On the Ristorante Abruzzi, Rome

I forget which biography of Napoleon it is- I read it, pages dusty and his story then fresh to me, as a teenager many years ago- but in it an English historian, pivoting on a Whig pin head so as to look both up at and down upon the little corporal, dedicates a whole paragraph to sneering at his preference for ‘peasant’ cuisine. Amidst the initials and crowns and bees so carefully embroidered in gold, the Terror of Europe would wolf down dishes of beans and onions and pork whilst the Tsars and Kings and Popes whom he confounded quailed over their daintily prepared repasts. If only Gillray had had access to the great tyrant’s stodgy and simplistic menus, how much more eviscerating would that master’s pen and ink have been! Sadly, our histories of Bonaparte- in English at least- focus on those aspects considered worthy; his conquests or his politics or his women. I blame the Romantics. Shelley’s ‘child of a fierce hour’ might have oscillated in their fevered imaginations between bei

On the Hippodrome in Karlovy Vary

God- and for that matter, my liver- knows I am no Puritan. Now, like anyone interested in the strange nature of the English, I quote with glee Isaac Foot’s method for the discernment of character- ‘I judge a man by one thing, which side would he have liked his ancestors to fight on at Marston Moor’- but endorsement, as many a Twitter biography, fearful of that malevolent platform’s tendency to turn even nastier than it already is, reminds us, is not necessarily the natural outworking of quotation. I need hardly resort to references from the Almighty, or my organs, to reveal that the late Mr Foot and I- though agreeing on the importance of Marston Moor- would not have been shoulder to shoulder on that windswept patch of land bisected in latter days by the B1224. Yet, for all my cavalier enthusiasm, I find the characters on the side I purport to retrospectively back difficult to relate to. As with all good fiction, the stories we tell about the past are most powerful when, in the i

On the tower of St Mildred's, Tenterden

Who has ever heard of Tenterden? Even among those who know Kent well it elicits a crumpling of the brow or a narrowing of the eyes as they struggle to place it. Sometimes it will bring forth a mumble about ‘having heard of it’ or, occasionally, a cry of over-exaggerated recognition, normally falsified out of politeness or pity. When I speak of it, I sometimes wonder whether I have my places confused and, like Mrs Elton doggedly insisting to Emma that Surry was the Garden of England, I have mistaken Kent for somewhere else- be it Sussex or Suffolk or Laputa. True, there is the odd individual who recognises the name, normally from its modest role in English history as the birthplace of Caxton; but to them Tenterden might be the capital of Costa Rica or the name of Gladstone’s chancellor or of Pavlov’s dog. It is not so much a Kentish market town as a piece of trivia, not a geographical location (still less anyone’s home) but a tie-break answer in a pub quiz. Such people are aware of th

On the Rose and Crown, Oxford

When living in Prague I heard a story- no great achievement in itself, for in that city there is a fable underneath every cobble- that stuck with me. Every day, without exception, there would shuffle into the Trade Fair Palace, wherein are stored the choicest specimens of the Czech national art collection, an old man. He would pay no attention to the staff, nor his fellow visitors, the jauntily curated collations of works were as nothing to him, as were the joys of every other painting except one: Edvard Munch’s Dance on the Shore . To this piece- charming enough but in no critic’s estimation an especially noteworthy effort, he would make a beeline and stand, transfixed for precisely an hour before leaving without so much as casting an eye in the direction of the Gauguins or Picassos or Muchas round about it. When he died, it was said that over the course of his long life he had stared at the painting for some tens of thousands of hours. I cannot claim to have any such idea of nu

On the Memorial to Sydney Smith in Bristol Cathedral

I was visiting a friend in Bristol. Quite what business I had in Bristol is of little interest to anyone and indeed I would have omitted any context, only the great man himself was so assiduous and, for the most part, charitable in describing his own friends, and so I felt compelled to- against my own instincts- follow his example. I was visiting a friend in Bristol, now a doctor. It is friendship of a decade and a half’s standing, formed in the fiery pits of adolescent bickering- though the crude teenage caricatures we painted of one another have given way to good-natured slander and silent pride in the other’s achievement. It was a Friday and a day off for me but not for my friend, the bodies of Bristol requiring more tending to than the souls of Liverpool, I took advantage of a day on my own before an evening of beer and misremembered stories. I love aimless wandering at the best of times- but stop; can any clause reek of quite as much injustice and privilege as that? A conf

On Cullen Street, Liverpool

I admire detachment. To pilfer from Beerbohm quite so directly is, I am sure, an act of l è se majest é against the Prince of Minor Writers but- in my defence- he was adept at doing the same and, more importantly, it is true. I have sat in bars and theatres and churches and allowed a smile to creep across my lips at a joke unshared, I have delighted in observing their goings on as an outsider, I have even kept my head when round about me others were in the process of detaching parts of theirs.  It is, I plead, no southern superciliousness nor introverted shyness masked behind bravado. Instead, I think of detachment as necessary- not as a monstrous refusal to embrace sympathy or empathy, but rather an acknowledgement that some nests are better left unpoked. A chance for those of us who delight in throwing ourselves in to all and sundry to pick not only our battles but our festivals too. Perhaps this is why I admire it so; detachment seems to me to be as much discernment as it i

Ordinary Glory, again

In Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (its plot a fine indictment of the potential toxicity of the written word), the Bishop and Precentor have a game whereby they have conversations made up of quotations until one or other, in reference to the words of Ecclesiastes 1:2, asks ‘What saith the Preacher?’. The answer is ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’. They- the Bishop, the Precentor, the Preacher- are right of course, and in taking up writing again I am sure I am proving them so. The temptation that arises from people saying nice things about an effort is to produce a sequel, normally with disastrous results: vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher. I am glad these former essays were enjoyed- but continuing them in purely the same vein felt to be too lazy, too much of a rehash, too vain, in the light of the particularities of the present. And so I have, I hope, changed key- if not tone. The purpose of these essays that follow is to celebrate place. Or, specifically, places. To remi