a branch of the Smithsonian museum. I have to say, I also felt a little less warm towards Teddy Roosevelt this time, Robin Williams's death notwithstanding, having also seen in DC the white rhino that he shot; but I enjoyed the movie, which is a cheerful romp.
It did, however, make me feel guilty all over again that, under pressure, as always, of time, I skimmed through just a few of the museums, when there is so much to see there, and all so well presented. Realistically, though, while it's fascinating to browse through the exhibitions, looking and reading and marvelling, there's actually not a lot of learning going on these days, for me. Like Ben Stiller's character, trying to remember pi to eight places for the tablet code (and failing - though Amelia Earhart did it, yay) that's about five items too many for my brain. In fact, 3.14 what? There's a 5 somewhere, and a 9...
I'm reminded of my grandmother, who had a stack of Agatha Christies by her bed, which she read through endlessly, each story fresh to her the next time she got round to it. So, why do anything new, when as soon as you stop, you forget it? Why, more appositely, travel anywhere new, when you could save a pile of money by just going back to the same places in your own country, each of them a new delight?

Because of the moments you do remember, that's why. The 3.14 effect. The space ship, the dinosaur, the donut, the big shiny bean, the friendly Frenchman, the turtle encounter, the philtrum triumph at Trivial Pursuit, the perfect chips, the volcano erupting, the ice wine, the lightning... Moments of delight that would actually be valid simply as fleeting experiences - but each of them trailing behind them other moments, which add up to rewarding memories that make the whole thing worthwhile. Happy New Year. May you, and I, enjoy our travels, both during and for ever after.



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