Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday, 27 July 2012

Someone asked where in the Olympic Park is the Excitement Building the media keep talking about. A small jaunt into town this afternoon, in the final hours before the hoopla gets under way in Stratford, suggested that there are plenty of people in London building their own excitement.

They probably have been for ages, of course, but in our immediate surroundings, it's mostly been manifested through the comings and goings of helicopters on HMS Ocean. Today, the boat-ride into London was accompanied by one of their commando landing-craft (though, since there were commandos strolling around the Tower later, they may well have just been going sightseeing).

But along the river are all the signs of what it's all for, with the French tall ship Belem moored not far from the old Billingsgate Fish Market building, which has been turned into Club France, the Qatari representation has taken over the Institute of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place and
Victoria Embankment Gardens not only one of many venues with an Olympic mascot on show, but also with a vaguely sporting theme for its floral arrangements.

In Trafalgar Square, a long line of rather flimsy-looking tentage offers temporary TV presentation studios with an over-the-shoulder reminder of where the camera and presenter are, while people from all over were queuing up to be photographed in front of the countdown clock. Not all were so impressed. A group of Australians with their own camera in tow were offering the suggestion of a golden kangaroo for the Fourth Plinth, which various associated suggestions that we Poms were going to be whitewashed in the Olympics, one way or another. We shall see.

It's no surprise to see people from all over in London, of course, but it's now very noticeable that the sights are now drawing groups of athletic-looking people clearly in their Olympic uniform, accompanied by various volunteers in their purple and pink uniforms (I know.....), or waving supporters' flags: an entirely unscientific sample identified Mexicans, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese in the space of a couple of minutes.
Not only that, but opportunities for national promotion aren't being missed by the visitors, any more than the hosts: one example is the Danish presentation in St Katharine's Dock, where a Viking longship sits alongside a rather larger vessel from Shenzhen, visiting Danes can watch their home TV coverage (including Queen Margrethe's husband opening the show this morning), and the rest of us can (they hope) be tempted by displays of Danish design and Danish food. For some reason their mascots here are pink plastic pigs, though quite what they're doing trying to sail yet another tall ship, I couldn't work out.

Now to try that Danish bread mix.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Any excuse for a photo of a sailing-ship, in this case the Stad Amsterdam. This is just one of the new arrivals at Canary Wharf.

There have often been one or two expensive-looking private yachts moored up at South Dock, but those have been moved away into what looks like a less convenient and attractive spot.

Instead, South Dock now houses two substantial ships - the one nearest the camera belongs to the owner of Westfield, the Australian supermarket chain, whose new Stratford shopping centre is the major commercial investment in the regeneration of the Olympic Park area (so that would explain any number of red carpet receptions): but what, you might ask, of the big blue behemoth behind?

That, it seems, is owned by the co-founder of Microsoft, and is called (not inappropriately, though I doubt if he's aware of the irony) Octopus. So now you know where your money goes: it's so big (with not just one launch, but a swish cabin cruiser - just visible at the bottom left of the photo below - and a fair-sized tender, presumably for the nautical Microserfs) and takes up so much space that one wonders it isn't called Octopus 8.0. No word yet on how often it crashes.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Startling discovery!

It may be a belated discovery, but that's what comes of being taught a language with a view to studying the high literary culture rather than everyday life: in French, paper clips are called "trombones".

That is all.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Feeling that you've arrived in a stage set may be a common feeling for the tourist, in the midst of images familiar from films and books; Austria manages to achieve the effect in less expected surroundings.

Village houses in the Tirol often have painted decorations as a presumably cheaper way of adding some more upmarket period detailing. Even the new community centre in one village (school, meeting hall and fire station all in one) has a mediaeval look with its complete painted window:

The churches were no less theatrical. The Wilten Basilica in Innsbruck has additional balcony fronts that seem to serve no other purpose than to display yet more gilded plaster moulding alongside what is already on the pulpit and organ gallery, matched for lightness, brightness, size, and decoration by some of the ordinary village churches in the Stubaital, where the galleries could as well be in a big city theatre - and even the confessional might be a private box at the opera:

Saturday, 21 July 2012

An old flame drops in

The stories associated with the Olympics haven't done much to soften most Londoners' habitual weary cynicism, but the hoopla around the torch relay, which seems to have been working elsewhere in the country, might just have begun to warm up the mood with the weather. The TV news coverage of its arrival in London last night, abseiled into the Tower of London, showed Our Beloved MayorTM sporting an actual haircut for the occasion (though I suppose it might just have been the effect of whatever was trimming the hedge through which he normally looks as though he's been dragged backwards). Today it (the torch, not the haircut - do keep up) was wending its way through various parts of East London, including the Mile End Road, a mere bus ride away.

With half an hour to go before its likely passage past the tube station, there was hardly a crowd gathering, but certainly more than would usually suggest old-fashioned "loitering with intent". But it wasn't long before the road was lined three or more deep, the whistles that seem an unavoidable mark of public celebration these days, and the blow-up advertising batons being given out by sponsors, were making a noticeable din, and the traffic was stopped.

Eventually (and, if anything, ahead of schedule), a convoy of cars and buses appeared, then sponsors' floats (Samsung advertising rather than chucking out free samples of their latest smartphone - this is the Olympics, you know, not the Tour de France). What looked like a horsebox halted outside the tube station, and there was a pause while cameramen clustered round it and everyone strained to see what was happening. Perhaps the torch itself was changing hands to a new bearer, because in a matter of seconds, one last van led the torch, bearer and accompanying security team as they almost sprinted past, and vanished away down towards Stepney.

You might just catch a glimpse at the end:

Friday, 20 July 2012

Adventures in machine translation

Every morning, our hotel in the Stubaital would give us an overview of the day's weather and some suggestions for the day's activities. One day the English version on our breakfast table proposed a walk to look at the monastery bodice - an intriguing prospect, till the German teachers of English on the neighbouring table pointed out that the German for "bodice" was more or less the same as the name of a village further down the valley. We also had suggestions for "fastidious mountain routes", and one of the mountain lodges in the area (the Oberrisshütte, if you're interested) was translated (semantically if not semiologically correctly) as "the upper crack shack".

Machine translation still has a long way to go (as any fule kno). Likewise, perhaps, the idea that a suitable deterrent for drivers tempted to speed would be a simple life-size photograph of a policeman, safely padlocked to a lamp-post.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Another day, another gondola

Not bad for a view from one's hotel room, is it? This was what greeted me on arrival in the Tirol: a view all the way up the Stubaital to the glacier up at 3000m, the steep slopes showing how the glacier carved the valley out millennia ago.

Nowadays one might even wonder whether there'll be a glacier there for much longer. On the tops, the snow has melted far further back than in previous summers, leaving large parts of the ice exposed to the sun; summer ski-ing has stopped, and large areas of snow are covered by canvas. Where snow and ice have melted, all that is left is a daunting, even depressing, moonscape of rocks and scree; but on the walk down through what feels like a succession of seasons or climate zones, into increasing greenery, spotting gentians and waiting for sheep to pose artistically (some hopes), the views are stunning:

Walk down, you'll notice I said, following a ride up in the cable gondola. There are several in the valley, accessing different starting points for winter ski-runs and summer walking (and tobogganing and paragliding for the intrepid).
Down the valley a little way, another route starts with equally stunning views inside a bowl of jagged peaks, but from somewhat lower, so that from the start a smooth path leads down through wooded slopes, and alpine meadows where the cattle have plenty of buttercups to graze on, to an "alm" (presumably meaning a refuge, but in practice usually a comfortable lodge-cum-restaurant) with a dog snoozing in the afternoon heat.

For a really dramatic view, one (but not me) could see what the paragliders see - as from this launch ramp at one of the top stations.

Personally, I prefer a more sedate way down to the valley floor. I'm happy to keep my feet safely on the ground while I admire their skill as they circle in to land.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

A village band festival

You don't realise that Austria isn't that small a country, at least from side to side, until you travel the five hours by train from Vienna, at the eastern end, with Slovakia on its doorstep, to Innsbruck and on into the Tirol at its western end, with Germany, Switzerland and Italy within day-trip distance. Here in the mountains, villages even in valleys now barely half an hour by bus or car from Innsbruck were relatively remote until there was investment, not so long ago, in roads and transport to entice winter sports enthusiasts, summer walkers, mountain bikers and the like.

Here the traditional doesn't mean the grandeur of the Habsburg palaces but home-grown entertainments like the village band; and on our first day in the Stubaital we went to a neighbouring village to see the parade of bands from villages round about. If I understood the parade announcer correctly, some of the bands date back to the late eighteenth century, and even villages with quite a small resident population can get together 40 or 60 people, of all ages, to join the band.

This being another in a series of very hot days, much of the heavier traditional uniform was safely parked while everyone fortified themselves in the beer and sausage tents, before eventually streaming off to the mustering point for the start of the parade, while the guests of honour mounted the temporary podium by the road.

The formalities required the recital of quite a long list of people of consequence in regional and local government, and in the organisations promoting and supporting the bands, before the parade itself started. Apparently the federal Minister of Education is a member of one of the bands, but was away at some international conference. Fourteen bands in all paraded past, each preceded, Olympic-style, by a banner announcing who they were (some of them appeared to be competing for a "winsomest tots" award), and the ceremonial schnapps-bearers. Some stopped in front of the dignitaries to perform various marching manoeuvres; and eventually the guests of honour were lined up behind the last band to march off in their turn, back to the beer tent. Here there were more speeches, cheerfully ignored in the convivial re-fortification and general conversational catching-up, before bands gave a sit-down concert in the village pavilion: the only one we stopped to hear surprised me by playing some British music (and very well too).

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Friday, 13 July 2012

Vienna (3)

My last day's photographs in Vienna managed to get lost, since the camera that took them went for a holiday of its own somewhere en route, but there are plenty of better photos of the Upper Belvedere palace (more status display, this time by Prince Eugene, a successful general, and didn't he want to underline that in architecture), of the giant funfair and Ferris Wheel in the Prater and of the Danube itself. Pity about the lost photo of the place advertising "Running Sushi and Running Fondue", but perhaps that's something best left to the imagination anyway.

The main interest was the collection in the Belvedere, and particularly Klimt's "Kiss", photos of which just don't seem to do full justice to its size, or to the glow of its gold (particularly in the background, which tends to look like a muddy brown in a lot of reproductions, if it's not cropped out altogether). One might almost be looking at a mediaeval tapestry.

But though that's what most people rush to see, there is much more worth the looking at. One of the first paintings to hit the eye is one of five of David's huge portrait of Napoleon crossing the St Bernard Pass, with hubristic allusions to past heroes who took armies over the Alps - among them Hannibal (did he forget just what happened to Carthage in the end?). Walk into one of the circular rooms with a panoramic view of the park, and there's something that I'd seen on TV not so long ago, Messerschmidt's "character heads", all arranged in a circle and grimacing at the view. In among sundry other Romantic paintings are a few by Caspar David Friedrich - this one in particular has his characteristic atmosphere of mystery and hidden meaning:

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Vienna (2)

It wasn't all bling and pomposity in Vienna, or even in the Hofburg. This vast palace includes lots of different collections under the banner of the Museum of Art History, up and down its sweeping marble-clad staircases and corridors. We weren't particularly interested in the arms and armour or classical archaeology, but went on up to the musical instrument collection, the lift to which has a comfortably-upholstered bench. After a day's museum-walking, it was tempting to consider just riding up and down in the lift for the afternoon to enjoy the sit-down.

The collection has samples of just about every sort of European classical instrument from about the mid-16th century onwards - anything you can blow, pluck, strum or bash to make music seems to be there, from shawms, sackbuts and rebecs to the actual pianos used by Brahms and Mahler (indeed the later collection seems to be very piano-heavy - inevitably, because that's the instrument that developed and changed more recently, and of course takes up most space); this being Vienna, there are also ingenious tables that convert into music stands for up to a quartet. Though the collection itself is firmly behind ropes and glass, there are hands-on modern examples of the action of different keyboard instruments (I rather fancied the sound of a spinettino, which is also conveniently small for a flat like mine).

But the most engaging exhibit for me was to do with the oldest instrument of all: a "singing table", a printed table cover with the music and words all laid out for the different singers to gather round the table and perform for their after-dinner entertainment - and to think this had survived more or less intact since 1590!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Vienna (1)

You rarely get the best view of a city on the journey into it, and Vienna is no exception. The train from the airport loops around this refinery; this sort of complex elaboration turned out to be something we would meet again.

In their heyday, the Habsburg emperors acquired (mostly by marriage, it would seem) the overlordship of many different realms and territories. In one Tirolean village, I saw from the bus a wall painting recording some mediaeval grant or honour to a worthy local citizen, in a text where the recipient got the briefest mention, but the emperor's titles were recorded in full: not just Holy Roman Emperor, but Archduke of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Portugal and every separate province of Spain, Duke of Burgundy, with various titles relating to Silesia, Galicia, Bukovina, etc., etc., - and thanks to Columbus, "King of the Atlantic Ocean" into the bargain.

This profusion of detail is emphasised in the vast size of the Hofburg palace. On the outside, there are images of heroic struggle: pompous roof statues celebrate victories and the Labours of Hercules loom over leisurely fiaker rides.

Inside, the Schatzkammer holds some ancient treasures - a crown from the 10th century, an agate dish from the 4th century - but it's noticeable that many of the symbols of all the different titles and realms of the Habsburgs seem to be designed - like so much of our George IV's grandiosities - as a riposte to Napoleon. If he was going to declare himself an Emperor and the Holy Roman Empire dissolved, then the Habsburgs would become Emperors of Austria, and carry on adding titles (with the crowns and robes and assorted bling to go with them). By the time you get to the state apartments, that kind of excess applied to things like massive silver and gilt tableware, combined with the relatively spartan military discipline with which Franz Josef conducted his life makes the story of his wife Elizabeth (Sisi) entirely understandable.

No wonder that, like many other nineteenth-century women, she developed the kind of undefinable illness that required extensive "cures" away from court life (though it's quite another story why that, even combined with her assassination on her travels, should have led, some 60 years and more later, to such a Diana-like cult in the German-speaking world that there's a special exhibition just for her).