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As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’
Following on from my earlier post on our initial return to Gibraltar after a gap of over twenty years, we have managed to visit several more times, and on each occasion, we have become increasingly impressed with life on the Rock. There’s no doubting that the drab and dreary Gibraltar of last century has been consigned firmly to the past and that a new, confident and energetic modern little city is rising in its place. Moreover, the once-faded and shabby old town centre has been sensitively spruced up and now stands above its modern surrounds like a proud grandparent watching over its thriving progeny.
“Unique” has become a much overused and abused term, but in the case of today’s Gibraltar it really is just about the only adjective that does the place justice. From its airport runway pedestrian crossing (sadly, to be lost very shortly to a new tunnel) to Rosia Bay, where one swims alongside giant container ships, not to mention it being Europe’s only truly harmonious “multiculture”, Gibraltar is a total one-off.
The iPhone snaps below hopefully transmit some of that uniqueness, and a sense of its intoxicating optimism…
With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.
One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.
However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.
Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…
Regular readers of these pages will know that my wife Dido’s first career was as a professional ballerina, mostly, as a member of the touring arm of the London’s Royal Ballet; The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (since renamed and relocated as the Birmingham Royal Ballet). Being the premier national touring company, the main remit of the Sadler’s Wells was to bring top-class classical ballet to all corners of the British Isles, otherwise starved of such elite spectacle. However, during foreign tours (which occurred about every two years), the company had the additional role of being artistic, cultural ambassadors for the United Kingdom. More often than not, when meeting the great and the good of other nations, this responsibility could seem like a perk, but on occasion, it was more of a burden, when the handshakes and smiles were purely diplomatic.
Perhaps the starkest (not to mention most surreal) example of the latter occurrence in Dido’s Sadler’s Wells career happened during the 1980 tour of the Far East (to South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong), during the company’s visit to The Philippines when they were hosted by the infamous Ferdinand Marcos, and – most especially – by his wife Imelda.
The self-proclaimed ex-diva and lover of the arts took a personal interest in the visit of the company, setting up their performances at her newly built Cultural Centre (part of the complex built for the visit of Pope John Paul to Manilla the previous year). She also attended all of their shows (including two matinees, they typically performed 7 times a week), and lavished the company with ostentatious hospitality. This included the dubious privilege, following the company’s final performance in The Philippines, of being invited to the Malacañang Palace for a banquet being held to honour another well-known visitor to Manilla, David Rockefeller.
The main banquet, with a full-service supper was held in the Heroes’ Hall, after which Imelda took the company upstairs, where she had laid on a disco, and more food – an enormous buffet – before the highlight of the evening, a tour of her shoe collection.
The first lady’s parting gesture, was to give every member of the company (over 60 dancers, management and crew all-told) goody bags, stuffed with an eclectic selection of gifts. While the audio-cassette of Imelda singing her “greatest hits” was merely an acquired taste, the set of teak salad bowls and servers were actually tasteful and useful (we use Dido’s to this day); but things like shell-decorated flowerpots (with accompanying plant), mahogany and shell-decorated light shades, were not only garish, but constituted a serious logistical problem for the already overladen company.
Ultimately, it was as much as people could manage, to schlep the unwanted extra luggage to the company’s next port of call, Singapore, where they were staying at the Mandarin Hotel. Thus, at the end of their stay there, rather than lug the goody bags to Thailand and beyond, all 63 company members left the pot covers and light shades in their rooms.
Two years later, the Sadler’s Wells returned to Singapore, and the Mandarin Hotel, where they were housed on the same two floors as on the earlier visit. To their collective astonishment, they found that all the rooms had been redecorated, and refurbished with Imelda’s light shades and flower pots! Who knew that the queen of shoes was also a pioneer of high-end upcycling – albeit, unwittingly – and as for her “greatest hits” cassettes, nobody knows what happened to them?
Cities that enjoy unrivalled pre-eminence within their countries are rare and especially in many of the lands of the newer worlds. As a native of London – a city which similarly to Paris and France, enjoys sole national supremacy – this phenomenon has always interested me. While this development seems natural in geographically enormous countries like Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), China (Beijing and Shanghai) and the USA (New York City and Los Angeles) it is also true of smaller nations, such as New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and Italy (Rome and Milan).*
City rivalries develop for a whole host of reasons, including geography, internal competing nationalisms, politics, local nationalisms, commerce and of course, history. Occasionally these rivalries can blow up into full blown rows, and given sufficient regional identity, even war. Often, newer countries with two or more “competing” cities have avoided potential trouble by creating distinct administrative/political national capital cities – such as Brasilia, in the case of Brazil (cf Rio versus Sao Paulo); or by elevating a non rival city to the same position – such as Canberra in the case of Australia (cf Melbourne versus Sydney). Even in newer countries with relatively long-established capitals, such as Washington DC (USA) Durban (South Africa), and Ottawa (Canada), these cities rarely evolve into their respective nations commercial or cultural urban powerhouses.
Presented below are my thoughts on three famous urban rivalries I am familiar with…
*Apologies to residents and fans of cities like Chicago and Vancouver, who could justifiably argue that in North American terms at least, I have overlooked these towns equally valid competing statures to those named – perhaps in the interest of preserving my hypothesis. However, while there can be no doubting either city’s cultural and commercial importance and influence, in a broad metropolitan sense, not to mention for sheer industrial and commercial might, they are dwarfed by the cities mentioned.
Shortly after my mother Hannah passed away I discovered a large box full of old photographs, going back to before the turn of the previous century. Although they are primarily a record of my maternal family, they are actually so much more than that, as anyone can see from the small selection I have included here. In fact, they comprise a vivid documentary glimpse into the recent social history of London and south east England, before, during and following the Second World War.
For this post I have selected nine photos of assorted people enjoying various outings, from attending functions, and days out and about in London, to summer vacations, away from “The Smoke”. The expression, “a different world” hardly comes close!
plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…
In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.
The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.
With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.
The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.
*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.
Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!
Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…
Despite some recent inclement weather, including frost and even a dusting of snow, the Axarquia is showing early signs of Spring. The pictures here, all taken over the past week, on and around our finca (small holding) in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda remind us of nature’s imperviousness to the current dystopia we find ourselves condemned to inhabit for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes, pictures (even enhanced iPhone snaps) are far more eloquent than mere words…
The “problem” of figures in landscape fascinated and challenged me in equal measure. After all, without the notion of a literal narrative theme to the picture, the human figure always seemed to be merely an additional element – actually part of the landscape that she/he inhabited. This was not to depersonalise the figure so much as to find a way to harmonise all the elements of the image, whether vegetation, rock, sky or/and living figures.
From the time of the Impressionists onward, artists have found increasingly ingenious – even gimmicky – ways of resolving the problem. Artists like Renoir and Monet would blend their pictorial elements through a uniformity of paint daubs, and later, Seurat by “distilling” those daubs into dots. Then, Picasso and Braque contorted and warped their figures into the very space they inhabited, leading finally to Matisse, whose contrary method was to turn everything into a jigsaw of flat shapes.
My earliest representational combinations of figures with landscape in oil paint were none of the above, but both romantic, and traditional, whereby the figures inhabit their environment rather like actors on an enormous stage. And, while this was great for creating a form of visual counterpoint and deeply spatial scenic drama, it ignored the potential of the paint itself for creating a vivid, “living” surface.
I must have painted dozens of such “theatrical” images when one day, I was confronted by a sketched ground for yet another scene of young people in Israel, and made a change of plan. It was a simple thing really, but with exciting consequences for the evolution of my art. I simply put down my brushes and picked up my favourite, medium-sized, trowel-shaped palette knife, and made the whole finished painting with that instead. The resulting picture was a revelation to me, with the paint, and the surface of the canvas elevated from a means to a pictorial end, to the end itself. In the process, the figures were transformed from “actors on a stage” into animated, vibrant entities, at one with their landscape. Suddenly, my pictures, and the figures within, looked alive.
Looking at these pictures now, with objectivity borne of time and distance, the significant influence of Impressionism is hard to dispute, yet my own, innate Expressionist instincts are equally evident, and even now, that still gives me a tingle of excitement and pride. Ultimately, they’re not half-bad, and that is all that really matters.
…AND HOW I DERIVED SOMETHING POSITIVE FROM OUR MOST NEGATIVE EPISODE
The past twelve Covid-19-infested months included, by far the bleakest time my wife Dido and I have shared together was our enforced eight-month sojourn in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, back in the early 1990’s, described in earlier posts ( here and here).
Yet, few circumstances, however dire, are so unremitting that they totally lack the odd moment of emotional uplift. And for us, in Boulogne, these moments were generally provided during our regular weekend strolls across the local beach.
The proverbial bracing sea air (even when tainted by the odours emitting from the local fish cannery on the southerly breezes); the angry waters of the English Channel, inky blue-black beneath a vast sky of tumbling clouds; distant rain squalls appearing like grey curtains drawn across the serrated horizon; and shafts of silver sunlight occasionally breaking through the blanket of cumulous like spotlights illuminating a white flecked, cobalt stage in perpetual motion – all conspired to blast us temporarily from our glum mental state.
In a way similar to how blues music comforts and eases the spirit, by both reflecting back, and articulating the nature and source of the angst, so those tumultuous blue-tinged scenes reminded us of our innate love for life and the adventures it offers. The three palette-knifed oils here, painted a year or two later in my southern Spanish studio, celebrate those precious moments that gave us the reason and the energy to persevere. A particularly apposite recollection I think for these troubled times…
The picture which heads this little post shows a painting I did of my wife Dido’s mews house in Paddington, in the heart of London – the first home we shared at the outset of our thirty-two years together – and our current home, here on Finca Carmel. The contrast in the two dwellings forms a neat allegory for the rich diversity of our adventures over the past three decades-plus, and thus I thought it would make a fitting image for the milestone we reach this New Year’s Eve.
Like countless millions across the globe however, all the fabulous plans we had made by way of celebration, have been confounded by the new ‘C’ word, and thus delayed until some semblance of normality returns.
In the meantime, things as seemingly mundane as our olive harvest provide comfort and reassurance that much of the essential rhythm of life continues regardless of the actions of viruses and governments.
Wishing everyone reading this piece, a relatively happy New Year, and a much improved, celebration -packed 2021 and beyond!