The myth of the monstrous teacher

Recently we took the kids to see the stage musical Matilda in London’s West End. We’d all read the book and seen the movie but this was something different. It’s a great show with memorable tunes, entertaining performances (especially the ten year old girl in the title role) and lots of parent-pleasing stuff about how much cooler books are than TV. But towards the end one thing about the story struck me as being perhaps a little bit dated, albeit in an interesting way.

The main thrust of the plot has Matilda (and other characters) standing up to a vile, cruel, child-hating teacher called Miss Trunchbull, and one of the repeated musical refrains has Matilda asserting her right to stand up to bullying adults, “be a little bit naughty” and defy authority. What I wondered whilee listening to this was that the archetype of the monstrous teacher may have a long and popular history, but does it really have any basis in reality any more? When (spoilers, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise) the whole class rises up in noisy defiance, I found myself thinking that maybe contemporary teachers would view this scene rather differently. I don’t think kids any longer have the kind of cowering fear faced with adults in positions of authority, and they probably no longer need such encouragement to rebel and talk back. Might not a teacher these days think “Actually we could do with a little more classroom discipline, and some of the kids I teach need to sit down and shut up and listen a bit more”?

Now the novel was written by Roald Dahl in 1988, which to my mind already puts it into an era when this kind of monstrously cruel teacher was already probably a thing of the past, more or less. And I don’t recall anything in the other versions of the story about it being a period piece. But compare this portrayal of teachers with what you can see nowadays on children’s TV drama on channels like CBBC. You see very few scary, authoritarian teachers and a lot more weak, comically ineffectual ones trying in vain to control a rowdy, aggressive bunch of kids.

This is maybe a small complaint, as the rest of the story is very much about using your intelligence, self-respect and fighting anti-intellectualism. But it might be nice to see more stories which present teachers as heroes, rather than villains.

By the way, this was probably my favourite song from the show.

Fine

Most Italian words are recognisable as such, but occasionally you’ll come across one which could be confused with an English word. This one, for example.
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Of course this means “end”, and is pronounced “fee-neh”. It’s not warning you that you’ll have to pay a fine, or happily asserting that everything’s just dandy.
The example which most amuses me is the one which can sometimes be seen at the entrance to road tunnels. If there’s a motorway exit immediately after the end of the tunnel, there’ll be a sign for the exit, followed by the words “a fine tunnel” (at the end of the tunnel). Which leads me to imagine a whole series of similar signs adorning other types of Italian transport infrastructure saying things like “A fantastic bridge”, or “A wonderful bypass”.

7 things to do in Naples

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I recently spent nearly five days in Naples. It was my first time there, but with any luck it won’t be my last. Of the expectations I had, some were confirmed (great pizza), others debunked (less squalid and dirty than I thought it would be). In many ways it reminded me of the Italian town with which I’m most familiar: Genova. It’s an old port with a ramshackle central quarter full of narrow, dark winding alleyways which are great fun to wander, good seafood, and some great scenery close by. But let’s break this down into numbered points, shall we?

1. Pizza

Naples claims to be the home of pizza and, more specifically, of the Margherita pizza. I was very slightly sceptical about their claims to make the best pizza in the world. Just because you did it first doesn’t mean you do it best, and I’ve had great pizza all over Italy and beyond, but I was willing to give them a chance. Some places are more traditional and stringent than others, and offer only the two old recipes margherita or marinara. Marinara is just topped with garlic and oregano, and as far as I’m concerned no cheese = not a pizza, so I wasn’t going to let “authenticity” concerns hold me back. Our first visit was to a place called Brandi, which has a plaque outside asserting that the margherita was “born” there in 1889.

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My wife ordered one of those:

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while I went for one topped with sausage meat and broccoli leaves.

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You notice at once certain characteristics of Neapolitan pizzas: they’re thin, slightly soggy in the middle, and have a pretty thick, gummy border. I tend to prefer just a little more crunch in my crust, but I didn’t let this put me off and finished it all (I’ve never understood people who leave the crust on their plate).

The other place we tried was also pretty famous, and pretty busy, but we managed to beat the queues by arriving as soon as they opened at 7pm (Italians would eat later than that). Sorbillo’s is slightly less venerable than some other Neapolitan pizzerias, being less than 100 years old, but it’s still one of the best regarded. It has impeccable credentials in the sense that it’s recognised as a Slow Food establishment, and they’re involved with Amnesty International (hosting meetings, and you can order an Amnesty pizza as a way of donating to them). Here’s part of the menu.

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And here’s what I ordered: topped with ‘nduja (soft, spreadable, spicy southern Italian salami) and cacioricotta cheese (harder and more mature than normal ricotta. All I can say really is that it’s probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.

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If you want a more comprehensive overview I recommend this post, in which one guy ate at 12 pizzerias in Naples in the space of 24 hours.

2. Fried pizza (and fried food in general)

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For some reason Neapolitans love fried food. I’ve never seen this many chip shops in Italy before. Not that they approach British or Belgian levels, but they’re pretty common. And they deep fry all kinds of things. Even so, I was shocked to find out that they also deep fry pizza, which sounds like the kind of thing you’d find in a place like Glasgow, alongside deep fried Mars bars. But no, it’s a thing here, so of course we had to try it. We went to a pizzeria called Dal Presidente, which is known for specialising in this stuff. Like many Neapolitan restaurants the walls are plastered with photos of visiting celebrities. Many of these are unrecognisable unless you know a lot about Italian TV or music, but there was a picture of Bill Clinton. The US president visited during the G7 meeting held here in 1994, and the restaurant was renamed in his honour. In fact we saw photos of Clinton in almost every eatery we visited in Naples, which makes you think he did nothing but eat the whole time he was here.

We started our meal with a selection of other fried nibbles, including the quite well-known arancini (rice and various other savoury ingredients in a doughy fried ball).

 

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That was already pretty filling, so we were somewhat dismayed to see the size of the fried pizza (one to share between the two of us) when it arrived. Fortunately a lot of that was air, and it deflated in front of us.

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It was filled with ricotta and little slivers of pork (“cicioli”), and in spite of being deep fried it wasn’t heavy or greasy. Still something of an acquired taste, perhaps, but I’m glad we tried it.

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3. Coffee

Coffee is another of those things where you could be forgiven for thinking “Well they have that all over Italy. Do I have to go specifically to Naples?”. But it’s different in Naples, you see. Not in every bar, but if you choose the right one they’ll prepare it in a special way. The coffee here is stronger, so they often assume you’ll need sugar in it, and you have to ask for it “amaro” (bitter) if you don’t want it sweetened. And if you do want it sweet, rather than just giving you some sugar to add yourself, they’ll often prepare a bowl with a creamy mixture of sugar and coffee which is then spooned on top of the espresso where it sits, like a syrupy topping.

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And if you’re stopping for a coffee you should probably also have a sfogliatella, which is a typical Neapolitan pastry made of many ruffled layers and filled with ricotta.

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4. Churches

Yes, we did manage to get some culture in Naples in between face-stuffing activities. There are any number of churches and arty artifacts to gawp at, but if you only have time for one you must go to the Cappella Sansevero. This is the one which contains the amazing “Veiled Christ” sculpture, made out of a single lump of marble. No photography is allowed inside so the photo below is from the official website, which is richly illustrated and full of information about the chapel and its creator Raimondo di Sangro. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the delicacy and realism of the sculpture, and the chapel is also decorated with several other stunningly realistic and intricate statues. And if you’re there make sure you go down into the basement to see the creepy “anatomical machines“, which are basically real skeletons with fully preserved circulatory systems. No one knows quite how they managed to make these with mid-18th century techniques, but they’re very impressive. I was so impressed I bought the souvenir bookmark.

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While we’re talking about religious knick-knacks, Naples has a thing about “presepi“, or Nativity scenes. Again, you see these all over Italy, but they’re bigger and more elaborate here, with whole shops (sometimes whole streets) dedicated to enormous displays of dioramas and figures ranging from Lego-scale to Barbie-scale.

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I saw this one outside a workshop in a side street. Obviously it will be painted later, but I quite like the monochrome look.

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5. Via Toledo

Naples is great for people-watching, and Via Toledo, one of the main shopping streets, is a great spot (or strip) for it. The best time to go may be early in the evening, as everyone comes out for a leisurely stroll before going out (or home) to eat. I saw a lot of memorable and interesting faces and once again felt the urge to take my camera out and photograph them, but various practical problems would prevent that. I also thought of buying a GoPro camera, mounting it on my head or chest and just walking along the street, filming the people I passed. Again, I can think of several obvious reasons why that’s a bad idea.

Via Toledo is also a good spot for one of Naples’ less obvious (to me, anyway) shopping opportunities: shirts. This area has long been known for its gents’ tailoring, and it’s one of the few places in the world where I’ve seen almost as many menswear shops as there are for women. I ended up buying six shirts, which is almost unprecedented for me. That’s all my clothes shopping done for the rest of the decade, barring accidents.

6. Capri

The island of Capri is a short boat ride away from Naples’ port. One of the main attractions on Capri is the Blue Grotto, so imagine our disappointment upon arrival at the port when we were told that the grotto was closed that day because of rough seas (they weren’t that rough, but the entrance to the grotto is small so I guess they have to be careful). So instead we just wandered the town and sat on the cliffs looking at the view, which was quite pleasant enough. Capri seems to be something of a celebrity magnet. Everywhere we went there were signs boasting that a certain hotel or restaurant had been visited by Pablo Neruda, Churchill, Lenin. The restaurants in particular had a much more impressive visitor photo display thatn most of the places back in Naples, with the likes of Beyonce, Spielberg, Springsteen, and Stallone prominently featured. We had lunch in the place with a photo of Nicolas Cage.

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7. Vesuvius and Pompeii

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We took a combined day trip (there are plenty of companies offering this) to these two related sights, which are only a short drive south east of the city. The Pompeii complex is far larger than I imagined, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around looking at ruined (and not so ruined) buildings.

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The partial remains of murals, mosaics and statuary were especially interesting and evocative.

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I mean, look how engrossed by it all these British school kids are!

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The Romans may have been good at building straight roads, but they were less successful at making them flat.

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It’s not far from there to the car park halfway up the slopes of Vesuvius. In the background of this shot you can see where the lava flowed down the hill during the 1944 eruption.

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Then you just have to walk another twenty minutes to reach the summit.

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Don’t ask me for any details about the volcano. When it comes to vulcanology I’m something of an igneoramus.

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Unfortunately the day we were there it was cloudy so the famed view across the bay towards Naples looked something like this:

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But if you want to see across the rooftops of the town you can do it from within Naples itself. Take the funicular railway from near the top of Via Toledo up to the Vomero district, and from there you can see the whole city laid out before, and a cloud-obscured Vesuvius in the distance.

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It’s obviously a popular spot to sit and have a drink, judging from the amount of discarded bottles on the nearby rooftop at bottom right…

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Lots more photos in the flickr album. Go take a look.

Palazzo Petrucci

I think it’s fair to say that I would happily have eaten pizza for the whole four days I recently spent in Naples. And yet one evening we tried a local Michelin-starred restaurant called Palazzo Petrucci, just for the sake of variety. There’s also a two star in Naples but it’s farther out of town and we wanted to stay more central. It’s located right in the centre of the old part of town, in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. The white building at bottom right is Petrucci Pizzeria, but the place we wanted was hidden in the corner. See the white rectangle just to the right of the base of the obelisk?

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I’ll zoom in a bit:

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Once through this discreet entrance you find yourself in one simple, high-ceilinged room. Off to the left is a stairway leading up to the kitchen, which can be seen through that window at the top. To be honest I found the décor a little uninspiring: stark and uncomfortable, in spite of the use of warm colours. But the friendliness and competence of the staff compensated.

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We chose a tasting menu, but first came an amuse-bouche of salmon, octopus, salad and pepper sauce. There was another ingredient but in the notes I took on my phone auto-correct changed it to “gremlins” and now I can’t remember what it actually was.

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The first proper course was a kind of “stracotto” pork croquette, on top of a thin slice of lobster, with truffle “caviar”, rice chips and cabbage. The wine was Vermentino. “Stracotto” literally means “overcooked”, or cooked until it’s falling apart. The croquette was nice but it felt a little out of place next to the other, more delicate and subtly-flavoured elements.

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The soup course. I probably wouldn’t have chosen a cold lemon soup if I were going à la carte, but that would have been my loss because it was lovely. On top, julienne of squid, star anise, and bread cubes coloured with squid ink. And accompanied by a lovely glass of Sancerre.

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 After the soup comes the pasta. Spaghettone, anchovies, seaweed crumble, and a glass of Vallicelli.

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The service was moving quite fast. Almost too fast. I don’t like too long a pause between courses, but here they were almost bringing us the next course before we’d finished the previous one, which made us feel a little rushed. In fact I decided to blame this rushed feeling for the fact that I forgot to take a photo of the main course, which was lamb with mint, apricot, and pecorino. The wine was a slightly weird and bitter unfiltered Bourgogne.
Now we moved to dessert, and were given a glass of not too sweet Passita from the nearby island of Ischia. This accompanied a yoghurt mouse with coffee.

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 Caramel mousse and a passion fruit crunchy ball with a liquid centre. Top marks for the caramel dribbles around the outside.

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The inevitable petits fours.

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All very pleasant, and recommended if you want at least one meal in Naples that isn’t circular and doughy.

Thin ice

A change to the lunchtime routine today. A social event in the lobby provided a free lunch, so my half an hour break was available to be used for something other than eating. Usually that would mean reading, but I wanted some fresh air and exercise and it was a bright, sunny day, so I wandered outside and found a park I’d never visited before, only a few hundred metres from the office.
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Don’t walk on the grass ice.

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Rebellious ducks.

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Frozen feather. The black blob stuck to the twig is a snail. I like how the ice creases and folds around the shell. Still, poor snaily.

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An awful lot of leaves in this pond.

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I was fascinated by the way tiny bubbles under the surface of the ice outline the objects below them; rocks and branches.

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Maybe I should get out more often.

24 hours in Dubai

I’d never really been interested in going to Dubai. The idea of a desert filled with ostentatious skyscrapers and blingy luxury hotels didn’t excite me. Then again, since we were passing through on our way from Sri Lanka back to Belgium we figured we may as well give it a look, if only to break the journey.

The most ostentatious of all the skyscrapers was clearly visible from our hotel room window.

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We were staying in a part of town where shiny futuristic towers alternated with patches of bare ground (presumably soon to be the sites of newer, even shinier and more futuristic towers).

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We did manage to locate an older, decidedly less shiny part of town: the souks next to the creek.

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But even in this area the modern monoliths dominated the skyline.

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I didn’t go into this shop.

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So there it is: the Burj Khalifa.

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Cleaning the windows is apparently a continuous job, and the cleaners are out every day except when high winds make it too dangerous.

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Which reminds me of that scene from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

In the exhibition prior to taking the lift you get to see various photos and videos of the construction, but the one that caught my eye was the one about Google Earth’s mapping of the entire complex. Check out the part where the woman has to dangle off the very top of the building. Nutter.

At the top people were taking the inevitable selfies, as well as using something I’d never seen before: real-life Instagram frames.

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Now I always used to love going to the top of tall buildings to see the view, but over the last few years I’ve started to get more nervous about it, and this time I wasn’t at all comfortable. I was ok in the elevator, but as soon as I stepped out I started hugging the wall and feeling jelly-legged. This was in fact only the lower of the two viewing points, on the 124th floor. There’s another, with luxury lounges, on the 148th. I didn’t go anywhere near the windows, and wouldn’t have gone out onto the open-air terrace if you’d paid me, so I took some shots through the windows with my zoom while keeping my back to the inner wall. Any of the shots here looking downwards were taken by my wife. In this one you can see the lake surrounding the tower. The dark patterns are the jets for the large fountain display which takes place every evening.

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In this one you can just about see our hotel, at right.

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Now it’s a perfectly fine view if you’re interested in looking at other, slightly shorter skyscrapers.

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Or at construction sites.

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Or at empty, flat desert which will probably some day be filled with more skyscrapers.

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But as views go it’s not the most fascinating in the world, in my opinion. The attraction is that it’s the tallest tower in the world, and I think that as soon as a newer, taller tower opens somewhere else the crowds will all go there instead.

Back on terra firma we looked around the large mall at the base of the Burj, which contained an aquarium in case you needed to rest your eyes on something soothing after a hard day’s shopping.

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And then we went outside to the lake surrounding the tower, as seen in that photo above.

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The aforementioned fountain display. The jets can reach 150 metres, which makes them the highest dancing fountains in the world. Obviously.

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So if you like tall, shiny things, Dubai is the place for you. There are other things to see besides skyscrapers, if you take the time to dig a little deeper, and I wouldn’t rule out spending another day or two here at some point, during a stopover on my way to the far east, but I still don’t think there’s enough here to distract me for a full holiday.

Brussels Toy Museum

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Brussels toy museum with our smallest child. A couple of years ago we went to the one in Mechelen which is a lot bigger and has a wider range of stuff on display, but the Brussels version has its own charm. It’s chaotic and dusty and haphazard, and concentrates mainly on early to mid-20th century toys. It’s more like stumbling into a large attic full of old and unsorted toys than a real museum, although there are glass display cases and the occasional explanatory note.

This gigantic, limbless, featureless baby doll welcomes you after you’ve paid your entrance fee.

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In one corner of the ground floor there’s a toy kitchen area where a lot of the kids played. In fact quite a lot of the toys were scattered around on the floor and were available to play with.

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The bus, in the centre of this photo, was also a popular seat.

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A display on dolls notes that the first attempts at making racially diverse baby dolls simply involved taking standard white babies and painting them black.

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Another toy kitchen. These dolls are about six inches tall.

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There were a lot of toy shops and kitchens, and I was struck by the detail and craftsmanship of the individual items.

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Fish and squid.

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The religious toy display. Who among us has never wanted to play at being nuns?

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Don’t ask me why this boy has a transparent cage torso. The girl on the left seems to be wondering too.

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The glorious Raj.

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Shadow puppet theatres.

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I remember watching Bonanza on TV as a child, but I never knew there was a toy line.

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Lorne Greene!

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Back in my day we couldn’t afford individual baths, so we’d all pile into the tub together. With a fish.

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There’s a lot more than this on display – it spreads over three floors – and it’s worth and hour or so of your time if you’re in the neighbourhood.

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