Shackleton

It must be at least 15 years ago that I saw the documentary film “The Endurance.” Until that time I was not all that familiar with Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton – he was barely mentioned in my high school class on British history. British history as I recall it being taught seemed to emphasize religion, royalty and medieval conflict. Better to have skipped the class and spent the time several decades later watching “Game of Thrones.” No essays to be written, no year end examinations, yet leaving in place medieval conflict.

Back to Shackleton. Ernest Henry Shackleton was born in 1874 into a farming family in Ireland. His father, when Ernest was a young lad, made the natural transition from farming to medicine, and after a brief stint in Dublin, moved the family (Ernest was the second of ten children) to London where he practised as a physician for 30 years. Ernest, still a teenager, joined the merchant marine, and after 10 years joined Sir Robert Falcon Scott in Scott’s quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. The year was 1902, when Scott (with Shackleton in his party) came to within 400 miles of the South Pole – the farthest south that anyone had ever traveled.

That is Scott in the preceding. Scott did in fact reach the South Pole in January of 1912 (without Shackleton), but was second, having been beaten in the race to the Pole by an expedition led by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen. It was on the return journey from the South Pole that Scott and his expeditionary party perished.

But again back to Shackleton. His early experience with Scott spurred him to undertake his own quest for the Pole, and in August, 1907, Shackleton and his party, headed out of New Zealand bound for Antarctica. Their ship the “Nimrod,” a vessel purchased in Newfoundland, had to be towed to the Antarctic Circle to save on coal. That is the “Nimrod” in the image preceding. Aboard the ship, apart from the crew, were 10 Manchurian ponies (??) and just 9 dogs (???). The ponies proved to be useless, except that most were eventually shot and eaten, thus critical in helping to prevent scurvy. The expedition got to within 100 miles of the South Pole before a shortage of provisions and failing strength forced Shackleton and his crew to return to the ship. What might appear to be a failed effort resulted in a knighthood for Shackleton. He did after all, travel farther south than any other human.

With both Amundsen and Scott having reached the South Pole, what was left for Shackleton? In 1914 he set out to cross Antarctica, a journey of a mere 2000 miles. The crew totaled 28 men. No ponies this time, but the expedition included 68 dogs. The dogs were imported from Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli is a little more than an hour from Winnipeg (my home town).

The irony is that neither crew nor dogs ever set foot/paw on Antarctica. Shackleton’s ship, the “Endurance” was trapped by pack ice after entering the Weddell Sea. Over 11 months the ship was crushed by ice, leaving the explorers just 3 twenty-some foot boats. That’s the “Endurance” above in somewhat happier days.

Below is an image of what was left of the “Endurance,” demonstrating the force of pack ice. Gotta love the guy with the pipe, probably wondering, “now where did I leave my tobacco?” Or, “why did we name this thing “Endurance?”

In any event, the ship was lost in November, 1915, and the crew spent the next 5 months on icebergs floating away from the Antarctic continent, finally arriving at Elephant Island. This was an arduous journey that meant the demise of the dogs (they were a serious drain on food), subsistence on dog pemmican (maybe not what you think – it was pemmican “for” the dogs, and not “of” the dogs), but then on the dogs as well. The dietary mainstays were seals and penguins. At one point the crew were able to capture some 300 Adélie penguins, which served them well. Cute little things and apparently good eating.

As their floe neared Elephant Island and as the ice began to disintegrate, the order was given to launch the boats, and the crew made its way in rough water to land after 497 days on ice and ocean. And this was only the beginning. Shortly after arriving on Elephant Island, Sir Ernest announced that he and a small party would set out for South Georgia Island some 800 miles away. Shackleton knew that the South Georgia whaling stations would provide assistance in rescuing all of his crew. The journey was to be undertaken in the 22 foot “James Caird” in what was now winter. After four days of preparation the party of six left Elephant Island on April 24, 1916, with provisions to last four weeks; and leaving behind the remaining 22 men of the expedition. It is difficult to imagine spending 4 hours on a 22 foot boat in the roughest of seas, let alone 4 weeks. Despite stormy seas, the six men aboard the “James Caird” landed on the southern shore of South Georgia. Unfortunately, the whaling stations were on the northern shore of South Georgia. Rather than risk putting their small boat back to sea, Shackleton decided to cross the mountains (32 miles) with two of his crew. They managed the trek in 36 hours with boots that had screws inserted to provide traction, 50 feet of rope, and a carpenter’s adze (a short, light, type of axe). You get an idea of the terrain from the photo following.

Shackleton was able to send a boat to pick up the three men he left behind on the southern shore of South Georgia, then set about to arrange the rescue of the 22 men on Elephant Island. But in the meantime, Sir Ernest and his two crewmen each enjoyed a hot bath for the first time in two years. Yikes! Within a matter of days Shackleton and his crew set out for Elephant Island in a British whaler, the “Southern Sky,” only to be thwarted by sea ice. It would take three separate tries, and finally with Shackleton and crewmen aboard a tug steamer, the “Yelcho,” provided by the Chilean government, they were able to get through to Elephant Island. By then it was August 30.

For the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island, life had not been a picnic.
They fashioned a hut (below), using what driftwood they could find, penguin skins for shelter, and employing the two remaining boats as windbreaks. For four months they endured blizzards, bone-numbing winds, frostbite, only a rare day when clothing or sleeping bags were dry, and a diet of seal and penguin. Blubber provided fuel for their stove.

Shackleton, in a letter to his wife, stated, “I have done it … not a life lost and we have been through Hell.”
There appeared to be little interest back home in this monumental achievement. Europe was at war, with millions of lives lost. Shackleton made his way through South America (where he received a warm reception).

There is much more to this story (for example, Shackleton had to make his way back to rescue the party stranded on the other side of Antarctica – the party that was to establish depots with provisions for the so-called Trans-Antarctic Expedition); but I don’t want to lose your interest.

Shackleton volunteered for the British Army in late 1918, and was discharged a year later with the rank of major. In 1921, Sir Ernest undertook another Antarctic expedition, this time without a well-described objective (perhaps the circumnavigation of the continent?). But shortly after arriving at South Georgia Island, and not without some irony, he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. Sir Ernest Shackleton was 47 years old. He was buried on South Georgia. Here he is – a study in courage, determination and leadership.

One more thing …

About Antarctica. It is big, cold and classified as a desert. There is very little precipitation, yet 98% of its surface is covered by ice. Temperatures have been recorded at colder than -120 degrees F. And Antarctica is twice the size of Australia; larger than Canada. It was just begging for exploration …

Anthony Bourdain

I am not sure what leads people to take their own lives. I have had friends commit suicide and for the most part they had been diagnosed as “bipolar.” Invariably they were over-achievers, but perhaps in their own ways of thinking, their efforts and accomplishments fell short of their expectations.

Robin Williams, and more recently Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, decided to end their lives, and their decisions leave us shaking our heads. Certainly I do not have the answers, nor will I attempt an explanation. But to accentuate the positive and spend a few minutes here on the life of Anthony Bourdain.

And here is Anthony – he always seemed to have a rumpled look – enjoying a wee dram.

Anthony was the quintessential New Yorker; born there, educated there, worked there, and travelled with a view of the world that comes from being a New Yorker. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in 1978 and went to work. By 1998 he was the Executive Chef at Brasserie des Halles, a very prominent New York restaurant, and very French-looking. Unfortunately, now closed.

In 1999 Anthony wrote an article for the “New Yorker” entitled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” a sort of exposé of the restaurant scene in NYC. My friend Dave Crowley provided me a copy of the article (which inspired this blog page) and with it some of the insights shared by Anthony, including:

  • The chef orders seafood for the weekend on a Thursday; it arrives on Friday morning with the hope that it will sell out by Sunday evening. As he says, “the Monday-night tuna has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday under God knows what conditions.”
  • “In New York, locals dine during the week. Weekends are considered amateur nights – for tourists, rubes and the well-done-ordering pre-theatre hordes.”
  • “Save for well-done.” Like your steak well-done? According to Anthony what you will get is “a particularly unlovely piece of steak – tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue … and made a little stinky with age.” Go with rare or medium rare.
  • Anthony quickly dismisses “brunch” as “breakfast” and goes on to say that, “Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public – and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans – as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish, cheeks, sausages, cheese or organ meats is treasonous.” A little harsh perhaps, and with apologies to my vegan friends.
  • Anthony was not a fan of chicken – “it bores the hell out of chefs.” He says, “Pork, on the other hand is cool.” “Pork tastes different, depending on what you do with it, but chicken always tastes like chicken.”

There was much more to the article and it seems to start Anthony on a different path – one that broadened his interests and his appeal. There were the requisite cookbooks (do we need them anymore?) and he kept those to a minimum as he moved into food journalism. The best of Anthony Bourdain were his forays into television; shows like “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations,” “The Layover,” and “Parts Unknown.” The latter two shows are currently available on Netflix – worth your time.

Dinosaurs

I expect that everyone’s favourite dinosaur is Tyrannosaurus rex. Well, maybe not favourite, but always recognizable. An adult T. rex could grow to 42 feet – about the length of a transit bus – stand 15 to 20 feet tall, and weigh 6 or 7 tons. T. rex, the King of dinosaurs, started out as a hatchling, emerging from an egg perhaps the size of an inflated football, but would grow quickly – gaining as many as 1700 pounds a year.

I was attracted to the subject of dinosaurs while listening to a CBC radio interview with Steve Brusatte. Dr. Brusatte is an American paleontologist who received his PhD at Columbia University and who currently teaches at the University of Edinburgh. I was so intrigued by the interview I went out and bought Dr. Brusatte’s latest book, “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.” And that brought me to this blog entry.

Here are some interesting observations about T. rex, according to Dr. Brusatte:

  • T. rex made its appearance in western North America some 68 to 66 million years ago (I will dwell on references to “millions of years” later on).
  • T. rex had bone crushing jaws and teeth set in a disproportionately large skull; massive thighs and somewhat incongruously, very small arms. But what need of arms when T. rex had jaws that could probably bite through a car?
  • This dinosaur had very acute senses of smell and sight and sound, and contrary to what the Jurassic World movies suggest, standing still and silent would not necessarily save you from a T. rex.
  • Tyrannosaurs like T. rex were pretty smart. Dr. Brusatte refers to a measure of intelligence called the encephalization quotient (EQ) – a measure of the size of the brain compared to body size. Humans like you and I have an EQ of about 7.5; dolphins are 4.0 to 4.5; chimps 2.2 to 2.5; and T. Rex 2.0 to 2.4. Not bad. Dogs and cats range from 1.0 to 1.2. Some politicians might come in at 2.2 to 2.5 (my estimate – not Dr. Brusatte’s).
  • Dr. Brusatte calls T. rex the “James Dean of dinosaurs; it lived fast and died young.” Maybe a life span of thirty years. Scientists look at bone rings, much as one might look at tree rings, to determine the age of a dinosaur.

Pangea

I will come back to dinosaurs, but I thought it reasonable to go off on a tangent for a while. The earth may be more than 4 billion years old, and as recent as 240 million years ago there existed Pangea – a supercontinent that welded together all of earth’s current land masses (as depicted in the image following). There were no Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, just one ocean that wrapped around Pangea. Eventually Pangea started to crack and the continents that we know today gradually began to form. When I say gradually, this may have happened over 40 million years. There were massive volcanic eruptions producing lava and the release of noxious gases, followed by intense global warming. According to Dr. Brusatte this caused a mass extinction, with perhaps 30% of all species wiped out. But this seemed to be a signal for dinosaurs to thrive. Despite the break-up of Pangea and environmental chaos, dinosaurs diversified, multiplied and grew bigger, simply edging other species, such as a once dominant crocodile-like reptile that never survived the break-up. Thus began the Jurassic Period.

The Rise of the Dinosaurs

It was the Late Jurassic Period when dinosaurs became dominant on earth. A mere 150 million years ago. As impressive as T. rex might have been, the plant-eating Brontosaurus cannot be ignored. This “sauropod” came in at perhaps thirty tons – a figure arrived at through bone analysis and computer modelling.

Not sure who the guy is, but he gives you an idea of the size of a Brontosaurus.

As the Late Jurassic Period transitioned into the Cretaceous Period, about 125 million years ago, cooler climates, some fracturing of the Pangea, lower sea levels that produced more exposed land, all helped to produce a different set of dinosaurs. The beloved Brontosaurus (below) went extinct, replaced by even larger sauropods.

For example, the Argentinosaurus was 100 feet long and weighed in at 50 tons – the weight of a Boeing 737! Over time – and again, time measured in the millions of years – there emerged giant carnivores (lots of fattened sauropods to eat it would seem) called carcharodontosaurs, that spread around the world (as the Pangea had not fully fragmented).
These hypercarnivores remained on top for a while, before being displaced by smaller, faster, smarter (remember EQ) tyrannosaurs. In 1902 in Montana, the bones of the first Tyrannosaurus rex were uncovered, and estimated to be 66 million years old.

Chicxulub

Not sure how to pronounce “Chicxulub” and when I first saw it my immediate impression was it must be a chain of Mexican car lube businesses (think “Jiffy Lube”). Chicxulub though, is a small town on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico very close to the massive crater caused by the impact of either a comet or asteroid or meteor that struck earth about 67 million years ago.

According to Dr. Brusatte, among others, the asteroid/comet/meteor was 6 miles wide – approximately the size of Mount Everest – and moving at 67,000 miles per hour. A Boeing 747 moves at about 570 miles per hour and will fly from New York City to London, England in 6 hours and 25 minutes. Riding this asteroid/comet/meteor would get you to Heathrow from NYC in the time it would take to fasten your seatbelt.

And then there was the impact. Dr. Brusatte says the asteroid/comet/meteor hit the earth with more than a billion times the force of 100 trillion tons of TNT, or the energy of a billion nuclear bombs. It penetrated the earth’s mantle to a dept of 25 miles and left a crater 100 miles across. Importantly, he says, the effects on wildlife on earth, with few exceptions, were almost immediate. The impact produced changes in weather patterns, including extreme rains and winds that exceeded 600 miles per hour; and earthquakes that resulted in massive tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. These all came together to accelerate the demise of the dinosaurs. There remains ongoing controversy about this single event extinction theory – for example, about the same time there were massive volcanic eruptions in what is now India – but regardless, in short order (and in the context of millions of years, it is difficult to define “short”) the land dwelling dinosaurs were gone. Birds (and they are dinosaurs) and small burrowing or water-oriented animals were all that remained.

The Chicxulub crater is re-produced in the preceding image.

This has been called the Cretasceous-Paleogene extinction event, and of course leaves a multitude of questions, even with those of us who are amateur observers. First and foremost; would a single catastrophic event such as this lead to the demise of most of the living things (plants and animals) on earth? Would this event, and in the context of dinosaurs having roamed and ruled the earth for millions of years, caused their almost immediate extinction? And would this object from space, considering its size and the velocity with which it hit earth, have moved the earth from its axis and/or re-routed its solar path, possibly and almost certainly, affecting serious changes of climate? And, perhaps most intriguingly, were it not for this event, would the dinosaurs still dominate? Would there have been a time or room for man?

Lucy

So here we have “Lucy.” A reproduction and obviously not a dinosaur. Known as Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy dated back some 3.2 million years ago. The remains of Lucy were discovered in Tanzania in 1974. Lucy was petite – just under 4 feet tall and weighing only 64 pounds, and with an EQ of 2.4 (think politician again – male politician I might add). She was an important archaeological find as her skeleton was the most complete among early human relatives at that time. Lucy was bi-pedal (walked on two legs) and derived her name from the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The discovery of Lucy signalled to many archaeologists and paleoanthropologists that man split from his primate ancestors far later than previously assumed.

And what has this to do with dinosaurs, you might ask? Absolutely nothing. But I started to think that dinosaurs were around for hundreds of millions years while hominids and finally humans, by contrast, for maybe a couple of million or several hundreds of thousands of years. Homo sapiens may be just 200,000 years old. Truly, dinosaurs were the most dominant of creatures on earth.

It also brings me back to “millions” and how to put millions of years in perspective. Is a year like a grain of sand on an endless beach? Or a star among an endless galaxy of stars? Hard to fathom. And aside from those questions, there is again the all-important question, “would man have evolved if not for the cataclysmic event, or events, that brought on the demise of the dinosaurs?”

Daisy Kadibil

In March of this year, Daisy Craig Kadibil, aged 95, passed away, with seemingly very little notice, at least in North America. Her passing was noted in the June 27 edition of the New York Times. Daisy was an Aboriginal Australian, born in 1923. Her mother was of the Martu people (native to central western Australia), and her father was Thomas Craig, who was English. At the age of eight, Daisy, her older sister Molly, and her cousin Gracie were forcibly removed from their family homes in the Jilalong Community by the Australian government and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement. The Settlement was near Perth, and some 800 miles from Jilalong. Daisy, Molly and Gracie were not long for Moore River. The three girls stayed but a night before deciding to return to Jilalong. It took them nine weeks, on foot, evading the authorities, and surviving in the Outback, to return home. They followed Australia’s rabbit-proof fence as a sort of compass to lead them north from the Settlement. The following is a photo of Daisy, later in life, together with her note that very simply and humbly, depicts her journey.

The Rabbit Proof Fence

This needs some explaining. Let’s start with the rabbits, of which, it seems, there may be no end. Yes, rabbits are prolific. A female over her brief lifetime may produce 1000 offspring. This apparently was lost upon Thomas Austin, an England-born Australian settler who introduced the rabbit to Australia (releasing 24 breeding rabbits) stating that “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” The year was 1859. Within three decades Australia had a major rabbit problem that among other things, had devastating effects on vegetation. This is Mister Austin below – he passed on in 1871 – leaving behind several million rabbits that would provide more than a “spot of hunting.”

As the sign above would indicate, a rabbit proof fence was completed between 1903 and 1907. It ran north and south with the premise that the farmlands of Western Australia would be protected from further invasion by rabbits – albeit ignoring the capacity of rabbits to burrow and jump. Oops – just had the thought that a wall separating the U.S. southern border and Mexico could be scaled by ladders and tunnelled beneath. What is it with rich, old, white men in government who seem to be absent the logic gene? Just one more interesting aspect of the rabbit proof fence; it was constructed using some 350 camels as work animals. Yeah – camels!

Rabbit-Proof Fence – the movie

In 2002, the director Philip Noyce (noted for the films “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games”) released the film “Rabbit-Proof Fence” to much acclaim. The New York Times reviewer, Stephen Holden, while calling it a “sturdy, touching movie,” also described it as “a devastating portrayal … of the disgraceful treatment of the Australian Aboriginals” and referring to the Australian government practice of “legalized kidnapping.” Who, in this age, would possibly think of a forcible mass separation of children from their parents?

The movie featured, among others, Kenneth Branagh (recently as Hercule Poirot in “The Murder on the Orient Express”) in the role of A.O. Neville, chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia. It was Neville in 1937 who asked the question, “Are we going to have a population of one million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget there were any Aborigines in Australia?” Definitely would not want Neville as my protector.

In the following image are the young actors portraying Molly, Daisy and Gracie. The movie was based on the book “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” written by Doris Pilkington Garimara. Doris, since passed, was the daughter of Molly, Daisy’s older sister.

The Stolen Generations

Also known as Stolen Children, these were the children of Aboriginal Australians who were taken from their families to live in reserves and compounds and to be re-programmed as it where, to embrace Western “culture.” There seemed to be an early distinction in which some children, who were referred to as “half-castes” or “cross-breeds” were “institutionalized” with the stated mission of the government “to convert the half-caste to a white citizen.” Soon after, there was the move to send all Aboriginal children for re-settlement. There are conflicting estimates of how many children were taken from their families – the numbers range from 25,000 to 100,00. The children would be released from government control at age eighteen. The practice remained in place into the early 1970s. Residential schools anyone?

Daisy

Molly and Gracie pre-deceased Daisy, who worked as a housekeeper and cook, married and had four children.
In her 80s she moved into a nursing home suffering from dementia, and passed away March 30, 2018.

Anne Perry

No, this young lady below is not Anne Perry. This is the actress Melanie Lynskey as she appeared in the movie, “Heavenly Creatures.” I will come back to the movie (and Melanie) a little later.

Anne Perry is a noted author, having written more than 50 novels, collections of short stories and Christmas stories. She was born in London on October 28, 1938, and having been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a child, was sent to the Caribbean and South Africa to recuperate, eventually landing in New Zealand with her family. Ms. Perry’s first novel, “The Cater Street Hangman” was published in 1979, and she built a writing career comprised of historical murder mysteries and detective stories. I have to admit to not have read any of Ms. Perry’s novels, but many have as she has reportedly sold more than 30 million books. Victorian murder mysteries are not my cup of tea, quite frankly, and I lean more toward Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and the international intrigue that sprouts from the imagination of Daniel Silva. What follows is Ms. Perry in a fairly recent photograph. Seems like a nice older person.

However, there is more to Anne Perry than meets the eye. She was born and raised as Juliet Marion Hulme and it was shortly after her arrival in New Zealand that her life started to unravel. In her Christchurch high school Juliet became fast friends with Pauline Parker. The friendship appeared to border on an obsession and when it became apparent that Pauline’s parents were separating and that Pauline would move to South Africa, there seemed to be a provocation for action. Juliet, not quite 16, and the teenaged Pauline devised a plan to kill Pauline’s mother. On the 22nd of June, 1954, the girls beat Mrs. Parker to death with a brick in a stocking while the three were on a walk in a Christchurch Park. Juliet and Pauline were charged with and convicted of murder and sentenced to five years in an Auckland prison (they were fortunate that New Zealand had only recently rescinded the death penalty). The school girls below, with Ms. Hulme on the right.

In 1959 Ms. Parker and Ms. Hulme were released from prison, forbidden to have further contact with each other. Ms. Hulme returned to England, subsequently moving to the U.S. and eventually settling in a small village in Scotland to live with her mother. She joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) and by all reports leads a relatively spartan, albeit productive life.

And that brings me to and “Heavenly Creatures” and Ms. Lynskey. Ms. Perry had lived under the radar until 1994, with only a few knowing her true identity. But the film, written and directed by Peter Jackson (yes, he of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” fame), followed the story of the two school girls from the time of their first meeting to the murder of Mrs. Parker. Ms. Perry was thus exposed. As painful as that might have been, it seems that Ms. Perry survived her infamy, and she continues to write (two or three books a year). As for Ms. Lynskey, here she is with her co-star in the film, none other than Kate Winslet (as Juliet Hulme). Both Ms. Lynskey (as Ms. Parker) and Ms. Winslet made their film debuts in “Heavenly Creatures” with Ms. Winslet then going on to win on Oscar for her performance in “The Reader” in 2008 (plus six other nominations for Academy Awards). There is no question Ms. Winslet is a superb actress, but pray she doesn’t win another award. She won a Golden Globe for “The Reader” and gave the longest, gushiest, most cringe-worthy acceptance speech in recent memory.

Not to forget Ms. Lynskey. She never lacks for work, and you will know her from the television series “Two and a Half Men” as Rose, the neighbour who (hilariously) tormented Charlie Sheen’s character over something like 60 episodes.

The real Ms. Parker? She lives in a small village in England as Hilary Nathan.

Dinner

I wish I could say that this is an entree at my house, but alas … no. This is an offering at El Celler de Can Roca, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Girona, Spain, about an hour northeast of Barcelona. El Celler is run by the three Roca brothers, the eldest of whom, Joan, prefers to describe himself and his brothers Josep and Jordi as artisans, rather than artists. Regardless, their approach in the kitchen is artistry, and as the three Michelin stars would indicate, the food must be pretty good. Just for fun, I went on-line to see when I could get a Saturday night reservation for dinner at El Celler. Nothing available through the end of April, 2019.

That brings me to our kitchen. Not much artistry, but the emphasis here is to make it GOOD.  There are thousands of recipe books and thousands more recipes that can be sourced on-line, but I will share with you an abbreviated dinner menu that I have served many times.  It was at the suggestion of my son Greg that I post the details.  I will leave the appies, salad and dessert for you to add to the mix, and go right to the beef.  Years ago, at a restaurant in La Jolla, CA, and in the company of good friends the Bains, I had my first taste of beef short ribs, done well.  Since, I have been on a mission to try to match those short ribs and I may be getting close.  This what my short ribs look like (I borrowed this image because my photo skills are somewhat lacking); served over mashed potatoes, with a veggie on the side. 

I will get to the mashed potatoes in a moment, and will leave the veggies to you.  Here is the recipe for short ribs.

Beef Short Ribs

Start with 4 pounds (more than enough for 6) of thick-cut boneless short ribs.  Place them on parchment paper in a shallow pan and roast them in a 350 degree F oven for 40 minutes.  This will help to get rid of some of the fat.

Separately, start the sauce.  I mince a medium onion together with 2 or 3 tablespoons of minced garlic and add three or four cups of hot water, together with 3 tablespoons of “Better than Bouillon” beef flavour.  I use a wand to then blend in a can of diced tomatoes, 6 ounces of tomato paste, pepper, and a tablespoon of either Italiano or herbes de Provence spice mix.  No salt needed as there is plenty from the bouillon. 

Once the ribs are roasted and some of the fat is removed, wash the ribs under warm water to get rid of more fat, then place them in a cast iron pan.  Pour the sauce over the ribs so the surfaces of the ribs are showing.  Braise them in a 325 degree oven for 35 minutes.  Take them out of the oven, turn them over in the pan, and braise for another 35 minutes.  Repeat the process in 35 minute increments for another two hours or so.  If the sauce is reduced too much, add another cup of water with bouillon.  Take the ribs from the cast iron pan, and place in a covered container.  Refrigerate overnight.  Put the sauce in a separate container and refrigerate.  This is the end of DAY ONE.

On DAY TWO the ribs will need another three or four hours of cooking.  Wash the meat again (I really want to get rid of as much obvious fat as possible) and place them back in the cast iron pan.  A fatty yellow layer will have formed on the surface of the sauce.  Remove that layer and pour the sauce over the ribs.  Back into the oven, working with 35 minute increments at 325 degrees F, turning the ribs to again to just show their surfaces (which will get pretty dark brown – that is what you want).  The sauce will reduce and here is where I cheat.  I pour a can or two of beef gravy over the ribs when needed.  And I add a little water each time I add the canned gravy.  It is not unusual for me to use two or three cans, depending on the consistency of the sauce and/or the quantity of meat.  I do add a half cup or more of red wine as well.  In the end, you want the sauce the consistency of gravy – not too thick but rich looking.  Cook the ribs until they are just about falling apart. They should be fork tender and with very little fat. 

I don’t hesitate to encourage dinner guests to sop up the sauce with bread.  Not good table manners, I suppose, but if the sauce and the bread are GOOD, why not?  I enjoy making bread, and it can be so easy, especially the “no-knead” versions.  I don’t have a bread machine, and I certainly am not averse to kneading by hand or using a food processor, but no-knead bread only requires a little time.  And the results can be very satisfying.  Below, no-knead beer bread. 

The beer bread recipe that follows is a variation on a recipe from “allrecipes.com” – a great resource for would-be chefs (or “cook” in my case).  I like to use Guinness, as it gives the bread a nice warm colour and more depth of flavour; and I often add some herbs.  I have also changed this recipe on occasion to substitute a bit of rye flour (1/2 cup will do) and some caraway seeds.  But here is my go-to beer bread …    

No-knead Beer Bread

  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 4 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 12 fluid ounces Guinness (at room temperature)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (optional)

Stir together the yeast, 1/2 cup flour and the warm water in a large bowl.  Cover and let sit in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Add the Guinness, the rest of the flour, salt and the herbes to the bowl.  Mix together until a very sticky dough forms.  It will look very shaggy (think shag rug – ugh).  Cover and let rise for 2 hours.

Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a well-floured surface, flour the top and shape into a loaf.

Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal and move the loaf to the baking sheet.  Add more flour to the top of the loaf and cover with a non-terry cloth towel.  Let it rise again for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and place a small pan of water on the lower rack to keep the oven humid.

Slit the top of the loaf with a utility knife and bake on the rack above the pan of water for 30 to 35 minutes.  The loaf should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.

Once down, place on a cooling rack.

This will be a large loaf, and more than enough for your dinner party.  But fear not – this makes great toast for the morning after.

Mashed Potatoes

I won’t provide a precise list of ingredients here, but I will say this:  I tend to make a lot of mashed – much more than a dinner table of six might consume.  I use yellow potatoes, because they don’t have a lot of spots on them and I don’t peel them.  I wash them and cut them in half, coat in olive oil, spread them cut-side down on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper and bake for 45 minutes.  I find if you boil the potatoes, they retain too much water. 

Separately, I dice and sauté a medium size onion, together with two tablespoons of minced garlic.  Once I start mashing the potatoes, I add the onion/garlic mixture, along with butter (two tablespoons or more), and sour cream (enough to make the mashed smooth).  I will add maybe a half cup of grated parmesan to the mix, along with at least a tablespoon of salt.  I spray an oven-proof bowl with Pam, add the mashed and top the potatoes with bread crumbs and some more parmesan.  You can make the mashed well ahead, refrigerate and pull the potatoes out and bake for about an hour (at 350 degrees F) before serving.  The potatoes will come out with a nice crust and are ready for the short ribs.  And yes, there will be lots left over …  

 The photo following is not really exciting, but I couldn’t think of what else to do.

But I won’t leave you with potatoes.  Following is an image of El Celler de Can Roca.  The restaurant has a wine cellar holding 60,000 bottles.  The tasting menu will set you back about 200 bucks (U.S), exclusive of wine.  By contrast, on wing night at Eaglecrest Golf Club you can get 10 wings for just under 5 bucks (Canadian), plus a beer for another 5 bucks.  No need to get on a plane, as Eaglecrest is right here in Qualicum Beach. 

More Movie Gems

The Big Short

A little more current than the rest I have surfaced, this movie was released in 2015, with a screen play written by director Adam McKay and  Charles Randolph based on the book written by Michael Lewis about the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  The adapted screenplay won an Oscar.  And there were five additional nominations for Academy Awards.  The cast included Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt (geez, again!) and Marisa Tomei, among others, all good.

“The Big Short” provides a synopsis of the financial crisis.  On the one hand, you see the workings of those involved in high finance (especially those who will profit from “shorting” the market), together with those who attempt to explain just what happened.  Mr. McKay enlists Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie in cameos to educate the viewer.  I liked Margot’s bit the best; done in a bubble bath with bubbly at hand, and with a very simple explanation of sub-prime loans (as in “if you think sub-prime, think shit”).  Then, as if bothered in the middle of her bath, she tells the viewer to “f**k off.”  Lovely.  And she is that …

A.O. Scott, the New York Times reviewer, said of “the Big Short,” that “this is a terrifically enjoyable movie that leaves you in a state of rage, nausea and despair, (but that) … the work of the movie’s sprawling ensemble is never less than delightful.”

For more financial sculduggery watch “Margin Call,” which features Jeremy Irons as a truly cold-hearted Wall Street type, and, dare I say,  Kevin Spacey. 

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh is an acclaimed playwright, a writer for the screen, a producer and a director.  His most recent achievement is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which he wrote, produced and directed, and which received seven nominations for Academy Awards, winning two (for Frances McDormand as Best Actress and Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor).  Mr. McDonagh earlier won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, plus a number of BAFTA and Golden Globe awards.  But this is not so much about Mr. McDonagh as it is about Bruges and the two principle characters played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.  First Bruges: a lovely canal-based city in the north of Belgium, it would be a must stop on any European tour.  However, as portrayed in the film, in the dead of winter and seemingly always at dusk or later, very foreboding.  Bruges below on a sunny autumn day.   

Then there is Mr. Gleeson, “with that noble shambles of a face and heft of a boxer gone to seed, (in the) key role of Ken, one of two killers for hire,” as described by the late film critic Roger Ebert.  The other “killer” is played by Mr. Farrell, who seems to be quite ill-at-ease with his assignment, and who is quite good in his role.  This is Mr. Gleeson below (from his film “Calvary”) in an image that seems to capture his persona.  He is one of my favourite actors and of whom you will read more.

I might mention that the true villain in this movie is played by Ralph Fiennes, with a coldness that matches the evening chill of Bruges.

The Guard

Back to Brendan Gleeson.  In “The Guard” (from the Gaelic “garda”) Mr. Gleeson is the protagonist, a policeman who is no stranger to short-cuts and who is not quite on the level.  But do we mind? 

One might refer to “The Guard” as a buddy movie (typified by “Lethal Weapon” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, followed by what seems like an endless stream of buddy movies) as Don Cheadle is floated into the “The Guard” as an FBI agent paired with Mr. Gleeson to thwart a major drug deal.  Difficult to fathom why an FBI agent would be sent to Ireland, and why would he need to be black?  Certainly not going undercover.  But I am a Cheadle fan, and I got past it.  And the whole movie works because of Mr. Gleeson.  At one point the Cheadle character says of Mr. Gleeson’s, “  I can’t tell if you’re really (bleeping) dumb or really (bleeping) smart.”

The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh.  As a reviewer said, this movie is “really (bleeping) good.”

Mr. Cheadle and Mr. Gleeson (below) in a less-than-cordial moment.

Amelie

There is something about the ladies of France,  Audrey Tautou (below) being a case in point.  Beauty underscored by a look of innocence, yet with the potential for mischief.  Audrey is the heroine of the 2001 film “Amelie.”  Nominated for five Academy Awards, winning none, but ranked, at that time, as the greatest box office success in French cinema history.

“Amelie” is one of those movies you sit through with a smile, knowing that you have stumbled upon a gem; not quite knowing what to expect, yet expecting nonetheless to be captivated by Audrey’s portrayal of Amelie.  Remarkably, “Amelie” was not screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but was well received pretty much everywhere else.  To me, it is a wonderful representation of French cinema.  There are lots of layers to this movie – all constructed by Amelie.  Most importantly for the viewer, there is Amelie in pursuit of Nino; but more importantly for Amelie, it’s what she does for those around her – whether she is playing cupid for a co-worker; or surreptitiously working to convince her father to travel his way out of his sadness; or gaslighting a store owner to the point where he no longer abuses his employee; and much more.        

As the copy says in the following image, “She’ll change your life.”

Oh, and “gaslighting?”  Had to look it up after seeing it in Wikipedia.  “Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.”  Amelie does a nice job of it.  So do politicians.

American Hustle

You may recall the 1987 film “Empire of the Sun,” which told the story of a young English schoolboy living in Shanghai at the time the Japanese invasion of China.  The schoolboy is separated from his parents and eventually lands in an internment camp.  Without providing further detail, it is a movie worth seeing, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring 13 year old Christian Bale as the schoolboy.

And that brings me to “American Hustle.”  A movie that was nominated for ten Oscars, winning none (which must be some sort of perverse record).  The cast includes Bradley Cooper (with hideous permed hair, but terrific), Jeremy Renner (terrific),  Amy Adams (also terrific), Jennifer Lawrence (hilarious and a reminder of just how good an actress she is), Robert DeNiro (in a cameo that would strike fear in the otherwise fearless) and Christian Bale (with what must surely be the second worst comb-over ever).  Christian is remarkable and his performance demonstrates just how versatile an actor he is.  He owns two Oscars; one for “The Fighter,” a second for “The Big Short,” together with three appearances as “Batman” and so much more.  “American Hustle” is worth seeing more than once.

The Intouchables

Not to be confused with “The Untouchables,” the 1987 movie starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, “The Intouchables” is a French production starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, neither of whom you may know.  This is a wonderful movie, with M. Sy as Driss, the care-giver for M. Cluzet, as Phillippe, who is a quadriplegic.  The opening scene, with Driss driving Phillippe at high speeds through the streets of Paris in Phillippe’s Maserati, is worthy of any car chase comparison.  And the outcome of that scene is a thing of hilarity.  M. Sy won the Cesar Award (think French Oscar) for Best Actor.  He seems to me to be an engaging combination of a young Eddie Murphy and Dave Chapelle.  M. Cluzet is no slouch either, having won his Cesar in 2007 for the movie “Tell No One.”  I was touched by M. Cluzet’s character as he was able to convey so much emotion despite his disability.  Above all, he seemed to truly relish the performance of his co-star, M. Sy, who is a dude (below).      

Don’t mind the subtitles, as with “Amelie” you will find yourself quickly lost in the charm of the characters.  In the image following, “Driss” takes the wheel of the Maserati, much to the delight of “Phillippe.”

I think I want a Maserati.

Movie Gems

I am a movie buff, and was a buff as a young boy growing up in Winnipeg.  Back then as a 10 year old, I had a 35 cent allowance that covered a return bus trip to downtown Winnipeg, my ticket to the Rialto Theatre on Portage Avenue, unlimited popcorn, two features (usually western schlock), a dozen cartoons, and I still had a nickel left over!  Last week I went to the flicks, got my $10 senior’s ticket, and passed when I saw that a bag of popcorn, coke and a candy bar would set me back an additional $17.95.  I am, after all, a man of some principle.

In any case, and sadly, there are few movies worth seeing right now.   “Red Sparrow” – no – except that Jennifer Lawrence looked very comely.  “You Were Never Really Here” is hard to recommend unless you want to see a very moody Joaquin Phoenix do in very bad guys with a ball pein hammer.  I saw both, the latter with three other people in the theatre.

So, let me save you a few bucks and list here some movie gems that you can watch comfortably at home (rented, on Netflix, or otherwise streamed) and that you may have overlooked.   

“Burn After Reading”

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are prolific, creative and always entertaining.  Their movies include “Raising Arizona” (with Nicholas Cage as a hair-challenged ex-con), “Fargo” (with Frances McDormand.  Frances is married to Joel Coen, by the way), “Blood Simple” (the Coen’s first feature – a good one, but bloody),  “No Country for Old Men” (Javier Bardem as one of cinema’s most frightening villains), and many more. 

“Burn After Reading” might be described as a dark comedy.  According to Wikipedia, Joel Coen said that he and his brother “have a long history of writing parts for idiotic characters.”  They succeeded with “Burn After Reading.”  I won’t spoil the story line for you, except to say that there are many layers that begin to stack up around an espionage plot.  What is truly fascinating to me is the cast.  The Coens recruited an A-list of actors to portray their idiotic characters.  Consider this:  George Clooney (two-time Oscar winner), Tilda Swinton (Oscar winner), Frances McDormand (two-time Best Actress Oscar winner for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” but also for “Fargo” – did you know?),  John Malkovich (two Oscar nominations), Richard Jenkins (two-time Academy Award nominee), J.K. Simmons (Oscar winner), and Brad Pitt (who won an Oscar as a producer for “Twelve Years a Slave”).  Brad Pitt almost steals this movie as a gum-chewing, vacuum-brained personal trainer.  I believe that Brad is a pretty good actor, and then there is his personal life, including a relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow and marriages to Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie.  Not bad, and all over apparently, but I would go with Jennifer if asked.

Yes, that is Brad (with Richard Jenkins) In “Burn After Reading.”  The movie was released in 2008.  Ten years later, it is worth seeing.

“Death at a Funeral”

A reviewer at The Observer said the movie, “in which a fine British cast is wasted on feeble material, is directed by Frank Oz in less than wizardly form.”  A pun at the expense of a very entertaining movie?  I think so.

Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, (the film is) “in the tradition of those classics, in black and white and starring Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness, in which disasters keep piling up, each more drolly funny than the last.”  Good for Ruthe.

And Roger Ebert said, among other comments, “I think the ideal way to see it would be to gather your most dour and disapproving relatives and treat them to a night at the cinema.”  I am fortunate to not have any dour and disapproving relatives.  I am sharing this blog with my relatives, by the way.  And this movie is a treat. 

At the funeral of his father, the son, (played by Mathew Macfadyen) is confronted by his father’s alleged lover (played by Peter Dinklage) who demands a blackmail payment to keep secret his relationship with the deceased father.  In a struggle that ensues, the lover hits his head on a coffee table, and believed to be dead, his body is placed in the coffin along with the father.  It goes from there.

Some of the character bits are truly hilarious.  Alan Tudyk as an unwilling dupe who has ingested what he thought was Valium (it was not);  Peter Vaughan as demanding Uncle Alfie who has continence issues; and not to forget Peter Dinklage, star of the “Game of Thrones,” as the lover.

This movie was remade in 2010 in the U.S., with a predominantly black cast (Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence) and not nearly as good.  In the image that follows, Peter Dinklage, as the “lover.”   

See the movie – it is very good.

“In the Loop”

Armando Ianucci is a television producer and director and is a Scot.  Yes, despite the name, Armando is a Glaswegian, born of a Neapolitan father and a mother born n Scotland of an Italian family. His most recent effort for the big screen was “The Death of Stalin” – somewhat short of the black comedy description it has been given, but a movie I liked nonetheless.  There are some movies you just appreciate just for the effort, and this was one.  Don’t rush out to see “Stalin” though.  I mean, I loved “No Country for Old Men” but it was not a movie you could urge your mother to go see.

Armando has produced the Alan Partridge series and a British television show called “In the Thick of It” which, in turn, was the precursor for the movie, “”In the Loop.”

“In the Loop” is one of the most profanely funny movies I have seen, without being truly profane.  It is a lesson in politics that pre-dates but somehow predicts the Trump era.  Peter Capaldi is the star (Peter is also the current Doctor Who) who – sorry about that little bit of redundancy – seems to run the entire British government.  Who would dare to stand in his way?  The cast includes Tom Hollander and the late James Gandolfini, he of “The Sopranos” fame. 

  

“Snatch”

“Snatch” was directed by Guy Ritchie, famous for directing “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” – also worth seeing.  Guy is also famous for being to married to Madonna.  Madonna, for her part, was also married to Sean Penn and had relationships with Warren Beatty and Dennis Rodman. Yes, that Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls and self-described “bad boy,” who is also a friend of Kim Jung-un: which leads me to think that knowing Dennis Rodman has been there – that is to say, North Korea and Madonna – neither are places I would want to explore.

But I digress – so back to “Snatch.”

There are two layers to the plot here; one that deals with a stolen diamond, a second about fight fixing.  The cast includes Brad Pitt as a “Pikey” (read Gypsy or Irish Traveller) who is very good with his fists, Jason Statham (soon to be type-cast as an avenger with martial arts skills), Dennis Farina (now deceased, but great in gangster roles – as in “Get Shorty”), and Benicio del Toro.  Benicio won an Oscar for his role in “Traffic” and was prominent in “The Usual Suspects” and “Sicario.”  Of note, Benicio was in a relationship with the daughter of Rod Stewart that has produced a grand-daughter for Sir Rod. 

Brad Pitt is a scene stealer once again.  He is barely intelligible in his “Pikey” role, and the ladies will like his fight scenes where much emphasis is placed on his abs and tats.  That is Brad in the foregoing, enjoying a smoke between rounds with Jason Statham and Stephen Graham.

“Michael Clayton”

Released in 2007, “Michael Clayton” received seven nominations for Academy Awards, and was a profitable film, but seemed to be under the radar.  Did you see it?

George Clooney is Michael Clayton, a “fixer” working for a law firm and who knows all the short-cuts and loopholes that can right the wrongs of his firm’s clients.  Tilda Swinton is the villain here, a lawyer trying to suppress data on a carcinogenic herbicide that would have significant consequences for her employer.  Tilda’s character is described by a New York Times reviewer as “a pitiful creature, as unloved by her writer-director creator as by the genius actress who plays her.”  I felt uncomfortable watching her and she truly deserved the Oscar for her performance.

Tilda is pictured below in a somewhat normal pose.

Tilda is easily transformed.  Not a classic beauty, but she has worked as a model.  Here she is as she appeared in the “Grand Budapest Hotel.”  And then below that, after having her hair done.

The Rules of Civility

One of the best books I have read in recent years is “A Gentleman in Moscow” – a book that tells the story of Alexander Rostov, a member of the aristocracy, who, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, is sentenced to life imprisonment for writing a counter-revolutionary “poem.” The good news for Count Rostov: his sentence is to be served in Moscow’s famed Hotel Metropole, where he is confined to a small attic room. In a 2016 review of “A Gentleman in Moscow” The Washington Post described Count Rostov’s Hotel Metropole as “transfixing, full of colourful characters, some transitory, others permanent: mostly fictional, some historical.” Also that the book has “some derring-do in the latter parts” (and in my opinion, a terrific ending). The Post reviewer wondered, as I did, why Hollywood “hasn’t snapped this (book) up?’’ (It has since been optioned to be produced as a mini-series).

The Post headlined the review, “A Gentleman in Moscow is a charming reminder of what it means to be classy.” That should make it mandatory reading for a number of politicians and so-called “celebrities.” Any come to mind?

The dining room of the present-day Hotel Metropole is shown in the preceding photograph. According to Trip Advisor, a one-night stay at the Hotel will set you back slightly more than 500 bucks U.S.

Amor Towles, wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Mr. Towles holds an M.A. in English from Stanford University, but spent some 20 years as an investment professional before turning to writing full time. He is pictured below – looking every bit the writer.

Mr. Towles first wrote “The Rules of Civility.” While not nearly as engrossing as “A Gentleman” it is a great read in itself. “The Rules of Civility” was described in a New York Times review as a “snappy period piece” in which Towles “resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy …”

The novel follows Katey Kontent, who in 1966 is transported back three decades to a New Year’s Eve that changed the path her life might otherwise have taken. That night Katey and her friend Eve first met Tinker Grey. Without going into further detail, I will tell you that Tinker (who names their child Tinker?) lives his life according to rules of civility laid down by George Washington. It turns out that Washington, as a 16 year old school boy, copied “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” from 12 year old Francis Hawkins, who had in 1640 translated the “Rules” from French into English. The “Rules” originated with French Jesuits in 1595.

It is remarkable that Washington took the trouble to copy into his notebook the 110 “Rules of Civility.” Not surprising that he went on to do such great things.

The “Rules” are easily sourced, so I won’t reference all 110 here, despite the fact that many of them are rules to live by even today. Here are several of my favourites:

11th – “Shift not yourself in the Sight of others, nor Gnaw your nails.” (On a cross-Atlantic flight years ago, I was seated in business class next to a man, who, as soon as the plane took off, began to chew his nails. I asked him politely if he planned to gnaw them for the next six hours. He wasn’t happy with my question, and moved to another seat to annoy someone else).

15th – “Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean without Shewing any great Concern for them.” (Yes, nails again. And speaking of teeth, Washington was not a model of oral hygiene. Contrary to the myth that he had wooden dentures, the fact is that his false teeth were a combination of gold, ivory, brass, and human and animal teeth).

44th – When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it. (I will try to remember this on the golf course).

54th – “Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.” (It is the Peacock part that attracted me to this rule, which takes on a slightly different meaning at my gym where some are determined to wear out the mirrors).

62nd – “Speak not of doleful Things in a Time of Mirth or at the Table …” (It goes on a bit longer, but I am reminded of Count Rostov’s dinner table rule that conversation be steered away from politics, religion and personal sorrows).

89th – “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” (If politics, religion and personal sorrows are (literally) off the table, and now malicious gossip; future dinner parties are going to be pretty bland).

110th – “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.”

(Nice place to end. There are 103 more gems here).

Churchill

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill has long been an historical favourite of mine. In my mind he was the most heroic figure of the 20th century. But again, in my opinion, he was far from perfect; a man who overcame his imperfections to lead his country through its “darkest hour.” If you haven’t seen the film, “Darkest Hour,” you should. Gary Oldman won his Oscar, and deservedly so. There is a long list of distinguished actors who have portrayed Churchill – Albert Finney, John Lithgow, Rod Taylor, Brendon Gleeson, and others – but none captured the essence of Churchill quite as well as Oldman.

The movie described a brief, but very critical period of time when the United Kingdom, under the inspired leadership of Sir Winston (having assumed the Prime Ministership at age 65), moved into battle against Hitler’s Germany. I thought that what I would do here is pass along some insights into Churchill, to show what a remarkable man he was.

He was amazingly productive. His capacity for work was without comparison, especially his writing. Sir Winston wrote first as a journalist, covering among other events, The Cuban war for independence, the war in the Sudan and the Boer War. In the 1920s he wrote a six volume history of the Great War; in the 1930s he completed his first autobiography and a four volume biography of the first Duke of Marlborough. Following the defeat of Germany and his own political defeat as Prime Minister, Churchill wrote a six volume history of World War II. Then, in his early 80s, he completed the four volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” Sir Winston was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1953. One historian estimated that over his lifetime Churchill wrote some 8 to 10 million words in various media.

Sir Winston was an accomplished painter of mainly landscapes. Painting may have helped him deal with his ‘Black Dog” – episodic bouts of depression that occurred throughout his adult life. Again, he was remarkably productive, having finished more than 500 paintings over a 50 year span. A painting by Churchill of his goldfish pond at Chartwell (his home) sold in 2014 for 1.8 million pounds.

Churchill was renowned for his oratory, which was underpinned by his skill at putting pen to paper. Of the airmen of the Royal Air Force he wrote and spoke “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Or in his first speech as the new Prime Minister, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Compare that to the eloquence of our young Canadian Prime Minster, who finds it difficult to complete a sentence. Or to Donald Trump who can only complete a sentence with two or more “very, verys.”

Churchill could be brutal in his assessment of people. Of Neville Chamberlain, who sought peace with Hitler, Churchill stated, “He (Chamberlain) was given the choice between war and dishonour. He choose dishonour and he will have war anyway.”

Of Charles De Gaulle, “He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath.”
Of Lawrence of Arabia, “He was not in complete harmony with the normal.”

And of the Earl of Halifax (portrayed in “Darkest Hour”), “Halifax’s virtues have done more harm than the vices of hundreds of other people.”

But never lacking for ego he said, “We are all worms, but I am a glow- worm.”
He did have a lot of nice things to say about others, but one gets the impression that Sir Winston did not suffer fools. Often, over dinner, and after a number of libations, we ask the question of our guests, “Who would most like to join your dinner table?” My diplomatic answer, after making sure to include those currently sitting at the dinner table, is “my father, and certainly Winston Churchill.” Churchill, of course, would dominate the conversation, but my father would break in and want to know (having spent a number of years in the U.K. during World War II) why all they had to eat at dinner was mutton. That was my Dad. Never one for politics.

There are scores of books written by or about Sir Winston. Biographies by Manchester, Jenkins, and Sir Martin Gilbert, are must reads. So is “The Gathering Storm” (predicting the rise of Nazi Germany) by Churchill himself.

I leave you with this. Learn what you can about Sir Winston. I did, but only later in life. He is an inspiration for all of us, and the young need to understand that, as he did, one should never give up.

The photo above was taken by the Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, and is the most famous image of Churchill. The photo seemed to capture much of the Churchill personality – his imperiousness, his resolve, and his tenacity.

But a few words now about Gary Oldman. This is Gary (below) as Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”
A pretty good likeness that Oldman brought to life with his ability to adopt Churchill’s mannerisms; his impatience, his temper, and Sir Winston’s speaking voice (complete with lisp). Oldman won the Oscar of course, and the BAFTA (British Academy of Film Awards) for best actor. His third BAFTA, by the way.

I regard Oldman as a chameleon. He may be unrecognizable from one role to the next. Do you remember him in “JFK” (as Lee Harvey Oswald)? In “Air Force One” trying to bring down Harrison Ford’s plane? As Dracula in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula?” As Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” series? Or try “The Professional” as one of film’s greatest villains.

Here he is, in the image following, looking dapper in black tie. Quite a stretch from his portrayal of Sir Winston.

Gary Oldman is without question a great actor. But he is also something of a legend as a husband, having been married five times. These unions lasted 2,3,4 and 7 years respectively. The most recent wedding took place in 2017 (wish her luck!). Oldman was once married to Uma Thurman (good on him) and apparently, in between marriages, counted Isabella Rossellini as a “partner.” Good on him again, as Isabella is the beautiful daughter of the beautiful Ingrid Bergman.