Saturday, November 29, 2008

a sad reflection on the complexities of Indian society...

lose 80 inches

lose 60 inches

Both these images come from an advert for a slimming company featured in the Mumbai Mirror on 26th November 2008; printed just a few hours before the attacks started...

When we first saw them on a flight from Vadodara to Mumbai (which portentously had an aborted landing) we thought them hysterically funny. Now, after the attacks, they seem less amusing, more symptomatic of core problems.

Clearly there has been some pirated Photoshop work going on as the afters are not wholly the befores, if you follow my drift. and while it may be possible to lose 15kgs in 4 months or 22kgs in 3 months, one cannot lose 80 inches - that's over two metres! Yet here they are, unquestioned by any form of ethical code, trading standards, nor credibility. We have statements in concert with images. It matters little whether there is any consistency between the one and the other. The medium here is the message...

Booker-hailed Aravind Adiga encapsulates a similar aspect of cultural acceptance in The White Tiger. Here he describes fowls waiting their turn to die while held in a Rooster Coop. However, Adiga's wide-boy murdering anti-hero, Ashok Sharma, not only succeeds in escaping the Coop of his caste, but actually becomes a successful entrepreneur.

While failures of intelligence compounded by palpably inept action on the parts of both police and military during the Mumbai attacks raise questions about general security in India, there is a bigger issue glaringly obvious to anyone visiting India – over-staffing.

India’s cabin baggage screening is actually more effective than in Europe and USA. I had inadvertently left a scalpel in a carry-on bag which was not picked up at Stavanger, Oslo-Gardermoen, Heathrow (twice) and Baltimore-Washington – it was immediately picked up on a domestic flight out of New Delhi. But you only have to enter an airport in India and you will see droves of non-uniformed staff literally wandering around both landside and airside. Indeed, when I flew out of Mumbai on 29th November, there were still staff wandering around unchallenged and without any form of ID, wholly negating the effectiveness of carry-on baggage screening. More worrying still is the frequency of dogs airside. If a dog can get onto the airfield so can a person…

Then there was the official presence of moustachioed strutting be-medalled leaders of police and armed forces with their cabals of strutting moustachioed stick-wielding minions - none of whom were seen to be doing anything about the 'situation' they were supposed to be dealing with. Visible high-profile over-staffing.

And while all was unfolding in front of the barking media, India's Secretary General never-to-be was quick as ever to dash off a wide ball. "There is a savage irony to the fact that the unfolding horror in Mumbai began with terrorists docking near the Gateway of India. The magnificent arch, built in 1911 to welcome the King-Emperor, has ever since stood as a symbol of the openness of the city. Crowds flock around it, made up of foreign tourists and local yokels; touts hawk their wares; boats bob in the waters, offering cruises out to the open sea. The teeming throngs around it daily reflect India's diversity, with Parsi gentlemen out for their evening constitutionals, Muslim women in burkas taking the sea air, Goan Catholic waiters enjoying a break from their duties at the stately Taj Mahal hotel, Hindus from every corner of the country chatting in a multitude of tongues. Today, ringed by police barricades, the Gateway of India - and gateway to India's soul - is barred, mute testimony to the latest assault on the country's pluralist democracy."

It is amazing that Tharoor (author of the above screed) can not only mistake a physical embodiment of imperial repression as a symbol of welcome, but he goes on to dress it up with Disney parodies. He seems blind to the real people killed during the attacks...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Le magasin iPommeIt is quite strange to be English and in Montreal. No, I’m not getting exclusive – it’s simply the mélange of Frankish obstinacy, American loud and a medieval flag. It almost seems like it’s a place trying not to be where it is. If it was a Hispanic enclave it would have had to have been created by Borges…

Montréal is in Quebec, where Québécois French is the first language and legions of signs are not bilingual. So airport is aérogare (not aéroport), le wifi is actually le sans fil, and Montreal is Montréal. The irony of all this – though Quebec is an irony-free enclave – is that Quebec itself is based on an Algonquin word, kepék, meaning "(it) narrows." The topographic reference curiously reflects its cultural exclusivity.

But all is not exclusif! The local culinary highlight is not some heavenly soufflé of rare freshwater fish – it’s Poutine – rather wonderfully, chips (fries), curd cheese (stringier than Mozzarella), and gravy (sauce). Yup, cheesy chips with gravy. Yummy lining for a cold day...

Et voila, Le Magasin Apple Store, qui s'appelle "iPomme"!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

the other Cañadas photographs

The real reason for the visit to Tenerife and the Caldera de las Cañadas in particular was to take another sort of photograph from those travel snaps previously posted. Images of less obvious subject matter, in many instances with no inherent scale.

This first images comes from the Minas de San José - wonderful, coloured picon landscapes that straddle the TF-21 midway between Los Roques and Portillo. Picon is composed of small rounded pumice up to 20mm across. the San José picon ranges in colour from green-greys, through yellow-greys to red-greys. And in spite of the numbers of visitors they maintain their dune-like forms and discrete swirling colour bands. And there's very little litter around the place.

This second image comes from the very top of the huge gash in the landscape between Montaña El Cerrillar and Montaña de Arenas Negras. This shows a slab of lava resting on top of layers of pumice. As the pumice is granular it is subject to wind and water erosion, causing collapses in the lava slab.

While these are fairly intelligible images, there is no positivel sense of scale here. Other images of rubble, scrub, and rock have no palpable scale.

There's something worrying about the colouration here that I'm going to have to deal with. It's just a little anachronistic from a technical photographic perspective (think C19th landscape photographs).

Friday, September 12, 2008

three walks in the Caldera de Las Cañadas

Los Roques de García: This is probably the best introduction to the Caldera, and to get away and see what the folk in whistle-stop coaches and cars can’t see from the Mirador de la Ruleta. It’s an easy 4km hill-walk, with less than 150m combined ascent. As Sendero 3 it is an ‘official’ footpath, but do not rely on signage or waypoints, especially on the descent. The path starts impressively wide and manicured by the vehicle turning circle at the Mirador car park, thinning off in inverse proportion to the number of the ill-shod who give up. You get full-on views of the volcano and all the Roques as the path winds its way up to the high point of the walk – and you’ll know when you are there…

You’ll appreciate good footwear on the descent. There’s little path as such, just a wear marks on the rocks and screes which may be less easy to follow in wet weather. But there should be no problem as, assuming you can see it, basically you need to be aiming for the large rock appropriately named La Catedral. The right fork there takes you to the Mirador del Llano de Ucanca on TF-21, the left fork returns to where you started. The first part of the climb back up is well-trodden, and on an obvious ridge there’s a spur which gives the best view of the plain below (and you’ll be in all the photographs taken from the coach parties above). The last section up to the viewing platform places you in front of a full audience, the problem of actually finding a path, and avoiding any embarrassing slips…

The best map I’ve found for exploring the Caldera is the IGN Map and Guide to the Teide National Park, published by the Spanish Ministerio de Fomento (ISBN 8-423434-180254) available online from Stanfords (they also have shops in London and Bristol).

Montaña de Arenas Negras: A good introduction to the rim of the Caldera with a total ascent of around 300m in around 9km. The trail (as Sendero 4, “Las Siete Cañadas”) starts near the El Portillo Visitor Centre on TF-21. There’s a large Park notice board marking the start of the walk which follows the wide track for around 500m before forking to the left and becoming Sendero 2. After some time you’ll come across warnings about bees! Hives are brought up here during the flowering season. It’s rather worrying to be warned about the local bees if you are used to well-behaved English bees. According to the Park map (see note below) the trail skirts gently around Montaña El Cerrillar, giving views over the north coast clouds. Sendero 2 is well signed up to the highest point on the walk, but the path is never difficult to follow. There are some wonderful visual surprises after the high point (around 2300m)… Then Sendero 2 signs kick-in again after the exhilarating slide down the picon screes of Montaña de las Arenas Negras, meeting up with the painfully obvious Sendero 4 and the stroll back up to the car park.

(The Austrian ‘Kompass’ map and the Walk Tenerife guide both list El Cerrillar as Montaña de las Arenas Negras. The Park guide seems more sensible, labelling only the steep black picon hill as Montaña de Las Arenas Negras.)

Guajara: The highest point (2718m) on the Caldera rim, and with over 700m of ascent in 10km, a bit of a challenge for me. The trail starts at the far end of the Visitor Centre car park over the road from the Mirador de la Ruleta, striking off into lava scrub, but soon joining the obvious Sendero 4, (“Las Siete Cañadas”) near Las Piedras Amarillas. It skirts around overhangs and cliffs, flattening out, eventually forking off as Sendero 5 (the “Degollada de Guajara”) at the customary Park notice board, which rates the trail as difficult. It’s a slog all the way up from here, made more trying by the thin air. The pass (
“Degollada") is about a third of the way up Guajara from the valley plain, affording dizzy views to the coast over 2370m below – and there’s another 340m up to the summit…

The trail is not too hard nor too difficult to follow from here, and on a clear day, the summit gives amazing views of Teide and the full sweep of the Caldera walls. The rubble/ruins up here are what’s left of an observatory built in 1856, replaced by the Izana observatory in the distance to the north. Now you are presented with two options for the return. The easy recommended version is backtracking down the way you came up. The more difficult - which carries warnings about danger, “everything you do not want in a descent”, and “nur für Geübte” (“only for the experienced”) – goes straight down the face of Guajara! It was a real hoot. The top third is one exhilarating scramble through boulders and under an enormous overhang, never more than a couple of steps away from a very steep fall. There was not a cloud in the sky when I took this route, but it would be tragically easy to lose one’s way or footing in low cloud or wet weather, and a definite "no no" in snow and ice. But the sting in the tail for me came on the lower half of the route which is hideously uncomfortable, eventually joining up with Sendero 4 under Las Piedras Amarillas, and an easy stroll back.

The view of El Teide from the summit of Guajara (2718m) at 13.30 on 3rd September 2008. Teide is another 1000m higher, the highest point in Spain, and the third highest island volcano on the planet (the others are in Hawaii). It was well worth the slog up Guajara just for the views, better still, at this point in time I had no idea how much fun the way down was going to be. And the silence - in the six hours I spent on the mountain, I only saw 4 other people – two Germans who met me on the summit, and two Spanish who were about an hour behind me on the way up. On the Los Roques trail, once past the half-hearted, I only saw 4 people. And on the Arenas Negras route, I saw nobody until I met up with guided group of around 15 puffing, mixed and ill-dressed folk at the base of the picon scree. I toyed with the idea of seeing whether they’d make it up the hill, but my interest in belated lunch was greater...

Friday, July 18, 2008

terra inconcessa

Some summers ago, when I could still cast my shadow on the young trees in my garden, I was woken from dozing by a small insect buzzing around my face. I swatted it away, opened my eyes, and literally in that twinkling, saw a same-size conjunction of the insect, a passing gull, and a 747 heading out into the Atlantic; before all three separated on their separate lives.

This memory came to light on finishing reading W G Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn" again. I'd turned to Sebald's humbling yet voluptuous melancholy as a antidote to the vain and specious prolixity of Clive James' "Cultural Amnesia," a book which had really wound me up with its auteur centricity. I needed something positive to think about...

I think that "The Rings of Saturn" is best read in one sitting if you can, punctuated by nothing other than tea and calls of nature. The dense-pack text complemented by some quite remarkable ephemeral images tells around Sebald's walk through an empty Suffolk in late August 1992, and its historical, personal and meditative fallout that ranges from silk-worms to the Cold War.

As the family home of a former girlfriend, with whom I had successive operatic relationships from Cannes to Buenos Aires, Suffolk is terra inconcessa for me. Thus Sebald offers me appropriate covert ingress into its coastal landscapes and its loss.

Sebald died in a car crash in 2001.

[image of The English Channel, looking out from Kent towards the wrecking Goodwin Sands]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I got an uncomfortable feeling of slipperiness about Clive James in his book, Cultural Amnesia. I recalled, aptly, a passage in Borges' A book of Imaginary Beings about the creature, Baldanders (left).

Baldanders first comes to light in C16th Nuremburg. A self-descriptive German play on words ('bald' = soon, 'anders' = another), the creature is a rapid shape-shifter, a constant changeling. In 1668, in Grimelshausen's book Simplicius Simplissimus, Baldanders first appears in a forest as a stone carving of a idol, but then changes into an oak, a sow, a sausage, a meadow covered with clover, a flower; before returning to stone.

There is something similarly shifty in Cultural Amnesia - hindsight. As Borges says, "Baldanders is a successive monster, a monster in time."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

the sultan of snide

On March 17th 1662, two elderly women were hanged in Bury St Edmunds, England. Rose Cullender and Amy Deny had been found guilty of malevolent witchcraft. The prosecution case relied heavily on the 'evidence' based on the alleged victim's recall of their dreams.

On 7th October 1939, Vivian James was born in Kogarah, Australia. Due to vanity and/or machismo, he would later change his name because of a Hollywood movie.

Jorge Luis BorgesOn 3rd February 1975, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges wrote in the Afterword to his “A Book of Sand” ("El Libro de Arena"),
"In spite of John Felton, Charlotte Corday, and the well-known words of Rivera Indarte ('It is a holy deed to kill Rosas') and the Uruguayan national anthem ('For tyrants, Brutus’ blade'), I do not approve of political assassination."
On 24th March 1976, a military junta under General Jorge Videla overthrew the Perón government in Argentina. On 19th May, Borges, Ernesto Sabato and other writers met with Videla, expressing their support for the overthrowing of the Perónista terrors, and for Videla's stating that "the development of culture is essential for the development of a Nation."

Between 1976 and 1983 an estimated 30,000 people were 'disappeared' by the Argentinian Dictatorship.

On 15th December 1983, writer Sabato became president of the newly-formed National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, the government-established commission empowered to investigate the 'disappearance' of persons in Argentina over the previous 20 years.

In 2007, in his book “Cultural Amnesia”, (the now) Clive James published a personal diatribe against Borges, confiscating his years of creative work and judging him posthumously guilty of silence during the Dirty War of the Argentinian Dictatorship (1976-1983). A few pages back James was eulogising about Sir Thomas Browne’s “infallible sense of cadence that could operate through a whole sentence, making it a long poetic line.” So what?

Well quite a lot of ‘what’ if you bother to look…

Sir Thomas BrowneBrowne, like Borges, has enjoyed a string of admirers, particularly for his 1658 work, ”Urn Burial”. Yet Browne is not known for noisily expressing his views on the genocidal activities of the regicidal dictator and Browne contemporary, Oliver Cromwell. Browne had identified himself with the Royalists during the Civil War, and had been subsequently knighted by Charles II, so it is unlikely that he was unequivocal about Cromwell. James may be forgiven for overlooking this silence, but he cannot be forgiven for deliberately ignoring Browne’s documented unsilent role in the Bury St Edmunds Witch Trials which materially led to the deaths of Rose Cullender and Amy Deny. Then James seems to have little interest in the lives of women, of the 890 pages of Cultural Amnesia, just 37 feature women. Adding insult to death, some pages further on in his book, James describes Jean Cocteau's actual mingling with the Paris Propaganda Staffel as "not admirable," and excuses him on the grounds that "nobody died because of him." Still, 90,000 French Jews were killed in WW2.

James praises Sabato, "whose fantastic novels were dedicated to including all the horrors of the real world, and raising them to the status of dreams, so that they could become apprehensible to the imagination, which would otherwise edit them into something more easily overlooked." This sounds like the very stuff that sent two innocent women to the gallows in 1662.

James claims Sabato was unsilent during the Dictatorship (but no citations), then rather shoots himself in the foot with, "that a man so out of touch with the regime as Sabato should nevertheless have seen merit in the Malvinas adventure is a token of how indisputable the claim to the islands looked from the Argentinian side." James fails to mention the 907 people pointlessly killed in the conflict.

It may also be true that James ignored Borges’ stated position on political assassination, or he may have ruled this out of bounds of the 1976 coup - by all of 13 months. Which leads one to ask for motive behind the diatribe, pitching himself alongside Browne and Sabato at the expense of Borges. Iconoclasm for self-aggrandisement?

Sabato, Borges and VidelaThe hindsight bias of Cultural Amnesia is peppered with snide comments, evincing a failed suppression of the would-be comic within. He ridicules the clinically-blind Borges' lack of awareness of the terror with, "a cocked ear would have heard the screams (of those being tortured)". And though critical of Borges meeting with the Generals (left: Sabato, Borges and Videla), he's more than happy to brag about his meeting with Thatcher; and commenting that, "the opinions of intellectuals may be an adjunct to sound government but are no substitute for it." James comes over as the Jeremy Clarkson of criticism - a kicking pantomime horse desperately seeking attention. The attack on Borges is a most complete example of snide as whingeing vanity.

"Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time." Thomas Carlyle, c 1881

Notes on the cast:

Rose Cullender (-1662) and Amy Deny (-1662) The so-called witches' trial was documented in a 1682 pamphlet, "A Tryal of Witches"
Vivian James changed his name to Clive as he felt that after Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind" (1939), his given name became irrevocably a girl's name no matter how it was spelled. One wonders how he came to choose Clive - Rhett would surely have been the obvious Hollywood antidote to Vivian. C S Lewis abandoned 'Clive' in favour of Jacksie, but this was on account of a road traffic accident...
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinian writer of short stories, essays, poetry, literary criticism, and translations. Borges has influenced the writing of Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, William Gibson, Gabriel García Márquez, and W G Sebald.
John Felton (1595-1628) assassin of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1628, featured in Dumas' "The Three Musketeers." He was set up by "Milady." The real-life assassination of the corrupt and incompetent Buckingham turned Felton into a minor hero but did not save him from the hangman.
Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) famously assassinated Jean-Paul Marat in his bath-tub with a kitchen knife. Marat was the figurehead of the movement that would become the Reign of Terror. At her trial she said, "I killed one man to save 100,000." As if to prove this point, she went to the guillotine, after which a postmortem was carried out to determine whether she had any accomplices - by physically assessing her virginity. Neatly completing the circle with Sir Thomas Browne, Marat's heart was interred separately - in an urn...
Jose Rivera Indarte (1810-1845) was an Argentinian writer and journalist bitterly critical of Rosas' methods. His "Rosas y sus opositores" listed Rosas' alleged victims.
Uruguay's national anthem actually now has the more sanitised 'shake/tremble", "Tiranos, temblad!"
Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877) was an Argentinian General infamous for killing his opponents, or even those whose did not support him. Rosas was eventually defeated and fled to England. Borges openly hated both Rosas and Perón. Along with issuing pardons to military officers for their actions during the Dictatorship, President Carlos Menem had the remains of Rosas returned from England and interred in La Recoleta, as an example of the "futility of continuing to nurture old hostilities." Such is the ocean of cultural difference that lies between us.
Ernesto Sabato (1911-) Argentinian scientist and writer, became president of the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (CONADEP) established by President Raúl Alfonsín on 15th December 1983. The commission's final report, Nunca Mas (Never Again) was delivered to Alfonsín in September 1984. The commission reported on about 9000 individual cases of disappearance out of the estimated 30,000 - fear of reprisal still reigns...
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) English writer on medicine, science and religion. Author of Urn Burial (1658) - "Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, or a Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk."
Browne also wrote, "Religio Medici," containing the passage, "It is a riddle to me, how this story of Oracles hath not worm’d out of the world that doubtful conceit of Spirits & witches; how so many learned heads should so farre forget their Metaphysicks, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of Spirits: for my part, I have ever beleeved, and doe now know, that there are Witches; they that doubt of these, doe not onely deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely and upon consequence a sort not of Infidels, but Atheists." Religio Medici was firmly on the Papal Index, and these pronouncements from an expert witness rendered the prosecution's spectral (dreams) evidence admissible in the 1662 trials and the deaths of Rose Cullender and Amy Deny.
Browne's Urn Burial has influenced the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Herman Melville, Thomas De Quincey, W G Sebald, Virginia Woolf, and Borges himself.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in brief - after succeeding the English Civil Wars I and II, as Lord Protector he had Charles I executed in 1649; then after Civil War III, he set about the genocide of Irish Catholics.
Guerra de las Malvinas (1982) - The Falklands War. The futile bloody war which hastened the end of the Argentinian Dictatorship, the rebirth of Margaret Thatcher, and 907 deaths.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

such is the man’s persona*

Shashi TharoorWhile browsing in a well-stocked Delhi bookshop for some local reads, I was persuaded to buy Shashi Tharoor’s “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” as it would give a foreigner an insight into the India of today. So the shop owner said. As did the blurb.

I went along with the advice, happy to have found some answers. Sadly, with few exceptions, the articles in Tharoor’s well-hyped da capo collection of OpEds and essays gave me little insight into the realities of the contemporary India that would hit me in the face as I walked out of the world of the shop. Though it did generate a worrying glimpse into the mind of one who, but for the grace of god and the Security Council, nearly assumed a global mantle.

Tharoor (see his eponymous website) has had an inexorable rise to stardom since graduating from exclusive St Stephen’s, Bombay, learning how to write con tedio, and leaving India; achieving the lofty height of India’s friendly-fire candidate for Secretary General of the United Nations. If you are interested to know how impossible an aspiration that was, you only have to read his essay on the sari and its sad follow-up. Then maybe not. The UN managed to ignore the 4th Secretary General's background. Stalking saris pales into nothing in comparison...

Like many ex-pats – sorry, NRIs – Tharoor often falls into harking back. Usually critically of British occupation, partition, cold-war politics, or corruption; only occasionally to distant Golden Ages or Globalisation. But also harking forward to when (his) India becomes a tiger in the global jungle. Most irritating from a foreigner’s perspective is his incessant ingratiating posture to (his) India of today. Papering over gargantuan issues from destitution to infrastructure. Maybe I’m wrong. I only spend 4 or 5 weeks a year in India and only read all the English language Indian newspapers I can lay my hands on while there. But I am aware that my views are tempered by my cultural background.

Sir Les PattersonTharoor shares many qualities with another famous ex-pat, Australia’s former Minister for the Yarts, now Cultural Attaché, Sir Les Patterson – oozing excessive bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia. However, one doesn’t get the feeling that Tharoor has humorous intentions. Rather, he turns inside out Barry Humphries' maxim, “there is no more terrible fate for a comedian than to be taken seriously.” Such is Tharoor’s seeming ability to miss the point entirely, to ignore late C20th inclusivities, to manipulate language as if it was something semi-solid he’d found in his nose, and to play the archetypical ex-pat who’s gone left-field, that he would have had to have been invented by a Barry Humphries had he not done it himself first!

So yes, read “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” as you would read John o’Farrell’s contemporary “An Utterly Impartial History of Britain.” You will discover that the latter is a funny and accurate historical critique of Britain today, while the former - well we've been there already...

*the last words in a recent unctuous screed on Tharoor.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

quit before the bandh strikes out

Sonar room shadowsKolkata, Wednesday 4th June: Thank goodness for good old British small talk. During pre-meeting nattering this afternoon in Kolkata, we learned that news of impending bandhs had just broken. Bandhs, we discovered are all-out strikes. And thank goodness for cellphones as I was on to my travel agent to rearrange our itinerary and got the last two seats on the last flight to New Delhi before two days of dawn to dusk bandhs ground Kolkata to a complete standstill. We managed to complete all our meetings without undue haste, (sadly) checked out of our rather wonderful hotel (The Sonar), but managed a quick drink before the dry flight across the full width of India.

from TOI,  a very wet KolkataNext day we read about torrential rains flooding in Kolkata’s domestic terminal – made all the more piquant by overflowing toilets. Incredible India, as they like to say!

(image from Times of India, Friday 6th June, shows eerily deserted streets, and that heavy rain - if you've ever been to Cal, you'll be amazed at the absence of vehicles and people...)

Saturday, May 31, 2008

an extreme case where suddenness may have happened

A good friend from Australia explained to me why she always flies business class on domestic flights in India. Her case is indisputable.

Some years ago she was flying between to two cities in India on one of the many domestic carriers. The plane trundled off to the runway but stopped short on one of the taxiways. After ten minutes or so, some steps and a small airport bus appeared. All the business class passengers including my friend were off-loaded and taken back to the terminal, leaving the economy passengers on the plane.

Back in the lounge, my friend asked what was happening, why had the business class passengers been bussed back to the terminal leaving the others behind on the plane. "Madam, there is a bomb scare on that plane..."

See, you can't argue about that!

Friday, May 23, 2008

a ski-jump called Heike

a wooden ski jumpOslo, Tuesday 20th May: I went for a walk this evening in the high woods above Frognerseteren, overlooking Oslo. At times there was total silence, apart from birdsong, the occasional rustling of young leaves, trickling streams, and the sound of my breathing. I saw nobody else at all.

I found this wooden ski-jump stranded on a hillside of fresh grass. It seems to be called Heike. A good friend tells me that the Norwegian for ski-jump is the rather lovely "hoppbakke." And with perfect logic, ski-jumping is "skihopping."

There was brilliant long shadow sunshine over on the western side of the hills - and some very noisy fieldfares too. There were patches of perfect pale pink wood anemones everywhere.

A refreshing Spring evening in Norway...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Lindsay Road, Leicester

garden as on Google Earth todayIt is rather eerie zooming in on the house where you once lived a long while ago. I suppose that that is what Google Earth is all about.

As you'd expect, so much has changed in those decades, but there are still details there that existed when I was very young - it looks like there's still a privet hedge, a holly tree and a laurel bush in the front garden. But they are the sole survivors of once richer gardens overall.

Of course, childhood memories have things much bigger, sunnier, better than they maybe they were. This garden looks so much smaller than I remember it, then I was so much smaller too!

The great faded grey farmhouse that used to occupy the land beyond the lower left of this Google Earth image has long gone. Even when we lived there it had ceased to function as a real farmhouse as its land had been given over to housing. Though I have very fond memories of the sounds of the turkeys, geese and chickens kept by its owners.

The gardens used to be home to Cox and Bramley apple trees, gooseberry bushes, strawberries, cultivated and feral blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants, raspberries, an enormous unclimbable Conference pear tree, and a vegetable patch in which we used to grow radish, beetroot, lettuce, peas, new potatoes, broad beans, runner beans, broccoli, shallots and carrots... And on the basis I cannot remember any chemicals (except for the sticky bands applied to the fruit trees and the soot around the runner beans), this must all have been organic, even though we didn't know what the word meant in those days.
garden as it was around 1960
And there were flowers too. We had stocks, flags, michealmas daisies, lilac, roses, and a selection of white and purple rockery plants. But we also grew summer stocks, asters, gladioli and chrysanthemums.

This second image gives a rather crude impression of what I think things were like in the summer. The centre-right bushes are gooseberries, to their right are raspberries, to their left strawberries. The bushes lower right are blackcurrants, whitecurrants and redcurrants. To their left is the pear tree. Centre left is the Bramley apple tree, next is the Cox's tree. The big brown patch is where we grew our vegetables and cut flowers.

We had far less lawn to maintain back then - it certainly wasn't much of a garden for play. But there is a tell-tale "crop-mark" on the Google Earth image where the old garden path used to be.

Maybe the current owners may wonder at was used to be, literally in their back garden.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

is this the worst restaurant review ever?

I doubt that it is, but it's a pretty accurate review from my experience, and makes 'whaaat' fun reading even if you've not eaten there - The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company from The Daily Telegraph 18th April 2008...

Don't get me wrong, Whitstable is a fine place and I really like it, this restaurant is well situated on the beach (and should be much better as most of the comments suggest). The same company owns The Continental Hotel just the other side of the harbour - this also seems to suffer from resting on its laurels...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

first summer sun

oleandersSunday 4th May was the first day this year in Cornwall when the sun had summer heat into the evening. With summery oleanders peeping through, swifts and swallows aloft, the feeling that the sun has been colouring your skin all day, a glass of very chilled wine, and some drifting sounds of Gypsy Kings, I am reminded of the best bruschetta I have ever tasted - La Caletta. Maravilloso! poppy

I can do quite good bruschetta, but I do things by eye, so no recipes here, least until I figure out how to translate eye into amounts and words...

And not to be outdone, the bruschetta-ripe tomato-coloured poppies decided to come out today too!

Friday, May 2, 2008

when the blog takes over...

Deal, Kent, Thursday 1st May: I mentioned before that the blog was determining content to some extent, now I notice how it's colour scheme is affecting my photographs. Or is it causing them?

Well weird - blog assimilation? Whatever...

There are three cross-Channel ferries just below the horizon, which I've cropped anyway. There was also a gale blowing into my face when I took this photograph looking south towards Dover.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Non-places are characterised by their triviality, constructed spaces which don't warrant being called a 'place'. Airports, shopping malls, motorway services areas, motorways, bus and ferry terminals. They are temporarily occupied spaces en route to somewhere else. They are havens for signs of information or instruction - "check-in" "duty free" "toilets" "50% off" "The Atlantic Highway" "go to gate" "switch off phones".

I have a feeling that blogs are in some way analogous to non-places, a species of non-narrative that flows in time without the need for a temporal constructor of a storyline. Blogs have instructions, information and signing similar to non-places - "view my complete profile" "post a comment" active labels and navigation devices. Most of all they run against continuous sequential time - with posts like vehicles on ferries running the first-in last-off system.

There is a sub-species of non-place actively constructed as a fiction - British Airways calls its mobile-free lounge 'The Sanctuary"; a part of Dorset is brown-signed "Hardy Country" and Yorkshire has its "Brontë Country"; one of Britain's largest shopping centres is called "Bluewater", now notorious for banning hoodies; and the names of British motorway services can err towards the rural - "Sedgemoor", "Michaelwood", "Birchanger Green" - as sign-only spaces.

The photograph? In spite of its looks this is very much a place - this is a nun walking just below the main steps to the great Tōdai-ji (東大寺) Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan. I have a habit of pointing my camera in the other direction...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

of groynes and oysters

Tuesday 29th April: It’s raining in Whitstable, Kent. The Essex coast of the Thames estuary has disappeared, but these groynes on the flint shingle beach are still doing their bit to protect the up-coast Seasalter native oyster fishery from the effects of longshore drift. Groyne is one of those mysterious and slightly amusing words that doesn’t make much sense when you are standing next to an uncompromising wooden hulk. As a child I'd regarded groyne as a transitive verb meaning "to scrape children." On the other hand, longshore drift is simply sand or shingle shifting along a the coastline with prevailing wind or wave action – which can lead to more serious erosion or silting-up, or some spectacular natural creations

Wonderfully, longshore drift is sometimes also known as LSD. So, voila, we have groynes protecting native oysters from LSD! Long may that be so at Whitstable! Can you imagine?

Monday, April 28, 2008

this fluffy blue sky

Sunday afternoon, 27th April: a woodpecker drumming rather persistently on a dead tree-trunk in the woods nearby; a handful of blackbirds singing across the valley; a solitary intent blue butterfly; the late Ibrahim Ferrer singing “Dos gardenias para ti;” a half-decent barbecue wafting by; a glass of chilled Australian chardonnay; a flurry of pink cherry blossoms, some deliciously warm sun; and this fluffy blue sky. Not the time for work, nor the Joan Didion I'm supposed to be reading...

While elsewhere in Cornwall there are orioles, hoopoes and bee-eaters - stragglers...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

wyverns, dryads, some clowns, and a trio of war vets

At first I had the clear idea that this blog was a record of 'past and future memories'. It would be a passive dip-in-dip-out cache of my musings. Imperceptibly at the time, things gradually began to change. The blog has taken on an existence of its own, demanding to be fed, and, weirdly, almost creating its own content. This may sound far-fetched, and it is too early on a wet Sunday morning as I first write this, but the rock-fall of childhood brief encounters that follows here was palpably encouraged by the blog...

a wyvern on a Leicester roofWyverns were common in the Leicester of my childhood - they were all over the place, from the city's omnipresent coat of arms, on buildings, the names of businesses, cars, a pub, a school even. It still seems odd to be so celebratory about a creature so associated with war and pestilence (both rather significant for large parts of the last few thousand years) should have been re-invented apparently to symbolise power. As a child, they were just dragons. I was uncaring whether they had two or four legs, or whether they came from Rome, Wessex or Lancaster. All dragons are dragons.

Leicester's fantasies continued with The Dryad, which was a wonderful crafts company not a demure wood nymph secreted in an oak in nearby Charnwood. The Dryad prevails even though I wasn't involved in the crafts as it supplied all the schools with all their art and crafts needs. And while I hated going shopping, except for food and at Christmas, I positively loved The Beehive - a Silver Street fabrics and millinery store that had a wonderful overhead cash railway system.

a screen-shot of BBC's testcard FI have a nagging feeling that I may have been introduced to Nicolai Poliakoff (aka Coco the Clown). Least I am certain that I was once in enforced close proximity to him. No, it was nothing against the man behind the mask, or in his case, the feet inside the size 58 shoes, it was just that I had a slight fear of clowns. While I suppose I thought that Coco was funny as he was the butt of all the jokes, it was the Whiteface straight-man he worked with that disturbed me most. The haughty demeanour, the white face and neck, the extraordinary hermaphroditic costume, the dreadful white leggings and shoes, the saxaphone and the white cone-shaped hat were just too much for the young me. Children are supposed to like clowns, aren't they? Well, no. It seems that coulrophobia is quite common - many children were disturbed by Bubbles the Clown who featured on this BBC's testcard for 30 years...

Whereas much to the concern of whoever was walking me through town on an unrewarding shopping expedition, I was fascinated by a trio of old men who 'performed' in most weathers by the side entrance to Lewis’s, Leicester's largest department store. I have a feeling that they may have been war veterans as their performance was so, well, unimpressive, and society wasn’t given to tolerate ‘begging’ at the time. Indeed, many houses had signs on their gates, ‘no hawkers, circulars or fakirs’ though we always seemed to buy onions from the man with the stripy shirt and beret who came all the way from France on a bicycle each autumn... Whatever, one very scrawny man wearing a white vest would occasionally lift a dumbbell; another, who may have been an amputee, would simply move up and down by flexing his knees; while the third, seated and wearing a suit, played snatches on a glistening ornate accordion. I so wanted to hear a complete tune. They all worked out of sync and had an other-worldly look of circusness about them.

Then there was Brucciani's ice cream sodas... Meraviglioso!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

seeing in the dark

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced total darkness. The nearest would have been behind sealed doors in a film-processing darkroom; even then there was an ultra-soft light coming from a large analogue timer. I suppose I could have turned my back on it, but I always knew it was there. And the oddest thing about working in a black darkroom is that it always seemed much better when you closed your eyes.

There’s no chance of real darkness outside in a town, and there’s too much light pollution for it ever truly dark in England, even in the loneliest of places. Cloudy nights disperse light over huge distances, while on clear nights the moon and stars are light in themselves.

Asteroid 253 Mathilde is one of the darker objects wandering around out there in our solar system – the darkest are light-sucking black holes. She dwells in perpetual motion in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, never closer to Earth than 140 million km, never further away than 630 million km. I prefer to call her a she - I really would have called him a he if his name was John or Trevor - as her two ugly alternative names "1949 OL1" and "A915 TN" reduce her to an it. Even with the best will in the world she has a rather lumpy pock-marked mass with one enormous crater giving her the impression of being squeezed in the middle. Her vital statistics are 66 by 48 by 44 km. And saddest of all, it is likely that she is composed of rubble, leading her too close to cartoon abuse for comfort. One imagines that if she knew she was the subject of ridicule she would set a course to Earth to prove the point that rubble-or-no, I'm still a very big asteroid and you're about to become history! Mathilde is 6 times larger than the probable size of the asteroid that created the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico, and is associated with the K-T Extinction - the demise of the dinosaurs - about 65 million years ago.

So why am I going on about a black heap which keeps herself to herself and is all-but invisible? Well her invisibility is the point, she’s very dark – darker than charcoal. Though she was discovered in 1885, she’s only recently visually entered the public domain when this composite image was produced by a spacecraft in 1997. What fascinates me is that NASA has the multi-spectral cameras to create such a full tonal image of an object that is so light-absorbing. Whatever...

Poor Mathilde may also be tetchy about her craters - the 23 largest are all named after coal-fields... The largest of her craters is in this image and is called Ishikari, after Japan's largest coal-field. It's 6km deep and 30km across - a tad smaller than London. I mean, would you tell someone their nose was the size of Detroit? It's really like poking a tiger in the eye! Astronomers really should get out more, or in this case, at least check the real story behind why Mathilde is "Mathilde"!

So the image of Mathilde really was seeing in the dark...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

halted states (3)

This presents a different set of issues. It is a ceramic plaque produced by Saskia when she was 5 or 6. Looking at it with the knowledge of what it depicts is challenging in itself, but it must be mind-boggling for anyone coming to it for the first time even to begin to figure out what is happening in the embossed image.

The four "cartouches" on the right, partially joined by curving lines, are flowering shrubs in our front garden. The large central cartouche (three dots and a square) represents a porch, immediately above which is the tiled roof of our house. Top left is a dormer window, and the two complex cartouches bottom left are almost certainly flowers in plant pots. As she is right-handed, one imagines she started on the right-hand side with the flowers in the front garden, gradually running out of space as she progressed leftwards and upwards, running out of space before she "got to" ridge of the roof and the chimneys.

The halted state here is a child's rather wonderful, complex view of her home, locked in terracotta.

Or not, as the case seems to be! It appears that I was some years out, and mistaking the project with one which Gwen did. Saskia corrects me "It was an art project. We all had to design and make a town scene. The circles and squares are windows and doors in the buildings, with two sky scrapers at the back. There are a few houses in the distance on a winding road out of the town."

Mmm, there's a lesson here!
Never mistake a schematic for a figurative!

treacle toffee

Saturday 19th April 2008: Saskia cooked a Gordon F Ramsey dessert for us yesterday (the day before she was officially awarded her BSc(Hons) Mathematics and Computing). A sort of upside-down cheesecake. It was delicious, but one of its tastes worked so hard to take me back to what and when I couldn't be sure. Then it dawned on me, maybe better to say that it evening’d on me.

Instead of the normal biscuit/butter base, this cheesecake had a crumbly toffee topping. There was something in the cooked sugar that kicked-in a tastebud memory of my grandmother’s bonfire night black treacle toffee. I don't have her recipe as I never saw her make it.

The photo is of my grandmother and her son, c 1914...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

something came into my house this morning

coloured light patterns on a white wallTuesday 15th April 2008: This light came into my house briefly this morning, maybe for less than ten minutes.

It's a camera obscura effect of light passing through the narrow gap under a door into a darkened space. It may be a multiplied image as there is a chrome carpet stay under the door. The green stripe is a snake, the yellow is carpet, but I am unsure of the source of the other colours. It was a very sunny morning, and this was a beautiful, most welcome fleeting visitor...

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye." Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943

Monday, April 14, 2008

halted states (1)

lava rock from VesuviusIn its current form, this rock was created between 18th and 23rd March 1944 on Mount Vesuvius. It had existed in a more liquid form for quite a while prior to that, and in reality it is as old as the Earth. It is literally in the halted state of solidification and cracking caused by cooling and subsequent moving of its parent lava flow. Conceptually, it is a snapshot of a random moment in the history of Vesuvius. It was collected by Gwen in June 1993, and photographed by me last week.

quartz-like rock from GavarnieThis second rock sample cannot benefit from such precise dating. I can tell you exactly where it was collected (just below the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie, Cirque de Gavarnie, Hautes-Pyrénées, France), when it was collected (September 1992), and by whom (Gwen); but it wholly resists the precise forensic dating of the Vesuvius rock. However, it is no less interesting. The surface shown here has the appearance of having once been liquid, and in contact with another surface that had also been liquid or flexible. The reverse side reveals that the rock is actually a rather heavy quartz.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

seeing stars - an expedition into the familiar

asteroid moon, Petit PrinceFriday 11th April, 2008: It is wonderful to discover the name of something that you have lived with since before you were born.

Bob gave an enchanted monologue today about her vision of a future for our two merging colleges. She talked about those abstract moving shapes and colours we sometimes look at after closing our eyes for sleep, and how these random images eventually coalesce into more vivid dreams.


Most times we do not bother to look at them, obscured by familiarity, phosphenes are as effectively invisible as the walls and furnishings of our dwellings, as noteworthiless as walking home, our hands, our favourite mug, and the scene outside our bedroom window. But sometimes we do look at this lightshow and invariably this looking will lead into sleep without a trace. Phosphenes are entoptic (not of the eye), like dreams, and memories...

As with many familiar things, there is more to phosphenes than initially meets the eye. They can be mechanically enhanced simply by applying light pressure to a closed eyelid; and cartoon ‘seeing stars’ can easily be induced by sneezing, standing up too quickly, or by a light blow to the head. And they can be magnetically, electrically and drug induced to greater glories.

It has been suggested that non-figurative Neolithic imagery may have been produced by shamans who enhanced natural phosphenes with hallucinogens. Such naturally occurring drugs would have been readily available to a pre-Google elite who knew where to look. Resulting shamanic trances would empower phosphene-derived images with meanings unknowable today. It seems that it is also possible that the physiological creators of phosphenes have been with us since our earliest human forms, that we may even share them with apes, maybe even other higher mammals...

There are two other phosphene inducers that rather tidily link up some previous blog concerns. “In a survey of 59 astronauts, 47 noticed phosphenes sometime during spaceflight. Most often they were noted before sleep, and several people even thought the light flashes disturbed their sleep. The light flashes predominantly appear white, have elongated shapes, and most interestingly, often come with a sense of motion. The motion is described as sideways, diagonal, or in-out, but never in the vertical direction. Although it is clear that they are related to high-energy particles in the space radiation environment, many details about them are still unknown.” Seeing stars in space…

And in a truly wonderful coincidence, neutrons generated in particle accelerators also trigger phosphenes in the human visual system. Dragons, even…

Thank you, Bob, for introducing me to phosphenes!

The time-lapse image is of the asteroid moon 45_Eugenia-01, in orbit around the asteroid 45_Eugenia. Discovered by a terrestrial telescope in Hawaii in 1998, and originally based on Napoléon Eugène (1856-1879), Prince Imperial (also known as Le Petit Prince), the only child of Emperor Napoleon III of France and his Empress consort Eugénie de Montijo (1826-1920). The unglamorous S/1998(45)1 was officially renamed Petit-Prince in 2003 in honour of St Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, 60 years after the book was written.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

suddenness may well happen - dragons, even...

a stone frog on a pebbleFalmouth, Wednesday 9th April 2008: (you may wish to skip this one) I was thinking about my childhood struggle to find the precise moment of 'halted state' that lay between being awake and being asleep (previous blog) . Then there was a moment this afternoon when I could hear blackbirds, hedge sparrows, chiffchaffs, wrens, goldcrests, robins, linnets and goldfinches all singing at the same time, yet as soon as I focused to one individual, the others were blurred into a general chorus. OK, this was the expected consequence of focusing. But when I focused on them as a group, I could hear them all as identifiable individuals singing at the same time. The group simultaneously realised and comprised the individuals.

This got me round to thinking about an awake/asleep duality – in the sense that there is actually no single point in the transit from being awake to being asleep. Rather one moves from being awake, to being awake-and-asleep, to being asleep-and-awake, to being asleep. Like crossing a horizon – a shifting visual phenomenon straddling the terrain between two points in a landscape. Or just as aunt Hilda had explained – the crepuscular period between daytime and night time, which starts by being more daytime and ends by being more night time. Or the gradual shift from green to yellow, or orange to red. It is not a gateway from one space or state to another as I had originally thought (I’d even had an idea of what the gate may look like - the old creosoted gate to the allotments near my childhood house in Leicester). These are subjective, not binary states.

“There is a threshold in the structure of the physical world the crossing of which destroys the experimenter civilization before its presence may be recognized by other intelligent life in the universe.” This is a very liberal reworking of Fermi’s paradox which relates to the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. The quotation came from a discussion group on an article in the International Herald Tribune about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The article related to a law suit raised in Hawaii aimed at stopping CERN from “switching on” the LHC, citing that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a "strangelet" that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called "strange matter." Even more emotive was, “the LHC might make dragons that eat us up.” The doomsday predictions seem to be closed fantasies, while the original Fermi paradox was an open question. The binary and the non-binary.

And from this sublime to the a ridiculous - the original article printed in the European edition of the IHT (31st March 2008) featured a rather wonderful typo that I am sure appeared in a similar article by the same author in the same newspaper in 2007...

In Mayan cultures, frogs were seen as linking heaven and earth through their appearances in rain (which came from heaven). They provided a point of contact between two continua. This one came from Bogotá and now lives with other collected stones and shells in my living room.

Monday, April 7, 2008

falling asleep

an illustration of man-traps from The Natural History of SelborneI had dozed for a while on the sofa yesterday having re-read some Selborne. I knew this sleep was a bad idea, and sure enough, there was a big gap last night which I filled by plodding towards the end of a novel set in the Black Death. On the way back to sleep, wistfully (maybe) as a reaction against the unseasonal snow over the rest of England, I recalled a childhood summer.

I think that I was eight. I was staying over at my grandmother’s. It was a very warm summer's evening and I was still awake, irritated. There was too much light, too much life pouring in through my windows. I simply could not get to sleep while everyone else was out and about. An aunt had come to see why I was still awake. I clearly remember asking her, "why can't I remember falling asleep?"

"Because you haven't been to sleep yet."

"No, not just tonight, why can I never remember falling asleep?"

"Well, it's because when you are asleep, you are asleep. You can only remember some of your dreams from your sleep, and maybe then for only a short while after you have woken up."

Aunt Hilda commanded both awe and fear in me – she was a Spiritualist. She spoke with the dead. My child-logic informed me that of all people, she must have an answer to this kind of question. Though I was unsure why I had come to this conclusion. "No, why can't I remember the last moment before I go to sleep? The moment in the middle of being awake and being asleep"

She frowned and smiled. "It's not that simple. It's not like the difference between morning and afternoon - midday by the clock. No, it's more like the difference between daytime and night time - you can watch that happen, but it is impossible to say exactly when night time begins, even though it's just a matter of light and dark. And Ah! If you remember that moment you are trying to find between being awake and being asleep, you may never wake out of it, or so they say."

I knew that she was trying to calm me with her commonsense-logic, nearly as much as I was really annoyed by the things that 'they' do or 'they' say. Yet this simple statement shocked me to the quick. Why should remembering a single moment do this? How could this be? Wasn't it dangerous to leave moments like these lying around for children to find? But, how could I remember something if I never woke up, if the future was held back in the present?

"How, why?" I pursued.

"Well, maybe it's because you would be neither awake nor asleep. We should be one or the other - we can't be both at the same time can we? But being neither may be very serious, a long way away from the rest of us, maybe even in another world, another time, another us." She was wise but didn't really have a solution that I wanted to hear. And I was worried that 'another us' meant her spirit world. I read myself to sleep with my comforter, St Exupéry, maybe something like:

'Then you don't remember. This is not the exact spot.'
Another voice must have answered him, for he replied to it:
'Yes, yes! It is the right day, but this is not the right place.'
(from The Little Prince, Antoine de St Exupéry, 1943)

aunt Hilda, sometime in the 1920s or early 30sI do not believe that we ever spoke of it again, though I continued to try to map my nightly falling without any success. It was almost as if the soft seduction of falling proscribed its memory, that observation somehow interfered with the actual falling; that the falling knew that it was being observed; that having passed through, the gate to consciousness was firmly closed behind you, and though you could still catch sight of all that lay there, it was impossible to recall any of these experiences. Perhaps I was also afraid of the consequences of success.

This is a photograph of my aunt Hilda, the spiritualist. And guessing by the clothes, it was probably taken in the late 20s maybe early 30s. Despite appearances, she is not Miriam Margolyes.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

owls in fog

St Anthony's lighthouse, CornwallFalmouth, Friday 4th April 2008: It was foggy this morning. Just foggy, no cloud cover above. People-sounds were stifled. The diminutive foghorn across the bay was muffled and barely audible. Birds didn’t seem really bothered about being heard. But the fog was burned away by mid-morning and all got back to normal. It was only the previous evening that a BBC programme (Coast) had informed the world that British foghorns had become silent. It’s a shame they hadn’t checked this out with Trinity House really, as they would have found some interesting facts...

I lived in Loughborough for a year as a student – a town blessed with dense winter fogs and operatic summer thunder. At the time, some lowlife had fly-tipped an old slate quarry in the town with a large amount of something that was decaying alarmingly. Trains arriving from the south were welcomed with the polite graffiti, “Lufbra smells!” Loughborough's local meteorology was largely due to its lying under the mass of Charnwood Forest to the west, on the large plain that stretches east from Leicestershire to the North Sea. Good and bad weather (and smells) just sit there...

Kaz also lived in a town like Loughborough, and she recalled - one Autumn evening I pulled back the curtain and rubbed the misty condensation from the window only to see that the fog had thickened to a dull grey-orange glow that took over after just a few metres from the building, blotting out everything beyond. A magpie moth emerged heavy-winged from the fog, flirted with the illuminated window and returned into the greyness, apparently disappointed with the unproductive encounter. The trees that hosted the irritating huh-hoo-huh calls of collared doves by day and chatty owls by night were cloaked and silent. ‘I wonder what the owls do on foggy nights when even they cannot see their way about; how can they find their way home if they're caught out by a sudden fog? Do they get stressed and incapable of sleep away from the security of their roosts? Do they get grumpy if they cannot hunt for food? What do they think about - can they think at all?’

Gilbert White wrote, "the white owl does indeed snore and hiss in a tremendous manner; and these menaces will answer the intention of intimidating: for I have known a whole village up in arms on such an occasion, imagining the church-yard to be full of goblins and spectres. White owls also often scream horribly as they fly along; from this screaming probably arose the common people's imaginary species of screech-owl, which they superstitiously think attends the windows of dying persons." (The Natural History of Selborne, 1788)

Earlier that same evening, Kaz had taken a safe short cut back home through a largely empty car park. She found herself in a bewildering world of dancing sprites as spectral entities scattered from the ground as she stepped towards them, descending in undulating flight just metres away. The evening light was breaking down her vision into a bittiness that only seemed to support values of grey to black - there was no colour and no white. The initial shock of the sprites, which still had her heart beating fast, was not diminished when their twittering and bobbing in flight and on the ground gave them away as wagtails, in fact it became all the more fascinating to cohabit their secret evening world; and like a child absorbed in kicking her way through fragrant piles of crisp autumn leaves she ambled slowly through the car park putting up wagtails until, en masse and without any obvious signal, they departed to their evening roosts: so, smiling and curiously refreshed from her sojourn with the birds, she resumed her journey, albeit from a distant corner of the car park.

South Pacific - a family reprise

my mother as KatinkaWhile rooting through some old family documents, I found an undated newspaper clipping with a picture of my mother in the eponymous role of Loughborough Amateur Operatic Society’s 1939 production of Katinka. No, I hadn’t heard of Katinka either, but…

Katinka: first production 1915; music by Rudolf Friml: book & lyrics by Otto Harbach. The plot: out of a sense of duty Katinka has married Boris Strogoff, the Russian ambassador to Austria. Her real love is Ivan Dimitri, an attaché. Ivan's American friend, Thaddeus Hopper helps Katinka escape and hides her in his house. When Mrs Hopper becomes suspicious and angry, Hopper pays Arif Bey to conceal Katinka in his harem. By error, Mrs Hopper is placed in the harem. At a Viennese café the principals are all gathered. When a lady named Olga announces she is Boris' lawful wife, a happy ending follows, apparently...

And if you think that story sounds hard to take, consider the 1958 movie version of South Pacific: the Solomon Islands in 1943, a French planter, Emile de Becque (played by an Italian), has the hots (Some Enchanted Evening) for a rather naive ("I could say life is just a bowl of Jello") US Navy nurse from Little Rock called Nellie Forbush (played by Mitzi Gaynor, who changed her name from Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber). Nellie falls for the Gallic charms of this “Wonderful Guy”, but gives him the cold shoulder when she discovers he has two children whose skin colour is clearly not French ("I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair". However, the USMC wants her to persuade de Becque to work as a scout on a nearby island occupied by the Japanese (sounds like a holiday, eh?). He is to be accompanied by the ‘dashing’ Lt Joseph Cable, who has fallen for a (“Younger Than Springtime”) Polynesian (played by a Vietnamese), but is worried by her ‘strange shaped eyes”!!!. Cable also has a number of secret admirers in the beach laundry. Liat’s “mother” is the barrel-shaped Polynesian (born in New Jersey) Mama-san, Bloody Mary, who lures Cable off to the pleasures of Bali-Ha’i ("Someday you'll see me floatin' in the sunshine") and some “Happy Talk” in a volcanic hot tub with her underage daughter. Well, to cut a 3 hour musical short, Emile gets his Forbush and Joseph doesn’t return from scout duty... But while all the serious stuff is going on, the comedy is provided by glistenly homoerotic cross-dressing marines who fail to convince that aren’t really very happy with each other as it is thank you very much with songs like “There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame”, who collectively run a laundry on the beach and who really are the ones who are "as corny as Kansas in August"...

Rather scarily, in a critically hammered 2001 TV version, Nellie Forbush was played by Glenn Close. She was 54 at the time, and didn't have a strong reputation for playing naive young Southerners...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Eleanor of the dust

Douglas MacEnnis is an almost forgotten Scottish pioneer of photography. The family wealth from trading with Norway and Sweden enabled him to devote considerable time and energy to creating the photographic image of Edinburgh that the city liked to promote – nothing but affluence and refinement.

The family's trading links had given MacEnnis a passionate interest in things Scandinavian (as had his father, who had given Douglas a middle name of Søren). But in 1896 his wife and daughter were tragically killed when masonry crashed through their brougham on the way to see Ibsen's 'The Wild Duck' – MacEnnis suffered head wounds which seem to have left him permanently brain-damaged. To friends he had become “depressed, introspective and highly imaginative”, but the trauma had left him time-locked in that summer of 1896. He was also seeing things invisible to others. He took to making photographs of subject matter that most would have considered worthless of attention as they were excluded from his hallucinatory vision. What appear as planar surfaces of rock, beach and ice to everyone else were seen by MacEnnis as portraits of a young woman called Eleanor. The most enigmatic of these images appears to be a perfectly exposed photogram of naturally distributed household dust. It is still unclear how this image was produced. The real identity of Eleanor also remains a mystery.
Eleanor at Loch Lomond, summer 1896; by Douglas MacEnnis 1899
MacEnnis self-published “Eleanor, 29 portraits in the landscape” in Edinburgh in 1899, shortly before slicing his wrists with a photographic plate. The book actually contains 31 images. ‘Portraits’ that would have bewildered its contemporary audience as merely photographs of nothing, but which can now be seen as quietly exquisite examples of early abstract photography, wildly at odds with the conflicting photographic ideologies of the time. The images are all dated as MacEnnis' time-locked summer 1896. It is believed that only one copy of the book is extant (in a private collection in Argentina). Very few examples of Eleanor images are in circulation.

It is worrying to note that Dr Relling, one of the main characters in The Wild Duck, has the with-hindsight prescient line, "deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness." Something cracked after publishing "Eleanor" - one wonders who deprived MacEnnis of his vision...

The image shown here is "Eleanor at Loch Lomond, summer 1896" from MacEnnis' book, "Eleanor, 29 portraits in the landscape". It appears to show fracturing sea-ice. As sea-ice is not common in Scotland, this photograph may have been taken on an unrecorded visit to Norway or Sweden.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

a spirit in the dust

rosa, Frau Karl DrschkiMy hotel room in Helsinki was unusually voluble during hours of darkness, with soft thuds, chattering and distant tumbling sounds, none of which could be put down to neighbourly nocturnal activities. I guessed they came from the minibar, the air-con system and the ice-bucket - it all seemed amicable and out of sight.

My paternal grandmother’s house had areas that one didn’t see. They weren’t specifically out of bounds, you just didn’t go there (tins, drawers, an ottoman, cupboards, shelves, rooms even). The front of the house never seemed to get any sun and this was made all the worse by the thin grey soil, weakling grey forget-me-nots and ancient scrawny black-barked rose trees that in spite of never seeing secateurs and grandma’s pursuing the milkman for his horse’s steaming droppings, never seemed to grow any larger. I can't ever remember even seeing weeds growing there. There was a cold and game-less park beyond, walled-in by enormous plane trees. However, the back garden was a sun-bathed haven of colour from early Spring to late Autumn (there was and there was a wish-you’d-paid-for overpowering scent of lilies-of-the-valley on humid April evenings), all save for a sycamore corner that played home to an aerial sprit. I rarely stayed over. When I did, it was always in the large front bedroom – I refused the smaller room as only I knew that it was also evilly haunted.

The sycamore corner lay below the gable-end of the neighbour’s outbuildings. It was guarded at ground level by a perimeter fence of cat-shit – the cats ventured no further than this communal warning. The malevolently shaped gable whined even when there was no wind. This was not a threatening spirit, it lived over the fence and was just a back garden annoyance that was best ignored. There was also an almost life-size Venus which peered over the fence from the garden of the adjoining house, and which, to my uneducated eyes, looked as if it were waiting to be moved to a cemetery to join its owner when she eventually left this life.

The small front bedroom was home to an evil spirit that lived in the dust on top of the wardrobe – sleeping by day, but chattering, scraping, whispering and puthering by night. I spent just one terrifying evening there until darkness finally drove me out, and having to threaten to sleep under the clothes mangle in the garden shed allowed me to be ushered into the sanctuary of the ‘guest bedroom’ next door. From then on, whenever I could (not often, as this room became one of the places one did not visit), I sought to terrorise the spirit by sneaking into its room in daylight hours and beating hard on the wardrobe, threatening with a duster and shouting at the top of my voice. My grandmother could never understand this behaviour and held lingering doubts about my sanity right up until she left this world – “this house is not haunted!” While the spirit did its best (but generally failed) to be heard through the bedroom wall whenever I slept in the guest-room, for luckily it was sedentary – itself imprisoned on an inhospitable dusty plane in an abandoned room. I wonder if it is still there or whether it moved on with the house sale…

One of the ancient roses that occasionally struggled into bloom in the front garden was called Frau Karl Druschki (aka Snow Queen; first propagated in Germany on 1901). A near-white rose that belied my grandmother’s wars-worn attitude towards things German but itself abandoned in a sunless garden. I doubt it is still there - and Google Earth renders it in total shadow...

Monday, March 31, 2008

São Paulo

It must be well over ten years ago that my cretinous boss of the time and his henchwoman set me up in São Paulo, Brasil.

UK flights arrive early in the morning and, much to my surprise, I had been guaranteed early morning access to my hotel room. However, this was not the case when I arrived at the hotel – I was made to wait for 3 hours before staff nervously led me to my dark pathetic room.

During my sojourn in the hotel lobby I discovered that Lonely Planet described the surrounding area in terms of “somewhere you may wish to avoid”. Great choice on the part of my boss, who, anally retentive about most things, was particularly stupid when it came to getting what he considered “deals”, especially where my travel was concerned. As it looked as if my end was in sight and as I had this first day "free", I thought it best to do a daylight reccie of the area and almost immediately found a rather wonderful bar where I had a leisurely lunch (4 hours). After returning to the hotel for a snooze, during which I had the most disturbing dreams, I ventured back to the bar for the evening – to find that they were shooting a movie there and were more than happy to have rather eccentric foreigners in frame downing caipirinhas as if there was no tomorrow. It was a long evening, and I felt no threat walking back to my dreary hotel (possibly on account of the cachaça). Again, my night was filled with horrible dreams which were only made worse by the threatening ambiance of the room. The room felt deathly cold even with the air-con switched off. What a crap hotel I seemed to have while all my colleagues were enjoying the opulent (if somewhat unfinished) Renaissance.

When I arrived back in my office a week or so later from less worrying visits to Rio, Curitiba and Bello Horizonte, I became increasingly annoyed by people asking whether I’d slept well in my hotel…

It seemed that my boss and his henchwoman thought that it would be a real hoot for everyone but me to know that the reason for the delay in getting access to my São Paulo room was that they were removing the body of the previous occupant…

The madness continued the next year when the henchwoman refused to pay my expenses because, she claimed, one of the days of my business trip did not exist - I'd crossed the International Dateline...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

my father as South Pacific - the movie

copy of the cover of the dvd for the movie, South PacificI have more memories of my father as he did not leave this world until I was 13. Many are dusty and shoved away into an attic in my brain, others are quite fresh, bouncing back to life with a key stimulus. In this case the movie, South Pacific (1958).

No, I didn't see him as Rossano Brazzi! And he couldn't sing, nor was he a murderer in fact or fiction, and he didn't live in a world where sudden colour-shifts took place. My mother had been a singer and had taken lead roles in musicals, and could easily have played Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor). This may have explained my father's passion for live and film musicals - all of which I went to see.

I remember very clearly being taken to see the movie at the plushly theatrical Roxy Picture House in Leicester. I can remember being bowled over by the scale and colour, the fabulous songs, and the incredible exotic (I suppose 'foreign' would have been the word then) landscapes - but not the length of the movie (3 hours), nor that it had an intermission. I can clearly remember the length and the intermission in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). OK this was 4 years later, was epic, long, had lots of sand, camels, blown-up trains, sword-wielding Arabs, and Peter O'Toole giving the Turks what for (and missed the significance of what they gave back to him) - and while it did have a huge and haunting orchestral soundtrack, it didn't have any songs...

I watched the movie for the second time in my life in December 2007 in Whitstable. It was a revelation. So many things look totally different from my childhood memories. South Pacific did in some respects, but it was also so faithful to my (near 50 year old!) memory. The scale, colour, songs, scenes, wonderfully exotic landscapes and Rossano Brazzi were the same. The subtexts invisible to an 8 year old in the 1950s were glaringly obvious now. The homo-eroticism of the servicemen, the overt racism/sexism, the status/class divisions, the dysfunctional storyline and continuity. I wonder how much of this was obvious to my father?
cactus, Helsinki
This was all kicked-in by a cactus on my table in the lounge of my hotel in Helsinki - there was one on each table - this seemed the happiest. We had a very sad version of the same variety which used to survive in the hallway of the house where I lived with my father. It never got any sun.

On a brighter note, I now know that the movie was shot on location in Hawaii, Bali and Tioman - at least I've been to Bali...