Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

And so this was Christmas…
December 29, 2010

And so this was Christmas …

The festive season began with a blanket of snow and the mercury dipping as low as -12˚C over the Christmas weekend. There had been concerns that the weather might cause problems for those travelling to the Shire but thankfully not so.

During the last two days the Wintersmith has released his icy grip and overnight rain has all but erased the Christmas card backdrop against which the Yuletide festivities have been acted out.  

December 2010 may turn out to be the coldest since records began but comparisons with the long hard winters of ’46-’47 and ’62-’63 may have been a trifle premature – all will be revealed over the next few weeks.   

As always, I was pleased to find that Santa had left me a couple of books beneath the Christmas tree:

The Shadow of the Sun, by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, has been hailed the greatest modern work on Africa and a dazzling literary masterpiece. It contains the correspondent’s work covering a forty-year period, following his first visit to the Dark Continent in 1957, and was first published in English in 2001.

I have already dipped into it. The author has the easy style of an accomplished story-teller coupled with a reporter’s eye for detail.  His evocative writing will resonate with anybody who has spent time in Africa.            

For obvious reasons I was immediately drawn to the piece entitled A Lecture on Rwanda. In seventeen pages Kapuscinski manages to distil the historical complexities of the Rwandan crisis, leading up to and including the genocide, in an account that provides greater clarity than any I have previously read.     

Duncan Hamilton was a Nottingham sports journalist. Last Christmas I received his first book, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough, an honest, sensitive and extremely personal biography of the great man.

This year I was delighted to get a copy of Hamilton’s authorised biography of another Nottinghamshire legend, and the world’s fastest bowler, Harold Larwood.

I’m already well into it and the author clearly deserved to pick up the 2009 William Hill Sports Book of the Year  award for his moving portrayal of the Nottinghamshire miner who later became synonymous with the controversial Bodyline bowling tactics used by England to nullify Donald Bradman and his Australian team mates in the 1932-3 Ashes series.  

England won the series 4-1 amidst a huge diplomatic row that threatened Anglo-Australian relations. Larwood, a working class national hero who had merely bowled in line with captain Douglas Jardine’s orders, was made the scapegoat. When requested,  by the MCC, to apologise he refused effectively bringing his international career to an end.

Ironically, Larwood later emigrated to Australia where he was welcomed, respected and held in high esteem for the rest of his days.         

I didn’t watch a great deal of TV over the holiday period but couldn’t miss the annual Christmas Day helping from the Royle Family. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with Christmas Specials, material that would have made a good thirty minute show was over stretched to fill an hour slot, compromising its overall quality.

Along with 10 million viewers nationwide, I also tuned in to the latest offering from Mat Lucas and David Walliams, Come Fly With Me. I found this spoof documentary, set in an airport, mildly amusing but probably less so than the antics portrayed in the Airport series about actual day-to-day life at Heathrow.

Lucas and Walliams have been criticised in the media for their use of racial stereotypes. The blacked up faces and accents were certainly a throw back to 1970’s comic offerings such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Mind Your Language.  However I didn’t consider the humour racist, simply a little dated, and I certainly don’t think it warrants a six part series.   

Another Christmas TV highlight had to be the business minister, Vince Cable, temporarily putting his and the coalition government’s problems to one side for a moment, and taking time out to show some nifty footwork dancing a lively Foxtrot with  the lovely Erin Boag, in the Christmas celebrity edition of Strictly Come Dancing.  Well you have to get your priorities right!    

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I crawled out of bed on Boxing Day morning to catch the latter stages of the first day’s play in the 4th Ashes Test in Melbourne.  Australia had been dismissed for a meagre 98 and England were already fifty or so ahead, without loss, in their first innings.

I had been expecting a buoyant Australia, after their recent victory in Perth, to push England really hard for the rest of the series but they have fallen apart. England are now so firmly in the ascendancy again, barring an act of God, they should wrap up a four-day innings victory, and retain the Ashes, some time in the early hours of  tomorrow.   

Jonathon Trott seems to love playing the old enemy, having followed up his match winning century, on debut, at the Oval in 2009 with two more in this series. But, at the highest level, there are fine margins between success and failure.

Trott threw himself full length to avoid being run out, by Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting, when he had scored only 46 of his eventual 168 not out. Another wicket at that stage might have brought Australia right back into the game.

‘Punter’ of course, is having a nightmare series with the bat and is about to become the first ever Aussie captain to lead his side to three Ashes series defeats.

He has been a great player and competitor throughout his career and his current frustration is understandable but his behaviour towards the on field umpires, following an unsuccessful referral, was totally out of order. He was extremely lucky not to receive a ban from the next Test, in Sydney. But then again it’s quite likely to be his final game in the Baggy Green!

Finally, I would like to announce the arrival, at Orchard House, of Christmas Monkey.  He emerged from a seasonal package of PG tea bags  on Christmas morning  and we are now a two monkey family. 

A Monkey is not just for Christmas!

The Wintersmith takes grip in the Shire
December 20, 2010

The Wintersmith has well and truly taken a grip in the Shire, with an overnight temperature of minus 19˚C recorded in Pershore during the weekend.

Yesterday, as I trudged across the blanketed  fields down by the river, I half expected to catch sight of the Nac Mac Feegles,  with their  angry blue faces emerging from beneath the big snow, grumbling “Ach crivens!” and  “Oh waily, waily, waily!” .

All of which will mean absolutely nothing to you unless you are au fait with the wonderful Wee Free Men from Terry Pratchett’s stories of Discworld!

As I made my way via the footbridge over the frozen marina and eventually skated along the treacherous footpaths of Upton to pick up a few essential supplies from So Near so Spar, I couldn’t help wondering what my African friends would have made of it all.

I also admit to feeling just a little envious of my VSO Rwanda colleagues, who anytime soon will be setting off for their Christmas break on the spice island of Zanzibar. Even their 36 hour coach journey from Kigali to Dar es Salaam suddenly seems quite appealing!  

Early on Saturday morning I had risen early and watched as England’s bid to wrap up the Ashes, as an early Christmas present for a nation embarking on a winter of discontent, had been derailed down in Perth. It was bizarre watching the players toiling in temperatures of around 30˚C while snow flakes tumbled down outside the window.

It was never likely to happen for England at Perth, given England’s poor track at the WACA, and once a paper like the Guardian (who should have known better) began to indulge in premature gloating, having variously described the leading Aussie fast bowler as shocking, awful, mediocre and a malfunctioning liability, then he was virtually guaranteed to come back with a vengeance!

Mitchell Johnson, in that kind of form, and particularly on that wicket, is capable of dismantling any team in the world. His match winning performance has certainly lifted the Aussies and revitalised the series.

Although there is less between the teams than appeared to be the case in the first two Tests I’m still confident England can do enough at Melbourne and Sydney to retain the urn and I look forward to spending the early hours of Boxing Day morning watching, wrapped up in my dressing gown with a hot water bottle, watching the opening throws of the next instalment.   

On Saturday afternoon I had intended to make my first visit to the City Ground since the end of August but cried off due to the icy road conditions and forecasts of further snow.

The match survived the freezing conditions and Forest, playing their first game in three weeks, secured a comfortable 3-0 win over Crystal Palace, with new signing Marcus Tudgay scoring a brilliant debut goal, lobbing the keeper from 30 yards out. Let’s hope there will be more to come and, weather permitting, that the Tricky Trees can get their promotion push back on track over the Christmas and New Year period.

I did manage to catch the Cherry & Whites on Sky TV last night. Despite sub-zero temperatures at Kingsholm the  Amlin Cup game against La Rochelle went ahead, but Gloucester will wish it hadn’t. I’m still not quite sure how they contrived to lose a game (18-24) where they enjoyed 75% possession and territory.

Unfortunately their lack of precision at key moments lost them the game and  puts paid to any hopes of European success this season. 

It was also a game the players were desperate to win as a tribute to club owner and motor sports legend, Tom Walkinshaw, who sadly lost his battle with cancer last week.

All eyes will now be turning towards the eagerly awaited Boxing Day Aviva League clash with high-flying Northampton Saints. An ideal opportunity to bounce back in front of a sell-out crowd.   

Saturday was also Chris’s birthday. Like me she has reached that stage where she is less than enthusiastic about celebrating the annual reminder that she isn’t getting any younger.

 But she was somewhat cheered to find that she has the same birthday as Brad Pitt. I was more impressed that she shares the date with Christina Aguilera!

The 18th December also marked the 67th birthday of Rolling Stone, Keith Richard. Unfortunately time has not been too kind to the oldest rocker in town, who looks about 87, but then again he’s packed a bit in.

It was also a year to the day of two famous retirements; Sir Terry Wogan’s and mine, both of us having spent a lifetime in the entertainment business!   

The last year has absolutely flown by, particularly with spending five months in Africa, and that old cliché of the newly retired, “I don’t know how I found time to go to work,”  has certainly been true in my case.

Pulp Fiction …… & non fiction!
December 2, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I made my final bus journey to Kibungo, forty minutes up the road, to say goodbye to Cathy and Louise, two young education volunteers who have become good friends during my time out here.

I actually first got to work with Cathy during the VSO pre departure training in Harborne Hall, back in July, so it was nice meet up again in Rwanda.

They seem to really enjoy cooking together as part of their daily routine and are very good at improvising dishes using the fresh produce readily available at Kibungo market. Last night they knocked up very tasty pasta with pesto and peppers dish accompanied with home-made garlic bread.

We even had the luxury of a bottle of cheap red Spanish plonk I had sourced from Simba at the weekend, actually the first drop of wine I’ve had in three months!    

Louise has a huge collection of movies stored on her portable hard drive so after the meal, following a bit of deliberation, we settled down around her laptop to watch Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

It probably wasn’t a good choice given that Louise went ashen at the sight of a syringe and Cathy is pretty squeamish about bloodshed and violence, so between them they spent at least half the movie with their eyes averted!   

Talking of pulp fiction there has been plenty of opportunity for evening time reading, often by torch or candle light, in between power cuts!  I managed to cram four books into my luggage allowance and with a bit of self-discipline managed to eek them out until about a week ago.

I enjoyed them all: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – the final page turner in Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy,   the latest humorous diaries of Sue Townsend’s, now middle-aged,  Adrian Mole  – The Prostrate Years, a Jo Nesbo thriller – Redbreast, featuring Norwegian cop Harry Hole, and A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks with its cleverly interwoven and satirical storyline, set in contemporary London, having been  described as Dickensian in scope and style.  

With a lengthy return flight and six hours or so to kill in Addis Ababa on Saturday night I went in search of reading material while in Kigali last weekend. I wasn’t spoiled for choice but came up with a copy of William Boyd’s  A Good Man in Africa.

I’ve read a number of his books and remember listening to the author at a Cheltenham Literature Festival event some years ago, coming away with a signed copy of his latest novel at that time, the epic Any Human Heart . I saw recently in the online Guardian that a C4 adaptation, with the screenplay written by the author himself, is currently being screened back home.  

A Good Man  in Africa was Boyd’s debut novel, from way back in 1981, and it won him the Whitbread First Novel Award while he was still an English lecturer at Oxford.

I haven’t been able to resist dipping into it and have enjoyed what I’ve  limited myself to so far. It is set in the fictitious western Africa state of Kinjana  and its descriptive passages appear to draw heavily on the author’s early life out in Ghana and Nigeria.

They really struck a chord with me and in many ways encapsulate my own experiences of rural African life here in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.  

The humorous narrative surrounds the hapless Morgan Leafy, a member of the British High Commission, over weight, over sexed and seemingly over his head in political bribery. I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

Finally, on the non fiction front, I noticed Cathy and Louise have a copy of Long Way Down , the book of the TV travelogue featuring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s motor bike journey to the southernmost point of Africa.  I managed to read the chapter on Rwanda, an episode I had missed on TV.  

It includes their mountain  gorilla trek in the Virungas, coffee at the Bourbon Cafe in Kigali and a meeting with Paul Kagame in his country residence above Lake Muhazi – all locations that I have mentioned in my postings! It’s well worth a read.

Andrew the story teller (they call him the ‘Wandera’) & Alexis’ Corner (Part 2)…..
November 27, 2010

Last week all teachers, supposedly, were involved in the first week of a nationwide four-week training programme in English.

I spent the early part of the week assisting Andrew, course trainer at Nyabitare School. He is a well qualified Ugandan with a BA and Masters in English Language and Literature. He is hoping to be sponsored to study for a PhD in the States next year, possibly at Harvard.

His family home is on the Ugandan border with Kenya although he teaches at a secondary boarding school and lectures at the university in the capital city of Kampala.

Like so many people I have met he has a whole series of interesting anecdotes to share. Part of his name is ‘Wandera’ which apparently refers to the umbilical cord being wrapped around his neck.  He pointed out that many Ugandans are named after the circumstances of their birth.

Andrew is a young man with a passion for literature, a thirst for knowledge and a desire to better himself through hard work. Interestingly, one of the books his students have been studying  with him is ‘The Last King of Scotland’. We talked about the film version and Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of ‘Idi’ which he thought was very good although he maintains the storyline was over embellished!  

He is another devout Christian who for some time was destined for the priesthood. He is committed to supporting his family and as early as ten years old he contributed to the ‘pot’ by smuggling goods across the border from Uganda into Kenya. On one occasion in the dark of night he was pursued and tripped over, catching himself on a wire which cut his chest open.

He still carries the scars along with other more recent additions following a recent near fatal car crash in Kampala, when his ‘automatic’ failed to respond and he rolled it over, and also after falling from the back of a ‘moto’ when the road ahead dramatically subsided following a rainstorm. I told him he’s not the sort of guy I would like to have as a fellow passenger on an air flight!        

…………………………………………………………………………………..

On Thursday the District Office asked me to go out to the more distant Mpanga Sector to report the training at Kankobwa School. This was actually a timely break from the tedium that was beginning to settle in after three days of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’, and the like, at  Nyabitare School.

It’s some time since I last rode pillion to Alex. He greeted me with his usual broad grin and a slap on the back. It was then that I made the mistake of asking how long it would take to our destination. ‘Forty minutes’, was the prompt response and we set off in a cloud of dust, at a rate of knots.

It’s funny how you get used to your ‘moto’ driver. Recently I’ve been with Daniel who I have to say drives in a relatively sedate fashion, carefully picking his lines and avoiding too many bumps along the way.

Although I feel perfectly safe with both, Alex is more of a speed merchant and goes for the roller coaster approach! Ten minutes in, he looked over his shoulder and pointed into the distance informing me that, ‘Kankobwa is at the top of that mountain’. Technically it might not have been a mountain but it was a hell of a steep, near vertical,  ascent.

Once on the top we made up for lost time. As we glided to a halt in the school playground and I dismounted in rather shaky fashion, Alex was grinning again and proudly pointing to his watch while announcing, ‘Forty minutes!’

On the return journey we unexpectedly drew to a halt outside Alex’s home. I had been an honoured guest some weeks ago and I hadn’t anticipated another invitation.

‘Welcome to my home,’ he announced, grabbing my backpack and crash helmet, before leading me down the slope, where a piping hot pan of rice with fish sauce was waiting on the table. I was provided with a bottle of Primus and Alex drank Fanta Coca, informing me that now he has a wife and children he no longer drinks beer.

We talked a little more about his fourteen years in the RPF, under Paul Kagame, where he made his way up from boy soldier to the rank of sergeant. After, he took me to meet the extended family, mother, father and sister-in-law, and to check up on his cows. According to his graphic mime the mother is yielding copious amounts of milk.

Alex proudly announced he is now the head of a five cow family, three at home and two grazing up in the hills.  He led me across to a small rondawel with thatched roof, home to his latest arrival a still small black calf. ‘It is a girl,’ he told me with another huge grin.     

With that we were back on the road for the final part of an eventful and memorable journey.         

Lake Kivu – A Creation Myth & Cautionary Tale
November 5, 2010

Long ago, back in the mists of time, the area which is now covered by Lake Kivu was a hot, dry grassy plain where the people toiled to scratch a living from the scorched earth.

One kind-hearted man helped his older neighbours to farm the land and harvest their crops. This was much to the annoyance of his wife who scolded him for spending so much time filling the grain stores of others at the expense of their own.

However Imana (the creator) had observed the man’s deeds of kindness and rewarded him with a cow that not only yielded milk but also millet, beans and peas! As this was a very special cow, and one that might be coveted by others, the man had to milk it in secrecy and tell no one.

His wife wasn’t sure where the increased amount of produce came from but scolded her husband a little less.  

One day the man was called away from the land to do some work at the court of the Mwami (King). He was anxious about his cow and spoke to Imana who said he could now reveal the secret to his wife so that she could milk the cow while he was away, but in no circumstances should she tell anyone else.

With her husband out of the way his wife invited a young man to her house where she fed him on the fine produce provided by the cow. He couldn’t believe that such a poor piece of land could yield so much and set about using all kinds of devious questioning and persuasion to uncover the secret.

Eventually the woman weakened and milked the cow in front of him. The young man couldn’t believe his eyes and immediately ran to tell his neighbours that there was no need for them to toil away on the land anymore as the secret cow would produce enough for everyone.

Imana heard of this and was annoyed that the woman had not been able to keep the secret. He prepared a punishment.

Before retiring at night it was customary for the woman to go out into the fields and relieve herself. On the next occasion that she squatted down the flow from her bladder was unstoppable. It flowed relentlessly flooding her home, field and the surrounding land. It became so deep that it covered the trees and the woman herself disappeared below the surface and drowned.   

When the sun rose the next morning it illuminated the shining surface of Lake Kivu as we see it today.

When the woman’s husband returned from his work at the Mwami’s court he found a lake, brim full with fish and water birds, gently lapping at the edge of his now fertile fields.

The cow had disappeared but a huge pile of millet, peas and beans were left behind which the man planted and thereafter the newly irrigated land always yielded a rich crop.

Imana was pleased for the man and smiled. He had also had the last laugh as far as the wife was concerned, he’d certainly taken the p—-!

Dorothy clicks her ruby shoes and bids farewell to Nyakarambi
October 3, 2010

I can’t help associating the name Dorothy with the Wizard of Oz. Thinking about it I’m sure a number of parallels could be drawn between LF Baum’s adventure and Dorothy’s time here in Nyakarambi.

Yesterday Dorothy finally reached the end of the yellow brick road, clicked her ruby shoes and headed for home, not Kansas but Cornwall!

On Friday evening we had a final farewell at the KMC. For the second time in a week Msafiri came up trumps with an impressive buffet and he also kindly donated soft drinks and a crate of Primus free of charge, a nice gesture.

It was a very pleasant evening with many of Dorothy’s closest friends from the community putting in an appearance. Rwandan’s seem to love making speeches on these occasions and many well deserved and kind words were spoken.

Dorothy has been a great help since we arrived and now we are on our own, with a big pair of ruby shoes to fill.

Snømannen – The Snowman
August 29, 2010

Given it is a Bank Holiday weekend, and a very blustery one at that, rather than toiling in the garden, as planned, I have spent most of today devouring the final third of Jo Nesbø’s Snowman (that is, his book of that title!)

I had been on the hunt for a few paperbacks to sustain me in deepest Rwanda, to be read by torchlight whilst cocooned within my protective mosquito net during the long dark evenings, when I came upon this title.

The Snowman was being heavily promoted in a couple of book shops, as comparable to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, so I thought I’d try it.

The only similarity seems to be that they are both extremely well crafted investigative thrillers in Nordic settings.  

It transpires that The Snowman is Nesbø’s fifth book (translated from the original Norwegian by Don Bartlett) featuring Oslo cop Harry Hole.

I found Harry Hole very reminiscent of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, a rugged but shrewd investigator, a flawed anti-establishment figure with a drink problem.

Hole and his supporting cast are extremely well drawn and within the first twenty pages the enthralling plot had hooked me in to such an extent that I immediately went in search of the earlier titles.

Book two in the series, Nemesis, and book four, The Redeemer, are now securely stashed away in my suitcase whilst I battle with the temptation to start reading one of them straight away. I hope they live up to expectations.     

                  

Une semaine en Touraine…..
August 17, 2010

Une Semaine en Touraine : 8 – 15 August 2010

Lundi 9:

Disembarked from the overnight Portsmouth – Caen ferry at 7.00 am and set off due south, through the early morning mist, towards the Loire Valley.    

This was a first outing en France  for our  sat-nav lady, Jane, but she soon had the route sorted with an estimated journey time of  around 3 ¼ hours.

An hour or so later the call of cafe et croissants had become irresistible. We pulled up outside a small bar, in une ville d’un cheval, and enjoyed our first petit dejeuner of the week.

Croissants on home soil, across La Manche, bear little or no relation to the pap masquerading under the same name in the UK.

On the other hand the French idea of un grand café never fails to amaze me. It’s high on flavour but low on volume and my craving for caffeine requires at least two if not three cups!  

Appropriately refreshed we continued our journey. The Peugeot 207 SW,  clearly at home in France, ate up the miles as we bypassed Le Mans, of 24 hour race fame, and were soon crossing the Loire at Tours, reputedly the home of the most pure French in the country.    

We had done very little homework but had spotted a possible campsite, in the Rough Guide to The Loire, on the banks of River Indre just outside Azay Le Rideau.

By 11.30 am we had booked in, found a pleasant emplacement right next to the river, and unpacked our Gelert Quick Pitch tent. It didn’t quite live up to its name but half an hour or so later it was up and we had avoided any obvious embarrassment, as we grappled with it for the first time, in front of our German neighbours who were watching from beneath the awning of their camper van!    

By now the sky was blue, the sun shining, and the temperature approaching the top 20s and all was well with the world. All that was missing was une grande biere pression so  we set out for an initial reconnaissance of the area. 

The architectural gem, which is the 16th century Renaissance Chateau D’Azay Le Rideau, lay secreted behind the trees on an island in the river, and just a five-minute walk via the charming town of Azay.

Our nightmare scenario had been, hordes of English visitors spilling from their coaches into a town given over to tacky gift shops and restaurants with le menu touristique!

We were therefore pleasantly surprised and delighted that picturesque Azay has retained its integrity as a local town for local people. We felt very much part of a thriving, working French community.

It was great to be able to use our French, receiving responses en francais, rather than English, and we soon established ourselves as regulars at Le Francois Premier, where we hardly heard an English voice all week.   Sante!                  

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Mardi 10:

Camping du Sabot doesn’t have a shop but a van du pain calls at the site at 8.00 o’clock every morning.

Our only concessions to self catering had been to take a single campingaz burner, a camping kettle, a saucepan (just in case) and a cafetiere. We had also packed Yorkshire teabags, Lazy Sunday coffee and a pot of Hartley’s apricot jam!     

It was all very tranquil as we sat beside the river, admiring the pastoral scene before us, while sipping our freshly brewed coffee and munching on chunks of freshly baked baguette et confiture d’abricot.

As we set off bright and early, for nearby Rigny Usse , the sky was disappointingly overcast but we arrived at the medieval chateau that had inspired the story of La Belle au Bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) well ahead of crowds.

The white stone chateau, on which Walt Disney based his fairy tale castle, perches impressively above the River Indre, on the edge of the dark and mysterious forest of Chinon.

Just a further 15 minutes drive and we were in Chinon, where the ramparts and towers of Henry Plantagenet’s huge ruined fortress loom in rather more foreboding fashion over the medieval city, set by the River Vienne. 

Chinon is a hugely popular tourist destination, particularly with the English -many of whom now reside in the surrounding countryside. However we were lucky. Our visit coincided with the obligatory two-hour French lunch break and we were able to amble through the ancient streets and alley ways unhindered.

It was at Chinon, in 1429, that a 17-year-old peasant girl in men’s clothing caused a stir by talking her way into meeting the Dauphin (heir to the French throne) the future Charles VII, who had been nursing his wounds in the castle following defeat by the English at Agincourt.

Her name was Joan, Jeanne D’ Arc, and she believed that angelic voices had delivered messages to her from God, stating it was her destiny to help the Dauphin reclaim his kingdom by leading the French to victory in the 100 years War.

She won Charles over with her charisma and in no time at all was leading his army to a famous victory over the English at nearby Orleans. More successes followed and eventually Charles was crowned at Reims with Joan at his side.   

It is also at Le Chateau de Chinon that Richard the Lionheart is said to have breathed his last, although apparently it is more likely he was DOA, having been wounded in a nearby battle.

Another local hero, immortalised in a statue down by the riverside, is Francois Rabelais one time 16th century monk, doctor, humanist, writer and all round bon viveur!   

The Rabelaisian tradition lives on in the Companions of St Vincent de Valleres .

Quite by chance we happened upon some of its members at an early evening wine tasting session outside the tourist information office in Azay.   

The brotherhood, the oldest in Touraine, was created in 1753 in honour of St Vincent and has enjoyed a recent renaissance. Its members, dressed in traditional burgundy robes, gather under the banner of friendship, good food, wine growers and wine lovers of Azay-le- Rideau.    

Their motto, ‘My wine is not in vain’, is enshrined in a song especially composed for the companions and performed by them on this occasion, after a few glasses! 

I’ll drink to that – santé!

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Mercredi 11:

Weather-wise, the term changeable springs to mind. Yesterday’s less than promising start had blossomed into glorious late afternoon sunshine.

During the early evening les pecheurs had been out in force along the banks of the Indre and, from our tent, we had enjoyed watching their antics (a droite!) over a glass of local wine.

Aujourd’hui I woke to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the flysheet and it was certainement a morning for waterproofs et un parapluie as we set off towards Le Chateau de Villandry, where elegant Renaissance architecture is set amidst stunning gardens.

Gardens aren’t normally my thing but les jardins de Villandry are stupefiant and in many ways a greater attraction than the moated chateau itself.

In 1906 the chateau was purchased by an American, Ann Coleman. Her husband, a Spanish doctor, Joachim Carvallo set about recreating a grand French garden in a historically accurate style.

Carvallo’s terraced creation includes a water garden, an ornamental garden symbolizing four different types of amour, a maze and a medieval herb garden.

However la piece de resistance is the potager, a fascinating Renaissance kitchen garden covering 12,500 sq m, where intricately planted cabbages, pumpkins and aubergines sit side by side with beautiful rose bowers and a range of other flowering plants and shrubs. The entire area is completely replanted twice a year!      

Worryingly, Chris was very taken with this harmonious juxtaposition of vegetables and flowering plants. She was busily making notes on her mobile and at one point proclaimed a similar gardening project, chez Aldridge, would be under way by the time I return from Rwanda!    

During the afternoon we drove on to Amboise, a part of France forever close to our hearts, but which has sadly become rather twee (exemplified by a dreaded  petit train – a pet hate of mine!), over commercialised and over run with tourist groups since we last ventured here.

On that occasion we had lingered for several days, camping on LIle D’Or in the middle of La Loire, gazing up at the heavily fortified chateau rising sheer from the river bank.  

Amboise makes much of its association with the greatest Renaissance man of them all, the great Leonardo da Vinci. Invited by Francois I to cross the Alps and join his court, Leonardo spent his last three years, from 1519, at the Le Clos-Luce.

Unsurprisingly this is now an over priced tourist trap but I remember a leisurely, un-crowded visit, over two decades ago, and marvelling at forty or so working models of Leonardo’s mechanical inventions, all constructed according to his plans and sketches.

To say Leonardo was ahead of his time is a rather an understatement. Apparently those same models remain, down in the basement, and are still the star attraction!

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Jeudi 12:

Yesterday late afternoon /early evening was once again the most pleasant part of the day.

The sun dappled trees on the river bank were mirrored in the slow moving waters of the Indre and we might have been forgiven for thinking we had been transported into Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows as, with a joyous ‘poop poop’, Mr Toad drove on to the site towing his caravan.

Unfortunately it was a lighter shade of beige rather than ‘canary coloured’ and it was Herr Toady at the wheel of an old Mercedes!

Today was designated un jour a pied!

Having breakfasted on freshly baked baguette, from the van du pain, liberally topped with Bonne Maman confiture de rhubarbe, a wonderful discovery at Chinon Intermarche, we set of to visit our neighbours at le chateau.

Five minutes later we arrived, the gates had just opened, and for a very short while we were able to experience this remarkably tranquil and picturesque setting almost to ourselves………..and then the coach-loads started to arrive!  

Apparently, not that I’ve read it, Balzac’s romantic hero in Le Lys dans la Vallee described the Le Chateau D’ Azay le Rideau as, “a diamond cut with facets, set in the Indre,”  which absolutely remains the case.

It is not grand in size, compared with the chateaux at Amboise and Villandry, but petit and beautifully formed in its island setting. There are captivating views, from every angle, of this perfect turreted, early Renaissance gem reflected in the surrounding waters of the Indre.    

During the summer evenings, the chateau provides a wonderful setting for a spectacular Songes et Lumieres. This year’s offering, Le Miroir Enchante, features un chameau et deux chevaux blancs, which spend their days padding around a paddock across the river from our tent.

Azay takes its name, le Rideau, from the Ridel family who occupied a small fortress nearby during the 13th Century. However, for centuries it was known as Azay le Brule (‘the burnt’) after the Dauphin Charles smoked out a Burgundian garrison here in 1418!

Another idyllic Kodak setting is presented by an old mill next to the bridge on the edge of Azay.

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Vendredi 13:

Not a promising date, for those of a superstitious nature, but ce matin, in the words of the song, le soleil port son chapeau………..

It seemed an ideal day to take in our last chateau of the week and arguably the most graceful of them all, Chenonceau, which arches its way across the River Cher.

Unfortunately today was a French public holiday (one of many) and a few hundred other people decided to make a similar excursion!

The Rough Guide had warned that Le Chateau de Chenonceau was a firm favourite on the coach party circuit and that during mid summer the place can become uncomfortably crowded with day trippers. It was spot on!     

However, there is no escaping its architectural merit and the highlight for me was the long gallery with its windows opening out on to beautiful views along the river.

There was a brief respite from the heaving throng on the floor above which houses a temporary exhibition of works by the renowned contemporary French artist Andre Brasilier who was born and studied in the Loire Valley at Saumur.     

Owned by the Menier Chocolate Factory family, the chateau is now a thriving business with its waxworks, paddle boat trips, orangerie restaurant and huge gift shop – but not really to my taste!

Having decided that, after the morning’s exertions, a glass of wine was called for,we stopped off at the vineyard and winery of Le Chateau d’Aulee, on the outskirts of Azay, for a spot of degustation. We tried a couple of pleasant whites and a red and came away with a bottle or two for the cellar.

Ce soir, Azay played host to un Grand Marche Gourmand. This gastronomic fete, clearly a highlight of the annual calendar, centred on the Place de La Republique and spilled out along the surrounding streets and alleyways.

It opened at 5.00pm and was soon thronging with locals, but thankfully very few tourists. We thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, to say nothing of the food and drink!

Thinking things were winding down we left for home just before midnight. No sooner had we snuggled down into our sleeping bags than we were unexpectedly roused by la grande finale a spectacular firework display!

We had no idea that this was scheduled but there was no moving Chris at this stage and she opted for her ear plugs as I managed to secure an interesting vantage point with my head stuck out of the tent flap, lying on my back, staring up into the illuminated sky. Bonne nuit!       

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Samedi 14:

Our final morning in France is always, without fail, given over to ‘a big shop’ at le supermarche. On this occasion it had to be Intermarche (the one outside Chinon) because Chris had bought a bottle of wine there on the first day of our visit that she had particularly enjoyed but not been able to find anywhere else during the week!

As we pulled into the car park, at the sign of les mousquetaires, Chris’s eyes lit up and my proposed question of, “How long will it take?” was clearly a  futile one. How long is a piece of string? I know from past experience she can happily push a  trolley around the food and wine section for at least an hour and maybe two!

Re-stocking the Aldridge wine cellar for the months ahead is a serious undertaking.  No bottle passes without a thorough scrutinisation and provided it comes in at 5 Euros or less it stands a good chance of making it into the final basket!     

I should say I am allowed to contribute to this process but apparently I’m too easily swayed by posh labels, gimmicky names and trendy looking bottles!    

With the fruits of our labours merrily chinking in the back of the car we arrived back at  Camping Le Sabot and the sun was shining!

Having sampled one of our purchases for lunch, with a spot of pain et fromage (otherwiswe known as a camembert butty), Chris took herself off to the swimming pool, a final opportunity  to top up her tan, and I settled down in the shade of a tree, with my ipod, to catch up on a spot of Kinyarwandan!

An hour or so later it was a somewhat different picture with gathering storm clouds culminating in a downpour of biblical proportions, or as they so quaintly put it in France: Il pleut comme la vache qui pisse!    

Some time later it relented sufficiently for us to emerge from the tent and head into Azay for something to eat.

En plein air was not an option so we opted for the dining room at L’Hotel-Restaurant Les Trois Lys where we enjoyed an excellent three course menu du jour followed by a final café et cognac huddled under the canopy at Le Francois Premier.

Tomorrow there will be a very damp tent to pack away and a long homeward bound journey to look forward to. C’est la vie!  Sante!

Finis

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Sherlock – a high functioning sociopath!
July 27, 2010

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his companion biographer Dr John Watson first appeared in print in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual.

Subsequent adventures drew popular acclaim and by 1891 a series of short stories and serialised novels regularly featured in The Strand Magazine. By the time the last of these appeared in 1927 the detective consultancy operating out of 221b Baker Street had become a national institution.

Through the stage adaptations, films and TV series that followed, Holmes and Watson have  proved to be the most enduring of literary characters. The Guinness World Records has listed Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character,” having been played by 75 different actors in over 211 films.  

The instantly recognisable image of Holmes as a pipe smoking sleuth clad in frock coat and deerstalker, peering through a magnifying glass, is taken from the original illustrations by Sidney Paget which accompanied the stories.     

In the 1940s Basil Rathbone’s monochromatic Hollywood performances famously drew on these and his portrayal of Holmes set the standard for those that followed, although I don’t recall ever seeing one of these films in its entirety.

When I was young my Mum used to work at the local Byron Cinema and received a weekly entitlement of complementary tickets. I consequently became a bit of a film buff at quite an early age.

My first encounter with Holmes and Watson was therefore through the big screen in Hound of the Baskervilles, a 1959 film in glorious Technicolor, with Peter Cushing taking the lead role.

However as far as I’m concerned the definitive Holmes, to date, was splendidly played by the late Jeremy Brett in the Granada TV series which originally ran for ten years from 1984 and even now is frequently repeated.    

More recently a 2009 film starring Robert Downey Junior received mixed reviews for its unconventional portrayal of the Victorian crime buster and his relationship with stalwart companion Watson, played by Jude Law, but I haven’t seen it and will therefore suspend judgment.   

Each of these actors has brought something different to their interpretation of this most celebrated of detectives but the setting has until now always remained as smoggy Victorian London with its attendant gas lights and hansom cabs.      

On Sunday night we were treated to something different, the first of a new three-part BBC series called Sherlock in which Conan Doyle’s characters inhabit present day London. The show has been created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, both well-known as writers for the highly successful Dr Who series.     

It might be argued that there was something of the Doctor in Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock; the world’s only consulting detective and a master of modern technology in solving crimes. 

The essential intellectual brilliance, logical reasoning, and aloofness of Conan Doyle’s original character remain but there is an added dynamism and urgency about 21st century Sherlock.

He is very much a man of our times. The three pipe problem has been replaced by the three (nicotine) patch problem, he advertises his services on a website and his favoured form of communication is the text message.   

The dialogue is slick and witty, as illustrated by Sherlock’s riposte to an antagonistic policeman, “I am not a psychopath I’m a high functioning sociopath!”        

Martin Freeman’s John Watson is also seemingly very contemporary, recently discharged as an army doctor  and returning wounded from a traumatic posting in Afghanistan, but amazingly this is exactly the background created for the character by Conan Doyle back in 1897!         

The first episode A Study in Pink was reviewed in the Guardian as being strong on characterisation but thin on plot. It was however quite clearly based on Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet.

Much of that book is given over to providing background information about Holmes and Watson prior to their meeting through a mutual friend. Its title is derived from Holmes’ description to Watson of the murder investigation in which they are involved as his “study in scarlet”.

He explains, “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”          

A Study in Pink owes its title, more simply, to the colour of the dress worn by a murder victim and her missing matching suitcase!

However the murderer remains a London cabby (but this time not the hansom variety) with limited life expectancy due to an aortic aneurism. His modus operandi is also faithful to the original. He offers his victims a choice of two pills, a game of Russian roulette, one being harmless and the other poisoned!

I am usually rather a traditionalist when it comes to film and TV adaptations but I thought Sherlock was fresh and innovative whilst maintaining the spirit and integrity of the original.

I look forward to seeing the next two episodes and I suspect a further series featuring the dynamic duo from way down on Baker St.     

Mad, bad and dangerous to know
July 14, 2010

Who needs enemies when you have friends like Mandy?

In today’s extracts from his memoirs (published in The Times), The Third Man refers to the early days when he was, “a particular friend and ally of the party’s rising, modernising stars, Gordon and Tony,” so much so  that they were dubbed ‘The Three Musketeers’.  

I seem to remember the musketeers’  battle cry was, “All for one and one for all!”  There is not much evidence of that in today’s revelations but, rather, a level of self-serving machination that does nobody any favours.

For one who purports to have  always put the advancement of New Labour’s modernised political machine above all other considerations, I fail to see how he thinks his book will serve the party’s best interests.

Neither Brown nor Blair comes out of it well, both apparently fatally flawed.

The wounded and wronged Brown, devoid of interpersonal skills, is portrayed as brooding and fiercely malevolent in his desperation to become prime minister, at any cost, whilst Blair an outwardly confident, charismatic and courageous leader, reneges on his word and backs down behind the scenes when it comes to taking tough policy decisions.

However, for me, a greater indictment of both men is their apparent dependence upon, and persistent faith in the abilities of the Third Man, who like the racketeer Harry Lime in the celebrated film noir of the same title, has now emerged from the sewers to engage in blatant profiteering of his own, at their expense.

By choosing to publish his revelations now it will only serve to re-open old wounds and further lower public opinion of a party still reeling from electoral defeat, at a time when it is seeking a new leader to mount a strong and unified opposition against the coalition government.   

But never mind any of that, the main priority was clearly to get his own version of events on the shelves  ahead of Tony Blair who he quotes as believing Brown to be, “mad, bad, dangerous and beyond redemption,” – a description perhaps better suited to the Prince of Darkness himself!

Leadership contender, Ed Miliband, has attempted to put a positive spin on Mandelson’s  memoirs hoping they will assist Labour, by marking the “closing of a chapter”  in its history from which the party can move on.

Sadly, I think that might be wishful thinking. I’m expecting blue will be the colour for the next ten years!