An Alphabet Of Things I Like: B

Brie.

This French cheese (also made in other countries) is a real guilty pleasure; fattening, salty, and generally bad for you in excess.

Why are things that are bad for you so tasty?

Here is some information concerning this delicious cheese.

Brie (/briː/; French: [bʁi]) is a soft cow’s-milk cheese named after Brie, the French region from which it originated (roughly corresponding to the modern département of Seine-et-Marne). It is pale in color with a slight grayish tinge under a rind of white mould. The rind is typically eaten, with its flavor depending largely upon the ingredients used and its manufacturing environment. It is similar to Camembert, which is native to a different region of France.

Very good accompanied by crackers or fresh French bread, it can also be added to a sandwich of mixed ingredients, (as in Bacon, Brie, and Cranberry). The soft cheese adds a tangy flavour which is unmistakable. It is also delicious served hot, often rolled in breadcrumbs and fried.

Just Been Watching…(122)

Frantz (2016)

(English subtitles for German and French language spoken)

This is the sort of film that European film makers do so well, and the award-winning director Francois Ozon has turned out another gentle masterpiece. With a cast of actors who I neither knew nor recognised, and a romantic story about the aftermath of WW1 in both Germany and France, this captivating tale surprised me with its sheer quality, and drew me in completely.

1919, rural Germany. That country has just lost that long and bitter war. Reparations and humiliation by the allies have caused anger and resentment in those who survived, and the early seeds of the rise to Nazism have already been sown. In a small town, we see Anna, making her way to the cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of her fiance, Frantz. He was killed in action towards the end of hostilities, and she is heartborken.

She lives with Franz’s parents, Dr Hoffmeister the town doctor, and his kindly wife, Marie. Together they grieve for the young man who will never return, and who is not even buried in the grave where she lays the flowers. His body lies in an unmarked grave, somewhere in France.

Anna finds other fresh flowers on the grave, and asks the gravedigger who left them there. She is told it was a foreigner, and the next day she asks at the hotel, discovering a young Frenchman is staying there. She manages to meet Adrien, and asks if he was a friend of Frantz, who studied in Paris before the war. When he says he was, she invites him to come to the house to meet the Hoffmeisters, so he can tell them about their son. In an emotionally-charged meeting, Adrien relates how he befriended Frantz, and how they would visit art galleries together, sharing their love of Manet’s paintings. At first the elderly doctor is not interested, but later softens his attitude.

The three begin a few days of friendly relationship with the young Frenchman, much to the annoyance of the local men, who hate the fact he was a soldier. Especially Herr Kreutz, who is hoping to marry Anna, and is a leading light in the new nationalist party. Then one night at the cemetery, Adrien tells Anna his darkest secret, turning their relationship on its head. He leaves the next day, and Anna pretends that his mother was ill, and that he will return.

But when he doesn’t come back to visit, the old couple are worried, and they send Anna to France to find him.

This film just oozes class. Paula Beer as Anna and Pierre Niney as Adrien are perfectly matched on screen. Historical detail is faultless, and the supporting cast members all feel like real people. At times, it is so convincing, it feels as if it was made at the time it is set. Wonderful widescreen black and white photography suits the mood, with the unexpected use of colour segments to represent dreams, and imagined sequences in the story. It is just a delight to watch such a beautifully made film.

This is film-making at a very high level. I loved it. It is a gem!

The trailer. (British viewers may find this on BBC i-player. It was on BBC 4)

TV Review: Spiral

‘Spiral’ is a French cop show, called ‘Engrenages’ (Gears) in French.

BBC Four is now showing series seven, and I had been eagerly awaiting it for over a year.

OK, it has subtitles. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t usually like those, as it is easy to understand the action.

This is a TV cop series at its very best. We get the seedy side of Paris, the underworld that carries out crime there, and the detective teams that try their best to combat those criminals.

We see the judges like Judge Roban, attending magistrates assigned to cases, and working alongside the police teams to get a conviction.

Then the lawyers, good ones and bad ones. Honest ones, and corrupt ones. Like Miss Karlsson, looking to profit from protecting criminals, and ending up in prison for their trouble. The cop team headed by the troubled Laure, supported by her loyal colleague and sometime lover, Gilou.

Nothing is over-dramatised.
Nobody is too handsome, or too beautiful.

They are just ordinary people.
They could be us, you and me.

This is TV at its best, and worth trying to find. Wherever you live, and whatever language you speak.

If you can, try to start at series One, as the continuing story is not unlike a serial.

Here’s a short trailer.

One film, two versions: Les Diaboliques

In the late 1960s, I went to see a film at London’s National Film Theatre. Written, produced, and directed by the estimable French film-maker Henri-George Clouzot, the 1955 thriller ‘Les Diaboliques’ was highly acclaimed, and I was excited to get the chance to watch it. It stars the sublime Simone Signoret, and Vera Clouzot, the wife of the director. Paul Meurisse is the male lead, and suitably cold and villainous.

This is an excellent psychological thriller, with some very scary moments, and wonderful performances from all involved. It also has one of the best ‘twist’ endings ever made. Set in a run-down boarding school outside Paris, the story involves the unlikely friendship of a wife, Christina, (Vera Clouzot) and the sexy mistress of her husband, Nicole. (Signoret, seductive as ever) Despite having a long affair with the headmaster, (Clouzot) Nicole hates the way he treats his frail wife, and the way he is also abusive to her. Despite the circumstances, the mutual hatred of him brings the two women close together, and they hatch a plot to do away with him.

However, it doesn’t all go as planned.

This film was Robert Bloch’s inspiration for the novel ‘Psycho’. The end twist is so effective that the film-makers added a warning over the closing credits, not to reveal it to anyone who has not seen the film. As you know, I love a twist, and this one really ‘got me’ in my late teens. Just wonderful.
The first part of this trailer is in darkness. That is intentional.

Move forward to 1996, and the inevitable American remake. (Called ‘Diabolique’) Well, this looks good. The wonderful Chazz Palminteri, I like him. Sharon Stone, sexy and good to look at. The delightful French actress Isabelle Adjani, and the solid Kathy Bates. Sharon takes on the role played by Signoret, with Adjani as the wife, and Chazz as the villain. Other than some obvious changes of location, the story and plot are near-identical, and they all play it straight. So, I just had to see it. Seen on its own, with no knowledge of the original, it appears to be a competent thriller, with a good twist.

But it didn’t work. Sharon Stone was unconvincing, the critics reviled it against the outstanding original, and the audiences stayed away, and rightly so. Stick with the chilling French film, enjoy the atmosphere, and the delicious black and white cinematography. Just tolerate the subtitles.

Retro Review: The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990)

This is a French film, with English subtitles.

It hardly seems possible to me that this film is 28 years old. It feels like I watched it just yesterday, and I can recall it all, at will. This quirky and delightful romantic story was something so fresh and different, I left the cinema realising I had seen something very special indeed.

Antoine (Jean Rochefort) is a young boy who is obsessed with female hairdressers. He loves to go to the salon of the voluptuous local lady to get his haircuts, and vows that one day, he will marry a hairdresser and be happy ever after. By the time Antoine is in his fifties, he encounters the gorgeous Mathilde, (Anna Galiena) a young woman who runs a hairdressing salon. The unlikely couple fall madly in love, and Antoine blissfully spends his days in and around the salon, enjoying the company of his young wife, and the characters who come and go.

He also loves to listen to Arabic music, and dances around to it, in a very amusing style. Mathlde is blissfully happy, but also terrified of losing that feeling, so needs constant reassurance from Antoine. That’s about it, save for an ending that I won’t spoil. I know, it sounds like very little, but it is a great deal, I assure you. Written and directed with style by Patrice Leconte, and a great score from the talented Michael Nyman, this fantasy romance will steal your heart. Believe me.

My DVD Films: Still working through them

This was a popular theme, and I have not revisited it for a while. I turned my chair around, and slid six films from a stack in front of me. There are two foreign language films; also a suspenseful psychological horror, an historical epic of importance, a modern crime thriller, and even a musical. One of the foreign language films is a powerful war film, and perhaps one of the best films ever made. See what you think.
Now with added clips or trailers!

*****Most contain plot spoilers*****

Elizabeth (1998)

This film covers the youth of Queen Elizabeth I, during the turbulent times of that period in history. Australian actress Cate Blanchett might seem an unlikely choice as the queen, but she not only looks the part, she takes the role, and makes it her own. The complex politics and religious divides at the time are handled without lecturing, and soon made clear to the viewer. Intrigues abound in the Royal Court, as various factions compete to marry off the queen, and gain power and favour for themselves. The young queen has to grow up fast, making decisions about who to trust, and what advice to follow. Blanchett is always believable in her journey from youthful innocence, to become one of the most powerful monarchs in British history.

The cinematography is excellent, as are the accurate period details, costumes, and music. But what made this film stand out for me, and remain a joy to watch to this day, is the quality of the whole cast, however small their part. Cathy Burke is heartbreaking as the dying Queen Mary, and Christopher Eccleston excels as the scheming Duke of Norfolk. Fanny Ardant captivates as Mary of Guise, and the whole film is almost stolen by the incredible performance of Geoffrey Rush, as the spymaster and power behind the throne, Walsingham. Even one of cinema’s tough guys, Vincent Cassel, gives a very amusing turn as one of Elizabeth’s suitors, the Duke of Anjou, who is discovered to be a bisexual transvestite, of all things.

Everyone knows the story behind this powerful queen, so there are few surprises to be had, naturally. What makes this film so good, is that you can watch it, knowing the end, yet still be immersed in the story as if you had no idea. This is historical drama at its very best.

When A Stranger Calls (1979)

One of the best examples of psychological horror ever made, and yet almost unknown to many modern film fans. This original version (forget all remakes-please) is as riveting to watch today, as when I saw it on release. Wide-eyed Carol Kane stars, as babysitter Jill Johnson, alone in a house looking after the children of the Mandrakis family. She gets a ‘phone call from an unknown man, with the famous line, “Have you checked the children?” At first she thinks it is a prank, but the calls continue, so she contacts the police. They trace the call, and in a wonderful moment of cinematic terror, tell her that the caller is inside the house, on another line. She runs outside, and when the police arrive, they discover the children have been horribly murdered.

Charles Durning, the reliable overweight father figure of American cinema, arrives as investigating detective, John Clifford. He eventually tracks down the killer, who is sent to an asylum.

Events then move on. Seven years later, Clifford has left the police, and is now a private detective, employed by the Mandrakis family to hunt down the killer, who has escaped from the mental hospital. Jill Johnson is now married, with children of her own. One night, she is at a restaurant, and receives a telephone call. Did you You guess it? The voice at the other end asks, “Have you checked the children?”

It doesn’t get much better than this, and the film inspired many later cliches in the horror genre, as well as at least two remakes. Don’t watch it alone. And don’t answer the telephone.

Dreamgirls (2006)

By complete contrast, a modern American musical drama, based on the successful stage play of the same name. This is a star-studded big-budget production, with the feel of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals factored in nicely. It is essentially a take on the story of the career of The Supremes and Diana Ross, but they are naturally never mentioned. All the usual musical elements are there. A struggling backing group, following a famous singer around on tour (Eddie Murphy) find themselves discovered by a slick new manager (Jamie Foxx) who moulds them into a top-selling girl group.

On the way, there are romances, affairs, betrayals, and some insight into the record companies and corruption that was widespread during the 1960s. Beyonce Knowles is very good as the star of the group, Deena Jones, who eventually goes solo, and even appears in films. Others in the group fare less well, with one falling pregnant, and another badly used in a love triangle. Jennifer Hudson, who was a TV talent show contestant, manages to convince in the role of Effie White, single mother and bitter member of the group. If you have ever seen a musical, you can guess the rest. After all the break-ups and heartaches, the girls reunite for a triumphant return concert, and it all ends happily ever after.

So why do I have this film? Despite winning countless awards, some of the acting can be best described as wooden, and the cliches are so signposted, you can easily make a snack and catch up afterwards. I have it because of the songs. There are some really great tunes on this soundtrack, all sung with real talent and raw emotion by both Knowles and Hudson. The rest of the music is good too, and showcases the changing styles over the years that the film is set in.
But one thing holds true. If you don’t like the songs, you won’t like the film.

Fiesta (1995)

This is a French film, about an incident in the Spanish Civil War. It is also about power, and a young man coming to realise how cruel life can be. I confess from the start that this is a niche-market film, and I have it because I am interested in the subject. However, the star is Jean-Louis Trintignant, one of the best and most famous actors ever to come out of France, and that alone makes it worth watching.

It is told from the point of view of a teenage officer, recalled from school in France to join the Nationalist army led by Franco. He is sent to be taken under the wing of his father’s old friend, the arrogant and gay Colonel Masagual. This man determines to toughen up the young Rafael, by having him assigned to an execution squad. Franco’s army are killing all their enemies in the areas that they have conquered, whether prisoners of war, communists, or union militia.

Trintignant is spellbinding as Masgual, coldly ordering killings, or arguing with his juniors whilst wearing a hairnet. He strives to drive all humanity from Rafael by immersing him in the constant executions. Some scenes will stay in the memory; blood being cleared after the shootings, and the blank wall where the prisoners are shot. But it is the interplay between the main characters that holds the viewer’s attention, with a sharp and incisive script, alongside compelling performances.

This film may be hard to track down, but it will reward your time.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Directed by David Cronenberg, with a terrific cast, including Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel, this is a convincing modern gangster film, set in London. It tackles the sex-traffic trade, and the involvement of the Russian Mafia in illegal activities in the capital of the UK. Sexual abuse of young girls, drug addiction, and secret police, all feature in this exciting film, that delivers some pretty convincing twists in its plot too. (Which I will not reveal.)

Despite some use of graphic violence in fight scenes, this is not a run-of-the-mill gangster film. It strives for as much authenticity as possible, from the locations in London, to the accurate Russian Mafia tattoos displayed on the body of Mortensen’s character. Because of the plot twists, I will not go into great detail, but with Cronenberg at the helm, and a cast including such stalwarts as Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Sinead Cusack, you can be sure that you are in for a treat.

Come and See (1985)

I have written about this film before, so I will just repeat what I said previously. It is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.

‘This is a Russian film from 1985. It is set during the German invasion of Belarus, and follows a young man, and a girl he meets, on their journey to join a band of partisans. It is not a film of great set piece battles, but does not shrink from depicting the horrors of the German atrocities carried out during this period. Over half of the film is a build-up to the final section, and concerns the confusion and terror experienced by the young couple, as they find themselves plunged into this unexpected war after losing their families. It has to be remembered that this is a Soviet-era film, so portrays the German troops as little more than beasts. However, the situations depicted are all based on truth, so the actual behaviour of the real Germans was never less than questionable, to say the least. With strange surreal imagery, and odd, dream-like situations, it is something of an ‘Art House’ film. It is also, very possibly, one of the finest films ever made; at any time, anywhere, about anything.’

I hope that I have managed to introduce you to some films that you might enjoy. Please let me know in the comments, if you agree, or disagree, with any of these short reviews.

My DVD Films: A stack from the front

Continuing this occasional series about the collection of DVD films stored on my bookshelves, I slipped this stack of six from one of the front rows earlier. The selection surprised me. Even though I have watched all the films reviewed in these posts, I am guilty of sometimes forgetting what I actually own.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Based on the book by Helen Hanff, this was produced by Mel Brooks, and starred his wife, Anne Bancroft, alongside the always reliable Antony Hopkins. This is a true story that gave rise to Hanff’s book, which was followed by a stage play, on which the film is based. An American researcher writes to a bookshop in London, and receives a reply from the manager. So begins a series of increasingly intimate letters between the two that lasted for nineteen years, though they never met.

This may not seem like a riveting film plot to those of you who haven’t seen it, but the perfect performances of all involved, and the fine sense of period conveyed over the years, all adds up to making this one of the best feel-good films ever made. The development of the relationship between Hanff (Bancroft) and Doel, (Hopkins) as well as members of his staff and family, is never less than completely believable, and handled with great warmth. Bancroft won the BAFTA for best actress for her portrayal of Hanff, and Judi Dench was also nominated, for her part as Mrs Doel.

This may seem to some to be little more than a weepie, or one of those films popular on afternoon TV schedules. But it is a great deal more. It is about a love of books, respect, manners, human kindness, and long-distance relationships based on trust and goodness. It is just wonderful.

The Tuskegee Airmen

This is an HBO TV film from 1985, released as a DVD in the UK. It is the based-on-truth story of the all-black unit of combat airmen who flew for the US Air Force in the Second World War. Subject to the usual prejudice and racism, at first the fliers are not allowed to participate in any action. After a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, they are reluctantly allowed to go onto combat duty. They show a real flair for fighting in the air, and eventually become escorts for bombing missions into Europe, flying the famous Mustang fighter aircraft. They paint the tails of these planes red for identification purposes, and earn the nickname ‘Red Tails’, from both friend and foe.

A star-studded cast lifts this film from its inherent sentimentality and TV roots. Lawrence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Junior, Courtney B. Vance, and John Lithgow, are just some of the familiar names and faces that you will see. The combat footage is convincing, and occasionally quite exciting too. So if you are interested in a glimpse into the history of both war in the air, and the treatment of black servicemen by the US during that war, this will be something you might enjoy.

Black Robe

Directed by Bruce Beresford, in 1991, this is an Australian/Canadian production (English, Cree, Mohawk, and Algonquin languages, with subtitles) about the life of the early settlers in 17th century Canada. If you are thinking it sounds similar to ‘The Mission’, or ‘The New World’, you are in the right area; but it is far superior to both, in every way imaginable. Lothaire Bluteau plays Father LaForge, the black robed priest that gives the film its title. He is sent on a dangerous mission into the territory of the Huron natives, with a group of Algonquin indians as escort. This journey is a cinematic treat in itself, with canoes paddling quietly along vast waterways, surrounded by breathtaking scenery.

They meet some of the Montagnais tribe, who have never encountered Europeans. LaForge is disliked by their holy man, the shaman of the tribe, and he convinces the Algonquins to abandon LaForge, and to leave for their hunting lodge. But they feel guilty, and soon return, to try to save him. This ends in disaster, when the party are captured by Iroquois, and dragged off to their camp, where they are beaten and tortured. Even after they manage to escape, wounds and weather get the better of some of them, and the survivors eventually accept LaForge’s pleas to convert to Christianity.

This is a compelling and convincing look at early European settlement of the Americas, and of the cultural and spiritual differences that existed for so long, before all the tribes were eventually subdued. The different native American nations are shown with great respect, and efforts are made to explain why they behave as they do. The locations are stunning, the cast near-perfect, and the ending is far from the easy option it might have been.

Heaven’s Gate

This epic from 1980 is probably more famous for its huge budget overspend, and the antics of director Michael Cimino, than for its content. With a running time of over three hours, an enormous cast, and covering events over a period of more than thirty years, it is not something that can easily be explained in this short appraisal. It is rumoured to have cost over $45 million dollars to make, and almost broke the studio and financiers that backed it, when it failed to recoup a fraction of this sum at the box office. It signalled an early end to the burgeoning career of Cimino, who had enjoyed huge success with ‘The Deer Hunter.’

This is a western, set around the time when the cattle barons and big landowners were coming into conflict with settlers and immigrants who wanted to create small farms and new communities. It follows the fortunes of two Harvard graduates. One becomes a marshal in Wyoming, the other an alcoholic drifter, espousing causes, and spouting poetry. It is very loosely based on real events know as The Johnson County War, which culminated in a violent shoot-out between armed settlers and farmers, and the hired guns of the cattle barons.
In the meantime, we are treated to a very accurate representation of the period. It is always a delight to watch, and strong performances by the leads hold together the sprawling plot. Less attractive is Cimino’s insistence on using ‘real sound’ (trains drown out conversation, for example) and some of the lingering set pieces, such as the roller skating in the hall known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’, which gives the film its title.

The cast is a who’s-who of the period. Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Isabel Huppert, and many, many, more. Don’t be put off by the criticism of Cimino, and the negatives that surround this production. It is worth the effort, I assure you.

The Army Of Crime

A worthy French film (Original language, English subtitles) from 2009, this deals with a band of resistance fighters during WWII. It focuses on the Manouchian Group, led by an Armenian immigrant, which operated against the German occupiers in the areas in and around Paris. Because he was a Communist, and many of his group were Jews, the Nazis labelled them ‘The Army Of Crime’, attempting to insinuate that they were foreign criminals, rather than French patriots.

The film doesn’t try to glamourise the fighters, and readily shows how disorganised, and occasionally shambolic they were. Yet their efforts are effective enough, and they also grow large, with up to 100 members in their complex organisation. The Germans were so keen to arrest them, they issued the famous ‘Affiche Rouge’, (Red Poster) showing the photos and names of more than twenty of the ringleaders. It was on this poster that they were first called ‘The Army Of Crime.’

The film has a realistic, everyday feel to it, which also makes it a little dull in places. Sense of period is good throughout, and the eventual downfall of the group, and the imprisonment and execution of most of them, is all dealt with in detail. One for fans of the genre, but a very good effort.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

France again, (Original language, English subtitles) this time from 2005. This film was released to great critical acclaim, five-star reviews, and also won many awards, including a BAFTA. I read a review of the film in Empire magazine that was so good, I bought the DVD as soon as it was released. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. This will give you a rough idea of the story.

Thomas is a shady estate agent who together with his partners, spends time doing dodgy property deals, and helping out his equally crooked father, who specialises in acquiring property by intimidating the tenants. His father also gets into serious trouble with Russian gangsters, asking Thomas to help him out. Meanwhile, Thomas rediscovers his childhood talent for piano playing, and employs a glamorous Asian piano tutor, Miao Lin, to bring him up to concert standards. Before his audition, he gets involved in another deal with his partners, arrives unprepared, and fails miserably. Going to tell his father, he finds him dead, apparently killed by Minskov, the Russian gangster.

The film moves forward in time. Thomas is now Miao Lin’s manager, and he once again stumbles across Minskov, who he fights with at the concert hall.

Are you still interested? I wasn’t. But surely all those critics cannot be wrong? I must have missed something. Perhaps I was unable to comprehend a masterpiece. I will never know.

There you have six more from my collection. They are quite varied, and offer something for most tastes.

Meeting Martin

I had a day out today. Unusual for me I know, and it made a nice change.

Last week, my good friend Martin rang, to tell me that he was on a short holiday in Norfolk, with some of his family. He hoped we might meet up, as it had been almost two years since we had last seen each other. Luckily, he was staying in Burnham Market, only 24 miles away, so an easy drive. We arranged to meet this morning, and go for lunch in a pub there.

I have known Martin for over fifty years, or for most of my life, to put it another way. When I started secondary school, he was a teacher there. Not one of my teachers, but a young teacher of French, originating from Bristol, in the West of England. He was like many of the new breed of teachers around at that time. Idealistic, liberal, and progressive, in both thought and deed. Unlike his elderly predecessors, he and his young contemporaries had a very different outlook, and a whole new approach to interaction with the students. He soon became part of a group that organised trips, and visits abroad, something very exciting to us at that time. I went along on some of these, and forged a friendship with Martin, and some others, that went well beyond any usual pupil-teacher relationship, and it has lasted ever since.

Over the decades, we have done our best to keep in touch. It was not always easy, as both our lives took turns we did not anticipate, and there were times when we lost each other for a while. Despite this, we always recovered, and whether through contact with third parties, or attendance at school reunions, we somehow always managed to rekindle the warm regard that we had for each other. Over the last few years, Martin, now 77, has had his share of health problems, and a few trips ‘under the knife’ with a surgeon. He is resilient though, like our friendship, and always bounces back; to at least most of his old self. Despite occasional use of a walking stick, and a few pounds added, courtesy of good living, and a second home in France, he is incredibly unchanged. He still has the familiar cackle of a laugh, the spark in his eye, and the twinkling grin, that marked him as much French, as he is English.

Martin took me on my first ever trip abroad, to Calais, in France. He showed me my first baguettes, and gave me my first ever glass of wine. He taught me how to chat up a girl in French, and how to drink Cognac with black coffee. He was the first person to ever invite me to a dinner party in his home, when I was still a gauche teenager; and he served me jugged hare, a taste I have never forgotten. Later, he and his friends took a few of us to a rented house in Portland, Dorset, and allowed us to think we were adults, and to make our own decisions; for most of us, for the first time in our lives. He arranged a summer trip to Perpignan, still one of my fondest memories, and took us to the Institut Francais, in Kensington, to watch French films (without subtitles); and he encouraged me to want to actually speak French, instead of just having to learn it.

Fifty years later, and we stay in touch, meet up when we can, and talk together like old friends. That says a lot about a man’s character.

From where I am sitting, that was a special kind of day out.

Halloween- Scmalloween

What is all this fuss about Halloween? Does anybody remember when it all started here? Shops full of pumpkins, devil-suits, and tridents; parties with fancy-dress themes, gangs of kids wandering about, begging for sweets. I certainly have no memory of it, in London at least, until about 1990. It is yet another unwanted American import, alongside baseball caps, (Who knows the rules? Come on, tell me.) rap music, and McDonald’s. Driven by the Marketing Men, Supermarkets, and Television, desperate to fill the gap between Summer holidays, and Christmas.

Why do we always fall for this rubbish so easily?  Is there no tradition that cannot be sold on, re-packaged for British taste, and successfully marketed, until nobody remembers a time before it existed? What’s next, Thanksgiving? That would fit nicely into the space before Yuletide, and would increase turkey sales even more. We could all wear stove-pipe hats, and big Puritan collars, trying to pretend it was OK to swindle the Red Indians out of their lands for a few beads and trinkets. It wouldn’t matter that there were no Red Indians here, we could just make that bit up. Or maybe we could call them ‘Native Americans’, to make us feel even less guilty.

Nothing has value anymore. There is no special time left. Hot Cross Buns are available all year, pancakes can be bought anytime, then microwaved, to save the effort in making them. Tangerines are no longer a Christmas treat, any Tesco will have them in, anytime you want. We have slowly removed everything that we ever had occasion to anticipate excitedly, and to look forward to, as the seasons changed. Once we had lost all that, we had to search elsewhere for something to plan for, and along came Halloween. We can now arrange parties, or the appalling ‘Trick or Treat’ parades (Ask them for a trick is my tip!), and have everything from themed burgers, to pumpkin socks. How did we ever cope before?

I would love to take you back in a Time Machine. You would relish the prospect of Buns at Easter, delight at trying to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and be unable to sleep on the night before Christmas. You would never have heard of ‘Grand-Parents’ Day’, and Halloween would be something that was ‘done’ in America.  Brazil nuts and tangerines would appear in December, be enjoyed briefly, and would not be seen again, until that time the following year. Baseball caps would be worn by baseball players, and some other people in The Americas, but not in England. If you wanted a snack, you would be happy with fish and chips, or pie and mash.

There is nothing wrong with American cultural celebrations. They even keep some of ours, like Christmas. But the newer ones should stay on that side of the Atlantic, along with their terrible fast food. That way, those that seek it, can travel there to enjoy it, and celebrate the differences in our societies and customs. We might even tell them that we used to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve as part of the Harvest Festival, and that Halloween is a Scottish corruption of that phrase. That would make it ours then, not American at all. Like most things, including many we have since discarded, they were taken to America by settlers. America does not have a culture as such, just an amalgamation of many of the cultures of its numerous settlers, and more recent immigrant populations. However, it is doing a fantastic job of re-exporting those traditions, whether we need them back, or not.

Surely it is enough to celebrate the difference in the various traditions and cultures of the many countries and societies in The World, without having to assimilate everything? As the French say- ‘Vive la difference’.

Ambulance stories (1)

The un-snippable turd

Sometimes, ambulances are called by other agencies, and not by the person in need of help. Railway staff make frequent requests for ambulances, whether in underground stations, or on the main line system. When you consider how many people are travelling on both systems on any given day in Central London, it is understandable, to some degree.

So, when we received a call on the radio to go to Paddington Station, it was not particularly unusual. We had added information, that a female was in a collapsed state in the toilets, in great pain, and unable to move. On the way to the job, with siren blaring and blue lights flashing,  we were in the habit of considering what we might be going to encounter on arrival. Using the basic information and diagnostics supplied by the caller, we could presume a whole number of things. Young female, toilets, great pain, cannot move. This could be a back injury perhaps, or maybe a gynecological problem. The pain of appendicitis, or kidney stones, could be very severe, and might impair movement. We would have to establish if the female was pregnant, as that could open up a lot more possibilities. Fortunately, Paddington Station is only a few yards from St. Mary’s Hospital, one of the biggest and best in London, with a very good Emergency Department, (which I prefer to call ‘Casualty Department’) so we would not be travelling far from the scene of the crisis.

On entering the station, we were met by staff, who quickly showed us down to the female toilets. They had thoughtfully closed that particular facility, to allow us to work in peace, and to leave room for the equipment we carried down, in case we needed it. It was soon apparent we were in the right place. Loud screams could be heard coming from a cubicle, and a worried-looking female Railway staff member advised us to ‘hurry up’. It is not easy to work inside a toilet cubicle that is already occupied by a sitting female, as I am sure you can imagine. Squeezing through the small gap available, I made a full assessment of the scene facing me. A shouting, near-hysterical young woman, aged about 25, was sitting on the toilet, legs splayed, bracing on the sides of the adjacent stalls. She was not wearing anything below the waist, and was yelling in a strange mixture of French and English combined. I have enough French to get by, and I managed a rough translation of her dilemma. ‘Get it out, quick, I can’t get it out, you do it, it hurts.’ She confirmed the location of the problem by raising her left buttock, and signalling between her legs with an agitated hand motion. I wondered what it could be. Perhaps she was trying to deliver a baby, not uncommon in toilet areas. Could she have sat on something sharp, or even been attacked, and have a foreign object impaled in her person? I managed to calm her down, stopped her screaming, and finally got her to co-operate. I gently lifted her from the seat, her arms around my neck, and I peered behind her, which given the physical restrictions of the situation, was not an easy feat.

What I saw, was a dark, hard stool, protruding from her backside to a length of some four inches. Or was it? It could have been a Mars Bar, or a Picnic, a Double Decker, or similar turd-like confection. It occurred to me that she may have been inserting it into her anus for personal reasons (not as unusual as you might suppose) and it had stuck there, unable to go all the way in, or come back out. But no, it was just a turd. Further questioning established that she was at the end of a short break holiday to London, she had become constipated, and tried to relieve herself, before travelling back to France. The recalcitrant bum-muffin had a short look at the outside world, viewed its fate, and decided to stay where it was. No amount of flexing of her young French sphincter would budge the first effort; it was literally un-snippable.

I decided that manual evacuation would be the only option, and handed her a latex glove, with instructions given to her in French to grasp the offending object, and snap it free. She refused, stating that it was too painful to contemplate. There was nothing left but to don the glove myself, and attempt the tricky manoeuvre personally. With no assistance from the panicking Parisienne, I was forced to crouch on the toilet floor, place my chin on her thigh, and reach around the rear of the toilet seat. This placed my face dangerously close to her arched pelvis, as she struggled to gain height from the bowl. No sooner had I come into contact with her stool, with no more than a brush of my hand, as light as a butterfly’s wing, she resumed screaming, and crying out that the pain was unbearable. By now, my temper was fraying. Her worried friend was yelling at me to leave the girl alone, and the Railway staff were asking how long would it be before they could re-open the toilets. I had to concede victory to the turd, and take it, and the girl, to the hospital.

I was far from happy. Although I am sure that it must have caused some discomfort, to have called an emergency ambulance to this nonsense was unacceptable in my view, and I told the Railway staff exactly what I thought of their actions. We had to wrap the girl in a blanket, place her into our small carrying-chair, and get her upstairs to our vehicle. She yelled all the way, as if we were deliberately hurting her, gaining the sympathy of the dozens of people on the main station concourse. There was increased volume as we transferred her onto our trolley bed, for the one minute journey to the Casualty Department. I handed over to the head nurse, unable to hide my annoyance at what I considered a complete waste of all our time. Luckily for the patient, nurses are unusually sympathetic by nature, so she was cooed over, and put into a comfortable cubicle. As the nurse unwrapped the blanket, to examine the girl’s nether regions, we could see the outcome of being carried upstairs in our chair, then transferred to the trolley. What had once been a proud, firm digit of a stool, now resembled a quarter-pounder burger, squashed flat against the young woman’s bum cheek.

I later found out that she had been given a laxative, and had manged to pass the rest of her package. Makes you feel all warm inside, for a job well done…