Friday, November 28, 2008

Home thoughts from abroad

While tidying up before leaving the flat for my epic voyage to Britain for Aunt Bet’s birthday, I found one tiny silver star on the bottom of the wastepaper basket in the office.

It shows the state that I have reached after the horror of packing my case that I immediately thought what a poignant symbol that was. Until I began to think about what precisely I thought it might be a symbol of! Getting bogged down in the specifics of analysis then showed up how specious my initial enthusiasm was.

It was one of those occasions that usually elicits the expression, “That’s interesting!” which then usually prompts the response, “What is?” to which of course the truthful answer is, “Well, nothing really.”

I take this to be the same sort of thing that one sometimes sees in animals, especially dogs, when they stiffen and stare meaningfully at nothing at all for a few moments and then carry on with their canine lives.

I’m thinking of these things now because I will soon be in an airport waiting lounge. And incidentally I hate the word lounge used in connection with any resting place in an airport. Every seat is designed on the same principle of the old Work Houses. Just as the Work House was designed to be marginally worse than the worst employment you could find outside the institution and entry was the last resort, so with seating in airports. It is designed to be marginally worse than anything else you can find to do in the god forsaken places. Wandering through shops; going to an over priced restaurant; finding a new arrivals and departures board to look at – anything is better than sitting on those chairs.

After all the chairs are specifically designed so that you cannot relax in them. Relaxation might mean sleep and sleep means missed announcements and delayed planes. It is good to see that Victorian Values are upheld in our modern airports!

The full horror of the spiritual stasis which entombment in airports demands has been lessened for me by the excellent procedure of ‘booking in on line.’ EasyJet allow you to do this and it means that you only have to be there some 40 minutes before departure. I am far too paranoid to test this to the precise limits but it does give one extra time to rest at home in seating which allows one to relax.

It is also a long time since I have driven on the correct side of the road. Foreigners, as you know, must have had a very different sword technique in the past – or possibly have been mainly left handed. It is a known fact that we drive on the left to allow the right hand to draw a sword and attack any importunate person advancing in the opposite direction with antagonistic propensities. Why did not Johnnie Foreigner understand this?

In some ways I take the form of driving that is second nature to a Spaniard (i.e. dizzyingly suicidal and homicidal) to be an attempt to break the unnatural restraint of driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and their appalling road sense is actually displacement activity as their inner ‘Briton’ tries to bring them to the ‘right’ (i.e. left) side of the road.

Why, you might ask, do Britons not also exhibit the same dreadful tendencies of the Spanish? Ah, it is, of course the famed sense of British fairness and tolerance which enables the British driver on the Continent to follow the norms of the country while realising with warm condescension that it will only be a matter of time before they learn the error of their ways!

So, almost time to go.

I only hope that the telephone conversation that I had with the taxi firm actually results in a taxi arriving at the time that I stated. There did seem to be an element of confusion about the time as I took the word ‘mediodia’ to be an exact translation of ‘mid day’ but she asked what time mid day. I gave a 24 hour clock answer which seemed to satisfy her.

At the moment I am calm. If half past twelve arrives and there is no taxi that calm will dissipate in a second.

But I live in hope – there is no other way!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Suit wearing is dangerous!

Last night was the very last time that I will ever wear a suit and tie late at night in Barcelona.

After a fairly stolid performance of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ in the Liceu I felt that I deserved a little something to spice up my jaded cultural appetite. Barcelona offers a multitude of experiences which are not readily available in Castelldefels including one omission from our little town which is inexcusable – Indian food!

I was the only customer in the Indian Restaurant near the opera house so my meal was delivered with dispatch so that I was in and out in about twenty minutes and back on The Ramblas.

Operas in the Liceu start at 8.00 pm so with the normal length of the opera means that you are rarely out of the theatre before midnight. The Ramblas after midnight is more like something directed by Tim Burton – but without his underlying sense of the positive. You get all the dark, sleazy, drunken horror without the promise of redemption that Burton usually provides.

I had dressed up to fit in with the rest of the patrons in the theatre – especially in the seats which I now use. I have trained myself not to look at the price I paid which is printed on the front of every ticket! So I was wearing a suit with a white shirt and repressed tie. I rarely do the tie up fully and the wearing of the jacket was sufficient to counteract the temperature.

My great mistake was not walking on the central part of The Ramblas but on one of the narrow pavements which run down either side of the narrow roads which flank this key tourist venue of the city. My lesser mistake was slightly missing my footing on the irregular curb after crossing one of the small roads off The Ramblas.

That slight stumble was in front of a group of girls wearing tightly fitting clothing and looking at male passers by with calculating eyes. My theatrical miss step provoked a laugh from one of them and some sort of muttered comment but I pressed gamely on only to find myself outflanked by the same girls.

Think for a moment about what they saw: a man in a suit; tie undone; not wearing a coat; out after midnight and stumbling. An easy mark!

I must admit that years of watching BBC Wildlife programmes came back to me in a rush: especially the ones which showed sharks circling their prey or hyenas marking out the weakest animal who cannot keep up with the pack! Also what happened to their prey came back in vivid detail!

The girl who laughed stood in front of me while one of her (substantial) friends stood on my right and a couple of others on my left. I was trapped! And before anyone even thinks about making any sort of sexist comment I might add that they looked like the sort of people you would not want to meet in the dark. And it was after midnight!

The ‘conversation’ we had sounded like something from a hastily written pornographic novel. Not my conversation, you understand, it was more of a double hander hard core expression of physical possibilities from the two girls. I was merely thinking of my wallet and my e-book reader which was poking out of one pocket – and hoping that both would still be mine after this encounter.

My way forward was blocked by prying hands and substantial bodies trying to do things that did not fit in with my idea of a good night out. So I went sideways with alacrity and a thumping heart and gained the relative safety of the middle part of The Ramblas.

The lusty girls did not follow. They didn’t follow because the middle part of The Ramblas was obviously the beat of another group of girls, so (fully paranoid) I fled. Reaching the narrow pavement on the other side of The Ramblas I was then accosted by yet another girl who emerged from the shadows muttering honeyed words in English. There are distinct disadvantages to looking so obviously not a part of the indigenous population!

By the time I reached the car park in the lower part of The Ramblas (after studiously looking at the pavement rather than at any human passer by) I was glad to get into the relative safety of my car!

What had drawn me to this den of iniquity in the first place was the performance of ‘La Nozze di Figaro’ in the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

They actually managed to make ‘Figaro’ boring! The preliminary talk (in Catalan) suggested that this was a fairly faithful production – it would have been fairer to say that it was a fairly unimaginative production.

The singing in the first two acts was indifferent apart from the beautifully modulated voice of Cherubino (Sophie Koch) and the exuberant precision of Antonio (Valeriano). Figaro (Kyte Ketelsen) had great stage presence and was full of energy but he was not consistently dramatic through the whole of his musical range. The Countess (Emma Bell) came into her own with her solo in Act II and gradually became a compelling singer and her husband the Count (Ludovic Tézier) grew in his role as well. Susanna (Ofèlia Sala) was lively, dramatically intelligent and musically charming. The rest of the featured singers were adequate but forgettable.

The Orquestra Simfonica conducted by Antoni Ros-Marbà was excellent and the chorus did was it should.

The great crime in this production was the staging. The action of the piece was updated to the 1920s or later and virtually nothing was made of this artistic decision. The Count entering carrying a tennis racket can hardly be classed as interesting invention. The costumes fitted the staging but, so what? What was the point? Why not do it in ‘costume’ and simply have the singers adopt stage stances and have done with it?

By the end of the first half I was seriously cutting my losses and going home. At one point the Countess stood in her shimmering sheath of silk with one hand on the stage piano and sang as if she were in a recital! Why bother to go to the expense of a co-production with WNO with highly expensive mechanised sliding flats if all you are going to do is sing?

‘Figaro’ is hardly a bundle of laughs as an opera. This is a musical exploration of determined and serial infidelity; of callous scheming and a sparkling illustration of the sad and vicious frailties of the human condition. The opera begs for an inventive production to bring out the high almost tragic themes which underpin the action while ensuring that the humour is preserved intact. ‘Steptoe and Son’ is a perfect example of how ludicrous comedy can be a heartbeat away from tragedy. That is the sort of programme which could have been the inspiration for a production. Though I’m not sure about setting ‘Figaro’ in a junk yard!

The second half (I did go back and delayed my meal) was a little more inventive and the scene of Figaro in the garden with a flown ball which he addressed when berating women was an indication of what might have been. Although incongruous the ball was used by him as a pendulum and therefore a powerful image of the condition of marriage as he saw it and then later the ball was unhooked from its wire and used by Figaro to perform a series of juggling tricks which again fitted his mood perfectly.

The noisily moving screens used for the garden background were also interesting. I liked the idea of a sort of Rorschach ink blot design coupled with faces as the central idea for these screens and I liked their movement. But these ideas were pitifully scarce and little or nothing was made of the setting.

There may be an interesting production of ‘Figaro’ setting it in the 1920s but this one isn’t it.

All that and sexual harassment too!

Never a dull life!

And tomorrow GB!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Put it back!

A sinister order has now settled on my office.

The full effect of my strenuous construction and selfless folding have resulted in an eerie regimented organization suggesting a far more together person that the actual owner!

The new Billy stand straight and tall with his rough edges now covered in inexpertly cut self adhesive white strips which have been ironed in place. I feel rather proud of myself firstly for actually getting the stuff as I don’t know what it is called in English, so the achievement in conveying what I wanted in Spanish is all the more exhilarating. Secondly I am (justly) satisfied that I knew that an iron was involved in the sticking of the strips. I still loathed all aspects and therefore cannot claim that DIY has replaced book buying as my major hobby.

The books which had been gathering dust on top of the living room Billys are now expansively set out on the commodious shelving of the new office Billy and that structure has even managed to find book space for those volumes that were resting on the tops of books on the shelves elsewhere.

I can only pity those hapless creatures that do not find please of the most intense kind in the expansion of a book collection into new areas allowing a further rearrangement of the library. It is a form of bibliophile colonization where I, like a latter day King Leopold, impose arbitrary separations, conjunctions and continuations based on my personal whims. Dr Johnson’s description (slightly altered) of John Donne’s metaphors could apply to some of the volumes I have placed next to each other on my shelves 'the most heterogeneous books are yoked by violence together' – but it makes sense to me and gives me pleasure! The argument of colonial masters through the ages!

The new found order has even found its way into what was, almost literally, a writhing snake pit of chaos. I refer of course to the ‘wages of sin’ that comes with a love of gadgets: the leads and their power sources!

Every attempt to bring order to this Hydra monster of intertwining coils of multi headed incompatibility results in further chaos. If you keep the leads in the boxes it takes up far too much room. If you keep the leads in a drawer they ‘knot and gender’ like Othello’s toads. If you leave them in different places you invariably forget which lead fits which appliance. Every expedient evinces endless energy. And if you have spare sets of earphones anywhere near power leads then they act like convolvulus and tie everything together more neatly than sellotape.

The answer, as to so much else, lies in IKEA.

There is a subsidiary structure linked to the Billy called a Benko (or is that a Chinese meal?) or something. This is a tall, thin piece of furniture which, when constructed, has twelve squarish sections ostensibly for storing CDs. It is perfect for the power leads, plugs and adaptors. You can even fit in the item like a camera, ipod or Nintendo Lite. Just because I have listed only three items I do not want you think that nine sections are now empty. No, all sections are filled and my mind strays to planting the flag of order on further necessary purchases from the Swedish Saviour.

But they have to be built, so a little respite would not come amiss.

“Human kind,” as T S Eliot almost said, “cannot bear very much tidiness.”

How true!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eat my clothes!

‘Pijama’ might suggest to you a misspelling of a commodious garment of night attire, but I ate one.

After the rigors of shelf building I felt that I deserved a little treat and so I ventured out into the largely deserted surroundings searching for an open restaurant for a spot of lunch.

I am still coming to terms with the way in which the restaurants (which almost literally surround us) operate. I assume that they are profit making enterprises into which considerable sums of money have been sunk by their various owners. Why, therefore are their ways of operating so, well, various?

Some have odd days when they are open and odd times based on those odd days which suggest that they are operating under the influence of a system whose intricate nature makes the calculation of the date of Easter seem straightforward. And if you think that calculation is simple then you have never looked very closely at the end of your Book of Common Prayer at all the information you should be studying when the vicar is giving his sermon!

One restaurant in particular in our immediate area has been recently purchased; completely refurbished; new signage put up; classy glassware and cutlery bought and a well stocked bar opened. But they hardly ever get any customers. It must be soul destroying to set out the tables every day with immaculate white napery and gleaming crystal and then watch all the diners go elsewhere.

The secret is in the pricing. Well, hardly a secret: the other restaurants flaunt their low priced menu del dias while this restaurant sticks with its enticing, but highly priced a la carte offerings. Throughout the summer, the high season for this sea side town, the restaurant kept its purity and lost its customers.

In spite of the fact that a dozen restaurants within a couple of minutes walking distance were offering lower prices and getting bums on seats, the glacial financial indifference of this establishment continued.

I began to suspect that since we were so far away from any normal idea of financial rectitude there must have been another and much more sinister reason for such a cash drain: money laundering.

I don’t really understand the details of the concept but I assume that it must be a variant on the profits from failure scheme as outlined so brilliantly (and catastrophically) in the Mel Brooks film, ‘The Producers.’

I shudder to think what tasteless (!) menu could possibly rival the sure fire failure that should have been ‘Springtime for Hitler’ on the musical stage. I have a few ideas for dishes, but even I realise that some things go beyond the bounds of civilized tolerance, so they will remain sniggering darkly in my imagination!

So the restaurant must have lost money throughout the summer – and lost lots of it. If that was the idea it worked pretty well.

Now, at the tail end of the year when the only tourists that come are hardy and well wrapped up against the savage inclemency of temperatures which plummet to as low as 16C the restaurant has suddenly galvanized itself and decided that it needs patrons.

They have instituted a menu del dia and I decided to try it.

The meal was a revelation.

A pea soup, delicately flavoured with a suggestion of mint with crisp, melt in you mouth croutons and finished with olive oil and fresh mint leaves for the first course. The second comprised two succulent cod fillets topped with slivers of baked garlic and a timbale of vegetables with garlic flavoured oil.

I actually applauded the third course!

This is where the sleeping garments come in. ‘Pijama’ is a sweet which has been described in Spanish as, “flan con un churretón de nata, medio melocotón en almíbar y a veces también tiene pera o una bola de helado” I would describe it as a construction.

It came in a sundae glass and what struck me first was a large golden, gleaming treble clef which was crowning a summit of whipped cream. The clef was made from melted brown sugar and what lurked beneath the snowy covering of cream was a mixture of nuts, fruit, ice cream, flan, syrup and more calories than is reasonable or legal to offer a mere human.

A robust Rioja and a solid Hades dark café solo completed the meal. I have no intention of giving the price I paid because I am not that cruel. To be fair it was a couple of quid more expensive than the meal I normally have, but this was haute cuisine at its most sublime!

So we are presented with another problem. This money rejecting failure of a restaurant is now providing unsuspecting patrons with what can only be described as a ‘loss leader’ in giving diners startling value for a casual lunch. It was one of the finest meals that I have had since I came to Spain. I don’t understand.

End of season; few patrons; immense competition – what are they doing?

I am not so naïf as to believe that Castelldefels does not have the normal level of corruption that always accompanies the exchange of large sums of money – and millions of pounds are extracted from tourists’ wallets and purses every year – but what sort of financial thinking is underpinning the financial strategy of that restaurant?

And then I look at my newspaper or listen to the radio and all is made clear. The great and the good of the financial world have no idea whatsoever what they are doing, have done or will do. They throw money (not theirs obviously) around like drunken emperors and they haven’t even the common decency to consult the auguries.

Given the chaotic times in which we now live, it seems just as valid to me to cut open a chicken and have a bit of a prod around in the innards of the poor beast and then make a pronouncement than listen to the conflicting views of economists or politicians or (god rot them) bankers and pretend that you have a well thought out systematic, caring approach to recession.

I have listened to the various comments from Those Who Govern Us and I have considered the suggestions of Mr Darling. The economy needs to be boosted and the government is trying to fuel the recovery.

I have a suggestion to make. I have never (except for that time that I had to prove that I could save money for a few weeks to get one of my Cubs badges) I have never, I repeat, ever been a laggard when it comes to spending money. I have made it into a sort of art form.

So, my suggestion is that Mr Darling gives me the billions of pounds that he is going to spread thinly around the economy. I will then (as I have always done) spend it with alacrity. I will, thereby, save us all from the threat of financial ruin. In the process, by way of a small recompense for my good offices, I will gain a few small items for my own use.

Like having a Van Eyck in my living room!

You know it makes sense.

Or at least it makes the same sort of sense as the stuff that I have been listening to recently!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Just follow the instructions!

I have known Billy for some time; we go back a long way. We have known laughter and satisfaction; a few bad moments laced with exasperation; achievement and soul destroying, crushing failure.

Billy has been a part of the household almost from the time that I first lived in Spain. Without Billy my life would be less.

Though I would have more money.

Our relationship is, and has been from the start, based on money.

Billy, as those of you who think cheap Swedish meatballs are adequate compensation for hours of crowded shuffling on a Sunday afternoon will already have guessed, is one of the more recognizable names that the great and the good IKEA has given to a range of shelving.

Although most of my library is still in durance vile in Bluspace confined to Pickfords cardboard boxes, those volumes that have escaped the confines of the storage facility and have a free and easy existence in the flat rest their tails (that’s the right word for the bottom of a book, so there) on the shelves of Billy.

The rather elegant versions of this basic design that I bought for the living room are made of wood veneerish type material (I like to be honest!) with glass doors. They take a pitiful number of my books and I daily miss the Lost Volumes of Bluspace.

The latest purchase of Billy was for the ‘office’ (that purported to be the third bedroom on the advertisement for the flat.) There was no need for the more expensive pretend wood so I was able to get the basic white. Room in the office is somewhat cramped so extra shelf space was essential.

I have constructed or helped construct more that half a dozen examples of Billy so I was quietly confident that the purchase and making of this essentially simple pieces of furniture would be but the casual work of a morning.

There is nothing funny about making IKEA furniture so if you are expecting me to be lightly witty about the nail-scraping-on-blackboard type anguish which accompanied and then destroyed my innocent enthusiasm you can think again.

I find opening the brown cardboard packaging that Billy comes in an almost insuperable challenge! I am sure that there is some corner of the bloody thing which when pulled gently by an expert makes the box open like a beautiful flower – well I am still looking for the Swedish version of ‘Open Sesame!’ I have to resort to ripping, rending and tearing and usually using my skin between my thumb and index finger as a sort of fleshy saw. With the accompaniment of broken nails, torn skin and surprisingly vile language the box eventually opens and the contents are displayed to my jaundiced eyes.

IKEA used to be masters of the ‘bit that you don’t need but it looks just like all the other bits’ approach to flat packed furniture. I am glad to say that they now use expanded polystyrene which it is usually safe to assume is packing material and not an essential component in the finished piece of furniture.

Hard experience has taught me (and to be fair the little blobby man in the instructions agrees) that the outer packing must be used as a safety layer on which to set out the parts of your future bookcase. If you don’t do this then your assembled piece of furniture will look as though it has been attacked by a whole company of cats who have used it to sharpen their nails.

Finding the instructions and the little bag of bits is encouraging. The instructions are usually clear and generally unambiguous. Unambiguous that is to those who lack imagination. To those gifted with that glorious quality there are layers of meaning that can be read into a simple drawing which make consequent construction impossible.

And the bits!

With Nordic naivety and a touching faith in their computer system, IKEA give you exactly what you need. Exactly what you need if you are a trained IKEA constructor; not exactly what you need if you are a real human being who does not put the bits in a dish. Or who sits down too suddenly or throws the hammer down without due thought and all the bits explode into the air like a metallic firework and some (even though you have cleared the space beforehand) are never found again.

I will lightly pass over the loss of a wooden plug thingie; the putting of the wrong (almost identical) piece in place; the smashing of a nail under the shelf it was supposed to pin; the missing out of one piece of the structure altogether and spending twenty minutes trying to deconstruct the thing; the ending up with two faces of chipwood facing outwards because I had assumed that out was in – all of these I will pass over in silence. But one thing was not my fault.

On one end of the upright for the bookcase they had not cut the groove for the plywood back to slide in. I sat down and wept. Not literally you understand, but in some inner recess of my soul my tear ducts were flowing.

The thing that I was trying to make (it was the last of four shelf structures I had constructed so I was a little tense) was a little quarter size Billy. It cost €20. Did I really want to traipse back to Hospitalet, park, queue, explain and then come back again? The answer was no. I was disgruntled, but no!

And in a strange way all my ineptitude seems to have vanished because IKEA made a mistake. Poof! to their computerized systems: they made a mistake. They are professionals in furniture construction; I am a mere neophyte in such things. My mistakes are merely the learning curve of a new skill; their mistakes are a crushing condemnation of a multinational organization.

And I’ll buy some white stuff to go over the rough edges!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Top brass and a bevvie!

At long last, after years of waiting, a moment of sweet delight. Thank you Emma!

I don’t know what expectations that opening sentence inspired, but I doubt that you would guess that the ‘moment of sweet delight’ was when I finally got to see again ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen.’

I waited until I had the flat entirely to myself; made myself a cup of tea, accompanied it with some sort of foreign (and delicious) marzipan confection and settled myself down for an extended period of indulgence.

‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ is a 1933 Frank Capra movie with a glamorous (!) Barbara Stanwyck playing the future wife of a missionary (!!) arriving in a chaotic China and being saved/abducted by a sophisticated and elegant Chinese warlord played by Nils Asther.

For 1933 this was an adventurous and courageous film. Emma (who very kindly copied the film for me as I have been going on about trying to see it for so long) commented that the film was ‘bizarre’ and that ‘the ending offers no easy answers.’

The basic storyline is fairly simple but what is truly interesting is the portrayal of miscegenation as the sexual relationship develops between the two main characters. What intrigued me about the film when I first saw it was a dream sequence which is shockingly and erotically revealing.

From her fantasy of an oriental bedroom Barbara Stanwyck has watched the local Chinese soldiers engage in amours. She has noted their rustic lovemaking with indulgent condescension then she falls asleep in a peacock wicker chair which forms a stern pattern of interlocking lines around her head.

As she sleeps she dreams and in her dream she imagines the warlord brutally breaking into her bedroom. In her dream imagination the warlord is a grotesque caricature of the punctiliously polite and immaculately dressed general and instead is portrayed vampire-like with long fingernails and sharp teeth.

As his hands grope towards her breasts she is suddenly saved by a masked hero. She melts into his arms and with a look of adoration and desire takes off the mask - to reveal the hero is actually the warlord!

She is both excited and repelled by her growing involvement with this character but she eventually finds that her defences against him are mere words and General Yen is able to force her to see that her beliefs as they are tested are not what she previously thought and that she and the General are more alike than they are different.

The final sequence of Stanwyck and Asther is powerful, poignant and ravishingly photographed. The final sequence of the film which features a silent Stanwyck and a drunken monologue from the worldly wise and cynical financial advisor to the General poses questions and possibilities that focus the audience’s attention on the final shot of the film – the strikingly beautiful three quarter profile (shot in soft focus) of Stanwyck herself.

God knows there are faults in the film, but this is not the Comfortable Capra of later years: this film is edgy and unsettling and a thoroughly good piece of work.

If you find it, or see it advertised on the TV watch it!

Only fitfully fine weather today; it is as if Catalonia is preparing me for the rigours of next Friday and a journey into the icy wastes of the UK.

Given my rate of preparation, I should begin to pack today with the hope that I might be ready before take off!

Some hope!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

If it's not one thing . . .

Last night we went for dinner into what was described by one of or party as “a sort of transport caff.” I have to say that his experience of transport cafes and mine must have been radically different.

For a start this place only opened at something like half past nine at night and when we eventually got there (after a few glasses of excellent Rioja in a nearby bar) the sight that greeted us as soon as we went in was the chef (do they have chefs in transport caffs?) triumphantly frying the latest batch of wild mushrooms.

You have to understand that mushrooms are taken very seriously in Catalonia. There are television programmes showing various sorts of people going out and about in remote country areas and emitting short yelps of delight from time to time when they find a particularly tasty specimen which had been hidden from normal view by grass and general undergrowth but these dedicated mushroom hunters seem to have x-ray eyes. They should be employed at airports, I am sure that they would be far more reliable than those damned beeping machines and a good deal less offensive!

We decided to share a plate of the extortionately expensive mushrooms which were, in spite of the price, utterly delicious. We then went our separate ways for the next course.

I chose savoury rice with cod (an everyday staple of all transport cafes that I have frequented!) and washed it down with a fine bottle of Rioja. It was also, unfortunately, the last bottle of that delicious beverage and it was alas, too soon drunk. The replacement bottle we were offered was local to the town in which we were sitting and had quite a pretty label but was, by general consent, disgusting.

The replacement of the replacement was acceptable and the meal seemed to be heading for a tasty conclusion in the form of a surtido of sweets when one of our party declared that he was not feeling well and fairly promptly collapsed. An ambulance was called and soon a chirpy little guy appeared dressed in an official duffle coat with fluorescent trimmings and the discussion continued about what was best to do.

Eventually, just when we were at the point of ordering a taxi (remember the wine) to get him to hospital two ambulance medical workers came and took control. They were briskly efficient and soon he was off to hospital.

If I sound a little glib it is because I saw the same collapsee this morning and not only did he look hale and hearty, but he also had not a trace of a hangover!

The same could not be said for the rest of us who looked a little the worse for wear.

The ostensible reason for going to St Pere was to get the card for Aunt Bet whose birthday will be celebrated in due style a week tomorrow in the wilds of Gloucestershire. Margaret has produced yet another ‘creation’ of flowers and butterflies and it will a unique contribution to the festivities.

The rest of today has been spent in a post alcoholic haze out of which I had to jerk when the family arrived for lunch.

The Crisis is obviously hitting Castelldefels harder and harder as most of the restaurants are now extending their menus del dia into the weekend. The waiter at the restaurant we used for lunch also told us with pride and desperation that the menu del dia has been extended to Sunday as well.
I know this sounds like a small thing, but in terms of our little sea side town it is monumental! Last year nothing like this occurred, so the restaurateurs must be responding to fairly dire economic trends.

I still have not had the courage to find out exactly how little money I now possess as it is all in pounds sterling (how ironic that word sounds now!) and invested in some sort of bond. Spend! Spend! Spend! never seemed like sensible advice, but I would have done better to have done just that than force myself into uncharacteristic acts of judicious financial restraint. I should have gone with my instinct and had the time of my life.

But, enough of this lowly raving. I must remember that I am a card carrying member of the Middle Classes and as such I am a devout practioner of Delayed Gratification.

I only hope that the delay is not over long!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mother, give me the sun.

We have now had a series of stunning sunsets and in full sunlight it is quite warm enough to sit outside and enjoy the experience.

I should point out that while I was sitting in my short sleeved shirt enjoying the apocalyptic reporting of the end of western civilization (again!) in the ever comforting pages of The Guardian one of our neighbours was sitting below me wearing an autumn coat closely buttoned and an ostentatious scarf.

Spanish people believe their calendar and will not be tempted by mere temperature to deny the training of generations and discard any of the essential clothing protection which is demanded by tradition for the month of November!

With the reality of British weather conditions looming for me a week today, I am enjoying the delights of ‘un-seasonal’ weather for as long as I can!

With thoughts of Britain uppermost in my mind at the moment as I try and cut down on the amount of electronic equipment I have deemed essential for my trip – I have noticed what can only be a sign of the times here in Castelldefels.

Until fairly recently we had two Mexican restaurants within a few minutes walking time. One of these has now closed and is in the process of being replaced by a new restaurant which proclaims itself to be the King of fried fish. Many of the restaurants around us serve fresh fish because it is caught daily just off the beach and is brought to the eating places on a daily basis too. Many of the restaurants serve fried fish, but not one of them has advertised itself as a specialist on this particular form of cooking.

I suspect that the British are growing in their representation in this area. I have mentioned previously the ease with which Tetley tea bags can be obtained in our local Carrefour. I have noticed a few other products in Carrefour which have a discrete little Union Flag next to the price which indicates that they are trying to cater for a British buying population.

We are not that obvious I have to say. It is very rare to hear an English voice – though you often hear foreigners conversing in English as the lingua franca for foreign travel, but we must be a growing group.

Can it be that this new manifestation of a fried fish restaurant is the Spanish attempt to provide us with a Fish and Chip Shop? I sincerely hope not. I have become accustomed to the delights of reasonably priced foreign specialities and I do not look forward to seeing local restaurateurs attempting to cater to a sort of debased concept of ‘British’ eating which I hope I have left far behind.

The only aspect of British food which I really miss is, paradoxically, the ‘Indian Meal.’ And even there I can satisfy this longing by the small and reasonably priced restaurant I have found at the side of the Opera House in Barcelona.

I will keep my eye on developments in that restaurant and will, whatever it finally emerges to be, try it out. I see this as a necessary effort for the benefit of those people who come to stay with us. It is only fair to have some idea of what can be offered to all tastes that come out to visit.

Meanwhile to St Pere (just outside Sitges) to stay with an ex colleague and to have a meal which is ethnic, interesting and reasonably priced.

It’s a hard old life, but someone has to lead it!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Think before you ride!

It is always a good thing to have money about you when you go out to have lunch in a restaurant.

I suppose the use of the bike to travel a little further afield and remembering to take the locking cable used up all the available memory for the trip and did not ensure that I took my wallet.

The meal was excellent: a substantial salad followed by a zarzuela of fish which comprised a selection of white fish with some shell fish cooked in an earthenware bowl in a home made sauce. The red wine was palatable and the ice cream at the end of the meal was more than acceptable. The only trouble was that, as I finished my coffee, I suspected that my lack of ability to pay for the meal might be a little unacceptable.

The more I checked my pockets to find my wallet the more it wasn’t there. As I had gone a little further away from the flat than usual I was not eating at my local cafes so the restaurant that I was using was not one in which I was known.

My hesitant, shamefaced admissions of penury were brushed aside with an airy wave and my assurances that I lived relatively near and I could get the money in a few minutes were accepted with complete equanimity!

I therefore disappeared, leaving the bill looking rather forlorn and solitary without card or cash and peddled home. My wallet being found I peddled back and, completely unmarked; I regained my seat and poured myself the remnant of my wine as a well deserved reward!

It is nice to be trusted!

Our Spanish lesson this morning was centred on a number of Spanish words which take a different article from the one that you expect. Spanish (like most other European languages) gives a gender to those inanimate things like ‘bed’ and ‘light’ and ‘beach’ which adds a quite unnecessary level of complication to the language. Although we had been given rules to try and discover whether a word was male or female we were now introduced to the exceptions. Some words which should be female are male in the singular but female in the plural! There are always things to catch you out!

The individual words were merely the springboards to further discussion which ranged from the tactile nature of Mediterranean people, via the ways in which different nationalities place their knives and forks at the end of the meal to the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ by people of backgrounds. And all in Spanish!

As usual my contributions were in halting Spanish. However, when compared to what can only be described as blatant French spoken by one of the two representatives of that nation in our class, my command of the language appears idiomatically fluent. Which it isn’t.

The lessons last from 9.00 am to 11.00 am and at the end of that period of two hours I feel drained and can hardly believe that there is a major chunk of the day still to go!

Part of it today has been taken up with my reading some of Maugham’s short stories. The short collection I have on my e-book reader is set in the South Seas and includes the famous story ‘Rain’ whose power I had forgotten. The conflict between a haughty bigoted missionary and the prostitute is written with taut economy and the ending is truly shocking. As a short story writer Maugham is one of my favourites and I have missed my collections of his complete stories which are lying in cardboard boxes in storage waiting for shelf space.

Free the literary five thousand!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Books resurrected!

‘Stalky and Co’ by Rudyard Kipling is a series of short stories set in a Devon public school. One of the school boy characters is given the run of the headteacher’s library and he exults because he finds himself able to read such authors as Ruskin and Byron.

Following the chronology of Kipling’s own youth, this largess would refer to a time in the early 1880s. Given the copyright laws I feel the same sort of ‘freedom’ when I visit the libraries of free e-books that exist on the internet. All the books that Beetle might have read are now available in electronic form; even the contemporary literary works at that time are now to be found somewhere on line free, gratis and for nothing!

Modern books by contemporary authors have to be paid for (not unreasonably) but classic literature in English is almost inexhaustible and offers some odd ‘treasures.’ One of which I read this morning after an uneasy night and very early rising.

‘The Explorer’ (1908) is a novel by Somerset Maugham which I discovered while trying to find some of his short stories to add to my e-book reader. It was not a novel of which I had heard previously, but I enjoy Maugham’s style and find it hard to resist, so added it to my electronic collection with alacrity.

It is an extraordinary novel which concerns the life of a family of ancient name ruined by the feckless behaviour of a father who mortgages his estate and eventually ends up in prison for fraud. His two children are forced to exist on the charity of relatives until the final crisis blows apart their lives.

The story is not remarkable for the clichéd nature of the basic narrative but the cast of characters seems to have been culled from various other writers. The witty, urbane and epigrammatic Dick Lomas seems to have wandered out of some comedy of manners by Oscar Wilde and Mrs Crowley’s musing question about him, “I wonder why you never married,” seems almost laughable after all the camp playfulness that Lomas has exhibited!

Alexander MacKenzie, Dick Lomas’s dearest friend, is his opposite. Alex is “tanned by exposure to tropical suns” and has a manner “which suggested that he was used to command.” He is, of course, “spare and well-made” with “limbs well-knit” and when he looked at you he “looked straight at you with a deliberate steadiness.” He is able to make, what to modern ears are incredible statements about Africa, colonialism and the right of Britain to spread its power – he seems more at home in a novel by Rider Haggard!

The language is a delight and one can hardly restrain a giggle when the superficially attractive yet ‘rotten to the core’ worthless George says, “It’s awfully ripping of you to take pity on me” when our stalwart hero offers to take him to Africa to join with him in trying to stem the ‘beastly’ Arab slavers from their human traffic and gain more territory for the British crown.

This may be a pot-boiler of a novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, right up to the ‘happy’ ending when our indestructible hero is about to set off the Congo (!) but the little lady will wait for him to return.

Awwww! They don’t write them like this any more!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


One of the more interesting series of Penguin (God Bless Them!) paperbacks was the Great Trials series.

One of the most popular was the trial of Oscar and I think that an original edition of the ‘cheap’ paperback version will now set you back a tidy amount. Not only is it scarce, but it is a damn good read.

Never let it be said that I did not do my best to provide literature with the raw material for an epic. It may not sound like it but keep your eye on DP 1609/2008 - it has real possibilities!

My visit to Vilanova to the Jitjats to continue my persecution of The School That Sacked Me was altogether satisfactory and frustrating at the same time.

The place was full of what I could only describe as the dregs of humanity, clinking with body jewellery, garish with tattoos and all looking as though they had just had a fortifying drink of something strong – if you will allow the unnecessary repetition. The professionals (lawyers rather than layabouts, but there again . . .) reminded me of nothing more than the definitively dismissive paintings, drawings and etchings of Daumier and looked like the living embodiment of Chaucer’s dismissal of the Man of Lawe as “looking busier than he was!”

The entrance to the Jitjats was crowded and everyone had to pass through a metal detector. As usual the amount of ‘equipment’ I had reduced the security lady to loquaciousness. I was carrying the bare minimum for the modern man: a mobile phone; a Canon powershot camera; a Sony e-book; a wallet; keys; a watch; more keys; money; a pen and a few pills. It’s a good thing that I didn’t have my bag with me!

The omniscient security guard from yesterday saw me and pointed out that I had been there yesterday with the air of one who has solved Fermat’s last problem in three lines. After puffing out his cheeks to make himself more important he pointed me in the direction of the information desk which just hapened to be directly behind him and labelled with the word information.

The information girl's lack of English and my hysterical use of Spanish soon directed me to the third floor via the lifts.

The lifts were blocked by a drooling halfwit and a man who was obviously a lawyer because he failed to make eye contact with anyone and kept moving his gleaming leather briefcase so that it caught the light.

The third floor proved to be a counter in a small office with doors stage left and stage right. Up stage was an open office with an exclusive cast of young ladies who were gradually disappearing behind growing mountains of files.

I was noticed almost immediately by a lady on the other side of the counter who asked me what I wanted and when she saw the small slip of paper attached to my documents by the information person downstairs she motioned me to the other end of the counter, or to put it another way, approximately one foot to the right of her elbow. An invisible line of responsibility must have crossed the otherwise unmarked surface of the counter because the lady then felt free to resume her seat and continue building the paper defences.

I then became invisible. I think it was something to do with ‘glass ceilings’ or ‘Chinese walls’ or whatever else industry thinks of to give another euphemism to the word ‘dishonest’. I was, however, no neophyte in dealing with Catalan bureaucracy which was why I had brought my e-book with me. I therefore started reading; standing up and leaning on the counter.

If there is one thing that office workers hate it is an outsider out-ceiling or out-walling them. In no time at all, with a pretty impressive attempt at surprise one of the ladies who had been ignoring me suddenly noticed that I might have needed some attention.

She spoke no English so I continued ploughing my bloody way leaving mangled syntax and eviscerated grammar behind me. And she understood!

In a couple of minutes she had found the file relating to my accusation! She brought it to the desk and asked me what I wanted. I asked what progress had been made and thus, I inadvertently returned to her comfort zone.

Nothing. Of course, naturally, 'nothing' had been done. Would I like to know when something might happene? My address was taken. A wry smile greeted my tentative request for an approximation for the sort of time scale we might be looking at. Christmas was mentioned, but not very convincingly, so that area of time which stretches to infinity called, “after Christmas” was what I had to be satisfied with.

But I have the case number (DP 1609/2008 in case the snappy label had slipped your mind) and a case number (or indeed any number) means that it exists.

A good day’s work, I should say.

I was able to spend some time in Sitges to justify the expense of travelling through the tunnels and arrived just before lunch. I had decided to use my MNAC card to get free admission to one of the museums there so I could look at some Rusiñol paintings that I remember having seen on a school trip.

First, I thought, a cup of coffee.

The only place that looked as though it was opening in the bay near the museums was a sushi bar and, as the waiter didn’t look in the least oriental I thought that he would probably not mind serving a coffee without the meal attached. He did agree, though he tried to get me to have a meal too – without success. My motto, “No Menu Del Dia No Meal” which almost looks Latinate in that form was a sure and certain way to preserve rapidly depleting funds!

While I was sipping my coffee and reading my e-book at the tables set outside the restaurant and near the sea, a strange couple arrived and sat at the next table. He was Indian; she was Chinese; they did not communicate. The Indian spoke Spanish but his companion was monoglot Chinese.

Their ordering of drinks was better than a West End comedy. The man ordered coffee but she waved a finger at all their suggestions in a variety of languages and applied herself to her dictionaries, both paper and electronic. They appeared to be of no help whatsoever so the waiter began mouthing coffee and then shivering and then flapping the collar of his shirt to indicate cold and hot. This raised a tight little smile from the lady and the waving of an admonitory finger at the waiter.

Eventually a Chinese man was found in the depths of the restaurant and a very animated conversation was started which eventually had the Indian raising both hands and denying something. The imagination raced to find a suitably salacious explanation.

Then both left the table so that when the waiter returned with coffee and hot milk (ah!) he looked around in astonishment to discover his customers. At least I was able to help out and point to their near proximity, even if they weren’t actually in their seats.

By the time the Strange Couple had regained their seats the waiter was engaged in an argument with a fellow worker on the “when I’m ready to go somewhere you aren’t” sort and I felt it was probably a good time to go.

There are probably not that many museums in the world that will allow you unsupervised access to iconic masterpieces by the acknowledged leader
of the Escuela Luminista (Luminous School) of Sitges and a couple of El Grecos thrown in as well; but I was.
I’m sure (am I?) that I was being watched on CCTV but it was pleasant to look at fascinating art works alone and unhindered as if one was at home.

It made the following lunch in a very much cheaper Chinese restaurant (menu del dia) a positive pleasure.

A day of contrasts!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pick any three

What are the three Great Lies?

The answer to this question will depend to a great extent on your background and how PC you are.

When I was told the answers to this question one response was racist; one statement was nastily sexual and the last was “The cheque is in the post.”

A year’s experience of living in Spain might cause me to alter some of the traditional Great Lies. From my exchanges with the ‘right’ police who eventually took my statement about the lack of clarity (that is a euphemism which I resent having to write) about what happened to the money raised by the school Readathon, I might say that, “We will keep you informed about what happens” would have to take pride of place as a Great Lie.

Telephoning gets you nowhere; you have to turn up in person to get answers. So I did and got them – for what they were worth. The child officer I spoke to was the same one who took my deposition and he said that he had phoned the school and talked to ‘some woman’ and that now the matter was out of their hands. They had done everything they had to and any further information I needed would be found in Vilanova, the next large town down from Stiges.

I was given the address and a mumbled Spanglish description of what the building was I would be looking for.

I eventually managed to get my GPS to accept a form of the address and I was off. As usual with GPS it gets you to the vicinity and then just tells you that you “are arriving at destination on the right” and you quite obviously are not. From hard experience I have found that it usually takes a few passes to find the exact location. This is the ‘pin ball machine’ approach; you end up pinging your way between two roundabouts suspecting that your destination is somewhere in between.

On the third pass I assumed that one block of un-flat-like flats might be an official building. Amazingly, after another pass or two I managed to get near the place and found a parking space.

From the side the building was much more impressive and had three flag staffs with the Catalan, Spanish and EU flags flapping - or they would have been if there had been any wind.

This edifice was modern with the requisite acres of plate glass, a sort of sweeping concrete bridge to the entrance and no people.

There were no explanatory notices or signs so it was something of a mixed relief that I then saw giant letters spelling out JUTJATS. As I doubted that there would be a major municipal building devoted to an esoteric form of the martial arts, I assumed that there were enough letters in that melange for me to work out that it was probably related to justice in some way. In fact it turned out that I was in the courts of justice in the area.

Walking under the ‘bridge’ I did see a life form sitting behind a desk in a uniform and in front of him a caricature of a Mrs Mop who barred my way to the functionary with a toothless grin and a sweeping brush. Having skirted the harridan I then attempted to state my business to what looked like a security guard.

He was a security guard and he looked bemused when I showed him the copy of my accusation and a damn sight more confused when I started explaining why I was there. The real trouble is that Spanish lessons do not prepare you for normal everyday judicial interaction. I use the words that I have, but they do not always all more than an approximation of what I want and need to say. But, in spite of everything, I get there – eventually.

The security guard read through the entire deposition and looked as though he were a silk about to give his professional opinion. He was looking for the essential thing which makes all bureaucracy in Spain go round: a number. As all I had was the deposition which I had given in Sitges I had nothing to indicate that the paper had been transformed numerically into something now at home in Vilanova.

I think that I have agreed to go back tomorrow (in person, “Don’t phone!” I was told) and find out what (if anything) has/is/will happened/happening/happen. As the accusation was only (!) made in October the security guard (who is obviously someone of power and influence) thinks I am being absurdly eager in my expectations – but, never say that I didn’t follow through my hatreds, I will go tomorrow after my Spanish lesson.

Justice may not get done, but by god I will enjoy watching it not happen!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Shifting sands

The cost of each trip by my new bike has now come down to about €35! It’s getting cheaper by the ride.

The new promenade has already changed the dynamic of the beach. Previously each entrance to the beach was paved down to the fringe of the sand and then a wooden walkway stretched into the beach for some way and petered out some distance from the waves.

When visitors come to the sea side they tend to concentrate around the area at the end of the wooden walkways with family sites becoming sparser the further from this ‘life line’ until the influence of the next entrance came into play. From the air they must look, during the height of the season, like a dribble of ink going into blotting paper!

People walked the beach at the water’s edge; that has now changed. The modified sand dunes immediately outside our little gate to the beach have been removed and the blocks for a new promenade have been laid. Although this new prom has not been completed and is ‘broken’ by the unfinished links to the street running parallel to the beach the local population has claimed this new paseo as its own and they are parading along as though it has been there for years!

Today, for some reason, has been an occasion for many more people than normal to be out and about and passing our flat.

The whole dynamic of the beach of Castelldefels is being changed; the promenade is opening up the whole of the seafront and linking parts of the town which were previously separated. There are, you have to understand, perfectly good roads along the whole of the front, but they do not encourage the promenading which is such a characteristic of the Spanish – this new walkway will and will also probably encourage people to expand their range of restaurants, cafes and bars.

It will for me when I finally remember to take the bike lock with me when I set out on one of my trips. By the time I get to one end of my route I feel I deserve some little refreshment!

I have finished reading Starkey’s ‘Henry Virtuous Prince’, his account of the early life of Henry VIII and I must admit that I found it strangely insubstantial. I am probably committing a cardinal critical error when I say that its chatty, confiding style makes me yearn for something more academic. To be fair there are full footnotes at the end of the narrative and an exhaustive index as Starkey has deliberately excluded anything which interrupts the flow of his exposition.

I’m not sure that he presents us with anything which is radically new, but his descriptions have the unsettling immediacy of the prose of ¡Hola! magazine with the same intrusive explanation of the intimate life of the rich and famous.

Wolsey only makes his appearance at the end of this volume and whets the appetite for the next one! Perhaps that was the whole point!

Another glorious day today with the sun being particularly hot: I will soon see if I have become acclimatized to something warmer when I return to the UK at the end of the month!

I am hoping for an Indian summer!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Books and more books!

There is much to be said for the copyright law.

Especially when its mercenary grip has been loosened on classic texts; specifically those available as e-books.

My trawling through what I can download onto my Sony e-book reader I came across another volume by Nathanial Hawthorne. My opinion of Hawthorne was negative, based I have to admit on my owning a paperback copy of The Marble Faun which sported a rather unprepossessing front cover and had tiny print on rough paper. It was, I felt, enough to own a copy of a book by an acknowledged but largely unread major nineteenth century American writer who I suspected would be even harder work than Henry James. This remained my firm opinion through university and into real life.

Then I read him.

‘The Scarlet Letter’ was a fantastic read - and for those of you who have no intention of reading it but want to appear clued up for Trivial Pursuit I might offer the information that the ‘letter’ in the title does not refer to any epistle but to an actual letter in red which the heroine of the novel had to wear: the letter ‘A’ for adultery.

Twenty or more years of ignoring the writer and he turns out to be worth reading after all!

The latest work of his I have read is ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ of which I had previously heard but never perused. The story is not told in a conventional way and there is not a great deal of conventional action in the basic story line – but there is more than enough to occupy the reader. This is basically a regenerative love story with its roots reaching back to the Puritan bigotry and corruption of seventeenth century East Coast greed. But for me the character of Clifford was by far the most interesting.

Clifford is the decayed remnant of a once important old family. Earlier in life committed some sort of crime which is not fully revealed until the end of the book. Until the final denouement his crime is only hinted at and his description allows Hawthorne the latitude to develop his character in an extraordinary way. Clifford is depicted as morbidly sensitive, always seeking beauty and refined sensation yet its appreciation only illuminating his vitiated character even more clearly. He appears like a washed out version of the ‘aesthetic’ gentlemen illustrated by the limp lily appreciating caricatures of the time of Wilde and Pater.

The final resolution of the novel is something of an anticlimax and Clifford’s guilt and crime are not as exciting as imagination might have painted them, but nevertheless an extraordinary novel and well worth a read.

I have also been reading a book whose purchase was prompted by the ever excellent The Week magazine, ‘Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes’ by Daniel Everett, subtitled ‘Life and Language in the Amazonian jungle.’

This is the story of a missionary who entered the life of a small group of indigenous people in the heart of the Amazon, the Pirahas, with the intention of learning their language in order to write a translation of the New Testament and bring them to god.

The action of the story is an account of his success in being able to speak the language and participate in the life of the people, but also the story of his failure to bring the people to a Christian god and his own loss of faith.

It is a gripping narrative of almost insuperable difficulties in adapting to a very different life style and the effects that the conditions had on him and his family; from the odd tarantula in the lap and life threatening diseases to the realization that the language and life style of the Pirahas were things which posed questions about an accepted way of living in the so-called civilized societies.

Everett describes a society which would be something beyond a nightmare in which to live for a person devoted to sophisticated pleasures like running water, electricity and proper drains!

The language of the Piraha has one of the smallest set of speech sounds known with just three vowels and only eight consonants! The women of the Piraha have only seven consonants – don’t ask!

From this seemingly limited linguistic palette the grammatical formation of the language has prompted Everett to an act of cultural blasphemy – he has dared to disagree with Noam Chomsky about the link of culture with grammar and questioning the traditional Chomsky assertion that recursive speech is an essential component of any language.

That seemingly trivial paragraph is actually of monumental importance – but you have to read the book to discover the lucid and intensely enjoyable path which will encourage you to share the perceptions of the author! But it and see, or you could listen to Radio 4 where it is the Book of the Week from Monday.

Now that Amazon has refunded the inflated postage charge they tried to charge for getting David Starkey’s ‘Henry – Virtuous Prince’ to me I have decided it is possible to read it. Previously I could not have read it without sulking, consciously as I would have been of the money extorted from me by the cynical encouragement of ‘one click’ purchasing by Amazon!

Starkey’s style is chummy and chatty and he asks casual questions which cannot be based on methodology of any academic stringency – but they do make his description of the young Henry VIII bounce along!

The simplified family tree of The Houses of York, Lancaster and Tudor at the beginning of the book is more complex than anything which I can follow with any degree of equanimity and just when I think I have worked out who is whose aunt and which house they are in I realise that I am on the wrong line – figuratively and literally! But I can also see how addictive it could easily become! Give me another few days and I will have a coherent opinion about who had a better claim to the throne that Henry Tudor – or of course I could get a life!

I’m in Starkey’s hands!

Friday, November 14, 2008

It's only a book

The Health Police are hot on my trail.

After finally admitting defeat and running out of ways in which to ignore the pain in my back I swallowed my paranoia and went to the doctor. My snivelling hobble obviously excited some sort of sympathy with the receptionist who provided me with an appointment with an English speaking doctor in just over an hour from the time of my request!

I was given a through grilling in Spanish (English was only allowed when total incomprehension had been achieved and then only momentarily to allow the Spanish to continue) and eventually provided with yet more pills as the doctor has decided that the pain is muscular and not the grinding of bone on bone at the hip joint as I had thought. The pills have ten days to work and prove him right because I do not think that I can force any more into the little daily sections that I gulp down each day!

I have spent some time (time he could better use, you might think) wondering about the ending of ‘Jane Eyre.’

Why does Bronte choose to end this novel with a description of St. John Rivers?

She does tie up loose ends in a most satisfactory (or irritating, take your choice) way after her final triumphant chapter opening, “Reader I married him.” It is unambiguous in its satisfaction as far as Jane is concerned: her happiness is complete and those around her participate in the general pleasure of comfortable lives - Rochester even gets his sight back so that he is able to see his new child! Jane is rich, secure, loved, admired, happy and has a growing family. So why end the novel with St. John?

Is he the one that got away?

The Reed Family have been dispatched to nunneries, Roman Catholicism, the grave and unsatisfactory marriage. Good servants have found family happiness. Brocklehurst has been contained and his vicious influence mitigated. Jane’s world is placid, ordered and useful with only St. John being a continuing nagging irritation daily nearing his martyr’s crown, a continent away from Jane’s money and impervious to her influence. He is untouchable in his single minded determination and ambition with the sort of terrifying strength that can recognize others only as pale reflections of himself.

To me St. John is a combination of all the traits of the negative and positive characters we have seen throughout the novel. The inflexibility of Mrs Reed; the beauty of Georgiana; the religious inhumanity of Eliza Reed; the cruelty of John Reed; the use of religion as a weapon of Mr Brocklehurst; the passion of Helen Burns; the iconic surety of Miss Temple and so on. None of the parallels are strict, but elements of those characters exist in St. John – Jane’s greatest temptation.

His offer of marriage and the missionary life to Jane is the ultimate presentation of the ‘useful’ – a key concept in Jane’s ethos. St. John offers service to people with devotion to God within a family: surely an irresistible way of life for Jane whose own life has been a search for family, a desire to be useful and a painful working out of her religious motivations. It takes the extraordinary to ‘save’ her – the disembodied voice of Rochester crying out when she is most vulnerable to the inexorable moral blandishments of St. John. Jane refuses St. John’s offer and seeks Rochester.

Jane overcomes everything in her way personally or the problems which hinder her progress are eliminated for her. Death removes Mrs Reed and Mrs Rochester

and perhaps St. John is mentioned last because he is still alive. With his death Jane will finally be living the antithesis of the opening of the novel: in control with no moral or personal threats left.

Finally the deceptive strength ironically mocked by her metaphorically insubstantial surname and the implied dismissal of her identity and personal attraction by her common first name will be both shown to be no indication of Jane’s real character. The novel is called ‘Jane Eyre’ because she dominates the book from the beginning to the end and she can allow St. John the last word because it is an illusion and she will ultimately be the ‘last one standing!’

What a good melodramatic read it is!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Here we go again!

A black president of the United States of America!

Rather like the Conservative Party of Great Britain electing a woman as the first leader of a major political party in the United Kingdom one should rejoice in the way that the world has changed.

Am I being too pessimistic when I point out that the election of That Woman did NOT signify a sea change in the attitude of the political hierarchy in her attitude towards women in politics? Thatcher’s cabinet had significantly fewer women than ‘normal’ Conservative administrations – what hope have we that Obama’s administration will significantly advance the blacks in the USA?

Obama has completed so many right wing u-turns in the approach to the presidential elections that one can have little hope that he is going to be some sort of socialist in the White House. I wish him well and I do welcome his election as a real change in the composition of the United States and, after all, it is much more than we have done in the United Kingdom.

Although I share the hopes of the world in this election, if I am realistic I do not expect much. The Washington administrative constraints on any president will ensure that we actually get to see some sort of emasculated nonentity as the actual incumbent of the mightiest office in the world.

There is only one major advantage to the election of this president that I can see and that is that it will be nigh on impossible for the son of a Kenyan pig farmer to claim the traditional presidential descent from some sort of Irish progenitor. At last we will have a president untainted by the facile link to honorary Oppressed by the British status. Though thinking about it I fear that the British had a great deal to do with the ‘development’ or exploitation of Kenya. I shudder to think what is going to be made out of the link!

I await to see what those more informed than I make of this neo colonial inheritance. The one thing that I am sure of is that we Brits will not come out smelling of violets. The Irish will make sure of that!

It is surely a fault on the part of what ever electronic powers that be that typing the word ‘Obama’ registers as a spelling mistake. I wonder how long it will be before that surname is recognized as one which has been and is going to be splashed over all media for the foreseeable future! As a point of considerable irony the Windows Spell Checker did offer an alternative for ‘Obama’ – that of ‘Osama!’ What can it be trying to tell us?

Friends can assume a certain amount of latitude in the conditions that they prefer. They can also assume a certain degree of co-operation in the establishment of their ideal conditions – which I suppose is another way of saying that I am prepared to be amiably flexible in accommodating the requirements of those who are my friends. Eating out is a test of that flexibility.

Too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark, too expensive, too low, too noisy, too, too much.

Rejection and dissatisfaction necessitated re assessing options and eventually settling for a restaurant I had vowed I would never again shower with my money.

I was greeted by the South American waiter like a long lost rich uncle who had come back to rewrite the erring nephew into the will. I faced a torrent of largely incomprehensible Spanish in which words and hysterical gesticulations seemed (I used the word advisedly) to indicate that he was eager to hear the reasons for my long absence having seen me pass by on the other side and after he had discussed my behaviour with the watch salesman who still owes me a watch. Uncorking the Cava took an age as his volubility demanded answers to which I could only approximate with my debased attempts at Spanish.

Two bottles of Cava later and after picking at some tapas we decided not to eat our main meal there but to look elsewhere. Our departure was mystifying to the waiters but they computed the bill and as I was leaving the waiter with whom I had had a long ‘conversation’ pressed a small bottle of liqueur into my hands. It looked disturbingly like a urine sample and had a design of a witch on a broom on it. Some things defy sensible thought.

It had now started to rain so, like true British holidaymakers we scampered and hobbled towards shelter only to reject the nearest other restaurant and then look about wildly for another eating place.

My first choices being rejected, I made a virtue of necessity and accepted a previously rejected venue. This was becoming something of a habit but this choice was very well received by the party and we had a more than acceptable meal served by a willing and cheerful waiter. The only negative aspect was the Tarta Santiago which the unanimous choice of the evening for sweet. It was stodgy and disgusting and we all sent it back. My second choice of lemon sorbet doused with some sort of alcohol was unexpectedly tasty.

So a successful evening based on patronising two previously rejected establishments! God sometimes does go out of his way to frustrate the quality of my judgements!

I bear it with equanimity!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The weather today has that sort of indeterminate quality which gives it the effect of belonging in a climatic waiting room while it decides what to do.

We have had gleams of sunlight but the clouds have settled in while giving glimpses of something more positive in the west – although thinking about it my sense of direction as I look towards the sea is based on my position in Cardiff rather than here in Catalonia – so I’m probably looking south at the signs of the better weather. My sense of direction was ever suspect!

My cycle riding has now come down to just €46 a jaunt and I am determined (if I write it down it seems more real) to make this sum even less.

I have to say that the pressing realities of cycling (even in my domesticated fashion) are to the forefront of my experiences. I do not consider myself to be exactly gaunt, I am, to put it mildly “well fleshed out” but that is not a protection against the exquisite discomfort of the saddle. How, in the name of the living god, to cyclists manage to complete hours in the saddle? Do they administer narcotics to their backsides? And what about their fertility? You cannot persuade me that their reproductive capabilities are not in some ways compromised by the activity of the lower body while cycling. I muse thus as someone forced to these considerations by the physical realities of cycling transportation.

While I have the car and physical capabilities to allow me to continue driving I will only ever regard cycling as a necessary evil. And even this I am prepared to re-examine in the light of any plausible evidence to the contrary!

I intended to cycle to a far distant (i.e. more than 10 minute walking time away) restaurant for lunch, but forgot to take the lockable chain with me. As someone who has had two bikes stolen some time ago I do not intend to chance fate with this one. The fact that there were few people about and the chances of something being taken are small does not convince me that it would be safe so I returned home and made myself one of my famed (at least by me) concoctions (always including beans of some sort) which are (more or less) healthy. And cheaper than even a menu del dia!

Today saw the appearance in my letter box of three new First Day Covers which are sent to me by the Philatelic Bureau to continue my collection started years ago in Britain.

I collect these for the philatelically inept reason that I find them aesthetically pleasing and I often think that the stamps that the Post Office issues are some of the best design to come out of Britain today.

I have simple demands for a successful stamp:
1 It must commemorate something significant. (Not the latest progeny; the tenacious grip on life of; some social incident in the life of some parasitic family which has nothing to do with a democratic state.)
2 It should exhibit artistic integrity.
3 It should have an immediate impact.
4 It should look significant on an envelope.
5 Artistic qualities should override the impact of 1. above.

For me, one of the most successful stamp issues which fulfilled all the conditions above was David Gentleman’s stamps issued in 1976 to commemorate social reformers. I can still remember my shocked admiration when I first saw these stamps which were not only individually exciting but were also interesting when seen on a sheet. A restrained use of colour but a sure touch of imaginative and design genius to choose an iconic image to encapsulate the essential features of the individual reformers. A triumph of a set!

The sets issued over the last year or so have been a mixed bunch from the sinister failure of the set for the Scout Centenary in July and the over fussy and disappointing set of UK Bird Species in Recovery in September to the partial success of Beside the Sea Side in May with some exceptional images.

2008 started with the fun if irrelevant issue of Ian Fleming’s James Bond book covers in January; the effective but aesthetically limited illustrations of the kings and queens of the houses of Lancaster and York in February to the most successful set in my view, the stamps issued to mark the Handover of the Olympic Flag from Beijing to London in August. These stamps are design at its best – striking images beautifully presented with an inspired choice of parallel images from London and Beijing.

My two favourite stamps from this year however were from the Air Displays issue in July: the 1st class stamp and the 56p stamp. The 1st class stamp is reminiscent of one of the Battle of Britain stamps with four planes in monochrome and the jets of trailing colour in bright red and blue. It works as a compelling abstract design as well as a clear pictorial representation.

The 56p stamp shows five Vulcan bombers again in monochrome and looking like alien craft high in the sky. The design has a stark beauty and equilibrium and is a powerful other worldly statement about the whole concept of flying.

The designs for the last few years for Remembrance Day are difficult for me to evaluate because of my fundamental difficulties with the whole concept of the idea of a Remembrance Day itself.

I do not for a moment ignore the horror and suffering that the First World War has come to represent and neither do I underestimate the human qualities of the men who were involved in that conflict. What I find difficult to accept is that Remembrance Day works. I am not sure that it does much more than allow a series of very moving but essentially empty gestures to take place – and then we carry on as if our participation in Remembrance Day itself was an end in itself. Where is the remembering on November 12th when the silence on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is lost in the normal noise of everyday life?

Artistically though (how hollow that sounds when you measure the dead from the futile battles on the Western Front) how do the stamps work?

2008 is the 90th Anniversary of the end of the First World War and brings to an end a three year series of issues to commemorate Remembrance Day which have used the design concept of the poppy as its basis.

The first stamp in 2006 showed seven poppies whose stems were make from barbed wire: stark stamps in black and red with the queen’s head in silver.

The stamp in 2007 showed a view of the open petals of the poppy taking up most of the stamp with what appeared to be the black seed centre of the flower actually a battlefield with small silhouette figures charging towards the observer. The same colour scheme was retained with red, black and white with a silver head.

This year’s stamp ends the series with a side view of the poppy, this time with a sliver of extra colour for the stem and the face of one of the killed as a faint ghost like suggestion on one of the petals.

These stamps are undoubtedly effective and I find them moving and poignant, but there is a guilt behind my appreciation. The beauty of the stamp images are like the regimented and beautifully kept crosses in the battlefield graveyards they become acceptable images of what was grotesque horror and wicked, wicked waste.

Look at the world today and repeat

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,


Then try and believe it’s true.