Tulips and traffic

When I was a young child, probably less than ten years old, we made one of our regular family holidays to Holland. My parents, having studied Afrikaans to varying degrees of competence, felt easier visiting a country like Holland where the native language, Dutch, was not too exotic for someone to comprehend with a knowledge of Afrikaans.

One Saturday afternoon, my parents decided to take us to see the tulips at Keukenhof gardens. I cannot recall anything about the flowers.

However, I do not think I will ever forget the car park at Keukenhof. We had parked our car early in the afternoon when the parking area was fairly empty. When we came to leave, the car park was very full.

Everyone wanted to leave at the same time. A disorderly tsunami of vehicles converged on the exit gates. Nobody seemed to be regulating the traffic. It took us well over an hour to escape from the motorised mayhem.

Sadly, I associate Keukenhof with traffic rather than tulips, and although I love tulips, seeing them often brings Keukenhof to mind.

Which?

oxfam BLOG

 

The Oxfam secondhand bookshop in London’s Portobello Road is one of my favourite haunts. It has a great stock of books on a variety of topics and the people who work there are very friendly.

Recently, I entered the shop ad headed towards the ‘History’ shelves. Near them, there was a male customer speaking with a female shop assistant. They were standing next to a cardboard box filled with dictionaries.

“Which of these dictionaries do you reccommend?” the customer asked, “the Collins or the Oxford?”

“It’s a a matter of taste. Both are good.”

“But which do you prefer?” asked the customer.

“I prefer Oxford.”

“But why?”

“I have always used Oxford. I like its approach to spelling. I used it a lot when I used to work in a publishing house,” responded the lady, edging away to escape her persistent questioner. He turned to me.

“Which do you prefer?” he asked me.

“Oxford.”

“And why do prefer that?”

“No good reason, ” I replied,”it was the first dictionary we were given at school. Maybe, that’s something to do with my preference.”

“And which authors do you think are good?” he asked me, adding, “I have just given away my television.”

I could not reccommend the books I have written, as that would be immodest and likely to prolong this conversation.

“Thomas Love Peacock,” was the first author’s name that entered my head.

“And?”

“You could also try John Buchan. You know the chap who wrote the Thirty-Nine Steps,” I suggested.

“Never heard of him.”

“Balzac is also good in translation,” I added.

“Hmm. What about this one?” the customer asked me, holding a novel by George Orwell.

“He’s also good.”

At that point, I was ‘saved by the bell’. My fellow customer’s mobile ‘phone began ringing at a very high volume. It sounded as if a fire alarm had gone off. He rushed out of the shop.

I went to the cash desk to pay for my latest purchase. When I had finished, my new acquaintance came back into the shop, and said to me:

“Sorry about that. You are real gent. It was nice talking with you.”

I left the shop and will probably not visit again for a long time as viral considerations are forcing it to close indefinitely.

Divided but unified

CZECH BLOG

Notting Hill Gate, not to be confused with ‘Notting Hill’ as in the Hugh Grant film, on the western edge of central London is not lacking in mediochre modern architecture, mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. One building stands out as being aesthetically a cut above the rest. This is the former Czechoslovak Centre, the Embassy of Czechoslovakia, a fine (if that is an appropriate adjective) example of ‘Brutalist’ concrete architecture.

The Centre was built between 1965 and 1970, and was designed by “…Šrámek, Stephansplatz and Jan Bočan, from the Atelier Beta Prague Project Institute, were the architects of the embassy, working in cooperation with British architect Robert Matthew and based in his office” (see HERE for detail). The building won an architectural award from RIBA in 1971. Unlike many buildings built at te same time, the Czechoslovak Centre building has not suffered from ageing. It stll looks in great condition.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. It split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Despite this, the Czechoslovak Centre building continued to have diplomati cfunctions. The building was divided into a Czech Embassy and a Slovak Embassy.

Before and after the separation of the two parts of what was once Czechoslovakia, I was a member of  the Dvorak Society, an English organisation for promoting interest in music from  the Czech and Slovak lands. The Czechoslovak, and then later the Czech and Slovak embassies used to host occasional congenial recitals of music for the Dvorak Society.

On one occasion after 1993, my wife and I attended a recital at the Slovak Embassy. After the music was over, we were treated to delicious food and Slovakian wine. The ambassador mingled amongst the guests. My wife asked him how the Czechs and Slovaks were coping with sharing the same building. Smiling, he replied:

We have to cope well because we have to share the central heating and hot water system that was installed to serve the building when it was a single embassy.”

Mustard

My father’s grandfather lived in Cape Town (South Africa) during the Spanish influenza pandemic at the end of the first world war.

He was terrified that he would be afflicted with the deadly illness. He had heard that applying a mustard plaster would help him avoid the disease. So, he smeared his stomach with mustard and covered it with an adhesive plaster. Then, he retired to bed.

After about three days, my great grandfather developed a high temperature. Fearing the worst, he summoned a doctor. The medic tore of the plaster to reveal the damage that the mustard was causing. It had ‘eaten’ through the skin, which was then becoming infected. The infection caused by the mustard was causing the fever, not the dreaded ‘flu.

My great grandfather survived the Spanish ‘flu. What killed him several years later was something that was supposed to protect him from illness. He died following an adverse reaction to an anti-tetanus injection.

Dress code and literature

Many of the smarter social clubs in India have rules about how one should be attired when visiting them. The same is true for ‘elite’ clubs in London.

DRESS CODE

For example, at the Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) Club in southern India men cannot think oof having a drink at the bar if they are not wearing a formal suit and tie. And, at the Bangalore Club, men can where sandals in the Club House providing the sandals have a back strap. Even worse, at the same club the wearing of smart Indian national outfits is frowned upon if not forbidden. This is surely a hangover from the days when the club only admitted ‘white’ Europeans and a few high-ranking Indian military personel.

Once, I was staying at the Kodaikanal Club in Tamil Nadu state. Dress rules were extremely casual there. Many guests wore shorts and sandals even in the bar and dining room. One day, I entered the club’s small library, and the librarian promptly asked me to leave. I was wearing sandals (with backstraps). Apparently, in the library gentlemen are required to wear formal lace-up shoes.  I cannot say why this was required unless the Kodaikanal holds literature in high esteem, and wants it to be respected by library users who have taken the trouble not to be dressed casually.

On a roll

loo roll

 

Here is a subject that might not appeal to the squeamish.

Currently in the UK, toilet paper is in very high demand. So great is the desire of people not to run out of this commodity that the supermarket shelves are empty of toilet rools. Or, if they are available, they are priced much higher than usual.

The panic buying of toilet paper is quite ridiculous. Alternative methods of posterior hygiene are widely available, and often used. Years ago, I visited a monastery in Greece. The toilet was not supplied with toilet paper. Instead, there were properly sized pieces of newspaper threaded on a string. There is plenty of newspaper about – no shortage. So, why not use it instead of the scarce once used toilet paper. Using newspaper will not only wipe away what is not desired, but also by being used, the newspaper is being uemployed more than once – recycled. A word of advice if you plan to move to newsprint, most of which is more suitable for wiping posteriors than for reading. The advice is do not flush newspaper down the toilet. Instead, put the used pieces in a bucket with a lid, and dispose of it hygienically.

If you are not keen on using newspaper, then do as millions of people do in the Middle East and Asia. Just use water and your left hand. Many toilets in Asia are supplied with small showers that can be used to purify your posterior. Some toilet seats have a conveniently and appropriately located spray attached. A jet of water from this device cleans your bottom like a car wash.

After reading this, you might stop panicking about buying ‘loo’ paper, BUT remember to always wash your hands frequently.

Seven streams

Seven

At first, I was daunted at the prospect of watching a seven hour drama at London’s National Theatre. Then, remembering that I had endured an eleven hour bus journey in Gujarat and several long intercontinental flights, I decided that sitting comfortably at the theatre for seven hours including intervals would not be too bad, and I was right.

The play we watched, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, by Canadian playwright Robert Lepage (born 1957 in Quebec,), is divided into seven acts or installments. I found five of those installments to be highly enjoyable. The other two were less good in my humble opinion.

The River Ota runs through the Japanese city of Hiroshima, unfortunately famous for being the first civilian target of an atomic bomb in 1945. One of the main characters in the play by Lepage is a woman who was blinded, as a small child, by the atomic bomb blast’s flash. Each of the seven acts of the drama is linked to her or to characters connected with her directly or indirectly. Therefore, although the play’s plot is quite complicated, there is an easily discernible thread that runs through it.

At times the drama is witty and humorous and at others tragic. However, throughout the performance, the subject matter is both sensitive and moving. The ingeniously crafted play touches on all kinds of important historical events that affected Japan and the Japanese between 1945 and the late 1990s when the play was written. It also makes reference to Theresienstadt, one of the Nazi concentration camps. At first, I was not sure of the relevance of this scene set in the camp, but afterwards it dawned on me. It was an important background to one of the characters, who plays a major role in the latter parts of the play.

Another of the play’s myriad of topics reflects the playwright’s origin, Quebec. There are some very entertaining scenes in which the characters speak in Canadian French (with its particular accent) such as would be heard in Quebec. At times, Lepage makes use of the play to poke fun at cultural rivalry between the Canadian French and the French in France. He also makes reference to Canada’s objection to French nuclear tests that were being carried out in the Pacific between 1966 and 1996. And, nuclear tests relate directly to the main theme of the play, the atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima.

Without going into detail about the very complicated plot, let me say that this play was highly fascinating, well acted by members of Lepage’s theatre ensemble Ex Machina, and the sets were superb. Sadly, this long play is only being given a short run at the National Theatre. Its final performance, viral microbes permitting, will be on the 22nd March 2020.

As for my initial fears about sitting for seven hours in the theatre, these were unrealised. The time shot past, so intriguing was the play. Lepage’s play was for me as exciting as at least two other epic length dramas I have enjoyed: “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, and “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard.