Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

This essay was originally published in You on Target, an anthology of essays about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, released in 2020. In it, I talk about (among other things) Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation of the Doctor Who story Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Thank you to Christopher Bryant for commissioning it.

66 million years ago

Somehow, the pterodactyl was glad to be back. It had been a very difficult day.

Just this morning, it had been sunning itself in this sandy clearing. It must have fallen asleep, for the next thing it knew was that it was somewhere else, in a giant underground cavern. There was some kind of mammal there, a mammal with a head covered with a shock of white fur. The mammal was holding a searing bright light, which had sent the pterodactyl off screeching to the roof of the cavern. But then mammal had gone away, and the pterodactyl had settled down to wait for sunrise.

Still, that’s all over now, it thought.

But this very thought was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched buzz. The pterodactyl looked up to see two more of the brown-coloured mammals, appearing out of nowhere in a swirling eddy of light.

It couldn’t understand the ugly noises coming from the mammals’ mouths, of course, and it couldn’t admire the highly polished fingernails of one or the expensively cut lounge suit of the other. But it knew that they would attract the attention of the Monster, who would soon be along to enjoy them as a between-meals snack.

So it flew off, the tip of one leathery wing grazing the cheek of one of the mammals as it went. The Monster was coming.

Silence. A sound of thunder.

12 January 1974

At teatime today, Part 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs is broadcast for the first time.

(I will turn five in three months, but I don’t appear in this chapter of the story.)

Part 1 is a pretty good episode. The Doctor and his new assistant Sarah Jane Smith are exploring a mysteriously bleak and deserted London. They are mistaken for looters, and are quickly arrested. No one will even listen to their story: they are apparently powerless to escape from a rigid and tiresome military bureaucracy.

And then, at the cliffhanger, they are menaced by a roaring puppet Tyrannosaurus.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs will not become an instant classic. Last year’s finale, The Green Death, featured simple rod-and-string puppet maggots, and psychologically scarred an entire generation of children. But no one will be scarred by Invasion’s puppet dinosaurs, because they are plangently, lamentably bad. They float in mid-air, amateurishly CSO’d onto poorly-directed location footage. They burst suddenly through cardboard walls. Instead of roaring, they actually seem to be saying the English word ROAR. One dinosaur retreats out of shot, pulled by the tail by an off-screen hand. Another two dinosaurs fight, menacing each other with bendy rubber teeth. (Or are they snogging? It’s honestly hard to tell.)


Six weeks later, a man with polished fingernails and a man in an expensively cut lounge suit will vanish completely from a secret government base underneath an evacuated London.

19 February 1976

Malcolm Hulke’s fifth Doctor Who novelisation is published: a version of Invasion of the Dinosaurs called Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Unlike the televised story, it’s a triumph. And not just because it doesn’t include a single puppet dinosaur.

Consider how it reveals the backstory — the evacuation of London and the mysterious appearance of the dinosaurs. In Part 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the Doctor and Sarah hear about these events in some fairly unremarkable expository dialogue. But in Chapter 1 of the novelisation (London Alert!), we see the same events through the eyes of Shughie McPherson. Shughie is a young unemployed man from Glasgow, who has come down (up?) to London with some mates to see the Cup Final. He misses the evacuation because he is too tired and hungover to leave with them.

He wakes up in a London that has been completely abandoned. There’s no electricty, so he decides to leave the house, only to discover that the entire street is deserted. Terrified by the sight of the broken body of a young milkman, he falls to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. And then he is attacked and killed by an unseen dinosaur.

In the televised version of the story, there is no one as interesting and skilfully characterised as Shughie McPherson. And no one like him has ever appeared in Doctor Who before.

Malcolm Hulke is brilliant at backstory and characterisation. There’s an entire chapter in Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters devoted to the odd, one-sided relationship between Dr Quinn and Miss Dawson. In Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, we learn all about Jane Leeson — a character who gets a couple of minutes of screen time on television — what her life was like on a miserable, overcrowded earth, how she met her husband, and why she left to colonise the planet in whose soil she will finally be buried. And in Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, we learn how Captain Trenchard aspires to be a hero, and how he is tragically killed by his own buffoonish incompetence.

21 June 1978

Here I am, appearing in the story at last. I’m ten years old, and tonight I will watch my first episode of Doctor Who.

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend at school showed me my first ever Target book. It was called The Doctor Who Monster Book. Somehow, Luke and I managed to spend hours of class time looking through it, when, presumably, we were meant to be doing mental arithmetic, or reading English books, or doing whatever the hell you do in Fourth Grade in primary school.

The Doctor Who Monster Book had a picture of Tom Baker on the front cover, apparently drawn by someone who had never actually seen him, even in photographs. There were sections on each of the Doctors, double-page spreads for all of the top-tier returning monsters, and even pages covering the the Zarbi, the Sensorites, and the Uxariean mining robot.

Because it was a Target book, many of the pages reproduced Chris Achilleos’s cover art for the novelisations. On pages 52 and 53, you could even see the classic cover of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, depicting Pertwee’s Doctor, his hand protecting his face, as a Tyrannosaurus rex advances on him from behind, and a pterodactyl snaps at him with an almighty Roy-Lichtenstein-inspired KKLAK!

But the star of the books was the Daleks. Five pages were devoted to them, chronicling their exploits in every Doctor Who story of the sixties and seventies, culminating in the Doctor’s attempt to avert their creation in Genesis of the Daleks.

Tonight’s episode, Luke tells me, is called Death to the Daleks. And so I will go home after school, and announce to my family that at half past six, on Channel 2, we will be watching Part 1 of my first ever Doctor Who story.

It will change my life.

Later in 1978

At ten years old, I am already a voracious reader. Summer is hot in Sydney, and we are lucky enough to have a swimming pool in the backyard. Sometimes I come home from school and sit on the top step of the pool and read. I’m often reading a Target novelisation.

By now, I’ve got quite a collection going. I get a couple of dollars a week in pocket money, in exchange for simple chores like wiping up the plates after dinner and not coming downstairs to annoy my parents after bedtime. I use that money to buy novelisations. David Jones at Warringah Mall has a bookshop, just near the butcher. We go there every week to buy meat, and after that I choose five or six novelisations and put them on lay-by until I can save up enough money to take them home with me. I write my name and phone number on the first page of each book.

Soon I have dozens of them. They’re almost always Pertwee or Baker stories, although I do have Doctor Who and the Cybermen, starring a strange old Doctor who I have never even seen. Some of them, like Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, Doctor Who and the Hand of Fear, Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom, I have seen on television. Others, Doctor Who and the Mutants, Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion have not been on television since I started watching Doctor Who.

April 1979

I’m in an airport, in the United States somewhere. My family are here on holiday: perhaps we’re travelling across the country, from LA to New York, I think. In my bag, there is an exercise book in which I use a biro to write an account of the trip; there are also a few Target novelisations from my collection.

My edition of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion doesn’t have the cover with the pterodactyl saying KKLAK! It’s a later edition with a T. rex on the cover, based on a painting by Charles R. Knight, standing in front of a building I will later learn to identify as St Paul’s cathedral.

This is my first vivid memory of reading a Target novelisation: Sir Charles Grover, with his expensively cut lounge suit and delusions of grandeur, tells the Doctor that he is “in time to be present at the most important moment in the world’s history.” The Doctor, unimpressed as ever by the most important moments in the world’s history, replies, "On the contrary. I am in time to prevent a crime.”

I think I might be in love.

Interlude: Nathan meets Tom Baker

It’s March 1980, the last year of primary school. I’m still friends with Luke. He has told me that Tom Baker is visiting Australia, that he’s coming to Warringah Mall, and he’s making an appearance in the Grace Brothers car park.

My father has agreed to let me go. The night before, in preparation, I watch a new Doctor Who episode, Part Something of The Creature From The Pit. I also go through my collection to find a novelisation for Tom to sign. I settle on Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang: it has the best likeness of Tom on the cover. He is dressed like Sherlock Holmes, staring grimly out of the picture with his piercing brown eyes.

My mother is in hospital for the first time. Over the next ten years, she will often be in hospital. Now, in the distant future, I still remember going to see her years later, reading Doctor Who Magazine on the bus, clutching it in my hand as I go to visit her in the room where she will eventually succumb to the cancer that kills her.

That’s still ten years in the future. Right now, I’m in a long queue at the rooftop car park. Luke and his sister Rachel are with me. Immediately behind me in the queue is a boy who I will actually meet and befriend many years later: one of my co-hosts from the podcast Flight Through Entirety — Richard Stone. He has just about forgiven me for what happens next.

Many more people have turned up than the organisers expected. But we’re not very far from the front. Behind us, the queue snakes off into the distance. Ahead, I can seen Tom in the distance, wearing his costume from last night’s episode.

While we wait, I talk to Luke about my mother’s trip to hospital. I am overheard by a kindly old lady who is walking up and down the queue to keep everything running smoothly.

It takes an hour, I guess, but now we’re just about standing in front of Tom himself. An announcement is made. Tom needs to leave now, and so the people in front of us will be the last people to get to speak to him.

But the kindly lady intervenes. “This boy’s mother is in hospital,” she says, and I’m allowed to go up and speak to Tom. No one behind me in the queue will get that opportunity.

I can’t remember what I said. But I do remember Tom signing my Target novelisation and saying, “Your mother’s in hospital? Well, you know, if you ever need help, let me know. I’m a Doctor.”

His eyes are piercing and blue.

5 November 1984

In Sydney, in the late seventies, Channel 2 shows repeat after repeat of Doctor Who, four or five nights a week, at 6:30 PM, just before the news. They start at Spearhead from Space, and go up to the most recent episode with Tom Baker, and then back to Spearhead from Space again. Weirdly, they leave out anything scary, anything only available in black and white, and anything with the Master.

But tonight, they’re showing Invasion of the Dinosaurs for the first time. Part 1 is still only available in black and white — the colour version was deliberately incinerated — and so they’re renumbering the episodes to make it a five-part story. Watching Part 2, now re-branded as Part 1, is the first time I ever see the televised story, and it opens with the Doctor and Sarah inexplicably menaced by an unconvincing puppet Tyrannosaurus.

26 June 2010

I’m all grown up now. Crazily, I got rid of my whole collection of Target novelisations years ago. There were dozens and dozens of them, but I only kept one. Now the books are available in a completely new format — audiobooks. And so I start my collection up again, buying a copy of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Unlike my previous copy, this has the orange cover with the pterodactyl going KKLAK! It’s read by Martin Jarvis, who played Butler in the episode.

Martin Jarvis is, of course, superb. He does great accents for poor old Shughie McPherson and his mates, and great voices for the Doctor, Sarah and the Brigadier. More impressive, of course, is his note-perfect Martin Jarvis impersonation. Butler is much kinder and more working class here than the posh and distant character he was in the televised version. Hulke has given him a livid facial scar, to help us to recognise him when other characters don’t know who he is. When Sarah taunts him about that scar, she is embarrassed to learn that he got it saving a terrified child trapped on the ledge of a high building.

Hulke has a genius for backstory and characterisation.

January 2016

And now, in the distant future, my iPhone contains dozens of audio versions of Target novelisations, even ones that I have never owned before, like Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, tantalisingly referred to in a footnote in Chapter 3 of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

My favourites are always the novelisations by Malcolm Hulke. I have all of them now, except for Doctor Who and the War Games. (Why don’t I have that? Wait here a second while I go and put it on my Audible wishlist.)

And my favourite audiobook is still the first one I ever bought.

5 billion years from now

The sun expands, and the Earth is destroyed, but nobody watches it happen. The Doctor is there, with his new best friend Rose. Later, or earlier, they will go out to get chips.

Blake’s 7: The SevenFold Crown

Thursday, 1 April 2021

This review of a very early Blake’s 7 audio drama was published in TV Zone issue 99 (February 1998). I can only barely remember writing it, and I didn’t actually have a copy of it anywhere until recently, when Peter Griffiths, who had commissioned me to write it, sent me a copy of it he found a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to Peter for giving me the chance to write it and for unearthing it and sending it to me after so many years.

AVON: Are you going give it to me?
SERVALAN: How can I stop you taking it?

The SevenFold Crown is a new Blake’s 7 radio drama serial written by Barry Letts, who produced Doctor Who in the Seventies and wrote the Doctor Who radio dramas The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space. The SevenFold Crown has just been released as a two-tape set by BBC Worldwide and will be broadcast on Radio 4 later this month, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Blake’s 7 in 1978.

When Avon’s sleep is disturbed by a fabulously silly dream in which he is being flogged and menaced by Servalan, he decides that the lady herself is responsible, and heads off to the planet Ferno to confront her. Down on Ferno, Avon and Vila discover that Servalan has one of three parts of the SevenFold Crown, an ancient alien artifact that (as usual) confers incredible Mind Powers on its wearer. Our heroes’ quest for the remaining parts takes them to the planet Torella (which has a thriving tourist trade despite its medieval
justice system and high rates of random capital punishment) and the mysterious planet of the ancient Devani.

Freed from the constraints of year-long contracts, the cast all overact marvellously. And since the dialogue lacks the clever bitchy flight-deck banter of the TV series, overacting is often necessary.

But why go into it in any more detail? The teleport keeps malfunctioning, Orac refuses to give the crew crucial information, Avon tries to abandon a crewmember, Servalan tricks the crew into teleporting the wrong person up… Honestly, everything you would expect from a Blake’s 7 anniversary special and more. Even the sound effects and the teleport music sound authentic.

All the male principals from Blake’s 7’s final year are back: Paul Darrow as Avon, Michael Keating as Vila and Steven Pacey as Tarrant. And (thank God!) so is Jacqueline Pearce as the sequinned psychopath, Servalan. Josette Simon and Glynis Barber were (ahem) unavailable, and so the remaining female crew members have both been recast. Angela Bruce (Brigadier Bambera in Doctor Who’s Battlefield) plays a reasonabiy convincing Dayna, while Paula Wilcox’s Soolin is disappointingly girly and cheerful — not at all like the laid-back hardfaced bitch Glynis Barber played in the TV series.

And, of course, everyone sounds much older. Steven Pacey has particular trouble recreating Tarrant’s growly character voice, while Servalan sounds a little huskier and a little more formidable. Paul Darrow is the same as ever, although he delivers his lines in such a macho and deadpan way he must often be in danger of dislocating his jaw.

Freed from the constraints of year-long contracts, the cast all overact marvellously. And since the dialogue lacks the clever bitchy flight-deck banter of the TV series, overacting is often necessary. For example, Avon: “I have torn out the throat of a tiger with this very hand” or Servalan, discussing Vila’s imminent execution: “Your friend’s head would make a simply ducky little souvenir for somebody, wouldn’t you agree?” (Not really.)

In fact, the script is this serial’s big weakness. The SevenFold Crown is full of stupid technobabble and laborious dialogue where characters describe to each other in detail all the exciting events unfolding before their very eyes. There is also a tendency for Letts to try to end each scene with a punchline. Unfortunately, he is not much of a comedy writer, and the lines are just not funny. “If I get shot with a hallucinatory blaster,” wonders Vila, “do I really die, or shall I just pretend?”

If you make it that far, at the end of the tape there are a few short interviews with the principal cast members. You won’t hear much here that hasn’t been said before in fanzines and programme guides, but it’s nice hearing it said in the actors’ voices. A special award for sneaky disparagement goes to Steven Pacey, who expresses “amazement” and “astonishment” at Blake’s 7’s success. And when he’s asked about Tarrant’s personality, he replies “What personality was that, then?”

Nice one. Steven. Well spotted.

Airing 17 Jan 1998. BBC Radio 4.

Written by Barry Letts
BBC Audio, ISBN 0 56338200 7
Price: £8.99
Out now

Image of this review as it appeared in Starburst Magazine

The Wrath of Conn

Saturday, 16 March 2019

This essay was first published in Outside In: Makes It So, a collection of essays published by ATB Publishing in 2017 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For this collection, each author contributed an essay on a single episode or movie. My essay is based on the Series 4 episode Clues.

Many thanks to Stacey Smith? for the commission, and for her well-judged editing suggestions.

A young blond woman with striking red lipstick, seated at her station on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Ensign Gladys McKnight

Personal Log, Ensign Gladys McKnight, Stardate 44501.3

9 stone 5 lb (pathetic), alcohol units: 9 (ditto), cigarettes: 2 (stupid replicator malfunction; edgy af right now), calories: 3897 (fuck off. seriously).

Horrifically hung over this morning. Stupid Reg. He’s gotta be the most absent boyfriend I’ve ever had. Got a text from him yesterday, cancelling our date last night. “Sorry, sweetheart. Lots of work on in Engineering. Geordi’s been riding me non-stop ever since Ventax II. I’ll make it up to you.”

Didn’t believe him for a second. “Computer, locate Lieutenant Barclay.”

“Lieutenant Barclay is in Holodeck 3.”

Asshole.

Day off today, because that whole Harrakis V thing finished early. (No idea what we were doing there. Being tormented by some all-powerful alien entity, I imagine. At least this one didn’t want to kill off half the crew. Poor Ensign Haskell. I’m still using that stick of Maybelline Superstay 24 Color he lent me.)

The crew spent yesterday raving about their plans for the day off. Alyssa was gonna spend time with Andrew playing parrises squares. (I’ve never heard it called that before.) A whole bunch of crawly suck-ups were going to Worf’s tai-chi class, hoping to get noticed. Picard booked the holodeck for a horrific larping session with the fucking bartender. And Alyssa tells me that Dr Crusher was planning to spend the day growing moss. Wtf is wrong with that woman?

Anyway, I snuck into Crusher’s lab and replaced all her moss samples with scrunched-up sheets of pink cellophane. She’s too stupid to notice: she still doesn’t know that I broke into her quarters last month and replaced four of her wigs with those comedy Nausicaan halloween wigs Mr Mot gave me. She’s been looking like an idiot for last month. That’ll teach her to keep nagging me about emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver.

I was sneaking out of Sick Bay when I crashed straight into stupid Commander Data. He picked me up off the floor and apologised, but he refused to tell me why he had knocked me over, or even to admit that he had done it in the first place. Lying bastard. He should be cleaning tables in Ten-Forward, not patronising actual human beings on the bridge when they’re trying to do their jobs.

“Ensign McKnight. I have been looking for you all morning. There is currently an opening in the conn position on the bridge. Would you care to take the beta shift this afternoon?”

Brilliant. There goes my day off. And conn officer is the stupidest job on the ship. Eight hours of staring at a big screen pressing buttons, like a stinking virgin Gamergater. And have you seen those stupid instrument panels? The ship hits the smallest asteroid and they explode immediately. I’ll be lucky to get through the shift without a huge shard of metal embedded in my head.

Personal log, supplemental

Still alive and shardless, thank Christ. What a waste of time though. By the end of the first hour, I was basically pressing buttons at random just to amuse myself. We’re lucky I didn’t crash us into a quantum filament. Whatever the fuck that is.

I’ve snuck out for a quick fag in the loo. Shift only just started. Feels like there’s still about 24 hours left to go.


Personal log, Ensign Gladys McKnight, Stardate 44502.5

9 stone 3 lb (weight loss mostly due to hangover dehydration), alcohol units: 7 (yay!), cigarettes: 23 (broke into Reg’s quarters and stole all the isolinear chips from his replicator), calories: 2686 (no calories in Tamarian Space Vodka, right? I had difficulty understanding the label on the bottle).

Blacked out on the bridge just after that last entry. Still, not like that time I blacked out in the Observation Lounge, or the other one at the Stellar Cartography Christmas Party.

This time, everyone else went down as well. Thank God. Imagine blacking out mid-sentence during your first shift on the bridge. It would be like the time Ensign Gomez got high as a kite and plummeted off a catwalk to the bottom of the warp core. Alyssa says she’s still eating all of her meals through a straw. Silly cow.

The entire bridge crew are acting like they’ve never blacked out in the middle of a shift before. Pompous, stuck-up pricks. Worf keeps moaning about his sore elbow to anyone who can bear to listen. “Tell Crusher,” I said to him, “or stfu. Crybaby.” Troi screams every time she walks past a mirror. (Has she finally noticed the horrific cameltoe she’s been rocking for the last few months?) And Geordi looks at Data like he’s caught him in bed with the pool boy. Something about Professor Underhill and the ship’s chronometer. Nerd. No wonder he never gets laid by an actual human woman.

I’m beginning to regret breaking into Crusher’s lab now. What a fiasco.

Personal log, supplemental

It’s the middle of my second shift on the bridge. I’m hiding in the loo again. Not coming out until we leave the Ngame Nebula.

They’ve ordered me to delete these last two log entries. No idea why. Something about Troi wandering glassy-eyed onto the Bridge and doing her best Paul Robeson impersonation. Then Data gave a big long expository speech and I kind of zoned out. There’s a lot of standing around talking goes on on this stupid ship.

The upshot of the whole thing is that some poorly-characterised aliens don’t want anyone to know about them. The Paxans. They’re xenophobes, which is ancient Greek for toothless, meth-addicted hillbillies. And we’re supposed to let them wipe our memories. I wouldn’t trust them to wipe my ass.

Which is why you’re reading this. I’m using a warp core manifold to send these logs back to the early 21st century for widespread publication. By the time the 24th century comes around again, I want there to be Paxan teatowels, Paxan sitcoms, Paxan theme parks, and delicious Paxan breakfast cereals.

Make it so. Bastards.

Nathan Bottomley is a Latin teacher living in Sydney. He can be heard constantly complaining about Doctor Who on the podcast Flight Through Entirety.

Last Days

Friday, 12 January 2018

An expensive hotel living room, with a set of couches clustered around a coffee table, lamps, and behind
them a series of windows with a panoramic view of Bangkok

I’m writing this post from the Royal Suite at the Bangkok InterContinental Hotel.

It’s the largest suite in the hotel. I’m seated at a glass coffee table in the lounge; there’s a lavish entryway, a 12-seat boardroom, a kitchen, a massive bathroom with a sunken bath, a dressing room, and a bedroom larger than all of the other hotel bedrooms I have stayed in in Europe. In fact, I think this suite is bigger than all of those European hotel rooms combined. It’s definitely bigger than our house.

“It’s too big,” said Calvin as we walked in.

An expensive hotel bedroom. A corner of the bed is visible, but the most striking thing is the view of a cluster of skyscrapers through the panoramic windows. There's a couch in front of the windows, facing absolutely the wrong way.

We arrived in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon. Calvin had spent a day or two here before meeting me in Siem Reap, so he took me to dinner in a busy fluorescent-lit local eatery. It had been cool in Luang Prabang: it was hot and muggy in Bangkok. The icy beer I had with dinner was magical.

When we woke up on Monday morning, Calvin’s legs were covered in bites. In fact, he was driven out of bed at about 4 AM. Bedbugs, he said. We went up to the Club Lounge to complain, and they moved us to the next room so that they could burn the bed to the ground.

They offered us free dinner in one of the restaurants as compensation.

A wood-panelled boardroom. Part of the same expensive hotel suite.

I think I’ve only been in Bangkok once before, in 2005. (Apple’s Photos app tells me that it was 2004, but I remember having to miss some early episodes of Series 1 of Doctor Who, which means that it was April 2005. Shut up.) Calvin comes here every year or so, and came here frequently as a child; as a result, he isn’t here to do touristy things.

Instead, he’s here to eat, to shop, and to visit the family temple. We’ve been personally blessed twice — a ritual washing and another ceremony that involved a monk drawing patterns on our heads with oil, wax and some kind of powder. We’ve bought some Buddhas and candles and jewellery and had it blessed. We’ve taken the monks out to lunch. We went to a restaurant called Insects in the Backyard, which Calvin thought was superb, even though it just serves unimaginative Western food sprinkled with deep-fried bugs. And the hotel is at the centre of a massive conurbation of giant shopping centres, which we’ve wandered through for hours, eating and buying things. Bigger clothes, mostly.

A hotel bathroom, clearly decorated in the 1990s. The centerpiece is a big raised bath with steps leading up to it.

A couple of days ago, the toilet in the hotel room got blocked. I cannot honestly claim to be blameless in this matter: I’ve been giving the breakfast buffet a pretty serious workout every morning. Plumbers came to the room a couple of times to fix it, but with no lasting effect. And so they asked us to move rooms again.

Calvin was, of course, terribly annoyed. We ended up meeting some sombre and apologetic hotel managers in the Club Lounge, who told us how deeply sombre and apologetic they were, and invited us to call them at any hour of the day or night if we had any problems at all.

A tastefully dark entry hall, with pillars in the corners, a circular table in the middle, and a heavily-curtained window at the end. There is a massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

The toilet in our third room blocked this afternoon.

I went up to the Club Lounge to make a report, and then settled in to write a blog post. Before long, one of the sombre and apologetic managers came up to talk to me. He was dangerously sombre, to a degree that made me want to crack jokes and cheer him up. He said that we would have to move rooms again.

So here we are. I’m in the Royal Suite, writing a smartarse blog post; Calvin is wandering around complaining about the power points. Complimentary dinner tonight, hopefully followed by champagne in the bath. (Probably not, actually; Calvin is a hopeless prosaic.)

God mode

Monday, 1 January 2018

A close up of Angkor Wat's highest tower, covered in balconies and  intricate carvings, silhouetted against a bright blue sky.

I met Calvin in Siem Reap on 27 December.

It had taken me two days to get there from Athens. A flight from Athens to Dubai, which was delayed a couple of hours due to fog in Dubai; a night spent in the First Class Lounge in Dubai, since it was too late to get to my hotel; a flight from Dubai to Bangkok; a night in the Novotel at Bangkok Airport; and then a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

Calvin is clearly much better at this holiday thing than I am. He used points to arrange our first class flights, and he used points to book us into the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort at Siem Reap. It’s a massive hotel, with a spa but no golf course, built in a sort of French colonial style. The staff say bonjour to you as you walk past, even quite late in the day.

A walkway across the water between the dining room and a pagoda. The trees are festooned with lights

I met Calvin at the hotel, dropped off my luggage and immediately went on an informal tour of the city. Calvin had arranged it the day before with a tuk tuk driver he met at a temple he was visiting. We spent a few hours careening around the city, had lunch, and took a boat ride up the river Tonlé Sap to a floating village on the edge of a massive freshwater lake. For dinner, Calvin had made a reservation at a famous restaurant called Haven, which is normally booked up months in advance.

For the next two days, Calvin had booked a tour of the temples around the city. We visited nearly half a dozen on the first day, beautiful ruined temples, surrounded and covered by forest, massive and complex, covered in sandstone carvings. On the second day, we spent the morning at Angkor Wat, arriving before 5 AM and watching the sun rise behind the temple, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of other tourists.

For me, 2017 was the year of visiting temples — in Sicily, mainland Italy and Greece — and I saw a fair number of temples in Japan in 2016 as well. Angkor Wat is the most impressive temple I have ever seen. Not just the size and scale, but the intricacy of the carvings, on nearly every available surface.


We’re in Luang Prabang now. Calvin booked us a room in the Hôtel Sofitel Luang Prabang, a small resort hotel with only 24 rooms, which was the governor’s residence a hundred years ago, then government offices, and finally, a prison. The swimming pool was probably installed after that.

The front of a hotel. Wide stairs lead up to a pillared verandah. Each pillar is festooned with a coloured lamp. Above the awning, the walls are made of dark wood.

Luang Prabang is much smaller than Siem Reap — 55,000 people. It’s touristy as well, but more in a hippy backpacker sort of way. That’s slightly irritating, in so far as the streets are full of dreadlocked and tattooed young people wearing silk drawstring pants decorated with elephants. But it’s quiet and relaxing. The food is good, both in the restaurants and at the side of the road. And there are fun things to do, but not so many fun things that we’ll be running around non-stop until we leave on Friday.

Calvin organised a tour on our first day: a boat trip to visit a cave containing a thousand Buddha images, and a bus trip to a bear sanctuary and a waterfall. Today, New Year’s Day, we visited as many temples as we could possibly find, and went to the night market to watch young people buying silk drawstring pants. Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting some elephants. Calvin organised it.

καλά Χριστούγεννα

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A view of the Acropolis in Athens from some distance away. The hill is surrounded by trees and the Parthenon is visible on top.

Most of my last post was written on the ferry to Patras. I had decided to spend two nights there, not because there’s anything particularly cool about it, but because it the first place where I could see The Last Jedi in English. (English films are usually dubbed in Italy.) I saw the film a few hours after I arrived; I saw it again the following night.

I struggled to find anything much to do in Patras. I had some laundry and shopping to do, and I had to organise a bus ticket to Delphi. A Google search of things to do in Patras wasn’t particularly promising, but it did mention a Byzantine castle on a cliff overlooking the city, not far from my hotel. I climbed up the cliff, but the castle was closed on Mondays.

The bus to Delphi left at lunchtime on Tuesday. To kill time in the morning, I tried the castle again. It was worth it. Even a nondescript Greek town can be incredibly beautiful.


I had already been to Delphi once, on the School Classics Tour in June. We just stayed there one night. It was fantastic though — a warm evening, lots of bars and restaurants open, a friendly little town.

I didn’t really take advantage of it though. We let the boys go out for a few hours of free time, while I waited for them in the hotel bar, editing an episode of Flight Through Entirety.

This time, I stayed there for two nights. I had booked a single room in the hotel at an absurdly cheap rate, but the manager upgraded me to a double room out of sheer kindness and generosity — a room with a view over the valley, towards the sea.

Looking out over a valley at wooded mountains and olive groves, and an inlet in the distance reflecting the light of sunset. Blue and yellow clouds on the horizon.

It was freezing cold, of course, and lots of the bars and restaurants were closed. But I was able to spend more time at the archaeological site, which was much less hot and crowded than it had been in June. And it was lovely to be somewhere small and quiet. I really enjoyed myself.

The morning I left, it snowed. Not in Delphi itself, where it was just raining, but on the mountains on either side. I watched the snowflakes falling from the balcony of my room.

The bus from Delphi to Athens goes further up into the mountains, through a town called Aráchova. Everything there was completely covered in snow. I’ve only seen snow maybe twice before, so just days before Christmas, this was magical. (I only have very crappy photos of this from the window of the bus, with a woman’s head in the frame, so I’ll leave this to your imagination.)


I arrived in Athens in the afternoon. Calvin had booked me in at the InterContinental, a much classier hotel than the ones I’ve been staying in for the last few weeks. You can see the Acropolis from here, and the Philopappos monument, which is on top of a hill directly opposite. It was too late to actually do anything: all the archaeological sites close at 3 or 4 PM in winter, but I walked straight to the Acropolis as soon as I had checked in. Just to gaze up at it.

For €30, you can buy a ticket to the Acropolis, which includes entry to the Theatre of Dionysus, the Ancient Agora, the Olympeion, the Roman Agora, the the Library of Hadrian, the Kerameikos, and one or two more sites. When I was here on the tour in June, the only one of these I visited was the Acropolis, so I’ve spent the last couple of days visiting as many of the rest of them as possible. I also made a return visit to the Acropolis Museum.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk before dinner, and found myself at the park containing the Philopappos monument. I don’t know what it’s called, to be honest, but there are lots of cool things there, including the Pnyx, where the Athenian Assembly used to meet, and the Prison of Socrates, which we’re just going to say is the site of Socrates’ suicide, and therefore the setting for Plato’s Phaedo. That’s where I took that photo of the Acropolis, just before sunset.

Now it’s Christmas Eve, my last full day in Europe. (I arrived in London on 2 November, so it’s been just less than two months.) Tomorrow I’m flying to Bangkok, where I’m staying just one night. Calvin is there now, but he will have left by the time I arrive. I’ll catch up with him in Siem Reap, and we’ll be heading off together for a tour of Angkor Wat. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Merry Christmas.

Writing: I posted a thing about Star Wars: Episode VIII, which I think was a brilliant film. Don’t read the post if you haven’t already seen it. It’s lousy with spoilers.

Burning Star Wars to the ground

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Rose Tico is in a stone-walled stable looking at a  row of caged stalls. A big horse-like animal (a fathier) looks over the wall of each stall at here.

“I didn’t actually come here to free slaves.”

Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace (1999)

Perhaps the most baffling complaint about The Last Jedi is this: the Finn and Rose subplot is poorly integrated, and could easily be cut without damaging the film. I’ve seen this complaint over and over again, even in reviews that are broadly insightful and positive about the movie. And I think it’s completely wrong. The Finn and Rose subplot is thematically central to the film.

Let’s recap. Finn and Rose need to visit a town on the Space French Riviera called Canto Bight, in order to make contact with someone who will help them break the security codes preventing them from boarding Snoke’s ship undetected.

So they leave the fleeing Resistance fleet in a shuttle and land in Canto Bight. Rose warns Finn that the people there are the worst people in the universe. It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, apparently.

We cut immediately to a shot of a popping champagne cork. Canto Bight is a gloriously golden deco set full of fat aliens in lovely suits drinking expensive drinks and carelessly throwing gold coins onto roulette tables. Finn is hugely impressed: these are the richest people in the galaxy. This is like nothing we’ve ever seen in Star Wars before.

Then there’s a shot of lots of lovely champagne glasses shaken, Jurassic Park style, by thunderous footsteps outside. We rush to a balcony, much like the balcony on that planet in the Hosnian system from which the Republican government witnessed its own destruction. A race is starting up, a race in which giant horse-like creatures — fathiers — are running around a track; presumably the rich fat aliens are betting extravagantly on the outcome.

While the race is going on, Rose tells Finn why she hates Canto Bight. The people of Canto Bight are rich from the profit they have earned dealing arms to the First Order. Her own planet was mined to create these arms, and then destroyed in order to test them. She doesn’t blame the First Order for this: she blames the fat aliens, the one percent, the richest people in the galaxy.

Throughout Rose’s speech, Finn is using a telescope to watch the fathiers racing. While she describes the oppression of her planet, Finn is watching the fathiers being savagely whipped by their riders: when we seem them later, they will have visible marks from this mistreatment. Then Finn moves the telescope to see one of the trainers attacking a small child, a stable boy. The fathiers and the boy become a symbol for the oppression caused by the people of Canto Bight, including the oppression of Rose’s home planet.

Finn and Rose return to the casino and spot the codebreaker, who seems to be a beautifully-groomed rich arsehole too concerned with his gambling to help them anyway. But before they can reach him, they are arrested by the police, whose job, of course, is to protect the interests of the rich fat aliens, and ensure that their conspicuous consumption should continue unmolested. We’ve never seen the police in Star Wars before: they will be our antagonists until the end of this sequence. The police tase them immediately and take them to prison.

After he rescues Finn and Rose, Benicio Del Toro will tell Finn and Rose that the fat aliens are rich not just because they sell arms to the First Order, but because they also sell arms — X-wings! — to the Resistance. “They blow you up, you blow them up,” he says. It’s not just the First Order oppressing Rose’s home planet. It’s the continual war between the Separatists and the Republic, the Empire and the Rebellion, the First Order and the Resistance. The peoples of the galaxy have been oppressed for decades by Star Wars.


No one in the Star Wars films cares about the miserable inhabitants of Rose’s home planet. (It’s called Hays Minor, as if anyone cared.) The good guys in Star Wars don’t liberate the oppressed. They blow up space stations and smash up Star Destroyers. Or they levitate rocks and ransack their desk calendars for wise sayings about detachment and balance. Even in this film, while Admiral Holdo is bravely sacrificing herself to save people’s lives, Rey is fighting Kylo Ren for possession of Luke Skywalker’s fucking lightsaber.

And that’s why no one on the Outer Rim answers Leia’s distress call from Crait, the planet salty from the tears of a million fanboys. No one on the Outer Rim gives a shit about the Resistance. Because the Resistance does nothing to relieve their oppression: instead, it actively contributes to it, only ever solving things by getting in an (expensive) X-wing and blowing something (expensive) up.


The film has two endings. The first one is the traditional tableau of our rebellious heroes, like the ones at the end of Episodes IV and VI, where the Rebellion celebrates victories that will not end up making life any better for the oppressed inhabitants of Hays Minor.

The second one is unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before. Or is it? Somewhere on the Space French Riviera, the stable boy is telling the story of Luke Skywalker, a story he can’t possibly know. Like Rey, like us, he has an action figure to help him act the story out. Finn and Rose have given him a spark of hope: they released the oppressed fathiers, let them smash up the rich fat aliens’ casinos and cocktail bars, took off their saddles, and left them to run free in moonlight and long grass. Rose was smiling as she did it.

Because the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi any more, the stable boy uses it to pick up his broom and starts sweeping. He pauses for a moment and, like farmboy Luke, he looks up into the sky. And John Williams kicks into gear.


Rian Johnson has burned Star Wars to the ground. Now we know who the real enemy is. And we know what the Resistance should really be doing. Let’s hope JJ manages to stick the landing in Episode IX.

Bari — Episode II

Saturday, 16 December 2017

It's dark. We're looking across an expanse of concrete at a large illuminated ferry in the distance.

If you asked me right now to name my favourite Star Wars film, my answer, without hesitation would be Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It’s the funniest of the Star Wars films, it has likeable, charismatic, well-drawn characters, and it carries on the overwrought intergenerational Skywalker saga in a satisfying way.

Plenty of people dismissed it as a remake of the original Star Wars film. Which it was, of course. But we hadn’t had a remake of the original Star Wars since 1999, and we hadn’t had a good remake since 1983. So 2015 needed a new remake of Star Wars to relaunch a the new series of films and to remind us that Star Wars isn’t just about bored actors sitting listlessly on couches talking about trade embargoes.

More than that, though. After nearly forty years of Star Wars films and spinoffs, The Force Awakens understands what it’s doing in a way that the original Star Wars really doesn’t.


I’m in Bari right now, on a ferry romantically named the SuperFast II. I’m about to head over to Patras in Greece. It’s the second time I’ve done this.

The first time was in 2008, my last long service leave. That time, Bari was not fun. My train arrived late, I had just over an hour to get to the ferry, I didn’t know where the ferry left from, I had a crummy paper map, and I got completely lost in the narrow and slippery lanes of the old city. And it was probably raining. I remember being getting incredibly angry and flustered, which was a thing that happened a lot on that particular trip.

This time, I booked a hotel for a night. So, when the train arrived late, I just needed to walk a few blocks drop off my luggage and then go out for dinner. Totally relaxed. After dinner, I wandered down to the water and around the old city. On the way back, I found a nice bar and had a glass of a noxious liqueur called pugliese. It was nice.

I didn’t need to check in for the ferry until 5:30 in the afternoon. I couldn’t find anything pressing to do, so I explored the streets of Bari, got a beard trim, had lunch in the old city, found the seaside and wandered around there for a while. I ended up finding somewhere to sit and read for a couple of hours.


I’ve said this before here: at the start of this trip, I had only a few concrete plans. I had a hotel booked for the first couple of days in London, a flight booked to Amsterdam, another hotel booked for my last couple of nights in Athens, and then a flight from Athens to Bangkok at Christmas. (Thanks, Calvin.) I also wanted to stay in Sorrento for a while. But everything else was open. I could go anywhere or do anything.

And yet, this trip has pretty much been a remake of my last long service leave. Last time I explored the south of France a bit more and only stayed in Italy for just over a week. But otherwise, the itinerary has been the same.

It would be easy to be disappointed with myself. I’ve still never been to Spain or Portugal. I didn’t go to Budapest or Trogir. Most of my time has been spent in places I’ve seen before.

But I just don’t care. I explored lots of new places in Sicily and Greece on the Classics Trip in June. I’m meeting Calvin after Christmas: we’ll be visiting Cambodia and Laos, adding two more countries to the growing list of places I’ve visited in South-East Asia.

And this trip has been so easy and pleasant. Most of my train trips have been about two hours long; none of them have been longer than four hours. I’ve enjoyed seeing familiar places, and finding out new things about them, and having new things to do. Venice, Naples, Sirmione and Antibes were all great. And I’m more relaxed and well-rested than I have ever been, I think.


I’ll be staying in Patras for two nights. I don’t know anything about Patras, except that there’s a cinema there called the Odeon, where Star Wars — Episode VIII is screening in English. I plan to watch it at least twice. I’ll let you know after that whether it’s my new favourite.

Sorrento things

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

An overcast day at the waterfront at Sorrento. In the foreground are some dinghies pulled up on shore. Behind them is a jetty with boats tied to it. And in the distance is Mount Vesuvius.

It’s raining like crazy today, so I’m postponing my visit to Pompeii until tomorrow, which is my last full day in Sorrento.

I arrived here on 3 December. There have been plenty of day trips since then, but also a lot of relaxing and doing nothing. So, this post will be mercifully free of narrative. Instead, some Sorrento things.

Io non posso entrare

There are dogs everywhere here. They’re allowed, or at least tolerated, in bars and restaurants. One woman was walking a dog in the ruins of Herculaneum; someone brought their dog into the Archaeological Museum in Naples.

And there are dogs freely wandering the streets. Last night I was sitting outside at a bar, when a dog wandered past and cocked his leg on a nearby fruit stall. The owner gently kicked the dog, who growled at him and ran off.

There’s one grubby snaggletoothed dog who wanders around Tasso Square. He seems fairly confident in traffic, but every time I see him, I’m terribly anxious about him getting run over. I’m sure he’ll be fine.

Christmas

It seems like middle-aged complaints about the length of the Christmas season start earlier every year. It’s been Christmas for my entire trip, all the way back in London in November. But it’s been crazy in Sorrento. Take a look:

This is all very sweet. The only annoying thing is the nightclub next to my apartment that plays Feliz Navidad loudly just once every night sometime late in the evening. Oh, and the horrific Christmas music that was playing throughout the main shopping area on Capri.

Uno spritz, per favore

It seems to me that Aperol only has only been a thing in Australia over the past year. Here it’s everywhere. Even the Beginner’s Italian course I’m doing on Babbel tells me that I have to have at least one spritz before dinner. And so I do.

Speaking Italian

My Italian is hundreds of years out of date, of course, and I’ve never actually formally attempted to learn it before. Now, for the first time, I’ve tried to give it a go.

The only thing is that my Italian is audibly terrible, and so everyone I try it on responds in English immediately. But still I persist.

More than once, though, I’ve received a verbal pat on the head for asking for the bill in Italian. Which is fine: I’ll take literally any reinforcement I can get.

Food and agoraphobia

I’ve never told anyone this before, but I actually get slightly anxious going into a shop or a bar or a restaurant I’ve never been to before. I often have to wander around for ages before finding somewhere where I’m prepared to go in and eat. (It’s even a thing at home, but then I have Calvin with me; given the choice, I’ll always go to somewhere familiar.)

It’s ridiculous, obviously. I’ve found lots of places to eat here; even the least expensive places have fantastic hearty food. The one time I screwed up the courage to go to a classy-looking restaurant and order from the specials menu, I ended up with a massive plate of gnocchi with gorgonzola and walnuts, which was like eating a giant tub of rancid wallpaper paste. I won’t be doing that again.

Naples

Naples is kind of horrible, isn’t it? I only spent one day there, last Saturday. It’s glamorous, but filthy and rundown and vaguely threatening. I wanted to visit the Archaeological Museum, which was okay — full of things looted from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The highlight was the Secret Room, to which children under 14 are admitted at their own risk. It’s full of Roman erotica — frescoes of scenes from mythology, phalluses, tiny bronze dicks, and ridiculously obscene sculptures. Here’s the highlight:

A statue of a satyr on top of a goat. His penis is visible: he is penetrating the goat, who seems fine with it
This is exactly the kind of thing Cory Bernardi warned us about

Leaving Friday

I’m catching the train to Bari on Friday, staying there one night, and then catching the overnight ferry to Patras. Two nights in Patras, not because there’s lots of fun things to do there, but to give me the opportunity to repeatedly watch Star Wars VIII.

I’m going to go offline some time tomorrow, to avoid spoilers. I’ll be back once I’ve seen the film a couple of times.

Until then, here’s an inexpertly cobbled together photo gallery of Sorrento and the towns nearby. I’m off to have lunch somewhere I’ve been to before.

Reading: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman. Set 10 years before Northern Lights. It’s beautifully written, wonderfully anti-clerical, and about a third of the way through, it’s starting to get very tense.

ἐκκεκώφωκε τὰ ὦτα καὶ ἐμπέπληκε Λύσιδος

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The view from Monte Tiberio across a bay in Capri. The bay is far below us, and there are trees on one side in the forground. The sky is blue, it's sunny and the water is a clear, deep blue.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past few months.

Here’s one. I’ve been booking the cheapest possible hotels on trivago.com and booking.com. I can’t afford to stay in lovely five-star hotels every night for two months: I need to find cheap hotels reasonably close to the action in whatever city I’m staying in.

It took me a little while to properly get the hang of these sites, and so the hotel I booked in Amsterdam ended up being outside the old city, across a big bridgeless lake called the IJ.

The only easy way to cross the IJ is to take a free ferry from Amsterdam Centraal station to a place called Buiksloterweg. It’s free and it only takes five minutes. People board the ferry on foot, on their bikes or by just riding their motor scooters straight onto the deck.

The first night I tried to cross the IJ, I caught the wrong ferry and had to walk 45 minutes back to the hotel. Which was fine: I like walking, and I had podcasts to listen to.

But after the results of the non-compulsory non-binding postal survey, I had some very, very late nights out, and ended up having to catch the ferry, tired and emotional, at 3 o’clock in the morning. Or later.

It would have been much easier if I had booked a hotel in the Kerkstraat. Or somewhere else in the centre of Amsterdam.


Today, I went to Capri.

This wasn’t a mistake. I’d been there before, in 2008. It was spectacularly beautiful. Obviously, after my day off yesterday, it was going to be the first place I would visit during my stay in Sorrento.

I bought my ferry ticket from Sorrento port at 9 AM today. It cost €30. I had to choose a time for the return trip: 1:30 PM or 6:45 PM.

I chose 6:45 PM. There was no way I would get everything done by lunchtime, so I would have dinner on Capri and then head home after that.

I arrived on Capri, and, for the first time this trip, I checked in on Facebook. Lots of likes, which was nice, and a gratifying response from a beloved teacher from university. “Glorious place,” said Dexter. “(if expensive).”

He’s right. I’ve been travelling for over a month now, and today was the most glorious day so far.

I headed off towards the Villa Jovis, which was the biggest of the twelve villas on the island belonging to the Roman emperor Tiberius, who retired to Capri in 26 CE, leaving Rome to the tender mercies of Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus.

My first mistake was to take a wrong turn. I ended up at a place called the Arco Naturale.

Happy accident. But I was still keen to visit the Villa Jovis. I walked back, took a right turn at the Via Tiberio, and headed off in the right direction.

I found myself walking behind a talkative young American couple. I had been enjoying the silence, and I really didn’t want to follow them around Tiberius’s villa. So, at a fork in the road, I decided to head off to the Villa Lysis. There would be time for the Villa Jovis after that.


Tacitus mentions Tiberius’s twelve villas, but I know nothing at all about them. I supposed that the Villa Lysis might be one of them, but somewhere in the back of my mind I thought it seemed like an unlikely name for a Tiberian villa. (Who is Lysis? Why isn’t his name in the genitive case?) In any case, I was expecting some ruins.

I was wrong, of course.

There’s an early Platonic dialogue called the Lysis, about the nature of friendship. At the beginning, Socrates runs into Ctesippus and Hippothales and a bunch of young men who are hanging out with them. Socrates quickly realises that Hippothales is in love, and when Hippothales blushes and hesitates to tell him who he’s in love with, Ctesippus buts in and tells him that it’s Lysis: Hippothales won’t shut up about him — “Indeed, Socrates,” says Ctesippus, “he has literally deafened us, and stopped our ears with the praises of Lysis.”

That’s the Lysis that the Villa Lysis is named after. The villa was built in the first decade of the twentieth century by a man called Jacques d’Adelswärd Fersen. Fersen was born in Paris in 1880 to an incredibly wealthy family; at the age of 22 he inherited a bunch of money from his grandfather’s steel mills. After some kind of scandal involving tableaux vivants of schoolboys (whatever that means), he fled Paris; he settled in Capri in 1904 and built the Villa Lysis.

Fersen killed himself in 1923: glamorously, he dissolved 5 grams of cocaine in a glass of champagne and drank it. But he spent nearly two decades living in the Villa Lysis, smoking opium in a dedicated room, and sharing his life with an attractive young man called Nino Caesarini.

The inscription at the front of the Villa reads DOLORI ET AMORI SACRVM: sacred to pain and love. It’s totally camp and dramatic, of course, like the life of Fersen itself. He sounds like a truly terrible person, of course, but what would it have been like to be gay a hundred years ago, even in Europe, even for someone ridiculously privileged?

Okay for a while at least, I guess.


There was a ridiculously ramshackle path from the Villa Lysis to the Villa Jovis, which took half an hour and left me out of breath and disoriented. But I got there.

The Villa Jovis was a massive palace, bigger, I think, than any other villa I’ve ever visited. It’s right at the top of the Monte Tiberio, on the easternmost part of Capri. The unenthusiastic ticket-selling-guy gave me a horrible ASUS phone with an app on it to help me find my way around. The villa was massive and glamorous, perched on top of a cliff, eight stories high in places, with baths and kitchens and reception areas, and a massive dining room overlooking the sea.

Tiberius died there in 37 CE. According to an inscription in the main square of Capri, the elders of Capri don’t believe the infamous stories of his tableux vivants, and are proud that he ruled the Empire from their beautiful island.


I got back to the main square at about 2:30 PM. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. But there was still four hours to go before my ferry back to Sorrento.

What was I to do? There are any number of things to do in Capri, but now, hours later, back in my apartment in Sorrento, I’ve already walked over 28,000 steps and met 173% of my move goal. I was tired and hungry.

A toasted sandwich and an aperol spritz in the main square cost €20. So I settled up and headed down to the Marina Grande, where my ferry would be leaving in three and a half hours.


There’s a whole mistake theme to this post, which I should be circling back to now. But screw it. I regret nothing.

My Kindle easily fits in my jacket pocket, so I spent hours sitting at various bars and restaurants, eating expensive food and drinking expensive drinks and reading and looking out over the water. It was dark soon enough — time to leave. The ferry was enormous: unlike the ferries that travel across the IJ, this one was full of luxury cars driven by attractive Italian men. I started writing this post there: but now it’s finished, and I’m back in my apartment. And tomorrow I can do anything I want.

I’m planning to sleep in.