Sunday, 30 April 2017

Vincerò

"Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio che ti fa mia!"

 And so to the opera. Opera North have concluded their 2016-17 season with a semi-staged performance of Turandot. It also concluded a month of Puccini for me, during I had also seen performances of Madama Butterfly and Tosca. What all three had in common - aside from highlighting the composer's very odd attitude to women - was that the singing was better than the acting. I think we can cut some slack for Turandot given it was at heart a concert performance, albeit one with what appeared to be an unexplained giant chair looming over the stage. Still, the only previous time I'd seen the work before - in Gothenburg some years ago - it was fully staged, but for equally unexplained reasons featured Puccini himself sitting at his desk bang in the middle of the Chinese Emperor's court. At the point in the score at which he had died (the work was subsequently completed by Franco Alfano) he fell dead on the floor, causing some confusion in the audience because Piu had just done the same after stabbing herself to death.

Speaking of which, Cio Cio San was the issue with the Royal Opera House's live broadcast of Madama Butterfly. Not her singing - which was absolutely sublime - but simply she was too old. The whole point of the story is that a young woman is used and discarded by an older man. Whoever thought that casting a Cio Cio San who was clearly older than Pinkerton would make any sense, especially when portrayed in close up on a cinema screen wasn't thinking straight. In his pre-performance interview the conductor claimed that Ermonela Jaho could convey merely with her deportment and gestures the naivety of a fifteen year old; she couldn't.
 
English Touring Opera's Tosca was most enjoyable. The set looked somewhat more Spanish than Italian and was of the usual simple nature for this company, but it did allow the heroine to exit in the intended manner, the first time I'd seen a production where this happened. I'm not sure that Tosca was lascivious enough or Scarpia evil enough, but it musically it all worked rather well.



Saturday, 29 April 2017

One Day I Won't Be...

...lifting a receiver
One day you will look at me and say
 Don’t apologise, I never thought
The times we spent apart
Killed an inch of those emotions
That were hiding in my heart




Friday, 28 April 2017

With groans that thunder love

"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" 
- Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night

These days for Epictetus, I am sad to say, there are indeed neither cakes nor ale, but, on a happier note, virtue has by no means been the result. The events of the last month have not put a stop to theatre going, but they did put me out of mood for writing about it. It's time to catch up.

As you will have guessed I saw the National Theatre Live transmission of "Twelfth Night" and excellent it was. The currently fashionable cross gender casting (Malvolia and Feste) compounded nicely the cross dressing of the plot and the comedy and cruelty of the play were very well brought out. The director's aim seemed to be to highlight our common humanity regardless of gender, sexuality or race (Sebastian and Viola were played by black actors) which put me in mind of "A Doll's House" which I'd seen earlier in the month.

Ibsen has Torvald tell Nora that she is first and foremost a wife and mother, to which she replies that surely she is first and foremost a human being. One of the reasons for not posting about seeing this play before was that I seem to have been living the plot of it for the last few weeks; real life has had a different ending though. A piece which I have also seen and which most certainly bears no relation to my own circumstances is "Rita, Sue and Bob Too"; perish the thought. This was the original play on which the film was, in part, based. Amusing though the film (strap line "Thatcher's Britain with its knickers down") is, it was provided with a more upbeat ending and the play is darker and better. It also contained substantially more nudity. A real car was on stage for certain, shall we say, climactic scenes and from my seat in the circle it was a procession of bare arses and fannies. I must once again provide a translation for US readers and point out that in British English those two words are not synonyms.

The audience for Andrea Dunbar's play were mainly somewhat raucous (that is a euphemism) women on a night out and many of them looked as if they were interchangeable with the characters on the stage. The same was true for Kay Mellor's "A Passionate Woman", where a more normal bunch of theatre goers watched an amusing take on how a middle class woman lived a life of dreariness until reminded of the secret affair that had once brought love into her life, while her husband turned a blind eye to everything. These last three plays were all to an extent about unhappiness within marriage and, perhaps inevitably, it was the men in them that seemed to be to blame. No comment.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Upon the Grandiose

We had a crack at Epic C&C Napoleonics last night in the form of the battle of Möckern and I would judge it a qualified success. Firstly, and I really don't mean this facetiously, we got it finished in just under three hours. Some games suit being spread out over two or even more evenings, C&C - notwithstanding labelling it as 'Epic' - doesn't. Translating the original boardgame to miniatures didn't quite work: the playing area looked lost in the middle of the table (at least once I had switched to Hexon; the larger offset squares looked OK) and the games were over in too short a period. My own attempt at expanding the scale didn't move along fast enough, but the official version seemed to hit the Goldilocks sweet spot of game length.




I was left in two minds about the Courier Rack, the cards visible to and usable by both sides. I got the feeling that sometimes cards were chosen specifically to deny them to the other player rather than because they were the most useful. I also felt that it made it harder to plan very far ahead compared to having all the options in one's own hand. On the other hand, and as Peter pointed out, if one's own hand is no good then being able to draw from the Rack at least allows one to do something. The requirement to play one's two cards per turn in different sections of the battlefield is a double edged sword. It means that things happen all across the table, but at the expense of being able to fully develop the action where one would wish to concentrate. Attacks are difficult enough to coordinate in C&C in the first place. The rules also allow one to move - but not battle with - extra units when certain cards are played. I felt that these additional moves were perhaps used too much as an afterthought by the players and should, at least in the early stages, have been more central to their thinking when choosing cards to play.


The French start in the Manor House

As for the game itself, it was a fairly easy French win. C&C scenarios are always unbalanced, but I'm not sure whether that was the only reason. The Allied attack never got going, partly because of the way the cards fell and partly because Epic is a different game to the base game and needs playing differently; on top of which James always seems to be lucky with the C&C dice in a way which he isn't necessarily when rolling ordinary dice. There was a bit of toing and froing over the two forwardmost of the French held town sections and James launched a cavalry charge for no better reason than he had two Cavalry Charge cards in his hand. (As an aside I believe that on the day the French cavalry commander refused point blank to do the same.)


And then the Prussians are in the Manor House

So, in conclusion, it's worth another try of the rules as written, building on what was learned about how to play, before trying any amendments. What I also think I shall do is take a scenario written for a different ruleset, of which I have many, and translate it to C&C, which the intention of making it more balanced than those included with the rules.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Hail to asparagus

The Casa Epictetus once again has both heat and hot water, and not a moment too soon because, despite it being spring, we have once again been hit by a hailstorm of Biblical proportions. I watched it from the comfort of the Boathouse Café in Lister Park, but sadly there was no one stranded out on the lake in the pedal boats. Anyway, as it is spring certain things have returned. This being Otley, one of them is Morris dancing; this bunch are the Buttercross Belles:


On a happier note the first English asparagus of the season has arrived. To celebrate I went with sweet potato and ginger mash, pan fried tomato with onion and basil and, of course, poached eggs:




Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Evasion by Horse Archers

I haven't posted anything on this controversial subject for a couple of weeks, and nor frankly can I remember what my views were when I last did, beyond a general dissatisfaction with life in general. I have however just come across this post from four years ago, so you can see it's by no means a new topic. I remember that game all too well (James' describes the scenario here); it was a pretty spectacular defeat for the Saracens with all of their commanders dying and all of their commands failing major morale. In Piquet terms, that's just about as bad as it gets.

In other news, a reader has asked if I now have heating and hot water. No I don't, although I'll give the plumbers full marks for trying. The lack of heating wouldn't normally be so bad given the time of year, but unfortunately it has not just been brass monkeys here today, it has actually been snowing. So much for spring.




Monday, 24 April 2017

In Absence

 
                    Ah, there shall never come 'twixt me and thee
                    Gross dissonances of the mile, the year;
                    But in the multichords of ecstasy
                    Our souls shall mingle, yet be featured clear,
                    And absence, wrought to intervals divine,
                    Shall part, yet link, thy nature's tone and mine.
 
                                                - Sidney Lanier 
 
 

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Judean People's Front

"To rely upon conviction, devotion, and other excellent spiritual qualities; that is not to be taken seriously in politics." - Lenin

One of the minor, incidental pleasures of going to the theatre is watching the contrast as separate audiences for shows in different performance spaces converge and mingle; indeed I have written about it before here. It was with some amusement therefore that I watched the young man trying to sell copies of the Socialist Worker (a) to bemused parties of ladies arriving to see 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' at The Grand in Leeds whilst at the same time shouting (him, not them) "May must go, Corbyn must stay" (b). The reason for this was not some unexpected political message to be found in the musical (although like most love stories it is really about money and the power that goes with it - if you don't believe me then go and watch it again), but because Tariq Ali was speaking on Lenin in the Howard Assembly Rooms, which are attached to the Grand. It was naturally to the latter that I was headed.




The rooms are owned and managed by Opera North and there was a Steinway on stage. I did wonder idly whether the Russian revolution was going to be explained by means of comic song in the style of Richard Stilgoe or, even better, Victoria Wood. However the truth was equally unexpected and just as pleasurable. A pianist appeared and played the first movement from Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata as a sort of warm up, an approach to public speaking of which I heartily approve. Ali was introduced as a public intellectual (no definition of this term was provided) and much of his talk seemed to me to be spent justifying the importance of the intelligentsia in early twentieth century Russia and, by extension, to the modern world as a whole, so perhaps there was an element of theatricality in all this; convincing the audience that we were in the elite because we had listened to a bit of classical music. It worked for me.




Ali's talk was interesting and very wide ranging; indeed it wandered off the advertised subject for long periods. There was a substantial section on Operation Barbarossa for example, with the confident claim made that had Tukhachevsky not been purged by Stalin in 1937 that the German invasion would have been defeated quite quickly. I have no idea on whether that hypothesis has any substance, but I do know that it has bugger all to do with Lenin. Nonetheless, as I say, it was all rather stimulating and thought provoking.




The question and answer session afterwards was, however, a whole different thing. There was a sizeable audience, perhaps a couple of hundred people, many of whom seemed still to be living in the 1970s. The chap who put out the water for the speaker and interlocutor was even wearing a beret in what appeared to be a Wolfie Smith homage. I can't believe that those who spoke from the floor had not seen the famous satire on British Trotskyism in the 'Life of Brian', but they certainly hadn't learned from it. As far as I could make out, in their opinion, all of the world's current problems were caused by Ali's joining the International Marxist Group in 1968, only to be made worse by him leaving the IMG some years later, or possibly it was the other way round. Only two things were clear: I was the only one there who had not come with an agenda to slag off the speaker, and that everything - and I mean everything - was his fault. It was all truly bizarre, although I must say that it was also somewhat nostalgic for anyone with first hand experience of how far left groups carried on back in the day .




Wolfie was of course prone to shouting 'power to the the people' at inappropriate times. John Lennon's 1971 song of the same name was inspired by a meeting with Tariq Ali. Everything is connected.





(a) It has been a long, long time since a photograph of your bloggist last featured in the pages of the Socialist Worker. For those suffering withdrawal symptoms I can be found in the current spring edition of the One Traveller newsletter, New Horizons; less hair is involved on this occasion.

(b) With a bit more imagination he could have made that slogan rhyme.

Friday, 21 April 2017

It's Friday Night, Got To Go Home Now

As proof that people can reappear in one's life as well as disappear, I have heard from one of my closest friends at school (for our US readers I really mean school and not university) after a gap of many years. This has brought some sadness - inevitably bad things as well as good have happened in a couple of decades - but also some amusing coincidences. We shared many interests back in those days. I think I may have mentioned before that I played keyboards in the worst band of all time; Don was the bass player. Of more relevance is that he and Charlie (Charlie was the drummer) were my first wargaming opponents, using - naturally - Donald Featherstone's rules from the local library's copy of Advanced Wargames. I seem to remember refighting Waterloo as part of his CSE History project, although I also remember it being rigged so that Napoleon would win.

Anyway, it seems that in retirement he has returned to the one true hobby and spookily was already a fan of the blog. Not this blog obviously, that would be beyond coincidence even as we students of the higher mathematics interpret the word. No, he is a follower of James' blog, in common with the rest of the wargaming world. What I'm not clear about is why he didn't spot me in the photos of the legendary wargames room, after all I have hardly aged a bit in the last forty years.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

We marched them up to the top of the hill

In the manner of a Donald Trump armada the Battle of Möckern did not turn out exactly as billed. Some unspecified bacterial unpleasantness has broken out in the vicinity of the legendary wargames room and James was prevented from leaving his house by crowds of pitchfork-waving locals shouting "Unclean! Unclean!".  I myself have my own troubles - in addition to the still ongoing effect of recent events - in that the boiler is on the blink. A plumber has been, but departed muttering about a spare part. Before he came there was no heating, now there is no hot water either; I suppose that is progress of a sort.




Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Overlord

We are intending to try Epic C&C Napoleonics this evening so the obvious thing to do was to confuse myself by having a first go at Memoir '44: Overlord. The confusion came in two parts. The games obviously belong to the same family, but in Memoir unit effectiveness depends on range and not strength while the opposite is true in Napoleonics. And while both Epic and Overlord are played on an area twice as wide as the original they use different approaches. Epic is one player a side with the playing area divided into three, whereas Overlord is teams (we had three a side) with the playing area divided into three and then each third into halves. So there was much confusion the other night - on my part, everyone else was fine - and no doubt there will be tonight.

As for Overlord itself, I'm not sure that I'll be in a rush to play it again. Last time we played a WWII game I complained that there was too much fiddly detail. So let me immediately lay myself open to a charge of inconsistency by saying that I don't find Memoir '44 detailed enough. On top of which, the role of a subsidiary commander seemed a bit dull to me. Because we had three people on a team the commander of the central section doubled up as overall C-in-C. I played one game in that role and while it was definitely more interesting I didn't feel that their was any enhanced enjoyment from having someone else carry out - or not - one's intentions. The mechanic of only passing over one card (or at most two) at a time means that there isn't scope for plans to go wildly wrong if you are the C-in-C or to act with any independence if you are not. The lack of Battle Back in close assault (another difference between the two games) also means that one can spend quite a bit of time not actually doing anything. I don't think there was ever much chance of playing the Napoleonic equivalent of Overlord, mainly because I don't have six (let alone eight) friends, but this hasn't prompted me to want to try.

One other thing I tried for the first time was swapping sides and refighting the game to see who won on aggregate. I'd always felt that this would be a good idea because none of the scenarios are particularly balanced. However there is a very cheesy flaw. First time round we were the Germans and won the scenario (I think it was Omaha Beach although I wasn't involved in setting the board up) 8-0; you can see what I mean about the scenarios being a bit one-sided. Therefore as US commander when we refought it all I had to do was ensure that we destroyed one German unit in order to win overall. And so that's what I did - accepted that we couldn't win the battle but went all out to take out a unit. In the end we lost that round 8-3, but won overall because we didn't make any attempt to actually get off the beach. I'm not sure I found that terribly satisfying.

Anyway, back to 1813:


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Trial by Bloody Big Book

I have been reading Trial By Battle, the first volume in Jonathan Sumption's history of the Hundred Years War. By which I mean that I have been reading it for months; it's a whopper. I shall not review it, partly because if you are interested in the period then reading it is a necessity regardless of what I think, and partly because it's so long since I read the opening chapters that I can't remember how or why it all started.

I shall therefore simply concur with the reviewers quoted on the back who basically say that he is as good on the detail as on the big picture and visa versa. I have previously noted his bizarre assertion that one used to be able to hunt monkeys in the forests of Brittany (before the last ice age possibly, but certainly not in the fourteenth century) but otherwise all seems in order. He appears to describe Isabella, Edward III's eldest daughter as his son at one point, but I suspect sloppy editing is the real culprit there. Or perhaps editing was also responsible for the first mistake and the king and his party were really hunting donkeys. Who knows?

I intend to read the next volume in due course, but will need to build up my stamina first. In the meantime I shall turn my non-fiction attentions to the Great War.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Markers anew

The first rule of wargaming markers is that when you go to get the ones you need you find that you either have far too many or not quite enough. Notwithstanding the fact that we have played C&C several times and that line infantry are always A, that's the letter of which I was short; which is why I have been making some more; current status second coat of PVA drying. The last time we played I didn't have enough 3s.

I have also been pondering the look of the thing. It seems to me - and I've never discussed it with him - that in making markers James goes for invisibility at a distance (a). In other words, close-to the markers clearly indicate whatever they are meant to, but when one stands back they rather blend in to the background of tabletop and figures, becoming inconspicuous. I went down a similar route myself when making casualty markers for 'Through the Mud and the Blood' and for 'To the Strongest!' early Imperial Romans and Celt. However, I think for C&C the opposite is more appropriate.  While the look of the original boardgame is improved by playing with figures, the whole aesthetic is nonetheless the opposite of naturalistic. There is no attempt to deny its roots in cardboard map tiles and wooden blocks; rather the contents of the box are simply replaced with better looking (and, by the way,  better to handle) surrogates. In my view the very obtrusiveness of the markers acts to reinforce that rather tahn pretend to be something it's not.

(a) the exception to this are the markers for ancient galley warfare - grappled, fouled, raked etc - which are very distinctive.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Markers

When playing C&C Napoleonics I use markers to indicate what type a unit is as well as how many 'blocks' of strength the unit has remaining. Some troop types are easy enough to tell apart, but others - for example the difference between Prussian line infantry, light infantry and grenadiers - isn't, plus of course there is the odd substitution going on. Despite having a disproportionate amount of cavalry - prettier uniforms being the main driver for that - I have hardly any Prussian non-lancer light cavalry. Unit types are indicated on the board. They vary from game to game depending on which units are involved, but a few are constant: A are line infantry, B are light infantry etc.


I didn't make the markers specifically for C&C. The numbers actually came first and were intended to record 'stand' losses in games of Piquet, although I haven't actually played any yet. The numbers and letters are craft supplies; I think I bought the originals from a garden centre, but bought further copies online:


They are then mounted onto polyfilla covered pennies in a precise operation reminiscent of brain surgery:


And then a border is painted on, they're varnished and finally covered in a couple of layers of PVA glue for protection:


I use two slot bases from Warbases to hold a letter and a number for each unit.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Möckern - the set up

I have had the chance to set the table up for a game of Epic C&C Napoleonics:



When I tried to work out my own version of C&C rules for an expanded playing area I went for something much larger, which possibly explains why I wasn't all that successful. As the picture shows the official version also leaves some space on my table for players to put their cards and dice trays in; which is nice. That white patch at the far end is the sun, which has put in a brief appearance in the UK. Don't worry, it will be gone before the long Easter weekend when everyone is off work.

And here's a shot of the strange blue in which I have painted my Polish troops:


The game won't be played for a couple of weeks yet.

Friday, 7 April 2017

In which I am pedantic about semantics

"The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall." 
- Denis Healey

Given all the emotional highs and lows caused by all the events referred to in the previous post I thought I was on uncontroversial ground with wargaming. However, there appears to be a bit of a disagreement going on about the definition of the word 'evade'.  I don't refer to its meaning in common English; surely the fact that the word carries implications of trickery, guile, slyness, and deceit is plainly there for all to see? No, I mean in wargaming terms. Does it mean skillfully declining the offer of combat made by an enemy by utilising the attributes of speed and manoeuverability in all terrains inherent in the troop type being represented? Or does it mean running away? There's one for the philosophers among you.

In other wargaming news I have been sorting out stuff in order to put it away on my new shelves. This has involved rummaging through and putting into bags a vast amount of unpainted 20mm plastic figures, a job that is rather boring even for a wargaming accountant. I have certainly acquired some odd stuff over the years. What, for example, am I going to do with the small number of Punic War Romans that I have? Let's be honest, nothing. Whereas the yet more Roman and Celt casualty figures that have come to light might just go to the front of the queue and get painted as markers for To the Strongest!. Other oddities unearthed include a crocodile, two angels and a Father Christmas, all of which I am struggling to fit into the periods which I game. There are a couple of boxes left to go through so plenty more opportunity to reflect on money wasted over the years.

In parallel with sorting out the crap I am setting up a game of Epic C&C Napoleonics. I've gone for the Möckern scenario included in Expansion 6 - 16th October 1813 in the lead up to Leipzig - because it is French against Prussians and Russians and those are what troops I've got. I might have to fudge the hills a bit though. Some of the units on the French side were actually Polish which will give me a chance to field my Duchy of Warsaw figures, the infantry possibly for the first time ever. They are painted a truly hideous shade of blue; photographs will follow.

And finally, as I've just mention the Polish, let's hear from Bobby Vinton, also apparently known as the 'Polish Prince of Poch', whatever that is.



Thursday, 6 April 2017

In which I am not ill

Normally, when your bloggist disappears for a while he has been ill. But not this time, I am at peak fitness (a). Harold Macmillan was once asked by a journalist what he feared most as Prime Minister. "Events, dear boy, events." was his reply. And so it has proved here; there have been events. I'm not sure what the long term fall out, if any, will be, but in the meantime let us attempt to return to normality. Actually, let's break the mould - to misuse another political cliché - and talk wargaming.

Last night saw the second half of a  most enjoyable crusades game in the legendary wargames room. The Saracens (i.e. not me) won by dint of the last three turns ending very quickly on doubles. However the fact that they were ever in danger of losing was because they had drawn morale badly at the beginning whereas I had drawn rather well. Having said that, one reason that the crusaders didn't do better was the abysmal performance of their cavalry (or to be more precise their Christian cavalry - their Moslem allies did rather well) who didn't move very fast and when they did get there fought like wusses. The Hospitallers - cream of the army - were knocked back by a few skirmish bowmen and the knights guarding the True Cross got seen off by someone equally useless. Which all goes to illustrate some of the reasons why, in my opinion, the Piquet family of rules provide such good games. The many variables interact one with another in ways that are unpredictable. It reminds me in many ways of a well designed boardgame, with multiple paths to score victory points, all of them interconnecting, but doing so in ways that alter each time you play it. The new catapults were good too.

And some exciting news from the annexe: I have had some shelves put up.



(a) It must be understood that this represents peak fitness for your bloggist; everything is relative.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Mi Revenis

I have returned. My absence has been due to a surfeit of stuff occurring in real life. I won't go into details, but at one point the big bouncy woman was rendered speechless for the first time since I've known her. There were also a couple of birthdays: the younger Miss Epictetus has turned twenty one and I have celebrated becoming twenty one and some months, 480 months to be precise.

Anyway, I have managed to do some other stuff including the first evening of a Crusades game at James' which I'm rather enjoying. My plan once again involved my forces moving swiftly across the table and once again they didn't. Still, the newly painted catapults are fun to play with. In other wargaming news I have done a fair bit of painting (fair bit for me that is) during the month:


German WWI 7.7cm + 5 crew 1
German WWI infantry 18
British WWI 18pdr + 5 crew 3
British WWI trench raiders 10
15th century longbowmen 12


What I haven't done is very much boardgaming so I think I'll wrap the review of games played in March into April's report; I know you'll be bitterly disappointed.