Hi. How are you all? Been a while, right? If you follow me on that social media thing, then you’ll know that I haven’t just disappeared off the face of the planet. If X&HT is your only resource for Robsy goodness, then, well, things have really been on the quiet side.
And to be honest, that’s been deliberate. The last 12 months have brought fairly big changes to my life, and I’ve been taking some quiet time to think things through creatively. Continue reading A Word From The Hinterlands
Snowshill Manor seems, at first glance, to be just another one of those National Trust sites that attract coach parties, couples of a certain age and bored families looking for a bit of culture before the kids drag them off to the play farm up the lane. It’s a rambling sixteenth-century country house, set in attractive gardens. Pretty, but pretty unremarkable.
Or it would be, were it not for the gentleman that owned it through a chunk of the twentieth century–artist, artisan and obsessive collector Charles Paget Wade. Scion of a family made rich through sugar estates in the West Indies, he bought the Manor House after serving time in the trenches during World War One.
He was at that point already a keen curator of a collection with the broadest remit possible–anything that caught his eyes as having artistic merit or exhibiting a certain level of craftsmanship in its creation.
Wade refitted the Manor in an Arts and Crafts style, a discipline in which he was skilled and fluent. He set about turning Snowshill Manor into the showcase for his obsessions, creating themed rooms filled to the eaves with his finds.
This is what makes the place so fascinating. Wade was an artist, and believed in drama, mood and excitement. When he handed over care of the place to the National Trust, he insisted that they do as little as possible to the interior, to preserve the effect he had worked so assiduously to create.
Snowshill Manor is not your typical NT experience, then. There are no labels, little in the way of explanation as to why the rooms are the way they are. Volunteers are on hand if needs be, but for the most part you are left alone to wander… and wonder.
As you move from room to room, the feeling becomes ever more disorientating and claustrophobic. There is reason and design to the collection, but the sheer weight of visual load becomes ever more difficult to bear. There are 22,000 objects collected in the 22 rooms of the Manor. There is a room dedicated to musical instruments. One to bicycles, particularly boneshakers and penny farthings. There is a room full of samurai armour.
The collection is so huge that Wade was forced to move out, relocating to the adjoining Priest’s House. I’d love to say that it offers a respite to the onslaught. If anything, it’s even more deranged. Here is Wade’s bedroom. Imagine waking up every morning to this.
It’s impossible to take everything in. You begin to hallucinate, as the space reconfigures around you, your perception rewriting with every new burst of stimuli. I have never felt so strongly the impression of being watched, of being gently guided towards a place that I didn’t necessarily want to go. Some of the rooms were roped off. The official story was that there were not enough volunteers that day. I feel more that they couldn’t have people wandering in there without some form of protection.
Wade was without any argument a man that understood the theatre of his collection, and there’s a performance at play. You’re sent on a labyrinthine route around the house, traversing a maze that becomes a jigsaw puzzle that becomes, ultimately, a trip through the corridors of Wade’s own head.
Or is Wade wandering through yours? There’s a strong feeling that the trickster left more of himself in Swanshill Manor than the National Trust is letting on. Is the place haunted? Hard to say. Would I care to spend a night here alone? You couldn’t pay me enough.
I make the place sound like the work of a isolated madman, yet Wade was personable and popular. He was visited by J.B. Priestley, Virginia Woolf and even royalty–Queen Mary stepped over the threshold. I can understand why artists would be charmed and amused by the sheer volume of the place. But there’s also a sense of relief when you find one last turn finally spits you out into the gardens, and you can feel the horizon open up again, and you realise how much the walls and ceilings have been closing in around you.
Snowshill Manor is a remarkable place, something close to a nightmare tucked into a crook of road close to some of the Cotswold’s prettiest towns and villages. Un-nerving and energising in equal measure, it’s a house possessed (and I don’t use that word lightly, Readership) with its own very particular character. I recommend a visit. Make sure you bring friends.
Snowshill Manor is open for most of the year. For more, check the NT site: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshill-manor-and-garden
Same deal as earlier this week, as I find myself on a bit of an uptick in trips to the cinema. Unstructured grumbling, spoilers abound. Let’s do this.
- Rumour control: here are the facts. I have been a big fan of the Alien franchise since the late seventies. Slightly too young to watch Ridley Scott’s iconic movie on the big screen, I nevertheless soaked up the production designs of Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and HR Giger, and still own battered copies of The Book Of Alien and Walt Simonson’s astonishing graphic novel adaptation. I saw Aliens in its first week of release at the Odeon Marble Arch back when that was one big screen showing films in 70mm. I’ve been around these movies, this universe, for quite a while. I have skin in the game.
- Prometheus, Scott’s attempt to fill in the backstory of the mythos, satisfied no-one. It didn’t help that he was trying to make an Alien film without, yannow, Aliens. Bloated, pretentious, self-indulgent and bewildering, it left me angry and more upset than I’d like to admit. I’ve laughed long and hard at the Star Wars man-babies complaining about how George Lucas consistently trampled over their treasured childhood memories. Now, here comes Ridley, stomping his expensively-shod size tens all over a world I love dearly. Gotta admit, there were man-baby tears from me after Prometheus.
- Which brings us to his attempt to re-bootstrap the legacy, taking on board the wails of us man-babies and making something more tailored to our tastes. Alien: Covenant is supposed to be the story the fans want to see. And, well, honestly? He’s gone too far the other way. Covenant is fan-service.
- Consider: he re-uses the classic ‘fade-in typography’ of the first movie. Jerry Goldsmith’s classic theme is larded all over the place. We see elements of Ron Cobb’s innovative Semiotic Standard designs in alert screens. There’s even a big, loving close-up of the dipping bird toy briefly glimpsed on the bridge of the Nostromo. ‘Here,’ says Ridley. ‘This is what you want, right? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?’
- And actually, I was for the most part. There’s plenty of money up on screen, and John Logan’s script is pretty solid. I have issues with the attempt to make every female lead in an Alien movie into Aliens-era Ripley (sorry, I simply don’t buy the notion of gentle Katherine Waterston with a gun). Similarly, the inference that Billy Crudup’s captain is weak and ineffectual because of his faith is problematic, and the source of way too many weak religious puns.
- Of course, even through the Alien fan-service, Covenant is a movie that wants to deal with Big Themes. Creation. Life. Meeting your maker. It’s become increasingly clear that Scott’s heart is not in making more Alien films. He wants to make a statement, an epic SF take on Milton’s Paradise Lost (which was of course a working title for this movie). Unfortunately, the only way Fox will give him the dough to make it is if he throws a few chest-bursters into the mix.
- Which is a shame, because the Alien stuff is the least interesting thing about Covenant. The film really comes to life when the Luciferesque figure of David finally appears, messianic in long hair and robe. He’s literally playing God (or at the very least Dr. Moreau), and not that bothered about creating in his own image. His playful taunting of the Covenant’s resident synthetic Walter are real highlights (and the seductive scene where Michael Fassbender teaches Michael Fassbender how to play the flute is a technical triumph–’I’ll do the fingering’ indeed). These gave me a sense of the film that Scott actually wants to make–a darkly gothic take on creation mythology. Not an easy sell, though.
- Largely, then, Alien: Covenant is a mishmash, a slumgullion, a cut-and-shut that, while it has a lot to recommend (it’s a huge improvement on Prometheus) is still frankly a bit of a mess. It’s a big statement on epic themes that has a skewed monster movie wrapped around it. I’m still chewing over whether I actually enjoyed it or not. I think I did. Even though I know when I’m being pandered to.
- That being said, I do want to know what David gets up to next. Scott finally has an anti-hero as delightfully amoral as Hannibal Lector. I still dig his take on everyone’s favourite cannibal, and David is cut from the same cloth. The ending of Covenant finally sets up a dark new path for the franchise–one that, despite all my man-baby tears, I’d be happy to tread.
Needed to get this down, really, so apologies for the lack of structure. Spoilers, obviously, right? Right. Continue reading Some Considerations Following A Screening Of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
A March For Science. Seems like a crazy idea. Like staging a march for gravity, or the moon. We live with the very clear, quantifiable benefits brought to us by scientific research, innovation and discovery. From the SF-nal qualities of the mini-computer in our pockets, to our home comforts, even to the way we prepare our food. Let’s not forget, it wasn’t that long ago that indoor plumbing was rare, and cooking was done on a wood or coal-fired range. By any reliable metric, we’re living in a golden age.
But science is under threat, just when we need it the most. Research projects into vital areas like climate change are being defunded or slashed. Anti-vaccination rhetoric has led to outbreaks of diseases like rubella that were thought to be extinct. According to gnome-sized Pob-alike Michael Gove, people are ‘sick of experts.’ In the Age Of Trump, and with the looming trash-fire of Brexit already casting a shadow over staff and funding for British science, the outlook is bleak.
Suddenly, marching in support of the community seems like a good idea after all.
I joined hundreds of thousands of people worldwide on Earth Day, April 22nd, to take to the streets for science. The London March started (where else?) at the Science Museum, winding past Hyde Park, up Piccadilly before convening at Parliament Hill. The mood, like the weather, was sunny. This was a celebration as much as a protest. White lab coats, terrible puns and jokes involving equations were everywhere. Heading towards Trafalgar Square, a bloke cycled past yelling “nerds!” We all cheered. Damn right. Nerdy and proud.
Scientists are not natural joiners, for the most part happy to hole up in their labs and do the good work. So there was a giddy sense of ambling out of the comfort zone, of not quite believing that we were here, and that there were so many of us. And that we had so much support, from both the public and a few very well known names…
Of course, there were chants. “What do we want? Evidence-based policies! When do we want them? After peer review!” Our banners were shonky, home-brew affairs, cobbled together from cardboard, drainpipes, duct-tape and even Lego. It seemed appropriate. British science has always been run on a shoestring, powered by imagination and lateral thinking.
At Parliament Hill, we gathered to hear speeches from names like Cosmic Shambles star Robin Ince, and finished up with a sing-along to Monty Python’s ‘The Science Song’. What else would we have done? The theme from The Big Bang Theory?
This was my first ever march, for a cause in which I wholeheartedly believe. In an age of alt-facts and pseudo-science, sometimes you need to make a stand for the truth. And if you have to do it in the company of 12,000 nerds and geeks, well, so much the better.
In celebration of the day, and the work that comes after, I’ve fired up Spotify and put together a March For Science playlist. Feel free to suggest additions.
She turns to me, soft and warm on this bright Sunday morning, and whispers in my ear–deep, sultry. ‘I don’t suppose we have any sausages in the freezer you could defrost? It’s just that we’ve got that squishy bread, and it’s been forever since I had a sausage sarnie…’
Pillow-talk in the Wickings household. Completely understandable, on a day when the smell of grilling meat is an obvious counterpoint to the sunshine of this April day. Breakfast is important, and a sausage sarnie under blue skies in the garden suddenly sounds like a very good idea.
It’s about the details, of course. The porky lovelies are cooked low and slow (and I mean slow–half an hour at least to develop the right level of crust, and for all the god’s sakes, don’t prick ‘em). They go in my favourite cast-iron skillet, a piece of Hairy Biker merchandise picked up for a pittance in a garden centre years ago. Heavy as hell, and seasoned with the baked-on grease of a thousand meals, it will last for decades if looked after with care. I never wash it. A quick rinse with warm water and a swipe with a scourer does the job. The surface of the pan is blackly translucent, and nothing ever sticks. It lives out on the hot-plate, always ready for the next meal.
The thing about a really good sausage sandwich is the counterpoint–good sausages, cheap and squishy supermarket loaf. I bake my own bread, and can go a decent approximation of a brick of Mother’s Pride, given the time. But if I’m honest with myself, the perfect sausage sandwich needs balance that only comes from the transposition of the two key ingredients. The crunch of the crisp surface of the banger and the soft, juicy meat, soaked up by the spongy bread. Heaven. Slightly too much butter, of course. There should always be the danger of the whole structure soggily falling apart.
Sauce on your sausage? It’s an important question that I put to Clare as she pads out to lay the table. ‘Brown or red?’ When I was a picky kid, the very thought of ketchup or HP on my sarnie would have been anathema. I went through a period of liking mayo, maybe a little mustard. I know, don’t judge me. I was young. My tastebuds took a while to bed in.
These days I like the punchy combo of exotic umami that comes from the meeting of sweet dates, sour tamarind, molasses and spices. A condiment that should have a noble, poetic name. Maharajah’s Delight. Royal Spice. With typical English understatement, we just call it brown sauce. I pep it up with a little Sriracha. The vinegary bite just lifts the whole experience.
In an epiphanic moment, while freezer-digging for sausages, I come across a bag of hash browns. These craggy, savoury pucks of bliss are a joy to me, and turn a sandwich into a meal. I ask Clare if she wants any. ‘No, too much.’ I put one in the pan for her anyway, tucking them in amongst the bangers at the halfway point with a splash of oil. I know if I don’t she’ll only decide she wants one of mine, and that’s an argument that no-one needs.
In Australia, they’ll regularly do breakfast on the barbie, and it’s a practice that’s gradually making its way back to the home country. Given a sunny morning, it’s a fine way to ease into the day. You could even throw a thin breakfast steak on to join the bacon and bangers. Definitely a couple of big portobello mushrooms. Hash browns, always. I don’t do eggs, but if you have a grill big enough for a frying pan, you’re all set. It’s a smoky meal to tend, though. Maybe save your morning shower for after breakfast, unless you like the idea of smelling of eau de barbecue all day. For today, though, the skillet is fine, set to a contented sizzle. No need for any more than that.
Breakfast was everything we wanted, and all we hoped for. A simple thing made with care and attention. Not rushed, ready when it was ready. An almost meditative meal, which we ate quietly, smiling at each other.
Sometimes, all you need is a sausage sandwich to put the world to rights.