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Friday, 26 September 2014

A day in a life

The day started low key, the highlight being a Dyson Airblade hand-dryer in a motorway rest room. I inserted my hands in the thin gap and watched warm air pulverising skin. It was like watching an art installation, the skin rippling like sand in a strong wind. I stared hypnotised, thinking of the artist Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. This was far superior. My attention wandered to the Dyson logo and I noted this was a Dyson Airblade V. Wondered what a Dyson Airblade Mk 2 would be like; would my hands notice the difference. One thing for sure it was far superior to the Warner Howard hand dryer where watching paint dry takes half the time.

Even so, there was some comment when I got back to the car. Where had I been? What had taken me so long? I held my silence, wanting to stay in the moment…of rippling skin and the sound of hot air.

The day held still more surprises. We parked the car in Gerrard’s Cross and took the train from there to London. In front of me was a man with an iPad. He was racing through an anonymous city in a bright red car. Intriguing stuff - sitting on a slow train to London and simultaneously racing through Manhattan – or wherever it was. There was no time to cast judgement. I was caught, my head swaying this way and that, following the road as the man swivelled and turned the iPad in synch with a car travelling at incredible speed. We raced through Tokyo, Venice, Paris - a new car for every city. By the time we reached Marylebone I was exhausted…disappointed too. We were just about to hit Moscow.

As you can see, this was a day packed with incident but these were the nibbles, the canapés before the main course. We had booked a night at the St Pancras Hotel – a cross between Downton Abbey and Hogwarts - in the middle of London. It was our daughter’s graduation the following day and we’d promised ourselves that this would be a part of it – one weird and magnificent experience – because we had booked a luxury suite with all the trimmings and more. 

We were offered bon-bons by an attractive East European whilst she took down our details. And the treats continued. Whilst our bags were taken to a room we hadn’t yet seen, a director showed us round all the facilities we could enjoy during the short time we were there. He led us through a large and packed bar were ‘ordinary’ people drank. But we had ceased to be ordinary. 

Imbedded in a dark panelled wall was a door guarded by two very discreet men. We were led through into a world of silence and wealth…and more bon-bons. This was the club room where we could enjoy afternoon tea, and then later pre dinner canapés, free beer and wine and even free shorts between the hours of 5pm and 7pm. 

This was going to require a highly disciplined use of time if we were to squeeze in all that had to be squeezed in – more so when he next showed us the sauna, gym and swimming pool. My daughter and I exchanged glances. SAS accuracy.

Our room was magnificent – the biggest TV I’d seen outside of a show room, a Bang and Olufson music centre. We watched ten minutes of news, listened to ten minutes of music. No time for anything else if we were to make the pool and the pre dinner canapés. The room was full of surprises, a discreet safe, a well stocked drinks’ fridge, an expensive expresso coffee machine…we were going to be up half the night at this rate. 

I was particularly struck by the curtains – or to be more accurate the tassels adorning them – over two feet long and so fine it was like stroking a woman’s hair – not that I go in for that often. 

The only design flaw was the giant mirror that started halfway up the wall and reached the ceiling. You couldn’t actually see yourself in it without jumping up and down. You were panting by the time you finished combing your hair.

  Time for a swim.

The pool was not large but had whirlpools and subtle lighting that changed the water from pale aquamarine to dark indigo as you swam. The sauna was great – all ten minutes of it before the pre dinner canapés.
We dined in the Gilbert Scott restaurant and breakfasted in the club house. I had muesli first and considered that a truly rich man might probably snack at it and leave. I toyed with the thought, and then loaded my plate with smoked salmon, rye bread, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and syrup, sausage, and three chunks of some expensive looking cheese. My stomach would suffer - possibly not so much as our Current Account.

PS they didn' t have hand driers - not even the Dyson Airblade Mark V. Thick white towels and fluffy towelled slippers were the order of the day.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Shadow and stone part 2

There's a great poem by DH Lawrence called 'Snake.' I can't recommend it enough. It's simple and vivid and captures a moment in Sicily when the writer observses and describes a snake. I still remember the imagery, the silence and the heat the short poem conjured. I remembered it in the ruins of the Roman Theatre in Arles, sheltering from the heat. The stones literally shimmered but I saw no snake, the flicker of a gecko perhaps.

As you explore what's left of the theatre you come across a small courtyard littered with ruined stone. Light and shadow were more dramatic than my camera was able to capture.

Foliage allowed the stone some relief, and made a nice pattern

I'm not an expert on Van Gogh so I don't know whether his obsessions extended to stone. But we went to the Arles hospital where they treated his ear, or lack of it, and where, in exchange, he painted this picture of their garden. From the angle he seems to have painted it from an elevated position, perhaps his hospital window. I tried but couldn't get the same angle. I doubt, too, that any will pay similar sums of money for my pictures.

And back to the cool, night streets of Nimes and a plane back to reality.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Arles: Shadow and Stone Part 1

By all accounts, London, York, in fact any English city in the so called ‘Dark Ages’  would have been pretty grim places to inhabit – even taking into account a much warmer climate. I think, taking into account everything: Moorish and Viking incursions, the ambitions of Frankish kings, and the later Albigensian and Cathar crusades, Arles was the place to be. Its magic still holds today.

Who would not want to live in place where you might be christened Boso, the son of Biven of Gorze and Richildis of Arles; who would not like to be surrounded by people with names like Engeltrude or Teutberga, Lothair or Hucbert; or even the less flamboyantly named Charles the Bald?
Within the Roman empire it was one of the great centres, favoured by Constantine the Great, but it is in later years that it became much more interesting.

What struck me most, wandering its streets and great ruins, was the dazzling light and shadows on stones.

Side streets on your way to:

The Great Amphitheatre

It is hard to believe that in the early Middle Ages houses and two churches were built into what doubled up as a fort.

Wandering through its interior

Its upper tiers

A studious youth

At the top, but not yet the tower

A glimpse of Arles


Arles from the tower

And from higher still

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Avignon Papacy, a church for sinners

Henry VIII gets a lot of stick over his quarrel with the church. He was as ruthless as Philip the Fair of France but lacked his style. When, in November 1302, Pope Boniface VIII claimed the papacy was superior to kings, and that for salvation, "every human creature be subject to the authority of the Roman pontiff," the French king gave a Gallic shrug and kidnapped him. Tortured, and released a broken man, Boniface died within weeks. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so did Philip the Fair. He installed a French Pope, Benedict XI and there followed seven other French popes, all of them residing in Avignon.

This is what you see as soon as you leave the station, the walls of Avignon. It was not always so.

We owe much to the 'builder Popes'

The great square outside the Palais de Papes

And the same scene from above. Taking pictures from the great tower was decidedly tricky. The infamous mistral waits until you're just about to 'shoot' and then boisterously jerks you about. Hats flew off in all directions.

Inside the courtyard of the Papal Palace

In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has a story of the Grand Inquisitor in C16th Spain interrogating Christ, who has returned to Earth. He accuses Christ of a tactical error. In rejecting Satan’s offer of worldly power he forced the Church to assume the responsibility he had refused. To paraphrase the Inquisitor's argument, the basic nature of man does not allow him to reject food, security and happiness in exchange for something as intangible as Heaven. The challenge of freedom from worldly concerns means only fraction of mankind can ever hope to be saved. The Church is intrinsically good for stepping in and taking the burden on itself. Since the majority of mankind is damned anyway it may as well enjoy earthly security and happiness by accepting the false comfort of a worldly church. The alternative is to live guilt ridden lives and still be damned. The Church is a church of sinners in every sense of the word.

To my knowledge the Avignon Popes never read Dostoevsky but might perhaps have understood his message.

The picture above shows  the beautiful, twenty two year old Joanna, Queen of Naples and Countess of Provence. She was in trouble, accused of murdering her husband and fleeing from his vengeful brother King Lewis of Hungary. Clement VI was a sucker for a pretty face but knew how to strike a bargain. She needed protection and money. He gave her both in exchange for the city of Avignon and the surrounding area.

                                                                 Pope Clement VI

My daughter and I agreed that Clement was our favourite Pope. In his own words a self proclaimed: 'sinner amongst sinners.' On assuming the papacy he proclaimed: "My predecessors did not know how to be Pope."

He determined to show them.

Not to the approval of all:

Petrarch begins mildly:

Now I am living in France, in the Babylon of the West . . . Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded, as I recall their predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications, instead of a boat turned downward for shelter.
But he warms up to a right old froth:
 I will not speak of adultery, seduction, rape, incests; these are only the prelude to their orgies. I will not count the number of wives stolen or young girls deflowered. I will not tell of the means employed to force into silence the outraged husbands and fathers, nor of the dastardliness of those who sell their woman folk for gold…(prostitutes) swarmed on the papal beds

Mind you, this same Pope stayed in Avignon with the stricken when the Black Death struck. He organised the burials and, more importantly in such a devout and fearful age, gave absolution to all who confessed until the sickness had passed. He banned extremists like the flagellants on realising they were inadvertantly passing on the disease, and gave succour to the Jews when they were subsequently blamed for the pestilence. He condemned the massacres as a sin against God and did all in his power to stop them. He patronised art and was one of the great builder popes. In his view, the people liked a good show, and he died both respected and loved. A man of contradictions, a sinner amongst sinners.

The Palais des Papes is full of quiet corridors and rooms. One would find it easy to contemplate here.

  Or here

But less easy  in rooms such as these:

The picture above shows the room where all the food was prepared for presentation before being marched into the banquet hall. It might look over large for plating and decorating food - that is until you consider the scale of some of the banquets. Clement VI's coronation saw 3,000 guests who between them ate: 1,023 sheep, 118 head of cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,440 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses, 50,000 tarts, and 200 casks of wine. To be honest I'd have imagined more wine would be needed with all that food. May be it was Lent.*

Behind this hall was the kitchen with a multi-storeyed chimney, within which spits continually turned:

It wasn't all feasting and drinking. Below is the chapel (hosting some weird exhibition)

And when the Pope wanted to get a little closer to God he could take to the roof and survey half of Provence

I imagine they occasionally stroked the sunbaked terracotta with a soft, proprietorial hand. It's what I did at least.

To the right can be glimpsed the Jardin des Doms

From where you can see the beauty of Provence

And the Rhone

Speaking of which there's a bridge

The famous Pont d'Avignon. It brought back good memories of introducing our toddlers to French. Not a bridge was safe in Wales as we circled and danced and sang:

You can get away with so much if you have children. Without them you'd be locked up as mad. I suspected we'd also arouse a few stares - not least from our grown-up children - if we suddenly  launched into dance and song. Instead we walked quietly and stared at the water.
Always worth checking. Assuming the casks in question were the larger ones, ie a Tun, it is safe to say there was more than enough wine. Tuns could hold 240 gallons of wine, so 200 tuns between 3000 guests would amount to 16 gallons a person.'An elegant sufficiency' you might say.