Luxury Family Hotels 
Friday, June 29, 2007, 07:14 AM
It’s nearly holiday time so this is simply a (disinterested) plug for a UK hotel group, ’Luxury Family Hotels’, which is good (but quite expensive) if you have children.

We discovered Luxury Family Hotels when our son (now 9) was a toddler. Further details of all their current properties are available on their website but the ones we’ve been most struck by are Moonfleet Manor (near Weymouth) and Fowey Hall (in Cornwall). Our children like them just as much as we do, luckily.

The group is aimed at families with young children, laying on ad hoc childcare in a ‘den’ during the day and baby listening or (for an additional fee) babysitting during the evening while parents have dinner. There are games (both traditional and electronic) for older children.

Children can stay in the parents’ room for free – z beds and travel cots are provided as necessary.

Both Moonfleet and Fowey are former country houses – both are elegantly furnished, although Fowey is a degree smarter than Moonfleet – and both are near the sea. The food is consistently pleasing, though not absolutely outstanding.

Although they’re both expensive, we’ve returned regularly to these hotels over the years because they’re far more relaxing than any other type of holiday – this is down to a combination of feeling pampered and feeling unanxious about whether the children will behave because all the other guests have small children too.

If you are thinking of going check out the reviews on Tripadvisor. The negative reviews give as accurate a picture as the positive ones – clearly the formula doesn’t suit everyone.

I particularly recommend the hotels to parents of pre school children as it’s far cheaper to stay during term time.

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Harry Potter 6: Harry/Slughorn 
Sunday, June 24, 2007, 01:25 PM
I thought I’d reread Harry Potter 6 to get me in the mood for the final instalment of the series next month. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince we learn that memories stored in a Pensieve can be edited, creating a fraudulent record of the past. In this instance it is Professor Horace Slughorn who has tweaked his ‘memory’ in order to conceal the fact he told Tom Riddle, the young Lord Voldemort, all about horcruxes.

It is quite easy to spot edited memories. The words spoken in the fake segment are too loud and the picture is clouded by a kind of white fog. I think there are similar ‘continuity errors’ in the book as a whole, not just in this one inserted memory. The book gives the impression of something having been removed, and replaced with a ‘fake’ segment which isn’t quite convincing.

Slughorn, as others have pointed out, is very similar in appearance and manner to the aging Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, who is strongly attracted to the alarmed narrator Marwood, his house guest. Slughorn is attracted to well connected, talented pupils, most of them male, and is clearly very keen on Harry, although Harry tries to avoid having too much to do with him:

‘Harry, that’s three of my little suppers you’ve missed now!’ said Slughorn, poking him genially in the chest. ‘It won’t do, m’boy. I’m determined to have you!’ (p.229)

However Harry is obliged to cultivate Slughorn’s friendship because Dumbledore instructs him to use all his powers of persuasion to obtain Slughorn’s real memory of the horcrux conversation.

There is something portentous about Dumbledore’s insistence that Harry try harder to achieve this task, and his hints that Harry is particularly well placed to exert an influence on Slughorn. The portrait of Phineas Nigellus says:

‘I can’t see why the boy should be able to do it better than you Dumbledore.’
‘I wouldn’t expect you to, Phineas,’ replied Dumbledore and Fawkes gave another low, musical cry.’ (p.349)

Dumbledore's insistent badgering of Harry implies a) that Harry has some definite method he could use if he put his mind to it and b) that there may be something distasteful about this method from Harry's persepective.

Although a kind of explanation is offered for Harry’s power over Slughorn – Slughorn’s particular fondness for Harry’s mother Lily – this somehow doesn’t seem to account for the build up to Harry’s successful wresting of the secret memory from his teacher.

There may be some significance in the juxtaposition of Hermione’s musings on the problem and the schoolboy humour produced by a malfunctioning spellchecking pen:

‘You’re going about it the wrong way,’ said Hermione, ‘Only you can get the memory, Dumbledore says. That must mean you can persuade Slughorn where other people can’t. It’s not a question of slipping him a potion, anyone could do that.’

‘How d’you spell “belligerent”? said Ron, shaking his quill very hard while staring at his parchment. ‘It can’t be B – U – M- ‘
‘No, it isn’t,’ said Hermione, pulling Ron’s essay towards her. ‘And “augury” doesn’t begin O – R – G either.’ (p.421)

Without – er – spelling it out, I don’t feel quite convinced by the easy solution to the Slughorn problem. After all that build up was it really just a matter of getting him drunk? ‘Slughorn and Harry stared at each other over the guttering candle. There was a long, long silence …’ (p.459). Visually the effect of a guttering candle might resemble the strange fog which heralds the occlusion of a genuine part of a memory. Is something being concealed, not just within Slughorn’s memory but within the novel itself?

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Diagnosing the Past (2): Hogg's Justified Sinner 
Wednesday, June 13, 2007, 07:01 PM
In a previous entry I explored the possibility of diagnosing literary figures from the past with conditions or disorders associated with the present. Recently I have been rereading James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and wondered whether its central character, Robert Wringhim, might be ‘diagnosed’ with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The novel pivots around Robert’s relationship with the mysterious Gil-Martin, a devilish figure who takes on Robert’s own form in order to work mischief. Although the two characters co-exist within the fiction of the novel, the fact that Robert is ‘taken over’ and at times replaced by a mysterious being recalls the idea of the changeling, whereby a child is spirited away by fairies and replaced with an uncanny double. Many have connected this folklore motif with autism – autistic children (and Asperger’s is characteristically seen as a mild form of autism) generally develop normally until they are toddlers and then appear to change or regress suddenly.

More important, the characterisation of Robert tallies with many diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s. He is industrious at school but his manner alienates his comrades. When, as a young man, he sees his brother playing tennis he annoys the sportsmen by deliberately getting in the way of their game. Children with Asperger’s behave similarly, showing poor sense of personal space, little understanding of social interaction, and a tendency to be seen as ‘annoying’ by their peers.

Robert’s theology is characterised by a determination to follow doctrine to its logical conclusions. Thus the Calvinism of his foster father becomes Antinomianism – the belief that the elect needn’t conform to normal moral codes. This rather literal minded logic is, again, typical of those with Asperger’s.

Still more striking is the description of Robert’s gait. ‘his gait was very particular: He walked as if he had been flat-soled, and his legs made of steel, without any joints in his feet or ancles.’ A markedly rigid gait is typical of Asperger’s syndrome.

Finally, Robert is warned he’ll turn out a ‘conceited gowk’. The word ‘gowk’ is the ancestor of ‘geek’. Although it supposedly means a foolish or clumsy person, it is intriguing that the context suggests a connotation much closer to our more ambiguous 'geek', for Robert has just been giving an extremely pedantic hair splitting disquisition on a nice point of theology.

And finally -‘gowk’ literally means cuckoo – yet another changeling …

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Stephen Greenblatt lecture in Cambridge: Warts and all 
Sunday, May 20, 2007, 09:59 AM
Went to hear the Leslie Stephen lecture on Friday, ‘Shakespearean Beauty Marks’ given by Stephen Greenblatt. This was a rather grand event held in Cambridge University’s imposing Senate House, followed by drinks and dinner at Trinity Hall.

Although not especially striking, the lecture set out an interesting and enjoyable taxonomy of spots, moles and warts in Shakespearean texts and contexts. It was very professionally delivered – hardly surprising as SG seems to have spent the last two years giving the same paper at universities throughout the world. All the questions from the floor seemed to be put by students, and were mostly both interminable and incomprehensible. I felt relieved on SG’s behalf when the Beadle (?) brought proceedings to a close.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007, 09:20 AM
I went to Paris last week with Alex to continue our investigation of France’s grandes tables. Our last such outing was to the memorable Guy Savoy. This time we decided to try Alain Passard’s controversial L’Arpège.

Passard is famous for his vegetables and caused a stir some years ago by making L’Arpège completely vegetarian. (Happily) he has since softened his position though in fact most of the courses on the sampling menu we chose were completely vegetarian, and the most striking course of all was a harlequin of tiny vegetables flavoured with (amongst other things) argan oil, which comes from a tree found only in Morocco.

The vegetables themselves came from Passard’s own organic farm near Le Mans. Here the use of machines is completely forbidden, although the gardeners are allowed the use of a horse during harvest.

This harlequin ranked, we thought, alongside with Mark Veyrat’s contraste de foie gras or Guy Savoy’s ‘colours of caviar’. Another memorable dish was the Breton pre-salé lamb, served with a sauce of sea snails and seaweed.

The style of cooking here is ascetic, cerebral and subtle (though the bill was opulent, extravagant and capacious). The experience of dining at L’Arpège reminded me of an incident in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu Marcel’s long anticipated first visit to see the actress Mme Berma play Phèdre. He cannot immediately grasp her genius and only fully appreciates its impact when he reads a review of the performance.

‘As soon as my mind had conceived this new idea of “the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art,” it, the idea, sped to join the imperfect pleasure which I had felt in the theatre, adding to it a little of what it lacked, and the combination formed something so exalting that I exclaimed to myself: “What a great artist”.’

I do hope my back pay comes through soon.

Pierre Gagnaire next time I think.

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