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Oct. 27th, 2017

Dangerous Curves


Last Saturday marked ten years since my dad died. I found it unexpectedly difficult and was glad when it was over.

What I miss most is being able to tell him things. I lead a lucky life; I get to do some wonderful, fun stuff, and I'm very grateful. This year I've flown in a Dragon Rapide and been entrusted with a position of responsibility on a Bike Normandy motorcycle tour, and he would have been so pleased and proud and excited about it all.

On Monday night I watched Beyond the Sea, the X-Files episode in which a convicted murderer offers to pass Scully a message from her recently-deceased father if she'll get him off Death Row. It crossed my mind often back in late 2007, because I wanted a message, too.

Scully, of course, soon gets back to her awesome sceptical self and declines to bargain with murderers. Mulder asks her how she can bear not knowing what the message was -

SCULLY: But I do know.
SCULLY: He was my father.

Oct. 22nd, 2017



And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold
You can hear them singing out their telegraph code
All the way down the Telegraph Road.


Oct. 2nd, 2017

Casino Royale

Trip Aces

On Saturday, I headed to the Royal Albert Hall for something pretty special: a screening of Casino Royale (2006 flavour) with live score by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

The place was filled with happy, excited Bond fans from all over the world; I heard a group of Scandinavians in the lobby having a very animated discussion of which I understood only 'Timothy Dalton'.

An email from the venue had stated that the dress code was '007 inspired', and there were plenty of attendees in black tie, putting my SPECTRE polo shirt to shame. I saw Thunderball and A View to a Kill T-shirts, and a tiny little boy in a tux (I hope he enjoyed the torture scene).

Before the screening there was a Q&A with composer David Arnold, in which he talked about his love of Bond and his experience writing the scores for five Bond films, from Tomorrow Never Dies up to Quantum of Solace. Then it was into the action.

I didn't realise quite how much the live music would add to the experience, but it was wonderful to hear and watch. Seated in the circle, I was almost above the conductor; I could see the small screen in front of him showing the movie and electronic cues, and catch the subtle movement he made as he geared up for the swooping 'Vesper' love theme.

My favourite thing to watch, though, was one of the violinists, who was turning his head to enjoy the film every chance he got.

I also loved the gusto with which the orchestra swung into the Bond theme over the closing credits, accompanied by David Arnold on guitar.

No effort had been spared to make it a tasteful and memorable occasion. Aston Martin had even sent along a DB5, which was sitting smugly outside behind ropes. Everything was just lovely, including a custom INTERMISSION screen with the O forming part of the 007 logo.

Casino Royale in Concert

Sep. 29th, 2017

Something So Right

I Feel the Breath of a Storm

I first became aware of Girl from the North Country when I spotted the poster as I rode past the Old Vic one evening. A quick look at the website confirmed that it was indeed a musical based on the songs of Bob Dylan, so I rounded up my friend and fellow-fan Bec, and we saw it last night.

This, let us be clear, is not a feelgood musical. We paid dearly for all our jokes about "Mamma Mia! but with Dylan", I can tell you. It is, however, beautiful, intriguing and moving.

Set in a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota (I finally learned it's pronounced 'doo-LOOTH'), the story follows the various lost souls who live or board there through the events of Thanksgiving, 1934, with a bit of mystery and a whiff of the supernatural, in dialogue and song. And what songs, of course.

No greatest hits collection here, but a good spread of older and more recent tunes, familiar and obscure. The instrumentals were a cruel torment of oh-god-I-know-this-what-is-it?

My favourite was probably the bit where 'Hurricane' segued into 'All Along The Watchtower' and then into 'Idiot Wind'. 'I Want You' done as a tender duet broke my heart, then 'Forever Young' broke me altogether.

We had fun tying in songs with characters: a bible salesman to fit in 'Slow Train Coming', a boxer so we could have 'Hurricane'.

There were times when the plot felt a little disjointed, or as if it contained just one hard luck story too many. But the music, the music.

Here's 'Tight Connection To My Heart' as I had never heard it before:

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Sep. 18th, 2017

The Spy Who Loved Me

Nobody Does It Better

When it comes to birthdays, there are two kinds of people: those who prefer to ignore the whole ghastly affair and those who like fuss, attention and presents. Falling in the latter category, I wanted to do something special for my 40th.

I had the idea that screening a film for my friends would be fun, and the internet led me to Whirled Cinema, a cosy and quirky venue just down the road from me at Loughborough Junction.

My chosen flick was The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bond film from the year of my birth. It's a solid choice, containing all the elements the casual viewer would associate with the series and many of its finest innuendoes.

I was especially pleased that two of my friends brought their nine-year-old to experience her first Bond movie. Afterwards she commandeered my Goldeneye cap gun and went around demanding that we tell her everything we knew (which in some cases did not take long).

Roger Moore's Bond is pretty kid-friendly, though there was the occasional awkward spot:

AGENT TRIPLE X: Why don't you lie down and let me look at it?
9-YR-OLD: What's going to happen?
ME: Um...

When the film was over we had pizza from Mamma Dough and a proper posh cake made by the wife of one of my colleagues before moving on to a nearby pub.

Huge thanks to everyone who attended from points north, west, south, east, and closer to home. I was inundated with cards and presents, and didn't manage to open everything on the day, so I can only apologise to everyone who didn't get a proper thank you.


Sep. 16th, 2017

Casino Royale


40th birthday logo

Sep. 8th, 2017

Casino Royale

Summer of Spies 7

Last night saw John le Carré talking about his latest and (allegedly) last Smiley novel, A Legacy of Spies, at the South Bank Centre, and broadcast live to cinemas across Europe.

I met a Twitter friend under the clock at Waterloo, and we went for pizza before claiming our signed copies from the Foyles desk in the Royal Festival Hall foyer, grabbing a drink and proceeding into the auditorium.

First we were shown a short film in which figures who had been associated with le Carré's works on big or small screen talked about Smiley, then the author himself spoke for 45 minutes about his literary and espionage careers and his characters, reading a few extracts from the new novel. He came across as both literate and articulate, which not everyone can manage, and as a nice old man content with his achievements.

After an interval, there was a short section of conversation with Jon Snow and some preselected questions tweeted or Facebooked by the audience.

Then he thanked us all for reading and listening, and for our support of Doctors Without Borders (he donated his appearance fee in its entirety) and it was over.

Afterwards I went for drinks with the host of the excellent Spybrary podcast and other fans of the literary spy, several of whom had flown in from the USA for the event. (I found myself in the position of Person With Local Knowledge and took everyone to the Archduke.)

It was a lovely night of geeking about books and films, and I was generously gifted a bootleg SPECTRE ring. I even said a few words for the podcast.

They were "DON'T TELL HIM, PIKE!"

Don't ask.

Sep. 7th, 2017

The Spy Who Loved Me

Summer of Spies 5 & 6

I nearly turned tail from last week's Waterstones event, the Spy Fiction Book Club on Len Deighton's The IPCRESS File, on seeing that there were only four other attendees of whom one was Mike Ripley, who gave the previous week's talk, and another the brains behind The Deighton Dossier.

But no, I thought, I have paid £3, I am going to have a glass of wine. And I'm glad I did; it was a fun discussion even though I contributed little, and it turned out that Deighton himself had been informed of the event and emailed us his best wishes, which was nice.

Afterwards I ended up going to the pub with two of the participants. When I eventually got home after two coffees, a pint of Coke and two hours' talking about Bond, I was WIRED AS HELL.

This week wrapped up the Waterstones events with Charles Cumming talking about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I have only read one of Cumming's spy novels and I didn't much like it, but now I know that it was his first, and that his literary aim is to be a cross between le Carré and Nick Hornby, I am prepared to give him another try.

The evening was also a chance to meet and talk to several people I internet-know, as well as one guy I didn't but who was wearing a fab T-shirt.

And tonight is the big one: John le Carré in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall for the release of A Legacy of Spies. I will, no doubt, report in due course.
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Sep. 6th, 2017

Orange Vespa Huskyteer

Bike Normandy, 25/08 - 28/08

The Bank Holiday weekend saw a return to old friends Bike Normandy, this time for a WW2 sightseeing tour.

Our meeting point on Friday morning was the lovely setting of Honfleur, where I kicked off being in France with a Nutella pancake. (Well, technically I had kicked off being in France the night before with a Ricard on the Dieppe ferry.)

Only one half of Bike Normandy, John, was present, having left Jen at home to prepare the evening meal, so I was asked if I would take up my favourite position of back marker. Obviously I had no objections.

We were a group of seven riders, and one pillion, on a mixed bag of bikes: two BMW GSes, a Yamaha FJR two-up, a Moto Guzzi Griso and a Ducati Diavel, plus my Honda NC700 Integra and John leading on his Yamaha Tracer.

Our first stop was Pegasus Bridge, which was also the first stop on the very first trip I made with Bike Normandy, in 2005. We looked round the museum, where I was captivated by the single-shot weapons made for the Resistance: one shot because you used that to kill an enemy soldier and take his weapon.

Pegasus Bridge

We had lunch at Arromanches, sitting on a wall overlooking the remains of the Mulberry floating harbours, then inspected a gun battery before moving on to the American military cemetery.

It was extraordinary how peaceful such a crowded place could feel. I'd happily have spent a long time here, looking at the changing patterns made by the lines of markers as I walked past, or sitting in the little chapel with its mosaic ceiling depicting boats, planes, and an angel placing a crown on the head of a dead soldier. For some reason, I found the very American-ness of the names especially moving; they were a long way from home, these Earls and Woodrows and Homers.

We stopped in a little town for coffee or a soft drink before taking the back roads to the Bike Normandy gîte, where a three-course meal was in the late stages of preparation and Della the Bernese Mountain Dog was tremendously excited to see everyone.

On Saturday Jen joined us, so I was let off back marker duties and released into the pack. Today was more about riding than sightseeing, and none of us objected to that. The sun came out after a misty start, and the weather got better and better until we could finish our day watching kids splash at an artificial beach while we enjoyed ice creams.

Sunday was another sightseeing day, starting with the German military cemetery at La Cambe, where more than 1,000 maple trees have been planted on behalf of the families of the deceased.

German military cemetery, La Cambe

We had lunch in Sainte-Mère-Église, under the gaze of the life-size paratrooper dangling from the church roof to commemorate John Steele, who played dead for two hours to evade the Germans. Everyone else looked round the museum, but as I'd seen it before I explored the town. I bought a French army surplus top and met a friendly cat.

Church, Sainte-Mère-Église

More riding, and a final coffee stop before the return to base. I went to bed at midnight because people were talking about Brexit, then came back down in my pyjamas to ask if somebody would kindly remove the large spider from my bedroom.

On Monday morning, John drove us all to the nearby Mémorial de Montormel - girls in the front, boys and dog in the back - in the Bike Normandy van. This peaceful panorama was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, as German troops tried to fight their way out of a rapidly diminishing pocket of land, the Falaise Pocket. The lane to Bike Normandy HQ was once part of the 'Corridor of Death', and is signposted as such; always reassuring on a motorcycle.

Falaise Pocket

After a last coffee, we went our separate ways. I followed part of the group back over the Pont de Normandie, after which they headed for Le Havre and I for Dieppe.

On the ferry home I lucked upon a bottle of the fabled export strength Gordon's, for your authentic 1950s Vesper experience.

Della and the armoured car
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Aug. 23rd, 2017

Secret Agent Dog

Summer of Spies 4

Last night's bookshop-based entertainment was Mike Ripley, author of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed, talking about just that.

As well as more wine than you could shake a stick at, Waterstones had thoughtfully laid on a tempting pile of Flemings, which I managed to resist. Even the hardcover Moonraker, my favourite, reprint with repro jacket, £100.

Obviously the subject is very dear to my heart, so it was delightful to hear it discussed with such knowledge and enthusiasm, and to be in an audience filled with other lovers of the genre (some of whom I online-know and managed to speak to).

Obviously also, the last thing I need is a guide to thousands more spy novels, when I already have about a year's worth of books in the To Read stack.

The author was wearing a tie which, he explained, had been given to him by Pierce Brosnan and may have been worn during the filming of either Goldeneye or Tomorrow Never Dies, but might have been an unused tie double. While I was getting my book signed, I was permitted to fondle it lightly.

I hear he's dismissive of Modesty Blaise, though. WE'LL SEE ABOUT THAT.

Beautiful endpapers

As if that wasn't exciting enough, afterwards I went to a Film4 Summer Screen screening at Somerset House (say that three times fast) at the kind invitation of my friend Oliver. The film was Blow-Up, which I'd previously watched in Dulwich park. Oli, a keen photographer, insisted on photographing me watching it, which was pretty meta.

It rained, but we had a lovely time anyway.


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