Friday, 15 December 2017

Private View

Private View

We were invited to a private view in a pub along the road. Two artists were collaborating - a sculptor and a street artist. Olivier Duhec creates metal pieces which may be lamps or (very loosely) ornaments, themed on space fiction or animals,  or animated TV characters. Mygalo's paintings are similarly rather steampunk, some themed on skulls, some more brutal and explicitly sexual. It makes for an exciting show.
Nathalie and I walked down together, admiring the work of another local artist - the wind - whose powers had swept a chair from her balcony the night before, and, we now saw, had totally trashed a building-site hoarding along the road, leaving the mud and excavations open to passers-by, like a mute invitation to get into trouble.
The pub was an interesting place to have an art show. The owners are already committed to Mexican death-cult art, so the bar is decorated with a series of brightly coloured skulls.
But the expo on the other side of the room basically consisted of Mygalo's paintings behind a long table set out with Duhec's sculptures. During the evening one of the paintings sold at €2000 which cheered everyone up.  'Everyone' consisted of a couple of dozen mecs and some very pretty ladies of various ages.
Gradually, the secrets of the works revealed themselves. There were some bunches of metal roses with glossy petals and sharp thorns - only the black ones contained tiny skulls in their centres. A shining cubic metal lamp (containing a sphere which very slightly emerged from its vertical constraints) could in fact be opened up so that the light shone upwards as well as forwards. A glass and steel table was supported by a complex and polished animation of Atlas, who practically groaned under the weight of the top, like the obedient servant of an unseen dominatrix.  Some stickers on a side table featuring details of Mygalo's slave-girl nude were free to pick up - one disguises her face but shows her arse and vagina, another closes in on this sensitive area but as she pees, her thumb (or someone else's) is penetrating her arse.  Another sticker shows a coy skeletal couple who've been together for 357 years. These tiny giveaways are both cheerful and disturbing, and free art at an PV is a new one on me.
There were an array of glittering model machines - tiny motorbikes deconstructed and then put back together like calligraphic scrolls, deeply desirable.
The star sculpture was hanging in the air above us, a model of a popular French TV spaceship from the 1960s - Albator - a fabulous complexity of guns, decks, thrusters, portholes, welding, ports, and more. This model itself weighs over 100 kilos, and anyone who knows the US Starship Enterprise will understand how childhood hero-worship for an animated fantasy spaceship can translate into a lifelong obsession and desire.
Outside France, you may not have heard of Albator, or Duhec or Mygalos. But this show has an electric streak of recognition all through it. The stickers and death's head paintings are workings on an eternal theme - like Holbein's Ambassadors with its skull at the foot, or Titian's nudes laid out for consumption and trashing. And the sculptures are all about light and dark, and how heroes fight against evil. Rembrandt would have recognised all of it. I loved it, and came away with some stickers, a tiny motorbikey thing, and a red rose (without a skull).


Getting onto the RER into Paris, a young woman bounced past us and laid a carefully printed card on the seat facing us. It said she was unemployed, had two young children etc etc and she was asking us to pay her something......
Later, near the Notre Dame, we saw a huge old man bundled up, and with two puppies snuggled into his jacket.
Nearby, an old woman sat patiently on the pavement with her back to the parapet of the bridge, not begging, sharing her little mat with a rabbit. The rabbit wore a smart red jacket and was nibbling some biscuits. The woman had a bunch of grass and herbs beside her, ready to give to the rabbit later on.
These last two people were the classic clochards of the Paris streets, honourable, resourceful, calm. The girl on the train was part of a huge international network of 'workers', slaves maybe, possibly trafficked, whose gatherings are paid to the organisers.  I last reported on this phenomenon when we were in Albania in the summer - at Durres, where the girl begging had a drugged baby on her shoulder, and a very sinister man was not far away, sitting on the pavement in the happy evening crowds, hitting another baby on the ground in front of him. This is a new industry - the pitiful pitch, the tug at the heart strings, the use of children in 3D or in reported form ('I have two children....').
On Facebook, I had posted a video clip showing the beam of laser light swinging round in the darkness, filmed from the kitchen window of this apartment about 8km away... And a friend riposted that this was the same beam of light searching out the homeless so they can be swept from the streets: she hates Macron and his policies.    But I think it's more complicated than she suggests.   Of course there are desperate people whose only resource is the pavement and a bit of cardboard and their numbers are growing, but they are not all the same.
I am reminded of a trip I made to Dublin in the 1970s and seeing barefoot children begging on the Halfpenny Bridge in the bitter cold. I had never seen anything like that in England, so sheltered was I from poverty in those days.    Ireland was all too familiar with it, the hedge schools, the outcasts and denial.  It's all crept nearer now.
How do people or things survive?
We went for a hot chocolate, and the couple sitting behind me were deep in conversation in English. He was a smart young lawyer, briefing his client on what was likely to happen.  He said, they were lucky to have been allocated to a certain judge who was known to deal swiftly with cases. He thought the hearing would be deferred to June. He thought she was likely to get a prison sentence, maybe 7 or 8 years, but it was her first offence, so it was likely to be suspended and so as long as she kept out of trouble, she would not actually go to jail.   She was youngish, had bare ankles (that is the fashion at the moment).  Andrew thought she was Russian. They were speaking in English as a shared or common language......
We went towards Notre Dame, intending to go in but diverted into the Archaeology Crypt instead. This area was destined to be become a carpark in 1965, but the architect, one M Fleury, realised the importance of what they found when they started digging and the area eventually became a fascinating and compact museum describing the ancient history of the city, and the carpark was built slightly further to the south, towards the present bank of the river.   The jumble of stones, walls, ditches, doorways, steps, benches, slabs and pavements is almost impossible to interpret as you look at it now, but has had decades of interpretation and analysis , and the presentations and explanations are very clear. From the Romans onwards, this tiny bit of the Ile de la Cité has been valued for its location and everything and everyone has been here.  By the 17thC there were so many babies being abandoned that the authorities realised they had a problem, and by the 18th there was a positive torrent of newborns being left in doorways (too young to beg for themselves).  
A special hospital was set up and at first these children were well cared-for, but it rapidly deteriorated into squalor and agony the (not least because pigs and chickens were reared in the same premises, so disease spread very rapidly).
I liked very much three delicate wooden spoons dug up from the mul, with tiny little finials, and these elegant practical little things were 800 years old.
Who, and what survivives?
We then walked to the Tour de Jean sans Peur, a remarkable medieval structure which was a triumphalist gesture made by an ambitious aristocrat known as Jean sans Peur (Fearless John) who wanted to sneer at his rival the Duc of Burgundy. He built it as part of his palace on the edge of Paris as it was then, part of the palisade wall.... Later, the palace disappeared, the estate was chopped up, new boundaries appeared nearby, and slums grew up all around it. The tower was used for lodgings, warehousing, a dumping ground. Probably a brothel.  Not till the mid-19thC, when a new road was being pushed through the slums, and the surrounding buildings were demolished, did anyone realise it was there. It's five storeys high, and with an astonishing tree carved of stone on the fourth floor. The tree is the newel post for the stair, and has branches spreading right across the little vaulted ceiling. The branches are covered in stone leaves of three varieties - oak, hawthorn and hops, which each refer to the John's family origins.  It's definitely worth a visit next time you come to Paris, and you'll find it at 20 rue Etienne-Marcel, just north of les Halles.   It removes that fascinating Parisian veneer of uniform pretty buildings and straight avenues, and shows you the old history underneath. It's a true survivor.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Repairing to the fasts

Two words have drifted past me with slightly unexpected meanings.  At the top of Sceaux's high street (rue Houdan), among many other delicatessens, is a wine shop called le Repair de Bacchus. I have not seen the word 'repair' used in this sense as a noun in English, but only a verb.... 'let us repair to the garden....', with the idea that repairing means to go to somewhere safe, quiet, delightful.  That is in addition to the usual meaning of mending, where of course we can have 'a repair'.  The second word is 'fast', which again has many meanings in English - but here in French it is used in the plural (les fastes) to mean 'luxury, extravagance, richness', quite the opposite of  'going without', or 'fasting' as in 'the Lenten fast'.  I have seen 'le faste' twice now, once at the chateau of Sceaux, and once in a rather enticing book about places to visit in Paris. The book is called Metronome illustré, and is based round various underground stations to give you a detailed guide to the history of the capital. My only criticism is that it's too darn big to lug around with you, but we'll take some notes and see what we can find.

It's somehow surprising to find a chateau so close to the centre of Paris, still sitting in its huge park complete with avenues, canals, lakes, forests, vistas and so on. Everyone has heard of Versailles, and this is smaller but very lovely and thought provoking. It has a newish area of topiary laid out, which is interesting to see because of course while we are used to seeing topiary gardens in their maturity grandeur, the people who commissioned these palaces and gardens would have seen their topiary in its hilarious infancy with tiny little twigs being trained into cones and baubles.

The chateau houses the museum of the Ile-de-France and so has a regional responsibility for cultural displays for the whole of Paris. The ceramic displays are fascinating - covering the many potteries which produced fine and domestic wares in the Paris locality and - my goodness! - some of it is utterly wonderful, with sculptures, figures, ornaments, services, and decorated china of great beauty. There is also a set of more domestic plates with printed illustrations worthy of Punch magazine, extolling the royal virtues of various vegetables, which are elevated onto comic characters parading around in amusing activities. That is a permanent exhibition.

The temporary exhibition at the moment is of works by Picasso - drawings and paintings and some assemblages from the 30s, many never exhibited before. The theme is 'nature' and includes some amusing cartoons of animals, some 'sur l'herbe' studies (musicians, naked women), a very nice little mountain landscape, studies around the theme of a woman at a table with a vase of flowers, and a few  roofscapes.  It's a charming show, well curated with extensive notes and a fine book to accompany the show.  It's interesting to see how he understood the construction of things - partly through his ways of disassembling them in the drawings. There are some oils paintings, and several mixed media works - crayon, aquatint, linocuts, etc.  I particularly liked a couple of assemblages made on framed canvases, with collages of objects which he then covered with stained sand. One of these was made on the back of a framed canvas so that the frame has become a kind of container. It has a tiny figure of a woman sitting on a bench in one corner. I have never seen anything quite like this before, with this scratchy tarry-looking moonscapey surface. Very interesting.

The staffing levels of the chateau are slightly eye-boggling especially considering the punitive laws for employment in France. In effect no-one can ever be sacked.  Whole businesses go under because the owners can't rationalise their staffing levels.   But (as we saw in Greece a few years ago) museums are very highly staffed.  I don't know how many staff we counted in what is really a small area - no more than eight or so public rooms. A man to check your bags by the door. A man in the left luggage. A man to sell tickets. Three ladies in the shop. About five guys patrolling the exhibits.  And outside (staff or contractors, I have no idea) a large gang of guys trimming the older sweeps of topiary - at least a dozen of them.  The ladies in the shop were very helpful and kind. The guys sitting and standing in the rooms (all black, by the way) looked bored out of their heads.  Outside, it was very cold dark wet and windy.  We came home to Nathalie's flat with a copy of the Picasso book, some postcards and bits.

The rue de Houdan was glorious with its food shops and Christmas window displays, many with animated animals nodding and waving to catch your attention.  We did a little shopping, had fruit tea (and an iceream to the astonishment of the waiter), and then came back to eat a superb cold seafood supper bought earlier in the day.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


We are spending a few days in Paris as the guests of Nathalie Banaigs who lives half the time in Faversham and half the time in Sceaux, where she grew up in the southern outskirts of the French capital. We were driven to Ashford International Station by our friend Debbie Lawther who does a superb taxi service in return for use the car during the owner's absence. Saves the car parking fees.   The day was superbly bright and clear. The landscape was shining and radiant with a pearly dusty quality, absolutely mesmerising.  The Eurostar was late in arriving, and the train itself so shabby, rusty-looking and worn out.  We remember how marvellous it all was just a few years ago when it started. Like the whole European project, we are disillusioned now. It no longer looks so attractive and the experience of travel to the continent is all a bit squalid. We learned that the new trains which are available cannot use Ashford Station, only Ebbsfleet. These trains have wifi and gloss, but we will have to wait a year or so till we can access them at Ashford.
Nonetheless, the seats are quite comfortable. The ride is quiet. You can - just - see daylight out of the filthy windows, and so we caught snatches of the magnificent sky, and then we plunged into the tunnel. A baby nearby was howling with tiredness, and it was half an hour before he settled down to sleep.  We emerged in France as the dusk cloaked everything in darkness.
There was - not surprisingly - some sort of strike on the metro in Paris, so at the Gare du Nord we plunged into the crowds expecting chaos and trouble, but it was remarkably good tempered. It was noticeable that people look somehow less stressed than their counterparts in London. Down and down we went, tracking our way to the RER deep level platforms. Everything was brightly lit. The adverts show impossibly beautiful seminaked women, with the text extolling their spiritual qualities, while they model the tiny necklace or vest or invisible perfume, and the people rush past muffled up in their puffer jackets, scarves, hats, gloves....
On the platform we were in a remarkable tumult of confusion.  Apparently far fewer trains were running but those which were flashed up onto the signboards but with unreliable information - the platform, the destination, the times....    A young official was helping to push commuters into the carriages as they do in Japan, and he was hurling information out as a kind of waterfall of speech, while simultaneously covering the little loudspeaker on his chest which was sending him the information he needed to direct people to the right platform. Thank god we had Nathalie with us. It was practically impossible to find out what was going on. She could see the trains were on the wrong platforms, going in the wrong directions, with wrong stops advertised on their itineraries. We went back up a level to try another platform, but then returned to our original spot.  A train was waiting, destination Robinson!  That was our train, rapidly filling up.
As we got on, a man sprang from his seat and insisted I take it. I am OLD!  Later, someone gave his place to Andrew, for he too is OLD.   The train took us out through the centre of Paris - Chatelet, St Michel, southwards and out to Sceaux.
We emerged into a quiet, elegant residential area which reminded me of Swiss Cottage in the old days. We dragged our cases and bags through the streets, past the old walls and gardens of the 19th century villas, and then up into the centre.   We got some cash, some milk, and then came up into this tiny apartment in its tidy block.  There's a large terrace, two rooms, k, b and loo.  Dumping everything, we went for crepes... I was given colouring pencils to complete a printed image on the menu paper, and the food was simple and welcome - ending with a pretty spectacular flambé for my dessert.
We walked on to a friend's house - artist Sophie Tandel - and were enchanted by her gallery/home filled with works - a paper hippopotamus, a 60's TV converted into a tableau of Star Trek, many African masks and carvings, ceramics, model ships, paintings, jewellery, feathers......   She lent us a heater and we set off home again.  An old woman lurched towards us, swathed in rags and cloaks, entirely bent over so her torso is parallel to the ground, and carrying many bags and bundles. She looked like something from a Victor Hugo novel, ancient and powerful, a lost person who has seen everything. I wished he 'good night' but I doubt she heard me.
We slept peacefully, and overnight the clear air was changed into a rainstorm. The sky was low and dark, the rain sleety and hard, the wind gusting. We went out this morning to find breakfast - hot chocolate and baguettes. Sceaux has some of the most enticing food shops I have ever seen. We will come back.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

An erotic discovery

Mother-in-law update: she is feeling fine this morning, sitting up in bad, and fancies some yoghurt and honey for breakfast.  Thank goodness Andrew did not rush to her bedside.  It would have been a blight on the end of this lovely trip.......


Leaving our excellent camping cabin this morning to drive to Bilbao - I just wanted to record the diligence of my husband (aka The Concierge) who noticed the strange plumbing addition to the loo. It is no ordinary loo but a combi-bidet, which I have heard about but never seen before and certainly never used.


As well as this tap arrangement beside the seat, there is a small spout which projects over the basin part, directed right where you want it.

I recommend it.

I am a keen fan of bidets, for two reasons.  One is of course their practicality for cleaning purposes (and I am learning that more and more people think like me that we could all be a bit cleaner in the botty area).

The second reason will appeal to ladies.

It turns out that there is a whole erotic area on the inside of a girl's legs, the upper inner thigh, which is best experienced when stimulated by a wash of warm water. It is literally sensational.

I look forward to seeing wash-lavs or whatever they are called installed in homes and hotels throughout the world.  And I urge anyone who has the chance to put a full bidet into their bathroom to do so and jolly well try it out.  Adds lots and lots to life......

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Hard facts

Today was the last full day of our amazing month in Spain.  As it happened, we heard that Andrew's mum - who had been rushed to hospital from her care home - was perhaps now dying. So what we had planned as a leisurely indulgent final part of our holiday was partially transformed into a series of phone calls, texts, anxieties, guesses.... helping ourselves and family members back at home deal with the possible crisis.  Life and death.

So, while we headed to the paleolithic cave and art of the Altamira Cave, driving past the astonishing mountains of the Picos de Europa, we were also thinking about whether we should cut our holiday short, put Andrew on a plane to get home to his mother... or whether she might just continue to be the tough old thing she is and get through it all.

We went to the museum - which, like the others I have recently written about for you, is an absolutely superb example of how to explain and manage a technical, academic and difficult subject for an adoring and paying public. In fact the whole world wants to see this cave and its paintings, and that is a lot of people.  Each person, each scrap of modern material introduced to the caves, brings a highly increased risk of contamination.  We saw how some panels of paintings were amended by people painting their initials over them. Pillars of wood which were put in to help prop the ceiling up brought fungus.

The answer, brilliantly managed, was to construct an entirely new, artificial replica of the whole thing. It is made of fibre-glass and polystyrene, and you go through in timed groups having previously wandered round the introductory galleries which explain the evolution of 'man' and how - at different periods relevant to the cave's history - mankind made all the necessary things for his survival - tools, clothes, weapons, etc.  It is absolutely amazing, how they have presented all this.  I don't necessarily agree with what they say, even though I am not an expert in any way whatsoever... but their gender bias, and general glossing over of some points which seem quite important to me.... well, maybe that is for another blog. 

The cave - the real one - seems to have been used by early mankind, and then by bears, and then (thousands of years later) by more people... and then there was a rockfall which sealed it all up.  In the 19th century, a local amateur (inspired by the great Paris exhibition) started to explore, and his little daughter aged 8 (or 9) went with him and she was the first to set eyes on the astonishing flat undulating ceiling covered in paintings. She took her papa to see them, and he started to publicise them, only to be villified and reviled as a fake.... Only after his death was it finally decided that these images were genuinely paleolithic. His great critic wrote a book, called 'Mea culpa...'   

Hordes of visitors proved to be too damaging, and so just a few years ago they decided to make a facsimile of the whole thing and that is what we saw today. It's good enough for me.

It woke up in me a great turmoil of thoughts from this trip. How I have been mesmerised by the mountains, the rocks. I have tried to paint them, and found it almost impossible.


I recall the prison at Broto in the Pyrenees - how the hapless prisoners scratched images into the blackened rock walls of their cell, and how luminous these images are. You, my faithful reader, will remember what I thought when I saw them - it was only 3 weeks ago.   

I am thinking of my attempts - yesterday! - to paint some of the huge rocks around here. I am thinking of our visit last year to the caves at Ribadesella, just 5 miles away, and how those caves are adorned with images of vaginas....   

I am thinking of the hard facts of my relationship with my mother-in-law, sleeping peacefully tonight I hope, in her care-home in England - how men love her, but women find her very difficult.  She is 97 years old.  The lifespan of the people - quite possibly female - who made the astonishing images on the low ceiling of the cave at what is now called Altamira, was probably barely more than 30 years.  That is not much time to pass on skills, knowledge, family stories, tribal messages.  They would not have thought it possible to live to 97.    The texts in the museum have the grace to put the word 'marriage' into inverted commas - but the truth is, it was the capacity of females to have babies and get them to survive those harsh and wonderful times, which eventually led to our modern world.  Sex, life and death, in a landscape of rocks and mountains, was the whole thing.  How and why they decided to paint those magnificent animals, in charcoal and ochre, on the low ceiling of their cave is really a mystery.  The whole thing is about the size of a tennis court. It was about five feet or so up from the floor beneath it. There is little or no lamp smoke to obscure the images.  It is one of the wonders of the world.  

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Obliteration, rediscovery

Things which live, and have a full life, can completely disappear. Even the enthusiastic sexlife of Tyrannosaurus Rex could not prevent its obliteration, but as we shall see, these things can be coaxed back into life.

Remarkably, for a period of about 300 years or more, the community of Gijón completely disappeared. What is now a sizeable seaport and capital for the region of Asturia, with population of around quarter of a million people and a history of mining and heavy industry, was wiped off the map. It had had mixed fortunes before that - Roman baths, church building, Moorish occupation, feudal development, the odd fire... but between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries - nothing.  Eventually, someone thought it might make a good harbour and things started up again.... Now, like all the cities we have seen it has acres of apartment blocks, all the rules and regs which make up modern Spanish life, and a tiny 'old town'.

The Roman baths are rather fun, all underground now, very reminiscent of the Roman bit of Canterbury, and with lots of excellent diagrams showing how it all worked, scattered round a jumble of old brickwork and holes.  The money spent on the excavation, investigation, presentation and management of this once-thriving spa is hard to imagine, but I would say no expense was spared. Like all the Spanish interiors we have visited, it's all very clean and smart, dimly lit, and done in the best possible taste.

It's another mystery quite why and how the Spanish choose to live in such darkness. Shops, bars, public spaces are all lit with electricity - but only just. It's as if light itself was a precious commodity inside, to be doled out.  Many times we have walked or driven past a shop because it looks closed, only to realise that it is open and ready for business, but in a troglodyte sort of way, shady and murkish.  Anyone wanting to start a new fashion in Spain only has to bring a lorry-load of modern light fittings across and switch them on.

We went back into Gijón today to visit the Railway Museum - best in Spain, so they say, and it is indeed a splendid place. Asturia never really had a rail network, only an enthusiastic industry of coal mining which required the stuff to be brought to the coast - and several gauges and machines and systems were installed over the 19th and 20th centuries. Passengers were an add-on, and did get their three-class system in due course. The story of gauges is quite interesting in itself - the Spanish deliberately chose a wide gauge to stop any French ambitions of invasion by train.  If you go (as we did a year or so ago) by train from Paris into Spain, there's a railyard where they have to physically change the distance of the running wheels....      The selection of engines and equipment which survives in this excellent and very well-presented museum is impressive and rather gorgeous, not least because they have not stinted in the way it's all set out, and the social history is woven into the whole story. The building itself is also very beautiful with wonderful granite paving on the old platforms.  Luckily it was a bright day today so the dim lighting did not cause too much of a problem.

Our last few days have been spent staying in a campsite at a place called Playa de Vega, in the Ribadisella district. It's at the beach end of a quiet old valley, no sound of anything but the waves about half a mile away.  We are in a wooden cabin with 2 bedrooms which is spacious and comfortable and even has the heating on for mornings and evenings.  60€ a night.  At night, there are owls calling all around - at least six or seven of them. During the day there are dozens of German surfers down in the water.

We had an outing yesterday to yet another museum - the Jurassic Dinosaur Park a few miles up the road.  There is no doubt about it, Spanish Museums are plain terrific.  This one, seated in the centre of a geological serendipity from the dinosaur point of view, is outstanding. The carpark leads up to a huge garden, filled with full-scale models of all the dinosaurs you want to see - diplodocus, tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, etc.   Free entry.  Children of all ages are delighted, including me.  Roar!!!! Agghhh!!!!!!!!   There are also very convincing full-scale replicas of footprints and of spinal bones found in the sand.  The building, shaped like a huge footprint blown into zeppelin proportions, leads you through millions of years of evolution and discovery and has a fair-to-middling service for non-Spanish speakers in terms of labelling and the audio guide.   It also boasts the only TRex mating model in Europe. Roar!!!!! This is a wonderful place, for fun and for academia. The chances which led to so many massive fossil discoveries in this area are slim, but they have exploited it all with flair and brilliance and it would be worth coming to Asturia just for this experience alone. 

One small complaint is that in the list of illustrious explorers and excavators who invented modern fossil-hunting, no mention is made of Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, who was not only an outstanding scientist and pioneer, but also female - but who nonetheless helped to start this fascinating area of study.  The line of pious portraits is all male.


The life and existence of these huge and diverse creatures, along with all the other plants, insects, invertebrates and other things is - frankly - almost completely unimaginable, but to see everything explained and sequenced and illustrated and modelled so comprehensively does help a lot.

A little detour on the way home, to a viewpoint or mirador called el Fito is just icing on the cake.