Thursday, 22 December 2011

A year's reading - on the road and off it

One of the great things about travelling is that, deprived of the meretricious attractions of the internet, I get to catch up with my reading. It can be slightly random, depending on what I manage to find in second-hand bookshops - India gave me the chance to read children's versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Henry James, Eric Clapton's autobiography, and JG Farrell's marvellous Siege of Krishnapur.

I can heartily recommend reading children's versions of myths as a first stop in a new culture. If I'd started off reading Valmiki, I suspect I would have got bogged down - children's books on the other hand give you the broad outlines of the story. Easy reading, too, for Indian trains, in those couple of hours between sunset and being ready for sleep, when you want satisfyingly big print for the dim lighting, and simple narrative for ease of brain.

Henry James. Wonderful. Long meandering sinuous sentences. Perceptions, misconceptions, cross-purposes. The tragedy of life lived as a misunderstanding. I read my copy of his various stories three or four times, finding something new each time; a word that had seemed innocuous on first reading would sparkle away balefully on second reading, with maleficent or sardonic purpose.

JG Farrell. What a find! The Siege of Krishnapur is a compulsive novel, richly comic despite its bleak subject - there's a lovely scene in which the young raja wants the Englishman Fleury to admire his scientific outlook, while Fleury is more struck by the 'oriental' weirdness that he can't quite explain... Throughout the whole novel, the political and sociological ideas of the Collector and his bete noire the Magistrate are discussed, and yet neither is able to cope with the scale of the historical events actually occurring. And the one thing that he gets absolutely right about India is the huge boredom of the plains landscape - the dusty, muddy, nothingness of the great flat land.

The Siege of Krishnapur is similar to The French Lieutenant's Woman in its range of references - Victorian culture, political philosophy, history. But it seems so very much more readable. And Fowles never had that wicked sense of humour.

From my perusal of Indian secondhand bookshops in tourist destinations, I note that many travellers read travel books about the destination while they're there. I'm not sure that's always worthwhile. Do I want to see Dalrymple's Delhi, Mark Tullow's Great Trunk Road? (It intrigues me that no one ever writes about Kochi or Bangalore - perhaps not picturesque enough, and yet Kochi is such a marvellous city. Never mind the tourist bits, Ernakulam is the most amazing mix of Gulf-Arab, American, Indian, and Christian culture. Where else can you eat shish tawuk and shawarma and then go to a Carnatic music gig with electric guitar and German jazzers, and end the day with whisky chasers?)

I found Chetan Bhagat more interesting than any of the more touted Indian writers. He helped me understand the world of the thirty-something Indian professional, and and the regional differences between north and south. And it was a laugh reading his books. Some days, you can't ask for more.

Meanwhile 'back at the ranch' I re-read Spenser's Faerie Queene and Dante's Divina commedia. Spenser intrigues me, not so much for the allegory nor for the political aspects of his work, but for what I find almost a prefiguring of space opera - a feeling of the universe as dynamic, oozing and seeping and pathless. It comes through very strongly when he talks about the sea, and in the dream-landscapes he creates; and there's a brutality in his tales of hostages and robbery that seems gritty, at odds with the pseudo-chivalric allegorical superstructure. It's very different from what I saw in it when I first read it twenty years ago.

Dante surprised me with his verbal invention and his ripe vein of scatology and swearing. My Italian is good enough to know when the parallel translation takes refuge in euphemism. Dante's Inferno is a marvellous verbal invention - he coins the language afresh as he goes, both in curses and in imagery. And he gives the spirits real life; Ulysses may be cast into darkness, yet his lines about the need to pursue knowledge -

Fatti non fosti a viver come bruti

Ma per seguire virtute e conoscenza -

have the ring of a real truth about them. I think also what I love about Dante is the sheer size of his ambition; his subject is the whole of history, the whole of literature, the whole world on its axis, the creation of an entire mythos and a whole new language.

I also had a mammoth Terry Pratchett slugfest as a result of acting in Wyrd Sisters. I didn't quite manage to finish every one, but I got pretty close. Thank the great A'tuin, Mr Pratchett's infirmities haven't stopped him producing a new work this year, which I really ought to get my hands on. Some of my friends are a bit sniffy about Pratchett, but his best novels are capable of being read on several levels - as a journalist I particularly loved The Truth, full of good in-jokes but also asking questions about what exactly the media is there for. The only thing missing is a phone tapping inquiry...

This year, I'm reading Gibbon and Proust - two very big tomes indeed. I can already tell you that Proust is often extremely funny - like Waiting for Godot - something you're rarely told. Tante Leonie with her self-importance and hypochondria is a comic masterpiece; her maid Françoise cursing at the chicken she's trying to kill would make horribly true stand-up. And since we live an hour or so's drive from Illiers-Combray, I'm going to treat myself to a trip to Combray and Guermantes (Villebon) when I finish the whole seven volumes.

As for travel writers: I've read very little this year, preferring to do the travelling rather than read about it. But I enjoyed Graham Coster's A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, a book about long distance trucks and truckers; not a classic, but a gently quirky and satisfying story. And I also read William Dalrymple's Nine Lives; a work in which he has the tact to remain in the background, letting each of the religious figures in the book tell their own tales of India and their faith. Strangely haunting.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The missing gene

Somehow I just can't get to love Paris.

I can love individual things about Paris. The beehives in the Jardin du Luxembourg, for instance. (Les ruches; they sound so much more interesting in French - you can almost hear the bees' wings rustling.) The little streets around Saint Gervais Saint Protais where medieval Paris seems so close. The Hotel de Cluny with its turrets and coats of arms; the luminous elegance of the Sainte Chapelle; the creamy stone and plane trees of the Ile Saint Louis glowing on an autumn afternoon.

But there are just so many things I don't get about Paris. And as a city, it feels very oppressive to me; it resists intimacy. Compare St James's Park with the Tuileries. In St James's, you have only to click your tongue and squirrels will flock to you, sitting expectantly, their tails shivering gently, their bright button eyes looking for food. There are the ludicruous pelicans, fat and oafish out of the water, piss-elegant galleons when they're in it.  From nowhere in the park can you see the whole of it; there are hidden islands, drifts of daffodils that appear and disappear as you walk past, tiny tracks you can take that don't go where you expect.

In the Tuileries, there are some stunted pollards, and a few lawns, a pond with two lonely drunken nymphs balancing for three centuries already on one foot, without ever quite falling over, and there's expanse upon expense of firm, gravelly dirt. It's like a big petanque court with sculptures and a water feature. No squirrels, no pelicans; a single crow sat motionless in a tree, so black he looked more like a gap where the universe had ceased to exist, a piece of dark matter.

There are the great boulevards of Baron Haussmann, with their tall cliffs of apartments. Consider the porte cochère, the double-height, narrow gateway leading to the yards of these great slabs of building, for the coaches to get through. We don't have them in London; instead, we have the charming institution of the mews, the small cottage and stable streets behind the great houses, a sort of parallel London.

And there's Louis XIV, a man who, it seems to me, had a sort of inverse Midas touch for art; he took great art and made it interior decor. Paris is full of buildings like the Louvre, which is big, but not very interesting. The Champs Elysées, the Place de la Concorde, are equally, big without really being impressive - so big that your eye gets lost, so big that the lampstands and statues seem stranded in space, as if the flooding Seine had washed them up and then retreated, leaving them stuck there.

The Madeleine really sums up what I don't get about Paris. The outside is fine, Greek-temple style, nicely posed so that the Madeleine and the Chambre des Députés on the other side of the Seine balance each other along a great axis. But inside, three shallow, saucer-like domes admit light through dim grey glass skylights, floating incompetently above the classical grid of the side walls. It's got no life at all; it's as if someone had got three square chapels and pushed them together. Even the statuary seems flaccid.

Even the front door makes you unwelcome; bronze panels of the ten Commandments, each one starting NON... NON.... NON.... the word tolling like a bell. Don't do this, don't do that - don't come in here, you are a sinner. (I seem to remember Jesus stating just two commandments, which were positive commandments, about love - but then sometimes I wonder when the Church is going to catch up with Jesus.) And it's interesting that these Biblically validated prohibitions were followed by the twentieth century version; NO mobile phones, NO food, NO shorts. In vain did I look anywhere for the word 'bienvenu'...

(If you want a welcome, go to the other end of the church, where the way opens into the basement. You can eat there for about eight euros, and make a donation too - the Madeleine does follow Jesus in one very practical way, feeding the hungry. Loaves and fishes are things the French know a great deal about, after all.)

I keep reading about Paris the City of Light, the romantic city, the city of love. But Paris as I experience it is Paris the City of Blag, the City of Empire, the City of Bling. It's a city where humanity has always come second to PR, and intimacy has been ditched in favour of the Big Statement. It's the city where the Sun King threw cats into the bonfire for Midsummer's Day, where Haussmann bulldozed his way through, where the Empire thrived on borrowed money and snobbery. It's a city that makes me very uncomfortable indeed.


Monday, 5 December 2011


Some things you remember from childhood so clearly. Others fade with time. Some things stay with you for ever, but you can't remember their names. I remember a gorgeous illustrated book about a family living in a lighthouse on the north-east coast of America, full of icy blue sea and wild cranberries; I've completely forgotten the title, but that for me is what Maine should be (if I ever go there, will it be different?)

I-Spy books though remain a readily identifiable part of my childhood. I'm slightly perturbed that they've been relaunched - I rather liked the venerable distance that I'd established.

What was the attraction of the I-Spy books? I don't think I ever actually completed one or sent one off to Big Chief I-Spy for my Indian feather. But the books did something no other books did; they made you read the book and then go back and look at the world differently. (I know, that's supposed to be what great art does. I-Spy isn't great art; but it still showed me that a book is something that isn't escapism, that doesn't just get read and then put back on a shelf - that a book is a way of looking at the world. Evehalf-decent book is a pair of binoculars.)

And like another favourite format of mine, the Shire paperbacks, the I-Spy book was just big enough, and not too big. There was just enough in it to set you off, and enough for it to seem complete - but it wasn't daunting to a youngster.

Then there was also the enjoyable fiction of the secret codes, the secret words, OD HUNATINGO, the wig-wam, the badges. All my love I've rather loved in-jokes, romans à clef; when I was at Cambridge I made an eighteenth-century pastiche notice for my door stating that 'the honble Scholler is not now receiving' (in retrospect that feels rather childish, if well executed). A meretricious pleasure, I suppose, given that way we so often use shibboleths to exclude (by class, by race, by politics)...  but it got into my blood early on.

And I-Spy explained some marvellous secrets. It actually told you what the track signs on British railways meant; something that continues to fascinate me to this day (almost as much as the 'ghost stations' of the London Underground).

I suppose the Red Indian concept wouldn't work any more. I don't remember an I-Spy book of Native Americans... But there was an English fascination with the American native; I read all of Grey Owl's books as a child, too, never realising that Grey Owl of the Canadian wilderness was actually an Englishman. (Though not a fake; he married an Ojibway woman and lived with the Ojibway people, and his concern for the environment was real, too.)

So no wonder I remember the I-Spy books. Well, even if there's no Big Chief I-Spy, and even if writing away to Hawkeye has now been replaced by getting a downloadable certificate, I'm glad they're being given to another generation of children. But I think I may not want to see the new books myself. Let's keep my memories undisturbed.

The charm of the pavilion

Some of my favourite buildings in England are tollhouses, gatehouses to country estates, pavilions. They have a certain charm that you rarely find in larger buildings - the same miniature charm that you find, for example, in the tiny hedgehog-prickly chapel of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa,  or the chantry chapels in Winchester cathedral, or the wonderful reliquary of Saint Taurin in Evreux, a Gothic cathedral magically shrunk and ripened into gold.

By an accident of preservation, sometimes the gatehouses are all that remain of once great houses. At Layer Marney, in Essex, the tall, parapet-decked gatehouse is practically all that remains of the Marneys' plans for a country palace, together with a single range of the projected great courtyard.

I think what I love with these buildings is that despite their small size (though at eighty feet tall, Layer Marney can't really be described as small) the full resources of monumental architecture are used on them. In fact the architectural content outweighs their size; they are disproportionately stylish, sometimes indeed they are all style and nothing but style. At one end of the spectrum it becomes quite difficult to separate the ornate gatehouse from the pure folly - a building like the Rushton Lodge that is, in effect, more symbol than building.

So you have, for instance, gate cottages which boast pediments - an assertion not just of Classical values but also of a certain importance. This is no gatehouse but a temple, a Parthenon, a monument. And it's no coincidence that so many of these tiny buildings are severely geometrical - square, circular, triangular, octagonal. Their small size makes the geometry possible (no upper storey requiring a staircase to be accommodated, and only one room deep), and it makes it noticeable.

And then, one of my other great loves in architecture is the centralised building - the great polygon of Aachen's palatine chapel, the huge dome of Haghia Sophia (a cunning blend of basilican and centralised plan), the rotating arcades of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. These gatehouses and tollhouses replicate that, but in miniature - often quite knowingly contrasting the pretension of their form with the modesty of their proportions.

I thought when I started writing this that such things were of the past. Nowadays, I thought, we're too functional, too practical, too penny-pinching. And then I thought of some of the marvellous toll booths I've seen on French motorways (in among some tediously pedestrian ones); the oversailing twisted leaf canopy on the péage before the Millau bridge, for instance.


Sunday, 23 October 2011

The joys of the theatre

Ej blot til lyst

There's a marvellous scene at the start of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, where the camera slowly pans down from the proscenium of a toy theatre to its stage, with the paper cut-out dramatis personae gesticulating, and the footlights flickering; and then, destroying the illusion, the scenery parts to reveal the face of Alexander, the master of puppets, his huge dark eyes looking out at the viewer in ennui, deep and impassive.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Derby. In the marvellous Georgian Pickford's House Museum, narrow, cantilevered grey stone stairs lead upwards from the well appointed, genteel morning room and dining room, up past the first floor to the low, spare attics where the servants lived.  Off these stairs, a door leads into a tiny room full of display cases; and in these cases, quite unexpectedly, a collection of toy theatres.

'Ej blot til lyst' reads one of them; the same inscription as on the toy theatre in Fanny and Alexander - in Danish, copied from the National Theater in Copenhagen. I think this is the same toy theatre we see in the film, though I might be wrong.

One of the things that fascinated me about the exhibition in Pickford's House was that many of the theatres were set for a particular play, with the right scenery and figures - a jail scene, a romantic robbers' glen, from classical tragedy or from nineteenth century melodrama. This is theatre history - the theatres were not mere toys, but ways of re-enacting at home the same plays that occupied the metropolitan stage.

And there's something magical about these theatres. It's partly the effect of perspective; like peep-shows, there's something magical about looking into the world of sliding flats, a world foreshortened and logical at the same time. That's something that's always fascinated me about Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, with its perspective street seen through an arch (though actually, the scenery is the work of Scamozzi, not Palladio). The perspective makes the theatre into a different world from ours, one in which natural laws seem to work in a more rarefied, more schematic way; it's a heightened world.

But it's also a world of meaning. A world in which meaning can be manipulated, as it was in the masque of Charles I's court under Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson (it's interesting that I automatically mentioned the designer first, the dramatist second; this was a theatre of spectacle, display, and conspicuous consumption - a baroque drama, aimed at the glorification of the monarch), as it is in Fanny and Alexander with its layering of fantasy sequences and reality.

In which sense, that motto on the toy theatre is interesting. 'Ej blot til lyst' - 'not only for pleasure': theatre is of course a pleasure for its colour, its intensity, its very theatricality. But it isn't only a pleasure. It is, if we let it be, a monument to meaning. And at the same time, it isn't only meaning; the very fact that we are imagining things, that we know that we are imagining, or participating in a work of imagination, is significant. In a world full of earnestness, the demand for 'role models', for honesty of a peculiarly pedestrian sort, the very existence of fiction is a reminder that civilisation is about lightness and delicacy; that it is about the ability to play, to create illusion, to divide the overlapping, translucent layers of different realities and unrealities. It is a reminder that truth is not always single, and that things are at once more difficult and more intriguing than they might at first appear.

A few favourites:

  • The Markgraefliches Opernhaus, Bayreuth. Not to be confused with Richard Wagner's Festival Theatre, this delightful baroque opera house is a perfect miniature, with its Margrave's box, fine ornament, and deep stage, designed by Italian master Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. (Currently closed for restoration)

  • The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorkshire. You couldn't get more different from Bayreuth - a bourgeois playhouse, intimate and rather plain, but with the amazing treasure of Britain's oldest theatre scenery, the 'woodland scene' of  the 1820s.  (Lovers of the British stage should also visit the Georgian Theatre in Bury St Edmunds, dating from 1819.)

  • Drottningholm, the Swedish royal theatre, retains some of the original stage machinery, including the wave machine. I've only seen it in video but really must get round to visiting it. It still stages baroque and classical opera on the original stage; built in 1766, it's just right for staging Mozart.

  • The Globe, London. Of course this isn't a historic theatre - it's a copy of one. And it's as far as you can get from the illusionistic stage painting and aristocratic perspectives of the royal theatres; instead, it takes after the medieval mystery plays and strolling players' performances given on carts and in the yards of galleried inns - the scenery is minimal, the illusion purely verbal. Perhaps there's a reason that we have Shakespeare and Dryden, while the Italians have the opera - the drama of 'words, words, words' against the drama of spectacle and illusion.

  • visits the same theatre - with a video of the opening of the film - and has more information on toy theatres, including a quite surreal picture of G K Chesterton cutting out figures for his toy theatre.

Friday, 14 October 2011

New post on Velvet Escape

I regularly write for London Hotels Insight and a number of other blogs, and I'm pleased to have contributed a couple of guest articles to Velvet Escape;

As  a former Londoner I've always particularly loved the countryside around London - the Chilterns, the North Downs, the great forests of Essex (Epping, Hatfield). True, it's no longer the green city it was in the nineteenth century, but London still contains great tracts of greenery - Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, Greenwich, Richmond Park... and of course the Royal Parks. Apart from Paris, with the Bois de Boulogne, the Luxembourg Gardens, the park at Versailles, I can't think of many capitals that have so much parkland within the city and around it.

Cities have different relationships with nature. Norwich was described in the seventeenth century as "a city in a garden", and it's still a city punctuated by plains and open spaces, mature trees giving it much of its character. Some German cities and towns included huge spaces of farmland and orchard within the walls; in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, as soon as you turn your back on the much touristed main drag, away from the town hall and impressive gate tower, the walls overlook farmyards and gardens, a vision of bucolic Germany from a Grimm fairytale.

Italian cities, on the other hand, are urban and urbane, setting their face determinedly against the suburbs and the country; there may be gardens, but they're enclosed behind high walls. Florence is a city of narrow alleys bounded by cliff-like palace faces, or grid-like squares surrounded by arcades; Alberti's vision of architecture excludes medieval pragmatism and spontaneity as well as dirt and squalor, but it also excludes nature - it is a triumph of art.

In India, there's no city; the boundaries of dwelling and desert seem random, permeable. You may find a bunch of houses along a road, then nothing till the next batch of houses in a few hundred yards; city gates may once have been an attempt to demarcate the city, but they're now swallowed up in the general chaos. Only in New Delhi is there a nicely marked distinction of lawn and yard, garden and building, and that's somehow very, very English. Mumbai seems not a city so much as a collection of villages, which haven't completely stopped being villages; I wonder if London was such an agglomeration in Dickens's or Mayhew's day?


Thursday, 1 September 2011

Going into the West

At the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes into the West, with the remaining Elves; it should be a glorious moment as the hobbit embarks upon his immortality, but instead it is shot through with melancholy, a feeling of autumnal sadness.

The Celts knew that the immortals lived on an isle in the west; but it was also the land of death.

On a summer evening when the sea was misty, the sun sinking in pink wafting cloud, we drove to Morecambe. The tide was out, the sands of Morecambe Bay glumly gleaming. Two pensioners strolled along the seafront, the sky was grey above, three drunks sat outside a pub. Posters and neon proclaimed the attractions of the place - amusements, pubs, restaurants, those odd shops that sell plastic buckets and spades, masks, garish shirts, but nothing you actually want - but the streets were almost deserted.

We ate in a huge Thai restaurant, the only ones there till, just as we were about to leave, a couple came in for a takeaway.

We didn't want a huge meal. Could we have the noodles from the cafe menu?

"We're not really doing the cafe menu any more. It didn't work out."

It didn't work out. That seemed a good epitaph for Morecambe itself.

"But I don't see why we can't put something together for you."

And they did. It was good; pad thai, duck noodles, a pot of green tea.

"A toilet? Have you got a toilet?"

A drunk woman had crept into the restaurant, edging round the doorframe like a cat bent on stealing a piece of fish, half-afraid, half-daring. Her hair was frizzy and her speech was slurred, and the answer was that yes, they had a toilet, but it was way upstairs, and she'd be better off using the toilets in the pub. (I think, in fact, she'd already been thrown out of the pub, but it was difficult to make out the rambling story.) In the end she left, not making a scene but just fading out like a failing radio broadcast.

Before we left, I went to find the toilets - up a massive, dramatic staircase, and through a huge empty restaurant through whose massive window I could look out on to the expanse of Morecambe Bay.The rooms were immense, expansive; I felt like a dwarf. And indeed, since the glory days of Edwardian Morecambe we have all shrunk; we live in hamster hutches, we make tiny, frightened gestures, nothing is this size any more.

The wonderful Winter Gardens, with its over-the-top music-hall facade in terracotta, its tall curling gables, its bulging finials, was closed. And even this is a shadow of its former majesty; the baths, the ballroom, the bars, are all gone, leaving just the theatre.

New Morecambe starts after you pass the station - an awful shopping centre, a broad unsheltered road where pedestrians dodge the cars to cross, modern shed-like retail outlets on both sides. The road was wet with rain, and the lights were out, no sign of life to be seen.

The small streets that wriggle inland from the esplanade were the heart of Morecambe's shopping a century ago, and they still have the cosy feeling that always comes from being sheltered by tall buildings on both sides, and yet only a hundred yards from the challenging emptiness of the sea. But even here, no one seemed to be about; everything closed, even the pubs.

And then, strangely pristine at the end of the seafront, we spotted the Midland Hotel. Its fine sweeping curve, its Art Deco streamline sleek and bare, a vision of architecture diametrically opposed to the Winter Gardens' fiddly riot of ornament. It's been restored as a luxury hotel; but I wonder who stays there - Morecambe isn't the kind of place lovers of the Bauhaus typically turn up in.  Coming across the Midland Hotel is like cutting through a wrong-side-of-the-tracks scrapyard and seeing a spotless Lamborghini among the dented VW Golfs and burned-out Volvos.

More typical perhaps is the closed fairground, the land lying bare behind blank hoardings; demolished to make way for a retail park that only ever got half built. In Morecambe, if you build it, they still won't come, and it seems the developers found that it wasn't only fairgrounds that didn't pull the crowds.

The decline of the British seaside is a long term trend; even by 1987 it was obvious that the fairground was in trouble, and the amusement park was rebranded as Frontierland with a Wild West look and feel. But that didn't stop the crowds from leaking away, and the park started cutting back; ride after ride was sold, till it closed for good in 2000.

Now there's a single attraction left; the Polo tower, like a piece of Andy Warhol, a huge packet of mints rearing into the air. It owes its reprieve to the fact that it supports a mobile phone antenna; a twenty year contract forces the owners to keep the Polo Tower going at least until 2013. (Mobile phones are, of course, more important than joy in this grim land of ours.)

Poor Morecambe. It was the beginning of August, and still no one was here. The sun wouldn't shine, the streets were slick with rain, all the traffic was heading out of town. We joined the flow; on towards the Pennines and the Peak District, and away from the lands of the west.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Mortsafes, morthouses, and resurrection men

There's a certain strain of Scottish Gothic that's full of body-snatchers, crooked surgeons, and cadavers transported in carriages; hangings, murders, dissections.  Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher includes a ghost as well as a real corpse (or does it?); in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Hyde's mysterious door is in fact the entrance to Jekyll's dissecting room, and the whole novel can be seen as an oblique comment on the case of surgeon Robert Knox, the man who paid Burke and Hare for cadavers for dissection.

(Burke and Hare were smart businessmen. There was a high demand for fresh corpses for the anatomy school; other men dug up bodies from the graveyards, but these two live wires cut out the middleman and made their own corpses.)

Various devices were invented to prevent the 'resurrection men' from snatching the bodies of the recently deceased. Several graveyards have watch houses or watchtowers: there's a fine circular watchtower in the kirkyard at Banchory, in Deeside, like a castle among the graves.

But guards could be threatened or overpowered. The mortsafe afforded greater protection. At first, the simple expedient of laying a huge slab of stone over the grave was used, but the mortsafe - a sort of iron grid - provided lateral protection as well as a huge weight on top of the coffin. Once the body had started to decay, the mortsafe could be moved and laid on top of the next burial, whenever that occurred. (There are the remains of a couple of mortsafes in the cloister garth of St Conan's, Loch Awe, that provided the impulse for this post.)

And then there are morthouses. Again, the idea was to keep coffins protected till the body inside was well rotted; many are huge sheds of solid stone, with stone vaults and slate roofs, and huge barred doors. But as with the watch tower at Banchory, form, function, and the desire for an architecturally pleasing construction occasionally created works of impressive character; there's a  wonderful circular morthouse at Udny Green built with a turntable inside, so that coffins would be rotated till at last they came to the entrance again, and could be buried, the body inside having achieved a state that made it no longer of any interest to the resurrection men.

There's something rather more than usually morbid about these relics of the bodysnatching past. (The Anatomy Act of 1832 put paid to the bodysnatchers for good, by allowing surgeons to dissect unclaimed bodies, and allowing relatives to donate their next of kin's body to science, thus creating a regular supply of cadavers for the medical schools.) All graveyards are a little morbid, even the cenotaphs of Hindu rulers in Rajasthan where there never was a body - they simply commemorate the site of a cremation. But these mortsafes and morthouses remind us more strongly than usual of the facts of death - the fact of putrefaction, of the slow falling apart of the body - and so they exacerbate the usual macabre nature of the place.

Yet we enjoy such gruesomeness. As Dickens's Fat Boy says, "I wants to make your flesh creep" - and the telling of ghost stories has been a pleasurable activity at least since his time (he wrote some good ones), and in fact since Shakespeare's (Mamillius in The Winter's Tale starts a story "Of sprites and goblins" with the line "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard", which was completed in a nice little jeux d'esprit by MR James). And I don't think we're going to stop enjoying it any time soon - certainly not judging by the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.



The Celtic Twilight

"What the hell is that?"

We were driving along the side of Loch Awe - one our way from the Munros of Tayside that we'd bagged already, towards Ben Nevis, on a rather miserable day of slanting rain and grey skies. We'd passed village upon village of sensible foursquare houses, slab sides of rock dressed against the rain. But what I'd spotted out of the window defied description - a Byzanto-Romanesque dream palace, a Highland version of Disneyland, a folly or a nightmare; we'd have to investigate.

Fortunately there was a lay-by a hundred yards along the road; two or three cars were already parked there. We walked back, and down the hill through wet ferns and moss glittering with droplets of rain.

Perplexity grew as we approached. Celtic arches, a Gothic apse, bits of what seemed Art Nouveau; it was a tumultuous, jumbled mix of styles and stones, bits and pieces from diverse ages crazily jammed together. I couldn't even tell if it was beautiful or ugly - it was both at once, or neither.

It is, indeed, the dream of a madman,  Walter Campbell, the younger brother of Lord Blythswood, who began it in 1881, and kept building till his death in 1914. Work continued under the patronage of his sister and later under trustees, and the church was not finished until the 1930s. Campbell designed the church himself, taking ideas and models from all over Europe, and even carved the organ screen himself (he was a keen, and not untalented, amateur woodworker).

Even on the outside the church looks eccentric; there's a Saxon style tower with long-and-short work, a tall Celtic cross, a French style smaller tower, a Victorian Gothic apse, strange carved panels, perched terraces on the steep side of the hill to the south overlooking the loch, flying buttresses which come out at odd angles to shore up the south aisle. (Incidentally, while Walter Campbell lived on one of the islands you can see in the loch, another, Innishail or 'the green isle', was the burial ground for local inhabitants. The Celts seem to have preferred to bury their dead on islands, as at Caldey island, and the islands of the blest occupy an interesting place in Celtic myth - the isle of Avalon, Tir nan Og. At Killin, at the end of Loch Tay, the clan Macnab burial ground is on the island of Inchbuie in the middle of the river.)

Inside, the church is full of interesting spaces, a jumble of chapel. The nave is darkened and diminished by the accretions around it, while the apse blazes with light - a dramatic effect even on an overcast day. Everywhere you look there seems to be another hidden chapel, another doorway or arcade giving on to yet another space. It's a box of secrets, slightly dusty and smelling of damp, the kind of place you might find a small casket of priceless jewels, or a ghost.

Craftsmanship was something Campbell valued, and there are some marvellous works - fine wrought iron gates topped by the lymphad of Lorne (a little galley or single-masted ship), lovely stained glass, even chandeliers made out of miniature organ pipes. There are two screens which were brought from Eton College Chapel, though they were never installed where they were meant to go, and there's a more than life-size effigy of Robert the Bruce guarding a relic of bone from Bruce's grave in Dunfermline Abbey. There's even a tiny cloister, with two mortsafes on display. (More on mortsafes anon.)

The thing I'll always remember about this church, though, is that blaze of light streaming in through the clear windows of the apse. And it reminds me that the year Campbell began his work here, 1881, was the year before the first performance of Wagner's Parsifal - a medieval, religious themed opera, in which the final scene shows the opening of the Grail shrine - "enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den Schrein!"

Campbell's vision is as eclectic, as dramatic, and as medievalist as Wagner's. And possibly just as insane.  It may not be a great work of art, but I was glad to see it; and as I stood on the terrace behind the church, looking out across Loch Awe, the sun came out, for the first time on that blustery day.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Useless signs

Dumfries. Probably quite a decent city in itself, but bloody difficult to leave.

There are no signs for Carlisle. There are no signs for New Abbey, Castle Douglas or the coast, where we were headed.

There are plenty of signs saying 'All Routes'. Following these, we managed to go round Dumfries twice before finally finding a way out.

And there is one of the most spectacularly useless signs I've ever seen. It said 'tourist attractions'.

Er, right. Disneyland is a tourist attraction. Westminster Abbey is a tourist attraction. Oscar Wilde's grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery is a tourist attraction. The same kind of person doesn't probably want to visit all three.

And anyway, what are the tourist attractions of Dumfries?

We never found out. Eventually we found a road leading out of the city that got us, in a roundabout way, to Rockcliffe and Kippfold and the great expanses of low tide sand and mud that is the Solway Firth, and the view to the Lake District. On the whole, I was happy to miss the 'tourist attractions'.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

English, but not as we know it

One of the great delights of India was they way it felt familiar, but in a very strange way; or sometimes, strange, but in a very familiar way.  In South America, I felt I was in a completely different world; India, somehow, didn't feel nearly as different as I'd expected it to.

Perhaps that was partly due to the widespread use of the English language. But it's not quite the same English as I hear every day in Norfolk or on the BBC. It's English put through a few chemical processes and with some spices added, rolled out, squeezed a few times, and pressed into a new shape.

I found that sometimes conversations would go like this:

- How do I get to the railway station?

- The what?

- Railway station.

- ???

- Railway.

- ???

- Going to Kochi. Train.

- Ah!!!!!!! REL-WEH!!!!!

Vowels are often flexible. I've seen a Brass Bend, I've eaten sendwiches. Spelling is as joyfully mutable as in the English of Shakespeare's day; often, a word will be spelled three different ways on the same sign.

And words have changed their uses, or sometimes, there is a different word - traffic circles instead of roundabouts. Hotels may or not have rooms - often they are 'food but not lodging hotels' - so it can be safer to ask for a 'lodge', which has nothing to do with Masonry.

My favourite usage has to be 'backside'. In English English, backside is arse, ass, fanny, bum, butt, bottom, fundament, posterior. In Indian English, backside is what it says on the tin; the back side - the other side, the road behind a station for instance, or the back garden entrance to a house. It is somewhat startling the first few times you hear it; even now, it makes me smile.

Then there is the (ever) present participle which is dominating the Indian-English language with its particular flavour; the continuous present is almost always used, in fact I'm not sure there is an alternative. I found within a few weeks I'd started using it myself; it gives the language a lilt and a sense of continuing time that the simple present tense of English-English doesn't possess. (Though it would be nice to know whether the tiger is actually eating people, or just does eat people from time to time, before I approach it...)

Journalistic Indian-English is particularly good fun - I was soon addicted to my daily paper, whether Times of India or (great paper) New Indian Express. First you have the extra words - gherao, dharna, neta, goonda, babu, the lakh and crore. (I did have a fleeting vision of Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan escaping to Hyderabad when I read the headline 'Goons hit local supermarket'...)

And then you have the superbly vivid way Indian journalists use the language. No one surrenders; they cave in, crumble, are whacked, smashed, crushed. It took me several weeks to get attuned enough to the language to read the op-ed columns, with their imaginative, slangy, dazzling way of throwing language at the wall to see if it will stick.

Indian English isn't quite the Queen's English. It isn't quite a different language either. But it's definitely alive and kicking.

(A good resource if you want to find out more about Indian English is the  excellent list of Indian English words which adequately translates all those I've used in this post.)

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Spirituality: how not to. And, maybe, how to.

I hate Strasbourg cathedral.

I love the outside. A spider-thin network of lacy stone mouldings covers the entire facade, glowing orange at sunset, or blood-red on a snowy, overcast day. The ambitious openwork of the one finished spire, with its turrets and open staircases.

The interior is disappointing compared to that; a large parish church, rather than a cathedral, it seems to stop short after the nave, with just a stump of a choir.True, there's some fine stained glass, and some marvellous late Gothic work - a good pulpit, a rather ordinary 'Mount of Olives', and a well carved font - and there's the strange pillar of angels, with figures of the Evangelists.

Oh, and the Astronomical Clock. A very disappointing clock, really; none of its little mechanisms are particularly spectacular, though I like the little cock that crows at the end of the chime.

But that's not why I hate Strasbourg cathedral. What I really hate is the way it's been presented.

  • Every ten minutes or so there's a bingy-bongy chime like you hear in railway stations, and a sanctimonious railway announcer voice tells you this is a PLACE OF WORSHIP and you must BE RESPECTFUL and BE SILENT and NOT SHOUT. Bing-bong. "The next mass will be leaving at eighteen-twenty, calling at hymns number thirty-two and one-oh-four."

  • There's a huge TV screen next to the pulpit. Does it tell us something useful about the art? Does it tell us anything about the pulpit and what it means? No. It just says LA CHAIRE and then flips to THE PULPIT, perpetually cycling the two words. And it gets in the way of your actually seeing the pulpit.

  • The TV screens telling us THE PULPIT or THE CHOIR or THE MOUNT OF OLIVES must have a massive carbon footprint, and they must have cost a bomb - they are massive flatscreens. But if you want to see any of the things in the cathedral lit up, you'll have to pay for it. The cathedral has after all spent its entire electricity budget on the televisions.

  • There's no information on the art historical, or historical, aspects of the cathedral at all. There's loads of 'spiritual' stuff though. I couldn't work out who it was addressed to at all - it told you things anyone brought up in a Christian environment would surely know ('Christians worship Jesus', and there's also a hypothesis that bears defecate in afforested areas; 'the pulpit is used for delivering sermons'), but equally its affirmation of faith would offend any visiting Hindu, Muslim or Jew, who might need to know what a font is for...

  • Except that the font, which I think most Christians would agree is one of the most important places in any church, has no label at all on it. Odd - since its spiritual importance as the site of baptism is equalled in this case by the artistic merits of the Gothic sculpture.

  • And this SPIRITUAL place we are meant to RESPECT, in capitals since that is how the loudspeaker delivers those words, has a bloody great shop set up opposite the astronomical clock - not neatly hidden in a cloister or side chapel, but right in the middle of the place.  I can't help thinking: Matthew 21: 12-13 -  "My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves", in this case with the addition of modern electronic devices.

Ugh. It all left a nasty taste in the mouth. As did the fact that the cathedral is closed every day at 1130, not for mass, but for paying audiences to see a film about the clock, followed by the clock striking twelves. Den of thieves indeed. Sorry, but if what you see is a money-making machine, administrators of the cathedral, then what I see is not deep spirituality, and I am not inclined to respect it.

(Chartres cathedral, my local one, makes a good contrast. Nearly every ancient stained glass window has a board explaining the narratives and images in detail. And it's not sectioned off with little barriers, either. And... sorry to say it, but it is ten times a better cathedral anyway.)

I was happy, later on, to visit Saint Pierre le Jeune (Protestante) - that's the official title; there's a Saint Pierre le Jeune (Catholique) as well for an organ recital. It was an interesting recital, on a Silbermann organ, taking as its theme the Lord's Prayer, and featuring arrangments of 'Vater unser in Himmelreich' by Praetorius, Buxtehude and Bach. In between there were readings that took the Lord's Prayer as a starting point - but what was fascinating was that they could have been written by (and admired by) agnostics or even atheists; they deconstructed the prayer, questioned it, questioned even the existence of God. So that in a prayerful setting, we ended up not worshipping, or being invited to 'respect' a place of worship, but being invited to think. And to enjoy the good music, too (there was a cracking piece of Bach neither of us knew - and when your partner is an organist, that's definitely not usual).

Oh yes; the collection that was taken went not to the church, but to a charity fighting against torture. And when we wanted to take a look at the architecture afterwards, we were warmly invited to wander around. We actually felt welcome - something we hadn't in the cathedral.


Saturday, 9 April 2011

Souvenirs of India - and the International Jewellery Market

My earlier post on the globalisation of the souvenir notwithstanding, I did come back from India with a few souvenirs.

  • One Orissa painting of the Lord Krishna, showing his life in tiny scenes around the border.

  • One Madhubani painting of a tree inhabited by birds.

  • A set of tiny painted wooden birds (I have a set from Poland, which they go with), and a little painted Durga and Kali. Durga on her tiger. (I was told, by the way, that an image of Durga should always show the tiger with its mouth open, for luck.)

  • Two bansuri, a G and EE - nice little flutes which I really ought to learn to play properly. (A trip to Varanasi beckons... the best tuition is there, apparently.) It took the best part of half a day to locate the best shop in Udaipur and test the stock. One high, trilling, piercing flute and one deep, dark sounding flute. A nice pair.

They all mean something to me. Durga and Kali for instance are deities I respect, like Death in the Tarot, as representing creative destruction. The Lord Krishna I now know through devotees I met on my journey, and through the works of Meera Bai. And the flutes are also part of Lord Krishna's domain - besides which they have been added to my large collection of wind instruments from around the world.

I also came back with two shawls from Delhi, one very thick one in felted wool, and another woollen one. But that was because it was absolutely freezing, and I needed them badly (they doubled as a sleeping bag on night trains).

It was difficult to find good flutes. Hundreds are made for children to play (and break), or for tourists to take home as wall decorations, and they're simply not good enough for playing real music. They have rough fingerholes, which is not only cheap and nasty in effect, but spoils the tone by setting up disturbance in the bore. They have thick walls, which may make them robust but ruins the tone - I was shown by the master flute player I bought from (and yes, he really could play - an eyeopener as he demonstrated some of the techniques of tonguing and note-bending you can use on bansuri which aren't in the classical western flute repertory) how to look for thin walls on the deeper flutes, which make the tone warm and full.

But India is full of souvenirs I really didn't want. Tie dye T-shirts that are pieces of superannuated 1960s hippy culture, not Indian life. Palm-leaf etchings of the kama sutra. Tibetan singing bowls (the clue is in the word 'Tibetan'. As in, not Indian. Though I should really cut these guys some slack - the fact is that a great deal of the Indian tourist industry, particularly in the south of the country, now seems to be run by Tibetans and Nepalis.)

There also seems to be a creeping standardisation of  'India'. As every Indian and many visitors know, it's not a single place. For a start, it's divided by the Idli-Line, somewhat as Germany is divided by the Weisswurst-Equator; in the north, parathas and chapattis - in the south, idlies and dosas. No such thing as 'Indian' food. Regional loyalties are strong - I even found one kind of sweet that is only ever made and sold in Chittaurgarh. And yet there's a standardised, non-regional 'India' that you find in the tourist shops, that mixes Tibetan and Ladakhi and Kashmiri stuff with Orissan or Madhubani work and Jaipuri jewellery, a sort of mixed-up-melting-pot-India that represents neither Idli nor Chapatti, but rather a sort of gooey porridge.

And I found that Kashmiri embroidered kaftans are twice the price in Kochi that they are in Istanbul, where I bought my black wool one. How sad.

Part II - International jewellery markets and the stonecutters of Jaipur

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The accidental vegetarian

I seem to have become vegetarian by accident.

It's quite difficult to be a carnivore in India. In some towns, like Pushkar and Hampi, you'll not find any meat at all. In others, you'll find meat if you look for it, but still a majority of the restaurants will be pure veg, or predominantly veg, and if you want a thali, it will probably not have meat in it.

So I was pretty much eating veg most of the time in India; I can count the number of times I ate meat, and tell you exactly where it was. Five times, in three months.

So when I came back to France I honestly thought the first thing I'd order would be steak tartare; one of my favourite dishes.

Instead of which, I found myself staring at choucroute and thinking; all those pieces of dead pig. Oh dear... not so much that I have qualms over eating animals, I just somehow didn't feel like eating it. My appetite for meat had gone.

A month later, I haven't really got it back. I find myself cooking veg, and thinking I really should get round to cooking some meat, but just bookmarking the veg recipes in my cookery book. How strange.

Vegetarian food, and Indian food, can on one level be deeply boring. Dal fry is dal fry however you serve it up. India is a bust for gourmet travellers. (The south is worst; idlies for breakfast, idlies for elevenses, idlies for lunch, idlies for tiffin, and for dinner - more idlies. Idly-idly-idly-idly-tum-te-tum, can't bear any more of the bloody things. And don't say 'You could have a dosa'; I got tired of those, as well.)

And yet eat dal fry a hundred times, and each time it will be different; a different spicing, consistency, flavour. The same for mutter paneer, or paneer butter masala (good in Puri, great at the German bakery restaurant in Hampi, too hot to handle in Ahmedabad).  A simple veg curry will be sour and hot in Kerala, richly spiced in Rajasthan,  sweet in Gujarat.

So that I haven't missed my meat. But I still find it perplexing that I've dropped into vegetarianism so very accidentally. I wonder how long it will last.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Some packing lessons

One or two things I learned about travelling while I was in India... this is after 30 years as a traveller! But nearly three months is a longer time to be on the road than I'm used to, and it throws all your small failings into stark high relief.

  • Pack a torch or a headlamp, and keep it with you - even when you go to the bog. Power cuts nearly always happened when I was in the shower - the one place in an Indian hotel practically guaranteed to have no natural light at all. (Cracks in the wall don't count.)

  • Have a large handbag or a tote, not a daypack. Zipping and unzipping a daypack requires two hands, which is a pain when you have a camera. The only time I was glad I had a daypack was when I was biking. (And it would be easy to fit straps to a handbag.)

  • One thing I got right was taking a jagbag. I slept in silk sheets every night... next time I'll take a pillowcase too. Though grimy, my bag has survived everything India could throw at it.

  • Another thing I got right was having a shesh, not a hat. A shesh has so many advantages. I can wear it as a headscarf, a makeshift sarong, a shawl, use it as a towel or a fruit carrier... When you're wearing it as a hat, it also covers the back of your neck, one of the most annoyingly easy places to get sunburnt. And my shesh cost about 50p; it was a bit of cheap cotton muslin chopped off the bottom of an old curtain.

  • Next time I go to India I will buy an Indian mobile phone on day one. They are incredibly cheap and the call rates are even cheaper.

  • I really must make sure not to pack trousers and shirts that don't have pockets. You're always after somewhere to put a bus ticket or your lens cap... I might even get a flak jacket style waistcoat with plenty of pockets, though camouflage isn't really my preferred dress style.

  • I will print off Google maps of places I'm going, because the guidebooks' maps are always crap.

And I will pack lighter. I thought I had packed pretty light... but in the end, I had far too much.


Thursday, 10 March 2011

India: some highlights

Travelling around India, I found the Rough Guide was almost always wrong about a place. If it says it's wonderful, it's probably either grotty, or too touristy; if it says don't bother to stay there, it's probably a place with great cheap hotels, good pure veg restaurants, and a nice relaxed feel. Maybe that's just me... but I thought I'd put up a few personal highlights.

  • Hampi. First off, a chance to see some incredible temple architecture, but for once set in a landscape rather than among the streets of a bustling town or in municipally-flower-bedded ASI compounds. The landscape, pale orange boulders and lush riverside plantations, makes you feel as if you're walking in an Indian miniature; there are hills to climb, views to sit and soak up. And the place has a marvellous feeling to it - despite the global hippie hangouts, the didj music, the buy-a-cool-tshirt joints, there's an underlying sweetness to the place. I meant to spend two days there; I stayed a week.

  • Mandvi, Gujarat. I only went to see the boatbuilders, and I'm glad I did; most of the boats are reaching completion - the superstructure was already being finished on one, delicate banisters and a carved wheelhouse - and it seems there may not be many more new commissions. But Mandvi also possesses a glorious beach, 8 kilometres and almost unvisited, except for the funfair at the town end; and one of the best restaurants I ate in during my entire stay, the Osho.  (No choice at all; you get a thali. Which, of course, is in itself choice.) Fine old shipowners' mansions, a long straggling market street, small town India at its best.

  • Madurai temple. The city of Madurai is unlovely, and hotel owners there might like to know that physical aggression in pursuit of tips is not a great way to get anyone to return... but the temple, a claustrophobic agglomeration of inhumanly huge corridors, dark halls, tiny gilded shrines, soaring towers, where chants echo and bells are ringing all the time, where every sculpture and every wall seems to be painted in violent, strident colours...  where you enter a twilit world of ritual... the temple is something else. It's worth going for the entire day, participating in the life of the temple and its deities, slowly feeling it capture you.

  • Trichy. Not on anyone's list - I was told it was the one place in Tamil Nadu I could miss out. Not for anything! Where else would I have seen one man chopping veg to feed two hundred hungry people at lunchtime, at the Rock Fort? Or seen the huge Srirangam temple, so huge it holds its own village inside it? All this, and a marvellous electronics bazaar where I could buy SD cards for three quid. I enjoyed Trichy. A very civilised place.

  • Tughluqabad - one of the past cities of Delhi, now the most atmospheric ruins, on a ridge above a few remaining scraps of plain and forest holding back the development of the Delhi exurbs. Cricketers use the plain in front of the huge mausoleum, striking with its stone the colour of congealed blood and its tapering walls, more a fortress than a tomb. The Red Fort is more photogenic, but Tughluqabad has a million times more atmosphere.

  • Bundi, Rajasthan. Here, yes, I do agree with the guidebooks. A delightful small town. Though the main road is full of tourist businesses, as soon as you wander off it, you're in small town India - particularly in the market (wonderful Mahaveer kulfi centre!) Stepwells, paintings with an amazing bright turquoise I never saw anywhere else, palaces clinging to the rock... I loved it.

  • Amber. The best palace in Rajasthan bar none. And behind it, a village of fine havelis, soaring temples, cobbled streets.

  • Jaipur. Which Rough Guide says is busy and stressful and not worth staying more than a couple of days... I got into a nice rhythm. Morning; French toast and coffee at the Indian Coffee House, and a chat with my friend Mr Krishan the retired schoolteacher; then to Lassiwalla (the original, the one that doesn't sell snacks as well, just lassi); then exploring, by foot - to Galta, Gaitor, Nahalgarh, or just wandering the alleys off Tripolia bazar, finding small temples of unparalleled grace, or tiny palaces with panels of fine painting. Or, on one occasion, an entire street taken over by huge steaming cauldrons over their cookfires, for a wedding. No, Jaipur is worth it - providing you are prepared for a long walk. It is big.

  • Pushkar. I didn't like Pushkar. A fight broke out on the bus there, and I had to duck in my seat to avoid punches. The internet didn't work. The hotel turned out to have vicious dogs (which weren't vicious, according to the owner, but they still wanted to bite me). The next day I couldn't find my way up to Gayatri temple, and when I did, I twisted my ankle on the way down. Brahma temple won't let you in with a bag, and I'm not going to leave a grand's worth of photographic equipment on a bench outside. So... and then suddenly, it started working its magic. I can't explain. The unwonted honesty of stallholders ('Madam, that is only glass, this is real stone. Madam, this is synthetic coral, you understand, real we are not having...') The porridge at a little street stall, glinting with jewel-like pomegranate seeds. The chikku shakes. The ladies at Savitri temple singing bhajans, who laughed and joked and let me take their photos on the way down the steep path, and had broad hips and broad smiles.

  • Lodi Gardens, Delhi. I walked there down the long tree-lined streets of New Delhi, finally able to stride out after days in the crowded, twisting alleys of Old Delhi. There were games of cricket, and softball, and toddlers in Sunday best making their unsteady and very serious way across the lawns. There were courting couples holding hands in hidden arbours, and teenagers listening to radios. (You never see that in London any more; iPods have privatised music, it's no longer a communal experience.) Old men reading the newspaper. And among all this, fine Mughal tombs, high domes and Persian style tiles and hidden staircases.

  • Sarkhej, Ahmedabad. At Nizamuddin, Delhi, and at Ajmer, I'd been disturbed by the feeling of the dargahs (Sufi shrines); madwomen at Nizamuddin clutching the screens, yelling at visitors, a feeling of downtrodden poverty and grabbing. But at Sarkhej, the shrine has a holiday feeling; kids playing with huge brightly coloured balls, women chatting in the dim dappled shade of the corridors round the mausoleum, pan puri stands outside (where I was bought one, and everyone shared a laugh when the pepperwater proved too hot for me). It's a lovely place, despite the poverty of the local Muslim community - sidelined by the development of huge residential estates around Sarkhej.

  • Kumbakonam and Kanchipuram - the two best Tamil towns in my book. Kanchi may not have the amazing architecture of Mamallapuram, but it's a much nicer place to stay; Kumbakonam is just cram-full of temples, all in use, all visitable, and again, it's a great little town, part ancient city, part modern mall strip - real India. I have fond memories of both; not perhaps up there on the 'extremely special' list with Amber or Hampi, but very enjoyable and slightly off the beaten track.

Not that other days weren't magnificent. Humayun's tomb. The Gulbumgaz in Bijapur, a huge, looming dome; I went there at dawn and sang Hahn's 'A Cloris' in the dim echoing space, and heard my voice return seconds later, darkened and enriched by the reverberation. The temples in Osian, near Jodhpur. The brigadier-type who hands out the audio guides in Meherengarh fort, and promises you 'this will be, positively, I can guarantee, such an unforgettable experience for you, madam!' (and he was right). The temples of Bhubaneshwar.... I could go on.

And then there are the places I wouldn't bother with again. Tiruvannamalai, a grave disappointment; the volcano Arunachal that is unspectacular, the muddy, unprepossessing track around it, the perpetual demands for money... except that the ashram there has such a feeling of peace and softness; monkeys that don't steal, dogs that don't bark, a chance to sit in the stillness of the cave and meditate.  So that was a day that had its special moments, even though overall it was rather miserable.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The international jewellery market and the stoneworkers of Jaipur

I saw a delightful style of silver jewellery while I was in India that I thought was traditional Jaipuri work. Mixed, rough-cut stones are set in silver bezels, linked together to form necklaces or bracelets.

It's rather effective from a price point of view. The stones are quite large, but they're not regular, and often flawed, so they're relatively cheap. And the amount of silver used is much lower than in an all silver necklace, which now that silver prices are hitting 40-year highs, is helpful.

But is it traditional? Is it heck.

I spoke to a couple of jewellers - Netaji, who has a little shop not far from Holiday Inn (on the way to Jal Mahal), was most informative and very honest about his trade.

"We are international, very international. The stones for instance, they don't come just from India. Some from Brazil, from South Africa, from other places. I am buying from everywhere. And I am selling to everywhere."

Because he's international, he has to respond to what international markets want. That changes from year to year - when I asked about some amethyst beads that were cut like little pumpkins, with segments, he said "Oh, those are not fashionable any more - two years ago, not now."

And he also has to take on board the dual effect of economic recession and the rise in the silver price. Silver used to be the low cost alternative to gold; now, it's too dear, having quadrupled in price. Netaji noted that everyone's sales were down over the last year or so; but he has a secret weapon. He's started importing glass from China, and thinks a promise of maximum bling for minimum outlay will keep his sales buoyant.

I hope so.  I never bought anything... but he still introduced me to his family, including the pet rabbit.

What you see in Jaipur is traditional skills - stonecutting, silversmithing, and even I'd argue gem trading, because recognising good stones and a good cut is a skill, and one I began to acquire while I was in Jaipur. But you won't see traditional designs. This isn't like the souk at Muttrah, where until a few years ago you'd find old Bedouin amulets and anklets alongside recognisably Baluchi and Kashmiri work, and where you could still pick up museum-quality khanjars (if you had enough money).

In fact if what you want is what the modern Indian is wearing, it's not going to be silver, and it won't be big rough cut stones either. It'll either be gold, or costume jewellery.

The gold will be in a thoroughly ornate style, with tiny, extremely well cut stones, and possibly with enamelling. No semi-precious stones either; no lapis, no turquoise. It'll be diamonds, rubies, emeralds.

Meanwhile the costume jewellery is intricate, with tiny 'stones' set in complex designs. A complete set of costume jewellery might cost you 500 to 1,000 rupees - £6-12. A nice cheap souvenir - and far more authentically Indian than most of what you'll find in the tourist shops.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Just back from India

Just back from nearly three months in India. Incredible India, as the slogan has it; also infuriating India. You can't have one without the other.

India is extreme. You'll be stuck in a crowd, fighting your way off a train (literally; I had to land a couple of punches and shoulder my way out of the scrum to get off at Chittaurgarh), beset with rickshaw wallahs quoting horrifying prices for places you don't really want to go to anyway... and then something will happen which turns your day from terrible to amazing.

You're waiting at the wrong bus stop, it turns out, and no chance of getting across town in time to get to the right stop before the bus goes... except that someone will run you there pillion on his motorbike, and make sure the conductor knows where you need to get off.  Or one and a half hours from Delhi, from metro to bus, to another bus, all you're seeing is cement factories and motorway, and you despair of ever getting to Tughluqabad - and then suddenly there it is, its rubble walls dominating the plain, a tawny plain on which several games of cricket, of varying degrees of professionalism, are being played...

India taught me a few lessons. One was patience. Or optimism. Or not exactly either, but a willingness to wait and see, to hope that things would turn out right. To look for a friend, instead of battling things myself. To not take life's ups and downs personally.

And I think another lesson was to take the time for other people. One of the nicest days I had was when I met a Swedish hare Krishna in Puri, and we spent the day just wandering around, taking photos, meeting a cat who was a princess in disguise, eating sweeties, meeting local people, ending up on the beach, a long and happy and unpressured day. And I know from the great friendliness of Indians everywhere, who helped me when I needed help, and always had time to accompany me to a destination, or make sure I caught the right bus, or just recommend a good place to eat, that in future, I'm going to make time for travellers myself - if I have a New Year's resolution this year, it's to do that.

So, slow travel. There's no other kind in India. Trains are slow. Buses are slow. (Or rather, they're very fast for about ten km, then there are roadworks, or a tiffin stop, or someone wants to be let out in the middle of nowhere.)

But it's taking the time for others, taking the time to experience a place, to let it soak in, that makes real slow travel. It's attitude, not speed.

Still, when you have three whole months, and when travel is naturally slow, and when taking the train is sometimes an experience in itself... and when two weeks in, you take six chapters of your carefully sectioned guidebook*and put them in the bottom of your rucksack because you know you haven't got time to visit the whole of India, not even in three months... then learning how to slow-travel is much easier.

Thank you, India.


* Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himalchal Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and most of  Maharashtra, if you really want to know.