Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Always time to read!

There is much to be said for forgetting that your Spanish lesson has been cancelled because it gives you more of the morning to enjoy having leapt out of bed to welcome the morn!

I must admit that it did take me until I was waiting to go into the school for my lesson before I remembered that the 30th of September was the day for a meting for members of staff in Barcelona. A whole morning gained.

I spent part of it sitting in glorious isolation having a cup of strong coffee (is there any other sort in Spain?) and a croissant thinking that this is what semi retirement is supposed to be all about!

The location of my semi retirement is in question. We have seen the house that we want (at a cost of €2.4m) and there is, therefore, the problem of how we raise the money. The obvious answer is to try the lottery with more passion and belief. It may not be much of a financial strategy but it is one you can work on!

My e-book continues to delight, though it is perhaps significant that in an electronic library that contains War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, The Authorized Version of the Bible and Wind in the Willows that I am actually reading Sherlock Holmes short stories!

I have yet to stray beyond the e-books that I have discovered that cost nothing to download and are 'World Classics' which have been electronically processed by worthy institutions for the betterment of humanity. I want rather more frivolous literature like Saki short stories,
P J Wodehouse novels and the nasty writing of Evelyn Waugh: you miss these things when you know that they are securely locked up in Bluespace awaiting release onto shelves in our new home (as soon as the numbers come up in the right order!)

I can see that the next few weeks are going to degenerate into an undignified scramble for web sites which offer free downloads of things that I actually want to read, rather than books which add cachet to one’s e-book reader but, alas, may only exist to take up space rather than be there for my delight!

I suppose this is no different from the crucial questions centring on the contents of the ipods of people who actually care about such things. We are constantly bombarded by politicians eager to prove their street cred (or whatever phrase is currently the correct way to say that) by laying out the tracks on their ipods as some sort of public shorthand way of showing their personalities via music. I must admit that the choice of china, glass and cutlery is much more revealing!

Book lovers always ignore social niceties when they are invited into a person’s home and let their eyes range over the books on display and start making all sorts of immediate character judgements. When there are no books visible in the main living area then one can feel oneself reaching for that small square of black silk.

Or am I just speaking for myself?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Writing and Reading

Today was the day I sent off the next instalment in my attempt to get the results of the Readathon from The School That Sacked Me. This charity event was held last term in the summer to aid the people of Burma after the disaster and, as far as I know, the money is still lurking in the drawer in which it was placed when it was handed in to the financial clerk before being paid to the charity.

I have sent emails, I have telephoned, I have asked and I have sent a letter asking for simple information. At every step I have been denied any scrap of an indication of what has happened to the money.

I have sent copies of my increasingly pointed emails to the regulatory bodies which deal with ‘British’ schools in Spain. I have involved the Unions in a watching brief observing the attitude of the school. I have exhausted my limited patience in expecting a professional response from that dysfunctional place.

The latest in a series of Unit Heads of Primary has been replaced: there have been nine Primary Heads in just over two years. Any school in the UK with a chronic inability to retain senior staff at this rate would have had a searching inspection and probably have been labelled a ‘failing school’ but this place just carries on carrying on in the disastrous way in which it has done for the last fourteen years! This is an intolerable situation for hard working teaching staff and hard done by pupils and parents.

My latest email has had an effect, but not because of the implied accusation of misappropriation of funds for charity, but rather in trying to find out how I found out. The paranoia which is ever present in that place always looks inward to find victims to blame, never outwards to try and respond to the observations of those who clearly point out the numbers of ways in which the school fails in its basic ethical and moral duties.

I have given them a month to respond and then I will go to the police because I can think of no one else who has the authority to ask the right questions.

My jumpiness waiting for the post to arrive this morning was rewarded by the arrival of my Sony e-book reader.
This wonderful gadget really is the size of a paperback and, after the usual battle royal to get any ‘simple’ gadget to work it now holds something like 160 books which include Paradise Lost, The Authorized Version of the Bible, Russian Classics and various other bits and pieces. The machine comes with a CD which contains 100 books, but the titles are not necessarily those which have an immediate commercial appeal. As I suspected Dickens, Poe, Balzac and other Great Writers who are out of copyright figure heavily and the only modern writers like Ben Elton who figure in the list are served by extracts with an injunction to purchase the whole book in its electronic form.

I, however, have revisited a site I used to fill my PDA with books and downloaded other classics to fill up the space available.

It is easy to use and the screen is not back lit so it can be read in bright sunlight as well as inside a room.

I know that pretension is in the contempt of the observer, but I have to admit that I sat at the edge of the sea after an excellent meal and read book one of Paradise Lost in the sunshine of a bright and blowsy day. And the screen was easily visible. So one of the problems in travelling to Britain is solved: I will have a range of reading matter for the plane and all is one small package!

The cost I hear you ask – don’t be vulgar!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Catalan cutlure

I woke to the thunderous sound of passing planes and the sad realization that my series of CDs in La Vanguardia devoted to Catalan music and Catalan music makers has come to an end.

That newspaper has served me well by providing (at a cost) a series of small paperback books on Catalan artists and a collection of musical CDs with an accompanying history of Catalan music. Alas, both of these worthy publications are in Catalan and therefore take a disproportionate effort on my part to try and fathom what the hell they are saying. I must say that, apart from some paragraphs of impenetrable complexity, I can usually get a ‘general feel’ of what the writer is going on about. Well, at least to my own satisfaction I have worked out some sort of meaning!

The glaring omission, of course, from my cultural explorations is literature. What is the point of learning about Catalan writers if I am going to be constantly frustrated in not being able to read them? Some Catalan books have been translated into English and more into Spanish, but I have to accept at this stage that all I will gain from this country’s literature is a series of names, rather than an experience of their work. I suppose it will be easier to learn about Spanish literature and I have sent for a Companion to Spanish Literature.

Spain, like Britain, is now a minority repository of literature in the old home language and there are many who say that the most exciting literature in Spanish now comes from South America rather than from Spain. It will be interesting to gain an overview of the history of the literature and perhaps hope to find something in translation to keep me going until that longed for day when I can read something in the original with pleasure rather than as a linguistic exercise.

I have just been reading through the free paper that is usually piled up in the bakery and found that I understood most of what it was saying. I think. I do like papers with lots of pictures and little writing. Spain does not have newspapers like the worst of the British tabloid press and most of them are worthy and wordy. I, however, would welcome a Spanish newspaper with the reading age of an averagely intelligent lower primary school student now with illustrations not only to rest the brain but also to suggest the vocabulary necessary to understand the story! The Sun would be about my linguistic level now on a good day, but Spain has nothing to offer me at that low level!

A quick trip to Sitges for lunch –mostly to show my face in a town which has to be the source of the raw pupil material for the school that we hope to found!

Sitges has a very different feel to Castelldefels. It is livelier with a greater concentration of the population constantly passing through the same public areas. Sitges is not divided in the same way as Castelldefels with two motorways dividing the town from the beach. Castelldefels is a town of uninspiring mediocrity in terms of architecture, and at least the old town in Sitges has a cramped charm which, together with the Modernista buildings of the wealthy Catalans returned from making their fortunes in South America (Los Americanos) make for a fascinating architectural mix.

But the prices of property ensure that we will not be moving there for the foreseeable future!

We do keep trying the lottery though!

Friday, September 26, 2008

City life

I do not consider my handwriting to be overly expansive, but the cursive sweep of my letters is more than my new fountain pen can cope with. This gave me an excellent excuse (not that I need one) to return to the shop in Barcelona to complain.

I was seduced by the name and the rather glamorous appearance of the pen and bought it without trying it first: a cardinal sin with fountain pens. And I paid the price. And I had lost the receipt. And I wasn’t absolutely certain where the shop was.

The streets off the Ramblas in Barcelona are a warren of winding, narrow passageways which branch in different directions and seem to have no coherence to their arrangement. They are filled with interesting little shops but, having found one, unless you take careful details, you will only find it again by mistake.

I had to remember where the ostensible target of my wandering was supposed to be and then try and work backwards and forwards about how I got there and got away again to try and locate on which section of my epic city crawls I had noticed the pen shop.

Much more by luck than judgement I went to it directly which has more to do with an innate guidance system than GPS!

Uncharacteristically the shop posed no problem about accepting my reservations about the pen’s quality and they offered to send it to the manufacturer. This usually means that I will not see the thing for the next six months.

My real reason for shifting my aching hip to Barcelona was to enjoy my newfound access to the gallery utilizing the extra escalator. Even with this and using ramps for access you still have to cope with 27 steps.

Another excellent meal in the reflective restaurant and on my exit from the gallery the discovery of another hidden escalator which will complete the descent without steps.

Then rain.

And the news from The School That Sacked Me continues to be extraordinary. All grist to the wheel!

Roll merrily on!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

God knows it was difficult enough to get a hand on what was happening in the place when I was actually employed in The School That Sacked me; now that I have ‘left’ it is almost impossible.

The head of the primary section of the school had resigned; was sure of her job; was sacked. The only thing which is certain is that she is not coming back. This makes eight (count them – 8!) holders of her position who have ‘gone’ over the last two years. You should be able to guess what is coming next: “To lose one head of primary may be regarded as unfortunate, but to lose eight . . . “ etc etc.

In any reasonable educational system this school would now be under special measures. One can only hope that whatever powers there be take note of what is happening, has happened, will happen in this school and Do Something!

Meanwhile and much more importantly it was fine enough to have a menu del dia in the sun this lunchtime.

Talking to the café owner about weather in Britain after his traumatic visit to London when he only had one day of partial sunshine during his holiday was an added extra of pleasure!

My second lesson in Spanish was interesting with enforced conversations among we students and culminating in our being introduced to a story about some Japanese boy arriving in Barcelona to find his Spanish girlfriend and not being able to speak English. We were able to read the first short chapter, that is I read the first short chapter. There must be something about me which encourages teachers to volunteer me first!

I started reading with some degree of fatalism, but expectation that after a paragraph the onus would be moved to the next person. This did not happen and I had to read the whole lot. I’m sure that this was good for me - though I have to say that I trust the ‘ask Stephen first’ technique will lessen after this initial week!

Homework has been suggested by vague implication rather than stated as necessary for completion by the next lesson, but if I am serious about these lessons rather than the desultory amble that I made through those in Wales, then I need to ensure that I’ve completed the basic work and accepted the challenge of doing a little bit more. Brave words after only two lessons: be vigilante about what I’m saying (either directly or by omission) in a few months time!

Time, as they say, will tell!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More lessons!

I took out my Spanish workbook for its case yesterday. In itself a triumph. I opened it. Another triumph. I applied myself to my homework and painstakingly learned my new vocabulary.

Not a single word remains in my mind today.

Luckily the next lesson is tomorrow so I have another twenty-four hours to re-establish some sort of learning activity in my brain. As there are people in the class who are able to converse in Spanish with some facility I am going to have to exert myself just to sustain my level of mediocrity before I am left behind!

The fairly miserable weather we have had for the past two days seems to have brightened a tad today and the sun is shyly peeking out onto a damp world. The showers of yesterday have left Castelldefels fresher whereas in other parts of Spain the rain has resulted in rivers flowing down the streets. In one town the television actually showed someone in a wet suit swimming along the road!

I’m not sure that was a good plan as the water may have been caused by torrential downpours but the liquid in the streets will have been a syrup of the water from the heavens mixed with the rubbish on the street including dog mess and the contents of the sewers which will have filled up and spilled out through the covers to produce a toxic swimming pool for the fool hardly athlete.

Certain the rain storm outlet which spills on to the beach is not always the most fragrant of water sources, so I dread to think what bacteria were swimming with those people paddling in the floods!

This typing is, of course, displacement activity to avoid having to do the slog of learning that didn’t work yesterday. In effect I only have to learn a few words as most of the vocabulary list in Lesson One (as you might expect) consists of words that I know. The Spanish for shop window is new to me as is the extraordinary Spanish spelling of the English word chauffeur – chófer!

I have now prepared my little talk on Wales for the next Spanish lesson: perhaps I should make it a little more political and controversial; there is nothing worse than listening to a whole series of anodyne travelogues delivered in a stuttered, ungrammatical pastiche of a language. God knows I know: I’ve done it myself in a night class in Cardiff!

The most productive thing that I’ve done today is visit a neighbour diagonally upwards. Ian is a professional photographer and has recently bought the camera that I bought, the Canon power shot G9. He offered to talk me through the camera and some aspects of photography.

Sitting in front of his Apple and surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade, from lenses and camera bodies to a massive digital printer, I was truly intimidated.

He talked through some of the photos that he had taken, both personal and professional and explained the circumstances and the tricks which he used to produce the images.

One which particularly took my fancy was of a breaking wave. It was taken just outside our block of apartments and was exactly the image that I have been trying with spectacular lack of success myself.

Ian pointed out that what I was looking at was actually the combination of five separate images including part of one photograph whose mirror image had been seamlessly joined to produce the perfect looking wave!

He then showed me how ‘easy’ it was to work with Photoshop (only some five or six hundred quid) and change images. He removed spots from a girl’s face; removed wrinkles; straightened her nose, widened her eyes; lightened her skin; brought the background into sharper focus – and that was only scratching at the surface at what he could do given time. The way that cars are shot commercially for catalogues and showroom displays was a revelation. Ian said that he images he took were based on the expectation that he would be manipulating them with Photoshop later. A series of photos that he took looked nothing when they were seen as a series, but when they were combined and selectively lightened and darkened the results were astonishing.

Even ‘ordinary’ looking shots turned out to be composites. The taking of the basic shot seems to be the start of the artistic process, not the end of it.

Rather disturbingly Ian has offered to take a series of shots that I think pass muster and then he will show me what he might do to them were they his.

A frightening prospect.

As well, the start of another learning process begins.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The torture begins!

Three Portuguese, one Russian, one Pakistani, two French, one Indian, one Indian, one Muslim indeterminate, and me.

The composition of my new Spanish (not English) class.

We have been given a substantial work book which has been photocopied and bound. We have been encouraged to participate in all activities of the centre. As far as I can see everything is free, and the cost of our course has merely been paying for the cost of the photocopied course book!

The first lesson was not intimidating and went over such basic ground as the sound of the Spanish alphabet and the way that Spanish deals with numbers. Such things are within my sphere of knowledge. We have also been urged to look at other pages of the book which deal with greetings and give a certain amount of new vocabulary. And the next lesson is the day after tomorrow. This is pressure!

I have made an assertion that I will do the homework: the first step is to get the workbook out of the case in which I put it when I left the first lesson.

That, indeed, will be a test.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Another Rubicon to cross!

I knew that there was something not right when my appearance at the language school was hard on the heels of the portly caretaker. As he unlocked the school gates while giving me a quizzical look I attempted to explain that I was there for a lesson.

Now, at this point in my fluent exposition of my position using my personal form of Spanish I inflict on the unwary, I made something of a mistake. As you know I shun foreign verbs like poison and communicate via nouns, conjunctions, prepositions and the occasional adjective. My mistake, in talking to the caretaker was to suggest to him that I was there for English lessons.

An easy mistake to make I think: talking in English you find it easy to associate the lessons you need with a foreign language; when talking in Spanish the foreign language becomes English, et voila!

I have found that when I speak in a foreign language I expect the listener to understand what I mean rather than what I say. Thinking about it, I suppose that is what most people hope for!

I was told (on the basis of wanting English lessons) that the outline of the course would be held tomorrow and the lessons would start the day after. This bore no relationship to what I was told about my (admittedly Spanish) lessons’ dates.

I had determined to phone the school when I returned home and did so, loudly complaining that the dates I had been given for my lessons were all wrong.

When a fluent Spanish speaker phoned for me, he was informed by the caretaker that the only person who had turned up was “some German asking about English lessons.” In short, me!

I have had to eat a sort of humble pie and consider how faulty all my other conversations in Spanish have probably been. I would maintain that other conversations (however faulty) have all been grist to my linguistic mill as, apart from increasingly strained expressions on the part of my listeners, there was no deleterious consequence (leaving aside the mental deliquescence consequent upon hearing your language mangled) on my life.

Surely most of the world wanders about in blissful ignorance about what is being communicated and what is understood. And if you think for a moment that there is any consensus about such questions then try reading Wittgenstein or Saussure. Or there again, don’t: just look around at the state of the world as then tell me that the Human is pretty good at communicating!

That particular skill was not much in evidence in the Outline of the Course’ meeting for my Spanish (sic.) lessons this evening.

All manner and shape and age of person was scattered around the entrance to the school looking slightly out of place in the way that people do when they are starting a course in adult education. There was a disturbing number of people who appeared to want o learn Spanish and it appeared that the level of individual tuition we were about to receive was going to be limited to say the least.

Taking a seat in a very crowded classroom gave me an opportunity to survey my fellow students. In spite of squeaked protestations the person who had registered me decided on the strength of my semi-coherent ramblings in wayward Spanish that I was to be placed in Spanish II and not Spanish I. I instinctively knew that this was a Bad Thing. My feeling of horror was not lessened by hearing my putative fellow students conversing in fluent Spanish, reading Spanish newspapers and generally showing evidence of indecent familiarity with the Spanish language.

The barely audible introduction given sotto voce by the school director was in Spanish and with the chattering of the assembled crowds of learners I had to exert a level of concentration to hear and understand what he was saying which left me in an almost hysterical condition. I was working out how to demand demotion to another less demanding class when I realized that the crowded room contained students for all the courses; Information Technology, Catalan, English and a few other courses which I suspected were for the rabble of pimply youths which seemed to be there under duress. I relaxed a little.

The bumbling and gently ironic director (funny how you can tell these things even when you can’t speak the language) got things wrong, was corrected, pointed out tutors, pointed out the right tutors and generally indicated our right to eat the sparse buffet before lessons started tomorrow.

I left.

It appears that the Unit Head of Primary in The School That Sacked Me has resigned, citing the impossibility of working with The Owner as the crucial factor in her decision. She is the eighth to go in two years. In Britain the inability of a school to be able to retain senior staff at this level would trigger an immediate inspection and have the school put under Special Measures. The Owner’s horrific managerial response is to promote someone whose educational and personal skills are, to put it mildly, questionable. If there is any justice in the world (and I know just how naïf that belief is) we are looking at desperation tactics in an institution whose time has long since run out.

I am already working out ways to put my own bit of boot in – but with what I hope will be eloquence, post modern irony and wit.

A poniard is as effective as a broadsword; and just as satisfyingly bloody!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Children and dogs

Children are not Labradors.

I have only the one approach to children under the age of three or four: treat them like dogs. Well, not ‘dogs’ qua dogs, but as that most majestic of selfish breeds Labradors. My method has always been to whip them up into frenzies and then walk away.

This always works: until it doesn’t.

The “doesn’t” part is when a stray hysterical childish hand destroys a lamp shade which is part of the flat and which, because of its age cannot be replaced. And it’s made of paper!

Thank god for super glue! In spite of its professed ineffectiveness on things like paper, it worked for me, it looks ok and that is all that matters as it’s part of the flat owner’s property and not ours!

Tomorrow is a momentous day – I start my Spanish Lessons. Two hours twice a week. I am trembling with terror at the mere thought of being thrust into a class with god knows who and at god knows what level. No teacher likes being taught and no teacher can abide not striving to do better than most. Why should I be any different? Oh God!

One books is going to have to come out of hibernation: the snappily entitled ‘501 Spanish Verbs’ this is indeed as boring as its title suggests and is, at the same time, utterly indispensable in attempting to communicate with some accuracy in Spanish.

For a year now I have attempted to make myself understood by using as few verbs as possible, probably sounding like a slightly affected and overdressed Tarzan. I have had conversations about history, religion, art and politics in all of which I must have come over linguistically as a well informed Neanderthal: whose manners were light years ahead of his command of Spanish!

This has to stop. I can no longer have dialogues with intelligent cultured people with my sounding like some sort of throwback to an antediluvian time in the genetic pool!

This time round I even promise to do my homework.

I have a feeling that rash statement will come back to haunt me.

Within days!

Friday, September 19, 2008


This weekend is officially the last weekend of the summer.

And, true to its designation, it has rained. It has produced a most refreshing change in the atmosphere and some spectacular effects in the sky with golden tinges mixing with blue and orange. And it’s still warm enough to sit out on the balcony!

One disadvantage of this valedictory couple of days is that all the world and his wife has come to spend the time in the flats around us. We have developed a most comforting misanthropy (which also includes the rat dogs that some of our neighbours possess) and any extraneous bodies in our immediate vicinity cause us irritation. The nearest people we want to see are those peregrinating on the beach thus contributing to our moving wallpaper when we are eating on the balcony!

Wetter weather encourages insect life, especially the dreaded mosquitoes. Although I despise them along with all the inhabitants of the peninsular I have a ‘deflection companion’ – in other words my blood group is obviously not as tasty as his and his bites reflect this preference.

We have had to take serious measure to counter our six legged friends. From time to time the chemical laden air in the flat may not kill mosquitoes but by god it almost does for me. We have electrical devices which allegedly give off vapours which drive the winged fiends away. But the lure of home grown delicious blood always seems to tempt them back!

We have now resorted to biological warfare. We have purchased two insectivorous plants: one tall and elegant with inviting trumpet like growths to attract the insects and one small and sticky. Our defences are now complete and, together with the ultra violet light on the balcony, we should be secure from the ravages of the poisoned champing jaws of the carnivorous flyers.

As I am rarely attacked I shall water our new acquisitions and monitor their ‘kills’ otherwise I shall merely admire their sculptural form!

My addiction is going to be fed soon as the ‘fulfilment centre’ of Waterstones has emailed me to inform me that my e-book reader should soon be in my grasping hands.

In a perverse sort of way I am not so interested in the electronic wizardry which manages to produce an electronic representation of a book page which is not back lit and looks like paper, rather I am fascinated to see what titles are contained in the 100 book starter disk that should come with the reader. This is not for the endless hours of reading pleasure that it should offer, but to evaluate critically the selection they offer. I cannot imagine that there are going to be many books which are still in copyright, so it is more a question of what classics they think they can get away with.

I will make an guess and suggest that I will soon be a the proud owner of a certain number of texts by Aristotle, Machiavelli, Poe, Dickens, Austen, Hawthorne, Whitman, Crane, more Dickens, selected Shakespeare plays and other books of that ilk. It would be refreshing to be proved wrong, but I bet my guesses are all contained in some form in the final list.

My anticipation is sharpening my appetite!


The atmosphere inside The School That Sacked Me has been described by One Who Knows as “horrendous.” The Owner, with the callous inconsideration that characterizes her regime, has managed to establish a sort of frightened resentment among what she regards as an infinitely expendable workforce.

Meanwhile the forces for good (i.e. our little group of teachers and others) have taken a step nearer to our goal by arranging more visits to promising looking sites for our establishment. The head teacher of The School That Sacked Me is now happy for us to use her name openly to encourage parents to hope that there might be an alternative to the dysfunctional ownership of the present school.

On Monday we are going to look at two places that might serve as a base for us. We still have no money of our own, but that still seems like a mere detail because we are (if I may use again my favourite phrase of Ruskin, and I think I may) “availing to good” and The Owner simply is not. With right on our side, how can we fail!

OK, OK. You will notice that I did not put a question mark at the end of the last sentence. I’m not that naïve!

But it doesn’t hurt to hope!

Although today started overcast, with the generosity that I have come to expect from Catalan weather, it brightened up enough to tempt me on to the beach and even into the water.

God bless sunshine!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ever upwards ergonomically!

I mark this day with a white stone.

This Roman system of commendation seems appropriate for the occasion. Today I slogged up the hill to MNAC. Now I know that there are open air escalators but it is still a long walk and the last part to the steps of the building itself are unassisted stone.

The view, when you get there, is one of the best in the city and many people sit down and gaze. Not because of their astonishment at the vistas, but rather because they do not have enough energy left for the final flights to the doors of the building itself.

Today, after visiting the gallery, I struck off at an angle as I wanted to visit the Foundation devoted to the Barcelona artist Joan Miró. As I wandered aimlessly through fly infested vegetation I discovered a ‘hidden’ escalator which could take you up the final flights! This was the equivalent of finding the north-west passage (before the melting of the arctic ice)! I do wonder why this ‘hidden’ escalator (on the left) is not indicated at the termination of the flight of escalators (on the right) of the building. It is almost as if this ‘extra’ is something you should discover in the course of many visits, rather than be given as a right!

I am now a fully paid up Friend of MNAC. I have paid the princely sum of €24 in the category of ‘Senior’. I am not sure that I am entitled to the €16 reduction as I am far too young, but the person processing my application coyly suggested the status and I was not going to pay more money though simple vanity! Anyway, I spent the money I saved on a meal in the excellent restaurant in the gallery.

The restaurant has one of the best views in Barcelona as it occupies part of the first floor front of the gallery.

The décor is an odd mixture of plain white minimalism and the ornate decoration of the original building. Part of the far wall of the restaurant is an angled reflective sheet which shows the entire contents of the restaurant, including the diners as a vertical reflection forming a shimmering moving image.

The food was excellent, tasty and pretentious. Who could ask for more?

I did eventually find the Miró gallery (after a positive tidal wave of steps) and it is not one which I will be revisiting soon. Some of the early work was interesting and the 14 year old Miró was certainly a competent draftsman and I would never deny his talent with colour and form, but too many of his works seem to me to be historically interesting but artistically irrelevant.

Even the modern building left me relatively cold.

Meanwhile, language raises its head.

I will never forget my visits to the airport in Atlanta for many reasons, but a linguistic one was when I first heard a piece of characteristic American circumlocution about a flight landing. We were told that it would be “de-plane-ing momentarily.” Even if one took the phrase “disembarking soon” that is a mere 5 syllables compared to the overblown 8 of the American phrase; while “landing soon” is a pleasingly terse 3.

And the sense of it! “de-plane-ing” is not a word, and if it was it sounds like some form of hygienic procedure to rid the plane of insects; while “momentarily” means for a moment – so I had a comic vision of passengers being tantalizingly deposited on terra firma for a couple of seconds before being whisked back into the aircraft!

Such memories have been raised by, of all organizations, Waterstones bookshop. I had an electronic battle royal to get an account with the place so that I could buy one of the e-book readers that they are selling in conjunction with Sony. When the order was placed it took but a moment for me to receive an e-mail telling me that the bloody thing was out of stock. But that it would be shipped to me, “once we receive the items into our fulfilment centre.” The last four words are obviously redundant and that phrase, “fulfilment centre” smacks of some sort of New Age religion offering gratification for payment of a votary’s income into the coffers of the Church!

I sincerely hope that Waterstones is going to fulfil me soon.

Gadget Deprivation Syndrome lurks ever in the penumbra of my electronic desire!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dreams and reality

Suddenly things become just that little bit more real.

‘Real’ that is until you remember that you have no money and money is what you need to make a scholastic dream a reality.

This is a way of saying that I have seen a place which could be transformed into a school with only the injection of that commodity which in our case we have not got: money.

Even the mere fact of somewhere which might be useful is enough to give the reality filter another tweak. I shall continue to dream on!

Today is the sort of grudgingly overcast day which drags in enthusiasm and flattens it, in the same way in which the quality of the light drains colour and makes things appear much more two dimensional. It is perhaps a fitting counterpoint to my enthusiasm, the climatic equivalent of the person who rode behind Roman emperors during triumphal processions and whispered in their ears, “Remember man that thou art human!” though in my case it is more like, “Remember man that thou lack’st money!” Such an inconvenient truth!

Still, today is LWLD (Ladies Who Lunch Day) and my weekly dose of frivolous and otherwise conversation with Caroline until she gets her schedule of English teaching sorted out and reality comes back into force.

After lunch I am inclined to visit Barcelona and become a Friend of MNAC.

This didn’t happen.

But the meal, at an Italian restaurant was expensive and delicious: braised liver with fried pate de fois gras augmented with sweet sauce and pine nuts accompanied by salad with goat’s cheese and the finest chips I have eaten in Spain!

Ever since that man Heath imposed charges on national art galleries and museums I have been touchy about paying to go in to national repositories of culture. When the Tories were finally ousted one of the first things I did was to write to Number 10 and ask that museum charges be abolished. I had a very polite letter back informing me that, with many other tasks at hand, they would be looking at the charging as soon as possible.

Once the iniquitous charging was abolished (helped no doubt by the petition organized by the anti-charging campaign which I supported with enthusiasm!) I discovered that I had a new sensitivity to the whole question of museum charges.

MNAC on Montjuïc is a very fine museum which has an unrivalled collection of Catalan art which should be freely available to all Catalans as part of their national heritage and to non-Catalans to inform them of what the Catalan heritage in terms of art actually is. In either case, it should be free.

The location of the gallery is not in its favour. MNAC is in the Palau Nacional, a building which was put up for the 1929 International Exhibition. It is in an imposing position, situated high on Montjuïc and commanding impressive vistas of the whole of Barcelona. It is reached by walking along a long processional way lined by exhibition pavilions then up an impossibly extended series of open air escalators and stairways until you finally reach the apotheosis of art which is the cathedral like building on the summit of the hill and collapse gasping for oxygen at the final series of steps which take you in to the actual gallery.

This is not the gallery for you to ‘pop in’ and check out your favourite paintings. Merely to get there is an achievement so to ‘pop in’ for a few minutes shows a dedication to art which is surely beyond most of the visitors to the gallery. If you are there you ‘do it’ so you don’t have to make the ascent of the mountain again in a hurry!

I, however, am made of sterner stuff and so am determined to become an amic (friend) and thus gain access to the gallery whenever I want without charge (discounting the amount I pay to become an amic!) and thus bringing MNAC into the same relationship with my gallery visiting as the National Museum of Wales and all other national galleries in Great Britain.

When I said that I would write to the Generalitat to express my dissatisfaction with museum charges, my Catalan friends urged me to do just that, indicating that some aspects of British life could be usefully transferred to Catalonia!

Tomorrow culture!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Which Spain?

My continuing exploration of the Spanish psyche, albeit through the medium of British writers, has continued with my reading ‘¡Guerra!’ by Jason Webster.

Webster uses the chance discovery of an unmarked Spanish Civil War mass grave near his remote home to explore the questions raised by that conflict. He takes a very personal approach and uses his journeying around the country as the basis for his narrative and his political and social analysis.

His style can be summed by the opening paragraph:
“Begoña stood at the entrance to the house, leaning on her staff as her little mongrel, Rosco, panted nervously at her feet. A straw hat was tied under her chin with a dark-blue scarf, partly shading a worn, landscaped face, and eyes that shone like cinnamon stones from within layers of protecting skin.”

If you like that sort of thing then this is the book for you. I found myself thinking that certain sections of it could be used as fairly simple exercises for an A Level English Language class to analyse the use of language and the various narrative tricks that he employs. For me his ‘in your face descriptions’ and obtrusively writerly style get in the way of what he is trying to say about the discoveries that he made about the darker side of Spain. This is the Spain that both wants to sustain el pacto del olvido (the act of forgetting) and at the same time to know everything about what happened in reality in the dark days of the Civil War and the even darker ones which followed during the imposition and sustaining of the Dictatorship of Franco.

His insights, and there are some, are always muddied by his style which forces itself towards the reader in a most unbecoming manner. Webster seems not to have decided whether he wants to write a novel or a travel book with the end result that he writes neither.

Not a book that I can recommend.

Today I saw the outside (at least) of premises that might be suitable for a new school. Who knows? Tomorrow a meeting with a representative of the owner and a glimpse inside the walls and shuttered windows!

Also today something of a dream come true: cut price stationery in a shop which has decided to call it a day and close down. I have taken the opportunity to restock my depleted supplies of A4 coloured card, buy one or two sundries and also bought a fountain pen.

For me fountain pens fall into the same category as books, watches and indeed laptop computers: you can’t have too many of them. And when they are half price they are irresistible.

I remember a deep and meaningful conversation with the head of maths in my last British school (!) where we realized that both of us had shared a childhood delight in visiting Boots the Chemist. We had spent many happy periods in our young lives delighting in the sheer plenitude that inexpensive stationery afforded: sheets of paper; silver chains of paperclips; golden piles of drawing pins, sleek biros; different coloured inks; exercise books with alluring covers; pristine pencils and other riches too highly priced to be anything other than the objects of hopeless lust. Things like typewriters, office tape dispensers, long arms staplers!

Perhaps I have said too much, but stationephiles are much more common than you might think.

Is there one in your home?

Monday, September 15, 2008

For the sake of art?

It is good to see that Spanish officialdom is still alive and kicking.

Today I went into Barcelona to continue using my ArtCard which gives me access to six or seven cultural venues in the city for the bargain price of €20. As it was a Monday virtually everything was closed, but not the museum of contemporary art. Contemporary art; not Modern Art. MNAC – the temple of both the old and the relatively new in Catalan art was closed so contemporary art was the only thing left to me.

Now you have to realise that I have defended André’s bricks in The Tate with the sort of tigerish intensity which is only found in someone who argued vociferously against the return of the Elgin Marbles to the Greeks while drinking in a taverna in Athens. I have championed Claes Oldenburg while others scoffed at his soft typewriters and his giant lipsticks. I have defended all of these (hardly contemporary I admit) artistic causes, but if I am honest, then much of what passes for contemporary art in our major museums leaves me cold. And believe me that adjective is the mildest that I can think of.

My experiences in the museum today have not changed my attitude.

Barcelona is cursed by being the home of La Fundación Antoni Tàpies which exists to laud the art of Antoni Tàpies – an artist, in my view, of almost limitless fatuity, but who is de rigueur in any self respecting cutting edge artistic institution. And sure enough there was an award winning (sic) piece of pretentious rubbish by Tàpies: the usual things, a metal bed frame screwed to the wall, various poles draped with cloth, a collection of chairs screwed to a terrace; metal ribbon linking some of them and . . . I can’t be bothered to go on wasting words on an uninspiring and essentially depressing piece of self indulgence.

The building is striking: full of open space and clean white lines; extended sloping walkways and stark plate glass.

I can’t help thinking if you come out of an art gallery and start talking about the building, then the contents have failed in a fairly major way!

However, there is another and perhaps more convincing way of judging a gallery: what’s the food like.

And here Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art suddenly became the place to visit. After a first course of spaghetti with marinated salmon mixed with black olives and sliced gherkins washed down with red wine laced with gaseosa, I was treated to a large and luscious fillet of cod with marmalade caramelised onions and peas. The meal was completed with ice cream topped with walnuts and honey and a cup of strong, bitter coffee. All for ten quid.

It made the art bearable.


But officialdom (you’ve forgotten the opening sentence haven’t you?) is what will remain with me from this gallery going experience.

Although the art did not merit a photograph, the building did. I took various shots of the outside and then took a few more inside. It was only when I was taking a shot through a downstairs window of the gallery of graffiti daubed building opposite that the heavy hand of curatorial displeasure descended.

A stern lady in an unflattering uniform gravely shook her finger at me and indicated by eloquent hand gestures that photography was forbidden. My plaintive justification that my shot was actually of another building outside merely earned me an extra scowl.

I was glad to leave.

Outside, in the sort of plaça in front of the building workmen were constructing the scaffolding for a stage being watched by a motley collection of exhausted skateboarders (ultra modern buildings usually provide a rich landscape for skateboarders) equally tired art gazers and a bewildering collection of vaguely disreputable passers-by. All were watching the efficient efforts of the construction workers as they assembled what looked like a giant mecano set for some unspecified performance. The men were mostly an undistinguished bunch with fags artfully placed in exactly the right corner of the mouth at precisely the most effective angle.

But one worker, stripped to the half, seemed to have stepped out of a canvas from a ‘real’ art gallery which had classically inspired Renaissance paintings of well built saints! At one point he helped support a prefabricated arch with a metal pole and he looked (apart from the clothing!) like a character from the brush of Michelangelo.

Then one of the people sitting next to me on the marble wall of the building lit up

so I left.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Home thoughts

Today is the last day before the kids go back to school.

Saturday some of the larger children celebrated by having a raucous party on the beach late into the night. We could see very little beyond the lights at the end of the pool but the howls of adolescent voices cut through the darkness. Let them, I thought, have their last moments of happiness because on Monday the day time will be reclaimed by those of us not in work and they will have too much homework to be able to go out in the nights!

This is the sort of September that every teacher works towards: when colleagues are doing the work and keeping the shops and streets free from apprentice people.

That’s what I call living!

And a whole world of photographs waiting to be taken!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Breathing sand and sunshine

Why is it that, with battery fully charged and visual senses hyped to the point of true creativity, that the weather conditions produce high winds and a sandstorm?

I am very much a ‘fine weather’ photographer and I am not prepared to put myself out very much to gain a shot; the possibility of sand grains inside the lens of a new camera sounds like altogether a bad idea. Far better to mess around with the images that I already have on the kiddie version of Microsoft Photo Premium that came with the laptop!

I was hoping to go down to the edge of the sea and attempt to get some soft focus pictures of the waves as I think that I have worked out how to adjust the aperture and film speed manually. Unfortunately I think that there are ‘failsafe’ procedures built into the camera so that even when you have branched out on your own and started dictating your version of the correct exposure the brain inside the camera takes a paternal interest in what you are doing and tweaks your own attempts at unaided efforts! I completed a series of test photos of running water from the tap, but I'm not sure what I have proved by my end resuts! Apart, that is, from a series of pictures of a running tap.

I braved the beach in spite of the howling winds. Setting up my sun bed (a triumph of hope over observation) with hands occupied in wrestling with a lively towel, a particularly vicious gust of wind took off my glasses and whisked them away.

For most people this would be irritating; for me it was a disaster. My glasses are rimless with the arms a mere suggestion in the thinnest of titanium wisps. In other words almost invisible and light as a feather. Let us now remember why I was wearing the glasses in the first place: to remedy my myopia. So, almost invisible and light as a feather off they go in the wind into a sand fuelled gale into the out of focus world that exists a few feet from my unassisted eyes. Oh, and I think I failed to mention that the glasses were the most expensive pair I have ever owned.

Throwing the bloody towel to the ground a first peer discovered nothing of ophthalmic interest lying in the immediate vicinity. I had a sinking feeling that I was going to have to emulate the grovelling approach which had seen me (in my contact lens days) crawling about on my hand and knees like the most abject pilgrim approaching some idolatrous shrine in the hope finding salvation – or a small piece of fugitive plastic which had sprung from my eye.

The factor which saved me from this humiliation was the simple fact that my glasses, invisible and light as they were, had photo chromatic lenses, so even my blurred eyesight was able to distinguish two dark ovals lying on the sand.

After such emotionally draining excitement I felt that I deserved my restoratively bracing laze as the wind built up tiny dunes of fine sand against each individual hair on my legs. Breathing was a particularly mineral and gritty experience. Any movement released a part of the frisky towel which proceeded, in almost comic book fashion, to belabour me with a reiterated series of slaps. But we Brits are used to combative sun bathing and, while the sun shines (if only fitfully) it will take more than a mere gale to make us desist.

When the sun disappeared: I went. There are, after all, limits.

My experiments with the camera continue. I have now discovered how to adjust the shutter speed and the aperture manually – but I have yet to take a better picture with my tinkerings than the camera produces on the automatic setting!

I aspire!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Internet intensity

I blame living in a fairly small town bereft of normal access to the everyday gadgets that are the life blood of my imagination.

The internet is an over compensation for the lack of up to date electrical shops within a couple of minutes of the flat. But it is an irresistible one. Which is another way of saying that I have ordered the Sony e-book reader.

I have told myself that it is essential so that I have something to read on the plane when I go back to the UK for Aunt Betty’s birthday. Why, you may ask, can I not take a book on the plane with me? To ask the question shows that you would not understand the answer. After all why read a mere paperback which costs a couple of quid when you can at vastly increased cost read exactly the same thing electronically? If that is not a rhetorical question then I don’t know what is.

The new Canon G9 camera continues to impress, even if the complexity of the operation of the more esoteric features remains a closed book to me – even with the print out of the manual open in front of my unseeing eyes. According to this book of fairy tales I should be able to change the colour of a flower by the pressing of certain buttons. Leaving aside questions of why I might want to do that; I can’t. I have followed the steps painstakingly and nothing happens. Admittedly I am attempting to change the colour of the settee, but surely the principles are the same!

I have also found that every time I have left the security of the ‘auto’ setting on the camera the results have been uniformly bad. I am regarding this as the low base from which I will ascend, Snowdon-like, to the pinnacle of the mountain of photographic excellence. And let’s face it, if I am capable of puns like that, then nothing is beyond me!

I think that I will do what I did in Rumney and start taking photos of my immediate surroundings. I like taking pictures of flowers: they don’t move very much unless there is a wind; they have strong colour and they are unselfconscious about being photographed: perfect subjects!

With my other cameras the close up function on one is too limited to get decent shots and on the other it is ‘touch and go’ on its approach to focus. This camera should be substantially better and give me more leeway in choosing the effects of depth of field. I say ‘should’ advisedly as my initial experiments have been anything but satisfactory. I shall take as my motto the hit of Yazz and the Plastic Population and look heavenwards for my direction as far as my photography is concerned!

Incidentally, when I told Emma that her camera and photographic efforts in Catalonia were the immediate cause of my buying a new camera, she wrote, “You shouldn't feel any pixel envy just accept that I'm a better photographer than you.” Good phrase, wrong assumption. Or at least an assumption I am prepared to work at to prove wrong.

Let the clicking commence!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A full day!

Given the sacrosanct nature of bureaucracy in Spain, I suppose that I should be grateful that signing up for my Spanish classes only took just over an hour. During the complex series of manoeuvres where, like some form of ancient dance, movement, conversation and the offering of documents must be executed in the correct ritualistic style, in the time honoured order, one step following the other like an ancient Pavanne.

The payment of the exorbitant fee for the course of lessons which are twice a week from September to June could not, of course, be handed over to the person registering you. The frightening sum of €20 (!) had to be paid by your being given a bill which then had to be taken to a bank (the despised BBVA) where the actual money was paid, your receipt stamped, then you had to return to the centre and wait again for your receipt to be accepted.

Yet again, even though I was talking to someone in Spanish who spoke Spanish I have managed to convince a native speaker that I am actually more competent in the language than I really am. I think that this is one time where my easy plausibility will come back to haunt me during my very first lesson where my inability to decline the verb ‘to be’ will be my public downfall!

Lunch with Caroline seemed to be a fully deserved recompense for my travails in the morning and we managed to talk with fluency and interest about subjects great and small while consuming a very reasonably priced Japanese meal.

As we are looking around at other possibilities for renting I accompanied Caroline to look at the outside of a house for rent near her in the last urbanization of Castelldefels before The Tunnels on the slope of one of the hills that surround the town.

From the outside the place looked interesting and the shared pool certainly looked attractive but there was a series of steps down to the front door and the view was of houses and flats on the other side of the hill. Considering the price I think that this is one viewing which will not take place. As I sit here listening to the waves I think how hard it is going to be to leave the beach – even for the ‘Freeing of the Bluespace Thousands’ as my books are now generally known.

The gadget event of the day was the arrival of the new camera. This has arrived in record time and came with little extras like an ineffective tripod and a camera case that doesn’t fit that I didn’t expect.

The camera itself (a Canon powershot G9) looks a little bit retro but the pictures it takes are excellent. The x6 optical zoom and the 3” LCD viewer are both astonishing. The verticality of the viewed image is maintained even if you turn the camera – a feature which almost caused an accident when first discovered!

The instructions are dense to the point of opacity but I am told that there is a photography course on line which might help. Otherwise it is going to be a question of trial and error to find out how some of the features work.

The first results are pleasing though and I am looking forward to producing shots which can get me back to some of the pictures I took ‘on a roll’ during an unusually productive and successful couple of weeks back in Rumney.

There was only time to charge the battery before I had to be off to Barcelona for the first in the series of my visits to the Liceu.

Having left just over three hours to travel the 20 km to Barcelona, and finding the roads gratifyingly free of the usual traffic jams I was able to take a series of ‘artistic’ shots of various locales in the city within spitting distance of the Ramblas and have a quick meal.

Here I broke one of my cardinal rules and was duly punished for it. It is perfectly possible to eat on the Ramblas for a reasonable sum of money but, as they say in all the best fairy stories, stick to the path. In the case of eating in Barcelona this means: find a set cost meal and do not deviate from the menu provided.

My mistake was water. I had an excellent value meal of chicken, salad, spaghetti and chips on one enormous plate with bread and what I thought was a drink and sweet. Wrong. The drink of agua con gas was almost three quid! It was a large glass, but it was still water. And coffee was another quid. I have now, well and truly, learned my lesson.

Uncharacteristically the performance I had gone to Barcelona to see in the Liceu was of dance. I am subject to the ‘Banana Yogurt Effect’ in this art: I don’t ever choose it, but quite like it when I get it.

The company performing was Tanztheater Wuppertal under the direction of Pina Bausch. A person and company of whom I had never heard.

The first part of the programme was ´Café Müller’ which was a load of pretentious twaddle which reinforced my pre-existing prejudices about the value of Dance with a capital ‘D’. I was not best pleased when the start was delayed and then when the lights when down it was delayed further before the ‘action’ got started and one of the protagonists limped into action crashing into furniture on a stage littered with chairs and tables.

The ‘characters’ in this piece were loosely enough defined to accommodate any half baked psychological, social or political meaning a viewer cared to attach to the paucity of meaningful movements visible on stage. The music was not continuous, but when it did hiss into audibility at least there were a few good tunes from the extracts from ‘Dido and Aeneas’ by Henry Purcell.

According to an overheard conversation from the gentleman on my right who had one of those plumy, sonorous English accents that make me feel like a provincial clodhopper, ‘Café Müller’ was about ‘isolation.’ I suppose that was as good an explanation as anything.

So, the action: it was about isolation you know. The couple playing the lovers were competent enough as was Pina Bausch herself playing a sort of ghost at the feast. Other characters included a small stepping sort of fussy Women’s Institute character and a pony tailed man whose function seemed to be to smash a path through the furniture to allow other characters to thrash their way about the stage.

I really do not think that a series of vaguely interesting, unrelated movements gain in significance by inane repetition. I began to wonder if Pina Bausch was seeking to be the dance equivalent of the minimalist music of Philip Glass.

When this interminable pseudo intellectual crap finally subsided into blackness I was so disgruntled that I could not bring myself to join in with even a token clap to accompany the ringing applause from the character on my right.

During the interval I descended the few steps to the foyer as I have now decided that my traditional scorn for those members of the audience who frequent ‘the upper levels’ can be transferred to the Liceu and I have therefore decided to sit in the stalls this season. Finding a vacant seat I scribbled some insulting notes into my programme to vent my spleen and awaited the second half with dread.

I returned to the auditorium to find the stage occupied by a dozen stagehands busily covering and raking the stage with a layer of earth. This was preparation for the performance of ‘The Rite of Spring’ – at least, I thought, I will be able to listen to the music and if necessary close my eyes.

And everything I said about the first half now has to be turned on its head. The lack of coherence, pointless gesture, and meaningless repetition: all the negatives were transformed into as griping a dance performance as I have ever seen.

It was the sort of experience which made the (remaining) hairs on my head stand up. The compelling narrative of ritual sacrifice was brilliantly presented by the girls wearing diaphanous costumes and the boys stripped to the half. In the course of the exuberant action the dancers became covered in the earth in which they danced, kicked, stamped, shuffled and rolled.

It may be an overworked word but the performance was electrifying with the vitality of the generally young dancers barely contained by the passion of their steps and movements.

The applause which greeted the exhausting final dance of the victim and the end of the production was tumultuous with some patrons actually ululating their appreciation.

Many members of the audience actually stood when Pina Bausch finally came on stage to accept the plaudits of the crazed audience.

As is well known, a British audience would hesitate about standing for The Second Coming, so the gentleman on my right and I stayed firmly in our seats.

It was good, but not that good!