Monday, December 11, 2017

Art, Politics, Religion.

Art, Politics, Religion.

What a potent mixture those three words in the title conjure up!

Resultado de imagen de lleida aragon artImagine, if you will, a group of nuns in Aragón living in a ruinous Convent in the 1980s.  They decide to move to another Convent in Catalonia and they further decide to sell various religious artworks that they owned to the Generalitat of Catalonia.  Contacts are signed, the move is made and the religious art works find their way to a museum in Lleida.  All is well.  The nuns are settled in their new home and the museum has gained a substantial number of interesting artworks to put on display.

But no!  All is not well.  Aragón has decided that the nuns wrongly sold off part of their regional artistic heritage and they demand the return of the works.

What country, you may well ask yourself, does not have one case (or in the British Museum’s case thousands) of someone somewhere asking for the return of something cultural that was bought/sold in what approximated for good faith when the transaction was done?  The most glaring example in the BMs case is probably that of The Elgin Marbles.

In recent decades Greece has become increasingly strident in its demand that the Marbles be returned.  Not to the monument itself, where if the marbles had been left in place they would be today, shapeless pieces of marble destroyed by the acidic smog and rain from the pollution of the city, but rather be placed in another museum at the foot of the Acropolis.  This museum has already been built and awaits the return of the lost treasures.

And all I have to say is that Greece will get those Marbles over my dead body! 

That almost happened (my death I mean) when, as a backpacking Greek island-hopper back in the day, in a roughish bar in an insalubrious part of Athens I maintained (drunkenly, loudly, but articulately) that the Elgin Marbles were works that I had grown up with, they were part of my heritage and I valued them as an essential part of what it meant to be British and that we would never, ever let them go!  As one Greek later confided to me in the bar, “The only reason we didn’t kill you was because you were obviously so passionate about them!”

In the same way, the Assyrian bas-reliefs of The Lion Hunt, and especially the poignant depiction of a dying lioness.

Alabaster bas-relief depicting a dying lioness. The lioness has received 3 arrowsl blood can be seen gushing from the ensuing wounds. One of the arrows hit her at the lower back; this may explain her hind legs' weakness! She is roaring in agony, fighting her death. From Room C of the North Palace, Nineveh (modern-day Kouyunjik, Mosul Governorate), Mesopotamia, Iraq. Circa 645-535 BCE. The British Museum, London. Photo©Osama S.M. Amin.  

These are objects that I always visit first when I go to the BM.

Another part of MY history and MY culture, no matter where the artwork was originally made.  I would be very loath to give those back - even if it might be difficult to work out exactly who to give them back to, history being what it is and places and people changing so much over time!

But the ‘decent’ person inside the voracious art-lover persona knows exactly what the issues are and, while questions of ownership are difficult they are not impossible and the ‘right thing to do’ trumps smaller questions.

That being said, I still wouldn’t give them back!

So, what I am saying is that I do understand the passions that can be aroused by ownership and siting of works of art.  Which brings us back to what, this morning, was packed into a van in Catalonia and taken, through a police cordon and angry crowds, to Aragon.

There has been an acrimonious court case about the ‘ownership’ of these religious works of art and the latest twist was a judge saying that they should be ‘returned’ to Aragon.  In normal times, that judgement would be the prelude to further rounds of legal argument and a procession through various courts until, possibly it found its way to the highest court in Spain.

But that didn’t happen.

Given the present situation in Catalonia, things are a little different.

After the threat of the Catalan government’s proclamation of independence, the minority right-wing Conservative (PP) national government in Spain declared article 155 of the Constitution and took away the elected government from Catalonia imposing their own rule from Madrid, arrested members of the government and issued an international arrest warrant for the President who is now in exile in Belgium.

PP managed to gain 9% of the popular vote in Catalonia in the last elections.  9%!  And now that party runs the country!  And they are showing exactly what their ‘running’ of the country means.

Resultado de imagen de iñigo mendez de vigo
Iñigo Méndez de Vigo is the minority, right-wing, Conservative national Spanish government’s Minister of Culture and he has now intervened in the dispute.  As an Article 155 Minister imposed on a country that did not vote for him, he has ordered the treasures to be returned from Lleida to Aragón.  But not just to Aragón, but to the small town of Villanneva de Sigena - population 512.  From the museum in Lleida - population 140,000.  It just so happens that the party of government of the small town is PAR, a party closely associated with PP!  Well, there’s a surprise!  Funny how things work out when you are looking for a spiteful opportunity to denude Catalonia of its art!

Iñigo Méndez de Vigo has used the imposition of Article 155 to short circuit the legal procedures and give himself the power to take autocratic decisions against Catalonia.

Many people will not care much about old religious art, but the crowds of protesters outside the museum in Lleida did, just at the staff of the museum did when they came out of the building  en mass and applauded the support of the protesters.  This is not the end of the protest, even though the van carrying the disputed treasures has left for Aragón, and it should be a wake up call to those who think that they can trust any of the so-called ‘Constitutional’ parties in the forthcoming election to behave with anything approaching understanding following the events of the past months.

The taking of these art works is a clear indication of how the minority right-wing Conservative (PP) government is going to work.  It will use the power of Article 155 to manipulate and damage Catalonia in a way that it would never have been able to do if its measly 9% popular support was its mandate.

If it is prepared to do this with artworks, then imagine what is it likely to do with the actual structure of government and the finance of institutions in Catalonia!  PP is not to be trusted.  It is clearly the most corrupt party in Western Europe, with hundreds of its members in courts accused of or condemned for criminal activity.  And these are the people ‘governing’ Catalonia; preparing for the election on the 21st and, most disturbingly, counting the votes.

Now, more than ever, Catalonia needs the eyes of the world, and especially those of the EU, to scrutinize the arrangements for, the supervision of, and the results from the local election in Catalonia on the 21st of December.

All the Catalans ask for is fairness and honesty.  A big ‘ask’ from PP.

Watch what happens in Catalonia.  Ask questions.  Demand answers.  Support Democracy and Liberty!

Saturday, December 09, 2017

New Life!

Praise be!  Behold, my telephone hath been restored unto me!

The language used for that last sentence fits the sense of renewed faith that comes with being plugged into whatever electronic systems I have been missing over the Days of Isolation through which I have had to live.  And please do not say that the 38 euro thing that I bought to ‘tide me over’ did anything so much.  To be fair I am astonished by just how much such a cheap phone was able to accomplish, but it wasn’t my faithful old Yotaphone.

It was given back to me this morning; some sort of chip having been replaced and it is now in full working order.  Except . . . .

Except, while the phone works, some things are missing.  Like all the apps that I added and the photos stored (I assumed) somewhere or other on the sim or in the cloud, somewhere, anywhere.

It’s a bit like beginning to walk again.  You progress step by step.  You have your basic phone and a lot of space on the main page where lots of little icons used to lurk.  Some of the replacements were easy to decide on: Reverso (my translation app); The Guardian (once a Guardian reader always a Guardian reader); Radio 4 (to question the need for this one argues that you wouldn’t understand the answer and that you were a poltroon); WhatsApp (people send things and they expect me to read them, and I do try, honestly!).  Other apps will be found when I need them, or to put it in the way that Toni described it, “You’ll get them when you find they aren’t there!”  Which is almost philosophical and probably counts for a lot of the time spent on computers as we try and find what isn’t there.

In the bad old days (I now understand that means anything over 5 years ago), no, the really bad old days when there was no internet, no wi-fi and virtually not on-board memory, you really did have to search for things that you thought that you had done, but you had made a tiny mistake in the file name or file type or where you put it and it was well and truly gone.  Like the books in the British Library that I was told had a shelf number as their identifying place in the system, which meant that if a book was replaced incorrectly then there was a real chance that it would never be found again, except by pure chance!  Sometimes it felt with early computers that, whatever we were told about the cold logic of our machines, they were actually motivated by a malevolent maliciousness that works ceaselessly against us.

So with my revived phone.  It felt as if things had been intentionally hidden.  For example the photographs I had taken.  On the photo app on the phone there were no ‘taken’ photographs, all the photos had gone.  Somewhere.  And, sure enough, over the next few hours, I found a photo, and then a whole slew of photos emerge from the electronic mists and retake their places.  They are there, but I don’t seem to be able to access them from the camera.  That too will change, I’m sure.

And, a I’ve been typing, I have realized that there is another app that I can’t do without, that of Kindle.  This is the app that uses the second face of my phone, so that I can read easily in black and white, and in the sunshine too.  And even as I type it is syncing my information and all my books are now only a touch away!

Everyone should go through the trauma of ‘losing’ their phone, if only for the delight and satisfaction in ‘restoring’ a life!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Life without the phone

I am determined to be happy.  And why not?  There is much to be happy about.  Today has been cold, but bright and fine.  The sea has looked particularly uninviting in a positively attractive and sparkling way and lunch was good.  But as I sit here and type I know that lurking in my left hand jeans’ pocket is a new mobile phone.

Normally those last three words would be a cause of guilty jubilation for me as yet another gadget asks to be plugged into a power source.  But not this time.

Resultado de imagen de yotaphone 2
My ‘reserve’ Yotaphone 2 (I am still the only person I know who has even heard of this make) has given up the ghost and I have had to take it to be assessed and repaired.  I know that I am not the only person with a Yotaphone 2 in Castelldefels because some guy (it was from a male changing room locked locker) stole it from me, but I have yet to see anyone else with one, or should I say with what used to be mine!  My ‘reserve’ Yotaphone 2 is my third (the second went into the pool and was never the same again) and I keep on buying them because they are the only phones to have two faces: the normal screen you get with every phone and a second back screen which acts like a Kindle screen so that you can read in sunlight.

There are rumours and even ‘reviews’ of a fabled Yotaphone 3, but unless you live in China or possibly Russia such a thing remains the stuff of legend.  Even the Yotaphone 2 is now ‘discontinued’ in the bargain on-line bucket store from which I bought the last one.  I was left without a phone.

Now the last thing that I use my phone for is to phone.  Indeed the first time I had a call on the thing I had no idea how to answer it and had to wait for it to stop ringing, see who phoned me and then phone them back.  Obviously I learned how to answer the thing, but it still remained a niche activity for me.

I use my phone to read.  I read The Guardian every day and do the quick Guardian crossword first thing with my cup of morning tea.  This ‘quick’ crossword has taken me as little as 4-and-a-bit minutes to do (my very best time) and as long as utter-shame-for-an-ex-English-teacher sort of time, but it has become a sort of ritual and I quite like worrying my way to some odd words and then questioning the definition that was given as a clue to justify my tardiness.

I also read books on the phone.  I have got used to the screen size and it doesn’t worry me - as long as the reading matter is engrossing.  I find that I prefer reading non-fiction on the phone rather than literature because I think that the pace to take in factual information is slower than the rush of narrative.

Imagen relacionada
My Spanish/English go-to dictionary is on my phone.  I use the Reverso phone app which is quick, informative and free.  I use the camera on the phone, but not half as much as I want to.  I enjoy photography, but rarely take the time to improve my skills.  And then there is the Internet and all the niggling little pieces of information that one used to ignore because one couldn’t be bothered to go to the dusty volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, or in the case of my family The Children’s Britannica or the big Chambers Encyclopaedia.  Now, in seconds information and answers are available with little effort.  Although, of course the fact that the Web gives us so much so quickly is an absolute delight, there is little sense of achievement.  There is no selection of what might be the right volume, no turning pages, no reference to indices, no remembering an almost forgotten volume in which there might be a reference, no combing contents, no . . . OK, let’s face it, much of the process of ‘looking something up’ was boring, frustrating and very often futile, because even when you got the information and read about it at length in an encyclopaedia, that information was usually way out of date.  Now, there is a different level of frustration.

Take my trying to find a new old Yotaphone 2.  I have (electronically) bounced around the world going from site to site, following up references and suggestions, sticking and pasting leads into search engines in the hope that I can get to where I want to go.  And, just like the books, I go from page to page, flitting from lead to lead.  I find myself distracted: three clicks and I am engrossed in something which has nothing to do with what I started out my search for.  I wrench myself back and go on a roller coaster of emotion as what I am searching for seems tantalizingly near and then electronically crumbles away into the same old dead ends.

And this was taken away from me with the death of my phone.  After a day (even with the liberal application of laptop) I was having withdrawal symptoms.  My absent phone was a like a phantom limb.  I couldn’t stand it.

So now I am the ‘proud’ owner of a Qubo.

Resultado de imagen de qubo phone
This is a phone that can be hidden in the palm of my hand.  It has a screen the size of a large stamp and looks like something that I would not have bought all those years ago when mobile phones looked like that.  I showed it to the family as they had come for lunch and to see the Fayre that had taken over the centre of Castelldefels and they burst into horrified laughter and then expressed concern about my atavistic taste!

But I am impressed by what this 38-euro phone can actually do.  It has internet (though I don’t know how to get on it), a camera, a torch, plays music (none there), holds my contacts, oh and makes telephone calls.  I am not going to be reading books on the thing, but that is not why I bought it, and I don’t think that its internal memory is exactly large enough to take more than a pamphlet.  I have taken three photos and they seem to be somewhere inside the machine.  I am not sure how many more images can be stored, but I am hoping that my repaired phone will be returned to me so that I won’t have to find out.

Shop!  Please phone my landline and tell me that my link to the world has been restored!

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Why do I listen to the news?

Today is the Day of the Constitution.  And a Bank Holiday.

Horrifically, we get to see our “government” – the worthless bunch of right wing self seeking members of the minority government of the most corrupt party in Western Europe all standing together, smirking at a population that did not vote for them to be the government but, due to the ineptitude of the opposition political parties has allowed this ‘criminal’ bunch to stay in power, to force our President into exile, to imprison our political leaders, to invoke 155 and all of this from a party with 9% support in Catalonia that has assumed control of our country.  And you have to say that vast sentence in one breath to get the full effect!

And now on television, Ana Pastor the president of Congress, is making a speech in which key words like “liberty”, “democracy”, “justice”, “rights”, “tolerance”, “dialogue” are being used that, for this ‘government’ have a very specific meaning which does not even come close to anything that I understand the words to mean. 

Listening to the national Spanish government reminds me of my time in a student strike in Swansea University when I was part of a delegation which met with members of the governing body of the University.  The Chair of the university Council that we met was Ifor Davies, trade union supported Labour MP for Gower, and it became clear that the words and concepts that I was using to put forward the student case were also being owned by Ifor Davies, but it rapidly became clear that a common vocabulary did not mean common beliefs. 

There is nothing more frustrating to hear your words used against you by someone who wilfully redefines their meaning poles away from an understanding that should be common to you both. 

But Ivor Davies was an established, institutional ‘Socialist’ in a safe Labour seat and he was never going to be on the side of radical change, and it was my first ‘real life’ experience of, “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” approach to political debate.  In spite of this happening decades ago, I still find that approach hurtful and distasteful.  And I hear it every day as soon as a member of the Spanish National Minority Government opens its mouth.

I can’t even turn to the UK news to add a moment of tranquillity as the Conservative Brexit convulsions continue to make my country an international laughing stock. If I understood the extract of the news on Radio 4 correctly the government has not undertaken a study of the financial implications of Brexit on British Industry!  

If that is correct, then the government and especially the Minister for Brexit have been criminally incompetent; if they have done studies (surely, they must have) and they are deliberately keeping yet more compromising information about the disaster that Brexit is going to be from the general public then they should resign.  En mass, and now!

Though, finding out that the minority Conservative government is unprepared is par for the course given the generally clueless mess that the Conservatives (“lower than vermin”) have made of the whole Brexit fiasco so far.

I thought about that after the last Brexit disaster but two (or was it three) when the unprepossessing leader of the troglodytic DUP (the dim but intense girl you wouldn’t have wanted to have been put next to in school) Arlene Foster phoned up the zombified misfiring robot that masquerades as our Prime Minister and peremptorily informed her that she had to stop talking to those nasty Europeans.  And the very next day the throwback Tories rose like the scum they are and mouthed their inane platitudes.

It was seeing in The Guardian a photo montage of the main Tory Brexiteers applauding the stance of Foster (Ian Duncan Smith, Redwood, Lawson, Rees-Mogg etc) I was reminded of the line up of The Munsters or The Addams Family, the same freakish look but without the family charm of The Munsters or the moral clarity of The Addams Family.

Why is it that we have to tolerate these startling failures (IDS for the state of social services and care of the disabled; Redwood for his ‘singing’ of the Welsh National Anthem among other things; Lawson for his singing as the pound plunged; Rees-Mogg for existing) pontificating about an appalling situation that they have consciously helped produce.  Based on what they have already done, what the hell do they know about how to make the situation in the United Kingdom any better?

I need to watch a film or go to the opera again or listen to music or read a book and convince myself that there is intellectual life out there that is not tainted by political idiocy.  And Trump is now moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem!  Each day brings more bad news than can be easily consumed in a twenty-four hour period!

We must make the days longer!

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

"Tristan und Isolde" is a really good opera. Who knew!

When I first saw the programme for the present opera season in the Liceu my heart sank: Tristan and Isolde was a feature.  The opera famous for length and nothing much happening on stage was set to be my early Christmas 'present' in musical terms.  And yes, I am being ironic.

I had approached the evening with increasing dread, trying to explain to Toni just what hard work some operas could be.  His response was, “Why go?”  To which my (unsatisfactory) response was, “Have you seen the cost of the tickets!”

So, I took my place yesterday, having remembered to turn up an hour earlier for the 7 pm (rather than the 8 pm start for normal length operas) with something of a heavy heart.  I sank into my aisle stall seat and waited for oblivion or ecstasy to take me!

In the event neither did. 

The opening prelude played by the orchestra of the Liceu was beautiful with measured and detailed playing which gave an accurate indication of the performance throughout this long opera.  In many ways the orchestra, Orquestra Simfònic i de Gran Theatre del Liceu was the true star of the evening as the reading of the music by the director Josep Pons was such that I was able to appreciate details that, in spite of previous hearings, I had never truly appreciated before.

The first appearance of Isolde (Iréne Theorin) demonstrated the assurance that she brought to the role throughout the evening.  Each nuance in the changing relationship of the two main characters was easily captured by her voice which retained richness of tone and assurance no matter whether she was singing piano or fortissimo.  The same could not be said for her Tristan (Stefan Vinke) where, the first time that we see them both together on the deck of the ship taking them to Cornwall, he appeared uneasy in his movement on stage and the quality of his voice felt a little rough to me.  Vinke did, however come into his own in the second act where the mixture of power and delicacy seemed to fit the register of his voice more happily, and he, after all, managed to sing through a role that would have ripped lighter voices to pieces with its demands.  His voice was something that I warmed to throughout the evening and, while I never felt that he matched his Isolde in terms of sheer quality, he was a noble partner.

Resultado de imagen de tristan und isolde Opera de Lyon
Our first glimpse of the set was of something quite minimal with a strip of film of waves at the back of the stage suggesting the sea.  However, during the first act a giant ovoid shape was gradually lowered.  At first it reminded me of a giant spider’s egg sac, something holding a disturbing element of life within itself, but later a photographic realization of the surface of the moon was projected onto the shape and perhaps the idea of lifelessness and the link with the supernatural was suggested - though the realism of the moon surface markings suggested another interpretation.

Resultado de imagen de tristan und isolde Opera de Lyon
In the second act the giant ovoid had been turned around and looked like the shell of a massive Easter egg.  Inside the curve of this egg were doorways, one of which, sited at the top of the egg had a curving staircase down to the stage level.  It looked interesting and was made more so by the use of projections on the convex surface.  For the long love duet the outlines of two trees were shown each growing branches into the other eventually filling the space.  Projections of fire were used effectively and a clichéd but exciting destruction sequence as the projections seemed to show the destruction of the edifice.

Although the set was simple, it had an epic grandeur and although it only vaguely suggested Marke’s castle it had a majestic elegance and gave a fitting setting for the performance of Albert Dohmen playing Marke, King of Cornwall.  His voice was rich and full and he played the role with a tired dignity that added pathos to the story without making it mawkish.

Sarah Connolly was an amazing Brangäne who sang superbly through her time on stage and moved with a professional assurance which gave a dramatic unity to the narrative, as did the other sung characters - this was an ensemble piece.

Resultado de imagen de tristan und isolde Opera de Lyon
The final act had the ovoid turned so that its concave side was facing the audience.  A small ramp let up to a circular hole cut in the side that acted as a lookout for the anticipated ship bringing Isolde to her wounded lover.  Although massively there the set never intruded, it gave a setting, allowed action became almost a character in the action, but one that allowed the glory to go to the singers.  A beautifully judged use of something that could have been mere intrusion.

The final moments of the opera had dry ice smoke pouring through the hole in the set and settling on the bodies of the lovers, while shafts of light blazed through to the glorious sound of the music.  You might say that it was a little over the top, but how else to you adequately end an evening that was performed so well of an opera so awesome as this?

So, I liked it.

Much to my amazement.  I still think that there is an orchestral symphonic poem or even symphony that I might like to hear based on judicious selection of the music in this opera.  And, yes, I know that I am showing my essential uncouthness by suggesting that some of the music might be surplus to requirements and that it might benefit by some cutting.  But perhaps this is just another stage in my appreciation of the music and it might suggest that there is still some way to go before I am a true Wagnerite!