Sunday, September 30, 2007

Too big to ignore!

I have just finished reading Andrew Marr’s book on post-war Britain; I have read and enjoyed ‘Moby Dick; I have been to my first opera in the Liceau in Barcelona.

Why, you may ask, do I list these intellectually acceptable ‘achievements’? What is prompting me to be even more defensively cultural than I am normally?

There are many ways of gauging the academic worth of a person and, similarly there are many ways of revealing the feet of clay which can bring a carefully constructed persona crashing to humiliation.

Just consider: a friend once said that it was ‘amusing’ to take a bottle of Hirondelle to a party (He was wrong); another friend can recite word-for-word the lyrics of any ABBA song you care to mention; another likes mushy peas from poor quality chippies; yet another likes those luridly coloured cheap sweets in the shapes of bananas and other suggestive fruit; another can’t stand the music of Phillip Glass – and so it goes on. Perfectly acceptable people with the fatal flaw that can’t be passed off as post-Modernist irony. Something which cuts to the quick; something which simply altars your whole perception of a person.

Time to come clean. Time to bite the bullet and simply reveal the black spot before Blind Pugh comes a-tapping.

We (you see I am attempting to spread the blame) have now bought installed and viewed a 42” Plasma behemoth of a television!

Spanish television does not really have an equivalent of the BBC, so the defence of “I only watch quality drama, documentaries and the news” is less than convincing.

The ‘thing’ neatly and snugly fills a yawning chasm of a gap in the wall unit which is supposedly commodious enough to accommodate your normal television, hi-fi centre and DVD player side by side.

The first film that we watched was ‘Mars Attacks!” That, in itself, speaks volumes – though I have to admit that the cinemascope screen shape with the space above and below the picture was still large enough to enjoy the film, whereas with normal televisions the compression usually means squinting at action scenes which have squeezed themselves into a glittering miniature rather than being overwhelmed by a filmic experience. I suppose that I could insert here that I am looking forward to viewing some of my DVDs on the large screen so that I can pick up details which had simply passed me by on the smaller televisions that I have possessed in the past. But who would believe me?

Certainly not me!

Sitting on a balcony which looks out onto the Middle Sea; water which links me to all the great civilizations of the past and a number of truly revolting ones today; I can indulge myself with the knowledge that I now own one of the talismanic icons of the consumer society gone mad.

It does look good though.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Star gazing!

Is Venus the Morning Star or the Evening Star or both?

I only ask because, as a refugee from Barça TV eating my Spanish Omelette (which I have to say is the best that I have yet made) on the balcony the light in the sky is intriguing.

Perhaps I should explain that Barça TV is a TV channel dedicated to those who support Barcelona Football Club (¡Força Barça!) and they are, let me tell you, a forceful lot. One Catalan acquaintance of mine (guess who!) stoutly maintains that to support any other club is a form of national betrayal. If you have ever been to the Nou Camp stadium and ventured into the shop which is dedicated to Barça, then you will realise that it is possible to live a life wholly under the imprint of the Barça crest. I kid you not.

From the time that you get up and discard your Barça pyjamas and brush you teeth with your Barça toothbrush and later drink your Barça coffee from your Barça mug which is hurriedly stirred with your Barça spoon because your Barça watch tells you that you are running late . . . and so it continues. It reminds me of certain Welsh speakers in that citadel of English speaking life in Wales, Cardiff, who are able to lead a particularly Cymric life by selecting carefully and choosing selectively.

Anyway, one of the truly dreadful programmes on this channel is a ‘discussion’ forum where an impossibly tanned baldy wearing lurid jackets introduces ‘guests’ who have a sort of tag line and then proceed to shout down everyone else as they put forward their point of view. You must understand that all the guest do this simultaneously so the resulting cacophony (in Catalan) is truly unbearable. So, better the unmoving light in the sky, the acrobatic bats and the sound of the surf than the human chaos purporting to be entertainment!

The sunset today was one of irritatingly casual beauty. The sort of landscape that no photograph could really capture: the orange ochre afterglow of the sun with a sky ranging from near black to light purple with the curdy whiteness of breaking waves with their dull thump being a subdued soundtrack to one of natures throwaways.

Of course I could just be describing this to rub in the fact that I am by the sea, but Dianne has told me if I continue with that form of juvenile one-upmanship she will refuse to visit me again. So it really is because the sight was jaw droppingly beautiful. Honestly.

Talking of jaw dropping beauty (or perhaps not) I have paid my first visit to the opera in the Liceau in Barcelona.

The auditorium is ornate and gilded and conforms to what you expect from a traditional opera house. It has obviously had a fairly recent facelift and the stairs, lifts and facilities are new and impressive. Although I was at the back of the fourth level the seat was comfortable and I had sufficient leg room. And indeed a good view.

The surtitles were only in Catalan so I had to listen very carefully to the Italian and guess what the Catalan meant while desperately trying to remember the libretto from the CDs that I bought while in London. A stressful experience and one which was not always very successful. More homework needed for the next one.

This opera was ‘Andrea Chénier’ by Umberto Giordano – an opera that I had heard of but never seen before.

The setting of the opera is set on the eve of the French Revolution and ends with the last days of The Terror. On this promising background we are presented with the usual love triangle and tragic conclusion with accompanying melodrama but the director, Phillipe Arlaud, took some liberties with the text and tightened up the horror of the vicious effects of the French Revolution and produced some memorable (if derivative) tableaux.

For me the production lacked the taut and stringent direction of a thoroughly professional approach. The use of projection I thought facile and, at times, confusing. The costumes seemed to make a statement, white, drained of colour, perhaps indicating the vitiated condition of the complacent aristocracy under Louis. But this idea was not developed and the possibilities for the rest of the opera were not explored.

In the first part of the production the single most irritating feature was the ‘servants’ setting out the food, arranging the furniture and dancingly setting the posts and rope to delineate the area of the Aristos. They were fussy, unconvincing and shamefully capable of upstaging singers with important arias. They couldn’t dance or even move convincingly and their improvised (?) business looked more like a school production than a world class professional presentation: distracting and unnecessary.

The central feature of the set was a large revolve on which were angled flats which allowed the containment of action, a flow to another area and the setting up of new vistas. This was generally well used though there were times when it all seemed just a little breathless with cast members visibly rushing from one scene to another up stage.

The main roles were sung competently with the exception of the Comtessa de Coigny (Viorica Cortez) whose voice sounded forced and unpleasant. José Cura was a well sustained Andrea Chénier and was more than ably matched by a powerful presentation of Maddalena de Coigny by Danieta Dessi – they were a joy.

The minor roles were mainly character depictions but they were execrably sung and the poor quality acting did not compensate for the lack of musical pleasure.

The orchestral playing under the baton of Pinchas Steinberg was excellent; he drew out a performance of power and complexity with an effortless range of tonal textures.

But the production: the production essentially tried and failed.

It was a good idea to have a small child play with a model of the guillotine; it was a good idea to have a projection of plans to make a guillotine to cover a scene change and to indicate the start of The Terror; it was even an interesting idea to have a working schematic of a guillotine projected – but to speed up the chopping and then duplicate the chopping machines? That was crass and essentially funny.

The end of scene was accompanied by an angled flat sweeping across the stage to the sound track of a falling guillotine blade. This was fine once; but repeated was ludicrous.

I liked the more gritty interpretation of some part of the action in the second half. Madelon – a problematic figure at the best of times, presenting her fifteen year old grandson to be a solider when all the rest of her male relatives have died, is somewhat unsympathetic. In this production she presents her grandson to a largely indifferent Gérard who inspect the boy much as if he were a horse and takes him away, presumably to his slaughter. In the text Madelon asks for help where she is alone and it is generously provided by the bystanders; in this production she is alone and is left to wander. As the revolve turns it reveals Madelon staggering her way through serried slanted crosses (in a clear steal from ‘Oh What a Lovely War’!)

Similarly when Matthieu fails to gain contributions from the crowd, in the original text it is the silver tongue of Gérard that persuades the ladies to part with their gold; in this production it is the menacing bayonets of the soldiers pressing forward to extort the money. I like these touches, and if the same thought had been given to the rest of the production then it would not have been as roundly booed as it was!

The ending is also a problem. Our two lovers Chénier and Maddelena are together but only for so long as their last ride to the guillotine. This glorification of death together rather than life without is uncomfortable and the director has a nice (if disturbing) solution. As the lovers turn upstage singing their final ecstatic duet the entire cast has entered upstage and is walking towards them; as the lovers finish the entire cast fall dead, the lovers with them, littering the stage. The only people left alive are the children who pick up a flag and a gun and at the final moment of the opera are seen silhouetted gun, tricolour and fists raised.

It is an interestingly ambiguous picture. Does it represent the sacrifice that the older generation has made so that youth can go forward to a new life; or is it rather that the flag and the gun and the defiance are indications that The Terror will be continued though in another form. Look, as they say, at history.

I have just had a telephone call from Clarrie and been told off for criticising copying: how else do people learn! Fair point.

And, after all, I did enjoy the performance even if the production did not do justice to the music. And I though the boos were a little harsh – but I do look forward to the next opera which is Aida. I trust that the production will be challenging and shatter peoples expectations.

Perhaps I can have a boo then as well!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Saying goodbye!

Well, a long gap is a chance is see if anyone is reading any of this!

The first and most important reason for the lack of typing was because I was back in Britain. Not a happy visit. Ingrid, Clarrie’s mum, and a friend for umpteen years was seriously ill and died just five minutes before I saw her.

The only consolation I can take from the experience was that I was there when Clarrie needed me and I was able to help with the inevitable arrangements which have to be made.

I will miss Ingrid: her carefully timed telephone calls just a week before a half term to ensure a visit in the holiday period; her unbeatable potato salad; her introducing me to the mysteries of a good German poppy seed cake; her way of talking; her generosity; her sense of humour; her love. Some things are not to be found anywhere else and the combination of characteristics that made Ingrid who she was are not likely to be repeated. Except, of course, in memory where they can live on in a happy stasis. I think that the phrase that Clarrie thought up to summarise her mother, ‘Brave, loving and loved’ is an evocative and accurate one.

The service sheet which we drafted looked fantastic when it was finally printed (in full colour!) The front has a photo of Ingrid when she was a young girl of seven in German wearing an open smile and an unfeasibly large bow! The inside pages had a collage of Ingrid taken from photos through the years and her German identification documentation and papers when she first came to England. The back page had one of the last photos of Ingrid in hospital with Clarrie. The photo was taken by Mary and it although poignant in retrospect, it is actually not a harrowing image, but lively and jolly. And that’s how I am going to remember Ingrid.

The service in the Crematorium in Exeter was completely non-religious in nature and taken by me s a sort of MC! The main feature of the ‘service’ was Clarrie talking about her mum and reading an extract from a poem. The fact that she was able to stand up in front of people with the coffin of her mother beside her and give such a witty, touching and compelling talk says much for her strength of character.

The service was structured by music, ranging from Brahms to a piece of popular German folksy music called ‘Berliner Luft.’ I think it all worked and was a good tribute to Ingrid – the funeral director sitting at the back of the chapel certainly enjoyed it and was very complimentary when we finished!

I will miss her. On being five minutes late to see her mum, I said to Clarrie, “Your mother has been making me feel guilty for thirty years; why should she stop at the end?” We both laughed and that surely is the best way to remember and commemorate.

A purchase while in Britain. While walking down Regent’s Street I just happened to notice that the apple shop was open, so I popped in a bought one of the new ‘Classic’ 160GB ipods. I suppose that those two sentences while giving you the facts of the purchase do not actually tell you the intent that was behind the detour to that particular street.

When all my stuff was going into storage I spent some days (sic.) transferring all (sic.) my cd’s onto my computer. I was then able to transfer all the music onto an ipod. But, as the cd’s grew the ipod’s measly 30GB (remember my first computer had a storage capacity of 128K) was totally insufficient so I bought an 80GB ipod which was fine for the music but not for the podcasts that I had amassed. The computer made an executive decision to shear off the podcasts and concentrate on storing the music. But I wanted both music and podcasts – and, come to that photos and electronic books and calendars and . . . well you get the rather crazed and-tomorrow-the-world type of approach that I was developing.

It was therefore more in the nature of a medical palliative that the 160GB ipod was bought. It should be looked on more as counselling rather than unbelievable squandering of money on a third ipod. I don’t know anyone with three ipods apart from Apple Stores. Ah well, it’s the old story of cameras again. And no, I have little intention of telling you how many of those gadgets I posses. And anyway I sold some of them in Splott Market. Honestly.

And just to show that I have a studiously cultural side as well I have been reading and have been to the opera. Of which more anon.

There’s a threat!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

It all depends on how you look!

How do you know that Spain is a matriarchal country?

The answer is, of course, to look at the dogs that the men folk are forced to take for walkies. Spanish women have found a foolproof way of neutering their other halves by making them take a repulsive selection of rat-dogs for public walks. I have seen men brazenly taking the sort of miniscule animals for walks which would not qualify even as hors d’oeuvres in the real world. [This comment courtesty of The New Yorker Dogs Cartoon Calendar]

But there they are, these sad men, clutching a thin, coloured strip of gaudy material masquerading as a lead which ends in some sort of scruffy piece of fluff which appears to strut along the street (its spindly little legs a blur as it trips over a matchstick) with all the assurance of a worthless nobody confident in the security of the mafia-like protection of the woman of the house.

I know that apartment living in the norm in Spain and that having a Great Dane the size of a medium sized horse can take up two and three quarter bedrooms in the strapped for space living that is modern Spain, but still, there are more acceptable alternatives than some sort of rodent whose only claim to doghood is its recognition by the dubious national Kennel Club.

Seeing these men put me in mind of Winston Smith in ‘1984’ paying a visit to the horrid café (whose name I have forgotten and I will not be able to find it because all my twentieth century novels are now in storage) after his mind and resolve have been broken – significantly by the sight of rats – listening to a song about betrayal. How poignant and how appropriate!

The only real dog, as I have told countless generations of pupils though the years, is a yellow Labrador bitch. I think you will agree that that statement needs no qualification or justification.

The room which used to contain my books (now languishing in the Catalan equivalent of Azkaban) is in the process of being turned into a computer room. My abortive attempts to turn it into a music room (Sic.) with electric piano and real (tattered) piano stool with my music stand from school together with my shrouded musical instrument (“I’ve never had to wrap a trombone before” Pickford’s employee, Rumney 2007.) were a decided failure and now we have a plain white IKEA (what did people in Barcelona do before this store was opened because they are all there every day now) table with four white IKEA legs. I did try and buy chrome adjustable legs but the woman serving me refused to sell them to me telling me that they were too expensive for the cost of the table top! I did as I was told.

Toni is now connecting all the machinery with the leads and wires that have survived the Great Throw Out which occurred a few weeks ago when leads for machinery that wore out years ago were jettisoned at the same time as hard-to-replace unique-to-the-machine leads because, basically, they all look the same to me and anyway I was in one of my rare iconoclastic moods which usually result in my replacing things at vast expense at the end of a short period of reflection!

Toni, however, does know what he is doing and doesn’t sob (like any normal person) at the spaghetti which passes power and information from piece of machine to machine. At the risk of sounding naïf (and now I come to think of it mendacious too) one hole looks very much like another – at least when it’s piercing the façade of some sort of computer and labelled with some sort of incomprehensible acronym, pseudonym or trade name that I am convinced is merely there to confuse the unwary.

For me a machine is there to have its button pressed and work. If it needs me to do anything else then it should have a small screen with clear instruction about what to do next which do not include having degree level knowledge to double guess some ambiguous direction which, wrongly executed, will result in the total destruction of information and/or machine.

As you will no doubt appreciate that last bitter comment is based on first hand experience of trying to assemble ANY do-it-yourself wardrobe and trying to install a router for the internet. The latter will INEVITABLY lead to your having an extended conversation with the ‘help’ line situated (if you are lucky) as near as China or (if you are an ordinary punter) with someone or something in the Horse Head Nebula to whom the concept of language is alien and unnecessary.

Toni has been, I now notice, strangely quite for the last hour or so since he told me that the system “was working, but” I have been in a lot of situations where that phrase actually only means “but” or to be more precise “not” and I am more than prepared to let the silence extend itself until I hear the altogether more encouraging “Well, that was really difficult but” which actually means “only I could have done this” which means “it’s working.”

It might be a long night!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rediscovering Remaning Books

The books are gone!

The locking of my precious volumes in a cramped lockup in Bluespace is on a par with the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

On the positive side I have now started ‘housekeeping’ the books which have survived the Entombment of the Tomes and I have delighted in the serendipitous juxtapositioning that my rather desperate shelving of the books I deemed ‘essential’ has produced. All the books were packed in a certain order and labelled, but the order and the labelling was not specific enough to ensure that the unpacking was a simple matter of putting books on shelves.

My favourites so far have included the following trios. ‘The New Republic’; ‘’Love Stories’ and ‘Taboo’ – which sound like the short pitch of a hopeful script writer to a move mogul. ‘The Devil in Legend and Literature’; ‘The Private Life of Plants’ and ‘The Faber Book of Pop’ which variety says something for what I regard as essential. And a final trio which is worthy of the old system of classification in the British Library which was determined by its location on a shelf and not by genre: ‘Early German Paintings 1350-1550’; ‘Spanish Verb Tenses’ and ‘Movie Classics’ – who said Renaissance Man was dead!

I expect to rediscover old friends and make some discoveries as I look at my depleted stock of reading material. The old order and placement of the books has been changed and a new way of seeing (Note: I haven’t seen the Berger book yet, I hope it’s not in store!) will give prominence to dusty volumes that have been overshadowed by brasher neighbours.

I have also left some space so that other books can be accommodated to cope with what I call ‘Literary Accretion’ - that process where a collection of books, without fuss and with circumspect poise, aggregates other volumes to itself so that one’s library grows with one hardly knowing how. Like Topsy, when you go over a certain critical number of books, they “just grow’d”.

I am beginning to understand the Spanish (or at least the Catalan) way of driving.

To the uninitiated (or British) the quality of driving in Catalonia, especially on motorways, is casually appalling. The lack of consideration; the overtaking on the inside; the kamikaze motorcyclists; the lack of indication; the suicidal approach to roundabouts; the speed; the lack of lane discipline; the driving too close; the parking – it goes on and on.

Yet if you listen to a typical road you will hear nothing more than the sound of the vehicles: no one uses their horn to signify horrified displeasure at the antics of their fellow drivers.


The answer is quite simple, though it has taken me some time to work it out. The driving is not a surprise to anyone; it’s what they expect and what they do themselves; it’s normal – so why pretend it’s abnormal by sounding your horn? Just carry on, ‘cos you’ll be doing it yourself before the end of your drive!

Never has my version of Zen been necessary to contend with Catalan drivers. Relax! Calm! Breathe!

And it works! I have stopped shouting at completely oblivious criminal drivers and I am trying hard not to become one of their benighted number.

I just rejoice in the fact that my use of the indicator lights (which I understand are fitted as standard in all Catalan cars) must mystify and delight my fellow road users!

I am making tentative approaches towards possible employers but I warm them all now: any rebuffs (real or imagined) and I shall retreat to the beach to top up my tan and eschew the world of work and read.

You have been warmed, sorry, warned!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Just a day in the life of . . .

Only a heartless bastard would describe a day where he lazed about in the sun, swam in the sea and had an excellent and cheap meal at lunch time when his erstwhile colleagues are trudging their weary way to the depressing portals of an overcrowded institute of learning.

So I won’t.

Instead I would like to bewail the immanent loss of quantities of my library which will not fit into a three bedroom flat without converting it to a single bedroom establishment. I do not find the lack of sleeping accommodation as disturbing as the sending of old friends into the obscurity of the small space which will be my ‘room’ in Bluespace – the storage company.

Tomorrow the Men will arrive to wrench most of my books out of my life.

I have elsewhere explained that I do have the use of newly constructed IKEA (‘Billy’) bookcases complete with their white glass doors which do, I suppose, contain more books than most people have in their houses. But for me every book there and available for handling merely emphasises that there are at least ten others that could be there as well.

I have no novels from the twentieth century; none from the eighteenth century; only Shakespeare (and only collected plays) from the seventeenth century; virtually nothing from earlier years – not even my Robinson Chaucer; the nineteenth century is represented by ‘Moby Dick’ and a few short stories – I cannot go on, the lost texts are just too painful to think of (and I can think of them shelf by shelf where they used to be with no trouble whatsoever.)

This is a storage space that I can visit 24/7 – but the space is so small that to fit everything in it is essential to stack ‘em high and that means that I will not be able to get to them. I foresee an eternity of frustration until our lottery numbers come up.

But we will have an extra bedroom when the books are gone (sob!) and that means that we will be able to have people to stay in relative comfort.

I hope they bring books!