Monday, 18 September 2017

New York: Central Park (Saturday 08/07/2017).

Donald, do you remember the story about the man who built his house on sand? Without checking, I am not completely sure, but he might have gone to hell.

But at least, until then, you will have plenty of sand for your bunkers.

Keep Digging Don.

It turns out the builders of the 58 storey Millennium Tower in San Francisco did the same thing, when with just a little more gumption, they could have excavated down the bed rock like the neighbouring buildings. It seems that when you are working on a project of these dimensions, there is a hubristic tendency to think that the laws of physics that constrain the rest of us, don't apply.


Donald, the metaphors just write themselves.

Predictably, the structure is sinking and leaning even faster than the builder's hastily briefed experts concluded, when faced with litigation but I don't think Pisa is worried about its tourist traffic just yet.

Which will go first?

At the southern end of Manhattan island, where most of the really big buildings crowd, the bedrock  starts at about 8 meters below the surface; the further north you travel, the deeper you have to excavate to find the rock base and hence the shorter the buildings.

You don't have to dig too deep however, to find the irony that City Hall is built on sandy foundations but thankfully New York, unlike San Francisco, is not expecting a mega-quake.

But there is a large part of Manhattan that doesn't mind whether the rock beneath its two feet or two hundred feet below the surface.

Central Park from The Rockefeller Centre

Central Park is either an 850 acre testament to philanthropy or misanthropy, depending on your perspective. Conceived in 1857, this was a big year for bashing the little guy all over the world. The British massacred the Indian Mutineers, The Supreme Court ruled that black people were not citizens and could not sue for freedom and Italy lost 10,000 lives to Europe's worst earthquake of modern times.

Plans for the Park were laid by the wealthy as a playground beyond the reach of the squalor and it was inaccessible to most when construction was completed in the 1860's. Communities were evicted and housing demolished to make way for lakes and pleasure gardens.

19th Century Central Park (from a very tall building).

Scroll forward over the intervening 170 years and, as with so many grotesques of the past, it has  since fallen into public ownership, then disrepair and finally love; 25 million visitors trample the green lungs of New York each year.

The 3,439,950 square metres of prime real estate is currently dedicated to squirrels and picnics. Woe betide anyone who tries to build on it apart from the countless extensions to the Met which is the only building to have breached the iron cordon that is formed by Central Park West and 5th Avenue.

Apartments overlooking the park currently retail for around $3,500 per square foot. By my maths, Donald could bulldoze the park for a clutch of Trump Towers for a fraction over $120 billion; which makes it 30,000 times more expensive that the agricultural land that was largely disenfranchised to create the park in the first place.

I find it strangely pleasing to think that even based on the delusional but well publicised assessment of his own wealth, he could barely afford buy the park's pitch and putt (plus some sand for the bunkers).

But San Francisco had 4 earthquakes today, so perhaps the Millennium Tower isn't the only crumbling edifice that is going collapse under the weight of its own hubris.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

New York: Airbnb (Friday 07/07/2017).


At first it looks like a mangled autocorrect but as your brain slowly starts decipher the chaotic scramble of consonants you wonder; is it an acronym or an abbreviation or both?

Officially, according to something I once missed the beginning of, its supposed to be short for Airbed and Breakfast but if it really was it wouldn't have caught on. Every airbed I have ever spent time on, didn't involve much sleep and rarely does the kind of person who puts you up on one, cook you breakfast in the morning. I know this for a fact; I own one and I often make my guests suffer the indignity of slowing going soft in the night....and sleeping on a flat mattress.

I mention this because having touched down at New York JFK at an ungodly hour, made infinitely worse by the time difference, an Airbnb apartment on West 48 and 10th should have beckoned us to our rest.

It was all planned in good faith because we had made this trip with the firm intention of staying with our antipodean friends (the VB's) and their extended clan, who had travelled infinitely further than us and hadn't even ditched the small people to do so.

Sadly, while Airbnb may be an ecologically sound, world beating internet sensation, powered by hipster beard trimmings, it too has succumbed to what has long ailed terrestrial estate agents the world over. Misdescription.

The apartment in now trendy Hell's Kitchen was advertised as offering all the latest modern conveniences. The roof patio boasted genuine rain water; the photos showed a palatial duplex with views of midtown unspoiled by the dedicated helipad; Jeremy Irons popped in to turn down the beds and leave a chocolate on your pillow. 

Ironic*, or what!

It probably explains why the VB's looked so crumpled when we finally met them.

Victoria had called as soon as they got there to relay the bad news. At first it was hard to understand what she was saying as the receiver was pressed hard against her cheek, merely to give the others space to inhale.

In short, it wasn't quite as big as Airbnb might have led us to believe.

There are times when you realise what a good woman you have married and this was one. Had it been left to me, we would either have ended up spending (a) more than we could afford, or (b) three nights in a dumpster. Clare foresaw the alternatives, and without so much as a murmur of complaint, scoured 65 million websites in 0.67 seconds and booked us into the Hudson Park Hotel, even closer to the action.

That there was a room to be had anywhere in New York on Independence Day weekend, let alone one so central and for such a piffling amount, still confounds me. Ninety percent of my brain urged me to drop to one bended knee and immediately ask this girl to marry me. The other twelve percent said 'you did that 13 years ago (she said yes), and by the way she's not like all the other girls!'

The remaining four percent discarded any mathematical quibbles and put the improbable vacancy down to the high likelihood of alien invasion. After all, the movie would certainly have bombed at the box office if they had appeared through the cigar smoke on 23rd November (Thanksgiving) and not 4th July.

Conquest would have been inevitable as Jeff Goldblum would have been at home working his way through a massive turkey as opposed to starring in one.

Waking early on the 17th floor, we gazed out over mid town, skipped the $28 hotel croissant and headed to street level for a takeout and a very long walk.

'How do you get to Carnegie Hall?' I asked after stopping a passing local.

'Practice, Practice, Practice!' he said gleefully before cuffing me roughly across the ear with his Empire State woggle stick.

After that, Trump Tower looked distinctly brown and lacklustre, like 1980's commercial double glazing.

Police help a window cleaner at Trump Tower.

Trump addresses his adoring fans.

St Patrick's Cathedral did a great job of appearing simultaneously enormous (inside) and tiny (outside) like a TARDIS wedged between its towering neighbours.

Grand Central Station conjured memories of just about every great American movie that I have ever seen.

As we huddled in the east portico of the New York Central Library, the rain that had been threatening to fall all morning, started in earnest. As we gazed out down East 41st, it was not hard to imagine the approaching tidal wave in The Day After Tomorrow.

Say hello to the New York Public Library.

Tidal Wave goodbye to the New York Public Library.

Lunch booked at 5 Napkins on 9th meant a four block dash in the monsoon conditions for Clare and a slightly more leisurely stroll for me as, having lost her in the crowds after 8 paces, I stopped, paid $5 for an umbrella and texted her periodically to update her on my progress.

I confess that I might have meandered a little; stopping to inspect some peeling paint; pausing to appreciate the architectural features of a basement door; admiring the reflections in the puddles, and by the time I arrived, I was still dry from the neck up, which is more than be said for Clare who had got there sooner but grown gills.

The burgers were excellent but this was but the first of a worrying number of meals at which I was denied the legendary New York cheese cake that I had specifically travelled 3,459 miles to consume.

It was probably for the best as New York only sells two things cheaply. The first is taxi rides and the second is .....let's stick to taxis.

Footsore and exhausted, we shambled back down 5th Avenue, past store after store sporting bored shop assistants but not a single paying customer.

The unattractively named Frankie's 570 Spuntino in West Village was our evening eatery of choice. A pine panelled chalet style restaurant, it felt like its natural home should be high in the Alps sporting a roaring fire and a pendulous, bear skin clad Bond girl .

Spuntino means "snack" in Italian and Google suggested that Frankie's offered 'small plates of Italian-influenced New York comfort food'. It was nice but it wasn't all that and the comfort became a tad less so when the bill arrived. A dollar sign just before the 570 would have satisfied the sticklers.

In the name of editorial balance, we headed down the street and stumbled into Jonny's Dive Bar where for the price of  a Screw Driver in Manhattan you can have as much Sex on The Beach as you want, at least until they ask you to leave.

There may have been a genuine misunderstanding when I emerged from the toilets in my speedos and struggled to find the steps to the high board but the locals didn't seem to mind.

The VB's had a pitcher of something alcoholic that was comfortably big enough for a twisting somersault with reverse pike entry.

But to be honest, by this time, like my airbed,  I felt a bit deflated.

*(Note: After first publication, a number of readers questioned why this was ironic. I looked up the term to make sure that I had not committed some terrible literary faux pas and then loaded my service revolver. Then I decided that rearranging my grey matter was an over reaction.

Irony is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.

Jeremy Irons popped in to turn down the beds and this explains why the VB's looked so crumpled.

Jeremy patently did not iron anything.

I am not Alanis Morissette.)

Thursday, 14 September 2017

New York: ESTA (Thursday 06/07/2017)

I think that we can all agree that the airport is always a fairly priced opportunity to pick up a few last minute essentials . To avoid this,  I work from a packing check list which has three things on it; socks, moisturiser and an ATM card.

This is why I live in constant fear of forgetting my passport.

We flew from Gatwick which is currently bidding for third runway status in a David and Goliath struggle with Heathrow. Gatwick has all the cards but Heathrow has all the Londoners. Common-sense should prevail but Gatwick's successful bid is bound to be a mysterious no show at the award ceremony, only to be found dazed and bleeding in a back alley dumpster, minutes after Heathrow scoops the prize by default.

Gatwick's main disadvantage is that its easier to swim to New York whilst lashed to an anvil than to get to the airport; and so our journey proved. We missed our bus due to the perils of a second pastry; the train was cancelled at Reading and the scheduled replacement unicorn service was late. In the end we made it by a whisker thanks to the benevolence of a passing hippogriff.

Worth missing a bus but not a plane.

Once safely ensconced on a Norwegian Air Dreamliner to JFK, the painful memories of Gatwick's Tuna Nicoise (which arrived without the tuna) and Sausage Surprise (which arrived without any surprises) began to recede. The plane has so  many gadgets that it is a wonder that it can get off the ground.

The windows dim; the cabin maintains the air pressure of a moderately flash penthouse; the lighting is so amazing that you begin to suspect that they have laced the air filters with LSD.

It is properly psychedelic!

The only questionable surprise was Boeing's decision to dispense with the toilets. I swear the seat discreetly catheterised me shortly before take off and if true, this not only avoids the mid-flight meal time toilet trolley dodge but also brings the added benefit of fuel savings. Norwegian doesn't have to fly around storm clouds and I didn't have to tolerate the usual whimpering indignity of pretending I had spilled my Lambrusco during turbulence.

Since 9/11 all transatlantic flights reputedly carry an air marshal. I searched for the tin star without success and the passenger in seat 57, who looked suspiciously like Wesley Snipes, shifted uncomfortably when I asked to see his gun. Fortuitously, our neighbours smoked him out with some increasingly rowdy behaviour that initially had the air stewards, then the 2nd officer and finally the captain paying visits to row 36. I blame the LSD.

Wes strolled forward, did some jujitsu and the rest of the flight was peaceful.

Landing at JFK, clutching our ESTA, I had a feeling uncomfortably familiar to the departure check list anxiety, when there is no longer time to go back for the passport. The ESTA asks all kind of difficult questions over which it is easy for the unwary to stumble.

Had I previously committed acts of sabotage?

Yes, but only my career and past relationships.

Was I entering the country to commit acts of moral turpitude? The guidance notes helpfully suggested that this might include activities that are inherently base, vile and depraved. Its so hard to tell. Would I be OK if I planned to be base and depraved but not vile?

I turned to Google as the queue snaked slowly forward to the paunch with the gun. It was he who would determine whether I would be granted entry to the world's greatest democracy (ahem) or have to watch The Great Gatsby three more times while enduring 8 more hours of those crazy lights.

Did I plan wickedness, degeneracy, iniquity or sinfulness? The list went on at some length.

The answer to each was almost definitely probably; but what I planned to do in the privacy of Bloomingdales' ladies underwear section was surely my business?

Ultimately, I am the kind of person who hands back change when the teller makes a mistake and I do not have a poker face. If I told the truth, I was on a plane straight back to Gatwick. If I lied, paunch would see through me in an instant and escort me to be probed in the back room.

In the end, I needn't have worried. As it turns out, large swathes of America have succumbed to moral turpitude since my last visit, thanks to the Guy At The Top.

It seems hard to offend anyone nowadays.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

New York: Runway Runaways (Thursday 06/07/2017)

When I was 11 I lived in Israel and went to school in England.

Sooner or later, most children drag their feet on the walk to school but as my Dunlop Green Flash were regularly at 35,000 feet and travelling at 600mph, this wasn't a problem for my parents.

What was a problem was the bomb.

In the scheme of things, the emergency landing at Zagreb on a snowbound runway and the 8 hours during which  my waiting parents could only assume the worst, seemed preferable by comparison to the awful alternative.

However, barring the abrupt meeting of fuselage and rock face, I like to think that I would have been alright. Private school has many drawbacks but in the 1980's it did equip you to achieve almost anything with a pen knife, a magnifying glass and a Walter Mitty world view. After all, Indiana Jones seemed largely unscathed after bailing out at altitude with nothing but an attractive blonde and an inflatable life raft to break his fall and as a result, he has been my yard stick in most things for nearly four decades.

The Frenchman sitting next to me had a big coat and an almost limitless supply of Cointreau so wrapping up warm and setting things on fire on a chilly debris strewn mountain side seemed pretty much in the bag. We were in first class which anecdotally increases your odds of crash survival by about 34%. Most importantly, there was a nun across the aisle (I know - in first class) so the machine gun stutter of her rosary was bound to protect me.

In the end it was all fine but it was an experience that will never leave me; at least not until I stop flying but I have taken a perverse  and uncharitable pleasure in discussing it loudly on every flight since.

Which brings me to New York.

I went once, long ago, but at three years old I confess that the cultural significance was largely lost on me. Clare, on the other hand, has been to the Big Apple more times than Fed Ex and still she has not tired of it; so it was pretty easy to persuade me that it was time for a re-match.

As everybody knows, New York is a dangerous place. The plucky citizens repulse alien invasion fleets at least twice a week; zombies bag all the decent theatre tickets; sky-scraping monsters are always on the rampage and most pertinently, the weather is a tad unpredictable. If the waterfront real estate isn't being toppled by tidal waves then there is always the incessant deluge of asteroids and lava to contend with.

Take your pick.

I couldn't choose so I packed for the apocalypse.

What I did not pack for was the entirely predictable heat followed by rain, fog, blistering sunshine, more rain, cosmic rays...

....not forgetting the meatballs.

First there was The Fog....

....then the rain....

...and the whirlpool..

....and the spaceships...

...and the giant inflatable women...

Thankfully this is just a fountain...but it looks dangerous.

Stuff gets wrecked so often, everything is Lego!

Monday, 11 September 2017

Ile De Re: Hobie Cat (Thursday 22/06/2017)

Burying the children up to their necks in the sand entertained them immensely; and provided a few moments of relief from the relentlessness of it all.

We could have left them there all day.

When they were babies, the control was real. They couldn't walk or talk and even Alex's 'cowboy with an arrow in the leg crawl' was months away.

As they grew, they started to assert their independence in countless different ways. First it was sleeping and then eating and one by one the barriers were broken down and the obstacles overcome until now they are fully functioning 4 year old adults. They have all the power of preference but none of the responsibility of choice and I fear that this is likely to continue until they earn their first pay check.

Until then, the erosion of control is gradually replaced by the need to manage their increasingly wilful disobedience.

At the moment I am deep in the territory of threats, bribery but mainly counting to five.

Most conversations go something like this:

Me: "Sophie - can you put your shoes on lovely?"

Me: "Sophie - can you put your shoes on now? We are leaving in two minutes."

Me: "Sophie -  I've asked you to put your shoes on twenty-nine times? If you don't have them on by the time I count to five, you are not taking teddy."

After rushing from one to three with no discernible indication of compliance, four gets dissected into ever small fractions, until at 4 and 16/20ths, the leading foot makes its first slow move. Eventually, she leaves the house with a sandal on one foot and a welly on the other. A shaky compromise has been achieved, but at the cost of any semblance of my authority.

Clare on the other hand is super effective in the face of the merest whiff of non compliance. Alex is staked out in the desert by two and rowing a slave galley by four. Five never comes and I don't even think she knows what would happen if it did.

But Alex's time on the rowlocks has served him well and by the time we finally dug them out, Tom and Jenny had chartered a Hobie Catamaran and were amazingly willing to let the children on board.

Perhaps sailing a dinghy on some chilly lake in Wiltshire is not a fair comparison to careering across the temperate Atlantic foam in a superfast twin hull with a maniacal career capsizer at the helm. Tom spent most of his childhood trying to sink the unsinkable and Alex probably didn't fully appreciate this as we lashed him into an outsized life jacket and plonked him unceremoniously on the canvas deck with one simple instruction; hold on tight.

With Hindsight....

My job was not to save him if we went over; it was to film it for the board of enquiry.

My boy is a plucky chap. If he was anything less than fully satisfied with the pre-launch safety briefing, we never heard a peep. If he found that compliance with the International Avoidance of Collisions at Sea Regulations left something to be desired, well, he took it all in his little stride.

Breaking out the shoreline surf, I'll confess that he looked a little unsure whether he had made the right decision. As he skimmed over the 50m contour line and the water 12 inches beneath his bottom on the nylon deck webbing turned to inky blackness, a small smile had returned even as the spray plastered hair to his forehead. By the time we prepared to round the first inflatable yellow buoy with the nose threatening to dig in and catapult us all into the drink, his grin was broad and he may even have emitted the odd yelp of excitement.

What is certain is that back on dry land, he had pinched a phone and chartered a 37 foot Bavaria in the Adriatic for the summer half term long before Sophie had returned from her drenching.

She was less impressed with the whole affair.

Perhaps I should have been more firm with her from the start.

The slave galley clearly did Alex good.

Ile De Re: Date Night (Wednesday 21/06/2017)

So fleetingly rare is the chance for the parents of small children to enjoy normal discourse, unpunctuated by the perpetual round of threats and bribes, that date night has become an essential pressure valve.

No less than 3 times per year, a reckless devil may care attitude surfaces. In a two fingered, hang the expense gesture to the universe, ruinous child care is procured and glad rags are shaken out for the occasion.

Not for us, the bright lights and glamorous watering holes, when a carbohydrate heavy feed washed down with something alcoholic and fizzy will suffice.

And so having duped Tom and Jenny into not only capturing the little people but also subduing them until our return, we sloped into the evening sunlight leaving a trail of occasional aftershave and bitter recrimination as the penny dropped.

After inspecting the wares in the tourist pop up shops at Phare de Baleines (note: there is a big lighthouse but a scandalous absence of whales) we prevaricated until hunger started asking difficult questions and Le Café du Commerce in Ars-en Re happily provided all the answers.

Very tall and striking...and a lighthouse in the background.

As Brexit looms, the social and economic ramifications of the government's monumentally poorly thought out proposition encouraged Clare to explore some thought provoking issues that child care rarely allows space for.

I nodded sagely while pretending to smoke one of my lamb chops like a pipe.

Later I wobbled my Crème caramel suggestively.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Ile De Re: Uzi 9mm (Wednesday 21/06/2017)

Guided by the unshakeable conviction that the best eateries are always situated by a war memorial, we elbowed our way into Le Moulin à Café, which playfully dominates the east corner of Rue Jean Moulin.

It was busier.

Whether John Mills was the café owner or merely a Napoleonic street naming celebrity from yesteryear wasn't entirely clear. Either way, in retrospect, shoving some elderly folk roughly into the gutter seemed an entirely fair way to secure seating as when the food came, it was delicious.

There was competition for a good seat.

Meandering back to the car, there were wall tops to be traversed and bollards to be jumped from but all were callously thrown over when the play ground hove into view.

There were no pallid youths, smoking belligerently on the swings and it looked like a long time since any drug raddled adolescents had fired up beneath the monkey bars. This was a giant sand pit populated by a clutch of olive skinned cherubs, cavorting joyfully beneath of shock of cork screw curls.

Alex and Sophie dived in and for the next half hour there was nothing on God's earth that could have prised their tiny fingers from the apparatus.

Having already prematurely deployed the ice cream bribe, the only option was to ensure nil by mouth. The strength sapping afternoon heat gradually degraded the children's stamina until shade and fluids seems marginally preferable to being picked over by vultures.

Running the gauntlet of the car's superheated interior, we cranked up the air-conditioning and headed for home where there may not have been a lido to flop into but a small inflatable paddling pool was the next best thing.

Which is when the front door lock seized.

I have always had a knack for this sort of thing. Dennis Ackrill's heavy fortified tuck box presented little resistance to the probing pointy bit of my Swiss Army penknife. The perils of being locked out in the early hours have never held any fears for me, providing I had a spoon and a piece of string. And so it was that I nonchalantly parted the ditherers and prepared to demonstrate the dividends of a wasted youth.

Easy when you know how.

But it wasn't budging.

On nodding terms with the lady next door and being only slightly embarrassed at having given her rather noisy cause to close her shutters in the 35 degree evening heat, the obvious answer was to scale the wall from her back garden and use the back door which was never locked.

Knocking politely, she answered whilst wiping the flour from her hands and ushered me into the kitchen with a look that could have been pity but might have been contempt. The difference was quite important as on the walls of the room hung every gun on the island. Rifles, shotguns, semi-automatic weapons; that the French like to dress stupidly and blast away at low flying migrants is no secret; that octogenarians still do it with an Uzi 9mm was surprising.

Kitchen Appliances,

Hoping that my pigeon French was not tickling her trigger finger, I gingerly explained the predicament and, with slightly more haste that might have been advisable for a man of my age, scaled the wall, ignored the hernia and braved the serrated concrete lip that rendered further progeny improbable.

Why was I quick over the wall?

One cold beer later, the front door was open, the pool was full and the brush with neighbourly homicide was forgotten as date night beckoned.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Ile De Re: The Fog (Wednesday 21/06/2017)

Life between breaks always feels like a frantic 3rd gear chase.

After a few days the holiday routine slips into an altogether more comfortable rhythm.

The hangovers seem more forgiving; the heat more bearable; the prices marginally less crippling. It is a rapid process of acclimatisation. After all, if you don't come to terms with the continental way of life, the only alternative is to come to blows.

So, it slowly dawns on the parents of small children that they can finally relax into the forgotten charms of simple things like a day at the beach.

And so we did.

Dressed, fed and frog-marched to the car while the world was still sleeping, the children's check list of essential beach paraphernalia quickly contracted to the remnants of a partly digested pain au raisin and a means of undertaking further beach excavations. My only concern was avoiding the relentless UV barrage.

Arriving once again in the sand strewn parking area of Bois De Plage, something was on fire. Billows of smoke were rolling over the tree tops and into the car park.

In France, this constitutes a genuine concern as fires spread quickly in the tinder box conditions, while in the UK, even something of biblical proportions comes a distant second to the ritual of hunting for parking change. The French seem to instinctively understand that charging for every ancillary is a real turn off. At some time over the last decade, UK plc seems to have concluded otherwise.

When did it became normal to pay for toilets? Probably at about the same time as hold luggage, air for your tyres and ATM cash withdrawals. Did Ryan Air seriously plan coin operated oxygen masks?
But it wasn't smoke; it was fog.

As I stood gawping, a damp grey blanket descended, the sun was dimmed and the temperature dropped double digits in as many seconds.

Expecting it to burn off as quickly as it came, we selected a spot on the empty beach and wondered where the sea was.

Alex ambled away in one direction and Sophie in the other and in the moment that it took for the fog to thicken a notch, they were both swallowed by the murk. How quickly the detached laissez-faire of parents grows, firstly into mild unease and then to an escalating sense of unspoken panic. Walking increasingly briskly and then breaking into a trot when they didn't immediately appear in the gloom, I resorted calling impotently into the whiteness as my fears mushroomed.

Can you see my children?

In the end, the children were more frightened than I was and soon were scooped up by well wishing French beach combers who emerged from the mist to the sight of a much relieved but rather foolish feeling father.

As a stern punishment, we had ice creams.

Ile De Re: Means, Motive and Opportunity. (Wednesday 21/06/2017).

There was no point in denying it any longer.

Dominic was gone; and so was the €15 carousel outlay.

The only question was whether this mystery would take me to the gaming tables of Monte Carlo or deep into the silt of the La Rochelle channel.

Donning my shabby raincoat, sporting a half smoked cigar and engaging my best impression of Columbo, I began to investigate.

Just one more thing....

All the greats crack the big cases with an remorseless eye for the three M’s of detection; Means, Motive and Mopportunity. All I had to do was channel the spirit of Sam Spade and this crime caper would fold like a deck of cheap cards.

Personally, I have long been a fan of the Perry Mason school of cross-examination which consists of pursuing a flaccid line of interrogation, and when this gets nowhere, throwing a tennis ball at the accused in the certain knowledge that he will catch in the wrong hand, realise he has been rumbled, and then spill the beans to the disbelieving jury.

However, on this occasion a frontal assault was doomed to fail so I opted for Miss Marple's routine gambit. This broadly consists of having a cup of tea and a nice piece of cake in the hope of accidentally overhearing something incriminating, uttered by a jobbing actor who was quite famous in the 60s.

It turned out to be a surprisingly successful strategy.

Our host Thierry was no stranger to celebrity, having certainly run for political office on the island (at least according to the poster in his toilet) and quite possibly enjoyed an earlier career as a respectably successful French pop star (at least according to my deliberately undiscriminating Google search).

A Beach For All.

His number 12 hit ‘Sur des Musiques Noires’ in 1985 was the fourth of a successful run of eight singles between 1981 and 1989, culminating with the eponymous and perhaps self-deprecating ‘Mister T’ (either that or he was a big fan of the A-Team).

As any self-respecting 80s popstar does, we fell into conversation with him while he was cleaning his guttering on a ladder. Perhaps his guard was down; perhaps he was distracted by the contents of his bucket; or perhaps we had insinuated ourselves into his confidence, having returned to his beautiful home for a second year running.

Whatever the explanation, Thierry was soon singing like a canary (which might have been the secret to his past success) and I didn’t even have to put him in a mine shaft.

The piano is full size. Thierry is 58 feet tall.

With the strains of his catchy electro-pop debut 1981 single ‘Le Coup de Folie’ (a moment of madness) still ringing in my ears, I couldn’t help feeling that I needed to be a little less Miss Marple and a little more Magnum PI. That was, unless I was about have my own moment of madness as I launched myself unprepared and entirely unmoustached, onto the mean streets of Loix.

Any private eye worth his salt doesn't leave the office unless he is packing heat but being new to the game and not actually having any heat to pack, I set off with a sense of relief as I was already melting in my raincoat.

Thierry’s information led me first to the butcher who remained tight lipped as his cleaver flashed menacingly in the afternoon sunlight. Airily waving my Cost Co discount card in lieu of any proper credentials, whilst muttering something about an unscheduled visit from the meat hygiene inspector, he paused, jabbed the air with a splintered vertebra and sent me to the patisserie.

The baker eyed me suspiciously while he pounded the dough with spade-like hands. The smoke curled upwards from the cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. I took it from his mouth and stubbed it into his petits fours. He wept; he growled; but in the end he caved. “Dominic?” he whined. “You want  Maria at the candlestick makers. She knows everything”.

It turns out that Maria hadn’t been seen since Dominic’s sudden departure. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that he was the gangster, she was his doll and that they were in this together, up to their necks.

Dominic and Maria. Up to their necks.

This case was solving itself. Hello means; let me introduce you to motive and opportunity.

The means were 120 years in the making; a five generations in the family, antique carousel that had probably graced the square of Loix since long before Thierry's great grand parents had their own coup de folie.

The motive was clear; €15 was enough to turn a good man bad.

Opportunity clearly came knocking at an open door; Dominic’s kiosk door in fact; in the form of a tourist sucker bearing a thick roll of low denomination, non-sequential used greenbacks (and some miscellaneous coins, but that rather spoils the film noir atmosphere that I am carefully trying to cultivate here).

No top-class private dicking was needed to wrap this one up.

And of course, I was right.

Dominic reappeared.

The children got their carousel ride and I realised it was time to turn in my spats, hang up the rain coat and stick to writing what my brother euphemistically calls 'my whimsies'.

Ile De Re: The Shellfish Gene (Tuesday 20/06/2017)

Having gone to the trouble of packing running shoes, it seemed only appropriate that we should at least have a discussion about using them.

And discuss it we did.

From an entirely theoretical standpoint, subjecting our already tired and dehydrated frames to the rigours of 30 minutes of cardiovascular pavement pounding seemed distantly feasible.

In practice however, it was so hot and uncomfortably humid, that venturing out in earnest was likely to result in a tragedy.

Whether that tragedy was my premature demise, convulsing face down in a patch of the island’s ubiquitous roadside hollyhocks, or even worse, having to run in plain view of the locals wearing a sartorial smorgasbord normally reserved for gardening, only an alternate timeline could say.

Wisdom prevailed and the idea was shelved for a cooler day.

7 Euros well spent.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              A not insignificant consideration that may have swung the decision in favour of  lassitude was the convergence of a recently purchased and splendidly striped beach parasol and the close proximity of  Bois En Plage; five golden miles of unblemished beach, facing the mainland and providing every opportunity that a four-year-old could desire to dig, scratch, scoop, pile and throw sand.

The fact that a good portion of this was destined to accumulate in the unguarded facial cavities of a lethargic middle-aged man, lying negligently prone in the vicinity can, I think, be entirely fairly characterised as self-inflicted collateral damage.

Alex and Sophie obligingly did precisely that.

When the worst of the offending material had been scraped out of eye sockets and hawked up from the deeper internal recesses, the important business of digging increasingly deep holes was addressed.

As a child I developed an obsessive fixation with two things; digging holes and lighting fires.

Spending several childhood summers, largely unsupervised on the pristine Mediterranean beaches of Israel, these interests were given free and largely unregulated reign and duly blossomed into what I regard as a late 20th Century art form.

The modus operandi was comfortingly consistent and involved digging the deepest vertical shaft that a seven-year-old arm could stretch to. After bisecting the shaft horizontally with a further tunnel aligned to the prevailing wind, I filled the whole subterranean structure with as much flammable material as possible and set light to it.

The enjoyment of the smoking spectacle was often short lived as I usually had to run away when the angry beach café proprietor came to investigate why his customers were asphyxiating over their turbot.

There is a karmic inevitability about this and while my pyro-maniacal gene has yet to surface in the children, I know that it is only a matter of time before Alex sidles up to me to report nonchalantly that the shed has spontaneously combusted and that he had nothing to do with it.

After hole digging, we returned to castle building. Tom and I had (ahem)…carefully assisted the children to construct another perfect architectural spectacle, surpassing even, yesterday’s Krak de Chevaliers.

Sophie, in a spasm of infant nihilism, set about vandalising the towers and toppling the ramparts before the rising tide finished the job, and then turning to me, she shared a sparkle of grinning malevolence.

Decamping from the beach, much to the children's disappointment,  we cycled home for lunch, to avoid the searing heat of the day and later rolled into St Martin for our date with ice cream destiny.

The children had to be dragged away.

‘La Martiniere’ has something of a mythic quality in the minds of many who visit the island. There are as many picturesque ice cream sellers as there are leafy squares, limestone plazas and beach side rivas. I am sure that they are all exceptionally good but none have so boldly surfed the creamy zeitgeist quite like our legendary scoopers.

Ice cream Heaven since 20 past 11.

Perhaps, their pre-eminence comes from scandalously crow-barring the island’s capital into their name. Perhaps it is the undeniable quality of the ice cream or maybe the inspiring variety of cones that deliver the coup de glace. All of the above may be true but, as with so many things, it is location more than anything else, that has turned a frozen dessert also ran into the island’s chin dripping thoroughbred.

This is just not right!

After Alex had ostentatiously spread an even layer of chocolate ice cream from chin to forehead and ear to ear, home beckoned and powered by a coneful of empty calories, we surged across the marshes, pausing only to take refreshment at Maison Didier Fournier, the premier oyster bar.

Didier Fournier

I have to be honest; oysters are not my thing. I am sure Didier is a great chap and his maritime produce is surely top notch but if offered a blind taste-off between fresh oysters and a mouthful of salty snot, I would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Alex, evidently, felt the same way and while the fire starter gene has yet to materialise, my pebble collecting fetish surely has and he spent a happy half hour accumulating a respectable collection, a goodly portion of which currently lay in a pile by the back door as I type; the rest are still on the boot of the car.

Pebbles - the inherited gene.

Sadly, Dominic's carousel remained swathed in its familiar blue tarpaulin and as we rolled across the square in Loix, the realisation was slowly dawning that maybe Dominic would not be coming back.

All was not lost, however, and my enjoyment of afternoon snacks, pre-dinner nibbles and supper itself was immeasurably enhanced by the all too familiar beach picnic crunch of undigested sand between the molars.

Ile De Re: Ice Cream Wars (Monday 19/06/2017).

The air of disappointment was palpable.

Having cycled a less than respectable post croissant distance to La Couarde Sur Mare, we discovered that Ile De Re’s premier ice cream purveyor, La Martiniere had shamelessly neglected to open an outlet there.

Perhaps then, it was no surprise when a huddle of well heeled retirees began to form an orderly queue beside the children’s three wheeler, in every expectation, one presumes, that Alex and Sophie were the new enfants terrible of the island's mobile artisanal ice-cream community.

Sadly not; naughty...but not quite terrible.

After further coffee and croissant at the critically acclaimed/cryptically named 'Hotel' next to the Hotel De Ville, the air of disappointment became slightly less palpable and rather more menacing as Alex and Sophie deliberately threw their weight to the low side inducing me to balloon around the corner, and skittle a group of hapless tourists like osteoporotic tenpins.

Butter wouldn't melt......

With indignant, but thankfully receding shouts, still ringing in my ears, we returned across the oyster beds to Loix, nursing a Croc shaped hole in Alex’s footwear ensemble. Carrefor unashamedly retailed a particularly natty pair of the Paw Patrol variety for an eminently reasonable €7, for which the swanky boutiques of Couarde demanded something approaching the purchase price of a fashionable Parisien pied-a-terre.

Lunch and dinner consisted of a healthy concoction of vegetables (cheese) and fruit (wine), this being the inexplicably limited range of goods that Tom was able to find on sale at the local supermarché. Perhaps our victualing may have been marginally inhibited by the time that I spent lying in the freezer cabinet.

Scientists discovered temperatures exceeding the heart of our closest star, as we left the supermarket and climbed onto the black leather seats of Tom’s black Audi TT which sadly, had not joined me in the freezer cabinet. To this day, in true Indiana Jones style, the palm of Tom’s left hand bears the imprint of a superheated Audi gear knob.

This not Tom. It might be his hand though...

A swift pause for refreshment at La Presqu 'ile taught us several valuable life lessons while the children rollicked about with a range of nationalities in the play ground.

Firstly, don't take advice from Orangina.

A meal without wine is called breakfast.


Get a hat, get ahead. So four hats must be awesome...
Arriving home, the paddling pool was urgently inflated and filled and as we silently regretted buying the children high-pressure water squinters, Tom produced lamb and apple tart from somewhere about his person and provided for us royally.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

The night jars called as the neighbours diplomatically pulled their shutters closed. Taking the hint, we retired to bed, exhausted by the exertions of the day.

Ile De Re: Plastic Gorgonzola (Sunday 18/06/2017).

September last year gave us a succession of warm, sunny days, tickled by a light breeze.

After yesterday’s Odyssey, sleep lasted until 4.30am, before somebody announced loudly to the sleeping denizens of Rue de la Place, that the toilet was the wrong shape and that consequently the pee-pee train had not so much arrived at the wrong destination as been horrifically derailed on a brutal mountain switchback.

Knowing that the prospects of further sleep were receding more rapidly than the Larsen ice shelf, we made coffee and admired the rising sun before it had had the opportunity to push the needle above 22°C.

The forecast anticipated temperatures that would blister paintwork so we busied ourselves industriously before the heat of the day with Friday’s newspaper and everything vaguely sweet that the previous visitors had left.

Eventually, decency prevailed and the boulangerie finally capitulated to our sulky patisserie hungry loitering.

In the absence of Jenny, our resident Babel Fish, the familiar game of linguistic cat and mouse played itself out at the pastry counter, once again. Having failed to oil our Anglo-Franco synchromesh through lack of use, the translation engine over revved, the conjugation clutch smoked and the oil rings of mutual understanding spewed oily black recrimination across the piece.

Eventually, it was only increasingly wild gesticulation and the good fortune of a glass fronted patisserie cabinet that saved us from breakfasting on air dried wild boar testicles.

Ominously, the children’s carousel (which was integral to our decision to return) lay motionless under tarpaulin with no sign of Dominic, to whom we had previously transferred a significant proportion of our holiday cash reserves in September.

The Carousel.
Dominic - Ca ne marche pas!

Instead we hired bikes, this time abandoning the towing trailer for the children and replacing this with something akin to a three wheeled ice cream van, sadly without an engine.

Or for that matter, any ice cream.

Three Wheeler Dealers.

To suggest that the handling characteristics of this pantechnicon were poor would suggest that it had any handling characteristics whatsoever.

It was a reverse tricycle with two front steering wheels and a turning circle only marginally better than the Death Star. In the name of safety, the whirling front spokes lay within easy reach of the children’s inquisitive fingers. In the name of comfort, all vestiges of comfort had been unceremoniously stripped, leaving something more in keeping with a medieval implement of torture with a natty black enamel finish.

As the others sailed effortlessly into the distance, my thighs began to burn after the first few revolutions with any attempt at standing on the pedals (to generate extra leverage), resulting in an immediate and stomach flipping lurch into the path of vehicular death.

Clearly, this was going to kill me either by ramming us all into the oncoming traffic or bursting something essential but wholly irreparable inside my chest (or my skull).

Attempts to repeat last year’s goat hat eating photo opportunity were cruelly denied by the absence of any hat eating goats at the cheese barn adjacent to the bike hire shop. The rapidly scrawled notice on the door might have said that they were closed for renovations, but it could equally have conveyed a plea to any English goat worriers that they should nob off and find somebody else’s livelihood to ruin.

As is so often the case in life, bitter disappointment is rarely accompanied by a satisfying reversal of fortunes but on our return to Le Pub Presqu’ile for post rental refreshment, Dominic had appeared, removed the tarpaulin and fired up the carousel.

His hard-nosed proposition demanded €2 for a ticket to ride but only €15 for enough tickets to keep the children continuously occupied for the foreseeable future and certainly to the end of the week. Sensing a bargain, I nonchalantly peeled off the notes and slapped them down on his kiosk top with the insouciance of a man who sees his destiny ahead of him and rather likes the cut of its jib.

Dominic laid out a wedge of carousel tickets in return and perhaps, had I not been distracted by his generously cavalier method of counting to 20, I might have noticed the manic twinkle in his eye.

The children had a spin but little were we to know that Dominic would not be making a further appearance for the rest of the holiday. Sophie may have sensed this imminent chicanery and, in her own pre-emptive manner, parted Dominic from his Mickey Mouse teasing stick before lobbing it impudently in the direction of the fountain.

Bypassing the €50 rotisserie chickens cooking slowly in the midday market we rectified last year’s booking fiasco and lunched on galettes and crepes at Route du Sel by the church in order to give Alex a further opportunity to smear his food rather than eating it.

They said "Monsieur, try the cider".

I said "I would be delighted".

What I should have said was "No thank you very much. It's not very nice and is not improved one iota by sticking a slice of apple on a stick in it".

Sadly, the best stinging retorts never come until I am fabricating the story at a later date.

French Cidre: Val De Rancid.

After a suitable period of recuperation, we braved the almost insufferable afternoon heat and retreated to the coastal breezes of Plage de la Pergola. Tom had the foresight to bring his garden spade and so last year’s pitiful sandcastles were quickly eclipsed by something on an altogether grander scale.

The trenches deepened and the walls rose to dizzying heights and for a moment it looked like we may have created something permanent and immovable. However, the tide surged in and within 30 minutes, the surf which had previously required a camel train to reach, was threatening to destroy the finest piece of French castle building undertaken since Krak des Chevaliers.

Krak des Chevaliers.
As only middle-aged men can, we dug deeper and piled higher before reinforcing with rocks that would have herniated the less formidable. We bought time at the cost of strained muscles and grievous blisters but eventually all that was left was a flooded and concealed trap for the unwary for which we rightly abdicated all responsibility before heading home (after leaving the customary 'Work in Progress' sign to deter looters).

Travaux Encours.
Work in Progress.

Having scrupulously failed to realise that the shops in Loix close in the morning, at lunchtime, in the afternoon, in the evening and at weekends, we were left without provisions. Extensive foraging in the locality turned up three takeaway pizzas and a distinctively un-French take on Domino’s dipping sauce, in no small way enhanced by generous quantities of plastic Gorgonzola.

We played cards until the mental arithmetic began to falter and discussed next year’s holiday plans by which time the kids will be five years old and fully as capable of ramming a Venetian quayside with an expensive yacht as any veteran Day Skipper