Monday, 31 December 2018

2018

"The important thing in life is to let the years carry us along" - Lorca

So, here we are again. In oh so many ways 2018 was a complete bag of shit; I confidently predict that 2019 will be worse still. However, let's not indulge in what Eliot termed "the conscious impotence of rage at human folly", let's indulge instead in boring everyone with what a culture vulture I am. Just a couple of months ago one woman formerly of my acquaintance described me - over her shoulder as she left - as a "passive/aggressive point scorer"; guilty as charged.




Opera: I saw twenty one this year, which is rather a lot. I'm going to vote 'Madama Butterfly' as the best, with 'Tosca' a close second; so that's a one-two for Puccini and dead heroines. Posting here has been so erratic that I think I might have to instigate an award in each category for the best performance that I didn't bother to write about. In this case I'm going for a production of 'Suor Angelica' in which clothes were kept on by nuns. So that's actually a one-two-three for Puccini and dead heroines then.




Theatre: I saw fifty three plays and musicals, increased above previous years by the pop-up Shakespeare theatre in York (returning next year I am pleased to say) and by a plethora of Great War commemoration activity. I think my favourite was 'They Don't Pay? We Won't Pay!' - it was certainly the funniest - with a special mention for both 'Journey's End' and 'Barnbow Canaries' - which were certainly the saddest. Best Shakespeare was 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in York. Top of the unreported was 'From Berlin to Broadway', a marvellous celebration of the work of Kurt Weill.



Music: I saw thirty six bands live, probably down on the previous year if I could be bothered to check, mostly because the local blues club closed. There were some belters (King King, Walter Trout, Devon Allman, Thorbjorn Risager, etc), but top spot has to go to one that I couldn't be arsed to tell you about at the time: Gretchen Peters. If I never again hear anything as good as her version of Tom Russell's 'Guadalupe' then I shall still die a happy man.




Film: I saw sixteen films at the cinema and I think the best of the new ones amongst those was 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri', which as it happens was the first that I saw. Best of all was '12 Angry Men', but perhaps it's not fair to judge the others by that. Best new one that I haven't mentioned previously was 'The Florida Project', although I must confess to also really enjoying the rather more lowbrow and shallow 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Best previously unmentioned re-release was 'The Big Lebowski', apt both because I am sure that we are just about to enter a world of pain, and because the Dude is a Stoic par excellence.

"The Dude abides"


Books: I don't actually know how many books I have read this year; shame on me, I shall start counting forthwith. The non-fiction book of the year had to be 'H.M.S. Electra', the story of the ship on which my uncle served and was lost during the Second World War; incidentally, for those who have played the first video above, Surabaya was the port from which the ship sailed on its final voyage. Best fiction book was - and I bet no one saw this coming - 'League of Spies', the fourth in Robert Merle's 'Fortunes of France' series.




Lectures: A new category for this year. I am rather controversially going to plump for the one on 'Soviet Central Asian Mosaics', which was surprisingly good although admittedly much of the surprise came from the fact that I thought I was going to a talk on 'Australian Aboriginal Art'. Worst by far was that about policing in Otley in the 1950s, which was like a UKIP party political broadcast delivered in the style of Jackanory.




Event of the Year: There was a late entrant into the field for this when only yesterday I over-toasted my pumpkin seeds (not a euphemism) and set the oven on fire. However, and after due consideration, the jury has decided to disallow it on the basis that I rather like the much nuttier flavour; all I need to do now is to find a way to reproduce it without any danger of burning the house down. As an aside, you may not be surprised to hear that at no point did the smoke alarm indicate that anything was amiss.

But back to the year that was. I am tempted by the return of running water to the Casa Epictetus and the resultant improvement in hygiene; or the camel racing at the Otley Show, which lured even me away from the Young Farmers' Ladies Tug-of-War;




or the younger Miss Epictetus' return from her travels and graphic description of skydiving at dawn into the Namibian desert, complete with outraged complaint that they hadn't allowed her to do it in flip-flops; or the elder Miss Epictetus causing an unfortunate and relatively blameless lady to knock herself out on the door of the ladies toilet of the Fountaine Inn at Linton-on-Craven (although for obvious reasons I didn't actually witness that one it did sound very funny as she told me about it while we hurriedly made our escape towards Burnsall); or even the Reiki session I had with the estimable Coral Laroc in the brief period when we were back on good terms. However, for this year it has to be the conversation with what turned out to be the goddaughter of my old ATC commander, Squadron Leader Bill Boorer, leading to the fascinating revelation of the whole story behind his rescue after being shot down in the North Sea.

And that's your lot. As Eliot also wrote: "Next year's words await another voice"


Sunday, 30 December 2018

Andalusia

"A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials" - Seneca

Apologies for my absence, it certainly wasn't due to anything interesting. In fact we have had one or two technical problems here at the Casa Epictetus. The least of these was that my adblocking software suddenly took a dislike to my own blog. I think we can all see where it was coming from, but even so it's a bit much.



My mind has started to turn to my review of the year - don't tune in tomorrow should that prospect not be to your taste - and it occurred to me that I had never followed up on my intention to write about my trip to Andalusia. The moment has well and truly passed, and you don't really need me to tell you just how astonishing a place the Alhambra is, or that the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba runs it close.



So instead I shall just mention that there were resonances with some of the things that this blog has touched on in the past: the great Stoic philosopher Seneca was born in Cordoba; I was interested to learn that a number of the Cairo scenes from 'Lawrence of Arabia' were filmed in Seville; and I visited the Federico Garcia Lorca cultural centre in Granada.

Let's finish with some Lorca.

“The river Guadalquivir
Flows between oranges and olives
The two rivers of Granada
Descend from the snow to the wheat

Oh my love!
Who went and never returned

The river Guadalquivir
Has beards of maroon
The two rivers of Granada
One a cry the other blood

Oh my love!
Who vanished into thin air” 

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Gaming in 2018

I started this blog as someone who didn't wargame, but would like to. As 2018 draws to an end I find myself in much the same position, real life events having conspired to prevent any gaming for the last six weeks or so. Working on the assumption that things will perk up a bit in the New Year I have taken the opportunity to remind myself of what happened this year. Despite the weather (unusually bad at the beginning and astonishingly hot in the middle) I played or umpired twenty one games, many of which ran over two or even three evenings. Details - and these may not be entirely accurate, but they're the best I could come up with - are:

Punic Wars                                               2
Crusades                                                  1
15th Century Central/Eastern Europe      2
Italian Wars                                               1
Seven Years War                                      8
Napoleonic                                                7


To the Strongest!                                      5
Black Powder                                           4
Piquet                                                     10
C&C Napoleonics                                    2


The split by period is interesting and anyone who reads James' blog will notice the correlation with what he has been painting and building. Notably there was no Romans vs Celts, Wars of the Roses or 20th Century. I'm not complaining - if the god of wargaming decided to limit me to one period I would always choose Horse & Musket - but that's a lot of unused toys. I have had a game set up in the annexe for a while now, just crying out for a solo run through to alleviate the lack of games elsewhere; which needless to say I haven't done, although I have tinkered with the layout. Here's what it currently looks like:



It also demonstrates that much of my painting this year has been producing extra WWI figures and terrain to provide the forces for a game of Square Bashing; still no tanks though. And for anyone remembering my promise to spend some of my recent windfall on wargaming, I haven't yet done so.

I wandered away from boardgaming during the year, and then towards the end edged back towards it a bit. Boardgamegeek tells me that I played 65 different games a total of 89 times, which feels about right. The one game from that lot which I would recommend to the blog's target audience of wargamers is Medieval, a game whose tagline of 'Wage war, unleash the plague, excommunicate the unworthy, and drive back the Mongol hordes' is right up our street I think. My own experience of Quartermaster General: The Cold War with six players wasn't very good, but others whose judgement I trust confirm my impression that with three players it would be excellent.






Saturday, 22 December 2018

Blues for Christmas

Here's a little something to put us all in the right mood for next week. It is of course John Lee Hooker, who I'd still like to be when I grow up.


Friday, 21 December 2018

Il mio bel foco





Il mio bel foco,
O Iontano o vicino
Ch'esser poss'io,
Senza cangiar mai tempre
Per voi, care pupille,
Arderà sempre.

 
Quella fiamma che m'accende
Piace tanto all'alma mia,
Che giammai s'estinguerà.

 
E se il fato a voi mi rende,
Vaghi rai del mio bel sole,
Altra luce ella non vuole
Nè voler giammai potrà.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Trainers

The last entry here has prompted a couple of questions. The first is why the blog post entitled 'Do trousers matter? - slight return' appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with the post entitled 'Do trousers matter?'. I can only say that as most posts on this blog bear only a loose connection to the real world then I think that particular correspondent is splitting hairs. A far more appropriate question is the one as to whether a sportsman who changes his or her shoes during a sporting event is partaking in one or two sports. Now that is a problem worthy of a great philosopher such as myself, and the philosophical tool which I have chosen to use to determine the answer is empiricism.




Leeds has a strong connection with Triathlon. I would be able to see the home village of the Brownlee brothers from the window of my study as I type this, were it not for the very large hill in the way. Indeed earlier this year, prior to meeting the current man of her dreams, the younger Miss Epictetus, proving herself a real chip off the old block, came up with a convoluted plan to arrange herself a blind date with one of them. Unfortunately for her she turned out to be rather too much like her dad and the scheme was an abject failure; never mind, they're Tories anyway.




So, back to the point. Triathletes change their shoes during races; it's clearly just one sport; ipso facto changing one's footwear does not imply changing one's sport.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Do trousers matter? - slight return

                    "The four stages of acceptance:

                         1. This is worthless nonsense.
                         2. This an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
                         3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
                         4. I always said so."

                                      - J.B.S. Haldane

Yesterday's post went off - perhaps appropriately given its subject - a bit half-cock. I had meant to also note that I had bought a copy of the January edition of Miniature Wargames. You may recall that I eschewed purchasing the December issue because it had a picture of an elf on the cover. They still dedicate far too many pages to hobbitses for my liking, but issue 429 also contains a report on Fiasco, which is illustrated with three nice photos of the Ravenna game that we (i.e. James) put on. The reason that I was going to mention it becomes apparent if you study the main picture (on page 14 should you have a copy to hand). The principal figure shown, seated in the white shirt, is Bob, my fellow commander and let's face it pretty much the sole reason for our dismal failure in the refight; if you look carefully you can see him using his left hand to surreptitiously drop a D8 into his bag. But if you scan across to the left hand side of the page you can just make out above the marsh which runs to the table edge the very abductor muscle that has been causing all the problems at the Casa Epictetus. Or at least you could if I hadn't been wearing trousers at the time. Now, you might think that the concept of not having one's strides on at a wargames show is a bit, how can we put this?, odd. But I have actually written a blog post putting forward the suggestion before - here, albeit that it did not catch on either at the time or in the five years since. Perhaps revisiting the proposal is overdue; allow me, if you will, to do so now and to further develop my thinking.


"Do you wear trousers, Fozzie?"
"Why would I? I'd still have bear legs."

There are many different approaches as to what constitutes a sport and what doesn't. Various authorities would automatically eliminate anything that involves music; or petrol; or animals; or subjective evaluation of artistic impression, technical difficulty or some other nebulous term; and so on. I myself have always favoured the view that a sport is anything for which one is required to change one's shoes. Were a similar logic to be applied to hobbies we would find that they naturally fall into two categories: those which are carried out in trousers; and those where participants go without. The latter, and I am thinking primarily of course of the Finnish pastime of kalsarikännit, seem to be rather hip and happening at the moment. If wargaming wishes to hitch itself to this bandwagon then it is clear that a bare legs policy is imperative. This insight is my Christmas gift to the hobby and, once again, you are all welcome. But we need to be quick, other hobbies are beating us to it:




In the meantime I shall be off pursuing one of my other great interests, reading poetry. But first I need to get ready:

                                           "Shall I part my hair behind?
                                             Do I dare to eat a peach?"





Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Inguinal discomfort

"The chapter of knowledge is very short, but the chapter of accidents is a very long one." 

                                           - Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield


Your bloggist's exercise bike has once again had its revenge and he has managed to injure himself in a manner guaranteed to interfere with his normal lifestyle. I wish that I could tell you that this was likely to result in a reduction in the pile of unpainted figures, or in anything constructive happening at all; but I can't.


"What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?...Was anything so civil?" 

                           - Anthony Trollope

Saturday, 15 December 2018

The Merit of Preservation

I occasionally take a look at what drives readers to the blog (*), hoping in vain for the return of 'gay porn' to the top ten google searches that lead people here. It seems that the latest significant source of traffic is an online plagiarism checker. I don't know whether they are checking the originality of what I write or whether anyone is copying it, but either way the idea is very amusing.

Let's have Tom Lehrer singing about both plagiarism and mathematics:





In other news the festive season has officially started at the Casa Epictetus, as I have won a giant Toblerone in a raffle.



* It is sadly all too obvious what drives readers away from the blog.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Oh Lordy Lord, she's desperate, do what she says...

Foreign readers may be puzzled by the political situation in the UK at the moment. So are we. I actually, and surprisingly even to myself, have a certain amount of sympathy for Theresa May in that, as I have previously pointed out, what we have is a clear example of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, and there is literally no solution which will satisfy a majority of people. She also seemed to realise that as the UK had a weak negotiating position vis a vis the EU (as in it held no cards whatsoever) that what was essential would be a strong government so that the terrible deal we ended up with could be driven through Parliament regardless of the fact that no one liked it. We all know what - thankfully - happened to that idea, That's where my sympathy ends though, as I have been struggling to understand her conduct of the negotiations ever since. However, I have had a cinematic epiphany and now it's clear: she has been following the advice of Mel Brooks all along. This is the scene from Blazing Saddles on which her entire strategy has been based:



Tuesday, 11 December 2018

When this lousy war is over

I have recently attended a number of what I have heard described as solemnities held to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War.

I saw the BBC Philharmonic plus several massed choirs perform Britten's 'War Requiem'. It's a piece arising out of the second, even greater, conflict (it was commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built to replace that destroyed by the Luftwaffe on the night of 14th November 1940), but which alongside the traditional Latin of the mass also sets a number of Wilfred Owen's poems (including this one). The work - immensely moving it goes without saying - is about reconciliation as well as suffering and perhaps sits out of place in today's world. One sign that nothing ever changes is that Britten wrote the vocal parts for specific performers from the UK, Germany and the Soviet Union as an indication of the international nature of what was being remembered, but the Russian soprano was denied a visa and couldn't take part.

An excerpt from Britten's music and Owen's words also feature in 'Last Days', a work which took us from the heady days of early 20th century night club life through the start of the war to its terrible consequences. Other poets, both of the war and otherwise, feature along with prose writers and the music ranges from popular song, via Poulenc, Debussy etc to Arnold Schoenberg, who thus made a quicker return to my listening pleasure than I was expecting. The outbreak of war was symbolised by the cast donning uniform and I got a close up view of how puttees are wound and tied, something which it had never occurred to me to worry about before; and it was all the more impressive because the chap doing it was singing his heart out at the time. The female singers adopted nurses' uniforms and some of the reading was from Helen Zenna Smith's 'Not So Quiet', a book which was clearly also a major source for 'Not Such Quiet Girls', a story of women ambulance drivers on the Western Front. A mixture of drama and music (mostly relentlessly cheerful patriotic concert hall songs of the time) this explored the growing independence of women thrust into the horrors and personal dangers of war from comfortable, respectable backgrounds and their dilemma when asked to give it up when the Armistice came. It was powerful stuff, and the (true) subplot about same-sex relationships felt a valid reflection of the times rather than a twenty-first century add-on.

Which brings us to the opera 'Silent Night', a fairly recent work by Kevin Puts about the well known Christmas truce in 1914. Without repeating the word 'moving' yet again I am left a bit lost; because that's what it was. With the chorus split into and dressed as German, British and French troops the story was told through several individuals who embraced the twin ideas of war and peace in different ways, but seemed to suffer the same consequences regardless. Like a number of reviewers I had my doubts about Mark Campbell's libretto which seemed to introduce greater and greater implausibilities as time went on into a narrative whose intrinsic unlikeliness didn't seem to me to need any embellishment. The music though was lovely. I recently reported seeing bagpipes at a gig, and here they were in an opera too, as was a harmonica, another couple of firsts for me. The semi-staged production was nicely judged and included a marvellous coup de théâtre near the beginning that brought the whole hall to a still silence of slightly bewildered anticipation.

This is, for now at least, the end of Great War commemorations in this blog. Let's finish with some poetry, not from the usual suspects this time, but from e.e. cummings:


my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent

war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting

for,
my sister

isabel created hundreds
(and
hundreds)of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers

etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that

i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my

self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et

cetera
(dreaming,
et
  cetera, of
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

Friday, 7 December 2018

Who dun it?

"A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees" - William Blake


I have always taken the view that as a wargamer one is in no position to mock other people's hobbies. However, as a long time member of the Richard III Society (which I joined at time of the quincentenary of Bosworth) I have always felt able to chuckle at the foibles of the membership. This has become harder as the research into events of 1485 led first to the discovery of the Bosworth battlefield and then to the almost unbelievable finding of the man himself. I was beginning to think that things were moving in the direction of solving the biggest mystery of them all, but perhaps instead the cranks are making a comeback.




This blog has shown the above painting ('Edward's Children' by Paul Delaroche) before, when mentioning the interesting, though possibly speculative, theory that it was the dog which was responsible for murdering the princes in the Tower. This quarter's Ricardian magazine has an equally conjectural piece drawing attention to both the colours of the drapery and the carvings on the bedposts. These, asserts the author, mean that Delaroche wanted to indicate that the princes had survived into the reign of Henry VII and been done away with on his orders; why he didn't just say that or show their evil brother-in-law in some more overt way isn't explained. Nor is the possibility considered that he simply painted from life and oldish looking bed and it never occurred to him that it was from the time of the next dynasty.

The Ricardian magazine is full of this sort of stuff (in fairness they also produce a more learned annual journal) and well worth reading even if the only result is to make you shake your head at the thought of otherwise sensible people spending their time and money in this way. Also in the current issue is the revelation that Richard de la Pole, la Rose blanche, was a bit of a tightwad and an article on Elizabeth 'Jane' Shore, mistress of Edward IV and god only knows who else, which ably demonstrates that she was your bloggist's sort of woman and no mistake.




After the death of Edward she was made to do penance for her carryings-on by Good King Richard, a scene later somewhat freely interpreted by William Blake in the painting above. Blake himself was of course a firm believer in free love (sources differ as to whether this was from political or religious conviction, but there seems to be a consensus that Mrs Blake took a dim view of the idea in any case) and was widely regarded as mad during his lifetime.





Wednesday, 5 December 2018

R. C. Sherriff double bill

Sort of.

I managed at last to see the latest film version of 'Journey's End', which when released last year came and went in Leeds so quickly that even a gentleman of leisure such as myself was unable to catch it. The local arts centre has recently shown it as part of the Great War centenary commemorations (of which more soon in a remarkably untimely post even for this blog) and I can report that it was well worth watching. The play, which I have seen a couple of times; most recently earlier this year, takes place in a bunker in the trenches and I wondered how they would open out the action  for the cinema. It turned out that Sherriff had co-written a novelisation following the great success of the play (which featured a 21 year old Laurence Olivier in the lead role for its first performance) and I assume that helped in the process. The play's strength comes not just from the writer's undoubted skill (he was later nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay for 'Goodbye Mr Chips', and perhaps more pertinently for readers of this blog, he wrote the script for 'The Dam Busters'), but because he has served in the trenches as an officer himself. The incidents, characters and dialogue which he shows us were all drawn from life, and of course, from death. It is no wonder that later writers have drawn on his work so extensively. To take just example, the jokes in 'Blackadder Goes Forth' regarding Baldrick's cooking owe a direct debt to very similar lines in 'Journey's End'. The film's treatment of the scenes outside the dugout such as the trench raid, which in the stage play obviously happens offstage, mixed the detailed (the party crawling along the sap trench to their jumping off point) with the impressionistic (the quick editing used to convey the confusion and speed whilst they are in no-mans land) to great effect. I think it a credit to all involved that despite knowing exactly what was going to happen I found it immensely moving nonetheless.



I also saw 'The White Carnation', a somewhat lighter play written by Sherriff in the early fifties. It's basically a ghost story set at Christmas about redemption through change; you know the sort of thing. However there is a very funny subtext concerning the reaction of local and central government, who view the whole thing in terms of bureaucratic inconvenience. In a very prescient exchange the man from the Home Office tells the ghost that his rights as a British citizen ended with his death and gives him notice to leave the country immediately. In response the ghost threatens not only to haunt the civil servant himself and his family for several generations, but also to haunt the House of Commons and throw the entire government of the country into chaos. For some reason that got the loudest laugh of the evening and a spontaneous round of applause.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Arctic Summer of Edwin Drood

"In hell there is no other punishment than to begin over and over again the tasks left unfinished in your lifetime." - Andre Gide

It has come to my attention that I somehow contrived to publish the previous post without its concluding paragraph. Obviously I could go back and edit it, but, let's face it, anyone who is interested has already read it and anyway it would involve me in extra work. So, either supply your own witty and insightful conclusion or delight in my flouting of blogging conventions as you see fit.

I am actually quite keen to write about wargaming, it's just that there hasn't been any. I have however been to Recon, probably the nearest show to me. I ran into Bob, my fellow Holy League commander in the Ravenna game at Fiasco. This time he was playing in the Lance & Longbow's Battle of Lewes game and I experienced a certain amount of schadenfreude to find that he was doing as badly on his own as he did alongside me. He also revealed what happened to the missing dice, so that at least is one less thing for me to worry about. I mentioned a couple of years ago not being able to take a picture of Euan in his re-enactment gear, but was better prepared this year. Here he is with a couple of camp followers; I think his luck is in:



I have now been paid for my recent piece of work and so the show was a good opportunity for me to start spending, an opportunity that I passed up on. I have decided, pro tem at least, to finish off some existing projects before I start a new one. I realise that it's  not wargaming as generally understood. With that in mind I have been painting some more heavy weapons for the Great War. I don't know if I mentioned the way that 'Square Bashing' marks casualties before, but it's a bit odd, being done by the half base. "Why not just have twice as many bases, each of them half the size?" I hear you ask, and that seems a very fair question. I have approached the basing of infantry in the manner of the farmer with seventeen cows and three sons (one of whom he doesn't seem to like very much), but that still left machine guns and mortars. There are plenty in the pile - one of the advantages/disadvantages of plastic - so I've finished off a few. I've even scratch built a second 6" Newton mortar for the British. And the sum total of my spending at the show was a copy of the Osprey on the Whippet medium tank which was going cheap for some reason.




I have also broken with my recent habit and bought a wargaming magazine; indeed I bought two. I was tempted to go for the full set, but this month's Miniature Wargames has an elf on the cover and there are limits, dash it all. I bought Wargames Illustrated because it has an article on Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, previously featured on this blog, and Wargames Soldiers and Strategy has a scenario for Maloyaroslavets, previously, er, featured on this blog. WI also has an article on Medieval Sieges, and it is possible that buying some laser-cut MDF castle walls is the way that the money ends up getting spent. I have quite a large collection of siege weapons, which have very rarely seen any action.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

I met Murder on the way

"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few"

                 - Shelley

I have always enjoyed knowing something of the background to how films were made; in some cases these stories are better than the films themselves. I mentioned "Where Eagles Dare" a while ago, and while it's truly terrible, who could not be amused by the idea of Clint Eastwood having to be told that when dressed as a German officer he should refrain from twirling his Luger round on his trigger finger before replacing it in the holster? More recently featured here was the equally bad "Charge of the Light Brigade" where director Tony Richardson's antics included trying to have the Brigade of Guards dressed in blue for their assault at the Battle of the Alma because he thought it would improve the look of the thing. He also delayed and messed about so long on location that the Turkish army detachments intended to provide the extras had to go off on NATO manoeuvres, which explains why some of the climactic battle scenes look as if they had been shot using nothing but half a dozen stuntmen.



It was that last detail that occurred to me when I watched the opening sequence of the infinitely better film 'Peterloo'. It starts with a rendition of the Battle of Waterloo, the budget for which appears to have run to three men and a horse; and before anyone tells me that several horses gallop across screen from left to right, I would point out that they are all the same colour and you never see two of them together. All the money has clearly been spent on the massacre itself, which is very well done. My own experience of facing horses in that sort of situation is limited to a thankfully brief incident at the Battle of Bradford some forty years ago so I don't claim to be an expert, but it all looked very realistic to me. I especially liked the shots as the regular Hussars moved slowly in line abreast pushing back the crowd in a frightening and claustrophobic fashion. It's a very good film, telling an important story and featuring some excellent performances from such as the ubiquitous Rory Kinnear as 'Orator' Hunt. I am, naturally, writing this well after it has finished in cinemas, so it's not a very timely recommendation, but catch it whenever you eventually get a second chance.




Despite the lush cinematography, it's not meant to be taken entirely literally - Mike Leigh is definitely being a bit Brechtian - and contains points that clearly aren't historically accurate, but help convey the lesson which he wants us to learn. So one of the characters has a strange attachment to his coat, but it means we remember how quickly he has moved in society's eyes from hero to villain. Similarly Hunt is shown simply speaking very loudly at the rally, which enables us to follow his argument for democracy and non-violence, but is a tad optimistic when faced with 60,000 people or more. What would have happened is that he would have paused after each sentence so that his words could have been repeated and passed back through the crowd. You know, as shown in that other excellent, non-naturalistic film with a message 'Life of Brian':

"Blessed are the cheesemakers"
"What's so special about cheesemakers?"
"Well obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."


Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Hymne à l'amour

Martin Taylor and Martin Simpson played a lovely instrumental version of this and I have been trying to track the original down down ever since. I was handicapped by not knowing what it was called, or indeed being able to remember the tune sufficiently well to hum at strangers. I was also slightly sidetracked by the spurious suggestion that Kathy Kirby did an English version. As far as I know she didn't, but Brenda Lee certainly did. This, of course, is Edith Piaf:



Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 Verse 2

"The vanity of intelligence is that the intelligent man is often more committed to 'one-upping' his opponent than being truthful. When the idea of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, become the staple, there is no wisdom in it." - Criss Jami

So, not only has the blog gone missing for a while, but even before that the pseudo-intellectual quotient had sadly fallen away. Well today that changes. But I need to warn you that there were some attendees at the two events I am about to describe who were only there with the intention of showing off during the Q&A session; I was shocked , shocked!, to find pretentiousness involved when people met together to discuss Jean-Paul Sartre and Arnold Schoenberg.




The problem with a talk entitled 'The Existentialism of Sartre' is that even if you find yourself disagreeing with it you also partly suspect that you haven't properly understood it. And yet, the more I listened to the speaker talk about 'Being and Nothingness' the more I came to the conclusion that Sartre didn't know a great deal of mathematics. I find it rather difficult to accept that the lack of something (i.e. nothing) is meaningless unless a human consciousness is pondering its absence. Anyone disagree? What I should have done is what most of those making a point did, which is to start by stating that they hadn't read any Sartre since they were students. Call me a cynic ["You're a cynic!"], but you need to be neither a mathematician or a philosopher to realise that doesn't guarantee that they read any while at university either. I haven't read any Sartre since graduating (*) and I certainly didn't read any while I was there, unless possibly he was reviewing albums for the New Musical Express under a pseudonym. The collective brainpower of a room full of people who forty years ago had existentialism sussed, but had all managed to forget it along the way somewhere eventually came up with the question of what J-P would have made of someone's right to change gender (**). The speaker felt that he would have seen it as a case of essence before existence and therefore been against it. Someone in the audience riposted with Simone de Beauvoir's quote "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." and we were left none the wiser.


"It's bad faith to wear my clothes without asking, Jean-Paul."

I learned somewhat more at the Schoenberg, a guided performance of 'Pierrot Lunaire' which was both well planned and executed. The first half was an introduction to the composer, the intellectual milieu of Vienna in 1912, and the original poem by Giraud. There were interviews with the conductor, director and various musicians, although not oddly the singer, who was 'preparing'; who says sopranos are divas? The background to atonality was discussed and there was an interesting, though frankly irrelevant digression into serialism. Questions from the audience were almost subsumed by someone who appeared to be intent on listing every Harrison Birtwistle work he had ever seen (no me neither), but when they came ranged from "Why did sprechstimme disappear after this work was written?" to "What can the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire tell us about the UK leaving the European Union (***)?". The answers were along the lines of: it didn't actually, and quite a lot now you mention it.


Theresa May visits Brussels

The second half contained the performance, which was obviously very good in its own terms, but about which I shall only say that I am glad I went along and experienced it - my mind is duly broadened. The staging was simple and effective with the moon of the title being represented by a lantern in a way that wouldn't have been out of place in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". As to what it was about; I'm afraid that I have no idea. There seemed to be a suggestion that despite the part being specifically written for a woman, that the main character is entirely and definitively male; thereby demonstrating that there is nothing  new under the sun. I'm going to say repressed sexuality was involved - the key figure in Vienna at the time was of course Freud - and death - because she did seem to mention it a lot plus it contains episodes called 'Gallows Song' and 'Beheading' - but beyond that you are on your own. One analysis I read said that Pierrot - who may or may not be Pierrot, or a man, or indeed real - ends with no hope of redemption; which gives you some idea of how cheery it was. Schoenberg himself said that it was a mistake to try to work out what it was about, instead one should go home whistling the tunes; I shall interpret that as the famed Germanic sense of humour at work.


"You know how to whistle, don't you Arnie? You just put your lips together and blow."



*      Actually I have in fact read "The Age of Reason", but to say so rather spoils my line of argument.
**    One of two subjects in the UK at the moment that seem to be obligatory on every agenda of every meeting regardless of what is supposed to be being discussed.
***  And there's the other.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Hot Club de Yorkshire

Hello again compadres. I trust you have all been as hard at it as me. Not that any of Epictetus' activities have involved wargaming as such. Indeed the only remotely exciting thing to happen in the annexe has been that I have solved the long-standing problem of how to get the dehumidifier to work in the low temperatures experienced in this part of the world during the winter. I did this by buying a dehumdifier specifically designed to work in the low temperatures experienced in this part of the world during the winter. As so often, your bloggist can't help thinking that there is some sort of learning point arising, if only one could tease it out.

There has been one of those occasional wargaming/real life cross overs when my companion for the evening and I bumped into Peter (and Mrs Peter) at Settle, out in the Dales. We were all at the Victoria Hall, oldest music hall in the world still in use, to see Martin Taylor and Martin Simpson. I have mentioned the latter a number of times (most recently here), but didn't know much about the former beyond his being some sort of jazz guitarist. It transpired that he spent some years in Stephane Grapelli's band in the position once held by Django Reinhardt; so a bit more than just another jazz guitarist then. It was an excellent concert and it was a real pleasure to watch people so absolutely on top of their craft. Simpson has recently lost his father-in-law, the political folk singer Roy Bailey, and sang a couple of emotional songs in tribute including one by Robb Johnson. I knew Robb quite well back in the day (the story of the occasion when I was the cause of him not visiting Palestine hereby officially joins the long list of those for which the world must wait a little longer), a fact which I suppose places me a step closer to various of my musical heroes. Taylor's contribution to the name-dropping involved conversations with Scotty Moore, which with all due respect to Robb, is a bit better than mine.

A lot of name-dropping (and the associated game of how many handshakes one is from the greats) is one of the connections with another gig I went to in the unlikely surroundings of a room above a pub in Ilkley, that by veteran bluesman Kent DuChaine; a man who played with, amongst others, Johnny Shines; who was in turn a man who knew and played with Robert Johnson. Another link was that Duchaine played 'St James Infirmary Blues'  on his National Steel Guitar 'Leadbessie' and Martin Simpson didn't, but usually does (which is sufficient for me). The great Catfish Keith also plays such a guitar and the similarities were often apparent, especially when DuChaine played in a Bukka White stylie (it's something to do with the tuning, but beyond that I can't help you). White was (sort of) the cousin of B.B. King and there was an implausible anecdote about King and a golf cart, along with others about Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. It's implausibility which gives us the last crossover between the two gigs. DuChaine claimed, with a straight face, that his most recent wife (of five?) was an exotic dancer from Settle. All I can say is that if she ever performed in Yorkshire in November then she did it indoors.


Monday, 19 November 2018

The terrible tyranny of the majority

"Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world [...] has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby." - H.L. Mencken

I continue to plough through 'Numbers Rule'. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my original grasp of the higher mathematics involved has been found wanting. Condorcet's Paradox is indeed apposite, but unsurprisingly there have been further theoretical developments since the late eighteenth century. What we in the UK are living through is actually a worked example of Kenneth Arrow's Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives condition. The really bad news is that this condition appears in a paper proving that it is impossible to design a system of voting which can correctly choose between multiple alternatives. I think we all knew that empirically, but it's good to see a mathematical proof.

Citoyen Condorcet

Arrow won a Nobel Prize, but Condorcet didn't fare so well. He was in many ways a man after your bloggist's own heart - mathematician, accountant, revolutionary, married to a beautiful woman twenty years his junior - and in addition he was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith. On the downside he made the mistake of falling out with Robespierre and, well, that was that. One of the book's conclusions seems to be that the only method of government that does away with manipulations, paradoxes and inconsistencies is a dictatorship; in this case it certainly did away with Condorcet.


Citoyen Arrow

As a by-product of all this I have discovered that in dealing with the common problem of dividing a fixed amount unevenly such that each subset is an integer and they add back to the original number (come on, don't pretend you've never had to do it) that the best way to proceed is by rounding on the geometric mean. All these decades I have been rounding on the arithmetic mean. I feel foolish.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose

A while ago I saw a broadcast of Sir Ian McKellen's recent 'King Lear'. It was, of course, superb (Sinéad Cusack played a female Kent - I know you like to hear about the cross gender casting), but it was also very long. It started at 7 o'clock and the interval was at ten past nine. A fair number of punters never made it back afterwards. I stuck it out on the basis that if he could do it on stage at his age then I could certainly do it in the audience at mine. The reason for mentioning all this is not to dwell on my numb bum, but because I feel that it behoves me to pass comment on the current omnishambles of a government that we have here in the UK. I find I can do no better than quote Gloucester speaking in that play: "Tis the time's plague, when madmen lead the blind".

It has seemed apparent to me for some time that we are living through is actually a worked example of the Condorcet Paradox. My recent viewing of 'Twelve Angry Men' obviously brought to mind Condorcet's Jury Theorem, and so I sought out a cheap second hand copy of Szpiro's 'Numbers Rule' an interesting book dealing with the mathematics of democracy. I have to confess that I hadn't previously recognised that the balloting system used by the Richard III Society to allocate tickets for the re-internment of a somewhat later lord of Gloucester in Leicester Cathedral - a process which you will recall left me without an invitation - looked suspiciously like one described by Plato in his 'Laws'; yet another reason to dislike the man.

Let's finish with a qualitative rather than quantitative take on democracy: 

"The theory of democratic government is not that the will of the people is always right, but rather that normal human beings of average intelligence will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience." - W.E.B. Du Bois

We shall see.





Wednesday, 14 November 2018

LIFF 2018

As you almost certainly don't know, Leeds has a good claim to be, literally, the first film city in the world. It is therefore no surprise that it has a well established film festival. I have been to three screenings this year, the first, and best, of which was 'Twelve Angry Men'. It's an undisputed classic except perhaps to the astonishing seven and a half thousand people who have awarded it one out of ten on IMDB. One can only suppose that they didn't like its message that the process of justice ought to be taken seriously rather than be the subject of capricious whim, bigotry or indifference, or the telling subtext that it is often the immigrant rather than the native born citizen who adheres more closely to 'American' values. What certainly looks quaint from today's perspective is that the murder was carried out with a knife and there was only one victim.

Second up was 'Cléo de 5 à 7', part of the French New Wave of the sixties, which I found charming and ultimately, and surprisingly, optimistic. It's a hard film to explain - these French eh? - but it works. Someone told me that there were plans to remake it starring Madonna; that wouldn't work, for sure. The choice of these two films to screen was because a theme of this years festival was films that play out in (more or less) real time. It's a bit of a shame that they didn't show 'High Noon'.

Which brings me indirectly on to the third film, 'Tampopo', which is sort of 'Shane' with noodles. It's a funny, colourful paean to the links between food and love, both physical and spiritual, with many references to other films. There is a scene in which a down and out makes an omelette which is fairly transparently inspired by Charlie Chaplin's tramp character. Also in 'Cleo from 5 to 7' there is a short, silent film within a film, one which is definitely as unfunny as Chaplin always seems to be to me. So let's have an even earlier silent film; in fact what might conceivably be the earliest moving pictures ever shot, a few brief frames of Leeds Bridge in 1888:








Saturday, 10 November 2018

How and why we remember

In Dorothy L. Sayers' 1928 novel 'The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club', the two minutes silence on November 11th is not only a plot point, but also gives the author, through the hero (of the book and holder of the DSO) Lord Peter Wimsey, the chance to offer a contrarian view as to how the anniversary of the Armistice should be marked. His Lordship observes: "All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don't it? It's my belief that most of us would be only too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn't run it for all it's worth. But it don't do to say so.".

So, ninety years on and the situation, in the UK at least, is if anything worse, with the poppy police constantly on the look out for deviations from regulated observance. Back in 2013 MPs complained that Google displaying a single poppy on their home page was 'demeaning'; there should apparently have been far more. I cannot be the only one to have been disturbed by the increasing replacement of simple paper poppies by ever larger and more elaborate designs which can serve no other purpose than to signal that the wearer is more virtuous than everyone else. Far better writers than me have been wrestling with all this, so I thought that I would share a few links to their articles; I hope that you find them thought-provoking.


The Conversation on why wearing a poppy is political

Stumbling and Mumbling on not wearing a poppy

Slugger O'Toole asks 'A Great and Just War?'

Ian Jack argues that conceptual art can never convey the tragedy of the Great War



For the record I have not worn a poppy for some years, but I do donate to the Royal British Legion and I shall be observing the silence tomorrow.


Friday, 9 November 2018

Tepid

There hasn't been very much gaming recently, and certainly no wargaming since Ravenna at Fiasco, the result of which escapes me for a moment. Someone has been concerned enough about this state of affairs to ask me when I intend to spend this money supposedly burning a hole in my pocket, and on what. The answers, as you had probably already guessed, are not yet and don't know. Firstly, I haven't actually been paid yet and I stick closely to the accountants' maxim: Cash is Queen. Secondly, well, too much choice. Spending at Fiasco was some Hexon slopes from Kallistra and some trees from the tree man; basically the same as at every other show ever. The boat has been pushed out very slightly since though. I have settled on To the Strongest! as my rules of choice for both Early Roman Empire and for the various 15th century dabblings that I do. Figures for the former are individually based and I acquired movement trays quite a while ago. The latter are all on 40mm square bases and the size of the table, and consequently the squares, mandates three stand units. I have therefore bought some 120mm x 40mm sabot bases to make movement easier, plus a few 160mm wide for units with attached commanders. Painting (green) and varnishing (gloss) is under way.

Boardgaming has more or less stopped completely as I have found both the groups which I used to attend becoming cliquey and off-putting; it seems it is no longer enough to like playing games, one must like playing the games that are, by some mysterious collective decision, determined as being currently fashionable. A cynic - that would be me then - might suggest that having paid a lot of money for a game on Kickstarter is the main criterion for whether a game is so deemed. Which brings me on to about the only game that I have actually played recently. I was invited by a regular five strong gaming group to make up the sixth player in Quartermaster General: Cold War, which one of them at least had funded. I have raved on here often enough about the World War Two game, plus this new game covers a conflict through most of which I lived myself, so I was definitely up for it. The format will be familiar to those who have played/seen the other games in the series (although naturally there are sufficient minor rule differences to catch everyone out) and the first thing to say is that, as with the games for the two World Wars, the card decks do a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the political, military and indeed wider cultural events that we all remember or have read about according to age. In fact I would go so far as to say that it makes a brilliant three player game. Sadly, as mentioned before, we played with six players, which didn't work at all. The mechanism for dividing competing blocs into teams of two players each positively detracts from the gaming experience, not least by making the bloody thing last for ever. So, highly recommended for playing with three players, despite me never having done so.

The once a month Sunday afternoon group to which I used to go is changing venue this weekend and I was wondering whether to give it another try. The likelihood of me doing that increased significantly when I discovered that the new location has a pinball machine. I spent almost as much of my time as an undergraduate playing pinball as I did table football; in other words, a lot. I used to own a pinball machine: a proper, old-fashioned, heavy thing, stuffed full of electro-mechanical relays, with plenty of satisfying heft when you gave the flippers some welly. I bought it from a man I met in the pub. In my experience no story that starts with those words is ever likely to end well; this one certainly didn't.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Unhasty orison

I have mentioned before that I find coincidences interesting, but I am am obviously aware that they don't really signify anything. The brain looks for patterns (especially if one is as analytical by nature as me); if it doesn't find anything it moves on and makes no note; if it does spot something then it says "Aha", or "Would you believe it?" or "Bugger me" according to taste. And given that we are in November 2018 it is also no coincidence that I have seen another play about the Great War, this time a new production of "Barnbow Canaries", which I first wrote about here. It's still funny, still sad and still relevant. I suspect I was the only member of the audience trying to shoehorn the play's message into one of two competing interpretations of the relation between state and capital and I can't pretend it added all that much to my enjoyment. The play is about the sacrifices demanded by total war as viewed through the sufferings and solidarity of women, and to any sensible person that would be enough.




What definitely does count as a coincidence is the close proximity in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery of the graves of Private John Parr, the first British soldier to die during the war, and Private George Ellison, the last such. The juxtaposition comes about because Mons was where the BEF first sought to delay the German advance and was also where the British had themselves reached again by the time of the armistice. The irony of spending four years and millions of deaths to get back to where one started needs no elaboration from me. On Friday the British Prime Minister will lay wreaths on both their graves; we shall have to wait to see what lessons regarding how to conduct relations with other countries that she chooses to draw from her experience.




Private Ellison, who was already in uniform when the war started and had served throughout, was from Leeds and yesterday (understandably a little earlier than the centenary itself because Sunday will be a very busy day for all concerned) was locally honoured with unveiling of a plaque in a short ceremony attended by members of his family and representatives of the successor regiment to that in which he served.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


                          - Wilfred Owen 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Art is a hammer

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” 

                                                     - Bertolt Brecht



And so to the theatre and indeed to the opera. Much of October's fare had a more or less overt political message. Brecht's 'Mother Courage and Her Children" isn't just anti-war, but also makes the point that anyone who thinks they can profit from war without being affected by it is deluding themselves. The eponymous vivandière, played in this Red Ladder production by Pauline McLynn of 'Father Ted' fame, isn't to be sympathised with for her losses, but rather criticised for not understanding the reality of the situation in which she finds herself. If I were to offer advice to Brecht (and given that I have previously been known to point out where Mozart got it wrong then why wouldn't I?) it is that the character's name does tend to mislead the audience as to how they should view her. Brecht's trademark Verfemdungseffeckt was on this occasion achieved by it being a promenade performance around a deserted warehouse of the type much favoured by villains in the Adam West Batman TV series.


The reason for the location was that Leeds Playhouse, as it has reverted to being called, is having a year long refurbishment, which also meant that I had to trek across to York to see the latest Northern Broadsides production 'They Don't Pay? We Won't Pay!', an adaptation of the Dario Fo farce 'Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!' by Deborah McAndrew. I've never been sure if Fo, who was certainly influenced by Brecht, was as much of a straight down the line Marxist as his predecessor, but this play leaves one in no doubt that he believed the problems of the working class to be caused by both capitalism itself and by capital's use of the state's (*) powers of coercion in order to suppress opposition and maximise profits. It's also very, very funny, drawing on verbal dexterity, physical comedy and amusingly out of context props; a coffin in the wardrobe anyone? I was also very pleased to see the false moustache given a twenty first century run out with its comedic validity emerging intact.


Coming back to state repression, this is very much the background setting for 'Tosca'. Opera North have a new production, and it's wonderful. Beautifully sung, with the orchestra on top form, if the bleak ending doesn't make you cry then you have no heart. Whilst we are all pleased to see the death of chief bad guy Scarpia (**), played here as a Gestapo/NKVD type boss, we would be advised to bear in mind another quote from Brecht: "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.".


Opera North's 'Merry Widow' is set in a political and diplomatic milieu, but that is presumably merely because it has to be set somewhere. Even I can't pretend that there is anything substantial in it - despite the many jibes against bankers that make the audience laugh, perhaps in recognition of their own powerlessness against the forces represented by what Marx referred to as money capital (***) - but it's great fun. Let me give a special mention to Amy Freston as Valencienne for combining excellent singing with the occasional cartwheel across the stage, just to show off.



* NB 'State' in this context is not identical to 'nation state'. There are (at least) two distinct strands of Marxist analysis regarding the relationship between nation and capital: state as superstructure (e.g. as per Marx and Miliband, father rather than either son) or state as capital (e.g. as per Lenin and Bukharin). I would suggest Brecht leaned to the former in 'Mother Courage', but feel free to disagree.


** Scarpia was of course based on a real person, one who co-operated closely with the British in Naples. We turned a blind eye to his brutality because it suited us politically. Plus ca change.


*** "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" - Bertolt Brecht