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On memory and forgetting [Apr. 29th, 2016|05:37 pm]
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One of the questions in the pub quiz last Wednesday (in a round of questions about blood) was: "Which town in Scotland is known for its black pudding?" I had no idea. It rang no bells at all: surely black pudding comes from Bury, in Lancashire? The team discussed it, and nobody knew the answer. Eventually, the majority vote went for Dundee. I wasn't convinced: surely jam, jute and journalism are enough industries for one town? Besides, Dundee felt too big, I wanted a smaller town... But since I couldn't come up with a better answer, we handed in our sheet for marking, and it was returned to us with a cross beside that answer. We carried on kicking it back and forth, while we waited for all the papers to be marked, and somebody said "Tomintoul", not because he thought it was the answer but because it was a good Scottish town-name. Something about the metre of it threw a switch in my mind, and, dammit!, I knew perfectly well where it was, of course I knew -

That lightbulb momentCollapse )
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Brushing up my Shakespeare [Apr. 26th, 2016|10:04 pm]
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The Queen and I appear to have reached a tacit understanding: she doesn't make a fuss about my birthday, and I don't make a fuss about hers. Shakespeare is another kettle of fish entirely, and we have been enjoying a week filled with Shakespeare-related activities, mostly but not exclusively organised by the Lit & Phil, and starring the fabulous Gail-Nina Anderson.

We started with Gail's Tuesday lunchtime lecture on Shakespeare in Art: when does a painting depict a scene from a play, when a scene from a performance and when is it just a portrait of an actor in a particular rôle? Why did the pre-Raphaelites choose the most exquisitely awkward moments from the plays, and why did the Victorians think it was acceptable to paint naked women as long as you said they were fairies? Time ran out just as we reached photography.

Wednesday early evening was Gail again, this time with portraits of Shakespeare. We got caught in traffic and roadworks and other miscalculations, so we missed the beginning, but I hadn't previously come across the Sanders portrait, so that was intriguing. I've known the Droeshout engraving as the face of Shakespeare for so long that I don't suppose I'll ever imagine him differently, however strong the proof, and it really isn't that strong. Even so... Then back in time for the pub quiz, which this week had a Shakespearean theme. This could be pretty oblique (for example, a reference to the "rude mechanicals" introduced a round of questions on mechanics). The Elm Tree had clearly not got the memo, and was festooned with Saint George's crosses.

On Friday, the Lit & Phil's contribution was a showing of Rivette's Paris nous appartient (good grief, it's available on YouTube, all two and a quarter hours of it - one of Rivette's shortest films!). As Shakespearean theming goes, this too was pretty oblique: yes, the thread which holds the film together is a doomed production of Pericles, but the film is not in any sense about Shakespeare. I don't care: screen a Rivette movie and I'm there. The film deserves a post of its own, but it would just be a series of questions - actually, that's a temptation. So much to post, so little time! I would have told you that I had at least a rough idea of the plots of all Shakespeare's plays, but Paris nous appartient revealed that I have no idea at all what happens in Pericles: so that's a bonus, of sorts.

Saturday being the actual birthday, that's when we hit peak Shakespeare, starting with the morning paper: two sonnets by Wendy Cope, and a 'commemorative' crossword to entertain us on the train (no, it wasn't about Cervantes).

Back at the Lit & Phil, Gail-Nina gave us one woman's view of A Midsummer Night's Dream, complete with monkey glove puppets, inflatable bat-wings and more paintings of nude fairies. Gail takes a strictly practical view of the duties of the jobbing playwright, and explains the origins of the Dream by a desire to get some use out of that ass's head that was hanging around in the props cupboard. Why was there an ass's head in the props cupboard? Well, says Gail, it must have been left over from Shakespeare's lost nativity play - no, think about it, it's completely plausible, a well-established dramatic genre, the virtuous couple, the ruffianly innkeeper, some comic shepherds, a dramatic wicked king (Burbage would have made a fine Herod) an ox and an ass... Lost, presumably, because it was suspected of displaying Catholic sympathies, leaving the company with an underused ass's head. Come to think of it, this is why the setting, this very English woodland, is displaced to "near Athens" - at some point there must have been a scene, which didn't make the final cut, in which Theseus relives his triumph over the Minotaur (the ox's head).

Thereafter, there was winding down in the pub across the way, with good conversation and late lunch. There was shopping at Richer Sounds, with the help of samarcand and her magic phone (despite which we have hit a complication: more on that some other time). Then durham_rambler and I gatecrashed a World Book Night party at the Great North Museum: we were invited, but the party was primarily organised for the reading groups and library staff who had been involved in the 'Great North Book Run', a collaboration (if I've got this right) between PanMacmillan and the Reading Agency to promote reading for pleasure. You don't often get to commune with a narwhal over a glass of wine, so that was special. We also chatted briefly with Ann Cleeves, and with Alison O'Donnell who plays Tosh in the TV Shetland series - which handed her rather a plum in the last storyline. We barely talked about that, because we were too busy talking about Fair Isle.

Back home, we half-watched the live broadcast of the RSC's Shakespeare celebration, reading the paper through the hip hop Shakespeare and the opera Shakespeare, but enjoying the chunks of the plays. I was entertained by a sketch in which a gaggle of Hamlets correct each other's reading of THAT line: "No, it's 'To be OR not to be, that is the question'" "'To be or not to BE, that is the question'". My preference goes to "'To be or not to be, THAT is the question'", but I suspect we were supposed to take "'To be or not to be, that is the QUESTION'" as definitive, since the Prince of Wales, who had been very visible in the audience, came down on stage to deliver it. I know it was a joke, but how often do you get even five minutes of textual analysis on Saturday night television? The show closed with the ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I was impressed by David Tennant as Puck.

Next weekend, something completely different: back to the Lit & Phil for Newcastle Noir!
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Happy Birthday, gillpolack! [Apr. 25th, 2016|10:54 am]
You, Shakespeare and the Queen - what a party that's going to be! With pesadich birthday cake, too...
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Surrounded [Apr. 22nd, 2016|10:25 am]

There are scaffolders banging and thumping outside my window. From time to time I feel the floor shake. I am in the attic. I tell myself not to complain, this is what we wanted, what we have been waiting for.

The scaffolding story so far: we had to wait for the scaffolders to come and scaffold the back of the house, so the builders could re-attach the downpipe (and take advantage of the scaffolding to do other maintenance work); and we had to wait some more, because the scaffolders had erected their scaffolding at a house with a similar address in a nearby town. Then we had to wait for the scaffolders to come and remove the scaffolding, even though we only wanted it moving to the front of the house, so our builders could do necessary maintenance there. While the scaffolding was in place at the back of the house, we had to duck under it to get out of the back door and down the steps to the garden. It also prevented the builders getting to work to rebuild the back steps.

Eventually the scaffolding was transferred from the back to the front: and our more-or-less resident builder got to work on the back steps. But, he pointed out, the scaffolding stopped at the roofline, and the front of the house, unlike the back, has dormer windows which require attention.

State of play as of today, then, is that the scaffolding has now risen past my window; and that there is wet concrete on the steps down from the back door. if we want access to the garden / dustbin / compost bin, we must use the front door (carefully!) and walk round. Progress never comes without pain.

Meanwhile, I am reluctant to start clearing what remains of my kitchen until I know when redecoration and reinstatement are to start: which probably means it will have to be done in a hideous rush when it does happen.
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A visit to Pau [Apr. 21st, 2016|10:06 pm]
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Pau was one of the fixed points of our itinerary from the start: once, long ago, we had paused there in passing, and now I wanted to know the town better. So we booked ourselves two nights in that very central hotel (this one: business-like but friendly, very reasonable for its position, recommended), and had rather more than a day to look round. I still can't claim to have much sense of the place, no feel for where its centre of gravity is. After an evening and a full day walking around the town, the only note in my diary is the web address of this wine producer: I not only didn't have any recollection of the wine, it wasn't until I found the label stuck to a flyer for the restaurant that I remembered where we'd eaten that night.

Never mind, there are pictures.Collapse )
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Which Labour leader are you? [Apr. 18th, 2016|12:48 pm]
Via durham_rambler, a quiz to find out.

Apparently we are both George Lansbury, and neither of us can make the widget work to share this information. For what it's worth, the text says "You're a pacifist, even in the face of two World Wars. You would have supported the Russian Revolution, but deep down you just want women's suffrage and a welfare state."

I can live with that.
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Where the Seaton Sluice sand dunes roll down to the sea... [Apr. 17th, 2016|10:20 pm]
Since it's my birthday, I got to choose what we did today. I asked to go to the seaside, and that durham_rambler and D. should between them make the rest of the decisions and surprise me.

They elected to go to Seaton Sluice and eat fish and chips at the Harbour View - no great surprise, we have been there before, and like it. The surprise was that it isn't open on a Sunday, so we went to the King's Arms instead:

The King"s Arms

It's not as superlative, but the fish and chips are perfectly adequate, and there's a view from the window across the harbour, along the coast to Blyth and inland north to the Cheviot (which, after yesterday's 'April showers', was topped with snow). After lunch, D. set off for home, and durham_rambler and I went for a walk on the beach.


The tide was high, and the beach was busy: lots of people with dogs, a pair of horse riders, someone flying a kite. We stood for a while and watched four surfers out beyond the breakers never quite scrambling onto their boards. I tried to take a photograph, an arrangement that pleased me of black stone, yellow sand, creamy white foam: but wave after wave came in and retreated, never quite close enough to my stone. Finally, a wave (it could have been the seventh, I wasn't counting) spread its lacy border so far and so fast that I not only didn't catch my photo, I had to back off in haste to avoid being soaked - and when it retreated, it took my stone with it. So that was that.

We walked back through the dunes. Suddenly, the blackthorn is in flower -


- more than in flower, it's very nearly in leaf, too.

Nearly home, we called in on F., who gave us tea and conversation and home made cheese scones, still warm.
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A busy week: two movies, two rivers, the sea - and more [Apr. 16th, 2016|10:45 pm]
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In the last week, among other things, we have been to the cinema twice (for some reason, both films included a piece of the Flower Song from Lakmé), been to two book launches (by coincidence, both books brought together images with poetry by a number of poets; that being the case, it's no coincidence that some of the same poets were at both launches) and entertained a house guest (D., who is still with us, except that he has gone out to do his own thing this evening). In brief, then:

First film: Anomalisa
Peter Bradshaw's glowing review in the Guardian; Mark Kermode's more ambivalent review in the Observer.
Does that excuse me from producing an opinion of my own? The midlife crisis of a motivational speaker, staying in a corporate-type hotel before giving a corporate-type speech. Here he meets a young woman who seems different from everyone else. This is familiar territory. But the actors are stop-motion puppets, which is not only an interesting gimmick but opens up possibilities: Lisa genuinely is different from everyone else, she has her own face and voice, while all the other characters (except Michael himself) have the same face and are voiced by the same actor. There's something called the "Fregoli delusion" apparently, which is that everyone is really the same person, and this is referenced in the name of the hotel - the Fregoli Hotel. So that was a clever reference that I didn't pick up on, and had to have pointed out to me. On the other hand, I did spot that the film on the tv in Michael's room was My Man Godfrey, and wonder why (because, says the internet, unlike Casablanca, it is in the public domain).
Extremely clever, and the character of Lisa is actually very touching. These two things ought to enhance each other; yet I react as if they were in conflict.

First book launch: Two Rivers and the Sea
Inspired by the work of Rachel Carson, poet Lisa Matthews ans visual artist Melanie Ashby spent a series of four residencies on the Northumberland coast, the circuit of A Year in Beadnell. They blogged, they took photographs, they filmed life in the rock pools, they wrote poems, they invited other poets to visit and observe with them, and they have published this record of the year.

Second film: Marguerite
Strange enough that there should be one film about Florence Foster Jenkins, but stranger still, two have come along at the same time. This is not the one with Meryl Streep, this is the other one, the French one, "based on a true story" but fictionalised. This has the drawback that you can no longer point to the story it tells and say "Incredible though this seems, it happened." It has the advantage that you are free to tell whatever story you wish, and to relocate it to the 1920s, with all the fun that offers: the frocks! the Dadaists! The tone wanders uncertainly between comedy and pathos, and there are aspects of the story whose truth I questioned which have nothing to do with Florence Foster Jenkins. But I didn't feel I'd wasted my time.

Second book launch: NORTHbound
Vane Women celebrate their silver anniversary with an anthology built around Pat Maycroft's photographs. The women themselves and invited guests contributed poems inspired by one of Pat's photos, and many of the contributors were present at today's launch, so we had an unusual reading at which each poet read a single poem. Highlights included Pru Kitching's Franz Kafka in Durham City (a moody black and white view up a vennel that could well be in Prague's Old Town), Diane Cockburn's Heloise takes the Veil (a cat at a lace curtained window) and Bob Beagrie's Amanita Muscaria (what it says in the title, with Andy Willoughby taking second voice, reading the 'shadow poem', so that I half thought the magic was in the performance until I saw how ingeniously the poem was built on the page).

Bonus art exhibition: Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise
The NORTHbound launch was at mima, and while we were there, we saw the current exhibition of sculptures by Congolese plantation workers. I wish I had taken my camera. Failing that, imagine a bright white room containing a number of brown sculpted figures and portrait heads, and interspersed with leafygreen potted plants. Each piece is moulded from clay, scanned and the data transmitted to somewhere (I've forgotten where) in Europe where it can be reproduced in Belgian chocolate through multiple technologies, including 3D scanning and printing. Evidently the purpose of the project is to generate income for the cocoa plantation workers, and who knows how suitable a material chocolate is outside this context. I'd have photgraphed, too, the sign on the wall saying that mima was supporting the project by purchasing one of the pieces for £3000 (through a gallery which would take its usual 50% cut): surely the starkness of the statement was intended to make me want to photograph it?
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West with the Vikings [Apr. 13th, 2016|01:02 pm]
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On Sunday we caught up with The Vikings Uncovered, which we only picked up on because a friend tweeted about it. In many ways it was an infuriating programme: in particular, it did one of the things I most hate about television documentaries, which is that it assumes the subject matter is not inherently interesting, and that unless it is tricked out with illustrative footage and fake suspense, the audience will wander off. It also managed to run for an hour and a half, which is longer than I find comfortable for a pregramme whose structure is "Look at this! And now look at this!" It was like watching a ninety minute trailer for a series coming later in which each of the short sections would would be unfolded into a really interesting programme about a site associated with the Vikings, and what we could learn about them from that site.

The most interesting of all of these, the bean in the cake, was the discovery of what really does seem to be a second Viking site in Newfoundland, at Point Rosee near the southwestern tip of the island. The BBC, bless their pointed little heads, issued their press release on April 1st, which combines with their rather excitable tone to unfortunate effect - but reading carefully what they do and don't say, there is still something there to get excited about.

Two somethings, in fact: the site itself, and the way it was discovered.

Excavations at Point Rosee have uncovered evidence of iron working. That's all, and it is in itself pretty minimal: a boulder in front of a shallow pit, surrounded by smaller stones and sheltered by an L-shaped turf wall, traces of charcoal and a quantity of slag. It's not a Viking settlement, because if there is an associated settlement it hasn't yet been found, and there's no evidence that it is even Viking - except that it's a technology known to have been used by the Vikings, and by no-one else in the region at the time. So it seems reasonable to call it a second Viking site, and evidence that the Vikings didn't just touch down at L'Anse aux Meadows and then turn round and go home. This would be even more exciting if the programme hadn't let slip something that I hadn't previously known, that butternuts (I hadn't even heard of butternuts: it's a kind of walnut, apparently) found at L'Anse aux Meadows must have been brought back by explorers further south and west. So it is not entirely news that the Vikings travelled further in Vinland than just the most northeasterly tip. Still, sort of knowing is one thing; seeing traces on the ground is another.

Seeing those traces on the ground from 400 miles away in space is yet another. The excavation site was identified by space archaeologist Dr. Sarah Parcak - which has to be the best job title of the year. She doesn't, alas, go into space. Instead, what she is doing is the familiar exercise of identifying promising locations from the air, just from rather further up than traditional aerial photography. She uses satellite images (if we were told whose images, I missed that bit) and enhances them to pick out promising features. These are not always what she is looking for: the sheltering turf wall at Point Rosee had looked like a typical Viking longhouse (and similar traces on Auskerry turned out to be turf cuttings). Pretty amazing, all the same, to identify from hundreds of miles above something which, close up, even when the grass has been removed, looks like different shades of mud.

All in all, despite patronising me outrageously (it seems that everything I thought I knew about the Vikings was wrong, they didn't have horns on their helmets at all - and here's some footage of Up Helly Aa) the programme did tell me new and interesting things, and sent me off to the internet in seach of more. Links follow, for my own convenience:

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Just off the autoroute [Apr. 8th, 2016|10:15 pm]
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After our diversion to Gaillac, we returned to the motorway towards Pau, our next destination. Having successfully negotiated the Toulouse ring road, we felt entitled to leave the motorway in search of lunch, so we headed into the next town we came to, which happened to be Muret. Parked, strolled up and down the street considering the options, and settled for Chez Fanny, on a noisy corner by the bridge, giving its pavement tables a fine view of the traffic, the building works, the lethal motorcycles.

The establishment had an old-fashioned vibe: the menu was decorated with stills from the 1932 film. It was old-fashioned enough that when we had finished our first course:


our server, clearing the plates, returned the cutlery to us to eat our main course - in my case, andouillette de canard, accompanied by flat disks of potato and (very well-done, but still tasty) sprouts, the first of the season.

At the next table, between us an the traffic, were two smartly dressed young men: you can just see one of them in the corner of the photo. One sprawled at his ease, talking intently to his phone, while his companion methodically demolished a café gourmand, coffee and three not-so-mini desserts.

Meanwhile, in the background music, a sweet-voiced woman tackled some classic tracks. I was a bit startled to realise she was now singing:
Please allow me to introduce myself:
I'm a man of wealth and fame...
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