Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Log 356: A walk around Dubrovnik

When I arrived in Dubrovnik a month ago I was suffering from an inflamed arthritic hip, and I thought it unlikely that I would be able to make the walk I did every morning last time I was here. That involved  my going 54 steps down from the apartment I am staying in, then walking through the town to a place where a steep set of stairs raises 156 steps to meet a second set that takes me up another 49  steps (in all 205), then walking down a fairly steep footpath to begin my descent by way of three sets of steps numbering about 130 into the town again and so to bed, as they might say.

So here I am, yesterday, essaying out on my walk. Once through the door I look up the street (left), and then turn, go down 16 steps into what might be called the cross-street (below). 

And so make my way into the town proper, 100 yards along before entering into the town itself, with the Rector’s Palace on the right of the picture below. This is the place from which at one period Dubrovnik was governed, the Knez, or Count, being elected to office for only one month, to ensure that he didn’t  have time to become corrupted.

 At the far end of the street above I turn left and am in the Stradun (below,right), the main street of this city that was once a Mediterranean power as a city-state, and has since passed through a multiplicity of forms, known a good number of conquerers, and is now a magnet for tourists from all over the world.

The keen observer will have noted that one is never far from a church, the religion here nowadays being straight Roman Catholic (since they gave up the religion of Communism). The next part of the journey takes me through the massive city walls and across a drawbridge over what could once have been a moat, but is now a civic garden, passing on the way St Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint (below), who, I am told by my friend, (she has a thyroid condition), is for sore throats. She thinks he came from Abyssinia, maybe a long time ago. I’m glad he is good for something, besides just standing there watching the tourists.

By this time I am in the part of town known as Pile, which is all buses and tourists getting on and off buses, and is hardly worth showing anyone. A short walk of 50 yards or so brings me to my major adversary, the 156 steps up on to the hill that towers over Dubrovnik (below, right). I got a picture, but it doesn’t have the merit of perspective, and looks almost like the steps are running along flat ground. Still, you can’t win em all, as they say.
One hardly has a moment to take a breath before plunging into another set of stairs (below, right) that take me as far as I am going, a total of 205 steps up, in all.

From up here one gets a good idea of how massive are the walls that surround this tiny city and the many forts that dot the walls as one walks round them. (Two pictures below).They were built  centuries ago, and are like many small towns along this Dalmatian coast, which are built within walls like these, as defence against their many attackers. Nowadays, tourists from all around the world love to take the one hour walk around these impressive structures. I did that myself once last year in blazing afternoon heat: unwise.

Walking down towards the descending steps around the corner (below) I catch a glimpse of what is the lifeblood and bane of Dubrovnik, one of the (in this case smaller) cruise ships that disgorge their dragooned visitors for their three or four hour visit to the city.

As I approach the steps back into town I am able to look across the roadway under which I must walk to a small opening in the walls (below, left) through which I will  re-enter the city.

On my way through the walls my eye is caught by the map, copies of which are scattered around the city, that shows the exact location of the bombs that the Serbs dropped on Dubrovnik during their recent nasty Yugoslav war, a method by which the people here keep their resentments alive, as if anything were needed for that, Serbs and Croats having been at each other’s throats for many generations ( before and after the comparatively quiet years of Tito)

Having absorbed the need to keep the hostility juices flowing, I pass another delightful cross-street (below) where they are preparing to feed the multitudes (almost all the streets of Dubrovnik within the walls are lined with restaurant tables)

I plunge down one of the many tiered streets that run into the Stradun (below, left)

Pausing to look back up (right,)

And,further on, catching a glimpse of another, tiny street along which someone lives a life, having a bite to eat below the hanging washing(left, below).

Until, once again, I am among the tourists, watching the polite, deferential, slim Japanese, (right) with their ever-present cameras.

I go home by way of the harbour (below)

 past the restaurant that sits beneath my sitting room window, just inside the walls, (below)

And so to a shot from our sitting room balcony (below)  showing tourists on their trek around the walls.

And a final shot from the balcony over the harbour

With apologies for the poor quality of the pictures. I have done this just to find out how you put pictures on the blog. It is difficult and cumbersome, unless I can find a better way!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My Log 355 :Nothing is ever normal about a Baz Luhrmann film: The Great Gatsby, while uneven in theme, assaults the senses

Baz Luhrmann
Cover of Baz Luhrmann
Cover of "The Great Gatsby"
Cover of The Great Gatsby    

The first few minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is such a shock that one is momentarily disoriented. It is like nothing I have ever seen before. It consists of a totally unrealistic, symbolic sort of film-making in which not even a word of dialogue seems to be realistic, seems to have taken off into some kind of surreal universe, while the visual effects are extravagant, and largely unexplained.
As one accustoms oneself to this raucous depiction of a society out of control in its search for pleasure, one begins to enjoy the inventiveness shown by the film-maker, almost to wallow in the jokes as one begins to wonder where the hell all this could be leading.
The essential piece of information about the characters that emerges from this first part of the film is that Gatsby, the almost mythical character who lies at the centre of this extravaganza of conspicuous, tasteless expenditure, has never been seen by any of the crowds of participants in the revels, and that only one person has actually been invited, formally, to these parties, and that is a character called Nick Carraway, played (one finds on later examination of the Internet, because no cast members were even mentioned in the screening I attended in Dubrovnik last night) by Toby Maguire, who has just moved in to live next door to Gatsby’s huge palace.
Eventually Gatsby does turn up and establishes a relationship of sorts with Carraway, who is a novelist in the process of describing his relationship with Gatsby to a psychiatrist as the film opens. Then, as the film settles down into more or less normal narrative form, we are introduced to Daisy, a beautiful, flighty young blonde who is married to a rather brutish man called Buchanan, who himself has a mistress among the working class, but who takes unkindly to the fact that Gatsby is beginning to pay concentrated attention to Mrs Buchanan.
At this point the style of the film changes, which is probably what has put off most of the critics who have not been impressed with this latest brilliant, fascinating and puzzling effort of the irrepressible Luhrmann. Gatsby reveals to Carraway, and finally to Buchanan, that he has loved Mrs. Buchanan for five years, long before she was married, and he says she has loved him, and demands of her that she announce to her husband that she has never loved him. Buchanan discovers that Gatsby’s money comes from nefarious activities, but Gatsby announces that he has acquired everything jut for Daisy. These are also strange scenes, overlaid with some kind of a patina that is not exactly realism, though they deal in emotions that are obviously so intensely felt by the participants that they must inevitably lead to tragedy.
I bow to no one in my admiration for Baz Luhrmann’s movies. I look forward to each of them with keen anticipation, and have never been disappointed. Beginning with the delicious comedy Strictly Ballroom, through the equally wonderful Moulin Rouge, with its strange, compelling mixture of ancient and modern, through the somewhat schlocky love story of Australia, redeemed as it was by the sensitive, indeed really beautiful handling of the Aborigine issue, and so on to this odd film, I have never found anything ordinary about any of them. In particular, perhaps because of my interest in indigenous people, I was enthralled by the Aborigine segments of Australia whose exceptional narrator was a young part-Aborigine boy of 11 whom Luhrmann found after a long search living in Broome, a town of 12,000 in the far north of the state of Western Australia. In the film this boy’s mother was killed early, and his care fell to the stuffy English woman played by Nicole Kidman. But his grandfather, a gnarled old man, never disappeared from his life and was to be seen in almost every sequence featuring the boy, standing on one leg on the edge of the shot in the middle distance, as he taught the boy the secrets of Aborigine lore. The child’s narration of the film was as clear as a bell, and the device of the Aborigine secrets he had learned was used in a riveting sequence in which the child faced a stampede of cattle as he stood alone on the edge of a steep cliff willing the animals with his secret hand movements to do his bidding, and bringing them to a halt within inches of the cliff.

These, and many sequences from the two earlier pictures I mentioned above, have stuck in my mind as typical of Luhrmann’s wonderful skills as a film-maker, and frankly there are similar sequences from this latest film which seem likely to stay in mind as well. The early sequences, which seem to stand as Luhrmann’s criticism of the hedonism, waste and extravagance of modern American society, are among those, but so are certain explosive sequences in which Gatsby drives his 1922–era car through the streets of a degenerated industrial landscape.
Leonard DiCaprio, who began his career as a rather callow young actor of Romeo in a filmed version of Shakespeare’s play, has advanced his acting skills as he has grown and matured, and he is good in this movie, no doubt about it, better than anything I have seen from him before. Carey Mulligan has the appropriate beauty, and flimsy vulnerability for Daisy, and Joel Eggerton is certainly more than adequate as the brutish Buchanan.
I liked Luhrmann’s inventive way of showing on the screen passages from the book that Carraway was writing about his experiences with Gatsby, reminiscent of the many tricks he used to keep the action moving in Moulin Rouge.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

My Log 354: Vernacular architecture suggests we have always been as clever as we are now

Moshe Safdie
Moshe Safdie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bernard Rudofsky
Bernard Rudofsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Architecture Without Architects...
Cover via Amazon
English: Walls of Dubrovnik (Croatia). Françai...
English: Walls of Dubrovnik (Croatia). Français : Les murailles de Dubrovnik, en Croatie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Deutsch: Montreal: Habitat67
Deutsch: Montreal: Habitat67 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


 This week I came across in the extensive library of books kept by the friend with whom I am staying in Dubrovnik, Croatia, a fascinating book called Architecture Without  Architects,  published  originally in  1964 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and written by a professor Bernard Rudofsky. It contains in its copious illustrations, proof, if any were needed, that you don’t need to have a degree in architecture, to have been to a university, or even to know how to read and write, to have instinctive good taste, and to make use of your natural surroundings so skilfully as to create a beautiful landscape, and an almost infinite variety of satisfactory dwellings.
The examples given begin with housing for the dead, much of it underground and then goes on to show whole villages in which the housing for the living is underground. The first show-stopper is a page showing a lot of dark squares, which, the caption assures us, are each an eighth of an acre, or about the size of a tennis court, in area, with vertical sides up to 30 feet deep, accessible by staircases leading to rooms that measure 30 feet by 15. These houses  --- some sixteen are shown in a picture taken from above, have been cut in the loess of northern China, and, as one geographer describes it “such land does double duty, with dwellings below and fields upstairs,” the dwellings free of vermin, warm in winter and cool in summer.
This reminds me of some of the land manipulation I observed when making a film on the North China plain in the 1970s. They had a brickworks from which they fashioned all the houses they built in the five villages of this particular people’s commune. They made thousands of bricks, and had been doing so for some years, but the maximum amount of land they ever used was of about an acre and a half: they simply stripped the top-soil off the land down to the clay that lay under it, then took off the clay with which to make the bricks, and progressively, as their work proceeded, they covered the lowered land with the top soil, and made of it productive, grain-growing fields. That is careful use of land.
As I went through this book I was reminded of another thing that happened in my life some half century ago: in fact, it was in the year or so before the Montreal Expo opened in 1967, when, as a reporter in London, I had one of the earliest interviews with Moshe Safdie, the McGill university student who had designed the revolutionary-seeming housing settlement Habitat. He told me his inspiration for this building was the Arab villages, in which houses made of mud were put together, one room on top of another in a higgledy-piggledy sort of arrangement which enabled them to use the roofs of each room as outdoor spaces of great value and use to the inhabitants. I myself experienced one of these houses in 1968 on a visit to Morocco, when, taking a brief drive into the lower Atlas mountains, I got into conversation with a local villager who was tending his fields along the road I was travelling.  Although we didn’t have any common language (except, perhaps a smattering of French) we engaged together successfully enough for him to invite me and my family to  cross to the other side of the steep valley in which we were travelling, to take tea with him in his home. We entered this rather unexceptional looking house, to find from the moment we stepped into it a house of remarkable beauty, full of wonderful rugs, hanging along the walls, and beautiful cushions on which we all sat while he put on a lovely, gentle tea ceremony for us. (I remember that one of my three children didn’t want to have anything to do with this ceremony, whereas the others welcomed it and joined in joyfully). The man had made the haj to Mecca, of which he had a record on the wall. Following tea he took us out on to roof of one of his rooms, and there he stood, holding a long-distance conversation in a perfectly normal speaking voice, with his neighbour in a similar house on the other side of the valley.
Well, this was the architecture --- without architects --- that Moshe Safdie took his inspiration from, he said, and he believed that if his invention worked --- it was by no means certain that Habitat would stand up when building of it first began --- he would use the technology at his fingertips to transform the housing shortage of the world’s poor by building Habitats all over the developing world, at least.
Unfortunately, the lively-minded and inventive Safdie never got a chance to put his invention and his dream for it into operation As I remember it --- I could be mistaken about this --- he received a contract to build a similar building in Puerto Rico, but before it was finished the client realized that though he could provide a better living environment with this peculiar combination of boxes that Habitat represents, he could also save money by simply building an orthodox apartment building. Thereafter, Safdie went on to make his name creating for the most part the sort of monumental, grand buildings by which the leading architects of our time make their name. And of course, Habitat still stands, a high price, high quality place for living.
This Rudofsky book gives many examples of natural architecture done by ordinary people, or groups of people, which have made the most of natural advantages available to them, and created communities so viable that they have lasted through hundreds of years. Two particularly striking examples are towns in Zanzibar and in Marrakesh, Morocco, seen from a distance, in which small dwellings are crowded together with nary a suggestion of traffic arteries, although there are, of course, narrow alleys which do not always lead anywhere.
I remember visiting the remarkable city of Fez in Morocco, a maze of narrow streets in which the two sides of the street are so close that short clothes lines are strung across the top in the higher storeys. No vehicle could penetrate this Arab, in which, I was told, many slaves continued to be held by their masters, and in which whole streets were given over to each of the many pre-industrial manufacturing processes that were still used: one street for carding wool, one for spinning it, one for dying it, and so on. 
Another example shown in the book is a town in Spain in which a uniform housing style has been so cunningly arranged as not to produce the monotony that was (and is) so typical of industrial architecture. And so the examples proceed, through fortified villages full of defensive towers; arcades, which once were ubiquitous in Spanish and other European towns but are now fast disappearing, with a consequent loss of elegance; grass and wooden structures; enclosures, such as those used widely in Africa, Japan and other parts of the world; and a great variety of vaults. Some towns have houses in which the only way into every room is from the outside by a staircase: which again reminds me of the days in which I used to  drop into Moshe Safdie’s office in Montreal when he was designing a new building for the Berkeley students association in the University of California, a building so designed that it had no front door, but was simply walked over by people wanting to enter it, access to its classrooms being from doorways placed here and there across what might have been called its roof. Ronald Reagan, who didn’t approve of radical students, brought that experiment to an end long before it could be built.
All along this Adriatic coast on which I am now staying are small towns which were originally built surrounded by defensive stone walls, of which Dubrovnik, once a powerful city-state, is a prime example. Now, of course, Dubrovnik is a town with 50,000 to 70,000 people, scattered over the surrounding hills, but the locals tend to think only of the small town of 500 to 1,000 people surrounded by the walls as being Dubrovnik, while the neighbouring suburbs (if I may call them that) go by different names --- Gruz, Pile, Lapad, and they talk of them as though they are entirely separate towns.
I discovered that my friend has at least three more extremely interesting books in her library touching on this subject of vernacular architecture. She also has a habit of cutting out of newspapers she reads any item that seems relevant to the subject of one of her books, so the first thing that happens when one picks up a book from her shelves is that a cascade of clippings falls to the floor, many of these clippings containing information at least as interesting as that in the book to which she has attached it. This was particularly so in relation to a book called Stone  Shelters, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, and written by a man called Edward Allen. Inside the front cover my friend had pasted a 1974 magazine article from Time about the growing influence around the world of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who in one Egyptian village had been able to bring the cost of a dwelling down to an affordable $500, including a latrine and a kitchen, compared with the usual rock-bottom price for public housing of $1,200 a unit. Following that up, my friend had bought a book called Architecture for the Poor, by this same Hassan Fathy, published first by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in 1969, and also four years later by the University of Chicago Press. This volume, too, was emblazoned inside the front cover by clippings attesting to the global renown of  M. Fathy, and by a picture of some elegant Algerian mud houses.
The fourth book in this collection is called The Inner City, written by a professor Leopold Kohr, whose book contained a series of interesting articles published in Puerto Rico newspapers and magazines, of which the famed Ivan Illich, of the Centro Intercultural de Docummentation, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, observes in a foreword that they were written for a Caribbean journal by an Austrian professor who now (1976) teaches at a Welsh university. An example of our global village.
It is interesting that all of these books were published by American institutions; and yet, is it not in the United States that the very concept of public housing has been allowed to degenerate into a synonym for the degradation of the poor?

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Friday, May 10, 2013

My Log 353 May 10 2013: Socks-on dexterity: I fail to get both socks on while standing. Is this a sign of approaching old age?

An example of an ankle sock
Socks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Walls of Dubrovnik (Croatia). Françai...
English: Walls of Dubrovnik (Croatia). Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My basic desideratum for judging whether I am still in reasonable physical shape has for some years been whether I can pull on my socks while standing unsupported in the middle of the room, or not.
I have a good reason for fixing on this strange criterion. It centres on a tale told by my late, deeply lamented brother, Sam, a farmer who, like myself, was not encumbered with intense ambition, unconcerned about accumulating money, and was therefore totally unlike other brothers who placed a high priority on such things.
One of my other brothers, who took over ownership of my dad’s  construction business, and built it into a minor behemoth, was totally concentrated on his business, and in the course of time handed on this concentration to his two sons, who spent time that most children would spend playing, in following their father around construction sites.
Unsurprisingly, these two boys took over their father’s business, and in the course of time divided it in two, each in turn becoming monstrously (the judgment is mine) successful and wealthy.
One of these nephews of mine became among the richest people in New Zealand, my home country, in trucking, and in the production of ready-mixed concrete. Before he died unexpectedly at a relatively young age, he had accumulated up to 30 separate companies spread across the nation’s 1,000 mile length from top to bottom.
Now, although I am not given to praising businessmen and their outlook on life, I have to admit that this particular nephew was a sterling fellow who earned nothing but encomia from those with whom he did business, and many other people besides. He was so amiable, detached and decent  that when I officiously appointed myself chief international representative of his sprawling business, and wrote him facetious letters criticising the prose of his company quarterly publication, he took the joke in good part, and even occasionally phoned me to inquire after my health, as indeed his surviving brother, now a big noise in the sawmilling business, still does.
One day my brother Sam phoned this highly successful and involved business nephew to ask him a question.  “I’m really busy at the moment,” replied the nephew. “Can’t it wait?”
“I’m sorry,” rejoined my brother. “This is a really important question, and won’t take much of your time, I promise.”
“I don’t have time at the moment,” said my nephew. “But go ahead, and make it quick.”
“My question is,” said my brother, “do you pull on your socks while standing in the middle of the room, or do you lean against the wall?”
Later, my nephew rang my brother back and said, “You silly old buggar, I was in an important meeting and just on the point of deciding the distribution of ready-mixed concrete for the whole of the North Island when you phoned” (or words to that effect.)
The story established the importance in my mind of the question of socks-on dexterity, and it has been my guide ever since.
Until the last month I have been able to achieve this remarkable feat of pulling on my socks without a real problem, and have felt contented. But a month or so ago I made a grave error: I attempted to do some simple exercise, like stepping up and down on to a low coffee table, that 20 years ago I could achieve without giving it a second thought. After trying it for three days on this recent occasion I realized I had exacerbated that minor arthritic problem I have had in my right hip in recent years, and I have been doing my damnedest to fight it off ever since.
The problem has been that whatever improvement I have been able to work with ointments, ice and heat have been nullified by my habit of walking every day through the McGill campus to a favoured Lebanese coffee shop on the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets in Montreal (I have no hesitation in giving the people who run this shop a free plug herewith: their café is called Café Castel, their coffee is excellent, they allow you to sit forever over a coffee reading the day's newspapers, and they are the loveliest multilingual boys and girls you would ever wish to meet, most of them part-time students, or in other ways refugees from the dominant rat-race that marks our modern communities).
Now that I am once again temporarily in Dubrovnik, Croatia, I have managed to give myself five or six days without bothering the hip, and so I have once again embarked on the daily walk. Here, however, there are nothing but steps. My favourite daily walk on a previous visit required me to take 229 steps up, and then to descend again by more than 100 steps into the middle of town by a different route.
My problem with exercise is simple: I have never been able to resist competing with myself when doing it. So, in a throwback to my athletic youth, I would begin a regime of stepping up on a kitchen chair, say, with 50 step-ups on the first day, but would be unable to resist increasing it by 10 every day, until, at about the 500 mark, I would pull a muscle, and thereupon, not for the first time, have to give up exercising.
I seem to be falling into the same sort of trap at the moment. Two or three times in recent days I have contemplated taking a more normal, manageable, flat course through the town; but on arriving at the foot of the steps rising above me, I have so far been unable to resist the temptation to show myself at I can still do it. Have another go, boy, I tell myself!
This week  I have succeeded in pulling  my sock on to my right foot without any problem, but have miserably failed, because of the restricted movement dictated by my ailing hip, to get my left sock on without sitting down to do it.
This is one of the major turning points in my life, I guess, and the crematorium begins to loom higher in my expectations than ever before.
Such is life, eh?

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