blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Terribly behind

Another list. This is a reminder to myself to add blogposts about

  • the Porin Quartet of Zagreb
  • the Musée d'Orsay
  • a "magic mattress"
  • co-pilots
  • Germany in the 1950s
  • Erich Kästner, from Dresden
  • Li Cunxin, from Qingdao
  • the Yangtze Dining Lounge
  • Glazunov, Bridge, Menotti and the British High Commissioner's cocktails
  • our local cemetery
  • the weekend in Quebec

because I have something I want to put on record about all of these subjects. Paul Guimard is worth mentioning further, too. I have not been getting on with it!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Talking about Paul Guimard

I revealed my interest in this relatively unknown French writer to some French ladies today, telling them about his life and his books until we ran out of time. It was such a pleasure to hear them agreeing with me that this man's choice of words is powerful enough to cause shivers of appreciation. The annoying thing is that, because they're out of print and therefore mostly unobtainable, especially outside of France, I couldn't distribute any of his novels to the audience I'd managed to enthuse—I didn't want to hand out my own copies for fear of losing them.

In my living room I have a pile of these books (in paperback) in chronological order:

Rue du Havre
L'Ironie du Sort
Les Choses de la Vie
Le Mauvais Temps
L'Empire des Mers
Un Concours de Circonstances


L'Age de Pierre

Guimard's earliest novel, Les Faux-Frères, which I have on order from, hasn't arrived yet; I have just ordered his last published book, Les Premiers Venus.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

I've just been watching the Cameron-Clegg press conference in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street. Any new political situation such as this that upsets the status quo and makes people think or rethink surely has to be a good thing, but who knows what will come of it? The two men look so alike that I have a premonition of something like Alice's encounter in Chapter IV of Through The Looking Glass:

one of them had `DUM' embroidered on his collar, and the other `DEE.' `I suppose they've each got 'TWEEDLE' round at the back of the collar,' she said to herself.


the words of the old song kept ringing through her head like the ticking of a clock:

'Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.'

Monday, May 10, 2010

Working with the Departed

Yesterday I watched the Japanese film, Okuribito (おくりびと), which in English is entitled Departures (2008)—note the different trailers aimed at different audiences! It was one of the best films I have ever seen, a meditation on the theme of loss, accompanied by the 'cello. During the two hours it took, I learned more about the Japanese than I ever have and must have gone through every possible emotion.

It is about a sympathetic young man, a musician obliged by circumstances to work as an undertaker. He takes his job very seriously indeed. The more imaginative you are the more it will turn your stomach. The nauseating images are actually hidden from the camera; all the same I nearly made a dash from my seat at one point. Other scenes are rivetingly beautiful, or comical, even, or thoughtfully symbolic. The story is not grim throughout, not at all.

The film forces you to think about death and, by implication, about the preciousness of life. Incidentally, it's a sort of documentary about Japanese funeral customs, incorporating footage of Japanese scenery and interiors fascinating to a non-Asian viewer such as me. Mostly however it is the close-ups of the faces (dead and alive!) that will stick in the memory. The actress who plays the main female part does not have a conventionally pretty face—she has uneven teeth—but the tenderness of her facial expressions more than compensates for that.

The Japanese are such self-controlled people, whose upbringing generally encourages them to hide their feelings, but this is the very quality that makes for such good acting and such intensity. The same applies to the English.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The monastry and the Mirós

Back to April 15th, not yet described in this blog; this was my last full day in and around Barcelona.

To give ourselves a peaceful start to the day, Sha and I visited the museum at the old Monastir de Sant Cugat in the morning, after browsing through the outdoor market in front of it, afterwards sitting at a café table in the Plaça Augusta drinking coffee and watching the Catalan families interact. All ages were enjoying the spring sunshine, from little babies breastfeeding from their mothers and children playing ball to elderly people with sticks and walkers. It was very agreeable.

Sant Cugat or Saint Cucuphas (Cucufate? Qaqophas?), if he existed at all, which some doubt, was an ancient Christian martyr from Africa, skinned alive and otherwise tortured somewhere around the place where the monastery was built in the 9th century AD. The Benedictine monks of the first millenium revered him. Sha and I went into the cloisters with the inevitable school party (this one speaking Catalan) to read about the monks and their life in the monastery, most of which is 12th century Romanesque. Each of the 144 columns framing the arches of the cloisters has a different capital with a scene from the Bible sculpted on it, but the only one I found easy to explain to my Chinese companion showed the story of Jesus with the loaves and fishes. I have since found this information on the Internet:

...the shafts of the columns are of stone from Girona while the voussoirs of the arches, the capitals and the bases are of stone from Montjuic, more suitable for carving... Arnau Cadell [...] carved his portrait on one of the capitals, showing himself as an sculptor working the stone. You still can read his signature in Latin: HEC EST ARNALLI SCULTORIS FORMA CATELLI QUI CLAUSTRUM TALE CONSTRUXIT PERPETUALE

It was a well presented exhibition, although since much of it was only explained in Catalan Sha and I didn't get the full story! At one point we were able to press a button to hear some plainsong, the screen display lighting up the notes on the medieval stave as the chant progressed. We also watched a video describing the monastery's political history. The religious institutions of Catalonia did not support the Kings of Spain in the wars against the French, were attacked and persecuted by the Spanish authorities. In the nineteenth century the monastic orders were suppressed and so the buildings were plundered and fell into disrepair; only recently have they been restored and the adjacent abbey is still in ruins.

George emerged from his meetings, we lunched at the Café del Carrer and then the three of us decided to make a final excursion into Barcelona to climb the slopes of Montjuic (Mountain of the Jews, where in the twelfth century many Jewish people lived) for the sake of the view and the works of art up there. The museum we visited was the Fundació Joan Miró where it particularly interested me to explore the Joan Miró collection.

We didn't look at the artist's works in chronological order. What sticks in the memory is, for instance, a kinetic structure (similar to mobiles by Calder) entitled Font de Mercuri in which the falling water looks like blobs of mercury. There was also a suggestive hat stand! He experimented with cubism as in his cityscape Carrer de Pedrables (1917, depiction of a street in Barcelona), but from about 1925 onwards Miró's works of art were surrealist, either playful, with shapes of hands, fish and birds incorporated more often than not, or disturbing. To one painting he gave the title: Man and Woman in front of a Pile of Excrement. Rembrandt said that rubies and emeralds are found on heaps of dung. Miró painted his picture at the time of the Civil War. Actually he spent those war years living in France. During the Second World War too his escapism ("retreat from reality") was apparent; he painted a Woman Dreaming of Escape in 1945 and a Woman and Birds at Sunrise the following year, and several of his semi abstract pictures of this stage in his development featured stars: The Morning Star, for instance, in the series Constellations.

Outside the galleries photography was allowed so I snapped a few of the sculptures there.

We had supper at a tapas bar in the old city, ordering plates of cuttlefish with lemon, grilled sardines, a "bomb", potato salad and shrimps, among other things. It was fun and very tasty. Copes de vi (glasses of wine) were on offer but we drank Glops beer with the food instead, a Barcelona brew.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The 60th Adventure

Today I ate my lunch in the ballroom of the Château Laurier.

"220 outstanding senior high school students from across Canada" came to Ottawa this week "in a program designed to develop their potential as leaders in their communities and in Canadian society." Organised by the Rotary Club, this is a scheme which sprang to life sixty years ago and is still going strong. Chris and I are one of the host families co-opted to look after the young "Adventurers in Citizenship" (as they've been called since 1951); this year it was a couple of boys, Lucas from British Columbia and Dennis from Nova Scotia. Had he come from Wales, Dennis might have been known as Dennis-the-Tennis because he's particularly good at that game; he is trying to win a "tennis scholarship" to a university in the States on the strength of his abilities. Lucas is a clarinet and saxophone player. Both are keen historians, courteous, idealistic, intelligent, well-meaning young men who want to have a hand in changing the world (or their part of Canada) for the better. All Chris and I had to do was provide them with bed and breakfast and drive them downtown early in the mornings for four days, picking them up and bringing them home in the evenings; for having done this we were invited to the posh lunch.

The Rotarians in charge of this year's programme sat at the high table to give introductory speeches, telling the assembly that "...we do this for the good of Canada and of our fellow citizens" and that these young people were "a force for good in this world." (And so they are.) It was all very worthy, potent stuff. The Chair of the organising committee who also runs a Conflict Resolution programme said that the point of the young people's political discussions was to learn how to be forgiving of one another for one's disagreements and differences of opinion.

As has been the pattern since 1951, each province was represented by a Young Adventurer who stood up to make a speech about what the experience had meant to him or her. This year, one or two spoke of how exciting it had been to meet the MP Justin Trudeau (son of the former PM). Some, the girl from Prince Edward Island for example, whose ambition was to be a teacher, spoke very fluently. The young Inuit chap representing Nunavut had not made speeches before but was loudly and warmly applauded after each utterance in his not quite perfect English. The other kids particularly liked it (Woop, woop, way to go!) when he said about his four days in Ottawa: "I was shy at first, but now I'm confident!" Like nearly all the others he said he was proud to be Canadian, and the thing he had liked best was yesterday evening's dance at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

At the end, when we had polished off our white chocolate trifles, drunk our coffees and heard all the speeches, Suzanne Pinel Judge of the Citizenship court (the lady who once swore Chris and me into Canadian citizenship, not to mention thousands of others in Ottawa) came up to the podium to lead the whole gathering in the singing of the National Anthem; it now seems to be the convention to sing the middle part of it in French, so I had better pull my socks up and learn the words:

O Canada, our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
Car ton bras sait porter l'épée,
Il sait porter la croix!
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

We seem to have lost track of our glowing hearts and the True North strong and free, for the sake of a bilingual pride in swords and crucifixes. I might have said something about the significance of that, this week, had I been a not too shy Young Adventurer.

Fleeting memories of Spain and France in April

In and around Barcelona:,

The voice of a cuckoo calling early in the morning. Seagulls, swifts, wagtails, wild parrots squawking in the trees. Cats and dogs. Poplars, just coming into leaf, cherry trees in bloom, crepe myrtle. Twisted pine trees, wild cacti and palms.

Smoked hams hanging in the carnisserias. Frutas y flores on the street corners. Fresh bread and pastries, good coffee, tapas. Free bottles of agua mineral with every meal.

A crowd of African men carrying their belongings in blankets down the tunnels in the metro.

In Paris:

Pale sandstone houses, wrought iron balconies, shutters, chimneys. A hodgepodge of bikes, motorbikes and small cars parked at random. Wicker chairs and small round café tables edged with chrome. Little dogs.

Graffiti. The pervasive smell of tobacco and coffee.

Rumble of the metro and the clunk of the train doors. Accordion and saxophone players, the African voices of street sellers.

Tartines with jam for breakfast.

Monday, May 3, 2010


I see that the good old Wikipedia already has a fulsome entry concerning the effects of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Click here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Not the "Scream"

There's a very good introduction to the exhibition I saw at the Pinacothèque, opposite the Madeleine in Paris, on this webpage. If you click on the Culturebox video, you can access an audio-visual commentary on it, too.

In these galleries were 170 of the rarely exhibited paintings, sketches, drawings and lithographs which the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch refused to sell. The famous "Scream" (Skrik) was not part of this exhibition although its mood was all-prevalent. Solitude, fear, despair: those were Munch's themes.

Despite the fact that his mother had died of TB when he was five years old and his sister of the same disease at the age of fourteen, his earliest paintings, first exhibited in the 1880s, were not so grim, more like the impressionist landscapes of the Parisians he met when he went to France (Nice, St.Cloud) as a young man. There is a woman in a blue dress (painted in 1891) beside a fjord, who at first glance looks like a Renoir, except that her red hat anticipates Munch's Madonna paintings and that the black shadow she casts has a menacing aspect. He became obsessed with the Madonna image five years later and in this exhibitions were four versions of it, lithographs with wild swirls for the eyes and breasts and with a ghost like foetal child in the bottom left hand corner of two of them.

There were sad images from his past, such as the Souvenir d'Enfance, a drawing in crayons (back view) of his mother holding him, as a child, by the hand, and of course the series of "sick child" drawings and paintings from the mid 1890s. Mostly, however, it was his unhealthy sex life that absorbed him to the extent of driving him crazy. I found etchings of a naked woman holding (squeezing?) a heart that was dripping blood over her feet, of a vampire woman, of a harpy. Not difficult to grasp the meaning of those. Baudelaire's great poem La Chevelure was mentioned in the exhibition notes. There's the life-size, crouching, Weeping Nude in oils of 1914, her face hidden by her hair, and a Baiser sur les cheveux (1915). Sin (Le Péché) was a woman with long, deshevelled hair, bare breasts, staring blue eyes and a grim expression, and in 1930 he was still painting canvasses like this: the Femme allongée les cheveux défaits (the same woman as in the Madonna pictures, by the look of her).

I suppose Munch must have tried to perk himself up from time to time by trying to paint something less negative, the four embracing couples in the park on a Summer Night, or the lithograph of a Van-Gogh-like starry night, or the famous Dance of Life (for which I saw a sketch in coloured crayons) with its white moon reflected in the water in the disturbing shape of a crucifix (this image appears in many of Munch's pictures). There was also a winter landscape very like those of the Canadian painter Emily Carr and in the last gallery of the exhibition a Manteau Bleu au Soleil, an almost cheerful picture of a woman facing forward in a sunny spot. But more typically, his work is gloomy. Five versions of Solitaires (a man and a woman standing apart, back view, staring out to sea from a rocky beach) were shown in the exhibition, in different colour combinations. Munch's self portraits were not normal either, being entitled Self Portrait with the 'flu, Self Portrait with bottle (he was an alcoholic), S P in bed, S P with beard, etc. and in the Despair of Alpha series it seemed he had completely flipped into madness, with Alpha being himself, presumably, a screaming (!) naked man, ditto being devoured or killed by beasts, Alpha drowning Omega... Omega was his female counterpart, a naked woman, pictured with a donkey, with a pig or (very young) with a big bear (representing death, most likely, Der Tod und das Mädchen) or, on a sick bed, with a devouring tiger. Again the crucifix/moon image in these pictures. They were fascinating, but not very pleasant.

Even ostensibly conventional pictures by Munch turn out, on closer inspection, to have disturbing qualities. The unfinished (?) portrait of Inger Barth (1921) has dribbles of paint running down over her hands. Munch was decades ahead of his time. Or the titles are a give-away. A portrait of Laura, 1920, is subtitled Melancholy and a canvas showing a man welcoming a woman to his house, she carrying a posy of pretty flowers, is entitled Marat and Charlotte Corday! Presumably the posy conceals a dagger.

By the way, I recently listened to a BBC podcast (in the In our Time series, chaired by Melvyn Bragg) of an informative discussion about Munch, recommended.

As if that weren't enough for me I took a look at the other exhibition in the Pinacothèque as well, a slightly ironic tribute to the Munch oeuvre, created this year by Bedri Baykam, an artist from Ankara: 4-D Lenticulaires it was called, being a large scale compilation of holograms and photographs of the Munch pictures and other familiar images (by Toulouse Lautrec, for instance) deliberately distorted and juxtaposed by parallax shift. I was too exhausted to give the pieces these attention they deserved, but they were impressive, and clever.

After seeing the two exhibitions I cleared my mind of melancholy images in the brightness of the Tuilleries gardens between Place de la Concorde and the Louvre looking at the classical white statues (Demeter, though, the Goddess of Summer, had lost a hand) and took a seat in the Café Renard "depuis 1905"—I bet they didn't charge €3.20 for a café noisette in those days, although I did get a little square of black chocolate with it, served by an obsequious waiter wearing a black waistcoat.