Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

2016 foursomes

December 30, 2016

What a year it’s been. Bring on the nuclear holocaust, that’s what I say. But for some of us, whether we like it or not, life goes on, and so here is the annual trawl through the handful of things that have made me grateful to be alive in 2016.

Top 4 theatre
The year began and ended with exciting plays at the Hampstead Theatre – Tom Stoppard’s typically complex but fun Hapgood in January, with Lisa Dillon as the titular spymistress; and Tony Kushner’s irresistibly sprawling The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures in November, with Luke Newberry particularly catching the eye. The Helen McCrory-led production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre was more moving than I’d dared expect it to be. And the most fun I had all year was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, where Nicholas Le Prevost reduced me to helpless laughter (as he has in the past).


Top 4 student theatre
I’m very lucky to live in Cambridge. The Marlowe Society’s production of Measure for Measure at the Arts Theatre in February was outstanding in many respects, not least the speaking of the text. I’ve sat through enough bad productions of Shakespeare to notice the difference when the actors really understand what they’re talking about. Alexandra Wetherell’s Isabella and Tom Beaven’s innately funny Lucio were two of many standout performances. At the ADC, a gripping production of David Hare’s Murmuring Judges in March has stayed in the memory, and Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was very well done in October, as good a production as I can imagine of this ingenious, frustrating play. Outside Cambridge, the Eltham College production of Merrily We Roll Along that I wrote about here was super.

Top 4 albums
This year I have been mostly listening to popular music from the 1920s, but there’s none of that here. Still, I advise all readers to dig out some Roger Wolfe Kahn, zip up their cocktail slacks and get frigging. Quite a catholic selection this year. In April I bought the 17-disc box set of the studio recordings of Marcelle Meyer, a pianist of preternatural elegance and taste. I love her way with French repertoire especially, and not just the expected Ravel and Chabrier but also Rameau and Couperin. Try her Scarlatti. The original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line has afforded me considerable pleasure. It’s a joy to find there’s more to it than simply ‘One’, catchy though that is. Joni Mitchell’s Blue I already knew, but it wasn’t until this year that it got under my skin and became an obsession. The single album that’s been most in my ears, though, is Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis. I’ve loved the Sprouts for years, but have only recently begun to explore their back catalogue in depth. They really are the most harmonically inventive pop group of their era, and every track on this album is a jewel, from old favourites like ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ to the less familiar. Give it a try.

Top 4 books
It’s been another busy reading year (more on that anon), but if I had to whittle it down to four… I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal early in the year and it dazzled me, all the more for being quiet and reserved in tone, without the aggression of something like The Birthday Party, though there’s a great deal of surface and below-surface tension. It’s more straightforward, more ordinary than his other plays, the non-straightforward thing being the play’s reverse chronology, which is just the sort of thing I love. It never feels gimmicky. I listen to music backwards too. I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope for about ten years now, and The Last Chronicle of Barset tied up a lot of loose ends in the most satisfactory ways imaginable. Bishop Proudie’s revolt, a very long time coming, is the most exhilarating thing I’ve read in yonks. David Garnett’s short novel Lady into Fox was an unexpected delight, a whimsical story of metamorphosis, an unorthodox but touching story of trans-species love. And I can’t omit Angela Carter’s wildly fun and funny Wise Children, the deliciously gossipy theatrical memoir of 75-year-old Dora Chance, owner of the only castrato grandfather clock in London.

It was all right until Grandma fixed it. All she did was tap it and the weights dropped off. She always had that effect on gentlemen.

Top 4 new films
The cinema used to be a second home to me. Well, not really, but I used to go to it more often than at present. I thought Spotlight, a good old-fashioned procedural drama about Boston journalists trying to uncover a sex abuse story, was fully deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, smart and tense. Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway impressed me early in the year, and Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of its three interlinked stories, Julieta, was just wonderful, romantic and mysterious and beguiling, with Rossy de Palma’s standoffish housekeeper stealing the show. How wise Almodóvar and Munro are about the dynamics of human relationships. Ira Sachs’ Little Men was a poignant offering, about how the relationship between two boys in early adolescence is threatened by a dispute between their families. Like last year’s Carol, it felt to me more than anything else like a love story, a film about falling in love, and about growing up. Fourth and lastly, I’m not a horror aficionado, but I was thrilled by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy. It looks sensational, shot in a palette of greens and greys, and works an eerie kind of magic. Two twin boys live in a remote house with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery. Her behaviour to them since her surgery feels changed, and they begin to doubt her authenticity. What it lacks in subtle commentary on power relationships it makes up for in creepiness. I was a bit freaked out.

Top 4 old films
Or, the ones I watched on TV. Not an old film, but Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story is a very great piece of work, more eloquent on the subject of displacement than a thousand news reports. It follows a Syrian family of two parents and three boys over the course of several years and several different homes, as the changing political situation forces them to leave Syria and alter their expectations of life. Thomas Vinterberg’s revenge drama (of sorts) Festen was electric, epic in scope, Shakespearean even (I don’t think it was just the setting that made me think of Hamlet), making the self-imposed limitations of Dogme 95 seem a virtue more often than not. My film of the year, without a doubt, was Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, made when the director was still a teenager. Based on a true story with (mindblowingly) the protagonists playing themselves, it’s about a father who keeps his two daughters confined to their house, and the efforts of members of the village to liberate the girls. Enigmatic, humane, endlessly fascinating. Last of all, Manhattan. I could easily get into Woody Allen if all his films were this warm and funny and beautiful. I loved every frame. A proper, grown-up romantic comedy that makes you smile.

Top 4 New York
Watching Manhattan was a prelude to going to New York in October. I suppose I’d always assumed that going to America was something done by other people, people I had no desire to emulate, but when my brother said he intended to go I suddenly realised it was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The National September 11 Memorial made me emotional in a way I hadn’t expected; the views from the Empire State Building were spectacular; seeing the Tom Harrell Quartet at the Village Vanguard made me think I ought to start going to jazz clubs in the UK; and, on our final day, Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where I paid visits to people like Gottschalk and Bernstein. I hope to return one day.


Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.


Liebster Award – part 4 of 4

December 9, 2013

I hope you’re following this. Mel set me some questions and now I’m answering them.

1) Why did you start blogging?

Hubris. I’ve used message boards for ten years, and found myself thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to have a corner of the internet to call my own. What fanciful schemes I entertained in those days, imagining a new audience hanging on my every word. Sheer folly. If this blog hasn’t been a failure in every respect, I can’t pretend it’s not stagnating, this sudden spurt of daily posts notwithstanding. Of course, now I have other creative outlets. Look at World of Brine, still crawling along after a year and a bit. Really, look at it; nobody else does.

2) You’re going on an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to a far flung part of the planet. Where would you go? And what would be the one luxury item you would pack in your rucksack?

My own Wanderlust, such as it is, is vaguely approximate to that of a snail. Sometimes I feel daring enough to venture as far as the bottom of the garden, but all things considered I’d rather stay in my shell, and have you considered the likelihood of dog attack? But if there is a far-flung place I would like to visit, it is probably Japan. I’ve fallen in love with aspects of Japanese culture from watching the films of people like Yasujiro Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, and I like drinking sake. I’d have to bring something appropriately Japanese with me. A book by Mishima? Too depressing. A shamisen? No, I can pick one up when I’m there. But it occurs to me that my generic MP3 player was probably assembled there, or at least made from Japanese components, and it would certainly keep me company during the journey.

3) If you lived in the same parallel universe as Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, what animal would your daemon be? Or, put another way, what settled form would you hope it would adopt, and why?

I think I’m as close to a hedgehog as one can get without actually being one. That said, I was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig – the Water Pig, to be precise. Wikipedia:

Being its natural element, those born in the year of the Water Pig are said to show the extremes of being a Pig. They can be very emotional, deep, nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic, imaginative and intuitive; however, they can also be cold, moody, jealous, sentimental, sensitive, escapistic and irrational.

So everything, then.

4) If you had the chance to step into a painting, and to spend a magical hour wandering its world, which painting would you choose? Maybe it would be Constable’s Hay Wain? Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or, perhaps you’d like to join in with Edvard Munch’s Scream?? Or – much more light-heartedly – maybe you’d prefer to go trip-trapping over Monet’s bridge? The possibilities are endless. It’s your choice…

I haven’t thought about it in depth, but the first thing that springs to mind is Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’. I hope that’s not too much of a cliché, but I’m sure it must be. I don’t even like snow that much, so don’t ask me to rationalise my choice.

Hunters in the Snow

5) The Doctor has invited you to time travel with him on board the Tardis. Which period in history would you most like to visit and why?

I think turn-of-the-century London. I’d hang out around Baker Street hoping for a glimpse of the great man.

6) If Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Will Shakespeare were alive today and were regular tweeters, I’d definitely be persuaded to join Twitter! Is there anyone from pre-internet days who, if they were alive today, you would love to see dazzle us daily with tweets of sheer brilliance and delight? Or are you glad they never had to suffer the tyranny of 140 characters?

I love Twitter, for what it is, but for anyone with an ambition to write proper sentences it’s hard not to see it as a corset. I suppose Hemingway would cope OK, but I doubt I’d follow him.

7) Which three books and three pieces of music would you take with you to a desert island?

Books – Middlemarch, Bleak House and Pale Fire. A good mix there. Do I get the Bible and Shakespeare too? I’d like them there. As for music, I’ve assembled annual Desert Island Discs lists meticulously for the past five years, incorrigibly pathetic specimen of humanity that I am, and the choice is impossibly difficult. But let’s choose three incontrovertible masterpieces: Purcell’s Fantasia, Z731 (I’d have the version by the David Munrow Recorder Consort), Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, and, in case I wanted to jump about a bit, this pair of jigs from James Morrison and John McKenna, recorded in New York in February 1929:

8) Out of all the species of wild animals or birds you have yet to see, which one would you most like to encounter?

A bittern (not a stuffed one).

Little Bittern

9) Which of the following would most closely correspond to your natural habitat?

a) Out on the moors with Heathcliff.

b) In the Forest with Robin Hood.

c) Out at sea with Long John Silver.

d) Cosy by the fireside with a Pickwickian gathering of genial folk, sharing a bottle of your favourite tipple.

e) The bookish calm of a country house study – in mutual retreat with Mr Bennet.

f) Striding across the meadows with Elizabeth Bennet, a healthy glow in your cheeks and mud caking your boots.

g) In the Attic with Jo from Little Women, scribbling stories and dreaming of adventure.

h) Absorbed in the life of the city streets – in the company of a fictional detective of your choice.

i) Roaming Manderley – and the windswept Cornish cliffs – with the second Mrs de Winter.

j) Wandering alongside William and Dorothy Wordsworth, pacing out poetical rhythms on the Cumbrian fells, and waxing lyrical about wild daffodils.

k) In a cave with Gollum.

l) Hey, Mel – I’m an incredibly complicated human being – a mix of all the above holds true. It depends on my mood…

m) I wouldn’t be seen dead with any of them – Bah! Humbug!

Of that lot I’d fit in best with Mr Bennet, if he could bear my company. I’d quite like the clothes too.

10) Where would you rather live and why:

Toad Hall

Bag End

Green Knowe

Little House on the Prairie

Green Gables

Kirrin Island

221B Baker Street

Well, Toad Hall excepted, the only one I really know anything about is Baker Street. Throw in the Hundred Acre Wood and we’d be in business.

11) If you had to go on a long journey with a fictional character, who would you choose? And what form of transport would you take – ship, hot air balloon, train, canal boat, motorbike, bicycle, gondola, skateboard, horse drawn gypsy caravan? Space ship?

Always the train. I’m not a trainspotter, but I love travelling by train. So a long train journey taking in lots of rural stations off the beaten track in all corners of the UK, in the company of, well, whom? There are lots of literary characters I love – Hanno Buddenbrook, Sergeant George, Charlie Brown, Piglet, Bertie Wooster – but I don’t know if they’d be good travelling companions. Racking my brains for people who are like me, I’m afraid the closest I have come is Adrian Mole. Perhaps that’s just because we both inhabit modern Britain. I desperately hope so.

Timm Thaler

July 20, 2011

Well, I stop posting for a bit and the blog’s hit rate increases dramatically. Perhaps you prefer it when I’m not here. I think it’s actually because Benjamin Grosvenor has been in the news. There’s a super interview with him here in case any pianophiles are interested. I think the thing I like most about Grosvenor’s approach to performance is his great appetite for learning from the pianists of the past. I would feel the same way if only I could play the piano well enough for it to matter. Anyway, on with the show.

One of the good things about going abroad is that it always prompts me to do things that I feel I ought to do regularly but normally fail to, namely watching films and reading books in foreign languages. I’m off to spend a week in Cologne very soon, and have been dipping into a book of Ostfriesenwitze (East Frisian jokes) in preparation. The East Frisians are the Irish of German culture, a perennial butt of jokes. They are big drinkers of tea, which perhaps marks them out as odd. Sample Witz, with my translation:

F. Warum haben die Ostfriesen einen Knoten im Penis?
A. Damit sie das Pissen nicht vergessen.

Q. Why did the East Frisian man tie a knot in his penis?
A. So he wouldn’t forget to piss!

I will also be taking some Böll and Mann in translation on holiday with me. I know how to have a good time. As far as watching films is concerned, I’ve seen a couple of desperately depressing Fassbinders recently, and also revisited Charlie Brown und seine Freunde, which is a tremendous film in any language; but most of my revision has consisted of watching the 1979 ZDF TV series Timm Thaler, based on the 1962 novel of the same name by James Krüss. The series was broadcast in a dubbed version on CBBC in the late 1980s, renamed The Legend of Tim Tyler, which is where I first encountered it.

Timm Thaler, die Hauptperson unserer Geschichte, hat sein Lachen an den mächtigsten Mann der Welt verkauft, den Baron. Zugegeben, für einen fantastischen Preis. Timm Thaler gewinnt jede Wette, und sei sie noch so ausgefallen. Doch, dann merkte er, daß sein Lachen sein kostbarster Besitz war. Er will es wiederhaben.

These are the words that open nearly every episode. For the benefit of those who do not speak German, permit me to explain. 13-year-old Timm is approached by a mysterious stranger, the Baron. The Baron is the most powerful man in the world, but his business interests are suffering because his inability to laugh inhibits him from forming alliances with other powerful businessmen. He proposes to buy Timm’s laugh, in exchange for which he will provide Timm with the ability to win any bet. Timm is in a pickle. His father has just died, and his mother has been saddled with an expensive mortgage to pay off. Timm consents to the Baron’s offer, and proceeds to amass a pile of money, but he comes to realise that a life bereft of smiling and laughter is no life at all, and sets out to find the Baron and get his laugh back.

The Baron (Horst Frank) and Timm (Tommi Ohrner)

It’s a fun enough premise, but when it was on TV in my childhood I didn’t manage to stay with it past a couple of episodes, despite my good intentions. Hardly surprising. The first episode is superb, and ends with a chilling and brilliantly realised scene that on rewatching made me shiver. It writes a cheque that the remaining twelve episodes cannot cash. Thirteen episodes! It should have been four, maximum. Timm takes forever to work out the obvious solution – that he must make a bet that he can win his smile back. There is a scathing assessment of the UK version here. It’s hard to argue with many of its criticisms, and there’s no doubt that the dubbing dulled the programme’s impact. It is more fondly remembered in Germany.

You can’t get hold of the programme in English now, so I was compelled to try out the German release. It’s undeniably overlong and rambling, and I lost interest as I waded through episode after episode devoid of plot development, but it benefits from not being dubbed, and there are at least a handful of excellent things about it. Firstly, Tommi Ohrner, who plays Timm, is greatly charismatic. He must have been the pin-up of every German tweenage girl in 1979, and might have been chosen to play Timm on the basis of his smile alone. Of course, he has to spend almost all of the series frowning, which must have been tricky. I imagine take after take having to be discarded because of accidental smiling.

Die Hauptperson unserer Geschichte, up to mischief

Even better is the late, lamented Horst Frank as the glassy-eyed Baron. Baron de Lefuet (try spelling it backwards, speakers of German) is basically a Bond villain, if a somewhat lacklustre one (think Drax rather than Blofeld). He has a futuristic lair, Lunopolis, built on the exotic volcanic island of Aravanadi, from which he is able to survey the movements of apparently everyone via his special video screen. He may not be the most malicious man in the world, but he’s certainly the most voyeuristic. The Baron is both stylish and irresistibly magnetic. One almost welcomes his purchase of Timm’s smile. It is marvellous to watch this heretofore humourless man practising his smile, and eventually mastering his own demonic brand of laughter.

The Baron, flanked by his bungling assistant Anatol (Richard Lauffen)

Everything comes back to music with me, doesn’t it? I’d forgotten it, but presumably what made me love this series in the first place (apart from an infantile crush on Tommi Ohrner) was Christian Bruhn’s score. The regular theme tune plays not at the start but at the end, and it is fabulous. The greatest TV theme tune ever? I tentatively suggest. For me it’s right up there with this and this and this. And this. Bruhn is presumably better known in Germany than elsewhere. His synthy score is mesmerising throughout, by turns atmospheric and knockabout. In some respects it’s not unlike the music that the immortal Roger Limb was writing for BBC children’s programmes around the same time. Take the incongruous but delectable tierce de Picardie at the end of the theme tune – it might have come straight out of Look and Read.

Anyway, all of this means that when I finally get to Germany I will know what to do if I am propositioned by an evil genius. If you fancy seeing what all the fuss is about, the first episode (auf Deutsch) can be watched here.

Slow train

February 26, 2010

I love trains. Or, if not the things themselves, then at least travelling on them. I’m sure it originates in experiences from my first few years. Thomas the Tank Engine played some part. I had some of the books and, if memory serves, a train set with a wind-up Thomas, attachable Annie and Clarabel and possibly other engines too. It all seems utterly soulless now, but it must have held some appeal at the time.

My early experiences of train travel itself were more viscerally exciting. I remember the thrill, when going to see Cats in London at the age of 5, of using the tube – very dangerous, it seemed to me, for such a small person as I was then, even with adult supervision. The gap, which I was urged to mind, seemed almost infinite. Cats is also part of the mix. Trendy (and sometimes easy) though it is to sneer at Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats more than any other of his musicals contains much that is praiseworthy, and in “Skimbleshanks” possesses one of the great romantic songs about trains. The passion inpired in me by “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and tube travel for London place names is a subject for another day.

Then there were the trips to Bristol on inset days to visit the much lamented Exploratory, and occasional family train journeys to Leeds when we couldn’t go by car. The excitement of a four-hour journey stretching out ahead, of the games in store, of the prospect of sitting at a table are all still vivid, as is the sequence of stations as we moved further north, through Birmingham New Street, Derby, Chesterfield (crooked spire visible from the train window), Sheffield, Wakefield Westgate (a mixture of excitement and disappointment at being nearly there) and finally Leeds.

The romance persists. I still get excited at the prospect of a long train journey, and have happily been spared so far the routine of commuting which I expect often induces fatigue and disillusionment. One of the most beautiful and saddest songs written in the English language is Flanders and Swann’s “Slow Train”, which consists largely of a list of railway stations that fell victim to the cuts imposed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. These include the enigmatic Trouble House Halt in Gloucestershire, the only British railway station constructed specifically to serve a public house. The stations mentioned are catalogued fascinatingly here.

How is it possible to feel such an aching nostalgia for something one hasn’t experienced oneself? The social historian Joe Moran has already analysed the question insightfully in this blog post. For me, much of it has to do with the place names – Mortehoe, Four Crosses, Mumby Road, Cheslyn Hay – which are so indescribably and inescapably English. If occasionally I feel frustrated with Britain and the people who live here, it is songs like this, which could not possibly have been written by anyone from another country, that make me realise how much in my national heritage I have to be thankful for.