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Friday, November 30, 2007

Down Sir Cynic, down!




Watching ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ (Clint Eastwood, 1995) was like listening to a piece of self indulgent Philip Glass: immediately intriguing, but could have been more effective if it had been edited more thoroughly and reduced by at least a half.

The slow pace of most of the film allowed me to consider, yet again, my problems with Meryl Streep as an actor. Whenever I see her I think to myself, “Isn’t she a wonderful actor!” but I find myself admiring her technique rather than losing myself in the character she is supposed to be playing.

Her character in ‘Bridges’ allowed her the opportunity to show off her amazing proficiency with accents and portray, with the detail which has made her famous, the crushing tedium of totally predictable life in a farming community in Iowa. She is a ‘busy’ actor, forever using ‘business’ to create the person she is supposed to be. Her eyes, face, hand movements, tilt of her head – everything is considered and displayed for our admiration. What a craftsman! What observation! How ‘real’ it all is! At one point in the film a fly, trying for his fifteen minutes of fame, and ignoring the lese majesty involved, landed on Streep’s arm and she shrugged him off in character in a way that had me gasping with admiration!

So why do I always see a professional, accomplished and confident actor and never the farmer’s wife or fashion diva with Streep?

The nearest comparison in acting terms that I can think of is Alex Guinness – another accomplished, professional and immaculately detailed actor. But with Guinness, for me he was Swift in ‘Yahoo’ or Obi-Wan Kenobi or Smiley. He was a joy to watch because he brought the character to life – not the actor.

In ‘Bridges’ I thought that Clint Eastwood produced a remarkable performance in his role and almost made me believe that the instant love affair was believable – but then I’m a sucker for those people who quote Yeats and it knocks my critical appreciation!

The direction of the film was efficient but leisurely to the point of tedium and the ending (with love and respect breaking out all over) sentimental to the point of derision.

Some of the more wordily pretentious parts of the script could only have been salvaged by two competent British actors who could breathe believability into the most banal words – perhaps John Hurt and Judi Dench. Perhaps set the whole thing in Suffolk and have John Hurt taking pictures of groynes for the National Trust! Now that I would like to see!

I am just finishing off reading ‘Stupid White Men’ by Michael Moore and am wondering about the sense of humour of the San Francisco Chronicle which described I as ‘hysterically funny’ – and I thought that we Brits were only divided from the Americans by a shared language!
Tonight to a concert in the Palau of unbelievable popularity: I shall try and get a good seat and wallow in the sheer tunefulness of it all!

I am putting my trust in RENFE to get me there.

I always was a trusting soul.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Look around you!




I am not one to be intimidated by power and influence. I speak out fearlessly against the forces of repression and oppression.

As assiduous readers will know, many facets of the axis of evil have already been identified from Microsoft to BBVA and from That Woman to ‘Big Brother. But, there are other forces that I have decided need to be recognized for what they are: malign and deleterious to human happiness.

When I first came to Spain and Catalonia in 1958 the one thing that was impressed upon me as something absolutely essential was that I was, under no circumstances whatsoever, to drink the water. To me, on my first foreign holiday, this seemed very strange and, like the Spanish policemen with guns, it disturbed me.

I did not, I hasten to assure you, consider in an unbearably precocious way that the basic infrastructure of a country must be in a parlous state if something as essential as water was not available from the taps. Which, of course it was. I turned on the taps and water duly came forth. Cleaning of the teeth was fine with the stuff on tap, but drinking – no!

Part of me, I’m sure, merely accepted the obvious fact that I was in a foreign country and as H E Bates wrote about the past, “they do things differently there.” Like bull fights and squid and castanets and fans – things were different. Apart from a secret glass of tap water given to me by a sympathetic waiter (and never revealed to my mother) I was only allowed bottles of Vichy water con gas. To me it always tasted somewhat salty and it never really satisfied my thirst.

Probably, even then, every particle of my young soul was reaching out, inchoate but purposeful sensing that in Tossa de Mar I was tantalizingly close to Sant Sadurní d'Anoia the home of Codorníu and Cava – my drink of choice, after the via dolorosa alcoholic experimentation represented by the progression from cider to laager to port (!) to beer to sauterne to dry white to decent red to Cava. With, of course, a great deal of senseless, stupid self indulgent excess along the way!

Today in Castelldefels the water is something you clean your teeth with and not drink. The calcium level in the water makes it most unpleasant and, for someone used to drinking soft Welsh water from the tap and enjoying it, it is a salutary experience to find myself, willingly, buying bottled water.

The bottled water is generally cheaper than it is in the UK and is available everywhere but that, surely, is not the point. In a highly developed western European country it is simply unacceptable for the tap water to be unpalatable. It is not unsafe, just not drinkable.

The bottled water industry in this country is vast. I have yet to come across a family that would put a jug of tap water on the table at a meal. Everyone buys bottled water. Everyone! Imagine what that represents in money terms. And when you’ve thought about that, consider what numbers of people must be working in the industry. And not just in the industry but in all the ancillary trades and professions. A plumber will always say, “Water will find a way!” as the repair holds but water seeps out from somewhere else. Well, in Spain, water has found a way; a way in which, like the circulatory system in a body, it has become an essential self perpetuating conduit of money.

I think it is scandalous that people have to buy their water to drink. It is indefensible when it is necessary. If the empty headed rich want to pay pounds for a litre of water imported from Fiji or whatever, let them; but for an ordinary citizen to have to pay for drinking water is a crime.

One wonders what level of vested interest there is in this country to keep the situation as it is. I am sure that were there to be an investigation into the supply of water to homes it would make the squalid chaos of the present rail link to Barcelona look like a little local difficulty. And believe you me, you would have to be a very strong, confident and well armed person to admit that you worked for RENFE in this part of the world at the moment.

There should be no need for the use of bottled water except as a sure indication of mental deficiency on the part of the environment hating purchaser.

And then there are printers.

I don’t mean the human ones, though some of the so-called craftsmen who worked on the national press when it was situated in London should be remembered with contempt for their abuse of the trade union system with their cavalier contempt for truth and honour. I mean the home presses that we now have in the form of the ever decreasingly expensive gadgets called printers.

Those of us who grew up with the absolute magic (as we then thought it) of dot matrix printers are now aghast at the sleek multi purpose machines which sell for a fraction of what we paid for much, much less years ago. But the ink is a different matter.

We are now getting to the stage that it is cheaper to buy a new printer than pay for a new cartridge. The printer firms have responded by producing special ‘with printer’ cartridges which are more empty than full and run out in a depressingly short period. And it is a horrific experience to find the price of the replacement that you need.

It was thought at one time that the advent of the computer would produce a world which was ‘paperless’ – indeed the ‘paperless office’ was seriously talked about for some time. The opposite has been the case: the computer has destroyed more forests than a nation of scribes could ever have done. Spain, or at least the bits that I know, is a firm believer in the ‘print it out and then photocopy it’ school of bureaucracy. Think of the cost of the ink!

Once you have bought the machine you are hooked for the limited life of the bit of flimsy plastic that looked good in the shop. Nothing is compatible with anything else, even within the range of machines made by the same company, and everything costs the earth. In all sort of ways!

If we are oppressed and angry about the machinations of bottled water and ink cartridge manufacturers when they are self evidently in the wrong and taking us all for a ride- just imagine what must be going on in the pharmaceutical and oil industries.

Or don’t; and get a good night’s rest instead.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

One has to eat!


A sea side town out of season is an ambiguous place.

Everything is the same and different.

Some places have closed and others have opened. There is a feeling of impermanence and transition.

The people you see around the streets near our flat are usually locals – outsiders confined to the weekends.

It is still very tempting to mark the middle of the day with a menu del dia – these meals are still being served for the benefit of workers and residents rather than passing visitor trade.

Some things, however, have changed. It is significant that, all things being equal, it is now an advantage to sit in the autumn sun for your meal rather than search out the more traditional Catalan shade.

My favourite restaurant on the corner of our street now recognizes me as a regular and almost puts my choice of drink on the table before I’ve unfolded the napkin (vino tinto y Casera, since you ask!) I usually eat my meal as the sole non-Catalan in the place and feel both a sense of belonging and of difference.

The whole problem revolves around where to sit.

There are plenty of tables outside the open bar which are protected by an awning, but are still open to most of the elements and the odd cutting breeze. As I still maintain summer wear with increasing defiance, I should sit outside, but as the restaurant is in shade it is too bloody cold and, bearing in mind what my dad always said (“Only a fool or a pauper is cold”) I prefer to seek the more balmy areas inside.

This too is a problem. There are various types of inside. I could sit at the bar, but there I should eat tapas rather than the excellent value afforded by the menu del dia. That leaves the tables. There are two sets of tables inside: those with tablecloths and those without. I tend to go for the napery rather than bare metal because I feel that the basic table is almost a sign of chummy familiarity – a stage I have not yet reached!

If you are eating alone, then it is surely bad manners to sit at a table for four or even worse, at two tables placed together. You sit down and all other places are cleared away. You are in solitary splendour then other people arrive and have nowhere to sit because of your selfishness. It is difficult to digest food when you gullet is constricted with unjustifiable embarrassment as your food turns to dust in your mouth under the relentless glare of exiled diners. Well, to be fair, it’s not quite like that, but decisions have to be made and sat with!

There is also the problem of the television. Catalans live with the TV. In every Catalan house that I have been into the TV is on and remains on whether there people are watching it or not. And that’s the problem. I find TV difficult to ignore. Whether I want to watch or not, my gaze is drawn to the moving pictures. In restaurants too the ubiquitous screen shines its beguiling rubbish while you eat.

So it was quite easy for me to follow the Etiquette necessary to find a seat: a table for two; inside; table cloth; away from the TV; facing towards the street. Success at last!

The only problem was that it was next to the loo.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Nile Revisited

Grand Opera should not be viewed from the Gods.

There was no higher or further back from my seat last night. The fifth tier of seating was against the back wall and on intimate terms with the busily ornate ceiling. From my vertiginous height all the characters looked foreshortened, and with opera singers this is not a good thing! This was my second visit to the Gran Teatre del Liceu and the opera was ‘Aida.’

A strange backward-looking production with trompe l’oeil perspective painted flats looking as if they had been taken from nineteenth century watercolours of the antiquities of Egypt. As far as I can tell from the programme (in Spanish) the original designs were by Josep Mestres Cabanes (1898-1990) and have been restored and adapted by Jordi Castells. The set gave the appearance of one of those cut-out toy theatres and was an appropriate setting for the melodramatic production. They were atmospheric even if they were archaic.

The singers were a mixed bunch with Aida (Hasmik Papian) easily the most fluid and compelling voice. She produced a riveting performance, easily rising to the demands of her part and clearly taking the audience with her. Her Radamès (Piero Giulliacci) was a very different proposition. Rotund and unprepossessing he looked distinctly uncomfortable in gold lamé and his tucked costume gave him what appeared to be a large sporran! His singing was lacklustre and underpowered. The luke warm reception for Celeste Aida gave a clear indication of what we could expect for the rest of the opera and he did not disappoint low expectations. His notes were forced and he was clearly ill at ease in the upper register. His appearance, especially when wearing a little cloak and a plumed helmet, made him look like a caricature of an archaic opera tenor.

Stefano Palatchi as the King was underpowered and anything but commanding and he was out sung by Giorgio Giueseppini as Ramfis.

The appearance of Alberto Mastromarino as Amonasro lifted the singing and his duet with Hasmik Papian as Aida – father and daughter was professional and thrilling: if only the rest of the cast had been able to match these two!

The great disappointment of the evening was the singing of Larissa Diadkova as Amneris who put me in mind of the worst excesses of Rita Hunter. A thoroughly unpleasant voice; nasal, guttural and adenoidal all at the same time – she used the full resources of the back of her head to produce those harsh, jarring notes. The orchestra (conducted by Daniele Callegari) was authoritative throughout and rose splendidly to the occasion during the Grand March when three musos, looking thoroughly uncomfortable and resentful came on stage in full costume to add the necessary brazen touch full at the audience. The chorus were magnificent with depth and colour in all their singing and showed effortless efficiency in their movement around the stage. This was especially clear in the Grand March when the cast of thousands (well, over a hundred anyway!) were marshalled with great visual effect.

The ballet was provided by Companyia Metros (Choreography by Ramon Olier) who produced a stylized and stylish amalgam of modern dance and representations of traditional bas relief gestures to give a visual equivalent to the music. It reminded me of the Mark Morris approach in ENO’s double bill of ‘Dido’ and ‘Four Saints’ back in June 2000.

It is difficult not to enjoy ‘Aida’ (and even Larissa Diadkova as Amneris came into her own in the last act) and there was much that was good and interesting in this production. But I am still waiting for a production which matches the setting of the Liceu.

Who knows, perhaps ‘La Cenerentola’ in January will be the one!
Barcelona has lit its Christmas lights. La Rambla is done out with a gathered curtain of light; very tasteful - but I don't like 'tasteful' at Christmas. Christmas is a time for vulgarity, the more garish the better. I hate all those 'tasteful' Christmas trees which are done out in two colours (or even worse in black) as if something which is basically and deliciously pagan and dangerous can be made tame and safe.
Christmas today is Pagan Capitalism writ large and shameless; it is surely better to celebrate the truth rather than coyly pretend to have neutered a dark tradition of Jungan complexity with a few well placed ornaments!
My Christmas tree will be vulgar and garish!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ripped off!

It’s amazing what a restaurant at the sea front of Sitges can get away with in terms of value for money.

We had a meal today sitting outside in the sunshine watching the waves breaking over rocks and the spray being caught by the breeze. Very nice. Not something which could have been said for the food. At a cost of €21+ IVA and extra bread one could expect more than very ordinary muscles in cold sauce with a small plate of calimares and a cold unexceptional crema catalana.

Thoroughly disillusioned we came back and hired two films. We know how to compensate ourselves for a poor experience.

Toni’s choice was 'Turistas' (John Stockwell, 2007.) This turned out to be a hackneyed story with unsurprising elements that have surely now passed their sell-by date. Foreign tourists find themselves facing horrors after an accident leaves them stranded in a strange culture. The stage for the drama was set in the Brazilian jungle with a depressingly two dimensional ‘baddie’ ripping out vital organs from a dwindling band of unwilling donors.

The second half of the film loses its way in a weak story line and a totally confusing sequence underwater when I defy anyone to work out exactly what is happening and to whom, though by that point you have ceased to care.

The gory action is effectively handled with a few moments of stomach churning horror, but the flaccid plot line takes away too much to make the gratuitous elements more than fairly interesting episodes of Grand Guignol.

The central bad character, a variant on the mad doctor, could have made a fascinating element in this film. I like the idea of a Brazilian fed up with the historical ‘rape’ of his country by the old colonial powers and the modern rape by America. His way of redressing the balance is of extracting the liver and kidneys of the gringos and helicoptering them to a peoples’ hospital in a poor part of Brazil. There was some mileage in developing this character, but it didn’t occur and he remained an uninteresting and flat projection of crazed nastiness.

My choice was ‘Blood Diamond’ (Edward Zwick, 2006.) a film which appealed to all my small l liberal notions of what a concerned film should be about showing the corruption of western society and the devastating effect of our greed on Africa etc etc etc. Just what a reader of Third World First should be looking at!

Well, there were some pretty pictures and the start of an interesting story but it soon degenerated into a script which highlighted certain aspects of the story and then took loving care to make quite literal the metaphors outlined earlier in the script.

The basic story line could have been made into a Western with very few changes except for losing the High Moral Tone which was unsuccessfully grafted on to this limp account of trafficking in diamonds.

The film seemed to assume that graphic violence set in Africa would in some way compensate for the relentlessly romantic outcome that could be envisaged early in the film.

Di Caprio is wasted in the role of the Rhodesian diamond smuggler and his look of boyish innocence (enhanced by his neat beard) looking nothing near the thirty-one he claims in the film to be detracts from the character of hardened soldier of fortune. Looking like that, of course we expect him to do the right things like give up the diamond and die honourably while speaking to his girlfriend that never was on the phone; mixing his blood with the earth of Africa and holding off a mercenary army! Easy-peasy for nice boy next door Leo.

The dead heart of the film is connected to the son of the black fisherman. This boy is taken from his mother and brutalized by the Rebels who indoctrinate him in the ethos of bloody warfare. As soon as the boy is taken, and his father is not killed by the rebels but forced to work in the diamond mine, you start praying that the inevitable confrontation between father and son will end with some degree of realism.

That is not the forte of this film and it cannot resist the sickly sentimentality which robs it of any claim to be considered a fitting comment on the horrors of a disgusting set of circumstances and a consequently inhuman series of atrocities.

The neat (and sartorially tidy) ending in some wood panelled and book lined lecture theatre in London and our black fisherman/diamond miner given a standing ovation as he prepares to relate his harrowing experiences, leaves one with a sour taste of betrayal and a nagging doubt about what happened to the two million pounds!

This is an old-fashioned film with a cynical veneer of social comment. It satisfies neither as entertainment nor as social documentary: a good idea wasted.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Return or Not



Taking things back is one of the great indicators of character that exists.

The world divides into ‘those that do’ and ‘those that don’t’ – we will ignore for the purpose of this discussion ‘those who do when it’s M&S’ because that is the ‘taking it back’ equivalent of shooting fish in a bucket. In Spain the equivalent is taking something back to El Corte Inglés: no problem perhaps; no achievement certainly!

Some people make a distinction between returning those products which don’t work and those products they don’t want. I know too many people who regard poorly functioning products as the way of the world and the price we have to pay for original sin! Poor service, poor food, poor timekeeping – all are met by some with a defeatist shrug of the shoulders.

My mother was of the ‘don’t make a fuss’ school while my father was of the ‘sort it out now!’ persuasion. They were also RhA- and RhA+ in terms of blood and if blood has anything to do with temperament then it showed in their respective attitudes! They have to take the blame for me, and the shyly assertive person I have become!

I will take back anything and everything and, as I always assume that the people listening to me are as reasonable as I am, I usually get what I want. I don’t abuse the system so, with or without receipts people behave well for me. As one should expect. Shops offer a service which we pay for, it’s up to them to keep us happy.

None of this, obviously, applies to banks. Especially BBVA. They couldn’t give a, um, I suppose I ought to leave out what I was going to say here; so I’ll just say that my experience of banks is not very positive and Spain has added whole new facets of hatefulness to the banking experience.

Toni is not one to take things back. And we had two things to take back yesterday: a Nordica (which is the word for a duvet cover) and three pairs of socks. The socks were my fault: I misread the label on them and thought that one number referred to . . . well, the details are not important. It was just a matter of a simple exchange. The Nordica was the wrong size. The wrong size that is until we got back to the shop and we discovered that the size that I thought was wrong referred to the bed size and not the size of the Nordica. We actually had the right size. Toni was mortified that we had to go back to the assistant and take back what we had brought in to exchange. It’s a difference in attitude. One that I can appreciate but not understand.

This mortification was compounded by the exchanges at the bank. Normally I would go alone and after a white knuckle ride of language abuse I would generally come to some sort of final agreement about what was being talked about. And do something. Usually sign a vast number of dingy copies of documents I didn’t understand and give my passport to be copied.

That last phrase almost has the same cadences as the passage in Corinthians (?) about Charity and “even though I give my body to be burned” etc. I must say that copying my passport does seem to have some sort of ritualistic importance which transcends the information that it contains. The bank, for example, has photocopied my passport on numerous occasions. Given that the copies of the passport are printed on sheets which look like they have been made of recycled third world toilet paper, I doubt that they are doing a roaring trade in pirated versions of my national identity! Though, of course with banks, anything shady and disreputable you can imagine is probably happening in marble clad, superficially respectable, imposingly false branches of banks throughout the world.

Anyway, as Toni was with me he was able to give an explanation of why we were there. Unfortunately the conversation he was having did not relate to the right exchange that we had had. So, after a few moments of total confusion, he had to give another version to the bank assistant. For Toni this was not an understandable incident of linguistically crossed wires, but rather of personal humiliation. Compounded, of course, by my somewhat serendipitous approach to language accretion. Or laziness as it is sometimes called!

Next week, he said yet again, I must find somewhere to start (Shame! Shame!) my language lessons in Castelldefels.

Promise!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Surely not!




I want you to cast your memories back (if they go back that far) to the halcyon days of British television.

Have you done that?

OK. Now I want you to think about ‘Terry and June’.

A shabby trick I admit. Sorry for the kaleidoscope of things best forgotten that has now come into your mind. But, in spite of everything, I want you think about one particular episode. One, I think, where Terry was in an episode of his own; it took place in a very posh health farm.

There must be someone out there who, from this information, is now thinking and remembering that very episode. Surely? No?

Anyway, apart from the humorous depiction of the illicit trade in chocolate and high carbs operated by staff in the institution for the benefit of inmates and the enrichment of their own corrupt pockets, one incident I remember well, and it has had a deep influence on my behaviour ever since.

Terry had come into the dining room for his first evening meal and was smirking with satisfaction at the opulence and complexity of napery and cutlery which surrounded his place at table and his ability to cope with élan. A waiter appeared and put a filled bowl before him. Terry looked at it and then ostentatiously with the smug satisfaction that he was behaving properly, washed his fingers.

It turned out, of course, that this was the soup course.

What crime can the bourgeoisie commit more heinous than impropriety in public dining? In my provincial, suburban, middle class, snobbish way I watched this amiable buffoon’s antics with fascinated terror. Was it funny? Don’t know. Could it happen to you? Horrific possibility!

Bearing that lot in mind, now come with me across half a century or so.

A meal in the centre of Castelldefels.

Restaurants having been rejected because the food was wrong; the price was wrong; the seating was wrong; the restaurant was closed – at last an Argentinean restaurant seemed to pose no insurmountable culinary problems.

Toni chose roast chicken while I decided to try their tagliatelli with salmon. The meals duly arrived and seemed fine. I was offered and gleefully accepted parmesan cheese. The bread was hot and the beer was big. Everything seemed to be fine. The one thing lacking was ground black pepper – I spice of which I am inordinately fond.

A cursory glance around our table would only spot two glasses, two napkins, cutlery, and a small circular pot of black glass with contents of black and white grains. Obviously a mixture of pepper and salt. And, just as obviously, I sprinkled it generously on my food.

Whatever that mixture was, it was not a mixture of pepper and salt. Each mouthful of food now had an exciting and tooth cracking crunch to it!

What I had taken at first glance for grit. Was, in fact, grit.

A little more thought and my skittish brain worked out that one of the reasons that a stylish jar of grit might be on the table was to allow customers to knock their ash off their cigarettes. This line of thought was too unbearable to continue so I have decided to assume the grit was calcified salt and ossified pepper.

And anyway I am sure that grit will be good for the digestion.

As Baldwin always said, “Wait and see!”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Forbidden words


‘Finance’ is a word which causes unease in the calmest person. Though I suspect that the word ‘budgeting’ strikes positive fear of a poignard-directly-into-the-heart kind in even the most hardy and careful spenders.

I seem to have frittered my way through this year and next years’ financial reserves already. God knows where the money has gone. I mean apart from buying a car, dishwasher, tumble dryer, book cases, pots and pans, iron, fan, beach chairs, shower curtains, net curtains, sofa covers, portable computers, lights, bedding, kettle, toaster, swing bin, peddle bin, wastepaper bins, mobile phone, electric toothbrush, nail brushes, cleaning materials, clothing, suit, shoes, telephone land line, broadband, electric, gas, water, petrol, holiday, shavers, cleaning materials and of course, wine and food. I ask you: where does the money go?

So, it would appear that I should be (gulp!) budgeting.

In spite of what I have said, I do know what this word means and, even more importantly, how to implement the concept.

So my first action under the new regime will be to buy a new keyboard. The one I have is showing signs of wear and age (!) and I want an 88 note keyboard with weighted keys and a harpsichord mode. I have to admit that I have never played anything which has utilized all eighty eight keys, but I live in hope of an extended stave. Again, to be truthful, anything much beyond either stave necessitates a few minutes pause, after which it is pretty much a wing and a prayer for my trembling fingers to get the right notes. But surely with a nice new keyboard I will be enthused to try a piece of music which does not have a juvenile drawing on the page to encourage the young pianist! My greatest achievement still has to be a remarkably hesitant version of ‘Für Elise’ where the middle section was taken at lento in extremis if such a musical designation exists. But, as Yazz and the Plastic Population so eloquently put it, ‘the only way is up’ – presumably all the way to the dusty, finger ignored keys at the unexplored right end of the keyboard!

And a refrigerator. The one which is provided in the flat is clearly inadequate for our needs. It is more suited to summer visitors who are only in the flat for a fortnight.

Good thing I got the money over from the UK to Spain isn’t it?


That’s budgeting you see

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Goal!


Today I worked on a lesson plan for poetry.

Friday I am due to see the doctor. Perhaps it is just in time!

Rather than dwell on worksheets being prepared for non existent classes I would rather return to a bête noir of mine – football.

Since I have met Toni I have increased my observation of that sport by an astonishing percentage. I have even, on odd occasions found myself actually concerned about the outcome of a match. I can now recognize and sometimes even name members of the Barça team. I know what position Barça holds in the league. I have even, when surrounded by people who do not know me, had a conversation about football!

I therefore consider it a right, if not a duty, to proffer my suggestions for the improvement of the game.

Firstly all the British home nations should be amalgamated into one national team. Even with my lack of real concern I am constantly appalled at the achievements of the representatives of the country that invented the bloody game. My ‘dual’ nationality is never sufficient to ward off the feelings of total alienation that surge to the surface each time one of the home nations fails yet again to pass through to the next round or onto the next stage or into the final twelve or whatever would give us a fighting chance of winning something for a change.

My next idea is to abolish the off side rule. My reasons for this are many and complex. As no one apart from non playing dedicated fans know what the rule actually is. The referees especially seem very hazy about the details of the rule. One only has to listen to the reaction of the crowds to realise this. If they don’t know about it, who does?

Abolition of the off side rule should also deal with one of the problems which keep football out of the USA: lack of goals and a result. The abolition should ensure a plethora of goals for virtually everyone on the field and thereby reduce the concentration of attention and totally underserved money in the vulgar grip of so-called strikers.

Payment by results is a concept which is generally accepted. This should be applied to football players with extreme prejudice. Every football player who has a yearly salary of more than that of a fully qualified teacher should be subject to a rigid assessment of his performance week by week. The assessors are no problem: they will be the people who pay for season tickets and who knew about the off side rule. Ten of them can be picked at random each week for each player and their assessment at the end of the match would determine the entitlement of each player’s remuneration.

For the national team members, their performance would determine whether their favourite car would stay in their multi car garage or be converted into a crushed square of metal which would be placed in the middle of their driveways.

The rest of my ideas for the improvement of the game are concerned with behaviour on the pitch.

Any player seen ‘diving’ should have his salary stopped at once and not paid until he had performed a medium difficulty dive from the top board of an Olympic quality pool and achieved at least an entry level score for participation in the Olympic games as judged by an international panel.

Any player who goes onto the pitch touching the grass, crossing himself and kissing his hand should immediately be given a yellow card and sin binned (another innovation I intend to make) for thirty minutes. This will be punishment for hypocrisy and blasphemy and for making a public statement of their inadequacy by not relying on their professional ability without metaphysical aid.

Kissing of the club badge after scoring a goal should merit an instant yellow card and fifteen minutes in the sin bin. It is totally offensive that the player give the impression that he is with the club for anything other than the vast sums of money that he is being paid. Anything else, suggesting that they are there because of personal commitment is anathema.

I am sure that you agree that these few trifling changes will benefit the spectator, the game and even the money blinded players.

One likes to help if one can.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The tyrrany of the printed word!

My books delight and depress me.

Today has been given over to a more serious sort out than the unsatisfactory tinkerings that I have attempted up till now. My aim was to bring some sort of order to my poetry collection and start on the Herculean task of sorting out the reference section.

The more I sort, the more I realize that I do not have. Whole sections of my books are languishing in storage, including some volumes that I thought I had managed to unpack. However, it is pointless in winging abut the volumes in exile, especially as the storage space is packed to the gunwales with boxes so it is not as if I have the luxury of sifting through with any degree of ease.

I know that I should be grateful for the books that I have and their restricted number should allow me to concentrate on those that I have and make interesting discoveries in books which have been overlooked for years in Rumney as they languished on the extensive shelves of yesteryear!

The rearrangement of the books has meant that I have been forced to work out new sections to accommodate the various subjects that my books cover.

The non fiction and reference section has been the most interesting to work through. These books are a combination of specific works of reference like dictionaries to more descriptive works like ‘100 years of science fiction’ and ‘The Faber Book of Vice!’

The most interesting juxtapositioning occurred when I noticed that Ray Tannerhill´s book on cannibalism was next to the Faber Book of Conservatism (with a cartoon of That Woman on the cover) which was in turn next to a book on crime, which in turn was next to a description of the Devil in popular culture. I can’t help feeling that there is a political comment to be made there, but I can’t for the life of me think what it might be!

I must truncate this writing so that I can get back to my book shuffling while Toni sleeps the uneasy sleep of the not very well.

He has struggled into work for the last two days while feeling very much under the weather while I have frittered my days away in loose living and cups of tea.

I have been reading a collection of British plays from the nineteenth century. The selection is an interesting one: ‘London Assurance’ by Dion Bouccicault; ‘The Bells’ by Leopold Lewis; ‘Patience’ by W S Gilbert; ‘The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ by Arthur Wing Pinero; ‘Arms and the Man’ by George Bernard Shaw and finally, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde.

I’m now reading a book on Melodrama and I will keep my comments until I have thought a little more about them.

When I first read through ‘The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ I thought that it was an Important Play dealing with Real Life. Rereading it it seems to be a pale reflection of Ibsen.

Ah well, that is the sort of price you have to pay when you grow up!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Warning!

Never sit opposite a lone diner in a restaurant.

I speak from experience: I am often that lone diner.

There are two techniques that are adopted by LDs (Lone Diners) to while away those tedious minutes that elapse between the order for food and the comestibles arriving. The first is to drown time in alcohol; the second is to observe.

I usually find that a judicious combination of the two leads to the best results. But you should always realise that the seemingly self obsessed LD is probably chuckling internally about his perceptions centred on YOU – the innocent customer!

Today was a case in point.

I had lunch at one of those places that you go to in spite of yourself. It is a restaurant near my flat and it offers a Special Menu which is not cheap but is still good value for money. The restaurant is one of those establishments which make a clear distinction between ordinary diners and customers who are prepared to spend a little more than necessary. There is, in this restaurant, rigid class distinction: menu del dia with bare wood tables; a la carte with tablecloths. The Special Menu classes you as a Tablecloth with a good view of everyone else.

My pica pica courses were eaten with only a view of another LD’s back, but the gap before my main course allowed three other diners to enter and place themselves in my line of vision.

The one great minus point about this restaurant is the tardy service. I like to think this is because everything is cooked from fresh, though the sullen, unsmiling, midriff bearing waitress might indicate that I am wilfully misinterpreting. Delay focuses observation, and I had plenty of time to evaluate my fellow diners.

Two of the trio of workmen who entered the restaurant for a quick meal were rotund and undistinguished (though one of them should speak to his wife about her lapse in letting him wander about in daylight wearing horizontal stripes) and hardly held a momentary glance. Their young companion, however, seemed to be a walking apotheosis (my word of the moment; see yesterday’s blog) of those elements guaranteed to irritate me.

Because of his inclusiveness I will itemize his gaucheries.

1 Wearing thick sided sunglasses indoors
2 Having a snake tattoo under his left ear
3 Wearing two dark, gold trimmed earrings
4 Wearing a large link gold chain hanging low outside his shirt
5 Sideboards extended unconvincingly to join in a thin line of bum fluff
6 Smoking
7 Wearing industrially frayed jeans
8 Parading pierced eyebrows
9 Sporting an iguana crested jelled central hair peak
10 Wearing a dirty brown anorak with fur trimmed hood
11 Being young
12 Wearing an oxymoronic pair of expensive black daps
13 Speaking in that slurred Spanish that sounds drunken

Who would eat their food so casually if they knew that lurking just outside their line of vision was someone like me taking careful note of their lives? I don’t really know if such a list is a credit to my perception or a sad reflection on the amount of time that I have to look around!

Today has been a cleaning day: this means that I push around a floor mop in an unconvincing sort of way and waltz through the flat with the hoover. As a signal honour for the flat I also cleaned the sinks and the bath.
Domesticity, thy name is Stephen

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wine and Music!

I was astonished to see a little notice on the table in the restaurant in Gava where we had gone for Sunday lunch stating that “Beaujolais Nouveau est ariveé!”

My astonishment was not because a French wine was being sold openly in Catalonia – though it has to be said that this area does have a few wines of outstanding quality and amazing cheapness.

No, my astonishment was more because I assumed that only the
British would be taken in by such a transparent marketing opportunity like Beaujolais Nouveau.

Think about it: this is a fairly ordinary wine made even more ordinary by being sold when it is very, very young. So young and forced, indeed, that it has to be drunk at once because it doesn’t keep. The whole affair has the grubby hands of unscrupulous wine merchants spinning a cheap wine to inexperienced indiscriminate wine consumers (aka the British) who have been caught up in the pseudo sophistication of a blatant pseudo ‘event.’

So I ordered a bottle.

Oh, come on! I can still remember buying a few cases of Beaujolais Nouveau from Bottoms Up and using the ‘drink at once’ recommendation as a specific injunction! I remember returning home after school to find my parents in my house picking their way delicately over empty bottles, glasses and other debris from the over indulgence of a select group of friends from the previous night. “Bit of a party?” my father asked as I scrabbled about trying to restore enough order for my mother to sit down. Bit of an excuse would have been nearer to the truth; an excuse to indulge! As soon as Bottoms Up started making too much profit (in my view) I stopped buying the bottles and those nights of indulgence waned. So the bottle today was to remind me of past indulgence.

Toni hated it, but his detestation of the taste of this unremarkable bottle, was lost in the importance of our eating the first Calçots and romanescu sauce of the season.

For those who don’t know, Calçots look like thinner versions of leeks and are cooked barbecue style and served with romanescu sauce. We were given paper bibs and a thin plastic glove as calçots can be a messy affair as they are best eaten in the same way as a sword swallower consumes his weapon! And I think that I am getting into a dangerous area of double entendre now!

We finished the meal with a glass of pacharan notable for the Spanish measure used rather than the parsimonious British equivalent.

Then home to vegetate on the balcony in the setting sun.

Ah!

I have now paid my first visit to the Palau de la Música for an orchestral concert.

This was given by the Orquesta Sinfónica Estatal de Dnepropetrovsk conducted by Nataliya Ponomarchuk. The programme was the overture to The Barber of Seville (Rossini) the Concierto de Aranjuez (Rodrigo) and Carmen Suite Nº1 and Suite Nº2 (Bizet) The soloist in the Rodrigo was Rolando Saad.

Fundamentally, the concert was depressingly poor. I can truthfully say that I have never heard the Rossini played as the orchestra played it. The orchestral balance was absurdly idiosyncratic with the bass drum drowning any harmony and the most penetrating piccolo dominating throughout. The strings were ragged and the horns had that brittle quality where you felt tension every time they played almost expecting duff notes.

The Concierto de Aranjuez was worse. The relationship between the orchestra and the soloist was uneasy with the first movement being particularly jagged. Saad showed little fluency in the more complex fingerings and emphasised difficulty rather than melody. Not only the dynamics of orchestra and soloist but also the weightings were faulty – the piece seemed to need much more rehearsal time.

The second movement started better with liquid strummed chords form the guitar, but that was an accompaniment to an orchestral player and the old unease returned when the soloist took the more commanding position.

The audience waited for the cadenza for their cacophony of coughing to reach a crescendo. You had to be there to hear the unreal concentration of hacking coughing to believe it! When the racking coughs subsided, extended sweet unwrapping started which only women of a certain age really know how to extend to the point of intolerability.

At no point did I feel truly comfortable with Saad’s playing and I felt depressed throughout the interval dreading the treatment of the Bizet.

Sitting in the auditorium, however, allowed me time to appreciate the hall in which I was sitting. In artistic terms, the hall was the clear winner when set against the concert even if the design did have an element of the demented about it!

I have never been in a hall like it. Just to give you the slightest flavour of the total experience, I would like to mention the vertical elements supporting the marble hand rest of the main staircase. These vertical elements (the names for which I have forgotten) were thin twisted metal rods set in a coloured glass tube – like an extended jam jar! That, believe you me, was one of the more prosaic details to notice!

The proscenium arch was formed by a massive sculpture of a tree stage right and galloping horses stage left. The sculpture thrust itself into the auditorium and, indeed, where I was sitting on the second level there was a horse emerging from the wall with splayed hoofs just above my head and a narrow horse’s face looking down on me with some malevolence!

The back of the stage is a curved wall out of which sculpted maidens, looking like sinisterly attractive gargoyles, emerge from the glittering surface.

Everywhere you look is stained glass and ceramics. The place is the apotheosis of the ceramicist’s art and, because all the surfaces are so busy the interior is strangely claustrophobic.

The centre of the roof has the famous inverted stained glass dome which is impressive, but the rest of the roof is taken up with struts beams and tiles all gleaming with the high gloss of the ceramics’ glaze.

The roof naggingly reminded me of something which I only realised at the end of the performance when the lights came on again and the roof was thrown into relief. There is a great similarity between what I have seen of some aspects of Modernista art in Catalonia and in what I have seen from the same period in Finland. I wonder if any work has been done in comparing the Art Nouveau period in the two countries. I will leave that hanging!

I now have the programme for the concerts for the rest of the year and I will have to read with care the various ways in which you can buy tickets. They say that buying a rail ticket in Britain is a complex task – try buying a season ticket for the opera or orchestra anywhere in the world.

The complexities of those artistic institutions make British rail travel look like riding an escalator.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Night of Horror!

There is little to be said for going it alone when visiting the video club.

Video choice is the most striking everyday example of the impossibility of consensus in the human species – even including the UNO! No matter how homogeneous the gathering you can imagine, it will be thrown into the sort of bitterly acrimonious cliques that make the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War look like The Cheltenham Conservative Ladies Immigration Discussion Group the moment you return with a Personal Choice Video. The sad thing is that we never learn from these experiences and live to walk the lonely furrow to the video rental store and find our personal Calvary yet again.

And why do we still refer to these places of torment as Video Stores: when was the last time that you took out a video? Popular nomenclature lags behind technology in that engaging way that it does so often. ‘The Hole in the Wall’ seems positively denigratory for the sophisticated money manufacturer beloved of all spent-out late-night topers. The uninitiated still ignorantly refer to mp3 when they should really be admiring their mp4s! How we laughed! What we need is a modern day Betjeman to rewrite ‘How to Get On in Society’ from a technoramuses’s point of view!
How might he have written?
Do use your portable phone dear,
While I fit the ipod’s new tape.
I paid for it all with some money,
‘Cos the credit card’s just for a jape.

Ah Sir John, thou shouldst be living at this hour, cynics have need of thee!

So, whatever the group of you has decided it will never be right. You have marched towards the store with the injunction for something ‘just-out-not-too-bloody-adventure-decent-thriller-drma-action-with-character’ sort of thing. You return with something which you are convinced ticks all the boxes and are shocked (yet again) to find out that you have satisfied no one. Whereas, of course, if you return with some historic, critically acclaimed, German masterpiece – you satisfy no one but yourself. The difference between the two is not in the end result but in the intention. Left to my own devices I would choose sci-fi and/or decent animation for my group choice. You should see how that goes down! The only thing to do is to take everyone with you to choose. This is no guarantee of satisfaction, but at least all the arguments are in the store and when at home the arguments increase in intensity and virulence you can always blame everyone else ‘because they were there.’

You would have thought that Toni and I could be fairly confident about our choices when the both of us go and choose.

How wrong you would be.

Yesterday evening was a case in point. After my point blank refusal to go to the DVD machine alone the two of us trooped to the machine and made our respective choices. Toni’s was Hostel II and mine was 300.

Hostel II (Eli Roth 2007 in Spain) was a sequel to, you’ve guessed it!

This is a thoroughly repulsive film which tries though half decent cinematography and witty writing to pass itself off as something other than a thoroughly repulsive film. But it doesn’t manage that and it remains a thoroughly repulsive film. It attempts to develop character to ensure that we actually care a little for the fate of the three American girls and are concerned about the character development of the two rich American would be killers. Enough is done along these lines to show that there is a better film waiting to be made which uses the basic idea of wealthy sickos paying for safe murder and being protected by their wealth and power from any recriminations.

As a metaphor the basic premise of the film could easily be extended to the effects of, for example, an unfeeling capitalistic society which regularly uses death of the helpless to bolster up the ideology. This is not the film which does it, but the hapless (soon to be decapitated) survivor at the beginning of the film points to the rich and powerful having links which protect their organization. His nightmare where the investigating police officer turns out to have the dog tattoo and is a member of the murder syndicate and therefore perfectly free to rip his heart out, could have been further developed into a real conspiracy which would have added to the real horror of the film.

As in most of the truly sick depictions of human mutilation this tries to redeem its intellectual credentials with knowing self mockery, subtle irony and over-the-top grisly shlock slapstick. This doesn’t work, it merely emphasises the confused and embarrassed direction of the film and essential leaves it callously directionless. The ending of the film is equally made up of embarrassment, awkwardness and a simpering desire to please.

Revolting and, as I might have mentioned, a thoroughly repulsive piece of work.

My choice was ‘300’ (Zack Snyder 2007) which was a film adaptation of the graphic novel by Frank Miller.

I came to this film with high hopes, especially in terms of the visual distinctiveness of the presentation. The efforts of Snyder to reproduce exactly some of the graphic novel’s visual effects seemed promising. The pushing of the Persians over the cliffs was uncannily like the equivalent portrayal in the novel. Elsewhere in the film the techniques used were not as successful with many of the scenes looking merely graphically stilted rather than visually exciting.

The portrayal of the characters was also odd. We can never really know what this band of 300 actually looked like as they went into battle, but I doubt that they looked like the more than usually buffed and oiled bunch of virtually naked guys looking as though they were about to enter a Mr Gay Sparta competition – one kept waiting for the house music to start so they could get on with their John Travolta impersonations to gain maximum marks from the judges.

The height of something or other was reached with the appearance of Xerxes himself looking like something from a Boy George nightmare. Wearing a glittering jockstrap, rather randomly placed chains and rings, painted eyebrows and little else he looked more as if he was about to make an entrance onto the stage of some rather seedy gay bar as the fetishist stripper than the emperor god of the known world. When, towards the end of the film, he was waiting for Leonidas to prostrate himself he was seated at the top of his own slave drawn ziggurat one leg nonchalantly crossed over the other as if he was waiting for his gin and tonic with a slice of lemon in a tall glass filled with ice to be placed on a little doily. It didn’t work for me.

For me the character of Leonidas wasn’t coherent: he veered from witty humorist to inhuman killing machine with a bewildering rapidity that the back story did not make more believable.

Essentially I thought the film was an uneasy amalgam of styles with wonderfully OTT battle scenes. The loppings, cuttings, decapitations, amputations, stabbings, crushing etc, etc. were as gory (if not more so) than the carnage in Hostel II but in ‘300’ they had more of a ‘normal’ context; they were objectified by being in slow motion and they were painted as fiction by the unnatural colouring of the film. The deaths were altogether easier to take because these killings were institutionalised as a national means to an end; whereas in Hostel II the killings were for personal perversion and the particularity made them much more revolting than the ‘everyday’ deaths in battle.
I think that ‘300’ will survive as a pointer towards better films which use the non-naturalistic style of the graphic novel to achieve their effects.
I look forward to watching them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A fleeting visit!

I am now convinced that the powers that be have determined that I will not work at my chosen profession in Spain!

This time the teaching got nearer than the last time when the offer had to be withdrawn a few days before it was about to take place. Then it was because the teacher I was supposed to be replacing did not have to go to court as a witness. This time was different.

I actually managed to get inside the school, talk to the head, go on a tour of the school, speak to my colleagues, take a registration and start the first period. Then it stopped.

I was the victim of a difference in interpretation. The crossed wires and misread protocols meant that my stay in the school was limited by a disinclination to sign the cheque for my stay. My innate sense of parsimony ensured that I would not work for nothing (not that I was given that opportunity!) so the only alternative was a dignified retreat.

I am glad that I am in a position where I can look on this incident with semi detached humour rather than professional fury. In spite of this inauspicious start, I have not yet given up on this establishment as one which can offer possibilities in the future. When, presumably, the conflict in administration has been settled one way or another.

In these absurd circumstances it meant that I returned home before Toni (Holiday Boy!) was actually out of bed.

My attempts to get him out of bed by appealing to his better side to make a cup of tea for The Worker (i.e. my good self) achieved nothing. Life can be so unfair sometimes!

As we were now both free at the same time we decided to pay a visit to Terrassa before Toni’s mum set off on her holiday. Our arrival in Terrassa at any approximation of lunch time always prompts Toni’s mum into food production mode which was well received by the two of us.

I have made an executive decision to start preparations for Christmas. I am using the immanent arrival of Hadyn to precipitate concrete and visible representations of the festive season. And one of the elements of a traditional Catalan Christmas I find appealing is the domestic insistence on a crib.

This is not, of course, a purely Catalan tradition, but the general acceptance of something which is very much a minority taste in homes in Britain is intriguing.

Being in Terrassa allowed an exploration of the Chinese shop on the ground floor of the flats. This was a productive excursion and resulted in a collection of figures to start of my Christmas scene and a rough, but evocative stable setting to put them in. You have to understand that these crib scenes are not usually confined to the stable but take on a cartoon like extended narrative structure which takes in all aspects of the Christmas story. So you get the Holy Family, the Wise Men, the Angels, the Shepherds, the animals and a whole series of other working characters, including the notorious Catalan caganer character. These scenes take on almost a strip cartoon display as they are added to year after year with new figures developing the complexity of the story. I have, at least, started the process.

The next problems are the tree and the Christmas cards.

I will give these some thought – after all I do not have teaching to take my mind away from these concerns!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Reality?

It had to happen sooner or later!

Tomorrow I become a biology teacher for two days.

My qualifications for this post are based on a single year’s study; much drawing of single celled creatures and a drawing of a bird’s wing which actually got a “Very good!” comment from the teacher. As I remember it at the end of the year we had to make the sort of ‘art’ or ‘biology’ sort of choice. And I chose art so that was the end of my descriptive scientific education. I prefer not to talk about my career in ‘O’ level Chemistry.

To be fair this is golden opportunity to find out how the British School in Barcelona (Castelldefels actually) operates. It gives me an opportunity to meet the staff and pupils and, more importantly for them to meet me. Teaching (well, supply teaching) again!

Pause for thought and red pens!

Of course the real irony is that Toni has time off. He had to take his ‘holiday’ days this month and decided to take a few days into the weekend to give himself a five day holiday. Yesterday we thought about taking a flight to Malaga or Rome or Lisbon – but it was all too expensive. You have to bear in mind that we set ourselves an upper limit of fifty pounds for the return flights to wherever we were going and, on that basis, all the flights that we looked at for our impromptu holiday were outside our limits. But for our parsimony we would have been in the vicinity of the Vatican today and not able for me to take up the challenge of entering the portals of an education establishment for gain! This is a good thing isn’t it?

Toni asked if I felt nervous about going into a new school, with new people, in a different country and ‘teaching’ a subject which is not my own. Up to that point my mood had been more amusedly anticipatory than anything else. Toni’s comments though, convinced me to become much more concerned and tentative. It is one thing going to a new school confident in your ability in your chosen subject, it is quite another to be placed in a new situation and totally deskilled by being out of your professional educational context.

I can’t wait to experience it all: it’s almost like being transported back to your first job!

Apart from ‘The Call’ to duty the day has been uneventful though I was able to continue to scandalize polite society in Castelldefels by continuing to wear summer clothing, looking somewhat conspicuous amid the muffled and shrouded pedestrians protected against a cold that wasn’t there.

But enough of this, tomorrow, is very much another day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Put not thy trust . . .

This morning I was forcibly reminded of that telling phrase in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ about the “triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool.”

Not you understand because it particularly apt to my situation at the time, but the vague idea of something major displaying signs of weakness was most appropriate.

Not everyone has the same set of priorities, of course, but everyone must surely agree that some things are self evidently essential, and without which life as we know it is not possible.

Again, not everyone (really?) has two standby ipods to leap into electronic action at the first sign of mechanical failure. Admittedly the standbys are merely 60 and 80GB respectively and added together they do not equal the so-called ‘Classic’ 160GB which is my ipod of choice.

Having purchased a few CDs over the past few weeks and downloaded them to my computer, I felt it was high time that they found their way onto my ipod. You can imagine my horror when the ipod failed to synchronize with the computer. Then failed again. And again.

You have to understand that my ipod is my first line of defence against the horrors of the television programme ‘¡Força Barça!’ which has to be heard to be believed. The format is to have six to eight people talking about Barça at the top of their voices all at the same time. In Catalan. It is the sort of torture which UNO sets up futile committees to discuss chaired by some corrupt prince from the interminable nepotistic royal Augean stable of Saudi. The ipod allows me the serenity of having waves of Romantic music (the most effective in drowning out combative voices) rather than the ranting of self appointed pundits.

My efforts to get the bloody ipod to synchronize eventually approached the Doomsday solution which was to reset the machine to the factory settings and lose all the content prior to replacing it all. I therefore wiped all the information from the ipod and started the process to replace it. It didn’t work. Unhelpful messages like “unknown error 55” (what about the other 54?) did not inspire confidence.

I now had an ipod with a capacity of 160GB with nothing on it and no way of getting stuff on it. It is at points like this that one starts thinking about where one put the guarantee; what does one do when one bought the ipod in Regent’s Street and I am now in Castelldefels – does the service guarantee carry over the ocean?

The situation called for drastic approaches; yet measured. From my many years of experience in dealing with a variety of computers I pooled my knowledge and applied my most technical solution.

I turned the computer on and off just one more time and hoped for the best.

And the best of course happened. Most of what was on my computer transferred itself to the ipod. Some of the tracks have magically multiplied and grown little red dots with exclamation marks inside them and are therefore so much dead space.

But it works and ‘¡Força Barça!’ can shout itself hoarse while I hum along with Holst.

Ahhhh!

Monday, November 12, 2007

I defy augury!


It’s now official; I am the last person in Catalonia still wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

This was confirmed in a short official ceremony when the mayor of Castelldefels complimented me on my contribution to the tourist effort by my determined efforts to persuade the rest of the world that Spain was still a hot sunny place to visit even in the depths of November by my staunchly continuing to wear the minimum number of clothes commensurate with common decency.

I am now conscious of the knowing looks that I am getting from native Catalans as they go about their lawful business. I feel like that hapless soldier in the TV sketch continuing to struggle in the jungle who didn’t understand the concept of the war being over! The summer isn’t over until my goose pimples say it is!

The personalising of the flat continues apace now that we have been given an incentive with the removal of the owner’s detritus. The computer room (or Music Room as I would have it) {or third bedroom as it might have to be} is now beginning to take shape.

The tidying up of the living room incidentally decanted some of the extraneous furnishings into the computer/music/bedroom thus transferring the chaos to another room. As we can shut the door on this room, it could also be out of mind, but Toni is not like that and his active mind worked out a way in which we would be able to utilize the chaos and make it appear intentional and productive.

A futile visit to IKEA on Sunday (when will we ever get the opening times right?) merely delayed the delights of a visit today to get the necessary item to transform the room.

As is usual with IKEA the obvious is not always on sale in the form in which you wish it to be. Having assumed the existence of the shelf that would make everything fine, it was a bit of a blow to find out that it didn’t actually exist in the catalogue. In extremis I even launched out into a spectacularly optimistic harangue in Spanish to try and get what I wanted. This resulted in my being directed to the ‘Returns’ section in the hope that I could get a bargain. This was explained in vigorous Spanish by the lady assistant who accompanied her discourse with gestures, culminating in a knowing smile, a raised eyebrow and an index finger knowingly pulling down the lower lid of her left eye. I felt full involved in some sort of complicity, though about what I wasn’t entirely sure. Anyway there was nothing in the cheap section (gosh!) and so full price again!

As usual in IKEA I was seduced by the seemingly excellent value of the food on offer. As it was lunch time (isn’t it always) I thought that I could try their rice with salmon and chicken (or paella as the Spanish know it) for a small amount of money.

Why, when you think about it, should you assume that a furnishing shop would have any expertise in catering? Well, take it from me; it doesn’t. The taste of the food was vaguely institutional and definitely not Catalan. The best that I can get to the subtle (yet insistent) undertones in the flavour is to suggest that you try and recall the smell of an IKEA cupboard when you have just unpacked it – and that’s what it tasted like. Almost as if they had been storing their food supplies with the rest of the merchandise, and they had just taken it off the rack in the warehouse.

The sweet was apple tart which was not frozen but retained enough frostiness to make the teeth tingle with that fear of brittleness that makes chewing a hazardous occupation.

The coffee was fine.

Now, what was originally on the floor in the computer/music/bedroom is now largely half way up the wall on a new freestanding shelf supported by elements of the rest of the stuff on the floor. If you see what I mean.

Well, it works for us.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Which way is north?

Reading through a descriptive atlas can be a dispiriting experience.

Pointing out the exact location of Cape Cod and Provincetown to a frankly sceptical Toni started one of those delightfully aimless rambles which are a characteristic of my approach to reference books. That quintessentially Old Money Eastern part of the States having been located Toni’s interest flagged but my compulsive page turning highlighted (to me) fascinating elements in the maps: unexplained ‘white bits’ on a map showing part of southern Russia; names from British colonial history popping up in the ‘wrong’ countries; inexplicable and frankly unbelievable ‘correct’ spellings of familiar places; cities of many millions of people which I have never heard of; massive rivers emerging from nowhere and going to another nowhere; an unfamiliar Europe because the book was published ten years ago.

But the most telling aspect of this atlas was in the opening pages when, for each continent, its constituent countries were listed in alphabetical order with a very short description with a colour representation of the flag and some factual information. The description of the United Kingdom was a fairly neutral and factual listing of the home countries and the islands and an assertion of the industrial base of the country. A rather boring ‘assessment’ of the place.

A very different story emerges if you read through the listing of countries under the heading of the continent of Africa. ‘Story’ is an appropriate word because all the elements of high literature are present in microcosm in the descriptions. Deprivation, misery, murder, corruption, political chicanery, colonial exploitation, dictatorship, war, exasperation and despair characterised the lot. A neutral description would have been an expression of unexampled success! Where the land was harsh and unyielding there was human misery; where the ground was fertile and rich there was political repression; where there were abundant natural resources vested interests squandered them – in all respects Africa seems a failed continent.

It is easy to sustain this vision.

Given the recent crisis in Chad with Spanish television giving vivid depictions of the plight of the air crew of the controversial flight it was easy to select shots which included dust, dirt and broken windows to emphasise the poverty of the nation holding these frightened Europeans.

A particularly telling detail was the locating shot of the International Airport with its almost artfully picturesque lopsided letter in the welcoming sign on the airport terminal. Air travel demands a high degree of technological competence with each receiving airport needing to command a sophisticated array of highly specialised equipment; if they can’t even get the sign on the terminal right, we think, how the hell are they getting the plane into land?

Like so much on television (all on television?) you have to read the sub text; with any western dealings with Africa it is essential. Anything which breaks our stereotype of abject failure for that continent seems to be hard for us to take. Africa has been dismissed as the black hole of charity where, in the popular conception, only a tiny faction of the aid given actually gets to those who need the help.

I await with interest the stories of those who were detained in Chad. I am sure that Spain does not like to be beholding to France, especially a France governed by a budding autocrat like Sarkozy who storms into a past colonial possession, shakes a few hands, extricates the whites and leaves.

Spain is at present involved in a diplomatic ‘crisis’ with the President of Venezuela who, at a meeting of Hispanophone nations indulged in a slanging match with the President of Spain and, shockingly, the king. This incident is the latest in the series of publicity generating escapades of President Chávez who seems to be more and more convinced of the truth of his unpleasant cult of the personality which characterises his rule in Venezuela. What at one time seemed a refreshing change from the ruling elites who had dominated politics when Chávez as a native American Indian took over the presidency now looks more like oil funded ignorant boorishness.

To compare the last president of Spain with Hitler is ridiculous in terms of fact and a grotesque insult to the millions who died and suffered as a result of the perverted ideology of the National Socialists.

What I find more interesting in this debacle is the position of the king. I cannot believe that the powers that be in Madrid thought that a gathering of the various ruffians who make up the power cliques in South America would be anything other than a highly political meeting with highly honed personalities on display. In the meeting the president was sitting next to the king that raises the question of who is the head of state. It is also, surely, not the king’s position to reply to abuse, even public abuse from a president. This opens some difficult political questions for Spain.

It is unthinkable that the Prime Minister and the Queen would have been in such close proximity in what was clearly a political meeting; and equally unthinkable that the Queen would have replied to the ill considered ranting of a rapidly developing megalomaniac. After all she acquiesced in the gratuitous posturing that went with the state visit of that bastard Ceausescu as he rode in an open carriage with the Queen down The Mall. And, if my memory serves me right wasn’t he made a Knight of the Garter as well?

Meetings of the Commonwealth are equally difficult, especially when spectacularly failing to deal with another megalomaniac like Mugabe, but I’m sure that the Queen would be protected from the gratuitous insults of an oil rich bully who sees himself as the jolly leader of the world’s oppressed.

I suppose that we have to be grateful that he didn’t insult in song!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Go to the ant thou sluggard!


A lazy day with an excellent lunch.

There is still enough of the Protestant work ethic left in me for vague feelings of guilt to emerge with greater intensity for every minute after 9.30am that I stay in bed in the morning. Suffice to say that I should have crippled for the rest of the day with all consuming anguish after the self indulgent display of prone passivity.

But I wasn’t.

Instead I had a little jaunt to Gava to the shop that acts as a magnet for my gadget longings to see if I could find an internet radio. I remember seeing one for about eighty quid in PC World many moons ago and thinking that it was ‘a good idea’ but not quite good enough to justify the outlay of good folding stuff. And the design wasn’t flashy enough to persuade by unsubtle flashing lights and shiny metallic trim.

With my Spanish it is not certain what I asked for in the shop and the voluble response that I had from the young assistant could have meant anything, but I took what he said to mean that they didn’t have one. Eventually!

10% of a conversation is often not enough to go on. Not even for someone who watched The Magic Roundabout with unvarying fascination and admired Eric Thompson’s convincing narration based only on what he saw rather than any sort of accurate translation from the French. His versions made perfect sense to me and I have always used his imaginative approach to foreign languages to ‘get by.’ I should imagine that I have often got the sense entirely wrong and have gone off in my own sweet way filled with the percentage of misunderstandings which keep us sane.

Every teacher knows that the simplest instruction given to any normal class if only said only once will be misinterpreted by at least half of the pupils there. Teachers have to follow the code outlined in the Hunting of the Snark, “What I tell you three times is true” Repetition is the key means of communication, yet most of the time we only say important, complicated things once and are constantly surprised at not being understood. How many times can we echo the sentiments found in T S Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ – “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

But never let it be said that I didn’t revel in happy ignorance. I never fail to convince myself that I have understood enough to justify a warm sense of my own perspicacity in surviving in a foreign language. It’s a good thing that one cannot rerun one’s life and listen to one’s mistakes, not only linguistic but also in terms of perception! That’s one’s friends are for!

If the morning was lazy and the afternoon somnolent, then the evening brought on a spurt of activity as a rearrangement which should have happened a few months ago was finally achieved.

I have noted before that the placing of books, glasses and miscellaneous items when moving house if they are positioned in their new places in the hectic hours of the actual move tend to stay in their randomly chosen positions for at least six months. Rearrangement of non vital aspects of a new life usually has a fairly low priority.

I suppose that having moved into the flat in July I am still a few weeks ahead of schedule when I relate that I have now achieved a personal harmony in the setting out of the more visible glasses in the living room. The rather untidy display of DVDs has been rationalised by the purchase of a very imposing pseudo-suede clad book which has facilitated the throwing of an entire black bag full of redundant plastic cases leaving only Toni’s cases which encompass an eclectic selection ranging from U2, through a promotional film of Terrassa to ‘Finding Nemo’ also including what is probably one of Toni’s favourite films, ‘La Vida es Bella.’

More importantly Toni has rearranged the writhing mass of wiring and established the hifi in a more satisfactory place; wired up the auxiliary loudspeakers, connected the video and generally sorted out the electronic chaos which characterised the television end of the living room. Civilized living creeps on apace!

The lurking threat of tomorrow is to “clean the whole house.” I’m not absolutely sure what this entails when applied to a flat ‘I sincerely hope that this does not mean that we have to follow our footsteps down into the street cleaning as we go. I fail to see myself as a housewife from the nineteen twenties in the valleys assiduously scrubbing the pavement to a pristine whiteness so that the neighbours won’t talk!

I would rather revert to type and keep coal in the bath!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Space!

We have gained a cupboard.

When you take a furnished flat you take someone else’s choice in all sorts of things that you hadn’t previously thought were anything other than your own.

Knives and forks and pans and sheets and cushions and small televisions and plates and glasses and paintings and ornaments other things that you just don’t want at second hand! And large things like tables and chairs and coffee tables and clothes dryers of the metal framework sort. And a microwave.

We managed to fit most of this into one cupboard which we can ill afford to write off. And today the landlord came and took it all away! It’s like being given a present of an extra room. I am just waiting for the arguments to start about how we use it!

Another step has been taken in the sluggish quest to find gainful employment.

Having been frustrated in my attempt to teach the young I have made a first real contact with the British School in Barcelona in order to try and teach the older.

The school has a two form entry – rather different from the entry of Llanishen High School! The English Department comprises three members of staff and they are at full strength. The only possibility in the short term is supply work of some sort, so I will wait and see what happens.

I have also answered a summons to Gava (the administrative soul of this area) as there appears to be an offer of a few hours work in a language school. I left my telephone number and they are supposed to be contacting me but nothing yet. Meanwhile, I wait for the call and do a little light sunbathing.

It’s a hard old life.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Not all fruit is sweet


It is surely no accident that popular imagination has depicted the fruit of the tree of knowledge as an apple. The apple haunts art and literature through the ages from Adam and Eve via William Tell to Snow White and the Beatles failed enterprise.

The serpent too takes many forms in pictorial representations from a fairly realistic reptile to a grotesque amalgam of snake tail added to a female (of course, art was a male preserve) top.

In the twenty-first century it would be sad reflection of our ability to re-envision the iconic past in a new and exciting way if we were not able to unveil a new and even more seductive temptation to encourage the further fall (if that were even remotely possible) of Man. I use the term ‘Man’ advisedly because the New Apple that I am thinking of would probably be less effective with Woman.

It happened while looking for ‘The Name of the Rose’ for Toni who has managed to catch only snatches of the film over a period of time stretching from his military service to the present day. He now has the idea in his head of watching the film all the way through and is even prepared to buy the film (“Only if it’s cheap!”) to satisfy this longing. As he must know, a Shopping Quest is something which I relish, giving me the opportunity to scour shops on the off chance that the goal may be hidden behind a discouraging shelf. After all, anyone can find a DVD in a DVD shop: it takes a certain amount of imagination to find the requisite item in an unlikely location. Which is why I never write off a shop as totally uninteresting: there are always possibilities.

Sometimes, of course, you can use The Quest to indulge yourself. It is, after all, more than probable that the DVD will be on the shelves in a place like MediaMarkt which is also full of interesting gadgets of the electrical sort. So, with a sense of selfless generosity I forced myself to go to MediaMarkt before I picked up Toni from work.

It says little for my much vaunted martyr complex (Stephen by name; Stephen by nature etc) that I did not move immediately to the DVDs but instead found myself irresistibly drawn to the handheld computers.

And there it was! An inert, dark rectangle – almost, but not quite featureless. And that of course made it interesting. One remembers the description of the space craft in ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Universe’ with the black control panel on which black lights lit up in black! Such is sophistication!

What I was looking at was of course my electronic apple: an actual, real, in the metallic flesh iphone!

The only thing which stopped me from buying it at once was that it wasn’t for sale. When I asked (Oh yes I asked!) I was told that they had no idea of the price; no idea of what versions would be available in Spain; no real idea when it would be available – though possibly in March!

That is five months. At least one hundred and fifty days. Lots of hours and even more lots of minutes, and don’t get me started on the number of nano seconds. It’s a long time. The world’s most desirable gadget and I can’t get my hands on it.

My only hope is that the reviews from Britain and Germany (they get it this month) are bad. Very bad.

Please!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Always another page

Catalonia is the one country in the world where I can celebrate St George’s Day with a clear conscience and no feeling of disloyalty to Wales!

This United Nation’s Day only produced two books, only one of which was a novel (and neither, I might add, on United Nations Day itself!)

The Time Out guide to films is a mammoth tome with a suitably encyclopaedic inclusiveness. It is one of those books which I find addictive. I start off with a restricted intention of looking up just a few of my favourite films. The films I like range across the critical divide from generally accepted classic films through interesting but opinion dividing films and ending in my choice and I’ll stand by them films. Perhaps that range can be exemplified by ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ and ‘High Anxiety.’ A nicely mixed bunch!

That was one of the books (Thank you Pauls!) and the other was from The Family and was, according to them, the only book in English in El Corte Inglés and was a novel by Ken Follett. This was another massive volume of over a thousand pages and it had a suitably epic sweep following the lives of different families in England in the Middle Ages. Centred on the fictional Cathedral and Priory town of Kingsbridge, it traced the developing municipal and commercial identity of the town as it attempted to come to terms with living with a powerful Prior whose ideas were often at odds with those of the tradespeople. The action of the novel concentrated on the lives of four children who, at the beginning of the novel are confronted with the bloody reality of living in the fourteenth century.

Basically this is a novel of politics and power struggles, stripped of the medieval background the basic plot could be transposed to any century: creative artist frustrated by small minded bigotry; career woman weighing options; sadistic bully protected by class interests; working class woman makes good in spite of overwhelming difficulties – all mixed with an assortment of colourful characters easy to identify and compartmentalise.

Compared with the Ellis Peters novels of Brother Cadfael this extended narrative lacks the concentrated tension of a murder mystery and it also lacks Peters` easy and unforced familiarity with the historical period. The power of the Church is emphasised in ‘World Without End’ but not the theology behind it which made ‘The Name of the Rose’ such an interesting read, but rather as the power base for a great deal of politicking.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would welcome reading the novel to which this is the sequel, ‘The Pillars of the World’- which at the moment is swamping the supermarket shelves in its Spanish paperback version.

I think that my biggest reservation about the quality of this novel is in the dialogue. Follett spells things out: he rarely leaves things for the reader to do. All his characters are articulate (unfeasibly articulate in some instances) about their motivations and the motivations of others. A participant in this story might be a thug but he soon develops a perception well out of keeping with his ostensible character. It does, of course, make it easier to follow and is perhaps a key factor in the success of this sort of writing and allows a reader to follow such an epic tale.

Roll on another thousand pages! And Saint George’s Day, which in Catalonia, is the day for the giving of books as presents.
At last a civilized country!