Friday, 26 October 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (5)

This is my fifth post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2), Post (3) and Post (4) can be seen by clicking on the links.

I See You
“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like,
it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”
~ Paul Caponigro

Images – Some time in my early forties I got utterly, numbingly bored with thinking about diets and weight, and the effort that went into marshalling my dwindling supplies of willpower, and with my hardly being aware of it my mind turned to other things.  John was about to retire and his firm organised a testimonial cricket match in his honour, which took place one golden sunny evening.  The slanting sun gave off lovely shadows and the white kit they all wore looked almost butter yellow in the setting sun – and I wondered what it would be like to keep those colours in a good picture.  My little instamatic camera didn’t seem adequate anymore and I started to read camera magazines to learn more about it.  It wasn’t long before I was given a single lens reflex camera for Christmas and was launched into an absorbing new world. 

Thousands of slides later the world went digital and my photo world changed again for the better.  I discovered there were such things as slide and negative scanners, and after 3,000 scans it’s a small but unique pleasure to realise that many of the slides I had kept were duds in the conventional sense, because they were underexposed or had been poorly framed – and here was my chance to correct these mistakes on the computer, and even better, I could display them on my blog and they wouldn’t be left to rot in a corner.  The technology which allows me to improve my images has given me many individual little pleasures every time a picture appears on my screen which I know can be ‘fixed’.  Very occasionally I know I have a winner, and that’s very special.  You see my pictures regularly on the "Photo Finish" section at the end of my posts.

The problem with art galleries is that they seem to be mainly for people who take their art seriously – because they don’t mind viewing them from a standing position.  I can’t take in very much unless I can sit down to do it, and these establishments rarely offer you chairs near the paintings.  However tell me about it on a screen and you have all my attention.  It isn’t my favourite expression of culture, but there are works that give me pleasure to look at.  Bristolian painter William James Muller (1812-1845) produced some wonderful work of the Bristol Riots of 1831, which I have shown in Part 4 of my posts about the opera on the subject written by my partner John Humphreys, Clifton Town, set during the riots. (Link here) Muller’s rendition of buildings on fire is rich and exciting, and I love looking at them.   For economy of line and perfect balance, Picasso’s Don Quijote is unique –

Colours there are some colours that fill you with an abstract pleasure just by looking and losing yourself in them.  For me it’s certain shades of green and perhaps some blue swirled in (my sister once gave me pillowcases like that when I was a teenager – I still use them). 

For my Dad who worked in the world of ceramics and glazes colour was key, and he would enthuse over rich shades of red – the ones known as bulls blood, ruby and deep magenta. 
Mum loved all shades of pink, particularly the darker ones, and wine red.  Enjoying photography as I do blue-greens are my favourites, but most colours are sensational when on a transparent medium and seen backlit – blue glass, spring or autumn leaves with the sun behind them...

Trees -  I get emotional about trees.  Their height and beauty, the shade they offer, the sounds they make in the breeze, the fact that many started before us and will continue after we are long gone.  Their mysterious nobility inspires awe; their eternal quality comforting.  And yet they die too, and there are few sights sadder than a stricken tree. 

The Ombú (Phytolacca dioica)

 A play that made a deep impression on me as a teenager was Los Árboles Mueren de Pie, (Trees Die on Their Feet) by Spanish playwright Alejandro Casona, which compared the matriarch grandmother in the story, with a tree, following the treachery of her grandson which has broken her heart.  She says

“Let them not see me fallen. 
Dead inside, but on my feet. 
Like a tree.”

Quotes with which I strongly identify, such as this one, are some of life’s little pleasures.  As a teenager searching for my identity, I used to keep a large exercise book with all my favourite quotations.  Did you?  What are your favourites?


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Saturday, 20 October 2012

Where's Noah's Ark when you need it? (3 of 3)

For Parts One and Two click on links.

Greater Buenos Aires, 1984

Dramas caused by poor drainage systems on main arterial roads to and from the Argentine capital continued at least to the end of the last century.  The bus services were good and frequent, as were the trains – but with disinvestment and the exponential rise in population breakdowns became more common, long queues at bus stops a daily chore, and relatively inexpensive taxi services flourished.  Traffic jams were a fact of life as people sought other ways to get to work – and though the drainage may have improved since those days, the public transport infrastructure has not. 

Back in the 1980s my sister had a little Fiat 600 which served her well for her complicated commute from the northern suburbs of the city to the western outskirts – some 30km/19 miles, which took about 45 minutes every morning. 

(These are all pictures from Google)

One rainy Friday morning, the last in May of 1984, she was caught up in a flash flood when she embarked on her usual route which included Avenida General Paz, one of the principal westbound avenues.  There had been bad flooding in the neighbourhoods leading to this road following heavy rain, and water was gushing towards it from all directions. 

As water swirled around them traffic was at a standstill for two hours, and she had reason to be thankful that the distributor of the Fiat 600 was high up in the engine and she was in no danger of stalling.  The rain was coming down in torrents, angry motorists sat on their horns because it was each man for himself, trying to squeeze into any corner that would give him an advantage.

(This is the bus I used to take to school every day - No. 68!)

She was at last able to inch her way onto an uphill slip road heading she knew not where, and it was nearly lunchtime by the time she stopped at a bar to make a phonecall – it was pre-cellular phone days.  She was in an unfamiliar part of Buenos Aires, and did not have a street planner with her, so could not reply properly to her boss when he answered the phone demanding to know where she was and what time she would be getting to work.  He lived in a higher area and had experienced no problem getting to work.  This reinforced her resolve to get to the office somehow.

As she returned to her car she realised that she would be heading towards an area where the flood seemed to be rising, so she turned the other way to the centre of town, which was the complete opposite direction to where she wanted to go.  An hour later she hadn’t proceeded very far, but the water was still steadily rising.  Suddenly she saw a traffic island ahead which though virtually submerged had a mound of rubble on the top.  She coaxed the Fiat onto it and decided to sit it out for a while.

The water swished about in waves as other, bigger cars floated and swayed this way and that around her perched as she was on what could have been a roundabout.  With typical sang froid she calmly unscrewed the top of her Thermos containing hot soup, and unwrapped her apple, proceeding to have her office lunch as she watched them.

 At about 5 p.m. the water level at last started to drop, and she bumped off the traffic island roughly in the direction of home.  On the way she and her noble little Fiat were able to help shunt a few bigger cars out of deep pools of water; with no buses running there were long queues of damp looking people at the bus stops, so she stopped at one and offered some women a lift in her general direction, which they accepted gratefully. 

When they parted company they showered her with blessings and thanks, with good wishes to all her family, and one of the ladies even said “…and may God bless your mother-in-law too.” 

“I’m divorced”,  my sister replied, “so let’s leave her out of this.”

 She finally got home at 6 p.m., never having got to the office.  Her round trip that day had been nigh on 200km/124 miles and had taken nearly 11 hours.  Then she remembered that it was the last Friday of the month and payday, which she had missed.  There were no credit cards in the Argentina of those days with only cash being accepted in shops, so she was forced to spend an extremely quiet weekend…

 Near Valencia, Spain, Year 2000

My parents retired to a garden suburb some 20 km west of Valencia and lived in what was to me an unlovely but practical concrete house with a very nice swimming pool.  They were very comfortable there, but as I said before in this series of posts, they were not given to monitoring their property for signs of wear and tear – with the exception of my father’s acute concern for the excessive contents of the cesspit, which I’ve told you about in my series The Spanish Villa (see link in left margin). 

The building itself received little attention after it was checked when they first moved in.  It had a flat roof, where the former owners had held parties, which had some remedial work done to it to ensure it was properly sealed, and that was that.  The problem was that the house was surrounded by pine trees, whose needles dropped gently, fragrantly and insidiously all year round down the drain pipes, unbeknown to or ignored by them.  They were never checked, and one winter when there were unusually fierce thunderstorms, my parents learned the hard way that they had been blocked by pine needles for some time.

With little warning, parts of the roof in different parts of the house caved in.  I have described this before here  in April this year towards the end of the post, but as it’s my theory that readers seldom click on back links (!),  I’ll cut and paste what I said then:

…During an unusually fierce downpour sections of the roof all round the house caved in and the house was flooded.  They were on their own at the time, but six wonderfully kind neighbours came to their help with squeegees and floor mops; over several hours they cleared away the swirling muddy water and set up plastic tubs to catch the rain falling through the various holes in the ceiling.  Eventually it was all repaired, but to save money they had not insured the property or the contents, so it was also a financial blow to them.

The real damage however was to their morale, particularly my father’s, who was terribly distressed by it all and it is possible that it may have triggered the Parkinsons disease to which he succumbed the following year.  Mum just got on with things in her practical way, carefully segregating the books which had been damaged and propping them up (open) all over the house, and once a day doing the rounds turning all the pages to help in the drying process – a bizarre sight when you visited.

Dad had enjoyed sorting out his papers and his books in a particular sequence of his choosing years before, and up until that point had known where everything was.  Now he had to start from scratch, and everything was water stained.  It was heartbreaking to see.

Wonderful thirstquenching blissfulswimming bodycooling spirithealing and respect inspiring…. WATER.

Do you have your flood stories to tell?


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Visit to a mirror shop

A Chinese Circus visits Bristol


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Where's Noah's Ark when you need it? (2 of 3)

Hinterland of the province of Córdoba, Argentina, 1920s and 30s

When my mother was a little girl the only paved roads were in the centres of the big cities.  She lived on farms and in villages until she reached the age when a formal education became imperative for her and her four siblings, and they moved to Buenos Aires. 

Until that point, she, her parents, sister and three brothers lead peaceful lives in the countryside, or in the village where it was a mere few minutes away.  She was part of a wider family that also lived on farms, so when socialising took place and the seven of them visited the relations in far flung corners of the province of Córdoba, negotiating the dusty roads in an old Ford T or an Oldsmobile took on the characteristics of a major expedition, with my grandfather dictating the plan of campaign and brooking no arguments or helpful suggestions from the rank and file.

Ford T 1926  (Google)

Oldsmobile, 1926 (Google)

Oldsmobile as above, but probably more like it really was
in those dusty days  (Google)

Granny would hope for the best but calmly plan for the worst without discussing it with her husband.  Thermoses with hot milk and tins of biscuits were stored in a box in the boot, along with as many fringed tartan rugs as she could get away with without him noticing and complaining that it was all a waste of space.  The Ford T or the Oldsmobile were apt to burst their tyres or break down in the most isolated of places.  It might be hours before someone went by who understood about the workings of the internal combustion engine.  The prevailing principle in these places was that all passers-by were duty bound to be knights-of-the-road and you would never deny assistance to a traveller in trouble; nevertheless in those days most people knew little about cars, and it could be a very long time before another car was seen in the distance bouncing along towards you and you heard those cheering words “What seems to be the trouble?”

What seems to be the trouble?...  (Google)

We'll soon have you on your way... (Google)

However there are large swathes of land in Argentina which though good for growing crops because of the rich, dark subsoil, are very sticky when muddy.  The land is flat, and at certain times of the year after a few days’ rain huge pantanos or boggy lakes would develop, often along the earth roads which had sunk over the years through soil erosion.  A driver would go to any lengths to skirt round the more evil looking patches...


...even by cutting fences or making an elaborate detour around a tree, but sometimes if – say - he judged (or remembered) that the base of the road was firm and stony on the north side of the road, he would get into second gear, tell the family to keep quiet and drive firmly through it, while everybody held their breath.  Once through it everyone would laugh with relief and they’d get out to stretch their legs while the driver tested the brakes – or waited till they dried.



Naturally, Mum remembered the times when her parents, she and her four young siblings didn’t make it, when the car would stall in the middle because it was deeper than her father had thought; and then after the soggy engine part had dried he would wade to the front of the car and start it again with the hand crank while one of the boys kept his foot on the accelerator.  After a cough and a splutter it would start again, but the situation was still hopeless – it would be unable to get any traction and simply whined as the tyres skidded round and round in the mud.   Usually this was with the Oldsmobile, because the Fort T was slung higher off the ground. 

Anybody passing would help – a rider with a strong horse, bigger vehicles with tow ropes, though no tractors in those early days – but my mother says in her memoirs:

"…I well remember a miserable night spent in one of these bogs, with mosquitoes buzzing around and Mum and Dad trying to calm my fears – no, the car would not sink and disappear into the mud; we just had to wait till the morning and somebody would be bound to come along and pull us out."

And sure enough, dawn would bring locals heading across the fields to work, when they would see the family huddled miserably in a car stuck in the mud and help dig them out.

Mum as a 7-year old (in the middle at the front) with
her four siblings and the Oldsmobile -
unfortunately no pictures survive
of them stuck in the mud!

Dressed up about to go somewhere important

Being stuck fast in mud is a frightening experience to a child, and thirty years later when I was her age and there still weren’t many paved roads, I also found myself in situations like this, though never had to spend the night in a bog, thank goodness.  I remember the fear even now.

Central Buenos Aires, 1930s and 40s

In the 1930s the children were old enough to make it imperative that they move to the capital to go to proper schools.  They bought a large four-bedroomed house on an avenue called El Cano, in the suburbs; it was a main road with two trams and three buses which regularly passed their door in both directions.  The buses in those days were open topped with canvas roofs, jammed to over capacity with too many passengers.  As the roads were cobbled the bus drivers drove (said Mum) at breakneck speed, balancing their vehicles on the tram lines for a smoother ride.  This meant that the neighbourhood was very noisy, and the quantity of traffic caused misery when it rained. 

"…Every time it rained heavily, it became a river, and the crossing streets all sloped down towards it.  The trams would stop running but the buses, being high-slung, kept going, and stirred up great waves that broke against our garage door."

On Sundays when there was less bustle, she remembered that she and her brothers would use an old sturdy box as a boat and a straw broom as an oar to row themselves across to the other side of the avenue.

Outskirts of Buenos Aires, 1970s

This house was eventually sold, the family grew up and went their separate ways.  My mother married, and had my sister and me.  Then when I was about nine, in the early 1960s, the opportunity arose to buy that old house on Avenida El Cano where she had grown up.  My parents bought the house and we lived there for about 10 years – so my formative childhood years were spent there too. 

This was the house on Avenida El Cano. 
The picture was taken in 1994, when it had been turned into
a shop and painted white with blue-grey trimmings (ugh).
It used to be plain stone.  The garage was bottom right,
and the sitting room bottom left, with double windows and
a ballustrade in the manner of the floor above it,
not as it is here.  Sadly the house was knocked down
some years later to build - what else - an apartment  block.

By this time the street drain problem had been sorted out, and it was no longer a drama when it rained; except on one occasion that I can remember, when once again the overflowing drains caused the avenue to flood from one side of the road to the other.  The house wasn’t flooded except for the garage and the entrance door because they were at a slightly lower than the rest of the house.  I was quite disappointed, having heard Mum’s story of what used to happen when she was a child.  Still, our own novelty was that we had bees somewhere under the stairs one year, and when you went down the few steps that led into the garage there was sometimes honey dripping from the sloped ceiling – I know because I tasted it. 

In the early 1970s we moved to the northern suburbs of the city, to another large house with, at the rear, the remains of what had once been a small perfume factory business.  The stale, cheap smell still permeated that part of the house.  The building was probably about 40 years old, and had not been kept in very good repair, particularly the roof.  My parents’ abiding view where house repairs were concerned was that if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it, so no remedial work was carried out on the building until the rain started to come in – and not even then.  To this day we don’t really understand why they didn’t grasp the nettle and have the most important part of the house properly repaired.  Gradually all the washing up bowls and plastic containers and buckets started to disappear as they were placed upstairs in strategic spots to catch the raindrops.   

Twenty years later when they were living out their retirement years in Spain, neglect of the roof was once again to return to haunt them. 


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

A walk round La Boca, formerly a poor immigrant suburb of Buenos Aires, by the river.  People still live there, and benefit from the tourism.

A  trompe l'oeuil

Old rusting ships in highly polluted waters...


Saturday, 6 October 2012

Where's Noah's Ark when you need it? (1 of 3)

2012, Bristol, UK

If I said “it’s been raining”, presumably readers in America, Africa, Asia and Oceania would sniff and roll their eyes, disdaining the obvious “you live in Britain and you’re telling us it’s raining?  You’ll be revealing next that the Pope’s Catholic I suppose?” as they yawn and reach for the mouse.  And I’d reply “No, really, REALLY raining”.

This green and pleasant land is only green and pleasant at the same time when the rain washing across the drowning countryside has had enough time to seep away and make the grass grow, not to mention the sun being given a sporting chance of making an appearance. 

I don’t really mind a bit of rain, apart from the consequent muddy state of the house, the constant demands from a pair of drenched four footed felines who discovered early on that we (saps that we are) were keen to wipe them down, rub them dry and give them biscuits, just to hear them purr contentedly for five minutes; swiftly followed by a secret signal between them when they would saunter casually to the door, tails high in the air, and mew pleadingly to be let out again.  To know what would happen ten minutes later, see above.  What a wheeze they work on us.  Our roles as porters, slaves and handmaidens are never more evident than when it’s raining.

As I was saying, I don’t really mind a bit of rain, as long as I’m inside, or running from one covered area to another where the bit in between is no more than a few metres, but last week the whole thing became ridiculous, and the normal people who inhabit the city where I live turned into angry and intolerant monsters.

At first it was calming to hear the rain drumming down on the conservatory roof; then it became less calming as the water started to leak into the conservatory and onto the cat litter, of which the users took a very dim view.  There had been no time between squalls to cut the grass in the front garden or to trim the fuchsia on the flagstone path, so getting out of the house to get into the car parked on the drive involved either squelching through the ankle-length grass or opting for the path and swishing by the saturated branches which wet you as you pushed past them and spat back at you as they flicked back.  Either way I was going to get wet. 

The road that leads from the village to the motorway has charming ups and downs, but at the moment the downs have been not so much charming as flooded.  On one particular day, I passed drains jetting fountains of water up into the air as I reached the first flooded area with worried cars hovering at either end.  I thought No Problem; my brain went into all-Argentines-know-how-to-cope-with-floods mode:  go slowly in second gear, don’t stop on any account, hold your nerve and test your brakes when you get out. 

(Daily Mail)

This sensible attitude works well when you’re the only one in the water, even if the depth is over a foot, which this was.  It is however rendered pointless in three sets of circumstances – firstly when aggressive (and unpopular) 4x4 vehicles at last have the opportunity to show the rest of us plebs that there ARE times when a 4x4 is the only car to have and we can shove our exasperation with mums that use them to drive children to school where the sun don’t shine; secondly when white van drivers rely on their instinct that the quicker you get through it by fanning sheets of water far and wide, the less likely it is that the lake will “realise” that you’re even there, and won’t have time to exact its revenge for disturbing it; and thirdly with very large lorries, who view you as an elephant would a mosquito, and are simply unaware of you. 


Though lucky to escape the latter, on this occasion I had one in each direction of the first two, and the resultant wave of muddy brown water washed over my bonnet.  The black (still) shiny 4x4 forged ahead of me through the next three lakes, and though I was within cautious distance, my car’s undercarriage received a high pressure wash each time. 

But my car had survived intact and the brakes worked, so the 4x4 and I arrived together at the exit on to the motorway.  I was listening to classical music on the radio so didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the 4x4 male driver had chosen the outer lane on the slip road, which merges before reaching the motorway.  Presently I did notice that he was going to barge in ahead of me and the distance between me and the car in front would have meant my having to apply the brakes pretty firmly. 

I don’t consider myself to be a feminist, but I won’t be taken for a mug, and I’m particularly allergic to testosterone at the wheel.  I didn’t let up, and he was forced to tuck in behind me.  In the rear view mirror I could see him waving his arms about, and in cartoon fashion tapping his temple with his forefinger and clearly mouthing statements about the possible unmarried state of my female ancestors. 

Sorry folks, I gave in to temptation and the stress of the moment - I carefully raised the middle finger of my right hand, stuck it out of the window and jabbed it at him. 

Mmm.  As we splashed onto the motorway I saw that his anger was at boiling point and knew I was going to have to remain calm no matter what happened.  And sure enough, for the next two miles he remained level with me, boxing me in and leaving me unable to overtake the slow cars ahead of me, as he weaved from side to side almost but not quite scraping me, and screamed, and shook his fist.  I didn’t hear what he said, and though I couldn’t help but be aware of what he was doing, I looked stony-faced at the road ahead of me and didn’t once glance at him.  Eventually his anger spent itself; he put on a burst of speed and disappeared.  I started to tremble a bit after that, and wondered if he had taken my registration number (I forgot to take his just in case).

The classical music helped a little, and then I came off the motorway and headed in my usual direction across town to the hospital, my place of work.  I didn’t see him again, but I admit I feared it.  As I approached the hospital I turned off the radio, and when I braked at traffic lights I realised I wasn’t going to get away scot-free from the flooded roads.  There was a heavy sloshing sound under my seat, as if there was a child’s paddling pool full to the brim under there.  Also when I started off, and when I turned corners.  Other cars could hear it.  It took several days to drain naturally, but I’m expecting the undercarriage to suddenly drop off in a heap of rust and leave me sitting in the middle of the road.

The monsoon continues.  The traffic is very heavy on the bad days and people drive like idiots.  Our tolerance levels are way down.  How must other people cope in other parts of the world where there are floods every year? 

I don’t write about what I don’t know first or at least second hand, so I can only imagine what it must be like for – say – the people of Bangladesh, to whom floods mean misery and tragedy.  I can only tell you about what I know, and in the next post I’ll tell you what it was like for my mother and her family in the nineteen twenties and thirties in the hinterland of Argentina, and how my sister coped with a flash flood in Buenos Aires in the early eighties.  Stay tuned!


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

These first two were taken at Glastonbury Abbey, in Somerset

These four were taken in the village of Laycock, Wiltshire,
preserved as it was in the 18th century without visible cables
or wires, and therefore much beloved by period film-makers. 
I believe Pride & Prejudice was filmed here.

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