Adieu Roi Soleil

Author Peter Mayle, 78, passed away on Thursday, 18th January 2018 after a brief illness. The news was discreetly put out by his publisher Alfred A Knopf, a short statement appearing on his Facebook page. And that was that.

peter mayle

Author Peter Mayle, who has died aged 78

In the UK, Mayle’s passing was noted in obituaries on the BBC and in a number of newspapers: The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail all carrying mentions (even The New York Times further afield).

However, considering the impact that Mayle had on the British middle classes in the latter part of the 20th century, I am staggered by how muted the marking of his passing was.

A Year in Provence will be his legacy. The Telegraph cites six million copies sold after an initial print run of just 3,000. The Daily Mail has a charming story of a pilot reading the book during the first Gulf War reading a copy whilst waiting for order to fly into battle.

They’re cute anecdotes. But their real value is as the symbol of the man who invented the modern British middle class dream. Before that period in the late 1980s, there was little talk of “foreign” food and property abroad.

year in provence

The only people wanting homes in foreign fields were bank robbers and Ronnie Biggs. Mayle changed all that.

Before long, anyone with a property to mortgage and grown dependents were indulging their taste for property speculation and moaning about foreign building regulations. There’s not been a conquest as sudden or all-encompassing since the Normans sharpened their arrows.

Later, he suffered from the Law of Unintended Consequences. His picturesque descriptions of truculent natives and long, lazy lunches in bucolic settings famously invited visitors; fans of the work pitching up to say hello and becoming so intrusive that he and his wife were forced him to leave Provence. Initially they relocated to America and Amagansett on Long Island; later returning to his beloved southern France – although this time not being quite so free with his location descriptions that people could actually hunt him down.

Latterly, Mayle’s novels seemed to want to cater to an American audience. His old eye for the market, formed in his advertising days meant that, in such fare as his Sam Levitt triology The Marseille Caper , The Vintage Caper and The Corsican Caper, he drew characters from both Britain and America.

corsican caper

These light as a soufflé romp almost always included beautiful French locations, women whose beauty was echoed in the vistas, clumsy Hugh Grant-lite Englishmen and villains redeemed by chicanery and the power of a decent lunch. Capers were apt descriptions.

Unsurprisingly, he was ill-served by the English language literati who paid little mind to his work. This is reflected in the paucity of his output available on Audible and the seemingly extraordinary lengths one had to go to obtain copies of these novels online. The fact that France gave him the Legion d’Honneur in 2002 is a testament to their generosity when you consider how many Brits of dubious use to the French state followed him.

Personally, I enjoyed his novels. He had a talent for plot and kept the stories whipping along and always ending happily – with sun. And lunch. And wine. Or dinner. Or lunch with sun and wine stretching through to dinner. With wine. Bliss.

It is sad to think that there is no more of his work to come. Maybe I am the right age, the right demographic to have enjoyed his work. But I did. I’ll miss tracking the new book down. Luckily, his back catalogue remains.

Farewell to the Sun King.

 

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Welcome to your new, improved nation – it’s a dog’s life

Dogs. Clearly not sentient.

Pets are the best, aren’t they?

And by pets, I mean dogs. (I have nothing against cats. Sure, they’re cute. But they’re not “pets” either. They’re Hannibal Lecter as house guest.)

But dogs – now you’re talking. There they are: cavorting on your bed; staring with undisguised joy at your return home; pleading with deep sincerity at the truth that they have never been fed before, honest guv.

And now, it turns out, they are keeping you healthier and living longer too. Frankly, that’s so cool, it almost makes you not mind about mud on the sheets, hair in your food and crippling midnight cramp because the Labrador knows where it wants to sleep – and that’s where you are. Always.

Attila. Another dog clearly not capable of feeling.

Britain is a nation of dog lovers, cue the cliche klaxon, but the UK’s love of animals is under threat from our own representatives.

If you live in the UK, your government voted on Thursday 16th November to not include animal sentience in the EU withdrawal bill.

Under current EU law, animals are recognized as being capable of feeling pain and emotion – something any one who has ever caught the eye of a bereft dachshund as you swallow the last morsel from your plate without sharing can attest to.

When Lily – Labrador, giant baby – had a tooth out, she cried as the anaesthetic wore off. All night. The only balm to her wound? Being stroked as if she were a human child. Don’t tell me she can’t feel pain.

The Government argues that this is a topic adequately covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 Bill. But it is not, as this doesn’t mention sentience. So, here we are: our government have just opened the door to all those wonderful things that we are

The torture of not being on the bed.

supposed to want in our brave new future: chlorine-washed chicken and a reduction in legislative standards which opens the door for drastically reduced standards for animal testing and food standards.

Many of the people who voted for Brexit count themselves patriots and want to restore the UK to what they see as its former glory.

So, here’s an idea: perhaps, just perhaps, they ought to extend this to our fabled love of animals. The RSPCA say this is a bad idea – even the hairball with the disturbed eyes knows that this is a bad idea. Make sure you let your elected officials know – this is wrong.

Revisiting… Inspector Morse

30 Not Out.

Sunday night, 8th January 2017, the fourth series of ITV’s Endeavour begins. With a pleasingly orchestrated symmetry, this also marks the 30th Anniversary of its beloved origin show, Inspector Morse.

Morse on DVD

The DVDs of the Complete Inspector Morse episodes are available for purchase from Amazon

Inspector Morse aired for the first time on Tuesday 6th January 1987 and, it is fair to say, it did not appear at a time of optimism for the contemporary TV viewer. ITV’s reputation for drama had all but evaporated – the pinnacle, Brideshead Revisited, lay 6 years in the past

The previous year, 1986, had included  modern classics like The Singing Detective  and The Monocled Mutineer so, there were things of note happening on television.

Just not on ITV.

Morse would change all that.

Its leisurely pace of two hours an episode was in stark contrast to what the public were used to seeing, and even Colin Dexter, the author of the 13 novels upon which some of the television episodes are based, has acknowledged that the show was an unlikely success. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2007, Dexter told presenter James Naughtie in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, “one of the huge things about Morse was that he came at the right time, when everyone wanted to get away from the American programmes where everybody was shooting and car chasing all over the shop. And somebody said, ‘what we want is something a little bit slower and more tedious. More gentle and – perhaps – more cerebral.’ Somebody wrote, right from the very word go, Dexter’s idea of any sort of thrill in a story was to get two aged classics professors arguing about Aristotle in the Sheldonian.”

This is a little harsh perhaps, (the first episode drew approximately 14 million viewers after all), however, you can see right from the very opening of, ‘The Dead of Jericho’ that this is to be different and that, in lead actor John Thaw, here is a leading man about to put to bed his reputation-defining turn as Jack Regan in The Sweeney.

This blog has looked at this wonderfully dated slice of action thriller elsewhere (Revisiting: The Sweeney) but contrasting the opening of the two shows is instructive. The Sweeney has rushing cars, handheld wobbly camera angles of gritty realism, tyres screaming and that famous title sequence theme tune booming electronica, like sirens through a 70s hangover, frantically edited.

As Morse opens there are quick edits too; a close up of a painting cuts to: some people in a choir, beginning to sing Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis Deo, a stark white on black title card announces:

title-card

Cut to: a close up of the moving bonnet of a red classic Jaguar, shiny polished chrome of the big cat gleaming.

morses-bonnet

We get our first look at Thaw, a serious look on his face.

serious-morse

The music swells, the car sails past like a stately ocean liner. As he passes, a sign on the wall reads: beware-morse

This is exactly the sort of instruction designed to insight maximum disobedience from Regan, not so for Morse. He pulls up.

Another cut:

dead-of-jericho

After a close up of a woman from the choir, we move again to such exciting action as: some men listening to tuneless electronica on a radio while they respray a car. You can tell they are baddies: they have appallingly out of context cockney accents for Oxford.

However, the class of the production is hinted at in shot of Morse from within the garage through the bolted doors. The intercutting of the classical with the crass modernity as signified by the music choices and locations continues before the impending victory of the law and order side is represented by the drowning out of the modern music and the man from inside realises that it’s a trap (“It’s da law!” he shrieks), men in hard hats sneak up and handcuff him to the door of his car.

In the days of Regan and The Sweeney this would have been the time he would have bounded out and traded blows with the “blaggers”. Here, he sits passively, while he is left trying to block the escape of the criminals.

There is a poignancy and clarity of symbolism in the ownership of this car by Morse. A Mark II Jaguar was so often used as the car of the criminals in the earlier series that later Thaw claimed that he had witnessed it being written off several times in The Sweeney and that allegedly, this was the reason Thaw was frequently seen in close-up driving the vehicle as it was being towed because it had broken down.

Here, the climax of the action is the criminals crashing into Morse’s car while he looks to the heaven’s being serenaded by the choir with an exasperated look on his face, as though the holy spirit of Regan and his physicality is finally being exorcised.

exasperated-thaw

And it is this change, this passive exorcism, which lies at the heart of Thaw’s performance as we see the final move between the 1970s rough and tumble to the leisurely pace and intellect of Morse and the 1980s.

In that same Bookclub interview James Naughtie describes Morse thus; “He’s grumpy, he’s odd, he’s lonely, he’s not always kind to people he loves underneath.” But he then asks, “Why do we warm to him?” Dexter replies, “I think quite a lot of the ladies would like to go to bed with him… but I think people enjoy Morse because he was sensitive and vulnerable to a certain extent. Never quite happy about life, but always wonderfully happy about his love of music and poetry.” Thaw is the constant embodiment of this duality; the soul of an artist, the tortured longing of the unfulfilled.

The programme ran until the year 2000, consistently drawing large audiences and spawned the spin off Lewis as well as the aforementioned Endeavour. Success does not always breed total fondness and even the British Film Institute’s (BFI) entry for the series on its Screenonline section has the slightly less than effusive Philip Wickham couching his praise in backhanded terms: “’Middlebrow’ is often used as a derogatory term in British culture… the series offers little that is new or challenging; it adopts the familiar patterns of the English ‘whodunnit’…No one could accuse the programme of being grittily realistic – Oxford’s murder rate rivalled the Bronx…There is a formulaic edge to the series that veers occasionally to parody.”

Not all of 1987 has aged as well as Inspector Morse. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Chevy Chase’s Three Amigos! (and his post-Community career), A-ha’s Cry Wolf, The Housemartins’ Caravan of Love and Alison Moyet’s Is This Love were all near the top of the charts in their respective mediums and are all wearing the years more heavily than Morse. But, with his classic cars, his classical music and his preserved architecture, he was never of the time anyway, so he could scarcely be out it now.

Inspector Morse is well worth #revisiting and will surely reign supreme over domestic television crime fiction for at least 30 years more.

Mister Brunetti and the things that he is not

Is it really 23 years since first we  met? Who could not love Commisario Guido Brunetti and his loveable collection of family and colleagues?

Venice – it is traditional at this point to say that the city is as much a character in the novels as the humans,  – the city Brunetti navigates with as much detached san froid as he can muster as the murky world of Italian police work intrudes on his homelife.

Falling in love

Donna Leon’s 24th addition to the Brunetti series is Falling in Love

There are many theories as to why people read crime fiction – catharsis born of frustration at their own lives, vicarious wish-fulfillment to name but two – but there’s no doubt that Donna Leon’s characters buck the trend of the standard tropes found in the genre.

So much so, that to define the character of Brunetti, it may be easier to say what he is not.

Brunetti is not divorced. Married to a wonderful professor of literature, Paola. She may have been born into the Venetian nobility, but this rebellious left wing academic with a burning – necessarily unrequited – love of Henry James is mother to his children and always on hand to tease him, gently chide or act as a moral arbiter for Guido if he begins to stray too far from the path of righteousness. Paola can cause him problems, such as when, in fury at the authority’s lack of power to counter a sex tourism travel agency, she was driven to smashing the firm’s window with a brick, but she is almost always on hand to provide a sumptuous home cooked lunch or dinner.

Brunetti is not an alcoholic. Although, he is partial to a little tipple on his terrace at the end of a long day. Or lunch time. Or whenever the Veneziano weather will allow.

Brunetti is not fetishistic about the law.  As a Commisario of the Italian police, Brunetti is most often found examining his cases in terms of real politik – can something be done? If so, at what cost? And, how many favours will it cost a good man? If the answer to any of these is too much; then he may well let things slide. But never too far – after all, he still has to face Paola at the end of the day.

Brunetti is not estranged from his family. He has too children, Raffi and Chiara. They have not aged a great deal over the preceding near-quarter of a century, Raffi is a perpetual teen at university and still coming home to Mama, whilst Chiara has inherited his mother’s social conscience, but both children will still do the washing up after a family meal – even with a little grumbling.

Brunetti is not a lone wolf, or vigilante against the world. Guido relies heavily on a support network of colleagues, most notably his sergeant (later Ispettore) and friend Vianello, who plays Horatio to his Hamlet.

His greatest asset in his work – at least in terms of getting results – is the mysterious Signorina Elettra. His boss Vice-Questore Patta’s secretary, well connected and with a varied dating history, she spends the finances of the Questura on flowers to brighten her day and spends the rest of the time frightening Patta with her intelligence and Brunetti with her ability to circumnavigate the computer systems of the Italian state. Oh and the law, but she never seems to worry too much about that.

Brunetti

Some of the Brunetti books were adapted fro German television, apparently to Leon’s displeasure.

On the other hand, Brunetti is in conflict with his boss. One trope of the genre Guido does fit is his dislike of his boss. Vice-Questore Patta is vain, lazy and southern. Not a great combination in Brunetti’s opinion. He is joined by his subordinate brought along from Naples in the unlovely form of Lieutenant Scarpa who, over the course of the novels, has done nothing but snarl and act as a counter-weight to Brunetti and Vianello’s innate goodness.

Across a series this long, there is some variation in quality, for sure. The earliest novel, Death La Fenice was a promising start, but the series really hit its stride with a run that took Brunetti from a military academy in Uniform Justice to the famous glass works on Murano in Through a Glass Darkly.

Latterly, the novels feel like they have fallen into a comfy rhythm that pleases rather than pulsates on the reader’s palate. The latest novel, Falling in Love, is the 24th in the series and brings us back full circle to the opening opera-themed novel. And it’s fine. Not the best, not the worst.

But, if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the Brunettis, dip in. You’ll not be sorry.

Falling in Love is available from Amazon.co.uk

‘Even Dogs in the Wild’ by Ian Rankin

The man just seems to be getting better and better.

61wMZQZ69PL._SX496_BO1,204,203,200_Twitter star @Beathhigh, also known as writer Ian Rankin, has been entertaining fans of his Inspector John Rebus novels since the debut of the hard drinking, ex-squaddie in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rebus has changed over the years – his musical taste, his sense of humour, his relationships with friends and family – but with this, the 20th novel to deal with the Edinburgh underworld, Rankin may have outdone himself again.

Famously, Rebus was written in tight chronology, aging in real time. This gave Rankin a problem as Rebus was forced to retire in 2007’s Exit Music but Rebus was saved and was able to be brought out of retirement in the darkly brooding 2012 Standing in Another Man’s Grave due to the advent of (the then-Lothian and Borders) cold case units.

I first entered the dark underbelly of this particular crime series through an abridged audiobook of Knots and Crosses (on cassette – I’m old) read by James MacPherson in his pacifying, undulating Scottish lilt, somewhere around the year 2000. By the time Rankin published The Naming of the Dead in 2006, I was hooked and hugely impressed with the author’s ability to meld a gripping narrative with real life events in faction-style rarely so successfully achieved in the orbit of tartan noir.

However, whilst I think this was the time that Rebus as a character really got his hooks into the reading public’s imagination, I actually believe the post-retirement novels have been even more satisfying, even if the contemporary references are now broad brush strokes designed to add colour rather than driving plot in the quite the way of old.

Even Dogs in the Wild is a novel of big themes – death and love (of course) – but also of families and relationships; parents and children, friends and enemies. Exemplifying these themes are the characters who pump the heart of Rankin’s tale.

Rebus and Big Ger Cafferty have mellowed from the ying and yang of Edinburgh’s mean streets to a pair of bickering pensioners with more fight left in them than outsiders expect – the Still Game Jack and Victor of organised crime and detection, if you will.

Rebus trying to improve his relationship with his daughter Sammy at the prompting of Malcolm Fox, as Fox’s own father ails and his sister thrashes about in hurt and confusion.

It is the arcs of the characters which are so satisfying. Rankin has also moved Malcolm Fox from the uptight sober (literally and metaphorically) semi-policeman of The Complaints to a touching foil for Rebus and Siobhan, almost becoming natural police (as McNulty would say) and dancing around a relationship with DI Clarke which is supportive, if not brimming with passion.

Rebus, Clarke and Fox are becoming The Good , The Bad and The Ugly (although which is which is anyone’s guess) of these tales but the passing of batons and dying of immature lights are echoed on the other side of the street by Cafferty’s dealings with too-cool-by-half upstart Daryl Christie making his third appearance.

Finally, I listen to these novels using the (thankfully unabridged) Audible downloads – no more cassettes. James Macpherson is still doing a grand job and has the tonal shifts to represent all of the characters with realism and subtlety.

I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been with the characters for so long, or because to read characters we know so well and to see them change and adjust to new realities, but Rankin is better than ever. I just hope that a) no one tries to do another terrible adaptation of these and b) that they are still wheeling Rebus out in his bath chair for Rebus 40.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Even-Dogs-Wild-Rebus-Inspector-x/dp/1409159361/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448108611&sr=8-1&keywords=even+dogs+in+the+wild

Revisiting… The Sweeney (1975)

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Dennis Waterman, left, as George Carter and John Thaw as Jack Regan in The Sweeney

January 2nd 1975 saw a show debut which was so unlike anything to come before it that it has been loved, parodied, referenced and adored for now over 40 years. It was Euston Films and Thames Television’s, The Sweeney.

Some shows take their place in the canon from a steady evolution of a genre and some just punch through as though out of nowhere – The Sweeney is definitely – defiantly – one of the latter.

From the opening of the first episode, ‘Ringer’, we are catapulted into a London not previously seen on British television. Famously filmed on 16mm, it’s like Ken Loach had decided that police dramas were his true metier. A villain seated in a car, smoking a cigarette, lowers a copy of The Sporting Life newspaper to reveal a green flat cap and natty sideburns. We cut to a point of view shot of a van – is it an ambulance? – speeding across an industrial wasteland.

Oh, the sky might be blue, the trees verdant green – but they frame nothing more than a concrete scar in the landscape, fringed by abandoned buildings with shattered windows. As the cars pull off, we get another point of view shot from inside the car’s cabin as now a mounted camera position allows us to feel the speed generated by the vehicles.

After a conversation, in which we are treated to handheld over the shoulder shots and sweeping nausea-inducing sweeps, we have revealed to us the gas masks and guns these gangsters are planning to use. There’s more conversation, more handheld camera antics, a light dash of humour with the villain who can’t count.

Then, and only then, do we cut to the title sequence.
These titles explode for the viewer – trumpets blaring over a thumping soundtrack as a Ford comes haring towards the camera with a staccato movement created in the edit. This is the most literal arrival of the boys in blue one could envision.

Opening titles: This wasn't your Daddy's police force.

Opening titles: This wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.

All of which presents a stark change from the world of Dixon of Dock Green, which (unbelievably) was still running when The Sweeney made its debut, (and, indeed, would run for another year afterwards, till 1976). One thing was for sure: this wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.

The origin of the series can be found in the one-off drama called – not with sparkling originality – Regan written by Ian Kennedy-Martin for ITV’s Armchair Cinema strand of programmes as a vehicle for John Thaw, with whom he had worked in Redcap.

The relationship between Thaw, playing Jack Regan, and the young Dennis Waterman as George Carter is the central heart of the series. The older colleague mentoring the youngster, whilst they both have to overcome their professional and personal vulnerabilities remains as powerful as when, albeit in a very different form, it was repeated in the more cerebral Inspector Morse (1987)

However, what concerns one now is the way that The Sweeney has come to be seen as a beacon for reactionaries who mythologise its perceived homophobia, racism, casual sexism and other areas now seen as attractive to the unreconstructed. This is simplistic to say the least. The show does have elements of all of these, it is after all an historical document of a particular time, but to say that it is more, vastly more, sophisticated than this suggests is to dance a quick step with understatement.

The character of Regan is not that guy. He wrestles with dilemmas; he is straight in a corrupt world. These are characters that inhabit a bleak world – both at work and at home – and who have to regularly make choices which are unpalatable. Thaw is a cut above the average actor in showing the self-determination wrecking his soul as he torments himself with his self-disgust, whilst Waterman was never better at playing the enthusiastic conscience for his damaged mentor.

All of which makes both the simplicity of the Gene Hunt character in Ashes to Ashes and the humourless, clod-footed Ray Winston reboot The Sweeney debacle all the more disturbing for the viewer who appreciates the importance of what this show tried to do in the period.

The poster for the humourless, clod-footed 2012 Ray Winston reboot

The poster for the humourless, clod-footed 2012 Ray Winston reboot

There’s a lot been written about the show – the bust up between creator Ian Kennedy-Martin and Ted Childs (which Kennedy-Martin discusses in a blog post) – means that the show has been subjected to a lot of analysis. There are the movies, Sweeney! (1977) and its likeable, if at times harrowing, sequel Sweeney 2 (1978) but, at the end of the day, for humour, action, emotion and drama – there’s rarely been anything better on UK television and it deserves to be revisited.

Farewell Jackie C…

Revisiting…Jackie C

Jackie Collins' Chances

Jackie Collins’ Chances

Yesterday (Sunday 19th September) I had an unusual experience. I found out that a writer I had loved and read voraciously had died. Nothing especially odd in that, I hear Enid Blyton isn’t exactly going strong these days. Except that, it was a writer from so long in the mists of my own reading life, that I had forgotten I ever read her, enjoyed her, been influenced by her.

I can’t really pinpoint when I first discovered the Jackie Collins canon, but I know I was in primary school, probably about 10 years of age. I also can’t remember how I came across a doorstop-sized bonkbuster aimed at grown women, suffice to say that I have a dim memory of being into gangster films around this time and being attracted to what, I now know to be, the first of her books about Lucky Santangelo, Chances.

But I do remember reading and re-reading that book. I do remember the yellowed pages, the smell of cheap paperback glue disintegrating and the pencil written 25p jumble sale price tag.

Oh, and the sex. I remember the sex as only a little boy in a pre-internet age could. Jackie Collins taught me anatomical details hitherto unmentioned in south coast Church of England primary school education and hinted towards untold riches for the gainfully exploratory. A lesson stored for the (all too distant) future, I remember thinking even then…

I remember action, gangster stories told with brisk clarity and swift violence. This was The Godfather but with more sex. A heady brew for the time. So much so, that I went on to read Lucky, the sequel, and – memorably startling the wee Reading Assistant who came into hear the year 6s read – Lady Boss the third instalment.

It occurs to me now, I was probably quite an odd child. But, no one really seemed concerned in the late 80s that what I was reading was probably vastly inappropriate. They just liked that I was reading at all.

I drifted away from Jackie. I dipped back in during my mid-teens but I never really took up the habit again – like smoking in reverse. I remember seeing her face on the back of the novels and being a bit alarmed (I don’t know what her stance on plastic surgery was, but all I can say for decorum sake is I found her disturbing).

Anyway, as I said, I drifted away from Jackie. But in her genre she could write. Effectively, efficiently and – I know realise – she did things for women readers (and, clearly, some men too) that stuffier ‘artsy’ writers couldn’t.

So, I’m sorry she went out of my mind for all this time. She deserved better. Now, I wonder if I can get hold of her back numbers on my i-pad…

If you are interested, you can find her work here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jackie-Collins/e/B000APZA96/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1442865014&sr=8-2-ent

And there’s a lovely obituary here:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/20/jackie-collins

48 Hours in… Leicester

48 Hours in… Leicester

‘Let’s go to Leicester on holiday’ said no one, ever. Certainly not me, anyway. I’d never previously been to this compact Midlands city but, a friend’s wedding and the chance to explore a place my partner, Miss Pretty Shoes knows well, meant that I was delighted to be introduced to the myriad attractions of this under-rated destination.

The main attraction is that it is a vibrant city. Small enough to walk around comfortably, there are really only two main shopping streets, criss-crossed at regular intervals by lanes which gives it the feeling of Brighton without sea.

You can find all of the things we associate with modern Britain – Nandos, a plethora of Subway franchises, tanning shops, betting emporia and soulless chain drinking dens – but don’t be put off. Just around the corner will be a cutesy independent store selling original t-shirts, bookshops or antiques priced at a sensible level. And, in fairness, even one of the ghastly chain boozers is named The Last Plantagenet which is a quality pub name anywhere.

A replica of the skeleton of King RIchard III

A replica of the skeleton of King RIchard III

The big attraction is definitely history and Richard III in particular. Since being rescued from the less than celebratory location of a city centre car park in 2012, the city has gone Dick mad. The King Richard III Visitor Centre (www.kriii.com) is spread over two floors and allows you to learn the basics of his reign before heading upstairs to cover the details of the discovery of his final resting place and the science behind it. It is a beautiful venue, all the more impressive that it opened only two years after the discovery. It caters to people of all ages, incorporating interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations and displays throughout. I was particularly taken with the archaeology dig pit filled with iron filings to allow you to uncover pieces found at the gravesite – but that’s because I’m a big child. You can also see the actual location of where the body was found and – if you must – walk on top of it, (I’m afraid I must. And I did.) The guides were friendly and knowledgeable and took the time to answer questions and debate historical events with Miss Pretty Shoes, which pleased us no end. The visitor centre isn’t cheap – around £25 for two adults and a gift book – but if you’re interested in this most maligned monarch then it is money well spent.

The tomb of the newly interred King RIchard III within Leicester Cathedral

The tomb of the newly interred King RIchard III within Leicester Cathedral

Across the road – past the statue of the man himself wielding a crown and, as in popular mythology, presumably crying out for a horse – is the charming Leicester Cathedral (www.leicestercathedral.org). The day we visited was a Sunday so a distinct balancing act between people coming to engage in a normal service had to be offset by church officials against the large crowd of visitors looking to see the site of the newly interred monarch. The Cathedral is free, but donations are suggested and with the volunteers offering a guide to the building and the constant stream of visitors, the suggested £3 is not outrageous, if for no other reason than the upkeep of the fabric of the building. There has definitely been a bit of Dicky III fever in the city indeed, but almost all the cashing in seems to be in a vein of quiet, respectful bandwagon jumping, so good on them!

The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.

The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.

We walked. Leicester is one of those small cities which just beg you to explore on foot. We walked up New Walk past beautiful architecture from the Georgian era, the Victorian Age as well as past the loveliest Art Deco-style fire station I’ve ever seen. Then we walked to the University of Leicester which Miss Pretty Shoes had previously graced with her presence. (www.le.ac.uk) The main attraction for her – then and now I reckon – was that Richard and David Attenborough had been brought up on the campus as their father – Frederick Attenborough – was the Principal of University College and instrumental in the conversion to University status with the award of the Royal charter in 1957. Their house remains on the grounds and a tower was built in his honour.

The Attenborough Tower at the University of Leicester

The Attenborough Tower at the University of Leicester

Leicester has one of the most multi-cultural populations in the UK and this is most abundantly clear in the wide variety of food available. Leicester’s Market (www.leicestermarket.co.uk) is a wonderful place to stroll around, packed with high quality fruit and veg (as well as t-shirts, DVDs and second hand TVs) including one Lineker’s stall which hosts beautiful strawberries and also produced a former England captain many will have heard of.


Kayal is an Indian restaurant specialising in healthy seafood with a South Indian origin. The food is delicate – superbly filling and has been promoted by guests such TVs The Hairy Bikers and The Times. The fish platter starter alone is enough for a main course and comes heaving with delicately battered calamari. The service is gentle, knowledgeable and considerate and it is a place I can no recommend highly enough for an evening meal. (www.kayalrestaurant.com)

On our last day, we stopped for lunch at the adorable Kuru Kuru Sushi (www.kuru-kuru-sushi.com) which offers a wide variety of sushi and sashimi at really affordable prices. The food is delicate and the service is kindly and efficient. It is not large – four seats at a breakfast-style bar – but the mint-infused tea and the quality of the fish should persuade you to go early. Take-away – both in person and over the phone – is available for those who don’t want to sit next to strangers.

A rocket at the National Space Centre

A rocket at the National Space Centre

Our final destination was the National Space Centre (www.spacecentre.co.uk) which is situation two miles outside the town centre. Here you can visit the Patrick Moore Plantetarium and watch a documentary (aimed at children really) called We Are All Stars narrated by Andy Serkis. From here you can explore rockets, see real moon rock and lose yourself in a wide variety of activities covering pretty much everything to do with space. It’s an absolute knock out venue which, especially with children, I would heartily recommend.

So, that was my 48 hours in Leicester. A vibrant city of multi-cultural influences, gorgeous food and a surprisingly wide array of activities I never thought I’d find in the middle of England. ‘Let’s go to Leicester on holiday,’ said no one ever. Except me, next time, I reckon.

*Myself and Miss Pretty Shoes stayed at the Premier Inn Leicester City Centre. None of these venues knew I would be writing about them, nor paid for any endorsements.


The Corsican Caper

Peter Mayle's latest south of France delight

Peter Mayle’s latest south of France delight

The Corsican Caper In the UK, Peter Mayle is still best known for his non-fiction account of life in France, A Year in Provence. Nearly 30 years old, the book recounted Mayle and his wife’s move to a broken down house in the countryside and his struggles to work with the builders and locals.

In terms of epoch-defining work, this was definitely an under-the-radar success but the result was an glut of Brits shelving the rat race and heading to the sun at the earliest opportunity. The book also created an entire new genre of works by a range of authors with similar stories to tell. Some are excellent – Chris Stewart and Driving Over Lemons – some are rot.

But, what people are perhaps less aware of, is Mayle’s latter career as a novelist. He has been turning out a range of work – both fiction and non-fiction – since his big successes of the early 90s and the novels are of an infinite lightness and charm.

I’m never really comfortable with work being described in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category. Either you like the work or you don’t and Mayle, I’m sure, pours all his efforts into producing the work. They have a formula – charming, handsome English male with enough money to do what he pleases gets sucked into solving crime in the south of France, whilst dalliancing with a beautiful local girl and stopping for lashings of Provencal cuisine and gallons of rose wine.

So far, so parfait. However, over the last few novels, there appears to have been an evolution in the formula. The lead characters are now American and there is definitely a move to try and tap into a wider international market.

The Corsican Caper is the third in a series – preceded by The Vintage Caper and The Marsaille Caper and the first time Mayle has tackled a series of fiction titles – and is centred around the character of Sam Levitt, a former criminal turned adventurer for hire, who has, over the course of the books, been involved in wine heists, kidnapping and art theft. The gorgeous Elena Morales and his billionaire chum Francis Reboul, owner of a sumptuous Gatsby-esque mansion overlooking the Mediterranean near Marsaille, join Sam in his quest for a profitable life.

This latest novel actually centres around the house itself, when an unscrupulous Russian business man – Oleg Vronsky – who, when not indulging in standard Russian oligarch behaviour as prescribed by Mayle, such as purchasing a football club, tries to acquire the luxurious property by a series of increasingly desperate methods. This, inevitably, involves kidnapping, assassination attempts, the Corsican mafia and Sam saving the day. And lunch. Lots of lunches.

The charm of the novels is in the descriptions of the food and the wine. I’m guessing that Peter Mayle has had to dredge out his old thesaurus across the span of his writing for new ways of describing rose wine – but that’s OK because I like the vicarious experience of eating and drinking in sunny climes, especially when I’m stuck in a wintry Highlands.

The Corsican Caper is not high art. It’s not going to lecture you on the human condition or tell you anything about human nature which had slipped your attention previously. But, the novel nips along, the plot twists and turns without apparent effort on Mayle’s part and the man can write about wealthy people, enjoying the good life, like few others.

I can only offer a wholehearted recommendation for this as a first class beach book.

The Corsican Caper in Five Words: Crime and Wine in paradise

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corsican-Caper-Peter-Mayle/dp/0345804562/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1433683461&sr=8-1&keywords=the+corsican+caper

The Politics of ‘Poldark’

poldark

The smouldering cast of 2015’s BBC adaptation of ‘Poldark’

As with a great many of these sorts of things, I came to the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ novels late (i.e. after they had finished airing and we got them on DVD). I was not keen at first. “Oh good – another BBC costume drama about poncey aristos doing their best Colin Firth-impression” is not a phrase I’m likely to utter. However, I was delighted to be proved wrong. From early in the first episode, I was entranced. Not – in the way that apparently the middle aged cohort of Sunday night fantasists obsessed with Aidan Turner’s pecs are – but by the choice of subject at this particular juncture in political history. Brave does not begin to cover it. We’ve all heard the BBC criticised for bias – in Scotland for a pro-union stance, in England for its slavish adherence to Tory policy or for being the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. I’ve always taken a neutral stance on this alleged bias – firstly, I’m sceptical that an organisation as Byzantine and disparate as the BBC is capable of maintaining a coherent party line (I struggle with believing in organisations to be that organised.) And, also, because I think if you’re being attacked for bias from all sides, then you’re probably on the right lines. But make no mistake – ‘Poldark’ is brave. In an age of austerity, with food bank usage topping 1 million people, (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/22/food-bank-users-uk-low-paid-workers-poverty) for the nation’s broadcaster to produce an adaptation centred on a man of noble birth concerned with the survival of his workers to the extent that he will take on starving miners as farm hands and use his societal position to raise capital to put his people back to work is pretty ballsy.

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

The point of business is not just to make money is like a refrain for Ross Poldark and he outrages his contemporaries with this standpoint. He stands up for poachers and petitions not only the court for clemency, but also the owner of the pheasants, because of the context of the boy poacher’s circumstances. He is acutely aware of the hardships of subsistence living in his period for normal people. Poldark even tries to form what amounts to a Fairtrade workers’ collective to gain a fair price for the tin mined in the region. “I’m disgusted by my class,” he tells the lovely Demelza (another waif saved from a poor home life by Poldark at a time he can ill-afford to pay for another mouth to feed), “not all of them, but most.” In short, the character of Poldark is like a socialist hero of another age – one who actually believes that by working together we can all get richer. At a time when the top 1% are stretching away from the other 99% across the developed world, I can scarcely think of a more suitable hero than a man who is willing to see poverty and hardship as the result of circumstance rather than sloth and ingratitude and well done to the BBC (and Mammoth Screen who have undertaken the lavish production) for daring to offer the nation a compassionate hero – even if he does spends too long topless scything and staring out of the window in moody contemplation.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark - a socialist hero?

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark – a socialist hero?