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.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hannover / Hanover

It is spelled with two Ns here, in Niedersachsen, and is the capital of that state. On our first day in Hannover, we saw both the Landtag (state parliament) and "New" City Hall building, both impressive edifices. The old part of town (that dated back to the 12th century) no longer exists. During the 2nd World War, Hanover was hit by 88 bombing raids, by the British RAF, mostly; more than 90% of the city centre was destroyed and more than 6000 civilians killed. The worst of the raids was in October, 1943. Therefore most of what Chris and I are seeing has been reconstructed since those days, the churches laboriously rebuilt with red bricks.

They seem to venerate Martin Luther and the 17th century philosopher-mathematician Leibniz, who was born here. We walked along the Leibniz-Ufer after finding a branch of the River Leine (on the Hohen Ufer near the market square were antiques stalls. The Leibniz-Ufer passes the back of the Landtag (state parliament buildings) and has shady trees and benches. Later on our walk we found a Leibniz memorial with a diagram of the binary numbering system he used. There are Leibniz butter biscuits too, nothing to do with maths. The Bahlsen Leibniz-Keks factory, built in 1910 in the Jugendstil, stands next to our hotel on Podbielskistraße; in fact the hotel is in its grounds.

We are just beyond Listerplatz, at the end of the Listermeile, a pleasant, traffic free, shopping zone. Cyclists and small children in a variety of conveyances or on their own wheels share the street with the pedestrians and in spite of the many human voices, it is a quiet place to be. You can buy flowers, fruit, baked goods and coffee, bespoke furniture, books and clothes here. Chris had his hair cut and beard trimmed at one of several Friseurs on the Listermeile. Posters on the poles advertise concerts and tatoo-removal treatments: you don't have to keep the evidence of your youthful indiscretions or sins, Jugendsünde. Get rid of your Scheißtatu, one said. There's a library at the city end, and, half way down yesterday morning, we were able to buy ourselves a good breakfast with Italian coffee. Today, walking in the other direction up Podbielskistraße we found a more elaborate, and more expensive, breakfast (with caviar, even!) at a cafe near one of the tram stations, the Vier Grenzen. Why there are four borders there we didn't discover. Chris has to go back in that direction for work for the next three days because his QNX office in Hannover is on the street called Am Listholze, which starts at Vier Grenzen. We walked to the office after breakfast; it is near a river bridge from which we saw a barge moored and unsurfaced bike paths on both banks. The QNX place is opposite a wide area of land full of neatly planted allotments belonging to a Kleingartenverein, several of these flying the German flag and incorporating small cottages.

A large recreation area in this part of Hannover is the Eilenriede park, actually an extensive forest of beech and chestnut trees, etc., crisscrossed with bike paths. In a corner of it is the Erlebnis-Zoo; "Zoo Experience", that means, although the only experiences Chris and I had there were to sit on a bench near the entrance and watch the young families coming and going and the guinea pig family scuttling around a toy village, because we had decided that the cost of seeing more exotic animals was too exorbitant (entrance fee 27.50 euros each) and in any case our legs were too tired by that stage of the day.

We ended the day, still too jet-lagged to function normally, at a Pakistani "Indian Tandoori" round the corner from the Novotel, having a filling supper at an outdoor table. We noticed that the cleaner's and clothing repair shop on the other side of the street, in business since 1833, nowadays offers a "gefinished" service. What kind of language is that?

Today we discovered that most commercial outlets are closed on Sunday mornings. We took a tram / train into the city and sat subdued for a while in the remains of the Aegidienkirche, which the Hannoverians left in ruins after it was bombed, for a memorial, open to the sky. Beneath its bell tower hangs a bell given as a significant gift from the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Thence we walked to the Sprengel art museum, passing a few Eiscafes, already crowded with customers, on the way. We ate a light lunch of bruschetta slices at the museum cafe, out of doors on the upper terrace which gave us a view of Hannover's artificial lake, the Maschsee, about 4km long. It had been dug out of a swamp by manual labourers between 1933 and 1936, the Nazis giving these otherwise unemployed people something to do during the Depression era. Today the lake was full of little yachts, pleasure boats, motorboats for tourists and paddle-boats in the shape of Volkswagen "beetles" which somehow reminded me of the lakes in the Beijing parks. We fell asleep exhausted on a bench by the lake, after an hour or so in the art museum, which boasted a phenomenal permanent collection, its exhibits all from the 20th and 21st centuries. I had better devote a separate blogpost to this visit.

Before returning to the Listerplatz by U-Bahn, we also stopped for a long time at a Bavarian cafe selling different drafts of beer in long glasses. For fear of falling asleep again, we ordered alkoholfreies Bier at an outdoor table there. Our third al-fresco meal of today was a tasty supper at an Italian restaurant on the Listermeile.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Two Swedish cathedrals

Uppsala's cathedraldomkyrka, approximately pronounced Dohm-ch-yeerkadominated the city, being the tallest cathedral in Scandinavia. I was impressed by it, especially by its interior which had an atmosphere of serenity, even though an ancient king (Erik IX) had once been assassinated on its premises; that was a long time ago.The cathedral's ceiling, especially at the east end where there was a blue extension of it into the Lady Chapel, was very high (27m) and very fine. At this end of the building, beyond the choir, a wax figure stood, created by Anders Widoff in 2005, a dignified middle-eastern, middle-aged lady, wearing a hijab-like headscarf. For a moment I thought she was a real person. It was called "Maria (The Return)."

In the cathedral is also a stone memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, 1905 – 1961, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; it is inscribed: Icke jag utan Gud i mig meaning "Not I, but God in me."

Chapel of Prayer, Uppsala cathedral
Though originally catholic, in the middle ages, this cathedral like many others in northern Europe is Lutheran. A couple of tapestries that hang in a side chapel near the entrance depict its history. At the other end of the nave, in the "Sture Chapel", a small service was being held during my visit, with the worshippers quietly singing an earnest hymn in unison, a harmonium accompanying; it sounded like a scene from Babette's Feast. On the other side of the cathedral was another small side chapel featuring an icon, with seats on either side assigned for meditation, with a live green vine growing beautifully over its wrought-iron framed entrance.

As in earlier centuries, I'm sure, food and souvenirs were on sale in and around the cathedral premises. There's a "language café" downstairs at the back that offers a series of Swedish lessons and other help for new immigrants. Outside, just below the church, a row of snack wagons stood, offering falafals, kebabs, curries ... I bought a biryani at one of them for my lunch, that I ate on a bench in the rose garden beside an artificially constructed salmon leap, jackdaws begging for scraps at my feet.

In Uppsala
A few days later I was in Linköping, the location of another huge and majestic Swedish cathedral. Linköping's domkyrka stood more or less opposite the hotel (Best Western) where we were spending the night, beyond the yellow walled former grammar school, now the town hall. The gardens round about include a hooped alley way hung with laburnum and wisteria, irresistible, with the afternoon sun shining through flowers and leaves.

Linköping Domkyrka
Again, the church was full of history (dating back to the 13th century) and art, modern art too: a "Tree of Life", Livets träd, made of glass, silver and gold, installed in 1997, is by three artists, Carl-Gustav Jansson, Jan Ostwald and Torbjorn Vog. The spiritual fruits hanging from its branches are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

In the nave, a 14th century wooden crucifix hangs from a stone arch. The stairs up to the 18th century pulpit in the centre of an unusually wide nave are decorated with a representation of the angels that climbed Jacob's ladder.

Pilgrim, by Charlotte Gullenhammar
At the far end of the church is the huge, engraved glass "Mary Window", by Lisa Bauer and Lars Börnesson, showing the face and hand of a woman, the rest of her cloaked by all the flowers and trees that allude to Christ's mother in legends, wild roses and rosehips in a crown above her face, and so on. Nearby I found a life-sized sculpture by another female artist, Charlotte Gullenhammar, of a down-and-out man, a soldier perhaps, lying either dead or exhausted on the floor beside the tombs of great and famous ancient Swedes; this figure was startlingly entitled: "Pilgrim."

The altarpiece is an image of a Swedish-looking Christ rising from the tomb with outstretched arms, painted in situ in 1935; then on the south side of the church there's another, Dutch altarpiece in oils: a massive 16th century triptych from Alkmaar by Maarten van Heemskerck, showing the stages of the crucifixion, with expressive faces everywhere, a masterpiece.

I walked around this cathedral in a state of awe.

Tree of Life

The wide nave at Linköping

Angels on the pulpit stairway

Side panel at the altar by Henrik Sörensen, painted in place in 1935

A Swedish Christ with blonde hair and blue eyes
by Henrik Sörensen

Detail from the Dutch triptych, 1530s

Thursday, July 12, 2018

In and out of the water

One of the best things about summer where we live is the chance to go swimming in the Ottawa River. Recently, on a very warm morning, we cycled to Westboro beach after breakfast and I swam from there in the designated swimming area, while Chris sat under a tree with three friendly ducks at his feet.

Last weekend with other friends we visited Francine and Roger at their house in Wendover which skirts the water, further downstream, to the east of Rockland. Their wide and grassy lawn slopes right down to the shore and they have a boat that seats about a dozen people. Roger took nine of us for a ride on it after we had smeared enough sunblock over our exposed skin and after Carol and Francine had made some emergency sewing repairs to Chris' swimming trunks (during which process I stayed well clear). Roger made for a quiet part of the river the far side of a long island, turning into wind, and then Tracey, Carol and I got off the boat into the water and swam around in it for ages. Once he had finished complaining that the water was "too cold", Chris stepped backwards off the ladder at the stern and joined in. There was a shallow area over a spit of sand at the end of the island where we could wade around or jump into the waves from other watercraft passing by. Great fun, except that Roger drew up too close and got his boat stuck in the sand. It took some help from another boatload of people (three muscular young men) to push her out and get her floating again.

Roger has a float plane tethered at his home dock as well, but he didn't use it, this time.

We all had good appetites for the shared supper.

Other people have been in other water. The whole world has been watching the long drawn-out display of selfless heroism, humility and international co-operation in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue in Thailand, when suddenly, because it was so imaginable, everyone became emotionally involved in the fate of a few foreign children in trouble and the people trying to help them. For a while it looked as if the mission might end tragically and, for one man, it did. I was not the only one who lay awake worrying about them; it seems that millions of us did the same.

Then, right across the world, there was relief and joy when the news came that all the rest were safe after their 18 days in acute danger. The last man to out was Richard Harris, the Australian doctor who had kept the children calm and as healthy as possible during their final week in the cave: "Many have called for him to be made Australian of the Year." (BBC) The cave divers from England, who volunteered to risk their lives to help, made me feel proud to be British, and I felt overawed watching the video footage of them struggling along through the pools of water in the caves; I noticed small fish swimming past in the other direction. I was touched to read about the boys' Buddhist coach, Ekapol Chantawong, 25, said to be the weakest of the group when they were found, who had reportedly refused to eat any of the food and gave it instead to the boys, and about Adul, the 14-year old who acted as interpreter for the British divers and had the gumption to ask the rescuers, "What day is it?"

"Stateless children have a fighting spirit that makes them want to excel, Adul is the best of the best.” reported the Sydney Morning Herald. Adul is top of his class at school. His parents brought him across the border from Myanmar 8 years ago. He has no citizenship papers.

This whole symbolic story has reminded us that we're all connected: a very important lesson indeed!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The pianist is just as important

The programme for yesterday morning's concert (in the Music and Beyond Festival) was headed

Yolanda Bruno

and indeed she was well worth advertising. However, I'd have preferred to see both names

Yolanda Bruno and Isabelle David

at the top of the page, because the piano accompanist seemed to be an equal at this event. The two young women became friends at McGill University's music school and have often performed together since.

The concert began with Alla Fantasia, a piece for solo violin composed in 18th century London by an musician from Naples, Nicola Matteis, a contemporary of Corelli. Yolanda plays an instrument that was made in in 1700.

The rest was more modern. Alexina Louie is a Canadian composer whose Beyond Time is a piece in three movements for violin and piano, paradoxically "capturing a moment that lasts for ever", although what kind of moment was not specified. It began with some high harmonics on the violin which were repeated later. Some sections sounded rather frantic, so perhaps the composer was struggling to capture or recapture the experience she had in mind, but there were also some beautifully rendered glissandi on both instruments that suggested a more harmonious mood.

The most weighty piece on the programme was George Enescu's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in A minor, Op. 25. Here is an old recording --- with Enescu himself playing the violin part! --- that shows its complexity:

Apparently Enescu's first violin teacher, in Romania, could not read music; as young child he therefore learned to play the folk music of his country by imitation. The music we heard obviously still had folk elements in it, but also shades of French impressionist music and what sounded to me like wailing Arabic song with quarter tones, in the second movement. We were forewarned that this section would sound like a storm ... with a rainbow at the end. I couldn't really identify the rainbow but the repeated high B-natural on the piano at the beginning of this movement (andante sostenuto e misterioso) did sound like oncoming rain. The pace accelerated in the gathering storm and before long the pianist was using the whole piano.

"Challenging!" I wrote in the margin.

The last movement was folk-dance-like again.

We had 10 minutes to go before the hour was up, and the young women finished their bravura show with something more familiar, the six Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartok, which they played with great verve. I remember seeing Bartok's bust in a park in Timișoara dedicated to famous people from Romania, although he is usually identified as Hungarian. I have just discovered from the Wikipedia that
...The original name for the piece was titled Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary (Magyarországi román népi táncok) but was later changed by Bartók when Romania annexed Transylvania in 1918-1920.
So that perhaps explains it.

(David Oistrakh playing in this recording.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

A heated performance

Day 2 of the Music and Beyond Festival was an excessively warm one, 35 degrees, with a "feels like" temperature in the mid-forties. It felt even warmer than that indoors, in the non air-conditioned Southminster United Church, which explains why the featured musician, Marc Djokic, was wearing a red sports shirt and short jeans.

"We're dressed like the Beach Boys, today," he admitted, and nobody could blame him.

Mr. Djokic is concert-master of the Montreal Chamber Orchestra. At this concert in Ottawa he played his violin in five different ways, to a variety of accompaniments provided by his friends, also informally attired.

The first item was three movements from a Porgy and Bess Suite, arrangements for violin and piano, by Jascha Heifetz: Summertime, including jazzy variations on that familiar theme, It Ain't Necessarily So, ditto, and the less often heard Tempo di Blues which had the violinist whistling the tune. His pianist was Julien LeBlanc.

In the second item, Marc played "three sketches" composed by a Brazilian woman who is also a scat singer and jazz pianist, Clarice Assad: Ad lib, Anima and Electrified. The Anima was soft and slow. For this, two guitars joined in with the violin.

Matthias Maute, composer of the next piece (a "Noncerto" composition for solo violin) had named the musical sections after places he knew: a barber's shop called Chopin and a local restaurant, Casareccia-Ciacona. He was Marc Djokic's neighbour in Montreal.

Legal Highs, by David Jones, followed, this one for violin plus marimba, played by Beverley Johnston who despite the heat danced around as she struck the bars of her instrument with four mallets at a time. It looked difficult, but both performers obviously knew this music well and enjoyed it. Marc hardly cast any glances at his sheet music and played the first part of Mr. Coffee pizzicato, holding his instrument like a ukulele. The other sections were called Menthology and Sweet Thing.

What odd names all this music had!

Finally came a violin piece by Nico Muhly with a pre-recorded track for the accompaniment: Honest Music. Marc said he had played this during last summer's evening of music at the National Gallery, which I'd attended, but I hadn't remembered it.

Drawing elephants, to music

The famous French children's book Histoire de Babar, a fantasy about a young elephant who ventures away from his usual surroundings and is rescued by an old lady in the citywas written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff in 1930 and is still in print and popular. The composer Francis Poulenc completed his accompanied version of it, for piano and narrator, in 1945. In 1940, apparently the composer had been on holiday with children in the house who'd put their story book on the music stand, saying ‘‘Play it for us!’’ Poulenc then improvised at the piano, and that's how the composition originated.

This week, at the Freiman Hall (Perez Hall) at the University of Ottawa, I witnessed a performance of this by a dedicated and multi-talented young pianist, Damien Luce, from France, who also did the narration, while an impromptu illustrator, Federico Mozzi, an all too modest young man from Argentina, simultaneously drew appropriate pictures on his tablet, which then appeared on a screen for the audience to enjoy. The name of this 'Music and Beyond' event was Draw Me Some Music. "Stories, music and drawing are blended live," as the programme notes put it.

The remainder of the concert "became interactive", with the three children from the audience encouraged to come up and sit on the stage floor, next to the piano, drawing what they felt like drawing in pencil, on the sheets of paper provided. As they were doing this, the pianist gave us some more French music for children, extracts from the Mother Goose Suite by Ravel and from Debussy's Children's Corner.

A charming idea altogether. It was a shame that not more people were there.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Dido and Aeneas ... etc!

Introducing the first event in this year's Music and Beyond Festival, Laurence Wall called it "The Little Festival That Could" --- now in its ninth year. The main part of this concert was a semi-staged performance (at the Dominion Chalmers Church) of the 17th century, baroque opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell, but before that began, a row of scarlet and black sentries marched on stage, wearing their fur busbies, and played a fanfare on brass instruments. I try not to use the word "juxtaposition(s)" too often in this blog, or it would get repetitive, but here was a good example of what catches my attention or amuses me, and what's more, the second half of the concert featured a string quartet playing with a banjo and two electric guitars. More of that later.

I know Purcell's tragic opera quite well, having studied it during my A-Level music lessons at school, having tried to master the famous aria, Dido's Lament, for a Grade VIII singing exam, and having once been involved in a performance with my father as conductor, at the Scarborough Girls' High School in Yorkshire, in 1965 or thereabouts. Once learned, never forgotten. Purcell did originally write the opera for a girls' school so our performance of it may have been more authentic than what I saw and heard in Ottawa this week, with the male parts --- Aeneas, the bawdy sailors, Jove's etherial messenger (up on the balcony) and the lower chorus parts --- performed by men. This performance by the Theatre of Early Music was directed by the internationally-known countertenor Daniel Taylor, who untied his long hair a couple of times to double as The Sorceress, singing in an extraordinarily high and loud falsetto register: had I not had my eyes open I'd have sworn it was a woman's voice. The instruments were of the period (lute, harpsichord, strings), played by seven musicians sitting on one side of the stage. Two scantily clad dancers with painted skins, one male (Bill Coleman), one female (Carol Prieur), also took part, who I believe were meant to represent the main characters' alter egos. Anyway they expressed in their fluid movements around the stage the emotions we were hearing in the arias and accompaniments.

The dramatis personae were not entirely static either, Dido (sung by the well cast Wallis Giunta) making some forceful hand and arm gestures. When, in the penultimate scene of this production, Aeneas (Geoffrey Sirett) comes towards her to proclaim that he is, after all, willing to renounce his destiny (as the founder of Rome / new Troy) to stay with her, she comes at him with a dagger she has concealed somewhere in her flowing robes, a most dramatic moment.

"By all that's good...!" Aeneas pleads.

"No more!" she interrupts, brandishing the dagger. "All that's good thou hast foresworn! To thy promised Empire fly, and let forsaken Dido die! ... Away! Away!"

And he goes. She then stabs herself with the dagger she has to hand and a silky red ribbon of blood cascades down the front of her white dress.

I was startled by this, as I knew she still had a long, breath-consuming aria to sing before expiring. (In our school production Dido had stabbed herself after the Lament.) "Thy hand, Belinda! Darkness shades me. On thy bosom let me rest. More I would, but Death invades me. Death is now a welcome guest."

I was interested and thrilled by the ornamentation Ms. Giunta added to her long phrases.

I enjoyed the two witches as well, their scene introduced by a foot-stamping chorus, who gleefully join the Sorceress in casting the spell or curse on Dido, whom they call Elissa: "Elissa's ruined, she's ruined! Destruction's our delight, delight our greatest sorrow! ... Our plot has took! The Queen's foresook! ... Elissa bleeds tonight, and Carthage flames tomorrow!"

It is a melodramatic story, great fun for schoolgirls.

Purcell's inspired music was still echoing in my head after the intermission, when the Swiss banjo player Jens and his guitarist brother Uwe, the Kruger Brothers, came in, as the next part of the evening's entertainment. They were accompanied by a Russian Jewish gentleman who played bass guitar, and by a string quartet (familiar Ottawa musicians).

"We're immigrants!" said Jens Kruger, emphatically, to appreciative applause from the audience, immigrants being so much in the news lately. The brothers had emigrated from Switzerland to North Carolina where they now live, and still use elements of Swiss folk music in what they play. Jens, who still speaks with a Swiss accent and has a Swiss sense of humour, is the composer; he says he used to ride a horse to school. He mentioned the wild horses who live in North Carolina too. His music contains all of this: the elements of the different influences and experiences he has absorbed. The Kruger trio began as a traditional bluegrass group, but "in a spirit of going forward" has progressed from this to playing semi-classical music.

Jens Kruger's Appalachian Concerto began with a tremolo from the six accompanying musicians, with the banjo prominent on top. The rest of first movement was fast and energetic, the second movement lyrical and the third rhythmic, with virtuoso flourishes for the banjoist.

The string players' eyes are glued to their music, but the trio plays entirely from memory, making for an interesting contrast. They did two encores as well, one of these jokingly quoting Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and ending with a bluegrass flourish, thus:

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The delights of Stockholm

Children's playground in Norrmalm

At the Grand Central hotel
Stockholm is clean, elegant and friendly. As our stay there went by, we discovered ever more pleasant surprises. The city had a sense of fun, too, with playgrounds for children everywhere, and ponds and fountains where they could splash around. We were staying in a themed hotel, the "Grand Central" (referring to the station in New York), 1960s or 70s America being the theme. As you come out of a cubicle in the ladies' ground floor washroom, a crowd of paparazzi confronts you with their cameras from an enlarged photo on the wall. Opposite the hotel entrance was the Oscarsteatern where Så som i himmelen (As it is in Heaven) was showing, as a musical, I assume. I have seen the film so might have been able to follow the play, but didn't take the opportunity. Norrmalm, this commercial-cultural district, has no lack of theatres. The imposing Dramaten, by the Berzelii Park at the waterfront, was putting on Peer Gynt. I'd like to have seen that too.

Makrosbollen fontän
Strindberg Monument
We were on one of the main streets, Kungsgatan. Nearby was the City Conference Centre, on the site of a former school, with an unusual fountain in front of it, the Maskrosbollen fontän. In the evening, the Stockholmers gathered here in outdoor bars, ordering cocktails. In the long summer evenings, everyone stayed out late. Further up Kungsgatan is the "blue building" as one of Chris' colleagues called it, Stockholms Konserthus, on a square used as a farmers' market by day (Hötorget). Another street to remember is the Drottningsgatan, a very long, straight street that descends the hill at the top of Norrmalm, where the playwright Strindberg used to live (I found a sculpture commemorating him in the Tegnérlunden Park), and leads you past many shops all the way to the Riksdag (parliament buildings) and old city (Gamla Stan). Much of this street is free of traffic, like Strøget in Copenhagen.

In the Humlegarden
On the first morning, Sunday, Chris chose to find out where his place of work would be on Monday. We took the wrong train to start with, but worked out that if we got off at the first stop we could take a connecting train to Rådmansgatan where we needed to be. From there it was a few minutes' walk down Rådmansgatan to one of Stockholm's main thoroughfares, Birger Jarlsgatan, where the conference venue (Spårvagnshallarna) is situated. This office workers' / residential district reminded me of Germany, with its tall, early 20th century buildings in pastel shades of stucco. On the last morning of our stay I went back there, on foot all the way on that occasion, and found nearby Humlegården, a old fashioned park with lawns, ornamental ponds and old trees, and parties of school children walking along the paths in file, with a statue of Linnaeus, the famous botanist, at its centre.

At the city centre end of Birger Jarlsgatan, past some posh department stores, is the waterfront. Continuing along Strandvägen past the tour boats we found an almost Parisian boulevard with a path between the plane trees, and bistros along the edge. We had a drink out of doors, at an eco-friendly one. Our lunch too was at an outdoor table, in the Kungsrädgården, the tulip filled park at the next inlet. We had made the happy discovery that we could have an hour's boat ride simply by buying a 30 kroner (senior's) ticket at the nearest bus / tram stop, and using it to board a commuter ferry, using this means of transport for a there-and-back cruise, not getting off the boat. This also saved us a long queue in the hot sun for one of the tourist boats.

Like Sydney Harbour, Chris thought, as we boarded the ferry from Nybrohamnen (i.e. new bridge harbour). Multivarious watercraft filled the inlets, from kayaks, small pleasure boats, tugs and tall ships to full scale cruise ships. Working boats were there too. We sailed past the fun fair, the Aquaria and the Vasamuseet, famous home of a restored wooden fighting ship, on the Djurgården side of the harbour, with a windmill and stately homes on the shore. Our boat sailed down the Saltsjön, to Kvarnholm and back to Nybroplan.

Another serendipitous find was the Medeltidsmuseet, the medieval museum below the Riksdag. In the 1970s they had begun construction of an underground carpark there, only to discover that the excavation site was rich in archeological treasures, a whole city's worth. Entrance to the museum, in a peaceful small park with fountains, flowers, and chestnut trees, is free. Inside are medieval people made of wax, doing the things that were done in those days, in a cleverly realistic setting. We learned of some horrible parts of Stockholm's history mainly to do with the Swedes' resentment of brutal Danish dominance: piles of decapitated heads in squares and other kinds of blodbad. The punishment of various crimes was gruesome too. Nobles had the privilege of being put to death by the sword, whereas the lower orders of criminal were killed by slower means, women sometimes buried alive.

The name Stockholm means stick island, since posts in the water, around the shore, protected the original settlement. A 12th century ruler, a bishop called Erik, buried in Uppsala cathedral, was canonised after his assassination. In later centuries the Royal Palace was accessible through a stone tunnel, now part of the museum.

I more than once wandered round the Gamla Stan during our stay, preferring to linger in the quieter areas and the grände (narrow alleyways) of this inevitably touristy district. On our first look, on the Sunday, we stopped to watch a young busker making music with wine glasses, as Mozart once did, and a couple of girls in Swedish costume walked by. On Tuesday (after visiting the landmark Stadhuset on the other side of the water, site of the annual Novel Prize banquet, with a swarm of other tourists), having remembered a perfect spot for lunch, I ate smoked herring on a patio opposite a fountain and dramatic statue of St. George slaying the dragon (representing Sweden v. Denmark in the old days!). Nearby, I found a small gallery, with me the only customer, where a lady called Ulla Neogard was selling artifacts she had made from birchbark. She answered my questions and sold me a spectacles case for my daughter.

That afternoon I also walked onto the adjacent island of Skeppsholmen, but was becoming exhausted and footsore in the heat by then, so sat down on the far side and waited for a ferry that connected at Djurgården with a tram that took me back to central Berzelii Park.

Chris didn't get so exhausted on Monday and Tuesday, at least not physically, for he was busy all day at his conference; in the evenings he wanted a walk, which meant yet more footsteps for me. We kept finding our way back to benches on the water, the sometimes fast flowing Lilla Värten. The setting sun was reflected in the windows of the Royal Palace and Stockholm's other fine buildings for a long time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dr. Faustus, updated!

Last month, at the renovated Ottawa Arts Court on Daly Avenue, we watched an Ottawa Fringe Festival performance of a cleverly updated version of Marlowe’s Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, with Mephistopheles played by a tall, tattooed, long-haired young woman. Using an abridged transcription of the play, but the original, 16th century words, the main part was played by local actor (William Beddoe) for much of the performance sitting in a swivelling home-office chair, ranting about the damnation of his soul, but unable to do anything about it. The only other scenery was a screen at the back of the set, on which computer "windows" were projected to fix each scene in a 21st century context.

The fictional professor of Divinity, John Faustus, was almost a contemporary of Marlowe, supposed to live during the ferment of the Reformation period of European history. Brought to life in this new performance, he becomes startlingly modern. His alter-ego (well, that's my reading of the story) Mephistopheles --- whom Faust summons by incantations in Latin (passwords to access a website, in this version: there has to be a whole series incantations, because he keeps getting the password wrong!) --- makes the very emphatic point that hell has nothing to do with an afterlife. "Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it!" is a line that comes early in the play, in answer to a direct question from Faust, re-echoes throughout, and must have come across as heresy to generations of the clergy ever since the first appearance of the play. It rings true enough to a 21st century audience, with silent video clips of recent bombings and lines of present-day refugees (plus the useless or malevolent talking heads we keep seeing on our everyday screens) projected across the backdrop at that moment.

Of course the corollary to "this is Hell..." is that there must be Heaven-on-Earth as well as Hell-on-Earth, and the whole play, however presented, is filled with the longing for that place. Even Mephistopheles helplessly yearns to retrieve what (s)he has lost, once, long ago. The human condition! The condition of immortals, too.

Faustus, legendary magician, is portrayed as an internet junkie in this new interpretation, an unwashed, nerdish type, sealing the contract to sell his soul by clicking on a blood-stained computer screen (aka "scroll" in the original text ... he scrolls down it). Mephistopheles controls his moods through the chemicals in an intravenous drip that stays in his arm from the moment he agrees to the contract. His well-meaning friends or colleagues appear in multiple windows to chastise him, as if participating in a shared Skype call. He can switch them off at will. Lucifer's cruel (human) face fills the screen at one point. Faust choses his “paramour”, Helen of Troy, from an online dating agency, swiping through the possibilities, and enjoys other virtual pleasures through 3D spectacles.

Towards the end, as he proclaims, “Faustus, now hast thou but one bare hour to live…” a projected digital clock ticks inexorably away in fractions of a second and at the catastrophic conclusion of the play he is simply led away for more of the same, "...for all eternity"!

The whole thing was chillingly real. It was not so easy to calm down afterwards.

Alexander's checklist

Alexander as 'Minister of Information' for the
year-end play at his primary school
  • Learn to say hello in at least 7 languages
  • Learn your parents' mobile phone numbers off by heart
  • Teach a younger child how to play a game, then play it with them
  • Learn how to score in tennis
  • See an original painting in a gallery
Thus begins the list of over 30 challenges set by the headmaster of Turing House school in London to the 11-year olds who are going to join the school as new boys and girls at the start of the school year in September. "How many can you complete by the first day of school?" There's a tick box to record each achievement and when everything on the list is checked off, the headmaster says that they must "send the form by post to me at Turing House. Buy the stamp and envelope, walk to the post box and post it yourself." They don't need to post any "evidence" with the form, but that will be required to be seen by their form teacher at the start of term.

Our grandson is one of those kids. I'm hoping to be involved with a couple of the challenges ---
  • Write 50 words about yourself.
  • Telephone a relative and read them your 50 words. 
--- having volunteered to be that relative, in Alexander's case. The other one I'd like to help with is "Learn a poem off by heart", although which poem to recommend to an 11 year old boy is a challenge in itself. I have thought of a few, but what would you recommend?

Mark's Rising Tide

Because we know the author, Chris and I were invited to a book launch, the other day.
"A small private party ensued that evening at Arcangelo's wine taverna, in a tiny windowless back room. A few friends and supporters rested on barrels and wooden crates, listening to Arcangelo read a few of his favourite poems and drinking a small inland sea's worth of his best wines. 
To promote the book, over the next few days Michele printed extra copies of one of the poems, which he posted on walls throughout the city, putting them up late at night to avoid the nearly ever-present eyes of the authorities. The poem began: 
Open hearted Venezia  
welcomes a thousand ships
to her bounteous waters 
in a rising tide 
that floods her to the gunnels ... 
Many a man who stood in a campo reading the poem found a knot of marble in his pants at the end, knots that Francesca and her sisters at the bordello spent a lucrative and busy week untying. 
The posting of this lubricious poem led to a rising tide of interest in the book. Predictably, the poem also caught the attention of the more pious members of the local priesthood, and, of course, the Inquisition."
This is an extract from the book we saw launched, set in 18th century Venice, not a description of the event we attended on June 24th, which took place at Pressed, a lively coffee house and bar on Gladstone Avenue. Mark Frutkin, the author, with over a dozen published books to his credit, is no stranger to book launches. In his short speech on this occasion, Mark told us that his elderly mother had wanted to read more about sex in his books, so there we go! This latest one, The Rising Tide, is a sequel to the novel, Fabrizio's Return, which in 2006 won the Trillium Award for best book in Ontario. He read a few pages from his new story aloud (not the extract quoted above) and people wanted to know what happened next, but of course he refused to say, because there was a stack of copies for sale by the door, and we could find out for ourselves if we bought one.

I have my own, signed copies of both above-mentioned novels and have read four other books of Mark's, besides. My favourite is A Message For The Emperor which I have mentioned in this blog before. I appreciate his writing skills, his extraordinary imagination, his sense of humour. Although the date of copyright for The Rising Tide is 2018, he told me he had effectively finished creating this book years ago. It is published by The Porcupine's Quill on beautiful paper, liberally illustrated by engravings of Venetian scenes found in a 19th century book entitled Picturesque Europe.