On the river

“there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

A month ago, before the political world blew up and everyone started running round with their hair on fire, we went on holiday to Cornwall. On the way out traffic was surprisingly light, and we were able to pass by the increasingly horrible trio of Slough, Reading and Swindon quickly. Since we were ahead of schedule we detoured to see the vale of the white horse, which was much smaller than I remembered, and is also surprisingly difficult to see in its entirety without being in the air. Pushing on to Clevedon Court we were reinvigorated by a scone and tea, and then took a look round the house. We enjoyed the impressive collection of glass and the great hall, but the highlight was definitely the gardens, with terraces of beautifully manicured lawns backed by large flower beds. Basking on a bench in the sun occupied us until closing time, and then we made the short hop to Weston Super Mare.

I had decided a night’s stay on the road was preferable to attempting to drive to Cornwall in one day, and since Ed had never been to Weston, I thought this lack of a traditional British experience should be remedied. We stayed at one of the big hotels from when Weston was a popular resort, all fish tanks and overapplied gilt. We were one of only two couples for dinner, and the chef compensated by using at least enough salt for twenty people. An after dinner stroll was everything you could have hoped for, the wind-whipped sand abrading your legs as you stared out over the mud flats to a distant sliver of sea.

After a refreshing night’s sleep we fortified ourselves with breakfast, which in contrast to the dinner was extremely good. And a lucky thing it was, since the drive was rather an endurance test, through road after road clogged by roadworks and a detour to completely the wrong place as I hadn’t read the directions properly. By seven in the evening we were getting rather weary as we drove through a gate that warned us no vehicles were allowed, into a green tree tunnel and down down down till we ran out of road. Things didn’t look hopeful but I went down the footpath at the end of the road, turned a corner, and suddenly found myself looking at a little yellow cottage nestled in the middle of the forest.

The first couple of days were rather rainy, and apart from a hike around the coast we mostly sat indoors, reading and cooking and enjoying the view of the lush growth of trees and ferns around us. As the weather cleared we ventured to Helford, where we could get the ferry across the river and go and visit the spectacular gardens, which featured a pond full of huge koi, tree ferns, beds of sub-tropical succulents, and the largest spread of giant rhubarb that I have ever seen. There was a sunken path between the spiky stems, and once you were in the enormous leaves blotted out sound and light together. Then down to the garden’s beach for an ice cream, and I finally, after ten years, learned how to skip stones. The second garden had a maze but I am afraid that compared to seeing a rock that I threw bounce on the water for the first time it was rather tame.

However, for me the highlight of the holiday was the two times we went out in kayaks on the river. Ever since the days I rowed I have found nothing in life quite so relaxing as – Grahame put it so well – messing about in boats. The Helford river has a multitude of little creeks to explore, the banks covered in oak forest which reaches right down to the water in many places. We paddled for miles, watching fish dart away, birds take wing and water squirt up from the mud flats, presumably from some hidden creature. A heron shouted its disapproval of our presence from its nest as we pushed on, the water getting muddier and shallower until we reached Gweek, where we finally ran out of depth in sight of the town. Heading back proved easier work, and we were able to venture up Frenchman’s Creek almost to within sight of the cottage. The river was so lovely that I could have stayed out all evening, but the final ferry and our tired arms called us back.

On Ed’s birthday we celebrated with a roast chicken, roast potatoes and a homemade cake. Afterwards we sat outside, each with a gin and tonic, listening to the owls calling and watching the bats flitter across the sky. There was no internet, no phone, no link to the outside world at all. We were quiet, and alone, and the world seemed a very peaceful place.

Of course, in the end, we had to come back. But a story is shaped by where you choose to end it; and this one ends here.

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Brexit: like Red Dwarf with only Rimmer

Once upon a time, several countries decided to band together for an unprecedented journey.


There was:

Germany The only one who knew how to do anything useful. Always apologising for past transgressions.

Italy Unique style. Adorably open with the fact that they didn’t give a toss about anyone else.

France Just wanted to eat and lounge about all day. Occasionally moved to action, but it quickly died down.

UK Completely up themselves and 100% convinced that the team would collapse without them.

Everyone else Tried to steer the ship, but every so often just lost it and banged their heads against the wall instead.

Now try to imagine it with just the UK, or the show with just Arnold Rimmer. Oh, wait. You don’t have to imagine. That show actually exists. It was called The Brittas Empire. I watched it in the nineties, and thought it was hilarious. Turns out, that’s because I was an idiot. There may be a metaphor for something here.

You can experience the terribleness yourself: here’s the first episode on Youtube. If you can’t bear to wade through it, or if you’re reading this at work (perish the thought!) here are some things that I, and many other viewers, apparently thought were funny:

– Alcoholism is the best solution to relationship problems.

– It is wrong to criticise littering.

– If builders don’t do a good job, you should just accept it. Anything else is rude.

– People in service industries have no obligation to be nice to customers.

– In fact, people in general have no obligation to do the jobs they’re employed for. Employees should just be left alone, and if you try to get them to work, you’re in the wrong.

– When you have an area of expertise you should have a right to a job in that area forever, even if there is no call for that expertise.

– Gay people are intrinsically funny.

And you know what? All these attitudes were familiar. I just thought they were normal at the time. If the past is a foreign country, it’s one whose visa requirements must include rose-tinted glasses for it to be properly appreciated.

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What happened today

You wake up one day and the world has changed. It’s the premise of a million science fiction stories. And sometimes, in the real world, it actually happens. It happened to me today.

I don’t know what happens next. We can’t plan this out, like an author plotting a story. Real life can give you a totally unsatisfactory ending, a tragedy without meaning or unearned happiness that arises from luck rather than anything the protagonist did.

The smile scarring Boris Johnson’s face is as bright as the end of the world, and just as terrifying.

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Film review: Deadpool

So now (and by now I mean two months late), by special request, I bring you a review of a movie not guaranteed to be bad.

Marvel has created an entire industry based on making a film about a white guy being given special powers and defeating the bad guy. Occasionally they have backup by groupies, who demonstrate their difference by being non-white, female, or animals. It’s basically the Disney Princess series for guys.

As you may be able to tell, I’ve started to find the repetitiveness rather tiresome, and I suspect that others have too. Deadpool is the logical endgame of the trend: it says what everyone was thinking. Starring ‘God’s Perfect Idiot’, directed by ‘some overpaid tool’ and written by ‘the real heroes here’ – okay, so no-one was thinking that last one. But it’s a lovely sly intro to a piece which proceeds to mock every standard element from a superhero picture, from the training montage (except this time it’s sex) to the fact that they can’t afford any of the main players from a more successful franchise. I loved the gleefully crass and tasteless tone, and the film is filled with great visual gags and characters (such as the taxi driver and teenage X-person) who I would have been happy to spend more time with.

The only problem is that I think, for me, this will only work once. Where can you go from here?  As they try to get every more characters in each film, are we going to see Ian McKellan being subjected to poop jokes?  Actually, I would totally pay to see that.  Maybe it could work twice.

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Sometimes you get effervescence, sometimes you go splat

I recently challenged myself to start writing every day. Just 250 words, to try to make sure I don’t just completely stall out on things (which has a distressing tendency to happen). The idea is that by slowly crunching through things I will ensure I make some progress on something. Unfortunately, due to having come down with yet another cold (hello immune system where are you?), I do not necessarily have the brainpower for certain types of writing. And so we come to today, when all I have the energy to do it write a mediocre blog post. You’re welcome, world!

Interestingly, the more serious the piece, the less the state of my brain seems to matter. The ability to conjure up the feelings surrounding betrayal and despair are not really impeded by my brain currently being composed of 90% snot. But if I’m trying to write with charming frivolity, I feel like a 300 pound gorilla who has been dressed in a tutu and told to perform Swan Lake. It just isn’t going to happen, and if it did I would regret it (possibly there are a subset of gorilla-ballet enthusiasts who wouldn’t. Weirdos.). You will also note that my punctuation choices become what can only be termed esoteric.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I haven’t been very productive recently. I still have a few words to go, so I’ll just keep going until I hit the

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Star Wars

I was seventeen when I first saw Star Wars. The remastered version was being released in the cinema, and my friend persuaded me to go, despite the fact that I considered Star Wars to be for geeks. (This was deeply ironic since I watched Star Trek religiously. It’s amazing how much cognitive dissonance one head can hold.) I can remember the blue writing coming up, then the titles, and I thought that this was cheesy and seventies and how right I had been to resist coming. Then the camera rotated, and a space ship came into view from above, and I thought WHOA. The sense of scale and movement was amazing. Later it was the world, grubby and worn in and filled with aliens who truly looked alien, rather than like humans with plastic stuck on their foreheads. Alec Guinness, giving dignity and meaning to lines that would have left me rolling my eyes if I had read them. Harrison Ford, showing all the star power of a supernova despite the mangling of the scene with Greedo. And Williams’ score, sparkling and hopeful and All-American.

That night my friend and I watched the Empire Strikes back and Return of the Jedi on video, her dog licking our toes as we huddled under the duvet. By midnight she was falling asleep, but I felt wide awake, jacked up on adventure and amazement. When it finished, I wanted to start all over again. I was in love.

So when the prequels were released, I felt like the luckiest person alive. Not only had I been able to discover this wonderful series, but I was going to get more of it straight away instead of having to wait fifteen years like everyone else. I bought my tickets for the opening day. In the cinema I settled into my seat and waited to be delighted.

I’m sure it was the same for many of you. A gradual feeling dawned that something wasn’t right. There were lots of bits that had the right window dressing, but somehow it just wasn’t very exciting. For about half the film I kept telling myself that it was all right, they were setting things up, it would all turn out to be really good, but there came a point where I couldn’t kid myself any more. By the time I walked out of the cinema I felt completely betrayed. I can’t remember a film that disappointed me more.

Of course, I went to watch the next two anyway. The second I saw in Oxford, in a packed cinema which howled with laughter at the terrible attempts at romantic dialogue. The third I remember nothing about, except coming out and thinking that it wasn’t quite as awful as the last two, but that wasn’t saying much.

And now we have The Force Awakens. I wasn’t hopeful any more; I just wanted to see a movie that wasn’t rubbish. I could try and write a review, but I don’t think I’m going to. Many other people have devoted thousands of words to how similar the plot is to the original. (Another Death Star? Really? It did make me sigh a little.) I could discuss John Boyega’s comic timing, how much Harrison Ford brings to a few words, and whether it’s the script or Daisy Ridley’s acting that makes her introduction seem a little wooden to me.

But in the end, none of that matters, because the movie left me feeling like this:


I don’t care if it’s derivative. I don’t care what it does wrong. What I care about is what it does right. The moment in the forest where Rey picks up the lightsaber and turns it on feels like something I’ve been waiting to see my whole life. Every single character, even the robot BB8, had more humanity than was in all the prequels put together.

So congratulations, JJ. You didn’t screw it up. As for the future, I’ve learned my lesson about getting overexcited, and I think that may be necessary. The next one is being made by the guy who did Looper, which I thought was an incoherent mess, and has already been delayed because of script issues. I’m satisfied with what I got: a great movie which went back to the basics and made me want to stand up and cheer. The Force will be with this one. Always.

Now, Disney, just get with the moneygrubbing and release a version of the originals where Han shoots first. There’s a lot of us out there just waiting to be exploited.

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The Merchant of Venice redux

Because sometimes, even Shakespeare disappoints you.

Antonio: I need some cash
Bassiano: You should totally ask Shylock. He’s rich.
Antonio: Why don’t you do it for me?
Bassiano: Uh, well, I guess I could.
Antonio: Awesome. I’ll go get drunk.

Shylock: So you want three thousand ducats for three months?
Bassiano: Yeah. That cool with you?
(Enter Antonio)
Antonio: How’s it hanging? Everything sorted?
Shylock: The money’s for him? He’s a total dick! He used to spit at me and call me names.
Antonio: Look dude, are you going to give me the money or not?
Shylock: I’ll give it to you. But if you don’t pay it back in time you have to eat a pound… of lokshen pudding.
Antonio: Whatever.

Three months pass. Antonio doesn’t pay the money back (is anyone surprised?). Shylock takes him to court, where the lovely Portia acts for his defence.

Shylock: He stiffed me and now he won’t even eat the pudding he promised to.
Portia: He’s totally guilty. But couldn’t you at least give him some blood thinners or something?
Shylock: My grandmother told me that desserts have no calories in. She wouldn’t tell a lie. So it can’t hurt him.
Portia: Well, I can’t accuse someone’s grandmother of lying. Antonio, you’ll have to eat it.

Antonio eats a pound of lokshen pudding and dies.

Shylock: Perhaps I used one egg too many.

Portia cries.

Shylock: Hey, you know what’s good for grief? Chicken soup.

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