Monday, December 31, 2007

All good things etc

What have I missed?

Like a character in some fantasy story who finds out that he has been ‘away’ for longer than he thought and he has to undergo a period of catching up, I am discovering that life has gone on unremarked by me in the old country!

Thanks to the miracle of my LMB and it being the end of the calendar year I have been glutting myself on a surfeit of reflective programmes looking back on the past year. Only absent since June and in spite of the fact that Spanish television does occasionally feature items from the United Kingdom (especially if they concern the royal family!) I felt that these programmes were detailing a country which had somehow passed me by. Who are the major officers of state now? What disasters has Brown had to deal with? Who are these people?

Who cares?

There has to be a fulcrum of involvement somewhere in my personality where the concerns of Catalonia and Spain are balanced with the concerns of Britain and Wales. An interest in one is obviously not exclusive, but at some point I have to realise that I am not living in Britain and, while friends, family, memory and the bulk of my wealth are all still firmly in the UK, I no longer live there and no longer intend to live there.

I wonder how my future job (now only six days away!) will influence my attitudes. I expect to agree with the persistent Mr Barkis in ‘David Copperfield’ and find that my perceptions of reality are materially influenced by the partnership of the Spanish Government in the proceeds of my remuneration. You will remember that he said, "It was as true . . . as turnips is. It was as true . . . as taxes is. And nothing's truer than them."

When you pay taxes you belong. By right!

But the New Year will have to see me take a much more serious approach to the learning of Spanish. At the moment I am relying on the osmosis method of language acquisition. This always seems to work in novels and films, but in real life it is a little more problematical. One of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons is when the True Hero of the series, Bart, is sent to France on what is supposed to be an educational trip. In fact he is forced to work as a slave in the vineyard of two unscrupulous brothers who treat him in the way that most of Springfield would like to see him punished. However, our Intrepid Hero escapes and during a traumatic walk along a single street he changes from being a monoglot American to fully bilingual in as clever a few seconds of animated film as you are likely to find.

The drawback is, of course, that it builds up expectations that, in spite of my repeatedly walking up and down streets in Castelldefels, do not transfer.

It is a salutary experience to discover that The Simpsons does little more than tell untruths!

Another illusion shattered!

Still new beginnings, new hopes, new job, new colleagues, new prospects, new country, new . . . so much.

I ought to get going!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

And Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation

I have now purchased an unassumingly small metallic box. It looks like a featureless rectangular tea caddy. To me it is a little object of desire. And, more importantly, it allows me to do something which I have sorely missed for the last few months.

For a confirmed addict like myself arriving in Catalonia was the start of a period of ‘cold turkey’ which made settling in to my new adopted country, well, unsettling.

Of course there were ways to feed my habit; deals were done, but they were expensive and the product was often ‘impure.’ Invariably a fix would go wrong and I had to deal with the frustration of partial satisfaction and then having what I wanted snatched away.

Some days better than others. But they were generally dark days.

Eventually I found a supplier who could give me constant access, but the final product was often unsatisfactory, often degraded and simply not what I really wanted.

Now, I am satisfied. I am happy. My addiction is fed whenever I want. And the product is gooooooood.

I am talking, of course, about listening live to Radio 4.

Only other Radio 4 enthusiasts (aka fanatics) will understand the horror of the prospect of indefinite withdrawal from the finest radio station in the world by finding yourself in a foreign country.

Yes, I know that you can go to the BBC web page and get a live feed; that you can get podcasts; that there are ‘on demand’ programmes. All this I know. But the true enthusiast just clicks on and allows the programming wash over him as he is taken from Gardening to Ghana; from Shoes to Stocks – the Radio 4 range, unequalled anywhere else in the universe!

A laptop is portable, but drifting around the flat and plonking a laptop next to the kettle is simply unsatisfactory and too showily technological.

And now my restrained little metallic box is with me.

I have an internet radio!

I can make a cuppa and my little metallic box (LMB) in the kitchen doesn’t look out of place. A hop and a skip into the living room and the simple elegance of the LMB enhances the room design while relaying the well modulated tones of a Radio 4 pundit. Where ere I go (within reach of our broadband wifi) there goeth Radio 4 with me.

Home at last!

Though, thinking about it, wasn’t ‘Home at last!’ something that St John Rivers said in ‘Jayne Eyre’? That chilling personification of higher selfishness would have been a far better person if he had had an internet radio tuned to Radio 4. And he would certainly have had a better chance with Jayne!

But I digress.

What, I hear you ask, did I listen to first?

It is a measure of how much I have missed Radio 4 that I sat down and listened to The Archive Hour.

That in itself is not surprising: that sort of programme is one of the delights of the radio station. The fact that it was written and narrated by a Living Legend, the broadcaster Ray Gosling makes my listening to it almost unbelievable. Gosling’s lovingly preserved and displayed regional tones; ethos and aged gravitas nauseate me. His drawling delivery and faux naivety create in me the same skin crawling irritability that ‘Down Your Way’ with the even more unutterable Brian Johnston created for me years ago back in Cardiff.

While we are on the subject of BBC Radio Heresy, I also hate the Late Night Shipping Forecast and loathe the ‘Sailing By’ music. You will realise that these admissions are totally unacceptable to the real devotees of Radio 4 who actually buy recordings of ‘Sailing By’ and excitedly send in their nominations for the Person They Would Most Like to Hear Reading the Shipping Forecast. Sad buggers! I may be an ‘enthusiast’ but I have my limits! Just!

I would not be surprised to find out that Stephen Fry was born immaculately out of Radio 4, he is so quintessentially a representation of what Radio 4 dedicated listeners would like to think themselves to be: urbane, witty, sophisticated, learned, articulate and omnivorously interested and interesting! How we like to kid ourselves!

In the early days of radio connecting to a radio station was much more of an adventure than instant pleasure at the flip of a switch. Then, once one had turned the power on, one had to wait (so I’ve been told) for something or other, possibly the valve or the crystal, to warm up. When that was done there was an action called ‘tweaking the cat’s whisker’ to get the thing to work. Laboriously, over a cumbersome pair of headphones you might be lucky and eventually get to hear the distant voices from Ally Pally.

Plus ça change!

With my new internet radio there is something which characterises the ethos of the Radio 4 middle class listener: ‘delayed gratification’!

A switch turned on is merely the prelude to a process closely allied to the ancient manipulation of feline sensory apparatus. Slowly the machine searches, refines, finds and buffers and then, eventually and gratifyingly, the voices from the Great Institution.

Today is Sunday. The Archers Omnibus.

I have been in Spain since late June and heard nothing of The Archers. Yet one Omnibus and it is as if six months of missed episodes are nothing; the seamless slotting back in is as if I had never been away.

BBC Radio 4: it’s the way you live!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

It's a far better thing I do etc

Sydney Carton is the character from literature that comes to mind as I contemplate what the New Year will hold for me.

To enter a Primary School as a class teacher is a daunting prospect to one who, armed only with a briefcase and wearing a suit caused total panic in one such school by entering with an air of authority and asking to see the Headteacher. The staff immediately assumed that I was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (that shows how long ago it was!) whereas, of course, I had merely arrived in the wrong school. How we laughed! Though I have to admit that the teaching staff was on the verge of opening a new chapter in ‘The Madness of Crowds.’

Now I am to be part of the hysterical melee who great each new face with suspicion and fear. And I’m talking about the kids!

I’m hoping that it will reignite the enthusiasm I had for producing and trialing new material.

We will see.

Not content with the prospect of a life changing job experience in the near future I have also decided to start painting in acrylics. The localish supermarket provided (at low cost) a series of four canvases, tucked one into the other like blank and unimaginative two dimensional Russian dolls. Actually, thinking about it there was a Post Modernist? Absurdist? Vortacist? artist who created paintings called ‘Battle of Negroes in a Cellar During the Night’; ‘Harvest of Tomatoes by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea’ and ‘First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls During a Snow Storm’. I suppose that my four blank (soon to be riots of colour) canvases could be seen as a series based on those anaemic young girls.

My style is best described as Representational Abstraction with broad brush strokes and impasto taking the place of sensitive consideration. It’s a good thing that acrylic dries so quickly so the next layer can be added! I do not have the patience for anything which requires more time. Toni can stick with watercolours – not for me!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The sweet taste of home?

“What do you miss?” is a question asked by friends back in Britain and also by my new neighbours.

I suppose that the people who ask the question are not really interested in the obvious answers of ‘family and friends’ they are waiting to hear of those small, seemingly inconsequential losses that were unconsidered trifles when in the home country.

For reasons that leave me speechless, some people say they miss food which I would have needed to have been paid large sums of money to eat while in Britain: Bovril, Marmite, revoltingly flavoured crisps, plastic white sliced bread and, in Cardiff a disgusting entity known as a Clarks Pie.

These truly revolting creations are a Cardiff institution with dedicated followers some of whom eat one of these delights every day. If you have ever take the lid (or scab as I prefer to call it) off one of these pieces of (apparently organic construction) you will find a congealed sludge of grey slime which is (allegedly) a combination of meat (sic.) and vegetables. The taste is even worse than the appearance.

I do not miss the pies. The pink of SA or Dark of Messrs. S A Brain that accompanied it I do miss. But Cava and Rioja are adequate compensations!

The thing that I miss the most in my language.

Given the jaw dropping awfulness of Spanish television with twenty minute advert breaks, one realises the worth of British Television. There’s something I didn’t expect myself to write! Although having had some experience of American Television in the eighties I did have some low expectations of television free of a licence fee! I am not competent to comment on Spanish radio but there is no way that it could compare with the excellence of the BBC.

Radio is something which I really do miss. I have discovered a classical music station but this is more like Classic fm than Radio 3. I have put all my hopes in an internet radio which should give me access to the BBC in all its glory using the wireless broadband connection.

One lives in hope!

British newspapers are ruinously expensive and I have been looking around for alternatives. I should, of course, be reading Spanish newspapers but, well, you know how it is! I have however discovered (thanks, yet again to Caroline) a freebie magazine called ‘Metropolitan’ and on my own I have found a weekly newspaper called ‘Catalonia Today’ –both of these are in English.

From the latter I have extracted the following which I thought piquant at this time of year as it deals with a view of religions. In a review by Germà Capdevila in Catalonia Today of ‘La vida després de Déu’ by Matthew Lee, he writes of:

. . . the old comparison of religion with people’s lives that says that each century of existence of a religion corresponds to a year of human life. Thus oriental belief systems are already in their thirties, and therefore mature and free, allowing their followers a wide range of freedom and without the need to interfere in their lives. Islam, by contrast, is in full adolescence, with its hormones boiling over, leading it into the fanaticism and calls for the extermination of the infidel that was such a feature of Christianity’s teenage years in the Middle Ages. Christianity meanwhile finds itself at that age in which it seems like a responsible adult but is still living with its parents.

Makes you think!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is suffering good for you?

St Stephen’s Day – My Name Day

To have had a tummy bug for one Christmas meal might be regarded as unfortunate. To have a tummy bug the next year as well smacks of personally malicious bacterial viciousness.

At least last year I managed a few spoonfuls of food as well as numerous glasses of pacharan at the end of the meal which I took to be of medicinal value. And indeed it was for a couple of hours after the feast, then the temporary alleviation of symptoms was reversed with a vengeance.

This year, however, nothing! Not a spoonful, not a morsel, not a crumb, nor even a whiff of alcohol. Just the partial oblivion of troubled sleep. When not on the move – if you see what I mean.

Nothing, however could take away the sheer pleasure of Toni buying me a book! This is surely the equivalent of my buying a hagiography of That Woman. The fact that the book was about Picasso (an adopted son of Catalonia) I suppose made it easier for him to purchase; but still, a book! Toni bought a book!

It was a good year for me, with not a duff present among them all! I am, however aware of the spiritual significance of the celebration of this time of the year and . . . I’m not quite sure where that sentence was going, so I’ll just let it fade away in another ellipsis . . .

Christmas Eve, this year was made a little different by my having an interview for a teaching job in Sitges. My little navigator machine guided me to ‘almost there’ as it often does when you do not have the exact number or post code of the place you are trying to find. I ended up outside a sports’ complex with, what looked like a nursery component attached.

After some futile, desultory driving finding me back where I started, I did what I should have done in the first place and asked for directions in the sports’ centre and was given vague indications to a road around the corner.

The school was modern and generally well appointed with an excellent drama space. The interview was with the headteacher and was fairly informal but one in which the headteacher made her own educational philosophy clear.

There was at least one other candidate so the decision was to be relayed to candidates later that evening.

There was no phone call that evening and so I assumed that the job had gone elsewhere, but when I returned to Castelldefels there was an ambiguous message on the answer machine which gives me hope. Tomorrow will decide. I think.

Christmas Eve did, however, have its positive side as the traditional family meal was held in Carmen’s house with the usual profusion of edibles and drinkables. The more cynical among you might say that my tummy trouble the follow day was digested the night before in over indulgence.

But my tummy has dealt with more than was served at that meal with what might be said to be insolent ease, so such ponderings are nothing more than contemptible at best and logical at worst!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Feste lente!

There is (hasn’t there been always!) something immensely satisfying about being right.

Driving in Spain is a frightening experience. Driving in Spain is bad.

On the roads you are accompanied by racing ‘aces’ who exist in the blinkered comfort of their vehicles, oblivious to other road users who may as well not exist as these self-styled driving ‘experts’ weave in and out of streams of traffic.

In a circus the antics of ALL motorcyclists might be amusing and amazing: “See the death defying carving up of fast moving traffic! Thrill to the adrenalin pumping experience of sensing a blur of machine weaving around you as you travel at speed! Gasp as you pass twisted metal illuminated in the flash of blue lights!” But on the road these drivers are barely believable as they death wish their way along, treating cars as if they were the merest wisps of gossamer which will spin away in their slip streams!

Spanish pedestrians have a truly humbling faith in the absolute truth of their own invulnerable immortality as they blithely stride out onto poorly lighted, vehicle obstructed crossings. If they can see you: they are safe – this seems to be their road sense!

For someone from Britain, where God knows we have our driving faults, the driving in Spain is a revelation of awfulness. Inconsiderate, rude and suicidal are adjectives that I would apply to the more reasonable drivers, the rest are just plain murderous.

And now I have the proof to back up my own empirical research from driving on the slaughterways of Spain. has completed a list of twenty eight nations in Europe and listed them in order from the worst drivers to the best based on the number of deaths per million in each country.

The worst countries are dominated by Eastern Europe and the new Baltic states where new money, consumerism and cars are ahead of infrastructure and concern for safety. But in the list Spain is listed as the 13th worst and good old Britain as the 23rd. We must be doing something right at last!

Most galling for the Spanish is that the French are listed as the 19th worst country and yet all Spaniards know that French drivers are worse than they are! It is wonderful how refreshing statistics can be.

Barcelona has imposed a zone in which the highest legal speed for cars has been cut to 80klm an hour. It has been said that Barcelona has greater air pollution than the centre of London! Something is therefore being done. From the first of January 2008 the new speed limits will be enforced (they are already in operation) and fines will be levied on those miscreants speeding. I will be interested to see how this new speed limit is administered because Catalan Traffic Police are an unobtrusive lot (except when pouncing on youthful late night drivers in carefully orchestrated ambushes near night spots!) and they will have to be much more visible if this new limit is to be obeyed.

Toni is still in Terrassa. This morning was his uncle’s funeral (he died yesterday) and he was on his way to his aunt’s house. If I understood Toni properly, the speed with which the funeral has been arranged is staggering.

I continue to work my way through the verbiage of National Curriculum speak to find out what I ought to be talking about in the interview tomorrow for the job in Sitges. It is a soul stunting experience reading descriptions of intentions rather than getting to grips with the actual substance of lessons. After reading screen after screen of words, words, words you begin to wonder what English is all about. I must have looked at scores of screens of information, apparently specifically designed for teachers and not one of them has had the name of an author (except of books of educational philosophy or pedagogy) or the title of an imaginative book or a poem or play. I probably have not pressed the right buttons to get to the good stuff where I can be enthused rather than depressed by what I am reading.

I will soldier on and hope that I find just a few nuggets of something I recognize as English before I have to go into the interview only clutching desiccated phrases of the educators of educators.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Backbone? Wishbone?

A weird amalgam of a scene from a Robert Pullman novel and the Spanish inquisition characterised the televised draw for the Spanish National Lottery, El Gordo (The Fat One) in which hundreds of millions of euros are splashed across the country into lucky grasping hands.

A jury sits stage right, while centre stage is taken up the lattice work of large balls of bent metal like a spherical bird cages, connected to a Heath Robinson like contraption which eventually disgorged small wooden balls. A quartet of uniformed schoolchildren marched on stage: two to turn the handles of the cages to release the balls and the other two picking up and singing (yes, singing!) the numbers and the amount of the prizes as each ball was examined.

Each time a prize of more than a paltry thousand euros was discovered the children triumphantly marched towards the judges singing as they went, showed the balls and then proceeded down stage to sing the number and the prize amount three times more.

I am at present reading Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and the scene could have come straight out of one of his chapters where the ancient rituals of the Earls of Groan were enacted following the description of rites laid down in the dusty volumes of the immemorial Law.

When people buy a ‘ticket’ in El Gordo they do not usually buy the number which is on their ticket, but just a fraction of it. Each number is divided into many parts so that the winning number could refer to scores of people all over Spain who, if they have the number of El Gordo itself win €3m or £2.1m. Which is a lot.

Needless to say we didn’t win. I didn’t even manage to buy a ticket – mutual incomprehension to blame there I think. But Toni did win his nephew’s raffle and won a panadela (?) or breadbasket. This, of course, wasn’t a breadbasket, but rather our vision of a hamper of Christmas goodies! These ranged from the traditional leg of cured ham complete with hoof to bars of turron. There appear to be a fair number of bottles there too, so I will look at Toni with puppy dog eyes and see what happens!

On a more sombre note there has been a death in the family, so I am not sure what difference this will make in the arrangements for Christmas. I have deposited Toni in Terrassa so that he can make the family visits unencumbered by me. Anyway, I have work to do looking through documentation on Key Stage 2 in preparation for the interview on Monday. My ‘passing interest’ in the National Literacy Strategy will have to become a little more focused now I might actually be teaching it!

I am also getting all the necessary documentation together for employment as I am sure that the usual frenzy of photocopying will ensure should I be offered the job.

And there is a concert tomorrow as well.

Time will be found for everything.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Questions! Questions!

How long do jellyfish take to die? Out of water I mean.

This is not one of those ‘Notes and Queries’ type questions, but one to which I need a genuine answer. I went for a walk on the beach and, as the weather is slightly rough the sand was littered with half hidden, shimmering, transparent globules of stranded jellyfish.

As I am much given to ‘doing my good deed’ as early as possible in the day so that I can revert to my more normal and usual sardonic contempt for all living things for the rest of the time, I kicked a few of the hapless members of the phylum Cnidaria (pronounced ‘ni-dair-re-ah’ coming from the Greek word ‘cnidos’ meaning ‘stinging nettle’) back into the foaming shallows.

As they were washed out to sea I wondered whether I was reuniting semi transparent families or providing more food for sluggish fish. If it was the former then I hope they have the good grace to remember their Classical education, recall the story of Androcles and remember not to sting me in the warmer waters of next summer!

Even through the weather is not good at the moment; it can hardly be called harsh. The waves pounding the shore indicated that elsewhere in the Med there must be weather a damn sight worse than ours. The waves were more domestic and tasteful rather than fierce and majestic. I’ll settle for the equitable!

We have watched a couple of films recently: ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Ratatouille.’

‘Planet Terror’ (written and directed by Robert Rodrigues; USA, 2007) was the sort of bad film that gives bad films a bad name.

Whatever your reaction to so-called Grindhouse movies, the blood, gore (I know it’s the same thing, but there was a lot of it!) severed limbs, cruelty, etc. etc. the shining feature of this farrago was its sheer laziness. While purporting to be a self consciously affectionate ‘homage’ to 50s horror, this is actually a self indulgent, unfunny pastiche. It knowingly uses techniques such as scratches on the film; missing reels and melting film to delight the audience by involving them in the arch joke of a new film made to look like something from years ago. This is not funny or clever; it is merely irritating. And when linked to such poor production values; poor acting; poor script and poor effects, the effect is one of anger at having been hoodwinked into renting the film.

When I first saw ‘The Devils’ (Ken Russell, UK 1971) it seemed to me as if a group of spaced out actors led by a spaced out director had just happened to have come across a fantastic set (Production design: Derek Jarman!) and, while no one was looking, made a film! With ‘Planet Terror’ there wasn’t even a decent set, just a group of people who thought that, as they had Quentin Tarantino as one of their number they could do what they liked and sicko suckers would pay good folding stuff just to see it.

I think that there is a story of someone like Lord Northcliffe who, when he was running a popular newspaper found one of his professional newspaper writers bringing him a ‘women’s romantic’ story that he had produced. Northcliffe read it and then tore it in two and handed it back to the reporter and said something like, “The Romantic stories we print are written by people who are writing the best that they can: you are writing down to what you think the audience wants.” ‘Planet Terror’ is an extended, badly executed joke by people who could do better. Don’t waste your money on this condescending trash.

‘Ratatouille’ (Director, story and screenplay: Brad Bird, USA 2007) was thoroughly enjoyable. The enjoyment had a guilty tinge to it as I felt that the audience for this animated film was adult rather than child. The basic story line is simplicity itself: outsider finds fulfilment and success after a number of obstacles. The fact that the outsider is a rat and that the rat is a chef manqué gives the story a certain piquancy!

We have come to expect from present day animation a professionalism and eye for detail that would have left Old Walt staring with disbelief and, generally, ‘Ratatouille’ does not disappoint. There are a few sequences in this film which left me open mouthed with admiration at the quality of depiction. A simple image of raised glasses in a toast became a thing of breathtaking quality when animated!

The characters were rather hackneyed, from the clumsy and inept hero who was well out of place in a kitchen, through the fat and dim brother of the rat little chef to the ‘baddie’ who was a melodramatic person of restricted growth. The real pleasure in the characters was the magnificently voiced food critic Anton Ego. Here Peter O’Toole brought the character to all its sinister life. At least for adults. I’m not sure how much kids would get from the position of a food critic – not something within their experience surely! The end of the film, from the point where Remy the rat makes a simple ratatouille for the critic which is so good that it takes him back to his boyhood, right up to his final words of “Surprise me!” are brilliantly well done. But it will be a very astute child who actually grasps what is really going on!

Ego’s review is beautifully worded and a perceptive analysis of the critic’s role and temptations; but it surely flew over the heads of most of the audience.

A delight of a film and well worth watching.

Meanwhile my painting continues to develop. Almost done! I think a metallic frame is called for!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

And now for this . . .

Something of an achievement for me: I have managed to work at a job for an hour and not be sacked!

A small class of eleven and twelve year olds learning English. I must admit that I rather enjoyed it all. And by the end of the lesson my whiteboard was its usual crowded self filled with my impenetrable scrawl. Because it has been such a long time since I had a class I was able to recapture some of my old enthusiasm for having eager minds in front of me!

Monday creeps towards me with its interview for a full time job in a primary school in Sitges. An interesting time. I have downloaded the ‘easy’ reading version of the national curriculum (I refuse to type those two words with capitals!) for Key Stage Two. Just reading the fatuous edu-speak again caused a lurch in my stomach, but I will persevere and see what happens!

The keyboard arrived today. It was delivered by a singularly disgruntled gap toothed driver who was horrified to find that someone (i.e. me) in Castelldefels lived in a flat. In case the irony is lost on anyone, it is only the very rich or the very lucky who live in houses in Castelldefels Playa!

The size of the two packages delivered took me somewhat by surprise. I had been expecting something only a little more substantial than my Casio. Instead of this small augmentation I saw what appeared to be cardboard covered sarcophagus being unloaded unceremoniously from the van.

The extravagant expressions of wild despair from the delivery man as he saw the size of the gateway faded into insignificance when he saw steps which had to be surmounted.

With toothy mumblings of indecipherable Spanish and a rather pointed telephone call to The Powers That Be, he eventually indicated that the two of us would Do Something with the package.

The package was extraordinarily heavy and, as the delivery man fled from the scene of his exertions I began to wonder how difficult it was going to be to construct my new instrument.

The obvious answer was, of course, very difficult.

The unpacking of the pedal board indicated that there was not way in which the new keyboard was going to fit in the place of the other. It was also obvious that the easily portability of Casio plastic had given way to the solidity of German wood.

I have no intention, even in the relative comfort of memory, of describing the physical contortions I went through to get the bloody thing built – suffice to say it needed two people. As Toni was in work and as I was eager, the manipulation of unwieldy, heavy equipment made my assembly of the piano look like an event in The Krypton Factor! I finally achieved it but, as they say, “at what cost!”

Now for the promised practice.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Frame it!

“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy”

I don’t know which one of the two events looming on the horizon is the more intimidating: the arrival of my new keyboard or my interview on Monday.

The keyboard is going to have weighted keys (I think) so that it will feel more like a piano. It comes with a new piano stool, three pedals and a pair of headphones. The intimidatory part of its arrival is that I will no longer have any excuse not to make an effort to improve my level of piano playing which has never risen above a very slow faulty version of Fur Elise. In my tearful visit to The Lost Books of Castelldefels (in my storage facility) I found a book I purchased some time ago in a fit of single minded determination to improve.

This wonderful book takes you from how to recognize a piano and open the lid to playing the Moonlight Sonata in eight lessons! Admittedly, from my cursory examination I have noticed the number of times the author has stressed practice. Not something I have been given to in the past. But the future, the future will be different. I have always found that abuse of the sustain pedal gives your stuttering efforts at piano playing a lingering sheen of professionalism that can sometimes compensate for lack of ability!

The interview is also intimidating as it will centre on my unproven ability to teach pupils under the age of eleven. My working knowledge of key stage 2 is somewhat limited, so the internet is going to come into its own during the next few days when I attempt to emulate Helen in becoming a world expert in the minutiae of curriculum-speak by Monday.

It will be the first time that I have gone for an interview on Christmas Eve! And that for a job which starts in January!

Toni has said that his mother and sister want a painting to put up in their living room. Toni’s attempts to render a waterfall have gone through a number of transformations and have just about reached the point of total rejection. My sweeping assertion that I could produce something in acrylic to fit the space was greeted with muted incredulity so today I took matters into my own hands.

Having bought some ready made canvases I then found that there were no handy and cheap sets of acrylics anywhere. Having made the decision to produce something by the time Toni was collected I became ever more frenzied in my attempts to find something with which to make an image.

As is often the case in these situations the paints were found in a shopping centre near the flat.

My creativity took a hard knock when Clarrie phoned me up to announce that she was speaking to me on her new iphone. This near to Christmas this strikes me as personal vindictiveness of an unseasonable quality! I have been resisting the whole concept of an iphone as a possible gadget acquisition for reasons of cost and, um, well, cost really. Obviously I do have a mobile phone and numerous ipods which have music and photos and some names and addresses, so the addition of an iphone would, obviously, be unnecessary. But Clarrie has one!

How right Our Oscar was when he wrote that he could resist everything except temptation.

And who am I to resist the import of his words!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Teach? Me?

I never really know whether to be appalled or uplifted by seeing a ranting fascist dictator meekly (surrounded by television cameras and military security) plodding his way around an ancient stone building of which the claimed provenance is questionable to say the least. Such vainglorious parading of meekness (seven times around counter clockwise and a little stone throwing) is at best nauseating and at worst cynical justification for the most perniciously repressive views.

I feel the same repulsion for the self lacerating piety that motivates some of the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago as they crawl their bloody way to the door of the cathedral on bleeding knees.

Strange gods indeed that these people have created!

Today was a day of almost work. I joined a class of youngsters that I am going to be taking for two hours a week to improve their English. The money is risible, but the contract that I will sign will give me the fabled Number which will mean that I exist as far as all government agencies in Spain are concerned.

Just to complicate things I yesterday received a missive from the Generalitat enclosing a health card with a Number on it! Which I should not have until I have worked. Strange are the ways of Spanish and Catalan bureaucracy!

Today I visited my exiled books.

They need assuring from time to time that I have not lost them from the care of my memory. They languish in my cramped storage space which is too small for me to sort them. With the advent of my new keyboard I went in search of the music which I knew that I had had packed.

I have to admit that was just an excuse. I really wanted to find the rest of my art books and some more of the more esoteric non fiction.

I have also convinced myself that I can capitalise on the care which my packers took in boxing shelf by shelf, rather than mixing the books indiscriminately. The normal procedure is to fill the available space in each packing case with a selection of books that fit. My packers filled the space with waste paper packing. I therefore reasoned that, were I to go through the boxes and repack them more fully then I would be able to cut down on the number of boxes, give myself some space in which to operate, and find the books that I want.

After only a few hours work I have managed to create a space in which I can stand. You have to have seen the way in which the space was crammed to appreciate the achievement of this!

My expensive storage facility is one of those places of endless corridors with identical yellow roll top doors. It also gives you the facility to act the messianic progress of that bloke in the TV advert who, as he walks along, his mere presence turns on lights. As you walk along dark corridors they magically lighten and this prompts you (well, me) to take a few detours to your ‘room’ just to experience the power of a sort of ‘prepare ye the way’ feeling.

Except in my corridors and by my room, where darkness reigns supreme. There is something touchingly sad in staring through the gloom to find hidden treasures: two volumes of the Gormenghast trilogy, a few of the Great Museums of the World, a few more books of quotations; the two volume photographically reduced Oxford English Dictionary; my music books (gosh! That I really did not expect); a few cookery books (including Angela’s); more poetry books and few addictive Nigel Rees productions – good for the loo!

And what is left is a three deep ten high wall of boxes. I now have a mission, which is to go through the cases and take the jewels out. Unfortunately my library is now in a quid pro quo position: anything I bring from storage will need a corresponding sacrifice from my present shelves.

The future promises to be pure torture!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Lighten our darkness!

The advent of cheap, low-power LED lighting bulbs in illuminated Christmas decorations promised a whole new age in widely available vulgarity to mark the festive season.

Multi light icicles, once a simple, effective and striking illumination for select stores are now cheap clichés.

Moving lights, something like a waving Santa, once the preserve of large companies and institutions are now within the most restricted of budgets and available from cut-price stores. The Brave New World of domestic festive light pollution, viewed by Aunt Bet in the super affluent commuter belt outside New York years ago, has now come to the most straitened inner city ghettos around Europe.

The hopes for municipal magnificence in terms of Christmas lighting were therefore high. And they seemed justified as sheets of lights replaced staid decorations. The lights may have been smaller, but there were more of them and they gave the impression of plenty.

The overall effect is still good and, as long as you don’t look too closely, the impression that you get from endlessly repeated strings of lights is one of expense and opulence.

But look a little more closely and you begin to see that those same lights which were guaranteed thousands of hours of life are not living up to their promise and in every decoration that I have looked at there are the tell tale spots of black which indicate failure.

In most it is not just black spots but whole sections that are not working. In Castelldefels the decorations lining the main road parallel to us had malfunctioning sections of the decorations within one night of their being switched on!

I feel myself imitating a desperate clergyman looking around for something topical on which to base his sermon when I see the creeping failure of gaudy Christmas decorations as a metaphor for the whole of capitalist society.

You have it all: flashy outward show, but look closer and the cracks of failure beginning to show. Even in the public demonstration of governmental care, the festive bread-and-circuses of pretty lighting to keep the people quiet the basic contradictions of our unequal society are illuminated by the darkness of the malfunctioning lamps.

There’s a lot more where that came from as my mind gathers up the unconsidered trifles of everyday experience and finds more and more parallels between cheap, cheerful and shoddy decorations and the vicissitudes of modern life.

But mental exhaustion prompts silence!

Now that I’ve noticed this glaring lack of perfection, I am seeing tawdry failed showmanship in all the decorations everywhere: real and imagined; concrete and metaphorical.

Just the sort of spirit you need to celebrate!

The Catalans are a ‘careful’ people (in the West Walian sense) and are proud to term themselves so. When it comes to wrapping Christmas presents they avail themselves of the facilities which are provided by the main supermarkets. At this time of the year a section of the space outside the tills is given over to the provision of tables set out with rolls of free paper and sellotape dispensers. There are also pairs of scissors for trimming off the excess that I for one always seem to have in abundance at the ends of the semi wrapped present.

Carme has shown me the way here by drawing off yards of paper, rolling it up and stowing it safely away for use at home! Caprabo in Sant Boi is obviously wise to this as they have stationed a formidable no-nonsense lady to asses your gift covering needs and issue what she considers sufficient paper for your task. I had to scrounge a remnant from previous present wrappers to finish Toni’s present because I did not have enough courage to return Oliver-like to such an imperious lady!

I shall steal from the much more relaxed Carrefour.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Let music untune the sky!

The second concert that I attended in La Palau de la Musica started at ten fifteen in the night.

It was the Orquesta de Cámara y Coro Nacional de Bielorrusia conducted by Piotr Vandilovsky with Liudmila Efimova as director of the chorus performing Handel’s Messiah.

So we were presented with a Russian Choir and Orchestra performing an English oratorio in Catalonia. And what language did they choose in which to perform? German!

Now I know that there might be purists among you who might point out that Händel’s birthplace was a little further to the east than London. But that does not deal with the expectation of hearing familiar archaic words sung in dreadful accents by foreigners.

How can I ever forget my first live hearing of The Messiah in St Tropez in a small packed church where the chorus sang “Foe untow uz a chi is bor!” with the enthusiasm that comes with real confidence in signing in a foreign language. The bass in that performance was singing in a tongue which didn’t even seem to be remotely related to the Indo-European language family, let alone French English. A most satisfying experience.

It took me a while to stop sulking that the performance last night was in a foreign language before I could begin to enjoy the music!

This was a performance in which one felt that the conductor was in control. His positive and authoritative style of conducting kept his considerable forces together. He had a modest, yet compelling presence on the stage and you could believe that Piotr Vandilovsky was an essential component in the finished sound.

This was by no means a ‘pure’ version of the piece with the chorus sometimes sounding more like the Huddersfield Choral Society than a Handaelan choir. The (very young) orchestra too, with limited resources in terms of players produced a full modern sound while respecting the ornamentation of the original. Their ensemble playing was excellent, though it did get a little more ragged towards the end of the evening as the clock inexorably advanced nearer to one o’clock in the morning.

The soloists, Titiana Petrova (soprano), Natalia Akinina (mezzo), Arseni Arsov (tenor and Zapiokin Vitali (bass) were a mixed bunch with the graph, as it were, slewed towards the left in terms of ability. After my initial shock of hearing the tenor sing some foreign version of “Comfort ye my people” I gradually warmed to him, but his later performances were far too forced for my taste and at times he was positively unmusical and tuneless. The mezzo produced an unpleasant throaty warble while the soprano’s terminal vibrato was constantly irritating. The bass was the worst of the lot only occasionally producing something which matched the music.

The orchestra, with a leader whose exuberant style sometimes missed the meticulous direction of his conductor, was excellent throughout (allowing for exhaustion!) and was always worth listening to when the soloists that they were accompanying were best forgotten.

The chorus was gusty and enthusiastic. As is often the case the tenors could have done with more resources and the division of the chorus into paired couples from time to time exposed the sometimes forced quality of the singing, but they made a wonderful and joyful sound that was a pleasure to experience.

This was a long concert, but time never seemed to lag. A most creditable performance which could only have been improved if they had made some attempt at the English libretto!

The first concert of the evening was part of the ‘Festival de valsos I danses’ which is part of the programme of music provided by the Orquestra Simfónica del Vallés conducted by José Antonio Sainz Alfaro.

The popular programme of music from Rossini to Johann Strauss did little to stretch this fine orchestra but it left you wanting to listen to something meatier – though I also know that with playing of this quality there is something to be said for a concert of pure pleasure and entertainment rather than pedagogy!

All section of the orchestra played well with a fluency that sometimes veered into superficial facility. The most revealing pieces were the Brahms Hungarian Dances numbers 5, 6 and 7. Here the more syncopated rhythms seemed to be glossed somewhat by a legato approach which emphasised lyricism at the expense of national musical idiosyncrasy. But these are carping criticisms in a concert which was obviously as enjoyable to produce as it was to listen to!

The horns (always possible sources of weakness in any orchestra were confident – and that word could stand for the whole of the orchestra’s performance. It was a little disconcerting to see the horn section perform a sort of musical chairs after each number – but then horn sections are a law unto themselves!

The conductor was laconic in his performance to the point of caricature and looked more like a stand-up comedian at the end of his career than a music maker!

In the first half of the show Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie (La gazza ladra) was the most revealing. This was a well studied piece by the orchestra with masterly use of light and shade and with the orchestra not afraid to resort to the most garish vulgarity for the brass in the conclusion. Thoroughly enjoyable!

The second half of the concert was taken up with Strauss. The conductor was obviously looking for a Viennese type of audience participation but I think that Catalan audiences share a certain reticence with their British counterparts. With we British it is only the quintessentially middle class faux ‘wildness’ of the habitués of the Proms that allows us to step outside the self imposed constraints of proper behaviour in a classical concert.

Alfaro broke the glass wall between performers and audience by picking up a microphone in the second half and talking to us. During one talk after a spirited performance of the Pizzicato Polka when the rest of the orchestra had chatted, wandered about and generally ignored the strings, then played their own jazzy version of the polka, I knew enough of what he was saying about the highs and lows in music (the high being the strings and the low being everyone else!) to murmur appreciatively when eh illustrated another high and low by referring to Barça as one and Español as the other!

The conductor’s hard work eventually paid off when we gradually became a little more relaxed about clapping and making cuckoo noises as part of the music.

For me the high points of the concert came in the encores. Alfaro (born in Sant Sebastià) first played a beautiful Basque song orchestrated with some sensitivity and then hurriedly played a fantasia on Catalan themes which reminded me of Grace Williams’ version for Wales. This was loved by the audience who were encouraged to sing along quietly – which they did. Even I was able to join in at one point in a very muted and self conscious sort of way.

The final encore, the Radestsky (?) March, allowed full participation in a Germanic display of hand clapping and provided a fittingly crashing finale.

This was a brilliant concert and I look forward to their next concerts.

At last an orchestra whose musical ability matched the mad magnificence of their setting in the Palau!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thank god there is choice!

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

If you really want to experience infinity, you don’t have to follow Blake, all you have to do is go to a Post Office.

If you are ever homesick when in foreign parts, the solution is simple: visit a Post Office. The frustration of dead time; the sense of futility; the teeth gnashingly slow turnover – all are depressingly familiar to anyone anywhere in the world. You soon feel right at home!
There is a confraternity of Post Office workers whose code states that they must keep people waiting for as long as possible just short of a riot. Another part of the code outlines working conditions for public observation. No more than 10% of the visible workforce must actually be seen ‘serving’ the public. The other 90% must wander about looking officious but actually doing nothing. Anyone not a Post Office worker must be ignored with extreme prejudice.

Time has a different meaning when waiting at a Post Office counter. Like dogs’ lives, but in reverse, time slows down. One minute in the real world becomes seven in any Post Office. A normal Post Office is nearer to Jean Paul Sartre’s idea of hell than anywhere else that I know.

It took me more time that I thought humanly possible to post my parcel to Aunt Bet. This inordinate time delay was made possible by the prevarication of a languid Argentinean who leaned against the counter and challenged his counter assistant, while taking up the serving position and, as far as I could gather from the increasingly perplexed expression of the assistant, pointlessly wasted his time. Even the inevitable photocopying of the passport achieved nothing. The bloody man even had the gall to smile at the queue which was vibrating with hardly suppressed fury as he sashayed his way out!

I felt that I deserved a meal in town after that so, in spite of previous experience, I decided to try and understand the unaccountable popularity of the restaurant Lancaster Club at C/Mayor No 5, Castelldefels.

I suppose that entering an empty restaurant with the smell of toilet cleaner permeating the eating area should have given me pause for thought; but, ever an optimist I decided to risk the menu del dia.

The fideuá became the only dish that I have sent back since I arrived in Spain. It was supposed to be with prawns, but they looked more like shrunken, blackened homunculi than anything else. The dish was so salty that I expected careless use of the fork to cause the whole thing to crystallize. When it came back it looked and tasted as if it had been washed in hot water to reduce its potent saline content. My request for aioli was treated with surprise and it only arrived as I was eating my last mouthful!

The delay in getting me eating allowed me to study my slowly arriving fellow customers. The one sitting opposite me was the sort of young executive derided by John Betjeman. He was scarcely more than a boy in an ill fitting suit with a red shirt and a yellow tie and trainers. As soon as he took his jacket off you could see his pocket turned inside out, which I found oddly sad. As he was eating by himself he ‘talked’ on his phone – though when his meal arrived he put the phone down at the side of his plate without visibly turning it off. Bless!

Meanwhile the horror of my meal was not over. The botifarra (to which, surely, they could do no harm) was salty –but the beans, at last, were edible. The cheese cake which followed also tasted slightly salty, but that could have been my quite justifiable paranoia by that point.

The true highpoint of awfulness was that I couldn’t finish my cortado because the coffee was undrinkable. Now that, in Spain, is a real achievement!

The wait for the food was unacceptable, but then so was the food – though in all fairness the service was well meaning and cheerful. But you can’t eat service! I think that my patience is now finally exhausted with Lancaster Club. A restaurant to miss, I think.

I now have to take a photograph of the new figures in my Belén and send it to the Pauls so that Haydn can look at it and decide if he wants me to buy some for him.

I live a complex, technological life! Still I can always return to reality by gazing at the evening sun!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

It's that time of the year!

“Risk of ice!”

This chilling message flashed up on the car computer, its ominous warning presaged by a little moue of disappointment from the vehicle in the form of a plaintive bleep, as if to sympathize with my horror.

Yesterday, during an otherwise pleasant and delicious lunch, Caroline informed me that it had, at one time, snowed in Castelldefels! Admittedly it had only been for one morning and her children had only been able to build a tiny snowman. But snow! In Castelldefels! My world has turned upside down and it is as if I can hear the cruel cackles of mocking laughter from my erstwhile friends trapped in the damp and frosty islands of the north.

Perhaps I am overreacting, and there is, after all, the rest of the day for Castelldefels to get its act together and produce the sunshine of which I know it is capable. The chair on the balcony is facing, optimistically, towards the east. I cast anxious glances through the window, trying to ignore the imprints of Carles’ hands still clearly visible since his visit last Sunday, searching for the first glimmerings of that liquid gold that tempted me to Spain.

Meanwhile I will have a nice cup of tea and that will warm me up!

God bless Castelldefels: by half past three it was warm enough to sit out on the balcony facing the heat from that star ninety three million miles away and wondering where the sun tan lotion was! In December! And its good to see that there are still flowers in the garden to act as subject matter for my new camera!
The Belén (The Crib - a traditional part of Catalan Christmas decoration) is provoking some domestic controversy. I have purchased a selection of what I regard as essential figures to complete the scene. These comprise a rather dowdy (I admit it) collection of workers. But I thought that they were more of a social comment: the flamboyant extravagance of the Wise Men contrasted with the sombre poverty of the real movers and shakers. A good socialist spin on what, without the metaphysical overtones, is really rather a squalid birth scene. Toni is not impressed by the dowdy colours and pointed out that the further figures that I have bought are actually of a different size to the others.

I have to admit that when I put the holy family in their stable there certainly wasn’t, to coin a phrase, much room at the inn, and the livestock were bulging out at the sides. The original family were therefore reinstalled and the usurping holy couple were relegated to the workers: Joseph to the shepherds and wood carriers and Mary to the water carriers. They do at least swell the crowd scenes.

The Magi are not very impressive with only a trace of glitter to distinguish them from the hoi polloi. At the moment the original Magi are lurking in the computer room in their entire vulgar colour and I’m not quite sure how to integrate them into the Belén without unsettling the careful stratification of society that I have engineered on what is now a very crowded drawer top!

God knows that the Pauls will make of it all!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Open damn you!

On my first and only trip to the US of A I was constantly frustrated by faucets.

Shops, hotels and restaurants seemed to be vying with each other in providing ‘facilities’ in their ‘rest rooms’ which defied ease of use. The conventional tap with its ergonomic lugs which fit the fingers so easily and give effortless leverage to produce water were discarded utterly in the dizzying pursuit of the cutting edge.

With one particularly recalcitrant tap I pushed it, pulled it, pressed it, squeezed it and tapped it in a meaningful gesture of impatience. When all that failed I waved my hands about in a vaguely prestidigitatorial sort of way in the hope that I would break a sensor beam somewhere and that I would be thought to be shaking water from my fingers if I was wrong. Nothing. It’s the sort of experience that could make grown men weep. And I was still developing.

I could, of course, have merely left. Without washing my hands. But if you had been brought up by a mother like mine, you would have no more thought of not washing your hands after going to the toilet than you would have been able to go to bed without brushing your teeth. Some things are simply unthinking and undoable.

I was eventually saved (from possible prosecution for lingering in a men’s restroom!) by a savvy gentleman using his foot to locate a discrete button located on the floor underneath the sinks. Face and purity saved I emerged with another battle honour to add to the ribbon rows denoting successful combats with exotic bathroom ware.

This incident came back to mind as I struggled with the latest fiendish three dimensional puzzle designed as a carton of milk. It was of a fairly conventional tetra pack design (as I think it is called and which made someone or other a billionaire) with what looked like a simple screw top. It wasn’t.

As far as I could tell, the screw top was linked to a membrane which protected the surface of the milk and by opening the top, tiny internal plastic ‘blades’ cut through the membrane and allowed the hapless purchaser to get at the precious, protected liquid. The amount of force that you needed to cut through by screwing was considerable. And much more than I found comfortable with a thumb newly sensitized by the accidental insertion of a sharp edge under the nail! Even without the added pain of a self inflicted injury the force was not inconsiderable.

And then I thought of the old and the incapacitated.

Modern life is becoming more and more ‘user friendly’ – no more use for an old fashioned can opener; cans are now self opening (with a little help from the user.)

It used to be that only some tins of salmon, some oddly shaped cooked hams and all tins of sardines were provided with a metal key to unlock the delicacies inside.

I still have the scar on my right thumb from a brush with the razor sharp side of a half opened tin of salmon. As the can bit into my flesh I jerked my hand away and a trail of blood travelled up my mother (who happened to be standing on my left) and across the ceiling as my injured hand described a quick arc.

Four stitches later, and my mother’s sobbing hysterics having subsided, I was able to watch my sufferings on television. This was because my laceration coincided with a cold snap and my treatment in the Royal Infirmary was much delayed by the number of broken limbs having to be set after their owners succumbed to the slippery lure of ice. So many broken limbs indeed that a television camera was dispatched to film us all waiting, where my slowly dripping thumb was an unexpected splash of colour among fractured bones hidden in flesh.

The ability to open a tin of ham without the key snapping or the roll of metal twisting on itself and breaking was a skill few ever learned with any degree of conviction. Sardine tins would open a fraction before eagerness caused the metal to sheer, leaving the fish tantalizingly open to view, but virtually impossible to extract. If the young and lusty were constantly stymied how did the elderly ever eat?

Today, in this throw away age, more and more packaging is self opening. Except of course, it isn’t. It still needs you. And a great deal of skill.

Tins now are ring pull, with the ring pull flush to the top of the tin. The insertion of a nail to raise the metal leaves the metal un-raised: except for the thickness of a nail - which remains behind!

When eventually prised up and opened, the metal disc now attached to a finger becomes, Ninja-like, a deadly weapon. Any vicious criminal armed with eight fingers’ worth of ring pulls would give Edward Scissor Hands a run for his money!

The only real use for a ring pull is to slice open the cellophane wrapping on CDs which seem to be attached to their host with a combination of vacuum pack, heat shrink and static electricity. The little cellophane ‘tapes’ which give ‘easy access’ are merely the cynical joke of a packaging sadist who likes to see people suffering my believing that there is an ‘easy way’ into CD packaging before the inevitable stabbing which accompanies any attempted opening by knife.

Even CD packaging appears to be ‘fall apart easy’ when compared with ‘blister’ packaging. This form of torture is often the preferred from of Tantalus-like punishment which accompanies the purchase electrical accessories. The sealed edges make side access impossible. Without scalpels the plastic blister is impervious. It is the perfect cocoon.

Scissors (that you are usually too lazy to go and get from the other room) are the surest way in, but they are dangerous. Not in themselves, oh no, but in what the scissors produce. You know from previous experience that cutting a small part of the edge and then tearing does nothing. Cutting off one edge creates an opening, but one not large enough to get the contents out. You have to cut more. Being lazy you cut all around the perimeter of the plastic casing only to be cut to pieces by the blade-like trimmings that slash at your hand as your twist the packaging around.

It is a wonder that we do not hear of many more unexplained deaths of the elderly, sitting at tables clutching unopened cans in well stocked houses, with cartons of congealed milk and unused electrical appliances.

Just don’t get me started on polystyrene! A friend wrote to me recently telling me that she asked a physicist friend of hers what use was her knowledge of how to solve a quadratic equation ( x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 ac ALL OVER 2a – never let it be said that I learned nothing in Cardiff High School for Boys!) The friend replied that if she had a sheet of cardboard she would be able to make a box of the maximum volume. I think that that sort of knowledge is used in packaging. If what you have purchased is encased in a three dimensional puzzle of hollowed out polystyrene then getting it out of the box is an almost impossible trick to pull off. It is usually such a tight fit that tearing is the only way out – thus dislodging the heavy duty staples which inevitably find their way into your flesh.

Now for the Belén.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

O false apothecary! Thy drugs are slow!

There is a significant part of me that must like life made difficult.

My medication is running low.

I realise that sentence is more like an extract from a low budget horror film script in which the psycho is giving the first intimation that something truly gruesome is about to happen. It is also a simple indication that my little plastic daily boxes are not being filled with the requisite number of ill tasting pastilles.

After my experience of terminal bureaucracy mixed with colourful ineptitude which characterised my first dealings (and second, third, fourth and fifth dealings) with the medical services in my adopted country, I had thought that my vicissitudes had settled down into bearable irritation.

Not so.

In Catalonia when you get a regular prescription they give you two: one for the immediate needs and a second dated a month in the future.

My last (and first) brush with the Catalan pharmacists was when they gave me the wrong medication and then charged me extra when they changed it! But that is old history and has been quite forgotten. Never brought to mind. What gross medical incompetence? Impossible!

Since that first traumatic brush I have complicated matters by not using the second prescription as I had enough medication from Britain which, augmented with the first prescription’s worth of stuff was enough until the present day. So I thought that I would now use the second prescription which was dated the tenth of November. Wrong!

Prescriptions last for ten days after the written date. As I was informed by the triumphantly smug lady pharmacist. I could, at once, see that my usual method of ping ponging between various medical locations was going to proceed in enervating frustration as per bloody usual. With perhaps a visit to Gavá thrown in for good measure. It always seems to make sense to my medical practice anyway.

My return to the doctors’ was to find that the place where I get the new prescriptions had closed five minutes earlier. Four hours later armed with new prescriptions I was forty-five minutes too early for the early evening opening of the chemist. Never mind, I told myself with what can only be defined as insanely self deluding optimism, I will get it done in the large shopping centre in Sant Boi. No pharmacy. Not even for ready money.

But if you think that this story demonstrates how difficult it is to get something simple like a prescription filled, try finding an A5 envelope. Or better still: don’t. Just have a glass of wine and think mellow thoughts.

That is easy in Catalonia.

I am beginning to think that envelopes are only used by businesses and that personal use was proscribed by the Holy Inquisition some time ago and placed on an Index which is still in force today!
Meanwhile work on the Belén continues.

More expense in the name of cultural assimilation!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Drive and Marvel!

Driving Toni home this evening the sunset was one of such a quality that one automatically looked around for someone to pay for such a display!

The higher clouds had a fluffy underside of sparkling pinks and orange in a deep blue generally clear sky. Shards of lower cloud were highlighted in glowing orange and yellow with an intensity which blazed. Gossamer skeins of wispy cloud draped the lower sky which was suffused with the most delicate of rose colours. Sights like that make even the most tedious motorway driving an uplifting experience!

I have started looking more closely at the history of Catalan painting. This interest has been stimulated by the extraordinary gallery of donated art which makes the museum in the Monastery of Montserrat such an unexpectedly exhilarating experience. My knowledge of Spanish art is confined to the major world figures which fill the walls of El Prado. My familiarity with Catalan artists was confined to the Big Three of Dalí, Miró and Gaudí together with the artist whom Catalans stubbornly refuse to recognize was born in Malaga, Picasso.

I am now getting to know a whole series of names like Fortuny, Alsina, Gomez, Torrescassana, Vayreda, Romá Ribera, Brull, Ramon Casas and Rusiñol - of which only Rusiñol is familiar because of his connection with Sitges. You can hardly fail to notice Rusiñol he owned two of what now are museums in the town and there is a statue of him in case you had missed the point.

An added point of confusion for me is that the book (donated by Haydn to whom all praise!) which is the catalogue for the paintings in the museum in Montserrat is in Catalan; the guide to the Museu Nacional D’Art De Catalunya is in Castellano as is my History of Spanish Art. I am, therefore likely to be the only person in Castelldefels who learns Spanish by trying to translate pretentiously overblown descriptions of works of art by anorak wearing curators! It will make buying a loaf of bread interesting linguistically!

The tempests of last night gave way this morning to fresh breezes which in turn gave way to bright sunshine! There is none of that sense of personal vindictiveness in Castelldefels that characterizes so much of the weather in the United Kingdom. I was even able to sunbathe on the balcony after lunch!

Last night we watched ‘Ghost Rider’ (Mark Steven Johnson. USA: 2007) this dramatization of a Marvel comic hero had Nicolas Cage in the title role. It was absolute rubbish, but the sort of rubbish that I like. The cinematography was excellent, more suited to a better film and the acting, considering the players had to personate Mephistopheles, his son with attendant devils and a man who turned into a flaming skeleton at night was more than acceptable.

The Jesuitical morality of the piece ensured that there was a sort of a happy ending and, more importantly, gave scope for endless sequels.

To be fair to the film it did not really pretend to anything more than it was: well executed (sic.) justice with convincing special effects and fairly mindless watching.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Needs must be satisifed!

Man is an animal composed entirely of needs.

However we try and dress up our basic drives the atavistic animal hidden beneath the skin of reason will out. It is surely depressing to realise how thin the membrane of restraint is when temptation tickles the baser instincts.

A blog, almost by definition, has to be confessional.

This is mine. I do not seek to diminish my fault by pointing out that there are forces which actively encourage me in my actions. I do not look to avoid my own guilt by pointing out that what I do directly keeps people in employment. I articulate no justification in saying that my urges are in synch with the social, political and mercantile forces which determine our society.

I have bought another camera.

I know that I have written of my own astonishment about the number of cameras that emerged when I eventually moved house and had to get rid of a mass of ‘stuff.’ I could have founded an illustrated history of popular photography for the last forty years with my holdings. My cameras (together with those of my parents which, of course, I did not throw away) ranged from simple cameras which were a mere step up from the old Kodak Brownie through the almost forgotten disc cameras to early digital. Along the way were examples of ‘half frame’ cameras; early Russian SLR; compact cameras; mini cameras; cameras using 35mm and those using 110 cartridges. The various Polaroid cameras never seemed to survive long before they became bulky, empty plastic ornaments forever without film and eventually discarded.

The advent of digital cameras as well as being a gadget lover’s delight was also a way of addressing the basic problem with all cameras: you should have something to show for it in the form of photographs. Polaroid seemed to be the answer to all our prayers but the sheer expense more than anything made it impractical. With digital you could see your photo as soon as you had taken it and were able to recall it at a moment’s notice. Of course this led to another problem; that of never having any concrete example of the photos taken. They now exist in another form on computer hard disks, the memory of cameras and on the odd ipod.
Why, I hear you ask, have I bought yet another camera when I have been quoted as saying that my latest Casio is the best that I have ever had?

If you have to ask questions like that then you don’t understand the Lure of the Gadget!

‘Stuff’ magazine (which has a lot to answer for) was where I first saw something which whetted my materialistic and novelty seeking impulses. With my eyesight, small screens are a definite negative so a screen of more than 3” was interesting. Part of my discarding of past cameras was part of the Search for a Decent Sized Screen. That was my excuse anyway!

The real reason for buying this camera was that this large screen was actually touch sensitive. Not only a touch sensitive screen but also a camera which possessed the capability of applying special effects to pictures taken - in the camera itself! If that last exclamation mark seems to you to be inexplicable or overstated than I have to say that we move in very different worlds. So there!

Anyway, I have bought the thing and have already exhausted two battery worth’s of time in exploring the technical capabilities of the machine – or playing with it if you prefer.

So far I have ‘created’ ‘in camera’ ‘photographic masterpieces’ that have included a kaleidoscope image based on Toni’s nephew when he was still for a couple of seconds and an impressionist style abstract cross based on a massively ‘treated’ photograph of a section of the coffee table. Such inventiveness will, I am sure, end in artistic tears!

Tomorrow subjects new to reduce to pixels.

Be afraid Castelldefels!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

And on the right you can see . . .

I am rapidly developing a propriatorial attitude towards Barcelona.

With Haydn as a visitor over the last few days I showed off Barcelona with a slightly concerned air of ownership; the sort of approach that one takes when one needs a visitor to like what he sees!

On a regularly running RENFE train (sic.) we made it into the centre and after gazing in appropriate adoration at the Casa Batlló marched down Garcia and promptly had a cup of coffee. This is the correct approach to sightseeing: overwhelming experience followed by refreshment!

A meander down La Rambla looking at a series of frankly disappointing ‘living statues’ - including one poor man dressed in a white sheet with a forlorn looking twisted twig in his hair and clutching a flapping piece of pseudo parchment. The fact that he had bare feet and was standing on an orange box gave his portrayal of a classical emperor a rather homely feel!

At some fairly arbitrary point we veered off La Rambla and headed towards what I thought was the Cathedral. After wending our way through a series of narrow and picturesque streets, which elicited coos of admiration from Haydn, we finally made it to a church, which was a basilica and not the one we wanted. As soon as we were inside Haydn gave a rather startling yelp which turned out to be his way of testing the acoustic. The acoustic was good, perhaps as a result of the inside of the basilica being fairly empty – a sparseness later accounted for by the justified conflagration of church property by outraged Republicans against the complicity of fascist clergy with the forces of repression. That last bit was my gloss on the situation, but the burning of much of the interior during the Civil War is fact.

Eventually we made it to the Cathedral after rejecting the wares of the stalls selling frankly substandard figures to populate Haydn’s proposed Belen. I had been relying on the profusion of kitsch to fulfil any expectation and was sadly disappointed.

The Cathedral was pronounced depressing filled as it was with all the aspects of Roman religion which Hadyn found the most revolting – though some of the medieval painted panels we both agreed were splendid.

Lunch was in a restaurant in a little square in the Gothic part of the city and was of reasonable standard though the waiter was obviously less than happy in his job and allowed this attitude to be visible the whole time he ‘served’ us. It was also fairly obvious that Spanish was not even his second language as his hissed insults towards the other waiter (interspersed with fairly vicious punches) were of a language a great deal further to the east.

The traipse to La Pedrera (Casa Milà) finally put paid to important muscles in tender parts of my anatomy and I began to feel like one of those crippled characters in black and white Westerns who you know is going to do something selflessly brave before dying. Well, my selfless act was not to shriek with horror at the thought of taking in La Sagrada Famillia before we returned to Castelldefels! This visit is going to be left for his return to the flat.

This respite allowed me to revel in the extraordinary vigour of the building. The exhibition in the attic has been improved, the dressing of the apartment has been extended and the roof remains the unsettlingly exuberant experience it has always been. An excellent way to end the day and only a short walk to the railway station!

The other major trip that we went on was to Montserrat – a destination I never tire of visiting.

Our wait to see La Moreneta was considerably shorter than usual, though our progress was delayed by the family of Indians in front of us who had their photographs taken, individually and together, with every point of interest they passed. Although they reminded one of the worst excesses of typical Japanese tourists they also were the only people I’ve ever seen actually put money into the donations box held by the statue of a boy chorister on the way to the Moreneta!

The revelation of this visit was the museum. I had assumed that this was going to be the usual sort of thing in this environment: sparse pickings of marginally interesting artefacts connected to the monastery. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I knew that there were one of two interesting paintings in the museum collection, but I was not prepared for the wealth and depth of the collection. I was so impressed that I bought the only catalogue they had – an expense that Haydn covered by a Grant Aid Donation as he left with some spurious explanation of his owning me money for meals! I will have to design a book plate to mark such munificence! He can come again!

All this high culture is just so much window dressing of course because the real reason that I was so delighted about this visit to Monserrat was that I was, at last, able to realise one of my dreams.

I now own a snow globe of the Moreneta! When I first saw the shop in Monserrat and the range of merchandise that was available in all shapes, sizes and tastes, I just knew that I ought to be able to find a snow globe. The fact that I couldn´t embittered me. Obviously the snow globe is a seasonal purchase and I am glad that Haydn's visit was in December!

The meals we had during Haydn’s visit were excellent with the high point probably being the sumptuous array of tapas in the Basque restaurant. Toni is now groaning on the sofa, his tummy not being able to take the richness of the diet we have had over the past few days.

Haydn phoned up when he had reached home after a flight that actually left early and said that in some ways the high spot of his visit was the walk on the beach in the morning of his last day in Castelldefels in the bright sunshine with the sea washing at his feet.

It was a little different when he reached Wales!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The best laid plans etc

In the cold light of day the tree looks even more restrained than I feared.

There is a law which states that however much you spend on Christmas tree decorations you will find that when they are on the tree there is an inverse relationship between expense and visibility.

Last year, in what I considered a well thought out campaign I scoured shops after Christmas snapping up unconsidered trifles to put on this year’s tree. (Actually, that is not strictly true as these were salted away at the beginning of the ‘house selling period’ {sic.} which meant they were for Christmas 2006!) It was therefore with a considerable amount of smug satisfaction that I finally unboxed my goodies and began putting them on the tree. The majority of the new ones were of the exotically twisted metal variety inset with beads and glass. They looked excellent in the pack and promptly disappeared when placed on the tree! If I had paid full price for them I would have been weeping. Copiously!

I don’t know why it comes as a revelation (but it does) that the most effective decorations set against a dark green background are white. I realise now of course that this simple fact is known to all window dressers who go for the simple and elegant and cost effective presentation of white on green.

The one good thing about this of course is that Angela’s Gift is seen in its full effectiveness. Angela is a past colleague of mine and a person I considered a friend. However. . . During one conversation she related that she had been on a therapeutic visit to Maskrey’s, Cardiff’s most elegant and priciest furniture and nice things store when she had noticed that there was a sale on. She has an unaccountable yearning for all things made by an eye wateringly expensive Italian designer, and as part of her therapy she tries to buy these things only in sales. While browsing through various kitchen items she saw boxed sets of porcelain snowflakes made by Rosenthal at a cut price she could not ignore so she bought the lot after one or two ineffectual attempts to resist.
“Did you,” I asked, “get some for me?”
A short, shocking conversation which took me some time to get over. Forget? Never! Forgive? Well, when I was leaving my last school I was given a thin, elegant box by Angela and, inside, were four beautifully made Rosenthal snowflakes. They now grace the tree and are startlingly prominent in all their virgin, pristine whiteness. The only unfortunate thing is that they do make all the other decorations look somewhat tawdry.

But I can live with that!

I resume this blog with pacharan sodden fingers after an introductory night to Castelldefels for Hadyn (whose name incidentally I have been spelling wrongly for twenty years) who had the customary bottle of Cordinú Cava, followed by tapas at the Basque restaurant with surprising served wine, followed by the digestif of pacharan. And so to bed and coma.

Today by way of penance to Barcelona and Gaudi.

Culture washes all things clean.