Sunday, 9 October 2016

Death's vengeful daughter, alien invasion, over-reaching geniuses and uncensored Judge Dredd

The last few weeks have seen my comics enjoyment – and involvement – broadening and moving beyond the realms of simply being a reader.

But for this post, I’m going to stick with what I’ve been reading and begin in mid September, when The Other Half was away on a brief Rugby League trip and I leapt at the opportunity to visit Gosh! comics in Soho, where staff took the time to recommend a number of titles for me to try.

The first of these that I have read thus far is volume one of Pretty Deadly, a quirky fusion of westerns, folklore and fantasy by Kelly Sue DeConnick, centred on Death’s daughter and a bitter, savage search for vengeance.

Within this, we get a sense of something ancient and timeless in the power of stories.

The excellent, stylised artwork by Emma Ríos adds to the strange and magical quality of the story, with a fascinating palette that includes, almost as an act of artistic irony given the storyline, pale pastels.

To give you an idea of just how weird this is, each chapter is introduced by the ‘living’ skeleton of a dead rabbit talking to a butterfly. And yet somehow it all works, ensuring an immediate order being placed for the second instalment.

Next up was Y: The Last Man, Brian K Vaughan’s story of Yorick and his capuchin monkey, who find themselves as the last males on Earth when an unknown plague wipes out all other males – and with an awful lot of women wanting them dead too.

Vaughan is a bright new(ish) star of the comics scene, but it took me an age to get going with this and, with the flatness of Pia Guerra’s artwork, I’m not sure whether I’ll follow the story on to a further volume.

By contrast, the first Wild’s End trade knocked my metaphorical socks off.

Dan Abnett’s tale unfolds in and around a peaceful 1930s English village populated by a cast of anthropomorphic animal citizens, who suddenly find their rural idyll shattered by an alien invasion.

This is Wind in the Willows fused with War of the Worlds – with a dry humour underlying the whole and a very clever invocation of a semi-mythical England, from character names such as Captain Wainmaring to two pages of a delightfully realised travel guide that nods to the likes of Wainwright, Bradshaw and Pevsner.

INJ Culbard’s art is a joy. Deceptively simple, it absolutely pings off the page in vibrant colour. And the space ships are Deco lights!

Wild’s End is funny, violent, with a fast-paced story and strong characters – it’s an absolute delight. Whether I will be reading more of this is not even a real question.

The doormat at home is just beginning to get used to Forbidden Planet subscription packets landing on it.

But when the first issue of Hadrian’s Wall descended, it left me with the giddy delight of having my first ever subscribed-before-the-start-of-a-completely-new-comic experience – and that was before I’d even turned the first page.

Once I had read it, my pleasure was increased.

Set some time in the future, it sees pill-popping detective Simon Moore sent to solve an unexplained death on board the space station Hadrian’s Wall, where his ex-wife wants to avoid any trouble.

To be strictly accurate, the death doesn’t take place on board anything, but in space. Which makes this less a locked-room mystery and more an open-space one.

With a story by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, and art by Rod Reis, it’s also further evidence that you can hit the ground running a new series.

Talking of comics that are slow to get going, Injection fell into this category. Volume one was confusing – yet also intriguing and well-illustrated enough that I pre-ordered the second trade.

Indeed, I actually went back and re-read one before starting two – and now it’s all coming together.

The central premise is that five geniuses have ‘poisoned’ the 21st century in an effort to drive innovation and growth and avoid stagnation. But ion course things have got out of hand and now they need to put things right. Which isn’t going to be easy.

In the second trade, everything tightens and, in particular, the concentration on one of the five, consulting detective Vivek Headland, works wonders for drawing the reader further in.

Warren Ellis’s storey is intriguing and the artwork, from Declan Shelvey and Jordie Bellarie, helps create a dark, brooding feel.

Also on the recent reading list was Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Uncensored.

Over the years, I’ve picked up the odd copy of 2000AD, but never really been able to get into it.

This, on the other hand, made it easy. The “uncensored” was what drew my attention to it in the first place – chunks had been removed from the original 1978 story because it used the McDonalds, Burger King and Jolly Green Giant trademarks, without asking permission.

And as they showed at the time, those companies are not exactly averse to litigation.

Fast forward to 2014, when the EU introduced a new directive stating that the use of copyright-protected characters for parody was not banned. Thus in June this year, we got the publication of the entire Cursed Earth storyline in a stunningly nice hardback version.

Written by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Chris Lowder, with classic black line art by Mick NcMahon and Brian Bolland, plus a smattering of colour spreads, it’s a fun romp and a perfect intro to the Judge if, like me, you’ve only really dipped in before.

So, that’s a little round-up on recent reading – coming soon: beyond the reading.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Burton's Miss Peregrine stutteringly takes flight

Tim Burton’s new film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is a slow burner, but by the time the final credits roll, it has enough going for it that you care about what happens.

Florida teenager Jake Portman has grown up with his grandfather Abe’s tall stories about living in a home for children with strange abilities.

After he finds his grandfather’s mutilated body, Jake is set on a path to try to uncover the truth about those stories – and finds himself at the centre of a time-bending struggle against a group of monsters.

Based on Ransom Riggs’s 2011 debut novel of the same name, Burton’s film captures the darkness of the fantasy and the alienating sense of feeling ‘different’, although as a part allegory of the Holocaust it can feel a little clunky at times and even, in a fairground scene late on, flirts with bad taste.

Visually, it’s a delight to look at and the special effects are top-notch.

Burton gets good performances from a large ensemble that teams unknown child actors with some big stars.

French actor and model Eva Green is excellent as a the eponymous Miss Peregrine, while Terence Stamp and Judi Dench add their considerable talents as Jake’s grandfather and the headmistress of a home similar to Miss Peregrine’s.

Samuel L Jackson is in fine form as the lead villain, Mr Barron (spot the nods toward Baron Samedi and zombies), and it’s always good to see Allison Janney getting big-screen time.

Of the children, Asa Butterfield as Jake and Ella Purnell turn in lovely performances as the leading figures in the story, and Burton ensures that even with so many children involved, it never veers into tweeness or sentimentality.

It doesn’t come close to Burton’s best work, but it has many charms and is certainly an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Matisse drawings create an exhibition of beautiful purity

“Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.”

That quote is at the heart of a new exhibition celebrating Henri Matisse’s mastery of line drawing, which opens tonight at the Eames Fine Art Gallery in south London.

In our familiarity with Matisse as a master of vibrant colour, it’s easy to forget the striking simplicity and purity of his drawing.

Throughout much of his career, he also utilised a wide variety of printing techniques, and the collection that the gallery has put together unites lithographs and etchings to great effect.

However easy he made drawing look, Matisse was quite clear that it was an effect that resulted from long discipline.

“If I trust my drawing hand,” he said, “it is because, in training it to serve me, I forced myself never to let it take precedence over my feelings.”

The works here – and all are available for sale, with prices ranging from £400 to £4,000 – are linked by poetry.

From Florilège des Amors de Ronsard
Matisse himself loved poetry so much that he would start each day with reading verse before he began work.

The prints in this exhibition come from three suites: Poésies from 1932 was inspired by the work of the same name by the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallard, while Florilége des Amours de Ronsard from 1948 illustrated the courtly love poems of 16th century poet Pierre de Ronsard.

The third series was inspired by the poetry of Charles-Antoine Nau, which was in turn inspired by visits to the Caribbean and, in particular, Martinique.

Years after Nau’s death, Matisse decided to create an album of poems, linked to a series of lithographic studies of models from Martinique.

The project began in 1945 and was completed by midway through the following year, but the album remained unpublished.

In 1972, 18 years after the artist’s death, his heirs and Fernand Moulot, the intended printer, agreed to print the album as Poésies Antillaises.

Portrait of Charles-Antoine Nau
“I have always considered drawing not as an exercise of particular dexterity … but as a means deliberately simplified so as to give simplicity and spontaneity to the expression, which should speak without clumsiness, directly to the mind of the spectator,” stated Matisse.

Here we see that simplicity in all its beauty: works that seem at once light years away from the bright textures and decoration that filled so many of the artist’s canvases, and yet also so instantly recognisable as works by the same man.

As if to remind us of the contrast and connection, a cabinet holds a vividly-coloured lithograph of a cut out from 1954, the year of Matisse’s death.

It is a joy to be able to let the eye take a walk around the lines of such deceptively straightforward drawings – a reminder (were it needed) of Matisse’s timelessness.

Matisse – The advantage of permanence opens tonight and runs until 30 October at Eames Fine Art Gallery, 58 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD.

Find out more at

Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates)

For National Poetry Day 2016

Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates)

Frantic with brandy from their plunder
Drenched in the blackness of the gale
Splintered by frost and stunned by thunder
Hemmed in the crows-nest, ghostly pale
Scorched by the sun through tattered shirt
(The winter sun kept them alive)
Amid starvation, sickness, dirt
So sang the remnant that survived:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

No waving fields with gentle breezes
Or dockside bar with raucous band
No dance hall warm with gin and kisses
No gambling hall kept them on land.
They very quickly tired of fighting
By midnight girls began to pall:
Their rotten hulk seemed more inviting
That ship without a flag at all.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Riddled with rats, its bilges oozing
With pestilence and puke and piss
They swear by her when they're out boozing
And cherish her just as she is.
In storms they'll reckon their position
Lashed to the halyards by their hair:
They'd go to heaven on one condition -
That she can find a mooring there.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They loot their wine and belch with pleasure
While bales of silk and bars of gold
And precious stones and other treasure
Weigh down the rat-infested hold.
To grace their limbs, all hard and shrunken
Sacked junks yield vari-coloured stuffs
Till out their knives come in some drunken
Quarrel about a pair of cuffs.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They murder coldly and detachedly
Whatever comes across their path
They throttle gullets as relaxedly
As fling a rope up to the mast.
At wakes they fall upon the liquor
Then stagger overboard and drown
While the remainder give a snigger
And wave a toe as they go down.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Across a violet horizon
Caught in the ice by pale moonlight
On pitch-black nights when mist is rising
And half the ship is lost from sight
They lurk like wolves between the hatches
And murder for the fun of it
And sing to keep warm in their watches
Like children drumming as they shit.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They take their hairy bellies with them
To stuff with food on foreign ships
Then stretch them out in sweet oblivion
Athwart the foreign women's hips.
In gentle winds, in blue unbounded
Like noble beasts they graze and play
And often seven bulls have mounted
Some foreign girl they've made their prey.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once you have danced till you're exhausted
And boozed until your belly sags
Though sun and moon unite their forces -
Your appetite for fighting flags.
Brilliant with stars, the night will shake them
While music plays in gentle ease
And wind will fill their sails and take them
To other undiscovered seas.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

But then upon an April evening
Without a star by which to steer
The placid ocean, softly heaving
Decides that they must disappear.
The boundless sky they love is hiding
The stars in smoke that shrouds their sight
While their beloved winds are sliding
The clouds towards the gentle light.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

At first they're fanned by playful breezes
Into the night they mustn't miss
The velvet sky smiles once, then closes
Its hatches on the black abyss.
Once more they feel the kindly ocean
Watching beside them on their way
The wind then lulls them with its motion
And kills them all by break of day.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once more the final wave is tossing
The cursed vessel to the sky
When suddenly it clears, disclosing
The mighty reef on which they lie.
And, at last, a strange impression
While rigging screams and storm winds howl
Of voices hurtling to perdition
Yet once more singing, louder still:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Bertolt Brecht, 1919

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Folkestone serves up a mixed bag of food

Taramasalata – none of that over-pink stuff
The food and the travel: those are the key problem areas when traveling in the UK and both were brought into sharp focus for us last year when we visited Rye.

On the food front, it wasn’t necessarily just finding somewhere that was serving food when you needed it that was a problem (although it was, on occasion), but finding food that was worth eating.

Too often on that trip, even basic food such as fish and chips or an omelette was poor.

On the travel front, if you don’t have a car, then you’ll find it difficult getting around. Public transport is far from brilliant – while it is certainly expensive. Last year, for a short trip from Winchelsea Beach back to Rye after a lengthy walk, we paid £5 for two adult to climb aboard a Stagecoach bus.

This year, getting back from Hythe to Folkestone – around five miles, given where we got on and off – the bus fare was £6.40 (also Stagecoach). To clarify: both of these were daytime trips and outside any rush hour.

And dear Stagecoach – the mock leather seats do not compensate.

According to the Financial Times, the company’s pre-tax profits fell by 37% in the year to April this year (partly due to capital expenditure). The poor lambs only made a meager £104.4m.

Rip-off Britain, anyone?

But back to the food.

Driven out of London by the second festival to be staged just 100m away from us this summer, we decided to go away on a bank holiday for the first time.

Time was short. The flyer informing us that the park would be busy for six nights, plus set-up, rehearsal and then the strike, landed on the doormat just over a fortnight ago.

The Other Half suggested a longer sojourn in Folkestone than our first visit in June, when a two-day rap/dance/garage/whatever-the-hell festival had, by the end of the Saturday, left us in danger of throttling each other and in vital need of escape the following day.

Discovering that it’s only an hour (on the fast, more expensive) train from St Pancras to Folkestone, we’d headed to the coast.

This time around, we managed to book a couple of nights in an old-fashioned hotel on the promenade. A week later, we suddenly thought that, given that it was a bank holiday, it might be worth considering eating opportunities in advance.

Bass done scarily 'raw'
After a spot of Googling, we were just able to grab a 9.15pm booking at Rocksalt, the town’s only eatery to bother the good people at Michelin.

Having checked in to our hotel, we headed down to the harbour in search of a late lunch – still over six hours before dinner. Rocksalt is actually slap bang on the harbour – an unobtrusive, modern building that backs onto a collection of traditional fish ‘n’ chippies, seafood cabins and fishmongers.

There we bought fodder and sat down on a bench to eat, free entertainment provided by an example of local colour to our left, regaling listeners with something or other, while swigging from a bottle of red wine, and a seagull who was trying to telepathically divorce us from some of our chips (they’re polite seagulls in Folkestone), while watched and mimicked by a young gull.

Two points here. First, it’s tempting, but don’t feed gulls (yes, I know I’ve done so in the past): it’s making them behave aggressively and causing talk of gull culls.

Second, the takeaway was perfectly good for what it was. My complaints about food are not a snob thing that excludes such eating: it’s simply that, whatever type of meal I’m having, I still expect it to be good for what it is.

Indeed, the pub lunch that we had the following day at the Britannia Inn in Dungeness, after a morning spent walking over difficult terrain, in a howling wind, was also an example of being absolutely right for what and where it was (in my case, scampi, chips and mushy peas, with a glass of good Kentish ale on the side).

But I digress.

On Saturday evening, after dark had descended, we too descended back to the harbour. We were particularly fortunate to be offered a table on the terrace, directly above the lapping sea.

I say “particularly fortunate”, because inside was rather noisy. So was outside, to be fair, but since it wasn’t enclosed, it was less annoying. There is something about British diners: going out for drinks first before going on to eat.

Rocksalt is not a curry-after-the-pub eatery. The anti-social – and loud at those levels is anti-social – diners were neither posh nor ‘chavs’. And it was not younger diners that were the loudest either. A middle-aged group sitting four tables away from us could be heard throughout, with one of the women having to be escorted to and from the loo, and then later, out to a taxi, as she couldn’t stand up properly.

As we neared the end of our own meal, a group inside could be heard boisterously quaffing pints and ordering lobster, having arrived late. The staff looked less than impressed.

It’s not a joke when I say that I have no memory of anything comparable on the Continent (unless one is near Brits or visitors from the US).

But anyway, to the food.

As an amuse-bouche, we were brought fresh bread with a platter of toppings: the house taramasalata, butter, a butter mixed with pork fat, seaweed crisps and, of course, salt.

Every bit of that was lovely – and my goodness, that taramasalata was a dream of real delicacy, while the porky butter, when sprinkled with a little of the salt, was ... well, I’ll let your imaginations do the work.

I had a starter of bass, marinaded in gin, and served with a scallop, fried in a batter made with tonic water. It came with shreds of red chili, black olives, beautifully crisp pickled cucumber slices and a scatter of baby coriander leaves.

Little aside – this being Britain, our waitress had to check that I did know that it wasn’t cooked.

The fish was delightful: tender and delicate, while the scallop complimented it nicely and the garnishes worked fine – even the coriander, which as baby leaves, wasn’t overpowering and soapily unpleasant, as I usually find it.

The Other Half enjoyed his duck egg with black pudding, girolles and samphire – even though he thought the egg a fraction overdone.

For a main, he opted for the lemon sole with a hollandaise and I went for the Dover sole – in my case, this came with a brown butter with capers, and was simply superb.

The Other Half's duck egg, girolles and samphire
Delicate flesh, incredibly fresh and excellently cooked, with the capers cutting through the natural sweetness of the fish – this was why simplicity is wonderful.

For accompaniments (another British oddity) we chose Kentish cauliflower dressed with cobnuts and lemon, and a selection of seasonal green beans and peas.

Both were good – the cauli was a veritable treat and will be tried at home.

For dessert, The Other Half enjoyed a gin jelly, with Kentish strawberries and a lime and tonic sorbet, while I availed myself of a row of the restaurant’s own sorbets: raspberry, strawberry and black cherry, which simply sung with an abundance of real fruitiness.

On the wine front, we kept it simple with a Domaine Saint Felix 2015 from the Languedoc: a light white with citrus notes.

House-made fudge – instantly evoking northern bonfire nights of childhood – came with coffee.

A top-class meal, with very good, pleasant service, Mark Sargeant’s Rocksalt may not be cheap, but for this sort of dining experience, it was far from being over the top.

Fast forward 24 hours.

Almost from the moment we decided to make this trip, we had planned to visit Dungeness on our full day in the area, traveling to and from nearby Hythe on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. As such, we envisaged feeling fairly knackered by the time we got back to the hotel that evening.

With that in mind and after internet searches revealed a paucity of decent places to eat on a Sunday night – chains in the town are noisy – we had settled for the idea of dining in the hotel.

Like others of its ilk, our temporary abode thinks it still has to do Edwardian grandeur. Which helps to explain the attempted silver service and a menu that is stuck firmly in the 1970s.

Pity the poor vegetarian – they, and anyone else requiring ‘gentle’ food – faced the prospect of an omelette. And on the basis of the scrambled egg at breakfast ...

When away from work, I’ve dined in such places rather more often than The Other Half, and so was perhaps less surprised by the whole business – and it wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced anyway.

I feel for the staff: they’re not trained to the standard the hotel is attempting and they’re totally flustered when, for instance, you actually make a selection from the wine list that they’ve give you.

Heaven forfend if you actually ask for a bottle of wine – not just a glass of the house whatever.

It was an £18 Gewürztraminer. After waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... I called the waiter over to ask what was up, only to be informed that his colleague was in the cellar, hunting. Moments later came news that it wasn’t to be found.

Next try – a £10 bottle of an English white that was on the wine list’s ‘sale’ page.

Some time later – by which point I’d finished my centimetre-thick slab of Ardennes paté, served with melba toast, a doorstep of cucumber, a quarter of tasteless tomato and two fistfuls of frizzy lettuce doused in a thick Balsamic glaze – we heard that that was gone too.

“It’s been a busy weekend”, our waiter offered by way of a difficult-to-believe explanation.

We quickly ordered a large glass each of the house white. It turned out to be inoffensive and utterly unmemorable. Unmemorable, that is, except for costing £6 a glass.

For a main, we both opted for cod fillet in a lemon and herb crumb, with a dill cream sauce. Roast spuds and assorted roast veg were served on the side, by our waiter.

It wasn’t bad, but have you ever tried cutting into a roast potato with a traditional fish knife?

Dover sole with brown caper butter – and accompaniments
I concluded with ice cream and strawberries on the grounds of safety.

Yet around us, other guests were lapping it up and lavishing praise on the food.

And then there was the family of three from Yorkshire, who sat down behind us and said they didn’t need to see the menu – they’d have the roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, but “fetch us one with gravy on the plate and two with gravy on the side”.

I wish that I could amply describe the Yorkshire-born Other Half’s expression!

One of the other guests who was enjoying it all sent his breakfast bacon back on both mornings we were there – demanding it be cooked more. On the Monday, it was sent back twice before he found it to his taste. By that stage, they’d presumably substituted meat for old boot leather.

What a contrast.

Yet these contrasts provide yet further evidence of why traveling in the UK is fraught with issues. Thankfully, Rocksalt proved that it doesn’t always need to be the case. I really do hope to eat there again, but in the meantime, could someone unlock the mystery of why so many Brits struggle to eat a meal in a way that doesn’t impinge on their fellow diners?