Friday, 30 March 2012

More Chainsaw Art at Thornley Woods

Frog meets snake
Back in October, I wrote about a visit to Thornley Woods, west of Newcastle, where a chainsaw artist had just finished carving a series of sculptures into rooted, standing dead trees. For some reason, this has become my second-most searched for blog! People like chainsaw art? Is it the macho aspect that appeals? The reuse of natural materials? The proletarian art movement? 
Comments, please...

Meanwhile, I'll mount some more photos taken that day of Tommy Cragg's creations. Which ones do you like best in these two blogs? Why? 


Beetle 1
Beetle 2

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

gleeb visits Toronto: standing on Scotland

Scotland used to be part of North America – a continent called Laurentia. The opening of the northeastern Atlantic Ocean around 55 million years ago sundered Scotland from its homeland and left it attached to Albion, the isle of Britain. In Toronto, I was hoping to visit the homeland of Scotland by looking at the Canadian Shield, the 'original' landmass that was the core of Laurentia.
What I found was different!

When I first learned about the far northwestern Scottish rocks called the Lewisian metamorphic rocks, I was fascinated that they were 2 billion years old. I wanted to go walk on them. Later I visited the Royal Gorge in Colorado, which cuts deep into the Earth's crust, and I discovered that the rocks at the bottom of Royal Gorge were also about 2 billion years old. So, maybe also would be the Canadian Shield.

Walking on Canadian Shield rocks in
Village of Yorkville Park, Toronto
The name Canadian Shield comes from the flat roundish shape of the metamorphic rocks that form a craton, a continental nucleus that has existed since the Precambrian (before 542 million years ago). So in the Village of Yorkville Park in Toronto, they have established an artwork that recreates the feeling of the Canadian Shield. Segments of metamorphic rocks from the craton have been concreted together in a shield shape. These particular rocks may not be 2 billion years old, but you can get the feeling of walking on an ancient landscape here in the middle of the city. Find them just north of the busy Bloor upmarket shopping street on Cumberland, across from Old York Lane.

Sadly, the closest relatives of Lewisian Scotland lie not on the Canadian continent but on Greenland. So I did not fulfill my wish of standing on Scotland in Toronto. But thinking about the landscape in broad swathes certainly does give one a different perspective on a visit to a new country.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

gleeb goes to Toronto: 'Visit Britain' posters

The last things I expected to see when arriving In Toronto were "Visit Britain" posters plastered everywhere on the subway. And they didn't even mention the Olympics! I thought that was very strange, given this time of year.

Except for the pictures, you might not even know the posters were for Great Britain, as the word Britain is sooooo small. And nowhere is mentioned, to the naked eye (you would need a magnifying glass to see it from across the subway track), that these are actually ads from United Airlines. I didn't know that until we boarded our United flight, and there, in the on-board magazine, were replicas of this ad.

I think, too, that countryside, culture and heritage are great, in whatever country. But indeed, Britain does have an excess. So come visit!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

gleeb goes to Toronto: LHR Terminal 5

First experience of Terminal 5 at Heathrow; judgment: very nice! It was cavernous – more so than Terminal 4 and somewhat like Stanstead. And it was very empty, not like the cramped, claustrophobic, crowded spaces in Terminals 12&3. There were no queues at the check-in or baggage drops, and we made it through security in 5 minutes.

Beware, though: the instructions for security are misleading. In one place it says you have to be AT security 35 minutes before your flight; another place it says you must be THROUGH security 35 minutes before your flight. Obviously, the latter is the one to follow, given that it may take you 15 minutes to get to your gate (by shuttle) and flights close 20 minutes before departure!

The most fun thing about the new terminal is its tray delivery system at security. The trays that go through the scanners on the conveyor roller bars are turned around and sent back on another sent of roller bars underneath. So they arrive at the place for loading up automatically. No hauling the trays back by the staff; no waiting by passengers for more trays to be delivered. And instead of just queueing to remove your stuff, they have two stands for people to get their things loaded into trays, accessible from the roller bars underneath the main conveyor belt. Not bad thinking...

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Hospital Radio – ever heard such a thing?

Pardon my ignorance, but I had never heard of hospital radio before. Until last week when I was in for an appointment and picked up a magazine entitled, what else but, "Durham Hospitals Radio (DHR). Apparently the Durham station has been going since the 1960s, and many hospitals in many countries have their own radio stations. I was a week in Addenbrooks Hospital in Cambridge way back, but I don't remember any radio on offer. So how many of you out there have enjoyed hospital radio?

The free issue of "Durham Hospitals Radio"
magazine, available at the hospital!
One of the articles in this magazine claims that hospital radio was initiated in the Walter Reed General Hospital, Washington DC, in 1919. The first hospital radio transmissions were then started in England in 1925 at the York County Hospital, using headphones and loudspeakers. Other countries stated to have hospital radio are Japan and The Netherlands.

In Durham at least, DHR is run entirely by volunteers and is a registered charity. It runs 24-hours a day with hourly programmes, such as Easy Listening, A-Z of Pop, The Breakfast Show, 50's Thru to 70's [sic], The Folk Show, Classical Hour, Musical Box [from musicals], Listeners Choice, 80's 90's and Noughties,* Late Show, Country, and Gospel. I note that "World Music" is absent from this list – maybe a volunteer is needed to showcase other countries' folk and court musics...

* Here in England, the 'Noughties' refers to the decade from 2000 to 2009; this is because the 00 are two 'noughts', i.e. zeros. What do you call this decade?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Update on Chewing Gum: songs, even!

Suddenly within the last couple of weeks, new posters have appeared on the underground tube stations ('subways' to all you out there). They show a woman holding a gymnastic flying pose, and if you bother to read the small print, there is an admonishment not to throw your chewing gum on the street but to "bin it", i.e. throw it in the dustbin. Given the woman's pose, this doesn't have anything to do with the upcoming Olympics, does it??

As I've written before, London pavements ('sidewalks' to you) are spotted, dotted, spectacularly decorated with coin-like splotches of discarded gum. If you've ever noticed at cinemas or when travelling, kiosks in those facilities don't sell gum – presumably because it ends up stuck under seats and elsewhere. (This is the sort of vandalism that caused Singapore to ban chewing gum.)

There is a great song out there called "Chewing Gum", recorded by the Carter family around 1930 as well as the New Lost City Ramblers ca. 1960. The song is about falling in love and getting married; only one verse, in addition to the chorus, mentions gum, though:

Chewing Gum
(Carter Family)

Mama sent me to the spring, she told me not to stay
I fell in love with a pretty little girl, and could not get away

    Chawin' chewing gum, chewing chawin' gum
    Chawin' chewing gum, chewing chawin' gum

First she give me peaches, next she give me pears
Next she give me fifty cents, kissed me on the stairs

Mommy don't 'low me to whistle, poppy don't 'low me to sing
They don't 'low me to marry, I'll marry just the same

I wouldn't have a lawyer, I'll tell you the reason why
Every time he opens his mouth he tells a great big lie

I wouldn't have a doctor, I'll tell you the reason why
He rides all over the country and makes the people die

I wouldn't have a farmer, I'll tell you the reason why
Because he has so plenty to eat, 'specially pumpkin pie

I took my girl to church last night.  How do you reckon she done?
She walked right up in the preacher's face and chewed her chewing gum 

Lyrics courtesy of GED on TraditionalMusic; other listings can be found on LyricsVault or OldieLyrics, and a classic performance by Johnny Cash (and Other) on YouTube.
Uncle Bailey George gives a different rendition on ReverbNation, "Chewing Gum" by Annie on YouTube, "Chewing Chewing Gum" sung by the Super Furry Animals with some pretty vapid lyrics, and of course the old favorite, "Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight" (three renditions on YouTube).

Who woulda thunk it, songs about gum...

Monday, 12 March 2012

Fitflops – shoes Vivienne Westwood would like

Vivienne Westwood said recently (not to me personally, of course, but as reported in the newspaper) that Brits dress too dully. Vivienne would say that, wouldn't she, given her outrageous outfits. But I agree: not enough colour, not enough fun. Like when grey was the new black, and then black was the new black. It's getting better these days, though, as attested when the Marni brand at H&M sold out on March 8th. That night, the Evening Standard's Fashion Editor Karen Dacre wrote that Marni is distinguished by its "conceptualised prints, kooky colour palette, and unconventional approach to silhouette...bold prints, geometric patterns and textured fabrics".

Fitflop trainers in leopard print
Bold. I was emboldened myself by Vivienne's opinion so much that I bought a pair of Bronze Leopard Print trainers (called 'supersneakers') on sale, of course, at a 60% discount – not at H&M but online at Fitflop's website. Not that I was enamoured by the print (they are far enough away from the eyes as to be inconspicious enough), but Fitflops are indeed a dream fit. I first ran into Fitflops in a Stateside shoe store where one pair of tall boots was on display. I liked their looks immediately and tried them on. In seven seconds I had made my decision to buy, helped by the fact that they were also on sale – at a 75% discount!

The tags that came with the boots describe the Fitflop fit: they have special soles that correct posture and exercise the leg at the same time. The selling point for me was that these soles are extra thick and squishy, which means a comfortable cushion to walk on. These were engineered by a team of academics, Dr. David Cook and Darren James, at the Centre for Human Performance, London South Bank University. Their new MicrowobbleboardTM technology increases "the time your muscles are engaged every single time you take a step." They claim that "Fitflop footwear wearers have reported relief from plantar fascitis, heel pain, chronic back pain, sciatica, osteoarthritis...restless leg syndrome, scoliosis, degenerative disc disease and lower leg swelling, as well as improved posture, increased energy, firmness and muscle tone." Whether they'll work for you – well, you'll just have to try them and see. I love mine!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

SOAS concert: "Sudanese Roots Meet Global Inspiration"

Sudanese music. I thought it sounded interesting, though I had no idea what it was. So I went to Thursday's free concert at SOAS ready for an ethnographic experience. What I found was extraordinary. Amira Kheir, a former SOAS student, has a fantastic voice, inspired she says by traditional Sudanese singing, such as the song "Shoft Alnur" based on Sufi devotionals. Two pieces also featured a guest dancer, who remains anonymous to me for reasons detailed below.

Amira Kheir in concert at SOAS
8 March 2012
Amira was backed by a unique combination of western and traditional instruments played by some former SOAS co-students and friends – none of whom looked Sudanese at all. The international mix was revealed by their names: double bass played by Shin Ichiro Abe, acoustic guitar by Iain Macleod, traditional flutes and djembe by Mauricio Velasierra, and a whole series of interesting drums and bells by Elizabeth Nott. Amira describes her band as a blend of jazz, soul, African as well as Middle Eastern music – the musics she grew up with. My overarching impression was of lyrical jazz backing soulful Sudanese songs, many written by herself.

Amira revels in this global melting pot, and uses herself as an example: if anyone should have an identity crisis, it should be her, with a Burundi father, Indonesian mother, French grandmother, and Native American input further up. She labels herself Sudanese-Italian and is a confirmed feminist, apparent in her success by doing rather than just talking. She did talk, though, and congratulated all the women in the audience on International Women's Day, instructing us not to be told by any man, family members or cultural rules how to act out our lives.
Amir Kheir's so-called "South American percussion section"

When you go to a concert of unknown music, what do you expect? I would have liked to have had a programme that listed the songs, players and instruments. Without that, I came away happy but ignorant. It is also one thing to listen to songs in a language you can't understand, but doubly frustrating to not even know what language it is. So in the end, I had to buy a CD to get most of this information (not the dancer's name or language, though) – not grudgingly, mind you, but enthusiastically, as I really enjoyed the concert and will again and again.

CD: Amira Kheir, "View from Somewhere". Contro Cultura Music, 2011. Akcent Media Limited.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hosepipe ban in southern England

Several people in the States have recently asked me about the drought in southern England. This happens periodically, I say, and always there is a hosepipe ban decreed for the summer. A what? No one seems to know what a 'hosepipe' is!

English garden hosepipe and watering can
A hosepipe is your garden hose. A hosepipe ban is a ban on using your hose to water your garden. And remember, 'garden' here in England means your lawn and your flowers, not your vegetable garden – though the ban would apply equally there.

So, does everything die in the dry weather (notice I didn't say 'hot')? No, because you are allowed to water your garden with a watering can. Of course this means that only the important things get watered because the can is much too heavy and it would take too long to water the whole lawn that way. But on the other hand, very very few people have a lawn of any size – usually just a token patch of grass that hardly warrants a lawnmower.

In the north of England we don't have the problem of insufficient rainfall – at least not yet. Furthermore, we have a huge reservoir in the form of Kielder Water in Northumberland. This was built between 1976 and 1982 to supply water to the three northeastern river valleys: Tyne, Tees and Wear (pronounced 'weir'). There is more than enough water there to also supply southern England, but no pipes exist to carry it south.

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a homeostatic living system, has said that Britain will become 'battleship Britain', as it is one of the only places on Earth where the moderate climate and rainfall will be able to sustain life as the climate warms to desert level –everyone will be beating down our doors to get in. Unless Britain again is clothed with snow due to the closing of the polar door (the what?), this might well be true.

So I think we are sitting pretty at the moment before disaster begins. And if you don't think disaster will happen, you haven't been reading geology.

PS Yep, the Hosepipe Ban is now set to start on April 5th, with eleven other restrictions in place: you can't use a "hose or sprinkler to water plants, wash a car or boat, fill fountains, swimming or paddling pools, or to clean patios, driveways or windows", says the Daily Mail (13mar12), and if you do, you will be served with a Yellow Card letter from the water company to tell you to obey the law.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Bittersweet "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

This is a film about retired English folk becoming ex-pats by checking in to a retirement home for the "elderly and beautiful", in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Nothing like showing the British temperament than having ex-colonials experiencing the ex-colonies for the first time (except in one case of a return visit after 40 years absence following a childhood spent in Jaipur, 150 miles southwest of Delhi). We loved it!

Marigold at

The cast was magnificent: Maggie Smith as an unreconstructed racist; her transformation during the film is heartening. Judie Dench as the narrator (through her blog), adrift without her recently deceased husband, trying to find meaning in life. Bill Nighy as a retired civil servant, struggling to come to terms with the loss of his pension investment and beleaguered by an embittered, sharp-tongued wife played to perfection by Penelope Wilton. Tom Wilkinson as a retired, gay judge who has come to find his childhood sweetheart (male). Ronald Pickup as a lonely man looking for companionship, rejected by Celia Imrie's character but finding an equally lonely and willing woman played by Diana Hardcastle. Greeting them in India were the hotel manager (Dev Patel), an affable but hopeless business man; his aggressive and prejudiced mother (Lillete Dubey), and his girlfriend (Tina Desae) who has a university degree and works at a call center.

Culture clashes are only half the story but provide a lot of laughs. Maggie won't eat anything she "can't pronounce", Celia won't stay in a room that has no door, all are terrified by a crowded bus ride, Judie pays full price at the market, many are traumatized by the dust, noise, and confusion of the busy streets. But underneath are the voices of calm: Dev assuring that everything will be "all right in the end", Tom seeing the light and the colours and happy smiles, Judie offering philosophical takes on life, and Bill acting the understated adventurer.

We asked an acquaintance of ours from India whether the film was accurately portrayed. She said yes, everything but the Dev and Tina love relationship which she said simply couldn't happen in India: no public displays of affection or going against your mother's wishes.

The idea of 'out-sourcing old age' is not new. The Japanese tried to built a retirement complex on Australia's Gold Coast in the 1980s (the Silver Columbia Project) but failed due to bad press and criticisms of exporting the aged (Merry White 2002). A couple of years ago, doctors in the British ex-pat communities of the Alicante region began to refuse patients unless they could speak Spanish.

The isolation some characters in this film felt is real, and no indication was given of visa or work visa status – two huge hurdles in moving abroad. But how many of any country are willing to sever all ties and activities with their families, neighbourhoods, and communities to try living abroad with people they have never met.  Not everyone is adventurous, but when financial needs dictate, people draw on unknown reserves. It was a very thought-provoking film while being wildly entertaining.

White, Merry Isaacs (2002) Perfectly Japanese. University of California Press.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

"Refined Pleasures": Korean music at Musicon

The last concert in the Musicon Festival of East Asian Music featured Korean music performed by the impressive ensemble Jeong Ga Ak Hoe. What a contrast with the preceding Chinese music. One can hardly call the piri oboe 'soft', but it was lyrical, playing in the lower octave in a slow sedate manner to start off the concert. And the haegum fiddle, unlike the Chinese erhu, did not play an easily discernible melody but long, drawn-out, plaintive notes also in the lower octave. 

Piri soloist in the Durham Town Hall
Musicon Festival of East Asian Music 2012
The four pieces in the first half of the concert  had been court or aristocratic entertainments. Consistent with the Confucian observation that "good music makes good politics", music always played an important part of traditional elites' lifestyle. 

The second half included two pieces composed specifically for the group. The opening piece stood out for me: "Soaring Towards Absolute Solitude" by US-based Korean composer Yoon Hyejin. It was inspired by the "Heroic eagle painting" of the late 19th century, depicting an eagle standing on one leg on a stone in the sea. Here, the haegum excelled, with other instruments following along in periodic changes of single notes (like the single leg), in the manner of modern minimalist music.

A lovely flute solo (sanjo) apparently derived from shamanistic ritual music and another modern composition (based on the fusion of a traditional ensemble piece with a boat song) concluded the concert. 

Eight musicians were flown in from Korea specifically for this concert; it was well worth their effort and very enjoyable for us – including the forty members of a Korean student society who gathered from Durham and Newcastle just for the concert. We were also encouraged to learn that the musicians were all aged between 25 and 40, meaning young people are actually learning the traditional musics to carry them on into the future. Consummate musicians, all. 

From left to right: the piri oboe, daegeum flute with a vibrating membrane,
and the saenghwang mouth organ

Friday, 2 March 2012

Musicon Festival: Chinese flute music

True to its title, "Birds in the Shade", this lunchtime Musicon concert in Durham began with an incredible chirping, cheeping flute piece by Lu Panling on the dizi flute (did anyone tweet it?). This is one of several East Asian flutes that has an extra hole covered by a membrane that vibrates, giving a slight buzzing to the sound. As Dr David Hughes, SOAS ethnomusicologist, explained in his introductory lecture on the various instruments at the Festival, we Westerners have spent centuries trying to get the buzzing out of our music, but in East Asia and indeed in much of the world it is avidly sought in many instruments. (Think also of the Indian sitar, or the cockle shells or Coke bottle tops nailed to a Zimbabwean mbira thumb-piano.)

A recital of Chinese flute music
Musicon Festival of East Asian Music
28-29 February 2012
This recital of Chinese flute music involved three musicians, Lu on several sizes of dizi and the vertical end-blown flute xiao, a relative of the shakuhachi played in the previous concert "The Sound of Zen"; Chuang Cheng-Ying on two different lutes, the liuqin and zhongruan; and Wang Xiao on the two-stringed vertical fiddle, the erhu. Unlike the similar Korean haegeum, heard in the next Festival concert entitled "Refined Pleasures", the erhu is a melodic instrument that follows the flute. In Chinese traditional music, these several instruments play without harmony, each with its own variant of a single melody, at its own octave pitch.

The pieces ranged from Mongolian folk tunes to Chinese opera to teahouse tunes (sizhu) to new "national music" (guoyue). One of the most interesting facets of the concert was the juxtaposition of Peking opera style (Jing Opera) with southern opera style (Kunqu). Anyone who has heard Peking opera is familiar with its lively almost raucous style (but without the various percussion here), while the Kunqu style, described as "sentimental" in the programme, was surprising in its lyrical effect. The concert ended with several pieces of guoyue which sometimes offered chords on the lute, but often included countermelodies on the different instruments. With five instruments and three players, the pieces also provided different combinations of instruments to entertain our ears.

The three musicians came together just for this performance; they do not constitute a named group. However, they all live currently in London, so it is possible to hear each playing at different venues. Meanwhile, the SOAS Sizhu Ensemble has a Facebook group and does occasional gigs. Watch out for them for some relaxing teahouse entertainment!