These Things Define The Day

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I really ought to make more effort to keep this updated. Annual entries aren’t really good enough now are they? It’s been brought back to my attention by a friend and former colleague who stumbled across it and decided to e-mail me. What to write though, ah that’s the question, isn’t it? My life has taken a turn for the mundane and I haven’t had as much as a day trip to Calais for longer than I care to think about. So there’s only one thing for it, the last recourse of the former traveller – nostalgia about old trips.

I'm occasionally invited to read at City Voices in Wolverhampton and some time ago I was invited to contribute to the Wolverhampton Write Now anthology, a slim volume of writing from contemporary local authors and poets. I submitted four pieces for possible inclusion and let the editors work out which one they wanted. They chose a piece about Kashgar Market which has already appeared here in part but I’ve inherited the family trait of never throwing anything away so this seems like an ideal opportunity to re-use one of the pieces that wasn’t chosen.
Here then, restored to its original length as I have no word count to bother me here, is a piece from my South American travels.

When she saw Iguassu, Eleanor Roosevelt remarked “poor Niagara.”
Like Niagara, Iguassu - or Iguaçu to give it its Brazilian spelling - is on the border of two countries and can be seen from either. We were intending to see it from both. We started on the Argentine side. Here we took a boat across the river to the series of walkways which lead across for a close up look at the section called the Devil’s Throat. The water was a muddy brown, not clear and sparkling like Niagara, but the falls thundered and roared powerfully and although it was unbelievably crowded with tourists all pushing and jostling to get a better angle for their pictures it was still an incredible sight. Nevertheless I was only half serious when I said to Vern, who was videoing both it and us for posterity, that it was much better than Niagara - whether on the Canadian or American side. It was not until we took a walk down below the rim and in among the whole series of cataracts and torrents that I realised just how right I had been. As you follow the walkways round you begin to get a sense of how mighty it all is. I rounded a corner and between the trees saw a long curving row of parallel falls, perhaps a mile wide, billions of gallons streaming endlessly down. The view was framed by the dark bottle green fronds of the palms and was as magnificent a spectacle as any in the trip. The path continued until finally it terminated in another viewing platform just yards from the first of the falls. Here the air was filled with water. To even approach it was to be soaked in seconds. Standing this close, watching the torrent was an unbelievable experience but there was more to come.
I descended a series of rocky steps to the river which was unexpectedly calm and tranquil. There a ferry took me across to the island of San Martin which nestles in amongst the falls. Here, on a narrow strip of beach people were sunning themselves and swimming. Behind the beach though, a steep series of steps takes you to the top of the island. I climbed up them to the path that circles it. Everywhere there were signs warning that it was inadvisable to leave the path as the island was populated by venomous snakes. I walked around, the island. The path wandered in and out of the trees and back to the rocky shoreline. There were more magnificent views of the falls, this time from below, looking up at the cascade and for all the noise and fury there was a peculiar air of peacefulness about the place. Perhaps it was the relative absence of tourists or perhaps it was the combination of the rocks and the trees timelessly standing at the base of such a powerful image as the tumbling water but it felt tranquil and restful just to be there.

The following day, on the Brazilian side of the falls I took a helicopter ride to see them in their full glory from the air. Only this way, flying above them, does the real scale become clear. Down on the paths and walkways the sheer power of them is close and personal but from the air the Devil’s Throat is a great gaping wound in the Earth. The whole span of the falls is a series of vast arcs where hundreds of individual waterfalls tumble down in gigantic steps in a torrent unlike anything I had ever seen before. The flight managed to feel simultaneously much longer than its actual fifteen minutes and yet much too short. Even the sad knowledge that this was to be the last of the great natural wonders of my journey couldn’t dampen the elation I felt at such a glorious sight. As the helicopter touched down and the next customers came running across to take their turn I knew already that when anyone asked me what was the most impressive thing I had seen on my trip I wouldn’t have to think about the answer. It was Iguassu. There was really no competition.

And now, in the established fashion, I’ll finish with a poem that has little, if anything, to do with the preceding article. Apologies if I’ve used this before. It was a poem I wrote at the end of the trip that included Iguassu when it occurred to me how neatly the halves of the trip mirrored each other.


The world is nothing but mirrors
Reflections of reflections of reflections,
The substance is lost.
All these mirrors that surround me
Show nothing.
Where am I in this ?.

A lady with a book and torch
Reflects a man with arms held wide.
A waterfall reflects a waterfall.
Salt reflects salt.
Windy city cows reflect
A painting of a dancer.
Hello reflects goodbye.

The world is nothing but mirrors.
Reflections of reflections of reflections
Until the substance is lost.
All these mirrors that surround me
Show nothing.
Where am I in this ?

A city filled with speed and steel
Reflects a room in red and black.
Beginnings reflect endings.
Ice reflects ice.
Trees and mountains reflect
Mountains and trees.
Goodbye reflects hello.

The world is nothing but mirrors.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

A curious sense of time not passing

I went to a party on Saturday night. It was the annual Mensa Christmas party in Birmingham and a friend who is a member had invited me along. (I'm probably eligible to join but like Groucho Marx I have a thing about not wanting to be in any club that would have someone like me as a member.) I say she had invited me but she had in fact invited a couple of us - we have known each other since we were teamed together on our CELTA training and it's the second year that we have used the Mensa do as an excuse to meet up. One of our party was sadly unavailable being in Singapore but we toasted her nonetheless.
To be honest I'm not much of a fan of discos and the evening isn't something I would be likely to choose left to my own devices but I do like to meet up with my friends. It also has a couple of, to me at least, negative points not least of which is the dreadful selection of canned beers - Tetley Bitter, generic supermarket lager - that kind of thing. As with last years bash I found myself drinking canned Guinness as the least bad of the options available. It was while downing my fifth, or perhaps sixth can that I was seized by a curious sense of time not passing. Cathryn, my host; Suman and TC were on the dance floor but I don't do dancing so I was sitting quietly in my corner (as quietly as you can six inches from a speaker in a disco anyway) when I noticed the DJ's lighting system. It was a very seventies affair with flashing multicoloured strobe effects, a portable mirror ball and two large square light boxes the fronts of which were divided into eight coloured segments each. These pulsed in approximate time to the music and the one on the right caught my attention as I noticed that only seven of the eight segments were working.
In an instant I realised that last year I had noticed the very same thing. I looked around the room at the collection of people there. There was a woman who was leaping about with considerable enthusiasm but very little co-ordination. She had been there last year.
There was a guy with a pony tail who had taken his drink with him onto the small dance floor. He too had been there last year.
Others seemed determined to emulate Riverdance or some weird tribal fertility dance. Others ignored the music and moved around in circles to their own inner soundtrack. I couldn't be certain that all of them had been there last time round but the sense that there had been no year in between, that this was in fact still the 2002 event was overpowering.
It was, as I say, a curious sensation.
But it seems not to be an uncommon one. When I am travelling it doesn't afflict me. I like not knowing where I'll be tomorrow, not knowing what I'll see or who I'll speak to. I like to be on the move. Whenever I'm at home the malaise of mundanity settles around me. Before I started my travels I was a computer systems analyst for a police force and every day had a predictable monotony about it that I was glad to discard when my dissatisfaction finally overcame my inertia. Now I'm a teacher and thankfully I don't feel the same way - well not exactly. At least now I am doing a job that has the twin merits of being something I find worthwhile and something I find interesting. Possibly I'll tire of it eventually but for the moment I love my job. Nevertheless my daily routine is pretty unvarying. Get up, have breakfast and take the Metro then the train to work (standing on the Metro because it's always full before it reaches my stop, sitting on the train because at that time of morning everyone is travelling in the opposite direction to me.)
On the train I read one of the free copies of the Metro Newspaper scattered around. It's not a very interesting publication so I'm finished before I get there.
I teach - sometimes all day, sometimes just in the afternoon. I go home, eat, prepare tomorrow's lesson and go to bed.
On alternate Tuesdays I go to writers' group. At weekends I go for a beer.
That's it, the daily routine and sometimes, especially as I stand among the swaying crowd on the Metro looking at the long familiar faces of total strangers to whom I have never spoken and will probably never speak, I get that same sensation that time is stuck, that the world has been reduced to an unvarying and unending loop of events.
Last Friday as I sat reading the newspaper on the train I was halfway through completing the crossword before I realised that in this particular case time had stood still and that I was looking at Tuesday's paper and completing a crossword that I had done before and - here's the frightening thing - doing the clues in exactly the same order !

I don't much care for this feeling of time not passing, especially as while it's not passing I am nevertheless getting older.

After the Mensa do we drove off up the road and they dropped me outside a friends house where I was staying for the night. I rang the bell and inside - just as last year - he had a cooled bottle of decent beer waiting to take away the taste of the cans, and a Christmas episode of Futurama cued up and ready to go on the DVD. I sat and sipped and watched the cartoon and ignored the curious sense of time not passing.
Next year I expect I'll do the same.
There was one small variation.
Last year at the disco I had a biro and I wrote a couple of poems on the back of a napkin as I drank my beer and surprisingly I still thought they were OK when I sobered up.

Here's one of them.

The Disco lights have started
To liquefy my brain.
I've forgotten who and where I am
I've forgotten my own name.
There must be a reason
I'm sitting in this place
But if there is then it's a reason
That I find I cannot trace.

The Disco songs are piercing
Holes into my head.
I've forgotten what I needed
And forgotten what I said.
There must be a reason
That I came here tonight
But if there is then it's a reason
That's slipped out of my sight.

The disco drums are pounding
A rhythm for the damned.
I've forgotten every single thing
That I had ever planned.
There must be a reason
People like this hell
But if there is then it's a reason
That I simply cannot tell.

For a web site of the week (and given that I haven't actually updated this blog for about four months that's a pretty long stretch of the definition) I'm going to suggest a message board for lovers of the English language where I am a regular poster. Please note that pedants are especially welcome - I speak as one myself.

Please come and visit us at wordcraft.

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Friday, August 22, 2003

Atypical Optimism

I love teaching.
Specifically I love teaching EFL and ESOL. Now you might think that there's nothing so very remarkable about that. Lots of people love their jobs. You'd be right. What is remarkable though is that it took me so long to find out. I only moved into teaching just over a year ago when I returned from one of my long trips and realised that I just couldn't face the thought of going back into IT. It was an astounding realisation for me that seemed to invalidate the previous twenty five years of my working life.
The other thing you may have noticed is that this is - at best - peripherally connected to travel. True I decided on what my career change would be based on some teaching I did in China while travelling, but that doesn't per se mean that this has anything to do with travel.
True I'd like - home circumstances being different - to teach overseas, but home circumstances aren't different and that's unlikely to happen for a while.
Oh well, c'est la vie. This article will only be tenuously connected to the usual subject.

Actually I should have begun with an apology for taking so long to produce this. I have spent the Summer in Harrow teaching the sons and daughters of wealthy parents from all over the world how to speak English. It's been extremely satisfying too - even in an odd way the two weeks when I was teaching the ten year olds, an experience I don't want to repeat in a hurry.
A lot of things have helped make it a memorable Summer. With most of the teachers living in there's a terrific camaraderie - like being on Big Brother but without having to vote anyone out. Harrow on the Hill is also a beautiful if somewhat unreal setting. It's as if you are working on a giant film set which, given that every time I've taught there, there has been a film currently in production, perhaps isn't too hard to explain. The magnificent weather has helped although sometimes it's put the pupils in a poor temper for the evening sessions. Being near enough to London to get in for a few art exhibitions and nights at theatre has also been a bonus.
Most of all though the fun has come from the teaching. I've had some great classes with students from China, Japan, Russia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Mexico, Korea, Bulgaria, Hungary, Libya and Iran. While I found that teaching the younger ones required crowd control skills rather than teaching skills, the older ones have been a joy. There is such a willingness to learn and such an openness to life among them that in the classroom you can feel an optimism about the future that deserts you whenever you read a newspaper.
True there are some students who don't much care to be there and it shows in everything from their body language to their inattention but they are in the minority.
They have a good time. When they aren't in lessons they are off on trips to Windsor, the London Eye, to see Grease or Stomp, to the seaside at Brighton. Or they are riding, water-skiing, dancing, discoing, climbing, shooting longbows and a dozen other activities.
Even with all that going on though they come to the classroom and they want to learn. Every teacher likes students who want to learn - to get a whole classroom full of them is joy beyond measure.

I can only speak for my own classes but what impressed me the most was the way that these disparate souls came together as a class, became friends, helped each other. Let me give an example - without naming names.
One day I had the same class from 9 till 12 in the morning and from 6 till 9 in the evening. That's a light schedule for me but in between they had had a day out to the London Eye and sports in the afternoon. It was a blazing hot day and everyone came into the evening class tired and out of sorts. It was towards the end of the course and they were missing home and family and friends. Still they set to their work enthusiastically - a session working on language projects and picture stories. In the project sessions the teacher works in turn with individuals or small groups. I had been working with two of the students when I turned round and saw a Japanese girl on the verge of tears. She was fighting so hard not to cry that her face had become a wax mask. As I looked she lost control and started to weep. Instantly another girl, a Hungarian, had her arms around her friend, consoling her, finding out what was wrong, calming her down.
The reasons for the tears don't really matter. It was a combination of a hot and tiring day, an emotional girl missing home and a misunderstanding with one of her friends. The important thing was the reaction. The only common language the students had was English but that didn't matter. There was a bond of friendliness there that transcended language difficulties.

Usually I am accused of being cynical and pessimistic. It's a charge I can't deny. I look at the newspapers and see wars, suicide bombers, countries blinded by mutual hatred and I despair. Travel has altered my perspective to the extent that I understand that most people in the world just want to go about the day to day business of living their lives and that the lunatics who make the news aren't representative of their cultures. Nevertheless I still see the newspapers and am overcome by the feeling that the monsters are winning.

But then I see these instances of trivial classroom friendship and I can't help feel just the slightest flush of optimism, the faintest stirrings of a belief that just maybe the future will work out OK.
Maybe they aren't so trivial after all.

My poem for this week is about a couple of students I had in an earlier class.

My Korean Statues

Day after day they sat,
My Korean statues,
Silent unmoving, inscruitable -
In , but not of, the class.
Grammar failed to move
My Korean statues.
Vocabulary proved unable
To lift them from their groove.

I tried everything to engage
My Korean statues
To rouse in them a love of lessons
To tempt them from their cage,
But nothing did the trick
With my Korean statues
They sat through every session
Unresponsive as a brick.

They reached the final day
My Korean statues
With no indication that they'd heard
A word I'd had to say.
Together then they came to me
My Korean statues
And on a card had put the words
"Your lessons make us happy."

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Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Time is the enemy

A thousand words ? Once a week ? About travel ?
Piece of cake. After all I've done it before - I used to write a newspaper column with exactly that brief. It isn't proving as easy as I thought it would to get down to it though. Time is the problem. There's always something else that has to be done, something with a more urgent command of my time. There's work. I started a new career teaching a year ago and I've never been as happy in a job. There's my other writing. My writers' group magazine launches today. There's my social life. I really wouldn't like the life of a starving recluse penning his magnum opus in a lonely garret.
Yes time is the problem.
What, I can hear you asking, does all this have to do with travel. Quite a lot actually because if ever there is a circumstance where time becomes a real problem it's on a one week holiday in an interesting place. Now I know that for some people a holiday is a week lying on a beach or getting hammered in a bar but that isn't me. I like to be doing things.
Take the recent trip to Catalonia. I started that trip in Barcelona. I arrived at my hotel at lunch time on Saturday and took the three O'clock train out on Monday. In between I even managed a trip out to Montserat.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with its benefit maybe I'd have been better not doing that trip. There was such a long list of things I wanted to do in Barcelona but in fact I managed to achieve almost none of it. Second on the list was to spend time looking at the Gaudi architecture for which the city is famous. Well I did spend half a morning at Segrada Familia but as for the rest, many of which are even more interesting, I took pictures whenever I walked passed but took no time to explore. Number one on my list I confess was to important to treat so superficially - the Museo Picasso. It was one of the main reasons for my visit to the city so having whizzed round the cathedral in an hour and a half I spent the rest of the day at this fine gallery. Even so I was a little rushed as there was the unexpected bonus of an additional exhibition of Picasso caricatures.
That was it for Barcelona though - from a list of a dozen things to see and do, two crossed off. One and a half really.
You see the problem. Time.

On the long trips time takes on a stranger role - though sometimes as tyrannical. When you are somewhere - seven weeks in Ecuador for example - then time ceases to be meaningful in any real sense. You can potter and amble where otherwise you might sprint and stride. You can sit for a day at a sidewalk cafe fending of the postcard vendors and drinking beer. You can lose yourself in Quito's labyrinthine and exhausting old town streets.
Then suddenly you have to move on. There's a fixed time for your bus to be leaving and you have allowed yourself to become settled in the hostel, allowed your rucksack to become unpacked.
Aware of your neglect time gets its own back by making your last sight of the city you are leaving a jumbled profusion of rushing and dashing and panic.
There is a duality to the way time behaves when your plans involve fifteen countries and nine months stretching out around you. In the big picture it seems unimportant. After all what does it matter if you cross into another country tomorrow or in two days time.
If you are stuck for an extra week in Rawalpindi while the officials at the Chinese embassy through every possible obstacle in the way of the visas you will need next month then so be it. Have a weekend in the mountains, get out of the city and relax.
If you are temporarily stranded in Quito awaiting the arrival of others from your group then catch the bus out to Otovalo, spend a day visiting the cattle market or the huge open market that fills the city streets. Never mind that you have no use for a cow, however cheap, or a bolt of brightly coloured silk that an ox couldn't carry. It doesn't matter because at that level time doesn't matter.
Just keep in the back of your mind though a small clock ticking so that time doesn't jump out from some dark corner one morning and surprise you with a bus or train timetable that says you are leaving in an hour - better get your skates on with the packing.

And now time is against me again. I had intended, as I have said repeatedly, that this should be a weekly column. It's been closer to fortnightly and even that has slipped badly. It's going to get worse. or the next six weeks I'm working away from home and I have limited access to computers and a very heavy teaching schedule so that the chances of my producing more columns in those weeks are quite small.
I shall however try to manage at least one - perhaps a piece about the joys of Harrow although that might be quite a short piece. Harrow on the Hill is famous for its school and is undoubtedly a picturesque and pleasant place to work but a riotous realm of night-spots and the wild high life it isn't.
We'll see. Maybe I'll take a day and do something interesting in London to write about.

If I have the time.


This week I've dug into the archives for a very old poem. A poem about time. Specifically about Wednesday.
As I usually do with the stuff I wrote a long time ago I have given it a new lick of paint.


Wednesday was a slow day
even by my standards
of indulgent indolence.
The painting-by-numbers
regimented routine,
the dull and empty silence
did not vary.
No worrying tremors shook
the waiting seismograph
of my inattention.
No dark, pock marked sun spots
disturbed my shining face
with apprehension
or made me wary.

I spent the whole morning
solving the crossword clues
folded flat on my desk.
C , four blanks, ION,
"the undkindest cut of all".
provided a simple task
(though I'd say "both").
In the afternoon I stared
with gaping goldfish mouth
and alligator eyes
at the girl in the black sweater
whose captive bosom bounced
and with every breath and sigh
disturbed my sloth.

Sorry there are no links to other sites this week - I haven't had the time. :)

As ever dont' forget to check out my other web site where lots of fascinating pictures and descriptions of my travels can be found.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2003

More songs about mushrooms and food

I've just got back from a week in Catalunya.
It was a pretty good week as package tours go. I visited the Picasso Museum which by sheer good luck had, in addition to its regular collection, a splendid exhibition of Picasso caricatures. I pottered around Barcelona looking at the weird and wonderful architecture of Anton Gaudi. I went to Salvador Dali's house in Figueras and spent half a day studying the great man's work. I went hiking in Olot. In short I had a terrific time. I don't want to talk about any of that though. What really stood out though, what was remarked on more than anything else was the Catalunyan attitude to food. It's not that the food is bad - far from it, I had uniformly excellent meals - it's just that the menus tend to a literal-mindedness that goes a long way beyond obsessive.
As package groups do we ate together most of the time in a variety of restaurants from the plain but adequate dining room of our in Olot to the hole in the corner cosiness of one of the many restaurants in Girona's old Jewish Quarter to the baroque chic of a restaurant a little way off Las Ramblas in Barcelona. All of them exhibited one trait in common - to steal a phrase, "it does exactly what it says on the label".
In that first restaurant in Barcelona I had ordered duck with apple. That's what I got - a large piece of duck and a quartered apple. There were no side dishes, no salad, no chips just the duck and the apple. I got quite a good deal out of it though by comparison to others. Those sampling the peas and ham got a ten inch plate of peas with bits of sliced ham scattered throughout, as for the spinach eaters... well two pounds of unaccompanied spinach would probably be more than Popeye could polish off comfortably.

It rapidly became a theme for mealtimes. In Girona my roast lamb was a piece of meat that represented a fair percentage of the animal's total body weight. It was of course served entirely unsullied by contact with vegetables. Steak was steak - admittedly in a rather nice Roquefort sauce but otherwise rather lost and lonely on its oversize plate. Turbot was turbot.
The crowning glory of this obsessiveness came for those who ordered the "fruit salad" in Olot. It was an apple, an orange and a banana - whole, unpeeled, virgin fruit.

It doesn't do to be too picky when eating abroad. With the exception of scrutinising absolutely everything for mushrooms* which make me violently ill I have one simple rule which has served me well around the world even when the waiters haven't.

"Eat what comes when it comes."

It doesn't matter if it's what you ordered, it doesn't matter if it's what you expected, it doesn't matter if the dessert comes before the starter or everything arrives on your table simultaneously. Just keep quiet and eat it.
I recall sitting in a restaurant in a small town in Mexico. At another table was an elderly man who had ordered whitebait for a starter followed by fajitas for his main course. The sequence of events was really quite comical to watch.

The fajitas arrived. He sent them back as the starter hadn't come.

Fifteen minutes passed.

The whitebait arrived. He took one small forkful, spat it out, said they were overcooked and sent it back.

The fajitas were bought out.

He sent them back and demanded properly cooked whitebait.

The same whitebait arrived. He sent it back and said he would do without a starter.

The fajitas - by now stone cold - arrived. He sent them back because they were cold.

The manager arrived and demanded payment. He refused.

The manager threatened to fetch the police.

Almost apoplectic with rage the man paid up and left.

Meanwhile by simply being prepared to eat my main course before my starter I had not only had a very nice meal but also forty five minutes of priceless entertainment.

Back in Catalunya though there is another quirk of the cuisine. In a word - it's "pig". Basically every part of the pig seems to appear somewhere on the menu from the commonplace cuts of pork and pork sausage through to pigs' trotters, pigs' snouts and pigs' cheeks. This combined with the lack of vegetables means that if you are a Moslem or a Vegetarian it probably shouldn't be top of your holiday destinations list unless you are really determined to lose weight. Even for a dedicated carnivore like me the preponderance of meat - especially pork which I rarely eat at home - gets a little much.
When I got home I called my father from the airport. He promised to have something waiting for me when I reached home. I'd have settled happily for a nice bit of cheddar but he'd cooked me a fry up of sausage and bacon. It would have seemed churlish not to eat it after he'd cooked it but today in the supermarket when he placed a shoulder of pork in the basket while he wasn't looking I put it back on the shelf and replaced it with a chicken.
There's only so much that a man can take.

*The Spanish are especially cunning when it comes to hiding mushrooms on the menus. They may appear as champiñones (or xampiñones in Catalunya). They might be there as hongos. On this trip I discovered the new words bolet and girgoiles on the menu which on closer examination turned out to be either mushrooms or types of mushroom or dishes with mushroom in them.

This week's poem is one I wrote sitting in the square outside Dali's house sipping a coffee and looking up at the strange egg shaped decorations on top of the red walls.

Strange Empire

There are no fixed points here
in this Empire of the Mind,
no guides to lead us from
this valley of the blind.
The heavens hold no patterned truth.
Their mystery is a children's lie.
No greater world stands out of view,
behind the simple sky.

Everything is a lie.
The words upon the page ? A lie.
The ink that fades ? A lie.
The hand that writes ? A lie.
The mind that guides ? A lie.
There is no mind,
no hand, no pen, no ink,
no words,
no matter what we think.
Everything is a lie.

There are no fixed points here
In this Empire of the Stranger,
No gimballed compass set in brass
To lead us out of danger.
The turned boards, the leaves,
the crystal balls, the bones that fall,
are no more than reasn's thieves.
Mistrust them all.

Everything is a lie.
The stars seen through the glass ? A lie.
The days and hours that pass ? A lie.
The illusions of life ? All lies.
The cold edge of the knife ? A lie.
There is no knife,
no life, no time, no stars,
no matter who we are.
Everything is a lie.

Remember to visit my web site where you will find pictures, trip descriptions and so much more. If you do visit then a message on the guest book would be deeply appreciated.

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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Some of My Best Friends Are...

Before I begin I want to make one thing absolutely clear - some of my best friends are vegetarians ! I have absolutely nothing against them. I respect their beliefs and their lifestyle choices. I have eaten dinner at their houses and found it to be delicious. I do not in any way condone my fellow carnivores who bleat on about "rabbit food" and "nut cutlets" (the latter usually a reference to mental health rather than a recipe suggestion).
Vegetarians are perfectly nice, normal, decent people.
Let's face it though they can be a pain in the arse on a camping trip. I've camped everywhere from Alaska to Zambia, often in circumstances bearing too close a resemblance to "I'm a Celebrity-Get Me Out Of Here!". Occasionally we've been lucky and had no vegetarians in the group but more often there have been one or two. Now cooking for twelve people in camp conditions isn't especially taxing as the technique adopted by most people is to whack everything available into a pot and boil it death for a couple of hours. This of course doesn't work if you have vegetarians but it can be easily circumvented by using two pots.
Inevitably though there will be someone for whom this isn't good enough.

Many years ago I did a two week package tour in China with a large group - about thirty people - and it was all conducted in nice high class hotels with high quality restaurants. The trouble started at the airport when our Chinese guide informed us that vegetarians might find it a little troublesome because - in his words - "if it walks, crawls, swims or flies, we eat it."
There were dark mutterings.. We had arrived just in time for lunch in a local restaurant and it very quickly became apparent that our vegetarians were not happy. The vegetable soup contained chicken, the fried rice had small scraps of something unidentifiable as to species but definitely meat, dish after dish arrived with bits of things that had clearly once been squawking, bleating, mooing or in some cases barking. A cadre of about ten people formed and the only dish they would eat was plain boiled rice.
It was a pattern repeated over the next few days - I won't begin to repeat their remarks when we ate in the restaurant where the speciality was Peking Duck !
In Shanghai our local guide had got wind of the rising tide of gastronomic rebellion and took us to a restaurant where he arranged for a whole series of vegetable dishes to be produced. There were delicate soups, flavoured bean curd, flavoursome mixed dishes of hot peppers and bean sprouts - all sorts of things. It was delicious. I felt certain that this would please even our most militant vegetarians. Then I noticed one of them pushing it about on her plate with a fork.
"Has this" she queried loudly "been cooked in animal fat ?"
Nobody knew and when our guide asked the waiter he said he couldn't find out. She took this as oriental duplicity and flatly refused to eat anything. She would, she announced, be complaining to the holiday company. Her grumbling companions agreed.

It's happened all over the place. In Peru one of our party refused to eat for three days after being subjected to the hideous trauma of being forced to witness other people eating guinea pig. It spoiled her salad to be in the same room.
In Germany a diner in a hotel sent back her salad because it contained ham and then sent the replacement back because she suspected that they had just taken the ham off the old one and swapped it for cheese - the lettuce remaining contaminated.
In a Mongolian grill in San Francisco one man refused to eat food that had been cooked on a griddle that had previously had meat on it.

Camping is the worst though and when camping the ones who irritate me most are the part time vegetarians. These fall into two groups and it's tough to decide which is worse. Fist there are the ones who claim to be vegetarians unless they like the look of the meat option that you have cooked and then cheerfully tuck into that. Once while I was cooking a fry up I had a separate pan of fried vegetables and rice going on the other burner for the two people who had so far claimed to be vegetarians only to have both of them help themselves to sausages and ignore the food prepared for them. If there had been enough sausages to go around this wouldn't have been a problem but as there weren't it struck me as both inconsistent and extremely rude.
Then there are the ones who haven't been vegetarians at all but become so from pure squeamishness when confronted with certain foods - say chickens that are still basically chicken shaped rather than already processed and wrapped in film at the supermarket.
In Bam, in Iran, the cook team for the day had bought what they thought were frozen chicken portions. At lunch time as they took them from the ice box to thaw for the evening there was a penetrating shriek of
"Oh my god it's got a head !"
The "chicken portions" were whole quail complete with heads, wings and feet. None of the three people who were supposed to be cooking would go near them. A couple of us volunteered and chopped off the offending body parts but it was too late. They had already been seen, whole and intact. Nothing could persuade the cooks to return to the kitchen so we carried on and cooked them ourselves. Given that five people flatly refused to eat something that they had seen with its head attached, it gave the rest of us two each.
It was the same palaver - with the same people - as we worked our way through Pakistan and China. Whenever we had to buy chickens whole, especially if they had been running around in cages when we arrived, they refused food that they would gladly have eaten had it come in a polystyrene box from Tesco. Of course my insistence on giving our chickens names before they were killed probably didn't endear me to some people who thought that killing and cooking Annabelle, Lucinda and the gender-confused Tarquin was an act of monstrous cruelty.
Genuine and permanent vegetarians have my - admittedly rather baffled - respect and the ones who were vegetarians but suddenly change there mind when faced with sausages could just be considered lapsed but I find the squeamish variety nothing more than irritating.
Still I suppose they think the same about my mushroom allergy.

This week for my web site of the week I'm going to promote a language message board where I'm a regular contributer. At wordcraft we're all friendly happy smiley people with a common love of the English language. Drop by and see us sometime.

This weeks poem is a simple Limerick that I wrote many years ago when I was working with a vegetarian colleague who was rather partial to curries. The name has been changed.

John Robinson treated with scorn
Any food that had ever been born.
He would simply not eat
A dish made with meat
But sometimes stretched a point for a prawn. *

* Note for Americans. In UK English the words scorn/born/prawn all rhyme. I am aware that they don't in US English.

Remember to visit my web site where you will find pictures, trip descriptions and so much more. If you do visit then a message on the guest book would be deeply appreciated.

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Saturday, April 26, 2003

Splatters and Dead Things

Admirers of Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin stop reading now !
It isn't that you aren't welcome but there is likely to be little said here that is complimentary about either "artist" and I don't care for the thought of irate fans shouting "Philistine" at the screen.
As you might have guessed I visited the new Saatchi Gallery in London yesterday. It's an interesting place though not always for the right reasons. I'll come to the things I liked about it later but first let's talk about Damien Hirst. There is a telling irony in the fact that by far the most crowded room in the entire display was devoted to newspaper cartoons lampooning Hirst while the many rooms containing Hirst's own work usually contained one intense teenager with a psychopath's stare and a bearded man contemplating solemnly while stroking his chin and nodding.
With a couple of exceptions his works represented fall into three groups - spots and splatters, "medical concept pieces" and bits of dead animal. As they are the most attractive let's take the spots and splatters first. The spots are glossy circles in rows on large canvasses. They look like a paint shop colour selection chart or wall decorations in cafe. The splatters are the kind of thing, albeit on a larger scale, that television art programs for the under-fives produce by dropping random colours onto rapidly rotating pieces of cardboard. Pretty and colourful to be sure but nothing a infant couldn't produce left to his own devices. There are various medical pieces : - massively enlarged medicine labels with the names replaced with things like "Sausages"; a pharmacist's cabinet mounted on the wall of an otherwise empty room; fish swimming around assorted medical equipment; an anatomical model about twenty feet high. You can draw your own conclusions.
Of course the dead animals are the thing for which he is infamous and there are plenty of them here; a tiger shark in formaldehyde, a cow and a bull sliced into pieces and rearranged in the wrong order, a pig sliced in half along its length, assorted fish on a shelf.
It's easy to sneer. So I will. I've always felt that Damien Hirst is an artist only in the sense of the word that is usually preceded by "con" and nothing here persuaded me otherwise. In her catalogue article Lynn Barber says
"And to anyone who objected that anyone could have done it, Hirst had an unanswerable answer: 'But you didn't, did you?'"
This isn't an "unanswerable answer", it's a non sequitur, true but unconnected to the criticism. I could sit here and come up with fifty "concepts" in twenty minutes and believe me if anyone would pay me for them the money they pay Hirst I'd bloody well stop writing now and get down to the shed... er studio... . They wouldn't though would they, not even if they were Hirst-like, not even if I'd done it first? Damien Hirst's reputation is founded not on any actual artistic merit but on his being Damien Hirst. He's famous for being famous.
Which brings me to Tracy Emin who has a first class honours degree and an MA in painting so we have to presume that she knows what she is doing. Or do we ? What we can certainly presume is that the art establishment presumes that she knows what she is doing. They must from the way they laud nonsense like "My Bed" or "Automatic Orgasm". "My Bed" is her most famous and most controversial work and quite frankly if something that looks like my bedroom is worth more money than my house I'll eat Damien Hirst's entire animal oeuvre raw.
There were others there that I didn't like, notably Sarah Lucas whose attempts to reduce art to the level of a smutty schoolboy joke aren't clever, simply tiresome. Just having a dirty joke told not by a grubby eleven year old but by a middle aged woman does not elevate it to anything other than a dirty joke.

Let's move on though to some of the good stuff. Ron Mueck's sculptures are both incredibly realistic and detailed and deeply disturbing. "Mask" is a four foot high face suspended in the air. Size apart it looks frighteningly real and there is something about the scale and the way that it is a face without a head that sends shivers down your spine. "Dead Dad" is such a realistic looking naked corpse that you can't resist the thoughts of mortality that it brings on. The fact that it's about half scale simply underscores the brief and puny nature of life. Another room contains separate works by Ian Monroe, Christian Ward and James Hopkins which are all, in their individual ways fascinating. Monroe's vast collage has a truly remarkable sense of depth. Hopkins sculptures play complex games with perspective that your eye and brain continue to try to make sense of no matter how close you get. Ward's fantastical landscapes are colourful and imaginative and only upon closer examination reveal a strange and subtle sense that this is actually reality.
Even some of the controversial pieces - Marcus Harvey's Myra, a portrait of killer Myra Hindley in child size palm prints or Chris Ofili's elephant dung paintings have enough about them to be genuinely interesting if not to everyone's taste.

The peach of the collection though, and one which I had expected to hate, is Richard Wilson's 20:50. One of the rooms of the County Hall has been filled to waist height with thick black oil. One person at a time can walk out into the centre on a platform and look. The light from the windows shines in and the liquid reflects with absolute clarity the upper half of the room below you. The effect is strange and disorienting. It's an Alice in Wonderland sensation of things not being in their proper order or their proper place. You feel suspended in a vertiginous space and the very mundanity of the wooden doors and the elegant fittings makes it even more confusing. The long queue restricts the time you can spend looking but it's well worth it.
To sum it up about twenty percent of the gallery is excellent, about twenty percent is interesting and as for the other sixty per cent I'll leave the last word to Damien Hirst. One of his splatters is titled
"Beautiful, cheap, shitty, too easy ..."

This week's poem is a double dactyl

Hirst D. and Emin T.
Cut up dead animals
Mess up a bed
Charles Saatchi, a man whose
Money seems limitless
Parts with the bread.

The web site of the week is the Saatchi Gallery one already mentioned.

Remember to visit my web site where you will find pictures, trip descriptions and so much more. If you do visit then a message on the guest book would be deeply appreciated.

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