Monday, 27 February 2017


So, another month draws to a close, and once again many things have gone unreported in this blog. I went to Lincoln, although on reflection that was pretty dull. The big bouncy woman and I were this close to going out walking before storm Doris intervened (and apropos of nothing, the the name of that weather system has been bringing back uncomfortable memories of someone I used to go out with some decades ago). I also saw a performance of Return to the Forbidden Planet that I can best describe as troubling. The group involved seem to consist of middle aged men and much younger women. Normally this is a membership policy that would be right up Epictetus' street, but in this case it verged into the uncomfortable, not to say creepy. Miranda (the piece is very loosely based on The Tempest via the 1950s film) was played by a young girl not much older than the fifteen that Shakespeare ordained, and her love interest must have been at least twice her age; very wrong. The band were good though.

Wargaming has been covered mostly as we have gone along, but there was a small amount of painting: eight stands of longbowmen, four Celt casualty markers and half a dozen or so Great War Tommies. A number of 1914-18 field guns have arrived in the post so I hope to be more productive in March. I also returned some figures to Mark that he had originally passed on to me many years ago and with which I had done absolutely nothing in the meantime. It did mean however that he finally came to take a look at the wargaming annexe; I hope to fix up a game with him sometime soon.

A monkey with a beard

I am still ploughing through Trial by Battle, the first volume of Jonathan Sumption's massive history of the Hundred Years War. I am enjoying it, despite the long and somewhat dry lists of things like place names, people and so on. One such list that caught my eye this week is on page 404 and details the things that Edward III enjoyed himself by hunting in the forests of Brittany in November 1342: "deer, foxes, bears, monkeys and other beasts plentiful beyond measure". Now Sumption is clearly a very clever man and ordinarily I would not dare to cast aspersions regarding his scholarship, but monkeys? Monkeys? In the forests of northern France? Come on, your Lordship, get a grip.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Who are the real crooks?

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” 
- Claude-Frédéric Bastiat

 I have been to a lecture on organised crime in the middle ages, given by Chris Murphy of the Towton Battlefield Society. In his day job he is a customs officer so one must assume that he knows whereof he speaks.

The talk mainly focussed on the fifteenth century, with an inevitable nod to Robin Hood. The speaker was at pains to point out that much of the aristocracy was engaged in such activities: Warwick the Kingmaker was a pirate, the fortune of the de la Pole family was based on smuggling and so on. He also, through detailed analysis of the careers of the Lancastrian Sir Thomas Tuddenham and the Yorkist Sir Henry Bodugan, made clear how those in power were willing to turn a blind eye to apalling criminal behaviour in return for political and military support.

His final conclusion indeed was that the real organised criminals were the kings, which certainly fits with my worldview. As Shelley put it "monarchy is only the string that ties the robbers bundle". Given that four out of the six monarchs during the 1400s were usurpers in form or another perhaps the most apposite quote is from Schiller: "It is criminal to steal a purse, daring to steal a fortune, a mark of greatness to steal a crown. The blame diminishes as the guilt increases.".

Saturday, 25 February 2017

I am excessively diverted

And so to the theatre. I have been to see LipService Theatre's 'Mr Darcy Loses the Plot', which starts, exactly as one would imagine, as a spoof on Pride and Prejudice , and then spirals off imaginatively. The Cinderella story is reflected throughout Austen's work - Mansfield Park being the most direct version - but even I can't pretend that there is any real link to my previous post. Instead this piece explores the idea that women writers, unlike men, were historically not given the luxury of being able to write full time, but had to also juggle domestic responsibility. So when Austen goes off to attend to her sister Cassandra, Darcy, becoming bored and somewhat unhappy that George Wickham seems to have taken over as romantic lead, wanders off to do his own thing. Surreally, but very amusingly, he turns up as Max de Winter, Daphne du Maurier having been similarly diverted by looking after her family (a). He finds that he prefers this new life, especially the opportunities it affords for outdoor swimming. In a a parallel adventure Wickham himself turns up as the fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, Beatrix potter being busy looking after the sheep farm. It's a two woman show which I found to be very funny and very clever; nice programme too.

(a) In a desperate attempt to give this blog some much needed wargaming credibility can I point out that du Maurier's husband commanded I Airborne Corps during Operation Market Garden and that it was he who coined the phrase 'a bridge too far'; Dirk Bogarde played him in the film.

Thursday, 23 February 2017


And so to the opera. The third, and for me the best, of the season of fairy tales was Rossini's Cinderella. Whilst sharing the same source as Disney's version this is rather different in that there is no fairy godmother, no glass slipper, no talking animals, no magic at all in fact; the songs are better as well. The principle is the same though: hard done-by but kind and virtuous posh girl is restored to her 'rightful' place in society by vacuous but privileged pretty boy despite the machinations of those around her.

The production is well served by its leads  - including a Prince Charming with the rather excellent first name of Sonnyboy - although they are both perhaps outshone by Quirijn de Lang as Dandini. As mentioned before this run of productions all share a simple set and here it serves in the opening scenes as a dance school. This is an interesting, though one assumes coincidental, nod to the recent production of Strictly Ballroom at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the main narrative arc of which is itself of course a version of the Cinderella story. Were I really keen to bang on about everything being connected if you look hard enough I would also point out that when Rossini met Salieri in the 1820s he is reputed to have teased him about his reputation as Mozart's poisoner.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Johnny and Maggie

And so to the opera. The next of Opera North's fairy tales is Engelbert Humperdinck's 'Hänsel und Gretel'. The age of austerity has reached even into the opera house and the whole season is sharing one functional set. What was a garment factory now becomes what most reviewers have described as a council house, thereby proving that they have been asleep since at least the time of Thatcher. Wherever it is, the children are left alone there with electronic gadgets, but no food. As in the Snow Maiden back projection plays a big part in the design, although perhaps scoring an own goal here; showing giant blow ups of their faces on a feed from a video camera rather undermines the conceit that the adult singers are children.

Susn Bullock doubled up in a sort of Freudian way as both witch and mother; think the way that George Darling and Captain Hook are always played by the same actor in a pantomime. It worked well enough, although she was more entertaining than frightening as she chased them round her gingerbread house.

It's another opera I'd never seen before - I think I was overseas last time Opera North did it - but it's lovely - and varied - music.

Enigma of the evening: why does the witch keep Fray Bentos pies in her fridge? Surely the main point (only point?) of a Fray Bentos pie is that one can store it at ambient temperature?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Oh, What a Lovely War

Posting has been restricted for a few days, not just because of the two bob bits, but also because of intermittent problems with my broadband. I have finally tracked down the cause of the latter to sun shining on to the router; anyone who has ever lived in the north of England will forgive me for that not having been one of the first things that I thought of.

I have now had the chance to play the newish Great War version of Quartermaster General, and was very impressed. Indeed, I think I preferred it to the original, which is high praise. This game requires precisely five people as opposed to the previous need for exactly six, with players representing Russia, Germany, the Austro Hungarian/Ottoman Empires, France/Italy, and the UK/US. Players representing two participants have one deck of cards - although individual cards are only playable for one force - but separate armies and navies. It is the way these cards are used that makes the difference. Some are played directly from hand and some can be saved for playing later, but each can be used in one of three ways: to cause special events, for carrying out attrition (essentially reducing another player's capabilities, but at a cost to oneself) or for supplying reinforcements to a battle in progress. To succeed the last of these one must have prepared in advance better than one's opponent. The emphasis on planning before acting is what, to me, improves the game. On top of that, the fact that many cards are used other than to cause the special event on them - or simply discarded due to attrition - will surely mean that each game plays out very differently. Our game went the whole way, rare in the original, and resulted in a very narrow victory for the Central Powers notwithstanding the fact that we had run out of cards and could do nothing for the last two turns. Recommended, chaps, highly recommended.

In other WWI news, I have set up the scenery for the second of the Through the Mud and the Blood scenarios:

One minor problem with representing trenches in this way is that line of sight isn't as intuitive as it might be. The machine gun pit just visible in the centre of the rear trench actually commands the whole table. Subsequent to taking the photo I laid the forces out and discovered, inevitably, that I didn't have quite enough troops after all. Cue the longbowmen being muscled to one side on the painting table by half a dozen British bombers. I've also had to rush through a couple more Big Man bases.

And to wrap up action here regarding 1914-18, having read Square Bashing I think that they will do nicely as an alternative way of using the same figures at a different level of game. I have therefore ordered some field artillery plus a few sabot bases to check how the infantry will look.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

La pucelle

"Martyrs, my friend, have to choose between being forgotten, mocked or used. As for being understood - never."  - Albert Camus

And so to the theatre. Continuing (anticipating actually) the Hundred Years War theme of the previous post, I have been to see Shaw's Saint Joan in another of the National Theatre's live broadcasts, this time from the Donmar. I am pleased to report that on this occasion the Nobel Laureate has been well served by director and actors.  Gemma Arterton is superb as the Maid, and the rest of the cast were excellent. Like the recent production of Pygmalion that I saw this is mostly in modern dress with a shortened script that retains the original language. For me this works well here and was unnecessary there. GBS himself wrote "It is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period."; I would assert that one century ago is 'our period' in a way that six centuries ago is not.

The set is a boardroom, although thankfully not one of the many such that I have sat in has ever revolved; a design decision I found less grating than for, example, much of the action in Pygmalion taking part in a fish tank. For me the parallels between then and now - not least those with power conspiring with each other against everyone else - work better because the nobility are dressed like, as well as acting like, bankers of the last thirty years. John de Stogumber's outraged rhetorical question "How can what an Englishman believes be heresy? It is a contradiction in terms." is all the more recognisably relevant if he looks as if he's in UKIP, as is the response from the more cultured and educated Frenchman to whom he is speaking that Stogumber will be forgiven on the basis that the 'thick air' of England breeds 'invincible ignorance'. The chosen setting also made one inevitably think of 'Yes, Minister': self-interest, hypocrisy and circumlocution in beautifully crafted dialogue.

Enigma of the evening: who did steal the bishop's horse?