Glass Skull is Born to Boogie

Part 1. Fascination takes a part of me

I was once in a theatre group called the Glass Skull Theatre Company. There wasn’t a direct link between our performances and the name but I had become captivated by a glass skull in the Museum of Mankind (now subsumed by the British Museum) in London’s Bond Street. It didn’t occur then, but I later realised that my interest in the skull was a reflection of a human fascination that has existed for hundreds of years. Skull imagery is as popular in mass culture today e.g. in the world of fashion as it was when Shakespeare’s Hamlet first hit our screens in 1603.

Back in 1985, the crystal cranium was displayed as a genuine Aztec artefact. Now however, it is thought to be one of several 19th century Middle European drawing room objets d’art designed literally as a nod to the mysteries of ancient times. 

As something carved from quartz, the skull is clearly not a real. However, it possesses a mystique. Unlike bone, the glass allows light to shine through refracting rainbow shards that poke out like frozen fingers. Its natural fissures resemble the zigzag cracks in human skulls whose jagged brown bloodless crannies resemble a Mediterranean stone wall in which dozing adders stir during their dreams of Eden. The eye sockets offer an indeterminate depth suggesting infinity yet the observer knows the physical socket has a definite end to it. You can touch this end (if you poke his eye) but cannot gauge its true dimensions just by looking.

Mortality haunts human life. It swirls around and saturates us. We instinctively know the visual language of the grim reaper’s skeletal frame in that dark hooded cape and Jolly Roger’s grinning pirate flag telling onlookers; ‘this is what we’ll do with you’. Our gut tells us to what the skull equates and it’s not eternal happiness. 

Yet not all skulls have the same effect. Those of animals trigger thoughts of ‘oh, well that’s the circle of life in action’ others become a hunter’s trophy pinned upright and ugly on musty walls. They hover expressionless because they are mere bare bone. Photographer Annie Liebowitz has made a skilful attempt to turn an item of scientific data gathering into art and this piece is challenging and interesting even if it’s not a delight to behold.

A pigeon studied by Charles Darwin, photographed at Downe House, Darwin’s former home in Kent (2010) CREDIT: © Annie Leibovitz. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth and hopefully, The Daily Telegraph.

The human skull however, activates a very different reaction that is both visceral and sick making. These skulls too have been used as trophies and the bile in the throat taste they leave runs in a direct flick of disgust towards the human heart.

Whether they are shrunken heads of native southern Americans or murdered victims in mass graves, their empty sockets stare at and judge us with the salient reminder: fui quod es, eris quod sum (I once was what you are, you will be what I am).

Matera Italy

Part 2. The Ever Circling Skeletal Family

On 16th September 1977, Marc Bolan died. I’ve written about him before and how his music and image had a big effect on me. His untimely death, which coincided with me going into Higher Education, marked the end of summer and a descent into autumn in more ways than one.

Every September I read media reports of a new Bolan/T.Rex revival but somehow in this oddly twisted year of 2020, it feels like it could actually be true. Here’s evidence.

I was attracted to Marc because his obscure lyrics somehow made sense to me. I felt ‘clever’ because I could get into his words and poetry that others wouldn’t grasp. His references to writers like Baudelaire and Kahlil Gibran opened up new channels of poetry and I was hypnotised by his ability to juxtapose imagery. In this example he creates something of beauty by adding bling to the Skelton’s head:

Spun in lore from Dagamoor ~ The skull of jade was pearl inlaid ~ The silks, skin spun, repelled the Sun ~ A tusk of boar with dwarfish awe ~ Sobs on the door where stood before (from Cat black the wizard’s hat).

I have been researching the rituals and beliefs of ancient Central America including Dia De Muertos (day of the dead) and how it celebrates, rather than mourns, the lives of the deceased. The human skull is the central image. Yet and like Marc’s lyrics above, the skulls are not deathly dry bones but brightly decorated masks and models all designed to tell death that we humans are not scared but ready to embrace life post life.

One of Marc’s most touching early songs is Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love).

Atahuallpa was a key character in South American history and was to all intents and purposes the last Inca. As the final leader of what had been an ancient civilisation he was killed by the Spanish invaders in 1533. His legacy in death was far reaching. He represented the end of so-called Paganism (The Incas were sun worshipers which the church managed to spin as somehow inferior to their tranche of murderous monotheism) and an effect of his execution was that tales of him resurrecting Christ-like spread across the region thus enhancing his semi-god image. 

I have no idea what Marc knew about central/southern American history but in addition to these Inca and Christians religions his quaint song also mentions Ra (the Egyptian Sun God) and Hare Krishna. That’s four belief systems referenced in one ditty, now that’s creative song writing!

And creativity is where we end. The human brain is a finite mushy object in a delimited bony box. However, the creative person ignores limits. It is as if imaginative people like writers, biologists and the aforementioned Annie, have glassy skulls whose open jaws imbibe flutes of white liquid light then fire them out of their minds like wonderful squibs in bright and infinite directions.

I come from a time where the burning of trees was a crime ~ I lived by a sea where to be was a thing of true joy ~ My people were fair and had sky in their hair ~ But now they’re content to wear stars on their brows ~ Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love).

Creator: Terry O’Neill | Credit: Terry O’Neill / Iconic ImagesCopyright: © Iconic Images Limited.

I know something is very wrong ~
The post returns for prodigal songs ~
With blackout harks with flowered muse ~
With skull designs upon my shoes
~
I Can’t Give Everything Away from Blackstar, David Bowie’s last song.

The surface is one thing. But down under is another.

 

Last week I saw a BBC documentary called The Australian Dream.

“A thoughtful, but ultimately depressing documentary about the indigenous Australian AFL star Adam Goodes called out for basic human decency.” (DAILY TELEGRAPH)

And they’re right, depressing and awakening.

The programme follows the life of a successful sports person who has been vilified for being an Aborigine and moreover, FOR ARGUING BACK about the lack of rights of Australia’s indigenous people.

It references other peoples such as the First Nations of Canada and by extension and back into ancient history; the Etruscans, Incas and Aztecs who were wiped out by invaders.

Equally shocking was learning about the concept of Terra Nullius: ‘Land that is unoccupied or uninhabited for legal purposes. The application of English law to overseas possessions…’ (Oxford Reference)

Most of us who have driven across Europe or watched war films will know of ’No Man’s Land.’ This term has always had a bipolarity to it, on one hand it can be a harmless tract of earth that lies between two borders ( I once got stuck in no man’s land between France and Italy when I came off a ski slope in the wrong place, but that’s another story). It is also redolent of films and TV shows like 1917 and Black Adder. No Man’s Land is the muddy void where lost vulnerable soldiers run between the lines not knowing if they are nearer to safety or death; hell on earth.

No Man's Land': The Name for the Danger Zone in '1917' Is Almost ...

Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. The sucker punch in the definition of Terra Nullius is ‘the application of English Law’. The British colonialists deemed Australasia to be unoccupied because the people they found there were, in their eyes, sub-human and inconvenient, incidental; mere extensions of the flora and fauna. This same vile attitude was demonstrated by settlers while physically staking land claims across North America and erasing any moral issues by painting the native tribes as itinerant wanderers without desire or need to settle.

Casting people as chattel is a brutal and long standing narrative, yet it has been so expertly PR’d over so many generations in so many locations that even the compassionate and god fearing folk ‘back home’ remained clueless.  Oh Lord, what a fool I’ve been.

By contrast…

Last week I was fortunate to have taken a lockdown holiday in France.

I, the Tourister, was able to be a tourist! For the first time since I can remember, my wife and I went on a holiday that I didn’t organise. What a treat!

We stayed just outside Paris, one of the great cities on Earth and didn’t even feel compelled to visit it. This was a shame but we were determined to socially distance from everyone else. I confess to having had a momentary lapse when I mooted the idea of visiting the Brie cheese town of Meaux. Sue, the responsible half of our hosting friends reminded me within a millisecond that such an excursion was not appropriate. I reeled in my cheese hunting ambitions for another day 😦

Here we are, five months into C19 and I still slip up.

The area we stayed in was quite new which meant I was still able to learn about something I hadn’t even thought about; building and construction.

The other 50% of our hosting was provided by Barry. He knows about buildings and here’s a poem about just that:

Barry and the Buildings

Barry knows a lot about buildings

He didn’t know how much he knew about buildings or the building of them

Until he told me about those buildings and the building of the buildings

And now he knows that he knows a lot about building buildings

More than he knew he knew

Barry now knows that he knows a lot

About Buildings

He’s built a knowledge about his knowledge of buildings and it’s big.

Free Images : walking, person, road, street, photo, male, peaceful ...

We strolled around the town like a pair of sexagenarian school boys. He pointed out things like the quality and quantities of cement used in making pillars and what was cladding and what was real brick. Really amazing was that experts can tell what type of problem a construction might have depending the type of cracks in the walls and ceilings.

 

You’d expect a crack expert to live in downtown LA or Bangkok, but no, this one lives in Middlesex, England.

As somebody that has surveyed hundreds of edifices over many years all the expertise and examination of detail that he learnt has melded into pure instinct. Knowledge builds up and then like a star that implodes into a black hole, concentrates right down to a super heavy yet dimensionally tiny point of deep knowledge.

Sometimes however, it is useful to unravel this knowledge. Whether it’s breaking down a surveyor’s experience to educate a friend or busting open the expertly crafted legal shroud of colonialists’ lies. It serves us well to look at the detail.

For that is where gods and devils dwell.

=============================================================

Credits:

1917 photo; https://www.wsj.com/articles/no-mans-land-the-name-for-the-danger-zone-in-1917-is-almost-1-000-years-old-11579275773

 

Teaching IS doing.

Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach – Man and Superman; GB Shaw.

After completing my teaching qualification I wrote a blog condemning the above quote that suggests people only become teachers if they cannot do anything ‘better’. 

This is a ridiculous notion when there are other more worthy occupations to be rude about such as restaurant critics (wannabe cooks), the mish-mash of malcontents who flail around for a critical voice on Trip Advisor and call centre operatives in cold-call mode. The genuine non-DOERS are those who behave as if they are doing something useful but really aren’t, they are the people who belong on Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B.*

Teachers are absolutely not in this category. Their role is fundamental to human progress; teaching is doing because learning is the first step to everything. Anyhow, pedagogy doesn’t need my advocacy and has offered many adequate replies to the Shavian suggestion.

However, another perspective on Shaw’s words has come to the fore during this, the age of Covid and it is that there are many doers but they are badly undervalued.

Our society has long functioned with a twisted logic. We function in an economic paradigm whereby money, which began after all, as an alternative to exchangeable commodities has become god. It is odd that people who are able to earn money while they sleep are better off than those who get paid by time or output. This is not to say that wealthy people are necessarily bad but, and the people whom the government list as KEY, do not earn as much as those who can get the money system to work for them.

Coronavirus has shone a light on the importance of some of these hitherto hidden people and has challenged the prevailing economic model. Last night I saw a postal worker delivering mail after 7pm. I wished him a good evening and in the ensuing chat he told me he was taking all the overtime ‘he could get’ as it was financially beneficial. Noble as this might seem, is it right that this person was working sixteen hours each day while other non-key people don’t need to?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sleeping-girl.jpg

In the UK Government’s official Key Worker list (reproduced below) it is notable how often the word ‘workers’ comes up e.g. Food production workers…Transport workers …Utilities workers…bank workers. These are people that DO and we really ought to bookmark this for the Post Coronavirus Social Re-balancing plan.

When the ‘Key’ list was released some two months ago I scoffed at the inclusion of journalists. In fact, I would probably have included them in the Trip Advisor reject bracket, yet on reflection, my sneering was wrong. I feel that media often embellishes and whips up public fervour in order to sell their wares and some commercial TV companies unashamedly do this to protect their advertising income. However, having information and news delivered by newspapers and broadcasters that are regulated and scrutinised is better than what remains the wild west of data and (mis)-information; the internet. After all this time, the web is still the favela style corrugated roofed shelter for fake news, stalkers and hackers.

I anticipate a sense of disappointment on behalf of our new, albeit temporary, heroes because I doubt not think their rights and wages will improve. They deserve better but the world is not a generous place and the forecasted economic turmoil will, as usual, further distance the have nots from the haves. Plus ca change…

For an excellent perspective by a real journalist do read Sarah O’Connor. Weirdly, she’s not writing for Marxism Today or even the Guardian, but a literal bastion of capitalism; The Financial Times. 

She writes so well that I wanted to use her words to conclude this piece but the FT’s T&C’s are fearsome and as a lecturer and examiner I really cannot affored to be sued for plagiarism. Equally, how could I ever penalise students for cutting and pasting if I’ve been caught doing it myself?

The UK Government’s list of key workers

British postman in the 1950s. Two post deliveries a day including Saturdays and no van or hand-cart.

 

Frontline health and social care staff including the distributors of medicines and vital equipment

Teaching staff, nursery staff and social workers

People working in vital public services such as justice system, death registry workers, journalists in public service broadcasting

Government workers in local or national administrations in occupations needed to deliver the Covid-19 response and pay benefits

Food production and processing workers including sales and delivery staff

Transport workers operating services not shut down during the Covid-19 response

Utilities workers including all power, water, sewerage, chemicals

Postal workers, key telecommunications staff, bank workers

THE END

 Lichtenstein style picture with Buffet quote https://www.aliexpress.com/i/4000297349719.html

medical workers photo credit:https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1900220/struggle-fear-and-heartbreak-for-medical-staff-on-virus-frontline

Postman; /bit.ly/1alhmZX

Failing Freedom of Outer Space= Losing the Plot on Planet Earth.

I think this ‘thing‘ is a bit like being in outer space.

Despite the fact that I can escape my house quite often, I always make the same return journey and come back home as if on a powerful elastic umbilical cord.

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to Screen in IMAX
https://cdn1-www.comingsoon.net/assets/uploads/2018/08/2001two.jpg

Although I’m fortunate to have people around me, the reduction in social interaction is reducing me. Conversations are snippets rather than true exchanges and when I find myself talking with somebody or rather, at them, it all gushes out in a stream of mad subconscious breadcrumbs. Having honed my listening skills over many years I was really good at paying attention and excelled in giving the opposite of a poker face. I now fear it’s slipping away. When Mandy and I go for a walk, I try to give good ear but am dreadful at it. If there’s a gap of silence I feel a need to fill it up as if it were a pothole that needs padding out with whatever comes to hand; mud, horse manure and dead hair for making up underwear; all this to avoid my mental wheel (which already has a rocky axle) from falling in to it.

Talking of vehicles, let’s launch…

I think that being in space is like this: 

You’re belted into a very small capsule and you can’t move. Even if you need to empty your bladder, you cannot ‘go’, you simply release.

There’s a round double-double glazed window and everything you can see looks like the 1960’s because that’s when space was invented. The sky, which is really just a lot of tiny zeros, is thoroughly black. Not even navy blue. Not even MIDNIGHT Black/Blue, it’s dead-panned black. And it’s not even the sky because it’s not above you like the real sky is. This thing is underneath you too and it’s around the invisible corners. If you’re lucky enough to be in a space station you have more windows but to be frank, the non-sky, which is the floor, the walls and by now, the inside of your mouth too, is still matt black. A forever deep blackness that knows no time lines or boundaries and ceratinly has no truck with doughnuts or tulips. Loads of sticky stars have been thrown at it and they conspire to give a false sense of comfort to suggest that we aren’t alone. But we are. Alone.

So, I’m strapped in this very confined metaphor, struggling to make it work and outside it is just this corner-less plate of zeros. Except, as I said, the stick-on stars but, and I don’t say this lightly, they’re nobody’s friend. Certainly neither yours nor mine. And let me tell you something else, all this stuff about them twinkling is a lie. The stars are actually a combination of shoddy time lapsed recordings of rude, hot and very loud implosions and explosions. Their only mission is to fry you if you come within a light year. Sparkling, cocky bastards; nothing more. Not your friends.

So, communication from/to this tin can is via a radio or perhaps nowadays, a video link like in The Big Bang Theory when Howard ‘Fruit Loops’, has his moment up yonder but like my walk in the park, it’s no walk in the park. Just crackles, beeps and sounds that remind us of dial-up internet or even…the Fax machine. Communication has been redacted and if only we could read under the blacked out lines, maybe we’d connect properly, like they did in the old days. Freedom to communicate has become a frozen FaceTime image. Over.

TV Classic The Big Bang Theory Howard Wolowitz Fruit Loops custom tee Big Bang Theory Shirts, Big Bang Theory Funny, The Big Bang Therory, The Big Theory, Simon Helberg, Howard Wolowitz, Froot Loops, Favorite Tv Shows, My Favorite Things

I read that Einstein said gravity bends space and because very large objects such as solar systems contain a lot of gravity (suns, planets, aliens etc) they wrap large hunks of it around themselves. I think this includes time too.

This makes me picture a journey that ends at the beginning, just like 2001 Space Odyssey.

So, when flying in my Covid capsule I can see space bending and mashing the freedom of being up and out there – with no obvious obstacles (other than Elon Musk’s growing pile of space debris) with the warm urine dampened space suit of my rocket confined prison. To hammer home the point, if I can leave the capsule to pursue the infinite freedom the lack of long term air suggests that freedom is neither attainable nor desirable.

So, back to earth and shut my mouth. 

I thought I’d do what my then children did some years ago and make a word cloud. The idea was to mix up 4 rock tracks about space to see what the consensus was. The result is quite interesting but not as I grand as I had hoped. When I listen to these tracks, which are all the same theme of being lost in space, I get a large hit of nostalgia. Consider these words by Matt Bellamy (MUSE)

Let’s conspire to ignite / All the souls that would die just to feel alive / Now I’ll never let you go If you promised not to fade away

How, I wonder can nostalgia be triggered for something one never experienced? How do words and music do this?

I can only guess that CoronavirusC19 has triggered a sense of yearning and the mind turns it into a deep space exile. There is something about this present crisis that feels like being jettisoned into the nothing. We shall return, but it will be different but quite how different…

For what it’s worth:

My word cloud throws out: away, never, feels , arms, spaced, time, life, unreal which kind of creates the feeling but as random experiment is nothing insightful.

It includes lyrics from Muse: Starlight, Aerosmith: Spaced (2nd album dummy; Get Your Wings), Radiohead: Subterranean homesick alien and Mott The Hoople: Sea Diver. Obviously I could have used tons of Bowie lyrics (which I did twice in the body) and those who know me will appreciate I left out The Beatles’ Across the Universe and Elton John because I don’t like moist music. Purely my prejudices, nothing more.

I’m in love with my car but prefer wearing lycra.

(Picture above = Colours from a distance by Paul Klee)

Stream of consciousness with a smattering of structure;

Actually, if you know me, you’ll realise this title is ironic. Cars are not my thing but I found my self singing the song earlier today when I went out for another lockdown run. This was unusual because normally when I go out for a 3,4, or 5k run, my head tends to play back whatever music I last heard.

I wasn’t really up for a run today but I was faring better than expected and aiming for a decent time when I bumped into (at 2 metres distance) P and S whom I have known for years. Our kids were at the same primary school as theirs and they are also regular Park Run runners. I could have pretended I had earphones in and continued running with a polite smile but they are really decent people and the chance of a chat (and a breather) was not unwelcome.

This pause was a good learner too because usually when I run and I see groups of folk chatting at the Covidically correct distance (and therefore blocking both the path and the off-piste grass) I scowl internally and roll my eyes. This time I could experience what it was like to be stationary while the remaining inhabitants of planet Lycra went past and between us.

Squabbles between open space users have become fashionable of late. These are the factions that are moaned about and why:

  • Runners – Act like they own the place
  • Walkers –  Meander as if they have no purpose except to pick flowers of wild garlic and berries
  • Cyclists – Who really should be on the roads during this quiet time. 
  • Young Parents with buggies – behave as if they invented children and whose kids on scooters are wayward and probably transmitters of ‘it’
  • Dog companions – It’s good to let Rex off the leash, he knows his own mind and what he wants to sniff. The owners however, are just too distracted by other dogs to notice the other humans (although I can’t really blame them, the dogs are usually more amusing).

In short, just about everybody!

I am at various points in the week a member of all but the last two of these groups and don’t dislike any of them (except Mountain Bikers who ought to go over rough terrains or a cliff edge to justify owning an All Terrain Bike). It is however, weirdly easy to disassociate from who I am not at the particular moment. If I’m on my bike (a Brompton which Lewis refers to as a tricycle); I’m a cyclist, if I’m walking; I’m a walker. Perhaps each outdoor venture is a search for identity…(hmmm a topic for another day?)

The other thought is that social distancing in parklands is a good model for how we ought to manage ourselves when driving our cars. It has taken time for people to learn how to respect ‘the gap’ yet, by and large, we are learning to be thoughtful, more polite and to thank those who are courteous towards us. Surely, this is progress.


Finally, I’d like to share a tip. It is highly embarrassing when moving towards another person and trying to avoid a collision, you both go the same way and back again. I have found that if you look at their feet rather than the eyes, you’ll get a better idea of where they are heading. Somehow the feet follow the brain’s signals before the eyes do.

This also works when your are about to overtake somebody going in your direction. 

Of course, we could all just have a convention to stick to the left, but that’d be too easy.

Pictures: https://www.imj.org.il/sites/default/files/collections/klee-colors%20from%20a%20distance~LB92_25.jpg. Willi Baumeister 1925 (German), Läuferin II (Runner II), Oil on canvas, 120 cm x 80 cm.

Rivoli (Part 2): The Castle, a surprise gift and the end of 2001 Space Odyssey.

The self-induced pressure lifted as soon as the hotel receptionist told me that Rivoli’s Castle was just beyond where I had already walked last night. All I had to do was return to the town centre and walk up the old cobbled street.

https://www.castellodirivoli.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/esterno_1.jpg

 The August morning sun was not as vicious as I feared and although the ascent was hot, I did much of it in the shadows of the medieval buildings. I reached the top of the town in about 17 minutes. The Castello of Rivoli dominates the area and the peak of the town steps was no more than 200 metres, through a tree shaded area, to the entrance arch of the castle. I do like historic architecture, but find it difficult to remember styles dates and facts. The smallish red bricks looked Roman but according to Wikipedia (as you can see, I have not researched in depth) it was probably built after 800 AD. I can only assume they either used old Roman bricks or copied that style. Either way, the smell of history was evident both outside and inside the castle. Interior rough brickwork rose high in the entrance hall while blue and green coloured spot lights picked out atmospheric defects.

In exchange for 8.50 Euros, the woman behind the desk handed over my entrance ticket, ‘un momento’ (hold on) she said while reaching down and handed me a mug –sized box; ‘Un regalo’ (a gift). I was delighted and thanked her. With a grin she told my inner child to open it later. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait and leaning/balancing my stuff on a bend in the bannister, I opened it and found a mug. It’s a wonderful souvenir and a reminder that moments of pleasure can come from small things.

Opting to work my way from the top floor downwards, I took the lift to a very long narrow room under the cantilevered roof. The temporary exhibition was called The City of Broken Windows by Hito Steyerl

Given this is a contemporary art venue, I knew I would be seeing ‘strange’ works and was not disappointed when I entered the room to loud repeating glass smashing noises. The screen by the entrance showed various engineers clad in space suits wielding industrial hammers and hefting them into double glazed panes. It looked like a lot of fun. The 150 metres long wall bore a single line of free form ‘poetry’. Despite the post-apocalyptic tone, I was buoyed by the mixed media of sound, video, word and use of natural light in an impressive setting. Whatever the message was meant to be, I enjoyed it.

https://www.castellodirivoli.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Screen-Shot-2018-11-23-at-1.54.19-PM-682x1024.png
Rivoli side street by day.

Although the rest of the exhibition was fascinating, there were a couple of horrible exhibits. One was a life size model of a child sitting at a desk facing a bay window and when you walk around to see her face it’s an awful skeletal vision of death. Another gross item, and I’m told that all the school children of Turin remember this one, is a stuffed horse suspended by its belly from the ceiling. What, I asked myself was the point?

As the end of my visit approached, I made my way towards the exit and found myself, as can be seen in the pictures in a scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey.

A room of human size geometrical shapes lead me through to THE MONOLITH. It felt like a nightmare coming to life as it immediately brought to mind a repetitive dream I had as a child whereby I was forced to build a giant object in a small room with no materials or tools and very limited time.

Fortunately the daytime atmosphere in the castle is uplifting and the windows allow in so much natural light that along with the Piemontese Royal interior décor, there is no gloom.

I’m no giant, but this is …

The visit was brief yet worthwhile and I plan to return to see what other modern day artists are up to.

Where movie dreams become reality

Thomas has Cooked his goose

The collapse of Thomas Cook is the culmination of a long running series of events. Many hard working and well-meaning individuals have lost their jobs and their clients have lost money and well deserved holidays. It was predicted many years ago by travel industry luminaries, yet nobody had the will or expertise to deal with it.

Over the years, people have invested in the heritage of Thomas Cook without efficiently examining its present and/or future performances. Thomas Cook’s investors bought into it not because of its attributes but because of its reputation and vast (deluded?) client database. ‘The collapse of Thomas Cook’ will become the topic for many business studies’ dissertations. The kaleidoscope of errors covers all areas of management and for students looking for examples of ‘bad this and disastrous that’, it is truly fertile ground. I have been in the travel industry for over 40 years and have had occasional dealings with the company. The random observations that follow are simply personal, truthful reflections. I’m neither mourning nor gloating, just sharing what I saw.

Wax your feathers keep away from the Sun, he might give energy but he’s the one who’ll melt your dreams should you fly too close and bread in your hand will end up as toast

In 2011, a senior TUI manager told me that they could ‘finish Cooks off’ whenever they wanted. Some three years later and after another massive bail out, the same person told me they no longer needed to wield the sword of Damocles because Cooks were still on the same suicidal path and the new money was not going towards changing their business, just juggling debts and lining pockets. They took the money and stood still. Of course, cash was spent on a new logo and no doubt some wonderful think tank weekends for their executives in glamorous places but it would have been the same under performers that had always sought comfort by thinking well and truly inside the box.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 I was on a travel industry education committee tasked with developing vocational training. Cooks was represented by three managers. During a coffee break, I was talking to a director of a major Cooks’ rival whom I also knew through my work in education. They told me that Cooks’ presence was somewhat arbitrary because their influence on the group was now so weak and their attitude so inward looking that the other delegates conversed with them only out of politeness.

This drastically contrasts with my interactions with Cooks in the 1980s and 90s. During this period they were a wonderful client of mine. My business is a specialist hotel finder, particularly of Italian hotels. Italy was such a key destination that the Cooks’ Piccadilly office had a dedicated Italy desk and happily they gave us a lot of business. This meant that at least once a week I would stroll from our HQ in Regents Street to Piccadilly to deliver the clients’ travel documents. I remember there was always a feeling of arriving somewhere special and it was a privilege to go through their doors. The interior was modern (for the time) with banks of booking agents behind their airport style desks. Yet the Italy area was away from this functional zone and comprised two large dark mahogany desks. The visitor could sit in a green leather Chesterfield and with a true travel expert, go through their travel arrangements as if they were planning a 19th Centuryesque Grand Tour. Style and substance coexisted and it was still impressive.

This genteel corner of tradition however was on the wane. Even by the mid 80s IT had taken a firm, claws-first grip into the under SPF protected skin of the travel industry. Mr Cook had brought discovery to the kind of people who wanted adventure with comfort. The attraction in early tourism was cerebral and cultural with a safe pioneering feel. Cooks the company had every opportunity to maintain this niche but the myopic management opted to go big and inevitably bad. I am sure that many of their latter day clients that went on cultural tours still enjoyed them but the reality is that there are so many excellent specialists in this field, Cooks won’t be missed. Equally the bucket and spade end of things won’t really miss them either. Cooks was among those that helped regular people discover the thrill of leisure travel and to create a kind of travellers’ democracy. However, the IT mobsters have made it oh so easy for people to fly to the sun that they no longer need Cooks to be their Icarus.

An originator has melted its wings and finally crashed. The short term outcome is repatriation and chaos, the long term outcome will be less choice for consumers and a hike in prices. Book direct by all means, but remember you’re one step nearer the flame and there’s nobody there to shield you.

Photo; Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons

Rivoli Part 1: Cobbles, balconies and Aperol Spritz.

Rivoli has intrigued me for over 25 years. Having frequently travelled the westbound road from Torino in North Western Italy to the French border at Montgenèvre, I had always noted the castle on the hill to the left and wondered why nobody had ever suggested a detour there.

I was watching a TV programme about contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson (Miracles of Rare Device https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00077pm) and my ears pricked up when they showed a brief interview with Marcella Beccaria, the Chief Curator and Curator of Collections at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. At once I knew that the castle was not another rural location trying to trap a few tourists, but in fact an internationally known and credible centre of present day art. The lot was cast; I was going there no matter what.

My plane landed in the early August heat. As the passengers walked across the baked 16.30 tarmac, the involuntary inhalation of fuel and tar assaulted my nostrils. I half expected to see some form of vapour but the fumes remained invisible and I stepped with relief through the automatic doors towards the air conditioned indoors and passport control.

Reunited with my luggage, I drove the hire car towards the tangenziale (ring road) and the zone where the sun would eventually be setting.

The first opportunity to tick a longstanding box presented itself in the form of a road sign; ‘Juventus Stadium’. Although I had long since lost interest in the antics of a football club that cheated by doping its players and dodgy financial dealings, I was so enjoying my free time that I knew a detour could be worthwhile. It was entirely on route and as I was only driving 26 Km that evening, I had no obligations to fear being late for. Time, precious time was my own and I was free.

After veering off the main road I followed a winding supermarket style car park track to the stadium and parked in a side road by J Medical, the club’s health centre. The area was easily accessed and the largeness of the low white and wide structure was counterbalanced by the lack of people and traffic around it. Perfection; no cars and no people. I locked the car, ensuring nothing of value was on view, and walked to the stadium entrance. At this point about 20 people reappeared from the main door. Dressed in a variety of soccer jerseys (mainly the 2 big Spanish teams) they spilled onto the concourse having completed the last stadium tour of the day. As the tours were over, I opted to look around the club store instead. I’m not averse to collecting football shirts but €100+ for the 2019-2020 home team shirt with ‘Ronaldo’ across the shoulders caused me to sound my derision aloud with an uncontrolled snort. Rolling my eyes and tutting, I returned to my car.

I arrived at the Hotel Rivoli soon after. The property was easy to find as it is between the motorway and the historic town. It’s a large red brick structure set within an impressive car and coach park. I’ve worked in tourism all my career and do not have a problem with big utilitarian places so long as they function properly. This property was fine. The receptionist knew my name before I told him who I was. This impressed me because it showed he had invested time in looking at the arrivals list. He even spoke to me in English which was not something I particularly wanted (I like to assume a full Italian identity when I’m there) but again this showed he was interested in the guests and keen to communicate. My room was simple but fine. The window offered a long view of the Alps and the Piemontese countryside. Nearer the hotel I could see the gardens were tidy and surprisingly green. To the side, a small water park with its bold red, blue and yellow slides demonstrated that greater Rivoli offers more than just a convenient stop-off place but family activities too.

Armed with a map (Millennials NB, it’s a paper version of Google Maps and paper is what people used to write on before we had screens). I walked out of the hotel’s rear gate and ambled for 2 km to Rivoli’s centre. The route was quiet and safe. I passed playgrounds, a closed-for-summer school and an imposing Jehova’s witness centre. As I approached the central zone I found myself walking past very normal Italian post-war apartment blocks. The street level was occupied by all the usual suspects; bakers, butchers, green grocers and more than enough hairdressers and a barber’s shop. The buildings may have been standard fair, but their balconies intrigued me. Some of the wrought metal looked like 1960’s pin people doing a square dance while others curled where they could in an effort to add baroque to the utilitarian structure.

Much of the town was closed or closing for the mid-summer week and as I arrived in Piazza Martiri Della Libertà, I could see that it was a lively community focal point at any other time during the year but this. Having worked up a thirst, I knew beyond doubt that I had earned a drink. The Caffè Consueto (https://www.facebook.com/pg/Caff%C3%A8-Consueto-1397695793595899/about/?ref=page_internal)

occupies the corner of the square. Its glass front and side allowed internal movements to be seen from the exterior. From across the square I could see pastries, triple layered tramezzini (sandwiches) and an array of coloured bottles upright on the tiered glass shelving. I sat at a small table on the outside without a firm idea of what I wanted until the server suggested an Aperol Spritz. I accepted immediately. Now I know it has become a bit too popular in recent years and does not make the imbiber look particularly sophisticated, but the A.S. is a marvellous aperitivo designed to be taken BEFORE dining. Its flavours blend to stimulate appetite. It is culturally and morally wrong to consume it after dinner. The kind of thing a tourist would do. This rather large drink was certainly ‘pre’, my as yet unplanned dinner and therefore acceptable and besides, the three middle aged women on the next table were sipping Aperol too so I drank mine knowing I didn’t appear to be a foreigner. What did make me look like an out-of-towner however, was the surprise on my face when the waitress brought me a platter of food. I had expected some crisps or bread sticks, but the selection of meats, cheese and pizza brought about a childlike delight. When the €8 bill came, I was just sober enough (I’m not a big drinker) to calculate that I could comfortably and economically live in this bar. I left a €10 note on the table and swanned off feeling magnanimous albeit slightly wobbly.

I was sated and relaxed and ready for my Castle adventure the next day.

Seasons of Summary

It’s that opposite time of the year again. For most people going about their daily lives the longer days and expected sunlight create a natural momentum and a flow of movement. If people are going to exercise at all, this is certainly the time. Just look at the available number of cycling, running and walking events and you’ll see that spring into summer is flex time.

For many students however, the opposite applies. It’s a case of heads down over the laptop, writing out index cards, slurp a warm drink, procrastinate a little, sip a little more, realign the pencils and hunch again back over the laptop.

As an examiner it’s an odd summer for me because for the first time in 6 years I’m not on the cusp of marking any papers at all because this time around; I’m the student!

I’m finishing off a 10 month course in educational assessment and although I do not have to sit exams, I do have a long report to research and write up and from a seasonal perspective; it feels wrong. I wrote an essay over December and January and found it much easier to lock myself away, pull the curtains and do what was required. The winter months feel like a much more appropriate time to spend indoors and think.

I suppose it has to be this way because the academic year runs from September to June (and nobody’s rushing to change that in a hurry) and we in the system have constructed a necessity for assessments, tests and all other Systems Of Summary to come along now, like a pan national swarm of full stops.

I’m not offering any change or amendment, but I am saying to students and parents do remember that teachers, moderators, invigilators and examiners know what you’re going through. We live through it ourselves each year and remember our own time at the sharp end. We are in fact still there because your success it ours. Educators do it for the vocation and the desire to help. If things go wrong the Sunday Mail will be quick to point and blame and quite frankly, even when things go well, they’ll do the same.

Take it from an insider, your teachers are better than ours were. What you learn is useful and of great value and a secret that others may not like to share; there’s no immediate rush. There’s always tomorrow. See a poor result not as a sign that you’re not up to it but that you’re travelling at a slower pace than the system wants, but you’re still travelling. If you can extract some enjoyment from the subject, you can definitely make it and even if you don’t like it that much, with time you can still arrive.  

Me, me, me.

Some thirty odd years ago I wanted to be an actor. I spent much of my spare time during my 20’s in theatre groups taking improvisation workshops and actually became quite good at it. I even ran some groups myself and for the most part, enjoyed being in a creative setting where we would conjure up something deep and meaningful or and this was my preference, something funny. Observers and other actors would clap and/or cheer and I’d feel that warm glow of validation.

My romance for the stage began to wane when I visited an actor friend who was working in The National Theatre. My friend was a very talented performer and was in a play with some very well-known players including one who was already very famous and is now, some 30 years later (and here’s your clue), is known as a national treasure (NT). When I went backstage after the performance I was shocked at how small my friend’s dressing corner was in comparison to the established star’s room. We went to the actors’ bar and I spotted NT. I said to my friend I would like to meet NT. ‘No’ my friend said, ‘we’re not allowed to cavort with the ‘grown ups’. Apparently the hierarchy was so strict that unless one of the stars invited a young actor for a drink, they couldn’t mix. This is not a ‘Me Too’ story, but you can see how that whole thing happened. The star summons a junior over only if they ‘want’ something from them.

My stage ambitions were finally killed off when I was in a restaurant with some friends and we could hardly hear ourselves because a group of noisy young theatricals was behaving badly and loudly. I knew the type instantly and when they refused to quieten down I told them that singing aloud and throwing food was no substitute for talent. A few bitchy comments were exchanged but considering the people involved (me included) were more at home with vicious (you hit me with a flower) put-downs than fists, the whole thing calmed down.

What struck me was how the most annoying thing about some actors is self-aggrandisement. I stress ‘some’ because I have known others that are not in it purely to patch up their own emotional failings and are professional.

Which brings me to the so-called ‘Awards Season’ which this week culminated in the Oscars. What a steaming pile of …! This event and the others that lead up to it are simply a way of converting weak egos into big money for the industry. What is equally annoying is how the media willingly fan these peacock plumed flames, presumably to obtain exclusives to sell their own load of rubbish.

I know these awards can be seen as a harmless break from politics and the misery of daily grinding life, but it is ridiculous that true talent and creativity becomes secondary to fame and showing off.

Peacock credit; https://kitcheninterviews.com/14322/peacock-pictures-to-print/