What a week!

I normally only write this blog when travelling and usually when travelling abroad. But I haven’t done that since Christmas in Cadiz in 2019 so it’s been a while. However the last week has involved travel and events that hint at some sort of normal life again. The week began with me getting unexpected praise for writing something completely outside my comfort zone so I posted it on my Verbalists blog. It was a piece of music criticism as homework for a short series of webinars from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

So last Saturday I ventured to the wilds of east London (Gants Hill) for a delicious lunch and stimulating discussion with one member of the group BBPC (British Bangladeshi Poetry Collective) of which I am honoured to be a trustee. I was invited by Shamim and Eeshita Azad who I worked with in Bangladesh way back in 2009. My poet and artist friend and I are working on a translation project where she finds my editing experience a help. As I told her she mines the jewels; I just give them a bit of a polish. We made good progress and had a fun time. So why was the day spoiled by taking me nearly an hour to get back through the Blackwall Tunnel? What were all these people doing on a Saturday evening?

Sunday and Monday were consumed by domestic and gardening duties which proved fun in the sun and both flowers, fruit and vegetables are coming on nicely and I have a neat front hedge.

On Tuesday morning the four of us who are the executives and trustees of BBPC were subjected to a 90 minute grilling – not she wasn’t that fierce, a gentle toasting – by a bank manager, making sure we were who we said we were, what we planned to do and I suppose to make sure that we weren’t a front for a money-laundering operation. We survived and hope to have a bank account to go with our newly acquired status as a Community Interest Company. We had a splendid picnic that evening to celebrate becoming a real company. More excellent Bangladeshi food and the company of friends, oh how we’ve missed that!

On Wednesday Eeshita and I attended an excellent British Library streamed lecture by Jhumpa Lahiri about the art of translation something we will be featuring in BBPC workshops. She is Bangladeshi but now an American citizen teaching at Princeton and has just published Thresholds in English which is a translation she made herself from the novel she originally wrote in Italian after moving to Rome a decade ago to steep herself in Italian language and culture. Thought-provoking, informative and stimulating words from a fierce intellect who shared her thoughts with great clarity.

And as that wasn’t enough excitement, in the evening I conducted a Zoom interview for The Watford Treasury a magazine I help to edit. Talking to a Watford striker hero always gives me a buzz but Tom Smith as he is now, Tommy when playing, was charming, thoughtful, generous of time and gave me just what I required for an article I’m writing.

Then the real fun started on Thursday. I actually drove to Putney to pick up my friend Jadwiga and headed off for Glyndebourne to see Janacek’s Kat’a Kabanova. It’s the first time since 2019 and we were blessed with a glorious sunny day and had booked a hotel in Lewes so as not to have to rush back to London after the performance. We arrive in time to change and book a cab. Mad Mike panic – I normally keep cufflinks in the pocket of my DJ jacket, but after its last use it went to the dry cleaners. Taxi imminent, no time to go shopping so quick improvisation required. Has reception got a stapler? Of course and duly sterilised it provided a new way with shirt cuffs as we made our way the Glyndebourne, passed through the temperature checks and venue log in and went to pick up our picnic which we’d booked in the marquee for the interval. Glyndebourne is doing a big thing with local winery Nytimber and, well local businesses need support so drink was taken.

The opera was beautifully sung and played and is a heartening tale of disastrous marital infidelity leading to death – well it is opera. The score is dynamic and exciting and made for a fabulous evening and if you would like to you can read my review here.

It had been such a delight that on returning to the hotel in Lewes we decided a glass of wine would be a suitable accompaniment to discussing our views of the production. So we did that for a while and both agreed that while visual and direction aspects of the production were naff, the music and the experience were wonderful. As we were thinking about retiring two young ladies entered the bar, got themselves a drink and asked if they could join us. They were police officers due to give evidence in court on Friday and proved chatty and delightful companions as bottles rather than glasses were consumed and four people who should have known better struggled off to bed around 1.30 am.

The last time we visited Glyndebourne together it was glorious weather for the opera and biblical, monsoon rain next day, I might have been back in Dhaka. History repeated itself with one significant difference. Last time I’d left my car’s lights on by accident all night and had to call the AA who, after getting it started, advised driving solidly for two hours to recharge the battery. We zigzagged across Sussex and Kent before deciding it was safe to stop for lunch in Penshurst. The car was fine this year and took us through the deluge to Chichester where we had tickets at the Pallant House Gallery to see an exhibition From Degas to Picasso which was very impressive. But it did raise a question of access to art. All the paintings and prints were from the gallery’s own collection and was the exhibit was put together rather hastily once opening dates were known. There were more etchings, lithographs and screen prints than oils, but also a healthy selection of watercolours. We feasted our eyes but were saddened that all these images are normally hidden from view in a vault or storeroom. Here are two lithographs by Salvador Dali that showed a different side of his work – albeit with a few characteristics tics here and there.

Lunch in the café was pleasant and we were ready for a mercifully rain-free drive through the fabulously varied scenery of Sussex and Surrey via Midhurst and Haslemere marvelling that we were out of our homes and having a fine time with a friend. What a great end to a busy week!

Thanks to Farah Naz and Jadwiga Adey for some of the photographs.

Malaga Day 1 – culture

After completing my assignment for my agency in the Netherlands – editing video scripts about medicated abortion for Medecins sans Frontieres – I decided to walk into to town (city?). The descent from my lofty Parador perch (del Gibralfaro to be clear as there is a second on in Malaga called Golf) is supposed to take 20 minutes so I set off, However, as I’m going to a concert tonight I’ve scrubbed up a bit and am in shirt, jacket and shiny shoes. The descent is mostly on granite and sandstone slabs which with the drizzle are extremely slippery so my footwear is wrong and knowing the problems of the elderly breaking limbs, I descend slowly and circumspectly,. It’s a pleasant walk in fine weather but as I arrive at the foot of the hill I need sustenance, So, a swift cerveza in a neighbourhood bar and I’m all set. I’m. bound for the Picasso Museum which is amazing and banished any thoughts of him not being a total genius. The temporary exhibition shows 166 paintings, sculptures, objects and ceramics owned by the Picasso-Ruiz family. Excellently curated it follows a chronological line so the development, regressions and recurring themes are evidenced in a truly enlightening way, I never knew he always had a dog or dogs about him and that he could never paint Dora Maar with a smile. As I leave I am diverted into a clean-looking bar which specialises in churros con chocolate, I appall the waiter by ordering coffee (I don’t really like chocolate even if it’s the done thing here). I then make my way via a craft beer pub – well you owe it to them don’t you?

Not bad beer either. Then on to Plaza de la Merced with oranges and fairy lights for a further beer and tapas ahead of my concert at the Teatro Cervantes.

The concert was great – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 2 followed by Symphony 9. They were both played very well but the Ninth made me cry – it is after all the European anthem and most readers will know where I stood on Brexit. It’s a fine hall with a good acoustic and apart from occupying the wrong seat because I hadn’t climbed enough stairs, it was a fun evening, Seating issues were resolved without blows.

No photos allowed during he concert.
It’s always great to hear that magnificent work but especially poignant given the previous week’s events, The conductor Virginia Martinez, pianist and soloists were all Spanish and the chorus from Malaga Opera were superb. Not the best version I’ve ever heard but a privilege to be out with the Malaga cognescenti suitably clad.

My walk from the. theatre took me past the Teatro Romano one of Malaga’s highlights.

Wait till tomorrow!

It’s now in a bar with a glass of Rioja that I realise I’ve been up for 18 hours and at the age of 76 I should probably be in bed. Taxi up the hill, quick nightcap and bed,

A day of high culture – and Gatwick

It’s funny how random acts of kindness often beget others. I took in a package for Maria our neighbour opposite. It was quite heavy so I carried it over the road into her hall. As we were talking I mentioned I was going to Spain and ending up in Madrid and she said she would contact her friend Jose who worked at the Reina Sofia certainly on my visit list. So this morning I walked through the El Retiro Gardens and eventually made it – sorry Jose a few minutes late – to the fabulous Nouvel Building which didn’t exist when we last visited, I think there was scaffolding and cranes.

We chat over a coffee – Jose doing that thing I’ve seen lots of Spanish people do – get a regular coffee and a glass with some ice cubes and then pour the coffee into the glass of ice – cafe con hielo. I guess it’s a DIY iced coffee. We got on very well – he works in the exhibitions department arranging the changing calendar of temporary exhibitions. I think I’d quite enjoy the challenge of deciding who to feature and then finding willing sources to lend works for the exhibition – forensics and persuasion in equal measure. Jose has kindly arranged a free ticket for me and provided me with a guide to one of the two exhibitions in the building Eusebio Sempere where we went first and then Jose went off to do his day’s work. He was most generous with his time and I hope to repay it in London on his next visit. On our way I couldn’t help but admire the magnificent library created as part of the extension.

I had noted in Cuenca on Sunday that one of Sempere’s works was missing from the museum on loan to the Reina Sofia so I did get to see it after all. Sempere is an interesting artist with a love of precise lines, geometrical forms but also innovated with illuminated cutouts and computer generated images. Then he made massive mobiles in chromed steel where the juxtaposition of two or three planes mean that the image ‘moves’ as the viewer walks past the object. Happy bunny – small scale intricate drawing, experimentation and massive sculptures with powerful effects. Equally happy bunny downstairs at the Russian Dada exhibition – who knew? I’ve just read A Gentleman in Moscow on this trip so there were lots of resonances in the works of anti-art produced by the Dadaists of Moscow and St Petersburg. There was a hilarious first film from Eisenstein and lots of other highly graphical works attempting to change the nature of art at the same time that Russia tried to change the nature of government. Eye-opening stuff that exposed another huge level of my ignorance.

While in the Reina Sofia I couldn’t not go to see Picasso’s Guernica again and I also enjoyed a lot of other works from the time of the Spanish Civil War. In another room was a Richard Serra installation called Equal Parallel – Guernica Bengazi inspired by the US bombing of Libya. It’s a room filled with cleverly spaced blocks of rust coloured Corten steel and as you weave your way between them you have time to think above motive, action and consequences – poignant after visiting Hiroshima earlier this year. Art and politics are hard to separate aren’t they?

With imminent eye glaze it was time for a museum break and a trip to the Atocha station which when Dee and I were last in Madrid together had just had its equivalent of the Kew Gardens temperate house installed and I was interested to see how it had gone. This is a sub-tropical forest inside a railway station approach. Some of the trees we saw just planted – already quite sizeable – are now trying to escape through the roof. It’s a green oasis to walk through on your commute into the city but inevitably time, millions of passengers, fag ends and gum have taken their toll. Can we ban chewing in public as well as smoking? Or at least better disposal?

I fancied a quick beer but there was a football team occupying most of the nearby traditional café and I’m afraid I don’t do Burger King or Macdonald’s, I did find a suitable bar a short distance away and sat and looked at a booklet about Open Madrid I’d been handed by a tourist office lady. This is about places not normally visitable like the Open Gardens and Open Offices in London and I now presume other cities. Might have to come back – it sounds fun. However the booklet also informed me that at the Teatro Pavan this evening was a performance of Yerma to mark 80 years since Lorca’s death. I know the play from reading it, the Juliet Stevenson performance in the Cottesloe in the 1980s and of course the recent Billie Piper vehicle although I’m not sure many of Lorca’s actual words were in that version exciting though it was. So I got the phone out, booked one of the last four tickets – is there a bot that tells you that whatever you’re after there’s only so much or so many left? I find it annoying on hotel sites, slightly less so here – it might even be true.

My trusty sandals have become a bit squelchy and are emitting rude sounds as I walk so I take a cab back to the hotel for a change of feet – I wish! Birkenstocks applied, I pop round to a local bar for a bite, They have, they tell me, an excellent ceviche with cod, sea bass and prawns so I am persuaded and have a beer and then a crisp young Rueda when the food arrives. Then it’s back through the Retiro Gardens to the Prado which is such a fabulous museum that I can’t be here and not enter. I decide against the special exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto and head for the main galleries.

There are brilliant Bosch and Bruegel rooms but I decide to restrict myself to El Greco – they have lots more here than in Toledo and some of even better quality, Velazquez and Goya. What I like about El Greco’s big set pieces is that each portrait in the crowd is of someone you’ve just seen or might meet in a bar. Christ carrying the cross with tears welling up is amazing. Moving on seeing Las Meninas again made me think of Laura Cumming’s excellent book The Vanishing Man which features a whodunnit art world adventure tracing a missing Velazquez – must read it again. He again pushed painting forward in many ways with some of the brushwork almost akin to Van Gogh. The Prado has lots of Velazquez but I recall being told on an Art Fund visit to Apsley House that they have even more as they were given as tribute to Wellington for ridding Spain of the French. I save Goya till last and end up with the two majas and then the awful, awesome 3rd of May which does actually make me cry.

Time now to leave and get those feet moving across the city to the theatre which is not marked on my map but is in Calle Embajadores which leads off from the Plaza Mayor. Appropriately I pass a statue of Lorca on the way – a good omen?

It’s quite a schlepp and my dreams of a pre-performance drink have to be passed up. They scan my ticket on my phone and send me past a main auditorium to a tiny space that was exactly like the old Bush theatre in the early 70s. Four rows of folding chairs in rows of 20 and mind the props as you cross the stage to your seat. No numbered seating meant I should have got there earlier but with a bit of craning and sliding I managed to see most of it. Oh and there was only one empty seat. It was a mixed version with modern dress, a refusing-to-turn-blue pregnancy test taken on the centre stage WC to emphasise Yerma’s longing for a child and some updating of the language. It was well acted with a good ensemble cast and a brilliant Yerma who is of course virtually on stage throughout. This actress is Alba José who looked vaguely familiar and when I got home I realised that she had been in the excellent Spanish TV series shown on BBC 4 last year I know who you are. A very happy couple of hours to round off a day of culture. So I take a post-performance glass of wine and haltingly discuss my impressions with a couple whose English is on a par with my Spanish but we have another round and all enjoyed the play and a chance to chat about it.

On my way back through Sol, there was a demonstration – well it’s Madrid, there will be won’t there? This one was calling for no indemnity for the perpetrators of Franco’s crimes and compensation for the victims. The dictator may have been gone for 40 years but what with plans to move his remains from his dreadful mausoleum and retribution for those who suffered he’s certainly not forgotten. Art and politics, people and politics and still several people I spoke to don’t (or can’t) believe Brexit will happen. I stop for some tapas – prawns in garlic and albondigas meatballs in a tomato sauce on this occasion in a great bar-restaurant called the Cathedral.

Another pit stop for a café y copa well it is my last night in Spain and back to the hotel – so different from my others but fun with its black and white décor and strange wood grain woven carpet in the corridors, Why? Actual wood strips in the rooms.

I spend Friday morning getting a few last minute items around the Salamanca area which was as I said in an earlier piece was new to me and very impressive. Plenty of places to eat and drink well but also little food shops, fruit and veg stalls and lots of antique shops – if I was driving home I might be in trouble. Check out is at noon and flight check in at four so I decide to drive straight on down Calle Alcala in the car. It goes on for ever and ends up in the town of Alcala de Henares of which I made a circuit but failed to find a parking spot. It’s an important musical and university town and has some impressive buildings housing those pursuits. Looked definitely worthy of another visit – maybe by train next time I’m in Madrid (if).

I took a circuitous country route back and found myself in Paracuellos de Jarama I’d read about this place in books on the Spanish Civil War as it was the location for many of the early mass shootings of the war with estimates of between 2000 and 10,000 massacred by Fascist forces. It does have a staggering view across the airport and away to the city of Madrid. Like so many of the places I passed through there are huge swathes of new build dormitory towns to serve the capital. But it still had a pleasant little square with a tall tower and a few bars. Down a zigzag route and into Barajas town where I had a couple of false starts including going into the taxis’ stacking compound before finding the tiny entrance to the rental car return zone. All sorted in good time, checked in by machine again – although a person did print the baggage tag – and then to the lounge to enjoy light refreshments and watch the aircraft manoeuvre. I stayed in the comfort of the lounge too long and had my hand luggage removed at the aircraft steps. Had put iPad in camera bag so able to blog during the flight. As we went for take off I snapped the village where I’d been two hours earlier – you can just make out the tower I think – the brick one not the airport Control Tower. Machines away now as on descent.

Swift flight, straight to an empty passport reader and only ten minutes to wait for my two bags followed by a struggle to meet with my Data Cars driver but eventually home after a very fine two weeks in the sun and it’s shining here although less warmly as I set off for the West Herts Sports Club for a beer with friends before Watford v Manchester United at 17:30.