One of the delights of driving – and I have to say there are not many – is using the time to introduce myself to new albums. My drive to work takes at worst 80 minutes. That is probably an album and a half. Additionally, I listen to BBC Radio 6 Music. Particularly influential is Mark Riley, one time band member of The Fall. It was through him that I first picked up on Pond, an Australian ‘collective’, located firmly in a modern psychedelia shorn of flower-power nonsense. On hearing the track Zond, I investigated further and watched the accompanying video. I have not looked back.
When the CD, Man it Feels Like Space Again, arrived in the post (the local HMV music store did not have it), I positively trembled in anticipation. The first track, Waiting Around for Grace, had all of the driving ingredients. It is loud with guitars, fantastic percussion and keyboard. A couple of verses and an extended instrumental ending, not dissimilar to Zond. At the other end of the album is the title track. It is a mini opera spanning 8 minutes with a guitar riff and melody stitching it all together. The keys change as the mood of the song dives into what must be despair of some sort. I’ve read and watched a number of reviews of the album. Common amongst them is criticism that Pond are not great song writers and the slower tracks do not work as well as the full-on sound assaults – which accounts for most of the tracks. The fact is, one cannot hear the lyrics, certainly not while driving and the CD does not have a lyric sheet. I suspect I did not buy a psychedelia album for its meaningful lyrics. What I would say is, despite frequent key changes, this is one of the most feel-good albums now in my collection.
The same could not be said of Bjork’s Vulnicura. Again, much has been written about this album as it records the months before and after her split with her long-time artist partner, Matthew Barney. I inexplicably have all of Bjork’s studio albums and am one of the few people suggesting that Lars von Trier’s film, Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which Bjork starred, is a masterpiece (Bjork is an appalling actor). I have also seen her twice, including her Biophilia show in Manchester in 2013. So, again sat in my van heading to work, this album at 58 minutes fills much more of the time. It needs to be listened to carefully (there is a lyric sheet). The lyrics are painful, though wrapped around what seems to me at least to be seductive melody interspersed with techno percussion. A number of tracks, including the opener, Stonemilker, have string arrangements that are just sumptuous. Stonemilker, to some extent summarises the mood. Taken literally, and 9 months before the split, she likens her efforts to getting milk out of a stone. Her partner becomes more and more unresponsive. It is extraordinarily personal. One feels a bit like a compulsive voyeur. The mood picks up a shade towards the end. Bjork invites Antony Hegarty to sort-of duet with her on one of the more non-linear tracks, Atom Dance. Hegarty’s voice always seems to have a peculiar mix of uncertainty and freedom in it. It works well on this album. The final track, Quicksand, has lyrics including, “if she sinks I’m going down with her”. That’s as optimistic as it gets. Goodness knows what the subject of this album, Matthew Barney, thinks about it.
And then finally, the ever incipient Marina Diamandis, trading as Marina and the Diamonds. The new album is Froot. It is the follow up to the techno Elecktra Heart which works well in the van. A kind of guilty secret. I should not like it, but I do. I was originally taken by her track Hollywood but soon found myself perplexed by her excrutiatingly unique voice. What the voice really needed, I thought, was good songs. Unfortunately, they continue to elude her; though that is not to say that this album is bad. But put to the van test, it lost my attention as it progressed. Though Savages towards the end has much to recommend it. The lyric “Underneath it all we’re all just savages; Hidden behind the shirts, ties and marriages; How can we expect anything at all?; We’re just animals still learning how to crawl” raises an eyebrow. Ultimately. Diamandis’s lyrics need a few more years’ life experience. The voice remains distinctive, but maybe it does not suit pure pop? Bjork is not a bad role model in that respect.
Back on the streets of Munich roars Lucky Strike with its strike-through cod cleverness. The pointless statement (left) “Einheitsgeschmack” translated as uniform taste (there are three varieties to choose from) is shortened to “Geschmack”, merely taste.
The cigarette machines offer additional opportunities for state-of-the-art advertising (right). “Ich hab meine Zigaretten mehr” translates as I have more cigarettes, becomes one cigarette more (customers get one extra free, seemingly). What an amazing brand!
Pall Mall has gone monochrome with a set of posters featuring people who have amazing lives. Seemingly. These two loveable men, according to the caption, as I understand it, have very colourful lives already (hence the monochrome picture). The cigarette seems to help their masculinity.
There is an equivalent for the women (right). These two sophisticates ask what are we to think of them? Not much. Really.
The French brand, Gauloises, has a similar approach with its ‘Vive le Moment’ campaign. Of course, this involves, like the competitors, living life to the full with cigarettes, a seemingly contradictory idea. Here we have two people having fun in a bath – though the cigarette is unsurprisingly absent. Somehow they have ended up in this situation having missed a flight and checked in to a different hotel. As you do. Both of them seem to have overcome their nicotine addiction and predilection to cancer in favour of sexually transmitted diseases.
There is an exclusively female take on this. Here they use their long tresses to create moustaches. Why would they do this? Not sure. Maybe they should get to know the hairy men in the Pall Mall ad. Could be a good night of tobacco exchanges. Or not.
And then there is Camel, ‘untamed since 1913′. Colourful. A bit like gravestones. Quite fitting really.
We resolved quite early to come back to Barcelona later this year. There is more Gaudi to do, not least the Casa Batllo – http://www.casabatllo.es/en – (left) – although not built by the man, he certainly appropriated it and gave it his signature makeover. We are keen also to visit Casa Vicens.
Barcelona, however, is more than Gaudi. There is a waterfront, for those who like those kinds of things. Equally, there are so many quirks. It has its own Arc de Triomf (right). A short way further walkers encounter Plaça Catalunya at the top of La Rambla where the El Corte Inglés department store flirts in its alluring modernist building (left). There are numerous secluded squares on which to sit, some more peaceful than others, all have access to coffee. As a rule.
I always judge cities by their drinking fountains. I think it is one of the indicators of civilisation. Towns and cities in hot countries are generally the most generous in their provision, but even in the UK it gets warm in the summer; unfortunately, local authorities in the UK seem to have decomissioned most of them in favour of over-priced and unsustainable bottled water. Barcelona, suffice to say, by this definition is civilised.
Civilisation can also be measured through access to history. Barcelona is a great trading city of old, and it has a number of 19th Century markets. One of these is El Born, a former fish market (left). However, it now acts as a cover for an excavation of the old city (right), a part of which was destroyed in the War of Succession in 1714. It is just an extraordinary space and costs nothing to visit.
And then there is always food. As vegetarians we are always seduced by eateries that either cater for us on the menu or are willing to adapt the menu for us. We ate three times in a restaurant called Hàbaluc (http://restaurantehabaluc.com/). It is cheap, cheerful, has a menu in English and a good selection of intelligent vegetarian main courses allowing us to visit three times without eating the same option more than once. They sell wine by the glass and their desserts are crafted almost to pudding perfection.
More generally in the city, service is very good. We found that, essentially, one can have whatever you want. Pizza, for example, can be bought by the strip and paid for by weight. Shop keepers – and there are many – like to solve problems. My analogue camera’s battery failed in the Sagrada Familia. A nearby hardware store put the combined effort of three assistants to the task of finding a substitute. No problem.
It is also a city that loves children. So much so that one toy shop gives them their own door (above right).
Day 3 – Park Güill
Park Güill is in the north-west of Barcelona and can be reached using the Metro Line L3 (direction, Canyelles) alighting at Vallcarca. The route to the park is well signposted for pedestrians who are treated to a most unusual set of outdoor escalators to aid mobility to the elevated Park. The main entrance is flanked by a visitors pavilion with a mushroom chimney and a tower with a cross pointing in 6 directions. In essence, the entrance is one great puzzle full of references to the architect’s childhood (elephants in Montserrat, apparently) and piety. One could easily spend the day interpreting the design; a good book is helpful, however. The references to nature represent a common theme with Gaudi, here illustrated by ceramic salamanders and serpents amongst others.
Park Güill is the site of a one-time walled housing project, the brainchild of the eponymous industrialist, Eusebi Güell, with Antoni Gaudi as the chief architect. The whole site has an area of 15 hectares most of which is now public parkland with a fraction of it designated as a world heritage site by the UN. We did not actually visit this area, but it is the location of his mock temple and some signature ceramic animals and seats.
With respect to houses, only 2 were completed, neither of which were designed by Gaudi, out of an anticipated 60 before the project collapsed. Gaudi himself bought and lived in the show house (left) from 1906 to 1926 (originally with his father and niece) when he moved into his workshop at the Sagrada Familia. His house is now a museum and well worth a visit. It is here were one can see into the soul of the man. His frugality can be seen in the simplicity of his living quarters – a single bed with a shrine at its foot, an exquisite non-en suite bathroom (right) and a balcony from which to observe his emerging cathedral. There is also a video featuring a commentary from one of the nuns who basically looked after him in these years. Without them, one gets the impression, he would slip completely into the alternative reality world of his imagination. Maybe that is where he was when he collided with the tram that killed him?
One feature of Gaudi’s internal decor is the way either he decorates his ceiling so that they are notflat, as in La Pedrera, or appear not to be flat by optical illusion (left).His wooden furniture are pieces of ergonomic art which despite that seem not to be overly comfortable. Some cushions would be a good start, but one does not get the sense that comfort was his thing (right).
The park is beautiful, but busy. It is not peaceful, despite it being designed to be so. If the sheer numbers of people do not disconcert, then the non-native parrots in the palm trees will.
Day 2 – La Pedrera Andrew Graham Dixon, a favourite art historian, produced a series called The Art of Spain back in 2010 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008wthr). There was no doubt for him of Gaudi’s importance, but he believes that the Sagrada Familia is being ruined by ‘Disney-like’ embellishments to the exterior. I am liable to disagree with him, and what’s more he did not actually go inside – at least for the programme – where those embellishments are rendered somewhat irrelevant. However, he did say that La Pedrera (above left), Gaudi’s signature apartment block, was an architectural marvel. To demonstrate this, Graham-Dixon got himself invited into an apartment occupied by a long-time resident of the block (sixty years) to witness its unique charm. Those of us who visit without a film crew have to make do with visiting the show apartment featuring period furniture and state-of-the-art gadgets such as water heaters and bidets in the bathroom (right). Like the Sagrada Familia, light dominates the design and hence functionality of the building. Designed for rich-ish bourgeois families, these apartments keep the childrens’ rooms to the rear away from the sun and the street leaving the study, ‘drawing room’, master bedroom and lounge bathed in sunlight. The maid’s room, kitchen (right) share an inner-courtyard view with the children (below left). The show apartment features original wooden and tiled floors, exquisite art décor lamps, curious ceiling mouldings (below right) and unique door and cupboard handles said to have a unique Gaudi ergonomy. They are themselves objects of considerable beauty (below left). On arrival, visitors are sent immediately to the roof. This is an extraordinary space. The view across the city is a good enough reason to go; however, Gaudi saw chimneys and ventilation shafts as opportunities to introduce sculpture to his architectural creations. The roof then becomes an exclusive sculpture park. Andrew Graham-Dixon posited that it was curious that this celibate, frugal man (who was also a vegetarian, we discovered) should adorn his roof with sculptures of phallic and other sexual forms (below left). One could argue that it is difficult to make chimneys anything other than phallic. Surely? Whatever they represent, this is a roof like no other. Some of the sculptures have trademark ceramic patterns, others are just plain stone (left). One then moves into the attic space (right). Originally this was the utility space for residents, but it now houses a wonderful exhibition detailing the history of the building, architectural influences (largely nature), method (similar to the cathedral using catenary arches) and furniture (Gaudi designed some extraordinary furniture for the apartments that were allegedly ergonomic). Day 3 – Park Güell.
What can one say about Barcelona? My first visit left me in awe. Ok, it was largely a Gaudi fest, but the City has many quirks that perhaps amount to the difference between an enjoyable city and a great city. First, let me say that late February is a good time to go. It is not too busy, nor is it too hot. And by definition, not too expensive. Our 3* hotel in the University district came in at under 300 Euros for 4 nights.
We planned a little ahead on the advice of friends. So, to visit the Gaudi UNESCO sites, booking ahead online is advisable. The Cathedral, the Sagrada Família is quite the most extraordinary unfinished building I’ve ever seen. Adopted by Antoni Gaudi in 1883, it became his life’s work where he eventually lived (in his workshop) and died (being hit by a tram immediately outside). The Nativity façade has, what Douglas Adams’ character Slartibartfarst might have called, all of those fiddly bits. The classic icons of the life of Christ in fine gothic detail (left). It took 41 years to complete. The sculptor was a friend of Gaudi’s, Lorenc Matemala. He too, like Gaudi, died a decade before completion of the façade.
The opposite side, the Passion Façade, is much more austere, and unfortunately whilst we were there undergoing some work rendering part of it under covers. However, it features the crucifixion in a bold cubist representation (right). It was started in 1956, 30 years after Gaudi’s death, but under his instruction! The bell-towers rise 60m or so, like wicker fences. Another bell tower is under construction to rise 100m or so. Closer to heaven, no doubt.
Whilst the outside is spectacular, it is in the inside where the genius is evident. The windows radiate coloured light that changes during the course of the day. Blue in the morning from the East, and red/orange in the afternoon as the sun moves to the West. The windows bear the names of the saints from across the globe. Because of this, it is a space like no other.
The pillars ape tree trunks. They are not straight, they twist as they rise. The ceiling (right) depicts the heavens like a warm forest canopy looked over by the apostles. The light from the stars draw one up.
The cathedral is paid for entirely by donation so the visitor numbers are important. However, the museum housed partially in a basement is spectacular. Here one gets a history lesson, exposure to many of Gaudi’s models – he was a prolific model maker – and get to understand his innovative architectural methods. His buildings generally are defined in terms of catenary arches. These days, computers do the calculating, but for Gaudi, his method involved strings and tiny lead weights. The strings suspended from above are pulled by the weights. The strings then naturally create strong arches that can be incorporated into the building. It took ten years, apparently, to get the tensions right.The method is demonstrated in the museum, and a mirror allows one to see what the exterior would look like (right). All you have to do is invert the model. Ingenious.
Not a great picture taken across a railway line at day break, but this poster is the only thing that appears green at the minute in Munich. L&M battle it out across that railway line with Pall Mall and Marlboro. Strapline rather curious: cigarettes for purists and delicious. In a way that asbestos in buildings is for purist architects, no doubt. Tödlich, as they say.
There is a pub adjacent to the office I used to work in on the campus of the University of Sussex, England, that had more “do not…” signs on the wall than it had items on its food menu. I was waiting for the sign that would say “do not come in if you do not like ‘do not…’ signs”. But essentially, it was already there, I suppose.
One person who was not offended by the signs told me that he liked the pub because the barman – the owner – was able to calculate the bill in his head! Others told me just to ignore them. I was an infrequent visitor, in any case.
Here is an example of a series of friendly signs by someone in Hove, UK. They are laminated, as well, so the author has invested quite a bit in making clear his/her preferences. Though the technology clearly does not help with the grammar.
My response: I’ll park in your driveway and dump my rubbish on your front door.
The UK Labour Party is under pressure, apparently, because big business is not endorsing tax policies. The most recent criticism has come from Stefano Pessina (left) the boss of Boots, the iconic British pharmacy-cum-drug store. Boots was founded in Nottingham, England, in 1849. It is now privately owned and has its headquarters is in Zug, Switzerland, to avoid UK corporation tax.
Now out of the woodwork are the fickle Simon Woodroffe, he of Yo! Sushi fame, who has funded both Labour and the Conservatives simultaneously just to hedge his bets, and Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse, now part of the Dixons empire. Both of these supported Labour under Blair. Arguably, Labour under Blair was conservative, and hence not a risk. Actually it would have been a risk not to support them in the run up to the 1997 election. Even Murdoch did that.
Labour under Miliband has targeted inequality as a key economic factor much to the chagrin of so-called ‘business leaders’ who took us in to recession and are unwilling to contribute to the state infrastructure that enables them to trade in the country safely and predictably.
Enter Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) the accountancy firm has been chastised by the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, Chaired by Margaret Hodge, for its speciality in advising firms on tax avoidance strategies on an ‘industrial scale’. Denied, of course.
Which other firms offend? We know well about Starbucks, Facebook, Top Shop, Amazon, Google, Apple and Virgin. That said, it is ok for Richard Branson because he is a philanthropist. Maybe we can define a philanthropist as someone who gives away part of their fortune to rectify the ills caused by their own business practices?
Other tax avoiding firms include: Dyson and Wolseley UK, owners of Plumb, Pipe, etc, Centers.
Celebrities have always moaned about tax. Michael Caine went off to the US, albeit when tax rates were somewhat higher than they are today (but even then, the high rate was a marginal rate). Unfortunately, Paul Daniels did not go when he threatened to back in the 1990s, let us hope that the likes of Griff Rhys Jones and Ray Winstone do leave as they threaten. Gary Barlow, Anne Robinson, the Arctic Monkeys, Katie Melula, George Michael and comedian, Jimmy Carr (I could go on) have all been exposed as intentional tax avoiders.
Picture: Stefano Pessina – Alliance Boots, available through Wikipedia