Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Non-wargaming highlights of 2017

Reconnecting with my old College friend K after 20 years was the best thing about 2017

Many of you (well, one or two) may have been thinking that you have escaped the dreaded Legatus reviews of the year, as it is now the end of February (although I started this post in January).  I have been working on a report for the government which has taken all of my time for months, even with five other people working on it too. It's still not quite done but it is on the way enough now that I can pause (and the light is too bad to paint, again) for a thrilling non-wargaming round-up..  My (rather sparse) wargaming highlights will follow later (probably about May).

Best Foreign Trip 

I had thought that I had got away with having no foreign trips this year but then two came up on successive weeks.  Firstly, I had to go back to Botswana for a long delayed follow up to my trip of 2016.  This may well engender more trips this year, as we attempt to help the future president sort some stuff out. They had ponced up the Avani Hotel in Gaborone which meant it had lost some of its faux colonial charm and there were no Miss Botswana contestants this time, although the restaurant waitresses were as lovely and efficient as ever.

Free wine in the Hotel Zaza

I got back from Botswana and just had time to run the washing machine before setting off for Houston on my way to El Salvador. This would have been a long journey, undertaken in one go, so I decided to stop off at the relentlessly trendy Hotel Zaza for a night, to recover my equilibrium.  I was joined by my particular friend Sophie which, as a result, made this my best trip of the year.  I hadn't seen her since 2013 and she seemed very pleased to see me, as was I her. The people at Hotel Zaza were so appalled by my travel schedule  that they kept supplying free glasses of wine.

Best UK Trip

This has to be the trip I made back to Oxford in June.  One of the many peculiarities about Oxford University (and a few others in Britain) is that every seven years after you start there you get invited back to a formal dinner called a Gaudy (from the 13th century song known as Gaudeamus Igitur - Let us rejoice, therefore), which your college pays for.  If you have ever watched Inspector Morse (where my college was known as Lonsdale College) or Lord Peter Wimsey you will know that these are usually occasions for much port-fuelled drunkenness, academic scandal, illicit affairs and murder. 

My first Gaudy in 1986.  Oh what cozy fun you could have in front of a college gas fire.  Health and Safety has now seen them all removed,  meaning you can' t cook your lady toast for breakfast the next morning, either.  Spoilsports!

Now I think I have attended every Gaudy except one and that was the one seven years ago (I was abroad, I think), so I haven't been back to one for fourteen years.  Invariably I go with my friend Bill who lives just three miles away and was best man at my wedding (twenty five years since the Day of Doom in July 2017).  Bill doesn't have much to do with College (as you always call it and with a capital 'C') as he is a Champagne socialist (the worst kind) who sort of feels guilty for attending Oxford.  Also attending the first three were my ex-girlfriends and V.  Like all of us, they were very fond of port and the abiding memory of previous gaudies was waking up the next day with splitting headaches and trudging to Brown's to fill up on the most absorbent food possible.  Oddly, I never went to Brown's when I was at College (the one in Oxford was the first one, I think) despite the alluring prospect of waitresses in short skirts (no other women wore short skirts in 1979) and fishnet tights.   This was because there was always a queue and then, as now, the Legatus does not queue for restaurants or pretty much anywhere else unless he is going through security.  This is why I always arrive at Salute an hour after the doors open!  One of my girlfriends at St Hugh's did dress up in a black miniskirt and fishnet tights (this was when I learned that to make fishnet tights look good you have to wear them over a pair of normal tights) when she cooked me spaghetti Bolognese (their signature dish at the time) once, to provide an alternate Brown's experience.

However, my friend Bill was due to start a ludicrous bike ride from Caen to Cannes (via Mont Ventoux!) on the Saturday morning so couldn't attend.  This was very disappointing, as a gaudy is definitely something which is easier to attend if you go with someone.  My ex-girlfriend J hadn't attended since 1993.  I would just have to go on my own.  As a sort of training I attended the College summer party in London  but not a single person from my year attended.  There were some people from the two years above but I never got to know them, really.  In my first year I was in a very intense relationship with one of my fellow lawyers (the one who liked Scotch Woodcock) and when we weren't in the law library we were...doing other things.  In the second year my attention was focussed on the Oxford Union (my son has been on the committee since October, which is something of an honour) and so I never really got to know that many people in my College very well.  As my friend pointed out once, apart from three men the only other people in College I kept in touch with were ex-girlfriends.  This can, of course, be the source of some delicacy (or even a little excitement in a couple of cases) when meeting again years later.

Then, some weeks later, I was contacted out of the blue by another old College girlfriend K, who was the best friend of my first red-headed girlfriend, C, (maybe I need a diagram for all this).  C always thought I was having an affair with K (which I wasn't - well not at the time) and, indeed the Old Bat didn't like me going to see K for dinner when we lived in Chelsea and K lived in Battersea.  and I never did have a fling (well, not really - maybe a flinglet.  Or three.) but although she was one of my very best friends, I hadn't seen her for twenty years.  Now the mother of three strapping boys she said she was not going to the gaudy as she was a small, grey, middle aged Jewish housewife and everyone else would be very grand.  However, we met up in London shortly afterwards and it was like there had been no intervening twenty years at all. She didn't seem to have changed appreciably in the interim and was very fit looking indeed.  Anyway, almost immediately after we met up, K said that she had changed her mind ad had applied to go to the gaudy after all.  She couldn't get a room in College so would be staying in a bed and breakfast miles out in Cowley. 

Having had a horrible drive via the M25 which took two and a half hours instead of an hour and fifteen minutes I turned up and picked up my room key.  They try and put you in your old room, if they can and this happened to me once but it is quite spooky and that room from my first year had some bad memories of C and our Hindenburg like disintegrating relationship (like when she poured a kettle of boiling water on my leg during an argument, leaving a scar that I would have for twenty years).  They did, however, put me in the same staircase, in the converted eighteenth century houses at the unfashionable end of College known as the Arab Quarter, for its dark, arched access and generally seedy atmosphere.   I went up to look at the door to my old room on the top floor and was appalled by the presence of carpet instead of red lino on the floors.  The old wooden stairs were still there though, which we used to jump down three at a time to the annoyance of the other inhabitants of the staircase. 

In my day, the bathrooms of my male only staircase were in the unheated basement and my room was on the top floor necessitating long, tedious descents to the freezing facilities but I saw, as I approached my guest room for the night, that there was a modern  bathroom.   There was no bath of course, the lovely one on Heberden staircase, which and I would inhabit in candle lit luxury during the evenings after a tutorial, having been replaced by a utilitarian shower, sadly.  The real shock was the rather lovely room I had been assigned.  It had a huge double bed and a sofa and a strange keyboard thing.  I've stayed in much worse hotel rooms (especially in the Baltic States and Poland).

"This is lovely!" said K, bouncing on the bed like her eighteen year old previous self, rather than her fifty-six year old present one.  She immediately cancelled her bed and breakfast and decided to bunk in with me; thus solving the worrying problem of how she was going to negotiate the cobbles in Radcliffe Square in her high heels.  Good job my friend Bill was preparing to cycle across France as he would have been appalled by such disreputable behaviour; he is a very moral person and and I am...less so.  We got changed together and K immediately proved her worth as she could still tie a bow tie; something that always stressed me out and used to take me endless attempts.  She always tied my bow tie for College events and exams in the past. I struggle with shoelaces and never undo mine but jam my feet into already tied shoes with a shoehorn so I don't have to retie them.  It often takes me four or five attempts to deal with my normal tie, too.  I am not good at hand to eye co-ordination, hence my inability to make wargames scenery, play ball games or do DIY.  K managed my bow tie  in about eight seconds despite me doing my best to distract her as she stood there in her stockings (the fact that she still wears these being another nice nostalgic moment).  

We went to chapel before the pre-dinner reception, which is something I never did when I was there (except at Christmas) but K was in the choir.  We sat there and tried to identify the people sitting opposite.  'He hasn't changed.' 'He has really aged'.  'Who is she?' etc.  People on either side helpfully identified those we didn't know.  It was a hot day and warm in the chapel and half way through K kicked off her high heels, took her stockings off, rolled them up into a ball and gave them to me to put in my pocket, somewhat to the surprise of the lady sitting next to her (a chemist, I think).  The drinks reception took place in the small quad known as the deer park; an ironic reference to Magdalen College which has a real deer park.  The small patch of grass there used to be inhabited by the college tortoise but I have no idea what happened to him.  Eight out of twelve lawyers from my year attended, surprisingly, and it was nice to see my old friend A who now lives in Hong Kong.  Fortunately and not surprisingly, my ex girlfriend was not there, as ever, as that would have been really difficult. Neither were my other four ex-girlfriends from College, fortunately.  would have soon seen them off anyway. 

The old benches had given way to chairs in Hall and none of those sitting against the wall risked the old technique of climbing over the table to get to their seats. The food was very good although the red wine with dinner was not really up to College standards, I have to say.  It did get hotter and hotter inside and was the usual torture for the men while many of the women got away with floaty dresses and remained cool.  Fortunately we all escaped into the quad while they re-laid the table for dessert.

I think it says something about modern times that a (much, much better) red wine was also offered with dessert and the Port was hardly touched.  In fact it didn't even circulate as far as me as two women sitting further down the table didn't pass it on.  They would have been sconced (made to drink a quart of beer in one go while standing on the table and apologising in Latin) in my time.  I suspect not so many people drink port these days. 

Eventually getting to bed much earlier than in previous gaudies, K asked me when the last time was we had shared a bed. The Principe di Savoia hotel in Milan in 1988, I replied.  Before I met the Old Bat of course.  I think, anyway.  Maybe not. At least we woke up the next day without port induced headaches and could have a nice walk in the Botanical Gardens again. The next gaudy isn't until 2024 (a science fiction sounding date) by which time I will be dead. 

Best encounter with very large piece of military hardware.

Sailing around the USS George W Bush in the Solent.  Many years ago we sailed around the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, anchored in the same spot.  With the 'Ike' my father in law sailed behind it and dipped his white ensign, which means that technically any naval ship has to respond.  We were all amazed and impressed by the fact that the US Navy crew dipped their ensign (which was bigger than our yacht) in reply.  

Best Book (non-military)

I bought a lot of books in the second half of 2017 and I got quite a lot from the Folio Society, including their splendid Ian Fleming James Bond edition (four published so far).  Mostly I got art books, though, including ones on Boucher, Renoir, Klimt and one of my favourites, Anders Zorn.  Although I sorted out my large art books I have now run out of space for them, hence my current wargames magazines cull. 

In addition, I bought the remaining three books I was missing from the Don Lawrence Trigan Empire edition.  The only comic strip I ever read, from Look & Learn magazine, a Dutch publisher put this luxurious and limited (500 copies) edition together ten years ago but at about £70 for each of the 12 volumes it has taken me some time to collect them all.  If I had lots of money and didn't have to pay £17,000 a year for my children's university accommodation (grrr!) I would commission a series of figures based on the illustrations for The Trigan Empire.

I have not done so well on reading books with just words, except Victorian erotica, which my friend Angela keeps recommending to me (she is an erotic sort of woman).  I read The Lost World again, which is one of the few books I can read over and over.  I started it again when I took delivery of my Antediluvian Allosaurus.

My favourite book which I bought in 2017, though, has to be The Libertine, which is 500 pages of eighteenth century illustrations coupled with racy literature from the time. It won an award as best hard backed trade book at the New York Book Show and is one of the most beautiful books I own.  You could stick four legs on it and call it a coffee table, though.  I still haven't quite worked out where to put it, however.

Best Film

I went to see two films at the cinema this year: Star Wars: Rogue One and Blade Runner 2.  I didn't enjoy either very much and wouldn't watch them again on DVD.  The world is depressing enough at present without watching more depressing stuff.  I did buy quite a few films on DVD but haven't watched any of them yet.  I did start to watch The Lost City of Z (I bought the book some years ago in Borders in Washington DC), for some South American Lost World inspiration but Brad Pitt was hopelessly miscast and could never act anyway.  He seemed to be putting all of his effort into maintaining his English accent and sleepwalking through the rest. I gave up half way through,as it was so widescreen and was filmed in such a way that all the action seemed to be taking place in a tiny area in the centre of the screen. I couldn't see what was going on, basically.  I need a bigger TV!  I nearly bought one on Black Friday in John Lewis in Edinburgh but the Old Bat is very anti.  We need a new cooker basically, first, she maintains (Charlotte dropped a very heavy saucepan on the ceramic top).  The Old Bat is a depressingly practical person.

Best TV Show 

I very much enjoyed the second series of Versailles, which was better than the first and actually contained a battle scene in one episode (I still haven't found my 1672 figures, though) as well as a rather splendid naked pregnant lady, which you don't get on TV that often (not even on the horrifically fascinating Naked Attraction).    Having discovered that I had Eurosport, I watched the live coverage of the three big cycling tours, which took nine weeks of evening viewing, so there wasn't a lot of time for the many boxed sets (not box sets! Grrr!) I bought.  The Old Bat and I both enjoyed the soapy The Halcyon, set in a big London hotel at the beginning of World War 2 but ITV cancelled it.  I quite enjoyed the production design of Genius, about Einstein, the second season of The Last Kingdom but wasn't so convinced by Jamestown. I did enjoy the second series of bodice ripping Forty Five rebellion DVD boxed set Outlander. 

A deliciously young and fresh Polly Walker in Poirot

My biggest discovery was in buying the complete set of Poirot at Sainsbury's.  I was aware of it, of course and had even watched the Death on the Nile feature length episode but I hadn't seen any of the others.  What a revelation!  It must have cost a fortune.  Fantastic interiors, wonderful cars, motor yachts, foreign locations, car racing at Brooklands (just up the road from here) lovely actresses in thirties clothes, vintage planes (even a seaplane in one episode and a Dragon Rapide), liners (filmed on board the Queen Mary)  and the best TV series title sequence ever made!.  

Best Music

Actual CDs!

Film and TV music

Lots of iTunes purchases this year and even a few actual CDs.  Soundtracks included: Star Wars: The Last Jedi Star Wars: Rogue One  (which was really quite a good pastiche of the John Williams style by Michael Giacchino (a last minute replacement for the otherwise engaged and overrated Alexandre Desplat)), Harry Potter: the Prisoner of AzkabanThe Mummy (the Tom Cruise one), The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,  the extended version of Starship Troopers, The Right Stuff, the extended version of The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 1, 2 and 3 extended versions and Alexander.  Classic scores included Max Steiner's The Adventures of Don Juan and The Charge of the Light BrigadeSalome, the extended version of The Wind and the Lion (even though I haven't see the film) and the The Man who Would be King (which I still haven't seen either),.TV music included Agent Carter, Inspector Morse and Tutankhamun


Big band music from Ted Heath and Ivy Benson, a disc of German dance band music from the 192os an Edith Piaf compilation, several albums by Canadian singer Sophie Milman and Turn up the Quiet by Diana Krall

Pop and Folk

Mike Oldfield's rather disappointing Return to Ommadawn, Vittrad from Swedish folk band Garmana, Two Steps from Hell's Unleashed, Rick Wakeman's Piano Portraits and Seven Wonders of the World, some Steeleye Span, Sky 4, Illumination by The Medieaval Baebes, Wilde Roses by two of the Baebes, and Encore! by Barachois (a French Canadian folk group I saw live in Prince Edward Island once).

World Music

A couple of albums (do they still call them albums) from oud player Simon Shaheen and Qantara. and several more albums of belly dancing music,


Lots of opera this year. Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Tristan und IsoldeThe Valkyrie and Siegfried , Rameau's Hippolyte Et Aricie and Les Indes Galantes. Also Minkus' Don Quixote, Richard Strauss' Don Quixote and Sinfonia Domestica, Mozart The Symphonies, Stravinsky chamber suites, Forkladd Gud by Larsson, Neilsen's 4th Symphony, some Brahm's, D'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Song and quite a lot of piano and organ music by various composers, including a great suite of music from Star Wars played on the organ, which wins the prize of the most played of my 2017 acquisitions..  More contemporary stuff included Australian saxophonist Amy Dickson's Philip Glass CD, John Adams Harmonielehre, Elizabeth Hainen's, Home solo works for harp and Claire Jones' latest harp disc.

 Best Artistic Discovery

Reclining nude on day bed (1900)

I have discovered lots of minor orientalist painters this year as well as many new painters active in the first part of the twentieth century.  Of these,  I really liked Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931), who was known as 'the master of swish' for the active way he used paint to produce sensuous pictures of women.

Best Exhibition

I went to a number of excellent exhibitions this year with my various 'art mistresses'.  The Lord Leighton one was superb, bringing together nearly all the the paintings depicted in a famous photograph of his studio, taken the week after his death, back to his studio for the first time since.  I also enjoyed the Modigliani exhibition which had around twenty of the thirty or so nudes for which he is most famous in the same room.  Overall, though. it had to be the Alma-Tadema exhibition (also held at Leighton House) which was the biggest exhibition of his work for a hundred years and included many of my favourites as well as an excellent film show on how his paintings have influenced the depiction of the ancient world in the cinema,.

 Best meal 

This was, perhaps surprisingly, at the Monarch restaurant in the Hotel Zaza in Houston, despite severe jet lag. When asking for steak in the US you usually have to accept some overcooked lump with the same consistency as a hockey puck.  I like my steak so blue that is is still moving about.  In a restaurant in Las Vegas once I actually had to sign a disclaimer to the effect that if I was ill afterwards I couldn't sue them.  The chef at the Monarch, however, pulled off the best fillet steak I have ever had in the Americas.  It was meltingly soft, red in the middle but still hot (the real trick with blue meat). It being Texas it was also huge too.  Lovely garlic mash and Madeira and mushroom sauce as well Delicious crab cake to start too!

Best wine 

I don't drink a lot of white wine these days, as my doctors (a lovely new Iraqi doctor at the medical practice this year) don't like it but, because of a stage of the Giro d'Italia, I tried Peccorino for the first time and it was particularly nice.

Best Beer

I have had to cut down on beer too but enjoyed the York Brewery triple pack my sister bought me back from a weekend in York.

Best Breakfast

I haven't had any really outstanding breakfasts this year. but the most unexpectedly good one was in the Plaza Premium Lounge at Terminal 2, waiting for my flight to Houston.  The curse of most restaurant breakfasts in the UK are poor quality catering sausages but the ones in the breakfast buffet in the lounge were outstanding.

Best new cheese

I got some of the Isle of Wight Cheese Company's imaginatively named Isle of Wight soft in Comes.  It  is like a a cross between Brie and Camembert except it has the advantage of not putting my money into the French economy. Very nice with cornichons. Alright, for these you have to buy French, I admit.

Best new food discovery

When I was out in El Salvador someone told me that there was somewhere in London that sold spreadable chorizo.  What genius, I thought.  It is like topless swimsuits or magnums of claret.  It turns out it hails from Majorca and is not exactly cheap but for a World Health Organisation taunting snack is perfect.

Most unexpected postal delivery

A big box of stuff from the New York Bakery Company (actually based in Rotherham) when I mentioned on their Facebook page that I couldn't find their wholemeal bagels (due to 'production difficulties').  Bagels, a mug, a pen and Tesco vouchers.  Top customer service, chaps!

Most unexpectedly complicated thing

Having, for the first time, to work out how to operate a lock on the Thames to enable my father in law to get his river launch into the boatyard for winter storage.  My father in law, who was ninety last week, is a very clever man and depressingly able with his hands,  He was a heart surgeon and was number two on Britain's first heart transplant.  He is also an engineer who built a portable kidney machine and restores cars and boats.  He finds my inability to do practical things quite baffling. It took me twenty minutes to work out how to operate the lock, despite the presence of (not very clear, I thought) instructions on the machines.

Second most unexpectedly complicated thing and best improvement to my study

My desk chair had broken earlier in the year which meant that I could only sit in it by leaning forward awkwardly, which meant the blood to my feet got cut off.  Eventually, I went to John Lewis for a new one, where the nice lady said that the chair came in four parts and was easy to assemble.  What a lie!  It took me well over an hour but has transformed my sitting (and therefore blogging and painting) experience!

The even less anticipated wargames review next!


  1. Great read and fantastic blog, one of my favourties

  2. A good year it seems. Not only do I envy sharing a bed with an old College love, but - even better - a volume of the Tegian Empire. Of both are dreams made!

    1. I loved the Trigan Empire! The best thing about my holidays in the sixties was coming back home and the newsagent had saved up four issues of Look and Learn for me so I could read 4 episodes in one go!

  3. Another hugely entertaining read - as usual.

  4. What a wonderful read you do have an interesting life.

    1. Sometimes a bit too interesting. At least I have managed to pass the trip to Nigeria to a colleague next month!

  5. A very, very entertaining piece ... although I cannot believe you have never seen 'The Wind and the Lion' and 'The Man Who Would Be King'!

    1. I at least have the DVD of The Man Who Would be King but not The Wind and the Lion...

  6. Totally scurrilous but hugely entertaining... well done I enjoyed that post enormously! :o))

  7. Always enjoy reading about what you get up to, although a diagram of the various women would certainly come in handy for some of the more complicated bits.

  8. Bravo, a great read as I sit here and enjoy my fourth large Canadian Club, which I am not allowed for medical reasons, damn the torpedoes etc.

    I look forward to the second part.