Remembering Andrew Sachs, Manuel from Fawlty Towers

learn

This morning awaking before 5am I was saddened to learn of the death of Andrew Sachs who famously portrayted  the well-meaning but inept Spanish waiter Manuel in the classic comedy Fawlty Towers.

Manuel was always in a state of constant confusion, and with a tenuous grasp of English syntax, he was invariably the target of Basil’s rages.  However it it was just one role in seven decades of acting that spanned comedy, classical and dramatic roles.

He was born Andreas Siegfried Sachs on 7 April 1930 in Berlin. His insurance broker father was Jewish while his mother, who worked as a librarian, was a Catholic of part-Austrian ancestry.  With Nazism on the rise in Germany, his father was arrested by the authorities in 1938, but later released after intervention by a friend in the police but was enough to persuade the family to flee Germany, and they moved to London.

They lived in several parts of north London, once acting as caretakers in the house of the noted anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski. Sachs later recalled being fascinated, at the age of 10, by piles of images of naked women he came across while exploring the house.

If the good Lord wanted us to be afraid, then he would have given us someone to be afraid of…..

He has, my WIFE!!!!                               – Mr O’Reilly and Basil

Andrew was a keen cinema-goer in his teens and auditioned for Rada but only had enough money to complete two terms. He eventually secured an assistant stage manager’s job at a theatre in Bexhill, East Sussex.

He endured the gruelling routine of rep, performing a play one week while, at the same time, learning lines and rehearsing for a completely different performance the next. Eventually he secured a job as stage manager at the Liverpool Playhouse.

A move to the Globe theatre in London followed, where he was spotted by the producer Brian Rix, who signed him up to appear in his Whitehall Farces. This gave Sachs more stable employment and a base to map out his future career.

A tenacious individual, he bombarded the BBC with material and requests for auditions. He was eventually hired by the Corporation where he wrote scripts, appeared in a number of radio productions and, occasionally, worked in the BBC German section.

His film debut came in the 1959 comedy, The Night They Dropped a Clanger, which also starred Brian Rix and the future first Doctor Who, William Hartnell. He followed this up with a minor part in another Rix film, Nothing Barred.

But despite a steady stream of work his profile remained low. He had a role in a 1962 BBC drama The Six Proud Walkers, and there there were appearances in a number of 1960s TV series, including The Saint.

He appeared in the 1973 film, Hitler: The Last Ten Days, featuring Alec Guinness as the dictator shut up in his bunker. Sachs didn’t miss the irony of a half-Jewish actor playing Walter Wagner, the Nazi lawyer who married Hitler to his mistress Eva Braun shortly before the pair committed suicide.

Sachs encountered John Cleese when both men were working on a series of training films. When Cleese finally managed to persuade the BBC to make Fawlty Towers – Corporation executives were sceptical – Sachs got the part that catapulted him into the public eye.

For those who have never seen Fawlty Towers, it is impossible to quite explain what a great impact the show has had on British culture.  I might go as far to say that whilst many other British comedies are hits around the world, perhaps Fawlty Towers is the best and offers much of the same style of gentle, chaotic and self-depreciating humour of many of our other shows such as Dad’s Army.

57518810.jpg

Fawlty Towers is a hotel set on the English Riviera in the small town of Torquay and is run by the slightly awkward character of Basil Fawlty.  Basil isn’t really cut out for life in the hospitality industry, he isn’t a people person and views his customers as a nuisance.  A social climber who has aspirations to mingle with his betters whilst also always trying to take short cuts, cut corners and do things on the cheap.  Hence why he has hired the young Manuel no doubt on peanuts.  To make matters worse, his wife is a very fierce characters and infinitely more normal and capable but is herself rather pre-occupied with her social circle and chatting on the phone which leaves a lot of scope for things to go wrong.

The show is remembered for many things, the rat, the hotel guest who died, the fire, the hotel inspectors, the Germans of course.  If one group of 12 short episodes can have too much to explain, then Fawlty Towers are those.

My favourite character in lots of way is actually the slightly senile, alcholic and very politically incorrect Major but undoubtedly the real highlight are the interactios between Basil and his waiter, Manuel.

I’m going to sell you to a vivisectionist!   – Basil to Manuel

It wasn’t an easy role for Andrew, he twice suffered injuries, once when Basil attacked him with a metal saucepan – Cleese wanted to use a rubber one but was overruled by the producer – and once during the kitchen fire episode in The Germans.

A chemical on his clothes, designed to emit smoke, proved to be corrosive and ate its way into his skin.

Much of the comedy revolved around Manuel’s shaky grasp of English – “I learn eet from a book” -which made him incapable of understanding the simplest instructions.

Cleese’s break-up with his wife Connie Booth, who co-wrote the scripts, meant that only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers were made over two series. They have become comedy classics and are regularly repeated four decades after they first appeared.

In 1978 Sachs, inspired by a meeting with the playwright Tom Stoppard, wrote an experimental drama in which all the action was conveyed by sound effects rather than dialogue.

It first aired on BBC Radio 3 with Sachs in the leading role. It puzzled many critics, one of whom opined that it stood for “all that was wrong in contemporary radio drama”.

 

Basil Fawlty: Look, uh, go and get me a hammer.
Manuel: Uh, como?
Basil Fawlty: Hammer.
Manuel: Hammer, oh… Oh, hamma sandwich!
Basil Fawlty: Oh, do I have to go through this every time? Look, a HAMMER.
Manuel: My hamster?
Basil Fawlty: No, not your hamster. How could I knock a nail in with your hamster? Well… I could try, no, it doesn’t… No, I’ll get it. You come here and tidy. You know – tidy?
Manuel: Oh, tidy. Si.
Basil Fawlty: [walking away] Yes, I’ll get hkhammer and hkhit you on the hkhead with it hkhard.

Although there were further TV appearances, notably as the title character in the BBC adaptation of HG Wells’s History of Mr Polly, Andrew Sachs’s distinctive voice made him a natural for radio.

He played Father Brown in a Radio 4 adaptation of GK Chesterton’s detective priest stories, as well as radio versions of Sherlock Holmes and PG Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters.

He was also much in demand for narration, notably all five series of the The Troubleshooter for BBC television, which featured John Harvey-Jones as the businessman aiding struggling companies.

Sachs’ voice has also appeared on a number of audio books, including some Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

 

In 2009 Sachs made his debut on the ITV soap, Coronation Street, as Ramsay Clegg. At the time he revealed that his wife Melody was such a fan the family had been watching it since 1962.

He continued to work on TV and radio well into his eighties. “Oh yes, I just like it,” he said. “And because I’ve done quite well in the business, I don’t want to give it up.”

Despite Manuel being the butt of the jokes, he was extremely well loved and the audience always felt sorry for him and willed him on just as they did for his eccentric hotel manager.

My mother is always going on about men folloing her, I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her…. vomit on her Basil says   – Sybil Fawlty

You can see just a few of the countless hilarious moments in the video below.  Manuel features in a few of them.  I picked an American video as I know some of the official BBC videos don’t play overseas though personally I find the voice over lady rather annoying!

Bizarely most of my favourite moments are even listed which show what a great show it is.   I’ll always remember the happy moments that the show brought and the odd moment when my mother would have to dash off to the toilet during uncontrollable fits of laughter.  Basil calling the conman’Lord’ a bar-steward was always popular as was the moment when Basil was waving his fist at God when he lost the key to the fire alarm.

For however long I have left on this planet then I know that I will always have the comedy genius of Andrew Sachs and his Manuel along with all the others which can’t be the worse way to be remembered.

 

Basil Fawlty: Shhh-shh-shh-shh-shh. You know nothing… about… the horse.
Manuel: [parroting] I know “nothing… about… the horse.”
Basil Fawlty: Yes.
Manuel: Ah. Which horse?
Basil Fawlty: What?
Manuel: Which horse I know nothing?
Basil Fawlty: My horse, nitwit!
Manuel: Your horse – Nitwit.
Basil Fawlty: No-no-no. Dragonfly.
Manuel: It won!
Basil Fawlty: Yes, I know!
Manuel: I know it won, too!
Basil Fawlty: What?
Manuel: I put money on for you. You give me money; I go to betting shop.
Basil Fawlty: Yes, I know, I know, I know.
Manuel: Then why you say I know nothing?
Basil Fawlty: [desperately] Look, look, look, you know the horse?
Manuel: Uh, Nitwit or Dragonfly?
Basil Fawlty: Dragonfly! There isn’t a horse called Nit… YOU’RE the Nitwit!
Manuel: What is Witnit?
Basil Fawlty: It doesn’t matter. Look, it doesn’t matter. Oh, I can spend the rest of my life having this conversation. Now, please, please, try to understand before one of us dies.
Manuel: I try.
Basil Fawlty: You’re going to forget everything you know about Nitwit.
Manuel: No, no. Dragonfly.
Basil Fawlty: Dragonfly!

Manuel: I know nothing.

e47e2a4b8751881a0797b853f142c0eaf9de7363bbfe34a5825c52e2af6e3dbe

Posted in Life, Popular Culture, television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Apricity – The Warmth of Winter Sun

It’s freezing cold outside this morning.  At 8.30am the garden is still minus 10C or 10F, the garden is covered in frost and ice and a pale blue stretches across the horizon with a very weak and watery like pale yellow sun is poking up above the horizon.

Funnily enough the weather in NW Scotland is already 10C or 50F which just goes to show how unusual our climate always is.

It’s been dry but ‘freezing’ for a week or two now near London and I must say I like it.  No matter how cold it is, so long as it is dry, not to windy and preferably sunny then that is better than a warmer and damp day, at least for me.

I’ve been having to feed my dragons quite a lot in the last week or two.  They might look like garden birds to everyone else but I call them dragons as they flock around me as the dragons do to Khaleesi in Game of Thrones.  I keep the cats away, make a varied and ‘wild’ environment in the garden that can sustain them through the year and when it is sub-zero or pouring down, they know that usually there will be some natural goodies for them to feast on.

Of course, sometimes I get diverted or am busy and when I get home or away from my desk, I can hear some quite angry squaking as the dragons are disappointed that their Khaleesi has got better things to do than to keep their food topped up.

Daenerys-Targaryen-game-of-thrones-23107710-1600-1200.jpeg

Living in a terrace house, where a row of houses are joined together.  The climate is actually quite different to the front of the house and the rear.  The front is south facing and with a field opposite, is bathed in daylight, if not always sunshine every day of the year.  I often joke that the front garden has a Cornish climate as the plants and flowers always do better here.  The first flowers of spring can flower anytime from the end of January onwards but at least from February.

The back garden however is cast in shade from the houses.  In the summer it gets some sunshine but from September until December, the amount of sun it receives lessens by the day until from this time of year until about February, there is no direct sunshine at all.  The flowers that emerge in January in the front, appear in April or even May in the back.  It is a land of usually frozen, icy and very crunchy lawns and vegetable patches though by planting trees in the right places, there are some warmer and sheltered spots.

It is on days such as these that I enjoy the feeling of Apricity.  To many other people, they might not even notice what it is or if you live somewhere warm, it might be hard to imagine such a thing.  Apricity though is one of the nicest feelings in the world, it is when you are somewhere cold and wintery and you step out of the shade for a few minutes and get to feel the warmth of the sun on your face.   Obviously, the warmth is very minimal but even today when there is ice on the ground, there will be Apricity.

I guess it depends on what you are used to.  I remember once taking a family from Singapore on a London walking tour between Christmas and New Year.  Somewhere near Buckingham Palace in a very wintery London park whilst the well-wrapped up and entirely frozen tourists were taking photos, I let out a nice sigh of satisfaction and spread by arms out as I found a tiny bit of sun between the shadows cast down by the trees.  My tourists thought I to be crazy, there was no heat as it was frozen outside.  I knew better and that tiny fraction of a degree heat increase coupled with direct sunshine made me feel like a lizard sunbathing on a rock in some hot desert location.

Apricity  - The warmth of winter sun

Spot where you can find a touch of Apricity on the right hand side!

I always love Apricity, it is as nice if not better than the feeling of sitting in the sun in the summer.  Of course Apricity always has to end either from the weather or the environs, it is always fleeting and whimsical but to those who appreciate such things, Apricity makes you feel happy to be alive.

Apricity comes from the old Latin word  Aprīcitās which means the warmth of the winter sun. In fact the fruit Apricot has the same origins as it is grown in the sun but it reached us in a very different way.  It is a rare and precious word, as unfamiliar to many as those who know the feeling.  We’ve had it since at least 1623 and such a beautiful word to match a beautiful sensation.

It is a shame, so many people don’t love their language more.  For knowing the word, any word, makes life so much more fun and once aware that there is a specific word to match an occurence then you can become more aware of the occurence too.

One of my most popular blog posts is 102 great words that aren’t in English but should be! with it having 40,000 readers so far but there are plenty of underused words in the English language too.

If you live somewhere cold, do find a way to use and experience Apricity this winter.  Yes, living in the U.K. is cold and often dark in winter but I’d rather have my moments of Apricity than wall to wall sun and warmth.  If you live somewhere hot and fret that you can’t appreciate Aprictity, at least you don’t have to experience that horrid feeling when you are forced to step back into the shade.

I’m going to have lunch today in a beautiful Bloomsbury Square, I could go tomorrow when it will be milder but cloudy but you can bet that one way or the other I will find a nice spot for a hot soup in the sun, even if there is still frost on the ground.

Posted in Culture, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

From the prehistoric to the merely ancient

This gallery contains 27 photos.

I’ve had a busy old week and been unwell for longer so was unable to write at all so I hope this collection of photos which I took on Thursday. It was a very windy day and the temperature was … Continue reading

Gallery | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

John “Mad Jack” Mytton – The craziest man in history!

John Mytton is one of those colouful characters that make history, especially British history such an interest affair.  It’s always nice when one comes across someone who was totally nuts and I always look at them with a slight mix of jealousy and admiration and just a little astonishment.

Of course history is littered with such people but how we view them very much depends on their social standing.  Such was the nominal state of mental health care in the good old days that what happened to you if you were a few sandwiches short of a picnic meant that if you were poor or homeless then you would be locked away in an institution or left to roam the streets until the inevitable premature demise.

If however you were a person of means and good standing then the world was very much your crazy-ass oyster.  John Mytton was one such aristocrat who even at his best was definitely a few cards short of a full pack.  Born on September 30th 1796 into a well-heeled family of Shropshire Squires, his father died when John was only 2 years old which meant that the young boy inherited the family seat at Halston Hall which aside from its value of £60,000 or over £5million today, it also offered him annual income of £10,000 which is nearly £1million a year.  In short he John Mytton was all set for a life that only a mad as a march hare British eccentic could ever hope to lead.

halston01

The rear of Halston Hall, ancestral home of John Mytton.

John was sent to the prestigious Westminster School as a young boy but was expelled after a year for fighting with his school master.  3 terms later, he was also expelled from Harrow and so for much of his younger years, he was privately educated by a succession of tutors. John enjoyed terrorising them and was known to even have left a horse in the bedroom of one of his tutors.

Despite not showing any great academic ability, John found himself enrolled at Cambridge University where he took 2,000 bottles of Port with him to his lodgings to sustain him through his studies.  Sadly, John found University to be somewhat boring and despite his (best?) efforts, he left Cambridge without any qualifications to his name and threw himself into a Grand Tour of Europe.

At the age of 16, in the year 1812, Mad Jack was commissioned as a Captain in the local Yeomanry and then after he returned from his touring he was commisioned in the regular British Army Sadly for him but perhaps happily for his men, he just missed out on the Napoleonic Wars.  No doubt his unhinged and reckless personality with little heed for good sense or the wellbeing of his men would have seen him leading many a suicidal cavalry charge was the making and sometimes breaking of many a military career.   Instead he spent his time in occupied France, gambling and drinking until he resigned his post.

Family life beckoned for John but sadly his first wife died just 2 years after their marriage.  His second marriage went better at least for 10 years until his wife ran away.  John lobbied for a senior position back in the North Shropshire Yeomanry but was turned down and so rejoined at a more modest position.

mytton-hounds001

John Mytton looking splendid with some of his thousands of dogs on a hunt.

In 1819 he entertained ambitions of standing for Parliament, as a Tory, following family tradition. He secured his seat by offering voters £10 notes, spending a total of £10,000 (more than £750,000 as of 2006). He thus became MP for Shrewsbury. He spent just 30 minutes in the House of Commons in June 1819, but found the debates boring and difficult to follow because of his incipient deafness.When Parliament was dissolved in 1820 he declined to stand at the next election. He instead served as High Sheriff of Merionethshirefor 1821–22, High Sheriff of Shropshire for 1823–24, and Mayor of Oswestry for 1824-25.

However, he attempted to enter Parliament again in 1831, this time for one of the two Shropshire seats and as a Whig candidate. He withdrew on the fifth day of the poll and came bottom with 376 votes. He then issued an address stating that he would contest the next parliamentary election, but by the time of that election, in 1832, he had gone into exile to escape his creditors.

Meanwhile, he indulged his enjoyment of horseracing and gambling, and enjoyed some success at both. He bought a horse named Euphrates, which was already a consistent winner, and entered it in the Gold Cup at Lichfield in 1825, and it duly won. Its portrait, commissioned by Mytton from the painter William Webb, was exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. Mytton also became a well-known character at Oswestry Race Course, an increasingly disreputable local racetrack.

It is said that in 1826, in order to win a bet, he rode a horse into the Bedford Hotel opposite the Town Hall in Leamington Spa, up the grand staircase and onto the balcony, from which he jumped, still seated on his horse, over the diners in the restaurant below, and out through the window onto the Parade.

He also held contests for local children at Dinas Mawddwy, giving sums ranging from half a crown to half a guinea to those who rolled all the way down the hill Moel Dinas

Mytton had hunted foxes with his own pack of hounds from the age of ten and went hunting in any kind of weather. His usual winter gear was a light jacket, thin shoes, linen trousers and silk stockings, but in the thrill of the chase he sometimes stripped off and continued the hunt naked, even through snow drifts and rivers in full spate. He also continued hunting despite being unseated and sustaining broken ribs -“unmurmuring when every jar was an agony”, and sometimes led his stable boys on rat hunts, each stable boy being equipped with ice skates. He had a wardrobe consisting of 150 pairs of hunting breeches, 700 pairs of handmade hunting boots, 1,000 hats and some 3,000 shirts.

Mytton kept numerous pets, including some 2,000 dogs. His favourites among them were fed on steak and champagne. His favourite horse, Baronet, had free range inside Halston Hall and lay in front of the fire with Mytton.

It was said of “Mad Jack” that “not only did he not mind accidents, he positively liked them”. Mytton drove his gig at high speed and once decided to discover if a horse pulling a carriage could jump over a tollgate (it could not). On another occasion he asked his passenger whether he had ever been upset in a gig. The man said he had not and Mytton responded, “What!! What a damn slow fellow you must have been all your life!” He promptly drove the gig up a sloping bank at full speed, tipping himself and his passenger out.

70942_3166289

John Mytton trying to see if he can ride hig gig over a Toll Gate. I’d rather wage that he can’t.

He would often drive his gig at high speed at an obstacle like a rabbit hole only to see if the carriage would turn over and often it would. Once he tested if a horse pulling a carriage could jump over a tollgate. It could not. Whilst it might be said that his life was a serious of failed suicide attempts, somehow he managed to survive these incidents without serious injuries.

Once he picked a fight with a tough Shropshire miner who disturbed his hunt and the bare knuckle fight lasted 20 rounds before the miner gave up exhausted. Another time he decided to make an impression and arrived at a dinner party at Halston Hall riding a bear, it was all going well until he jammed his stirrups into the bear as he tried to make it go faster. The bear understandably didn’t like this and bit him in his calf.

john-mytton-riding-bear-large

John Mytton rides a bear around his country hall to entertain friends before getting bitten on the calf.

His home at Halston Hall was full of animals. His pets included some 2,000 dogs, his favourites were fed on steak and champagne. Some dogs wore livery, others were costumed. He also enjoyed dog fights and bred dogs for this, he was even seen having fights with bulldogs and mastiffs and even bit them to train them up. It is known that one of his favourite horses, Baronet, had full and free range inside Halston Hall, and would lie in front of the fire with Jack.

One evening, out for a stroll after dinner, Mytton met a beggar on his estate. He swapped clothes with him and returned to the house, where the disguised squire asked his own servants for charity, only to be given the bitter dregs from a barrel. When he objected, the butler and two menservants attempted to manhandle him, but when he knocked them down they set the dogs on him.

John Mytton toughening up his fighting dogs by biting them himself.

John Mytton toughening up his fighting dogs by biting them himself.

On one occassion, a horse dealer was over for dinner and with John as a drinking companion became very drunk and was put to bed. He woke the following morning to find two bulldogs on one side of him and the bear on the other.

On one occasion after his guests left on horseback from a dinner he organized for a local Oswestry parson and doctor at Halston Hall, Jack quickly donned full highwayman’s garb and mask and armed with a brace of pistols caught up with them through the back roads. Still on the edge of his estate, he burst from cover fired both pistols over their heads and called “Stand and deliver!” it is said that not content with terrifying his guests, but when the parson and the doctor took to their heels, Mad Jack chased them all the way to Oswestry.

Stand and deliver, your money or your life!   Mad Jack terrorises his own dinner party guests on their way home.

Stand and deliver, your money or your life! Mad Jack terrorises his own dinner party guests on their way home.

On other occassions in the middle of the night, stripped down to his night shirt Squire Jack Mytton would lay in the snow, duck hunting. He was inclined to do things like go out onto the ice of a frozen lake when totally naked. Jack would ambush the ducks, fire a few shots and return to bed apparently none the worse for his ordeal. He frequently got up again half an hour later – stripped off and went through the whole process again. Another passion was hunting on horseback stripped to the waist shedding his clothes as he rode.

duck-shooting

A scantily dressed John Mytton goes out duck shooting in the night through the snow to a frozen lake.

Mytton was a spendthrift. Visitors to his estate sometimes found banknotes stashed around the grounds, whether left on purpose or simply lost. It shouldn’t be the biggest the surprise that over the course of fifteen years he managed to spend his inheritance and then fell into deep debt. His agent had calculated that if he could but reduce his expenditure to £6,000 a year for six years his estate would not have to be sold, but Mytton declared that “I wouldn’t give a damn to live on £6,000 a year!” In 1831 he fled to Calais to avoid his creditors. He had met an attractive 20-year-old woman named Susan on Westminster Bridge and offered her £500 a year to be his companion. She accompanied him to France and stayed with him until his death.

Even in his latter years, he remained quite a character and during his stay in Calais he tried to cure his hiccups by setting his shirt on fire.  His biographer “Nimrod” was present at this event: “‘Damn this hiccup!!’ said Mytton as he stood undressed on the floor, apparently in the act of getting into bed ‘but I’ll frighten it away’; so seizing a lighted candle applied it to the tail of his shirt – it being a cotton one – he was instantly enveloped in flames. A fellow guest and Mytton’s servant beat out the flames: ‘The hiccup is gone, by God!’, said he and reeled, naked, into bed.”   From bed he quoted Sophocles in Greek.  Mytton was visited in his room the next morning, to be found ‘not only shirtless, but sheetless, with the skin of his breast, shoulders and knees of the same colour as a newly singed bacon hog’.

John 'Mad Jack' Mytton curing his hiccups.

John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton curing his hiccups.

In 1833 Mytton returned to England, where, still unable to pay his debts, he ended up in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark. He died there in 1834, a “round-shouldered, tottering, old-young man bloated by drink, worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness and too much brandy”.

John “Mad Jack” Mytton died in prison in 1834, aged just 38. It is estimated that he spent over £20million in today’s money, gradually selling off all the family estates, and even the contents of Halston. He is remembered though for a complete lack of malice and innate goodness and generosity  that was remembered after his death by that fact that an estimated 3,000 people turned up for his funeral including many members of the army attending, together with his former tenants and servants, friends and well-wishers. Jack Mytton’s biographer, Robert Apperley, writing under the pen-name Nimrod, published a biography in 1835, in which he wrote: ‘It was his largeness of heart that ruined Mr. Mytton, added to the lofty pride which disdained the littleness of Prudence’. And yet,throughout his life, Mad Jack Mytton was loved, for he may have been as mad as a box of frogs but he was not malicious and he simply lived life large. His pranks and frolics were outrageous but he meant no harm to anyone. Unless you had hiccups maybe.

His name lives on throughout his county of Shropshire with many roads and streets named after him and fittingly a 72 mile long bridleway for mad-cap long distance horse-riding.  There is also a pub and a hotel too.  Perhaps the most fitting recent memorial to Mad Jack was the Jack Mytton Run, an annual streaking event by students, was held on the [University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota across Northrup Mall on the first class day following spring break.   I’m sure that John would have heartily approved. It is reported to have begun in 1999 but in 2009 the multi-year streak was ended when campus police deterred the run.

One of the things I really dislike about the modern day is how so many people are pressured to conform into what are fundamentally, very boring and mundane lives rather than follow their dreams or be eccentric individuals.

So I do have a soft spot for people like Mad Jack even though in modern times it would be hoped that some of his worse excesses might have been a little tempered. However, if anyone wants to ride a gig at a rabbit-hole with me then I am well up for it!

Posted in Funny & Humour, history, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Arrival – Movie Review

It’s a long time since I wrote a film review adn that is partly because I’ve been too busy to watch many and those that I have seen, have not really been worth the effort to write about but Arrival is definitely something very different.

Last Sunday afternoon I had spent several hours of it watching the classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind film.  I remember watching this when I was only 5 or 6 years old and I loved every moment of it, hundreds of times as my worn out video tape attested too.  It’s such a beautiful film both in terms of cinematography, story and music and I could watch it any time.  I thought it a shame that they make nothing similar these days.

Five days later, I noticed a poster for the film Arrival.  It featured a spaceship over a field and that was all I needed to go and see it on opening day.  I needed to get away from my computer, work and all that other stuff going in the world so with about six other people, found myself in a rather empty auditorium at 9.30am in the morning.

MV5BMTExMzU0ODcxNDheQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDE1OTI4MzAy._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,640,1000_AL_.jpg

As I sat there in the dark waiting to get through all the advertisements for products and films that didn’t interest me in the least, it struck me how I was sitting all by myself.  I have been coming to the same cinema for over 20 years and it often gnaws on me that many of those I have been to the cinema with in the past, are no longer here.   I always have a bizarrely accurate sense of time and slightly etheral feelings of people being with me who aren’t physically present.  Was I truly alone today, were the people I missed sitting alongside me this very moment but not on the same level or reality.  I had a feeling they were and cursed that whatever other talents I have; like everyone else I am constrained by experiencing time in a linear fashion.   Yes I have deep thoughts which is why I like deep movies, deep everything really.  As it turned out, thus film was almost made just for me.

Please note this review includes spoilers as it is the concepts that in the film that make it so interesting to watch and discuss.

Arrival starts with a young mother and her little girl.  We see the girl and mother share a number of loving moments as she grows up before tragically contracting a rare disease which medicine is unable to reverse and sadly she dies in hospital whilst still a teenager.

arrival-trailer-001

It is now the the present day and the state of Montana is thrown into shock when a large black vessel practically appears overhead in open farmland just north of Interstate 74.  Very soon, we learn that there are 12 such craft that have appeared in very diverse nations from Devon in the UK to Venzuela, Pakistan, Sudan and even off the coast of Beijing in China.   They craft take no hostile actions but similarly make no effort to communicate any intention whatsoever.

The film follows the language expert Louise Banks (the mother who lost her child), ably portrayed by Amy Adams, who is recruited by the United States military along with a mathematician and coding expert Ian Donnelly under an emergency team set up by Colonel Weber or Forest Whitaker.

Attempts at initial communication have got nowhere despite the military being able to access the alien ship once every 18 hours.  After the briefest or introductions, Louise and Ian accompany the team to the alien ship which stands over 1500 feet tall and remains entirely motionless just 15 feet above the ground, emitting no noise, electrical or communicatve signals and for intents and purposes, appearing to be an entirely inanimate object.

 

MV5BMjA1MDY4NTUxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA0NDQ1MDI@._V1_SY1000_SX1600_AL_.jpg

What you perceive, may not be the reality.

 

The first entrance to ship is as interesting to us viewers as it is for Louise as the ship has zero gravity inside the entrance which quickly turns back into normal gravity, except the “down side” doesn’t match the outside world meaning that they jump off a platform and end up walking on the walls.  A nice touch.

Arrival is shot simply but effectively and beautifully with very minimal special effects and rathe rminimal musice but that music and sound that we do here is highly atmospheric and it leads to a tense arrival as Louise sees the aliens for the first time, behind an invisible wall.  All credit to the film-makers for making the aliens look alien.  They sound alien too and Louise quickly comes to the belief that she will never be able to verbally reproduce their language, even if she could understand it.

 

arrival-2016-scifi-film-trailer.jpg

First Contact

 

Over the next hour or more the film, we see Louise and Ian make numerous entries over a month or so, trying to get to grips with the aliens.  Louise has the idea of communicating visually using a whiteboard and incredibly the aliens respond.  The Heptopods, so named due to them having 7 feet, seemingly understand English and respond in a somewhat beautiful and magical way, in a manner that struck me similar to an Octopus  or Squid, spraying ink into water, only the ‘ink’ forms beautifully into complex and circular shapes… the words and sentences of the alien.  Interestingly the circles have no start or finish which means that the thoughts of the aliens have come otu completed, similarly to writing with two hands and joining your sentence perfectly in the middle.

arrival-movie-4-e1471529984165.png

It takes weeks for any progress to be made whatsover.  This is not an action movie in any way, though I get the feeling one or two raciers aspects were added for Hollywood.  It is a very cerebal film on multiple levels.  Obviously with Louise being a linguist, there is quite a lot of discussion about the complexities of language.  How can you teach someone else your language and indeed learn theirs when there is no common starting point.  Indeed the alien verbal language doesn’t even match their written language.  Words can have very different meanings depending on their context.  Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, questions, thoughts, statements, synoymns… it all gets very complex even amongst us who all nominally understand English to one level or the other.

“What is your purpose on Earth?”  is the question the military want to know.  But what does purpose mean?  Do they even have a purpose?  Are they even aware of it?  How do you differentiate between the individual alien and their purpose on Earth and that of the wider alien race?   How do you show the aliens that a question requires an answer?   And how do you understand all of rhese complexities when you receive an answer.

 

MV5BMTY1Nzk4ODc5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjA0NDQ1MDI@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_.jpg

Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly

 

In language is one of the biggest influencers on a society and civilisation.  Inuits have dozens of words for snow as it so influences their life and outlook on the world.  A nomad in Mali would have no such use.  At a superficial level compare the more bombastic and outgoing and confident use of words in America with a quieter and more subtle use of language in the U.K.  Two countries that use the same language but do so at times very differently and many would say the countries and peoples have different charactistics too.

Languages are so precise and yet no language covers every eventuality.  There are rules and complexities that non-native speakers struggle with.  British English has many words and phrases that don’t make obvious sense to anyone else.  Farsi in Iran is even more intricate and the traditions and sensibilities in nations from Japan and China through India, Pakistan, the Middle-East and much of Europe and Africa are strongly influenced by their language.  Wrongly translate or misunderstand a statement or custom and you can cause great offence, maybe even start a war and all totally innocently.

As usual with the military, things come down to the use and threat of force.  China, followed by one or two other nations are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress with communicating with the aliens.  As Louise comments though, what you get out of the questions can entirely depend on your thought processes going into them.

 

thumbnail_24771

The Alien Ship In Montana

 

With things heating up, Louise is ordered to ask the big question of the aliens.  Just why are they here?   The response is scary, they have come and given us a weapon and they seemingly want us to use it.   This sets the hairs on the back of Washington but not so much as it does China and Russia who quickly shut down communication with everyone and go to a war-footing.

Louise and Ian try and convince the military that it is wrong to jump to the worst conclusions.  Gavisti which is something I learned a long time ago, is as Louise informs the Colonel, the Sanskrit word for war or more precisely for a desire for more cows.   You could get cows by breeding them, stealing them, fighting for them or merely have such a thought as a long term ambition or dream.   The aliens might be offering any number of things and weapon could be a miscommunication for tool, device, concept or even idea.

The stress is getting to Louise and she finds herself increasingly suffering flashbacks of her time with her daughter.  At first each last for just a few seconds but towards the end of the film, they vie for primacy with the actual events of the main plot line.

 

maxresdefault-3

A Proper Introduction

 

With China issuing an ultimatum to the aliens, the US military shut down communication with the remaining nations who also have alien ships.  This is the aspect I didn’t believe or like as it made no sense.  Sure if China and Russia behave like that then let them but why cut off talks with the UK or Australia?  Communication, trust and openness is surely the one of the things that our societies value and make us arguably different than the communist nations.  There are problems closer to home though and some xenophobic soldiers smuggle a bomb aboard the alien ship in Montana and it goes off just as the aliens expand upon their reasons for being here and just as Louise seemingly becomes increasingly fluent in their language.    The peaceful motives of the aliens by saving the two scientists doesn’t sit well with the military and America to is preparing for reprisals from the aliens due to the upcoming Chinese attack and decide to close down the communications operation.

Despite deducing that it would take years to fully translate, Ian manages to work out that the alien word for Time is repeated across the text but the context of it is unknown, perhaps Faster Than Light space travel?   He also concludes that they only have one twelth of the alien knowledge and that the other nations each have their own depositories meaning the only way to get to the bottom of the problem is for the nations to talk to each other which seems unlikely with the communciations shut down and war immiment.

 

arrival-movie-trailer-images-amy-adams-24-600x249

Analysing what this Hydropod phrase means in English

 

Defying orders, Louise returns to the alien ship which is now sat several hundred feet up in the air.  A small landing craft comes down to Earth and Louise enters.  She is becoming fully conversant in the alien language and they communicate freely.  It turns out that the Aliens want us to unify because they will need the help of a unified and peaceful humanity in 3,000 years time.  The weapon that they have given us, isn’t a weapon at all, it is a gift.  A gift of language and not just any old language, not even any old alien language.

Just as the brains of all of us are wired up slightly differently depending on our country and language then by becoming conversant in Hydropod, Louise can now think as a Hydropod.  The gift of their language is the ability to see time in a non-linear fashion.  Meaning they can live in today just as easy as tomorrow or indeed yesterday.

Louise manages to use this new perception to contact the Chinese General and give him some private information that changes his entire outlook on life and the world is saved from a terrible and perhaps final war.   Their mission complete, the aliens leave Earth and Louise and Ian hook up, and as Louise can see in to the future, marry and have a child.   The sequence at the beginning of the film and of the flashbacks throughout the film, aren’t of the past at all.  Instead they are of the future.

I really, really enjoyed Arrival.  It is unapolgetically, my sort of film.  I thought about it all day and the last few days as it is quite immense.  So far, I am the only person I know who grasped the idea that as Amy was learning the language, she was beginning to think as a Hydropod and see the future.. . in fragments at first and then more substantially as the language came together in her mind.  I’m sure I can’t be the only person though.

There is only one use of bad language in the film, no physical violence, no action whatsoever but I found it utterly compelling.  For 99% of films I watch, I come away disappointed and not in any way challenged or even given pause to think in any way, shape or form.  Without wanting to sound conceited, I think that as a writer with a vivid imagination then the highest praise I can give is that I couldn’t do better and I haven’t said that for over a year.

arrival3

I liked the slow burn of the story, the characters.  The dissection of language, thoughts and perceptions.  The alienness of the aliens, the methodology of translating, the concepts of non-lineal time perception.

I watched Interstellar last year and like with most other films, even mysteries, I guessed the entire plot and “twist” within a few minutes and that twist was the only thing that snooze-fest had going for it.  Whilst I did guess the big picture with Arrival well before the end, it still was a very interesting ride and took me quite a time.  Even when I had it all worked out, I still had to watch to the end to make sure that my deductions matched the film.

Arrival is a very intimate film, full of love and sadness and humanity.  If you’re looking for a Star Wars or Independence Day then this film is definitely not for you.  If you liked the old films Contact or Close Encounters then this one is for you though perhaps a little more cerebal than both.

Certanly the timing of the release of Arrival couldn’t have been better, with the need to communciate across borders and eventually unify, be more precise with language and be open to all possibilities.

As Ian says something along the lines to Louise at the end of the film,  I spent all my life looking up to the skies.  The biggest surprise wasn’t finding them but finding you.

I feel exactly the same about Arrival and so too I expect do the rest of the audience in the empty auditorium who get non-linear time.

 

Posted in Culture, Movies and Films | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Stonehenge At Dusk

I don’t usually do simple photo posts but in Thursday on one if my guided tours, we happened to be at Stonehenge at dusk. Due to the latitude of the British Isles, dusk can be anything from about 11pm in mid summer to 3pm or earlier in mid winter.

Around 1.5 million people visit Stonehenge every year and in the summer it can be packed out. One if the advantages of visiting in winter is that you have it all to yourself. There were Foyr people there apart from us when we left the stones.

Stonehenge is on the vast Salisbury Plain, essentially prairie or Steppe land and in the winter it blues a freezing wind and there is no shelter from the elements. Even on a sunny mid November day, we were all thoroughly frozen by the time we got back but everyone thought it was well worth it for these marvellous stmosoheric photos. 

.

The Heel Stone

With the low sun, streaming through the stones, it was thoroughly breathtaking. You’d never know there had been a freak hail storm a few minutes earlier.

If you’d like to visit Stonehenge or anywhere else in the UK with me then check out https://yeoldeenglandtours.co.uk/our-tours-2/day-tours-from-london/bath-and-stonehenge-2/

Posted in Cool Britannia, Heritage, Life, Photography, Travel, Ye Olde England Tours | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Last Post

It is one of the most evocative and moving pieces of music and as with every year, The Last Post will be played all over the world on Remembrance Day but its origins had nothing to do with mourning.

The Last Post was first published in the 1790s, just one of the two dozen or so bugle calls sounded daily in British Army camps.

“At that time soldiers didn’t have wristwatches, so they had to be regulated in camp,” says Colin Dean, archivist at the Museum of Army Music in Kneller Hall. “They had to have a trumpet call or a bugle call to tell them when to get up, when to have their meals, when to fetch the post, when to get on parade, when to go to bed and all other things throughout the day.”

The soldier’s day started with the call of Reveille, and came to a close with the First Post. This indicated that the duty officer was commencing his inspection of the sentry-posts on the perimeter of the camp. The inspection would take about 30 minutes, and at the end there would be sounded the Last Post, the name referring simply to the fact that the final sentry-post had been inspected. For decades this was the sole use of the call, a signal that the camp was now secure for the night, closed till morning.

remembrancepic.jpg

It was not until the 1850s that another role began to emerge. It was an era when many military bandsmen, and most bandmasters, were civilians and were under no obligation to accompany their regiments on overseas postings. So when a soldier died in a foreign land, there was often no music available to accompany him on his final journey. And, necessity being the mother of invention, a new custom arose of charging the regimental bugler to sound the Last Post over the grave.

The symbolism was simple and highly effective. The Last Post now signalled the end not merely of the day but of this earthly life. And, as the practice developed – back home now as well as abroad – it was then followed by few moments of silent prayer and by the sounding of Reveille, the first call of the day, to signify the man’s rebirth into eternal life.

A further dimension was added in the first years of the 20th Century. The end of the Boer War saw the rise of war memorials across the country, some 600 of them. This was a break with the past. The traditional British way of commemorating a victory was to erect a statue to the general or the commander.  Aside from the families of those who didn’t come back, no-one particularly cared about the ordinary men.   These new monuments from conflicts such as the Anglo-Zulu war listed the names of the dead, both officers and other ranks, the men the Duke of Wellington was said to have called “the scum of the earth”.

There was a new mood of democracy abroad and the war memorials reflected this. And every time a memorial was unveiled, it was to the sound of the Last Post being played, now the symbol not only of death but of remembrance.

By the time that World War One broke out in 1914, the Last Post was already part of the national culture. During the war, it was played countless times at funerals in northern Europe and other theatres, and it was played at funerals, memorials and services back home. It was already becoming a familiar sound, but with mass enlistment and then conscription, the walls that had long existed between the civilian and the soldier broke down completely, and a piece of music that had once belonged exclusively to military culture was adopted by a wider society.

HG Wells said this was “a people’s war”, and the Last Post became the people’s anthem and it remains so to this day. In the decades that followed WW1, it became almost a sacred anthem in an increasingly secular society. Once the music of empire, it has been played at independence ceremonies for former colonies and at the funerals of those who fought colonialism, from Mohandas Gandhi to Nelson Mandela. It has sounded for both friends and foes, a symbol of the democracy of death. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it was played not only for British soldiers, but also for paramilitaries.

Over the years, the piece has changed – not in the music but in the performance. Notes are held for longer, the pauses extended, the expression more mournful, so that it now lasts around 75 seconds, rather than the 45 seconds it used to take to mark the end of the day. And it has been infused by a mass of memories and memorials, so that what was once jaunty is now simply sorrowful.

Arthur Lane was a bugler in the British Army when he was captured by Japanese forces during the fall of Singapore in 1942. He spent the remainder of World War Two in PoW camps and working on the notorious Burma Railway.

But he also had a more melancholy duty. He still had his bugle with him and it was his task to sound the Last Post for each of his comrades who died during those years.

“I’d have to go and set the fires at the crematorium. The lads would build them during the day, put the bodies on, and then somebody had to be delegated to set fire to the funeral pyres, and see that they were properly burnt, so I had to do that.”

He became known as “the musician to the dead”. He kept with him, for the duration of his captivity, a roll of army-issue toilet-paper, on which he dutifully recorded the names and details of each of the men whose funeral he attended.

And at the end of the war, he counted up the names. He had sounded the Last Post for over 3,000 of his fallen comrades.   For the rest of his long life, he was haunted by nightmares. And he never played the Last Post again.

As long time readers may be aware but newcomers may not be, there are about 20 posts on my blog relating to WW1 so if you’re interested do search for them here.

https://stephenliddell.co.uk/category/history/ww1/

You might also be interested in one of my WW1 books below.

 

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.  I am also happy to write a dedication to anyone who wants one, just let me know though I’d have to charge the shipping fee for that.  Please, do leave a review if you buy a copy.  They are like gold dust to independent authors.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes can be purchased from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle and Paperback.

My books are also available direct from their respective publishers and also through Barnes and NobleKoboSmashwords and Createspace.  You can also purchase this book through Apple iBooks store by clicking on the logo below.

In The Footsteps of Heroes

Posted in history, WW1 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments