Saturday, October 27, 2007

A consummate communicator!

In whatever he does. This is Daniel Hope, violinist, story teller extraordinaire. He's just brought out a CD (Mendelssohn violin concerto, original version - not universally appreciated, BBC Radio 3 did not much like it, someone else did), a book 'Familienstuecke' ('family pieces'; only, it seems, in German), and the CD of someone reading the book. This was taken as the cause for an author's evening at Dussmann in Friedrichstrasse, Berlin (the biggest classical CD shop in Berlin). It was packed!

Hope played some salon pieces with his piano partner Sebastian Knauer. Both are very good looking young gentlemen (in their best years). Hope ooooozes charisma. The pieces, which were not the highest brow music, in fact they were rather formulaic, were beautifully played in a salon sort of way, very sweetly and fireworkish. Hope would have fitted in well with Heifetz, Kreisler and their ilk.

Then he read, in German (he grew up in England and would have no business speaking German so well, were it not for his German wife, and some family history), excerpts from his book; slighly more lengthily than absolutely required, but wow, is he a good reader! With a brilliant sense of timing and great powers of imitation - he should think of reading, or acting, as an emergency career!

I left after that, having already finished reading the book and having to rush to the opera. It was interesting that all his readings were little anecdotes of what happened in his life, when in fact the meat in the book is what happened to his family in Germany. So he is an absolute diplomat, too.

The book is very interesting, but it suffers from a lack of material. There is a very complicated story about what happened to his partly Jewish family in Germany, and how they got to emigrate, but this is also padded out with a bit of autobiography. I know that people younger than 33 have written autobiographies, but there is really no great need for this.

The story of his family is the usual story of Jews in Germany in the 1930s, with harassment, and expropriations, though it does not seem that anyone of the closer family has died in the camps; most managed to get out. Clearly this is fairly traumatic stuff, especially given that people in his family have not talked much about this since then, and he has had to find out much from research. (I have come also across this in a book about the Armenian genocide....).

This part of the book is slightly confusing because there are so many people, many great-great grandparents, and the chapters not running particularly chronologically - occasionally the book jumps backwards and forwards, or pauses somewhere, and you try to follow the sequence of events. Also there are many assumptions, where Hope thinks that people might have reacted to particular events in this way, rather than that way - the book is a bit thin on hard facts in this regard. This is partly due to the fact that he only started this when many of the participants were dead, and perhaps also because he just lacked the time to research more deeply.

The other part of the book (the two intermingle) is full of anecdotes about his own life, as well as about other people. The word 'padding' comes to mind a little. It is extremely amusing, though!

The writing style (is it written by a ghost writer whose name is in the book) is slightly for the coffee table market; some stuff, such as the age and 'make' of his fiddle, does not really need to be mentioned - it seems a bit like showing off. It's quite an interesting book and a very pleasant (well, mostly, given the events described in it), but probably not a deep analysis of anything.

What it does show, though, is what an absolute powerhouse of activity both his mum is, and he is! That's really quite awesome!


You must, must, must go and see it!

Rossini's 'Barber of Seville', that is, at the Staatsoper in Berlin. It's brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! Starting already with the overture and some ironic rallentandos and unexpected echos (conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni), this production bursts into life and never stops till the end.

Set on a white stage with a mini theatre made from sheets of fabric hanging off wires, Ruth Berghaus' production resembles those paper and cardboard models one had of eighteenth-century theatres. This is reinforced by the exaggeratedly caricaturic characters all of which have their own walk (as if they were pushed around the stage on a stick of cardboard) as they appear and disappear. The costumes were pure 18th century, with ironic additions.

Figaro (Alfredo Daza) was wonderful, totally as he should be, a factotum, a fixer who could sort out anyone's problems; great singer, too. Count Almaviva (Dimitri Korchak) seemed a bit weedy at the beginning, but soon picked up speed and was a brilliant comic actor. Alexander Vinogradov as Don Basilio floated all over the stage, backwards and forwards, eyes rolling all around his head - his aria on the power of libel was to die for. All others were great, too.

It really was a great, great performance; the house was packed and everyone enjoyed themselves hugely. The orchestra played wonderfully, too. If you go to Berlin, check out this one (and if you go to Sydney, Australia, check out their very different, but equally stunning, production).


Monday, October 22, 2007

Music and Social Issues

Yefim Bronfman in New York has pulled a stunt similar to that by Joshua Bell who went and busked in the underground in Washington earlier this year. Both performances were at around 8 am, when people were rushing to work. Not the best time.

It's worth mentioning that Bronfman is a pianist. This makes busking rather more complicated. No running up to somewhere, opening the lid of your case and away you go. A grand piano had to be installed. This event was announced, so there was no surprise for the audience, and some hardy fans had arrived early and installed themselves close to the piano. Hence there was applause and everything, rather than people keeping their heads down and rushing past. One of the people rushing past was someone with a cello on her back....heard it all before, sort of thing? Where could a cellist be going at 8 in the morning?

This little effort was not just an experiment, but part of an action with the Food Bank on the 'going orange' week, which highlights the plight of hungry New Yorkers. You think there are none? Apparently there are over a million New Yorkers who rely on the help of food banks, with a million using the 900 soup kitchens, and others using the food bank programme because they cannot get food stamps (though they may be eligible for them). The poverty rate among children is 32% (as it was in the UK until the late 1990's - it's dropped to 25%). The frightening thing is that even working families need support from the food bank.

Bronfman's concert was also an extremely laudable effort to publicise an auction for a concert by him at your home; see this website; in addition you get a Steinway grand for 6 months to tinkle on. The next bid needs to be 6,500 USD. I suspect that if you live way beyond New York you need not apply...(says she, living in a fifth floor flat in Vilnius - the piano removers would go crazy!).

It's great, this linking of classical music and social inclusion - everyone should do something like this! Thanks to the Spanish-speaking la Coctelera for the links!


Rothko and Tavener

Last night's concert, in the context of the Gaida new music festival, my violist friend Arunas Statkus played, together with the Kaunas State Choir under Petras Bingelis, Morton Feldman's 'Rothko Chapel' and John Tavener's 'The Myrrh Bearer'.

I didn't have a programme, so I did not really know which piece was which, though I should have known. The first piece was 'Rothko Chapel' - this refers to a hospital chapel somewhere in Texas where Rothko has provided the wall paintings, at possibly the most depressed period in his life. The picture on the right will therefore be one of his more lively ones. See the view of a bit of the chapel below. Very plain, rather funereal, and frankly, not very uplifting. It certainly is a quiet room!

Ditto the piece. It would fit perfectly into this chapel with its quiet monotones, the occasional viola note, the muted percussion, the humming choir apparently singing no words. It's a long piece, too, of about 20+ minutes, with much of a muchness musically. But that's what Feldman's music is like (he's a minimalist); for him it is probably quite a short piece. His second string quartet lasts over 6 hours (are the performers not allowed bodily needs?). In this performance the conductor was conducting like crazy (half-beats?) and everyone hung on in. It might be better for background music in said chapel, while you are contemplating, rather than in a concert situation.

This was followed by John Tavener's 'Myrrh Bearer' - a completely different piece, also for viola, some percussion and choir. Tavener is of course well-known for his piece at Princess Diana's funeral. He's a contemporary composer (unlike his almost namesake John TaveRner of the 17th century), and he's a Greek Orthodox in the faith department. Which is relevant since he writes much religious music. This piece is very interesting since it is built partly on the classical liturgical structure of a mass, but also the violist has words to interpret. Not by singing them, thankfully, but in his playing since the viola part represents Mary Magdalene - there are all sorts of words including English nursery rhymes. The choir represents 'us'. The music is a mixture of slightly Eastern sounds, though also a very western 'Kyrie Eleison' bursts through at regular intervals.

The piece makes wonderful use of the viola's range of sound, from very lowest to extremely high, nosebleed territory. The high parts go on for so long that one fears for the player's hands. Arunas created wonderful sounds from his very small viola (let no-one say you need a huge viola to get a good sound); from absolutely totally chocolatey, velvety, lush low tones to very piercing high notes - and even there the warmth of the viola sound shone through convincingly. Not a note out of place, and the interpretation was wonderful, lively and exciting. A great display of what a viola can do if you allow it!


Saturday, October 20, 2007

What story did he make up for himself this time?

Last time I heard Freddy Kempf it was when I played with him. Let me rephrase that - I was at the Dartington Summer School as was Freddy and his trio, where they worked as coaches. Only most people were so deeply in awe of this lot, that they did not dare ask them for tutoring. A friend and I did, and since the friend (a pianist) was the one who was particularly keen on the Arpeggione Sonata we picked on Freddy. Also there was no way I would have exposed myself to a cellist for the other part of the sonata. So he came along - and I was so in awe of being in the same room as him that I could barely hold my instrument the right way up! The main thing I brought back from that session was how useful it was to make up a little story about the music to help express what it said; and we made up a very nice, albeit slightly depressing, story about this sonata. The previous time I had heard him live was in Glasgow in 1992 when, aged 15, he won the young musician of the year competition. I'm not sure whether he has changed since....

Anyway, here he was in Vilnius, playing the Rakhmaninov second piano concerto. And wow, he blistered into it, and gave that piano laldy! Fingers flying everywhere, bravely battling against the occasionally overwhelming orchestra, beautifully cooperating with the conductor and the cellist opposite him - there were moments of utter bliss. Until you see a guy playing this stuff you don't appreciate the intricacy of it all, like when at least 10 fingers are hitting the keys (says she, who can do one hand on a piano, has trouble with both hands at the same time, and as for two hands and one foot - oh forget it!). And he was so mobile and full of expression and communication - the audience lapped it up and got him to play a Chopin etude as an encore. Another piano lesson on having the 'tune' on one finger with the others just providing a wash of background (says she whose hands are siamese twins on the piano, and as for divorcing just a finger ....). Totally awesome!

Those of you who live in the UK - Freddy Kempf and the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robertas Servenikas, in November are doing a tour of mainly England (12 concerts; there must be one near you!). Go and see them! They are playing all of Rakhmaninov's piano and orchestra pieces (not in the same concert), and some other stuff, too.

For the rest of the concert the orchestra was transformed, compared to the week before. It's all, and entirely and totally, due to the talented Robertas Servenikas, who conducts more and more like Simon Rattle every day. He did a thing with his left shoulder which Rattle does, too. Though on the whole Servenikas has nicer hair. Here the orchestra blistered its way through the William Tell overture (after an absolutely heart-rending start by the lead cellist, Edmundas Kulikauskas -oh, that first note - play it again, and again, Edmundas! - and his delightful group), and then launched into Nielsen's first symphony. Nielsen is one I should be familiar with, what with the Scottish chamber orchestra, and possibly the RSNO having had Nielsen seasons, but I could not remember anything about this symphony - I would have heard it only once, anyway.
I see Nielsen is described as post-romantic composer; that's about right, on the showing of this symphony. Nothing modern or atonal about it (atonal? wash my mouth out with soap and water), but apparently it already displays Nielsen's habit of starting a piece in one key and ending in another. That would indeed make it post-romantic. It's a very powerful work, with the first movement ending as if the whole piece had ended (unfortunately for the audience who burst into premature applause). The third movement had moved as far away from a minuet or scherzo form as you might get. The orchestra was totally under control and well-rehearsed; a Nielsen series of concerts would be a very nice idea.

(Photo courtesy of IMG Artists website).


Since Otar Left

It's a wonderful film! The story is about three women, grandmother, daughter and granddaughter, who live in Tbilisi, trying to get by on next to nothing, but with a deeply abiding love of France. The daughter's brother, Otar, has left for Paris to get some work to support the family; every now and again he writes and sends some money. The grandmother lives for these letters.

Then Otar has an accident and dies. How to break it to the grandmother? They can't - her heart is weak. So a process of deception starts, not unlike that in 'Goodbye, Lenin'. Which works, after a fashion (though it is not possible to replace the money no longer being sent), until granny decides to go and visit Otar in Paris.

The film is largely set in Tbilisi and surrounding countryside - I recognized the post office, the street beside Macdonalds, the Iveria hotel which at the time still housed the refugees (and now is an empty shell in the process of becoming a Radisson hotel), the steep cobbled streets not that far from me, the power cuts, thankfully not the water cuts, some of the other places, more or less derelict....

Esther Gorintin, who plays the granny, is the absolute absolute star of the film; she does not do very much, but the way she looks at people, at things, when contemplating - it melts your heart.
Worth rushing out to see it, if it ever comes to your neighbourhood!


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Classical Star?

It would appear that BBC 2 is running a series akin to the one on finding a pop superstar (not sure what it's called in the UK), but this time for classical musicians.

The blurb says: 'Under the watchful eye of Academy Director Matthew Barley they will learn new skills and face tough challenges. How will they cope in such a high-pressure environment? And who will make it past the first week?'

The academy has 9 students aged 14 to 19 who will learn new skills, get masterclasses etc, but it seems that at the end of each of the first two weeks three students will leave. The final three will battle it out for a prize.

I'm not sure what to think about that. Much of me thinks that this is not far off child abuse, in the case of the little ones. What are they doing out of school when they are of compulsory school age (but maybe it was all recorded in the summer holidays)? But then what is the difference between this and the Young Musician of the Year? That they sleep at home? But many of those kids are at boarding school anyway.

It just seems an awful lot of pressure for such young children. Then again, if they play well enough, does that make them able to cope with this? I hope the programme had good psychological advice.



As a member of the British Sociological Association (no less!) my attention was drawn to the book 'Fracture' by Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley is a professor of sociology who one icy day in the US slipped outside a motel and broke her right elbow. It was a complicated fracture and resulted in her losing the feeling in much of her right hand. Let me rephrase that - she lost the feeling that she has a right hand even though she could see it. Weird, and terrifying, no? My mother broke her left elbow a couple of years ago but avoided this little complication.

Now put together in a pot the idea of a professor of sociology, broken bones, the US and UK health systems and the US legal system - the outcome becomes very interesting. Oakley uses her experience (which caused her to take early retirement in the end) to debate, in places rather amusingly, all kinds of issues about the concepts of 'body' and 'self' and the roles of women and patients. I may lose the plot as I go on; this is all rather complicated.

She describes how she arrives in a hospital in the back of beyond in the US, and her similarly sociologist professor friends interrogate the surgeon about evidence-based medicine, of which he disclaims all knowledge. The trio of them must be rather intimidating to the medical staff.

She goes on to describe the aftermath of the accident, the endless physiotherapy with Teresa, a very imaginative physiotherapist, the legal battles. She debates the role of the body in connection to the self - the best body is the body we don't feel; once it is damaged it changes our self, too (eg from independent to dependent). She complains that in correspondence with the American lawyer a doctor writes that she has no complaints, but she cannot remember ever being asked such a question. Doctors look at bodies, but do not take into account the patient's experience of being in that body (and of what a body might be required to do for the patient). I know what she means - two years ago I twisted my ankle with an audible ping on the outside of the foot; both doctors I saw ignored my report of this, and now sometimes it gives me (a very little) gip.

She hilariously describes a series of experiments researching the experience of sensation by a couple of Cambridge dons, Head and Rivers, involving the dunking of Head's penis into glasses of water of different temperature, sometimes involving the foreskin, sometimes not. Apparently there is a difference. (It is relevant to the sensation or otherwise she has in her right hand).

Then she goes off at a long tangent about women's health and bodies (also how at the end of pregnancy one body splits into two) and how it supports a whole pharmaceutical industry what with HRT and Osteoporosis drugs, as well as all those check ups and breast squeezing women have to go through, with as she says hardly any evidence that it makes a beneficial difference.

Finally she describes the horrendous process of the US law which requires the lawyers to have access to her entire medical history (that's the advantage I have having moved countries twice; I can forget the less relevant bits of my medical history) - in the process of which she finds that it is full of mistakes, including adding an extra 100 pounds to her weight. She has to explain the UK NHS system to a US lawyer in - words - of - one - syllable - and he still does not get it. She gets exasperated but cannot let the case drop because the lawyer is on a no-win no-fee basis and so would not make any money.

It's a fascinating book, unputdownable (whenever can you say that about a sociology book), and in passing a wonderful introduction into the sociology of the body and the self.


They must have lost his luggage....

Airlines, you know how they are, especially if you use UK airports. Luggage goes missing all the time.

It's the only way I can explain that tonight's conductor and soloist, Barry Douglas, was dressed worse than anyone in the orchestra. I have commented on his appearance before, though not sure that much of the impish smile was around tonight. It was the black t-shirt combined with the dark grey lounge suit that got me. While the suit did not look as if it had been slept in, an iron would never have hurt. All this was topped off with the gold watch looking out from his sleeve when he conducted from the piano. It's probably just me, I find gold rather naff, but some Irishmen seem to go for lots of gold (viz Jimmy Galway and his golden flute).

Anyway. Barry Douglas, the pianist, who won the gold medal (more gold...) at a Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, is into conducting, too. From memory. Everything. Tonight he got the piano concerto over with first; I had the feeling that playing the piano and conducting to him is a bit like playing the piano with two hands and using the pedals, too is to me - in my case the feet throw the hands; his looked a bit of an effort. Also because the piano was sitting in the usual position for a piano concerto, rather than up the middle of the orchestra, as is the norm in piano-conductor arrangements. It was all right. He played all the notes at the right time, but it did not inspire - in particular the second movement lacked legato. Not very interesting.

The Bartok divertimento for strings was so so, too; not many dynamics, and not much inspirational rough stuff, and little fire. The piece had some interesting moments (written by Bartok), but not played by the band. There could have been much more lushness. The first fiddler and his colleagues, who had solo spots, did fine, though. The cellos got the entry which they were not given.

The Kinsella nocturne followed this. Kinsella seems to have been a head of Irish radio, one assumes of the classical station. It was a one-movement piece, much of a muchness, you know what a nocturne is supposed to do, and so my mind drifted off.

Finally it was Mozart's 29th symphony. It started languidly and uninterestingly. I was contemplating the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra's gorgeous young first cellist (probably not quite so young any more!), Dainius, who has finally given in and got himself a pair of trendy glasses after spending the last 7 years peering at the audience. His facial movements now look quite different, what with him being able to have his eyes open.

Suddenly, at the coda of the first movement, I became aware that something had changed! The conductor and the orchestra got a pulse, and it was stunning performance from then on. I don't know what lead to this sudden infusion of energy, but everyone burst into life and it was a riveting performance from then on! Only, the perils of conducting from memory... either the horns completely missed a lengthy entry, or, more likely the conductor gave it a few bars in advance. Oh the embarrassment of waving your hands high up in the air and nothing happens....


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fabulous Duos

On my return home, apart from finding my flat at 12.6 degrees C, I also found the Philippe Graffin/Nobuko Imai CD of Mozart recordings, including the violin/viola duos K423 and K424 and the Sinfonia Concertante, plus some violin/orchestra stuff.

Even the cover of the CD is lovely, with both soloists looking straight at the beholder. Not sure why Graffin is wearing an overcoat while holding his fiddle, but il est francais et il est tres elegant. (Je ne sais pas ou sont les accents).

I really really like the violin viola duos - you don't hear them often, but particularly K424 is fun. This goes back to my pre-viola days, specifically the Mozart year 1991, when the violinist Gyorgy Pauk and Nobuko Imai played them in a series of Mozart concerts on the BBC. That has always been my gold standard. Most performers play them safely and prettily, and oh, so seriously. My test for fun (though I usually notice the absence of it much earlier) are a couple of notes in the last movement of the K424 movement which should just cheekily be thrown up into the air. Philippe Graffin, the violinist, is as close as anyone I've heard (apart from Pauk) to have got there, though even he is having a little trouble letting them go. But on the whole this is a seriously energetic performance, though it also has some winsome moments where they are needed. I'm not quite sure what it is with the balance, though - the violin seems to be closer to the mike - or is it the usual pitch problem with the viola?

The sinfonia concertante is taken at extremes - with very short, spiky notes in the first movement (as does Graffin in the third violin concerto, also on the CD), followed by a rather unexpected rallentando in the middle of the movement. The second movement is taken rather languidly, oozing pain (though the orchestra seems to suffer more pain than the soloists in some places). The soloists duet beautifully here; there are some exquisite heart meltingly delicate moments about halfway through the second movement. Then they race each other through the final movement to the end!

On this CD Graffin (who memorably with Imai did the world premiere of Barkauskas Duo Concertante in Vilnius about 3 years ago) also conducts Het Brabants Orkest, which also seems to be an extremely energetic and assertive band. Though that he forgets the dynamic contrast in my favourite place in the introduction of the Sinfonia Concertante (a pizz in the violin, debating with the horns) is almost unforgivable.

Overall it's a wonderful set of recordings on 2 CDs. Most people probably Mozart violin concerto recordings ad nauseam. The problem probably was that both the sinfonia concertante of 38 minutes and the violin/viola duos totalling 41 minutes were too long to fit together on one disc, so they had to think of something else....


Sunday, October 14, 2007

...not very lucky....

Back in Vilnius last night, at the concert many people complimented me on my appearance (slimmer, hair done [though it badly needs attention]....).

Someone who had seen me at the concert today told me that she could not work out if it was me; she thought it was a boy (! now that my hair is longer!) of 16 or 17.....An American was part of this conversation; a minute or two later she asked my friend and I 'are you retired or are you still working?'

Back down to earth with a bump.


A broken dawn

Home at 3, in the concert hall at 7 pm. An evening of Brahms, Britten and Prokofiev, conducted by Justin Brown, who appears to be one of IMG's artists. IMG takes only the best people - so what went wrong last night?

Britten's sea interludes were a disaster. I must admit to liking them very very much, and having the original Britten/Pears recording; plus I have heard them I don't know how many times whilst living in the UK. So I may have higher than normal expectations (plus, since I had to start the applause at the end, I may have been the only one in the hall who is thoroughly familiar with them). Hearing bits of the piece being practiced backstage before the concert suggested a certain level of fear (though the orchestra has played the piece before). The problem was that the lushness of the piece, and the very long, single lines just did not come out. The beginning of 'Dawn' which should be a very long uninterrupted line was upbow, downbow, upbow instead of upbowdownbowupbow. The cellos had a lovely lush line, but it was just thin. The violins got the line back, the conductor emoted like crazy, but nothing happened. The second movement had a rhythmic section where the fiddles fell all over the place! I fear there was no communication between the conductor and the orchestra, and no leadership from the front chair (that is a bit of an issue; he's a lovely lovely guy, and plays his solos beautifully, but he needs to lead at least his own section; if he does not move at the very least his back off the back of the chair, they cannot see what they should do). It was a shame.

Soloist Lidia Baich then took on Prokofiev's first violin concerto which she played with lots of enthusiasm, and a very interesting interpretation indeed. Her sound was a bit little, but otherwise she did very well. It seems she's a former young musician of the year (Europe), and she certainly was very comfortable and at home with the piece, having clearly put much thought into how to communicate the piece - I can see why she wins prizes. There was not a note out of place either. She also seems quite good at self-promotion, though I am glad to see the links to the pictures of her pets (a kitten) seem to have stopped functioning.

Finally we had Brahms' second symphony which went quite well, with no major glitches. Again, though, the orchestra seemed to go into autodrive, while the conductor was waving his hands about like crazy. But here the orchestra did seem to warm up at least, and they enjoyed it. But there was not a 'Bravo' in the house.

Interestingly Justin Brown has a very impressive CV, but on yesterday's showing it just did not come off.


Dash 8 - 400

What is it with the Dash 8-400 aircraft? A month or so ago two belonging to SAS had crash landings when part of their landing gear failed, and they sat down on two wheels rather than three. One of these bump-landed in Vilnius.

When we took off from Vienna to Vilnius in the same type of plane yesterday, the passengers were redistributed across the plane, for reasons of loading. This was a bit strange - the staff knew exactly which seats to redistribute, including row 8 behind me (near the middle of the plane - question of landing gear?). You'd think though that after two near crashes that all planes of that type would have their landing gear checked, wouldn't you?

Got home safely, though.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I wonder how many hits I'll get with this headline....

Some books are quite hard to read. Imagine travelling in Eastern Europe with a book screaming 'Porno', supported by the picture of a doll on the front cover. Aye, it's no jist eny doll, it's wan ay thae dolls, ken. How can you read the book in any pubic place at all? Even at home I was keeping it discreetly laid down, until the cleaning lady at her last outing placed it face up beside my bed. The right place fur it, ah s'pose.

Why am ah writn' like that? Ah fun, ken, that ah aways tawk n think like the book what ah'm jist readn, man....can have unfortunate consequences, like, but. It's Irvine Welsh's follow-on from 'Trainspotting', involving the same gang of guys, in the same part of Embra, Leith. What's changed, apart from the fact that at Trainspotting time I had not lived in Leith, and now I have. I don't much care for the most violent guy in the book moving into a flat just aroon the corner from my flat.....

Cannae mind much aff trainspotting, like, but this time the guys, who drift together in the course of the book, get together to make a porn film. 'Tis not difficult in Leith....My flat was just down the road from a sauna. In Embra saunas are a discreet way of providing sex, and probably quite safe for the sex workers. Ah kent that wur sauna wiz in the trade, what with the girls hawning oot the towels to the laundry van wearing clothes that spoke of a severe fabric shortage and of an ambition to loose much more weight.

Aw wur heroes are in the book, ken. There's violent and seriously paranoid Begbie, jist outta jail, Spud also outta jail and trying to get it thegither with his burd and their bairn (in Embra they are bairns, in Glasgow they are weans), quite apart fae writn a book on historic Leith - which sadly is rejected. Sick Boy buys a pub, Renton (that nice Gregor McEwan) hides oot in the Dam (Amsterdam) on account of that Begbie wants to kill him (and anyone else), but some middle-class burdz (students) also get a look-in. Wan ay the burdz, while being a student, also works in a sauna ('tis not unheard of in Embra, pays for a nice life-style but).

The book is very funny, and pathetic, and wonderfully written, with each ae the characters having their own way ay tawkn. The only wan who's writing is a bit boring is Nikki, the student who works in the sauna - and mebbe she's a bit of a boring person tae, like. They aye tell the story fae their ain viewpoints, n so ye never ken immediately who is daein the tawkin, like. Their minds are spinning, mostly due to the coke (or ching or charlie). Some have tried to give it up like, but not succeeded but. Others have not tried.

The language maks the book also hard tae read, because you want to really savour the Scoats language used, ken. Here's Spud, the failed writer, tawkn: 'Wee Curtis is pure celebratin n aw cause eh's been in some orgy wi they lassies fir this film thit Sick Boy's makin now. A pure dinnnae like tae think aboot Ali working in that pub wi aw thaim aroond thaire. Sometimes ah think aboot him tryin to get hur involved, git her intae aw that, n ma blood just goes pure cauld.'

Imagine proof-reading that! It's funny how none ay the characters are particularly likeable; wi most o them ye'd no want to have onything tae dae wi them, like. You'd want tae cross the road if ye saw them coming but. Though there are wan or twae you feel a bit sorry for, like yon ultra-violent Begbie (though you could no get through tae him tae sort him oot, like). N wee Spud with his literary ambishuns, his attempts to go straight n his love for his pussy cawed Zappa.

Did ah mention the book was aboot a porn film? 'Seven rides for seven brothers'. You could nae mak it up! N it's the unsexiest book ah've ever read - take the love outta sex and it's jist a transaction.

It's great, but it's no for the likes ay thows who cannae unnerstawn the Scoats tung; they'll niver get the book, but. There's also plenty of violence in it, the way a usual Friday evening goes in the UK, not just in Leith, and of course the sex. If you can can deal with all three, it's brilliant, ken?


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Love goes through the stomach

The Alsatian who arrived way back in June to live with my landlord's family is an incredibly nervous dog; big, beautiful, but such a feartie! Barks at everything that moves, won't come near me; when I arrive in the middle of the night, she barks from the minute she hears me open the gate at the top of the 78 steps down to my flat, until I've gone in. Sometimes I think she even barks when I go to use the bathroom. Bit of a pain, all that.

We've taken two steps to deal with it. The landlord now leaves the light on in the yard overnight - this hunk of a dog is feart of the dark??? It has worked already, and she's much quieter.

I'm trying to get her to love me, and so invested in some tiny dog biscuits. Every morning when I go to work, I give one each to both dogs (with the longer resident dog getting hers first; one needs to respect pecking orders). It's beginning to work! Previously Miss Alsatian would not go near me; now she comes running up as soon as I step inside the gate. Does not liked to be touched on the head, but I can now touch her on her side a little.

Interestingly, it's also taken about 3 months for the dogs to play together. Complicated thing, this dog psyche.....

NB the option that she spends the night indoors does not exist.


Spotting the expat

It becomes a bit weird when we, as the expats, begin to spot the Georgian expats in the concerts. We Western expats are highly visible, and we tend to spot each other, though it's rather naff to speak to someone just because they are also foreigners. You might have (and frequently you don't) nothing in common.

But at today's concert in the Opera House, 'Baroque in the Opera' with the tiny chamber orchestra 'Mon Plaisir' consisting of one each of each instrument, it was very obvious who was the Georgian expat in the band. People who live abroad for a long time become like the people of the country they live in. (What does that make me??). This soloist reminded me of David Geringas, the Lithuanian cellist, who like Giorgi Kobulashvili lives in Germany. Both look fairly prosperous compared to their former fellow countrymen; it's the better cut and fabric of clothes (though exceeding that is quite difficult in Lithuania these days), the squareness of solidity of weight, the German haircut, the shiny polished skin, and the aura of command. So here your soloist, the oboist, sometimes sitting at the back of the band, was conducting the orchestra. The founder of the band is a bassoonist; forget him for conducting. The leader of the band totally lacks confidence.

So it was an evening of two Vivaldi concerti, a baroque overture (containing a tierce de Picardie!!! - well-spotted), and a Bach cantata where I failed to understand a single word sung by Nino Chachua, in German, I assume. It was fun, though there were plenty of iffy moments, including a very inaccurate cello obbligato in the back (though it was also at breakneck speed), the oboe solo in one of the Vivaldi concerti missed a few notes, and in the slow movement ran out of puff a few times in a way that our wonderful Robertas Beinaris in Vilnius would not have done, and then in the bassoon/oboe concerto the bassoonist ran out of notes, having put the wrong pages on his music stand. But it was all good fun!

We met a delightful couple from the US; his family went back to Latvia 100 years ago, and had got to the US via South Africa and Glasgow. They were over 80 and on a two month tour of Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and the five -stans. A pair of tough old birds! We were lucky to arrive at the hall with them, before it was opened. The security guards felt sorry for the elderly couple and let us in, too! Also met the girls from Latvia and Germany we had met in Kazbegi a few weeks ago; they were in Tbilisi for a few days of well deserved R&R. A great night out, and the concert was fun - not the best concert, but fun. The violist had a lovely case for his instrument which looked like a baby cello case! He hated it, he said...


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Expatriate scribblings

Everywhere I go, and where I can understand them, I buy books. Hence the metres of unread books in my house. Some books I can identify later by the price stickers according to where and when I bought them; other times even the price stickers are completely obfuscating.

'Open Season in Beirut' by Denys Johnson-Davies, on the other hand, is one I bought at Dubai airport when I passed through there. It cost 49 units of Dubai's currency. (You can see how deeply I went into researching Dubai whilst passing through).

I thought the book would give me an insight into life in the Middle East, eg Lebanon. It does - into the lives of usually British expats who treat the Middle East and its residents as commodities. The Author is a Canadian. The stories are fairly unadulterated dreadful. There's the journalist who persuades a female Lebanese sniper to shoot an old man in the street, for the sake of the camera; another guy who fancies himself living with the bedouins but goes and tries to rape one of their daughters instead, the guy who casually mentions to his servant of decades that he might return 'home' to the UK, causing all sorts of alarms; the old man in a British nursing home dreaming of his days out East...

The stories are just episodes in people's lives; most of the time they don't go anywhere; they betray a brutality of foreigners who apparently do not see the local inhabitants as human, and who do not appear to care much about the consequences of their actions. Likeable people (usually men) they are very rarely. There are many deaths in the stories, but the expats do not seem to care greatly.

I thought it was just an expat's scribblings; a guy who is out there, with nothing much to do, imagining things, including that he is a writer. In fact, looking at amazon, it seems our author is a very busy translator of Arabic writings. All I can say is, a translator doth not a writer make. I see also that amazon is not selling this book. That might be a smart move.


A very small world indeed!

Reading Grannyp's blog about her school reunion.

I've only been through one of these, after 25 years. When I asked about a 30-year reunion (the person who I'd hope would organise it), she asked 'so who will organise it?'. Fair enough. I've got an easy excuse not being in the same country. Though these days with skype... The next one would be 35 years, which seems a bit daft - so it'll be 40 years, I suppose; by which time we will all be around 60.

Grannyp is right about teachers becoming people at reunions, and roles changing. Suddenly one can have a woman-to-woman conversation with a 'teacher'. Though one also realises that some teachers are pratts - not all of them, but it happens. Never left school, kind of thing. Former pupils also no longer need to suck up to teachers.... a classmate who was bad a maths had the brilliant idea of joining the music course, also taught by the maths teacher, who was very prone to having favourites. It did not work - she was not into music either. (You might think that 'favourites' and 'maths' cannot be used in the same sentence, since results should be either right or wrong. Believe me, our teacher did favourites big-style. I know because for a period I was very much the extreme disfavourite, and boy, did she go on at me.)

Grannyp mentions that pupils from her school have changed in the last 50 years. I did not find that particularly, but then we had only 25 years of development! It was interesting that at the time my child was finishing university, whereas another's child had not yet started school - but that mum had finished her education before having the child....

Reading Grannyp's entry made me think - I know that school! So I checked, and indeed, it seems she went to school with my son's godmother who she remembers very well. (Both people are very distinctive and therefore easily remembered). Amazing, or what? Since then the school has closed, though not before godmother's daughter went there, and some other people. Now godmother's granddaughter is going to my son's old school. What goes around, comes around!


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where's Blair

Tony Blair - do you remember him? What happened to him? Where is he? Rumour was that he is middle-East envoy - but peace has not broken out. Nor, as a friend pointed out, has another war. That's a good thing, then.

He must be missing his UK taxpayer-funded spin doctors - maybe they did not want to go out into the desert with him.

I see his colleague, Putin, who will also be at a bit of a loose end once his presidency ends (and hat off to his respect for democracy that he is not, like the tinpot dictators all around him, getting his constitution changed so he can be president for life - yet), has already thought of another job. Apparently he is going to stand for the Russian parliament at the December 2007 election. His president job ends in March 2008. Interesting.


Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Haruki Murakami writes either novels or short stories. It's a pity; I don't like short stories much and here I got landed with a book full of them. It was part of my 3 books for the price of two at Gatwick airport, I think.

The stories are good; quirky and often very strange in the way that Murakami usually writes, and often without a definite end - they tend to peter out. All the stories are quite different and set in different parts of the world. I could have done without the shortened version of 'Norwegian Wood' which I had only just read. The blurb on the back talks about Murakami's inventive mastery - that's certainly right; he's absolutely astonishing in the kinds of stories and characters he creates - where does he get his ideas from?

If you like Murakami and you commute to work on a train or a bus it'll be a wonderful book. But of course, short stories are, er, short, and so it is probably quite put downable, too.

And that's all I remember about it - I read it a few weeks ago, in Ukraine. And now I can get it off my desk.


Understanding Australia

'Speaking from the heart' is one of the books I brought back from Australia; it was one of the very few books of writing (or is it speaking) by native Australians, also known as 'Aaaabos' to Sir Les Patterson. (For those not in the know, the latter is not a nice way of speaking about the native Australian population).

It's a collection of stories describing their lives, by various members of the different communities. There are many different communities and they cannot be treated as the same; they have different languages and different cultural understandings of things. The stories are often fairly horrific, particularly in terms of the White Australia policy of the first half of the 20th century, when the Native Welfare Board was trying to breed out blackness - the board had to approve every marriage involving native Australians, and woe betide them if someone wanted to marry a blacker person (though by definition often one of the parties of the marriage would be blacker). A chap called Mr Neville, the head of the Native Welfare Board, was particularly feared and loathed. Children would be taken from the families and put into missions, often orphanages where they would be brought up in institutional life and encouraged to forget everything about their birth families. There also seems to be a concept of mission which seems to be a very large area of land, managed by some church folk, where native Australians of all ages would live. Although native Australians were able to join the army, they were not always able to participate in the lives of the other soldiers, for example when they would go out and the 'blackfellas' would not be served alcohol.

The spirituality of the native Australians comes through very strongly, as does their connectedness to the land (especially through the 'taproot' which we gardeners know is the strongest kind of root, though here the meaning is conceptual) and its nature, and their very strong sense of family, which does not only include those connected by blood. Hence it's even more atrocious to have the children removed. Interestingly one of the narrators talks about the British children who were in the orphanages at the same time (for a while the UK exported its post-war orphans to Australia and Canada).

Now, having been in Oz just at the time of the child abuse scandal, what surprised me most of all was the talk in the book of families living in four-bedroomed houses, having highly polished floors etc (though not all of them in the book). All the media images at the time (June this year) of native Australians showed rag-tag people sitting near nothing more than benders suggesting that these are their homes. Native Australians were almost invisible, and the few I saw in Adelaide, apart from one smart schoolboy, were always very much at the margin of things. This representation is totally different from that in the book, where most narrators are community leaders and some are academics. Many of them have non-native Australian ancestors, eg white Australians, English or Asians, and perhaps that gave their families a different experience to draw upon and a different outlook. In some way I would have liked to hear more about the downtrodden members of the community and their experiences of life - this is perhaps my greatest criticism of the book. Incidentally you wonder how much the alleged difficulties in childrearing is due to the institutional upbringing of so many native Australians.

Interestingly, at our viola congress reception in Adelaide Town Hall, there were a character whose namebadge said 'Uncle.....'. I asked him what it meant but just at that time the speeches started. 'Uncle...' seems to be the title of an elder of the community. He bade us welcome in another language which we did not understand. He was also white as the driven snow. So the White Australia policy has worked?


Tuesday, October 02, 2007


2 sets of interesting statistics:

from Transparency International, the Corruptions Perception Index of how corrupt people see their society, and of countries I know and love:
1. Denmark (least corrupt)
12. UK
16. Germany
28. Estonia
41. Czech Republic
51. Lithuania and Latvia (oy veh!, Lithuania has dropped)
61. Poland
79. Georgia
99. Armenia
111. Moldova and Rwanda
118. Ukraine
123. Viet Nam
143. Russia
150. Tajikistan
175. Uzbekistan
178. Iraq (well done!)
179. Somalia (most corrupt)

Health Consumer Powerhouse has assessed the health systems of all European Member States and found that Bismarck beats Beveridge (what a headline!). The results in relation to some countries are as follows:

1. Austria (best)
5. Germany
12. Estonia
17. UK
26. Lithuania (below Romania)
29. Latvia

I wonder what makes Estonia perform so much better than its Baltic neighbours? Is it the close influence of Finland?