Tag Archives: Travel

A splash of Spanish colour


Happy New 2018!

And, to welcome it in, some photographs of the beautiful Nativity and Epiphany tableaux in the 17th century Church of Santa Ursula in Adeje, Tenerife.




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One version of the 20th century



The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.


So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.

In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.

Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.

Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.


Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”


The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”


For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.



The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”


Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”


Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.

Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.

Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982)  Earthly Powers  Harmondsworth: Penguin


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The widespread influence of La Serenissima


Would it be fair to say that most people think of Venice in the Middle Ages as a powerful and successful republic but not as an imperial power? The mercantile background of The Merchant of Venice rather than the military one of Othello, in other words. In fact, Venice had a number of colonies around the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean Seas. One of these, for more than 400 years, from 1204 to 1669, was Crete. On a recent trip, I was struck to hear our guide describe Rethymno in Crete as the most Venetian town outside Venice.



The Fortezza (fortress) in Rethymno, built in the 16th century.



The former Venetian Harbour, with its later lighthouse.



The Rimondo Fountain, built in the 1620s.



The Archaeological Museum is located in the former church of a Franciscan monastery.



The Loggia was built around 1600 as a meeting place for the nobility of the period.



The former Nerantzes Mosque was first built as a Catholic church.



Porta Goura was built in the 16th century.



The Catholic Church of St Anthony of Padua. Although built only at the end of the 19th century, the building shares some of the proportions of the grander Baroque churches of Venice.



The Arsenale in Venice, part of its complex of former shipyards and armouries.



A canal view in Venice.



A church exterior in Venice. These three photographs of Venice were taken in 1994.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The spiritual heart of Australia




First named as Ayers Rock, now more often called Uluru, the vast red prehistoric rock in the middle of the Australian desert is, to reuse a cliché, an iconic sight.  The natural grandeur of the rock, and its surrounding open landscape, draws thousands of visitors, especially at dawn and dusk.









It is frequently now described as “the spiritual heart of Australia” because it is part of the ancient desert lands of the Anangu tribe and is regarded by them as a special place in their understanding about how the world was created. It was formally handed back to them by the Australian government in 1985.





However, during the past 30 years and at a discreet distance, a stylish tourist resort has taken shape among the sand-dunes and alongside the local community, with varied forms of accommodation, shops and services, and an airport which is less intrusive than the average bus station.





At one time, the only reason anyone trekked the hundreds of miles across the desert to reach Ayers Rock was to climb it. Later generations appreciated that the rock was a sacred place to Australia’s native inhabitants, akin, in the description chosen by one of our guides, to a temple. Formal plans have been drawn up that climbing should be made illegal when the proportion of climbing visitors drops to 20%, although there have been signs that future governments may be reluctant to enforce that rule.



In addition to the natural landscape, the Uluru resort showcases native arts and culture and also astronomy. A couple of theatre and community spaces have been built and this year it is also the location of a huge light installation by British artist Bruce Munro. It should be able to continue to combine a respectable range of middle-class tourist comforts and facilities while celebrating and protecting the world-famous local wilderness.




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Background music


It was a long time ago when I first joined the large group of people who carried out all activities to the background of pop and rock music –  so maybe it is understandable that the habit has gradually lost its allure.

During the 1970s, a certain type of easy school or university homework was regularly done to the music of BBC Radio 1 or to whatever new record or cassette you had recently acquired. Partly so that you could do two things at one time. In later years, house-keeping activities like cleaning, cooking and ironing could be conveniently carried out to background music. Travelling in cars always needed the accompaniment of a radio or cassette.

By my late 20s in the early 1980s, I was still overwhelmingly a pop/rock music listener struggling to expand my listening into classical or jazz. Working in Toronto, Canada, during the winter of 1983-84, I had the Damascene experience of visiting a second-hand bookshop in the city and hearing an opera performance emanate gently from a local classical radio station. The music was obviously the preferred listening of the proprietor, but its particular blend of human voice and orchestral strings seemed the natural, appropriate sound to accompany the leisurely activity of moving around shelves and glancing through the pages of volumes which you had no real need of. I am pleased that similar classical music always seems to be playing in the background during my occasional visits to the multiple-spaced Bookshop in Wigtown.



College Street in Toronto in 2001. The Free Times Café was a popular haunt in 1984; happily it was still thriving in 2001 and now.


A striking and satisfying experience of background popular music was at the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While we sat waiting in the former Gilded Balloon in the Cowgate for a comedy show to start (it was still dubbed “alternative” comedy in those days), some Aretha Franklin music came on the PA.  “Respect”, “Chain of Fools” etc… Here, too, as in the Toronto bookshop, it seemed like the absolutely correct aural backdrop: this time dark, smoky, sultry, sexy, edgy, of the past yet still modern. By coincidence, about 36 hours later and before another show at the Assembly Rooms in a totally different part of the city centre, Aretha Franklin was singing again. Many of the classic black artistes of the 1960s and 1970s were being accorded fresh attention around that time so perhaps that is the explanation of the mystery.  Aretha’s Greatest Hits was purchased soon afterwards and helped to fill a significant educational gap in my collection for several years.



Canongate in Edinburgh in 1994.


Nowadays restaurants of all sorts usually play a soundtrack of pop/rock music. Especially by the modern generation of artistes who are influenced by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack etc, and who encase those influences in the sweet comfortable audio blanket which modern technology allows and perhaps enforces. It was a happy surprise to have such a blanket individualised recently at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock by Randy Newman’s  “Dixie Flyer”: similarly relaxing, yes, but made fresher by his distinctive drawling vocals.

Just as the ordinary buyer can buy mood music compilations of classical, pop, rock and jazz, bars and restaurants can probably buy similar collections, perhaps sub-titled “mellow”, “funky”, “edgy”. It makes me yearn nostalgically for that vegetarian restaurant in York in 1998 which played classical music the whole evening, and especially the Beethoven symphony I had just become acquainted with….



York in 1998, possibly Bootham Bar?




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

For humility and contentment


Robert Burns lived in many parts of Scotland in his short life and these places quite reasonably exploit their Burns connection for tourism purposes. For example, the Ayrshire towns of Ayr, Mauchline, Tarbolton and Irvine, where he grew up, worked, and socialised; Kilmarnock, where his poems were first published; the capital city of Edinburgh where he was feted; the town of Dumfries where he spent the last few years of his life.




One of the more overlooked is Ellisland, the farm near Dumfries of which he was the tenant for three years from 1788 until 1791. The house he built was quite expansive for the period and indicates his relative prosperity, status and self-confidence at the time.  “Not a Palace to attract the train-attended steps of pride-swoln Greatness,” observed the bard wryly, “but a plain, simple Domicile for Humility & Contentment”. “Humility” – in the 21st century, one of the least valued and encouraged of personal qualities in anyone!




This was the period when Burns was a well-paid excise-man as well as a struggling farmer, when he wrote the timeless “Tam O’Shanter” as well as other poems and song lyrics. As Maurice Lindsay describes, “The picture of Burns at Ellisland which emerges is one of a mature and passionate man, overworked, struggling with decreasing success against impoverished soil, yet playing a full part in communal life, espousing democratic causes (sometimes indiscreetly)… a kindly picture…”


Reference:   Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend    London: Robert Hale


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

London East


35 years ago, I visited London for the first time and I’ve been lucky to visit it many more times since.

On my first visit in 1980, it felt very large and overwhelming and I felt very young and parochially Scottish. On my most recent, in 2010, surrounded by so many young people of different ethnic backgrounds (many who were clearly residents rather than tourists) speaking so many languages, I felt very old and very British but still definitely not a proper Londoner!

I have always been fascinated by the history and geography of the East End of London: those names like Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Poplar, Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Deptford. My interest was certainly encouraged by early reading about the Jack the Ripper murders and the fact that the locations of those dark ghoulish crimes were so close to the wealthy privileged areas of the City. Later came the understanding that the districts in which the poor and underprivileged of London lived were not merely scenes of crime but also centres of political activism and working-class learning and culture.  Before the Industrial Revolution, at the time when Nicholas Hawksmoor was designing his churches, the East End was of course one of the parts of London where people of all classes and trades lived side by side.

I saw one tiny part of that East End,  Petticoat Lane market, on my very first visit to London,  and other places on subsequent trips. Regularly looking at the web-site Spitalfields Life keeps  the area in my mind.



Nicholas Hawksmoor’s famous Christ Church in Spitalfields, in 1992



Also in 1992, the property in Elder Street, Spitalfields, which was the former home of artist Mark Gertler.


Spitalfields Life is full of brilliant photographs and information about the present-day residents of the area but I do find it most fascinating on cultural and architectural topics.

Like many formerly working-class districts, Spitalfields has seen a good deal of gentrification over the decades. Although London is a city which usually appears to value its built heritage, recent reports in Spitalfields Life show that not all battles have been won. The Spitalfields Trust is currently striving to defend some streets in the district of Norton Folgate which are at renewed risk of unsympathetic development. The latest news, sadly, is that the first round of this battle has been lost.



Folgate Street

Folgate Street, Spitalfields, part of the old Liberty of Norton Folgate, looking west towards Bishopsgate, in 2010. The crowd is gathering for a visit to the brilliant Dennis Severs’ House.



On the edge of Spitalfields, in 2010, lower buildings of various periods are dwarfed by the space-ship shape of Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” building, whose formal name is 30 St Mary Axe.






Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Spanish modernism’s second stage


Barcelona is a city of such global celebrity that it is striking to discover that Mallorca, a less famous part of Spain, shares some of the same visual features.

Many of the buildings on the island which date from the turn of the 20th century were designed in the modernista style similar to that practised by Antoni Gaudi.



The former Gran Hotel in Palma de Mallorca, now an art gallery. It was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, a Barcelona architect who designed many buildings in that city.



The adjoining buildings of Can Rei and L’Aguila in Palma. The latter was designed by Gaspar Bennassar.



The two adjoining Modernist buildings in Placa Mercat were commissioned by the owner of a bakery business.



The entrance to the Ca’n Prunera building in Soller. It was designed by Josep Rubio i Bellver who worked with Gaudi on many of his famous Barcelona projects. The former residence is now open to the public as a museum of modernism and art gallery.



Another interior view of Ca’n Prunera in Soller.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In the final days of the Cuban revolution?


Cuba, that former warm-water bastion of Soviet Communism next door to the USA, is gradually changing, as is widely reported. In recent years there has certainly been a greater government encouragement of private enterprise, and relaxation of the previous restrictions on travelling outside the country. When Fidel Castro finally dies, it is often suggested, the old socialist Cuba will change forever.

However, at present, one thing which the visitor notices, alongside the old American cars and colonial architecture, is that books and posters  and placards celebrating the achievements of the revolution, and encouraging its continuation, are still widely seen.



The slogan at the museum at the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Giron, in the south of Cuba, marking the new government’s defeat of the US-backed invasion in 1961.



A banner to Che Guevara among the mementos in the foyer of the Hotel Nacional in Havana.



The Hotel Nacional grounds were part of the defence fortifications during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.



The bookstalls which surround the Plaza de Armas in Havana include many of political writings and of the history of the Revolution.



Outside Havana, a commemoration of the 26 of July Movement, the guerrilla group which led the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista at the start of 1959.



Partly hidden by a van, a sign in Havana advertising the long-established Committees for the Defence of the Revolution.



In the departure lounge at Havana airport, a large poster not advertising tourist attractions but protesting about the imprisonment of the Miami 5. These were five Cuban agents assigned to infiltrate anti-government groups based in Florida who were arrested and convicted by the USA on various espionage charges. Two have now served their sentences and are no longer in prison.



The imposing statue to Che Guevara in Santa Clara in central Cuba. “Until the eternal victory,” translates the engraving.



The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, commemorating the successful attack on an armoured train by a group of soldiers led by Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara in 1958. This led quickly to Batista’s flight and the assumption to power of the Fidel Castro government.





Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

More Manchester – the Royal Exchange Theatre


The National Theatre,  subject of much media coverage currently because of its 50th anniversary,  opened its building on the South Bank in London in 1976. That same year saw the opening of another theatre which is also still thriving: the Royal Exchange in Manchester.



The Manchester Royal Exchange was the subject of a great deal of building and rebuilding in its time, and this frontage actually dates from the time of World War One.


The auditorium is a multi-angled theatre in the round built inside the classical proportions of the former cotton exchange.  When I saw an Arena TV programme about the theatre at the time of its opening 30-plus years ago, it seemed like a really startling avant-garde design, and, on my visiting it recently for the first time, it fully lived up to my expectations.




The steel and glass auditorium inside the former trading hall, with some of the latter’s information boards still intact on the wall, complement each other sympathetically.





The Royal Exchange closed in 1968, but these trading boards were retained as the building changed its use.





Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized