Tuesday, May 17, 2016

On the Move

My new home on the web will now be at robspence.org.uk
This blog will continue there, and you'll also find some of my writing and current projects.
See you there!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Brand New Orchestra

This review was originally written for North West End and is available here.

The Brand New Orchestra is a thrice-yearly showcase event at the RNCM, where the student composers are given the chance to have their work performed by their colleagues on the instrumental side. Given the huge number of talented musicians studying at the RNCM, the forces available to the composers are immense, and they make full use of them, in the generous space of the RNCM’s main hall.

The event was free, and very informal, which was fine, but to be so laid-back as to not even bother with a programme made it a reviewer’s nightmare. With so many family and friends among the audience, a programme would have been a great souvenir. One side of A4 is all it takes! Instead, we had a spoken introduction to the evening by someone – an academic, I assume, but he didn’t say who he was – who told us that there would be nine pieces, each to be introduced by the composer.  So before each piece the composer stepped up to the microphone and did just that. Naturally, some of them were quite nervous, and several were clearly rather diffident about speaking in public – which meant that their names were not always easy to catch, especially as some of them had rather exotic monikers. This review will therefore break the first commandment of reviewing by not getting all the names, and probably getting some wrong. My kingdom for a programme!

The pieces premiered at this warm and upbeat event were very varied, suggesting that the future of classical music composition in this country is in safe hands. In an eclectic programme of short orchestral pieces, played by a very large band, the audience was treated to a really wide-ranging array of sounds, rehearsed, if I understood our MC correctly, in just two days, which made the ensuing excellence all the more remarkable.

We started with a piece by (probably) Phillipos, who was interested in translating electronic soundscapes into orchestral mode, using strings. The piece, which had a seascape theme was dreamily evocative at times, though some passages sounded like they might have accompanied Janet Lee in the shower.  A student who introduced himself as Peter from Italy presented us with a remarkably cinematic piece, which began with the percussionists whirling tubes (they’re called bloogle resonators) around their heads to produce an eerily unworldly noise, taken up by the violins, and eventually developing into a big orchestral sound. Lushly romantic at times, and stridently brassy at others, it faded to almost silence as the whirly tubes, defying health and safety regulations, took over again.

The third piece, possibly by someone called Charlotte, was quite different in tone from anything else we heard. The composer is working on a musical version of one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, and presented four songs from it. This was probably the most mainstream item of the night. I was reminded of Sondheim, and then of Lloyd Webber. The female singers were excellent, and convincingly in character. Don’t be surprised to see this hit the West End in the not-too-distant future.

Alex Simcox was one of two composers who presented a piece based on a poem. In his case the poem was by a colleague, and he was really inspired by just the final line, which gave him his title ‘Loops of Letting Go.’ This used the full forces of the orchestra, as well as the RNCM organ. The dense texture of the piece was relieved by sparkly lighter passages with woodwind and xylophone prominent. The other poetically-inspired piece was by William Marshall, and his starting point was Yeats’s well-known ‘The Second Coming’ whose first line gave him his title, ‘Turning in the Widening Gyre.’  The mysterious nature of the poem was evoked well in a piece that was slow and rather mesmeric, punctuated by the ominous tolling of the bell.

Daniel Ryan’s piece ‘Amygdala’ is named after the part of the brain that looks after emotions, survival instincts, and memory. It explores the subconscious through a series of often quite unsettling and heavily percussive passages, which then modulate into more sprightly, jaunty sounds. In contrast, Denis introduced his piece ‘Paris 13.11.15’ as his personal response to the terrorist attacks. This was adapted from a string quartet, and this time used the massed ranks of the strings to evoke the sadness of the theme. This was delicate, atmospheric and meditative, creating exquisitely the devastation wrought on that day.

Nevada (I think) offered a bright, lively springtime piece, which wore its heart on its sleeve. ‘A New Spring’ was quite traditional, and none the worse for that, making subtle use of the orchestral palate to suggest the regenerative powers of the season.

We finished with a remarkable piece which combined the full orchestra with the choir of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple. Entitled ‘Pāramitā’ from the Sanskrit, and meaning the state of perfection or completeness that Buddhists aim for in their journey of spiritual development, the piece used brass, woodwind, strings and percussion to create a wall of sound verging on cacophony before the voices of the fifteen-strong choir broke in, quietly at first, and then increasing in volume until they had dominated the orchestra, which fell silent at the end, leaving us with just the chants of the choir. It was an unusual and memorable end to an excellent evening of new music by some very talented composers and players. But please let’s have a programme next time!

Friday, April 08, 2016

Shiny New Books 9

The new edition of Shiny New Books is now available online, containing reviews of many exciting and intriguing books.  A few of my reviews are in there, including the entertaining and scholarly account of the British in Malaya, Out in the Midday Sun, by Margaret Shennan; Laura Feigel's fascinating follow-up to The Love-Charm of Bombs, this time investigating artistic life in Germany after the war in The Bitter Taste of Victory; and Howard Jacobson's latest novel, a volume in Hogarth's reinterpretations of Shakespeare series, in which the Mancunian author tackles The Merchant of Venice in Shylock is my Name.

There's lots more, including a new literary guide to Venice that is definitely accompanying me next time I go; Volker Weidemann's book about Zweig and Roth; the latest Julian Barnes biofiction, this time on Shostakovich; a new-to-me detective in Elly Griffiths's The Woman in Blue; and a book to feed my recently-acquired taste for espionage fiction, Helen Dunmore's Exposure.

As always with SNB, lots to read, lots to explore. Once again, a pleasing mix of the familiar and the new. Have a browse, why don't you?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Così Fan Tutte

The title of Mozart’s opera is one of the few that are never rendered into English when the piece is performed. “Women – they’re all like that” would be a close translation, and that maybe grates on twenty-first century ears. It also suggests that the comedic tone will be coarser than it actually is. Opera North’s lively production, now touring, steers a clever course, avoiding slapstick on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other.

The visually startling set, designed by Thomas Hoheisel,  is a key element in establishing this production’s atmosphere. As the curtain rises, we are presented with what seems to be a giant wooden box, with huge cutout lenses, which we soon realise is a camera obscura. This opens out to reveal a monochrome interior, which is where all the action takes place. At the beginning, Don Alfonso, played with wry humour by William Dazeley, stands outside the construction, and invites the orchestra to play: he is the detached observer of the mind games that will be played out within the box.

The two sisters, Fiordiligi (Máire Flavin) and Dorabella (Helen Sharman) are indistinguishable when we first see them, but soon we note their differing personalities as they find themselves the unknowing guinea-pigs in Don Alfonso’s experiment to prove the fickle nature of women. Their soldier lovers, Gugliemo (Gavan Ring) and Ferrando (Nicholas Watts) are nicely distinguished too, with Ring giving Gugliemo a brash bravado, and Watts providing Ferrando with a plaintive vulnerability. The role of the maid Despina was brilliantly handled by Ellie Laugharne, whose energy and humour drove the action forward, particularly when she is disguised as the doctor as part of Don Alfonso’s deception. In her maid’s outfit, she wears a red hairpin, sticking out like horns, and hinting at the devilment she urges on her employers.

With Mozart’s glorious tunes, and Da Ponte’s witty libretto (here sung in English, in an equally witty version by an uncredited translator), it’s difficult to see how Così Fan Tutte can fail. That it succeeds as well as it does here is tribute to a sparkling cast, directed with vigour by Tim Albery, working hard for each other in a series of vibrant set pieces, particularly the sextet in the first act, where the disguised soldiers return to woo the women, and the finale, where all of them agree to accept the vicissitudes of life.

Tim Albery’s production, whilst providing many comic moments, nonetheless manages to explore the darker recesses of human nature hinted at in Don Alfonso’s philosophy. Fiordiligi’s second act aria in which she begs forgiveness is rendered with real poignancy by Máire Flavin, and Ferrando’s despair when he discovers that Dorabella has been tempted is invested with genuine emotion by Nicholas Watts.

The Opera North orchestra, conducted by Anthony Kraus, performed with plenty of attack, complementing the busyness of the action.  Charlotte Forrest’s fortepiano in the recitative was a delight, really highlighting the characters’ words, and helping to propel the narrative.

The sublime pairing of Mozart and Da Ponte will always provide marvellous entertainment, but this production works well on every level, helped by a consistent and highly original vision of the late eighteenth-century world.  This is a genuine treat for any fan, and would surely convert many who find opera too remote.

This review was originally written for North West End

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The New Iconocasts

My latest on Medium is here.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Forty Thousand Years Wide

To the Manchester Jewish Museum again, for the latest in their series of innovative concerts. In the last couple of years, the museum has showcased the work of Manchester University lecturer Richard Fay, who runs a klezmer module in the music department. The students play as a group, or kapelye, and also with Richard's ensemble. We have been to a couple of these concerts, and most enjoyable they were: the students are very proficient, and they play with skill and zip. This year, a more ambitious programme was presented. The Jewish presence in Manchester is mirrored by the Irish: both originally poor communities of immigrants who arrived in the booming Cottonopolis of the nineteenth century seeking a better life. The areas of Manchester where they lived were close to each other, so Richard imagined how it might be if the sounds of one community floated across the Irk to intrigue the ears of the other. For this, he needed an Irish group, and, in what is definitely a bit of a coup, he recruited none other than Manchester Irish music legend Mike McGoldrick, last seen by me on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in Mark Knopfler's band.
Richard's programme was called "Amid the Mirk over the Irk," and while the pedant in me would want that third word to be "Murk", it described the context very well. A little scene-setting spoken word introduction quoted contemporary accounts of the filthy slums crowded around the "pestilential effluvia" of the River Irk around Red Bank (where the Jews had gathered) and the ironically named Angel Meadow, where the Irish had set up home. Then we were treated to a series of tunes where one or the other side would take the lead, with their counterparts joining in, and collectively they produced some glorious music. It actually seems relatively unlikely that there was much crossover at the time, but it's a nice conceit, and allowed for some vibrant fusion.
McGoldrick brought along Dezi Donnelly, with whom he played all those years ago in Toss the Feathers, and the very accomplished banjo and guitar player Angela  Durcan. Mike called the shots when the two units played together, a nod of the head or a raised eyebrow being enough to convey his instructions. The former student group, L'chaim Kapelye, acquitted themselves brilliantly. We had seen some of them before in previous concerts, and once again were impressed by their virtuosity. They have a potential star in bass player Lucie Phillips, who again pleased the crowd with her renditions of  the jaunty "Der Rebbe Elimelech" and the old favourite "Yiddishe Momme," both of which she sang last time. I would love to hear her sing the Kurt Weill repertoire - she would give Ute Lemper a run for her money.
The gig was covered by local writer Mark Davoren, and his very detailed account is already available. I won't add more except to say I was intrigued by the final spoken word passage, entitled "Our Ancestors Forty Thousand Years Wide" which seemed very mysterious. I thought it might be an oblique reference to the idea that art is generally agreed to have become a human activity about forty thousand years ago. It turns out that it's the name of a traditional klezmer tune which features on this album by Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars. Frank London, I discover, is a member of the fabulous Klezmatics. The tune has no lyric, other than a "ya-da-da" which we all sang along to as the final piece in the concert. A quick encore led by Mike McGoldrick, and we were off into the rainy Manchester night. Another excellent night at this venue, which is really working hard to make itself a destination in this most multicultural of areas. 

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Big in Japan 10

We loved our trip to Japan, and had a wonderful time exploring its culture, history and geography. But like Prof. Macfarlane (remember him?) we felt that we had merely managed to skim the surface of the country, and that that we could spend a lifetime trying to truly understand it. We discussed this in Hiroshima, with someone who had lived there for twenty years, and he confirmed that feeling at home in Japan is a very elusive thing for a foreigner.

That shouldn't put anyone off, however, so I thought I would offer some of our insights, in no particular order, aimed at the potential traveller to Japan.

1. Travel at least once on the Shinkansen. It is a wonderfully relaxing way to get from A to B. The Japan Rail Pass is a bargain, and if you intend to move around on your holiday, it's essential.

2. Be prepared for some surprising experiences when you go to the loo. In hotels and restaurants, you will often find an all-singing and all-dancing loo with switches for various types of warming or cooling bidet-style water jets, and music or birdsong to accompany your actions. Like this:

3. Don't worry if you are vegetarian. We imagined that we would struggle, but certainly in the cities there are loads of ethnic restaurants that are fine for veggies, especially Italian. And of course, in Hiroshima, there's the possibility of a vegetarian okonomiyaki. One possibility we had considered before travelling was to eat at the temples, where you can sometimes get vegan food from the kitchen. Once in Japan, we found that the temples are now quite chic destinations for foodies, and that the kitchens are not open to the public that often, and the prices are sky-high.

4. Try to use some Japanese, even if it's only "Hello" and "Thank you." The people will really appreciate that you made some kind of effort. English isn't spoken that widely, but we found that in the cities at least, most people had some basic English vocabulary.

5. Bow. On greeting people, and leaving them, or when some sort of transaction is going on, like a shop purchase or a hotel check-in, bow. It becomes a habit, and it's a little acknowledgement of the more formal way of doing things in Japan.

6. Be prepared to be ordered about, very gently, by people you come across. Japan's economic culture encourages long-term employment security above short-term economic gain, so people are employed in functions which would not be seen as necessary in England. For example, we often saw a smartly uniformed man or woman at the entrance to multi-storey car parks. Their job was to usher in the cars as they approached, and to hold up pedestrians who were crossing in front. Another instance was in hotels, where, rather than allowing the customer to approach the reception desk on their own, a group of employees would intercept you, and direct you to the right counter. A similar process obtained at the Japan Rail office at the airport, as I mentioned. This is related to their love of paperwork and bureaucracy. You will get receipts for everything.

7. Use the Metro to travel around Tokyo. Tickets are cheap, the network is extensive, and if you avoid the obvious rush hours, the trains don't get too crowded. We never saw anything like this:
8. It's not as expensive as you might think. Because the Japanese economy has been stagnating for so long, prices are actually pretty reasonable from an English perspective. We paid no more for food and services than we would pay at home - maybe London prices in Tokyo, but nothing ridiculously expensive.

9. It's safe. People can walk around late at night without fear. Street crime is very rare. Obviously, it's sensible to take precautions, but we never felt the edginess that you get in British cities at night.

10. It's clean. Litter and rubbish are not tolerated. I've never come across city streets so free of detritus anywhere I've travelled.

These Japan posts have, I hope, been of interest to my reader, but they've also helped me to process the experience, and to relive some great moments. We have very fond memories of our trip.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Big in Japan 9

Our last day in Japan was a drizzly, overcast one in Tokyo. We had pretty much avoided rain the whole time we were there, so we couldn't complain. We set out to see some more of the capital, thinking that indoors might be best. When we were planning the trip, we had thought about visiting the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but discovered that to gain access, you needed to visit on particular days, having booked tickets in person for timed entrance, and we just couldn't manage it. Nevertheless, we could visit the grounds, which are huge, but first we looked at the rather splendid Tokyo railway station, with its redbrick façade, apparently modelled on Amsterdam's. Each corner had a spacious entrance hall, with an art nouveau look:
Tourist in the rain

Across the way from the station was the shopping mall called Kitte (Japanese for postage stamp) which is housed in the old central post office building, a striking 1930s edifice, to which has now been added a huge tower to house all those trendy boutiques and restaurants. We went in to find some shelter and sustenance.
We decided that we had to at least experience the Imperial Palace compound, so, bravely ignoring the rain, we headed for the gardens. It was really wet, but still impressive to see this bit of old imperial Japan, fortified by massive walls and a huge moat, in the middle of this exclusive part of the city.

We resolved to go in search of culture to get us out of the rain, and went out of the north-west corner of the imperial grounds (having collected a token on entrance, and given it up on exit) to find the National Museum of Modern Art. We found that one of the major exhibitions was of an artist I'd never heard of, shamefully, despite the fact that he was a modernist operating in Paris in the twenties. He was Tsuguharu (Leonard) Foujita, and what a fascinating man he turned out to be. He knew many of the big names of the avant-garde, such as Modigliani and Picasso, had a chaotic personal life, and was more commercially successful than many of his contemporaries, mainly because he painted lots of cats.
Foujita, Self Portrait with cat. Image: irinaraquel on Flickr
Unexpectedly, he was also a war artist, and the exhibition contained some enormous canvases of battle scenes, some gruesomely realistic - the Japanese government required what they termed "war campaign documentary painting" from its artists, and Foujita supplied it. You can see some of his war work here. After that sobering experience, we walked around the corner to the Crafts annex of the museum, where we saw some brilliant examples of contemporary pottery. This small gallery was built around the same time as the station, and is again a very European-looking red brick building, originally the home of the imperial guards. The gallery's website gave another reminder of the war:

The Headquarters of the Imperial Guards was also the setting of an event of great historical importance. In the late night and early morning of August 14 and 15, 1945, a group of Army officers plotted to prevent the broadcast of the Emperor’s statement to the nation announcing Japan’s surrender, ending World War II, scheduled for noon on August 15. They murdered Lieutenant General Mori of the Imperial Guards Division and issued an order in his name to seize the recording of the Emperor’s statement and thus prevent the war from coming to an end. That attempted coup d’etat occurred in the Imperial Guards’ headquarters, making the building the site of one of the most critical incidents in the modern history of Japan.

We enjoyed the work of Kuriki Tatsusuke, whose pots were decorative rather than functional, often featuring bands of clay woven around a central form. It was a pleasant and peaceful way to end our soggy trudge around this part of Tokyo.  We had an early start for the journey home, so we went back to our hotel, and began to try to understand what we had experienced.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Big in Japan 8

We returned to Tokyo for the last few days of our holiday, and determined to see as much as possible. On our first afternoon, we walked up to the Rappongi Hills complex, a huge high-end shopping mall with restaurants, cinemas and a convention centre. It wasn't much different from those you will see anywhere, though we were very impressed by the bookshop, which had quite a lot of English language material, and some intriguing Japanese items too, including a specialist book brush, which we bought for the home collection.  Who'd have thought that the Japanese equivalent of GQ would be called after a German romantic poet and philosopher? It is, though:

As a sharp-eyed former colleague pointed out, the cover star here is none other than footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, who once improbably spent a season playing for Bolton Wanderers.  The complex has, of course, an extensive garden area, and we went there to escape the hustle and bustle of some sort of product launch that was going on in the main building. The contrast of the greenery of the gardens and the glass and steel of the complex was startling.

As we walked around town, other odd conjunctions could be seen. Even in the most fashionable part of Tokyo, you might still see very modest, traditional places cheek-by-jowl with huge statement buildings designed to show off corporate power.

Our hotel, in the south western part of downtown Tokyo, was a few minutes' walk from the Hiro-O subway station, which gave us access to the quick and efficient transport system. The following day,  we wanted to see the some more of the capital, so we bought a cheap day ticket and headed out early, making our first stop at the Hama-Rikyu gardens in Shiodome, a peaceful green enclave in the midst of the corporate towers. The garden dates from the seventeenth century, when it was built as a retreat for the shogun and his family. There's an island teahouse, and lots of flora and fauna. It's a very pleasant way to start the day, but our main purpose in visiting was because it's the starting point for the Sumida River trip.

Hama-Rikyu teahouse


The river trip takes you north to Asakusa, passing under many bridges, and giving a flavour of the city from an unusual standpoint. The landmark building at Asakusa is the Asahi brewery building, designed by Philippe Starck, which dominates the view when you arrive at the jetty. It's meant, apparently to look like a beer glass, to complement the beer mug-shaped building to the left, and the peculiar golden top is supposed to be the froth. For reasons that will be obvious, the locals refer to it as the "poo building" and the topping as "the golden turd."
Asahi building
One of the attractions for us in this part of the world was the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo's oldest, founded in 645, and dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Unlike other temples we had visited, this was not a peaceful backwater, but a bustling and very crowded area, approached through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and then via a long bazaar-like market, the Nakamise, packed with stalls selling souvenirs, traditional crafts, and food. We didn't fancy Octopus Ball, so hurried on to the temple itself.
Local delicacy...

Some smoke rising from the incense burner
It wasn't a very spiritual experience, but it was quite a sight to see so many people crowding the temple precincts. One unusual sight was the crowd around the big incense burner in front of the temple. People waft the smoke over them to protect against illness. We sampled the atmosphere for a while and then moved on, taking some time to look at the hundreds of stalls in the covered arcades of the Nakamise.

Our next stop was Ueno Park, originally yet another temple complex, but now home to several of the city's galleries and museums. Perhaps the most notable for us was the Le Corbusier-designed National Museum of Western Art, outside which stand a series of sculptures by Rodin, including a version of The Thinker, and his massive, and massively impressive, Gate of Hell.

Rodin's Gate of Hell
We fancied somewhere quiet after this, so we hopped on a local train to visit the Yanaka district. This area survived the earthquake of 1923, and was not bombed during the war, so retains an old-fashioned feel. The Japanese call this area shitamachi, meaning literally "low city." There's a big cemetery there, complete with a lovely temple containing a large bronze seventeenth-century Buddha. We strolled around the cemetery, made friends with a cat, and encountered the Buddha.

Tenno-ji temple

Yanaka's shopping streets diverted us for a while, and we finally gave in to the temptation to buy a souvenir in one of the many shops selling pottery.
In Yanaka

We felt that we had seen a lot this day, so we headed off to the subway for the trip back to our hotel, where some delicious tempura vegetables were in the offing.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

William Boyd - Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd keeps producing engaging, literate fiction, peopled with believable characters who have interesting stories. I was first aware of him in the early eighties, when I enjoyed his debut novel A Good Man in Africa. This blackly humorous tale of diplomatic disaster in a fictional African republic led to comparisons with Evelyn Waugh, and that was about right: Boyd had that same rather cynically comic detached voice. Since then, he has produced a series of memorable fictions, particularly his two big century-spanning epics, The New Confessions and Any Human Heart,  both of which bear comparison with Anthony Burgess's masterpiece, Earthly Powers. He has developed a particular line in espionage fiction, too, not only through being selected to write a James Bond novel by the Fleming estate, but through his own original work too. Restless was about the lifelong consequences of involvement in the world of cold-war espionage, a theme also entertainingly explored in Jeremy Duns's Paul Dark series.  Somehow, Waiting for Sunrise, Boyd's 2012 novel, set immediately before and during the First World War had passed me by, so I was pleased to find a copy at the excellent Chorlton bookshop the other day.

Waiting for Sunrise opens and closes with an anonymous second-person observation of the central character, Lysander Rief, as he goes about his business. This technique places the reader as an observer / voyeur and makes Rief a performer, which is apt: he's an actor, and will become a secret agent in time. As in Boyd's other historical fictions, real people intermingle with the fictional, though this is kept to  minimum here. Since we begin in Vienna in 1913, with Rief seeking psychological help for an embarrassing condition, Boyd must have been tempted to enrol his protagonist on Freud's roster of damaged psyches, but he avoids that, using an English disciple, Dr Bensimon, instead. In the doctor's waiting room, Rief encounters Hettie Bull, an impulsive and passionate young artist, to whom he is immediately attracted. The  consequences of that meeting will shape Rief's future, and plunge him into the dangerous world of international espionage. The narrative, apart from those two passages at the beginning and end, is divided between a third person narrator focalised through Rief, and Rief's own observations, written down in the journal of his thoughts that he advised to keep by Dr Bensimon. The chapters are very brief, for the most part, and given descriptive headings in, I suppose, a deliberately archaic style. The plot advances quickly, as Rief's love-life leads him into a situation where he is obliged to show his ingenuity in order to escape potential imprisonment in Vienna. Once free, he is doing his duty as a soldier at the outbreak of war, when the call comes to undertake a mission which will expose a mole at the heart of the British war machine. This central section of the plot, which takes place in Geneva, shows Rief as a resourceful and intelligent agent, whose astute appreciation of potential trouble keeps him one step ahead of the game.
But this is far more than a routine historical thriller. The characters and locations are fully realised, with an attention to detail that enables the reader to immerse themselves in pre-war Vienna or wartime Geneva. Boyd uses factual data well for his own narrative means: a Zeppelin raid on London, which hit the Lyceum theatre, for instance, is employed as a way of developing two plot lines, one about the personal life of Rief, and one concerning his suspicions about his mission. I think John Walsh, in his review of the novel in the Independent, hits the nail on the head: "He whizzes the story along...but lingers over evocations of people and buildings, so we feel we know their texture even as the plot gallops along."
In genre fiction --and this is far more than a genre piece-- a common failing is to make characters mere servants of the plot, forgettable and two-dimensional. The reverse is true here, from Rief, who has an actorly self-regard that manifests itself at inopportune moments, to his tough explorer uncle, who is unexpectedly and tenderly gay (did you know that 'musical' was an Edwardian code word for gay?) to Wolfram, the Slovene hussar with whom Rief shares lodgings, and whose technique for avoiding suspicion in a grubby regimental case of petty thievery gives Rief an insight much later in the narrative. And indeed, it is noticeable how, even in passages that seem to be local colour or background, details are embedded that will later prove significant. One lovely motif was the incidental snatches of Rief's poetry from his notebook, which start in sub-Edward Thomas mode, and develop into a voice not unlike Eliot's in The Waste Land.
So, I can't recommend this highly enough. Boyd holds the reader's attention through a complex plot, where often the reader's, and Rief's first impressions turn out to be wrong, and evokes the world of a century ago with verve and panache. Brilliant.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Big in Japan 7

View towards the western mountains from our friends' apartment
We said goodbye to Kanazawa, and headed back to Tokyo, where we changed to the suburban train to Fussa, where our friends were living. Fussa is a fairly ordinary place, a city of about 60,000 people west of Tokyo, but with a huge American air force base. And by 'huge', I mean really big - about a third of the city. It is, in effect, a small American town in itself, with schools, shopping mall, cinema, sports facilities and all the other conveniences of life in the USA. Our friends, who live outside the base, say some of the military families there never leave the confines.
Fussa is really part of the metropolitan sprawl of Tokyo. As you travel the fifty minutes or so from the capital, you don't see that much countryside. I suppose it's not unlike the metroland around London - commuter territory for those who work in the centre.
The presence of the air force base means that there are quite a few US-style diners in town, but you don't need to go far to find an authentic Japanese environment. It's a quiet, unassuming sort of place, but a good base for exploring. We had already visited Mount Fuji from here, and we decided to get some more value out of our Japan Rail pass to make a day trip to Kamakura, a seaside town south of Tokyo that was once, in medieval times, the national capital.
On arrival at Kamakura, we hopped on the local streetcar Enoden service, which winds back and forth along the coast, allowing visitors to explore the numerous  temples and shrines that are dotted around.
Waiting for the Enoden streetcar at Hase
The old fashioned electric streetcar was a great way to get about, as the day pass allows you to jump on and off whenever you like. We stopped first at Yuigahama, to have a stroll on the beach, where we were pretty much the only people there, except for a young woman who had decided to serenade the sea with her trumpet.
In the far distance, Mount Fuji was just visible on this clear, bright, November morning:

We moved on to our next stop, Hase, where we walked up the hill to the Great Buddha. This is an enormous bronze statue that was cast in 1252, and has remained standing, through earthquakes and fires, whilst the temples built to house it have perished. It's a popular spot for Japanese and foreign tourists.

Back in Kamakura, we took a local bus out to the Hokokuji temple, which is remarkable for its bamboo grove. A little path takes you around the temple and into the cool and quiet of the bamboo, and you can also admire the gravel gardens, very like the ones we saw on the Philosopher's path in Kyoto. In an area we couldn't access, some caves contained a little army of figurines.

We caught the bus back into central Kamakura, and had time for a stroll around the streets before setting off back to Fussa. This was a lovely, quiet day, supported by the brilliantly efficient Japanese railway system. Kamakura felt very different to the bustle of the big cities we had visited: peaceful, relaxed, with a sandy beach looking out over Sagami Bay. It was just what we needed to prepare for the last few days of the trip, which were going to be back in Tokyo.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


I'm trying to keep this space for book reviews, cultural matters and travel. I thought I would try Medium for musings on other topics. My first post there is now online. Next here will be the latest instalment of the Japanologue.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Big in Japan 6

Kanazawa railway station is quite something. After the Shinkansen glided in, coming to a stop at precisely the correct second, we were soon able to see its bold modern design, dominated by the Tsuzumi-mon gate, shaped like the traditional Japanese drums, but also, we thought, reminiscent of a temple gateway.

The main interest in the city is all to the east of the station. Our hotel was a few steps to the west, so we were well placed each day to walk through the lively station precinct and the Tsuzumi-mon gate to commence our sight-seeing.
This place had all the main essentials covered.
Kanazawa, in the northern central mainland of Japan, is worth a visit because of its historical interest. It has not been subject to the kind of modernisation enforced on other cities after war or natural disaster, so it preserves more widely than elsewhere the buildings and the culture of the past. We found the main sites within easy walking distance of the centre, and set off first to explore the famous Kenrokuen Garden via a stroll through the impressive grounds of Kanazawa Castle, of which more later.
Kenrokuen is a major tourist attraction, so the advice is to get there early. It opens at eight, and we were there not long after. Despite some rain, the first we had encountered in Japan, there were a good many people around first thing. Kenrokuen, which was originally the private garden of the feudal ruling family - which is why it adjoins the castle - is huge, varied and beautiful, with something to catch the interest at every turn. According to Japan Guide, "Kenrokuen literally means 'Garden of the Six Sublimities', referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden." Even through a rather persistent drizzle, it was difficult not to be impressed by the trees, the plants, the fountains, the lake... Here's the obligatory Brit in raingear shot:
Really, though, nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for this place. We wondered around for quite a long time, at the end of which the promised hordes had indeed appeared, and it was getting quite crowded. We were glad we'd made it an early start. You can see literally thousands of photos of the garden taken in better weather here, so I won't post many of our rainy shots. Here are some items of interest, though:
This fountain, which looks quite modest, is claimed to be Japan's oldest.

This stone tablet contains a haiku by Basho, which goes
Aka aka to
Hiwa tsure naku mo
Aki no kazu
or something like "How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind." Again, it's a rather modest monument, but is much revered as it commemorates Basho's visit in 1689 on the narrow road to the deep north.
The gardeners were out in force, in outfits that hadn't changed much in three hundred years.
We left, slightly damp, but very content with what we'd experienced, as the rain stopped.

The castle, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1881, has been partially, and painstakingly, rebuilt, using the same techniques and materials as in the original. It was the first fortified building we had encountered in Japan, and it was clear that it presented a formidable obstacle to potential enemy forces.
Climbing up on the ramparts gave us a view of the city and showed how dominant the castle must have been when it was built in the late sixteenth century by the local feudal lords.
I especially loved the huge wooden gates that guard the entrances. They don't supply these at B&Q:

Exploring the main city, we chanced upon a coffee shop run by an American, from Seattle, and his Japanese wife. Sol was a really friendly and welcoming guy, who happily chatted about Kanazawa and recommended some sights and places to eat. Close to his shop lies the Omi-cho market, an extraordinary place crammed with stalls selling all kinds of food, but especially seafood. The creatures laid out for the shopper's delectation didn't look like anything I'd ever seen in a fishmonger's, and while we enjoyed the lively bustle of the place, we moved on quickly.
We headed out on foot to the former Samurai district, Nagamichi, to stroll around the various well-preserved houses from the Edo period. The narrow streets are defined by earthen walls, the construction of which was apparently a privilege only afforded to Samurai. The narrow lanes, which intersect with the Onosho canal, the oldest of Kanazawa's fifty canals, are perfect for a leisurely wander, with each former residence of a warrior clan just a few steps from the last.

No smoking, even on the streets in Kanazawa.

The residences were well-preserved, and beautifully presented.
The interiors were minimalist, with an emphasis on the rituals of domestic life:

The exteriors were simple, too, understated, yet demonstrating the status that the Samurai would have had compared to the ordinary people. These are substantial dwellings.

We wanted to look again at the area around Kenrokuen in better weather, so the following day we headed for the  Seisonkaku Villa, which adjoins the garden.

This villa, built in 1863 by the local lord for his mother, was yet another exquisite architectural gem. It's one of the finest of the Samurai dwellings in the city, and has historical displays of interest, but the main attraction really is just to experience the calm elegance of the interior, and the views of the garden in its autumn glory.

We walked down the hill back into town, where we had planned to visit the museum of contemporary art, which is a striking modernist building. When we arrived, it was really crowded (it was weekend) and as there were no exhibitions that really appealed, we decided to leave it, and make the most of the sunshine.

Unexpectedly, we came across a lovely little museum dedicated to Noh Theatre. On the ground floor, a Noh stage is laid out, and they encourage visitors to try on a Noh costume, and practise some classic gestures. Here's a goddess I happen to know:

After that interlude, we enjoyed some browsing in a very high-class craft shop attached to the museum, and walked to a quiet area where we could see the D.T. Suzuki Museum. Suzuki was an important Buddhist philosopher, and this memorial to him is a beautifully calm spot for contemplation.

I'm not reading the profound insights of Prof. Suzuki there, by the way: I'm working out the best route back to the castle.
We walked along the castle wall until we came to the Oyama shrine, built in 1599, and a curious mix of architectural styles. Bits of the shrine originated elsewhere, and the gate was originally designed as the portal to the castle. It's an impressive, sprawling place now, with some startling statuary:

Sol advised us to visit the Higashi Chaya district in the evening, when the street lanterns gave this area a pleasantly welcoming atmosphere. This area is where the geishas would entertain in the teahouses. It dates from 1820, and outside Tokyo and Kyoto is the largest of these pleasure districts in Japan. It's been well preserved and is now a magnet for tourists, particularly those wanting an atmospheric crepuscular stroll.
We arrived in the late afternoon, when it was still light, and did a circuit. The teahouses still function, and are supplemented by places selling souvenirs and gifts.
Later, when dusk arrived, the area felt  quite different, and it was worth a second circuit to experience the area in the lamplight.

We had the obligatory encounter with a cat:
After a while, we sought out Huni, the restaurant recommended to us by Sol at the coffee shop. He had described the location well, and he needed to, because from the outside, as he'd said, it looked just like a private house, and was off the beaten track. We could see a kitchen through a window, and when we entered, it became clear that the kitchen opened into the dining area, where a couple of tables were waiting, as well as some seats at the counter which marked off the kitchen. We sat at the counter and had a great chat with the owner, who spoke excellent English, and who was happy to rustle up a delicious vegetarian meal for us.
Afterwards, we walked around the quiet residential streets, and came across a curious little shrine, featuring more figurines in knitted outfits.

Even the car park next to our hotel had a guardian in a little hut:

All in all, a lovely evening. We arrived back at our top floor room which gave us a panoramic view of the city.

Kanazawa was a delight, full of unexpected pleasures. The following day we were travelling on the Shinkansen again, back to Tokyo.