The go-to site for what makes life worth living in and around Petersfield, Hampshire, and some other stuff too. For flaneurs, bon vivants, indeed boulevardiers of every complexion - why go anywhere else?

Friday, 14 November 2008

Draw your children closer: Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

I finished 'The Road' feeling like someone had stuck a rusty corkscrew between my ribs and slowly twisted. Recalling Einstein's prediction that 'World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones', this astonishing novel reveals a world where all colour, warmth, light and shade have been turned down to their lowest settings, where life is reduced to a grim cave painting. But don't be put off - it's also compulsively readable - cliche or not, I couldn't put it down, but that was in part because I didn't want to put the light out and face the dark. 

Can you describe a book so brutally, gut-wrenchingly bleak as 'great'? I guess there is hope in the love between father and child protagonists (though even this is as agonised and desperate a portrayal of that inter-dependency as you will ever read) and there is just the possibility of light at the end of this terrible journey, but it's fair to say that more optimistic takes on the human condition are widely available. 

But are they more realistic? 'The Road' makes you fear that this, but for the grace of whoever, is just the way it is - that in the end it all comes down to a rat-like survivalist instinct, and that if we've cared to notice, we've seen plenty of similar journeys down similar roads, in many theatres of bitter conflict in the post-Cold War world - and furthermore that, if we don't get our act together, this is a road that could be waiting for any of us. 

A book to make you think, and shiver, and draw your children closer. Masterful. A film of this will be out soon. Read the book first. 

The Shoe Inn

Exton, 7 miles west and south of Petersfield. The Shoe is a very friendly traditional village pub in the Meon Valley whose slightly tired decor is compensated by some excellent grub. Lots of fish and seafood, cooked with a sure hand and offering some some great flavours. Wadworth's beers, good short wine list, terrace in front of the pub looks towards a riverside garden. Busy even on a Tuesday night, worth booking. Shoe Lane, Exton 01489 877526. GMAP

The Bakers' Arms

Droxford, 8 miles west and south of Petersfield. As they would say on Masterchef, 'oh yes...'. This is great, but begs some serious questions: 1) what have the good folk of the Meon valley done to deserve largesse on this scale, with at least three excellent dining pubs within walking distance of each other (see also The Thomas Lord and The Shoe Inn)? and 2) couldn't we see more of this kind of action a bit closer to Petersfield? Please?

Providing a masterclass in how to get it right, Anna Thompson and Adam Cordery took over the Baker's Arms two years ago and have turned it from what was - by all accounts - a pretty grotty local into the the kind of pub that any village and many small towns would kill for. Plain but comfortable and warm inside, with a nice assortment of furniture tucked into interesting corners, and a good fire blazing away. Good lighting, no music, just a really pleasant and characterful space to be in. Friendly, attentive staff, good local beer from the Bowmans brewery (this place operates as a real pub, not just a restaurant), a short but decent wine list - and fantastic food. The menu isn't long but offers a decent choice of dishes from classic steak béarnaise and chips (often it's the classics which separate the great kitchens from the ordinary) - to more adventurous cuts and dishes, mostly locally sourced, nicely presented and very, very well cooked. Food tends to the comforting, but it's not served in overwhelming quantities and as it also inclines to the lip-smackingly, plate-wipingly delicious, we weren't complaining. Good puds too. As so often I am indebted to the ever-reliable Herry Lawford, who drew my attention to The Baker's Arms. Excellent call Herry - more welcomed. Note that The Baker's Arms been winning dining awards since it opened and some of the big guides are sniffing around, so get in now and beat the crowds. Booking already advisable. High Street, Droxford 01489 877533 GMAP

The Trooper Inn

Froxfield, 3 miles north and west of Petersfield, not far from The Pub With No Name

The Trooper styles itself an inn, but it would be hard to imagine anything further from a traditional boozer. Although it still maintains a bar, where they'll happily serve you a pint, and a small but decent selection of beers (Ballards, Ringwoods), this is very much a dining pub and pretty much an out and out restaurant, with room for a hundred or more covers in two bars and any number of alcoves and annexes. Not that this need be read as a bad thing; in fact, the less you think of it as a pub, the happier you're likely to be. The specials blackboard changes ever day and features a great range of genuinely tempting dishes, running from British classics delivered with imagination through modern European to a good handful of Asian-influenced dishes, backed up by a substantial a la carte menu. Shellfish features strongly. Excellent wine list is supplied by the General Wine Company. Place is warm and welcoming, a big fire going in the main bar and the walls dense with photographs and posters, hopbines and all that caper. Stylish in a slightly Jack Vettriano way but hey, the food enjoys an excellent reputation, it's a nice space to sit in, the staff know their onions and few visitors are going to be disappointed. It really is a place you could comfortably bring your children and your aged P's without feeling the desperate ennui that normally accompanies a 'family restaurant' concept. Get there: west of Petersfield through Steep, up Stoner Hill (great views to your right) to Alton Rd, Froxfield. 01730 827 293 GMAP

La Piazzetta

Simple but warm and comfortable Italian trattoria, installed on the Square in Petersfield since the end of 2007. The menu isn't staggeringly innovative - pasta and pizza, steaks and a handful of other pesce e carne dishes - but the food is excellent, with a real Italian feel. Seafood dishes - mussels, spaghetti marinara and more - are especially good. Terrific puddings too - classics again, but when that includes excellent ice-cream pancakes and a tiramisu which virtually floats off the plate, who's complaining? Nice short wine list and decent value too. Warm service, good with children and old people. We'll be back. 2, The Square 01730 260006.

The Spice Lounge

Tucked away up a flight of stairs from the Square, Petersfield's Spice Lounge offers the best Indian food the Hipster has enjoyed in Petersfield and, we thought, more than a match for the more celebrated Madhuban in Liss. Interesting menu, offering more than the usual favourites and, even with four of us eating, a real struggle to make a choice. The food didn't disappoint, with strong, distinctive flavours throughout. Good value too. ... 1-2 The Square 01730 309309  GMAP

Sunday, 9 November 2008

File under 'Fabulous': Shelby Lynne's 'Just A Little Lovin''

'Just a Little Lovin'' is Shelby Lynne's tribute to the songs made famous by Dusty Springfield. It's a great album, delicately arranged but carrying a hefty emotional weight inside Shelby Lynne's velvet glove of a voice, echoing Dusty's emotionally fragile interpretations and mediating them through the great, blue-eyed soulful female voice of our time, the only contender for Dusty's seemingly untouchable legacy. 

As has been said elsewhere, why did it never really happen for Shelby Lynne after the unclassifiable masterpiece that was 'I Am Shelby Lynne'? The clue is in that 'unclassifiable' - too hard to pigeonhole maybe - not quite pop, country or soul, too much feeling - of a sometimes painfully bleak sort - to call it easy listening (however easy on the ear it invariably is). This doesn't reach those heights (very little does) but file under 'fabulous' nonetheless.

The Lounge

Occupying the site in Heath Road vacated a couple of years ago when JSW headed for grander premises, The Lounge offers comparatively unpretentious but nonetheless high quality dining in a small but comfortable space which, even when full, doesn't feel cramped. The food is squarely in the modern British camp (i.e. really quite traditional), rich and substantial (heading in the direction of comfort eating, but on a cold January night we weren't complaining) locally sourced where possible and treated with a restrained but expert hand. Positives: friendly and knowledgeable staff, very enjoyable food, decent short wine list, good value - expect to pay between £30 and £40 and to leave feeling you've had the best of the deal. Negatives: tables next to the big picture window can feel draughty... and someone should proof-read the menu. Nitpicking though - we liked the Lounge a lot. Welcome to Petersfield. 1-3 Heath Road 01730 266668


Petersfield's smartest restaurant, Michelin starred and Michelin priced. Moved to new and swish premises in Dragon Street in late 2006 from the much smaller space currently occupied by The Lounge. Here, the rooms are roomier, but the decor - neutral and the atmosphere - austere - have been carried through. Presumably this is to minimise any distraction from the culinary fireworks to come but we felt it had been taken too far; for sure, no-one likes to eat under searchlights but the peculiarly flat, indirect illumination makes the room feel inhospitable - as though the traditional 'gloomy corner' had been extended to the entire restaurant - and certainly doesn't set the food (or the diners) in a flattering light. Another time we'd make sure we had one of the few window tables with natural light or (in summer) would aim to eat outside in what looks like a nice courtyard. 

Both food and wine at JSW win plaudits; the food is certainly technically excellent (which is to say that you would never aspire to it at home), though more in terms of appearance and construction than flavour, the wine (from a fairly short list available by the glass) OK but unmemorable, the service professional (though not faultless) but the whole experience is emotionally uninvolving and pretty joyless. 

We guess there are a lot of people around who still like this kind of haute cuisine. If you're one of them, then JSW checks all the expected boxes and may well ring your bell - don't let our oikish preferences put you off. Dragon Street, Petersfield, Hampshire. 01730 262030

Through a Lens Darkly: Don McCullin's 'Unreasonable Behaviour'

A brilliantly written account of Don McCullin's experiences in every available 'hot war' across the 70s, 80s and early 90s. 

On one hand, 'Unreasonable Behaviour' can be read almost as a boy's-own story of fearless derring-do, as McCullin plunges into situation after situation of almost unimaginable peril, with only a Nikon between him, an awful lot of hot metal and some really terrifying people, and with almost no regard for his personal safety. Heart enters mouth as early as the second chapter and rarely leaves thereafter. 

On the other, it's one of the bleakest, most wretched books I have ever read, and not only because so much is concerned with brutality, atrocity and the very worst examples of human behaviour. 

McCullin's bravery is initially astonishing - he reports very little fear even when faced with the worst danger, even when staring down a lens at its terrible consequences. Gradually it becomes evident, however, that what we are witnessing is less about heroism, more about an almost complete absence of self-worth and that the reason he can so recklessly put his life on the line is because he values it so very little. Not quite 'no sense, no feeling', for he is by no means a stupid or insensitive man, but something along those lines. There's something missing. As the book progresses towards an almost unbearably sad ending, the personal life moves increasingly centre stage and it becomes evident that the title isn't just about what McCullin has witnessed. 

This isn't really a book for camera geeks. McCullin is a photojournalist first and a photographer second. His interest is in getting close to the action, less about the technical quality of the snap - which, ironically, is what makes them so arresting. But you'll look in vain for anything on lenses, bodies or films, other than a useful tip on what camera works best when you have to change film under fire and flat on your back.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Way to go: Trevor Dann's 'Deeper Than the Darkest Sea'

So cards on the table, I'm a Drake fan of some 25 years standing since, intrigued by regular oblique references in the NME, I picked up a boxed set of his vinyl albums (Fruit Tree) in Brighton's great 'Vinyl Solutions'. Great, dark, sorrowful songs, exquisite playing, and tunes that got under your skin and never left.

I have to say that my love for Drake's music has been little enhanced by his various biographers, though, and Trevor Dann's book is no exception. Maybe that's not his fault; maybe we have to accept after all these years that there's really very little story here, but I didn't even think he made the most of what he had. There's way too much of what Salinger calls 'that David Copperfield crap' (which would be OK if it didn't just make Drake sound like a spoilt, moody and not particularly interesting public schoolboy), even more padding about his Dad's adventuring in Singapore and the West Midlands motor trade (interesting enough in a 'not-really' sort of way), some very tenuous drug and mental illness speculation, the usual ragbag of semi-learned digressions (how easy must they be to pull off in these Google-equipped days)... in short, a lot of dicking about and not that much Nick.

As seems obligatory when discussing Drake too, every recollection or anecdote or detail is driven home with sledgehammer weight and significance and simultaneously treated with a kind of precious reverence in the context of the Events to Follow. The title is much in keeping with that style - next to 'Heavier than Heaven', which does the same job for Kurt Cobain, it's my new favourite stinky rock-biog title.

I remain convinced there is a story there though - I would loved a great deal more digging into where that remarkable style came from, and exactly how this weightless, almost context-free individual came up with an astonishing collection of songs - unfortunately it's not here. The closest anyone has come to that is in Ian Macdonald's extended essay in '
The People's Music' and Joe Boyd's reflections in 'White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s', the only efforts to capture Drake that I'd really recommend.

I'm just glad I found Nick Drake's music before I found his back story, or wild horses wouldn't have dragged me to listen to it.