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...

it's because of the corner

The Street, Whitstable, Kent“It’s because of the corner,” she said, in response to my asking how the line of shingle was formed. This made no sense but I’d learned not to argue with a geography teacher. But just how could a ‘corner’ create a straight line? And in any case, I could see no corner…

It turns out that the shingle bar is locally called ‘The Street’. At certain tides it is merely an unexplained line of wave turbulence stretching out into the muddy Thames Estuary at Whitstable, Kent. At other tidal times it is an inexplicable straight line of flint shingle six hundred metres long, calm water one side, turbulent the other. There is a very strange childlike feeling of being somewhere else, dislocated from the land, floating out into the sea on a bed of heavy flint - so it's always best to keep an eye on rising water as the landward end of the bar may flood...

‘Corner’ became a book of photographs from the previous 6 years of wandering across time-zones, with images from Argentina, England, India, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, Norway, and USA. A bi-lingual English/Japanese title (one the characters appears very much like the flooding shingle bar). A single-copy edition, so rather rare. One owner. It may even have gone the way of Dunwich by now. A version could appear in this blog, but probably not...
Helsinki Strand
Afterwards, I became more visually sensitive to corners, some very subtle or inferred, some as obvious as this one in Helsinki that, three months later, lured me from my cosy hotel lounge out into some very crisp sunlight. The weather clouded and warmed up to melt this image away within hours. As a memory.

I like the angular correspondence and dissonance between these two images. And they are both ephemeral in their own ways. Just different time cycles - tidal and seasonal.

Friday, March 28, 2008

coincidence squared

fos, New DelhiI was in the living-room of my agent’s house in New Delhi for a dinner party There were many guests from other universities there, three from Leicester. We were idly chatting away, moving from one conversation to another when one of the women from Leicester let slip she was going off for a few days to a tiger reserve. I thought this was rather cool and wondered why I hadn’t been tempted in 8 previous years of visits to India. “But aren’t you supposed to be working?” I asked. “No, I am taking a few days out for my birthday,” said H. “So when is your birthday?” “Tuesday,” said H. “That is so cool, I’ve never met anyone with the same birthday as me.” This was quite exciting in a strange kind of way. We grinned at each other for a few moments and left it at that. H moved off into another conversation.

I’d been chatting to H’s colleagues for some time when she joined us asking, “how do you know so much about Leicester?”

“I was born there.”

“Oh, OK, so your birthday is Tuesday and you were born in Leicester – what year were you born?”

“Oh well before you, H” She does look so much younger (and fitter).

“No, come on, when were you born?”

“OK. 1950. See, I am well older.”

“Oh my goodness… Where were you born?”

“Oh dear, mmm, St Francis Nursing Home, London Road, but...”

“No way!” We stared at each other for what seemed forever. The room went rather still until the truth sank in.

Yes, we were born on the same day, same year, same small 20 bed nursing home in Leicester. It is still tinglingly scary to think about it… And we met for the only the second time in our lives 56 years later in a front room in New Delhi. I mean, New Delhi???

We sent each other birthday txts – I was in Calcutta, H was in her tiger reserve miles from anywhere. Sadly, she saw no tigers.

Our Chinese birth year was the tiger; Leictester's Rugby Union team are called The Tigers...

a jet lag manual

Hilton LHROn the day that Heathrow’s T5 opens and promptly grinds to a halt (yesterday), I am happy to be booked into a hotel (LHR Hilton - left) for the night, and flying out of pooey old T1 to Helsinki (today) – least there’s a chance my flight will leave (though maybe not on time, and as for my luggage…). Whatever, I am wondering how many people regularly travel through multiple time-zones and who would find pleasure in something to wile away demonic insomnia. No, I’m not peddling cures or palliatives as there’s a clutter of these in the travellers’ world already.

Our bodies are locked into a rigid daily cycle and jetlag is simply failure to adapt to a different time-zone, whether this be caused by daylight-saving or long-haul flying. Basically we are not designed for time-travel - so why bother fighting its effects? You can’t tamper with time, but you can have a better time of it…

Wouldn’t it be great to put together a tried and tested collection of activities that people actually find help them through the night.


Tanjung Benoa, BaliSo, in March 2004, against a Government advisory, I find myself in Bali, at Nyepi. I am used to being in random cities shutdown for elections, but Nyepi is something else. Everything shuts down…

Nyepi is a Hindu celebration Bali’s Lunar New Year; its purpose is for self reflection, contemplation. Anything that could detract from or impede this is prohibited – no lights nor fires; no music, entertainment or pleasure; no working nor travelling; even eating or talking are technically disallowed. The empty streets are patrolled to ensure no breaches occur. OK, it’s a more informal story in the hotels, but the beach/off-site is out of bounds, there are no exterior lights, no taxis, no boats, no hotel check-in nor check-out (the airport is closed anyway), and there are limited opportunities for food and drink. All rather eerily silent – definitely inward facing.

In stark contrast maybe, a group of us ended up in the only restaurant open in our admittedly luxurious hotel. Self reflection of a different nature occurred. In an encounter session of worrying proportions, a Canadian (rightfully) told an Australian woman she was stuck-up, even though her husband, an ex butcher, was sitting next to her and was proud of his reputation with a knife (on humans). A homophobic and very unstable OZ decided he was gay after all. The Canadian was propositioned by the barman. I had an early and peaceful night…

So why the image with a full moon? Easy, I had to go back for more Bali 5 months later. The UK Government along with other European countries had lifted the advisory on travel and the place was rather full, all except this wonderful beach-side restaurant – and a table for one :(

And no encounter sessions this time around…

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

why suddenness may happen?

Beijing ZooEasy, a good friend of mine sent me this photograph of a bilingual sign in Beijing Zoo, and I became quite taken by the idea of suddenness happening. And it kick-started this blog. So thank you, David Street!

my mother as a Clafoutis

me on my mum's lap, with my dad's left knee and right footI have minimal memory of my mother, as she died when I was six. I can remember her being there, I can remember her driving our car, and I can remember the moment that I was told that she wasn’t there (she had gone to Heaven - she was very devout - there was really nowhere else for her to go). I can recognise her in photographs only because she is in those photographs. My one palpable memory explodes whenever I make a successful Clafoutis. The smell of the baked fruit, the colours, and the texture shifts between the crisp brown edges and soft custardy underside, the tart and the sweet “take me back” to a summer day in Leicester when my mother had baked an exquisite Clafoutis.

Of course, we weren’t posh enough to call it a Clafoutis. In fact I have no idea what it was called or even if it had a name – it was just a batter mix filled with fresh fruit from our garden and eggs from the old farm beyond. Cooked until golden brown and eaten warm with a sprinkling of sugar. Just heavenly – and totally against the grain of post-rationing blandness. This was a very seasonal dish – lasting just as long as soft fruits cropped in our garden.

My paternal grandmother used to make a plum Clafoutis in September. This was ultra seasonal as it was made with Syston white plums. These are actually golden yellow dessert plums that crop in late summer and are very local to Syston, a village between Leicester and Loughborough.
a cherry Clafoutis
I am always pleased to find that in spite of the billions of dollars at their disposal the sad people at Microsoft do miss some really good words from their spell-checker. Clafoutis is one such gem (’custardy’ also)! It is said that Clafoutis is based on the Occitan for ‘to fill up’ - basically, the egg batter mix is there to be filled up with fruit.

I am sure that my mother would be happy if she knew that my memory of her was locked into a heavenly Clafoutis.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

all the way back to Loughborough

Great Central Station, LeicesterFalmouth, Thursday 20th March 2008: I passed under a railway bridge and was shunted back to summer childhood visits to an aunt in Loughborough. I stopped, stood and tried to figure out what has caused this. The light was summery though it was only 10C and windy, but as silence reigned those seconds longer it was the traffic that had done it. Rather a total absence of traffic sounds. As in the 50s. Those streets did not need a liminal view-camera emptiness to purge them of movement – there was none in this sleepy backwater of a sleepy town in Leicestershire. Just summer and a long lost railway.

RMS Queen Mary, Long Beached, California

stern funnel, RMS Queen MaryI should have started this blog a long while ago as so much comes from sleeplessness, then, when I did start writing, I didn’t post it. Whatever, here’s that post.

Long Beach, California, October 2007: 16 time zones adrift after a 10 hour flight from Narita. The southern skies were thick with smoke from burning wildfires all personalised with names like Witch and Orange. Blue from above, brown from below – creating a curiously rounded diffuse light, saturating colours. And what sunsets! Particles in the atmosphere turned dawn and dusk into theatre, with the sun rising and setting an improbable crimson.

The Queen Mary became a permanent part of Long Beach in 1969, casting off her glory days as a transatlantic liner to become a floating hotel. As a child I’d seen the Queen and the other vast liners cruise by my grounded summer holidays on the Isle of Wight, always wondering what it could be like to be a passenger. Blackboards announced names and times, and I could never get over the speed of the liners’ surfacing from the horizon, funnels-first. I’d wait for their wakes to hit the beach well after they’d disappeared towards Southampton. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity to spend some time on board, especially as I could get a large cabin with two portholes overlooking the harbour.

I was reading a novel* about an amnesiac (Yambo) who was trying to regain his life by rereading books and magazines he’d had stored since childhood. After a while I realised that I’d read at least part of this actual novel in my past, it was just like remembering a movie you’d fallen asleep through on a plane. Of course, this was all happening in the middle of the local Californian night when I should have been asleep…

Yambo describes his lost past as an impenetrable inner fog, he reels off fog-related quotes from poems and novels, and is rather pleased to be told that he has a collection of over 150 pages of these quotes. Fog prevails the early pages of the novel.

I wake that morning to the sounds of very large, very close diesel engines. Dawn has stealthily insulated the ship in a chilly fog denying locating the source of the now very irritating drone. Starboard is devoid of references to land, just flat Pacific and pallid cormorants. We were virtually, silently underway from the muggy heat of greater Los Angeles, haunted by a ghost ship.

The Queen still sounds her massive fog-horns in fair weather, not when fog is officially present lest she confuse shipping. A sleek cruise ship appeared beyond our stern when the fog cleared that morning – the continuing source of the noise.
portholes in a First Class State Room, RMS Queen Mary
As I about to check out of my ‘quarters’, two young men arrived in the next cabin their repeated expletive shouts of “are sum” indicating their pleasure with the cabin, especially the opening portholes. I thought it good to leave when one dared the other to dive out…

The next sleepless night in my land-locked Hilton, my amnesiac was recounting Jack London’s “Martin Eden” – who killed himself by diving out of a porthole in a ship crossing the Pacific… It seemed as if my world and Yambo’s were somehow synchronising. It’s unnerving to become part of a book that you are actively reading.
a curious figure striding out into the ocean - the Sandman?
Though he had never really featured in my life, I cursed the absence of the Sandman in my need of regularised sleep. Until I looked more closely at a photograph on my bedroom wall and it appeared that the Sandman had left Long Beach sometime before 1920. There's an odd figure striding out into the ocean, against the tide, and away from the photographer (the image was provided by the Long Beach Historical Society).

*The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” Umberto Eco