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What I Did On My Holiday

Helm Lardar


I've just been away for 2 weeks in France (1 week in Brittany, 1 in the Loire region), and during it I read several books and went to various places. I thought I'd post a review of the time, or at least the books.


Books I read:


A Tale of Two Cities. Fantastic book, made I suppose all the better by reading it in France. Like most Dickens books, it starts a bit slow, introducing characters carefully and so on, but it picks up the pace dramatically and has some astonishingly intense scenes in it. I would recommend this to anyone, but it's probably best read if you've got the time to do it over a few days rather than a chapter a night, so that you remain familiar with all the characters etc. Unlike most Dickens novels, this is a historical novel, set before and during the French revolution (the two cities are London and Paris), and this lends it an additional air of drama and suspense that's highly enjoyable.


The Old Reliable. This is, I suppose, a typical PG Wodehouse book. It's a comic novel set in a single house with several characters who have different motives acting out their plans. Lighthearted and fun, but in my opinion slightly disappointingly short. I still think Evelyn Waugh is better at this sort of thing, as both Decline and Fall and Scoop were funnier and more interesting. Still worth a read if you bump into it, as Wodehouse ties the different threads together very cleverly.


Back from the brink. These are the memoirs of Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (head of the UK treasury and an elected MP) of the previous government. I actually thought these were really well done. Far from being full of difficult technical terms and boring descriptions of Parliamentary business Darling focuses on the most interesting part of his career-being chancellor-and offers a really easy to read explanation of the financial crisis, its causes, and how the Labour government reacted to it. He offers some intriguing insights into how the government works, what it's like being Chancellor, and strategies for tackling the financial crisis generally (including a critique of the current Conservative government's attempts). Above all, it's not too long, which makes it eminently readable. If you're looking for a biography to pick up and think this could be interesting, do give it a go.


Books I finished/got partway through/started:


Waverley (finished). This is arguably the first ever historical novel and is by Walter Scott. It's 200 years old and is set in the Jacobite uprising of 1745, where Bonnie Prince Charlie, of the exiled royal house of Stewart, sailed to Scotland, raised the highland clans of Scotland, had some success but was then brutally defeated at the Battle of Culloden. This is a very significant point in UK history, but the novel isn't just interesting for that reason: it also uses a very romantic style and a truly likeable hero. There are also occasionally very interesting asides to the reader about novel-writing, the progress of time, and so on. Scott writes in a very different way to modern historical novel authors, but it's a very enjoyable way to read.


The Grass is Greener: Our love affair with the Lawn (got partway through). This purports to be a hilarious history of the lawn, but I felt it didn't really fit that description. It's not terribly funny, it's more a history of gardening, the lawnmower, and the lawn than the history of the lawn itself, and it occasionally has weird but pointless diatribes in the middle where he removes himself from his history to talk about his nostalgia for his first ever lawnmower and things like that. It's an impressive look at the history of the modern garden to begin with but it was a little too dry and off-point for me to finish it.


David Copperfield (started, now 2/3rds of the way through). This is another Dickens novel (my dad had the complete set on his kindle, I was borrowing it). This has a slower start than A Tale of Two Cities, particularly since for the first 10-20 chapters the character is a child, who is both slightly annoying and very weak. However, the book eventually picks up, and the hero has the excellent trait of not letting himself down (which I felt was what makes Great Expectations so frustrating) but is simply forced to use hard work and conviction to get himself through the difficulties of life. While it is mostly about the hero, because of the limited cast of characters almost everyone who enters the story in a significant way will pop up later down the line, so the novel includes their stories as well. At times the book is genuinely funny (though it doesn't try to be, which is part of the charm), though I have yet to experience the same depth of emotion as there is in Two Cities. Worth a read, but the other Dickens I read was (far, far,) better.


Now, what about the places I visited? I'll just do a brief summary.


In Brittany: Morlaix has a cool viaduct which you can walk on and which trains cross over the town with, Huelgoat has massive rocks (they're rather large, worth seeing if you're dropping by), it's not worth going to viewpoints in the coast on a cloudy day (we couldn't see a thing, it was bad), Roscoff has a superb jardin exotique that is great for birdwatching (I picked that up on the holiday, my aunt is a keen birdwatcher and we both had sets of binoculars). Brittany has lots of good places to go walking, though the forest of Huelgoat once you get away from the big rocks is really just a forest like any other (at least to me).


In the Loire region: Chambord is big but worth seeing because of its ridiculous proportions and grandeur, Blois is worth seeing because it has really cool furnishings (seriously, really really cool) and lots of different styles, Chateaudun is worth visiting because the town was entirely rebuilt after 1732 and the chateau has different styles and a fantastic group of tapestries on the life of Moses (no really, fantastic if you like tapestries, it's a big set). Buy some insect repellent, we didn't and I'm covered in bites. The countryside is bad for walking, lots of flat barley fields, but going on a river in a boat is fine so long as you don't get stuck in waterlilies. Chartres Cathedral is big, lots of windows (bring binoculars or you won't be able to see some of the detail), very gloomy in the non-restored parts, very light and refreshing in the restored parts, it's quite Catholic (but then, what Catholic church isn't?) but it's well worth seeing if you're nearby. The town itself is nothing special.


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