Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just a little hem!

And now for a test of my dressmaking skills.

The day of the Carnival Parade is almost upon us. Only a few short hours and our classes will be bumping their way through an ill rehearsed routine in front of the Carnival King.

And I, I will be resplendent in a cardboard crown augmented with fragments of glass and tiddlywinks counters; purple tissue paper and gold card; glitter flakes and silver pen.

Glitter flakes are a wonderful invention. They come in plastic sauce bottles with a clip up spout and, when tipped, disgorge a shimmering array of specs of well, glitter. These flakes are tiny and metallic and only a masochist who had not had his share of self immolation would ever give these to primary school children. I was careful and mindful of the cleaning repercussions and I still managed to create a wide zone of glittering chaos all around me. The idea of a class, any class, getting hold of these tiny objects of desire does not bear thinking about; as it is I confidently expect to notice gleaming spots of brilliance around those front desks that I used for my nefarious purposes for the next term or two.

The crown is made. The costume yet to make.

I have brought home three pieces of material and I have been urged to use a simple stitch to marry them all together into a coherent whole.

The word ‘simple’ and ‘stitch’ do not usually combine in my day to day vocabulary. I found that my simple puppy dog look when the proposed ‘stitching’ was talked about did nothing to get the garment made. It actually appeared that the advice that was floating about concerning the making of the costume was actually for my practical benefit and not, as I thought, simply for information!

You will gather that typing is a more enticing idea than any aspect of my life as a seamstress has for me. I can vaguely remember Dando (my name for my father’s mother, a probable corruption for the Welsh for grandmother) teaching me chain stitch as we roasted crumpets against the bars of the electric fire. But that was when my age was in the lower single digit area rather than encumbered as I am with more years than I care to enumerate. Chain stick has long been relegated to that area of memory that looks back with a nostalgic shudder to such things as sherbet fountains and love hearts. These things are best kept as memories and distant memories at that: there is not necessity for these uneasy memories to be refreshed by present experience.

Yet I feel sure that sellotape will be inadequate.

With a sigh he considered ending his missive to the world and looked with fear and loathing at the task which lay ahead. He hesitated only for a moment after which a new resolution filled him with the conviction that he would and could do this thing. No matter what cost; no matter the humiliation; no matter the ill reward – he would throw restraint to the wind and sew until his fingers bled. If necessary. If he couldn’t find the sellotape.

Haute couture be afraid. Be very afraid!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Choices: style or effect

Is my school ready for my Herod costume?

This is the sort of pressing question which taxes my brain nightly. The Parade for the Carnival King is fast approaching and as yet I have neither costume nor accoutrements to acquit myself with any dignity on the great day.

We have decided on a Knights, Royalty and Dragons sort of theme and worked out a mind numbingly simple scenario to occupy the long minutes when our year groups are in the limelight.

It’s funny how long ten minutes of parade and action seem in theory and how short they actually are when acted out by wildly enthusiastic young human creatures! I can foresee that there will be wild, bad natured rehearsal when the day is immanent. And god knows it is immanent enough when you consider that we will be flaunting our polished performances the day after tomorrow.

And the more immediate problem is that tomorrow is masks. And I haven’t got one. During this week I have made a sort of tricorn hat complete with national flower and feather and I have also made a pair of card glasses with gold and silver wings. Who knows what I will create for the morrow!

As for the golden creation that was my Herod costume; I have no idea where it is. It is either here somewhere in the flat or freezing in the inhospitable exile of my storage space.

Who knows?

Who cares?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Text denial!

When was the last time I read a book?

Aunt Bet sent me a copy of a Tolstoy story which I devoured: though I am still trying to work out the reasons for her sending me a story of a compulsively confessional murderer. The only other books that I have been perusing have been books of Catalan art. In Catalan. I have not so much read them as looked at the pictures!

I am obviously suffering from Novel Fatigue which comes about when all your narrative literature is locked away in a storage space and when each new book purchase creates a storage crisis in the flat.

I am going to have to pay a visit to Bluespace and rescue a selection of novels that I cannot do without. The only problem is that the rented space is so expensive that I have only rented enough to store the boxes of books which I have brought over and there is no space to set them out so that they can be consulted. Moving the boxes to see what they contain is like a giant three dimensional version of the little plastic puzzles which used to be popular.

You know the ones; they were made up of a series of little moveable squares which were contained within a frame work which allowed one square to be moved at a time. There is a computer version of this irritating little game too where you have to click on the empty square to move the one adjacent to it – or something. I never really had the patience to discover the finer details of how to work the thing!

I really do have to win the lottery!

Monday, January 28, 2008

You know it's worth it!

For my father the whole practical benefit of my education was demonstrated one Christmas when, using my trusty compass I constructed a six pointed star for the top of the tree.

This geometric wonder elicited a damned-with-faint-praise encomium on the value for money that Cardiff High School had provided for my family.

After a number of years the star became an essential part of my family’s cynical post modernist take on the shallow commercial promise that Christmas became. I might add that the grotesque parody of a tree that was topped with the increasingly tatty star only added to the general contempt that we felt for the festival.

If it wasn’t for my mother’s cooking and the increasingly hasty wrapping of excellent presents we might have given up the festival altogether.

My painstaking achievement of a cardboard star rose to mind this morning as the week of Carnival dawned in school. The promise of a funny hat (essential garb for day one of the Carnival week) was not fulfilled by Toni and I searched high and low in a fruitless search for a hat which I could (somehow) have made funny.

In the event I reached school with no hysterical headgear and therefore had to set about making something with which to pacify my class.

Minutes later with the help of a large sheet of black sugar paper and origami skills a dead Japanese slug would have been ashamed of I had produced something which could perch on my head.

Triangular in conception and reminiscent of the headgear of our greatest admirals in Britain’s Golden Age of Maritime Achievement and bedecked with lines of silver and gold this wonderful head covering also sported a yellow cardboard feather on one side with the worlds most badly drawn daffodil in similar yellow cardboard on the other. The band of golden boarder paper added that final touch of elegant distinction to a masterpiece of crafted paper sartorial style.

The kids were stunned which is just as well as it is very difficult to maintain academic respectability while looking like a poor man’s Robin Hood! Luckily the kids also had absurd headwear including one girl who had a white hat with a toy hippo wearing a bell. You can always trust kids to freak you out!

We had our first rehearsal for the detail of what we want the kids to do as our contribution to the parade in Carnival. The kids responded well to impromptu direction and a somewhat hackneyed storyline involving kings, queens, knights and dragons. The only problem, as the eight year old ‘court ladies’ pointed out was “We don’t do anything but stand around and then fall over.” Fair point! So I have decided that their actions will be in bandaging the knights as they creep back to court “bloody but unbowed.” All this to the music of The Grand March from ‘Aïda’ – never let it be said that we lack the intellectual courage to go for cheap emotional overkill.

With the crowd waving their sea horse flags!

Don’t ask!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Knit up the ravelled sleeve or something

Some people are good at lie-ins; I am not.

I think it is the combination of a dash of protestant work ethic added to a broth of Welsh non-conformist guilt and old fashioned Valleys determination that makes the ‘wasting’ of a morning lying in the ‘rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ (and that’s probably enough of that particular ‘Hamlet’ quotation, I think!) slightly - if not totally - immoral.

There is always the example of Paul and the summer of ’94 or whenever it was, where in a holiday period which seemed far too short for the incidents which it contained – I had almost 50% more holiday than Paul because I got up in the mornings!

I can remember during that surrealistic combination of life experiences that was that summer trying to fill in a calendar with what we had done and when and then panicking because according to our calculations, with the relationships of one event to another, we thought that we should have been back in work a week previously!

Needless to say, we were wrong in our calculations and there were more precious days of work free enjoyment to be had. As a time of unfeasibly full days of disparate enjoyment that summer will probably be unique in my experience. I was just about to give a ‘from this – to that’ example of the range of things that I did, but realised just in time that neither the alpha nor the omega are entirely decorous for a long standing Primary School Teacher (now almost three weeks!)

I will say that taking part in a street parade wearing a wheel trim around my neck and popping into a wedding after a blind date were two of the more ordinary events in that extraordinary period!

So, this morning was horizontal and we eventually staggered out into a vertical sunny world for lunch.

In an unprecedented piece of culinary magnanimity we decided to give a local restaurant another chance. We originally visited this place in the height of the summer and we less than impressed with the service and the food. This time the service was quick, efficient and grasping and the food more than acceptable.

It was only when we compared the price for what was little more than a series of tapas that we realized that yesterday’s meal of calçots and paella with wine was round about the same price. But, as the sun was shining and the sky was blue (bearing in mind that it is January) who cares?

In another fortnight or so Ceri and Dianne will be arriving for a few days. It will be a different sort of break for them than the last time as Toni and I will be working and only be able to see them in the evenings, but I have had a spare set of keys cut so they will be able to treat the place more like an hotel and take the holiday at their own pace.

I suppose I should be thinking about what they ought to bring with them from Wales that I have been missing, but, apart from their good selves, I am happy as I am here.

But there must be something that I want and which can easily be placed in hand baggage!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Once,yes, once for a laugh

This morning developed my sympathy for Sisyphus and his never ending task.

OK house cleaning is different in many ways from rolling a rock but I don’t find it any more rewarding.

With tile floors it should be easy to hoover up the dust and dirt; but it isn’t. I am beginning (rather late in life it must be admitted) to realize that there are different types of dust. I am sure if I had paid more attention in my physics lessons then I would be able to discourse learnedly on the positive and negative charges of dust particles and their adhesive affinities to places that should be easily cleaned. But I didn’t and I can’t. All I know is as follows:

1 A coloured bathroom never looks really clean no matter how you, what you and when you clean.
2 A wet mop moves dirt around and takes little off the floor.
3 Water needs to be changed every few squeezes (as if!) to prevent the dirt in suspension being transferred to the surface being cleaned.
4 Cleaning windows is impossible.
5 Metal sinks only look clean for a maximum of three or four nano seconds.
6 Putting real polish on nasty plastic pseudo veneered surfaces just smears.
7 Cleaning is largely pointless.

I feel that these Eight Observations could easily be expanded into a philosophy of life. Alternatively the hiring of domestic help could inspire me to compose a new list.

The Family is going to descend upon us today and I am finally going to get me Secret Friend Christmas present and we are also going out to eat calçots. Toni has suggested the beachside restaurant in Gava and I look forward to wearing a bib and being able to indulge in hands on eating.

Calçots are an odd institution. Whichever way you look at it, in spite of the exotic name, calçots are large burnt spring onions. I never really know if I should eat the burnt bits or strip the outer layers away to reveal the slimy inside.

The meal was a delight. The calçots were well cooked and slipped down nicely! The sauce was excellent and we had seconds! The only down side of eating calçots is that your hands get absolutely filthy and, as is usual for me, my area at the table looked as though I had not used my plate at all. I have decided that I eat with more enthusiasm and less reserve than I probably should!

The paella was good but I noticed that this one had more ballerinas (tiny bivalves) and square lumps of processed meat as part of the ingredients. I sure that this was done because it was cheap, but it did add to the taste and texture. Something to remember for my next paella!

The second volume in the Catalan painters series is of Ramon Casas.
He is a considerable painter but I think that he is a much more accomplished artist in charcoal and brush.
His portraits of just about everybody in the artistic world in his time are uniformly accomplished and interesting. I think that to have your sketch by Casas was a sign that you had arrived!

My little library of monographs of Catalan art is growing and Toni has to grin and bear it because it is part of his culture as well. I am now desperately trying to read Catalan to find out more about the artists. God knows how accurate my guesses are. I am likely to end up with the most distorted history of Catalan art ever!

I can always look at the pictures!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Just another day in . . .

I arrived at school this morning (Friday) to find it locked!

It was, to put it mildly, a surprise to find that the institution was not available for instant professional access 45 minutes before it was supposed to open for its clients! And it was cold because we (yes, we soon formed a little group; the dispossessed) were out of the sun. Such hardship!

Once inside (eventually let in by the disturbingly-like-one-of-my-last-sixth-formers 19 year old caretaker) it turned out that not only was the headteacher ill, but the head of primary was also hors de combat. As the head of primary is a full time teacher this meant that there was a class to be covered. How that was achieved, and by whom, I know not; all that I know is that my non contact periods were not touched.

The preparations for Carnival continue with this morning being the time to rehearse the walking downstairs with the chairs to set out the area where we are going to sit. I could now go into a length and expressively witty description of the contained chaos that ensued, but I would merely ask my more erudite and frivolous readers to think of E F Benson’s incomparable novels and you will get the flavour of it all!

We still have the rehearsal of the ‘dramatic interlude’ or more horrifically the ‘dance’ that have yet to be devised. This magnum opus of terpsichorean or dramatic force will be presented before His Majesty, The Carnival King next Friday. His Highness has condescended to grace our humble school with his august presence as the first stop in a crowded day. No doubt he will be suitably stultified by the mind numbing boredom that such infantile displays produce in industrial quantities. Thinking about it he may well be invigorated by the barely suppressed hysteria and air of murderous intent that teachers usually bring to these occasions.

As a lead up to this event, next week will be characterized by such jeux d’esprit as the wearing of funny hats, odd socks, amusing glasses and masks.

I can hardly wait.

As the Powers That Be were all ill today and as the secondary part of the school was going to give an assembly to the primary section on the importance of understanding global warming and how we can prevent it, it was left to me to introduce the guests and thank them for their efforts. It was just like old times with me standing in front of people and speaking.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The end of times?

Be very scared when a Catalan driver waves to admit a mistake!

My drive to work this morning was almost the last I made. The vacant attitude of the driver who merged with my line of traffic with a complete disregard for the fact that I was travelling in a car on a collision course with his! For the first time for a long time I sounded by horn.

I don’t know if it is European Policy to fit all new cars with horns that emit an entirely inappropriately emasculated noise, but it is certain that stabbing the horn to express exasperation and mortal hatred produces a pathetic mewling sound which undercuts the savagery with which the centre of the wheel has been punched.

The only strategy to restore the blast of withering contempt and macho swagger that horns used to have is to ignore the noise that your car is making and resort to length of press to make up for the emasculated purring that emanates from the sequestered comfort of the engine space!

I braked rather than enter oblivion and indulged in extended horn depression.

To be fair to the murderously inclined driver he immediately waved to accept his total guilt and then waved again to show how heinous his crime was. This is unique in my experience in Catalonia: not only an admission of guilt, but also acceptance of magnitude! Unprecedented!

My OHP now sits in my classroom, still the centre of speculation and amazement from the kids. But this is a school after all so I don’t have either a screen nor do I have transparencies; nor indeed OHP pens. How many times can we remember from the past a new piece of technology arrive in a school only to be consigned to some dusty corner because the day to day necessities needed to make it work were not in evidence. Some things never change.

Carnival looms ever closer and the details of what the hell we are supposed to be doing with our contingent of the youth of Catalonia are something of a pressing problem.

Whatever we do is going to be done to the Grand March from Aida.

Culture in the midst of misrule!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Now might I do it . . .

Appearance and reality was a concept which I found pretentious and sententious when I was doing A Level and studying ‘Hamlet.’ Now I find the concept a way of looking at everyday life!

I am not, of course, suggesting that murderous Uncles snuggling up to their dead brothers’ wives while plotting the bloody destruction of their neurotic nephews are the ordinary stuff of the staff of our school – but I am suggesting that, in our own small way, we are playing out the plot of some creaking old melodrama.

On the surface we are the staff of an ordinary primary school; dig a little deeper and the seething resentments; the quotidian insanity; the raging conflicts; the exponential frustration and hysterical placidity are all components of a set of circumstances which are more redolent of the worst excesses of phagocytes in a self destructive battle against invading bacteria than the academic calm of an institute of learning!

God knows that the day to day life in most schools makes the turbulent life of the Medicis look like one of the more placid adventures of The Wooden Tops (ah! Happy memories!) There are certain aspects of school life carry on in an almost automatic way. Some things are so uncontroversial that even the most litigious minded member of the staff room or the office can find little to engender angst: not so in our school.

No matter how apparently insignificant the idea, action, thought or piece of bureaucracy connected to the life of the school – you can guarantee that a drama will be constructed, the scale of which would seem to threaten the Western Way Of Life As We Know It!

Just take yesterday. Change over time for lunch time duties? Conflict! Preparations for celebrating Carnival? Confusion! Going on a trip? Exasperation! Finding a projector screen? Frustration! Purchasing trivial items? Rejection! Conversation? Conspiracy!

And so it goes on.

My continued tenure of employment becomes more and more problematical: every time that I make a determined approach to the job some piece of bureaucratic nonsense makes me wonder about the whole prospect.

The real problem is the way in which the school is organized and the tortuous process by which a decision is finalized.

Our school reminds me of one of the more grotesque creations of Dickens where a Scrooge-like character doesn’t allow a single detail to escape his arid attention. This nit picking interference ensures that innovation peters out in a black hole of obstruction. Ideas in our school are like so many of the rivers in Spain – they peter out into an insignificant dribble of water which simply soaks away into the earth.

As long as you continue to regard day to day life in the school as a never ending source of anecdote rather than a productive working environment – then you might survive!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ah well!

Shades of the metaphorical prison house are hastening towards me at a frightening rate!

There seems to be no area for compromise between my determination not to complete lunchtime duties and my employer’s equal determination that I should. The end of the month is the crunch time where the only position for discussion is whether I resign or am sacked! Being sacked seems to be a new feature of my working experience in Spain, or at least in Catalonia.

Meanwhile (as if nothing was looming!) I continue my life in school.

The poem a week has been started and the painting a week will soon commence. The paintings by Sitges’ favourite almost son – Rossignol – have been colour photocopied and laminated. They now bedeck our walls in readiness for the unit on the famous man. And shame on you if the name of Santiago Russignol is not one you know!

But news of the most momentous sort overshadows all I have heretofore mentioned: my OHP has arrived!

The kids were fascinated! They crowded around and expressed the astonishment more usually reserved for the extravagantly metallic and sleek forms of the latest computer! Such retro technology! Such style!

I do not, of course, have transparencies, pens or wipes and it took me a while to work out that the lens and the adjustable bar was actually stored inside the machine – that was a first!

Victoria (bless her!) turned up with a packet of transparencies which she assured me I could use as they had not been purchased with her own money. I have few scruples in education but using other colleagues’ money to finance my own little obsessions is almost one of them! I am sad enough a guy to tell you that using my OHP was a positive pleasure.

I truly cannot understand those colleagues who scorn to use this cutting edge technology of yesteryear. Have they no sense of post modernist irony? Do they really want to be defined by the bland unimaginative expanse of a dingy whiteboard? Why don’t they go all the way and espouse the merits of the unlamented chalk board?

There! I enjoyed that and I managed to push to the back of my mind my impending unemployment!

It doesn’t take much!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A picture is worth . . . ?

In a rented flat the question always facing you is how much damage can you reasonably do.

The problem, of course, is pictures.

We have been given carte blanche to drill into the walls to insert hooks to place paintings in the flat as long as we ‘make good’ (or fill in the holes) before we leave. The walls are painted a particularly virulent pastel yellow (yes, I know that is an oxymoron) rather than the more subtle and insipid British institutional choice of Magnolia. The yellow is also ageing gracefully and therefore will be impossible to match. If we have to rely on my Pollyfiller skills then the filled hole will look more obvious after my DIY skills have been exerted than when it was a gaping void.

So we do nothing; intimidated by the immensity of violating walls which look particularly smooth and virgin. While this Hamlet-like irresolution is limited the growth of our art gallery all our favourite paintings lie mouldering in what are actually clean, secure and dry conditions in my storage area in Bluespace.

It would appear that one real casualty of the move from Cardiff to Castelldefels is the little seascape by Ceri which we both liked very much. I still have faith that it is tucked away behind the wall of boxes which contain the majority of my books.

Another partial casualty was the working charcoal sketch by Ceri, part of which was developed into a rather sinister painting of stark broken tree trunks. It was a partial casualty because, luckily, the only damage to the picture was that the glass in the frame was broken. By great good luck the broken glass did not cut or tear the paper and so yesterday I was able to take it to be reframed. I hope that this framing will be more appropriate than the Habitat purchased slip frame that broke! It’s certainly going to cost more!

Having that charcoal back ready to be displayed makes me think of the large charcoal which used to be at the bottom of the stairs in Kennerleigh Road. In the flat there is not obvious space for this picture and I miss it. The charcoal depicts a gap in some sea rocks and, where it was placed you could almost walk into it: it seemed like a sort of portal to the actual landscape from the house!

Paintings like books are friends and they need to be available. I sometimes envisage having a sort of subterranean hideaway with all my books immaculately ranged on many shelves with the bookcases interspersed with all my paintings.

I also think about that painting by Zoffany showing the Tribuna in the Uffizi with paintings covering the walls making the gallery look like a very expensive jigsaw. Perhaps that is the solution to my paintings problem, though I think the chances of Toni agreeing to the saturating hanging of works of art is roughly on a par with the likelihood of That Woman becoming the Patron of Oxfam; donating her body to science and starting to become a regular on the soup run for London vagrants!

The obvious solution is to knock through to the massive flat next door and create a Long Gallery such as Clarrie had in her Brixton flat!

My dreams continue!

As indeed does the school work: but the things that I plan to do are fun things which involve cutting and pasting. It is sad to relate that some of my happiest times in education where when I was designing a front cover for a booklet or arranging some apposite illustrations to make a page of print look sexier!

Perhaps I’ve been a suppressed Primary School teacher all my life!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

All is ashes!

It was good but it didn’t convince me.

I suppose that bel canto opera buffo is a taste which appeals to those dedicated opera enthusiasts who were yelling their appreciation in the performance of La Cenerentola by Rossini in el Gran Teatre del Liceu last night. Not me!

The story of Cinderella as told by the popular fabulists was not the narrative which was chosen by Rossini´s librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, who used a number of sources as well as the Perrault fairy story. The end result gives a story which dispenses with the magical element of the tale and which emphasises the moral aspects with the comforting fallacy that resolute and undervalued virtue will be rewarded.

The aspect which does not fit into the ‘realism’ of the opera in this production was the use of the rats.

Eight dancers in rat costumes with metallic rat faces were present throughout the production from their function as Cinderella’s rodent friends while she was sweeping at the start of the production and they reverted to their original positions at the end of the opera when we were given a rehash of the tired old convention of “it had all been a dream!” Although they were a magical element in the story as they stood on two feet after Alidoro had prophesied that Cinderella’s fortunes would change and often moved scenery and props, they were not as incongruous as you might think and were moving points of interest throughout.

Although a severely moralistic opera, this is supposed to be a comic opera too and the costumes (Joan Guillén) reflected the humour of the conception. The fairy tale period costumes with flared coats and braiding made the singers look live moving chess pieces while the severe dress of Alidoro of black with silver stars gave him an appearance of a Masonic magician and indeed his manipulative overview of what was happening seemed closer to ‘The Magic Flute’ than Rossini.

The set looked convention enough at the opening of the opera, a large chimney dominated space with a flight of stairs stage right leading to a gallery stretching the width of the stage. This drab (quite fitting for a decaying castle) set developed steadily with the flying of the chimney revealing impossibly tall doors and the transformation for the palace by the sudden illumination of floor and back flats.

The coup de theatre that remains in the memory was the facilitation of the ‘disappearance’ of Cinderella after the ball by her walking through a flown mirrored flat which had a series of pivoted doors. As she pushed her way through the mirror the doors closed leaving Don Ramiro (Juan Diego Flórez) and Dandini (David Menéndez) staring at their own reflections: simple and very effective. When the mirrored doors were fully revolved they formed a giant picture of the prince’s coach with a practical window to show the passenger. This painted image was augmented by a model used by the rats to illustrate the coach’s accident and by shadow images to show the journey.

The direction was competent and effective with a few moments of inspired visual creativity. Act II was more interesting that the (overlong) first half and showed defter touches of confident direction.

But the singing takes pride of place in this sometimes sententious tale and the quality of the sound that we heard last night was impressive. With the exception of Don Magnifico (Alfonso Antoniozzi) who had replaced Bruno de Simone who was indisposed, the whole of the cast and chorus gave a rousing and effective rendition of the piece. Alfonso Antoniozzi was a more than capable comic actor but his voice lacked the power to make his portrayal fully effective.

Alidoro (Simón Orfila) was a commanding presence and his voice was deep and resonant. Dandini (David Menédez) was a competent and effective foil to the prince, in which role Juan Diego Flórez gave a show stopping performance in the second act which had a long and deserved ovation; Chlorinda (Christina Obregón) and Tisbe (Itxaro Mentxaka) were competent in their rather thankless roles, but Angelina (Joyce DiDonato) was the star.

Throughout her performance she had the quiet, but commanding dignity that the role demands and her voice was strong, assured and sweet. She rose, effortlessly, to the demands of the music and stole the show at the end of Act II. She almost made me believe that bel canto was worth listening to!

An enjoyable evening (though too stuffy, why didn’t the Liceu put the air conditioning on?) with an inventive production giving a colourful stage for superlative singing.

Meanwhile back in the so-called real world by recently reinvigorated teaching career seems to be drawing to a close. My attitude towards lunchtime duties (I’m agin’ ‘em!) would appear to put me on a collision course with the owner of the school. At the moment, as a concession, we only do four lunchtime duties a week! As we have to take the pupils down to lunch (after ensuring that they are all wearing their smocks!) and as we have to collect the pupils from the patio (school yard) to bring them up for registration and as a duty is half an hour, it means that teachers usually have less than twenty minutes as their lunch ‘hour.’ I find this unacceptable and I have stated that I will not continue to complete lunchtime duties after the end of this month.

Compromise appears to be difficult so it would appear that my career in the school is going to be limited to the next two weeks, but I intend to enjoy them as much as possible. I still have ideas that I want to implement in my classroom!

Such a professional!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

To see the sea!

Although most of my way to work is thorough tunnels the momentary glimpses of the landscape make the journey one of continuing interest.

The sudden view of a light flecked sea or the sun bleached stark rock of an outcrop denuded of trees and the journey almost seems worth it!

School continues to be extraordinary, though it does now seem to be policy that teachers do not have to serve children with food as part of their lunchtime duties! A small but significant victory. I am not sure that such small concession to what I see as the unprofessional way in which teachers have to work will be enough to satisfy me.

The teaching is utterly draining as virtually all the children want constant encouragement and response. They have overlapping demands which I have tried to stem by throwing linguistic niceties at them. I feel like the pedagogic equivalent of the Welsh Guards at Rorke’s Drift trying to fight off hordes of Catalan Zulus who keep swarming towards me with incessant demands for my attention and pencil sharpner.

We are beginning to realise that Carnival With a Capital C is something which is more than a mere parade and an excuse for slightly riotous behaviour in school. We are dealing with The Spirit of Catalonia when we touch the Carnival, and the individual pride of the town in which it takes place. It will, I am sure, be an experience.

I have decided to have a poem and painting a week in my classroom. This could be extended to other classrooms, but there were serious questions about cost so I have had to look at books in the library and select paintings which I think would be suitable to be colour photocopied. My original idea was to buy books and chop the spines off and use the illustrations as prints. This was deemed the more expensive option, hence the photocopying. I remain to be convinced about the quality of the end results.

My choice of paintings has been limited by the availability of books in our library, but I think that my own prejudices show through in the rapid selection that I made.

The weekend will mark the first of a series of Catalan artists whose work is going to be issued in a number of books linked to a newspaper. This is just what I have been looking for, as I have not found a decent book in English or Spanish about the history of Catalan art. I managed to pick up two monographs for under €8 in a bargain bookshop in Castelldefels, but the series with the newspaper promises to be much more comprehensive that I had expected.

Tomorrow the Opera and expensive parking!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Eat it and see!

Just when you think that life is a sterile promontory bereft of anything to excite the jaded palette along comes something to restore one’s excitement in life.

There are those among you, I know, who will not emit a little inward squeak of delight when confronted, on a supermarket chilled shelf with a new flavour of yogurt, but I defy anyone not to be at least vaguely interested in what a pot of yogurt labelled as Marie biscuit flavour.

The reality was not, to put it mildly, as exciting as the expectation – though, thinking about it, I don’t really like Marie biscuits, so why did I buy it. Ah, to ask that question, shows a remarkable lack of insight into the mind of a neophile constantly seeking for reasonably priced commercial excitement on the shelves of local shops.

It actually tasted of Marie biscuits but with an admixture of a memory of creme caramel created by Angel Delight. The texture was like thin glue and I might have problems eating the second jar. Well, there’s a second set of yogurt of an equally odd flavour lurking in the fridge. I lead an exciting life!

In school I have discovered that Making Moving Monsters (C.D.T. & Science) was everything that I could have expected from an excitable class of eight and nine year olds – and more. In sheer self defence I instituted an immediate ‘may for can’ offensive. Just because most of my class cannot speak fluent English, this does not excuse their unforgivable solecisms when confusing the use of ‘can I’ with ‘may I.’ Some things are simply unforgivable and I found that insisting on the correct form of words for the request for material that they were using in making their monsters gave me at least a few extra seconds breathing space!

Today has been an unrelenting series of pupil centred teaching opportunities and I am beyond tiredness and into some strange other universe of uber fatigue!

And my colleagues have been doing this since September! I am only in my second week. Oh God!

Tomorrow should be when I have a meeting to discuss my staying in the school. I am still optimistic about the immediate response after the more than encouraging meeting yesterday. The mere fact that my OHP is still a matter of conversation among the powers that be makes me believe that I still have a chance of being here until the indefinite future when the machine finally arrives!

Meanwhile the reality of converting the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur into a costumed parade and dance for Carnival is still preoccupying frightened sections of what is still functioning in my mind. And the Club that I am supposed to run. And other little delights of school life which I am still unacquainted.

It’s all to learn!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What next!

Never a dull day in my present employ!

I will say this for being a member of a small staff; you constantly find out things at a speed which in a normal school would take you triple the time to discover. Personal information; professional information; subject information – you name it and information free, gratis and for nothing comes at you from all angles!

What is the most astonishing aspect of education as I see it at the moment? The resources room is open to everyone at all times!

We may not be allowed to photocopy; replacement ink cartridges for printers may be as rare as hen’s teeth; plastic cups in the water fountain may be scarce but books, pens, glue, paper, staples and all sorts of multitudinous stationery are there for the taking!

Unbelievable! For someone like me with a natural penchant for the little treasures of the office environment it is an open invitation to theft. It is only the obvious restraint of everyone else by not stealing them wholesale that I am convinced that these goodies will be openly available well into the distant future! I have had to curb my natural squirrel like acquisitiveness and retrain twitching fingers longing to sequester piles of brightly coloured paper and metallic strips. I have also had to deny myself the pleasure of amassing objects in plastic, wood and metal all of which come in amusing shapes and sizes and which I assume are available for primary teaching. Their functions, alas, I know not – but jackdaw-like I covet their shining glossiness!

Talking of shining: I have yet to switch on the Light of Education which will shine forth from my yet to be obtained OHP. The number of people involved in its arrival in the school grows day by day, but the actual machine does not seem to get any nearer!

Today I was shown the holy grail of an internet picture of the sacred machine, and felt like the chosen one of the Arthurian legends who was vouchsafed a glimpse of the holy cup. But I have mixed this image up with Moses looking into the Promised Land who saw what was available, but was not allowed to taste the fruits of his labour himself!

The saga continues!

Much talking with the powers that be today about the future of my career and the directions it might, or might not, take. There is a great deal of communication and there is a great sense of opportunity, but it needs concerted effort to make what has been discussed into anything more than polite conversation. Tomorrow will be a defining day. Unfortunately I am teaching all day and have a lunchtime duty so there is little space for meetings, but teaching can be remarkably flexible when needed!

I await with vague but interested misgivings the action packed morrow!

Monday, January 14, 2008

A small thing, but . . .

Today it was crisps.

The imperious indication of the Lady High Dinner Lady and I meekly doled out fat laden potato slivers to the kids. I cannot do this. It is an insult. It is unprofessional. And I don’t like it.

I think that this is going to be the issue that defines my relationship with the institution. We shall see, but if that turns out to be the case then I would have to say that the priorities of a teaching establishment are not directed in the right way.

Meanwhile my OHP (putative) has now achieved the status of being mentioned in a staff meeting as the green alternative to dispensing with voluminous printed agendas and such like paperwork.

I do not have an OHP of course and was told (quite firmly that it was “old technology) which was why there was not a single OHP to be had in Sitges – even for ready money. Searches are being made further afield and there is even talk of renting one. There more I hear talk of sterling efforts being made on my behalf to find something which used to be the common currency of high technology in schools, the more I think that the realization of my quest is being pushed further and further into the future.

But I do, of course, have high quantities of self deluding optimism and therefore firmly believe that I will have an operating OHP complete with angled screen by the end of the week.

This is one way in which you can tell if someone is a true teacher: a simple minded faith that reasonably priced teaching aids will be provided by a compassionate and reasonably minded administration. You can go for years with the naïf belief that ‘it will come next term.’ It is the way that education runs throughout the world.

Ah, bless!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Good things have to end

I am ashamed to admit that there is still an overflowing box of Christmas decorations in front of the fireplace and three parts of a dismembered Christmas tree lying like shrubbery in front of the window. The Christmas cards (we had two yesterday!) lie in a pile on the unit ready for the names of The Saved to be entered into The Golden Book of Good People Who Sent Cards; while those who were sent but did not reply will be entered into the Black Book of Impending Damnation. This will be done today and Christmas will at last be over. Until the arrival of the next Christmas card!

All the decorations are now gone, pushed into the inadequate space which I have rented in Bluespace to accommodate all my books and paintings. I could not resist opening a few more boxes to see what I’m missing and found a collection of novels from the eighteenth century with the typed script of a lecture by John Worthen about Fanny Burney. Which I read. I can still remember this lecture from my second or third year in university. In examination terms John said that Fanny Burney would be one of the writers thrown to the wolves by most people, but he wanted to make a case for studying her. I was already predisposed to take her seriously because I remembered Colin Richards in Cardiff High School pausing at her name when he was giving us a quick tour through English Literature in one of our sixth form classes. And what an excellent writer she is, especially in her diary, let alone the two novels. And they are all packed up waiting for me in Bluespace.
I m missing my novels and other books more and more but I simply cannot find an adequate solution to the space problem of having them with me without the spending of vast sums of money. And there is certainly no spare cash from the present job for the fripperies of bookcases and the room in which to put them!

The one collection of books that I do have in the flat is my collection of poetry books and teaching primary school children allows me to use poems which previously have had to be discarded as too young or inappropriate.

When I was in the very lowest of the classes in Primary School there was one poem which I had memorised. I memorised it because I was encouraged to do so by one of my favoured (note the careful use of the adjective) teachers. I cannot (alas!) remember her name – I will have to wait for senility for the names of teachers and fellow pupils to come back to me – but I do remember that she let me stand with her when we lined up to go to classes and she drank tea with no milk in it. At the age of six growing up in Cathays in Cardiff that seemed to me to be the height of sophistication!

Anyway, I memorised the poem and used to trot it out at any provocation, to anyone in my class or any other class who would listen. I had already done guest performances as Herod in other classes so a little recitation was as nothing to me!

The poem, as far as I can remember (with apologies to political correctness) went as follows:

Little Miss Mouse
Had a very small house
And she wished it was very much bigger

Until one dark night
She had such a fright
From that naughty old cat Mr Nigger

He chased poor Miss Mouse
Right into her house
And because it was so small could not catch her

Now little Miss Mouse
Doesn’t want a big house
Because a small one is very much better!

I’ve read better since!

If I was to analyse this oeuvre now I might say that it was reinforcing the sentiments found in the suppressed verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’:

The rich man at his table
The poor mat at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.

I might also add that the poem reminds me of a lull in the arrival of the proper books that I had asked for in the Reading Room of the British Library, I asked for (and got) a first edition of Enid Blyton’s ‘Noddy Goes to Toytown.’ I have rarely read such a sexist and racist work of fiction! In it little Noddy has his little yellow car stolen by golliwogs and he is stripped naked and left in the dark forest. Some of the details might be wrong, but the basic story line of a group of blacks stripping a WASP and leaving him naked without his property does seem to me to be a little stereotypically racist. Who now would give a group of kids a poem in which the baddy was a Mr Nigger? I trust we have moved on!

Though for me, not in terms of the number of poems that I can recite all the way through.

I am good at remembering fragments and the general gist of the poem and using the fragments to construct a convincing essay. This skill has stood me to good stead for most of my scholastic career except for one question in my special paper in my finals.

I had revised Yeats. I had read all his poems in the collected edition and I had even read some of his mystical prose nonsense. I had taken part in a Yeats play as one of the soldiers at the foot of the cross – the only line I can remember is, “Our dice were carved from an old sheep’s bone at Ephesus.” I had even (god forgive me) read some of the spiritual ravings of Madame Blatavsky.

I was prepared.

When I say the question I reread it time after time to make it different. But it stayed obstinately the same.

“With specific reference to two poems by W B Yeats discuss the concept of ‘In dreams begin responsibilities.’”

If it has said, “With reference to the poems of Yeats” I would have been fine. But I didn’t know two poems by Yeats off by heart. I had to make a choice so I ended up by referring to ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ – neither of which would have been my choice if I had had the book in front of me. But I didn’t, so I did.

I think my essay was a masterpiece of ‘make do’ and ‘have a go’ and ‘hope for the best.’

Now I can combine my love of Yeats and my ability (over the years) to remember a little more with the necessity of thinking of poems for my class by selecting ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ as at least one of my choices. I will have to see what the girls say.

As far as I can work out the next Festival with a capital ‘F’ is Carnival in Sitges. This is an occasion when (horrifically) teachers are expected to choreograph some sort of dance for the pupils to perform. The only simple dance that I can think of occurs at the end of Bergman’s ‘Seventh Seal’, though I suppose that some may consider a re-enactment of The Dance of Death a little tasteless when performed by eight year olds! I am prepared to weald the scythe!

And doesn’t ‘scythe’ occur in the Catalan national anthem?

Funny how things come together!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Eating Proust's Cake

Thanks to Colin in New Zealand I was able to order up a few tracks to my past.

When I was in Swansea University it did not have a full Art or Music department just a single lecturer with help from some specialists in other departments. Most of History of Art lectures came from George Little – a man whose art work I first met as a pupil in an Art for Schools Exhibition in The National Museum of Wales Gallery. The Music Department was run by a long haired gentle person called Keith.

It came as a considerable surprise to find out that gentle Keith was actually a member of a band called ‘Dr Z’ which produced a record of psycho-spiritualist hard rock (or ‘Heavy Prog’ whatever that is) music! This record did not sell very well with only about 100 copies reaching the listening community; the rest of the pressing was trashed by the record company. Jim Ostler (The Man Who Introduced Me to Monteverdi) was doing first year music and he bought a copy which I borrowed. And copied on to a long lost cassette.

Thanks to Colin assuring me that this (and the following quotations were taen from a web site) ‘obscure early 70's English trio’ have had their record re-released as a CD in which the ‘dominant mood of the album ("Three Parts to my Soul") is set by a percussive harpsichord that is alternately majestic and militaristic’ with ‘lyrics, dealing with occultism and the evil of man’ and is something ‘strictly for serious collectors of dark, early 70's curios’ – I could hardly wait to get to the internet and begin searching for a copy!

It eventually arrived and I was able to listen to it on my way to school. I suppose that there are some who might aver that lyrics such as:

“Evil woman’s manly child
Spread earth upon your loins,
Sow the land with greed
Lavish all your envy on the world
Let the Devil free to do his will
And cast about and kill.”

are not the most appropriate sentiments to motivate a man setting off to teach Primary School Children – but this is the twenty-first century and times have changed!

As soon as the music started, even though I have not listened to it for more years than I care to recount, I realised that not only did I remember every note and harmony and percussive beat, but also a whole host of memories came flooding back.

Obscurely (perhaps appropriately given the CD) one of the most powerful memories was of some stylish retro black and red tin mugs that I had in University bought from Habitat. They looked great – the only trouble was that when you filled them with boiling water the temperature of the handle instantly became too hot to handle (so to speak!) Quite why this memory rose to the surface is difficult to say: perhaps it had something to do with the flames surrounding the heart logo of the group on the front of the cover. Who knows?

Names, faces and situations all jostled around in my memory as the music pounded out as the car sped through tunnel after tunnel on my way to work. Scraps of the drama in which I was involved come to the surface of the memory and some were firmly pushed back down again: my American accent in a Wilder play will stay with some people for the rest of their lives! Another dramatic event concerned Peter Thomson (now Emeritus Professor of Drama in Exeter University, then an immensely creative and understanding lecturer in Drama and English in Swansea) creating an evening where (as I remember) Dr Z, W B Yeats and anecdote were all linked in an extravaganza of words and music!

It’s just as well that the drive to school is not too long as I think that my mind would have been filled with happy times in the past and not with necessary awareness to cope with modern driving conditions on Catalan motorways!

If you want to listen to an extract of Dr Z try

Never let it be said that an educator ever stops trying to increase human enjoyment with new (old) things!

Friday, January 11, 2008

A New Nadir!

Yesterday lunchtime I had to do a duty. Something which we British teachers thought was a battle fought and won means nothing in this school. All that effort to ensure that teachers had the right to leave school during a lunchtime; that teachers should be paid extra if they decided to do lunchtime supervision. For the last term some of my colleagues have been doing five lunchtime duties a week!

And what duties!

For the first time in my entire career I was expected to serve salad to waiting pupils from a large metal bowl with a ladle. This was marginally better than one of my colleagues who was on her hands and knees cleaning the floor where some kid has spilled some soup. Other colleagues were wandering from table to table pouring out fruit juice for the children! The head dinner lady was in charge and was handing out duties to the compliant teaching staff! It was, of course, a vision of hell. For a moment I couldn’t distinguish my memories of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch from the terrifying reality in which I was an active participant!

Any new school takes some getting used to, but there are aspects of the one that I am in at the moment which may prove to be impossible to accept. Meanwhile the children continue to be enthusiastically responsive and the girls with whom I work have already worked out the medium term programme of work which gives me a breathing space before I have to produce some coherent scheme of work of my own!

All schools have their own idiosyncrasies and illogicalities but with this school the very raison d'être seems to be suspect. The longer I stay there the more inherent contradictions seem to emerge – but the school soldiers on somehow. The most revealing comment by a colleague (made after I had expressed shocked astonishment about some aspect of school lunacy) was, “It’s like being a member of some cult. It takes an outsider to tell us how odd it all is!”

I do like the school, but I’m not sure that the school is going to like me for very much longer!

Today was the first day that Toni and I actually worked on the same day for some considerable time. An odd experience for us to set off from the flat and go our separate ways in opposite directions to our work. We set off in darkness and arrive home in near darkness and I realised today that I had not looked at the sea from our window for three days!

Priorities are changing!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Quest Begins!

As a long standing Primary School Teacher of two days, I feel the mantle of the pundit descending upon my shoulders, but I will restrain my pronouncements until at least half term – that’s the beginning of next month! It will be a struggle, but I think that my assessment of the state of Primary School Teaching can afford to wait that long!

I am beginning to work out the dynamics that make each staff room such a fascinating place and the tensions that inform all collections of professionals are beginning to surface. The systems that exist to ‘facilitate’ the teaching of my colleagues are also starting to show themselves for the obstructions that they undoubtedly are!

In other words I have entered another typical staffroom with the addition of ‘enclave’ status to make it just that little bit more interesting.

As the day progressed we found that our timetables had changed; the duties rota had changed and we had to perform a dance in each group for the Carnival in Sitges. I confidently await other ‘surprises’ during the rest of the year. I also now expect the start of the next term to be the equivalent of this January start – in other words more like the start of the year rather than a school year bedding in!

I am now not confident that we will retain the present staff until the summer term – who knows what will happen by Easter! We live in exciting times.

The kids, however, are bubblingly enthusiastic and have greeted each new aspect of everything that we have done with wide eyed wonder! If this lasts then teaching in the school is going to be a rewarding experience, even if the reality of day to day life in the school is going to enervatingly draining.

I have started my campaign to get an OHP. A search around the school has not turned one up. The science department in the secondary sector was supposed to have two or three, but an exploration revealed these rumours to be idle travellers’ tales. As one member of staff told me, “I’ve never seen one; and if we have any they are going to be broken!” Some things never change.

I have, however, been told that one will be ordered for me. Tomorrow will see if this was a ‘holding’ comment to keep me quiet at the end of school tonight or whether this has some sort of purchasing reality. I am more than prepared to go to a supplier in Sitges and get it myself if it will facilitate its arrival by the end of the week. This will be far more of a test about the quality of teacher support from the school than anything so far.

My immediate colleagues continue to be powerfully supportive and they seem to have unending reserves of energy, I only hope that I can emulate their continuing inventiveness and cooperativeness. They set a high standard!

Toni continues sick and although he is supposed to return to work on Friday, I think that he will be ill advised (how apt!) to do so.

Never has the weekend seemed so inviting!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A New Age!

Primary school children are so small!

This should not come as a revelation; but to someone used to teaching the brutish organic life forms of a secondary persuasion, it does come as a revealing surprise!

As I recall my primary education, I was taught everything except for Welsh by the same teacher. I have a form group which is composed of children from two year groups, while my English and other classes are different arrangements of students. So I have at least three distinct, if overlapping groups – something which I did not expect.

There are two other teachers of Years 3 and 4 who, from a short acquaintanceship seem to have completed a vast amount of work. Planning is detailed and vast: from long to medium to weekly and individual lesson plans. The amount of paper generated is colossal and seems to be a weekly chore of monumental proportions to complete. I am well and truly daunted!

The number of duties that members of staff are expected to perform (including lunchtime duties) is startling. I had thought that the battle for a duty free lunchtime had been fought and won: apparently I was wrong. I expect to find a number of other popularly held delusions quite exploded!

The school is very small (especially after overcrowded buildings housing more than a thousand pupils) and the students seem polite and responsive. Time, there, will tell!

I have done my first preparation in trying to find pictures and information about Rusiñol and his circle in Sitges – a small price for the mass of lesson plans and information given to me by my colleagues.

Tomorrow to subjects and stresses new!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Almost the day of reckoning!

All dressed up and nowhere to go!

What is the point of buying a cheap nylon suit if you can’t show it off to your putative colleagues? Or to put in another way, when is an INSET Day not an INSET Day? Answer: when you are the only person in the school.

I will be charitable and say that it was a question of mixed messages: I thought that there might be some information about what I am supposed and who I am supposed to be teaching before I actually get to see a class in front of me. Wrong!

Tomorrow will be a baptism of fire as a school noted for the meticulous quality of teacher planning has a stand-up-and-do-it practioner pas excellence usurping the place of a true professional!

Having a startled look at what was probably my timetable I couldn’t help noticing among the splay of subjects which are as second nature to a polymath of my pretension, there were lurking substantial blocks of time labelled ‘Spanish’ and ‘Catalan.’ If nothing else gives me pause for thought (up to and including the teaching of ‘Maths’!) a lurch towards teaching three languages is a vocabulary too far!

Documents were eventually found for me, but their detail was too depressing to contemplate at short notice, so I opted to deal with them at even shorter notice tomorrow when confronted by a completely new class! I rely, almost exclusively, on the educative powers of adrenalin! Don’t fail me now or more importantly, tomorrow.

Toni continues under the weather and even took time off from work to go to the doctor! This continues a tradition that we have established while spending time in Spain that while one is working the other finds an excuse not to work. Tomorrow might see that arrangement smashed for ever!

And I have a lesson in the evening too!

It’s all too much!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The world of work.

A world that I thought was behind me is now just a few hours away.

My responses to the immanent change in my life style are modified by the lack of information that I have concerning what I might be asked to do in the way of teaching for my class. In some ways the open area of speculation is quite encouraging as it allows my active imagination to work rather than tie me down to any practical expression of professional interest. Like lesson preparation!

Last night was spent in Terrassa watching the procession for The Kings. This was much more impressive than I expected with hundreds of people taking part dressed in colourful pastiches of cod Renaissance costumes with the colour scheme tilted towards the gold, red and blue. In Terrassa’s version there was a fair selection of horse riders too. The part of the procession which seems strangest to a foreign observer is the use of sweets. As each contingent passes showers of sweets are scattered into the spectators.

Children and parents line the streets and are well prepared with a variety of gaping containers to contain the sugared loot! Carmen had a child’s back pack to ensure that she was able to accumulate the colourful results of the family’s scrabbling on the pavement!

The members of the procession had their own techniques for sweet distribution. Most just scattered a partial handful in an expansive arc, but others were more vindictive and there was a certain calculation in the trajectory and aim. Paul Squared was clipped on the mouth, Toni at the side of the eye, and the rest of us had sweets bouncing from a variety of less sensitive parts of our bodies!

The wander through the cold streets of Terrassa after the end of the procession did no good for either Toni’s cold and sore throat or my arthritis. I look on it as being just punishment for being late for Carmen’s lunch – though it was (grudgingly) reheated – and very nice it was too!

Today, Sunday, I was able to return the favour of a meal and provide lunch for the family, so I think all is forgiven and forgotten.

Roll on the next meal.

A lesson to learn?

Some lessons are learned by hard, expensive experience. Such lessons should be respected, and more importantly, should become a practical guide to future behaviour.

I blame the Pauls!

After a hard day travelling to Barcelona and entering the collection of regional architecture which is the basis of the Poble España on Montjuic. Each region of Spain is represented by buildings which form a small village with restaurants, hotels, exhibition spaces and churches. They are not like St Fagan’s because the buildings are not authentic in the same way with only the façade or a particular feature being from the original site. They form an interesting collection, however and, even with many of the restaurants and coffee shops closed there was enough there to exhaust us.

A particular point of interest was an exhibition of contemporary art. Most of the exhibits were depressingly bad with hardly an original thought to motivate the viewer’s involvement with the art. Many of the exhibits were sloppily executed with what looked like casual application of paint masquerading as vitality! The high point of low imagination was a repainted version of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ presented as ‘Guys d’Avignon’ with a very prominent example of masculinity in the bottom right corner!

The collection was saved for me by the upper floor where there were one or two works which were actually worth stealing! One collage in particular interested me. It represented a few pieces of fruit and a cloth in a Cezanne-like arrangement, but with a very muted palette. I could imagine living with that, unlike the works in the basement which were startling examples of photorealism together with deeply unsettling sculptures. The most threatening sculpture was a bronze of a helmeted naked man crouching balanced on a metal plinth with arms outstretched. I have rarely seen a piece of sculpture which was more immanent!

Our obligatory walk down the Ramblas was the finishing touch to our desire to walk any further and we eventually succumbed to a taxi to the station for our train back!

Toni was still coughing and gruff and didn’t want to go out for dinner and settled for a burger from the café on the corner to eat in the flat while we went to the restaurant on the other corner.

Everything was going well when one of the Pauls suggested that we visit a bar. The Elvis bar was open and, in homage to Paul Squared’s Aunt who has an Elvis fixation we went in. The place was virtually deserted and didn’t sell wine. This precipitated the first mistake: I began to drink gin and tonic. There was a pool table and, in spite of my protestations, we played a game. Other people arrived; the games proliferated as did the drinks.

And here is the lesson to be learned: pay for your drinks as they arrive. Do not, under any circumstances, allow the bar man to ‘keep a tab for you.’ I am too ashamed to mention the total sum that we finally paid at the end of the evening in the early morning. But it was substantial. We prefer to think that we paid over the odds rather than actually drank that amount of money.

Learn the lesson!

Friday, January 04, 2008

It's old and cultural- so there!

Reputation is a precious and delicate little thing.

Since the late fifties Spain has been the Mecca for sun seeking vitamin D starved Brits.

Admittedly the couple of weeks in Benidorm or Magaluff when drink sodden bodies lie in an alcoholic coma for the hours of daylight festering from the abuses of the night are not the best advertisements for the healing power of sunlight. When the revellers finally stagger their way to the airport, red raw and harbouring god knows what additional microbes, leaving a trail of peeled skin behind them their memories of the ameliorating effect of their annual vacation may be a little difficult to distinguish from the physical pain that overindulgence brings. Their vision of the sun may be more in its guise as Destroyer rather than Healer!

But for those of us who reach for the sun with the slippery help of lotions, balms, salves and unguents while wearing hats, t-shirts and sporting healthy respect, the (affordable) sun for a grey country is found in Spain.

It will therefore come as a shock to hear that the first purchases (apart from meals out) that the Pauls made in Spain were of two umbrellas. These were bought in the pouring rain in the ramblas market in Tarragona after we had gazed with an indifference bordering on contempt on the sea side rain soaked Roman amphitheatre.

I only hope that the reputation of Spain does not suffer in the retelling of the shameful purchases when the travellers return to Wales!

The dreaded cry to any host of, “What else is there to do in this place!” gave an added piquancy to the brimming resentment that had built up with each new toll station we had to go through on the motorway from Castelldefels.

When in doubt: eat. We followed this dictum and eventually discovered a neat little restaurant on the edge of the main square which advertised an appetising menu del dia. I would have described how we all steamed slightly as the accumulated moisture on our persons gradually dissipated in the homely warmth of the restaurant – but we were sitting near the door. Each new couple who arrived had a length discussion about whether to eat with one partner in the open doorway communicating with the other while allowing stray rain and a cold damp draft to ensure our personal humidity stayed high.

The meal, however, was excellent and fortified we sallied forth and soon found ourselves facing an Obvious Wall of Antiquity. As our interest was in inverse proportion to precipitation, and as the rain had abated its fury we (I) indicated that, after our epic and expensive journey we should at least show willing and cast a cursory glance at what Tarragona is famous for.

It was a good thing that we did.

Our first advantage was finding a loquacious, English speaking guard/curator who engaged us in conversation and shocked us by not only knowing of the existence of Caerleon, but also of wanting to visit it! His experience of British cities had been confined to Nottingham – a city I remember for the personal vindictiveness of its one way system. After our conversation with him it was incumbent upon us to purchase tickets for the rest of whatever it was we were on the edge of.

Tarragona was the major Roman settlement and administrative district for the whole of Spain and the jumbles of rubble we were looking at was once an extraordinary, three terrace scheme of buildings which included local and regional administrative buildings, a circus and the previously viewed amphitheatre.

The Roman ruins had been vandalized, or rather, utilized since medieval times and it was fascinating to see a line of an excavated wall broken by a modern road, but the line of the wall continued exactly in the medieval building opposite. Our first contact said that the buildings surrounding the site all had elements of Roman stonework in them, some of them incorporating Roman arches up to their third storeys!

The vast extent of the site would mean that much of Medieval Tarragona would have to be demolished to reveal the Roman original and, except in a piecemeal fashion, this is not going to happen. Some buildings have had plaster removed so that the Roman stone work has been revealed, but any more invasive archaeology will have real social consequences!

From an exhausting climb to the top of one building you are able to get a bird’s eye overview of the extent of the original Roman plan. From its proximity to the sea (though I imagine that the coast has moved somewhat since Roman times) the view from the sea of the three stepped terraces reaching to the highest point in the city must have been remarkable.

It was, therefore, something of a relief to find that our journey (accompanied on the way back by tropical force rain) had been worth the effort.

I only hope that Barcelona today lives up to its international hype and retains the interest of my ADHD compatriots!

Roll on the Ramblas!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Compare and contrast

Out of season what, really, is there to separate Barry in South Wales from Sitges in Catalonia.

The palm trees lining the Sitges sea front may give a slight clue, pointing in a fairly clear direction that there are indeed differences of a fairly basic nature between these two resorts!

Even at the best of times the fun fair in Barry looks like a fairly decrepit, faded set for some B movie horror pic. The decoration always seems forced, lacking the glitzy superficiality of other fairs that I have been to. The seedy penny arcades seem more of a cheap defining characteristic of the place than the frothy inconsequentiality they should represent. There is a hard edge to Barry which is raw and repulsive and it takes all of my childhood love of the place to mitigate the cold grasp of the modern version of a lost dream!

Sitges is slick and rich and confident. As Paul Squared said as we walked past closed shops, restaurants and bars, “I expect it’s buzzing at night.” There was a clear sense of expectation that ‘closed’ was momentary and that there was money for the taking! In Barry, out of season, ‘closed’ looks permanent; you half expect to see tumbleweed to drift along the sandy streets and to hear the irregular slap of a half open shutter to complete the soundtrack. But Sitges in the dead months seems to be resting to spring back at the tourists to siphon more and more money from the unsuspecting.

I am always surprised at how much care and attention beaches need. The little bay in Sitges that we usually use had shrunk. The sea had claimed the beach for itself and had cut a shelf of sand around the cliffs, which was all that was left of a once expansive stretch of sand. It was hard to imagine the pocket handkerchief sized beach being the same as the packed expanse of the summer. Presumably, just before the season starts, the bulldozers will get busy and the ‘natural’ expanse of beach will reappear and access to the other coves will be re-established. How sad that Nature needs to be given so many helping hands! There is more information about the real cost of the changing sand patterns at in Sitges.

Our own beach (if only!) in Castelldefels is also showing signs of wear and the profile of the sands is changing. The early morning and late evening sound of the sand movers and the sand sifters no longer interrupts the thump of the waves and the crust of shells shows just how lively our waters are!

Our walking in Sitges exhausted us and we had a lazy evening in which the most active thing we did was curse the video club for issuing us with a duff DVD.

It was dark and raining (sic.) so there was no change of our taking it back last night. This means that I have the delight of wrenching my limited linguistic knowledge into ever more fantastic shapes as I try and get a rebate from the owner.

Keeps me fit!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Festering Festivity!

At least seeing in the New Year was one festivity which did not see me in bed before the end of the celebrations.

I have decided that my repeated illness on Christmas Day (now in its second great year) must be some sort of psychosomatic psychiatric rejection of festivity. Perhaps my ‘Inner Scrooge’, so long suppressed by my grasshopper-like joie de vivre, is manifesting itself in gastric prostration. I’m sure that there is a PhD thesis waiting on the development of my dyspepsia!

The claustrophobic family gathering started with sedate restraint but, egged on by an uninhibited two year old, it soon degenerated into a most satisfactory, what shall I say? Saturnalia? It does alliterate nicely, but given the Catalan refusal to overindulge in alcohol and the British Behaviour (that alliterated and is accurate) which would come with deep drafts; it had an innocence which seemed sadly out of keeping with the occasion!

The meal was, as usual, excellent and there was plenty of drink – though it was there more for decoration than for use. As I was picking up the Pauls on New Year’s Day there was little opportunity for me to do more than open the bottles of Cava rather than sup my way steadily though them! If Spanish police, I reasoned, were anything like their British counterparts, they would be lurking on motorways ready to breathalyse any stupid motorists who had convinced themselves that liquid indulgence until the early hours would be magically resolved by a few hours sleep, during which time all the alcohol in their bloodstreams would softly and silently vanish away!

So it was an unnaturally frisky and alert driver who eventually tore himself away from a rapidly developing fideuá in Carmen’s kitchen and set out to pick up the Pauls.

The baggage handlers of Barcelona airport ensured that the good time made during the flight was dissipated in the unworldly stasis which is the luggage reclaim area.

Of all the inhuman arenas of human conflict, many of the most perniciously soul destroying are found in airports. Luggage reclaim is a particularly ‘trying’ dimension of other worldly existential angst.

In theory baggage reclaim is designed to allow and encourage passenger ease. The conveyor belt system is sinuous and allows maximum passenger access on both sides; the speed of the system allows easy ‘sight and take’; television screen inform passengers of the location of their belt; buzzers warn passengers of the start of the process; the areas are large and light and airy.

So why are they always places of frustrated misery?

Well, let’s start with the television screens which so often misdirect. And lie. You see your flight number and the moving graphic of little cases indicating that everything is working. Yet the belt on which the real cases are apparently moving is stationary, inert and has the sort of final lifelessness of a blank screen computer. I am not working, it seems to say, I have not worked and I will never work. Especially not for you. And not now.

And when, unbelievably, the noise of the buzzer scythes though weak hearts by its sheer unexpectedness, the belt does not move. When it does move it is only for a few moments and then it stops. When it finally starts again, rather like an Escher drawing it gives the impression of multi dimensional endlessness and futility. No bags appear. Then bags do appear and nobody, absolutely nobody claims them. Hordes of people look at these ur-bags and nobody takes them. They circle endlessly, a domestic refutation of hopes and desires, a Sartre-like joke, a little hell on earth.

At the point just before mob hysteria threatens, real bags appear. The first bag is always taken by someone you have not noticed before; a person unrecognised from the check in, the departure lounge, the aircraft, the disembarkation and the eternal wait for the baggage to appear. I have always assumed that this person is a plant, a stooge of the baggage handlers, a sort of joke that they never cease to find funny. Let’s face it, have you ever known anyone say, “Ah yes, I remember that flight, my case was the first on the belt!” I don’t think so. They like their fun do baggage handlers!

And how we laugh in retrospect! It’s all part of the delight of modern transport: quick, easy and stress free.

And 2008 will be a year in which peace will blossom and flourish.

And talking of peace and blossoming: today is the day I go to my new school to get the information I need for the coming term.

It will, as they say, be revealing