Sunday, 28 November 2010

Book review – Beatrix Potter

I was never big on Beatrix Potter, my sister had a few of these books and my Mother would read to me the Peter Rabbit stories which I liked because I shared a name with him – oops! What a giveaway - yes my first name is Rabbit.

I found them only mildly interesting and so did not retain their memory and never bothered to re-read them until I had The Granddaughter (TG) to read to. Now I have become a little more familiar with them and find that they are not quite as cosy as I once remembered. Being a rabbit is no fun because they seem to be at the bottom of the food chain and are constantly under threat from hungry animals and people. Seriously, I do not quite understand the popularity of these books, unlike the previous two books I have reviewed, which are two of my childhood favourites, I feel B P’s books are rather more of a leftover from a forgotten era and seem to have many real points against them. The characters are often sly, wicked or thoughtless. Stories do not always have a happy ending and some endings are not very clear cut. I found reading some of them to my Granddaughter difficult, having to explain a lot of the phrasing. The only good thing I found are the pictures and these make up for a lot in the difficult stories.

I have done the tourist thing and visited one of Beatrix Potter’s houses, Hill Top in Far Sawrey, near Lake Windermere and to my surprise found the whole village crawling with Japanese tourists. Beatrix Potter is really big in Japan. There is a Beatrix Potter museum in Bowness, the small town half way up Lake Windermere and you can buy sets of her books in any language including Japanese. Looking on Google Earth, I have even found some pictures posted that are labelled in Japanese, which shows the numbers of tourists from that country that regularly travel there.
Many years ago, whilst staying in Far Sawrey on holiday, I inadvertently interrupted a Japanese film unit who were working on something in the village. I did not at first realise who they were and annoyed them by popping into their camera’s field of view every now and again whilst taking picnic stuff and other things needed for a day out in the Lakes to the car. This required about four trips and I had started to notice that there was a degree of hostility emanating from a group of people who were partially out of sight around the corner, doing something I had not recognised as filming. Eventually I realised they were trying to film a model of Peter Rabbit they had standing in the road I was parked in. They did not come and tell me that they were filming but just stood and glared at me. I would not have been so much of a problem to them if they had spoken to me instead of just assuming I was aware of what they were doing. Later we found they had added boards to all the signposts and local shop with Japanese translations of them for their film.

The only visable member of the Japanese Film crew on the left
with Peter Rabbit propped up on a box

The rest of the crew and the camera were all here just out of view.
My car was just beyond the bush on the right.

Since TG’s mother’s family originate in Gloucestershire (for those born outside the UK, this is pronounced 'Gloster shire' for some unknowable reason) and we live close by. We have also visited the Little Tailor’s Shop which still exists near Hogwarts – sorry, Gloucester cathedral – and shown it to her and The Grandson (TGS). It is highly commercialised and they were unimpressed. TGS was much more interested in being photographed in ‘Hogwarts’ cloisters, since he is older and much more of a fan of the Harry Potter books.

The Tailor's shop in Gloucester

The cloisters in Gloucester cathederal used for filming certain
parts of Hogwarts school in the Harry Potter movies.

B P’s books are often regarded as suitable for very young children, but I found the language difficult to explain to a small child and the Victorian morals are sometimes inappropriate in today’s more tolerant world. The only good thing children get from them is an extended vocabulary, I recall learning the word ‘soporific’ from the rabbit stories, which is not such a bad thing, but perhaps you get the idea I do not like them. This is true I am sorry to say, they are not my thing at all.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A book review -The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows was written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908, so it reflects a very different era with different social attitudes to the present day, having been written before both world wars took place. It is wondefully illustrated by E. H. Shepard.
In this book we meet a number of interesting characters who have some exciting adventures and like many other really good books it has a map showing the main character’s homes and most of the locations where different events chronicled in the book take place.
The first character we meet is the Mole, who is living alone, when one day whilst redecorating his bachelor pad he flips and abandoning everything just leaves his home and wanders off into the wider world.
He soon meets the Water Rat, whom now we should, in this modern world, refer to as a water Vole, since he is not actually of the genus Rattus. However, in the days when two bachelors could move in together and not be suspected of being gay, Ratty is a Rat.
Rat introduces Mole to the delights of boating and cholesterol rich picnics and famously remarks on the fact that ducks stick their posteriors in the air whilst feeding.
Soon Rat takes his new friend to meet the amoral Toad. Rich and idle this character is constantly seeking something to relieve the boredom of his futile life by being a thrill seeker in an age before extreme sports.
When our friends Mole and Rat go to visit him, he has just discovered caravanning and persuades Mole and Ratty to accompany him on a caravanning trip, thus setting a precedent for British holidaymakers to clog up the roads every summer with their mobile holiday homes. Toad rightly comes to his senses when they are buzzed by a justifiably outraged motorist and decides on the spot that fast cars are actually much more fun than slow caravans.
He then embarks on a campaign of terror when he becomes a toad racer, (something like a boy racer but of a different species.)
Meanwhile we leave Toad to return to Ratty and Mole, now in a comfortable all male relationship when one afternoon whilst Rat is dozing, Mole decides to go for a walk alone. Having been warned against it by Rat, he nonetheless heads for the Wild Wood a rundown inner woodland area that the police would have advised against entering without protection. Soon his middle class appearance is drawing attention of the animals living in this run down district and they are watching him from within their tenement burrows and flop bushes.
Hearing an ominous sound, he realises he is being followed and in a panic flees. His luck holds and narrowly evading the hedge gangs following him, he finds an unoccupied hollow tree squat and hides.
Rat eventually wakes and notices Mole is missing. By a clever series of deductions, notably seeing a set of footprints leading away from the house, he realises Mole must have gone to the Wild Wood. Stopping only to slip a pair of pistols into his belt and picking up a handy blackjack he hurries after the Mole, looking dangerous enough to intimidate the wood wise inhabitants of the Wild Wood district.
By means of the subtle method of calling out ‘Mole – Mole, where are you?’ He eventually locates the mole, but by this time the mole is suffering near collapse from sustained terror, so he decides Mole should rest a while. When Rat thinks Mole has rested enough and it is safe to leave they discover it has been snowing hard and Rat becomes disoriented because all the landmarks are changed, so they get lost. By a fluke, they end up by Badger’s back door and Mole gets to meet the legendary Badger.
Badger is one of the more powerful dons of the area and is feared by all the small time weasels and stoats. He knows Rat and welcomes the Mole as a friend of the Rat and over breakfast they discuss the antics of Toad and his latest expensive fad with cars. Badger expresses the opinion that Toad needs to be dissuaded from his current activities before he uses up the hedge fund his father had left in trust for him. Although it is never actually overstated, it is obvious that Badger had a close financial connection with Toad’s late father and probably has a personal interest in this fund and may even be a director for the trust. After the meal he allows them to use one of his many safe routes to get out of the Wild Wood district and they get home unhindered.

Meanwhile Toad is still creating a problem with his new love of cars. Because the cars are built for humans, not Toads, Toad is unable to operate the controls properly and so is in less than perfect control of the various cars he tries out. Because of this and his reckless attitude to driving, he regularly ends up having an accident whenever he goes out driving. Of course being in the middle of rural England the roads are unsuitable for toad racers or any other kind of racer and they soon will become known as ‘dangerous roads’. A status unfairly given to roads that by their nature are merely a flat surface that lies unmoving on the ground doing nothing, but when cars are driven too fast on them by the incompetent, the danger posed by the speeding car somehow becomes the road’s fault.
However I digress. As a result of the unusual nature of a toad driven car and the laws of physics, Toad is working his way through his fortune by needing a new car every few weeks or so, and his friends become certain he will end up bankrupt and so be unable to give the lavish parties they are used to, or as explained before, Badger will become impoverished too. So they decide to ‘unlawfully imprison’ Toad for his own good and try to persuade him he must stop wrecking cars.

A prisoner in his own home, after some weeks, he seems to be reformed but he lulls Mole into a false sense of security and on Mole’s watch he escapes and sets off on a life of crime, by stealing cars and becoming an even more serious danger to the public.
Eventually he is arrested, tried and ends up in jail.

With the connivance of a misguided local girl who works in the jail, he manages to escape dressed as a washerwoman and a chase ensues when he hijacks a train.

By a fluke he escapes and then hoodwinks a bargee into giving him a lift but they fall out and she sends him overboard into the canal. In revenge he steals her horse, leaving her without any means to make a living.
Feeling no remorse for this callous act, he then sells her horse to a gypsy in exchange for a meal and few shillings. Still struggling to get home, he cannot resist stealing yet one more car when the opportunity presents itself and of course he crashes it. His true identity revealed he is pursued once more, but makes it to Ratty’s house having shaken off his pursuers by accidentally falling in the river.
Once there he is told that his stately home, Toad Hall, has been invaded by armed squatters. Only with the help of Badger, Mole and Rat is he able to evict them by sheer force. This is only possible because Rat seems to be a closet Survivalist and has a very comprehensive unlicensed armoury equipped with enough ordinance to provide everyone with several weapons each.

Once peace is returned and Toad is reinstated in his home, a lavish party is thrown and the story ends with them all receiving due ‘respect’ from the cowed wild wooders.

Quite exciting in parts but all the characters have very little regard for the law and between them, add up an impressive list of criminal offences throughout the book which go entirely unpunished. No one sues anybody and Toad is persuaded to compensate those who helped him, even the Bargee woman gets the price of her horse, so there is some moral behaviour but the forces of law and order do not seem to make the connection between the notorious Mr Toad the car thief, and Toad of Toad Hall.

Another 9 out of 10 for readability but it teaches children that ruthlessness and a lot of weapons, wealth and influential friends will get you out of trouble so long as the law turns a blind eye.

Monday, 15 November 2010

A Book Review

I had originally intended to post a list of my favourite children’s books and explain where they fitted into my early choices of reading, but after a while the list had become so unwieldy I decided to forget the idea. Lists like that on the Internet are ten a penny so it would be a bit of a waste of time, instead I have decided it will be more fun to look at some of the books on my list and do a critical review of them, starting with Winnie the Pooh.

Winnie the Pooh is not actually a story as such but a set of linked short stories and poems written by A A Milne about his son Christopher Robin and his toy bear and other animals, real or of the stuffed variety. The bear whose real name is Edward Bear usually works under the unlikely alias of Winnie the Pooh.
Like all good books it contains a map inside the front cover which gives the reader a sense of location and can see where the action takes place and there is plenty of action. Expeditions, extreme weather, big game hunting, lost houses, missing persons, gambling, dangerous strangers and attempted murder. It was sheer luck that Eeyore could float.
The main character Pooh is not my favourite, he is an amiable bumbling character sure, allegedly lovable because of this, but he is stupid! We are introduced to him as he is being dragged downstairs, and although able to speak he never object to this treatment, which would be considered a refined form of torture by most nations and a clear abuse of his human and bear rights. Maybe he would suffer worse if he complained. After all, Christopher Robin, the Big CR, is a shadowy figure that comes and goes mysteriously throughout the action and is usually the final arbitrator in many situations, so he obviously wields some power over the other characters.

The smartest character amongst these animals is actually Piglet. He puts up a great cover as being small and helpless but he sees more than he lets on. In the case of the House at Pooh Corner, he instantly recognises what Eeyore has been attempting to build and persuades Pooh to use this 'pile of sticks' to build Eeyore a proper house. He knows that where Eeyore had built his, admittedly poor building standards, shack in the wrong place and planning permission was never given for that site. Piglet being pretty astute where legal matters were concerned, knew he would have have to pull it down anyway, so somehow contrived to steer Pooh to rebuild it on the plot shown in the original planning application.

Piglet is a strange animal I have never seen a piglet that has feet and paws, they normally have trotters, he has no snout but his nose tapers to a point. My personal opinion is that he is an alien, planted to investigate the Earth. This would also explain why such an intelligent character cannot read too well, he was not taught to read and write on this planet.

No pig, but an alien

The introduction of a scary new animal takes place when Tigger arrives one night and he soon livens up the otherwise drab life of poor little Roo. Kanga is one of those tyrannical mothers who cannot allow their baby to grow up and Tigger is a bit of a shock to her but under the Big CR's insistence she takes him in too and rules his life with a rod of iron exactly like she controls Roo. Unfortunately he breaks loose now and then and nearly succeeds in murdering Eeyore when he tries to drown him.
The main characters are all spending some time gambling on the outcome of sticks floating under a bridge, and the betting was getting dangerously high when they saw Eeyore floating by in the water. It was Piglet who had first realised it had been Tigger who had pushed Eeyore into the water, long before Tigger was persuaded to confess very reluctantly to the crime.

A clear case of bouncing with intent

Realising the plot had failed, Rabbit who is almost as devious as Christopher Robin persuades Pooh to finish the job with a large stone under the thin pretext that it will help him get ashore. Piglet is horrified by this and attempts to dissuade Pooh but to no avail. Miraculously Eeyore survives this second attempt and is able to climb ashore.
Tigger eventually gets off on a technicality when a kangaroo court forms on the riverside and they come to the conclusion that it was an accidental push.
Piglet is somewhat concerned that justice was not seen to be done, when he says afterwards rather uncertainly, ‘Tigger is all right really?’, obviously believing him to be a dangerous criminal and so testing the response of the others. I am not sure he is satisfied with the response but Christopher Robin overrules all the others so he has to keep quiet.
As a punishment for becoming too uppity, Christopher Robin arranges for Piglet to undergo a form of waterboarding by the not-to-be-argued-with Kanga when she gives him a severe bathing under the patently transparent pretext she thinks he is Roo. Christopher Robin arrives to see it is being done properly and pretends not ot know who Piglet is when he appeals to Christopher Robin to stop Kanga waterboarding him. He is finally let loose but it was obviously an object lesson from the Big CR to remind Piglet not to make any more waves.

All in all not really suitable for small children but I give it an 9 out of 10 for readability.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

DVDs and why I hate them (That includes Blu-ray too)

Each time I play a DVD that I have bought legitimately from a recognised outlet, I spend a few minutes being informed that it is copyright and I am given threats and menaces that if I even thought about copying it I would receive a visit from the men in black and would never be seen again in this life. This section of the DVD does not respond to the controls so I cannot skip it but must see the same message over and over and over, each time I insert any DVD. My memory is quite good, I do not need to be reminded each time I want to use their product.
In any other circumstances this would be considered very poor customer relations. Imagine being prevented from entering a store until they have lectured you on the illegality of shoplifting and not letting you in until they have given you the full and detailed message.
Or boarding a train at the station and the train will not move off until all the safety warnings have been read out to the new passengers.
Unfairly, if I had actually gone out and bought an illegal copy of a DVD I would be spared this annoying feature, but because I am an honest upright citizen and feel it is fair and just to pay for something someone else has made, I am hassled by the very people who should by rights be rewarding me for being their honest to goodness customer.
Are the makers of DVDs so stupid that they believe a notice is going to protect their intellectual property and don’t they understand, they are telling the wrong person anyway? I cannot imagine that these notices and threats will have any effect on the real DVD pirates, especially since many of them live in countries outside the jurisdiction of any anti software theft organisations.
The next irritation is that annoying menu that sits and repeats a burst of the theme music whilst showing a snatch of the movie and inviting you to ‘Play the Movie’, ‘select a chapter’ or look at the incredibly unnecessary extra ‘special features’ they have added to the disk.
When we are actually allowed to start the movie by selecting the right bit of this menu, something that is not always straightforward, since some menus highlight the selected bit quite clearly and others do not, we are treated to another burst of brand names, distributers, producers, directors, co-directors, producer’s assistants, gaffers, gaffer’s assistant and girlfriends and dogs.
In any event, I don’t need a menu to play the movie that is why I bought the darned thing in the first place, just play the movie. Why for goodness sake do I need to select it? By rights I should be able to put it in the slot, press play and watch the movie I actually paid for, seems simple enough to me.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


Autumn has found its way back again and the trees are changing in preparation for winter. With autumn comes the school’s autumn half term and Halloween.
By now it is a well established pattern that we go and stay with The Granddaughter (TG) and her family in Cumbria, which whilst a short hop compared to road journeys in other lands, it is no easy run from our home.
In the UK, we have a wonderful (?) system of roads or freeways that are known as Motorways which supplement the normal road system. We can use two go North West to their home, the M5 which joins with the M6. The M6 runs from near Birmingham to near Carlisle, a distance of only 230 miles but I have never ever driven on any part of that motorway without finding roadworks causing bottlenecks and slowing down the traffic.
We only use the M6 for about 180 miles or so, joining it at Birmingham and leaving it just past Lancaster, we can use the M5 motorway to link to it or the old Roman road Foss Way, either route is about fifty miles before joining the dreaded M6.
The best time we have ever made for this journey is four and a half hours and the longest is over eight. It does not need to be very busy to cause a problem if something goes wrong. Any roadworks will create a slow line of traffic and there are often several sections of these on the stretch we use, causing an accumulation of delays that can add hours to the journey. Accidents can cause problems too, from a lane closure and the subsequent queuing of traffic, to a complete closure of the road whilst the police investigate a serious accident.

Typically busy M6

A slight obstruction soon causes a queue

This time, we had a fairly easy time, with only one stretch of roadworks and further on a very slow wide load taking up two lanes. We finally arrived at about four thirty PM having started out at eleven AM and stopped for a bite to eat after passing Manchester.

Signs of approaching the Lake District, it is becoming hilly.

Definitely in the Lakes area now.

We were staying a week at TG’s home and our first excursion with the family was a visit to Holker Hall, properly pronounced hooker, although that pronunciation has certain connotations nowadays that Yanklish is being spoken a lot over here.

Holker Hall is a large country estate owned by Lord and Lady Cavendish, which is open to the public. It has some wonderful gardens and a large family house dating back to the 16th century, but which had been damaged by fire and partially rebuilt quite recently, that is, a mere hundred and fifty years or so ago.
A stepped waterfall

Autumn trees

For more views and information follow the link. Holker Hall

Being there in autumn the gardens were not in full bloom but the trees were turning and this made up for the lack of flowers. The grounds are very extensive and at one time stretched from the West coast of England right across to the east coast around Scarborough. That was long ago and now is a more manageable size, which does not take several days to cross.
They had a Halloween theme going for the children and we followed the clues around the gardens to get a little prize for TG, who was much keener on this than looking at the house and grounds.

Another outing was to the local Zoo, properly called; The South lakes Wildlife Park. This park supports the Wildlife Protection Foundation, protecting and breeding a range of endangered animals from many parts of the world. They are very proud to have had a rare Sumatran tiger give birth to a healthy young cub. We were only able to catch a glimpse of him but he is very important in the campaign for saving this endangered animal. They have been able to breed several other endangered animals and have a great programme ongoing for this purpose.
They also have some Jaguar cubs almost adults but still kittenish even when the size of a St Bernard dog.

I'm just a pussycat, want to play?

Like Holker Hall, the Zoo was also doing a Halloween theme and here you had to find the pumpkins in the various animal enclosures. This meant that we had to go around every part of the park and look at all the animals. Since The Son in Law (TSIL) has a problem walking any great distance this was quite a task for him. He coped quite well, with a number of rest stops and we were able to have a good look around.

Lisn bud - I was framed, ya know, a stool pigeon. You gotta get me outa here

Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits...

I'm rehearsing for my winter nap.

I'll do one more length and...!!
Damn press always pointing their cameras at me!

I may be big but I'm really friendly.

In the Madagascar area, the birds and Lemurs native to that part of the world are roaming around the open area and mix with the visitors. They seem very tame but you are warned not to touch them because they may bite and you are expected to keep to the paths. Amongst these Madagascans were some Prairie dogs running around the grassed area and kangaroos and Wallabies too, which are a little unusual for Madagascar I thought.

Some of the birds in this area can be fed but only if you buy a pack of special food to feed them, a crafty way of supplementing the park’s animal feed bill. TG was delighted to do this and was soon surrounded by hungry birds, many of them native to England.
The park has a number of different species of tiger in separate compounds and the tigers are fed each day and given exercise in the process because the food is placed on top of tall posts. Apart from making a great spectacle for the park’s visitors, they have adopted this policy to make sure that the tigers get some useful exercise by having to climb up to get their dinner each day. Cats are lazy animals and if you feed them by placing the food on the ground they will just sit around until the food arrives and get both fat and bored, so the climbing method of feeding them is a method of keeping them fit and agile. It has also been found that big cats fed this way also live longer. They also have some lions which are fed in the same way.

Sunday was Halloween and we decorated the house ready for a small party and prepared for the hordes of trick or treaters to arrive that evening. A pair of glowing pumpkins were set on the porch and we waited to hear the doorbell go but nothing happened and then nothing happened and later nothing happened some more. In fact only one person arrived, who turned out to be the boy from next door and he did not go to any other house that evening. The reason for this was it was raining steadily all evening and the incentive to obtain free sweets was not enough to bring anyone out in the wet. TG was disappointed because she had been hoping to go out too but it was very wet, so we stayed in.

The week seemed to fly by and suddenly it was Monday again and we had to pack up and say farewell. That Monday TG went back to school and having taken her there we then had to face the M6 once more.

Farewell Cumbria