More than maintenance…

Mammoth mates

Mammoth mates

We have had a few days respite here in Prague, but now it begins again… hours of repairs to get the beasts to a level that makes them presentable.

A stitch in time… or this case many stitches, otherwise the end of Manny’s trunk will fall off in audience view.

The window of our apartment in Prague

I visited the street of our old apartment last evening, looked at the window from which they waved to me before they left Prague, walked the park Carol used to take our children, noted that the cobbles were probably horrible under David’s pushchair. Then was stopped by a man who thought I’d like a concert… so random.
So I went – early music, a pleasant distraction I thought…
William Lawes 1602-1645 Consort Sett VI a6 in G: Pavan, Fantasy & Aire, just lovely in the river-side setting of the 12th century priory of St Agnes, where would have walked (at the time of these pieces being written) alchemist, astrologer & Welshman to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor John Dee (he who’s books I studied in The Bodliean), followed by Orlando Gibbons’s (1583 – 1625) aire, ‘Go from my window’, rather too appropriate! Particularly being played by the Oxford based group ‘Phantasm’ who know of Hilary… the human mind always seeks for connections – some are just stupidly close.

Seen off  to work in 1996

Seen off to work in 1996

Much has happened since

Much has happened since

Here’s a link to a rendition of, “Go from my Window”

“Go from my window, my dear,
For the wind is in the west and the cuckoo’s in the nest,
And you can’t have a lodging here.”

Return to Prague…

A lifetime ago

A lifetime ago

I was last here in 1996 (five months on the film The Adventures of Pinocchio) and while here, the decision was made. The right house had become available and so after years of waiting and watching the orbits of these two places of the heart were in close enough proximity for us to make the leap from London to Devon, Willesden to Chagford… knowing that there could never be any going back.
It was the end of my career and the beginning of my life.

And as I walk these streets, ghosts of the two Me’s shuffle quietly beside… the one that has been and the one that might have been… but more than that – the possible others, the London sophisticat Lill and the city teenage David and what of Ely?… there may never have been an Ely!

I hadn’t expected to be so accompanied, though there are only one set of tracks in the snow as I walk, I feel the weight.

Girls come home…



From age eight Jana & Mirjam came to this very arena to practise and compete… if I were making the movie, it would end there.
Sc 1: Two separate corners of old Slovakia, one quiet country, one bustling city – in which two little girls each set their sights on the dream of appearing before an audience made up of family and friends and their nation; dazzling & beautiful in sparkling costume with speed and grace as steel cuts ice.
Sc 2: Montage of years of early morning practise, the struggle, the commitment, the sacrifice – but still the dream holds. The family members that pass. The other possible lives that don’t happen. The growth of these two from shivering kids in tutus to long legged Ice Princesses.
Sc 3: And after competing successfully nationally & internationally, after travelling the world on blades of glory, they come home to this arena, where before the now – much older faces of family and friends, including the smiling presence of those who have passed (that chill you feel in the corridor by the dressing room – is not just the cold), they receive due applause as the curtain goes down on their world famous production.

I admit to a little poet license here… all pretty accurate, but the impression the synopsis gives omits one important factor; the Ice Princesses do come home to perform, to great applause… but they come in heavy fur costumes and masks. However… I don’t believe that their families, nor friends present, nor those watching who have passed, are any the less proud.

Amongst the greats

Amongst the greats

Terri Windling quotation…

From my friend & sister, here’s an appropriate quote that goes a long way to explain why we do and who we are:

“We’re all misfits here … Halfies and homos and hopeless romantics, the outcast and outrageous and terminally weird. That’s where art comes from. From our weirdnesses and our differences, from our manic fixations, our obsessions, our passions. From all those wild and wacky things that make each of us unique.”

― from; Welcome to Bordertown

Hedgerow Nestor by Terri Windling

by Terri Windling

Janka’s blízkych kamarátov (Jana’s Feast for Friends)

Janka’s blízkych kamarátov (Jana’s Feast for Friends)

Jana’s Instructions 1):
“Don’t eat beforehand”
I don’t.
…neither do Olga, Christophe, Lauren, Alexy, Debbie, Ronnie, Hayato nor Sam.

Jana’s Instructions 2):
“Call time 15:45, the bus will depart promptly at 16:00… Todd, don’t be late”
I’m not.
…nor is anyone else.

We leave Bratislava behind…
I sit like a dog in the front of the minibus, excited to be in the countryside, looking for indications of old Slovakia… but what is revealed under a grey flat sky, is landscape sectioned into huge industrial scale fields. A topography created as a result of political imperative to feed Soviet masses, through numerous five year plans, no longer serving local communities subsistence and trade. We pass kilometer after enclosed kilometer, the monotony broken just once by a field with cranes… I stare incredulous at a hundred white ghosts, standing or flapping against plough-turned black earth.

We are heading towards the old centre of Moravia, towards the ancient Bishopric of Nitra, which from the earliest of times has known human activity, as testified to by this appropriate mammoth bone carving dating from around 22,800bc (I wonder will there be mammoth served tonight?).

From Moravany nad Váhom, the Moravian Venus

Search for the ancient

Search for the ancient

Celts, Slavs, Huns… have all been here and now it’s the turn of Jana’s Ice Age kamarátov.

Jana’s Instructions 3):
“OK everyone, we’re nearly there… this is for you to enjoy.”
I will.
…nine sets of hungry dog eyes – search excitedly for our destination out of the buses windows.

A few kilometers outside of Nitra is the lodge, Built, owned and run from the soil up by Jana’s uncle Jozef and his kids Jozef, Tomáš and Martina, and it is here I find the Slovakia I’ve been looking for…. right down to the family size threshing machines, the aviary and the welcome.

They have no English but the language of warm smiles and handshakes from capable hands is all I need to feel at home.

We are ushered in and I see that from every possible last resting place – something is looking back at me. Birds & beasts from wall filling roaring stags of many tines and fearsome snarling bears, wild boar with savage tusks, wild cats, pole cats, kitty cats (oh no that one’s not stuffed… it just darted away), Red grouse & wild turkey, jays & game birds, the names of which I have not a clue, and even a pair of surprised looking marmots – mounted in conversation… no doubt surprised at having been shot & stuffed. And where there’s a space, wherever there’s a space, there are antlers… antler chandeliers, antler light fittings, antler chairs. All (I’m informed) dispatched by the capable hands that welcomed me in.

Instruction given to self 1):
“Take care, or there’ll be mammoth manipulator stuffed and mounted on these walls.”

The Princess Rightly Enthroned

The Princess Rightly Enthroned

Jana’s Instructions 4):
“Ten minutes downstairs… everything is ready.”
Food beckons, I’m seven minutes early.

The table has been beautifully prepared for us, centre pieces of dried flowers and winter fruits around lit candles, settings with multiple knifes & forks, many yet to be filled glasses… we dutifully & quietly sit, as ones attending church and yes this is a special service.

It begins!

The first taste – Medovina, sweet nectar transformed by the machinations of the humble honey bee, prepared since people could – to a gold sunset colour… it’s sweetness hides the kick.
Safe ground?

P1170746 - Version 2

Then home made Slivovica… twelve year ago, these plums began their journey of turning to 52% alcohol.
It’s somewhat viscous and quite clear, no indication of the effect it’ll have when swallowed in one… faces show first surprise, then anguish, then calm settles as the rest of the world goes away.
Slippery slope!

P1170718 - Version 3

To soften the effect: Halušky –

Jana explains 1):
“Noodles with bacon bits, bread with “bryndza” cheese and finely chopped onion, and to pick on between courses, trays of cheeses and grapes.”
…marvellous – I could stop here.

IMG_5322 - Version 2

Jana’s Instructions 5):
“Save some room for the other courses.
That’s hard, it’s so good.
…Ronnie’s having similar trouble in not going back for more.

Suddenly there’s another tray of Slivovica… “Oh well”, I say. “Ooooohhhhhh dear” says a knowing Debbie with Scottish understatement.

Then processed on serving dishes to loud acclaim are the sausages & meat… but those words do not do justice to the piled high, princely porkers or the caramelised, slow cooked (with crackling left on) oysters of pigginess.
No additives, no flavour enhancers, no colourants, nor preservatives (they’re not around long enough to need preserving)

Jana’s explains 2):
“Jaternice Rice sausage – full herb flavour, krvavničky blood sausage – dark but lite, pikantné klobásky spicy chorizo – picanté perfection, accompanied by gherkins, horseradish, mustard and rye bread for soaking up the juices.

IMG_5325 - Version 2

I fill and empty my plate, then sit back using a cold glass of beer to wash it down, before indecently licking off the residue trapped in my moustache. William has no refinement, but he’s hog happy.

I note that there remains quite a lot of caramelised pigs knee left, maybe just another round… to show good manners, t’would be a shame not to say thank you by clearing the platter (I’m not alone in this).

A further round of homemade, vintage slivovica, this time – pear… Christophe’s first shot of the night he’s not been well these last weeks, but is assured that this’ll kill off any bugs… his face on drinking suggests a little death.

Next..from Jana’s auntie, especially for Janka’s blízkych kamarátov… “šišky” –
Jana’s explains 3):
“Fresh doughnuts with homemade apricot jam”

IMG_5327 - Version 2

Far too many for we few… apparently not.

Then three kinds of fresh struddle…
Jana’s explains 3):
“štrúdla” – poppy seeds + cherrys, walnuts and cheesecake.
IMG_5338 - Version 2

And pancakes…
Jana’s explains 4):
“lokše” with poppy seed and marmalade filling, with castor sugar sprinkled on top.

IMG_5337 - Version 2

Another round of 12yr old pear slivovica… resistance is long past!

It is done!
We’re all done!
I’m done in!

“But there’s more…” says Jana.

“What?” say we.

So it comes… after all that we have consumed, the sweetest of meats… sirlion of roe-deer tartar with fried bread and cloves of garlic

Jana’s Instructions 6):
“Rub the fried bread heavily with garlic, load with the deer tartar and eat up.”… as would the ancient chiefs of the Slavs.
…I now understand why St’s Cyril & Methodiious’s mission here from Byzantium in the 9th century stuck around.

IMG_5341 - Version 2_4

IMG_5342 - Version 2

Pear slivovica…
12yr old plum slivovica….. Hayato’s face is alight with pleasure (though that may be the effects of the slivovica) with his typical Japanese gentleness sums it up, “Soooo niiiiiice!”



More deer tartar and garlic toast…….

For me, the fog closes in… an overstuffed trophy of the night, ready to be hung next to the bear and the marmots, legs detached from pickled brain… wondering why the earths centrifugal force had turned against me.

Jana however is practised… for her; slivovica came with mothers milk, so here I’ll hand the tale completely to her.

“I checked to ensure that all were well and noticed the swaying Welshman at the end of the table, he was standing, trying to focus on packing away his camera, he looked very content – like he was in heaven… ‘Good job!’ I thought to myself the mammoth will sleep well this night…”

Jana’s Final Instruction:
“Debbie, help Todd to his room.”
…who am I to argue? …in fact, who am I?

Morning after.

Morning after.

George Saunders – What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness…

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Hilton Brattislava repetition…

In my hotel room, having just travelled here following successful Vienna (70,000 in ticket sales) performances as Manny in Ice Age Live… I’ll soon hit the million audience mark – the only performer so to do, as all the other principles have either got understudies of had replacements (yes… I am a bit old for this) and the show has been declared the best selling in Europe (this translated into a free glass of cheap wine, rather than a bonus).

Along with my performance duties, I continue to direct creature character development (not helped by changes in cast) and am responsible for puppet assembly, repairs & maintenance (many hours).

Nice room, no reliable internet, however… though there’s a bath, my first for a month… I immediately plunge in and would never have come out, were it not for the kettle.

Leaving Vienna…

Vienna is one of the world’s greatest of city’s… listen for the footfalls of Mozart & Strauss, Wittgenstein & Freud and of course Hitler and then theres Klimt, painter & lover of the feminine… having seen these paintings – they can’t be unseen.

More than I thought, all that I wanted.

More than I thought, all that I wanted.



Waiting outside for the young ones…

Experienced the club Travel Shack, but was not recognised as a traveller.

Wondered at time having passed.

A moth, drawn by the light, fell to the floor amidst the night’s revellers, who continued oblivious. An unnoticed auto-da-fé

Without my furry Ferrari, I am apparently nothing. The barman explained that I was unwelcome.

So I left, along with the memory of burnt wings.