on Bond films

I like Bond films and, much as they try to change them, I hope they never succeed. I hope they stay as vulgar, as politically incorrect, loud, artless, bereft of exposition and  improbable as have always been. That’s not to say that the extreme of anyone of those things is not a bad thing, and we’ll find that out as we rate the Bond films, from worst to best, based on how well they meet the above criteria  or how much they skirt over the margins of them….

 

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24.  Octopussy   It was no great shakes when it came out and it hasn’t aged well at all. In fact, even by my low standards I find this repellingly racist and creepy-rapey-sexist. Some bits are good, especially the opening sequences with 009 and Vijay Amritraj comes out of the muddle with some genuinely funny lines, but the rest of it is a confused, aimless waste of time, ill flavoured with the above mentioned racist vibe, coercive sex, terrible mugging from Moore and a stupid Tarzan scream.  Also, the mad Russian general is the most forgettable Bond villain there ever was (I can’t even remember his name) and the theme song is shit.

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23. Die Another Day  If Diamonds are Forever was a half arsed remake of Goldfinger, and this is a half arsed remake of Diamonds are Forever, does that make this a quarter arsed remake of Goldfinger? Hardly – this isn’t 1/20th the film Goldfinger was. Pound for pound the worst of the films – Octopussy sits lower because of the nasty vibe about the film rather than the sheer ineptitude of the direction, garbage special effects and long-windedness of the waffle that it trots out. Rosamund Pike is a pleasant distraction (but utterly wasted), I rather like Madonna’s salty five seconds in it and I don’t dislike the theme song (million would disagree), but the movie is basically the soundtrack of one long scraping of the bottom of the barrell.

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22. Diamonds Are Forever  Connery is back, but his performance here reeks of ennui and even evinces a half-hearted Lazenby impersonation rather than the return of the magnificent beast that once he was.  The whole set up seems cheap and hokey- Charles Grey and Jill St John are silly, the plot is stupidly convoluted and the gags, apart from Mr Wint and Mr Kidd’s dry observations on the follies of human mortality, are flat and tiresome.  Great theme song, Connery wears some nice suits (but then he also wears that appalling pink tie) and although it is wasted, Las Vegas is a promising location for the film. All in all, a waste of Connery and a film Lazenby’s light and dark style would have been much better suited to.

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21. Moonraker  Much maligned, there’s actually some good stuff in Moonraker, which is just really let down by an awful ending.  Hugo Drax is a great villain, especially when damning Bond by saying he appears with “the tedious inevitability of an unwelcome season”, the scenes at Drax’s manor are for the most part tense and sharp, especially the death of Corinne and Bond dispatching his would be assassin at the grouse hunt. Ken Adams’ sets are amazing and the theme song is a classic (warning, though, the disco verizon over the closing credits is abominable). the two obvious failings of the film are Lois Chiles as the Bond Girl – she can’t damn act and stinks up every scene she’s in and, of course, the ending, which is moronic (and not helped by Lois Chiles, well, stinking the whole thing up). The best that might be said for Moonraker is that it is the kind of film where the good gets better every time you see it and the bad, at very least, doesn’t get any worse.

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20. The Man with the Golden Gun  The only thing keeping this one off the bottom of the heap is the bravura performance of Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, who may just be the best Bond Villain of all time and the scene between Moore and the gunmaker in Macao. Crap theme song, Britt Ekland looking very nice but doing nothing else, a stupid sound effect ruining one of the best stunts ever in the franchise and a very, very predictable ending keep this one fluctuating between the tedious and the painful. But Lee is magnificent, every line delivered with deadly precision and projected just so as to make you feel he is a distinctly uncomfortable human being.  Moore himself does reasonably well with what he is given, but you can’t help but think he has squandered the good start Live ad Let Die gave him. One of the Bond films where the book (unlike most people, I tend to like Fleming’s novels more as they go along, as opposed to thinking he went downhill after Goldfinger)  was much better than the movie.

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19. You Only Live Twice  Iconic and emblematic of Bond films in general, a lot of  You Only Live twice is, however, tedious travelogue and wildly improbable tommyrot.  Which is not to say that wildly improbable tommyrot isn’t grand fun, Goldfinger was wildly improbable tommyrot, but snatching capsules in orbit and Bond passing as Japanese, not 10 minutes after it has been amply pointed out how vastly different he is from Japanese men is just dumb. But the worst misstep with YOLT is that the producers made YOLT and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service out of order (YOLT being OHMSS’s sequel in the books) – it makes a mockery of the Blofeld reveal and would have made much more sense to have given Connery the more dramatically challenging OHMSS and Lazenby the more action oriented YOLT to cut his teeth on. That notwithstanding, we get a classic pre-title sequence, a good theme song, little Nellie, brilliant Ken Adam sets and a Volcano Lair to balance out dull Bond Girls, dull Bond Cars and a Sean Connery who is patently bored with the role and rushing his lines out like he has a pressing engagement elsewhere. Dumb fun, but more the former than the latter.

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18. A View to A Kill  Widely loathed, I find there’s enough good in the film to just about balance out the bad.  For the good, the plot is reasonably coherent – a more logical version of the Goldfinger plan. Christopher Walken is magnificent – absolutely batshit crazy to such a degree it makes you wonder why he is bothering to go about his plan at all – someone that mental wouldn’t strike me as being motivated by any mere money.  Also, “anyone else want to drop out”, uttered after tossing a fellow out of blimp into San Francisco Bay, is one of the best lines ever in the franchise. Top theme song, some good stunts in Paris and, for the most part, a reasonably restrained performance from Moore, with whom time has most assuredly caught up.  Grace Jones is a mixed blessing, but certainly distinctive and Patrick MacNee gives some sympathetic comedic support and his death serves to focus Bond that he is actually there to do a job.  For the bad, Moore’s age can’t be hidden and “he looks great for 58” may be true, but not in a Bond film. Tanya Roberts is every bit as bad as they would have you believe as the Bond girl. the character just doesn’t work – I think they may have been going for the kind of girl that Maryam D’Abo played in The Living Daylights, but she didn’t have a Dalton to play off nor the relevance to the movie.  The plot does wander a fair bit at the end of the middle act and there’s some unnecessary tomfoolery with a fire engine, bridge and police cars. On the whole, not great but not as bad as many would hold it up to be.

 

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17.  Spectre  Overlong, overindulgent, over-sentimental and unevenly plotted, Spectre is, along with You Only live Twice the biggest waste of money in the franchise and along with Octopussy the biggest step backwards ever it took. After the glories of Skyfall, this turgid mess of emotional blackmail, pointless exposition, needless reinvention, ludicrous overacting from Christoph Walz (or maybe instead of “ludicrous over” we should just say “trademark”) and the movie suddenly becoming pointless and, frankly, pretty incomprehensible, after the hour and a half mark. Also has, by some way, the worst theme song ever. Also, also – Bond’s Tom Ford suits are awful – it is a travesty that Q’s suits look better than Bond’s. So, what’s good?  Lea Seydoux is astonishingly lovely, the stunt work is good, there’s even some dour humor in it (although not patch on Skyfall) – my favourite ” What’s that?  That is a 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith. Some great lines that resonate – “You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr Bond”, “I came here to kill you. And I though you came here to die. Well, it’a all a matter of perspective” “C is for careless” and I liked Bond’s watch so much I bought one…. and the impressive pre-credits romp. But its a machine much less than the sum of its parts and it points to worrisome new directions for the franchise. Perhaps a post-Craig reboot may be in order?

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16. The World is Not Enough  All Things considered, probably the most innocuous and unmemorable of all the films in the franchise. By no means great, by no means dreadful. Just kind of …. meh.  Probably the last time the glorious stupidity approach would work in a Bond Film (not that they didn’t try it for Die Another Day, it just didn’t work there), a reasonably straightforward plot (with some improbable diversions), some nice stunt work and a stellar performance from the dazzling Sophie Marceau (who deserved, like Lea Seydoux, a much better film)  and just enough action to keep you from thinking how dumb the really dumb bits actually are. I do like the pre-title sequence in Bilbao and it’s a good theme song, too. Robert Carlyle did as much as he could with his part, but again, deserved a bigger forum because he is a natural to play a Bond Villain and Denise Richards was unnecessary (as was Robbie Coltrane, really) and John Cleese was utterly wrong.  All that said, this is middle of the road Bond that’s commits its greatest sin in neither being good nor bad enough to really bother anyone.

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15. Live and Let Die  There’s quite a gap here between this an TWINE, because here we start to enter prime Bond territory and Live and Let Die isn’t as bad as being 15th might suggest. Roger Moore’s first outing in the role, he looks sharply dressed, he has that shaded quality to him that, when he moves into “no more Mr Nice guy” mode, he really does surprise us and, as in all the films he makes, he looks and acts best when he gets his hair messed up.  The film itself is a little cheesy but has dated well (after, I suspect, dating badly and them becoming fashionable again – its the one film in the series you could see Quentin Tarantino directing). Yaphet Kotto is great, Jane Seymour is unspeakably lovely, the supporting cast is a riot and “names is for tombstones, baby” might just be my favourite bad guy line ever. And a great (if grammatically torturous) theme song, too.

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14. Tomorrow Never Dies Had I written this 10 years ago, this would have been near the bottom of the stack, but it, unlike Brosnan’s three other outings, has been dealt kindly with by time – especially Jonathan Pryce’s ageless  manic villain who might just be the last madly over the top Bond baddie – witty,  megalomaniacal and quite, quite mad and Michelle Yeoh’s feisty and smarter-than-Bond Wai Lin.  Gotz Otto, as Mr Stamper is also great fun – continuing that long history of Germanic badasses the series has trotted out. As a whole, outside of the film’s pleasingly straightforward plot, it’s is really just  a series of waits for the next time Pryce is on screen and the delight in the progression of his hubris, his Napoleonic sense of infallibility and his growing mania. There are no stand out action scenes – certainly nothing on the level of the preceding Goldeneye, but it’s by no means a slow movie. On the donside,  Brosnan veers away from his Dalton-lite of “GoldenEye” and steers into Roger Moore’s quippy territory and the delinquent man-child persona he evolved over following films, which isn’t really helpful. Joe Don Baker, who had outstayed his welcome 15 seconds into his appearance in Goldeneye, reappears no more welcome and making us lonesome for any version of Felix Leiter.  Terri Hatcher is redundant and seemingly uninterested and the theme song is lousy. It’s the same pointless fun that The World Is Not Enough followed up with, equally pointless, but more fun.

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13. The Spy Who Loved Me  Hmmm.  A film that time hasn’t treated too well. You can see the care, effort and money that went into this. There is much good here – the pre-title sequence, an excellent theme song, some brilliant chase scenes and a huge final battle scene (on a set so large it was rumoured Stanley Kubrick was called into to plan the lighting for it) and, just for the record, a great quip from Moore, delivered perfectly, with “all those feathers and he still can’t fly”.  Moore, in particular, rises to the occasion, giving his best performance to date. He still does have some rubbish lines to deal with, but he also plays it straight extremely well here required. The travelogue-y nature of the film is wearying, but the rest of the cast is the real problem – Barbara Bach is outright ropey, Richard Kiel as Jaws was a hit but became a millstone around the franchise’s neck and Charles Durning is a tedious, dull and frankly un-menancing villain.  But the film is still well loved, was a huge success and is perfectly fine fun – silly when it needs be, tense and serious when it needs be.

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12. Quantum of Solace  Good film. Underrated film.  We get the chance to become comfortable with Craig, not seeing him as quite the man who had to prove it all he was in Casino Royale, but also still wildly impulsive and given to hubris and rage . The story is a little tinny (completed as it was during the writer’s strike) but Bond has always worked well (and some may say best) within a tightly scoped story. The girl and the villain are similarly tightly scoped – no romance between Bond and Camille, but a respect and dependency and until he kills Mathis, Greene is a villain Bond is happy to play cat and mouse with.  While Gemma Atherton’s Agent Fields is redundant (although she does dispatch the henchman Elvis wonderfully and humorously well and her annoying earnestness sets up Bond’s very funny line about being teachers on sabbatical… who just won the lottery), Renee Mathis returns as a priest confessor, M is monumental, moving as she does increasingly to the moral centre of Bond’s universe. Jeffrey Wright makes an all too brief appearance as Felix Leiter and even the girl from Castle gets 30 seconds at the end. A breathtaking pre-title sequence (followed by a unremarkable theme song), lots of gruesome fights, a fascinating and very un-Bond like pursuit scene while an overly literal version of Tosca plays out on stage, things blowing up hell west and crooked, a taut and sensible running time and a villain whom Bond leaves to the cruelest of all dispatches all make Quantum of Solace one of those films you like a little more each time you see it.

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11. Goldeneye  You know the name. You know the number. The film which reinstated Bond back in the zeitgeist after the high quality/diminished returns of The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. Introducing Pierce Brosnan, who attempted to juggle Dalton’s steel and Moore’s devil may care glibness with his own arrested development raffishness, Goldeneye dispenses with any of the the thriller sensibilities of Dalton’s films and becomes a rather unsubtle chase movie in pursuit of an improbable plot.  Much good in the film – Sean Bean steals every scene he is in, the pre-title sequence is astonishingly good, the tank chase through the streets of Leningrad is exactly as much fun as it sounds and thundering on as it does with the Bond theme in the background, imposes the film back in the Bond-lovers conscience – brassy, swaggering, loud, vulgar and perfect.  However, it’s flaws are not insignificant – the film hasn’t aged well, there’s some questionable directorial choices and continuity problems (although none on the scale of Diamonds are Forever) Izabella Scorupco grates constantly, Robbie Coltrane is annoying, the descent into the films as a product placement vehicle begins here (the Z3 roadster is particularly galling), the boring tendency of Bond to solve problems by simply picking up a machine gun equally begins here and the ending is a little overplayed. There’s also the nagging doubt, at the back of your mind, that the film would and should have been much, much better with Dalton. Where as Quantum of Solace gains in esteem each time you see it again, I can’t think of one that loses more lustre with each reviewing the way Goldeneye does.

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10. Thunderball  90% of Thunderball is great, rollicking fun and Bond at its wittiest, bloodiest and most Bondesque. The list of it’s triumphs is without end – a tense, (largely) believable plot, a despicable villain and a sharp, sexy secondary antagonist in Luciana Paluzzi (the scene where Bond finds her in his bathtub and instead of offering her a towel, offers her a pair of scuffs is priceless and as iconic to the series as the opening shot in Goldfinger), some great set pieces, a fun pre-title sequence, the best theme song of any of the films, the DB5 , the reappearance of the grey Prince of Wales check suit and some hilarious and cutting dialogue.  So why only #10?  Well, its the 10 percent.  It’s too long and what makes it too long are the interminable underwater scenes where you just can’t tell what’s going on.  There are other instances of sloppy direction here and there which tend to slow the pace or add gratuitous ideas into the mix, but sitting back and watching it for what it is, it is Bond at it’s biggest. boldest and most spectacular.

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9. Dr No The Original, but not the best – Dr No is pretty much the unaltered template of the franchise – it took a few tweaks to get right in From Russia With Love and the final scope of the films really wasn’t there until Goldfinger – but whenever the films drifted too far into glibness or turgid modern action cliches the call is always to go back to the books, as Fleming wrote them – and that is wrong. Where they need to go back to is Dr No.  It’s hard to discuss the film in terms of the 23 that followed it – it seems more appropriate to discuss it in the wider context of British film-making as a whole and of it’s impact on the British cultural psyche – but it still projects a wonder and wild glamour that would have been positively intoxicating. Jet travel, exotic women (Ursula Andress is still the gold standard for Bond Girls), Ken Adams designed underground lairs, the chases, explosions, gruesome deaths, space travel and one of the most cold blooded kills in the history of cinema (that’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six…), a fantastic back and forth over the dinner table between Bond and Dr No – a glorious and heady brew. From this side of time, only the drawn out and largely wordless final act let it down (they should have stuck the book here, although the budget may not have lent itself to that) and some casual and not so casual sign of the times racism  comes off badly. A final thought – Dr No as released on 5/10/1962. The Beatles released their first single on 11/10/1962. That was a week, that was.

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8. For Your Eyes Only I seem to like this film better than the rest of the world seems to like it. Roger Moore’s Bond films swung wildly between attempts to play against his nice guy image (Live and Let Die, The Spy who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only) and the ones that let him chew the scenery and pay to the popular preconception of him as the jokey Bond.  For Your Eyes Only is a thankful return to the straight spy stories of the ilk of From Russia with Love with some fantastic set pieces thrown in.  The villain of the piece (played by the always wonderful Julian Glover) is refreshingly low rent, the story fast paced and linear, Moore is tough and cunning (although he apparently complained at the scene where Bond dispatched Locque over a cliff’s edge as being too brutal for “his” Bond), a top notch theme song despite a questionable pre-title sequence and a stunning Bond girl in Carol Bouquet – who plays the role as a brittle Electra, uncertain how to take revenge, heedless of its consequences and frail in its pursuit adds an uncertain edge to her her undoubted beauty.  It’s not perfect – Moore chafes a little under the direction to toughen up, there’s a talking parrot and Margaret Thatcher – but, all things being equal, an odd fish of a film that shows Bond could still grasp at its highest notions even in the slough of the early 80’s.

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7. The Living Daylights  Now we’re getting somewhere.  After the two-films-too-long reign of Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton came into the role to bring in a drier, more ruthless more character driven Bond.  And as a vehicle, he was given a cracking spy thriller which , somewhat meandering as it may be, never lets up from it’s astounding opening sequence to the thrilling fight on a cargo net over the Afghan desert. Maryam D’Abo, the light and innocence to Bond’s darkness and guilt, is excellent (and lovely), Jerome Krabbe’s touchy feely bad guy is great sleazy fun and General Pushkin, one would have hoped, could have gone on to be a worthy successor to General Gogol,  shines with an excellent performance.  Good theme song, which incorporates well into the score, some really downplayed scenes in Bratislava which are like a breath of fresh air for the franchise, devoid as they are of glamour, and not a minute of fat in the running time. Dalton made the best possible start – but even better was to come.

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6. Casino Royale  Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning – this, as a film, teeters on the verge of trainwreck. It’s a quilt of a story, ideas (often good ones) sitting awkwardly next to each other to the result that it seems to go on forever and never seems to establish what kind of film it is.  It particularly labours the points which the source material makes so elegantly, especially in the interminable third act.  Yet somehow the film manages to not only overcome these burdens but to make a sort of highly stylized (and Bond is nothing if not highly, usually over stylized) triumph of it – from the inverted pre-title sequence, to the inverted “Bond, James Bond” – we have a film that clings to the series past as well as indulging in cheerful, if at times gratuitous iconoclasm.  Craig’s Bond is Dalton’s Bond filtered through the modern action hero lens -a man who asks no moral questions and, beyond the very brittle shell of “for England, James” is really just a man pursuing personal vendettas over any great philosophical principle.  He is neither good, nor evil. He is a force of nature in an unnatural world.

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5. Licence to Kill  Essentially a dry run for the Casino Royale reboot, Licence to Kill completely unhinges Bond from the moral compass we expected him to be bound by and, instead of reinventing the tropes of the series, abandons or utterly re-purposes them.  A terse and brooding discourse on the nature of loyalty, betrayal, duty and friendship, the film offers savage wit, powerhouse action and levels of violence heretofore unseen with the more conventional (though downplayed) elements of girls, gadgets and more dry one liners (largely courtesy of the wonderful Robert Davi) than any other 80’s action flick. Fantastic pre-title sequence, middling theme song. Perhaps Dr No is the only time a Bond film has ever been ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist, but Licence to Kill is an example of it catching up in a thrilling and compelling fashion.

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4. From Russia With Love  Stylish, exciting, quirky and engrossing (if a tad overlong), From Russia With Love drips with Fleming’s patent sex, violence and everyday decadence and is timeless for it. Connery both softens and hardens his performance, becoming more idiosyncratically  British than his slightly Americanized Dr No persona and the rest of the cast  helps propel a straightforward, if slightly improbable, spy story forward.  Fantastic fight scene between Robert Shaw and his good friend Connery, (who has secretly agreed before filming not to pull their punches),  unforgettable set pieces, including the Jane Mansfield assassination and the gypsy fight and, in Daniela Bianchi, the most preternaturally beautiful Bond girl. Top pre-credit sequence and above average song at the end. Always watchable, always intriguing, always classic top-shelf Bond.

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3. Skyfall  Impeccable film and, until the turgid mess of Spectre, a genuine hope that we could have Bond go forward both as the psychotic troglodyte we have come to know and love and as a new man with new man’s issues.  All of the elements are here – slamming pre-credits, wonderful song (is it any coincidence the three top films have the three best songs?), the “new” Moneypenny who is the best single element added in the entire Craig era (perhaps the equal of Craig himself), an utterly unhinged villain, wicked banter, a tense and nerve-gnawing denouement and Bond free of his chains but dragged back through the only fragile connection to his own humanity he has – M.    Not quite perfect, M’s fate seemed gratuitous, Bond’s concern for Ronson at the beginning seemed equally out of character, but whatever – for new Bond, this is as good as it gets and here’s hoping the misstep in the next film is quickly righted and we get back to business as laid out here as soon as possible.

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2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service  Enter Lazenby. Exit Lazenby. Much maligned because of the proliferation of urban rumours and the rather off-kilter nature of Lazenby’s behaviour after the film came out, what we have in realty is a slamming action film which pays great service to what was Fleming’s best novel. While the bangs and flashes may have been intended to cover up the transition from beloved Connery to unknown Lazenby, they are a rowdy and enjoyable sideshow to the real story here, which is driven by a remarkable performance by Diana Rigg – a  flawed, frightened and unbalanced Bond girl whom Bond saves, literally and figuratively and who saves Bond, both figuratively and literally. Telly Savalas is a suave and menacing Blofeld and Lazenby himself – who, while obviously lacking Connery’s assurance and swagger as an actor, is still fascinatingly watchable and both incredibly sincere in his performance with Rigg and sharply authentic in the gunplay scenes (in fact, he handles a gun better than any other Bond, I would say. His training in the Australian army gives him real credibility in the physical scenes) and some stunning photography on Piz Gloria. And there’s a dwarf whistling “Goldfinger”. The high point in dry wit, a fascinating pre-title sequence (say what you will about director Peter Hunt’s handling of actors, he knows how to put a fight scene together), an epic theme song from Louis Armstrong and a closing scene with more poignancy and myth seeding than any in the franchise’s history- OHMSS is unbeatable and indispensable.

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1. Goldfinger  If you think of the landmark films in British cinema – Henry V, The Third Man, Bridge on the River Kwai, Room at The Top,Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, Blow Up it seems farcical the Goldfinger isn’t on that list. It is just that good. If you wanted to explain Bond films to a man from Mars, the pre-title sequence alone would be all you needed. Sure, the plot is ropey (but madly audacious) and Pussy Galore is more memorable for her name than the actual character Honor Blackman imbues her with but good god, every other bit of it is fantastic – the villains, the henchmen, the gorgeous girls, the Aston Martin, the Prince of Wales check suit, the laser,  death by car cubing,  the second to none quips, the tooshie slap – the whole tone of the film, the outside of our imaginings lifestyle of it, the glamour, the ease, it’s all still pervasive and convincing.  There are better individual moments in the canon, better scripts better stunts, more beautiful girls, better songs, colder kills – but there was never so strong and consistent sense of style as Goldfinger possess.

 

 

on Blonde on Blonde

In a long, bewildering, dazzling and frequently deliberately perverse career, Blonde on Blonde stands as Bob Dylan’s shining hour. His high and shining hour.

PIC_0008f.jpgBlonde on Blonde earns it’s place as the greatest rock album ever recorded, barring nothing, by the simplest of tricks – by taking everything that Dylan had done on his and the emerging rock music’s previous high water mark, “Highway 61 Revisited” and doing it twice as well. For the swirling and vicious “Like A Rolling Stone” we have the 3 a.m flipside that is “Visions of Johanna”, for the raucous and bizarre Tombstone Blues, there’s the raucous and loopy “Stuck Inside of Mobile with The Memphis Blues Again”, the sweet and naturalistic “It Takes A lot to Laugh” goes down a darker road to “Temporary Like Achilles”….. make your own comparisons but they are all there. That’s not to say there’s nothing new there – there are levels of intimate emotional complexity in “I Want You”, “Just Like A Woman” and particularly the albums stand out track “One of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)”, there is an engagement with pop forms that we hadn’t seen before (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”, “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35”) and it’s the one album of all of his that you buy for the sheer moments of musical complexity that go beyond anything in Dylan’s back pages – the arrangement on “Just Like A Woman”, the piano part on “Sooner or Later”, the butterfly delicacy of “4th Time Around”.

It’s joyfully barely in control, ragged, manic and thread worn. It casts a pale over days and turns anytime you listen to it into a cold night with coffee, cigarettes and the questions that linger in the mists of your soul. Rock turned into other things after this, it got louder and freakier and artier and harder – but it never got better, it never got vaster, it never became a thing which more closely ages with you from first listen to all those years later than it does here.

 

on the knot and the reward

Today, you will knot your bow tie.  It will not be perfect. That knot is both a concrete, fixed in infinite stripes of imperfection, and an abstract, a philosophical construct before it was ever a physical one.

It will never be perfect. It is it’s nature never to be. There is no Platonic perfection to its form.

Also, it is only temporary. One tug, and it goes. Look at it as flawed yet tender beauty in a world that passes everything by.

Yet, today you will tie an imperfect knot and you will flaunt it.  Tomorrow, because it is the nature of these things to be done, you will do it again.

Chop wood, carry water, tie bow tie.

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on chukka boots

English shoemakers Clarks are legendary for their suede desert boot, footwear of choice for slightly depressed teachers approaching middle age with regret and a desperate need to hold onto some vestige of youthful rebellion. Their chukka boot, somewhat back in fashion with a generation of younger men trying to meet the expectations of a workaday world while retaining a little of their college sense not having sold out to anything or anyone has some big shoes to fill (ahem) so lets see how they go about that….

Where I got them and how much I paid

Clarks have a reputation, at least in this country, as being solid, sensible shoes at a good price – most often worn as schools shoes or as the ubiquitous footwear of Walter White. I’d been looking for a pair of chukkas which wouldn’t break the bank  for a while when I came across a sale at Macy’s, where I could get them for about AUD92. This was good as most locally sourced examples would run me 50-100% more and the less expensive ones just looked like something you’d see on a bricklayer’s site.  So, it was with alacrity that I sent off my order for a pair of deep brown chukkas (along with a pair of slightly odd Stacy Adams Chelsea Boots but more on their delights later).

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And the catch

the biggest drawback to the entire process were the shipping times. Ordered 3/3 to arrive here in Australia 26/3, with a poor tracking service to boot (ahem).

What I got

Pretty much what I paid for. Given I was looking for something that was lighter than my Colorado work boots but could still conceivably work as a “Friday Shoes” and considering my personal preference for a less ornate, more pragmatic shoe, it was a tight remit to fit.

Oiled leather, made in India,  with a deep leathery smell (although somewhat corrupted by the smell of the thick injection molded PU used in the soles) which feels good to the touch. A great, consistent fit (my history of broken toes does occasionally mean some wear and tear particularly on the outside of the right foot). The boot profile is bang on, not too high or too low, rising slightly from the quarter to the peak of the topline.  Stitching detail is neat on the upper – it adds to the look but doesn’t soften it. I’m not sure if the stitching around the sole is ornamental or practical.  The crepe sole matches in nicely with the colour and the two eyelet trim is consistent with the no-nonsense, hard wearing aesthetic the boots put out. Overall, it’s a nice, well put together look.

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How they wear

So, where better to walk-test a pair of tough but stylish boots than the slightly more upmarket of my two nearest shopping malls, by walking through that very maw of hell itself, my personal bête noire, the local IKEA.

There are two things you immediately notice on putting on the boots – firstly, as they are never worn, the toecap seems slightly bulbous next to the narrower throat of the shoe. This makes them look a little like clown shoes. Pleased to report  that settled down and stretched to fit after a short time walking. The other, more concerning one was that given the absence of any dressing on the topline above the heelcap, and the stiffness of the leather, had me worried about rubbing and blistering. I have to say that, for the first half an hour, I did tread carefully but eventually the leather became a little more flexible and I was walking normally with no ill effects.

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As I mentioned the fit was fine and, as I found to my great pleasure, the 3 mile walk around IKEA in them was comfortable and supportive. The crepe sole, while not aesthetically the most pleasing thing in the world, had a lot of give which cushioned the walk and gave no slip at all. The heel was just the right height for a comfortable mall-walk and the internal cushioning and lining, while not a luxury ride, did give a better experience than one might expect at the price point. I’m a heavy guy, so I appreciated that. One drawback – arch support is non-existent. Socks, by way of reference, were a pair of Geoffrey Beene dress socks -so no hiking socks necessary.

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The two eyelet lacing kept the boots together well on the foot. By the end of the walk the boots had broken in sweetly and felt light on the feet. Like any oiled boots, they picked up their share of little scuffs and scrapes but a light brushing and two minutes of the scuff ‘n buff and they were right as rain.

And, in the end

Let’s not kid ourselves here. We’re not buying into cachet with these boots. They are as mass market as mass market can come – but they look good, they wear great and, shipping woes notwithstanding, the price is right. So as shoes for shoes’ sake, they are dandy.  But would a man want a pair?

Well, given that there is not even a whiff of formality about them, this makes them what I would call “Friday Shoes” – you’d only wear them to work on Fridays, where people who cared about such things would notice you were on trend for the boots and those who didn’t would at least notice you weren’t wearing sneakers (although some of the developers I have worked with, I’d be grateful if they even wore shoes). They are good for wearing out and about, they have a touch of “street” (and I loathe that term, usually) about them and, jazzed up with some brighter laces (gold and brown, I am thinking) they style well with pretty much any coloured chinos and a short sleeve button down. If, like me, you have given up on trainers/sandshoes and want to dress like a little more like a  grown-up, they are a great option.

So, caviar on a peanut butter budget? Of course not – but good peanut butter on an average peanut butter budget they are. Look beyond the ubiquity of the name and you have a boot which is comfortable, on point style and trend wise, has a purpose to it’s existence (so many shoes don’t) , is comfortable to wear and you can buy them and have enough left over for some rather sexy Stacy Adams Chelsea boots. What’s to quibble with? As for me,  I’m going to wear the heck out of these suckers.

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on BluesFest

Every year since 2011, my sister, eldest son and eventually daughter have made the 3 hour drive south to Tygarah, pitched a tent in a usually muddy field and spent the Easter long weekend at BluesFest – Australia’s top blues and roots (whatever that may be) festival, which has run continuously for 29 years.

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2011 – ZZ Top

It’s not really a blues and roots festival anymore – this year we had Lionel Richie, Chic, hipster  embarrassment Tash Sultana and Ke$ha, who had to drop out when she tore her ACL.  I remember, in 2016, standing in the second row for Brian Wilson simultaneously thinking “this is the great gig going day of my life” and also “what does this have to do with the blues?”. But I have seen Buddy Guy, BB King and James Cotton there, so I can hardly complain in the wider scheme of things.

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2012 – Lucinda Williams

While any extended trip away from home has a modicum of stress attached to it and any holiday has its disappointments, this years BluesFest was, by some way, the weakest edition of the series.  A poor bill, the site beginning to show its age and lack of investment and the near completion of the evolution of the festival from an outsider’s celebration of outsider’s music to a middle class disposable income event/forum for any fashionable left wing political platform all caught up with it. The writing was on the wall last year and it rung true this.

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2013 – Chris Issak

There were other factors beyond the festival’s control this year that had an impact – chiefly rain and illness. The last 4 festivals have been an opportunity to track the progress of the illness against probably the most strenuous physical test I’ll do. Last year was precarious, this year more so and we were lucky to make the full five days. But enough of the negatives – let’s focus on some of the positives that did come out of this year’s adventure.

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2014 – Buddy Guy

Firstly, there were some undeniably great sets – Leon Bridges, Gov’t Mule, Lukas Nelson, the New Power Generation, Con Brio , Youssou Ndour, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Plant, Walter Trout, Morcheeba, Chic and Lionel Richie (or so I  am told) all turned in first rate performances.

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2015 – Nikki Hill

Secondly, the crowd this year was better – the vibe was tolerable (unlike last years toxic mess), with an abatement of the feeling that the festival was  marketed towards and taken over by old farts in sandals and socks expecting a catered experience or some faux-utopia of second to  third age hippie values. Certainly, spoiled rich kids, hipsters and people who think wearing a t shirt espousing a cause equates to having a soul are still irritants but as the blog tag states, curmudgeon is still my nature.

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2016 – Grace Potter

Thirdly, there’s the joy of watching as your kids grow to take on new challenges. This year, with me being so frail, they took on the role of nursing me through some of the rougher stretches. Ike got me through 5 bad attacks during Jimmy Cliff and Robert Plant and Ivy was a constant lifeline. I know there’s a time coming, sooner rather than later, that my dancing days are done but it is nice to share them with the children while I can and to know, as they told me this year, they’ll still go dancing even if I can’t. It’s funny the questions you have to face when your own mortality is at issue – the one I have dreaded longest is “have I taught the right lessons?”. If the lessons were ones of character, then it would appear I may have.

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2017 – Courtney Barnett

On day 2 I discovered a new, simple and fulfilling joy at the festival – using my new DSLR. or, more pointedly, learning to use my new DSLR. That, in and of itself, may be the deciding factor in whether or not I continue going to the festival – the opportunity it affords me to play around and learn. It’s all fairly primitive at the moment, but it was dashed fun and I could feel the potential to get better and do better with each set up. It’s a funny and unexpected thing to take away, but it’s the funny and unexpected things that make a life worthwhile.

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2018 – Steve Cropper

Finally, I guess, there was a sense of a pilgrimage to be close to the gentleman in the photo above. I have been playing guitar for 40 years and I like to think it is in a large part due to hearing Steve Cropper play “Green Onions” on the radio in 1978. It may have been that I was to hear other records, probably punk, that would have started me on the same course, but I was obsessed with the sound and the sense of doing so very much with so little that Cropper got and that started me not only wanting to play the guitar and to get that raw, bare tone. Owing a debt to someone is one thing, owing a debt to a stranger is another – not that millions around the world haven’t also owed the same debt, so it was nice for me to be there and lend an ear in thanks as he snarled and howled his way through his timeless muse.

 

2018 – Walter Trout; Benny Walker and Jeff Lang

For all the good, BluesFest does yet have a lot of problems – some it can’t control, some are directly of its own making. Their choice to drive out of the small traders and food vendors for wine bars and beer gardens (there are 9 of them at the moment) has pushed up food prices, means that the food stalls can’t carry enough food to feed people for 5 days and led to the festival becoming an extended binge for 20-30 somethings (until the bars started running out of booze). Because the festival does not draw the volunteer base it once did, the basic sanitation and cleaning jobs are breaking down. The selling of pre-sold front row spaces at $300 a day was a disaster, with only one show (Robert Plant) being sold out, meaning performers had to play to 20 foot of empty space in the two biggest tents. Acts were stretched further, too, with fewer booked to cover more time. Also, the habit of artists bringing their politics onto stage, which broke into full bloom last year hadn’t entirely been snuffed out. I walked out of one set because I didn’t feel like getting a lecture on how it was up to me to stop American policemen shooting black people. In one tent, the audience was told to “fuck off an get out of my gig” if they, along with any other audience members were homophobic, transphobic, toxicly masculine or a racist. Now, I may or may not be any of those things but were I, I’d  reserve the right to be those things with the same passion that she so-currently-fashionably claims not to be.  Just shut up and sing your songs.

In the end, the festival has changed and so have I. When we first went, it was a cool road trip that kind of fit in with what I now see as my mid-life crisis ethos.  As the years went by it became a comfortable routine, something looked forward to with excitement, each year another page in an unfolding narrative.  But the last two years, that’s changed as the illness progresses and it’s now at best a chore and even a sense of dread to go. Whether I have another BluesFest in me, I don’t know – I love watching the kids grow into it and how much they enjoy it, I love using the camera and I love that feeling you get when the bass and drums first hit you in the front row and your heart stops for a second, you can’t catch your breath and your bones start quivering…  it will be sad when that ends.

 

 

 

on the joys of an inexpensive watch

An empty wrist is a waste of time.

Of all the articles of style a man may employ, I can’t think of one which better ultimately embodies a man’s character, his aspirations, his whole darn Weltanschauung than his watch. The case can be made for shoes, but shoes are  foundational thing – when you walk into the room, people check out your shoes and they make judgements based on that – shoes are for others to project their values on, watches are for you to project your values outward.

It might be said that while all men need to aspire to something and most men aspire to many things, that unique and occasionally outre’ group of people who aspire to watches aspire so at a level of commitment far higher than those who love shoes possibly could. I mean, how many people live their lives saving, taking out second mortgages or blowing an inheritance to pay 15 – 50K on a pair of shoes?

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I can understand and respect why people do this. It is essential for men to aspire, we naturally gravitate towards affiliation with symbols and cliques and we are driven by status and regimentation within statuses.  All men aspire in different vision, but to equal degrees. To me, a man who does not aspire is somehow broken.

99.99% of Rolexes are owned by people who only know Rolex as a status symbol, as an aspirational target (and have little understanding of why it is one of the finest made watches in the world)  99.5% of people who don’t own Rolexes couldn’t identify one and therefore have no idea that the (very generously estimated) 0.01% own the Rolex they so covet. That’s a convoluted irony – which is the best kind of irony.

But, while I sympathise and even endorse aspiration (and that’s a much wider topic and I am halfway over my word limit already, so later…) and as much as I love watches, I love them peculiarly.  The focus of my aspiration are German watches (a Sinn 104 or a Stowa Antea Klassik KS). These are not showy watches, they are not status defining or even especially expensive – but they are beautifully designed pieces that eschew ostentation for cleanliness and reflect the calm balance of German design I am so fond of and reflect my on inherent conservatism and belief that you don’t flash what you work for.

But, much as I would like to talk about der deutschen Armbanduhren (and much as I will), I’m here this day to talk about the joy of the other end of the scale. The kind of watches which, for the cost of a middling Daytona (an ugly watch with no date complication), you could buy about 160.

When you first discover watches, there’s so much to learn and take in – manual v automatic v quartz, chronographs and tachymeters, how a bezel and a screw down crown work, digital or analogue – and what the price point you can afford for the watch you want is. That’s where inexpensive watches come in. They let you taste all the fruit so you can refine what you want into the next level of your collection. For example, from owning an Orient I know that Hamilton is the next best step up for me on the ladder. I know I will never need another sports watch other than my Seiko SKX007. I know not all “fashion watches” are bad and don’t need to ape the mob on internet style forums.

One of the day’s most pleasant choices is which watch goes with the outfit – considering the form and the face/band match and the function according to the day.  Does it have to match cufflinks? It’s one more piece of the little puzzle and a very different one from, say, which pocket square or socks. To me, it requires a much more intimate knowledge of your outfit, it involves a greater commitment to mood, subtle impression or even the notion that even though you laboured over the choice, you just threw the watch on as you walked out the door.

There are so many inexpensive watches and so much opportunity to get the full experience of watch owing and watch styling – petite dress watches, watches that look like a ham sandwich on your wrist, Field/Pilot and diver watches (and knowing the difference), NATO Straps, leather straps, rubber straps, square watches, homage watches the whole weird, unique and at time unhinged world of Invictas (a consuming fetish in itself), Bauhaus on the cheap (Bauhaus is not minimalist, by the way). It’s a world to immerse in at very little risk and a great deal of reward. And it’s a gateway drug – if one has the means and the motivation, there’s a galaxy of choice out there and perhaps those choices will lead you to a $25,000 grail watch that only you know you have. Maybe it will lead to a life hunched over a recording of the 2014 7- 1 World Cup Semi final win, eating Sauerbraten and Rouladen gazing at the three magic words at 6 o’clock on your caseful of increasingly obscure German watches or it may end in a hard wearing Seiko 5 that lasts you 20 years and makes you misty-eyed when it is time to finally replace it.  Whatever the path, there is no denying the joys of an inexpensive watch.

on the altered man

Some years back, I found a Jeff Banks Super 100s charcoal – with a sky blue and grey window pane on the clearance rack at my local outlet store. $100. Fit remarkably well off the rack. It became a high value, go to piece in the pre-reductionist wardrobe.

Now, due to some rapid and ongoing weight loss and accompanying loss of muscle mass, the suit has suddenly and alarmingly become 2 sizes too large.  So sudden is this development that on Tuesday last week, when I last wore it, I made a note that it was a little roomy and I needed to take it in for a little tuck. Today, when I took the jacket to wear with some navy chinos and a white in white patterned short sleeve shirt, the difference in size was alarming.  The sleeves were over my knuckles, the shoulder a quarter inch beyond the point of my now bony nub and the whole jacket seemed to be trying to fall off by slipping back over my head.  I was shocked and, I must say, a little frightened. I should have known it as coming – at the start of the year I was a 46 classic in shirts, now I’m a 44 slim.

Anyway, enough of this piffle. I took the suit in for alteration:

 

Total cost of alteration: $259.00. Now, I have no doubt the people will do excellent work – they come highly recommended and bombarded me with questions about what I wanted and was comfortable with – which is always a good sign. My confidence in them is such that I can mitigate the cost somewhat by thinking I will virtually be getting a new suit, which fits like a nail polish factory and will remain as a go-to piece in the much more competitive reduced wardrobe.

But how often do you go to the well to save a suit?  Realistically, having come in two sizes, this suit can’t be altered again.  But what about the other suits that are now oversized due to me becoming undersized?

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So this is a pinstripe navy suit which as gone much the same way as the Jeff Banks above. In its heyday, it as quite a compliment getter and the first choice for making presentations, but now we have to choose – does it get a second life, at a cost, or does it go quietly off to goodwill and be replaced by a new suit?

In this case, some more magisterially-sized gentleman in my local opportunity shop is about to get quite the bargain as he finds himself a stylish jacket in a difficult to source larger size. He’ll be disappointed not to find the trousers, as I will keep them, but it’s farewell for me and the jacket.

Bottom line is that its a 60/40 wool/poly jacket, it’s not especially well structured and I’m not sure I need a navy Pinstripe in the wardrobe as much as I need a less formal suit to balance out the generally severe tone of the collection – a sensible check pattern, perhaps. It simply isn’t worth the investment of 25 – 33% of the buy price of a good new suit.

As I said above, the wardrobe, these days, is competitive.  The navy pinstripe simply doesn’t produce enough utility to warrant the cost of keeping it up, or the space on the rail on which I keep it, whereas the Jeff Banks hangs in there.  It’s survival of the fit-test.

on the things that try us

After nearly 30 years, the time has come to scrap our kitchen and build something which is a) fresh and b) better able to encourage me to cook.

We approached this project with our usual Plan A – scrimp, save and pay someone else to do everything and sit back and relax. Foolproof, right?

A brief catalogue of the disasters which immediately befell us:

1.  The kitchen company only delivered 3/4ths of the kitchen

2. The builders reached a point where, without the contents of the missing pallet, they couldn’t go on. So I went to the store and paid a second time for runners and hinges

3.  While I as at the store, the builders decided to walk out on the job.

4. The builders took, as is customary, 50% on commencement. They’ve done 30% of the work.  I want my money back. That’s gonna get ugly.

So here we are with a half assembled kitchen – no water, no power in half the house, a pallet of missing kitchen parts out in the ether and no one to finish the job when said pallet gets in from the ether.

Oh, and I go on Easter vacation on Tuesday, so we have two days to get it done in.

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I’m by nature a problem solver. An extremely unsubtle, sledge-hammer wielding problem solver. But I get the job done.  I’m a typically masculine problem solver –

  • I humanize my problems and treat them as an inveterate enemy.
  • I’m all or nothing – either the problem goes or I do.
  • I move fast and I break things.
  • I break the problem down into constituent parts and attack multiple tranches of them at once.
  • I trust only my judgement.
  • I clutch at straws
  • I set deadlines on everything
  • I use every cartridge of moral and emotional ammunition I have
  • If anything is wrong, nothing is right
  • I make deals
  • I incur debts for favours and I make plans to pay those debts.
  • I tolerate no one who isn’t working to solve the problem

Huh. I’ve just given a pretty good description of President Trump. This should be a rough and occasionally sweary ride.

 

 

 

 

on coming to love a suit

“I have every useless thing in the world in my house there. The only thing wanting is the necessary thing, a great patch of open sky like this.”  – Marcel Proust, ‘In Search of Lost Time’

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I’ve always been a little suspicious of this suit – the slight unstructured jacket, the insouciant way it spreads out like a cape when you walk with it unbuttoned, the sheer blueness of it. The first few wears did nothing to quell my fears – I tried it, wrongly, with bolder bengal stripe shirts underneath – red and a sky blue but they just made it look like it was brought as a loud novelty suit.

It wasn’t until I learned to wear it properly that I discovered it’s charms and joys.  Being of the Italian style (it’s a Dom Bagnato who is one of Australia’s very finest designers), one needs to wear it like you live in it. If one lives in it, then it comes to live in you.  Some suits, amongst them ostensibly very fine suits, feel like rented rooms – others feel like railway stations and cheap ones feel like a Post Office in a country town on a rainy August day.  This suit feels like Proust’s Madeleines.