Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

I love France. As a child we visited Eurocamp sites from Brittany to Biarritz and plenty of places in between. I studied for a year in the Alps in Chambéry and spent a summer as a campsite rep in the Pyrenées. We’ve started indoctrinating our girls into the joys of l’Hexagone through both the Tour de France and by taking them on holiday ourselves, including a fabulous trip to Paris in April. Our holiday in France this summer was terrific, and it was while visiting the remarkable châteaux and gardens in the Loire for a few days that I was reminded of a couple of the amazing foibles of the French, a contrast between

  • what my (fab) sister-in-law Kate labelled “pretentious guff”
  • an obsession with obscure details and figures, about the most mundane or seemingly inappropriate things, to three decimal places

To illustrate this, let me take you to Le Château du Rivau. Its main attractions are in the gardens, where a whole series of eclectic sculptures and landscapes have been created in collaboration with artists and designers. The planting is inventive and interesting. Amongst this, there is a meadow full of beehives and wild flowers; a beautifully natural spot, yet the information boards go on interminably about the chemical composition of the honey, its molecular structure, and the peculiarities of the local pollen.

Just around the corner within these gardens is an orchard, beneath whose spreading branches truffles are carefully cultivated and harvested traditionally by pigs.  Again there are imposing information boards: but instead of waxing lyrical about the richness of the truffle and its exalted role in French haute cuisine, there’s an enormous amount of detailed text and graphs about the soil conditions, its acidity, the underlying geological environment, average yields per acre and the specific types of mould spores that help to create the truffles.

chateau du rivau, information boards, truffles

Mmmm – how interesting…

On the other hand, within the same gardens are several examples of the aforementioned “pretentious guff”. This could perhaps be more charitably called a reverentially poetic, philosophical worldview, but faced with some of the examples we saw, it’s hard to make that case.

Under an archway that leads from the gardens into the castle courtyard, there is an ‘installation’ that consists of two wheelbarrows, stood upside down against the wall, with their handles placed into wellington boots like legs. Really. Bear in mind that elsewhere in the gardens there are giant wellies and a giant watering can, each over 10 feet tall. I thought all of these were great fun, quirky ideas that we all enjoyed. But then I read the description on the wall next to the wheelbarrows, that sought to ‘explain’ them…

chateau du rivau, wheelbarrows

Look! They’ve got boots on!

The panel is in French and English. Of course in its original it reads poetically. I even shrugged my shoulders, gesticulated with my hands, added a few “bof”s and other such interjections for effect, and it sounded great (to me). But when you actually read what it actually says…

Out of such everyday things as wheelbarrows and wellington boots, the artist Pierre Ardouvin has managed to create compelling human figures.

Oscillating between two extremes of the human condition – dreams and pessimism – these inanimate objects become characters tasked with two missions: they greet the visitors and tell them about the hard work that has to be done to maintain a historical building and its grounds.

The work is of course very “down to earth”, but it also has a sublime dimension, because these two wheelbarrows speak to all cultures. Viewers from all backgrounds relate to them and understand their message.

Ardouvin’s use of ready-made objects reaches out to all, without any judgement or knowledge required of contemporary art. This is where the strength of his work lies.

I thought they looked quite cute.

This unapologetic, unironic use of flowery, high-falutin’ language is only natural to the French. It occurs in radio show discussions, it’s apparent at many tourist attractions. The French aren’t embarrassed by it; quite the reverse. They are embarrassed for those who can’t relate to it. Of course they’re not just wheelbarrows with boots on. What sort of Philistine are you?!

I love France.


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We went to see The World’s End a couple of days ago, the final part of Edgar Wright’s amazing ‘Blood & Icecream’ / ‘Cornetto’ trilogy that includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. They are two of my favourite films of recent years, and so it had a lot to live up to. It didn’t disappoint, but more of that another day.

The story revolves around a group of school-friends who revisit their home town to attempt a marathon pub crawl, that they last tackled 16 years ago, on the day they left school. It’s clear that night, Friday 22nd June, 1990, was the end of something; but perhaps not for all the characters. Back then I was in my 2nd year at university, which was itself the end of something for me. Coming out of the film, I was instantly reliving Great Pub Crawls or Nights Out I Can (vaguely) Remember.

I’ve written before about unearthing my old diaries, and I was compelled to seek them out from the loft. June 1990 was the end of my 2nd year, a time filled with parties and drinking and the like. I was 21 years old. It was amazing. Wasn’t it?

Not exactly.

Party Time…

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun…

Don’t get me wrong, we had a terrific time. We went out a lot. During the first weeks of June exams finished, so there were countless opportunities to celebrate the final papers with someone, anyone, everyone. During the last two weeks of June 1990 – as far as my diaries are reliable –  I played three orchestral concerts, 3 gigs with SwingBand, went to two all-night Balls, and was probably very drunk at least 8 times. We had a huge extended circle of friends that stemmed from our 1st Year in Halls of Residence; now we were scattered in smaller houses around Exeter. There was always someone to go and see, someone to have a drink and a good time with. We had been close for two years. It was as good as it gets.

Don’t dream it’s over…

I hope you find your good fortune, I hope you find peace in everything you do. I hope that the colours of the rainbow they colour your clothing. And I hope you find love.

But it was coming to an end. After the summer I was going to study in France for a year. By the time I returned many of my friends would have finished their degrees and left Exeter. It wouldn’t be the same. In that last week of June, people started packing up and going home for the summer in dribs and drabs. What with all the boozing and playing and exam revision it’s clear I was exhausted most of the time. I get the impression I may well have been somewhat manic, and occasionally more than a bit Moody. Sorry everyone.


He suddenly recalled the famous myth from Plato’s Symposium. People were hermaphrodites until God split them in two, and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another.Love is longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.

Apparently, as well as listening to World Party and REM and Hothouse Flowers, I was reading F.Scott Fitzgerald short stories and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was a troubled soul, still overflowing with pools of teenage angst, not knowing who I was or what I could be. I still harboured visions of idealised romantic love, but clearly didn’t have the capacity to do anything about it.I blew my horn, playing the Dallas TV fanfare theme instead of the Sea Shanty during our Summer Prom Concert. I belted out solos and choruses with our SwingBand. I danced till we dropped to The Happy Mondays and Primal Scream and The Soup Dragons. But there’s only sketchy details of that in the diaries; there’s a lot more introspection and melancholy.

I was leaving, and starting something new had always been the making of me; going to Boarding School, going to America, going to University, and this time going to France for a year. But at the time, it was hard. Going back to Exeter earlier this year, in person, seeing the physical changes in the buildings and the feel of the campus where I once roamed with my friends, was a weird experience. But going back to the days around 22nd June 1990 in the words of my diaries was harder and more intimate. Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg’s script for The World’s End absolutely nails it.

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Both before and after our fantastic trip to Dorset a couple of weeks ago, I seemed to find plenty of reasons to be downcast. But in the big scheme of things, my life is pretty OK, really. I have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect, a load of great friends and a terrific family. And I get wonderful things from my daughters like this, that I was given on Fathers’ Day last weekend…

BecauseyouaremydadAnd so I should be grateful for what’s still around, and all the things I’ve been privileged to experience in the last couple of years, that I’ve been able to write about in this blog…

I’ve been to some pretty amazing places…

The Alhambra, the Orangerie & Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Swimming in lakes and rivers in France, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of camping and basking in the sunshine of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset

I’ve experienced some fabulous events…

More than 11 years after the first time, I saw Radiohead in concert, Thomas Voeckler at the Quillan Criterium, and marvelled at the delicate beauty of the songs of The Bookshop Band (twice)

I’m proud to be a cinephile and aficionado of classy TV…

We rewatched then entire 7 series of The West Wing, we roared with laughter at Green Wing & Horrible Histories. We’ve rejoiced in the surreal joys of Amélie, gasped at the spectacle of Skyfall

All this, plus I’ve become a bit of a MAGA (middle-aged gym addict)… I feel fitter than I have in years, and have lost (and kept off) the 25lbs I promised myself I would at the start of 2011.

So, in all, not too bad. Consider this the start of me getting over myself.

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What a difference a week makes. Last week I seemed to be carrying the weight of the world around with me. A few days in Dorset with my family, lovely friends and lots of sunshine and I’ve rediscovered all sorts of simple pleasures. Or rather, I’ve allowed those simple pleasures to re-establish themselves.

On The Beach…

Golden Cap sunset Seatown Beach Anchor Inn Dorset

We went camping in Dorset, to a site a couple of hundred yards up from Seatown Beach in Dorset. We’ve visited the area before, but these three days turned into something special. Seatown can’t really qualify as much more than a hamlet, with maybe a dozen houses, a campsite, a beach carpark (field) and a pub. The beach itself is made up of millions of tonnes of pebbles, so isn’t really conducive to games or sports (besides fishing), and it shelves pretty steeply, so not exactly child-friendly for paddling. But we loved it.

As the high tide recedes, we simply threw stones into the water and marvelled at the different types of splash; kind of like the story that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow – we cut our cloth etc… Even better, we simply sat and listened to the shimmering sound each wave made as it pushed up and sucked back millions of pebbles a few feet at a time. Eleanor described it as

…the sound of a thousand maracas…

which almost brought a tear to my eye. Stick that up your knowledge-based-curriculum Michael-bloody-Gove.

At low tide, a series of streams appear in the steep slopes of the beach, as a river finally finds its way through the pebbles and into the sea. This proved excellent fun for children of all ages, trying to diver the course of these channels, attempting the impossible by hauling larger stones to create dams, marvelling as the force of the water broke through every man-made barrier. Then, before we left the beach for the day, we gathered up bits of driftwood for our campfire brazier.

And all the time, just yards away, is the fantastic Anchor Inn. We had lunch in the sunshine and supper in the fading glow of a sunset here. The food is great – I especially recommend the crab baguettes. The local Palmers Ale from Bridport is smashing, the staff were all great and the setting is among the best I’ve ever enjoyed. Watching the sunlight shift shadows across the cliffs and the light change almost every moment as the sun descended behind The Golden Cap was fabulous.

The South West Coast Path

South West Coast Path Seatown Dorset Golden Cap Thorncombe Beacon

From the slopes of the Golden Cap to Seatown and Thorncombe Beacon

Apart from the pub and the beach, the other Best Thing About Seatown is the fabulous walking right on your doorstep. We climbed the Golden Cap on Thursday, and went East towards Eype on Friday. Neither of these is more than a few miles there-and-back, but the climbs are steep, the views breathtaking (and let’s not forget we had two young daughters with us). I love the way the Jurassic coastline undulates so dramatically, how the path ahead (or behind) is visible for miles as is climbs grassy cliffs and plummets through gullies.

Thorncombe Beacon Jurassic Coast West Bay

From Thorncombe Beacon to West Bay and Chesil Beach…

The real treat was our second walk up to Eype and specifically to Down House Farm. I’m reluctant to even mention this gem of a place, as I’d like to keep it as secret as possible for the next time I return, but frankly I’d like to help them thrive. The café is outstanding, with wonderful cream teas and cakes, but also lovely salads and light lunches, and a fabulous (non-alcoholic) ginger’n’apple punch. Their courtyard is idyllic, a real sun-trap with amazing views. On our way there we took a “wrong” turning across Eype Down and into the woods that cover the hillside above the farm. We kind of got lost wandering around the interlinking paths within the woods, but also were completely spellbound by the seemingly never-ending swathes of bluebells. If you’re ever in this area in May, you simply must see these woods – they’re beautiful.

Eype Down Bluebells Woods Dorset

Camping Lessons (2013)

I’ve talked before about camping as a learning experience, and this time was no exception. Here are a few nuggets…

  • Our Ikea Stovetop coffee pot is a tremendous camping accessory. Proper coffee in the morning is a delight.
  • Combine that with my new tip for continental camping breakfasts, and you’re in glamping heaven. Take a  wide/shallow pan with a lid. Line the pan with a sheet or two of foil, and get it good and hot. Either on a very low heat or even turned off, you can warm croissants and pains au chocolat in the pan with the lid on (check them frequently in case they burn). Classy stuff, and almost no washing up.
  • Braziers are better than barbeques. Just cook your burgers in a pan, and have a proper fire instead.
  • Wessex FM is a radio station I wouldn’t have believed still existed until I heard it. It was on constantly in the washing-up and toilet blocks, and alongside the ubiquitous Maroon 5, Emili Sandé and Daft Punk, there was a truly classic list of oldies, including If I Could Turn Back Time, Let’s Hear It For The Boy, Easy Lover, When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going)… I almost felt like I was at a wedding reception; in 1994.

All this, and I’ve not even mentioned terrific fish & chips on the beach in Lyme Regis, Purbeck ice cream, and the quiet joy of my phone battery dying, meaning I was cut off from the hourly chatter of online news. I do love Devon & Cornwall, as we’ve been there many times, but this stretch of Dorset coastline is closer to us, less crowded and ‘spoiled’, and, most importantly, I feel happier, calmer, better for having been there.

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I mentioned last month about how our trip to Paris to celebrate Rachel’s birthday had been inspired by one of our favourite films, Amélie. An important sub-plot of that film revolves around Amélie stealing her father’s prize garden gnome, gives it to her airline crew friend, who then sends back anonymous photos of the gnome from landmarks around the globe. All this is a cryptic ruse to encourage her father to travel…

amelie father garden gnome

amelie gnome snapshots New York

In the weeks before our trip, Rachel surprised even me with her film geekery and determination to seek out the key locations from the film. We chose our apartment on Rue Lepic specifically for its position in the heart of Montmartre, within walking distance of Sacré Coeur. But she went much, much further, checking out various unofficial ‘walking tours’ and chatrooms. I was shocked, but not a little impressed.

And so to enter into the spirit of things, I acquired (secretly) a gnome of our own to take to Paris. We revealed him to Rachel as the Eurostar train emerged from beneath the English Channel into France, and from then on he was a nearly constant companion as we explored Paris for the next three days.

We went to Gare de l’Est to get passport photos…


girls passport1passport1

We managed to visit most of the main locations from the film, and I’ve created a Google map here. You’re welcome!

cafe des deux moulins amelie

Film geeks ahoy! Spot the reference…

And here are some snaps of those locations and our gnome in Paris…

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I first saw Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain on a cross-channel ferry on the way home from a holiday in France, and immediately fell in love with it. It’s become a real ‘go-to’ film for Rachel and I: if the world is a bit sh*t and we need to be reassured of its goodness and joy and the magic of human relationships, Amélie sets us back on the right path.

It’s recently taken on a very prominent role in our household, but for more positive reasons than the world is completely sh*t (more of that later). Having not watched it for a couple of years, I must have seen it five or six times in the last couple of months, and become even more familiar, but without losing any of its charm or personality for me. When I checked what I had said about it at my Facebook/Flixster review page, I discovered this (rather pithy) review…

The most perfect imperfect film… it’s quirky beyond belief, stylish and stylised, deliberately, knowingly odd.

And I love every moment of its fabuleux, wondrous, charming, touching run-time. The ensemble cast are fantastic. The red-green art direction is lovely. The visual effects are brilliant. Watch it, watch it again.

Marvel at the details, bask in its glorious humanity, enjoy its foibles and flaws. This is beautiful.

…and I was right. But because it’s become so ‘important’ to us this year, indulge me. Here are three reasons why I love Amélie, and why I Reckon you should seek it out and watch it if you have an ounce of humanity. To be honest, I could probably work out thirteen reasons why I love this film. Give yourself up to its magical realism and quirks, and feel better for it.

This will contain spoilers, to both the plot and other aspects of the film…

le fabuleux destin d'amelie poulain

The Importance of Seemingly Insignificant Moments…

From the opening shot on Rue St.Vincent in Montmartre, Amélie is filled with details that other films would leave on the cutting-room floor, or more likely would simply get cut out during the writing process. These give the film and its characters great depth and real humanity, that we can relate to. that we can care about. The quirkiness of characters is brought to life explicitly with “he likes…she dislikes”, celebrating very personal pleasures. There are countless moments like the beggar who declines Amélie’s offering as he “doesn’t work on Sundays”… Character flashbacks are wonderfully drawn and often incredibly rapid, giving us barely a glimpse, but even that glimpse is enough. The montage of orgasms lasts just a few seconds, but is utterly hilarious, better than 90% of jokes in other (ahem) comedies. We are told Amélie likes to skim stones on the canal, which the film then reinforces occasionally as we notice her stop to pick up and pocket a stone off the street. These details are priceless to us identifying with her.  The opening sequences, in which we are introduced to Amélie‘s childhood, are simply gorgeous, from taking photos of animal-clouds to her cherry earrings and eating 10 raspberries at once…

amelie child eating raspberries

It’s about people, not plot…

All those rich, nuanced, vibrant character details would be left out of most films, because writers and studios are usually obsessed with plot, with action, with the progression of the protagonist towards their goal, and how they will overcome their antagonist and other obstacles. The basic linear plot of Amélie is almost ridiculously simple, and spans just a few days. She’s a quirky young woman, who seems unable to form a lasting relationship, until she meets a young man in a train station. Will she make that connection with him?

But Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses this storyline as the carrier to encompass a whole milieu of characters from Montmartre, and explores them constantly, with tangents galore and flights of fancy. We become immersed in the world of the Café des deux Moulins and its staff and regulars. There are layers of ‘stakes’ in the film that apply to the different characters at different moments. Many of these people are hardly the stuff of Hollywood rom-coms, as in fact many are at best quirky, if not downright outsiders or ‘marginal’ in terms of a Hollywood society.

The romantic hero pf the film, Nino Quincampoix, works two jobs, one in a sex shop, the other on a ghost train, and seems to have little motivation except his collection of discarded passport photos. Joseph is basically a bitter misogynist who records conversations in the café. M.Dufayel is a failed artist, Hipolito a failed writer. Amélie‘s father is a withdrawn widower who barely ventures beyond his garden. M.Collignon is a crass bully and Lucien has more than a hint of being a bit pervy.

M.Bretodeau is (by his own admission) a bit of a loser, estranged from his daughter and grandson. But when, through Amélie‘s intervention, he recovers the tin box from his childhood, we are swept up in his bittersweet memories, and the final shots of the film give him and us wonderful redemption, yet he gets less than 5 minutes’ screen time. This richness and affection for all the characters is a joy to experience, and something virtually unique to Amélie.

amelie monsieur bretodeau finds his childhood tin box

It’s fabuleux for a reason. This is a fairy tale, wonderfully told…

I Reckon Amélie is one of my favourite examples of ‘magic realism‘. The sound design, camera movements and colour palettes are distinctive, definite and deliberate, and Jeunet repeats things throughout the film. The camera swoops in on faces, the narrator plays a huge role as an omniscient presence. Household objects even come to life and talk to  Amélie. Meanwhile, she’s not afraid of breaking the 4th wall with abandon, whether it’s a glance, a smile or actually talking to the audience.

amelie breaks the 4th wall

The relentless use of red and green makes Amélie look like no other film; it’s obsessive. From her clothes to the lighting in almost every scene, from the suitcases that go past in a station, with barely seconds on screen, to her Father’s beloved gnome, everything is red and green. These details, like the characters’ humanity, reward multiple viewings: they’re a real treat. The score is fantastic and utterly French, filled with both jaunty tunes and bittersweet melancholy. The film is filled with discovery and adventure, from Amélie‘s childhood to the truth about the man in the red sneakers to the word-pictures she paints for the blind man.

I love love love this film. Just writing about it has made me happy, which is something the late, great critic Roger Ebert also acknowledged in his review, describing it as

…a delicious pastry of a movie…You see it, and later when you think about it, you smile…

It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy. So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. “Amelie” takes those chances, and gets away with them.

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A couple of weeks ago I returned to my alma mater, Exeter University, to give a lunchtime talk to students about starting a career in marketing. I’d solicited views and opinions from some learned colleagues and clients, and added more than a few of my own, together with a couple of clips and quirky images to keep it interesting. I got some great feedback, and hope to do it again. But that’s not what this is about.

I already knew that in the *coughs loudly* 21 years since I graduated that plenty of things had changed on the campus, in terms of new buildings, state-of-the-art hi-tech facilities and so on. I knew I had to restrain myself from banging on about hand-written essays and having to actually read books. But in the few hours I was there, so many differences leaped out at me. But then again, quite a few things were still reassuringly familiar too…

Exeter University Building One School of Business

I actually do remember when all this was just a field…

It weren’t like this in my day…

  • The scale and quality of new facilities is pretty impressive. It makes me think how the whole place back in 1990 must have looked unbelievably shabby compared to today. Everything is clean and shiny.
The Great Hall, Exeter University

Is this really the shabby place I played orchestra concerts, sat my exams, saw The Wonderstuff & James…?

  • It feels so much more corporate and professional. The Forum is tremendously impressive, combining the library and main student building in a large complex with workspaces, shops and offices, including a huge internal atrium…

The Forum Exeter University

  • The students seemed to have a more sober, professional attitude. The library was heaving with people when I walked past. Most of the people I saw in the coffee bars were actually working, and the ubiquity of laptops and tablets still surprised me even though I knew what it would be like…
  • I tried to revisit my old Hall of Residence (Hope Hall), but (of course) the buildings were all locked, only accessible with a swipe card. The lack of security 20 years ago seems almost naïve to me now.

Missing, presumed lost…

  • Among all the new signage and smart new paved areas, a few things are notable by their absence… with all the slick organisation and professionalism there felt like there was a bit of a personality vacuum; there’s precious little charm. For all its glass and cleanliness, The Forum could have been a shopping centre. It certainly didn’t feel like something the students could ‘own’.
  • Exeter was never the most diverse campus in the world; it used to feature in The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook! But there was still a sense of youth, of at least some political awareness, even in sometimes trite things like The Nelson Mandela Room, or a strange metal sculpture that went up almost overnight to commemorate the students killed at Tianenmen Square in Beijing. These have gone. It seems older, somehow.
  • The building where Rachel spent her first term-and-a-half, a residential annex of Hope Hall, the rooms where we first talked about Monty Python, first kissed, has gone. It’s been replaced by a modern block of self-catering apartments.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

  • The streets around the campus were still reassuringly familiar. Rows of terraces with resonant names for me; Jubilee Road, Old Tiverton Road, Monks Road, Mount Pleasant Road. Cambridge Terrace, where I spent my final year, was almost delightfully grotty compared to the renovations that have gone on elsewhere, with the same down-at-heel takeaways, and a very unwell-looking tramp slumped on the steps that led up to our old front door
  • Similarly, many of the pubs still look the same (at least from the outside), and the local shops are mostly all still there
  • Parts of the campus are unchanged, and look like something out of the East German Government’s Things to do with Concrete catalogue. Best of all of these is Cornwall House, always the lesser of the two main student buildings, but also home to The Lemon Grove, the legendary (sic) student nightclub on campus. It was inside these hallowed doors that I first met Rachel, and from where I first walked her back to the now-non-existent residence…
Cornwall House, Exeter University

They don’t put this bit in the admissions brochure

The Lemmy

  • Best of all, when I walked intoThe Ram bar on campus at 2.30pm on a Thursday afternoon, it was packed.

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