Thursday, July 26, 2007

Link betwen car ownership and health confirmed

A Lithuanian study has discovered that the bigger and more expensive the car you drive, the more likely you are to be disabled.

How do they know?

They surveyed the 'disabled cars only' spaces outside the supermarkets.


Buying property in Georgia?

Here's a cautionary tale about the country which is so westernised and into free market. Sometimes the free market is denied (when they think of banning the competition to the municipal buses), and other times it goes crazy.

There's an apartment building somewhere in Tbilisi, built in 1998/99. It seems that now an investor wants the space to build something more profitable (for him, and perhaps/probably for people in the authorities).

What happens? The municipality attempts to take the homes off the people (with talk of [not unreasonable, despite what the owners say] compensation to be fair, but so far it's talk, and even written promises are probably not worth much). The explanation is that the building was built illegally and is not earthquake-proof (to be fair, the building may well have been built illegally; at that time a bribe would have got you anything). The residents go to court. Someone loses, and the case goes on to appeal.

The appeal is still continuing. The people were put out of their homes a week ago and demolition started immediately.

Under these circumstances anyone with privatised property (ie all property) has good reasons for fear.

Glad that I then returned to Vilnius. To open the paper and find an article about the Head of Public Order in Vilnius who has been taking bribes, even whilst on paternity leave. The Mayor is stated to have said 'never liked him since the first time I clapped eyes on him'. A good, constructive mayoral comment, that.

Saw a photo of the Mayor, with an open necked shirt, not taken in a casual environment. Now, Vilnius is not having a heatwave, and I am sure that the municipality has air conditioning. Don't really think that that's the style of apparel suitable to the mayor of a European Capital. Mr Zuokas, who alas is having to replace his wardrobe as he expands, would never allow himself to be photographed thus. Maybe I'm just picky...


Offski - again

I'll be away for just over a fortnight, and on return will have tons of work to do. The last 48 hours in Vilnius have been frantic, sorting out all sorts of stuff, dealing with a lot of mail, authorities (tax and social insurance) ...the tax people are always nice, though - but I'm also well organised....

Managed to fit in my hairdresser who rescued my hair which had turned to blond straw a little after the Georgian attack on it - the only problem is that I now look almost sick with my natural colour; blond gave me a nice little tan. I think she has me as a project to feminise me, which doesn't do any harm... given the experiences I have all the time in further Eastern Europe where women with short hair that's not done up are always a bit unusual.

Will the in the UK, visiting my best friend Pat, and at my OU summer school, and then a week at the Dartington Summer School, in the far south west of the UK, where you will find me singing Haydn's 'Four Seasons', learning to dance the salsa, and playing in a salsa orchestra. And I just noticed that there's a ceidlidh as well, late one evening, and a salsa ball on the last night. Well, my week is made! I'll need a holiday when I get back!
There will now be a bit of a silence since I may not get near a computer much....


As if it were alive!

Returned to Vilnius from Georgia on Tuesday; Wednesday saw me at a concert of the Georgian group 'Basiani'.

'Basiani' is a group of 60 - 70 men who belong to the Georgian Patriarch's entourage. As if the pope had a boy band as a backing group, sort of thing. Here we only had 14 members of the group - there would not have been enough space on the stage for all of them, and think of the costs of flights! I wonder if the other 50 members are adrift in other parts of the world, performing...I noticed that the Tbilisi finger theatre is also in Lithuania, performing in Druskininkai sanatoria. (In the finger theatre you just have fingers acting and dancing. Presumably you don't need much of a stage...). It's a sign of desperate times in Georgia if this finger theatre makes money by playing at Lithuanian sanatoria.

So Basiani's programme was folk singing, instrumental music and dancing. Here was a moment of home truths - I thought the group I am singing Georgian folk songs in, Okros Stumrebi, was not too bad, for a bunch of foreigners, and that we were doing well with our songs. But it seems that our songs are at the easy end of Georgian folk singing, at the 'Twinkle, Twinkle' level. These were seriously complicated songs. I noticed also that the harmonies are much more challenging, and I wondered if either we foreigners tend to turn our harmonies into western ones, or whether the songs we sing have the easier harmonies. In Georgian songs, the ones the guys sang, I'm not sure that it did the classical preparation-suspension-resolution bit, but seemed to flit from one suspension to the next, only resolving at the end when they nearely always ended up in unison. Some of those songs had amazing sound constructions.

The programming, while written down on a sheet of paper for the guy who gave the starting notes, appeared to be a bit haphazard. Not sure whether they all knew in advance what they were going to sing, or whether they could not remember, but he kept wandering around, telling them what to sing. Not all people sang all of the time, and the non-singers usually ambled about behind the singers, having a wee chat now and again. Which is of course quite normal in Georgian theatres.

Occasionally one of the singers also played the 3-stringed plucked instrument, the panduri or chonguri, depending on size. It is really played very simply, with very few notes, and the resonance is limited, but it's still quite effective in its rawness. At one of the more instrumental songs (they were all songs, not in the ITunes meaning, but because every piece had singing in it), a drum was also produced, and a Georgian bagpipe! This was a man-sized piece of kit - the Scottish one compared to this is a bit of an ornate girls' blouse!

Imagine a goat, with no legs and no head, and you have the size and shape of the Georgian bagpipe (from here, a website devoted to bagpipes).
(The one in the concert was a bit more goat-shaped than this, but basically you blow up the right front leg. Because it's big, once you've got some basic air into it, you just need to top it up now and again. It's droneless, why - because it has only one output, which is the tune (left front leg). My Lithuanian ethnomusicologist colleagues will notice that the end of the output, not unlike a hoof [though not a cloven footed goat's hoof] has a strong resemblance to the birbyne, the Lithuanian folk instrument; wonder what a Lithuanian bagpipe looks like). So that was interesting. In any case, the choir was quite good at the drone itself - some Georgian songs have a drone.

Finally, in a couple of songs, we had some Georgian dancing. Mostly individuals (of the singing group) doing little solo dances. I'm not sure. Could not see the feet, and with Georgian dancing, much like Irish dancing, it's all in the feet. (I saw it better in the theatre in Tbilisi where in the Midsummer night's dream someone showed someone else (a visitor?) a few steps of Georgian dancing. Not quite sure how that connects to the story, but never mind). One of the dances involved all the guys holding hands, and slowly moving around in a circle. Somehow this does not travel well; it probably works better in Georgia.

It seems the choir had a very enthusiastic fan club, who encouraged them along after what seemed like a slightly tired start. Not sure if the fan club was Georgian; I suppose it might have been - but I could have shouted 'madloba' (thank you) with the best of them. The concert ended with 'suliko' the song that all Georgians are reported to sing, when they get together in exile. The place erupted! The audience did well, considering there wasn't a break in almost two hours, and an awful lot of people had standing places only....


Monday, July 23, 2007

How the light gets in

Not much light just now; about to go home in a few hours, 4 hours 37 minutes to be precise, and can't sleep. Just as well, because I found a message from my friend in Vilnius saying that the notary, who ****ed up the signing of a document in May, is at it again, and 36 hours before signing time comes up with new 'problems'. Having been sitting on the documents containing all relevant information since April. One step more, folks, and you'll become famous!

'How the light gets in' (I'm slowly beginning to 'get' the title) is a first book by M J Hyland, a 'highly charged study of the emotional intensity of adolescence', as the blurb tells us. Hyland, one of the few Aussie writers whose books I found in Aussie bookshops, apparently has herself undergone something of an emotionally intense adolescence.

The main protagonist, 16-year-old Lou Connor (did I mention that Hyland is of Irish descent?), an extremely talented girl, escapes from what sounds like a totally chaotic family at the end of Sydney, Australia, to a very nice, well-to-do middle class family living in a huge house somewhere in America, not far from Chicago. Lou is a bit 'strange', and finds it difficult to mix with people of her own age; she's rather bookish in a way that her host-siblings are not; she also does not like to be touched. (The world of international exchanges seems to be smitted with weird, rather cutesy, words, like 'hostmother', 'hostbrother' and so on. How do you address the lady of the house - 'Hostmum'? I know this because only last week I had a conversation about exchanges with a young Georgian woman who had been in the US in a similar programme).

The exchange comes with many rules regarding smoking, drinking, drugs etc, which is perhaps unsurprising. Young Lou, however, has had much experience of most of these things, due partly to her gormless sisters back in Sydney, and so manages to make her own arrangements. Apart from that she has a rather unfortunate way of constructing her own identity, which could easily trip her up, but for some reason she is not challenged. She looks down on everyone who tries to give her advice (she's 16, so she must know it all). All this leads to disaster, but still Lou continues in her own fantasy world and it's not clear what her future will look like. I'm not sure that the light really does get in.

Lou is a difficult character; every time she does something stupid, you think 'how could you, girl'? It's difficult to feel much empathy for her, even though, as part of her thinking world, the reader can sympathise more than outsiders. In some ways you also feel sorry for the people around her; while you might think they could have made more of an effort, you also appreciate that she, with her brainpower, will often run rings round anyone. As you keep reading it and keep turning the pages, you wish she would turn the corner, but every time she slips off in the wrong direction again. Reading this book must be like being a social worker for such teenagers.

I wouldn't say it's a particularly Australian book; partly because it's set exclusively in the US, and partly because it's all about teenage malaise. I was thinking that Lou would get on well with the teenagers in Andrew O'Hagan's book reviewed a couple of days ago, but actually she wouldn't, because she would find them trite. 'Her own worst enemy' is the phrase I'd choose.


You couldn't make this up

England, apparently, is under water, and the weather forecast for Scotland this week is rain and more rain. I can leave the sandals at home then....

According to the Guardian's daily newsletter, the Wrap, ' R&B artist Rihanna's hit song Umbrella has become the longest-running No 1 single for more than a decade, having held the top spot for 10
weeks. The last song to spend more than nine weeks at No 1 was by Wet Wet Wet.

This is the kind of information that you really need to know....


Sunday, July 22, 2007

What was the Bishop thinking of?

In Andrew O'Hagan's book 'Be near me' the Bishop of Galloway puts an Ampleforth/Oxford educated priest into the catholic parish of 'Dalgarnock' (= Stevenston, Ayrshire; it can't be Glengarnock since that's not by the sea). The Bish himself was not from that part of the world, but really, can anyone think of a less suitable person, from his background allow, to go into the Wild West of Ayrshire? (Note that there are many more very nice corners of Ayrshire!)

As a former social security officer covering, especially at weekends, all of Ayrshire and much of the southwest of Scotland, I know Stevenston, and the other dens of iniquity that form parts of North Ayrshire, fairly intimately, and I can well relate to the events described in the book. I wonder what the good burghers of Stevenston will think of their description? Though most of those who are described wouldn't read a book anyway....

O'Hagan always seems to write about that part of the world, where presumably he grew up (he was born in Glasgow, but many people in Ayrshire were, and maybe his parents moved to the new town of Irvine, or the new parts of Kilwinninng after they were built). He certainly also has an intimate knowledge of life among the downtrodden, excluded part of society - it's almost like my former work. The only fictional place in this book is Dalgarnock; all other places are named almost with address and post code, including Crosshouse Hospital (but does it really have a private wing on the top floor?), Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, Ayr Harbour, Ailsa Craig (the people in the book succeeded in getting to Ailsa Craig which is more than I ever did).

So, onywize, as they would say in Stevenston, the book is about this priest with a highly educated background, but also a background of emotional issues, who is sent from genteel Blackpool to the parish in Glengarnock, and almost as soon as he arrives reality hits him (almost literally) when we walks past the Lodge in this dogcollar. (My readers not from the West of Scotland will not know what I am talking about). Quite apart from that, everyone holds his 'Englishness' against him (he was born in Edinburgh, but the parish priests have traditionally been Irish.

As part of his work he does some teaching in the local school, where he immediately rubs up people the wrong way - suggesting to the music teacher not to use 'happy clappy' hymns in morning assembly, but the more traditional ones. He befriends some teenage tear-aways, though I can't quite believe the scrapes he lets them lead him into. And eventually it results in catastrophe.

Around this is the story of his relationship with his housekeeper; I'm slightly perturbed at the tone of their conversation which some people might see as quite aggressive, but again they have not lived in the West of Scotland. Cultural differences....

It's a great book, though I wonder what meaning it has for people not familiar with that part of Scotland. It's set very much in the present both of Scotland and the wider UK, and the 1960's - it seems our priest is a bit of a 68er, but that part of the book is a bit less believable (for those of us, who have also been there). Bit of a short book, though, and quickly read in a day.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Frenetic Vaudeville

...is what you get when you put together Rossini (the music), Goldoni (the play) and Dario Fo (the producer)! What a team!

The opera buffa 'La gazzetta' was almost lost, and only staged in 1960 for the first time. Apparently it needed surgery and reconstruction to be put together. I'd say! When I heard the overture to 'La Cenerentola' I feared I was in the wrong opera! Later there was an underlay of an aria from the 'Barber of Seville'; and there were semi spoken recitatives, sometimes underpinned by unusual instruments, such as a flute.

But the production put everything into the shade. The DVD recording (opus arte 0953 D) was made in the Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona, where the very delightful conductor Maurizio Barbacini had everything under firm control - and he had a speaking part, too! The orchestra incidentally seemed to be a very young group, and they played with plenty of enthusiasm.

Under Fo's direction the show was totally crazy. The story is, briefly, that a neapolitan businessman visits Paris with his daughter, and decides to advertise for a husband for her. With predictable consequences. Amongst the candidates is a Quaker (an unusual character in an opera - did they exist even in Goldoni's times?) - here the Quakers looked like Pilgrim Fathers. The funniest thing was that Don Pomponio (the neapolitan) introduced himself as 'short and rotund' - the casting had done well here with Bruno Pratico.

This production was set in the 1920, and involved non-stop dancing and other background activities - the stage was nearly always full of action. The singers didn't just have to sing, they had to dance a tango, juggle (bombs!), work a finger puppet chicken (the other chickens did a great chorus line!), do a backwards flip - opera singing ain't what it used to be! If you want to stand still in Western Europe, go and sing oratorios - and even then....

Rossini's operas obviously give great scope for wacky performances. This one is brilliant, and well worth having! I wish they'd also record the Sydney Opera House version of the Barber of Seville!


Those Istanbul cats

I'd noticed all those cats in Istanbul, way back in January....it seems in the summer Istanbul is smitten by a smell of cat pee, much like Prague's residential areas have an aura of dog pee.

Read all about cat/dog interactions in Istanbul here.


Late Night News

In a Brunetti book (Donna Leon, Venice) I had come across an advert about another series of detective stories, this time set in Greece, and written by a native Greek, Petros Markaris. I think the book is called 'Late Night News' but I read it in German where it's called 'Hellas Channel'. The English edition has an unfortunately lurid cover page - with that I would never have bought it; the German edition shows the Akropolis.

This'll be a bit of a 'compare and contrast'....

This book does not have the same class as the Commissario Brunetti books, and neither does the chief detective, one Kostas Charitos (Haritos in English). He's a bit of a Rumpole character, stricken with a difficult wife, and having all the time to manoeuvre around her watching TV detective stories, and around her moods (though his are also not so easy).

Unlike Brunetti, who is an educated gentleman with morals, Charitos is a bit more of a bruiser, but then he has gone through the Greek police system at the time of the Colonels when you just beat up the suspects. He does not, generally, use the delicate approach, but is happy to abuse his suspects: 'Zimtzicke' ('cinnamon goat') - I wonder a bit about the quality of the translation. Funnily, though, Charitos/Haritos has a penchant for dictionaries, and on returning home each night he retires to bed with a dictionary for a while. That must have given the translator heart attacks, translating Greek dictionary definitions....

Also unlike Brunetti (or Morse) it does not describe the beauties of Athens; probably my friend Helene, who lived there for a year or two, will tell me that there is no such thing...but Brunetti spent much of his time contemplating the gorgeous vistas of Venice (though my friend Helene, who was in Venice in February, did not care for that so much either).

Finally unlike Brunetti he is not a gourmet, but prefers to eat street food. But he has a better relationship with his boss, though it starts off with difficulty, but the boss has amazing talents for working his way round problems.

Generally, though, the story is good, and it gives an insight into Greek life in general; the hang-overs of the colonels' period, the immigration of the Albanians, how people move about in society....but it does not have the class or the style of Brunetti. And of course it's possible for us to read the Donna Leon books in the original language.

And talking of which, it seems that the latest Brunetti book, 'Through a Glass Darkly' (a quote from somewhere, no?), was rather late in being published, due to Leon tearing up the first attempt, which was too full of her views of Italian environmental politics. Her books have had a similar effect on Venice that the Morse books have had on Oxford, where people with the books in their hand, traipse all over Venice, looking for the little nooks and crannies she has described rather too accurately. Apparently she is refusing to have them translated into Italian....


Tbilisi goes to sleep

Seemed like a good idea, sleeping on the balcony, since the landlord's bed had appeared a few days ago. And it's an absolutely brilliant place - on the balcony, behind a curtain of vines with ripening grapes, overlooking the lights of the city with the lit-up cathedral, while at the same time seeing the lit up windows of the neighbours...

Took a bit of organising to protect myself against the midges, as well as protecting my modesty. But off to bed I wandered at around 11 pm. No place for reading a book, of course, what with the light attracting the mozzies.

Now the rhythm of life in Tbilisi is different, as indicated by the starting time for work at 10 am, when people rush into the office fresh from the shower. This has an effect at the end of the day in terms of going to bed. And this was a Friday night.

First the boys stopped playing basketball in the street, then the immediate neighbours switched off and went to bed; the other neighbours watched TV till about 1.30 am, after that the neighbours on the other side were still chatting and laughing away - ours must be the only house that is only inhabited by one nuclear family, no grannies, no multi-generational arrangements. It all sounded very happy. Since it's hot, windows are open so things were clearly audible. No privacy here! All this was underpinned by the constant roar of the motorway. Er no, make that the main street, Rustaveli Avenue, which has a number of underpasses for good reasons. Which country is it that has a new advertising campaign against boy racers, suggesting that they do so because they have a small penis? Australia? Someone complained that you could not suggest the same thing about women, eg having small breasts. (Let's see what this does to my hit rates...)

It was very pleasant, since I did not have to go to work, did not understand the conversation and just let it wash over me. But did I sleep? Did I heck! Must have drifted off early in the morning, but the first neighbours got up again at 6.....It'll be indoors tonight!


Friday, July 20, 2007

Postscript to Zugdidi

I'm told that people avoid Zugdidi because it's so close to the conflict zone. Actually, it's perfectly calm.

But those mozzies, they don't half bite!



Off to Zugdidi for a couple of days earlier this week. It's in the west of Georgia, very close to the conflict zone of Abkhazia - roughly a five hour trip from Tbilisi. This area of Georgia has a subtropical climate, as evidenced by the palm trees and banana trees in the streets. That's apart from the lurid yellow and red plastic palm trees which the municipality seems to see a need for.

Many people in and around Zugdidi have animals, especially cute brown calves. The larger versions of these wander round the town quite happily, as was a horse. The most bizarre sight, however, was a lady's foot poking out of an open window at 7.30 in the morning; looking a bit more closely, I could see the other leg in another stirrup and a guy calmly going about his gynaecological business.

This part of Georgia is called Samegrelo, or Megrelia, in olden days. Megrelian is a different language, apparently (not sure I can tell how different) and people are much more traditional. I was told that it was not really done for a woman to flaunt her legs (bit too late that was), and it seems that foreigners are very rare, what with the stares I received in the streets.

Stayed in the Samegrelo hotel which has everything a hotel needs. The room smelt distinctly better, though, once I closed the bathroom door. And the eggs for breakfast, which seemed to have landed in the pan rather drunkenly, did not really need the addition of a long, dark, hair. I should have realised that when I asked for bread, I would not get butter as well....

The market was like all markets; crowded and damp underfoot. I noticed here, though, just how many women wear the black widow's garb, which even covers their hair. Particularly because I saw a very young widow, which is unusual. I'm told she has little chance to get remarried in that part of the world.

Finding somewhere nice to eat out at night was a bit difficult. The hotel dining room did not inspire me (as was confirmed by the following morning's breakfast), a lot of the cafe's looked dark and gloomy, so after walking all round the centre of Zugdidi I finally homed in on a new restaurant, the D(i?)arioni, in the parallel street east to the main street, near the park end. I was the only customer....

But very nice it was, too - with excellent service and excellent food. The fact that the menu was only in Georgian and I could only order what I knew limited my scope a bit, but here I probably had the best mashed potatoes I have had anywhere out east, bar my own, which are quite good. The beer was nice and cold, too!

Oh yes, and on the way back from Zugdidi the car broke down. There seems to be a curse on me and coming back from the west - last time also the car broke down, but luckily both close to cities.


Monday, July 16, 2007


The Marriott Hotels are a huge American chain which have hotels of different price levels and classes, with the Marriotts themselves being perhaps the highest class. They have a standard level of service everywhere, and have the Marriott Bible which for example, lists the 66 steps to clean a room. The staff are called 'associates' and it's all a bit happy clappy. But the hotels are nice, and sumptious. They could still improve, by, for example, providing free internet in the rooms (or including the cost of it in the room price, no-one would really know). Also they are not so good on local food and culture, but people who travel more than I do may be quite happy with that - it can be a bit of a pain, having to relearn hotel rooms etc every time you move.

Of course, this all comes at a price. When I first went to Armenia, in 1997, the Marriott was far off the horizon, and the then Hotel Armenia was the only reasonably comfortable hotel there (and a lot more comfortable than Kyrgyz hotels at the time). It had running water and electricity 24 hours per day, which was quite an achievement. And the rooms were clean. We stayed in the rear of the hotel which may have been built by the German company Siemens, and the rooms had their own clean bathrooms etc. I have a vague memory that the Soviet floor ladies were still around.

Moving on a few years, by the end of 2003 the Marriott was on the horizon, and sumptiousness invaded. The rooms of the previous version had been knocked together, with one of the bathrooms becoming a huge walk-in wardrobe. Luckily the price for us long-termers was not bad - though after a while we discovered another hotel nearby with free internet, and we moved out.

Not before getting enough Marriott reward points to allow me to stay in a Marriott in Montreal for free, just after attending the viola congress there. That was a fabulous location, with a huge window and a panoramic view across the city.

A year later, and the Adelaide viola congress, where we stayed at the Royal Adelaide Hospital for AU$17.50 a night. Returning to Sidney I felt I could do with being pampered. Thankfully I had found the holidaycity website which offered half the normal price for the hotel, provided you booked early, and you'd lose your money if you had to cancel. And again, what a wonderful hotel it was, with the panoramic view etc etc, a huge bathroom with a corner bath large enough for at least two, a bed ditto (does it really need 6 pillows?), and even a mini-kitchen with a microwave, kettle and fridge - allowing almost total self-sufficiency, and cutting overall costs even further.

For comfort and pampering, they are great hotels!



Whilst picking up 'Londonistan' in Frankfurt, I came across 'Absurdistan' ...here a 'stan, there a 'stan, everywhere a 'stan, 'stan.

At first I thought I would not like Gary Shteingart's novel, but I persisted. It's a bit of a bloke's book, but yet, as you get more into it, it's a biting satire and ironic. The hero, Misha, the son of the 1283.-richest guy Russia, is born in Leningrad (also the author's birthplace) and sent to the US for his circumcision, being Jewish, (aged 18) and to attend college. Like many rich people, he undergoes therapy and is dependent on his therapist. He is also an extremely large guy, and it's only in the US that he finds love for the first time.

However, he returns to Russia, and then finds that he is banned from re-entering the US since his father killed an American. So he looks for all sorts of ways of getting the visa, finally travelling to Absurdistan (Azerbaijan) where he is told he can get a Belgian passport. In Absurdistan all sorts of shenanigans are going on, involving oil, the Halliburton company (the US government's major contractor also in Iraq), and a bit of Rwandan/Armenian [Nagorno Karabakh], Georgian (Adjara) genocide/ethnic cleansing thrown in.

It's a weird mixture of Misha's obsessions (sex, not entirely surprisingly, seeing as his circumcision went slightly wrong), but it also seems that his heart is in the right place, though his emotional needs for acceptance and love often lead him astray.

Once you get past all the weird stuff at the beginning, it's very funny and probably also more factual than you would like to believe (even if the facts of different countries may have been thrown together in some places). The events described could very easily happen in any of the countries in the south of the former Soviet Union, where politics by shenanigan are still the order of the day.

And is it really true that Dick Cheney was formerly Chief Executive of Halliburton? See also here. It makes your hair stand on end!


The Night Watch

Sarah Waters' book 'The Night Watch' is one you find in the gay/lesbian section of bookshops, though in the Adelaide bookshop where I bought it it was also available under general fiction. It had been shortlisted for both the Man Booker and the Orange Prizes.

It's set in London in the 1940s (NB in Aussie bookshops it's very hard to find books by Aussie writers) involving about half a dozen characters of whom three are lesbian, one might be gay but actually he was in prison for another reason, one is definitely gay and a heterosexual guy. The strange thing is that the book starts in about 1947 where it goes on for a long time, and it keeps referring to the characters' histories which the reader does not know about. Then it jumps back to 1943, with much of the history becoming clearer, except for one character, and his is only clarified as the book jumps back yet a bit further into 1941. If it had been written in sequence, it might not have been as good and gripping!

The book describes very clearly the situation in London during and after the war, the difficulties people faced in terms of getting food, clothing, having affairs, dealing with the consequences of affairs. Funny it is not particularly, apart from the odd little detail here or there. The dialogues, including the internal ones, are wonderful and very London, of the time - who says 'you're tight', or 'tipsy' nowadays?

So what makes it a gay book? Simply that most of the characters are gay? I wonder if in a gay bookshop books with non-gay characters are filed in the 'heterosexual' shelves? It seems Ms Waters is quite a bestselling author in that field.

Actually, it's a great read, and it really takes you back into that period in London (though some of us have never been there...).


Sunday, July 15, 2007


Have I seen films in the last two weeks? With 42 hours spent on Emirates planes which have a huge selection of entertainment (doubled since I travelled in different months) I have seen lots of films, four old episodes of 'Frasier', played endless solitaire and other computer games....

'Queen' - I can understand now why Helen Mirren got that Oscar. She is brilliant at faces! It was weird watching that film and remembering that time, almost 10 years ago. Does not help if a steward asks you if you want coffee just as the film hits a particularly emotional moment....

'Blades of Gold' - story about two competing ice skaters who as a result of a punch-up are banned from solo competitions, and end up entering the pairs competition - both are men. The film involves shenanigans from another competing couple, in good old American ice skating style. Would not leave the house to watch it, but on a plane it's ok.

'My best friend' - did not watch this in the plane, but on the ground in Adelaide. It's a French film about an arts dealer (Daniel Auteuil) who realises he does not have any friends, and so recruits a taxi driver to help him with personal intercourse (maybe he has Asperger's?). It's a very pleasant, funny film and very attractive in that French way of making films.

'Because I said so' - film with Diane Keaton where she plays the mother of 3 daughters, two of whom are married, and the third has, according to mum, problems with finding a man. Keaton gives advice which never goes down well, and advertises in the papers for a man, who she then gets to meet her daughter (except there was another man around as well - I was tired by that point). Pleasant family comedy, probably also not worth leaving the house for, unless you want to go to the pictures and there is nothing else decent on at the pictures.

'Starter for 10' - film about a young man who leaves his single mum to go to college (Oxford?). He gets into the University Challenge team, has women troubles, and all the other first year experiences. The team is lead by a rather anal young man who tends to freeze under pressure. The film describes the ups and downs of our hero and the team; also quite pleasant and quite funny. Fell asleep at the end.

'Happy feet' - things were getting critical at this stage - is a cartoon type film about a little emperor penguin (they find their mates by singing) who cannot sing, but can tap dance. It's easy to do a tap dancing penguin in cartoon because they have very short little legs, so there is a limit to how far they can be shown to be thrown! It's a very cute little film, very easy and with stunning crowd scenes of dancing penguins. Also has a small environmental message.

'Breaking and entering' is a film by Anthony Minghella, set in London, with Jude Law and Juliette Binoche, amongst others, where an architect's firm locates itself in King's Cross, which turns out not to be a happy choice of location, what with getting broken in all the time. The main character, whose seems to be the stepfather of a girl with difficulties (autistic?) which puts a strain on his relationship with his partner. In investigating the burglaries he also meets a prostitute, and has a relationship with another woman. The usual folk of London's King's Cross, I suppose. It's described as a romantic comedy - hmmm; seemed to me more of a usual tale of social exclusion and people from both sides of social exclusion coming together in a mutual explosion, with the losers being the usual losers. I'd buy a ticket for this one.

'The Pursuit of Happyness' (sic) - is about the struggling salesman Chris Gardener (Will Smith) who gets a chance of an internship in a financial company (in Wall Street) just as his wife leaves him and he takes custody of their 5-year-old son (who is brilliantly played by Jaden Smith). The internship is for 6 months (after which one of the twenty starters will get a job) - and it is unpaid. Gardener and his son go through horrendous periods, losing their flat, losing a motel room, having to stay in a hostel for the homeless for some time, with him at the same time talking to extremely rich people about their pensions plans - where a guy could be very bitter, but Gardener gets through it with considerable aplomb. Apparently this is a real story, and Gardener went on to found a major financial sales company. As an American film it also has its tear jerking moments, and it shows the difficulties people go through at times like these. What did not seem logical was how the child was cared for (did the father not have to pay for day care?), that the father was able to finish work early to collect the child, and that he did not seem to claim any welfare (but perhaps he would not have been eligible for this, as he might not have been in the UK).

'Romulus, my father' is a film I wanted to see in Oz, but did not get round to it. A story about immigrant folk, apparently, based on someone's book. Franka Potente of 'Run, Lola, Run' is in it. Might be interesting.


Dog's life .... continued

The Alsatian interloper has obviously been looking for thanks from Dog No 1 for giving her more freedom now and again.

It seems Miss Alsatian has found the thanks - the master of the house was away overnight, and left his bed in the garden (that's the kind of weather we have in Tbilisi that you can do that), and so she found a purpose for it...

Needs to be said, though, that Dog No 1 and Miss Alsatian do not appear to be friends.


Friday, July 13, 2007

It's a dog's life or...unexpected consequences

A few weeks ago I returned to Georgia from somewhere, luckily and unusually during the day time, to find my balcony door open and a huge Alsatian dog on the balcony. We both screamed - well, the dog barked at me and I shouted at it. Whereupon it skedaddled into the furthest corner of the balcony.

Turns out that my landlord, who lives downstairs, has fallen heir to this dog, though not, apparently, to everyone's delight. Now that I was back, my balcony was no longer available, and the dog went downstairs, into the landlord's garden. But what's this? There is already the resident dog! The dog who is always tied up - and here is the Alsatian, pre-owned by an American, but not used to being tied up. What to do next?

There was much debate, including a not very serious idea to get rid of the previous dog, not a pedigree. Meantime the Alsatian was also tied up, in various parts of the yard - and this time of year the main part with shade was used by dog No 1. The Alsatian, a big soul, and quite a bit of a fearty, took well to being tied up, apart from howling for the odd night or two. But after a while she was just let loose, and she was ok - she's not as lively as some dogs we know.

Now, a few weeks later, dog No 1 is also off the lead much of the time, and loves to do a great impression of a cat, climbing onto the outside toilet roof and keeping an eye on everyone coming in. So, thank you, Alsatian!


odds and sods

This website tells you how to blend your iPhone. You've always wanted to know this, haven't you? If you try this at home, make sure you wear safety goggles. Also mum or dad might not be too pleased.

Was flicking through a number of websites today, in the interests of research (on what percentage of GDP goes on child welfare in different countries, since you ask), and found this. I thought the president of Latvia was Ms Freiberga - but it seems that it is now a man, Valdis Zatlers. And very nice hair he has, too - looks quite the Scandinavian. Funny how Latvia now has Valdis, and Lithuania has, for a short while, Valdas as president.

Reading the Georgian papers today I note that the Labor Party in Tbilisi city council is thinking of getting rid of the marshrutkas (the minibuses, serving much of Tbilisi). The reason? The municipal buses have just doubled their fares, and surprise, surprise, the number of customers has dropped considerably. So instead of increased revenue they now have an even bigger hole in the city's coffers. The proposed solution? Get rid of the competition, the private marshrutkas and force people to use the public buses. Let's just remind ourselves that in any conversation about the future of child welfare the words 'privatization' and 'market' fall with monotonous regularity. Does not seem to relate to public transport, though. What's next? Get rid of taxis?


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Oh Georgia!

Back in Tbilisi for three days now and still no food in the fridge! No time to go shopping!

Day 1 was spent catching up on email, internet and sleep - went for a meal to In Vino Veritas which is supposed to have a beautiful outdoor eating place. It probably does, but it was prepared for a banquet - and the only free table was in a dark, murky corner. I think they must only ever do mass catering; last time I was there, and ate, I was also stuck in a dark, murky corner.

So landed in King Erekle street where I bumped into my friend Kendra. Had always thought that you would only get fancy foreign food there, but the busiest restaurant, with reasonable prices and good food, was a Georgian one at the beginning of the street (close to Leselidze).

Monday rushed straight off into a workshop on budgeting (on the delivering side) at the Shindisi Hotel, which is on the Kojori road out of Tblisi. It was a residential workshop, to last for two days. The Shindisi is quite nice; quite a big complex, with en suite bedrooms and very large helpings of quite good food (much the same food, it should be said, for dinner and lunch). It helps that there is a baker straight across the road, providing gorgeous bread. While the hotel is nice, and it's a good idea to have the restaurant with the live band at some distance to the bedrooms, it can still improve a little - like having lights on in the corridors at night, or providing coffee, rather than nescafe granules and hot water. It was a nice place to go for a run from - I'd been in the area some time ago with the hash, and so knew where to run. The landscape around the hotel is beautiful! Looking out of the window you get a feeling of Switzerland, though perhaps there houses don't have heart-shaped roofs...

However, much road building seems to be going on in the area; at 20 minutes to Tbilisi it's only a question of time before the place is covered in new houses, I suppose. I hope the farmers make some decent money out of the sales of their land!


Friday, July 06, 2007

Final thoughts on Oz

...even though everything looks very modern, it's a bit old-fashioned - food and drink venues close very early, people wait at traffic lights even when there are no cars....

...not everything works, much like in the UK. Due to high winds yesterday a train got stuck as a result of a power failure on Sydney Harbour bridge (which I was trying to cross at the time) - the ensuing traffic chaos had to be seen to be believed! People would have walked across but it was far too cold and windy to do so.

...people are very friendly.

Words in Oz

'how are you' = 'hi'

'see ya' = 'bye'

'brekkie' = 'breakfast'

'hottie' = 'hot drink'

whitefella = white person

blackfella = black person (or aborigine)

Long black

short black

flat white (all kinds of coffee)

...signing off from Oz


Congress Finale

Some interesting events at the end of this viola congress. This congress was special in that it did not have any viola megastars, as in Montreal or Germany, but it had much very interesting music instead; sometimes megastars play the same boring old repertoire all the time, and not always necessarily well. But of course it's nice to hear them, and they are often the source of much new viola music being composed.

A talk by Hartmut Lindemann, a German viola professor, focused on musicians of the Heifetz/Kreisler era, and their differences in playing style. Lindemann is said to be able to identify players of this era by sound alone - within the first couple of bars or so! He obviously loves their style, as was clear by his concert a day later. The thought did occur that no-one plays Mozart like Kreisler or Heifetz any more. Interestingly, a recording by Joseph Joachim showed that he hardly ever used vibrato.

The congress' gala concert consisted of 3 pieces for viola and orchestra; first an elegy by Sculthorpe. He is a well respected composer, though this elegy was rather on the long side (about 20 minutes). Imagine playing that at a funeral service! Francis Kefford, the soloist, is a very young (and very competent violist) who in time will have serious trouble with his neck, unless he stops using his viola as a pillow now! This was followed by Charles Bodman Rae's concerto for viola and orchestra - a world premiere. CBR is the dean (or something) of the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide, so it was kind of a home match for him. He was also, as a pianist, a student of the famous Fanny Waterman. His piece was written for orchestra including double winds and a harp - expensive to perform. It had three movements, and was written a few months ago. The movements blended into each other, and, to be honest, were much of a muchness, with not much difference between them. The piece was supposed to last 28 minutes, but actually lasted well over 30 minutes, so maybe it was played too slowly. The sounds lay well on the viola, though, and Juerg Daehler, a Swiss violist, seemed much happier, and much more lively, with this than with his first recital. Finally there was Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante (first time I have heard it this year), and that was a rather strange performance, with not much communication between the soloists, Terence Tam (violin) and Tobias Lea (viola). There was no blending, and little communication, with each doing their own thing. I thought that Tam was a shade hasty with many of his entries, and a wee bitty on the fast side - most times the violist then had to follow or echo the violinist, but he did his own thing. There were only two occasions, in the third movement, where the violist lead the interaction - and he seemed much happier there. Maybe Mozart had not throught through the different roles of the instruments, and maybe equal opportunities had not been a topic in his day....

It's a shame that again (3 congresses out of 4) I missed the final events, what with having incorrectly booked the flights back this time. It was great, and wonderful meeting all those friends again, and meeting some new internet friends, face to face! It was also great playing the viola again, after a 6 month break - I could barely read the music any more....


Sydney Opera House

'Tis not only an opera house, but a whole entertainments complex. It has a concert hall and a theatre in addition to the opera auditorium. It's designed all the way through, from the outside shells to the rather amazing wash basins in the toilets - which are not wash basins, but a kind of long shelf with the occasional wave down towards the back, where the water drains away - somewhere. I wonder what the urinals are like?

The bones of the opera house are huge exposed concrete beams which go from the ground right along and up the building. Much of the inside is exposed concrete, as was fashionable at the time. The concert hall has more wood than the opera auditorium - there is talk of poor acoustics, but they seemed all right to me. Especially since even in row U of the opera auditorium I could hear and see very clearly - the rows of seats rise steeply, so even at the back you can see (thank you, Mr Architect). The concert hall is huge - it must take thousands!

In the interval it was possible to go out on the balcony overlooking the harbour and the harbour bridge. Is that romantic or what? It's a brilliant location for an opera house, though quite a long hike from the centre. Because of that by the time I arrived for the opera no food was left in the bistro...and after the opera finished, by 10.45, everything in the town was closed. So dinner was a breadroll before the show, and an ice lolly afterwards (even the hotel bar had closed at 11).



This is a brilliant, brilliant book, written by Gautam Malkani, a journalist on the Financial Times. Kind of 'Trainspotting' in West London Indian, written in that vernacular, where a 'desi' is a real Indian (culturally), as opposed to a 'coconut' (black on the outside) - that's when it does not use SMS-speak.

It's about young Jas, aged 19 or so, who was a rather bookish bloke before he fell in with a crowd of 'rudeboys' - these are West London Indian heavies, big into bodybuilding, and not shy to commit the odd minor crime or two (in this case reprogramming stolen mobile phones). It has been hard for him to get into this crowd because of his bookishness, and because it's still quite hard to him to follow their train of thought (quite apart from his stammer...), so he does not say much in the group. But because he sometimes thinks before he acts he is useful for deflating tensions.

The group get caught trying to nick their former teacher's mobile phone, and he offers them a way out which does not involve the police. However, there are serious consequences....

The descriptions are wonderful, especially those of Jas' thought processes, as are the insights into the lives of Indian families, their relationships, the need for respect to be shown at different times. The relationships between different auntijys and their sons and relatives are beautifully described, and the book is incredibly funny. It takes some getting used to the language (as it would do getting used to Scots) but it's well worth doing so.


Figaro, figaro, Fiiiiiiiiigaaaaro!

Rossini knew what he was doing when he wrote the signature aria for Figaro right at the beginning of his opera 'The Barber of Seville'. Figaro firmly plants himself in the minds of the audience as a wheeler, dealer and fixer!

Surprisingly, it was the first time I had seen the opera. It was also the first time I saw anything at the Sydney Opera House. It was brilliant!

Set in a 1930s health spa, it involved not only the singing protagonists, but also a number of silent characters, including a retired colonel, two injured bullfighters, a mad painter, and a lovely little elderly factotum who shuffled about in that memorable way of the parking attendant in 'Mon Oncle'. I had not realised the story was so involved (having only seen the play in the Russian Drama Theatre in Vilnius, in Russian), with Count Almaviva disguising himself as all sorts of characters.

From the start it was clear that Figaro (the wonderful Jose Carbo) had everything in control, and although he did not have that many singing parts after the first aria, he sorted out everything, and for everyone. The surreal and rather psychedelic set contributed to a general air of wackiness (in the blurb the production is, justifiably, described as a mixture of Antonio Gaudi and the Marx Brothers). There were lots of lovely little, and very funny, details - and the singing and musicianship were just grand, full of joy and enthusiasm. I wish the Vienna Staatsoper produced shows like this!


Sunday, July 01, 2007


It's the end of day 3 of the international viola congress, and a great congress it is, too! In Adelaide University's Elder School of Music, based in various building of the university campus (a mixture of Victorian and modern), we rush about between buildings for concerts, masterclasses and talks. Coffee is a bit thin on the ground, though, what with the campus coffee shops closing at 3 pm. What do the students do? There can be awakeness crises!

Lots of the usual faces attend, but also many, many Australians and Kiwis. Every day starts with a group play in at 8.30 am - bit of a killer, what with having difficulties to find breakfast first, but an amazing number of people attend! Slight blow yesterday when the chap running it had apparently fallen over his dog, whilst walking it in the dark, and broken his foot. Today he conducted from a wheelchair.

Luckily the music is quite different from other congresses, with mostly modern, very new music, often from Aussie or Kiwi composers. Many concerts contain at least one Aussie premiere. This makes it more interesting. Not that all the music is necessarily great, and not every performance is brilliant, but it is always thus. Must be frightening to perform in front of lots of viola aficionados! Today we had a nice performance of Berio's 'Naturale', and the other day the NZ Symphony Orchestra's viola band played a lovely arrangement of all sorts of viola themes from different operas and symphonies, by Craig Utting who apparently does many arrangements for multi-violas. Every performer also does a little talk about the pieces they are about to play, which is very helpful.

There are not so many instruments for sale as usual - Australia only has 20 million inhabitants, it's a huge country, and for many people it's not so economical to travel to a congress to show their fiddles. But there are some very interesting, and very cheap, Chinese instruments by kginstruments which are worth further exploration. They passed well at today's 'instrument-tasting' session where leading players tried out different instruments. There is also an instrument maker from NZ, though, who knows the luthier from Vilnius who emigrated to NZ a few years ago - small world!

The weather has remained just bearable, though I still find it funny running in next to nothing past people who are very heavily wrapped indeed! Once I could not resist temptation and said to someone well-wrapped in a lift 'you'd think it's winter' - it did not go down well.....


Oh, Dame Edna!

Thursday night, at Her Majesty's Theatre (where else?) in Adelaide - an audience consisting entirely of white Australians, of very varying ages - did that very ancient couple in the row in front of me know what they were letting themselves in for?

The show started with Dame Edna, her pianist and the Edna-tones (her backing group, dancers, scene shifters) bursting into song - it's Dame Edna's 50th anniversary of being on stage! Followed by a film clip which allowed her/him to change into the ghastly Les Patterson character, spitting and dribbling (how does he do that? - it was very dangerous in the front row) and with a huge penis tucked into his left trouser leg. His jokes were outrageous, and the audience was in uproar - especially the front row.... This was followed by Sandy Stone, a character I did not know, who did a very interesting, and quite quiet, monologue about old people's homes - it seems the situation in Australia is much like that in other parts of the world.

Only after the interval did Dame Edna return, and she certainly was back with a vengeance. She's by far the best character of them all! Flounced all over the stage, sang, danced (aged 73), and then began to pick on the audience. I watched in appalled fear from the fourth row! First she picked on some women, the last of which was a stand-up comic from Honolulu with an unusual name - causing some consternation! Then she arranged a wedding of two people who had been shown to be very compatible by some 'research'. Hmmmm. She picked some interesting ones there!

One was a very small, very old lady, who when asked about her marital status, said she was a widow. How long? 6 months - ouch! The other one was a young guy, who said he was not single. When asked about the lucky girl, his male partner jubilantly popped up in the audience. Much crossing of eyes and curling of lips ensued! She got them married, and then decided to phone the young guy's mother. He only went 'oh my god, oh my god' - and we did not know what exactly might be the problem...When the mum answered, Dame Edna told her that she had some news which the mother might have been dreaming of for a very long time.....The mother was totally flummoxed, and eventually hung up. Even Dame Edna realised that she might have gone a step too far!

It was a brilliant, brilliant show! Did not understand all since it was more Aussie than on UK TV, but everyone had a fantastic time! Definitely worth the ticket price!