In this blogposting…
*the movable blog
Now cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war…
THE MOVABLE BLOG
Many of you have noticed that blogposting 207 now comes after blogposting 208 and have asked me why this is so.
Well, there’s a perfectly simple reason. I just don’t know what it is.
...took place as planned on Wednesday 7 July at Mike and Pauline’s Coffee Van on Newcastle Quayside. So first up, a big thankyou to them for making us so welcome - and for joining in the AGM themselves.
‘Us’ was our Honorary President Ada, Hildie, Vivienne, Ellie and Nev, who joined us for the first time since we all met at the Tanfield Railway last year. Oh, and I was there, too.
I enjoyed it immensely - but that’s probably because I did most of the talking. I don’t know what came over me. I apologise to all those people who slipped away looking as if they’d been talked to death.
Here is a splendid list of misnomers sent to me by Peter of South Shields. Isn’t it wonderful how the English language manages to mangle so many of the foreign words it imports?
- a Bombay duck is a fish
- pumpkins aren’t small (despite the -kin ending) and they don’t pump
- Latin mussirio became ‘mushroom’
- Jerusalem artichokes are not artichokes and don’t come from Jerusalem
- currants take their name from the Greek city of Corinth (unless they are blackcurrants or redcurrants, which don’t)
- gooseberries have nothing to do with geese
- humble pie has nothing to do with humility
- rosemary (the plant) has nothing to do with roses or Mary
- on a US menu, ‘Rocky Mountain oysters’ are bulls’ testicles
- catgut is not made from the guts of cats
- Panama hats don’t come from Panama
- the Hundred Years War lasted 116 years
- the Canary Islands are named after dogs
The next AGM will take place on at 1100 on Thursday 12 August at Grey’s Monument.
A splendid time is (almost) guaranteed for all.
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But I remember it very well, probably for all the wrong reasons, and made serious attempts afterwards to put into practise what we were told.
If, for example, a phone-in caller greets you with the familiar ‘Hello, Ian - how are you’, you should never, ever, EVER reply ‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ They might actually tell you, and thus subject you and your other 37 listeners to a bombardment of aches, pains, worries and family problems which you didn’t bargain for when all you were expecting was the answer to a quiz question.
In the same way, we were told, never ever assume that, just because YOU are in a great mood and think that all’s well with the world, your caller will feel the same, or even be in a position to know.
These lessons were brought home to us forcefully when various radio ‘blooper’ incidents were played back to us. The ‘how are you?’ trap was perfectly illustrated by a listener who wasted no time at all in telling the hapless presenter about his bad back, his upcoming hospital appointment ‘to find out if the tumour is malignant’, his recently deceased wife and the theft of his car.
Another presenter - uncomfortably close to home - greeted a caller by saying how lovely it was to see all the trees coming back into their springtime glory once again, only to be told by the caller that she was blind. That sort of thing really does stop you in your tracks.
It also plants in your mind the unstoppable gremlin of the ‘Freudian Slip’. In the case of the blind caller, the presenter proceeded to pepper the conversation with ‘I see’ and ‘How often do you see your brother?’ and ‘Do you see my point?’ Each time we heard it, we winced at his discomfort and pain.
In the final session of the course, we wall wanted to know the same thing. What makes a good radio presenter? And the answer surprised us.
To be a radio presenter at all, you have to believe that other people will want to hear what you have to say. For that to work, you have to have something to say and not just an engaging way of saying nothing.
To be a successful radio presenter, we were told, you have to possess a sense of self-importance way beyond the average. You have to be a bit of an egotist - but as blamelessly as you can.
I don’t think I ever quite got the hang of blameless egotism. My egotism was always unmanageably obvious and blameworthy. I guess it still is. After all, throughout my descriptions of the Grand Tour, I have been declaiming my opinions about some of Europe’s greatest cities - as if my opinion mattered.
Whereas, if the truth be told, I know perfectly well that my opinion matters no more than anyone else’s. I’m just one of those people who have too many opinions that I hate to deprive other people of hearing.
And this recalcitrant syndrome is at its worst when it comes up against ‘conventional wisdom’. You know the sort of thing: eating bread crusts makes your hair curl; carrot consumption enhances night vision; all gay men are hairdressers, clothes designers or air stewards; where there’s smoke there’s fire; Venice is the most unforgettably beautiful city on Earth.
Let’s get this straight. There are some things in this life - in this world - that you can be absolutely certain about. The longest river, the highest mountain, the phases of the moon, the ugliness of babies, the inevitability of death and taxes. Most birds can fly, the tides will come in and go out again and, if today is Tuesday then tomorrow will very definitely be Wednesday.
And unless you’re a member of some obscure religious sect, or perhaps the Flat Earth Society - and you were prepared to give it a moment’s thought - you would probably find these incontrovertible certainties quite comforting, as I do.
But I start to feel uneasy when I’m confronted with opinion masquerading as fact. How can you ‘know’ that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece? How can you promulgate the Taj Mahal’s beauty over all other buildings as a ‘fact’? Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world (fact) but who is to say if is the most magnificent (opinion)?
And, over the years, I’ve found that this phenomenon is particularly common in the heady realms of ‘High Art’ - design, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, literature. In these matters, over and above the basics, there are no facts on which to base a reliable opinion at all.
I find it incredibly difficult to like, or even appreciate, something simply because I’m supposed to. I can’t understand most of what Shakespeare wrote. I reckon that the music of Mozart - venerated amongst the cognoscenti - is repetitive and samey, and, after struggling for years with ‘The Classics’ of English literature, I believe, quite sincerely, that the world would be a much better place if the likes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had never been born.
For me, there are things other than beauty that are in the eye of the beholder.
None of this is ground-breaking stuff, I admit. It’s median-level scepticism on a scale rising to base-level cynicism.
And it’s why I don’t like Venice.
It’s not entirely Venice’s fault, of course. And I know that Venice can survive perfectly well without my endorsement or ‘approval’. In fact, the ‘hurt’ (if that’s the right word) is more on my side than Venice’s. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be as enraptured and as captivated by it as so many others have been over the centuries.
The causeway over the lagoon comes as a blessed relief after Venezia Mestre - the part of Venice that sits on the mainland and is never photographed because it’s a seemingly endless, drab, unkempt and ugly Italian version of Grimsby. The hideous decrepitude of Venezia Mestre is impossible to ignore and made me wonder, as the train passed far too slowly through it, why the praise-singers of Venice never mention it.
LIFE IN FRANCE: THE LIZARD AND THE WALNUT TREE
Even by truckshunter standards, this blogposting is a little bit special. It’s the first one I’ve drafted and posted online from France.
It’s Saturday 17 July and I’m in central eastern France - in Beaujolais country a mile or two west of the River Saone. The nearest big town - and it is very big - is Lyon, off to the south. Much nearer and much prettier, and to the north, is Macon. I’m about as far south of Paris as London is from Newcastle.
In the near distance to the west, and clearly visible from the garden here where I’m sitting, are the blue, vineyard-covered hills of Beaujolais. Much closer are the red-tiled roofs of the nearby village, although the house itself stands quite alone, surrounded by fields of maize, sunflowers or lettuces. There is a small herd of Charolais cattle grazing in the field opposite and beyond the trees I can see a row of stumpy brown beehives.
Next to me, and bordered by cobbles, is a small goldfish pond. Six fish - and two noisy frogs - live there. The pond features a rather lovely ornamental Japanese fountain and is shaded by a low-growing St John’s Wort covered in small, vivid yellow flowers. Behind it runs the little River Vauxonne, which forms the southern edge of the garden.
Behind me, and shading me nicely from the midday French sun, is a huge and ancient bay tree from whose branches hang baskets of flowers. Looking up, I can see, in the opposite corner of the garden, a tall and graceful walnut tree whose age, beauty and fruitfulness have become something of a legend round here.
It’s a lovely, warm and sunny day. A light breeze is wafting birdsong, and the soft murmur of grasshoppers and crickets, across the garden. Butterflies of at least half a dozen different types - most of them totally unfamiliar to me - are flapping their way around the roses, firethorns, geraniums, hebes and many other flowers that adorn this typical rural French garden at this time of year.
Once in a while, a small lizard dashes across the terrace, almost too fast to see.
If all this makes this little corner of France sound somewhat idyllic, then I guess it is. Right now, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. And that’s not just because of the weather and the scenery. It’s also because I’ve had an extraordinary few days...
The week was centred on Wednesday, 14 July which was, of course, Bastille Day - France’s National Day. Every year on this day, there are great parades and marches and salute-takings and flag-wavings in Paris. This year, the President (the much-loathed M Sarkozy) took centre-stage as the whole nation watched and smiled wryly as the rain poured down and flooded the capital’s self-righteous partying.
There’s nothing self-righteous about the way Bastille Day is celebrated in deepest, rural France, though. Outside Paris, July 14 becomes an unselfconscious party where everyone joins in. And the party starts as soon as work ends the day before.
I spent Bastille Eve (as it were) in a small town called Thoissey. Well actually, it’s more of a large village than a small town. The little crossroads of streets which forms the ‘town centre‘ had been coned off for the duration so that ‘the people‘ could begin their celebrations. Two small stages with ludicrously sophisticated sound-systems were set up in each street and, at about 9 in the evening, the party began.
As I said just now, Bastille Day is a day for everyone - every member of France’s larger family. Like the French flag, Bastille Day has not been hijacked by rabid ‘France for the French’ right-wingers, unlike (perhaps) the English flag has at home.
People from every francophone country in the world are happy to join in with The Marseillaise on July 14.
Another deeply satisfying aspect of this town-wide Bastille Eve bash was the mixing of the generations. Whole families, from grandparents to babes-in-arms, were out enjoying the party. Outsiders like me were made especially welcome, as the many photos of me being drunkenly embraced by various members of the Thoissey citizenry testify.
I should say, in their defence, that I was just as drunk as they were.
The bars and cafes (all four of them) stayed open as long as they had customers to serve. And, at least partly because the bands on stage that night were quite good (specially after a glass or two of Provencal rose), that meant that the party was still going strong when we left at about 2 in the morning.
The generations mixing together socially and thoroughly enjoying themselves is not, of course, restricted to Bastille Day. It is a regular aspect of French daily life which differs greatly from our recent experience at home in England.
For a start, almost every village - no matter how small - has a primary school. And no-one would dare suggest closing any of them, for financial or any other reason.
Secondary schools are also intensely local. The local village here, with a population of less than 4,000, supports a large and thriving secondary school. No youngster ever has to travel far from home to get to school because school is almost always right there on the doorstep. (The ‘school run’, incidentally, is almost unheard of.)
One of the happy results of all this is that a French person’s sense of ‘place’ is very strong. As they grow up, French kids don’t seem to hanker after the bright lights and big cities to nearly the same extent as their English oppos. They seem to be quite happy rooted to their villages and small towns. As I’ve discovered, this can sometimes distort their view of the ‘outside world’, which may begin as close as the next village. But that’s another story....
It’s probably because the Bastille Eve street-celebrations are so raucous and hangover-inducing that most French people seem to spend July 14 itself rather quietly and sedately. They go for walks or drive into the surrounding countryside and have a picnic in the recovery position.
That’s what we did, too.
And in the evening, we went to see a surprisingly ambitious fireworks display laid on by a local village.
Most countries seem to have a National Day like this and I’ve spent much of the rest of this week wondering what the English would do if we had one. There are campaigns running with just such an aim; the favourite day seems to be April 23, St George’s Day.
But I’ve wondered if the sense of ‘nation’ is as strong in England as it is here in France, and if our national day’s alcohol consumption would induce the inter-generational exuberance and joy it does here - or just another drunken town-centre brawl from which everyone over 30 stays away...
I’ve just been offered a glass of icetea - it’s very popular here. Delicious and cheap!
And a frog has just plopped into the fishpond.
So I’ll stop now. I’ll need to allow myself time to post the blog and add the photos.
And anyway, I’m feeling a little sorry for myself. Tomorrow once again I’ll be making my way home to England....
I think I know my native country very well and love it as much as anyone. And, like anyone who is homeward bound, I know it will be good to return to all those familiar things about 'home' which we often don't appreciate until they are far away from us.
But until I come back here again, there will be a small sadness in a corner of my heart for this little garden I have grown to love so much. For Mumun the cat curled up in the shade, for the roses and the river, for the lizard and the walnut tree.
In this blogposting....
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Sixth Day
....will take place this upcoming Wednesday, 7 July at 1100 at the wonderful Mike and Pauline’s Yellow Coffee Van at The Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. If you’re not totally sure where that is...it’s a few yards east of the Millennium Bridge, just past the Pitcher and Piano.
Your absence will be taken as permission for me to visit your home to exact revenge in whatever way I deem suitable.
So, if you know what’s good for you, you’d better attend. When all’s said and done, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: SIXTH DAY
MUNICH TO VERONA
WEDNESDAY 24 MARCH
Minds much cleverer than mine have written expansive theses on what exactly it is about trains that has enabled them to worm their way so seductively into the human psyche. All over the world, the departure and arrival of trains - and often, of course, the journey in between - tend to evoke the same responses. The sweet sadness of separation, the familiar stomach-turmoil of an impending greeting, the bystander’s wishful longing for involvement, the hook of the timetable on which it all depends, the babbling chaos and grandiose architecture of mainline stations, the sleekly and sexily streamed lines of the train itself, the authority of the locomotive....
I’ve loved trains ever since the day that I knew what a train was. Although by no means as obsessive a trainspotter as both of my brothers ( - a hobby which, at the time, I considered to be a cry for help - ) I was nevertheless perfectly happy to join them on the grassy bank below the battlements in Wharton Park (in Durham City).
From there, one of the best views in all of England was augmented by the endless succession of trains crossing the viaduct, north and south. I would sit happily working my way through my allocation of egg-and-tomato sandwiches (and start on theirs) as Barry and Deryck neatly underlined, in their Ian Allan trainspotters’ bibles, the number of each loco as it passed.
Naturally, special excitement was reserved for ‘blinkers’ and ‘streaks’. On those occasions, I even looked up from my repast to admire the effect.
And the wonder of trains has stayed with me ever since. It has bridged the change from steam to diesel to electric and from private to public and back again. In common with the rest of humanity, I’m sure, trains and stations have continued to exercise my mind and my imagination in ways Ian Allan couldn’t possibly make a checklist of.
But, until now, I had never actually indulged this affection. Like most people, I have ‘used’ trains to get me from place to place in a totally matter-of-fact, utilitarian way most of my life. And certainly they have also been a key part of many holidays - but again, purely as a way of reaching my destination, the place where the holiday began.
This time, though, the trains were the holiday. The tickets, the stations, the travellers there with me, the carriages, the engines, the lines, crossings and points. The destinations - as grand and as monumental as they were - were the dots on the page. It was the lines between them that would give this picture is shape and meaning.
I was particularly aware of this as the train slowly pulled southward out of Munich on this sunny Wednesday morning. Ahead of me, according to my Thomas Cook Map of European Railways, lay one of the most scenic railway journeys in all of Europe; a journey up, up, up into the Bavarian Alps, then through western Austria and up still further to the Brenner Pass and down into northern Italy.
Admit it - it even sounds awesome just to read it, doesn’t it?
At first, the mountains of southern Bavaria kept their distance. Frustrating glimpses of snowy peaks, at first rounded and humped but gradually more pointed and craggy, were all that could be seen through the gaps between the lineside trees. But, mile by mile, and as the comfortable urbanity of metropolitan Munich was left way behind, the mountains slowly closed in on the train. The flatness of the countryside immediately by the line gave way to forested and farmed foothills with mountains - real mountains - rising up behind and beyond them.
Alpine farmhouses with large-eaved wooden roofs and balconies, and surrounded by fields that looked as well-kempt as fine velvet, were perched in unlikely places halfway up the sides of these monsters. It was the much-loved scenery of The Sound of Music and Heidi. I half-expected to see groups of ringlet-haired, blonde girls singing The Happy Wanderer, accompanied on accordions and tubas by fat little boys in lederhosen. There go my prejudices and stereotypes again....
I did my best to take a picture or two - with mixed results (as you can see above). You just have to be there.
It was the most magnificent mountain scenery I had ever been anywhere near. And I was there, in amongst it. I must have smiled to myself particularly widely and stupidly because I was suddenly aware that the man sitting oppsite me was saying ‘Wundershoen, ja mein Freund?’ - ‘Isn’t it lovely, my friend’. In my broken down German, I agreed with him. Yes, it was; wundershoen.
At last, I thought, I was giving free rein to my love of trains. This was international travel as it was meant to be. This was passion and intimacy - and style! My Nana used to say that, if God had meant us to fly, He wouldn’t have given us trains. Little did she know how right she was.
On the one hand, you’re strapped inside a white box, you’re bored to death for a couple of hours and you’re deposited not in the city you want to see but in its soulless airport several expensive miles away. On the other, you board a sleek and sexy transcontinental train, sit back in roomy comfort, are whisked in ‘real-time’ through real and ever-changing scenery and are deposited in the very heart of your destination city with the feeling that you’ve really travelled - you’ve been somewhere.
I was still chatting to my German friend (Hans - seriously) when, completely unannounced and with no fanfare at all, the train passed from Germany into Austria. I was in the fourth country of my Tour.
If you think of Austria as a mass of dark, close-hemmed, tree-clad, snow peaked mountains laced with pretty, Alpine villages and stately cities with broad avenues and boulevards lined with expensive-looking shops and boutiques, you’d be absolutely right. My train wasn’t in Austria for long but it amazed me that they managed to build a railway there at all. On every side the mountains towered and folded into valleys and peaks. The line clung to whatever foothold it could find as it wove its way deeper into the range, towards what appeared, from where I was sitting, to be the only reasonably level valley anywhere in the vicinity.
It was the valley of the River Inn and the city that grew up by the bridge across it was, of course, Innsbrueck - 'Inn Bridge'.
The line crosses the city on an embankment so you get good views of the aforementioned avenues and boulevards. It was a lovely Spring morning, and the city sparkled with sunshine and people and traffic and trams. It looked prosperous and benign. And its setting is incomparable. The river rushes through the green centre of the city and the mountains of the Tyrol hem it in, picture-book style.
For some unfathomable reason, the train didn’t stop at Innsbrueck. Instead, it made its way slowly and carefully over the embankment and out of the city on its way south.
The train began to climb. Each time we rounded one of the many tight curves, the river was further below us. The line wound around the contours of the mountains as the train picked its way slowly higher and higher. It was strange to see farms and villages and whole towns above us, higher up the mountain slopes. Flimsy-looking bridges carried motorways across wide chasms far above our heads while a sheer slope led down through the pines to the river way, way below us.
The railway builders had no choice but to construct this precarious, mountain-hugging line if they wanted to get to Italy the most direct way. Across the Brenner Pass.
Mountain passes are always dramatic and exciting. Mountain passes that fight for a way between countries, even moreso. Add the Alps, the Tyrol and the Dolomites and you have a recipe for railway-borne drama of the highest order.
My heart was in my mouth as the train clung to the precipitous sides of several valleys and made its way slowly and gingerly to the summit of the Pass. The mountains were no longer a distant temptation. Instead, we were deep in their hearts. We were higher above sea-level than the top of Ben Nevis. (You can see some startling images of the Brenner Pass, and of the international motorway with which the railway line shares the Pass, if you Google.)
At Brenner station, the line crosses the border into Italy. Already, I was in country number five.
This is what the Lonely Planet Guide to Italy says about the Verona B&B I booked myself into for the next two nights....
‘Opera divas and fashionistas rest up in the heart of the action in this recently-restored 19-century townhouse, one block from the Arena off boutique-lined Via Mazzini. Spacious guestrooms have high wood-beamed ceilings, antique armoires for stashing purchases - and divans for swooning after shows’.
The Guide like the place so much that they make it their ‘pick of the town’, which is precisely why I decided to stay there.
Well, to be honest, there were two other reasons. Firstly, it wasn’t too expensive. And secondly, I wanted to know what an armoire was - not by looking in a dictionary but by going to the Anfitheatro B&B in Verona and finding out in person.
The B&B’s name - and the reference in the Guide’s review to the ‘Arena’ - indicates at once why so many people from all over the world come to Verona; for its breathtaking Roman amphitheatre, which was indeed a matter of mere yards from my accommodation. It’s been there since the Romans built it 2,000 years ago and, unlike the Colosseum, it’s still in use (though not, as far as I know, for gladiatorial combat).
And that’s not all. The Arena holds ( - wait for it - ) 30,000 people and every performance staged there during its summer season is a complete sell-out. Two friends of mine spent their honeymoon at nearby Lake Garda and, just for the hell of it, attended an opera performance at Verona’s Arena (despite not being fans of opera). They loved every minute of it; the music, the orchestra, the singing, the lights, the atmosphere - and the infectious passion for opera that was evident all round them.
And the Arena was just about the first thing I saw after my two-minute bus ride from the station. It forms one side of the green and fountained Piazza Bra - as you can see in the picture. Out of shot on the right is the Ente Libirico Arena, a grand 18th-century palace where indoor concerts are held in winter. Behind me were the ancient walls of the city, which still rise to their full height, and to my left lay an impressive - and very welcome - range of cafes and restaurants, housed in a splendid group of buildings known, mysteriously, as 'The Liston'.
My journey that day had been the longest of the Tour so far. I trundled my grip (as I still can’t help calling my hold-all) to the nearest one and flopped down to take in the view of the piazza. Fortunately, it was a gelateria that I’d chosen. I was thus able to enjoy my very first genuine Italian ice-cream. It was flavoured with real coffee and orange pulp, and had bits of scrunchy Italian almond biscuits in it.
It was scrumptious. I smiled inanely at passers-by and they smiled indulgently back at me. So indulgently, in fact, that it even looked as though some of them had heard about my Mad Adventure from their friends in Brussels, Cologne, Munich and Regensburg and had decided to humour me until I continued on my way.
(And OK - I admit it. I had two of those ice-creams.)
Verona is a World Heritage City and you don’t have to spend very long wandering up and down the narrow lanes of the city centre to realise why. The Arena and Piazza Bra tell only half the story - if that. The centre, which occupies an inner bend of the River Po, is a splendid warren of ancient streets punctuated here and there by small, open piazzas.
The best of these is the much-photographed Piazza del Herbe - see above. It lies at the top of Via Mazzini, the street on which I was staying. It was dusk by the time I reached it - and it looked absolutely magical. A long thin piazza lined with old-style street lamps and some of the best boutiques and restaurants in this part of Italy. Two magnificent mediaeval palaces also manage to squeeze in around its edge, and their tall, narrow, floodlit towers gave the square a splendour beyond its modest size.
I bought a pizza (naturally) and ate it sitting on the steps of the piazza’s ancient fountain. All around me was the night-time buzz of a Mediterranean city out enjoying itself. I was reminded - emphatically - that I had left behind all risk of frost; there would be no more severe alpine roofs for a while; no more Heidis and lederhosen. My northern European sensibilities would be no good to me here.
The train from Munich had brought me deep into my own dream. As I sat on the fountain steps, I realised that, unbelievably, I had travelled overland from Newcastle to Italy. I also realised - even more incredibly - that tomorrow another train would be taking me to the very heart of my dream.
Tomorrow I was due to visit one of the very, very few places on earth which, by common consent of all the people who go there, should be visited by everyone at least once in their lives.
Tomorrow I was going to Venice.
Not all those who wander are lost...
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