Monday, 30 January 2012

Review: The Penal Colony

This is the story of Anthony Routledge, a former surveyor wrongly accused of murder and condemned to spend the rest of his days on the on the bleak island of Serte, where Britain’s worst convicted criminals have been abandoned to fend for themselves.
Following his initiation he is accepted into ‘The Village’, a semi fortified peninsula within the boundries of which a group of prisoners have formed a society based on rigid protocol and hierarchy. Beyond its boundries  the ‘Outsiders’ exist in a state of perpetual tribal war.
Routledge learns to fulfill his duties and to insulate himself from the bluff formality of his companions with an icy indifference but as war with the Outsiders looms he discovers that doing what it takes to survive in the Village will also involve putting his life on the line to defend it in a bloody war to the knife.
Herley’s rich prose places us firmly in Serte’s rugged, windswept landscape. It puts us on uncomfortably intimate terms with the moral degeneracy of the Outsiders and it allows us into the secretive almost monastic life of the Village.
We are also privy to Routledge's ruthless self examination as he makes the painful journey from despair through, isolation and loneliness and finally to acceptance and inclusion in a plan to escape the island.
Bringing together the darkness of Orwell’s 1984 and the savagery of Benchley’s The Island, the Penal Colony is more than a chilling read, it is an unsettling examination of our own base instincts for survival.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Why I go to Frankie and Bennys

In 1924, at the age of 10, Frankie left Sicily with his parents and moved to “Little Italy” in New York. Within a year of moving, the family had opened a restaurant, which is now co-managed by Frankie's long-time friend Benny. The business was taken over by Frankie and Benny in 1953, and combines popular American food with traditional Italian dishes. Or so the story goes.

In reality it was not started by Frankie and Benny and it cannot trace its lineage back to New York in the 1920’s either. Even my four year old son Nicholas knows this isn’t a real Italian restaurant.

The  last time we went the food wasn’t that bad though, they do a pretty decent cup of coffee too and if going there doesn’t exactly make me feel as if I’m walking to onto the set of Goodfellas, well, Brewers Fair (which is just across the car park) doesn’t exactly make me feel like Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie either, afterall, this is Strathkelvin Retail Park.

I ordered Spaghetti Bolognaise cooked to ‘Cousin Mario's Italian recipe’ but I know he doesn’t work there just like I know that the smiling men in aprons whose photos line the walls have absolutely no connection with the place either.

That said, you've got to wonder what they'd make of sister Rosaria’s Lamb Shank or what they’d have actually done to Cousin Mario if he’d served up his so called ‘Italian recipe’ back in the old neighbourhood.

But since authenticity isn’t what I’m looking for, I don’t have to waste any time soaking up atmosphere when I could be getting home for the start of Burn Notice or making sure we’re away before the Saturday football traffic on the M9.

Frankie and Bennys is convenient, no doubt about that, but it always gives me a curious sense of  déjà vu, and not because I’m wondering when I was last here. Instead I’m wondering what I’m doing here now, a dilemma best reflected in the unspoken understanding between me and the guy who shows us to our table.

He’ll ask me if I’m enjoying my ‘Uncle Luigi’s meatballs’ and I’ll say ‘Yes, just great thanks.’ Because even though we both know they are rubbery and served in a tasteless sauce we also both know that if I complain and insist on something else I’ll be stuck here another hour while my kids go buck and then we’ll end up missing the start of the movie as well.

As he swipes my card I promise myself this is the last time I’ll come here but we both know that isn’t true either, because there’s nowhere else I can park this close and be in and out inside an hour. Which, incidentally is also why we both know that I can forget trying the little place just off Argyll St. that does really good Italian food.

Finally of course, we both know that Frankie and Bennys is not real Italian food but any complaint based on this observation would be like going to Disneyland and demanding to see the real Mickey Mouse, because that way lies maddness.

Further reading:

Alessia Horwich is a freelance food and travel journalist who is always on the lookout for somewhere new, check out her take on chain restaurants here 

Sid in his Liverpool Food Blog gives his reasons for avoiding them but says don't knock them either.

Lastly here's Jamie Oliver getting yet another bashing, this time over his chain of Italian restaurant's 'Jamie's Italian.'

Monday, 9 January 2012

Spirit of 79

Power cuts make me nostalgic because I can remember the so called ‘Winter of Discontent’ when widespread industrial action resulted in regular blackouts  up and down the country.
When this happened my father would always shout ‘Bloody Hell!’ before making his way to the kitchen where we kept a torch, candles, matches and a battery powered transistor radio in a box on top of the fridge.
My dad would tell us that because there was not enough electricity for everyone it was just the turn of our village to go without, an explanation which always made me think of one of those huge Dr Frankenstein style switches, with the name of our village stencilled underneath, being pulled into the down position by an anonymous hand.
When the power went off the other night I was completely wrong footed especially when I discovered that my old friend the Challenge 1100 rechargeable worklamp  (water-resistant and shockproof) had long since been bumped from its socket in favour of the breadmaker and was completely useless.
Eventually, by the light of my mobile phone, I  made my way out to the garage where I felt certain there had to be at least a couple of torches amongst packing cases, as yet unopened from our move in the summer.
Sure enough, there was a box containing the boys old toys which proved to be a treasure trove and, after groping my way back to the house I laid out my finds on the kitchen worktop. There was the Fireman Sam torch, the Spiderman torch and the Toy Story Lantern plus the Fisher Price keyboard, Bob the Builder ‘activity driver’ and Tonka Helicopter.
Like a soldier doing a weapons assembly test by candlelight I stripped the keyboard, activity driver and helicopter of their batteries then reloaded them into the torches. I was very pleased, they all worked albeit with uncertain endurance.
Shona had lit candles in the front room and later that night, as we sat down to baked beans and bread by candlelight I felt as if we were coping, coming up the other side, the old Dunkirk spirit kicking in. Just the same old torch candles and tinned beans we had in the Winter of Discontent all those years ago. It goes to show you can still do it with these simple household items.
But it makes me shudder  to think that as a child, my family and millions just like us were advised to keep them in the event of an even darker set of circumstances, one we knew collectively as ‘The Bomb’.
Even the procedure we were supposed to follow was pretty much the same, it simply involved sitting in the darkness and waiting for it all to be over.
It was a relief when the power came back on, it made me realise how dependant we are on it. We live in the Trossochs National Park, only a few miles from the home of Rob Roy McGregor a man who endured hardships I cannot imagine in winters far colder than this, not only that, he also faced the almost constant prospect of capture and imprisonment.
But he never had to face the prospect of nuclear Armageddon armed only with a transistor radio and cheap white candles. Given the choice I’d have taken my chances in the heather.

I'm going to try and add a few alternative slants to my posts so here is one from Vicky who is an artist, firefighter and blogger.