On the Choo-Choo Train

There is one thing we can never pass up if we are around, and that is an old steam railway. Of course they have one on Isle of Wight, and with our very handy buss pass, we could make a very comfortable round trip to the south-east part of the island, where the old Victorians used to go for holiday. The young Elisabethans seem to enjoy it as well, but the English summer holidays were still a few weeks away when we were there and the beaches were hardly crowded. Not that we are into beach life, at all. We are more into constantly moving, slowly, from waterhole to waterhole; that is: pubs, cream tea shops, cafés, and restaurants.

Plant a flag: the English way to conquer the world.
If you want such a leisurely pace to really work for you, you have to be meticulous about your research. These museum trains and summer-only operated railway lines often have a very restricted schedule, and if you want to get the most of your day (and not go peckish unnecessarily), do plan ahead. This is my job, and I usually get it right.

So, we set off in the morning by bus to Wootton (it can be hard to know where to get off, but busdrivers are always helpful that way), which was one end-station on the small bit of track left for the steamtrain. We weren´t the only excited holiday makers waiting, and if I hadn´t known that Mick Aston was no longer on this Earth, I would have thought he was there. Doppelgänger!

The central railway station was Havenstreet, and we stayed there for about an hour while the train made one turn back and forth between Wootton and Smallbrook Junction, where we were eventually getting off to take the railcar to Shanklin. Actually, that was an old London tube train that had been retired to summer duty on the Isle of Wight.

There is much to do at Havenstreet; they have a museum, a shop, a workshop where you can see the enthusiasts working to keep their railroad tiptop. There is also a café where you can buy the famous Minghella ice cream, which I know about from a documentary about ice cream that was on television a few years ago. The Minghellas are from Italy and came to the Isle of Wight in the 50´s. The famous director Anthony Minghella is one of theirs, and for every one of his premiers they composed a special flavour ice cream. I would have liked to try the Ripley ice cream, but it was not available. I had the Famous Vanilla and it was very nice. They do some pretty interesting flavours, if that´s your thing.

Consumption may be a thing of the past, but spitting is still objectionable.


As it was Saturday and lunchtime, we were lucky enough to see and hear a band while we had our Minghellas. It was really a great day, lots of people, and that generosity of spirit that make them hold the train for five minutes so that even the slower folk can get on. It was simply my favourite kind of place to be! 

We then finally got off in Shanklin, which is one of those quaint Victorian seaside resorts. We had lunch, and by the time we got to the end of the promenade, we found ourselves at the entrance of something called the Shanklin Chine. Chine (pronunced tʃaɪn) is a local word for ravine, and in this particular ravine, a park has been built along the stream that runs through it. They have some birds in cages, a small museum, a café (of course), and I imagine it would have been a cool place of refuge from the hot sun for the ever properly dressed Victorians. There is also on display, in situ as it were, a piece of the PLUTO, the PipeLine Under The Ocean, that supplied the allied troups with fuel after the D-day landings. How cool is that?


At the top of the chine one comes out at the Shanklin Old Village and a very conveniently situated pub. After taking care of our thirst, we hopped on a bus to Ventnor, another, smaller, seaside resort further south down the coast. There we had some cream tea and just generally smiled contentedly, which is my dictionary´s translation of the Swedish word mysa. It´s not an altogether satisfactory translation, mysa is more about an inner state than an outward expression. But being content is certainly part of it.

All in all, a glorious day, which is just the thing to sit and remember when the darkness of winter envelops us as early as four o´clock in the afternoon...


Norwegian Wood - part V (the book)

I finished Hakuri Murakami´s novel "Norwegian Wood" a few days ago and have been mulling over what to write about it. I liked it a lot better than I expected to do, and I find it hard to express why. Every time I try to phrase something, it ends up being a discussion on what happens in the story, and I certainly don´t want to spoil it for you, if you´d like to read it. So let me start with a warm and firm recommendation: do read this book, it´s great.

It all takes place in Japan, of course, mostly in Tokyo in 1969 and 1970. However, it could really be anywhere I ever lived; the characters listen to western music and read western books. Beatles´ songs (of course), Bach, Brahms, Fitzgerald´s "The Great Gatsby", Hesse´s "Beneath the Wheel", and Mann´s "The Magic Mountain". I does occur to me though, that while my culture has allowed me to get all these references more or less without effort, a Japanese kid in the late 60´s may have had to be pretty particular in his interests to pick this up. Or perhaps not. I really don´t know enough to say. The Wikipedia article on Murakami says that "...Western influences distinguish Murakami from other Japanese writers". Perhaps that is why he is so popular, a superstar in Japan, I understand. And of course, his name comes up every year in the weeks running up to the announcement of who has been awarded the year´s Nobel Prize in literature.

The protagonist´s name is Watanabe, a drama student who is more intelligent and hard-working than really enthusiastic about his subject. He is an outsider with very few friends. Those who choose him seem to do so because he is accepting of them. Many of them say that he is so funny, and says such strange things, but actually, he mostly agrees with everything they say, which I found amusing. He tends to end up in triangular relationships, as a kind of emotional balance to couples with problems. After a while he even notices this himself.
...I don’t know how long it’s been since I had such a total sense of relief. People are always trying to force stuff on me. The minute they see me they start telling me what to do. At least you don’t try to force stuff on me.” “I don’t know you well enough to force stuff on you.” “You mean, if you knew me better, you’d force stuff on me like everyone else?” “It’s possible,” I said. “That’s how people live in the real world: forcing stuff on each other.” 

Watanabe and those close to him: his best friend Kizuki; Naoko, who is first Kizuki´s girl and then Watanabes; Midori, a classmate at university; Nagasawa, who lives in the same dorm as Watanabe; Hatsumi, Nagasawa´s girl; they are  all in their late teens or early twenties, no longer children but not yet adults. The only older person we meet is Reiko, who comes into Watanabe´s life through Naoko, but even Reiko is someone who is having trouble adjusting to "normal" Japanese life. The only one with a plan and a strategy for success is Nagasawa, but he is also very selfish and cruel.
“The way I see it, people are working hard. They’re working their fingers to the bone. Or am I looking at things wrong?” “That’s not hard work. It’s just manual labour,” Nagasawa said with finality. “The ‘hard work’ I’m talking about is more self-directed and purposeful.” “You mean, like studying Spanish while everyone else is taking it easy?” “That’s it. I’m going to have Spanish mastered by next spring. I’ve got English and German and French down pat, and I’m almost there with Italian. You think things like that happen without hard work?”
Parents are only spoken of; they are financers of studies or not approving of this or that. Even Watanabe, who is an only child and seemingly has a good relationship with his parents, never takes us home to meet them. We actually meet one parent in 400 pages, but that is someone who is in no position to excercise any power.

The only time in the book that Watanabe says anything that isn´t a direct response to what is going on around him, he is talking about his studies of Euripides:
“What marks his plays is the way things get so mixed up the characters are trapped. Do you see what I mean? Lots of different people appear, and they all have their own situations and reasons and excuses, and each one is pursuing his or her own idea of justice or happiness. As a result, nobody can do anything. Obviously. I mean, it’s basically impossible for everybody’s justice to prevail or everybody’s happiness to triumph, so chaos takes over. And then what do you think happens? Simple – a god appears at the end and starts directing the traffic. ‘You go over there, and you come here, and you get together with her, and you just sit still for while.’ Like that. He’s a kind of fixer, and in the end everything works out perfectly. They call this ‘deus ex machina’. There’s almost always a deus ex machina in Euripides, and that’s where critical opinion divides over him. “But think about it – what if there were a deus ex machina in real life? Everything would be so easy! If you felt stuck or trapped, some god would swing down from up there and solve all your problems. What could be easier than that? Anyway, that’s History of Drama. This is more or less the kind of stuff we study at university.” 
Without knowing it, he speaks of the world he and his friends are living in. Except that the "deus ex machina" is Japanese society and the solutions it offers is not always acceptable. And what is the alternative to acceptance?

As I was reading the book, I was really just caught up in the mood of it. I did a few underlinings when I came across a part that felt more powerful, and now that I go back to those quotes, they all seem to sum up the novel, more or less. The scenes are all so tranquil, it´s mostly two or three people sitting around or walking in the countryside, talking about this and that. Nothing really dramatic ever happens - or no, actually: dramatic, horrible, life-changing stuff happens, but in a very quiet and ordinary and banal kind of way. From the perspective of having read the whole book, it´s like every line I go back to is charged with meaning. The novel is magical that way.

Oh yes, this is Nobel Prize worthy, no question about it. And I will certainly read more of him. This is a writer just perfect for me: great mood, great language, accessible but not shallow. The story is not over my head, but neither is Murakami "writing on my nose", which is to say that he isn´t trying to teach me anything in an obvious way. A real master.


A National Treasure

I noticed that a my post about the squirrel was getting a lot of hits. This made me think more about Alice Babs, who sings the squirrel-song in that clip. I don´t know if the younger generation knows much about her, but when I grew up, she was an institution, practically. National treasure and court singer, by special appointment to the King.

The first thing most people think about when they think of Alice Babs, is her break-through film and hit song, "Swing it, magistern" from 1940:

(put on youtube by frogpondium)

It´s pretty hard to imagine, but Babs was like the Ozzy Osborne of her day. "Swing it, magistern" - the lyrics go something like: swing it, mr teacher, it´s the song of our time, we don´t want the old nursery rhymes, we want be-bop, teacher, swing it! - was considered the devil´s music, designed to seduce the innocent young Swedes to sinful behaviour. Proper associations were formed dedicated to combat these new strange sounds and the debate was rather rancourus (if not outright racist; I don´t intend to spell it out) at times. I saw a documentary about her just a few years ago and she was still finding it hard to understand, she was still very emotional about it. It must have been horrible to experience for a girl just 16 years old. Before "Swing it", she was known as a yodeling girl, and 1939 she heard Duke Ellington for the first time, which hooked her on jazz.

The controversy didn´t stop her from singing whatever she liked, and in the 50´s she was part of trio Swe-Danes, with Danish musicians Svend Asmussen and Ulrich Neumann, which is mostly remembered for the Scandinavian Shuffle:

(on youtube by wasaexpress)

Babs´ voice had a range of three and a half octaves. This caught the attention of Duke Ellington, who wrote the second and third of his Sacred Concerts with her in mind:

(on youtube by roger b)

Directing the Swedish Radio Choir in this performance is the legendary Eric Ericson, by the way. There is more of them here.

All her career she also worked a lot with pianist Charlie Norman:

(at youtube by nostalogteket)

She was 75 at this performance. And despite having lived a whole life doing such sinful music, she led a scandal-free life; she married at 19, had three children (one of whom, Titti Sjöblom, is also a singer), and lived happily until she was widowed two years ago.

These days, sadly, she does not sing. She has been diagnosed with Alzheimers and is in a carehome, almost 90 years old. A real legend.


Norwegian Wood - Part IV (the song)

There is probably not a single Beatles-song in the universe that everyone hasn´t heard at some point, and of course I recognized this. The lyrics really fit Murakami´s novel, the scene in the song might be any scene, with any two of the main characters in the book. It really nails the mood.

I chose this Alanis Morissette-version, because I love her. I can still remember the exact moment I first heard "You oughta know", and exactly how I felt...

(From trulycinderella, over at youtube.)

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...
She showed me her room, isn't it good, norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.

I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"

She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, norwegian wood.

(From lyricsfreak.)


Norwegian Wood - part III (PAiN)

Wednesday, I went to my first ever performance. Which is weird, considering I have always been interested in art. However, I tend to avoid big events; it is my personal preference to watch art alone, in silence - I find that the impact is greater that way. And this proved to be true this time as well. I had asked a friend I thought might be interested to accompany me, but she was prevented from going. And perhaps performance art isn´t what most Swedish artists do. It decidedly isn´t up here where we live, anyway. Which I suppose PAiN wants to change.

I had never been to Galleri Syster, either. I had expected there to be an art exhibition on the walls, kind of like they don´t clear the walls of the gallery at the Culture House when there are music performances there, but I guess this is different. The gallery isn´t large, more like a small boutique; the furniture (wardrobe, fika stall, seats) is all moveable and flexible. Chairs were stacked by the entrance and the visitors, if they needed one (and they did) got their own and sat down wherever felt good. There was a hostess, a girl in a white princess dress, and baby (non-alcoholic) cider, which is inescapable at any Swedish vernissage.

The program said Performance Art i Norr (PAiN) was presenting "Hembesök" (= homecoming or house call), a three act performance by three formerly local artists. It started at seven, ended at half past eight, with a break for fika.

The first performance, by artist Ingentinget (= the No Thing), or Heidi Edström as her real name is, was already in progress and continued the entire evening. Her piece is called "Cumbersome dough" and is part of a series where she is exploring the idea of lumps, which she defines as anything sticking out and breaking the norm, things continually being edited, cleaned away, pushed aside, things that don´t fit into our fantasy about the ordered existence with it´s straight lines. She makes me think about the fashion for stylistically pure spaces; stilren is one of the favourite words of those interested in interior design that keeps making me cringe.

At first, I just thought what a novel, strange idea, to try to hold a gigant dough in one´s arms for almost two hours. Then I thought, that´s just what I´m doing - kind of. Trying to control what can´t be controlled, trying to contain something that will not let itself be contained. The husband is constantly making jokes about me struggling with the forces of entropy (which is, in our household, upheld by him, haha). And struggling with dough - it seems like such a female struggle. A particularly female lumpy thing. I almost teared up, I felt it so keenly. And I wondered if she had put yeast in her dough; I wouldn´t be surprised if she had. She was entirely serious the whole time, the dough was clinging to her dress and as she struggled with it she reminded me of a greek statue. I was seeing this in my mind´s eye, but I was thinking Prometeus.

After twenty minutes, Natalie Avigdor´s performance "Ashes" started. The program says the piece is about revival, about the Phoenix rising from the ashes. She has shown this performance before, but it fits really great into the framwork of "Norwegian Wood", I think. This makes me think, as I sit there, if perhaps the entire story (the suggested breakup, the suddenly empty calendar, what to do?) is fictional, something that started while she was still in Israel. Many artist have, lately, toyed with the concept of what´s real, what´s art, what´s biographical, and what´s fiction. She has said herself that there is a blurry line between performance art and life. Does it matter? The diary gives an impression of something authentic, but as a piece of art, would it change if it wasn´t? I don´t know. (Did Tracy Emin really sleep in that bed? I kinda hope not.)

I had seen this performance before, there is a film on Avigdor´s website, so I knew what to expect. Still, that is not the same thing as being there. Performance art, I now realize, has that in common with worship that you have to be there to participate - it´s not just a show. As the Labelle Sisters used to sing: the revolution will not be televised. Or it will, but television turns it into news or history. It doesn´t transform you unless you are there. That´s what I felt anyway.

I read a storybook about the Phoenix when I was little, and I remember the climax, the re-birth, as an explosion of colour and feather against a starry night sky (wish I still had the illustrations from that book!). Avigdor, however, just continues to lie there after she has been freed from the tape that held her down. She looks more like Gregor Samsa than a beautiful bird. Finally, she carefully gets up (there is much fiddling with the vest, no nipples in sight), and goes back to sitting in the corner. Scarred, charred, but essentially the same. A bit prim. Good point. So anti-Hollywood. So no-drama.

By now it was fika-time, but I had had enough. Too much going on in my head already. Ingentinget was still struggling with her cumbersome dough, her legs quivering under the strain, sometimes resting it on her back. It must have been really, really heavy. It occured to me that there is a baking scene in my novel that I have completely forgotten about. So I left, and didn´t see Eva Törmä´s performance "Forgive me". I wasn´t in the mood for forgiveness anyway, but I´m sure it was good. And this is one of the good things about not bringing company: you can leave when you feel like it.

It was a beautiful evening, the moon almost full as I walked home along the southern harbour. I´m really glad I came, and all thanks to Natalie Avigdor, who has really widened my horizon.


Officially Winter

When the first flakes fell on me yesterday, I thought it was pretty darn early. But my calendar says the first snow came exactly the same day last year.

Norwegian Wood - part II

I returned to Studio 31 a week after Natalie Avigdor´s vernissage, to look more closely at her work. There are three parts to the exhibition, pages from her diary (from this period that the whole artwork is trying to summarize), photographs, and paintings.

The diary pages are the first thing you see, as they are displayed in the hallway in to the store. Now, I am always curious about other people´s notebooks, and I have written here on the blog both about my own writing habit, and a great book I have about journals. I think that most people in creative work, who are constantly trying to come up with new ideas or solve problems, use some form of notebook, as it is a great tool to trawl the deeper levels of consciousness. And of course, it has great therapeutic value to write one´s innermost thoughts.

One interesting thing about Avigdor´s pages is that the left-side page was upside-down. I can not know how many books she filled with notes during these three months (and October is not over yet, so - is the artwork still in progress? I suppose so.) and I´m not sure how she mounted her display, but I know that with some of my own notebooks, it was impossible to write with any comfort on the left side of a spread. So, I would simply write only on the right side until I got to the end, and then turn the notebook upside-down and write it the same way back to the beginning. However, it makes for some very awkward reading.

I´m not sure if Avigdor wrote her journal that way or if she chose to display some notes upside-down to make them harder to read. More private, perhaps? I snapped one upside-down page and read it, and found a quote from her vernissage programme, "Du är perfekt, men inte för mig..." (= your are perfect, but not for me). I just assumed that this was something she had been told (it´s such a cheesy breakup line, isn´t it?), but according to the diary, she told someone that. And perhaps that´s the meaning of the upside-down pages: that it´s not what you think, it´s more complex than you imagined, and I am not what I seem.

What I like most about her notebook pages are all the glued in pictures and doodles. The notes are very much like other women´s diaries (including my own): to-do lists, rambles about anxieties, fear of loosing control, relationships, ideas, plans, expectations, dreams. In this page above, with the pastoral scene next to it, she has just found out that she will be exhibiting at Studio 31 and that the project "Norwegian Wood" is off. It´s a happy page, a key moment in the whole project.

And then, I suppose I focused on the photos. They are all taken on a trip to Japan, and none of them are photoshopped, only the colours have been ever so slightly manipulated. Still, they look like they are from Wonderland, as if Avigdor slipped into a rabbithole going there. I have never been to Japan, but some of my friends say it is a place where you can really feel lost, because it´s so hard to navigate in a country where not just the spoken language is different, but even the written language, which makes it hard to even pick out names and such. And if that´s what Avigdor felt, her photos really express that - some kind of dreamy, futuristic, urban, wild Otherworld.

"#National Gallery" and "#Frog@Ueno_Z00"

"#Tree@Mt_Fuji" and "#Mirrors@Harajuku" 

I can´t decide if I like the frog or the shopping mall escalator best.

I didn´t connect so much with the paintings, but I will go by one more time, so perhaps I will have more to say about it later. Or not. I am reading Murakami´s "Norwegian Wood" - not sure how much that story connects with this.