30 November, 2008

Sharpe’s Peril. TV/DVD review.

Shown on UK ITV as two episodes each of 90 minutes including advert breaks and credits. Total running time probably a little over 2.5 hours without breaks.

Set in India in 1818, Sharpe’s Peril is a TV movie very loosely based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels featuring Richard Sharpe, rifleman hero of the Napoleonic Wars, in India. Cornwell’s novels were set during Sharpe’s early career, before the Peninsular War, but Sean Bean would now be too old to play a young Sharpe so the TV movie is set after Waterloo.

Colonel Sharpe and Sergeant Patrick Harper are travelling through India on their way to Madras, when Sharpe is asked to escort a beautiful French blonde to the next hill station where she is to meet her fiance, Major Joubert. As a notorious bandit called Chitu is raiding in the area, Sharpe is glad to fall in with an East India Company supply convoy. He was hoping to leave the blonde with them and ride on alone, but when the convoy is attacked by bandits Sharpe is the only officer able to take effective command. When they reach the hillfort they find the garrison slaughtered and Major Joubert missing, along with the Company record books. Sharpe now has to shepherd the column through 300 miles of hostile territory, battling against bandit raids from without and treachery within. What nefarious business is going on and what has opium got to do with it? Is the seemingly heroic Company cavalry commander Colonel Dragomirov all he appears? What has happened to the French blonde’s fiance? Of course all is not what it seems, and Sharpe has ample opportunity to prove his heroism in a desperate journey and a still more desperate last stand.

So far, so classic Sharpe. Lots of action, a pretty woman, some dubious double-dealing to give the plot some unlikely twists, and impressive photography among India’s spectacular landscapes. Unfortunately, the film reminded me of nothing so much as Eric Morecambe’s piano technique, “I’m playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!”.

It seemed to be a loosely connected series of exotic scenes strung on a gossamer-thin thread of plot. A snake pit. Bandit raids. A beautiful blonde with the sort of bosom one normally associates with Andrew Davies adaptations, who insists on riding off alone in bandit country and duly having to be rescued. Fight scenes. Senior officers who are incompetent and/or corrupt. A surly, mutinous and corrupt Sergeant. More fight scenes. A shiny young ensign who really didn’t deserve his fate. A scene in an Indian palace where the beautiful blonde is dressed up in scanty Indian costume (reminiscent of the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but without the comedy). Sharpe getting seriously wounded and having to be tended by the beautiful blonde, but apparently completely healed by the next fight scene. Nefarious wheeler-dealing by a posh officer. Did I mention the fight scenes?

Some events seemed to defy logic completely. Faced with a deep river to ford, Sharpe decides to turn all the baggage elephants and horses loose and cross it on foot. Um, wouldn’t it have been more sensible to ferry everybody across on the elephants and then abandon the animals once everyone was safely on the other side? (But that would have deprived the audience of Sharpe in a wet shirt and the beautiful blonde in a clinging wet dress.) Is it really likely that a French army officer would have been trusted with an East India Company hill station after England and France had been fighting each other across Europe for a decade? Why did the film have a beautiful Indian princess who apparently played no role whatsoever, not even as eye candy? And the ending was not so much a deus ex machina as a rabbit out of a hat.

I wonder if the film was edited down to a shorter running time in a hurry. If it had originally been intended for, say, three or three and a half hours and then had to be cut to fit the available slot, that could account for some of the cart-sized holes in the plot, and the apparently unemployed Indian princess if her storyline ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sean Bean was as moody and truculent a Sharpe as ever, and Patrick Harper provided a welcome note of humour. The other characters were rather flat in comparison. The beautiful blonde in particular would have qualified for a TSTL* award in a romance novel, going out for a ride on her own in hostile country having just been warned that there were bandits about. I hoped she was going to turn out to be a double agent, which would have been an interesting and rational explanation for her behaviour.

Now, action movies aren’t required to be realistic. They depend on a certain amount of larger-than-life Romance, in the older sense of the word. But turning a stream of unlikely events into a narrative that’s so much fun that you’re glued to it even though you know it’s pure hokum, is a rare and precious skill. The better James Bond films have it, as does Cornwell himself in (most of) his novels . I’m afraid Sharpe’s Peril isn’t in that league.

AA Gill in the Times noted that HarperCollins were credited as co-producers and wondered if the idea was to make you turn off the TV and pick up a book. I wouldn’t be quite that harsh, although if you’re new to Sharpe don’t judge the character or the books by this film. I’d categorise it as a pleasant and undemanding glossy action flick, designed to be watched for the fight scenes, the girl and the bit where the hero takes his shirt off.

*Too Stupid To Live

23 November, 2008

November recipe: Coffee and walnut cake

There should be plenty of nuts in the shops at this time of year, and if you were lucky enough to pick fresh walnuts back in September they should be nicely dried out by now. Coffee and walnuts seem to be two flavours made for each other. Here’s a recipe for an attractive sponge cake that’s luxurious without being too heavy, before we all turn to hefty fruit cakes in the run-up to Christmas.

Coffee and walnut cake

Sponge cake
4 oz (approx 120 g) butter
4 oz (approx 120 g) light brown sugar
2 eggs
4 oz (approx 120 g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) instant coffee, dissolved in 1-2 teaspoons of boiling water
2 oz (approx 50 g) walnuts, chopped

Filling and topping
3 oz (approx 80 g) icing sugar
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) butter, preferably unsalted
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) instant coffee, dissolved in 1-2 teaspoons of boiling water
Walnut halves to decorate

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy
Beat in the eggs
Stir in the flour, dissolved instant coffee and chopped walnuts, and mix well.
Divide between two greased and lined sandwich cake tins, about 7” (approx 20 cm) diameter. Spread the mixture evenly in each tin and level the surface.
Bake in a hot oven about 180 - 200 C for about 20 minutes until the sponge cakes are golden brown, springy when touched, and beginning to shrink away from the edges of the tins. If in doubt insert a thin skewer into the middle of the cake; if no cake mixture sticks to it when you pull the skewer out, the cake is done. (You don’t really need the skewer test for a sandwich cake because the cake is quite shallow, but it can be reassuring if you aren’t quite sure).
Turn the cakes out of the tins, remove the lining paper, and cool on a wire rack.

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl. (Yes, I’m afraid you really do have to do this. If you don’t, the icing will be full of little hard lumps of congealed icing sugar that you’ll spend ages trying to beat out, and you still won’t get rid of them all. Sieving is quicker in the long run – trust me on that).
Cream the icing sugar and butter together until smooth.
Beat in the dissolved instant coffee and mix well.
Spread half the mixture on one of the sandwich cakes. Put the other sandwich cake on top. Spread the rest of the icing on top, and decorate with walnut halves if liked.

Serve cut into slices. The cake will keep a week or so in an airtight tin if it gets the chance. You can freeze the sponge cakes before they are iced. I’ve never tried freezing the icing.

16 November, 2008

Blotmonath (November): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

The eleventh month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of November, was called Blotmonath, “blood month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Blodmonath is “month of immolations”, for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

As a good Christian, Bede clearly disapproved of animal sacrifices to heathen gods. There is another famous reference to cattle sacrifice in Pope Gregory’s advice to Bishop Mellitus on how best to approach the conversion of the English to Christianity:

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.

--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Chapter 30

When the grass stops growing in the late autumn or early winter, the supply of food available for cattle falls dramatically. It is still possible to pasture a few animals outdoors, provided they are hardy enough to survive the winter weather, but the number will be limited because the vegetation that is already there has to last them until the new growth starts again next spring.

Keeping any larger number of cattle over winter requires the provision of winter fodder. This was traditionally hay, long grass cut in the lush days of summer and dried in the sun for winter storage. But hay is time-consuming to make, and in a wet summer it can be difficult (if not impossible) to dry it properly. The hay supply is also limited by the supply of grass available for cutting in the summer. All of this means the supply of food available for livestock during the winter would be a lot less than that available during the summer. Demand could be reduced to some extent if the cows went dry in the winter, as a cow needs less food when she is not producing milk. But even so, the number of cattle that could be kept in good health over winter would be limited.

Rather than let the surplus animals starve slowly to death, it would make sense to kill them while they were still in good condition, when some of the meat could be eaten fresh and the rest salted, smoked or dried to be eaten over winter. Hence an annual cattle slaughter in the late autumn would be required for sound agricultural reasons, and could provide a convenient opportunity to honour the gods (and have a big feast) at the same time. The god(s) might change, but the agricultural imperative stayed the same.

ReferencesBede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.

04 November, 2008

The Crimson Portrait, by Jody Shields. Book review

Back Bay Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-06718-8. 296 pages

Disclaimer: Pages 151-182 were missing from my review copy. From having read the rest of the novel I don’t think these pages would have markedly altered my conclusions, but it’s always possible.

The Crimson Portrait is set in a military hospital for soldiers with facial injuries in England in 1915. Two of the characters, Dr Kazanjian and the American artist Anna Coleman, are historical figures. The other characters are fictional.

In spring 1915, Catherine, a rich young woman whose husband has been killed in World War I hands over her grand country estate for use as a military hospital. Lost in her grief for her husband, Catherine cannot believe he is really dead and becomes obsessed with the idea that he is trying to send her messages or that he is one of the patients whose bandaged faces she cannot see. She becomes fixated on a particular patient, Julian, who reminds her of her dead husband. When the artist Anna Coleman is commissioned to make masks for some of the patients who are disfigured beyond hope of repair, based on photographs taken before their injuries, Catherine seizes the opportunity to re-make Julian in the image of her lost husband.

The quotes on the back jacket call this novel “a top-drawer literary thriller”. Well, I agree that it’s literary. I cannot, however, say that I found it thrilling. It seems to be a novel that takes itself terribly seriously. The writing style is opaque, elliptical and full of portentous references to light, mirrors, broken glass, reflective pools of water and the like. A sense of hopelessness and despair pervades everything and everyone. This may well be an accurate reflection of the subject matter – a hospital trying to pioneer plastic surgery for men with appalling injuries is never going to be a barrel of laughs, though I might have expected rather more gallows humour – but it doesn’t exactly make for a light or even an absorbing read. Don’t pick this book if you’re looking for a diversion after a hard day at work.

The most interesting aspect of the novel for me was the background information on the techniques of early plastic surgery. Facial injuries are particularly difficult to repair, because (unlike the rest of the body) some of the muscles of the face are anchored only to each other, not to the bones. Severe facial trauma is no doubt as old as warfare, and could be repaired in some circumstances; for example, one of the skulls excavated from the mass grave at the site of the battle of Towton (1461) had a severe blade wound to his left lower jaw from some earlier violent encounter which, remarkably, had healed by the time of his death (scroll down to the photo at the bottom of the page in the link). However, the rebuilding of damaged muscle and skin is a comparatively recent technique that could only really be developed after aseptic surgery and efficient anaesthesia had been invented. I had an idea that a good deal of modern plastic surgery had been pioneered in the Second World War when burns and blast injuries were horribly common among aircrew, but evidently it has roots reaching back at least to the First World War. Techniques such as skin grafting and various ingenious devices for supporting damaged tissues are described in the novel in some detail, and made me want to go and find a book on the history of facial surgery to learn more.

The novel doesn’t have much in the way of a plot (or perhaps it was too subtle for me), and the portrayal of the characters seemed to be me to be shallow and lacking in emotional impact. Despite detailed descriptions of various characters’ innermost thoughts, feelings and philosophies, I never felt I really understood them as people. I took a particular dislike to Catherine, who seems to be so obsessed with her own misery that she will use and deceive other people in her attempt to get some of her old life back. I guess that’s the point, as it shows how someone can be completely unhinged by grief, but as the novel doesn’t show what Catherine was like before her husband died (except a slight hint of a none-too-bright debutante), she simply came over to me as self-centred. The surgeon Dr McCleary is a sympathetic and dedicated doctor overwhelmed by the enormity of his task, and the skilled anaesthetist Brownlow takes refuge from the strain in ether. Dr Kazanjian, a pioneering dental surgeon with a talent for improvisation, and the artist Anna Coleman are the most positive characters, able to find satisfaction in the practising of their craft. One aspect that I found especially disappointing was the absence of the patients’ point of view. What was it like for them? How did they bear the unbearable? What did Julian think of Catherine and her attentions? Overall, the novel seemed to me to be shallow to the point of dullness, which is a great pity given its potentially dramatic subject matter.

Disappointing meander through the misery of bereavement and the hideous waste of war, with some interesting material on the early development of plastic surgery.

Has anyone else read it?