Old Friends And Oxford

Christ Church College, Oxford

Christ Church College, Oxford

While Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were in Australia, we met up with three of her long-standing friends: a school friend in Perth, a college friend in Hobart and a more recent friend in Sydney.  Each reunion was refreshing.

LSW has been continuing this sustenance of her friend network since our return.  Three friends who we knew when we lived in Kew near London have dropped in to see us.  She has also been with other friends from Kew to the People’s Vote March in London and to Bristol to see another long-term acquaintance from work.  It is time for me to match her relationship maintenance!  I have the time now I am retired, and the only issue is fitting in with the diaries of my old friends who are still working.

For many years, a small group of friends who I got to know shortly after I first moved to London over 40 years ago have been getting together on a regular basis.  For the last few years we have been meeting up every few months in a restaurant chosen alphabetically based on country of cuisine.  We are up to P for Portugal.  I travelled up to London last week for the latest instalment of catching up with personal developments, railing against the inequities of the world and solving (in theory) a few current newsworthy issues.  It was fun and informative as usual, and an excellent excuse to spend time in London.

Also, I have also managed to get together with two friends from my college days.  My goodness; now we are talking about 45 years ago!  We have stayed in touch intermittently since then.  Some years we have been completely out of contact with each other and then we have had periods when we have been close.  One of these friends was my Best Man (BM) at my wedding and, as those who have read earlier posts will know, I see him off and on at his house near Cambridge.  The other now lives with his wife in Oxford and that is where all three of us met.

I have only been to Oxford a few times in recent years.  Then, the visits have been mainly to the outskirts to see Forest Green Rovers Football Club play Oxford United or to drop off or pick up Youngest Son from Oxford Brookes University.  This latest visit allowed me an almost full day wandering the city alone and then further sightseeing with my mates the next day. It’s a lovely city.

Scenes In Oxford

Oxford Scenes (Ratcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Bridge Of Sighs)

Upon my arrival, the weather was cold and I decided to go for a brisk walk to warm up.  I ended up walking a few miles up and down the Oxford canal.  This is a much scruffier walk compared to that along the Thames which we did together the following day.  Along the canal are mainly dilapidated barges.  Some sustain human life but almost all are covered in detritus and the romanticism of living independently on water looked rather battered.  The wildlife was plentiful though and the oblique view of the city through small canal-side workshops and back gardens was interesting.

I went to an exhibition of Jeff Koons’ work at the Ashmolean Museum and continued to warm up.  I am not sure I like Koons’ work but it is certainly striking.  Regardless of whether the pastiche or banality is deliberate, his work isn’t the sort of thing I would want in my home.  However, the exhibition explanations of the pieces on show, and a short video interview with the artist, helped me understand at least some of what he is trying to achieve.

Pieces By Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean Museum

Pieces By Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean Museum (Balloon Venus, Ushering In Banality, Rabbit And Ballerinas)

Much of the rest of the Ashmolean Museum – apparently the world’s oldest museum – is rather like a stately home with sumptuous furniture, display cases and huge paintings.  I didn’t explore all of it but wandered a little aimlessly though impressive collections of porcelain, musical instruments, and modern art by a number of artists I admire such as Bacon, Kandinsky, Matisse and Hepworth.

I dwelt only in two galleries.  The first held a small but lovely, lush collection of 12th and 13th century Italian art which had some unusual pictures (one apparently depicting God himself and another showing a time lapse series of poses following the crucifixion).  The second covered the Pre-Raphaelites and included accounts of some of the salacious and scandalous relationships between the artists and their partners.  I saved the rest of the museum for another visit.

We ate well in Oxford but I walked many miles to work off the calories.  The sun came out for our walk around the north end of the city (including a brief stop at the remarkable and rather thrillingly cluttered Pitt Rivers Museum at adjoining the back of the Natural History Museum) and then along the Thames to a pub called The Perch.  It was great to get together with these university alumni, together for the first time in years, and to catch up with our ups and downs (in my case, thankfully, almost all ups).

Inside The Oxford Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum

Inside The Oxford Natural History Museum And Pitt Rivers Museum (Dinosaurs, Stuffed Dodos, Stuffed Human Heads And Other Marvellously Higgledy-Piggledy Collections)

Walking By The Thames At Oxford

Walking By The Thames At Oxford

Today LSW and I are off to Cheltenham to see some more old friends.  How personable I have become since retiring!

Marvellous MONA

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have been back from our Australia trip for about two weeks.  Those weeks have been spent quietly slotting back into a daily routine.  I have been getting a fork into the vegetable patch, strolling around the neighbourhood to spot the small changes that took place while we were away, catching up on a couple of Forest Green Rovers FC games, and recovering from the jet lag.  Once again I feel so relieved that, having retired, I can do all this without the worry of having to catch up at work while negotiating jet lag muzziness.

Though these two weeks, the memories of Australia have lived on pretty vividly.  They are reinforced by each retelling of our exploits down under to friends and relatives.  We’ve had some very good holidays in recent years but our Australia trip was one of the best.

One of the most exhilarating days that we had in Australia was that we spent in Hobart visiting the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).  This was set up by and is run and financed by David Walsh, a millionaire Tasmanian who made his fortune through gambling.  He is passionate about art and giving something back to Tasmania.  Visiting the gallery is free for Tasmanians and it has become a huge tourist attraction.

MONA

Museum Of Old And New Art (MONA)

The visit started on a purpose-built jetty from which Youngest Son (YS) (who paid for the excursion), Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), and I boarded a strangely shaped and coloured ferry.  As we boarded we were invited to load up a MONA app on our phones and, as we started to look through the web site pages, we could see we would be in for a fun time.  This feeling was underlined by the presence of a full size cow sculpture on the boat and seats that looked like sheep.

The journey itself, up the Derwent River, gave us a new, interesting view of Hobart’s industry and huge river side mansions.  Then, as we approached MONA on its own island in the middle of the river, we could make out a series of balconies, walkways and low-slung, rather strange looking buildings.  As we left the ferry and entered one of these I was reminded of Thunderbirds and Tracy Island; it all felt slightly off kilter and unreal.

Inside it quickly became apparent that the bulk of the cavernous space for the art, the bars and the selection of restaurants is carved deep into the sandstone rock of the island.  There are spiral staircases, long corridors, small and huge rooms and, everywhere, fascinating sights.  I loved, for example, the slot machine beer dispenser which took one’s money and took its time to decide whether to dispense a lovely, expensive craft beer or a can of bog-standard Fosters lager.  I didn’t try it but was entertained by the relief or the frustration of others who did.

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Lucky Dip Beer Dispensary

As we moved around, so all the art was labelled, described and explained by the location sensitive app on our phones.  This provided various levels of detail – as much or as little as you wanted – on whatever was nearby.  I experienced something similar at the Opera exhibition at the Victoria and Albert just over a year ago but nothing as slick, comprehensive or amusing as this.

Screenshots From The MONA App

And so onto the art!  Incredible!

The first exhibit, Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris, required application for entry on the MONA app.  When my turn came I was let into a dark room, alone, and made my way around a platform with black water on either side.  In the middle of the room was, on one side of the platform, an Egyptian mummy in its shroud.  On the other side was a CAT scan of the same mummy that presented layers of the mummy progressively so that the mummified flesh was peeled back gradually to reveal organs then bones.  Some of these were damaged and indicated the cause of death and that, plus the irregular drips of water in the silent, dark room, made this lone experience really eerie and memorable.

Perhaps the best exhibit was Artifact by Gregory Barsamian.  I think it was YS’s favourite too.  It was a large bronze head on its side with several portals so you could see inside.  From each portal one got a different view of what resembled a rotating machine with birds, balls, hands, heads and wheels all moving around in sync in a quiet whirlwind of stroboscopic light.  It was riveting but I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing then and can’t hope to describe it adequately now.  It was astonishing and brilliant.

Inside Artifact by Gregory Barsamian

Inside Artifact by Gregory Barsamian (But I Just Couldn’t Capture Any Of The Movement or Impact Of It Here)

That was unsettling but even more so was the tattooed man, Tim.  The gallery has bought the tattoos on the back of this man and he is paid to sit all day, silently and still, to exhibit it.  It raised some deep ambiguity about ownership, slavery and art.

Tim, The Tattooed Man By Wim Delvoye

Tim, The Tattooed Man By Wim Delvoye Overlooking One Of The Restaurants Cut Deep Into The Sandstone

Other exhibits were also designed to keep one off balance.  Near Artifact was a bowl of water on a chair with a large sharp knife and two red and orange goldfish in it.  It was a simple piece (by Jannis Kounellis) but unnervingly reminiscent of blood in water.

Untitled, By Jannis Kounellis

Untitled, By Jannis Kounellis

Another exhibit (Kryptos by Brigita Ozolins) was a room set up as a small black maze with niches holding ancient vases.  When one got to the middle of the maze there was something unconscious that prompted one to look up.  Above was a mirror reflecting my upturned face; it scared the living daylights out of me.

I could go on.  There was the room half full of dense, black oil by Richard Wilson.  There was a grave stone at which we could throw glass bottles.  There was a huge room of tables with moving pellets, stroboscopic lighting, vast noise and hundreds of digital displays filled with alphanumeric characters (Supersymmetry by Ryoji Ikeda).  There lovely set of pieces by an Australian artist called Patrick Hall with opening drawers with recorded sounds, words and inscriptions.  There was a room with smelly hanging bowls linked by tubes and being fed food so that they reproduced the workings of the human digestive tract from start to finish (Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye).  There were skeletons making love, corridors with ever changing wall colours, a fat red car and hundreds of other works of art that surprised, enthralled and unsettled.

Fat Car By Erwin Wurm and Cloaca Professional In Action

It was simply the most engaging and enjoyable art exhibition I have ever seen.  It was huge but my attention didn’t drop once over about 4 hours. I’d love to go back and I recommend it to all.

One Of The MONA Rooms (Artifact In The Corner)

One Of The MONA Rooms (Artifact In The Corner)

Views Around MONA

 

Bright, Shiny Perth (And Freemantle)

The third city in Australia that we visited, after Sydney and Hobart, was Perth plus its twin, Freemantle, way out on the west coast.  During our five hour flight over the south coast of Australia we got a sense of Australia’s huge scale.  We had previously admired the 9 mile beaches in Tasmania but now we could see we were flying over beaches on the south coast more than 100 miles long.

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) had booked us into the Alex Hotel in Perth as the base for our stay in Western Australia.  It was excellent – probably the best value hotel I can remember staying in.  It was central, modern, cool, informal and very comfortable.  The friendly and helpful staff, the buffet breakfast and the honour bar systems in the lounge and roof top seating area were very trusting and relaxing.

Sunset Over The Alex's Roof Top Bar

Sunset Over The Alex’s Roof Top Bar

We were initially disappointed that breakfast was included in the room rate since we had been looking forward to finding the best breakfasts Perth could offer.  However, the breakfast was so good – the fig bread was especially tasty and the coffee was predictably excellent – that we indulged every morning.  These substantial breakfasts plus, I think, the 30 degrees of heat outside, meant that we rarely felt like more than light meals for lunch or dinner.  Not that stopped us sampling the excellent food that seems the norm in Australia (for example at NoMafia, Shadow Bar and Gordon Street Garage).

On our first morning LSW and I walked to Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre site overlooking the Swan estuary and the central business district that contains the botanical gardens and a large tract of native bushland.  It was a good introduction to the plants and, especially, the trees of Western Australia and the views were great across brilliantly sunny, clear air. We flagged after a few hours in the heat.  Fortunately, the Swan Brewery, with its view across the shining Perth Water, is adjacent to the park so planning for refreshments was relatively easy!

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

We strolled around the waterfront which is undergoing a huge transformation.  Everywhere we looked the city seemed bright, shiny and vibrant.

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

The following day we took a ferry to Freemantle, the port out on the coast at the end of the Swan River.  Again, the city was clean, tidy and looked great in the brilliant sun.  The historical buildings were rather more grouped together than we had seen in Perth’s centre and the strips of late 19th century and early 20th century colonial buildings were busy with independent businesses but well preserved.

On The Way To Freemantle

On The Way To Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

We visited two historical prisons and the Freemantle Shipwrecks Museum and each held our interest for an hour or so.  The Roundhouse opened in January 1831 to hold those convicted of a crime in the settlement and was used until 1886.  We were fortunate enough to be visiting just as a demonstration was taking place of the Freemantle Time Ball and Cannon.  This was used daily until 1937 to indicate the precise time to sailors off the coast so they could navigate successfully through the islands and reefs.  The cannon was a good deal noisier than either LSW or I expected!

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Freemantle Convict Prison was built in the 1850s by convicts shipped from England and was then used to house them as they continued to be sent to Australia until 1868.  The building was impressive and LSW was rather taken by the standard prison uniform which was rather like some of her own best outfits.  Over 10,000 convicts passed through the prison and helped build the settlement’s infrastructure.  Some convicts served their sentence and went on through various levels of freedom to be successful outside the prison.  Of course, many did not and the exhibition showed how tough conditions were for the convicts, especially those undertaking hard labour in welded-on manacles in over 30 degrees of heat.

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

'The Slops': Convict Uniform

‘The Slops’: Convict Uniform

The Shipwreck Museum was stuffed full of information and exhibits and, frankly, we were ready for another nice lunch (which followed very pleasantly at Hush).  I focused on learning about James Stirling who explored the Swan River in 1827 and made the case to the British government for establishment of the Freemantle settlement.  He is an ancestor of LSW’s brother in law so there was an extra twist of interest in the material relating to him in the museum.

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

Back in Perth, we went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts which, apart from a nice looking café and an interesting exhibition by Cassils (a Canadian performance artist), was rather empty.  I also went to the Art Gallery of Western Australia which was more conventionally full of Australian, Aboriginal and European art.  A collection of European sculptures by Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Lynn Chadwick and Antony Gormley) was impressive.

Our last full day in Perth ended at one of Australia’s iconic beaches: Cottesloe Beach.  Here was more sculpture; this time, a temporary exhibition of international, modern sculpture in a collection called ‘Sculpture By The Sea’.

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

This exhibition, and Perth’s love of the beach, attracted big crowds.  Navigating these was a novelty given that everywhere else we had been on this trip had been very sparsely populated or entirely empty.  We simply retreated to a bar and watched the lovely sunset.  It was a beautiful way to round off our time in bright, lively and seemingly confident Perth.

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

We used Perth as a base for travel south, north and east in the south-west corner of Western Australia.  I’ll cover my thoughts on some of those journeys in the next post.

Secret Santa Scores A Hit

Last Christmas, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), our three sons and I, decided to replace the tradition of us each giving everyone else a present, with a Secret Santa arrangement.  In this, each person draws a lot to determine which single person they should buy a Secret Santa present for up to a (relatively small) price limit.  This allows more focus and so reduces considerably the stress of (useful) present buying and the chance of getting something unwanted.

The reason I recall this now is that last week I was able to act upon my Secret Santa present: a ticket to a gig by Yo La Tengo at Hackney Arts Centre.  Actually, the giver, Eldest Son (ES), was no secret and, indeed, I went with him.  But Secret Santa was, for me as a receiver, a great hit.

Yo La Tengo is a band I have loved since I started buying albums by them in 2000.  In fact, they have been together as a three piece since the mid 1980’s and, as ES said after the gig, they have become very proficient at what they do.  Their music varies from gentle muses to Velvet Underground-like wig outs.  Unfortunately they didn’t rock ES’s boat but I loved almost all of the two-and-a-half hour performance.  I’m still humming their tunes to myself every day.

The venue is a gutted old cinema with bare walls and the seats taken out (contrary to the picture of comfortable seating on their website!).  We had to sit on nicely preserved, but very hard, wooden steps.  My back and bum could only take hour of that but then I was able to stand at the front and the two halves of the gig from the two vantage points was nice variety.

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo At Hackney Arts Centre

I made two separate trips to London last week.  During these I met with a fellow retiree ex-work colleague for lunch, caught up with Middle Son (MS) for breakfast and met up with ES and his girlfriend.  I also went once again to my favourite folk club – The Lantern Society – which was once again consistently good across 10 brief but high quality and varied acts.

Live At The Lantern Society

Live At The Lantern Society

I then travelled up to my parents in Nottingham and jumped on from there to Mansfield to see my football team (lose entertainingly again).

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town (With 170 Fellow Travelling Supporters)

The most surprising element amid all this was a visit I made to the Guildhall Art Gallery.  Although it is only a 10 minute walk from where I lived for 20 years, I had never been before.  I went to see an exhibition of Victorian art portraying lives and perceptions of children.  However, I also walked around the rest of an impressive gallery and the very well exhibited remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the bowels of the building. London never ceases to surprise.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery (Pre-Raphaelite Section)

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

The main exhibition at the gallery, called Seen and Heard was interesting, informative and well presented.  It resonated well with a book I’m just finishing called A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively.  As it happens this was another Christmas present, this time from LSW’s Aunt. Lively uses her memory of artefacts and aspects of a rather grand childhood home in west Somerset to launch narratives on how various elements of social life have changed in the last 150 years or so.

The First Sermon and The Second Sermon By Millais

The First Sermon (Girl Sleeping) and The Second Sermon (Girl Not Sleeping) By Millais At The ‘Seen And Heard’ Exhibition

Lively covers childhood, gardening, hunting, immigration and marriage and much more.  The chapters covering childhood and parenting interlocked with some of what I saw at the Guildhall and it all rang true.  In particular, the section on her marriage got me nodding my head in agreement.  Here is an extract of one paragraph:

“Every marriage is a journey, a negotiation, an accommodation.  In a long marriage, both partners will mutate; the people who set out together are not the same two people after ten years, let alone thirty or more…… Our marriage was like most; it had its calm reaches, its sudden treacherous bends, its episodes of white water to be navigated with caution and a steady nerve…… We meshed entirely in tastes and inclinations, could always fire one another with new interest, and laid down over the years that rich sediment of shared references and mutual recognition familiar to all who have known long companionship. You are separate people, but there is a shadowy presence which is an entity, the fusion of you both.”

I’m expecting LSW and I to build another layer of sediment of shared memory over the next few weeks as we travel to Qatar and then tour Sydney, Tasmania and Perth in Australia.  Watch this space.

Retirement Time

Now I am retired, and no longer have to spend 50-60 hours a week working or travelling to and from work, I can extend what used to be rushed tasks at home over longer periods.  I can also take a few more risks with events that I invest time in.  There have been some good examples of both in the last week or so.

I have spoken before in this blog about what I called ‘speed gardening’.  This was the result of the pressure I felt to get substantial tasks in the garden done in the slivers of time available at the weekends before my Sunday commute back to work in London.  I rushed around trying to get things done and, while it kept me fitter than I am now, it wasn’t altogether satisfactory enjoyment.  Now, if a job doesn’t get done as planned on one day, well, there is always tomorrow!

This week’s example was ‘doing the bonfire’.  The pile of garden detritus requiring disposal – and burning it is the most convenient if not the most environmentally friendly way – had become huge following some recent tree maintenance.  I had the time to salvage logs and ‘loglets’ pretty thoroughly but there was a large amount of brash together with a solid mass of other woody matter.  I moved the base of the bonfire pile (so any small creatures could escape) and organised the brash so Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I could load it easily onto the flames in batches.

We managed to clear half the waste in a couple of hours before darkness descended.  The process was very satisfying in some base animalistic way.  In my more relaxed and retired mode, I wasn’t concerned that we didn’t finish.  There is always another day.

The example of having more time to take risks with events was that, when I went up to London for a couple of days this week, primarily to see the Jusepe de Ribera exhibition before it closes at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I also booked a couple of other events about which I knew very little.  One was successful the other rather less so but, either way, I have so much more leisure time now that success or otherwise seems less crucial.

Of course, a successful event is still to be aimed at (time and energy is not infinite, after all). Certainly the Ribera exhibition, entitled ‘Art of Violence’, was riveting and impactful.  There weren’t many large paintings but those that were on show really conveyed the pain of martyrs on the way to their martyrdom.  As impressive were the numerous, much smaller sketches and wash and ink drawings of torture and martyrdom.  These were so intricate and compelling that they drew you into close inspection despite the horror they depicted.  My visit was complemented by the chance to catch up briefly with Eldest Son’s (ES’s) previous girlfriend who works at the gallery; we remain friends.

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The Martyrdom Of St Bartolomew By Jusepe de Ribera (sorry the picture fails to capture the piercing look of the Saint)

Examples Of Ink And Wash Drawings By Ribera

Another, more unexpected success, was that ES and I went to a lecture on, and demonstration of, how Russians in the Cold War created illicit copies of western music during Stalin’s regime (and often went to jail when caught).  The fascinating twist was that, because materials were scarce, the early copies were made by creating grooves on discarded x-rays with home-made lathes.  The resulting ‘records’ therefore had x-ray pictures on them.  Although the sound quality wasn’t great, the recordings were much sought-after snatches of the forbidden jazz and rock and roll of the west and each was unique.

Stephen Coates Explaining The X-Ray Audio Project

Stephen Coates (Ex-The Real Tuesday Weld) Explaining The X-Ray Audio Project And The History Of Illicit Music Recording In Cold War Russia

Pictures and video footage of interviews with some of the protagonists in the schemes to create the lathes, to procure the x-rays (being discarded by hospitals because they were inflammable and presented a fire risk) and to cut the recordings added extra life to some well told stories about the copying process.  These stories recalled, and tied in neatly with, aspects of the film Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski that I saw with ES recently, books I read years ago by Josef Skvorecky about underground music in Czechoslovakia, and also an excellent book I read recently called A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

The evening culminated in Thurston Moore – a guitarist previously with Sonic Youth – recording a couple of things onto x-ray disks so they could be played back to us.  It was pretty visceral stuff – in a very different way to the Ribera exhibition – and ES and I will remember it for a long time.

The X-Ray Audio Project With A Thurston Moore Demonstration

Less successful, but entertaining nonetheless, was a gig I went to in one of my old stomping grounds in Homerton, Hackney.  Chats Palace was the venue and it seemed much the same as I could remember from when I was last there in the early 1980’s.  I saw William Doyle who I liked in his incarnation as East India Youth a few years back and who has produced some interesting ambient music recently.  He now has a new band who are preparing to release their first album together.  They were good in parts but, I felt, still finding their feet.

William Doyle In Full Flow At Chats Palace

William Doyle In Full Flow At Chats Palace

I may have much more leisure time now but, when I’m in London, I have to squeeze in plenty of activity.  Fortunately ES and Middle Son both had time for breakfast with me.  I also walked around Dulwich Park, visited Rough Trade Records (as usual), went to Southwark Cathedral for the first time, snacked in Borough Market and, in lovely weather, took in the scale of London from London Bridge.  I still love London and have the time to enjoy it.

Views From London Bridge

Views From London Bridge

Christmassy Cologne

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have just returned from a few days in Cologne primarily to see the Christmas markets there.  There is a wide choice of excellent north European Christmas markets.  We chose Cologne due to the convenience of flights Bristol, our closest international airport, advice from the Internet, and glowing reports in Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles (which LSW loves).  Also, I haven’t been to Germany since I worked there briefly in the 70’s and 80’s and it was LSW’s first-ever trip to Germany.

View Of Cologne From The Kohl Triangle

View Of Cologne From The Kohl Triangle Skyscraper

Cologne is far from being the most beautiful city we have visited – second-world war flattening of the city put paid to that.  However, Christmas markets were lovely, the food was very satisfying, the art galleries were excellent and the cathedral is one of the biggest and most imposing I have visited.  The hotel we stayed in was located perfectly just 15 minutes-walk from the touristy bustle but near the interesting Belgian Quarter.  We had a very good break from routine.

There were a number of highlights.  Coming into the city on the airport train, one can’t help but be impressed by the river, rail station and first views of the impressively huge and dark cathedral looming over the city centre.  It was interesting looking back at archive photos of the ruins after the second-world war and the comparison to the buildings today.  The recovery has been remarkable but architectural beauty has largely been sacrificed for speed of redevelopment and functionality.

Apart from the sheer scale of the cathedral, the highlight architecturally was the Kolumba Museum.  This was an unexpected treat.  Not only was the building airy, innovative, minimalistic and inspiring, but the art displayed in this gallery – built on an old, ruined church partly preserved on part of the ground floor – was beautiful and beautifully displayed.  There was actually relatively little on show but the simple juxtaposition of very old (1st to 3rd century) artefacts alongside more modern pieces was thought provoking and some of the older items were just exquisite.  Kolumba alone made our Cologne trip worthwhile.

Kolumba Museum

Kolumba Museum; Intriguing Mix Of Old And New

But there was much more.  The Museum Ludwig was well stocked with art by Picasso, Leger, Braque, Calder, Bacon, Warhol, Lichtenstein and a number of others I recognised plus a number of German artists I didn’t know including Gabriele Munter and Bernard Schultze.  Some of the space was lovely with muted colours and reconstituted, broad parquet floors.

Museum Ludwig

While LSW shopped, I went to Cologne’s main cemetery at Melaten-Friedhof.  I get a strangely relaxed enjoyment from wandering through continental cemeteries.  This one was rather different from those typically found in Mediterranean countries.  Among the mature trees and semi-managed undergrowth, there were rectangular family plots of various sizes and populated with evergreen planting rather than bulky tombs.  On many, rather than pictures of the deceased, there were odd little statues (and labels indicating the maintenance company for the plot; very efficient!)  It was a very peaceful hour despite a short, sharp shower.  I even had the bonus of seeing my first wild red squirrel.

Melaten-Friedhof Cemetery

Melaten-Friedhof Cemetery

Then it was back to the Christmas markets.  We visited five or six markets over the three days. Each had a slightly different feel or scale.  They were most atmospheric at night when they were simultaneously both garishly and beautifully lit and were busiest, but gluhwein seemed to be offered all day.  We drank the warming, gently alcoholic liquid out of traditional boot-shaped mugs while taking in its smells and that of aniseed, pine and cooked meat from the surrounding wooden hut stalls.

We Ate And Drank Well: Craft Beer, Schweinhaxen, Gluhwein

We Ate And Drank Well: Craft Beer, Schweinhaxen, Gluhwein

I failed in my lengthy quest to buy a red, spotted toadstool Christmas tree decoration which had become my heart’s desire having spotted one in a closed shop on our first evening in Cologne.  But we did come away with tinsel, a new Christmas tree decoration and a surprisingly large number of lovely, hand-made brushes.  The markets, the food and the drink all lived up to Nigel Slater’s promise.

Back home now, LSW has used the Christmas momentum our trip generated to get our Christmas tree up and decorated.  Twelve more sleeps to Christmas….

Christmas Is Coming!

Christmas Is Coming!

Two Exhibitions And More

For those who followed my last post, no, I didn’t write this on the train home from London.  No, I didn’t stay awake either but I didn’t snore (surely not!).

I was tired after my trip to London.  I didn’t get back until late on Monday from seeing Malcolm Middleton (an indie-rock Scottish depressive who somehow always manages to cheer me up with what he calls his ‘downbeat shite’) in a converted old men’s club in Hackney.  Then, on Tuesday, I went to see the Japanese film and Palme D’Or winner called Shoplifters with Eldest and Middle Sons and that didn’t finish until quite late.  Those relatively late nights were each followed by a couple of nights on a sofa bed which is never as restful as my own bed, a lot of walking through Christmassy streets and a nice lunch with an old ex-work colleague.

Malcolm Middleton And Band At The Moth Club

Malcolm Middleton And Band At The Moth Club

Quite a lot of the walking was around a couple of exhibitions.

The first was Fashioned From Nature at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) which is on for another month or so and which I would recommend.  The V&A has an amazing permanent collection of fashion but this exhibition was more interesting for me (I am hardly a fashionista!) because it dealt more with the social and environmental impact of fashion than the development of fashion through the ages.

There were certainly some remarkable individual pieces of clothing but the focus was on how humans initially used nature to cloth ourselves – using flax for linen, fur, cotton, silk, bone, feathers and even beetle shells – and then how fashion and clothing manufacture has damaged nature through mass production/consumption.

Fashioned From Nature Exhibition At The V&A

Fashioned From Nature Exhibition At The V&A

That environmental damage began even before the industrial revolution.  I learnt, for example, that the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came from the mercury poisoning common among those who made felt hats.  They breathed in the mercury nitrate they used and that disoriented them before they flushed it into the water supply.  As synthetic materials were developed and mass produced, so the risk of chemical damage increased, the demand for agricultural monocultures grew, slavery became rife, and the problems of pollution and waste (such as management of micro-plastics resulting from clothing) became more complex.

There were a wide range of interesting exhibits showing sustainable fashion.  Others illustrated how fashion has been used to highlight the importance of clothing reuse and repair, and the impact of fashion on nature.  Overall it was an impressive, relevant exhibition and an absorbing hour or two.

I also visited the Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican which was subtitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde.  This exhibition pulls together work of 40 couples active in art in the last century.  It attempts to show how these couples, through their passion, ideas, contacts and often experimental and strange relationships, influenced the work they produced.

As with the Fashioned from Nature exhibition, there were some very strong individual pieces on show.  Many of the relationships that were described were very interesting with several of the featured artists (Max Ernst and Man Ray, for example) cropping up two or three times in apparently intense but short-lived liaisons.  Some of couples’ relationships ended in suicide or murders of passion.  As I navigated the exhibition, I became increasingly thankful for my rather more straightforward and stable married relationship.

I Am Beautiful by Rodin

I Am Beautiful by Rodin (An Amalgam Of Two Previously Separate Works In Celebration Of His Love)

Over 40 interwoven themes were explored across the 40 couples presented – including how the men in the relationship tended to become the more famous even where the participants were libertarian and feminist.  These themes and the sheer number of couples covered made the exhibition large and rather complex.  It was impressive but I confess that I had to absorb it over two sessions; fortunately I now have the time to do that sort of pacing.

In other news: the Volkswagen is back.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has been grudgingly reliant on my ailing and rust-ridden Saab to get to work.  But now the local garage has replaced the Volkswagen’s engine (and more) following the cam-belt assembly failure a couple of weekends ago.  They did this all at their cost since it was the cam-belt replacement they had done that prompted the problem.  The garage even gave us a bottle of wine for our trouble so we will continue to use them and recommend them – provided the car gets us to the airport tomorrow on our way to the Christmas markets of Cologne.  We’re looking forward to them.

London's Regent Street Christmas Lights

London’s Regent Street Christmas Lights

Autumn Gardening

The summer weather has been terrific this year and the sunshine and relative warmth has continued into the beginnings of autumn.  The sun now sets too early behind trees and the gradient of our paddock for Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I to continue our pattern of evening drinks in the new walled garden that we established earlier in the year.  However, the weather has been conducive to relaxed walks through the gently browning countryside and to steady clearing and digging over of the vegetable patch ready for winter.

Autumnal Sunset From My Vegetable Patch

Autumnal Sunset From My Vegetable Patch

Despite the dry summer, there is still plenty of beetroot and chard to harvest.  Also, I have managed to keep my leeks alive and, having transplanted them in newly dibbed holes, I find I have over a hundred to nurture and then eat through the winter months.  That’s a lot of leeks to go into soup with the sack of potatoes I dug up a couple of weeks ago!

Leeks All Over The Vegetable Patch (With Beans, Beet and Chard)

Leeks, Leeks and More Leeks All Over The Vegetable Patch (With Beans, Beet and Chard)

Once again I am reminded of the relatively slow and relaxed pace at which I can undertake gardening since my retirement.  I have always loved this time of year (and early spring) in the vegetable garden, when creating tracts of freshly dug earth is the main task.  Since retirement, I have more time to pause between bursts of digging, to rest my back and to admire the neatness of the bare earth that, following application of some manure, will be poised for next season’s planting and growth.

The past couple of weeks have been a pleasant mix of pottering around the garden, social events with family and friends, and more sightseeing in London.  My trip to London was based around an irregular but broadly quarterly get together of old male friends over a restaurant dinner (dubbed ‘The Boys Night Out’).  This is working through an alphabet of nations cum culinary styles and we were up to O for Ottoman last week.  It was cheap and cheerful and good to catch up.

I also walked for miles to and around the vastness of Hyde Park (with its tediously noisy and ever more numerous green parakeets) and visited the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum.

Views of Hyde Park

Views of Hyde Park (The Round Pond, The Princess Diana Garden And Christo’s Floating Pyramid of 7,506 Oil Drums)

The Kahlo exhibition focused on her way of life rather than her art.  The exhibition makes clear what a tour de force she must have been.  She was fiercely determined to overcome adversity (including polio, a near fatal accident, a miscarriage, leg amputation, periodic political ostracism) and she constantly underlined her strong sense of identity.  Her love life was lively and complex and her life-long partner – a muralist called Diego Rivera whom she married twice – must have been a patient man.  The exhibition is sold out so my recently instigated V&A membership (giving me free, unlimited entry) paid off.  The investment of time was very worthwhile.

Frida Kahlo Exhibition

The V&A Frida Kahlo Exhibition Including Her Prosthetic Leg With Bells On, A Hand-Painted Corset And Typical Mexican Dress

Eldest Son (ES) and his girlfriend stayed with us for a weekend.  It was lovely to have them and the highlight – apart from the curry and the roast dinner that ES asked LSW to make – was a visit to Gifford’s Circus.  This is an internationally famous but locally based circus that LSW has seen a few times.  It was my first visit and I really enjoyed the energy, innovation, daring and clever humour; it was a real treat in a packed, traditional circus tent.

LSW and I also had a sunny late summer day in Bath.  We were there to see Olafur Arnalds, an Icelandic multi-instrumentalist who combines electronica, piano and strings to create atmospheric, evocative music that both of us love.  The concert was a great success – great sound, good seats and LSW loved it (always important since I want to go with her to more gigs).

We made time for dinner and also a trip to the American Museum and Gardens set in beautiful countryside to the east of Bath.  The gardens are being renovated and extended and will be worth another visit in a year or two.  As ever, it seems, we were blessed by wonderful weather.

The American Museum And Gardens, Bath

The American Museum And Gardens, Bath (House, Pumpkin Garden And Lovely Views)

But autumn with its shorter days and colder, wetter weather is here.  That will bring different pleasures.

Split Panoramas

Flying Into Split, Croatia

Flying Into Split, Croatia

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to Split in Croatia last week in what proved to be a successful attempt to extend the summer vibe.  The weather was great – consistently up to 30 degrees, sunny, clear and with just light winds.  There was enough to in the vicinity of Split to occupy us for four days without exertion and with plenty of time in between sight-seeing for lolling rather sleepily in cafes and bars.  The only low point was when LSW went up to order drinks and a barman asked her if she was with the ‘old man’!

The self-contained apartment we stayed in, which ultimately I had chosen, was, to my relief, satisfactory.  LSW’s verdict was the four C’s: comfortable, clean, central but claustrophobic.  I understood the complaint about constrained space as I bashed my head of the sloping ceiling for the fourth time in as many days.

When I booked the accommodation, I liked the idea of being able to cook basic meals in the apartment but misjudged that in a number of ways.  The lack of a balcony overlooking anything of interest, the lack of basic ingredients (salt, pepper, oil etc.) in the apartment kitchen and, frankly, a lack of local markets with fresh vegetables and fruit, all meant that cooking for ourselves was more unattractive than it had been on some previous holidays.  Also, the late summer timing of our visit meant that the multitude of restaurants catering for the peak of the tourist season had plenty of space for us.  So, we ate out and we did so increasingly well as the holiday progressed.

Split itself is notable for the remains of a huge Roman palace around and among which the town has developed its core with various layers of history and architectural styles.  The palace walls, the busy, substantial harbour and the palm-lined esplanade looked particularly attractive at dusk as the sunset blossomed gently behind the headland, the city lights came on and the tourist shop gore became less distinct.

Split At Night: Houses and Palace Walls Draped With Washing

Split At Night: Houses And Palace Walls Draped With Washing

Split has a couple of recently renovated, spacious – and almost deserted – art galleries.  The artists were unfamiliar to me but the Gallery of Fine Arts provided an interesting hour while LSW went shopping.  The permanent exhibition of Croatian art was in strict chronological order from medieval gold leaf triptychs up to the modern day.  What became apparent was that for about a century until about 1930, the majority of top artists represented used very dark palettes, followed gloomy themes and produced rather unforgiving portraits.  There were several brighter, later pieces but I have never seen a collection of such melancholic work.

On the streets, tourists like us were still out in force despite the end of the school holidays.  The narrow streets of Split and Trogir were packed from mid-morning especially with what I called ‘arranged walking group clog’.  However, it was always easy to avoid the crowds by making an early start to our wanderings and by straying off the main drags.  In any case, as LSW said at the time, the advantage of being in such a tourist area is that the logistics are geared up for numbers and all our plans and logistics worked out comfortably with few queues.

We extended our exploits by bus and ferry to nearby towns and islands of Trogir, Supetar and Hvar.

Supetar was little more than a transit point for people travelling to other parts of the island of Brac, but all three had an attractive medieval core.  These were filled with limestone churches and houses glowing in the sun.  In each town, there was both detail (like iron work) to admire and wonderfully wide sea views.  Hvar, in particular, was very picturesque (and most clearly wealthy with its big, shiny yachts).  Its splendid castle looked imposing high above the town, the walk up to it was a lovely diversion through cicada-laden pine trees, and it provided great views from its walls.

Hvar

Hvar Main Square And Cathedral

At each new location, LSW became increasingly proficient with the panorama function on her phone – often from the tops of cathedral bell towers that were open in a way that Health and Safety would have rendered impossible in the UK.  As I sat in bars sipping the dark beer and sinking into the sofas, I tried to cull the myriad of photos I taken and replaced several of mine with better efforts from LSW.  A few examples are below.

Panoramic View of Supetar

Panoramic View of Supetar

Panoramic View of Hvar

Panoramic View of Hvar From The Castle

Panoramic View of Split

Panoramic View of Split From The Roman, Diocletian Palace Walls

Now we are back (so nice not to be coming back to work!), and we are starting to plan our next trip – probably a visit to a north European Christmas Market.  There are a lot of options….. any advice is welcome.

Finished At Last!

Those of you following this blog for a while will know that I have been painting the woodwork in our ‘TV Room’ – new shutters, skirting and panelling and the old doors – for the last 8 months.  This week, I finally finished!

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) remains astonished at how long I have taken over this but at least she hasn’t changed her mind about the dark blue colour during the protracted execution and she likes the result.  The parts I did towards the end of the exercise are better than the early efforts but it looks alright if you don’t look too closely.  We now have to paint the walls.  LSW is planning to impress me up by doing those in a matter of a few days.  Maybe hiring a professional is a better idea; we’ll see.

Of course, the primary reason why it took so long to complete this apparently simple painting task, apart from my inexperience, was my reluctance to devote more than 1-2 hours a day to the (admittedly intermittent) work.  Although I’m still a bit frustrated by the patchiness of the end product, I did enjoy the work overall.  I especially liked that I could paint to the rhythm of some of my CDs.  I’ve always wanted a job where I could listen to my favourite music at the same time as working, and retirement has enabled that!

Now I have finished, I have to find a productive way of utilising the hours per week that are freed up.  No problem; there are plenty of competing options and in any case there are lots of events already in the diary over the next couple months.

For example, the football season has re-started.  I plan to attend several Forest Green Rovers (FGR) games, both home and away, in the next few months.  While I attended the Cambridge Folk Festival, which I talked about in my last blog post, FGR enhanced my enjoyment by winning their first game.  Somehow, the music seemed to sound a lot better once I knew FGR had secured three points!

Since then I have seen three games and we remain unbeaten; a very promising start.  I especially enjoyed our win at Swindon who have become local rivals as we have risen and they have fallen (they were in the Premier League just 25 years ago).  I enjoyed joining in on the mischievous chants: ‘Premier League to village team/Forest Green’ and ‘Your ground’s too big for you’; it is, as the picture below shows.

Swindon Football Club

Swindon’s Empty Don Rogers Stand During Warm Up Versus FGR – How The Mighty Have Fallen

Between the football commitments, LSWs work and the rush to complete the TV Room paintwork (so I could show it off to weekend visitors from London and then my parents when they visited us), LSW and I have resumed our ‘days out’.

We really enjoyed a trip to East Somerset.  We went primarily to see the Alexander Calder exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset.  This was notable for containing a large number of personal, functional items designed and made by Calder alongside a splendid sample of his sculpture and mobiles.  It was an excellent exhibition and a visit to Hauser & Wirth, including the adjoining garden, is always a treat.

Piet Oudolf Gardens At Hauser & Wirth

Piet Oudolf Gardens At Hauser & Wirth

Following a very good lunch at the light and airy Chapel in Bruton, the sun came out and we paid an impromptu visit to Iford Manor Garden.  This was a rather unexpected joy. It was an intimate, Italianate garden full of 100 year old mock-Italian buildings adorned with original, imported Italian sculpture and friezes.  It adjoined an archetypally English river scene and old, golden manor buildings, and looked wonderful in the sun.

Iford Manor And Gardens

Iford Manor And Gardens

More day trips like this – as well as longer excursions once LSW’s work is on pause – are being planned to fill my retirement itinerary.