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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

One-sided opinions?

We're all at it, all coming up with deeply held opinions on the Global Warming crisis. We should try to argue with the people who disagree with us in a restrained, objective, respectful way, but we get too emotional. Unlike my husband, I don't see commentators who disagree with me as "the trolls", necessarily; some of them seem to be as genuinely anxious as I am, but from a different standpoint. Right wing males feel particularly threatened by protests from people (women and girls in particular) of a left wing persuasion, which leads either to temper tantrums or to long-winded, defensive wordiness.

Each faction accuses the other of generating fake news. The language used by extremists on either side is remarkably similar, murderous in some cases. I do not like this.

It looks to me that there's an awful lot of what psychologists call projection going on. We accuse one another, viciously, of what we are guilty of ourselves. It happens not only behind closed doors in private homes but also in the international public arena. For instance, the billionaire, Hungarian philanthropist, George Soros, is accused of funding conspiracies that would lead to world domination. I doubt that, at the age of almost 90, this man has any desire to dominate the world like a latter-day Genghis Khan, although there are people of a different persuasion who probably do. Another example of projection (of course my examples in this post are biased): Americans who cannot accept the warnings from the vast majority of scientists --- that through our preference for carbon emitting fuels humankind is bringing about the planet's destruction --- claim that anyone trying to state the other side of that argument is having his work suppressed. And yet it is the scientists themselves, of NASA and other federal agencies, who are being forbidden (their publications censored by the government) from sharing the results of research that backs up those warnings, and their frustration is intense. So exactly who is clamping down on whom?

To judge by pages like this one (published last year for a lay readership), the NASA website does seem to be surreptitiously disobeying the clampdown, subtly sneaking in some home truths or at least the implication of home truths. It reminds me of Galileo Galilei, his work suppressed by the Roman Catholic authorities of the 16th century, smuggling his thesis out of Italy, carried by a student of his into a more enlightened place, "die Wahrheit unter dem Rock" (the truth hidden under one's coat), as Brecht put it in his play. We're half a millennium further on now, but human nature hasn't changed much.

What brought on this post was an exchange between me, my daughter Emma and a commentator from New Zealand on Avaaz' Facebook page, this week, whom I shall call RL, viz.:
RL: Poor children indoctrinated with all of those lies, robbed of the ability to think critically for themselves and make up their own minds. They have been taught to be narrow minded and totally intolerant of opinions that differ from those taught to them. The next generation is stuffed mentally and I guess that is how it has been callously planned.  
So what exactly is the climate emergency? What factors are causing it and how do they all inter relate? Have you identified all of the factors and how, precisely would you know if you had? What responses will you make for each factor and how would you measure whether the response is effective, ineffective or actually making things worse, and over what time frame would you measure that response? If the response was making things worse would you be able to fix it? These are very important questions considering the recent NASA statement saying they are unable to measure whether the sea level rise but they estimate it to be around 1 to 2 cm per century. Also in a recent presentation an IPCC scientist said they didn't know whether a temperature increase would produce more or less water vapour, and what change that might make to the climate and that they still don't understand the interaction between water vapour and CO2. Now, that is very important considering that water vapour is by far the largest greenhouse component in our atmosphere. Another thing to consider is that our planet has tilted further on it's axis than was expected. This means that how the sun heats the planet has changed, affecting surface ocean current and in turn wind currents. This can cause things like last summers European heat wave because the wind currents from the Sahara Desert covered Europe more often and for longer periods than usual and extended as far as the Arctic. If it is the rate of the earths tilt that has changed and is causing climate change, is it changing the weather is ways that are beneficial in the long term, and it may take fifty years to get that answer, and if it is making things worse just how do you propose to fix it? 
Me (quoting "1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world [...] concluded there's a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet." Are you saying that all these scientists got it wrong? 
My daughter is a British metrologist who gave a keynote speech about measuring climate change at a conference in Paris today. She works with people who analyse data from satellites, and with oceanographers, all of whom believe that "human activities have warmed our planet". I shall ask her what she knows about the interaction between water vapour and CO2. She said that at the conference she also listened to a presentation about observations of carbon isotope ratios that enable scientists to distinguish between natural carbon dioxide emissions and the emissions caused by the use of fossil fuels. The graphs they generate are alarming proofs of the harm we humans are causing. I don't agree with Greta Thunberg that we should all be panicking, — panicking is no good as a strategy — but this is a global emergency for sure. 
Emma Woolliams: Alison’s daughter here. Very happy to explain any aspects of the science you have questions on. And yes, there are questions on the exact nature of the cloud feedback. A hotter atmosphere (from CO2) holds more water vapour before it forms clouds and rains. As water vapour is the dominant (natural) greenhouse gas (without it, average global temperatures would be about -15 degC) increasing water vapour in the atmosphere acts as a positive (that’s bad!) feedback loop for the climate. However it creates more clouds and that tends to warm nights and cool days (and other things). So yes, scientists are still working on understanding that detail. But - and this is crucial- just because we don’t understand everything, doesn’t mean we understand nothing. As scientists we are always open about what we do and don’t know - and my research is about the uncertainties in climate observations. I am evaluating how much we don’t know. Do not mix the normal scientific process with “doubt”. 
Very happy to discuss further - send me a PM if you’d like to know more. 
Me: I didn't bring my daughter up to be "narrow minded and intolerant", quite the contrary, as you see. Education, in my opinion, is all about encouraging young people to ask questions in a critical (but not impolite) way. I dare say these "poor children" indoctrinate one another when they're together, that's normal too — human beings become tribal in a crowd — but I don't agree that their minds have been callously and deliberately manipulated by adults. Teenagers are quick to notice and condemn hypocrisy and I think there's a large element of that in the protests we saw last week. 
Your question to scientists and policy makers: "just how do you propose to fix [weather that is making things worse]?" is a very good one. Let's hope everyone with a brain will work together (without panicking) from now on (and without wasting time over petty arguments about personalities) to come up with answers to that question.

RL: Alison Hobbs, all of those scientists did not get it wrong, the people that put the survey together got it wrong, quite deliberately as it turned out when it was discredited, and they admitted to it. I have looked at that NASA site and am disappointed to see some of that information with those manipulated graphs still around. The majority of those children have been deliberately indoctrinated and taught that anyone who disagrees with them or questions what they say is a hateful nasty piece of work who doesn't deserve to live, and that is often reflected in the way they talk, and I have been subject to that abuse on this forum many times. Many scientists have been fired, had funding removed or severely punished and had gag orders imposed them when their legitimate research produces outcomes that differ from this enforced climate change narrative, and many others are just too frightened to question anything because they have witnessed the lives and names of good, honest and hard working colleagues destroyed. I do not believe that this is how good science should be conducted. It just creates an atmosphere of fear, distrust and ignorance and is not a conducive environment for robust scientific outcomes. The science on global warming is no where near settled.

Me: Oh dear, I'm sorry to hear of the abuse to which you've been subjected. There is no excuse for hateful speech or other bullying tactics, anywhere. If only we could discuss these things in a genuine spirit of inquiry and in a civilised manner, without taking sides—without the fear, distrust and ignorance, as you rightly say! But nobody, including you and me, wants to admit that his or her assumptions might be wrong.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Before the dawn

Our teenager friend Jessica and I spent eight minutes, on Saturday, immersed in a Virtual Reality show, and I am still thinking about its implications. Jessica is from Toronto, and so was the show. It was created by Anishinaabe film-maker Lisa Jackson in collaboration with her fellow artists and is entitled Biidaaban: First Light. It is an example of Indigenous futurism. Remember that term, because this is a new trend in art and literature, in Canada and elsewhere. We came across it on the ground floor of the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa, where the VR experience was being offered cost free to anyone interested, as part of the current Mòshkamo festival, the first festival of its kind, that celebrates " the resurgence of Indigenous Arts" in Canada. The Algonquin word mòshkamo apparently means something like "appearing out of water." Last December I went to a talk about the Indigenous arts by the festival's instigator, Lori Marchand, an interesting person! I helped to publish an article about that talk in the February issue of our CFUW-Ottawa newsletter (on page 6).

What you see in 3-D, when you put on the headset, are recognisable images of the Toronto cityscape, but re-imagined, as if some catastrophe had obliterated all of today's citizens and their accoutrements. All that's left of Toronto is the ruined buildings, like some prehistoric Inca palace rediscovered by archaeologists, wild plants growing out of the cracks, with pools of water inhabited by turtles in the subway stations. The city is silent except for bird calls and the chirp of crickets. There's a canoe lying by the subway tunnel and a tent made from animal skins. A girl dressed in white is digging something out of a hole. Crows hop around on the stones. You see the moon rise and the stars coming out. The other sounds you hear through the headset are the voices of Anishinaabe speakers intoning prayers to Mother Earth in their own language, as these images appear. Suddenly you are surrounded by stars, the Milky Way seen in all its splendour above the ruins of the city, unpolluted by man-made lights. The stars swirl around you. (This bit was so powerful that I felt I should have been given a rail to hang onto; I was quite unbalanced by it!) As the dawn comes, you find yourself on the roof of a skyscraper above the ruins of Nathan Phillips Square in the open air. If you step forward you can peer down to ground level, over a low ledge. It gives you vertigo, but it is all strangely beautiful, and peaceful.

Do I need to spell out the implications of this artwork? Perhaps there's an element of wishful thinking in this dream of a future Canada in which the native peoples are the only survivors, the only ones who would have managed to cope with an apocalypse and start over, in a way that's primitive but at least in tune with nature. When I described the VR film to Chris (who wasn't there to watch it) he was reminded of Edwin Muir's visionary poem about The Horses:
Barely a twelvemonth after 
The seven days war that put the world to sleep, 
Late in the evening the strange horses came...
from "some wilderness of the broken world".

And I have been thinking of Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung, an invented word meaning: der Untergang der Götter vor Anbruch eines neuen Zeitalters = the downfall of the Gods before the advent of a new age.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Bøyg v. Greta

A battle for the future of the world is being waged today, with (literally) millions of children skipping school in order to demonstrate on the streets in a frenzied attempt to get the adult authorities, world wide, to do something about human-caused global warming and the deterioration of our environment. The something that needs to be done is not exactly spelled out, although their young Swedish leader, Greta Thunberg, the Jeanne d'Arc of our present day*, says that a good start would be for decision makers to listen to the scientists whose warnings have too often gone unheeded.

Since my daughter --- giving a keynote speech at an international congress in Paris next week on The European Metrology Network for Climate and Ocean Observation --- is one of those very scientists (she established and now manages that network) my sympathies have to lie with Greta and her supporters.

Less sympathetic adults, most of them with an axe to grind, deride young Greta or try to claim that she is mentally unstable and therefore shouldn't be given so much publicity. They imply that the phenomenon of the children's walkouts is simply mass hysteria.

The New York Times reports:
Rarely, if ever, has the modern world witnessed a youth movement so large and wide, spanning across societies rich and poor, tied together by a common if inchoate sense of rage.
Something here reminds me of Peer Gynt confronting the Bøyg on the Scandinavian mountainside in Ibsen's allegorical play. Peer has challenged the monstrous troll and finally collapses in exhaustion. He is about to perish when women's voices are heard in the distance. Peer's young soul is fortified. The Bøyg then suddenly capitulates ("shrinks to nothing" in one translation), with the words: "He was too strong. There were women behind him!"

I hope Greta's cause will one day prevail in this vulnerable world and that we shall be able to say in retrospect that the trolls and her other detractors failed to defeat her because ... "She was too strong. There were adults behind her."

It would only be fair to add here that Greta T. herself wrote, back in February: "...Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ”behind me” or that I’m being ”paid” or ”used” to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ”behind” me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation. I am not part of any organization."

  * Malala Yousafzai is another such person.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Vikings and other explorers and their ships

[This post, published out of chronological order, will shortly be moved into the folder for May 2019.]

A lifelike waxwork at Vikingaliv
In Stockholm, on our first day in Sweden, we visited Vikingaliv, the museum about the Vikings. There was little about the violent raids that gave their story a bad press; rather, this exhibition focused on their peaceful everyday life on the farm, their runes, their wise women, the Nordic sagas. We studied the exhibits, watched some of the videos; I tried on a suit of armour, and then, wearing headphones, we went on the little red train that went through tunnels (reminding me of the Ghost Ride in Scarborough's amusement arcades of my childhood --- which, incredibly, is still in operation). At each bend was a diorama inset into the tunnel wall:
Reconstruction of a
Viking interior
Ragnfrid’s Saga is a Viking ride where you get to follow along on a trip to the Viking Age. The journey begins at Frösala Farm with Ragnfrid and her husband Harald. Then you proceed to go on a journey where you witness plundering in the west and slave trade in the east. With sounds, light and atmospheric environments you travel through the 11-minute journey that is told by Ragnfrid herself.
In Norway two weeks later, on May 18th, while we were in Oslo, we took the ferry from the Rådhusbrygge (City Hall Pier) to the Museums at Bygdøy. At the Viking Ship Museum, our first call, we found the unearthed burial ship, the Oseberg. Another once-buried ship, the Gokstad, had once sailed on the high seas. A documentary film was projected on the walls of the museum, helping us to imagine the Vikings as they set sail. In the end, these ships served as tombs for the Viking aristocracy: a tent like structure on the deck was where their bodies were laid, along with important artefacts, before earth was piled on top of the whole ship. Some mysterious decorations have been found in these graves, with Buddha-like heads.

The Oseberg

The Gokstad
On the rim of a barrel found with the buried ship

After this, we walked beside an inlet on the Bygdøy peninsula, where boats were moored near some posh houses, to the Fram Museum, that my daughter and others had been recommended to me. The Fram was once an explorers' ship, now kept above water and housed in a Toblerone-shaped building to make it fit. On board this ship, I went virtually sailing past icebergs in the polar regions, an audio-visual show projecting this seascape onto the walls. It got rough on board when a storm blew up; I had the illusion the ship was actually rolling in the waves and held onto the rail.

A lifelike waxwork of Nansen (leader of the Fram's 1890s expedition) sat in his cabin. Vital equipment was stored in the bows of the ship and an upright piano stood in the mess.  In another part of the museum I found Amundsen's boots, more sensible than the ones his British rival, Capt. Scott, wore, whose team arrived at the South Pole 33 days too late to beat the Norwegians. Amundsen's ship was the Maud, by the way, not the Fram.

Waxwork of Nansen on the Fram

While I was touring the Fram museum, Chis sat on a bench by the fjord, reading a book he'd bought at the Viking Ship Museum and enjoying the view.

On the O-Train

A train arrives at Rideau station
At last, we have a functioning light rail network in Ottawa. The Confederation Line, with 2.5 km of tunnel, has been opened and connects with the existing Trillium Line at Bayview. Only consisting of 17 stations so far, it is nothing like as complex as the networks of other capital cities in the world of a similar size, such as Copenhagen, but at least it's a start in the right direction. The airport will be connected to downtown Ottawa three years from now (allegedly) as part of the Stage 2 enhancements that will eventually give us 24 more stations. There are vaguer plans for a Stage 3 in the distant future, probably well beyond the time when Chris stops going to work in the mornings and coming home in the evenings from Kanata. Let's hope someone else will benefit, though. If only a rail bridge could take these trains across the Ottawa River into Gatineau too, wouldn't that be wonderful?
Waiting for my first ride

It remains to be seen how well the new transportation system will function during the winter. We're hopeful that it'll be an improvement on what we've had till now.

Ottawa citizens seem excited by the new trains (although commuters are frustrated about the time it takes to connect to a bus ride home, once they have disembarked from the train, at the Tunney's Pasture terminal in particular). There ought to be larger parking lots at the end stations, in my opinion, to encourage people to park and ride. When the lines get extended, that is more likely to be the case.

On the train
On impulse, Chris and I decided to go for a ride on the new line on its opening day. We didn't go until the evening, when the crowds had diminished a little, but it was still standing room only on the eastbound train we took from Rideau to Tremblay, the stop we'd need if we were hoping to catch a ViaRail train bound for Montreal or Toronto or places in between. We used our local Presto cards which work at the gates just like London's Oyster cards* or Tokyo's PASMO cards. The mood on board was positively jubilant, everyone talking at once, joking and celebrating. Most passengers were just riding the new train for fun, some of them buying drinks at each end of the line! In a few months' time it will doubtless be a more routine and less exhilarating experience.

Tremblay station
The station at Rideau is deep underground, requiring a series of escalators to reach its platforms. A little further west the tunnel is as much as 40m from the surface. I thought the escalators at Rideau juddered and wobbled a bit, which shouldn't happen; the managers need to make this part of the journey smoother or people will feel too anxious to repeat the experience. Teething troubles only, I hope. At Tremblay where we got off, there were no escalators at all, just stair cases and elevators, which surprised me, since people with luggage are going to be using this station.

It was already dark when we rode the train so we couldn't really see the views from its windows and most people, Chris for instance, hadn't a clue where we were. I knew though. I have studied the map!

* The Oyster card is fairly redundant these days since London Transport's card readers were modified to allow passengers to tap a credit card, instead.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Faces by Gauguin

Self-portrait of Gauguin as a young man
Je ne montre que ce que je veux bien montrer, said Paul Gauguin, speaking of his art in 1903. So his images keep us guessing.

His mother was of Inca descent. Born in 1848, he spent his childhood in Peru. When he grew up he went into the French navy and also worked as a stockbroker. He was a full time artist from the 1880s onwards, living in Brittany, Martinique, Polynesia (in self imposed exile), and finally Tahiti.

This restless soul, according to the notes on the wall of the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition this summer, was "cut off and shrouded in gloom". Although they had five children together, his marriage to a Danish woman fell apart and the (very young) Tahitian girls with whom he lived abandoned him as well. A self portrait of 1891 is entitled Jésus abandonné, ses disciples le quittant. Presumably he was implying that he knew how Jesus felt.

The Auto portrait au Christ jaune is another meaningful painting, first exhibited in 1892, with a Polynesian idol in the background as well as the crucified figure; the Christ jaune was a canvas he had worked on three years previously.

Meijer de Haan is the "thinker" in the background of several paintings: Gauguin's ginger-haired Dutch friend and fellow artist. A better known associate of Gauguin was Vincent van Gogh with whom he lived for a while in Arles, where colours were their obsession:
Dans ma chambre jaune, des fleurs de soleil aux yeux pourpres se détachent sur un fond jaune; elles se baignent les pieds dans un pot jaune, sur une table jaune. Dans un coin du tableau, le signature: Vincent. Et le soleil jaune qui passe a travers les rideaux jaunes de ma chambre, inonde d'or toute cette floraison, et le matin, de mon lit, quand je me réveille, je m'imagine que tout cela sent tres bon. [...] Quand nous étions tous deux a Arles, fous tous deux, en guerre continuelle pour les belles couleurs, moi j'adorais le rouge.
This all sounds very poetic, if more than a little manic. The co-habitation famously came to a sad end when Vincent got his razor out and lashed out at Paul and at his own ear, after which episode he (Vincent) was put out of harm's way by the doctors.

Jean Moréas was another friend who looked weird, a poet, one of the symbolistes. Mallarmé, poet of symbolism and synaesthesia, was the most famous of the symbolists' circle in France. Gauguin's cylindrical carving in native Polynesian style, L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, 1893, is a mysterious fantasy inspired by Mallarmé's poem of that title (published in 1876). Does it depict encounters with beautiful nymphs, or what? It is unclear what's happening in Gauguin's image, something sexual, certainly. In a variety of art forms, the poem inspired music by Debussy, was danced by Nijinsky and was translated into English by Aldous Huxley (among others).

Annette Belfils (1890)
Having been to the exhibition twice, I felt that what I'd remember of this were the faces. The portrait of Annette Belfils (1890), in simple lines of crayon and chalk, was remarkably well done, as was the sympathetic and sincere painting of a two year old who had just died in Tahiti, lying as if asleep, done in 1892 for the child's parents who apparently hung onto this painting all their lives. Gauguin painted portraits of his own children, for example of his son Clovis in 1886, the boy's expression old beyond his years (his parents separated when he was six; he died at the age of 21). Gauguin's immortalisation of An Old Man with a Stick (1888) was beautifully observed, still touching those who look at it. Then there were portraits of an Arlésienne and of a young Breton woman, thin and depressed. It seemed to me that Gauguin became less crazy whenever he was focusing on someone other than himself.

La Boudeuse, a likewise depressed Tahitian girl in a long, red, western (missionary) dress, is perhaps one of the ones he made pregnant; I'd guess she was sickened by the loss of her innocence or the loss of her cultural heritage, and that the artist knew it. By contrast, La Femme au Mango, in purple, looks more cheerful and self-assured.

Les Ancetres de Tehamama portrays another mysterious Tahitian girl, Teha'amana, who was only 13 when handed to Gauguin as a "bride". He paints this naked girl lying face down on a bed with "the spirits of the dead watching", 1894. Perhaps those dead ones disapproved of how he was using her. Perhaps he created this picture in order to confront his own shame. We shall never know.

"Je ne montre que ce que je veux bien montrer."

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Easy listening

A new season of DOMS concerts has begun. Today I went to listen to an organ and saxophone duet, an unusual combination. The saxophone sounds quite like an extension to the organ, an extra, on-stage pipe. Ludovik Lesage-Hinse from Trois-Rivieres played both a soprano and an alto saxophone during his performance, with Jocelyn Lafond, also from the Trois-Rivieres Conservatoire de musique, at the organ.

The composer featured in this concert was another French-Canadian, Denis Bédard, of my generation, born 1950. Half way through the concert I realised what it reminded me of, the easy-to-listen-to harmonies, rhythms and melodies of John Rutter.

At the beginning we heard a piece by Bédard for organ alone, variations on the tune of a hymn we used to sing long ago, known as The Old Hundredth:

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

At least, that is what I learned then. In modern hymn books (such as the ones kept in the pews at Southminster Church), it reads like this ...

All people that on earth do dwell
Sing out your faith with cheerful voice.
Delight in God whose praise you tell,
Whose presence calls you to rejoice.

What a comedown! For one thing, to that tune, it puts the stresses on the wrong syllables (DE-light in in God ... WHOSE presence calls you TO rejoice.) What was wrong with the older version? To serve "with mirth" admittedly sounds odd nowadays (in the 16th century it meant "joyfully") but I don't recall that this used to bother me; I liked the funny-sounding old words and could follow their meaning perfectly well. Then I bet the language committee censored "the Lord ... His praise" and "... before Him ..." because it's now considered sexist to give God a masculine identity. And they probably thought that the retention of words like "ye" would deter modern youth from entering a church. That sort of nonsense irritates me immensely.

Such thoughts interfered with my concentration on the music today, a series of variations on the chorale-like melody of this hymn. When I was listening, I was feeling critical of the music too: interesting ideas but unoriginal chords, tempo too fast. The variations didn't altogether fit with the hymn's solemnity, but fair enough, they are supposed to be variations. At one point the organist added vibrato effects, as with the old fairground or cinema organs. (Where I grew up there used to be a swimming pool organ, even. Wandering thoughts, again!) I liked the variation that presented the tune on the foot pedals, with swooping downward arpeggios above it. That one had some substance.

There followed an arrangement of another Protestant chorale (Befiehl du deine Wege) by a composer I'd never heard of, Gotthilf Friedrich Ebhardt of the 18th / 19th century, played here on the trumpet-like soprano saxophone, with organ accompaniment. This composer didn't write music in the style of his day either, sounding more late-Baroque than early-Romantic.

Back to Bédard for the rest of the programme. The saxophonist played seven Vocalises originally intended to be performed by a mezzo soprano. "They're really beautiful!" he told us. The first was wistful, as was the fourth. Other movements had a more folksy quality. The 2nd vocalise I found rather Swiss, where the organ kept echoing the saxophone (voice) part. I almost expected yodellers to chime in. The last movement was clearly inspired by French-Canadian folksongs.

The soprano instrument was then put away. The last item on the programme was Bédard's Sonata No.1 for alto saxophone and organ. Apparently there are two more such sonatas, to be set aside for a later concert in the series! Again, the music sounded sweetly derivative, pleasant enough to listen to, but lacking depth, I felt. Most of the audience was enchanted by it. The faster movement at the end, the Humoresque, seemed to have more character, a bouncy piece that would also have come across well on a clarinet.

They gave us"one more", perhaps a movement from one of the other sonatas, I didn't catch. The composer's signature style seems to be a long drawn out, emotional melody line with a steady beat in a low register on the accompanying instrument.

So why am I so snobbishly critical of light, crowd-pleasing music? It goes back to my upbringing and further back yet. In his impoverished youth, my father was given free, private music lessons by a retired Oxford don, a long story. One of the things this "Great Man" impressed upon him was that there are standards to be met in music, as in life. He taught him, for example, that a dominant seventh in compositions was a cliché to be used only sparingly, and that sentimentality made musical compositions mediocre. When I in turn became my father's music student, such attitudes rubbed off onto me, and (more than ninety years later) still stick.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Shabu Shabu, Kushikatsu ...

Lunchtime in central Tokyo
Where was I? Back in Tokyo, where we ate a few Japanese meals, not as many as we should have, perhaps, given the opportunity, because we were staying in the middle of the city where food of every origin is available, slightly modified to suit local tastes; we ate at north Indian restaurants, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, at a very good Italian trattoria near the Nihonbashi bridge (twice) and at French bakeries for breakfast in the mornings where you could pick up croissants and quiches with the metal tongs provided and put them on clean trays to take to your table. To collect your cup of coffee you have to bring a paper receipt to the drinks station and wait.

Before and after eating, moist hand wipes wrapped in plastic are liberally supplied. In the posher places you're given a hot flannel roll for this purpose, also wrapped in plastic, more often than not.

The Japanese seem to enjoy eating beef; a popular thing to do is to eat at the places where they serve "steak and hamburg" (i.e. hambagu, a hamburger steak without the bun, smothered in Teryaki sauce).

Shabu shabu beef portion
A couple of the people with whom Chris was working in the city invited him and me out for a meal at a Shabu Shabu restaurant. The meal — of the sort sometimes called a Chinese Fondue — was cooked at our table, effectively by the four of us, although a waitress came by from time to time to supply the ingredients and scoop unsightly foam from the broth that was cooking in two shiny copper, lidded bowls. The amount of raw beef on each of our plates looked daunting (see photo) but the slices were so thin that they disappeared fairly quickly, once quickly dipped into the broth with our chopsticks, then consumed. "Shabu shabu" indicates the gesture and perhaps the sound you hear as you do this. You mustn't keep the meat cooking for long. You're encouraged to grind your own seeds and spices in which to coat and flavour it; each diner has an individual bowl of soy sauce too. We also had a bowl of fresh, raw vegetables, tofu and rice noodles to coat with sauce and add to the broth, one ingredient at a time. The finale to this meal entailed drinking the broth from soup cups, having cooked ramen noodles in it and eaten them also.

Shabu shabu sauce, seeds and spices

Shabu shabu vegetables with tofu and noodles

Left to our own devices, we found a small place one evening in the Kanda district where kushikatsu, a speciality of Osaka, was served. This meal was fun, eaten close to a table of noisy young men squatting on small stools. The kushi are the bamboo skewers, whereas katsu are the breadcrumb coated, deep fried pieces of meat, fish, prawns or vegetables (onion, Lotus root, pickled turnip, aubergines, green peppers, asparagus spears, mushrooms) or hard-boiled quails' eggs. You're meant to dip these delicacies into a black sauce to flavour them, presented in a stainless steel dish, but double-dipping is not allowed. In case you'd like extra sauce on your katsu, raw cabbage leaves are provided; again, don't dip them twice because it is unhygienic, but you can use them as spoons to scoop some sauce from the dish.

At one restaurant I ventured into, on an upper floor (many eating places are not at ground level), I was shepherded into a private annex; I'm not sure why. There wasn't much English vocabulary on the menu here so I chose from the photos, although what I was served didn't match the picture very well. 

On a hot afternoon towards the end of our stay we cooled down in the piano bar below our hotel, where we were treated to a sort of clarinet and piano recital as we sipped our drinks, an elegant place hung with splendid lanterns.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

A quiet city of 83,000

Grave of Cecil Spring Rice, 1859-1918
On my way to pick up my bike that has been in for a tune-up at the bike shop this week, I walked through Beechwood Cemetery, Canada's national cemetery today. I was on the look out for a certain grave, the resting place of Sir Cecil Spring Rice ('Springy' Rice, as he was affectionately known). He died in Ottawa in 1918, having written the words of a hymn that nearly everyone knows: "I vow to thee, my country ..." (the music by Holst and its repeated use on Armistice / Remembrance Day are what makes it memorable). The motive for my quest was that I need to illustrate an article that one of the Ottawa-CFUW members has written about this, for publication in an upcoming issue of our newsletter, for which I'm currently the editor. We'd already found a picture of the grave online, but I wasn't sure we had permission to use it, so thought I'd take my own photo.

Knowing that there are a great many graves in this cemetery I thought I had best go into the office to ask where this one was located. The lady at the reception desk was very helpful, even giving me a map, having looked up the information in a thick reference book. The areas of the graveyard are numbered, in no very logical order it seems to me, but I'm sure there's a system behind it. I commented on how full the cemetery was, and the lady replied that "at the last count" they reckoned they had 83,000 people buried here. That is a lot. Some of their families have had memorial trees planted as well.

During my walk I started on Beechwood Avenue and walked all the way to the St. Laurent Blvd. at the far end, which is quite a distance, meandering to follow the roads and to search within Section 22. I did find his grave in the end but failed to find the grave of my friend Melita, whose funeral I'd attended here last year, the remembrance ceremony taking place in the "Sacred Space" indoors and at her graveside (but we were led there and I couldn't remember the exact plot). The place looks different in the summer.

The Chinese Pagoda at the cemetery

I'd been on a guided tour here once and remembered that at the eastern end there's a Chinese area with names on the gravestones written in Chinese characters. I found that again and admired the oriental pavilion with a cast iron incense burner beside it and a gateway that adorns the garden alongside. This no doubt gives comfort to the relatives of the people buried here: a touch of home.

Fish and kites

Former fish dock on the river (seen from Kachidoki Bridge)
I caught a whiff of the Tsukiji Outer Market area before I reached it. First I had taken a look inside the Buddhist Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple, as large as a cathedral, that had immediately caught my eye as I emerged from the closest metro station, H10 on the Hibiya Line. Walking towards the Kachidoki bridge over the Sumida River, the market area was on my right; I could smell the fish from the other side of that 6 lane road. The fishermen's dock where they sold their fish from the boat used to be here too, but has recently moved elsewhere (to Toyusu).

As usual, this was a very, very hot day and it was a relief to find that some of the stores and shopping areas in that crowded district had cool interiors, the market hall in particular, where I quenched my thirst with a bottle of freshly squeezed mandarin orange juice, a glass bottle for once (plastic is the norm, unfortunately, and most shopping in Tokyo, apart from the very high-end stores, involves plastic bags too). The fishes, large and small, the eels, octopus, turtles and so on for sale in that long, old fashioned market hall, recently caught, were displayed in crates and packed in ice. I found the squishy-looking dead turtles particularly revolting, but I suppose the locals get used to them. Shellfish is sold complete with shells. By the time I was looking round, late morning, a lot of the day's produce has been sold already. In the warren of narrow streets around this place, many other things apart from seafood were on sale, but it was mostly seafood. Tourists can pick up bargain souvenirs here, tawashi brushes, teapots, kitchen utensils, speciality teas, and many places sell viciously sharp looking kitchen knives that wouldn't be allowed through airport security checks. It was a great place for browsing, very atmospheric and noisy, the marketeers shouting out their wares, and two men on one corner literally singing the praises of a local restaurant, in counterpoint. Overhead was a tangle of electrical cables, as in the more chaotic parts of Chinese or Indian cities. I felt thoroughly abroad here. On one alleyway fish was being grilled on a barbecue, charred by means of a flame-thrower. Some shopkeepers and restaurant owners were coming outside to sluice down the pavement outside their premises. I caught one on camera.

My chef at the Sushi restaurant
Beginning to want some lunch, I paused outside one of the numerous fish restaurants, this one called Sushi Say Honten, and was persuaded inside with expressive gestures and welcoming words in Japanese from the man at the door. I was offered a high stool at the counter where I could watch my choice of sushi roll being prepared. The young chef had a sort of conversation with me in which he ascertained that I was from Canada, at which he beamed all over his face, saying "Ah, MAPRE SYLUP!" --- at which I smiled broadly, too. The young man also conveyed to me that he was going to prepare me a very good lunch: using hygienic gloves started slapping some sticky rice together and preparing thin slices of raw tuna, salmon and yellowtail, with serious concentration. It did taste good, with a small cup of miso soup on the side. Whenever any individual or party finished their meal, paid their bill and left the restaurant, all the staff shouted something incomprehensible and cheered: a lively farewell. I got the same treatment.


Exhausted by the stimulating time I'd spent in Tsukiji, I didn't feel like discovering much more in the afternoon, but on my way back to the hotel, after a little searching, I found the entrance to the quirky Kite Museum in Nihonbashi. It appeared to be a popular restaurant, with lines of people waiting for a table; indeed the owner of this restaurant is also the kite collector who owns the small museum upstairs, the entrance to which is at the door of a narrow lift on the 5th floor. When I went, I was the only visitor at this museum. It was quite claustrophobic, packed with kites of every age, size, shape and origin. Most were made of paper, but some were quilted or made of cloth affixed with feathers, etc. Curious children must love it here. The exhibition includes paintings or drawings of kites and kite flying. I liked the demon faces and the extraordinary paper kite that looked like a sailing ship.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Means of transport in Tokyo

Skyliner train at its Narita terminus
There's a choice of transportation to reach the centre of Tokyo from Narita airport. On our first visit seven years ago we'd been met by a Japanese gentleman who helped us buy tickets for a direct "Limousine bus" ride to the Tokyo City Air Terminal near our hotel. This time, the TCAT was not so convenient because we'd have needed to buy a separate subway ticket from to this year's hotel. We'd had some advice from a citizen of Tokyo who told us that our best option was to take the fast, Skyliner train to Ueno, then change to the Ginza line. Taking the Narita Express train to Tokyo's central station and going the rest of the way on foot would have worked too, but the walking route at the end wouldn't have been straightforward.

The Skyliner is comfortable and fast, although you can't see much out of the window beyond the barrier fence that lines its tracks. Before we were allowed to board the train at the airport we had to wait while it was rapidly and efficiently cleaned. Seat reservations are compulsory. My only complaint is that foreign travellers ought to be warned the ticket office deals with cash only, not credit cards. We were encouraged to buy "Special Discount" return tickets that included full use of the city's underground train system, valid for 24 hours after our arrival. It was a shame we were too tired to take full advantage of this deal.

The subway trains in Tokyo are worth using, for the cultural experience. I was surprised at how full they were at 9:30 - 10 a.m. and around 7 p.m.; Tokyo office workers start and finish work later than in the countries I'm used to, so these are the rush hours. Most trains are air conditioned, which is just as well, but I often noticed people fanning themselves, either with electrical or traditional fans. Not so many people wear face masks in August as in February. The predominately solitary passengers use their smartphones to avoid too much eye contact. Children are brought up to keep quiet and still in the trains. At each stop, electronic signs indicate where you are, Japanese and English displays alternating, showing a list of possible connections and which side of the train to step from. The more up-to-date platforms have barriers with automatic gates that line up with the train doors, preventing suicide attempts. The trains are long and frequent. Stations are long, too, some requiring a good half kilometre's walk underground, and generously supplied with shops, eateries (numerous French bakeries / coffee shops associated with the commercial towers above street level), information centres and washrooms. Their passages are spotlessly clean. At the stairwells of our local station, Mitsukoshimae, lights in changing colours enhance the brick walls. I have read that the blue lights are another suicide preventative, that has proven effective in this nervy city.

Travel by road is another story. Chris rode a short distance in a posh limousine to one of his meetings. We saw regular taxis slipping down side streets, but didn't make use of one. An eye-catching vehicle was the little one-person EV we passed on our first morning in Tokyo, ready for hire on a street near the Imperial Palace; we also found one of these at Toyota's MegaWeb showplace on Odaiba island, where I sat in it. The driver's seat is the only seat; someone my size just fits, but it would be too small for Chris.

The Concept Car
The MegaWeb theme park, fun for the whole family, is really a glorified car showroom, a clever idea of Toyota's. It features one of their Concept Cars, a futuristic, "smart" vehicle that could be fuelled by hydrogen. The site also has a race track would-be race drivers can try out, and an area where able-bodied kids can sit in wheelchairs to play basketball, an allusion to the fact that Toyota is sponsoring the 2020 Paralympics.

I'm not sure where these cars come from, being enjoyed by young tourists
Speaking of the MegaWeb reminds me that this was located beside Tokyo's 115 m high Giant Sky Wheel, another vehicle we rode on, in a very small cabin that wobbled. It wasn't air-conditioned on that very hot day (Sunday, August 11th) and it did not feel at all safe up there, but no harm done. The choice was between that cabin and a larger one with a glass floor (no thanks!) --- more expensive, cooler inside. We were snapped by an opportunistic photographer at the entrance.

Skywheel seen from below
The hatless girl noticing a Fisheries Inspection ship
We couldn't leave Tokyo without taking a boat tour. We rode on a smallish river boat based at the Nihonbashi (Edo Bridge in the old days) the spot where Tokyo's zero milestone was set in the 17th century, now below concrete pillars supporting the overhead motorway. The authorities have done their best to beautify the underside of the motorway by having a section of it painted glossy white and by affixing lights that reflect in the paint after dark. We took the boat tour after lunch on a sunny, windy day. Straw sunhats were provided for passengers, but before we'd gone very far, one of the girls on the front deck lost hers overboard in a gust; it sank in the Nihonbashi River. We'd walked beside the wider Sumida River that morning and seen a pair of fire-brigade boats doing manoeuvres on it. Now we emerged from the canal further downstream on that river in choppy conditions that made for an exhilarating ride. We bounced along under several big bridges and past several important looking boats.

Firemen working on the Sumida River
Tokyo docklands , as seen from the Big Wheel
Bridge at a river confluence in Tokyo
On the river boat the Captain gave the commentary (in Japanese)
Out in Tokyo Bay

For me, the most fun in Tokyo can be had by riding on the Yurikamome Line train across the high Rainbow [suspension] Bridge crossing the mouth of the Sumida River into the docklands on the Odaiba island, the reclaimed, very modern part of town where my daughter stayed for a conference once, at the Grand Nikko Hotel. I went by myself on a weekday then brought Chris back for a more crowded experience the following Sunday. The quieter time was better because I could sit at the front of the driverless train on that day. It isn't only children who enjoy this. A train ticket allowing unlimited rides is the best bet for this line; then you can get off and on again as often as you wish. As a matter of fact I have written a blogpost about the experience before. On this trip I walked through the stations at Odaiba-kaihinkoen from which you can walk downhill to a beach, Daiba where a copy of the Statue of Liberty stands, the Tokyo International Cruise Terminal from which you can visit the Maritime Museum or what remains of it (after seven years they still say this ship-like building is being renovated), Aomi to visit the Mega Web, big wheel or "Venus Fort" (this being a fancy shopping mall in an architectural style akin to the Galleria Vittorio in Milan, not a sex shop as Chris assumed from its name), Kokusai-tenjijo-seimon where the Convention Centre is (the Tokyo Big Sight), Toyosu (the terminus, a residential area), and at Shimbashi of course, the first and last stop on the line.