Friday, 28 September 2007

The world through 'innocent' eyes

A fantastic article in the Independent reprints the travel advice of Mrs Favell Mortimer, a mid nineteenth century writer who had apparently never been out of England. She sums up foreign countries in a rather schoolmistressy way - neatly showing every English prejudice of the time.

It is, in a way, the world through 'innocent' eyes. Not the self-consciously innocent eyes of some modern travellers, who attempt to see everything as if for the first time, to experience other cultures without a layer of superiority or difference between them. No, this is the innocence of someone who actually doesn't realise that other cultures exist - that real people live in them - that they are anything other than a sideshow to hold up in the classroom to demonstrate the superiority of the British Empire. I particularly like the comments on Prussia - a horrible place but at least it's Protestant. (The same sort of judgment as 'a dreadful town but at least you can get a nice cup of tea'..)

Yes, that's a strange kind of innocence indeed.

A most amusing article none the less.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Statues of strangeness 2

One of my favourite occupations when travelling is to keep an eye open for unusual statues. Any city is full of the great and the good - often, generals who were well known in their time but now almost forgotten, or civil servants whose claims to fame have lapsed - but the statues I'm looking for are the unofficial, sometimes strange or quirky.

There's a nice article in the Telegraph today on London statues. Now I don't think  Christopher Somerville should have left out the fine Charles I by Le Sueur in Trafalgar Square. It's not a Bernini, but it breathes the same air of Baroque plenitude. But some of his other selections are interesting. He prefers the informal (Churchill and Roosevelt cracking a joke) to the formal, the fantastic (the composer Purcell dreaming) to the ordinary, 'everyman' (the Jewish children of Liverpool Street) to the nobs. And he also finds room (as I have done in my own life) for one very special companion - a feline, Hodge, Doctor Johnson's cat, "a very fine cat indeed." (Being a lover of the Baroque rather than the Enlightenment, I don't like Doctor Johnson overmuch, but his ailurophilia - and in particular his consideration of Hodge's feelings - is an endearing feature.)

I think I blogged the great statue of the tom cat in El Raval, Barcelona, a while ago. Wikipedia's now got a picture of it. And El Pais has an article on it (only if you speak Spanish, though), pointing out that it's already had several lives - it's lived in the Olympic stadium, the Ciutadella park, on the Paral.lel...  and it is now purring away quite happy in this slightly seedy quarter, where no doubt it can find enough food in the rubbish bins!

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Cologne stained glass - a controversy

New stained glass windows in Cologne Cathedral have attracted the ire of the Cardinal Archbishop.

Gerhard Richter's designs have been christened 'confetti windows', made up of squares of vibrant colours - pink, yellow, blue, replacing the clear glass windows that made the cathedral look so washed out. They're thoroughly modern in one way - but in another, their abstract design reminds me of the Cistercian-influenced grisaille style you can still see in the 'Five Sisters' window of York Minster, or at Salisbury cathedral.

There's an excellent post on Art(h)ist'ry covering the controversy. Gninja points out that in fact, the window - made up entirely of geometrical abstract designs - is in the true Gothic tradition. Every Gothic cathedral is designed to incorporate a set of mathematical ratios; and gninja says that
"If [the Cardinal Archbishop] knew his own Cathedral a bit better, and the principles behind its construction, he might see Richter’s work as completely consonant with the structure."

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Modern pilgrimage?

Gadling has a neat story about the famous stall where Republican Senator Larry Craig was arrested. It seems to have become a tourist attraction.

A nice bit of trivia, but it got me thinking. What's really different between having your feet photographed in the celebrated toilet stall, and going to see blood spattered bits of Thomas a Becket, or a finger of Santa Rosalia?

Sure, there' a theological underpinning to pilgrimage. But it's always struck me that the early church actually hated both relics and pilgrimages - even in the Middle Ages many thinkers were deeply uneasy with the reality of relics and pilgrim travel. When Erasmus objected to the cult of relics he was not being revolutionary or Reformist - he was drawing on a long tradition of objection. In fact you could see a lot of the arguments in favour of relics and pilgrimage as justifying, after the fact, a trend that had already begun without benefit of clergy.

Some medieval (and later) pilgrimages do seem to have sprung up in just the same way as this 'toilet stall pilgrimage' - almost spontaneously.  And they seem to be about the same thing in human nature - a desire to be associated in some way with the great, the celebrated, the famous. A desire to touch something bigger or more renowned than oneself. That may be rather frivolous (as in the Larry Craig case) or deeply spiritual (the 'pilgrimage' to Little Gidding), but the roots of that desire are the same.

I wonder if some of our desire for wilderness stems from the same desire. For an age in which authorised gods don't have much appeal, the wilderness can take the place of that thing bigger than ourselves...

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Back from a pilgrimage

Just back from the Medieval Trust pilgrimage to Walsingham. It hurt.

There were quite a few surprises. One was that the night we'd all been dreading - sleeping under an unfinished thatched roof, part of a reconstruction of medieval building materials - was actually the cosiest. We were laid out like sardines in a tin, loose straw scattered below our straw-filled mattresses, and thatch above, snug as bugs in a rug. Don't underestimate the insulation value of straw. By comparison, our nights in a barn and a church were freezing.

Another surprise awaited us as we came into Walsingham; we were pestered by touts selling relics, herbs, religious tat.  (Other re-enactors - this isn't the  welcome that awaits  normal pilgrims.) Now I hadn't really thought all twelve of us had bonded over the four days (most of us knew only two or three of the other participants before starting the walk), but I know I was responsible for a couple of squabbles - but faced with this barrage, we closed ranks impressively. One of the other re-enactors noted to me the day after that she felt thoroughly left out!

Surprise number three; mulled beer for breakfast. (St Peter's Honey Porter with extra honey works a treat. I don't actually like that beer much cold; add more honey and warm it up and you have anaesthetic enough for at least three miles!) Beer at eight in the morning shouldn't work, but it did. Thoroughly recommended as a Boxing Day pick-me-up for inhabitants of the twenty-first-century.

Personally, I found the pilgrimage extremely difficult even though it was only 10 miles or so  each day for four days. Medieval shoes give little support to the ankle, and you've only got three or four millimetres of leather between your sole and the path. Blisters at once. Then the lack of sleep, with many of us getting only a couple of hours and lying awake most of the night through cold, discomfort, or listening to other people snoring. Then the clothes; three or four layers of wool above linen form a portable sauna; no chance to strip down (and for women, not even the chance to take your headdress off; medieval society enforced head-coverings for all mature women).

Another surprise was the understated beauty of the Norfolk landscape. Some of the nicest stretches were along the Marriotts Way, a cycle track that uses an old railway track. At some points you're walking an embankment above marshes; at others, in a dapple-shaded cutting below overarching trees, protected from the sun. Towards Walsingham, one minor road ran past a number of lightning-struck oaks just beginning to grow again, leafy boughs contrasting with the stark white of the old wood. At Pensthorpe, I heard cranes fly past in the morning - as noisy as the USAF planes that overflew us the night before.

I must admit to feeling relief rather than achievement when I arrived in Walsingham. It had been hard. But the next day, when we got given our pilgrim badges in the ruins of the old priory, I felt quite tearfully proud.

Link to the account on the Eastern Daily Press website.

Sunday, 2 September 2007


I've been thinking about doing a lot more travel, recently. Time I upped sticks and did a proper trip. And I have various ideas; hitching lifts on boats down the Danube; walking to Jerusalem; perhaps a motorbike trip through America.

But one of the things that has struck me while I've been doing this thinking is that while one might follow a road (to Santiago perhaps) or a river, there's something highly appealing in the sense of a crossing.  From the coast-to-coast footpath here in the UK to the crossing of theEmpty Quarter, journeys that completely traverse a landscape or  sea have a unique attraction.

I think it's something to do with ritual, almost. While a journey is just from A to B, maybe visiting C, F and X en route, a crossing returns us from strangeness to normality. So that though it goes from A to B, in a way you could say it's from A to A; we come back to where we started. 'There and back again' as Tolkien says (if you don't recognise the quote, it's the subtitle to The Hobbit).

But a crossing's not a circular walk, either. Because we don't come back exactly where we started. It has a dual nature; we're back in normality, on dry land, out of the desert, whatever, but in another place.

And it's also a ritual where we expect to have changed. So that though the journey, we have visited a strange place in ourselves. And now we're back in civilisation, but we have changed. We are not quite the same people we were.

So that has got me round to thinking about crossing the Sahara.

I like deserts. I like the emptiness. I like the way everything, because of that emptiness, becomes full of meaning; a single dead tree, a stone, a track. (I actually like camels, too; sweet, loving creatures, like cats - like cats also in the way they do what they want to do. If it happens to be  what you want to do, fine; if not, you have a battle on your hands.)

I enjoyed a trip to the Wahiba Sands when I was in Oman. We only spent a few days out there in the company of our Bedouin guide. I still regret not taking the time to cross the sands - it would have taken some weeks, from the edge of the sands to the sea coast. It's not just that I would have liked to have taken longer, got to know the camels and how to care for them, got to know the desert; I would have liked to do the crossing, to be able to score that red line on the map, to feel I had come from one side to the other.

So maybe the Sahara... I shall have to do some hard thinking about that.

Rugby World Cup page

I've just loaded a tourist guide to the Rugby World Cup venues in France to my Podtours site:

Of course you can use it to find out about Montpellier, Lens, Toulouse, and so on even if you're not 'un rugbyman'. (Does the French language contain a noun for female rugby fans, I wonder? and if so, what is it? une rugbymanne? rugbyfemme?)

Another free concert

Organ lovers: another free concert. St Peter's in Vienna has organ concerts at 3 pm each day, though I'm not sure if this is all year or just in the summer.  It's a great church to listen in - there's a lot to look at while you're listening, from the Rottmayr dome fresco to the wonderful baroque main altar.