Lockdown Armchair Travel – Latvia – A December Weekend in Riga, 2006

L is for Latvia and a weekend in Riga in December 2006 to celebrate Mrs Chrisparkle’s birthday. My overriding memory of Riga in December is that it was TOTALLY UTTERLY COMPLETELY FREEZING COLD – in fact, I’ve never felt that level of cold before or afterwards. Apart from that it was a fascinating mix of the Western and the Soviet, set in a beautiful old town that is small and delightfully compact, to walk around easily. I don’t have that many photos from that weekend but I hope this gives you a flavour of what it was like.

So what do you think of, when you think of Riga? I’ll always think of this….

Snow in RigaSnow everywhere! It’s a beautiful, stately city. Perhaps its most impressive sight is the House of the Blackheads, which isn’t anything to do with poor facial hygiene, but a 14th century guildhall for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Riga.

House of the BlackheadsMore modern buildings include the Freedom Monument, constructed to honour the soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920)

Freedom Monumentand the Rainis Monument, commemorating the Latvian poet – and yes he does look like Lenin,

RainisRiga has plenty of attractive bridges over the river Daugava

Bridge over riverPlus generous open spaces

Open spacelike this area beside the one of the many ornate churches. There are also stunning views from the top of St Peter’s Church

View of the cityIn many directions!

More viewsAs it was near Christmas, they had a lovely Christmas market too!

Thanks for joining me on this little travelogue. Stay safe!

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Knights of King Midas (1958)

The Knights of King MidasIn which we meet Charloun and his gang, who try to raise money in any way they can to support elderly people who had lost their homes in a fire; and at the same time become a thorn in the flesh of the greedy Town Clerk Monsieur Amoretti!

The Knights of King Midas was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Millionnaires en herbe, which translates literally as Millionaires in Grass, with illustrations by Brian Wildsmith. Wildsmith is considered one of the great children’s books Illustrators, winning the 1962 Kate Greenaway Award for British Children’s Book Illustration; he lived from 1930 to 2016. As “The Knights of King Midas”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1961, and by Puffin Books in 1964. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1964, bearing the price 3/6.

In the first two books we met Gaby and his gang; and in Magpie Corner we met Frederick; older, and more of a loner. The Knights of King Midas introduces us to another bunch of French ragamuffins, Charloun and his gang, living in the more glamorous town of Port-Biou, set in the French Riviera; Berna gently mocks the children’s Provençal accents when he notes they pronounce Coucoulin’s name as Coucouleeen. There is no such place as Port-Biou but it obviously borrows from Port-Bou on the Pyrenean coast; at one stage Berna places it as between Marseilles and Menton, and he also points out that fish caught at Port-Biou are sent to the hotels of Bandol and Sanary, two coastal resorts between Marseilles and Toulon.

Whereas Berna’s earlier books were set against either the grim and poverty-stricken Louvigny, or the manual labour of a petrol station, this book opens with a bucolic theme – stag-hunting; although that’s no less hard work, and provides an excuse for the gang to rush about noisily imitating hounds. But this rural environment feels much more positive than his previous urban settings. At first, the children’s apparent bloodlust about the stag seems cruel to our modern eyes (but then, children are cruel!) with the enjoyment of cornering the animal (“the brute”) and endangering its life (“he’s making straight for the rocks on the Pointe. What a joke if he goes over the edge!”) But once we realise they’re trailing a donkey, and have been for the past ten months, and they always make sure the donkey is safe and unharmed after their games, suddenly they seem much more childlike and playful.

There are eleven members in Charloun’s gang, plus the twelfth; unseen, in the form of the famous Mistral wind, that occasionally helps them. It’s a sign of the times that the children can take advantage of the countryside setting to decorate their boat with wildflowers picked from an island. Today, of course, that would be totally unacceptable – we’re always told not to pick the flowers! But in 1958 things were different, and there was no shortage of wildflowers. The open-air countryside aspect of this book extends out into the water too. The third chapter contains a thrilling but also strangely restful description of a fishing trip out in a boat, the boys relaxing on board until a fish bites then it’s full activity until it’s caught.

There is an fascinating portrayal of the rough (although loving) corporal punishment handed out in those days. For example, we see Amoretti attempt to kick Charloun in the seat of his pants. Wouldn’t be allowed today, of course! When she saw his dirty shorts, Angel’s mother “rewarded his carelessness with a sound slap”. Such was parenting in the late 50s. Mlle Blanc is fond of her schoolchildren and exercises her discipline in more subtle ways. Berna describes the gang thus: “the eleven of them shared a birthright which meant more in her [Mlle Blanc’s] eyes than all the virtues – whatever happened, they were never bored.”

As usual, Berna gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a member of a gang. Mlle Blanc understands that for the gang to bond together firmly, they need to have an enemy. It had been Piston the donkey – it was to become Amoretti. In this book we also see what it’s like to be on the outside of a gang: “Mademoiselle Blanc was only sorry to see how closed Charloun and his friends kept their small circle. Doudou had been expelled for cowardice two months before and they had kept their number at the awkward figure of eleven. Mademoiselle Blanc had a twelfth up her sleeve – Philippe Vial, who was bored to death because no one would have anything to do with him.” It’s a class-based decision to exclude him from their gang; he’s seen as a posh Parisian, a firm outsider, and they want nothing to do with him.

There’s also a horrendous undercurrent of sexism; when the gang decide which six of their number will be part of the Blue Danube crew, they choose “the two prettiest girls”. Ah well – as Maurice Chevalier would have said, thank heavens for little girls. When Charloun is considering which members of the gang have contributed the most towards acquiring the funds, he doesn’t count the girls. “The girls had had bright ideas and they had helped in a thousand different ways, but they were not so free as the boys to pull off the big bits of business and so that sort of thing could not be expected of them.”

Nevertheless, this is a charming book of true altruism. The children use their skills as gang members, both collectively and individually, to raise as much money as they can in order to help people less fortunate than themselves. None of them holds back, none keeps their resources to themself, none puts their own fortune above the others. As Philippe’s grandfather lawyer observes: “the children concerned combine healthy common sense with a lunatic logic. They’ve understood that you should never take anything, or give anything, without putting in a little of the small change of life which no one can see but which gives things their real worth – loving kindness.”

By so doing, they also defeat Amoretti, a somewhat pantomime villain character, who embodies greed and bullying. Like Gaby’s gang in the first two books, this is a gang that you, the reader, would really like to join. All the way through, the children benefit from the kindness and the wisdom of Mademoiselle Blanc, who subtly guides them to success, and who, too, is a beneficiary of the children’s experiences, appreciating their generosity and joining in with their innocent happiness, which you sense will nourish both her and them in the years to come.

As usual, Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. I loved the description of the sea at the beginning of Chapter Three, where Pastourelle and Cadusse are fondly and reflectively looking out at the water. “In the distance, the sleepy sea was streaked with glittering points of light that slowly snaked its surface as the current moved them. At regular intervals a gentle swell would lift the fifty boats moored to the jetty and would die away with a cool plop against the harbour wall.” It’s a description that appeals both to your sight and your hearing.

In Berna’s first two books, poverty was tangible in both the gang and their local environment. In Magpie Corner, there was much more money around, but it was derived from hard work and crime. In The Knights of King Midas, things are much more relaxed. “Port-Biou was paradise enough, and, rich or poor, the children did not worry about money”. The Vial family are particularly comfortable and well-off, and fortunately, innately generous. The local traders are happy to pay for a good fish supply, for example; the regatta, the quiz show, the scrap merchant are all wealthy sources that the children can easily tap into. Perhaps this level of creature comfort – albeit that some of the parents have to scrimp and save to get by – enables the children to be altruistic and generous. They don’t need the resources for themselves. This book also has less micky-taking, name-calling, cruel nicknaming than Berna’s earlier works. If there was one attribute that marks this book out, it’s probably simple kindness.

As in all of Berna’s books that we’ve looked at so far, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Angel gets a dirty bottom from sitting on his stone on the beach, the dirt turns out to be rust because his stone is the top of a 12-ton cupola from the wrecked USS Massachusetts, bombarded on the day of the Allied Landings.

For a book with a number of subtle nuances – for example, the suggestion of a growing relationship between Philippe and Miqué, which Charloun simply can’t see, and which is never further touched on – there are admittedly some very clunky plot developments, no more extraordinary than Philippe’s unexpected success on a TV quiz show – although Angel’s discovery of valuable wreckage on a beach also takes the biscuit. Perhaps you have to suspend disbelief in this book more than in Berna’s previous books; but it’s written in such a winning style that you’re prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt all the way through.

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!

Big GameChapter One – Big Game. Berna introduces us to the gang. Charloun, Rigolo and Miqué are going off to follow the stag; en route they meet Norine, Angel, Titin, Sandrine and Frisquet. Rouqui, Coucoulin and Rosette are missing, but Charloun expects they will join them on the stag hunt. The younger members pretend to be hounds, barking excitedly, whilst Charloun takes charge with his hunting horn, calling the pack to order. It soon emerges that it’s not a stag they’re hunting, but Piston the donkey.

Having lost the trail, a twelve-year-old boy emerges from the pinewood where the gang had located Piston. He wanders over to where Piston was standing munching a branch of wood and starts talking to the donkey. At that moment, the Mistral howls up the road and frightens Piston, so that he charges at the boy; but the boy is too quick and makes his escape. The noise this produced alerts Miqué and her make-believe hounds to resume the hunt.

But events get the better of them. Coucoulin notices a trickle of grey smoke come puffing out from the bushes. Boldly, Rigolo, Sandrine and Rouqui join him to beat out the fire with their cudgels but it’s too much for them. Charloun gives the order to “run to the shanties” and “warn the Mohicans”, but they’re too late. The fire had already engulfed the first shanty, the Pastourelles’, and all the shanty residents had rushed outside with a few possessions, trying to put out the flames with a small supply of water – and the children help in this endeavour.

Eventually three firemen arrive from Port-Biou but there isn’t much left for them to save. Unfortunately, town clerk Monsieur Amoretti overhears Madame Escoffier, one of the shanty residents, accuse the children of having caused the fire by their games. Amoretti cuffs Charloun in punishment. But it’s Miqué who realises the seriousness of this accusation and runs off to tell Mademoiselle Blanc, the schoolmistress; and the two of them go off to tackle Amoretti.

Mohican's EncampmentChapter Two – The Mohicans’ Encampment. On her arrival Mlle Blanc wastes no time in establishing the innocence of the children, and accuses Amoretti of making up the story about the children causing the fire – she tells him that if he won’t stop accusing the children, she’ll accuse him in public – which would be believed because he’s always wanted to get rid of the shanty houses, home to the Mohicans – so called, because it sounds like La Mouilllecanne, the name of a little reeded-up local estuary. The firemen go into the burnt-out forest but there’s no sign of Piston, dead or alive. Charloun wants to give Amoretti a piece of his mind but Mlle Blanc talks him out of it.

Fifteen elderly people, now homeless, gather outside the Escoffiers’ cottage – the one house not destroyed. Amoretti pretends to be sympathetic – although for years there had been interest in converting the land to a holiday park or to preserve the fishing village. M. Cardusse blames Amoretti and the council for not clearing the land properly – they were powerless to protect it against the fierce Mistral. Their only hope is temporary accommodation at the schoolhouse until Casteran, the builder, can construct something for them. Charloun suspects there’ll be a back-hander in it for Amoretti.

Charloun discovers that Miqué thought she saw an additional person in the forest – presumably the boy described in the first chapter. But that’s nothing to worry about now – the main thing is for them to do all they can to help the Mohicans. Charloun orders everyone to empty their pockets – and between them they can muster five hundred and sixty francs, “barely enough to buy a small joint of beef! How much poorer can you get!” sighs Charloun. But what’s his plan? To support the Mohicans in a financial fight against Amoretti and the Council – even though many of the gang didn’t really believe they could achieve anything.

And we learn about Philippe Vial – a boy at school who’s clearly not a gang member, and is undoubtedly the boy who was also lurking in the forest when the fire started. He’s been ostracised because he is a posh outsider from Paris, and not very talkative. His mother tells him that the Mohicans’ land is ripe for development. “Philippe was appalled. He did not grasp it at all, but the fire, which had started by being rather a joke, now swelled to the size of a disaster.” Does that mean Philippe started the fire?

As the family walk around the shanties, which have been haphazardly re-erected with the help of some kindly folk, Monsieur Vial explains the history of the encampment, how it was let on a peppercorn rent, but how it’s now much more valuable and a grand hotel – The Residence, Port-Biou – has already been designed – by M. Vial himself. Amoretti and the Council will be ready to pounce. As Philippe discovers more and more how vulnerable the pensioners now are, he becomes very quiet and guiltily furtive.

Rouqui's BouillabaisseChapter Three – Rouqui’s Bouillabaisse. Pastourelle and Cadusse gaze out across the sea and regret that they may have to move away – they’ll miss this fantastic sight. Rouqui and Frisquet ask Pastourelle if they can take his boat – the Lion des Mers – out into the water to catch some fish. At first it looked as though they wouldn’t be lucky, but then the boys landed a bass, “a luxury piece” according to Rouqui. More fish are caught – perch, wrasse, dorado, even a sea-scorpion. All the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse.

Meanwhile Charloun and other gang members stage a public conversation, alerting eavesdroppers to the fact that there would be a splendid bouillabaisse at the Admiral hotel tonight. It has the desired effect; several unexpected table bookings result in the chef panicking. Lo and behold, Rouqui and Frisquet turn up at the hotel with two baskets of freshly caught fish and a demand for 5,000 francs. The chef reluctantly agrees this high price, and the boys are ecstatic. That’s the first lot of money to donate to the Mohicans.

7,850 francs is the total for the day; however, it’s a long way from the million francs that Charloun has worked out is needed to save the Mohicans from the workhouse. Coucoulin carelessly confesses that he has a valuable stamp in his collection – worth 80,000 francs. Sell it! cry the gang members but Coucoulin has other ideas.

Amoretti is unnerved by the sight of the gang, walking near the shanties. Could they ruin his plan to acquire the land?

The British Guiana Two Cents GreenChapter Four – The British Guiana Two Cents, Green. Mlle Blanc is impressed with the children’s efforts to raise a million francs, although she cannot believe they will achieve it. Poor Coucoulin has become the target of a series of mental bullying tactics to try to get him to sell the stamp; but he’s as obstinate as Piston. However, when his sister prays that he sells the stamp, he gives in, saying that he will use the proceeds to buy real estate.

Coucoulin offers the stamp to M. Bodin, the dealer. He’s very impressed with the stamp and offers him the choice of 90,000 francs for it, or exchanging it for 120,000 francs worth of other stamps – even 130,000 francs’ worth. A very generous offer that stops Coucoulin in his tracks. But Coucoulin insists on the cash, and just as Bodin is slowly counting it out, Coucoulin’s grandfather, Toussaint, takes the cash from under his nose. Hysterical, Coucoulin shames Toussaint into giving him back the money.

True to his word, Coucoulin brings the money to Charloun and the rest of the gang, who celebrate wildly. With so much cash now collected, the gang decide to take turns to guard it carefully. Frisquet suggests that they give themselves a name – and they go with Coucoulin’s suggestion of the Order of the Knights of King Midas – owing to the gang’s golden touch.

The chapter ends with a dramatic confrontation between Miqué and Philippe; her virtually accusing him of starting the fire, him neither denying nor admitting it, but suspecting that it would be through Miqué that he might become accepted by the gang.

Gondoliers of the Blue DanubeChapter Five – The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube.  News of the Order started to spread like wildfire, and quickly Charloun and the gang members were teased by the adults of Port-Biou as Knights and Millionaires. Their next plan was to win the prize in regatta race in Bandol, and Charloun gave the Yacht Club Commodore the crew name, The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube. However, M. Pastourelle won’t lend the gang the use of his rowing boat – the distance is too far and the whole project is too dangerous.

However, Rigolo’s father is the local boat-builder, and knows of a few ownerless craft that the gang could use. All that was left was for them to find gondoliers’ costumes and to make the Saint-Anatole boat presentable. But the gang couldn’t compete with the rich boat owners of Bandol. Mlle Blanc suggests they decorate the boat with flowers – picked by their own hands. So Rouqui and Frisquet take the Lion des Mers out to the Ile de Biou and discover plenty of beautiful blue delphiniums that will recreate the “Blue Danube” look.

Charloun and Rigolo were to be navigator and engineer, together with the two prettiest girls, Miqué and Sandrine, and the two youngest gang members, Norine and Angel. First the boys constructed some wooden shapes to fix to the boat so that it looks like a gondola. The others decide to pick the flowers at the very last moment so that they look as fresh as possible. They get a great haul late at night, and Miqué spends the whole time silently gazing and reflecting. “I’ll never ever see anything so lovely” she sighs; and Charloun misunderstands her because he is a boy without a developed sense of empathy.

Mlle Blanc is accompanied by Philippe Vial as they watch the blue boat coasting into place. With the crew members dressed in white, the boat is a true picture. And despite stiff competition from more luxury and richly appointed craft, the 100,000 francs prize was awarded to the Gondoliers. No one can believe it, least of all the children. And as the Saint-Anatole journeyed back to Port-Biou, the sea became awash with blue delphiniums.

Troubadours of Queen JoanChapter Six – The Troubadours of Queen Joan.  As Amoretti was reading about the children’s success in the local newspaper, Mlle Blanc had cashed the 100,000 franc cheque and had given the cash to the children. The bag that contains the loot is getting bigger all the time, and she warns them about keeping the money like that, but having a growing pile of cash is all part of the fun for the children. Amoretti wants to find out how the children are spending the money but he can’t find anything out; but the children learn that they must be careful with the money.

Meanwhile Mlle Blanc is still encouraging the gang members to allow Philippe to join them. He’d be an asset, she is sure; and would help to bring more money into the fund. Miqué alone had seen him at the site of the fire, and had never breathed a word to anyone. But now she saw the time was right to question him: ““First tell me who set fire to the pine wood”, she said abruptly, “and then we’ll see.” Philippe took his chance, while he had it. With Mademoiselle Blanc to back him up he was sure he could win her over. “I’d like to. But promise to keep it to yourself. No one will believe it but…” “All right.” Philippe put a friendly arm around Miqué’s shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Mademoiselle Blanc looked away. A broad grin spread slowly over Miqué’s face. She was thirteen, Philippe a few months older, and it was natural that she should see the funny side even of a disaster. When Philippe finished, she was doubled up with laughter that brought tears to her eyes.””

Philippe tells Miqué that a film company is making a movie in nearby La Cadière and are looking for extras – they need a boy and they pay well. Quick as a flash Miqué rushes off to tell the others. Rigolo cycles off to get the advert and the gang realise the best person for the job is Titin. Titin’s not so sure though, especially as the advert describes the role as donkey boy. Nevertheless, the next morning Titin approaches Piston’s owner, M. Mazet, to ask if he can borrow his donkey. Mazet has no objections – but Piston probably won’t like it. However, Titin treats Piston so gently that the donkey obliges him with a gentle obedience, and much to M. Mazet’s surprise, Piston walks to La Cadière with Titin on his back.

Just before their destination they chance upon a huge number of donkeys and boys, all hoping to be chosen for the role. Piston doesn’t like that one bit and charges into the crowd, demanding that the rest of the pay attention to him. The director is instantly taken with Titin and Piston and gives them the role. Titin delivers his words perfectly, but just before the actress playing the Queen can reply, Piston lets out a mighty bray and everyone falls apart laughing – except the Queen, who is furious at being upstaged by a donkey. But the scene works, the writer writes the braying into his script and the Queen has to take her cue from Piston. The scene takes three days to shoot and Titin is paid 2875 francs an hour – 70,000 francs in all.

The Treasure VanishesChapter Seven – The Treasure Vanishes. On a lovely day, Rouqui is catching fish, and Sandrine and Miqué are chatting with Mlle Blanc. Miqué is looking after the money, and her bag, which is blue, contains 295,000 francs. When Charloun tallies up the income for the day – only 800 francs – he asks Miqué for the bag so he can add the new cash to the rest. But, horror of horrors, the girl realises she has left her bag somewhere. Devastated, she bursts into tears. Charloun is furious. He jumps on Rigolo’s bike and heads towards the bench in front of the Café Vieux which is where she must have left it. He returns, dejected, without the money. The bag wasn’t there and M. Vieux had seen nothing.

The children split up to hunt for the bag – but no luck. Charloun thinks their only hope is that someone has taken the bag to lost property at the town hall – but that would alert Amoretti and that could be disastrous. Angel goes off to ask. Strangely, Miqué seems calm – with almost a smile on her lips. When Angel gets to the lost property office he’s deliberately vague but Amoretti is highly suspicious – if there’s money in the bag, there is an implication that Angel must have stolen it. But they go through every blue item in the lost property office and Angel insists that it isn’t any of them. Once Angel has gone, Amoretti gives orders to the local policeman Garidan and Cucq to search the village for a blue bag. He wants to get to the money first.

However, to the rescue comes Philippe. Despite being told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome, he reveals that he found the bag and couldn’t let anyone know about it earlier because his family had visitors and he couldn’t leave. He hadn’t touched a penny of the contents – and the gang members are enormously relieved! But what are they to do about Philippe? Should he now become a gang member? They put it to a vote – and it’s almost unanimous that he should join. And, after allowing them to waste a lot of time, they let the two policemen know that the missing bag has been found – but not without some teasing!

Big BusinessChapter Eight – Big Business. The gang realise that their growing wealth has relied on some lucky breaks. Where will the next lucky break come from? One day Angel wore his best clean white shorts, and when he got home, the seat was absolutely filthy – enough for his mother to give him a slap (wouldn’t be allowed today!) The next time he wears those shorts, they’re covered with rust stains again – and this time she “smacked him on the spot”. Mme Despardieu complains to Charloun but he can’t understand how Angel is getting his shorts dirty.

Charloun and Rigolo determine to get to the bottom of the cause; and they quickly discover that it’s because Angel sits on a particular stone outside the emplacement where the gang usually meet. Rigolo investigates the stone further and discovers something potentially precious. They cover the stone with sand and the next day ask Mlle Blanc for some advice. She thinks they might have a right to ownership, but it needs to be discussed with the Harbour Board – and Rigolo’s father used to work for them at the time of the invasion. Investigations continue; M. Cabbasole and Mlle Blanc engage a lawyer to draw up a legal statement.

Charloun and Rigolo were nowhere to be seen during the Bastille Day celebrations; but just as Amoretti was congratulating himself on a nice profit from the firework display, the boys surprise him with possible information about a treasure trove. Only enough information to infuriate him of course! With Cucq on their trail, they return to dangle more information in front of Amoretti – and then turn and flee at the last moment.

Finally they tell Amoretti what they have discovered – the twelve ton steel cupola salvaged from the USS Massachusetts bombarded by the Germans on the day of the Allied Landings. Amoretti is determined that he should not have to share the value with the children – but they’ve already instructed the scrap merchant Cabassole to act for them. And their share of the loot turns out to be 405,000 francs. Charloun concludes that they have ten days left to raise 300,000 francs – and it’s only Philippe who hasn’t pulled his weight yet.

Back coverChapter Nine – Double and Quits.  The days march on, and the gang continue to raise what money they can from odd jobs, fishing and the like. They target their efforts on a grand jumble sale but, although it raises 30,000 francs, it’s not enough. At 250,000 francs short, Miqué has the bright idea to approach the contractor to see if they can knock something off the quotation for the work.

Meanwhile, much to everyone’s surprise, Philippe turns up – on a TV quiz show! And the top prize is – a million francs. The gang all watch as one by one all Philippe’s opponents are eliminated, owing to his extraordinary general knowledge and maths ability. He wins 512,000 francs – and then is asked if he’s like to double it to 1,024,000. The gang is on tenterhooks whilst he decides – and he chooses to double! But Philippe doesn’t let them down – and is the proud winner of over a million francs.

Sprung up like MushroomsChapter Ten – Sprung up like Mushrooms. The gang arrive at M. Casteran’s office with all the money to instruct Casteran to build the properties for the Mohicans to move into. But he cannot do it until the end of August – and this is not quick enough to save the Mohicans from the meanness of Amoretti. However, he is moved by little Norine’s gift of three francs and does his best to order the immediate construction of bungalows for the Mohicans.

At 8pm Casteran’s men move in to start the construction work. Pastourelle can’t fathom how they were instructed or who’s going to pay for it. Casteran tells them it’s being taken care of; and only then do the gang fully appreciate the extent of their achievement. Overnight all the new bungalows are erected, and the Mohicans are free to move into their new accommodation.

But no one tells Amoretti! He wakes up the next morning, thrilled that he will finally be able to take possession of the Mohicans’ land. Arriving with his policemen in tow, he cannot believe his eyes when he gets there. Left looking both foolish and tricked, Amoretti’s plans have come to nothing.

The spare money from the fund is divided out among the Mohicans, save for a little reserve that Mlle Blanc uses to host a huge celebratory meal and party. And Philippe is able to reveal the identity of who it was that started the fire – Piston! He had stolen a charred branch from a bonfire that some locals had used to cook fish – and he had walked it back in his mouth and the burning end had set light to the shanties.

The book ends with Mlle Blanc in a reflective mood. “Her joy was tinged with sadness. Charloun, mad as he was, had held to his word and had won through; now it was all over so soon! As Miqué had said one evening not long ago, “I shall never, ever see anything so lovely.” In those simple words she had given expression to the everlasting discontent of those who seek perfection, the wish of children who live their golden age and want the world to return to it. “No!” Mademoiselle Blanc told herself. “Never have regrets. These happy times will always live in their memories and be there to cheer them, even when life is at its darkest.”

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManTo sum up; The Knights of King Midas is full of kindness, generosity, understanding and compassion; but the opposition embodied by the character of Amoretti is rather unsubtle and two-dimensional. Despite its occasional faults it’s a very enjoyable read with a big feelgood factor; and there are some amusing insights into practices that are no longer acceptable – hitting your children and discriminating against girls come to mind! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which wasn’t translated until seven years later in 1965, as The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

How about another bunch of theatre memories – November 1982 to April 1983

Some severe memory loss here, but let’s give it a go!

  1. Andy Capp – Aldwych Theatre, London, 4th November 1982

image(1285)image(1286)image(1290)Billed as The New Musical, which was always going to get old eventually, Andy Capp was inspired by the Daily Mirror cartoon of the same name that first appeared in 1957 and is still going today, despite original artist Reg Smythe having died in 1998. Book and lyrics were by Trevor Peacock – whom I’d recently seen in Hobson’s Choice – and music and lyrics were by Newcastle’s very own Alan Price. Mr Price also appeared in it, as a kind of Everyman narrator – a bit of a forerunner to Blood Brothers’ narrator character – and Andy was played by the inimitable Tom Courtenay with huge bravado and unswerving cheek. I can’t remember much about the show itself, nor the music; but I do remember enjoying it hugely and also thinking that the performance by Val McLane as the long suffering Florrie was worth the ticket price alone.

  1. The Real Thing – Strand Theatre, London, 9th November 1982

image(1296)image(1297)image(1300)Tom Stoppard’s newest play had an engaging star cast led by Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees, as well as Polly Adams and Jeremy Clyde, a direct descendant of the Duke of Wellington. A clever examination of the balance between reality and fiction, it’s one of Stoppard’s best works and was hugely successful. I enjoyed it a lot!


  1. Windy City – Victoria Palace, London, 19th November 1982

image(1304)Tony Macaulay and Dick Vosburgh’s musical adaptation of the old newspaper hacks’ play The Front Page, was given a glamorous, no-holds-barred production by Peter Wood, and starred Dennis Waterman as Hildy Johnson and Anton Rodgers as newspaper editor Walter Burns. An officially fabulous cast included Jeff Shankley, Matt Zimmermann, Neil McCaul, Victor Spinetti, Diane Langton, Shaun Curry and Amanda Redman, which is where she and Mr Waterman first met and got to know each other quite well.


It spawned an excellent cast album that I still play occasionally, my favourite songs being the opening number Hey Hallelujah and a wistful ballad that closes the show, Water under the Bridge. I note that my Front Stalls ticket cost £10 which was the most I’d ever paid to see a show – the equivalent of £10 today is £25. That just goes to show how the cost of theatre tickets has rocketed. Terrific show – many happy memories of it (and of enjoying the songs over the last forty years).

  1. The Witch of Edmonton – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Pit, Barbican Centre, London, December 1982

image(1301)image(1303)I went with my friends Mike and Lin to see two shows performed by the RSC in The Pit – the only two occasions I’ve been to that theatre. I have very fleeting memories of the two productions. The first, The Witch of Edmonton, by Dekker, Ford and Rowley, is a savage tragicomedy dating from 1621 about pauper Elizabeth Sawyer, accused of witchcraft. My programme includes a piece of straw which I think I collected off the floor at the end of the show. Don’t ask me for any more details about what happened! Shame I can’t remember more, as the cast included Harriet Walter, Robert Eddison, Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Karlin and James Fleet.


  1. The Twin Rivals – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Pit, Barbican Centre, London, 4th December 1982.

image(1302)The second RSC show we saw in The Pit was George Farquhar’s less well-known Restoration Comedy The Twin Rivals, which I remember as being a joyously funny, and a complete triumph – but, again, I’m short on details. A very similar cast to the Witch of Edmonton, plus Mike Gwilym and Dexter Fletcher, Roger Allam and Jane Carr.



  1. Opera Gala Night – London Concert Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London, 29th January 1983.

image(1314)image(1315)image(1316)I must have been swayed by promotional material I had picked up at the Pit to buy a ticket for this concert, which I think was probably only the second classical concert I had ever attended. The London Concert Orchestra was conducted by Alexander Faris, who I would have known then as being the composer of the Upstairs Downstairs theme. Valerie Masterson was the soprano soloist, and I can see that it was a wonderful programme of Opera’s Greatest Hits. However, I regret that I can barely remember the occasion at all!


  1. 84 Charing Cross Road – Ambassadors Theatre, London, 1st February 1983.

image(1309)image(1310)image(1313)James Roose-Evans’ stage adaptation of Helene Hanff’s highly popular book of the time was a charming, gentle comedy but it sure packed an emotional punch. Doreen Mantle was excellent as Helene, and Ronnie Stevens also gave a brilliant performance as Frank, the antiquarian bookseller with whom she struck up a singularly fascinating penfriendship, but who sadly died before she was able to meet him. I think this was already on at least its second cast by the time I saw it. Very enjoyable, and surprisingly teary.

  1. Trafford Tanzi – Mermaid Theatre, London, March 1983

image(1320)image(1321)I remember the Mermaid being transformed into a wrestling ring for this knockabout, battle-of-the-sexes play about the fearless Tanzi pitted against arch-rival Dean Rebel. Shamelessly feminist (all the promotional material described it as such), it was an exciting and engrossing play that made you think hard about the subject matter and was probably a little uncomfortable for a 22 year old chap who probably hadn’t analysed his feelings about sexual inequality much before. Very enjoyable. Toyah Willcox later joined the cast – but I saw Noreen Kershaw in the role.

  1. Poppy – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London, 7th March 1983.

image(1318)image(1319)Definitely a contender to be among my top ten shows of all time, this brilliant musical, by Peter Nichols and James Bond’s Monty Norman, takes the Opium Trade Wars of the 19th century and sets it against a traditional pantomime setting to blistering effect. Hilarious but savage pantomime stereotypes, cunning lyrics to devastatingly clever songs, and audience participation to die for. I saw this by myself but later went again with my friends Mike and Lin, ensuring I sat on the “Ker-pow, splatt” side of the audience rather than the “rat-a-tat-tat” side. An amazing cast was led by Stephen Moore, with Jane Carr, Julia Hills, Geoffrey Hutchings, Geraldine Gardner, Bernard Lloyd and Roger Allam. Even though Mrs Chrisparkle has never seen this show, she knows all the words to The Blessed Trinity (Civilisation, commerce and Christianity all go together, and all begin with C) and if ever there as a show that is crying out for a revival once things get back to normal, this is it.


  1. Run for Your Wife – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 20th April 1983.

image(1288)image(1289)The next show I saw, with my friends Mike, Lin, and Dave was called Viva ’83 and was a Dance benefit show at Sadler’s Wells in aid of the Chilean Solidarity Committee (ah, those were the days, comrades) but unfortunately the programme has been misfiled, so I can’t bring you all the details. I’ll have to fire the admin clerk for this. If and when it shows itself, I’ll add it in to the lists. Meanwhile the show I saw after that was Ray Cooney’s Run for your Wife, presented at the Shaftesbury as part of his Theatre of Laughter Company. Massively successful, running in various theatres for the next seven years, it was a typical Cooney farce with Richard Briers playing a bigamist taxi driver; when he sustains an accident the truth of his two wives becomes revealed, a little like a less glamorous version of Boeing Boeing. Mr Briers was on top form, and the supporting cast had such luminaries as Bernard Cribbins, Peter Blake, Carol Hawkins, Royce Mills and Bill Pertwee. Everything you could want from a modern farce.

And that’s it for now. Who knows what the next blog will be?!

Review – The Comedy Crate Comedy Night in the Garden of the Black Prince Pub, Northampton, 6th August 2020

Comedy CrateNot often I get the chance to start a piece of writing with the word “Review” nowadays, but, as we all know, gentle reader, these are strange times indeed. However, with commendable innovation and forward thinking, those clever chaps at The Comedy Crate set up a comedy night in the garden of the Black Prince last night, bringing live laughter back to the people and sticking two fingers up at the virus.


To be honest, we were a little nervous of how the whole thing would work. It was the first time Mrs Chrisparkle or I had been to a pub since early March, although our guests, Lord and Lady Prosecco, are already old-handers at the art of post-Covid public libation. The Black Prince has a big garden, almost completely covered by an extensive set of joined up marquees, with bench tables nicely socially distanced, and I must say it all felt pretty safe. One price for a table – £40 – and for that you could have up to six people sitting there. Your temperature was taken on arrival, with a kind of stun-gun affair, quick and effective, and fortunately we all passed with flying colours.


From where we sat, sightlines to where the comics performed were very good, and the sound system was excellent; everyone’s voices were just at the right volume and clarity. Plus the Black Prince has a good range of drinks – M’Lord and I knocked back the IPAs, M’lady had the Sauvignon Blanc and Mrs C enjoyed a few delicious gluten-free Wainwright beers (which are top quality in the world of gf beer!) All this and comedy too.


Rich WilsonWe hadn’t encountered most of the performers before. MC for the night was Rich Wilson, a lively, ebullient chap who started off with all guns blazing and never let up the energy all night. Of course, everyone came to this gig from a position of not having been involved in comedy for several months – both audience and comics alike. As a result, there was a big emphasis on Lockdown Survival as comedy material – but that works well, as it’s something we’ve all experienced and can all recognise. Mr W had lots of great observations about life during and after lockdown, but also threw in a few other gems, like his experience at working as a straight man in a gay sauna, for example. He has a terrific rapport with the audience, and was great fun all round.


Nathan CatonOur first act, and the only one we’d seen before, was the excellent Nathan Caton. More wry observations on Covid survival, including the pressures of having your girlfriend move in with you just before lockdown, which led to a very funny poem about dealing with said situation. Mr C makes some brilliant observations about latent racism and social distancing, and his winning personality makes his set just fly by. Seemingly effortless, but I bet it’s not.


Kelly ConveyNext came Kelly Convey, who was on cracking form, with her stories about being working class and therefore having relatives living in Spain, meeting the man of her dreams, her encounter with a famous sex pest and a brilliant take down of TV’s Take Me Out. She has a terrific delivery, fantastic timing with some killer punchlines and all-round excellent material. We loved her and want to see her again.


Garrett MillerickOur headline act was Garrett Millerick, who also came on stage frothing with energy and attack and instantly achieved a terrific rapport with us all. I absolutely loved his material about Gordon Ramsey – which was 100% spot-on – and he cleverly turns a sequence about imitating a native Mandarin speaker, which, if wrongly pitched, could be dicing with racism, into a really funny observation about the nature of language and accents. Very quick-witted and full of fun, his act was a suitable culmination to an incredibly enjoyable night, all of us celebrating having made it this far.


Congratulations to the Comedy Crate for setting this up – it might have been a disaster, but it was indeed a triumph, and a full house too. The future of live comedy for the foreseeable future? I think so!

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Laos – March 2013

Whilst we’re not all (currently) still in proper lockdown, travel is still a risky business, so let’s continue with L – which is for Laos, one of the three countries we visited in 2013 as part of our Indochina tour. A gentle, spiritual, welcoming country with some fascinating secrets.

So what do you think of, when you think of Laos? Do you actually think of anything?! Maybe this:


Young novice monks, seen everywhere – but more of them later. We started our five days in Laos in the capital – Vientiane.


Of all the world’s capitals, this must have the least traffic. The statue of Chao Anouvong, the King of Vientiane from 1805 – 1828, welcomes you from his plinth alongside the Mekong.


This is where the President, Bounnhang Vorachith, lives. Laos is a one-party, Communist state, but you wouldn’t really know it from day-to-day life. Not as a tourist, at least.


In the centre of a roundabout is a stupa, which many believe is inhabited by a seven-headed nāga (a snake deity) who tried to protect them from an invasion by the Siamese army in 1827. If it gets in your way you can refer to That Dam Stupa – which is exactly what it’s called.


Our tour took us first to Buddha Park, 25 km out of town, which is a somewhat bizarre place. Opened in 1958, and with so many proper temples around, one wonders why they felt the need to create a kind of Disneyland to Buddha. None of the buildings is sacred.




Weird. But they do sell great barbecued bananas.


Back in to Vientiane, and time to see some temples. Pha That Luang is a reconstruction of a temple that was destroyed in the Franco-Thai War and was rebuilt after the Second World War.





Nearby is the Lao Tripitaka Research Centre, another temple/library where the monks learn and study.



and the temple at Wat Sisaket – built in the early 1800s.




In the centre of the city is the Patouxi Gate, built in the 1960s to commemorate the country’s struggle for independence from France. Amazing view from the top!



Then we had a trip around the food market. At times you needed a strong stomach…







Our final sight in Vientiane was the fascinating – and sad – COPE centre. This is a museum/visitor centre relating to the prevalence of the use of prosthetic limbs in Laos due to the amount of unexploded land mines. It makes for a sobering visit.





The next day we flew to the beautiful city of Luang Prabang for three fantastic days. We stayed at the wonderful Xienthong Palace hotel, which was perfectly located by the banks of the Mekong – and why not, it was the last residence of the Lao Royal Family!


The centre of Luang Prabang is very small and everywhere you want to go is easily visited on foot. Our first port of call was to visit Wat Ho Pha Bang, a Royal Temple completed in 2006 to house the Phra Bang Buddha image.


It’s stunningly beautiful.


With ornamental nagas


exquisite architecture


ornate decorations


moody windows


majestic columns


and picturesque views.


Next we went out of town to visit a silkworm factory – here are the little blighters


and this is where they make clothes and material out of the silkworms’ hard work!


Back in town, we visited the Wat Xieng Thong, a very striking Buddhist temple that’s now over 450 years old.



I particularly like the ornamentation on this pink wall!


One of the fun aspects of Luang Prabang is that there’s a good variety of bars and restaurants for an enjoyable night out!


and I can definitely recommend:


The next day was mainly devoted to a delightful Mekong River Trip. I could bore you with hundreds of photos of the Mekong. Here are just a few.














During the trip we visited the Pak Ou Caves, and had lunch nearby. The caves are full of miniature Buddhist sculptures, and make quite an extraordinary sight in that particular location.



At sunset, we did what all tourists to Luang Prabang do, and that’s to ascend Mount Phou Si and watch the sun go down over the city.



After the sun has descended, so do the tourists, into the waiting arms of the stallholders of the Night Market.



and our favourite watering hole, the Opera Bar. (This, however, is the Xieng Muan Garden Restaurant, also very nice!)


On our final day we got up early to offer alms to the monks. You do this by giving them lumps of sticky rice. Sounds neither appetising nor healthy, but it’s a tradition that goes back a long way. The rice is cooked like this


Then dried like this


And then the monks all file out of the temple



and collect the rice, that has been given to them by the people, in their shoulder bags


It is then taken back to the temple kitchens for the monk chefs to prepare it into something pallatable for breakfast.


This particular temple houses an Emerald Buddha.


It’s actually made of glass but I don’t suppose that matters.



I caught this boy looking wistfully out of the window. I often wonder what he was thinking. I’m not sure he was happy with his lot. I wonder what has happened to him.


There’s a school nearby, which looks surprisingly modern in comparison with the simple lifestyle of the monks.


Later we took a trip out to the Kuangsi Waterfall Park


which also houses the To Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre


and those bears have a great, safe time!






The waterfalls are beautiful and are a great place for people to relax.




Coming for a swim?


At the end of the day we headed to the airport to get our flight to Hanoi, more of which in a few weeks time! On the way we stopped at a rather sad little craft village where desperate villagers made all sorts of desperate attempts to sell you their rather desperately underwhelming products. Wasn’t a great experience, to be honest.


Mind you, it was worse for the rats


And there you have it – Laos in a nutshell. I remember its beauty, its tranquillity, and its sense of humour, which you could see everywhere!



This is where you go for remedial treatment for venerteal disease – nasty!


I didn’t fancy the testes of tea


Two more things – incredible spiders!!



and the usual quirky sights – novice monks everywhere


hard-working fishermen


vintage cars outside restaurants as a promotion feature


egg delivery by moped


beware of the bridge!



Thanks for accompanying me on this lookback of a few days in Laos. Next regular blog will (probably) be back to the theatre programmes and some shows I saw from November 1982 to March 1983. Stay safe!