Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lost in the City

An old technique came into play yesterday when I found myself wandering around the Gothic part of Barcelona and having very little idea of where I was. I am very much a city boy and feel much more affinity for streets and buildings than for the much vaunted grandeur of Nature with a capital N.

Each new capital I visited on holiday would see me at some point happily wandering about with no idea whatsoever where I was. Eventually you would come across something which was familiar from the guide book – or not. At that point the ability to speak English gave access to the locals who were usually able to speak some form of it as the local lingua franca. That includes cities in the United States where, I have to admit that European foreigners’ grasp of spoken English was sometimes rather more understandable than some of the cities in the states that I visited!

Yesterday was my opera day and, given the absurd traffic jams that can be found each day on the Ronda Littoral I left giving myself almost three hours to travel the 18 km to the city. The traffic, though heavy was moving and I found myself in the city with a couple of hours to wait before the start of the performance.

A couple of hours allows you to do a number of things: have a menu del dia; visit gadget shops; pay your respects to El Corte Inglés; watch foreigners walk up and down the Ramblas; have coffee virtually anywhere or sit in the café of the Liceu and read my e-book reader.

I decided to find the small circular battery necessary to run my ipod remote. The first camera shop I entered (usually a safe source of these timid little power sources) elicited a whole string of instructions for finding the ‘right’ shop. Which I foolishly followed. And found no shop at the given address.

I was now well off the Ramblas and into the maze of narrow streets which constitute the Gothic Quarter of the city. And they were filled with small shops of the sort which have usually been driven away from city centres in Britain by the power and ubiquity of the chains which make so many of our cities seem so distressingly similar.

As I walked on I ‘sort of’ knew where I was and (albeit unexpectedly) when I recognized Santa Maria del Mar I went in. This is by far my favourite church in Barcelona. Its stripped interior (courtesy of fully justified iconoclasm as punishment for the Church supporting the Nationalists during the Civil War) and fantastic sense of space with soaring columns and large windows is exhilarating. The gruesome cell-like side chapels which blight so many Roman churches are here little more than spacious niches whose shallow sides soon give way to an open clerestory.

The apse has a colonnade of open columns reaching to the roof through which the ambulatory is clearly visible. To my mind this church looks like something which could have been designed by Peter Brooke – it has his ‘nothing up my sleeve’ approach to dramatic effects. What you see is what you get: a space which impresses because it is so ‘open’ in more than one sense of the word!

Back out into the street and still plenty of time for wandering and straying. An art shop here, a gadget shop there. Yes, I finally did find somewhere to buy the batteries. And then the highlight of my peregrinations.

Book shops always keep me happy, but this one had a selection of art books in the window which virtually forced me to go in. The interior comprises floor to high ceiling bookshelves and piles of books everywhere. The counter gave narrow access to the rest of the shop and sitting at the counter, almost lost behind drifts of books was a kindly looking old man who smiled a welcome. I was encouraged to enquire about books on Catalan art.

A younger man who I had taken to be a customer looking at shelves of books next to the counter turned out to be the owner’s son and both of them set about finding books for me to peruse.

My time there was an absolute delight with fresh books being offered for my inspection while the Old Man kept up an informed discussion about Catalan artists and bringing other books by artists that he simply liked and thought I might be interested by.

His son disappeared and eventually returned with a weighty tome which described Catalan art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its price was also hefty at €100 but it was obviously the definitive book for the subject. They made sympathetic sounds about the price and produced other monographs on individual Catalan artists at more moderate prices, including an excellent book reasonably priced on Fortuny which only the inconvenience of dragging it around in the Liceu prevented my purchasing.

Eventually I left the shop, the Llibreria Sant Jordi located at Carrer Ferran, 41, having purchased nothing but having been treated properly by a couple of booksellers who knew and cared about their stock. A delight of a place!

That wallowing in delight had however taken up a considerable amount of time and I had a brisk walk to get to the Liceu on time. A brisk walk made even more brisk by the fact that I resolutely started off in the wrong direction and found myself further away from my destination than was good given the limited minutes available until the start of the performance.

I swallowed my pride and asked for directions and eventually reached the Liceu with minutes to spare. My the time I took my seat I was dripping with sweat in spite of the cold and had to fan myself with the programme to regain my composure.

I am glad to say that as the overture started soon after I took my seat I was able to tut-tut with the others as a few stragglers were even later than I – and the only reason that they were allowed to get to their seats was that they were at the end of rows.

So there I was, sweating gently, beginning to breathe normally and regretting the fact that I had not had time to go to the loo. Behind me an old man started his low level grumbling cough which he kept up throughout the whole of the performance. The man directly in front of me was obviously someone of my height because he partially obstructed my view of the stage. A series of instances guaranteed to lessen the appropriate critical artistic faculties necessary to appreciate fully an opera.

And my review can wait for another time!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Culture all around please!

The last opera of the year beckons.

The last musical offering of the year for me is ‘Simon Boccanegra’ by Verdi. The plot has all the subtlety of a Revenge Tragedy with death off stage to start, mutiny, plotting, poison, lost children, reconciliation and death on stage to end - but with no ghost! The last production that I saw was with Welsh National Opera and of it I remember nothing, nothing at all! I don’t really know the music so this is all going to be new for me - and I haven’t done my homework and listened to a recording. That at least shows how the crisis is biting: last year I bought CDs of most of the operas I wasn’t able to whistle!

I have at least read the synopsis so the musical posturing can at least be placed in some sort of context. I have not been able to find a libretto in English on the web so that I will be relying on the little LED screen on the seat in front of me to relay the English version of what is being sung on stage. In the Liceu the only surtitles are in Catalan.

On the other artistic front I have squared up the photo of Sitges which is to be the basis for my next painting and I have produced a pencil version which does not look convincing and therefore bodes ill for the next stage when colour is added.

The great thing about the picturesque view of Sitges is that as long as you have a silhouette of the tower of a church next to a filigree bell tower next to a bent palm tree you have encapsulated the most photographed and most easily recognized part of the town.

I am relying on these iconic pieces of architecture and nature giving a clue to the most obtuse of viewers of my finished work. I shall steel myself to hear, “Oh, is it supposed to be Sitges?” and I will have to take that faint praise as some sort of triumph!

The acrylic paints that I am using are much more watery than I expected: I like impasto and feel denied a tactile pleasure by the thin consistency of the medium. I am sure that there is something you can mix with the colour to make it spikier. I did notice in one of the books that I bought for Christmas for my ‘rival’ that it suggested that you could mix the paint with all sorts of interesting things to give different textures. One example was paint mixed with rice and the other with flour! I don’t know what effect the water content of the paints has on those hydrophilic materials. I wonder if you can use sugar; that would give an interesting look to the paint! This is another example of my running before I have even learned the definition of direction!

The next stage in my masterwork is to block out areas in the main colour and then when the thing is dry begin to work on more precise delineation. The theory is there, it is just the ineptitude which takes over when I hold a brush in my hand. Still, fun is fun and it will all last until the last of the Lidl canvases is used up!

I can always punish my presumption later by visiting MNAC and wandering through galleries with my favourite Catalan art and as a friend of MNAC it will cost me nothing. Nothing that is, if I can resist the lure of the restaurant with the staggering views over Barcelona and the gratifyingly pretentious menu!

Enough of writing there is tidying up and painting to do!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Banking delight!

I always give my victims fair warning.

I ask, “Do you speak English,” and if the answer is in the negative then frankly Jonnie Foreigner only has himself to blame if he is then subjected to the whole force of my enthusiastic Spanish.

The major trouble is that the conversations that I get involved with never seem to be covered by the average phrase book or Spanish lesson. My visit to the bank was a case in point.

As is generally accepted BBVA is the worst and most graspingly unhelpful and avaricious bank in the known universe and it therefore takes a considerable incentive to get me past its hated portals. The recent little domestic difficulty with the pound was such a case.

A Matt cartoon in the Daily Telegraph shows a TV newscaster reporting, “For the first time the pound reached parity with a chocolate coin covered in foil,” which, when you are in the euro zone is not so far from the truth! In effect, the recent troubles have worked out to mean a 40% increase in the cost of living for me when the value of the pound has plummeted to the lower reaches of the Marianas Trench! A visit to the bank manager was called for to ensure the smooth flow of money from the benighted shores of bankrupt Britain to what is now the reassuringly expensive Costas.

As BBVA adopts the world wide courtesy of all banks in providing too few counter clerks I took along my trusty e-book to while away the interminable chunks of time it takes to be seen to in any financial institution. Because of the ever present reality of armed rebellion against BBVA my branch has taken the typically cowardly precaution of installing an electronic cubicle door which only allows one person into the bloody place at a time.

I waited patiently for the inner door to open allowing the person in front of me to enter the bank and for that door to close before the outer door would open for me. I entered the glass prison and an electronic voice told me to get rid of the metal I was carrying. I had to get out of the prison and go to the pathetically few lockers that BBVA provides for any customer stupid enough to attempt to enter their sacred premises by daring to bring guns, flame throwers, bazookas or e-books with them.

Amazingly, and for the first time in my experience, a locker was actually free so my delay was only momentary. I finally entered to find the queue for service stretching the entire length of the bank and surprise, surprise only one bank clerk working.

I however needed to join another queue to see some sort of manager. This was shorter but equally slow moving. And I didn’t have my e-book and so could only join in the rest of the cattle sighing gently and looking with unmixed hatred at everyone around us.

An entire family of what looked like three generations had chosen this particular day to open accounts at this god forsaken bank. When something as momentous as this occurs then the photocopying machines go into overdrive and applicants develop writers cramp by initialling and signing every dun coloured sheet which is put in front of them and then jubilantly stapled together to form the basis of ‘a file’ the most comforting building block of security for any governmental or institutional organization in Spain.

I now watch this tedious process with brain dead eyes because at least I now know what to expect and the active part of my brain tried to work out what I might have to say if the person who was going to deal with me spoke no English.

The person who was going to deal with me spoke no English.

My Spanish is rather like an unimaginative composer from the time of Joseph Haydn – the musical ideas are few but rearranged can give the impression of variety. So with my limited vocabulary; I may not have the precise words but my grasp of round about ways of expression would now make me a shoe-in for a high position in the Circumlocution Office in ‘Bleak House’!

As interviews with bank managers go this went well and there seemed to be no problems and everything would be sorted out. I only hope that what I meant is what she understood! Time, as they say, will certainly tell in this case.

The weather continues thoroughly grey and depressing, apart of course from the waves – which is more than can be said for my representation of the meeting of water and sand courtesy of acrylic paint. I am sure that my attempt at church, beach and bay in Stiges will be more successful. It could hardly be worse.

Leaving aside my almost complete lack of technical skill I thoroughly enjoy the untutored frenzy which characterises my painting style. My choice of brushes is largely governed by their appearance and how nice the bristles feel on the finger. While my application of paint looks towards Bratby - but without his subtlety! My rudimentary knowledge of the colour circle means that my attempts to produce colour matches are restricted by my ineptitude augmented by my slight colour blindness. All in all I think I have the makings of a good all round conceptual modern artist!

Perhaps I should saw the canvases I produce in half and soak them in formaldehyde for that up-to-the-moment look!

Buy now before they get too expensive!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Careless talk costs lives!

Hell is other people.

How true Sartre's words are when you live in a flat.

We have been spoilt by our rich neighbours who are able to own a highly expensive residence by the sea and only use it for a few weeks during high days and holidays. The end result is that our neighbours to the right and left are generally absent. Below is generally quiet and above, apart from some forays in high heels on tile floors is generally quiet too.

It was something approaching total horror that I realised by various grinding sounds that our neighbours on the right had turned up. With family and dogs. In spite of the inclement weather they have packed the balcony which is at right angles to our own with their cigarette smoke and conversation.

That last word has a different meaning in Catalonia than it does in Britain. Discussion programmes on what is laughingly called Spanish Television consist of a group of people all speaking at once at gradually increasing volumes to capture the conversation. This technique is transferred to the home and balcony in what I take to be a gesture of general inclusion – because you sure as hell cannot escape the continuous noise of a family happily shouting together and pretending it is conversation. When you add yappy little rat dogs to the mix the sonic melange is something which makes you wish for a soothing flame thrower.

In an effort to combat the campaign of intrusive conversation from my garrulous neighbours I have started to paint a landscape, put the ipod player on loud and even lowered the metal shutters on the French windows – and still their piercing voices intrude through what W H Auden called ‘the frontier to my person.’

Ah for my dear departed neighbour in Rumney the only sound of whose existence was the rumble of Heavy Metal Music briefly once every two or three years! How different from the home life of flat dwellers in sea side Catalonia.

Having had my little rant, they have now retreated into their flat and left me in relative silence. I will even raise the shutters and snatch the last few minutes of the evening sunset and watch the eerie effect of low flying aircrafts’ searchlights catch the underside of the clouds. And have a cup of tea to settle my chatter torn nerves.

After living in a house, even if it is a semi, it is difficult to get readjusted to the flexibility that has to exist when you live in a flat. In objective terms I know that I am relatively lucky in that some of the flats are so rarely used. But we only children must be allowed our personal space selfishness – and anyway the view of the sea more than compensates for the human bustle of fellow dwellers.

The Daisy Ashford book of ‘The Young Visiters’ having been chuckled through courtesy of a site I recommend for similarly mean e-book readers as containing a positive cornucopia of books for free download. There are lots of them there, but not always the ones you want.

For example, I had decided that I would like to re-read two books by Ruskin: ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ and ‘Unto This Last’ – both are well out of copyright and I would have thought readily available for free download. Wrong. Although there is an impressive selection of Ruskin’s works available on the site, it only scratches the surface of the quantity of books and monographs that Ruskin churned out in his extremely productive career. So it turns out that while free site will offer you seeming riches, the actual nuggets of gold are often frustratingly out of reach. I am sure that a more confident and competent user of the internet than I will aver that the books I need are out there, and for nothing, it’s just that I haven’t framed my enquiry in the most effective way.

I shall take that as a challenge and I hereby vow to find the two elusive Ruskin volumes somewhere in the computers of the English speaking world. And for nothing.

Meanwhile, what I am actually reading at the moment is some distance away from the social and artistic philosophy of Ruskin. I am reading (with pleasure I might add) ‘The Chessmen of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs – the author better known for his ‘Tarzan’ books.

These books are either camp and irresistible or gauche and contemptible – or, more likely, all of those at the same time! It has incomparable passages like,
“Yes, Tara of Helium, the come,” replied the slave. “I have seen Kantos Kan, Overlord of the Navy, and Prince Soran of Ptarth, and Djor Kantos, son of Kantos Kan,” she shot a roguish glance at her mistress as she mentioned Djor Kantos’ name.

The inhabitants of Mars are indeed red skinned (apart from the baddies who are green) and their muscular and beautiful bodies “otherwise naked trapped with a jewel-encrusted harness’ seem to cater to a popular need for low level porn!

The language is faux archaic littered with phrases like, “while thus profitably employed’ and ‘thus always is royalty announced’ and ‘thus it is’ and so on. Personally I find it delightful and am totally enchanted by obtrusive narrative devices which give exotic information like, “Your ancient history has doubtless told that that Gathol was built upon an island in Throxeus, mightiest of the five oceans of old Barsoom.” This is pulp fiction at its best!

But not quite enthralling enough to drive into silence other people’s noise!

Tomorrow a time to reassess the financial implications of the fall of the pound and an essential trip to the most hated bank in Europe: BBVA.

Needs must when the Devil drives!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Undergrowth of Books

I think that I am the only person I know who has read ‘The Red House Mystery’ by A A Milne. A detective story by the author of 'Winnie-the-Pooh.'

When you are as mean as I am when it comes to paying for e-books then you must be satisfied with the less frequented pathways of out of copyright literature. Some of the books which I have now read in electronic form by P G Wodehouse I have never heard of. ‘The Politeness of Princes’ and ‘The Pothunters’ read like hack works by an author who had been impressed by ‘Stalky and Co’ by Kipling – but they remain interesting as forerunners of Wodehouse’s mature style. At least that is what I am telling myself as I read through more obscure examples of Great Writers’ work!

I now have over three hundred books (varying in length from single short stories to the entire Bible) lurking in the memory of my e-book and I still haven’t got over the sheer magic of the thing: a single slim book containing an entire library!

If only the grasping publishers would moderate their extortionate prices for copyright books I would be truly satisfied. I find it astonishing to think that there are some instances where the electronic form of the book is MORE expensive than the paper copy! The economics behind that sort of greed has more in keeping with the grasping avariciousness of the venomous Sheriff of Nottingham than the Venerable Bede.

Whatever the effectiveness (or indeed the appropriateness) of that bitter comparison, it is perhaps significant that my e-book probably holds roughly the same number of volumes that Bede had in the library in the Monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow when he produced his books. It is also worth pointing out that the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow was probably one of the biggest in England at the time. If I push the historical point even more then I could say that all the books that Bede was able to consult are probably available free from websites around the globe as electronic downloads. Never has the literary knowledge of the world been so freely available to so many people . . . and I’m not sure of where I am going in this digression. Though it is noticeable that the number of Ecclesiastical Histories of the English Peoples (or equivalent) coming out of Northumbria has been a little thin on the ground during the last millennium despite the availability of books and the access to them!

Talking of Northumbria we actually had a mild hailstorm today. We also had sunshine and rain and cloud. Taken together it could be said to be more reminiscent of a British day during which you get a selection of the seasons rather than the steady expectation of consistent weather that we generally get in Catalonia.

As always with slightly rougher weather, the appearance of the sea becomes much more interesting with our stunted domestic waves actually acquiring some height and the wind whipping off the foam to make the curving waves beautiful to look at but devilishly difficult to photograph.

Ian, the professional photographer living diagonally above us, showed me a fine photo of a breaking wave taken from our very own seashore and in reply to my plaintive moan that I have never managed to take a picture like that, he patiently explained that what I was looking at was a cunningly composed composite of five separate photographs including one photo reversed to form the end of the beautifully curling wave! I have now sent off for a truncated version of the program that he used to produce such results and I hope soon to start dabbling in the forbidden arts of twisting photographic reality to my own dark ends.

I will end with my invaluable e-book and recommend (for those who have not yet read it) a delight of a book called ‘The Young Visiters’ by Daisy Ashford. This is a book written by a nine year old which lay undiscovered for years and then was published with Daisy Ashford’s own punctuation and spelling. It is an artlessly cunning construction which uses the authentic naivety of Daisy with what now reads as a clever illumination and critique of society in the late nineteenth century. It is very funny. I was first given a copy of this wonderful book by Aunt Betty and read it with delight and disbelief. It is the story of a Mr Salteena and his attempts to become a gentleman. When the book was first published with a foreword by J M Barrie it was an astonishing success and was later alleged to have been a sort of literary joke produced by an adult author pretending to write down to a child’s level. Indeed some of the observations in the book seem a little arch and knowing to be those of a young girl, but the authenticity of Daisy Ashford’s work has never been in doubt.

If you have read and enjoyed ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ or ‘Three Men on a Boat’ then you will appreciate ‘The Young Visiters’ although it is nothing like the first two books mentioned. Everyone has their own favourite quotations from the book, starting with the opening, “Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking people to stay with him.” This opening leads to more piquant extracts like, “Then he sat down and eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him” and this revealing extract from Mr Salteena’s letter to Bernard Clark (“a rarther presumshious man”), “I am fond of digging in the garden and I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is in my nature.” Or perhaps Ethel’s conversational observation to her host, “I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.” Each of Daisy’s chapters was written in one continuous paragraph and there were no speech marks, but every page has gems of expression and delights in spelling.

And you can download it for free. It is worth doing so for no other reason than it drives Microsoft Word wild trying to make sense of it all!

Ah joy!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Give and Take

Christmas is a time for counting the cost.

I don’t mean in purely mercenary terms in the sort of ‘double entry’ accounting that some people adopt at this time of Christian cheer, as presents are weighed in the balance with what you have given and found wanting. Either way is an embarrassment. No, what I am talking about is the appropriateness of the gifts.

A disturbing number of people gave me booze – though let me assure all of my generous givers that every precious drop is dear to me and will be savoured with absolute relish. I suppose that it is easier to give a bottle of something than double guess what my voracious reading will have left for the unwary buyer to choose.

I would like to concentrate on two. The first is a pair of wi-fi headphones which allow me to wander through the flat and out onto the balcony cosily protected from the foreign environment by the domestic comfort of Radio 4 where ere I go. It gives me pleasure and allows me to forget doctor’s appointments as a sink deeper and deeper into the afternoon play. The headphones also allow me to peregrinate with the appropriate volume of a Bruckner symphony playing inside my head. To those who opine that this could also be done with an ipod I would reply that there is a distinct difference in the quality of sound and for meaty orchestral works the expansiveness of ear covering phones and somehow more appropriate than a small insert in the ear!

The second present was not one that I was given for Christmas but one on my Name Day, the Day of my Saint which is, of course, today! Catalonia takes such things with a great deal more seriousness than we do in the protestant north.

Some presents have that ‘I wouldn’t have thought of it for myself but now that you’ve given it to me it is just right’ quality. This was one of those.

The festively wrapped box that I was handed was too flat to contain a 75cl bottle of anything and when I held it I found it to be too heavy to contain a book. There were ‘bits’ I could feel bumping around, but they did not have the quality of miniature bottles of anything and they certainly were not chocolates.

It was therefore with a certain amount of interested trepidation (as I was unwrapping this in the face of the whole family) that I started ripping the paper away.

It was a chess set.

Not on the face of it something to raise more than a polite 'thank you.' Bear in mind that in the fairly recent past I have been humiliated at this game by eight year olds. It wasn’t the game that provoked my unstinted expressions of gratitude it was rather the figures themselves.

They were all modelled on The Simpsons™ It only seems fair to include the ™ mark as sign of my breathless admiration for the ruthless marketing campaign which has seen this yellow family appear on everything that has a space large enough for the logo and the reproduction of a member of the family. The figures are lovingly crafted from machine moulded plastic but the set is worth it for seeing Marge and Homer and Queen and King. Bart as the Bishop and Lisa as the Castle provoke metaphorical speculation which is as satisfying as it is futile. The whole set is a delight and I even won my first game!

For the first time in three years I was well enough to eat my Christmas meal. The last two years have been sorry stories of wasted culinary opportunities while I lay languishing on a figurative bed of pain. It was actually a bed of oblivion as I waited for the obnoxious bugs to begone. It is now obvious that I have met and assimilated the germs that are native to the region and they now accept me as one of their own.

The restaurant meal was, needless to say, delicious – though it did pass through my mind that the thirty five quid that I would have paid for the meal in the old days when one euro was worth 70p had now risen to a more substantial fifty quid. The parity of euro and pound sterling is a financial disaster for those of us who have all their savings locked in a worthless currency in the Old Country! I know that what I should be doing is taking a deep breath and be telling myself to think of the long term.

Unfortunately the short term is here and now and the juggernaut of expense goes on rolling. The only thing that I resent is that the grease for the wheels of that massive cart are not being oiled by the crushed bodies of the wastrel bankers who precipitated the crisis!

There is one more opera left before the end of the year and so I am going to take every opportunity to listen again to the work so that I can take a more appreciative approach when I sit in my expensive seat working out just how much each minute of my entertainment is costing with the currency parity.

It will give extra spice to my critique!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Never give up!

Fiat lux!

At long last, having exhausted all likely shops in Castelldefels, Stiges came up semi trumps and has provided me with a replacement bulb so the top part of the Christmas tree can shine out like the rest of the of the synthetic vegetation.

Ironically, while the replacement bulb brought life to the rest of the links, it didn’t actually light itself. I can’t help feeling that there is a meaningful metaphor lurking around somewhere, but it is far too near to Christmas to be worrying about things like that.

Talking of the Yule I managed to be too tardy to get a ticket for El Gordo – the Fat One, the largest lottery in the world. Ironically again, many winners came from Barcelona. I must not think about such things or that winning anything in euros would now be equivalent to a 30% increase in the money compared with the pound!

To compensate for missing El Gordo I have bought a ticket for El Niño (The Child) another whopping lottery to be drawn in January during Los Reyes (The Kings). In a gesture which even I regard as cynically blasphemous I have placed the ticket under the crib in my Belen or Nativity Scene. I like to feel that I thereby combine a pagan belief in luck with a positively Roman belief in the intercessionary quality of iconic artefacts!

I have had my Silhouette™ (frameless and light as a feather!) glasses returned with a new arm put in and over fifty quid taken out of my account. Getting a replacement bulb in a shop nearby is not really compensation enough for paying so much for something which is virtually not there! I content myself with being able to retire the clunky replacements that I have been wearing and allow my soft weeping to have a soothing effect. That and a cup of tea. You can take the man out of Britain but you cannot take the tea out of the man – as Bertrand Russell might have said.

Castelldefels still remains sunk in unnatural gloom in the evenings as no further festive lights have appeared in our part. The centre of town has at least some attempt at illumination but our bit by the sea is only lit up by the lights from restaurants, shops and the enthusiasm of an occasional hotel owner. I assume that all available funds are being expended on the new promenade which is being constructed piecemeal on the beach. The municipality has adopted the same technique which built the Great Wall of China and has laid down odd stretches of the slab pathway which will eventually be joined up to form a continuous promenade from Castelldefels to Gava.

As the project continues it is interesting to speculate on what the finished result is going to be. At the moment it is only possible to make guesses about the finishing touches like edging and lighting. Every so often, rather like the interruption caused by the towers you get on the great wall, we have intersection points on the promenade which lead to the road parallel to the beach. These areas have been marked out by the sudden planting of half a dozen severely repressed palm trees set in a lake or concrete.

Whatever obstacles are placed in their way, pedestrians have claimed the quarter build promenade for their own and, as is the way with Mediterranean people, have begun to promenade as if their national identity depended upon it. People watching is a characteristic compulsion in this part of the world and it is therefore only fair that if you are not watching you should be providing the raw material for the watchers – and walk to be seen.

I assume (though on what evidence ask me not!) that the promenade will be ready for the influx of tourists in the spring and summer. It will be fascinating to sit out on the balcony with the ever present glass of Rioja and consider the changes to the dynamic of the beach which will be caused by this new source of access. Already the beach hawkers are using this new super highway to facilitate their saturation selling – and I imagine that it will also give them a quicker way of getting to another part of the beach away from the prying eyes of our two (count them) police persons who emerge from the bars of winter to take the sun in the season!

I will perhaps hire out part of my balcony to desperate sociologists eager to amass new material for a thesis on ‘Promenade Production and Social Dispersion on the Littoral’ which, having thought about it for a few seconds, I would indeed read!

Apart from Faulkner, what wouldn’t I read?

Monday, December 22, 2008

A pre Christmas adventure!

It wasn’t my fault. It was because my wallet was black.

Or I could blame Ceri. I was wearing the wireless headphones with the Afternoon Play on Radio 4 soothing my ears. It was a twee version of ‘The Borrowers’. I have to admit that when it comes to the afternoon play I prefer something with someone like Janet Suzman in it (a voice made for radio) and themes touching on all the major horrors of humankind. You know the sort of play: one that suddenly stops just after one of the major characters makes a portentous statement which leaves you wondering what the hell is going on and then there is the continuity announcer dragging you back to ‘reality.’ Whatever.

The point was that I was listening to a radio play when I should have been elsewhere.

Why I should have been elsewhere relates back to a small oblong of printed paper which had details of my appointment with the medical person who is giving me stern looks and sharp words about my weight. I should have gone to see Pablo (sic.) on the 15th of December in Room 18 of our Medical Centre.
It does not take the sharpest mind to look at that “should have” in the previous sentence to work out that I may, inadvertently have transposed those two numbers. Which I did, realizing on the 17th of December that it was two days after the date at which I should have been in the centre.

As Pablo (who is a mere child and therefore lacks the decency and tact to restrain him from nagging his elders) would undoubtedly have used this mistake to add vigour to his admonishes I was somewhat reluctant to shuffle into the centre and admit my guilt.

However, as my medication has recently been changed as an experiment I had only been given enough to take me up to round about the date of my next appointment. On the 15th. I was therefore getting perilously low on the pills and had to get more.

Therefore, biting the bullet (which was more than I could do with the pills) I marched into the centre and attempted to explain what had happened. This went relatively well and I was given another appointment with Pablo in January. The pills could, I knew, be supplied by going to the pharmacy in the centre where a few clicks on the computer and a prescription would fall into my hands.

Unfortunately I had forgotten my e-book to make the inevitable waiting bearable but following the tradition of asking ¿Ultimo? To the scattered fragments of humanity littering the seats around the pharmacy I managed to identify the gentleman who was last and take my seat. Once again I marvelled at the complex social and psychological problems which faced each new comer who, after asking who was last, then had to take a seat in the rows of seats down the corridor from the door of the pharmacy at the end of said corridor.

I remember once being shown a very funny (and deeply disturbing) animated cartoon film about the correct etiquette a gentleman should adopt when entering a public convenience and selecting an appropriate urinal. The film adopted the form of a public service announcement and the voice over was delivered in a deadpan manner which increased the humour. Needless to say the logic which determined the selection became more and more extended and the film ended in mayhem and considerable carnage. I feel that such a film could be made based on the complexity of the moves (people do not keep to the same seats throughout their wait) in our medical centre. I sometimes feel that a newspaper should take a photograph of the corridor and the seats then take another photo of a new arrival and ask the readers put an ‘X’ where the person would be most likely to sit. Compared to this the chess problem would be easy.

After my endless wait which I filled by jotting down some responses to the P G Wodehouse stories that I have been reading recently I eventually made my way into the holy of holies. And was told that my new drugs were not on the system and even if they were I would not be entitled to them until January. The only option was to see a ‘Medico.’ As I have now become partially acclimatized to nugatory waiting I returned to the desk where I attempted to explain to the same person who had given me a new appointment for Pablo in January that I needed to see a doctor to get my new pills. She now adopted Pablo’s technique and gave me a good talking to intimating that to run out of pills was patient behaviour of the most pernicious kind. At that moment Pablo appeared on the edge of my vision smiled at me in an pitying manner and passed on.

I was given an appointment for a quarter to four in the afternoon of the same day. Today. I was well pleased. Things seemed to be working out well. I was so complacent that I decided, on my return to the flat, to clean the floors. I am no sloven and I relish cleanliness; but you have to understand that all our floors are tile, so to clean them is no mere running of the hoover around but an altogether more serious affair of brush and pan and mop and pail. So you will appreciate my positive state of mind that I contemplated this Herculean task with something approaching composure and Radio 4 on the headphones.

I had extended the area of operations to the balcony when, with the sun tempting me to a laze with a cup of tea I glanced at my watch and noted that it was a quarter to four. I now know what Saul must have felt like when the scales fell from his eyes – I immediately remembered that I should have been in the medical centre.

In less time than was physically possible (and keeping roughly to the speed limits) I got to the medical centre. In a sort of staggering run from the car I attempted both to rush to my late appointment and also to brush the tell tale signs of cleaning which had besmirched my jeans. Arriving at the door of the centre I felt in my pocket for my wallet which had my medical card and the appointment details.

Nothing. Empty.

Spain is not the sort of country that you can get anything without a number, an official number, on an official card.

With sinking heart I approached the counter for the third time in as many hours. I poured out my sorry tale in at least three languages and maintained that my wallet was lost. They eventually pitied me and directed me to a room and a doctor.

I was flustered and thinking about my wallet and when I had last seen it. Then the doctor appeared and called my name.

He asked me how I was and, as he turned to the computer I poured out my sorry tale again. At the end of it, he said, in Spanish that he had not understood a single word! As I had repeated (roughly) what I had said at the counter downstairs, I realised just how eager the girls must have been to get rid of me. They must have adopted the age old strategy for inexplicable situations and pushed it up to the next level and dismissed it.

I know that this doctor can speak good English but he refuses (quite rightly) to use it unless there is total incomprehension bordering on violence. I therefore revisited my previous multi-lingual explanation and tried to bring it back into the bounds of something approaching Spanish. This I eventually did (with minimal help from the doctor) and all was eventually made well. My blood pressure was lower; my next appointment was confirmed; my next blood test scheduled; my prescription given; my next general prescription date noted.

All I needed to do now was to collect my wallet from the flat and go to the Chemist and get my subsidised prescription.

But my wallet was not in the flat. As the saying goes, the more I looked for it, the more it wasn’t there! All the obvious places were checked. I retraced by steps. I checked everything three times and took everything out of anything that I had put things in. I thus followed Madster’s recipe for finding things. But I didn’t. It resolutely refused to be found.

I now have my wallet. It was not in the flat. It was in the car. It was on the passenger’s side front seat. It was black you see. Like the seat. I had not noticed it. Neither, more to the point had any passing thief.

I poured myself a cup of tea.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's all downhill now!

Is it possible to be allergic to Christmas?

For the last two successive years I have been hors de combat for the actual day. My pathetic attempts to eat the truly delicious meal which passed me by two years ago remain as wounds in my culinary memory which are still painful to revisit. Last year I had to lapse into blissful unconsciousness in my small bedroom while the whole of the rest of the family ate in the dining room.

Today, the first day in Christmas Week, I felt distinctly unwell. I dragged myself from bed to have a shower and then seriously considered returning to bed to continue the great tradition of festive failure that has characterised my approach to one of the jolliest days in the calendar.

Even with the best will in the world I still think that I would be on shaky ground if I tried to intimate to anyone who knows me that my malaise was in some way linked to a well thought out physical expression to a moral objection to the progressive commercialization of Christmas.

I am a man who made it part of his personal credo never to find himself living more than three miles from a branch of Marks and Spencer. I am also a person who can be deflected from serious purpose in a moment by a well dressed shop window for things that I would never consider buying. It therefore follows that it would be disingenuous to pretend that ‘buying things’ has ever been something inimical to my way of life.

Perhaps it is a rejection of the ‘vulgarization’ of a Christian festival. As Christianity is a bit of a Johnny come lately to claiming the ancient Yuletide and pagan date as its own, it might be said that the festival is returning to its more sybaritic roots. My Christmas tree with five sets of lights, heavy with baubles and topped with a filial (which denies composed description) is hardly understatement. My Belen (the stable scene with 15cm figures) has a cast of thousands and six wise men. It also has a (15cm) figure of the caganer next to the stable whose appearance and function I will leave in the decorous Spanish of our version of the Wikipedia, “Un caganer es una figura de una persona defecando que se suele colocar en los belenes.” So hardly without a certain degree of vulgarity there!

It is a mystery.

There are however a few precious days in which my constitution could be encouraged to sort itself out so that I will be able to participate in the solid and liquid pleasures that the day usually holds. I live in hope!

Although the days continue cold we have been treated to a staggering parade of casually spectacular sunsets. Living in a town or city, too often buildings impede the constantly changing display but looking out to the open sea one is staggered sometimes by the path of liquid gold shimmering across the swells leading to a cloud diffused light show of sunshine which bleeds from the central fire of yellow into a whole palette of glowing colour.

And just when you are thinking that this amazing show is Nature’s gift, free, gratis and for nothing – you remember the rent on the balcony on which you are standing and then think about the laughable horror of wilting pound sterling visibly shrinking from the haughty and contemptuous sneer of the muscular euro.

I always knew, instinctively, that you should spend money as soon as you get it; that saving was full of bad calories and that owning three ipods shows what a heroic determination I have always shown to be a good solider fighting on the front line for reflation and the saving of the world economy.

Where is my medal please!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Tis the season to be jolly!

The happy chatter of children’s voices.

Where does that happen then? Where precisely can you hear this “happy chatter” as opposed to the raucous shouting which punctuated the afternoon as I attempted to read “A Lust for Window Sills” a lover’s guide to British buildings from portcullis to pebble-dash by Harry Mount published by Little, Brown ISBN 978 1 4087 0900 7.

Admittedly some of those children were almost three or four feet apart so anything less than a yell would be incapable of penetrating the sticky air of a beach open to the sea. Furthermore, as if by a malicious twist of municipal fate one of those open weave wigwam rope climbing frames has been plonked not far from our back wall. This acts as a positive encouragement to the neophyte humans to leap about vertically and horizontally emitting high pitched whoops of noisy triumph as they move from level to level.

The devilish construction of these contraptions seems purpose built to obviate the only hope of the aspiring reader in the vicinity that as these creatures scuttle higher and higher they will be claimed by Newtonian physics and be dashed to silence on their plummet to earth. It never happens. Cursed be the political correctness that employs three-dimensional geometry to preserve the lusty vocal chords of these obstreperous pests!

The book, however, did manage to draw me in, in spite of the cacophony on the fringes of my irritation.

The book is written in 31 fairly short chapters with some desperately unfunny chapter headings like ‘1666 and All That – Professor Dr Sir Christopher Wren Arrives’ and ‘Strawberry Hill For Ever – An Eighteenth Century Gothick Romance’ or a studied popularism like ‘The Brideshead Revisited School of Baroque Architecture’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back – India Comes to Gloucestershire.’ These chapter headings give you a flavour of the book: it tries to wear its learning lightly but it merely comes over as crass.

To be fair Harry Mount encourages his readers in the introduction to dip into the book, “this book is a dipper not a read-straight-througher” – though I read it from beginning to end because it is, quite frankly presented in a narrative form. Mount has constructed the book to include anecdotes and autobiographical snippets and facts and (dreadful) black and white illustrations a style which he hopes will be “like being shown round Edwardian public baths in Harrogate by Alan Bennett.” It isn’t. He lacks Bennett’s seemingly unforced easy wit and perception, he is much more like an over earnest pally teacher trying to make a hard subject palatable.

I did enjoy part of this book and I treasure some of the facts that Mount gives. How have I gone through my life with not knowing that in battlements or crenulations the gap is called a ‘crenel’ and the blocks of stone on either side are know as ‘merlons’?

Mount also makes a telling comment that, “It isn’t surprising that the country that has stayed richer longer than any other in history has a greater variety of architecture than anywhere else.” And the equally telling pendent, “But we refuse to acknowledge it.”

This is a book whose impulse, to popularise the appreciation of architecture on a day to day basis, is laudable – but I don’t think that this is necessarily the book to do it. It’s worth a look, even if it isn’t worth a purchase. I should add that my copy of the book in the publisher’s information states, ‘First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Little, Brown. Reprinted 2008 (twice)’ so what do I know about popularity!

I have had my faith in the Tabac shattered as they did not come up with the goods as far as the replacement of my little white bulb for the Christmas tree lights.

I was met with blank incomprehension with just a tinge of contempt about my presumption in asking for a bulb in the first place. The supermarket was a little more accommodating in so far as I was vouchsafed a dismissive wave of the hand from an assistant and a blank denial of possession from another. No suggestion that I might try anywhere else to obtain a bulb – which is par for the course. Nevertheless I will persist. This bulb is exactly the sort of thing that you would be able to find in Woolworths.

I never thought that I would speak nostalgically about a store like Woolworths, but there again when I was a kid I don’t think that I would ever have thought that a store like Woolworth could ever go bust. When I was younger the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton was regarded as the Holy Grail for anyone wanting to marry for money!

How times change!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seek and ye shall find!

Defiantly I have kept the balcony doors open.

This far into December it seems worth it, if only to irritate the people back home. I have to admit that it has been one of those days when I considered putting the central heating on as well but that would be cheating in the same way as café culture in northern climates survives with space heaters.

When I finally ventured out into the sun (fully clothed) I was shamed to see a couple of people throwing themselves into the sea – one of them ripping off all his clothes and frolicking naked in the icy waves. As this was done to shrieks of laughter from his companions and much taking of photographs I feel that this was more a statement than a bathe. Much like my reading in the afternoon sun well sheltered from the slightest breeze whose softest touch would remind you of the month!

The rituals of Christmas are beginning to parade themselves before me. The first today was when the top set of lights on the Christmas tree went out. I half heartedly checked the plug and connections; considered checking the fuse but felt that it was far too technical and fiddly and finally looked at the branches and wondered if it was possible to take off the string of lights without stripping the tree.

I then noticed that this set of lights had one of those bulbs with a splash of white paint on the tip. This, I knew was important as some hazy memory returned telling me that this was the outward sign of inward electrical safety. I am now not used to replaceable bulbs so I gingerly pulled on the tip of the glass and low and behold it came out. Microscopic examination revealed (I think) that the filament was broken so it was simply a case of replacing the bulb for the array to burst forth in multicoloured lighting glory.

The first shops that I asked about a replacement bulb looked at me as if I was insane.

Now I am prepared to believe that my Spanish was capable of the most amazing interpretations (in a recent screening of the film ‘Heat’ I translated “this shirt was given to me by my son” as “my son needs an operation” – I take comfort from the fact that at least one noun was common to both versions) but I did take the bulb with me so that I could point at the actual item that I needed. This made no difference at all.

In my experience Spanish people have two responses to their inability to provide you with what you want. The first is pained indignation that you have asked them for anything in the first place, while the second is complete contemptuous dismissal that they could have, would have, or ever will have what you want.

Asking where you might find the item merely produces the vaguest of indication of a location which prompts you to start on a futile soul destroying pilgrimage from shop shrine to wayside street monument all of which do not contain the item you require.

The only reasonable response to a commodity request that I have discovered in my eighteen months in this country is to go to the Tabac.

Whatever you want a simple request to these purveyors of cancer sticks will usually prompt a retirement to the back of the shop and a later reappearance with what you want. I don’t know why it works, but it does. You want a stamp: Tobacconist. You want a walking stick: Tobacconist. You want a small ball point pen to fit in your wallet: Tobacconist. You want an A4 envelope: Tobacconist. You want a pen with a built in laser pointer: Tobacconist. You want open heart surgery: look elsewhere. Most needs though: Tobacconist.

Tomorrow: the test.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The end of the beginning?

Alas! The School That Sacked Me seems to be entering its final degenerative phase in its downfall.

The Owner, driven by her charmingly idiosyncratic view of education, has now shown herself to be mendaciously self-destructive. I can only hope that her dysfunctional implosion finally encourages parents to do the honourable thing.

The Owner’s view of who is important is somewhat exclusive and excludes pupils, staff and parents and suppliers, oh yes and local and governmental authorities. Her astonishing lack of concern makes her a difficult target. When you meet a person who considers a school as her personal dolls’ house with the contents of that ‘dolls’ house’ able to be manipulated, repositioned or discarded at her whim, it is not to be expected that the dolls start fighting back.

There comes a point, however, when even the very stones start to rebel. I know that anticipations of a new headteacher vary, but there is an expectation that the person in post will have some relevant educational qualifications and some experience of the various levels of education that will form the school. The Owner has decided that these basic requirements are not necessary for her dolls’ house!

In the ‘real world’ I would say that The Owner has taken that one step too far and disaster will assuredly follow her ignorantly petulant appointment. But, given the back catalogue of over a decade of impossibly unprofessional behaviour which has gone signally unpunished by the appropriate authorities – who knows?

Meanwhile there is reading.

I am getting back into the stories of Algernon Blackwood one of the true masters of suggestive horror. ‘The Damned’ is a remarkable story of virtually nothing (and yet everything!) describing the visit of two ‘arty’ types to the country house of a friend. This is the setting which gives a vivid personal account of the conflicts destructive bigoted religion enforces on a sense of place all tinged with a whiff of the damned in hell. It is only when the story becomes a little too narrative that it lessens the tension.

It is the sort of story which almost demands a film treatment. There is not that much of a story, but the suggestions in the words could be translated into a very interesting film with a director who uses technique for the narrative. It’s the sort of story which a director like Alejandro Amenábar (‘The Others 2001)could make something of. ‘The Others’ was at least partly based on The Turn of the Screw with its suggestions of horror being far more effective than any deliberate overt physical statement. That sense of suggestiveness is exactly what ‘The Damned’ needs as a cinematic treatment.

I wonder if it has already been done.

Back to the internet.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another school has shyly popped its head above the parapet of educational indifference and coquettishly beckoned me to come for an interview.

No job of course. Another one of the ‘just checking out for the future’ sort of occasions. If this carries on I am likely to be one of the most interesting potential employees not employed in the whole of Catalonia!

As with so much else it is yet another case of waiting and seeing. but with my love of gadgets I do need other sources of money to feed my habit other than rapidly dwindling savings held, I am sorry to say, in that discredited currency ‘sterling!’

My response to El Crisis has been to revisit the money laundering restaurant. I am probably doing it a grave disservice and perpetrating a serious calumny on a perfectly reputable eatery but, yet again, I was the sole person sitting in the place having a meal. So I had a manager, a bar person, three waiters and a kitchen staff to myself. How do they make money? How much must they have lost in feeding me?

And what a lunch! A subtle bean, prawn and mussel soup (I know that sounds like a culinary oxymoron, but take it from me you had to be there to taste it work!) This was followed by medallions of beef with a savoury sauce on basmati rice, culminating in a home made Tiramisu that would have had Paul One weeping into his café solo! And a glass of red wine for round about a tenner. O tempera O mores!

The e-book continues to please as I relentlessly add more and more books to its ever accommodating SD card enhanced memory. Given the grotesquely high pricing of commercial e-books I have no desire to purchase any.

Reading the comments on any site concerned with e-books it is obvious that there is a surge of what appears to me to be quite justified rage about publishers not passing on the obvious savings that they make by not having to produce a physical book and therefore have no shipping, storage and expensive commercial outlet expenses. In some cases the electronic e-book is actually MORE expensive than its paper equivalent. It seems as though the previous experience of the film and music industries in product pricing is something that publishers think they can ignore. Who was it who said that the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history!

Luckily for me there is a whole life time of ‘out of copyright’ reading that is electronically available free, gratis and for nothing on a multitude of sites. All those books that one had to pretend that one had read in university will now come back and form an orderly line, their little electronic impulses waiting their turn to tickle my neurons. Just think of all those brick-like novels from the nineteenth century which form the impossible walls of reading than even a dedicated bibliophile will find impossible, let alone a university student!

Some libraries have whole shelves of Ruskin in elegant closely printed and sometimes illustrated volumes of his collected works (perhaps I still have some in the anonymous boxes in storage.) How many books did Thackeray publish - most of which I haven’t read. I could always revisit pre-Shakespearean drama.

No, pre-Shakespearean drama is one genre too far – but merely concentrating on the copyright free parts of the twentieth century will afford fascinating acres of forest saved if I read the books in electronic form.

And for nothing!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wet sand and a goodish book - who can ask for more?

The best you can say about a day of rain is that it makes the beach look clean and changes the colour of the sand.

I have learned not to resent these days of dampness so much as they also give a veneer of cleanliness to the pavements which, in this part of the world, are not washed by celestial moisture in quite the same way and with quite the same regularity as they are in my home country!

‘Not resenting’ is not the same as liking and I look forward to the progression of clear, cold days which characterise the winter here.

The winter is also the time when the municipality makes good all those things which will not be able to be mended in the summer when all the good tourists pour in and dislodge their cigarette stubs and money. It sometime seems as if we are due for some sort of royal visit as little persons in fluorescent yellow jackets descend on us and rip up roads, change sewers and strip off topsoil in what appears to be an uncoordinated rampage of ostentatious civic spending. Then we see nothing but the refuse collectors for weeks.

We do apparently have a police force but, apart from the two dune bike riders who ‘patrol’ the beach in the summer and are conspicuous by their absence in the cooler months, I am prepared to side with the natives here who opine that the police are always “in the bars” fortifying themselves for the fray rather than dealing with it!

Talking of illegality, yesterday I met a past parent from The School That Sacked Me. This was while I was still reeling from hearing how much it was going to cost to replace a (very, very, thin) arm on my favourite Silhouette™ glasses. Ophthalmic technology seems to borrow from the logo ridden rag trade where it appears with both that less is much, much more. The skimpier the bikini the more you pay. I believe. This is not from personal experience you understand but one does want to feel that Mies van der Rohe’s comment on architecture is a general rather than a subject specific truth!

The parent and I after effusive greetings set about doing what all do when two or three are gathered together with memories of that infamous place of learning: we shared comforting abuse at the expense of The Owner and the travesty she owns. This parent was a person who spoke to the school about her own experiences in Burma to give weight and reality to our efforts to raise money by means of a Readathon. The same Readathon about which The Owner and her minions have said nothing to anybody.

How one wishes that one could take her Iago-like silence (though she doesn’t even say, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”) and give Graziano’s reply, “Torments will ope your lips.” If only!

The parent said that, because of the remorselessly increasing fees in The School That Sacked Me she had to withdraw her son, but she was eloquent in her denunciation of the place and all its works.

Her son, though a positive star in my Maths class has struggled in his new state school and now she was desperate. So desperate indeed, that she asked if I was giving private lessons! To ask me to give Maths lessons is akin to asking Lazarus about life insurance: we both know that the subject is quite important but we are not quite sure about what relation we have to it!

I may still be able to recite the formula for solving quadratic equations (“ALL over 2a!”) but I’m buggered if I’d be able to apply it and so what ever residual quantity of scruples I still possess preclude my even remotely being taken for a Maths teacher!

The parent and I parted with warm wishes for the immanent destruction of The Owner and even warmer wishes for our mutual survival!

I have started reading ‘The Black Arrow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson a novel set in the times of Henry VI and concerned with a wronged gentleman fighting to rescue his true love etc etc and all the dialogue in pseudo-medieval English. Were it not for the status of the author I think I might have given up already, but I’m over half way already, so the adding of another Stevenson novel is worth the effort. I think.

Having had a cursory look at information readily available on the web about the novel I find that my lack of enthusiasm matches Stevenson’s own. He intimated that he did not want to write an introduction for the novel when his collected works came to be published and, further, in a letter to a friend he described how “the influenza has busted me a good deal” so he took the easy way out and indulged in writing in archaic language which he described as, “Tushery by the mass” and he summed up his story by saying, “may I be tushed if the whole thing is worth a tush!” Not exactly shining commendation!

The story was serialised in Young Folks; A Boys' and Girls' Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature a title which is surely just about enough to put anyone off reading anything inside such a ponderously labeled magazine!

If only for that reason I will obviously continue with the story to the end. ‘The Black Arrow’ is the sort of thing that Aunt Bet and my Dad will have read as they steadily exhausted the literary resources of the library in Abergwinfi - omniverous readers as they both were when children!

Sometimes it’s easy to see where character traits have come from!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The parental twist

Some books have to be read twice.

And some books shouldn’t be read once.

Though it’s only after you’ve read them that you find out which one is true for you and for that particular book!

There are all sorts of reasons for reading books twice. With ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler it’s to find out what the hell has gone on during the novel. I took it as the only English language book on a holiday to France. At the end of the holiday I was brown and I knew who dun it. Though that information has slipped out of my memory now, so perhaps I’ll have to read it again!

‘Catch-22’ you re-read because it is darkly funny, and laugh out loud funny every time you read it. ‘Winnie the Pooh’ has to be re-read because who can take in philosophy of such complexity at a first reading? ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a drug and sometimes you just have to give in to a benign habit. The best short stories by Saki, O. Henry and Maugham always delight no matter how many times you read them.

All of the above are classics read and reread by millions but there are personal favourites too, odd things that may not be to the popular taste but give an individual pleasure which is sometimes difficult to explain unless you are talking to yourself: ‘Old Saint Paul’s’ by William Harrison Ainsworth; The Book of Jonah; ‘The Age of Austerity’ edited by Michael Sissons; The Lion Book of Religious Verse and The National Curriculum.

Apart from the fact that one of those is not necessarily one of my favourites, let us continue and think about ‘Great Expectations’. A book well worth re-reading for all sorts of reasons but one in particular. I think that Dickens does have a real perception of what it means to be a child. When I read the novel when I was very young I had no problem in imagining a person like Miss Haversham living a few streets away from me in Cathays in Cardiff; I was able to sympathize with Pip’s horrified realization that he really wasin peril when Magwich told him that he wouldn’t even be safe if he pulled the bed clothes over his head! Reading the novel as an adult gives an entirely different perception. I’m glad that I have both readings.

For some reason I felt drawn to re-read ‘Father and Son’ by Edmund Gosse (1907). My paper copy is still locked away in storage, but I did have an electronic copy on my e-book reader.

My memory of this book was of an autobiographical account of an impossible childhood in the second half of the nineteenth century where the parents were members of a narrow bigoted religious sect (The Plymouth Brethren) and the poor boy had a horrendous childhood deprived of normal experiences and instead was chained to a microscope producing intricate drawings for his ‘scientist’ father.

This reading was very different. There was same suffocating horror as one imagined oneself growing up in that household, but this time as I read through I sensed a real attempt on Edmund Gosse’s part to emphasise the genuine passionate concern by his parents’ for his development. It was also easier as an adult to pick up the irony with which Edmund Gosse wrote, so the two newish perceptions made this a much more satisfying read.

Gosse also emphasises what a strange boy he must have appeared to others and what a prig he was. His pride at being admitted to the adult section in his religious group at the age of only ten is described in a less than spiritual way and his poking out his tongue at the youngsters who had not made it was disarmingly honest.

When the final break comes with his father it is described at first in measured terms but Edmund cannot keep the rancour out of his final assessment when he describes his father’s lack of compromise in his expectations for his son’s complete acceptance of the tenets of the sect with which he was associated.

It is a touching working out of a difficult childhood in a way in which is interesting, cathartic and compelling.

If it’s true.

The power of this ‘autobiography’ is essentially contained in its adherence to the facts which comprise the upbringing that Edmund describes.

In a book which I haven’t read, ‘Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse’ by Ann Thwaite is published by Faber, Thwaite questions the factual baisis of ‘Father and Son’. She quotes Henry James (a friend of Edmund Gosse) who once said that Edmund had “a genius for inaccuracy." She also quotes TH Huxley who said, "autobiographies are essentially works of fiction, whatever biographies may be."

This is not merely extra interesting information, it strikes at the heart of the book. If this is not autobiography but literature in the same way that ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Sons and Lovers’ combine autobiographical elements with a constructed story then my attitude will change in some sort of subtle way.

I will still like the book. Who cannot be drawn to a description of a family reading of the bible where Edmund says, “In our lighter moods, we turned to the ‘Book of Revelation!’” Or when describing his father’s relentless praying: “It might be said that he stromed the citadels of God’s grace, refusing to be baffled, urging his intercessions without mercy upon a Deity who sometimes struck me as inattentive to his prayers or wearied by them.” I also like Edmund’s description of refusing to try and evangelize his friends by saying that he “let sleeping dogmas lie.”

Edmund wrote this autobiography twenty years after his father had died, and he obviously structured what he had to say by artistic manipulation and with the advantage of considerable hindsight. But for me this remains one of those books which define a certain approach to a life which illustrates the dilemma of the generational divide made worse by extremism and a sort of emotional tyranny.

And worth a re-read, perhaps after I have read Thwaite’s book!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What is that?

A silhouette by nature is insubstantial.

This was borne in on me by the tragedy which struck this lunchtime. My silhouette™ glasses have broken. This time is isn’t merely the attachment to the lens it’s the arm of the glasses themselves. Snapped!

Now the cost of these glasses has been on a par with the price of women (being above rubies) and I had a not unreasonable expectation that the metal sides of these spectacles should have been unbreakable. Alas! For the naive belief that advertisements are true! And for the even more naïf belief that living in another country would be no drawback to cheap repair and replacement!

I am now back to the heavy, irritating glasses with lenses looking like jam pot bottoms.

There is of course an alternative.

I gave up the wearing of contact lenses some time ago and, apart from a few isolated occasions, and for no apparent reason, I have worn glasses constantly. I could go back to contacts but as I am now not only short sighted but also long sighted there are problems with the choice of lens.

The history of my attempts, ably abetted by optician, to get used to a whole range of contact lenses which might be able to cope with this optical problem is a never ending story of failure.

I have tried bi-focal contact lenses; graded strength contact lenses; different material of contact lenses; different strength contact lenses. All failures.

The eventual ‘solution’ was to have one eye corrected for close work and the other eye corrected for distance. “Your brain,” I was told by the optician, “will learn to compensate and choose the appropriate eye for the appropriate job.” Not true.

I also have a series of half frame glasses which are supposed to be able to be used with the contact lenses to allow me to . . .

Alternatively I can go to Sitges and get the things repaired in double quick time. Life, I am afraid, is just too short to try and find the requisite combination of on-ball lenses and nose-adjacent lenses.

And reading is always something which tests the most careful arrangement of glasses, distance, lenses etc. Whereas wearing nothing in front of the eye is still the best for reading that I have found. Or is that merely an argument for indolence?

Those with perfect eyesight will never know the sheer time wasting irritation of faulty eyesight. Losing glasses; cleaning glasses; adjusting glasses; losing glasses again; rain on glasses; growing out of glasses; changing glasses; not quite seeing properly; glasses steaming up. And all the expense!

And don’t get me started on contact lenses. Try saying, “tiny fragment of grit” to a confirmed contact lens wearer and watch the reaction. The eye is a wonderful thing and will go into ‘automatic’ when it encounters a sharp foreign body: it causes the eye lids to close and tears to be produced to wash away the irritation. This is fine. Unless you have a contact lens on your eye in which case the automatic closing of the eyelids merely ensures that the sharp foreign body (did I mention ‘sharp’?) stays exactly where it hurts most.

There are advantages in an out of focus world of course: as a metaphor for the state of the planet; softening wrinkles; creating exciting abstract designs from unprepossessing blocks of flats and making driving just that little bit more challenging!

My Christmas tree looks spectacular, each light with its halo, courtesy of myopia.

And that comment about driving was only a joke. Honestly!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Aren't books real life?

A day of complete indulgence!

I don’t really know if it is a commendation or a condemnation of my essential character that this ‘indulgence’ has entailed a compulsive reading of the book I managed to wrest from the clutches of the post office yesterday, ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ a Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films by David Thomson.

The problem (or pleasure) in reading about films is that the whole experience of watching them comes back to the reader, especially if the critic doing the writing is capable of encapsulating an evocative element of the work in his description or offering a revelatory fact to develop the perception of the film. And David Thomson is always capable of that!

This book is best read in conjunction with Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film – which is just as stimulatingly personal and provocative as ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ I cannot recommend both too highly. Buy them! Read them!

I have read about films that I haven’t thought about in years and been stimulated to make fresh protestations that I really will attempt to find a copy of others that I have been trying to watch for years!

I have managed to drag myself away from the book to make my Christmas tree a little less tasteful.

The Christmas and Yuletide story is hardly a study in restraint what with stars, kings, heavenly choruses and half the working population of the area turning up – and that’s before you think about the pagan associations! I therefore think that a Christmas tree decked out with restraint and a harmonious eye to design is somehow contrary to the spirit of the season!

There is also the problem that I do not think that I could actually produce a tree which could stand in a shop window without comment. Go with what you do best: stylistic chaos!

The decoration of our little resort is spectacularly unimpressive with only two or three municipal messages shining above a few chosen streets. Some of the hotels and blocks of flats have attempted their own lighting by using the cheap and cheerful alternative of light ropes.

These ropes of flashing lights used to be the preserve of the rich but now they are the cheap alternative to design thought. Their use is unimaginative and the light lines look like childish scrawl in the darkness, but there isn’t much else so it will have to do.

Perhaps the streets will sprout more satisfactory illumination in the next week, though I think that El Crisis is being used as an easy excuse for a lack of municipal extravagance.

Hard times ahead!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eat and Read

Fresh from my success in the production of vaguely recognizable Welsh Cakes I have been searching for ways to make the finished articles more appealing.

My cakes were round rather than having the appropriate fluted appearance. I have therefore searched the shops in Castelldefels for the appropriate cutter. The most likely shops to contain these invaluable accoutrements are the Chinese Bazaars without which I am convinced that the entire life of Spain would cease. They have become the ‘corner shops’ which contain all those items that you search for with increasing frustration in the more conventional shops of the town.

In this case these emporia failed to deliver. The best I could do in something approaching an ironmonger’s shop was to find a selection of mini ‘fun’ cutters which were not what I had in mind.

This was not, however, the point of my wandering through town. I was making my reluctant way to the Post Office to collect a new book which had failed to be delivered yesterday – in spite of the fact that I was in during the normal delivery times for the post.

The Post Office was its usual heaving self and when I got my ticket I was some twenty or so numbers behind the one being served at the time. There is a particular sort of depression which is only found while waiting interminably in a queue for some supercilious functionary to give you a parcel that THEY have failed to deliver!

I will not dwell on the horrors that I had to suffer stuck in that bloody place for over half an hour, I will merely say that the person who FINALLY served me was delightful and human. I have no idea how she managed to get a job in the modern Spanish counter postal service.

The most important element in the waiting game which is the post office was that the result of my delay was my possession of a new book. This is ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ a Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films by David Thomson (Masterpieces, Oddities and Guilty Pleasures with just a few disasters.) David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film which is an encyclopaedic, academic and deeply personal book and a stimulating pleasure to read.

‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ is an equal pleasure which actually encourages Thomson to “meet the question frequently asked of anyone with a reputation for knowing about films. It’s ‘What should I see?’ So ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ is a response to that uncertainty.’

It is a celebration of film which reaches back to “1885 and ranging across the world – the landmarks are here, the problem films, a few guilty pleasures, a few forlorn sacred cows, some surprises.” Just to illustrate the range the first film discussed is from 1948 ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ while the last is Antonioni’s ‘Zabriskie Point’ from 1970. The films are given a page each and are listed in alphabetical order so that a sequential reading produces some very odd neighbours: ‘Claire’s Knee’ is next to ‘Cleopatra’; ‘The Big Sleep’ next to ‘The Birds’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ next to ‘Close Encounters of the third Kind’. It is not so much the incongruity as the imaginative stimulus of thinking of these juxtapositions that gives pleasure!

The description of the first film I looked up, ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’, was enthusiastic and revealing: the information that Capra (director) was trying to re-ignite a failed relationship with Stanwyck (leading lady) during the making of the film gives a very different reading of some of the action seen in the finished product and Thomson’s positive evaluation matches my own.

Further reading revealed a range of personal responses which ranged from enthusiastic agreement to astonished rejection. There are many, many films of which I have never heard. This is obviously a book which is going to repay an extended relationship.

I look forward to following up some of Thomson’s commendations.

The only difficulty is finding a DVD store with the requisite range!

But hope springs eternal.