Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Watching the owner's movies

While we’ve been in the apartment in Valencia, we’ve been making use of the owner’s DVD machine and his collection of DVDs. It’s not an extensive collection, but there are some interesting films there. I haven’t been able to persuade my wife to watch Monsters Inc again - I think it’s one of the best and funniest of the series of animated movies of the last decade. I went to see it with my younger son when it first came out, and I’ll never forget our last few minutes in the cinema. The film ends with some spurious outtakes, and at the time these seemed even funnier than the rest of the movie. The two of us were killing ourselves with laughter.
The owner’s also got a couple of Martin Scorcese movies: Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. We began to watch Raging Bull the other night, but gave up after the first ten minutes; the innate violence of the character de Niro plays just gets tedious. Instead we watched Memento, a film I’ve now seen three times. Each time I watch it I wonder if I’ve really got hold of what happens/happened. I think it’s a marvellous movie, and Guy Pierce gives a great performance - but who dun what?
The only other one we’ve watched was Finding Neverland - again, we’d seen it before. Still it’s a delightful movie, excellently performed, especially by the adult leads (Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet) and it was worth watching again. By all accounts the storyline is way off the truth, but it makes good viewing!
What would make all these movies even better would be if we had discount home theater seating - the sort that’s in the picture. Problem is, even though the living area in this apartment is substantial, seating of that size would take up most of the room…
I've just remembered I did watch another movie: Dr Strangelove, which I don't think I'd t seen since it first came out. Like so many Kubrick movies, it hasn't stood the test of time well. Kubrick didn't seem to have enough idea of pacing, and as he got older, his movies got longer and more wearisome. There are scenes, such as the one in the War Room, that go on and on; and after the Slim Pickens character goes sailing off on the hydrogen bomb (which was hair-raising when I first saw the movie) there's another scene which adds nothing to the point the film has already made more than adequately. Even Sellers' attempts to persuade Sterling Hayden's character of the wrongness of his actions is dragged out.
Kubrick gets great performances from the cast, though I think I prefer Peter Sellers' restrained President to his Dr Strangelove. The latter is too much over the top and too goonish for the rest of the movie. But Hayden is superb, and so is Keenan Wynn in his brief appearance. George C Scott plays his role without quite the subtlety it requires, but it works well enough. And it was interesting to see a very young James Earl Jones as one of the crew of the B52. I didn't recognise him until my wife pointed out that she knew that voice.

Ian Rankin

There was a Starbucks on the corner of Lothian Rd and Bread St.
He’d gone for filter, complaining that he could buy a whole jar for the price of one of the costlier options.
Ian Rankin - The Naming of the Dead - page 121

We’re been devouring Ian Rankin novels since we came to Europe. It just happened that we’d picked one up before we came, and decided to read it while we were away, one after the other, rather than carry too many books. (Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey was the other choice.)
My wife is now on her fifth book in his Inspector Rebus series; I’m waiting for her to finish it (which means I‘ve had nothing to read - in English).
This is what we’ve finished:
Fleshmarket Close - the one we brought with us, and have now left somewhere. The Hanging Garden - we bought secondhand in Florence and then gave to someone in Barcelona. A Question of Blood - picked up in a double edition with The Hanging Garden in Florence.
Dead Souls - bought new at the Barcelona Sants railway station - the only Rankin in the English books on sale.
What’s great about Rankin as a thriller/mystery writer is that he’s literate, and doesn’t write down to his readers. It’s never annoying to read his books because of poor and hackneyed writing. There’s no formula to his books, except perhaps that he always has two investigations going on simultaneously; sometimes they connect, sometimes not, and in one or two of the books there have also been other personal and public investigations. His villains aren’t cut to any mold, and neither are his cops. Rebus’ offsider, Siobhan Clarke, may play a major or minor part in the stories. And even though some of the other officers consider Rebus a ‘dinosaur’, he usually sorts the villain(s) out, one way or the other. They may not always get convicted, but they certainly know that Rebus knows they did the deed.
Rebus himself is a dour character in some respects, though he has a great sense of wit. He’s constantly unsettled, and doesn’t sleep well. His personal relationships suffer badly from his obsession with getting his job done, and his life is often in peril because of the risks he takes. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s regarded as something of a rogue cop by his superiors, yet they don’t regard him as so much of one that they’ll finally cause him to quit. He’s too useful, and knows too much. Too much for his own good, in some cases, as when he’s so close to one of the villains in order to get even closer to another, that it’s almost uncertain which side he’s playing for. And he’s willing to act a part to get information that isn’t otherwise unobtainable.

John Hannah played Rebus in some of the tv versions of the books. I can't imagine someone less like the character; he's far too young, for a start.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Scotland's other drink

In the Ian Rankin novels featuring Inspector Rebus that we've been reading while on holiday, he keeps mentioning Irn-Bru. Finally we looked it up on the Net, because it's obviously a drink, but that's about all we knew. Seemingly it was originally called Iron Brew, and somewhere along the line the name has been squashed. It's Scotland's other national drink (other than whiskey, that is) and is more popular than Coca Cola. It's actually a soft drink, not an alcoholic one, and it'

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Horse show in a bull ring

Being in Valencia we happened upon the show, Passionata Andaluza, which features Andalusian riders and horses, as well as flamenco dancers and the popular pianist/composer, Manolo Carrasco. Carrasco is utterly energetic, wild, frenetic - and a big show off. He’s just what the show needs, yet how he copes with the heavy duty playing he does each night is beyond me. As a pianist myself, I know what he’s doing to his hands. Nevertheless, he plays with all the fury required - and occasionally some tenderness. I think he prefers fury to tenderness, but that may just be my opinion.
Apparently he’s composed all the music for this show - some of it well-known Spanish tunes adapted and arranged - and along with a top band, he plays continually throughout. There’s a superb sax player (who doubles on flute at one point), guitarists, a drummer, and three singers, who occasionally do solos in that typical wailing Spanish way.
The horses are wonderful, of course; they trot in time to the music, and do their movements with great serenity. And of course they stand on their hind legs and everyone claps. And one of them manages to lift himself completely off the ground and kick his back legs out. They’re a delight, really.
And then there are the dancers. I can’t find their names listed on the site, but they’re superb too. Five women and a couple of blokes, and their timing and passion is spot on throughout. I enjoyed them more than the horses for the most part.
The show was held in what must be a former bullring, right next to the main railway station in Valencia: the Plaza de Toros is what it’s called. It’s very large, and must hold two or three thousand people at least, though it was only about two thirds full tonight. The seating is concrete, so they provided some padded portable seats at a euro a throw. They were definitely necessary! And of course, being in the open air, people smoked all around - and drank from those Spanish skin bottles in the usual Spanish way: holding it about a foot away and letting it arc into the mouth.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Being less than perfect tourists

We’re not very good tourists. I’ve come to the conclusion that not only do we get overwhelmed by choice, but even the choices we take up aren’t necessarily the best ones. Part of this is because I’m a bit disinclined to go just for the obvious tourist attractions. For instance I could have quite happily not gone to Pisa in Italy, but in the end we did, and it was interesting, but not surprising. That’s the problem with the obvious choices: we’ve seen them so often in pictures that they’ve lost their ability to surprise.
It’s been the same with choosing which cities to visit on our way around the five countries we’d opted to come to on our Eurail pass. Originally in Germany, we were going to go to the cities on the East side: Berlin and Munich were on our list. And then we discovered problems with getting from one of these places into Switzerland, and my wife found that there was a train that took you past the Rhine for a long distance, and we ended up going for places on the West: Cologne and Heidelberg, both of which I enjoyed, but they hadn’t been our first choices.
As for picking hotels in Germany - or in any of the countries for that matter - it’s been almost a matter of taking a pin and open the telephone book at any page. Except that we’ve done the equivalent on the Internet. This has resulted in some interesting choices, ones that in hindsight we might not have made if we’d known all we know now!
The place we picked in Cologne turned out to be excellent, and very central. The place we picked in Heidelberg was odd to say the least, and I’ve written (probably at length) about it on my travel blog. Whether we’d have made better choices for hotels in Berlin or hotels in Munich is a moot point. There’s a huge range of options on the Net these days, and the unwary or even the wary traveller can find him or herself delving into all sorts of interesting corners!
Still, if we missed Bavaria and the Oktoberfest, we did see plenty of castles on the way. And if we missed the Brandenberg Gates (which to my mind are more significant because of the military and political factors than their visual interest) and the Marienplatz and St Peter’s Church, we certainly made up for it by visiting St Michael’s in Hamburg (even climbing up to the tower - some twenty or more flights of stairs) and the Cathedral in Cologne - which was overwhelming!


While we were in Barcelona, my wife came across a hobby shop in the next street to where we were staying (a street that also had two rival Internet shops, incidentally, both of them run by Indians - Indians from India, that is) which sold leather for use in decoration. Like so many shops in the area it had a tiny frontage, and inside the counter stretched from just by the door to near the back. All along the right wall were little shelves and lockers, and along the left wall were reels and reels of leather in various grades of width and texture.
It immediately became my wife's favourite shop in Barcelona, and she went in there at least three times in the three days we stayed in the city. The place was constantly busy all day - and by all day I mean from the time it opened in the morning (around nine) to the time it shut in the evening (around nine). Some Spanish shops have a siesta; this one didn’t as far as we could tell.
Even though we are already loaded up fairly heavily in terms of what we have to carry around Europe, she bought some leather to use for knots, and perhaps later, to hang the enamel pendants we intend making on.
The Barcelona people obviously use the leather for all sorts of decorations: on purses, and clothing and whatever. You might wonder how such a shop could survive, but it’s obviously been there for decades - maybe more than a century.

Nothing's simple

I wonder who it was that decided the phrase notebook computer was more apt than laptop computer. Both of them are synonymous, as far as I can tell, so why have two names? The world is full of doublings-up. Here in Spain, where we’re sojourning, there seem to be two languages running along concurrently, as there are signs in both in most places. One of the languages is concise, the other uses more words to say the same thing. I don’t know which is ‘actual’ Spanish and which is something else (such as Catalan, which seems the most likely candidate, or Galician or Basque), but perhaps I’ll find out before we leave the country.
When you come to Europe you think everything is simple and that the people who live in Spain speak Spanish, the people who live in Switzerland speak Swiss (they don’t) and the people who live in Germany speak German (they mostly do). But nothing is simple, perhaps because human beings aren’t simple, and variety is the spice of life in every department.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hard-earned cash

In one of the Ian Rankin books I've been reading he talks about immigrants trying to make a living by selling stuff on the streets - often without a hawker's license. In Italy, particularly, Asians and Africans are everywhere selling stuff. We saw one lot of Asians get their goods confiscated by the police in Milan in the Metro, and anything up to a dozen Africans will be outside most tourist spots selling leather goods. They can't make much money out of doing this, and presumably they've got to pay their 'boss', whoever that may be, for the goods in the first place. Seems like a very tough way to live.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Couple of books

On the train from Firenze to Pisa this morning we met an American woman who’s been living in Italy for many years (she’s married to an Italian). Unlike most of the Americans you meet, the ones who are on tour, she didn’t seem to be out to prove anything. She was just pleasant and down-to-earth. She’s a Christian, and it was partly because I saw her with a piece of paper that had the word Christian on it, and partly because she was reading Henry James’ short stories that we started chatting to her. She said she’d been reading a book called Reading Lolita in Iran, which has a section on Henry James in it, that got her started on reading her old high school copy of the book. Plus she’d recently seen The Others, (with Nicole Kidman), which is in part based on James’ The Turn of the Screw. From my memory of it, I wouldn’t say the film is very close to the book, but certainly it has some aspects of similarity. Reading Lolita in Iran is apparently about a woman teaching English in Iran and she works through various authors in the course of the book, showing the effect they had on the Iranian students. Sounds worth hunting down. I came across a book by awell-known British writer whose name has slipped my mind which is something about the Queen getting into reading (after a library bus stops near where she’s staying). It sounds worth getting hold of too.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Off on leave

My wife and I are travelling in Europe for about a month which explains for those who have wondered why there haven't been any posts on here for a week or more. And there won't be for another couple of weeks at least.

Sorry to disappoint all my fans, but it's difficult getting enough Internet access to do blogging at the moment. Plus I need to visit museums, art galleries, ancient ruins and the like.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Meeting in the one place

The worst thing about Auckland is that people keep moving there. People like Brent Read, the young tenor, or worse, my daughter and her two children. Worse still, it costs more to fly from Dunedin to Auckland than it does to fly from Dunedin to most Eastern Australian cities, cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Maybe it would be more economical for my daughter to meet us in Sydney, where we can find really cheap accommodation for all of us. Apparently you can even get serviced apartments in places like Bondi, Manly (those oh-so-familiar-beach-names) or overlooking the Darling Harbour. I think a serviced apartment might suit us all better than a cheap hotel (although apparently there are plenty of Sydney hotels that are super economical, especially in the off-season, and that provide extras - like breakfast), because then my grandchildren wouldn‘t be quite so constricted. Constricted is not a state of well-being they enjoy.
Of course there are Melbourne hotels and Brisbane hotels too, but I think Sydney would probably be the pick of the places for a Crowl family rendezvous. Maybe I could persuade all of the kids and their children to get together over there. Not!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Mr Woodcock

Went to see the rather odd comedy, Mr Woodcock, today. It’s a little offensive in spots, but never pushes the boundaries in any real way.

It concerns a young man who’s made good by writing a popular self-help book. When he arrives home to accept the town’s honorary award, he discovers that his mother is dating his former – and very unpleasant – PE teacher. The rest of the film is dedicated to the young man’s attempts to get rid of this potential step-father, and the latter’s ability to stop him in his tracks every time.

I found it funny enough, occasionally laugh-out-loud. It probably would have been better if we’d watched in on DVD, since it has that sort of quality, really. But we saw it on the big screen because it was the only movie that was showing in the next period of time. In fact the session had already started, but English cinemas being what they are, we only missed about a quarter of an hour of ads.

Billy Bob Thornton does his usual grumpy, morose character – with a suspicious twinkle in his eye; Sarah Sarandon shows that comedy can be found in any character, and Sean William Scott is a likeable and energetic character who pushes the thing along.

Not a world-shattering piece, but it was better than sitting outside reading in the cold.