Archive for May, 2010

How Long is a Piece of Spaghetti?

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

To Bologna and back (eventually)

Have you ever been to Bologna? No, neither had we but our daughter had paid a visit there last year and loved it, so we thought we’d give it a go. Our budget was limited but by booking a modest hotel and flights on-line, well in advance, the outlay was relatively small. Our stay over, in the taxi on the way from our hotel to the airport, we congratulated ourselves after having had a great time in the city. The hotel was great. The weather was great. The predicted rain and high humidity never materialised; on the contrary, much of the time it was sunny but cool; sometimes, especially in the evening, a chilly wind blew up that nudged us toward pulling on an extra layer but couldn’t deter us from exploring the city on foot. Our spirits might have taken a knock at the airport had the taxi driver, whom we’d given a generous tip, not caught us up, honked his horn to attract our attention then leaned over to hand my wife, Lesley, her favourite scarf, which she’d left behind on the back seat. It was Sunday; when the automatic doors opened ushering us inside we weren’t surprised to find the airport building quiet.

Earlier, waltzing out of the hotel toward the waiting car we overheard an elderly woman, who we mentally dismissed as an old fuddy-duddy, ask the receptionist whether she’d mind calling the airport to make sure her flight would be leaving on time. The last we’d heard of the Icelandic volcano’s continuing eruptions and ominous, wandering ash cloud was that it was causing problems on the Iberian Peninsula’s western seaboard. The week before’s general election and its aftermath was all the news we’d bothered to keep up with.

Save for a few that were heading for more southerly destinations, the word CANCELLED appeared against every flight on the airport monitors. Evidently, the ash cloud had drifted in our direction; all northern Italian airspace was closed until 1400 hours. We managed to find a Ryan Air desk manned by two bored-looking, uniformed staff, who informed us that we would be eligible for a refund of the full cost of the flight. One of them handed us a hastily printed A4 handout filled on both sides with bullet-pointed text explaining the company’s, and our own, position. ‘Oh,’ said the other, helpfully, ‘you might like to know that Ryan Air has cancelled all fights until Tuesday.’ We needed to get back to London and besides, Bologna is really only worth a three-day visit; staying two extra nights in a hotel would mean laying out a lot of extra cash, which wasn’t on our agenda.

The following morning, stumbling out of the couchette, in which we’d spent the last ten hours on our way to Paris from Nice, it was hard to imagine what we’d been through in the preceding 24. We had first enquired at all the car hire desks whether it was possible to take a car to Paris and to leave it at a depot there. It wasn’t. One of those we spoke to told us he was organising a mini bus to drive up to twelve stranded Brits to Calais, privately, and asked us if we’d like to be included. ‘No,’ we told him; the price was scandalous and besides, he looked a bit shifty.

Like a lot of English tourists, our Italian is more or less limited to what various types of food and a few wines are called. We had taken another taxi to the main railway station, where the woman on the ticket counter spoke no English. ‘Parigi?’ we asked, hopefully. ‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Milano’ and ‘internazionale’ were about the only words we understood from the deluge of them that issued from her animated lips through a whole universe of facial expression. Resorting to international language: ‘Okay’ we told her.

Milano Centrale, Milan’s colossal railway station, opened in 1931; it has no definite architectural style, but is a blend of among others, Belle Epoque and Art Deco, and (having been incomplete when Mussolini came to power) has additional fascist embellishments. It is 200 metres wide, is a soaring 72 metres high and has 24 platforms. Every day about 320,000 passengers pass through it, using 600 trains. ‘Inferno’ is Italian for ‘hell’; jumping into the burning mouth of a live volcano might have been less intimidating. The place was heaving: the signage inconsistent, confusing. It took us about 20 minutes just to locate a loo. By now it was 2pm. There had been no buffet or restaurant on the train. We had eaten nothing since breakfast at 8am. Despite its opulent grandeur, the only source of food at Milan’s main station appeared to be the Italian version of a MacDonald’s, serving fast-food pizza. Scorning it, we wheeled our suitcases out of the station and found ourselves in an almost silent, urban desert, the only signs of life: the sparse remnants of a Philipino congregation who’d attended a Catholic service at a nearby church. Gritting our teeth, we went back inside and ate pizza.

Trains to Munich, which we reckoned must be far enough north to be safe from the ash cloud, were all full. Assured that we could pick up a connecting train to Nice, we bought tickets to Ventimiglia, on Italy’s Mediterranean coast close to the French border. The journey under ominous skies, across vast areas of dull countryside, punctuated here and there by stops at grimy, industrial towns, took an age. Standing up, getting our things together, thinking we had reached our destination, we discovered that the train was only coming into Genoa, which meant two more hours to go. Under sullen skies and passing through countless tunnels, past deserted, sad-umbrella’d, narrow beaches the train creaked and swayed on its relentless odyssey. Even the sea looked bored. There was a stop at Savona then San Remo, which we visited briefly on a family holiday in the area ten years ago: others at Imperia and Bordighera, none of which we’d been particularly enamoured by. Finally reaching Ventimiglia, we dashed through the light drizzle to board the Nice train that was just about to leave. It turned out to be mostly filled with French commuters, who have jobs in Italy but live in France. Miraculously, the sky cleared and the sun came out as the train, hugging the steep cliffs, rounded the headland where the Alps fall into the Mediterranean. Bathed in evening sunlight, orange, ochre, countless pale green-shuttered Menton, one of our favourite towns on the Mediterranean coast, welcomed us back but just as quickly, waved adieu, to be quickly replaced by other-worldly, skyscrapered Monte Carlo and a gaggle of smart yachts and gigantic cruise-liners moored beyond the port, still brushed with the dying sun’s golden light.

When we inspected them: our tickets to Paris that we bought in Milan and came in three parts, had Nice Riquier marked on them as the station where we should alight in Nice. However, the Nice-Paris portion of the journey was to start from Nice Ville. Approaching Nice the train slowed a little and came to a sudden halt at Nice Riquier station, where we were the only ones to jump up and leap off. Before we had time to question our decision, the train left. Something was wrong. Things didn’t look very promising. It was so obviously not a main station. The station buildings looked rather run-down. No one was about. The ticket office was closed. We were confused. We were intimidated when two black teenagers in full rapper gear appeared. Facing me, shrugging her shoulders and raising her eyebrows, as if to say we had no other choice, Lesley, who is braver than me, turned and walked over to them and asked if they knew where we could get a taxi. They smiled shyly, taking off their dark glasses then took on worried looks when Lesley showed them our tickets and went on to explain that we needed to catch the 9 pm train to Paris. They didn’t know about taxis but told us – by this time I had wandered over – there was a tram stop a couple of hundred away. But then one of them pulled out a train time-table and advised us to stay put; the next train to Nice Ville was due in 20 minutes and the journey only took six, which would give us more than enough time to catch the mainline train north.

Starving: from Gare d’Austerlitz, Lesley and I walked across the Seine to the Marais, where we allowed ourselves the luxury of a well-deserved, phenomenal breakfast at her favourite Paris brasserie, Camille. We had been shocked to find – being in France! – that aside from a vending machine from which sweets, crisps and soft drinks could be had, there was no other source of sustenance on the sleeper. Malteasers and barbeque-flavoured crisps are not the ideal supper but, before retiring, I dug around in a suitcase and pulled out a beautifully gift-wrapped bottle of mirtillo (blueberry) grappa to wash them down with. Paris, early on a beautiful, milkily-lit weekday morning in mid-May, although we wished we could linger, wasn’t the end of the story. Before us, there remained the Eurostar to St Pancras; the tube to Liverpool Street; the train journey to Stansted, where we’d left our car and finally, the half-hour drive home.

In case you were wondering…
In Bologna, everyone was out on the streets, including the happy father and his two rather glum-looking children in my picture, to watch the Bologna stage of the Mille Miglia, in which 1927-1957 vintage cars race one another along 1000 miles of Italian roads. The 2010 winners, driving a 1939 BMW 328 Mille Miglia Coupé, were Giuliano Cané and Lucia Galliani, making this their tenth Mille Miglia victory.

Has anyone has had similar travel experiences? Please post a comment

Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin


Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Oilseed Rape
Brassica napus L. ssp. oleifera

To reach the tow-path that runs along a nearby canal, it’s necessary to pass below the A12 via a seedy underpass, evocative of a crime scene. With the intention of photographing wild flowers along the canal, as I approached, I was struck as much by the almost heavenly yellow, reflected light illuminating the floor, walls and ceiling of the tunnel, as by the brilliant colour of the crop growing in the field beyond. A sinister setting, temporarily transformed into something far more uplifting.

The image above will be included in Panorama, in the Gardens section the Pedro Silmon Garden Photography website.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? Please post a comment.

Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

Et Cetera

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

My Other Work

‘Do I devote my photography exclusively to gardens, plants, etc,’ people often ask. I imagine that glancing through the Etc. section at they must suspect that I do other sorts of still-life pictures, which indeed I do. Only yesterday, I photographed a ginger cake my wife, Lesley, had just baked. A few weeks ago I pulled out some of the contents of her sewing box and arranged them into a picture. But, I’ve also shot hi-end jewellery, handbags and exclusive watches, as well as Scandinavian cutlery.

Nowadays, my having left art direction, I prefer to work more spontaneously, going in with little or no preconceived concept other than that of making something look good, even beautiful. Paul Strand’s ‘On My Doorstep’ portfolio (his later works, a collection of which is beautifully reproduced in Paul Strand: The World On My Doorstep, 1950-1976, published by Aperture Foundation Inc. in 1994) is an abiding inspiration. In the introduction to the portfolio, Strand asks: ‘What can the obstacle lead to that is new, positive and useful?’… ‘The artist’s world is limitless,’ he tells us, ‘it can be found anywhere far from where he lives or a few feet away.’

What inflences other photographers? Please post a comment.

Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

Printing Money

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

The 25th London Original Print Fair
The Royal Academy of Arts, London. 29th April – 23rd May

I felt sorry for the girl in her twenties leaning against a table, staring into space, in front of a white wall full of bright prints by an artist I’d never heard of, whose work I would never wish to own. She had a chair to sit on but I sensed she had already done a lot of sitting and had stood up to break the boredom with a change of perspective. It was the first day of the show and I hoped that for her sake things might pick up.

Much like the atmosphere in their often-busy book illustrations, the adjacent booth buzzed with Jean and Laurent de Brunoff’s Babar the Elephant fans. Elsewhere, not giving much away – every so often, though there expressions never changed, they mumbled quietly to one another – a well-dressed, elderly couple tottered from one booth to the next of the sixty seven crammed into the Academy’s main galleries. Whether they were more excited by Sean Sculley’s blocky abstracts, the dark Goya aquatints or by Allen Jones’ erotic editions was difficult to say.

Agents – the male ones – almost to the man, sported that Euro-look; dark blazer worn over a sky blue formal shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, with once-washed, dry-cleaned, dark denims, ironed but not creased, and brown slip-on leather shoes, probably from Bally or Gucci. Tanned, too, of course, they had well-coiffed hair – close-cut at the sides and back, quiffy at the front – sometimes with just a hint of blonde streaking. Incessantly talking loudly into their Blackberrys, now in English, then in German or French or perhaps Russian, it was difficult to guess at their origin. Exceptions were the two or three obviously English dandies, one in a cream linen suit and dark green shirt worn with a black tie, whose longish dark hair was swept straight back to reveal a good deal of forehead, whose booth was decorated with a big, square glass vase filled with the most exquisite, orange tulips.

Afraid they might already have missed the Matisse they saw earlier and weren’t sure about whether it would go with the drawing room carpet a rather plain, middle-aged couple darted quickly from one stall to the next. People all around me were actually buying Goyas, Picassos, Hockneys, Bridget Rileys and Kitajs. Arriving with the intention of whizzing around in about twenty minutes, I stayed almost an hour and a half, wandering around making the occasional note in my catalogue; I’m sure I was taken for a dealer. If I could have afforded anything it would have been one of Julian Opie’s 3D Lenticular prints, View of Mount Fuji with daisies from Route 300, 2009.

Did anyone visit the print fair? Please post a comment

Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin