Saturday, 18 May 2013

Bookhounds of London: The House Sale

A man died to bring you this blog post. His name was Ralph.

I never really knew him, though I probably met him at some point, as he was a friend of the family. He had a very nice old house with water views, the sort of well-built 1930s design that stands up very well to the test of time, unlike many modern builds. Like most of us, he filled his house with stuff, things that his family neither wanted or needed but had to get rid of, if they were to sell the place or live in it themselves. The word went out: house sale! Time to get some bargains!

Living on an island, you get very used to the concept of trawling round leaving sales and the like, looking for a good deal. If you buy new, you're paying the importer's premium - often a very high mark-up - for the kind of cheap(ish) tat that, you know in your heart, you could pick up for half the price in any larger, more well-stocked market. A house sale, particularly one like Ralph's, is a good way of buying quality stuff at knock-down rates. On the other hand, from the seller's point of view, you just want rid of all that junk as quickly as possible, and what a load of tat it often is! Dog-eared cookery books and old algebra texts used by young Ralph, aged 15, still gathering dust all these decades later. Sofas and chairs, rotten with age, that wanted new covers and restuffing ten years ago and now need putting out of their misery. Chipped novelty jugs from a long-forgotten vacation, bedside tables, prints probably worth more for the frame than the content, and pretty much every other tchatchke you can imagine, plus more besides.

For those thinking this sort of thing is unique to my situation, I can assure you it isn't, and I have proof from an expert authority: J.R.R. Tolkein. Mild Hobbit spoilers ahoy!

And so they crossed the bridge and passed the mill by the river and came right back to Bilbo's own door.

"Bless me! What's going on?" he cried. There was a great commotion, and people of all sorts, respectable and unrespectable, were thick round the door, and many were going in and out - not even wiping their feet, as Bilbo noticed with annoyance.

If he was surprised, they were more surprised still. He had arrived back in the middle of an auction! There was a large notice in black and red hung on the gate, stating that on June the Twenty-second Messrs. Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire, of Bag-End, Underhill, Hobbiton. Sale to commence at ten o'clock sharp. It was now nearly lunchtime, and most of the things had already been sold, for various prices from next to nothing to old songs (as is not unusual at auctions). Bilbo's cousins the Sackville-Bagginses were, in fact, busy measuring his rooms to see if their own furniture would fit. In short, Bilbo was 'Presumed Dead,' and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.

Which just goes to show that Tolkein must have been to one or two auctions in his time. The pattern remains broadly the same today. As with any sale, those who get there first get the good stuff, and many of those present aren't there to buy at all, but to poke their noses round the place and gather - or spread - good gossip. Prices are uniformly low, even for the so-called valuable items, because the priority is to get the stuff out the door and the higher the price, the more likely it is it will go unsold. Particularly in a family sale you will often find the family on site, more or less melancholy, depending on the situation. It's worth bearing in mind, as many of you may know from personal experience, that these situations seldom bring out the best in people. The potential for reawakening old quarrels is very high, and it is not uncommon to find cousins squabbling in the parlor or spouses in tears because they've been denied the whatever-it-may-have-been that their hearts had been set on. And that's just the family; the bargain hunters can easily spark off their own to-do, over some forgettable bit of rubbish that they wouldn't look twice at if it wasn't on sale.

From a Bookhounds of London perspective, this situation is a potential gold mine for the Keeper. Some points you might want to bear in mind:

First, remember that the objective, from the seller's perspective, is to clear the house. That means everything, from curtains to carpets, has a price tag. The protagonists may only be interested in books, but that doesn't mean everyone else there is. Depending on the scale of the sale, there may be scores of people crowding round, or just a few neighbors and family members. This is a time for Interpersonal Abilities to shine. Gathering information can be as important as getting hold of that valuable first edition, particularly if the protagonists want to know where all the really good stuff is, or went.

Second, the protagonists will need to dig if they really want to find anything. The seller certainly won't have done anything more than some very basic organizing. A lot of items may have been left exactly where they were found, particularly the furniture and heavy stuff. Other, smaller pieces will have been taken out and put on display, so the kitchen counter - for example - is bound to be covered with pots, knives, china, and everything else that, until the sale, rested quietly in a kitchen drawer. Bulk items, like the books, may have been gathered up into boxes and will be sold by box. Or perhaps not; they might still be on a shelf somewhere. If you want to find something interesting, you need to search the whole house.

The protagonists should be aware that what they buy may not be all they take away. We found, quite by accident. Ralph's wallet in a drawer of a side table we took away, complete with credit cards. One of the books I picked up has all sorts of old newspaper clippings and other ephemera tucked between its leaves. Look at your own house, or apartment, and imagine what's hidden in some bag, or box, or drawer. Anything could turn up anywhere, and while most of it is undoubtedly not worth the trouble of collection - sorry to say it, but it's true, and no less true of my stuff than it is of yours - every so often a gem will surface. The people running the auction will go through the collection looking for that sort of thing but, particularly in a large sale, they can't be expected to find it all.

The protagonists should remember that not everything has to be in their specialty in order to be valuable to them. Back in 2012 I wrote about Orwell's Bookshop, and it's worth referring to again now. Remember what he said about his lending library:  

Probably our library subscribers were a fair cross-section of London's reading public. It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who ‘went out’ the best was — Priestley? Hemingway? Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell's novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel — the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel — seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific.         

Bear in mind, the protagonists are in business to make money. They might live for the day they finally discover the grimoire of their dreams, sell it, and retire to some blissful Pacific atoll on the proceeds; but in the meantime, they need to pay bills, and that means supplying what the customers want. Moreover I don't doubt for a minute that the buying public's consumption patterns have remained unchanged since Orwell's day. The Ethel M. Dells of this world still make a pretty good living, and while the critics may adore a literary phenomenon, that doesn't mean the phenomenon's books fly off the shelves. Finding a collection of some romance author's works can be a good way of keeping the shop afloat, and a useful reward for a protagonist determined to put the effort in to find it.

But what kind of property has a house sale? Broadly speaking, it's a middle class occupation, but that's a very all-inclusive term. A governess who spent all her life looking after other people's children, and who retired to a little cottage or flat, is as much middle class as the stockbroker who earned a very good living in the City and who owned a country house, even though each would have understood the subtle differences in their own social station. The smaller sales won't attract as much attention as the larger ones, of course, but that doesn't mean they're not worth paying any attention to. After all, governesses spend a lot of time in other people's houses, and often pick up things given them by their more well-to-do employers.

Not every house sale is, by definition, an auction, as not every decedent is a Bilbo. There are very many businesses that make their living out of going through a place and carting away the rubbish. Enterprising Bookhounds ought to be on very good terms with people in that line of work, but it's also worth their time poking through the items that don't get collected. You hear, every so often, about the incredibly valuable painting or other antique found in the skip after the house clearers have been. That could as easily be your players, if they're sharp about it.

Is this limited to Bookhounds of London? Not necessarily, though for obvious reasons it's most applicable to them. There's scope for Night's Black Agents, for example, in a house sale, but protagonists in that sort of game are probably going to be involved in more high-end auctions. There's limited interest in a James Bond type poking his nose in some granny's bloomer drawer, seeking bargains. Yet clearances aren't limited to grannies and the like; government archives are often throwing away valuable stuff, sometimes by accident. Or perhaps it's kept well beyond its sell-by. It's well known in London, for example, to those interested in such things, that lurking underground in forgotten tube stations and bomb shelters, there are still old records dating back to the war. The government had all kinds of blitz-proof hiding places and offices scattered over the city, and when the war ended, often the shelters and storage facilities were locked up and forgotten about. Imagine an old Nazi bunker in Berlin, not touched since the war, suddenly rediscovered during building works. Or imagine the sudden interest there might be in, say, hard drives from Russian computers, sold on by enterprising bandits or ex-internal security people, if people realized what kind of data was stored on them. That sort of thing can happen in many different circumstances; there's been interest, recently, in Silicon Knights' sale of office supplies and computers to Precursor Games, and Silicon had to prove that the hard drives were wiped before sale, as part of its dispute resolution with Epic Games. Tech companies go under all the time, and only those with the appropriate Abilities will be able to work out where all their - potentially valuable - stuff went. Or say an old Cold Warrior with unusual connections cashes in his chips unexpectedly. There's bound to be an interest in his belongings, and the only question is, can the protagonists beat all the other interested parties to the punch? 

This is intended as food for thought for the Keeper. There's plenty of mileage to be had from a house sale, whether as a one-off event or as the kicker for a more in-depth series of scenarios. Just bear in mind, someone's treasure is another person's trifle ... unless it turns out, as happened with Ralph's wallet, that trifles hide treasures after all. 


Saturday, 11 May 2013

Not-Quite-Review Corner: Sid Meier's Ace Patrol

This is a review of 2K Games' iOS free-to-play turn based strategy title, Sid Meier's Ace Patrol, a Great War air combat game. First, a disclaimer: although I write for the Escapist - in fact, I wrote this news post about the game - this review has nothing to do with the Escapist. It's completely my own thing. I'm drawn to this game in particular because I wrote this RPG scenario for Pelgrane and, as luck would have it, was tweaking the air combat rules not so long ago for the collected Great War Trail of Cthulhu setting.

Sid Meier is someone you should all have heard of by now, but on the off-chance you haven't, he's the guiding mind behind the Civilization game franchise, the man who took us to the stars in Alpha Centurai, the man who made Pirates! - also out for iPad, incidentally - and a host of other strategy titles. This latest effort fits right in with Meier's strategy aesthetic, being easy enough to get to grips with, but tricky enough to test your brain. It boasts 120 different scenarios and asynchronous multiplayer, all set in the hostile skies above the Western Front. You play as one of four nationalities - French. British, American and German - commanding a squadron of four eager pilots. Your job is to wage a successful campaign against the enemy, which means you need to fight the enemy four times in a series of scenarios, and then fight the concluding battle. Once that's over, the next campaign begins. Best of four campaigns wins the match.

Sounds simple? Well, it is ... except you can't just beat the enemy. You need to prevail while at the same time preserving your squadron. Each time a plane gets too badly damaged, its pilot has to sit out the next one or two missions. If a pilot gets shot down, they're injured for five missions, if this happened on your side of the lines. If this happened on the enemy's side, they're captured, which means they're out for the rest of the campaign, until they get handed over in the Christmas prisoner exchange. Remember, you only have four pilots. Most missions require only two, some insist on one, so you can afford to be a pilot down for a mission or two. But the concluding scenario of the campaign requires all four, so if something's gone very badly wrong and you only have one or two healthy pilots left, you're going to get trounced.

Aesthetically, this is a very pleasing title. Visuals are clean and fit the period very well. The sound and music are (mostly) spot on, though I'm prepared to swear on a stack of Sopwiths that someone borrowed a musical sting from Pirates! It just sounds too familiar. Strategic minds may be reminded of games like Avalon Hill's Knights of the Air, or Wings of War, as this title has a very similar aesthetic. Your pilots start off with the basic maneuvers and bags of optimism, but later on will be pulling off Immelmanns like seasoned professionals. Which is just as well, since their flying coffins are never very sturdy at the best of times. No single scenario takes much longer than ten minutes to play through, before the fallen are scattered across the landscape like crispy pigeons. Moreover the AI knows its business well enough to pose a significant challenge. If one of your pilots manages to get caught in a one-on-one against an AI ace, be prepared for pain, unless your man has as many tricks up his sleeve as the AI does.

Don't expect complete historical fidelity. The aircraft are well designed and in period. The pilots' continual survival is a bit odd; despite being shot down, shot up, set on fire, or imprisoned on the enemy's side of the lines, each lives on to fight another day. I'm torn. I'd almost rather there was permadeath, and have the dead pilot replaced by a rookie. Not only would that be historically valid, it would add a new layer of complexity, particularly late game. The presence of female pilots on the battlefield may upset some purists. The title gives you some customization options - you can change the pilot's name, and add some color trim to the pilot's plane - but ultimately you're stuck with a more or less interchangeable, and unchangeable, smiling face, male or female, to take into battle. Female pilots I don't mind, but I do find it slightly odd that - though there are one or two non-Caucasian faces - there don't seem to be any black pilots. After all, there were at least two black warbirds, one American, one Turkish, who actually fought, one of them on the Western Front. Why not have them in the game?

The 120 different missions boast is a bit of a misnomer. Mathematically, there may be that many, spread across the British, French, American and German campaigns, but in practical terms there are perhaps twelve different mission types in all. The Germans have one less than everyone else, since they have a zeppelin for the Allies to blow up, whereas the Allies don't have anything quite as cool for the Germans to shoot at. Some missions are essentially copycats; there isn't a substantial difference between blowing up a train, and blowing up some trucks. Most of the time you'll be playing through the same handful of missions, with the only difference between one campaign and the next being the relative difficulty of the enemy pilots. You may get bored quickly, given the level of repetition. Multiplayer is, I strongly suspect, where this title expects to enjoy longevity.

Whether or not that appeals to you is down to personal preference, but be warned: you may need to spend some cash. Though the title is technically free-to-play, only the tutorial missions in the British campaign are free; if you want anything else, you'll be spending money. It's $1.99 per campaign, or $0.99 for the rest of the British campaign. If you want your pilots back from hospital or the prison camp soon after they get shot down, that'll be cash on the barrel head, presumably each time you do it. I haven't been mad enough to spend money on that, at least not yet, though I wonder if that might not be the only way to successfully complete the game at its highest difficulty levels. There are also aces for purchase, special pilots who start the game with their own unique abilities, either bought singly or as part of the 'ace pack.' I do not know if the aces are allowed in multiplayer matches, but if they are, I pity the poor sod who goes toe-to-toe with the Germans. The special bonus for von Richtofen is 'inflicts more critical hits' and Immelmann 'starts with one ace maneuver', both of which abilities are ever so slightly savage. Pride of place has to go to Frenchman Rene Fonck's chance of a single-shot kill, though his companion Guynemer's ability is a bit naff, and anyone who spends good money on the American aces wants their head examining. I wouldn't take balloon-buster Luke on a bet, and Rickenbacker's ability to avoid critical hits isn't that wonderful, not when you consider that it's your ability to shoot down other people, not avoid getting shot down yourself, that will ultimately win the match.

Ultimately this title does tick all the necessary boxes: it has clever strategic play, and a compelling just-one-more turn single player campaign. Game play itself is smooth and swift, and while you may be tempted to go in bull-headed at first, it's clever strategy that will win the day. You do need to think one or two moves ahead, and if necessary take a few losses on the chin. It's the campaign that matters, not the skirmish, and it does you no good to win a match only to lose half your squadron doing it. Where it falls down is in its limited mission options, and a fairly aggressive monetization model that seems determined to wring pennies out of the player. It's not as aggressive as it could be; technically you could get by with just the British campaign, at $0.99, thus getting a pretty addictive strategy title for cheapsies. However it's unlikely that most players will stop there, and I've no doubt 2K Games knows it.

Recommended for: strategy nuts, Great War enthusiasts, those who remember the old Avalon Hill games fondly.

Not recommended for: people looking for a 100% authentic Great War experience, people who can't stand microtransactions.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Sweeny Todd: He'll Polish You Off

This post is dedicated to that ferocious and iconic murderer, Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I'm inspired by a recent purchase: a box set of British television classics, Mystery and Imagination, which I picked up at Movie Mail. It was a speculative purchase; I wanted to see how reliable Movie Mail was, and figured risking a couple bucks on a DVD or two was hardly going to break the bank if it went wrong. As it turned out, Movie Mail was very reliable, but I hadn't expected to enjoy Mystery and Imagination quite as much as I have done.

This British TV series, filmed in the late 1960s and early 70s, took iconic horror fiction and recast it for what was then a modern television audience. You can probably guess where it picked up most of its source material. I hadn't expected Denholm Elliott to be quite as good a Dracula as he turned out to be, for a start, and this was the first time Uncle Silas hasn't bored me to tears; but I want to talk to you about Sweeny, as his adaption is, to my mind, the best of the bunch.

Sweeny Todd's story ought to known to all of you by now: barber operates a murder-and-theft racket, using his neighbor Mrs Lovatt's pie shop as a convenient means of getting rid of the evidence. Since its original incarnation back in the early 19th Century as a penny shocker serial, Sweeny's seen stage, film and television adaptations, some of them more faithful to the novel than others. I'm sure Sweeny & Todd's in Reading isn't the only pie shop he inspired, but it's one I remember fondly from my student days. He's been carving up victims and dumping them in his cellar with aplomb for very nearly two centuries, and his neighbor Mrs. Lovatt's long pig pie empire has only grown in the telling. I couldn't help thinking, as I watched it, how so many would-be authors over that same two centuries, desperate to make their mark, would kill for the kind of fame Sweeny has achieved; and yet nobody really knows who wrote the original, or if Sweeny's character is based on an actual murderer. 

The television episode inspired me to pick up the actual novel - $0.99 on iTunes, someone has clearly half-inched the original from somewhere - and, almost to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Victorian serial fiction is always hit-or-miss; cranked out in a hurry to meet publication dates, with plot and character development secondary considerations at best, it often ends up a disaster. To be fair, Sweeny isn't quite an exception to the rule. Almost every character except for Sweeny is a bit lifeless, and the plot probably wouldn't stand very close inspection, but it holds together remarkably well, and is very briskly paced. Moreover I discovered, which I hadn't been expecting, that the television adaptation - with a truly remarkable performance by Freddie Jones as Sweeny - is actually quite faithful to its source material. Except that it misses out a scene that works wonders in the book, and though I can see why it was dropped I can't help feeling a little sorry that it was. I won't go into too much detail, except to ask a rhetorical question: if Sweeny provides the meat, and Mrs Lovatt the shop front, how do all those pies get baked?

All that aside, where ought Sweeny to fit in an RPG model? Well, as an iconic horror character there's plenty to like about Sweeny. He's the original murderer next door; you see him every day, sweeping his front stoop, always has a smile for his fellow man, and if his apprentice seems afraid of him, what of that? Apprentices are notoriously unreliable. And those pies! The novel, very cleverly, opens with them:

Yes, on the left hand side of the Bell-Yard, going down from Carey Street was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; it was because the first batch of these pies came up at twelve o'clock that there was such a rush of the legal profession to obtain them.

Their fame had spread to great distances. Oh, those delicious pies! There was about them a flavor never surpassed, and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of such a delicious gravy that defies description; and the fat and the lean so artistically mixed up ...

If this were Bookhounds of London, there are two obvious routes to go with Sweeny: Arabesque, and Technicolor. A Technicolor Sweeny relies heavily on the legend - the razor, those pies - but perhaps also ought to rely on film, specifically this 1937 Todd adaptation. I mention it not because it's any good - I haven't even seen it, so I can't judge - but because of its title role actor, Tod Slaughter. Take a look at that biography. Imagine a stage actor who used to play the hero, the Sherlock Holmes, the d'Artagnan, but who's just a little too old for it now, and a little too down-at-heel to refuse parts. Suddenly he finds fame again, except this time he's the villain, the Demon Barber. He can't afford to lose this role, and that means he has to play it right to the hilt. He needs to become Sweeny Todd, body and soul. Someone like that might want to collect every single thing ever written about Sweeny - which is where the Bookhounds come in - and perhaps might go a step too far in recreating his antihero. Say he even opens a mock barber's shop, a kind of crucible in which he plays his role day after day, perfecting it, so he can go on stage in the evening. Actors have done stranger things to keep a job. But suppose one step further: suppose that, in becoming Sweeny Todd, this man somehow recreates not just the title character, but everything that goes with him. Suppose that another shop opens up not far from his own; suppose that a pleasant, attractive woman starts serving the most delicious pies from that establishment. How, the Bookhounds might wonder, was this achieved, and what does it mean?

Jack Slaughter also known as Sweeny Todd
Athletics 9, Disguise 14, Driving 5, Firearms 4, Filch 6, Fleeing 12, Health 9, Mechanical Repair 8, Scuffling 8, Weapons 14
Hit Threshold: 4
Alertness Modifier: +0 / +2 (inside shop only)
Stealth Modifier: +1
Weapon: razor (-1), rapier (+0, only used in d'Artagnan role, and so only likely to be used if Slaughter isn't immersed in his Todd personality)
Magic: 8 (only accessible when playing Todd, and then unconsciously).
Special: When playing Todd, Slaughter has access to idiosyncratic magic techniques. He uses these most often to improve Fleeing and Weapons; he can spend 2 Magic to gain 1 point, but unlike a player, the Keeper must specify before a roll is made whether or not Todd is making use of this power. His shop acts as a kind of Fane, and Slaughter can only refresh his Magic pool if he spends an uninterrupted 8 hours at the shop. Uninterrupted in this context means without being attacked, or reminded that he is, in fact, Slaughter and not Todd. Shaving - or polishing off - a customer does not count as an interruption. 

Arabesque ought to be a little different. Arabesque might assume that there really was a Sweeny Todd; after all, there's no way to know one way or the other, and the location itself is certainly real enough. St Dunstan's has been there since the Middle Ages, and its crypts - those same crypts where, so it's said, Sweeny disposed of his victims - have a centuries-old history. The church itself, from the characters' perspective, is relatively modern; the old medieval building, clustered close about with shops like Sweeny Todd's, was demolished in the early 19th Century, scarcely a hundred years prior from a Bookhounds point of view. But London has a long memory. If, say, restoration work was taking place, and if a curious member of the public (or clergy) should ask the Bookhounds if they have any records of the building as it once stood, they might discover a secret or two hidden away in their musty old tomes. A street plan could be discovered that shows the layout of the medieval church, as it once stood. It might even include the names of some of those long-dead shop owners, and the location of their premises. It might reveal how the church vaults used to extend underneath those shops - perhaps surprising the restorers, who might not have realized that there was a vault there - and a bit of careful, antiquarian exploration could discover all kinds of things. Even, say, a set of razors and surgeon's tools, in curiously good condition given the passage of the years. But if those tools are disturbed, St Dunstan's as was might awaken, and overtake St Dunstan's as now is. People might discover, particularly after midnight, that they no longer recognize the old church, still less the streets roundabout, which seem somehow to have become narrower, more mazelike. Horses will be heard more often, never cars, let alone the buzz of an aircraft overhead. The streetlamps become smoky and dim, almost as though they were gas, or even candle, rather than electric. And in one of those candlelit shops can be heard an odd sound, as though someone was stropping a razor. Yet people could be lured down those back alleys by the most appetizing smell ...

Now that Bookhounds has been discussed, what of Night's Black Agents? Is Sweeny any good in a modern London setting? Does the Demon Barber lose his charm, when thrust into a world of spies, counterspies, and vampires? Well, no, particularly not when you consider the parallels between a human-pie-creating barber and a bloodsucker, but think about what Sweeny was first and foremost: a thief. Half the plot of the novel revolves around a string of priceless pearls that Sweeny stole from his most recent victim, and is desperately trying to fence; in fact, its original title was The String of Pearls. Given that, I would be tempted to put Sweeny fairly low down on the cospyramid, perhaps at the neighborhood level, and recast the legend as something like this:

There's a gang operating in London that specializes in custom theft. You name the target, so it's said, and they handle the job, no questions asked. Their fee is very high, but they guarantee results. It's also said of them that they don't tolerate welshers; of the two who tried, one a Russian ex-KGB and the other a member of the Cypriot Arif family, neither has ever been heard of since. Yet despite the apparent pedigree of the welshers, and the kind of influence their friends might have been expected to bring to bear, nothing has happened to this gang. Informally known as the Sweeny, mainly for its love of vintage 70s cars, this gang has been operating for over twenty years, and none of its members has spent more than a few days in jail. Very little is known about its membership, and only one journalist - long since gone missing - has ever discovered its leader's identity. Jim Regan's family has been a member of the Worshipful Company of Butchers for over a century, and his boutique establishments have provided some of the finest restaurants in London with meat for the table. The likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are, it's said, his personal friends. What isn't nearly as well known is Regan's occasional, malicious blackmailing of up-and-coming celebrity chefs. "Mate," he'll say to them, "I don't want to worry you, but - and I say this as a friend - people might get very concerned, if I were to let it be known just what it was you were serving the week before last. Don't believe me? Well, as it happens, I have proof ..." Often video proof, which has never failed to get results. Not that Regan relies on celebrity chefs to help dispose of the occasional annoying snooper, or witness; his London-based empire includes a Fleet Street establishment, Nose To Tail, a Michelin rising star. Its pies, say those who've been, are to die for.