Monday, November 30, 2009

Public art that raises a smile

Public art?! I must admit that a lot of contemporary public art just annoys me - and gives me brief (and rather disturbing) outbreaks of Dailymailitis as I find my self muttering darkly about the scandalous waste of public money by self-seving liberal elites, and the emperor's new clothes ad nauseum. However, when walking through Paris, we stumbled on the above. A piece of public art, that just made everyone who saw it smile, or even laugh out loud while reaching for cameras. Mrs Hideous noted that if we had had young 'Norris' with us, he would have simply loved to have found a stick, and waded into the water to try them all out!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The General

Still keeping an eye on things from his plinth...

Parisienne Budget Foodie Fun!

The French are justifiably proud of their food. They have every right to be so, because even for the least auspicious looking little cafe, the minimum standards of expectation are so high, that lovely, well-prepared food is the norm, not the exception. Even in busy service stations, the French don't seem to inflict the reheated slop on their travellers that is the norm in the UK's generally lamentable pit-stops. The French atitude to food is in fact so good, that the highest praise that can be heaped upon it is to say that it is perhaps the opposite of their attitude to toilets.... (I generalise, of course!).

When in Paris, it therefore seems appropriate, not merely to visit the usual landmarks, but to savour some of the tasty treats bursting forth from the many fine French kitchens that dot the city. The problem for food-hunters in the Euro-zone however, remains the crippling exchange rate. The days of going to Paris with a wallet of strong pounds which seemed to double in value when spent in weak Francs or latterly Euros, are long gone. Eating out in France is now as expensive as it is essential!

Here then are some recommendations on how to get some very fine food without taking out a second mortgage!

1) Don't just guess, use a reliable guide book. Some of the best meals we have had have been tracked down courtesy of the "Paris Top -10" book published by Dorling Kindersley.

2) Several of Paris' top, multi-Michelin starred chefs have 'other' restaurants as well as their flagship ones. The food in these places is absolutely stunning, the chefs design and oversee the menu and are happy to put their name to the quality of the produce. While the star-chef himself might not always be in attendance, the quality of the food prepared is breathtaking, but served in a less pretentious atmosphere, and without a bill at the end that would make a millionaire wince or choke on his after-dinner mint. In this genre, Guy Savoy has "Les Bouquinistes" on the Left Bank; Alain Ducasse has "The Spoon" just off the Champs Elysees - and it was the latter in which we treated ourselves.

3) Go at lunchtime not in the evening. The food is just as good - but the prices less like the GDP of a medium sized country.

4) Look for lunchtime specials. The Spoon (on the ground floor of the Hotel Marignan), with its funky collisions of Gallic and Oriental flavours, has a lunchtime tasting menu (called the Bento Dej), which was simply tremendous and provided four courses for little more that £30/head- before drinks. The set-menu we enjoyed for that price was as follows:

Warm pumpkin Soup
(poured over delicate pieces of poached egg and various seeds and pulses)
(served with a choice of eight flavoured pastes, such as oriental, pea, mustard, apple curry)
Tuna Ravioli with Hot and Sour Sauce
Veal and bulgar wheat 'risotto -style' with vegetables and spices
Now that does not add up to a cheap meal. But it certainly did make it one of the genuinely best value meals I have ever eaten - world-class food for a lot less money than you'd think.

Arc de Triomphe

Commissioned by Napoleon - 1806


I have been experimenting in the kitchen... Sometimes my culinary ambitions are so far ahead of my expertise that the results cause the recipients to mumble uncertain phrases such as, "er, well, it's certainly interesting...." Last night's effort however actually seemed to work. The dish doesn't yet have a title - though all suggestions are of course, welcome.

1) Get one chicken breast per person, and cut deep into its length with a sharp knife to open it out ready for stuffing.
2) Chop a Simon Howie Haggis into slices and place one slice of it inside each chicken breast (but don't use up the whole haggis - save a bit for later).
3) Fold the chicken breast over, encasing the haggis inside the chicken breast.
4) Wrap the stuffed chicken breast in a tin-foil parcel ready for the oven - but prior to sealing the parcel pour in a nice measure of cheap scotch.
5) Place the chicken parcels directly onto the over shelf for 50 mins at 160'C.

To make the sauce. Add a large dollop of the remaining haggis into a saucepan with some vegetable stock, some boiling water, some gently fried mushrooms, and a good hearty glug of cheap scotch. Warm gently, then prior to serving attack it vigorously with an electric blender - grinding the pieces of haggis down into a smooth sauce and making the sauce really foamy and light.

Serve the chicken parcels with a measure of the sauce poured over, jacket potatoes, spicy salad and a few steamed vegetables.

Well - we liked it anyway!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Seine

Book Notes: Tramping the Scottish Hills by W. Kersley Holmes

The local author Maurice Fleming (one-time editor of The Scots Magazine), had a clear-out of old books from his enormous collection. I am aware of this only because his son who occasionally comments on this bog under an elusive pseudonym, arranged for one of them to come my way. I am delighted that it did so too, as it is a thoroughly charming volume.

W. Kersley Holmes was a Scottish hillwalker, who recorded many of his mountain exploits in the 1940s. A fastidiously polite and somewhat whimsical hill-diarist, his memoirs are fascinating reading for the contemporary Highlandphile.

What fascinated me most as I read Holmes' meanderings was how much has changed since the 1940s. Obviously mountains are never a number of 'metres' high; and maps are always 'inches to the mile', and many spellings of Scottish peaks have subsequently altered, or been standardised by the OS. Below those obvious surface differences, many more significance divergences emerge, lurking in the author's occasional asides. Clearly in the 1940s the ancient tradition of Highland Hospitality was still (presumably enhanced by wartime camaraderie) in operation. Holmes on one occasion speaks with confidence about making for a remote hamlet before nightfall to find a home willing to let him stay.

I was also struck by the author's lack of faith in the OS maps he had available in the post-war years, revealing his frustration at the errors of cartographers, particularly in regard to paths apparent on the map - yet absent on the hill! I have only one OS map on which I am sure there is a significant mistake, and this I suspect is a printing rather than surveying problem. The hills were also frequented by far fewer people in those days - and while Highland estates allowed Holmes and his companions to drive along many Glens now long since closed to public vehicles; today we at least have reliable waterproofs to protect us on the elongated "walk-in". Holmes often reports that his kit failed and he walked for hours, absolutely soaked through to the skin.

Yet for all these differences, some things remain the same. For a start, the hills themselves are little altered. Granted - some of Holmes' descriptions of Glens have changed in terms of forestry use; but the ridges, tops, scrambles and views are just as they were in his day. The path behind Benmore Farm up Cranlarich's Ben More, maybe more eroded and harder to lose in fog than it was in 1947 - but it is still as unrelentingly steep, and rewards the walker with an equally stunning vista. Likewise Beinn Eighe might not be as exotically unvisited as it was in austerity Britain, with campsites, youth hostels and new tarmac roads now adjacent - but the silvery quartz and little pinnacled ridge is still just as Holmes describes.

The other thing that remains, is the effect that the hills have on those who climb them. Holmes must have spent every weekend on some peak or other, from the Pentlands to Wester Ross, and he clearly adored the visual impact of the scenery as much as the exhilaration of pitting himself against it in strenuous long-distance escapades. He eulogises his mountains, speaks of them as he would of friends, fondly remembering rain-sodden peat hags as well as soaring sun-lit ridge scrambles. As anyone who has been in the hills within the last year or two will know - The Highlands' ability to kindle such emotions has lost none of its potency since Holmes' explorations over sixty years ago.

Hotel Des Invalides

The Hotel Les Invalides, in addition to containing the remains of Napoleon also houses France's national war museum. Containing displays of material relating to all the major conflicts that France has been involved with since the Franco-Prussian wars, especially the twin horrors of the Western Front in the Great War and Nazi occupation in WWII.

As well as the usual array of military paraphernalia there were many old grainy photographs of the decimated French countryside around Flanders, Ypres, and The Somme, battle, tactics and casualty reports. The war museum is arranged chronologically, each room representing a year, allowing the visitor to gain an appreciation for the development of the conflict. The fact that the British Army had thrown everything at the Germans at the Somme I knew - what I had failed to understand was the stage the war was at when this happened, the pressures the Generals were under and the strategic significance of that fateful slice of French mud, upon which so much blood was spilled.

The walk-through of the WWII exhibition (again year-by -year) was disturbing in a quite different way. Much of that exhibition featured photos and archives about German occupation, both of the occupied zone and Petain's Vichy puppet state. Chillingly, there were many pictures of Hitler, Goering and other sinister figures smiling while visiting the Paris landmarks we had spent the previous two days enjoying. While I like some of the black and white photos of the city, and the Eiffel Tower (below), they do strangely also invoke some dark memories etched into this city's past.

Another interesting aspect of the museum was that (naturally) the history was told from a French perspective. Whilst our histories often dismiss the French capitulation with a derisory shrug, and eulogise the Dunkirk escape; the French do the opposite! In this museum, the French rear-guard action which allowed the British to flee safely is celebrated, and the huge loss of life incurred remembered. The sufferings of the French under occupation are also marked (from reprisals for Resistance action to punitive taxation).

Finally, what the French do so much better than us is to make their museums and galleries multi-lingual; accessible to all. This is one of Paris' cheaper attractions, and well worth visiting. Purchasing anything in the Euro-zone at the moment is an uphill climb against the exchange rate, so to get this much benefit without punching a huge hole in the holiday budget makes it a top-visit when in Paris.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

At Napoleon's Tomb

Under the great golden dome of Les Hotel des Invalides, on the banks of the Seine

Underneath a breathtaking painted ceiling

Surrounded by vast murals and gold arches

Next to an overwhelmingly opulent altar

Surrounded by reminders of great military and civil achievement, and encased in multiple coffins, of lead, tin, marble, and granite; resting on a giant green granite plinth - lies the body of Napoleon.

Standing in amazement before the great art, architecture, expense, achievement and sheer scale of it all, my wife commented;
"Man can do all this - but still there at the centre of it all, is a body in a box".

Metro Metro Metro Metro!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set! (4)

Apparently when this was built there was an outcry from those who said it would ruin Paris forever!

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set! (3)

When they light this great pile of scaffolding up at night - it looks even better!

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set! (2)

It must be the most photographed pile of iron and bolts in the world. It remains irresistibly photogenic though!

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Postcard from Paris

My older son, Boris has been asking to visit Paris since he was about four years old. It was around then that he was given a video of Disney's take on Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame - and was intrigued. For years we have told him that we would take him there, "one day", but that he would need to be at least ten; and be able to enjoy sitting in a restaurant with us and enjoy experimenting with strange food served pretty slowly! This year he met all those requirements, and so rather than a birthday present, or party or outing with his friends, we took him to Paris.

Paris is a wonderfully photogenic city (well, the historic centre is anyway), and contrary to popular myth is stocked with many friendly and charming Parisian's. On the Metro, one lady asked us if we were Irish and in Paris for the football. On discovering that my wife is indeed Irish she roundly denounced France's cheating handballed winner in the World Cup qualifier the night before - "this is not how we should win", she said. Who could disagree!

In terms of wonderful things to do, see, experience and eat - Paris is simply fantastic. Museums, galleries, history, churches, modern buildings, abound. The only negative thing about this is the exchange rate; we kept asking ourselves "how much?!?!" and moving on minus purchase. Books were the best example because many of the English language books had the price in Sterling printed on the back for direct comparison. One that caught my eye, about France under occupation in WWII was priced at £7.99 but on sale in Paris for €18- . With an exchange rate of close to 1:1, the book was duly returned to the shelf.

The photo above, is of a Notre Dame gargoyle, which family consensus maintains bears an uncanny resemblance to myself. This is the place that young Boris wanted to go to most of all - up the towers of Notre Dame, to imagine young Quasimodo clambering up over the stonework and looking out over Paris. It's a LONG wait to get up the tower, but well worth it, and one of the cheapest trips in the capital (€8, but under 26 year-old free).

The follow-up parenting task is to help young Boris appreciate that this was a huge treat requiring gratitude; not the norm generating demanding expectations!

More photos to follow - if I get time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Film Notes: Kes

Ken Loach's 1970 film "Kes" is a classic of its kind. Brutal, honest, painful, with moments of joy, humour and tragedy. The film, based on Barry Hines' book A Kestrel for a Knave, concerns a schoolboy in a poverty-stricken Yorkshire mining estate. Young Billy (David Bradley) is trapped in an inescapable cycle of deprivation, caused by poverty wages, an absent father, a failing school and a troubled mother. His problems are exacerbated by the ridicule and abuse he receives at school and a bullying older brother at home.

The film takes place in Billy's final year at school in which the various factors contributing to his hopelessness, coalesce to seal his fate - of not being able to escape from the poverty and powerlessness that has been his lot. His school is an especially grim place, with a headmaster (Grice) who thrashes and berates his pupils, in the apparent belief that education in a meritocracy should lift people from their circumstances - and if it fails to, is simply the fault of the individual. Unwilling to see the social-economic system as the problem, Grice is left with the only option - to blame the victim. While Grice is a worrying character, Brian Glover as the idiotic (and juvenile) PE teacher is like some PE teachers I remember from school, slightly dangerous - and very funny. Colin Welland, as Mr Farthing is one of few sympathetic characters in the film, a teacher genuinely interested in helping the boy, yet his sympathy and care is in itself also powerless in the face of wider social forces.

Sullen, quiet, withdrawn and defeated, young Billy finds an interest which at last inspires him, spurs him to read, to engage and instills hope within him for the first time. He finds, and hand-rears a baby kestrel who he names 'Kes', teaching, training and flying his beloved bird every day. The relationship between the boy and the wild creature is beautiful, and a key part of the film. In one memorable scene, Billy speaks to Mr Farthing's class about the art of Falconry - suddenly speaking with knowledge, authority, eloquence, and passion; qualities entirely absent from his life until that point.

Once again though, the central message of the film is rammed home by Ken Loach that most political of film-makers; as even this individual hope is snuffed out in the cruelest of ways.

This is a really memorable film, quite brilliantly acted and directed. There are several films in which child-actors with very pronounced accents are a problem for the viewer from outside that region - but not here. This is rather a captivating representation of a group of people, a time, a place, a set of social circumstances and the characters interactions within it. This is emotionally charged, thoughtful and highly political film-making. HMV have been selling the DVD at around £2 as well, an absolute bargain!

Remembrance '09

I don't think I am alone in sensing that the Remembrance day observance struck an unusually sombre note in the national consciousness this year. Perhaps the pictures on the early evening news of soldiers coffins being paraded through Wooton Basset, the dead of Helmand, has changed our views. I may be wrong - it may be simply that my oldest son is now of an age to ask serious questions about it all; or maybe it was that he was affected by attending the Black Watch memorial service in Perth last week that brought the reality closer to our home. Either way, at church on Sunday when the 2minutes silence was respected as usual - there was a poignancy in the air.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I found myself in the timber section of B&Q on the Crieff Road in Perth. The two-minutes silence was duly announced and virtually the whole shop stopped, in total silence. My Grandparents described the way that in decades past, when memories of World Wars were fresh and raw - the whole country would come to an Armistace standstill to remember the fallen; cars would pull off the road, trains would wait at stations and trading and conversation would be postponed.

During my childhood, the stalemate of the cold-war meant that our exposure to the victims of war was minimal. Today however, our more volatile world, and our governments' willingness to engage our armed forces in conflicts means that such rememberings are resuming their significance. My son, (who is 10) learnt more about the horror of war, and the seriousness of it through the tears he observed from the bereaved of the Black Watch last Friday, than he will from any history book.

As usual, at this time of year I pause to read a little from the First World War poets, whose words are so powerful, moving, alarming, and as deceptively simple as they are disturbing. Of them all, I find Seigfreid Sasoon's words consistently engaging and thought-provoking. This is his poem 'Survivors' which describes the shell-shocked, injured and bewildered patients of Craiglockart military hospital where Sasoon was incarcerated.

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're 'longing to go out again,' -
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,-
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Craiglockhart. October, 1917.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Icicle Land

This last one is of the front bumper of the hire-car!