I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a disaster tourist, but…
Kazakhstan is a country blighted by environmental disasters. One of the most heart-rending is the plight of the Saiga, a tiny, bulbous nosed antelope of the Steppe whose population has crashed during the last twenty years, largely due to poaching to fuel a medicine market in China that has been denied rhino horn. From a population of well over two million, 95% have died since the turn of this century, and the animal is now critically endangered. There are signs of hope now, though; they almost became extinct in the 1920s for much the same reasons – ironic that their safest time was during the Soviet years – and they recovered then: with protection, they can recover again, helped by their high reproductivity (males apparently often shag themselves to death, with spectacular results in the baby stakes). However, just as conservation is taking the matter seriously, the depleted herds are now falling victim to diseases like Pasteurellosis. My chance of seeing these animals is pretty remote, but a visit to the Steppes is a must, so hopefully I will. I’ve a much better chance of seeing wolves, mind you; despite the loss of Saiga, their prey, wolf packs are on the increase in Kazakhstan, to the extent where they are becoming a real menace in rural areas; they are turning to attacking cattle and occasionally people. While other wolves get a bad press, Kazakh wolves really are mean motherfuckers.
Let’s not let the Soviets off the hook too quickly, though. Of course, everyone has heard of the disaster of the Aral Sea. Desertified by Soviet incompetence in virtually draining it to irrigate crops that were never going to grow there anyway, a bustling fishing and shipping economy literally dried up and blew away. The meddling never stopped: as the salinity levels increased and the freshwater fish died, salt water species were introduced to try to prop up fishing communities. Now, as water management and damming offers some hope to save the Kazakh northern lake, these salt species themselves face extinction. Never, ever trust technology to solve an environmental problem: it ony seems to make matters worse. Best to try to return it to Mother Nature, I reckon. But the towns along what was the coast are apparently eerily beautiful, poignant, lost places, dotted with ship graveyards where camels graze between the rusting hulls. Disaster tourism isn’t pretty, but at least we can get a first hand look at Man’s stupidity to Man.
Or Man’s utter inhumanity to man. In the far east of the country, Semey is the city once known as Semipalatinsk. A pretty city with Tsarist buildings and connections with Kazakh and Russian literature (including Dostoevsky), it was the centre of the Russian nuclear weapons testing facilities during the Cold War. Four hundred and fifty-six weapons were tested in the area, over 150 in the atmosphere over the people’s heads. Slowly recovering, there are still areas within what was called The Polygon that are unsafe to go, and where visitors have to wear Geiger Counters at all times. The history of disease and birth malformation in the area is horrific – whatever you do, do not put the search term “Semipalatinsk” through Google image search, because the results will haunt you for days. Why do I want to go there? Well, its people’s sufferings drove the current Kazakh government to pledge themselves to rid the country of nuclear weapons – President Nazarbayev apparently narrowly avoided Soviet incarceration because of his unilateral decree to end tests in the country, and post independence, they successfully managed the transition to a nuclear free state. If anyone deserves good schools and committed teachers, it’s those people. If I can help with that, I’m up for it.
I’ve been poring over books about Kazakhstan for a few months now, ever since the possibility of working there appeared on my radar. It’s a massive country, and there are deserts and mountains and steppes with a dizzying variety of flora and fauna to get the head round: I’ll be planning a few camping trips to national parks, methinks.
However, it’s also the land of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan and Timur (or Tamburlaine the Great), a history of great hordes of nomadic warriors that ruled the world from China to Hungary at various times. The tales are of blood and brutality, in sharp contrast with empires like the Romans who were no less pathological but dressed it up with beauty in art and architecture. Genghis, Timur – well, their reputation is as destroyers.
Which is why want to get a sense of the reality. One building I’ll be fascinated to visit will be the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui in the southern town of Turkestan. Dating from 1405 and built by Timur in honour of the Islamic prophet, it is undoubtedly one of the great buildings of the world, even in its unfinished state. It gives glimpses of what Timur would achieve in the Registan in Samarkand (across the border in Uzbekistan, that’s another trip I’ll be making, especially if I can tie it in with a gig by the fabulous Sevara Nazarkhan!) – that gorgeous tiling, those beautiful domes, that momentous, yawning archway (seen from this angle). It’s little known outside the Islamic world – just looking at the surroundings, you get the sense that this is a place untouched by Western tourist tat, and all the better for it – but is surely a must.
Nearer to where I’ll be staying, the Mangistau desert reserve of the Ust-Urt plateau looks like nothing on this earth. Baked limestone cliffs and mountains arising out of sand, it resembles Mars. And yet, even here, there are hundreds of necropoli and underground mosques which are centuries old; it seems the nomads left more to mark their death than they ever did in life.
Of course, this will all have to wait for spring and summer: arriving in January, I’ll be hunkering down through the savage Kazakh winter; can’t wait, though, to see how the weather changes the landscape; if this eerily beautiful photo of Caspian ice encasing a pipeline is anything to go by, it’ll be an experience not to be missed. I have a set of ice grippers for my boots already ordered!
On Friday, I took the pretty momentous step of accepting an offer of a contract to undertake work for RIPSKO, the teacher development agency of the government of Kazakhstan. The country is investing heavily in education; a burgeoning economy, they are bucking the western European trend of cutbacks by growing their infrastructure and updating their education service. The work will involve delivering a Chartered-teacher style qualification to every single teacher in the country over five years, though I have signed on for an initial contract of nine months. It looks a fascinating project in a fascinating country, one that has embraced independence over the last twenty years, using its huge natural resources to create and develop a nation that is confident about its place in the world. Hey, it came twelfth in the Olympics medal table, with seven golds: for a country only twenty years old and with a population of only fifteen million, that’s pretty impressive. And, most heartening of all, after the break-up of the USSR, it found itself in the top 10 nuclear weapons powers in the world, and yet negotiated its way to unilateral nuclear disarmament through a process of transfer to the Russian Federation and decommissioning. In some ways, though obviously not all, it provides a template for how a hopefully independent Scotland might react to its new status.
So from mid-January, I’ll probably be living and working in Aktau, in west Kazakhstan and on the shores of the Caspian. It’s an oil-boom area, and the government are in the process of developing major beach tourist resorts there. Winters are vicious, summers are baking, but I’ll be in one of the more benign climates in this enormous country. Ninth largest in the world, its border with the USSR alone is over 4,500 miles long. Think John ‘o Groats to Berlin and you’ve got some idea of the scale. Being at one extremity, it’s going to be difficult to see the whole of the country, but I certainly aim to try.
Obviously, I’m apprehensive – I’ve never worked abroad before – but it’s a remarkable opportunity to meet new people and discover new cultures, art and music. I’m hopeless at languages and Russian is notoriously difficult, but hopefully I’ll pick up enough to survive.
Now, I just have to organise myself for leaving, get through a pile of stuff to leave my post at the University of Strathclyde, buy some really good winter clothing and find foster homes for my lovely cats. Easy.
My annual wee weekend away with pals takes us to Madrid, the first time I’ve ever visited Spain. It’s a lovely city, but odd in a number of ways. It doesn’t seem to have an identifiable vista like Paris or London or Edinburgh, and is a little like Glasgow in that the fantastic architecture is hidden at ground level by retail outlets.
There’s also highly visible long term poverty, including one poor bloke who camped outside a multiplex cinema virtually 24/7 for the duration of our visit. I’m in no way suggesting the many, many beggars we saw should be moved out of tourists’ view, nor that Madrid is any worse than any other capital city for its long term homeless: it just seems to me scandalous that in any civilised city – particularly one dominated so much by the Church – anyone still has to live on the streets, regardless of their social or mental or physical needs.
Finally, I’m quite discomfited by the guns everywhere: it seems store and hotel security men are licensed to carry guns too. I’m never happy around such people: they may ostensibly be there for “our protection”, but I firmly believe violence breeds violence. I remember being on a safari holiday in Kenya, and an armed soldier accompanied us on a walk along the banks of a crocodile infested river. He was ten times more threatening than those crocs who we never got within a hundred yards of us and who were separated by a wide river, and if he had extorted cash from us – as we were warned he might – we’d have handed it over pretty damn quick.
But it’s probably the most beautiful city I’ve been to for art, save Paris perhaps. The Prado, the traditional museum, is fantastic. Heavy on Velásquez, it includes the great Las Meninas. It’s an undoubted masterpiece, a clever, clever painting with it’s mirror image of the subject of the painting being painted in the painting (!) and the paintings of paintings on the far wall, along with the artist cocky and confident peering over the heads of the nosy royal family. It doesn’t do it for me, though, representing as it does the horrendous privilege of the Spanish court, led by the cruellest bunch of genetically compromised arrogant uglies you could ever imagine: chief amongst them is Felipe IV, one of the vainest men ever born given the number of portraits of him. The corruption is clear in the preponderance of dwarves and mental defectives brought to court to “entertain” this idle lot, and they were supported wholeheartedly by the most corrupt branch of the Catholic Church ever known. In celebration of my visit, I’m reading Antony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, and he makes it absolutely clear just how repressive Church and State were in maintaining a vicious and primitive feudal state all the way to the mid-20th Century. You can see the sense of entitlement in their faces.
He is a stunning painter, though, even if he did buy into the whole privilege thing. His Christ on the Cross is rightly one of the most famous of those images, and his Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan is fantastic. Forget the cheesy mythological subject matter, just look at the face of the guy second from the right. He could be your next door neighbour.
There’s a whole lot more. Goya is great too: I especially respond to his black paintings. Half Submerged Dog is one of the saddest paintings I’ve ever seen, even though there’s hardly anything in it, and Saturn Devouring his Son is surely one of the most disturbing paintings ever committed to canvas and one you don’t want in your head. Well, not actually: they were murals in his house transferred to canvas after his death. These were Goya’s idea of wallpaper. Eeek.
Obviously, royalty and religion figure heavily, and for a socialist, atheist republican, these don’t hold much significance for me. Some, though, are wonderful, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. The excellent audio guide points out why I find it visually so arresting and satisfying: it’s all about design and symmetry, the parenthetical figures right and left framing the group, the echoed body shapes of Christ and Mary. It’s gorgeous and vivid and nearly six hundred years old.
The painting I’m really here to see is almost as old and just as vivid and much, much stranger. Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delight is one of the most famous paintings in the world, largely because of its inspiration of a thousand prog rock album covers, Monty Python’s cartoon style and weirdos like Dali. I remember buying a book about it when I was sixteen and being amazed at the modernity of its imagery; in the flesh, so to speak, it is even more dazzling. Hell, of course, is the big draw here. It’s amazing how closely the darkened skyline lit by burning buildings and shafts of eerie light resemble a 20th century Blitz scene, and that’s echoed in his The Haywain and Pieter Breughel’s awful Passchendale landscape in The Triumph of Death.
There are two truly beautiful nudes that catch my eye. The first is Mariano Fortuny’s Male Nude in the Sun; I just love the old man’s expression, sunlight lighting and warming his face, the folds of skin on his belly speaking of a once hard and beautiful body now as fragile as a bird. The most stunning, I think, is Paul Baudry’s The Pearl and the Wave. Those perfect skin tones, those foaming waves, that look of promise over the shoulder make for as innocently erotic a painting as I’ve seen.
There’s one other that is quite stunning, but I’ll leave her for later.
The Reina Sofia at the end of the Paseo del Arte is a modern art gallery, and therefore, I’m afraid, much lost on me. I did, however, find another gobsmackingly beautiful nude, Roberto Fernández Balbuena’s utterly gorgeous Desnudo. However, I’m again here for the big one: Guernica, perhaps the most famous painting of the 20th century. I do admire and even like Picasso, and since visiting the Paris Picasso museum I have a huge respect for his technical skill: he was a fantastic draughtsman, for instance. Therefore, the surrounding exhibits tell a fascinating story of his preparatory work and his later revisions, as well as displaying some of the images of the Civil War that inspired him. The painting itself is truly monumental, and a real treasure. Standing in front of that renowned image of the wounded, terrified horse centre stage is truly visceral, and slowly but surely the other horrors – that mother off left, howling as she cradles her dead child in a tangle of misshapen limbs, for instance – beat down on the senses. It’s absolutely magnificent.
There are some fantastic spaces in the city. The CentroCentro building, housed in the old post office, is brilliant. Refurbished, it retains the old marble counter tops and brass edgings and fittings that so many transactions took place on, retaining a sense of history, and yet it is cool and utterly modern. Brand spanking new, it’s housing some photographic exhibitions just now, most notably Luis Baylon’s A Pair of Twos sequence that wittily recounts humans’ need to copy, to ape, to belong. Another great building is the train station (yes, I went to visit a train station – anorak) which has been extended and the platforms ripped out of the old building to house a huge, primeval forest that dinosaurs should inhabit. It’s great, and quite the loveliest rail waiting area I’ve ever been in.
There’s plenty of green space too, such as the Parque del Retiro, home to the lovely Velásquez and Crystal Palaces (which have been gutted to house – urgh – conceptual art works), or the Ptolemaic Temple of Debod, reconstructed after being given as a gift by the Egyptian government in the 1950s, overlooking the Casa de Campo.
The third big museum is the Thyssen- Bornemisza. I hate it because it’s the tax-dodging fiddle of a filthy rich dynasty that should never have been allowed to squirrel away this much art, but in many ways it’s the best of the lot and I love it for that. Take a deep breath: over three compact floors, you can see, among many others, Holbein (younger and elder), van Eyck, El Greco, Breughel, Canaletto, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals, Goya, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin, Lautrec, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Chagal, Dali, Rothko and Lichtenstein.
My favourites? Caravaggio’s beautiful Saint Catherine; Franz Hals’ Fisherman Playing the Violin, just because of the vitality of his face; Hopper’s Hotel Room because of it’s utter loneliness; Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror because I love Bacon, so there, and it’s weird and brilliant; Lucien Freud’s Portrait of Baron H. H. Thyssen-Bornemisza because I think Freud is one of the most honest portrait painters ever; Grosz’s Metropolis because of its utterly modern apocalyptic take on the city; and Estes’ People’s Flowers for it’s American reportage.
However, the paintings I most jump out of my skin at are two soppy Romantic portraits, each of a woman of whom I thoroughly disapprove. Amalia de Llano y Dotres, Countess of Vilches, whose portrait hangs in the Prado, was a monarchist writer in Spain when Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz painted her in 1854. Again, she represents corruption, privilege, cruelty; and yet she’s lovely. She was a friend of Madrazo y Kuntz , and that relationship comes across so beautifully in the seductive, playful tilt of her head and the cheeky, come-hither smile she gives the painter. The texture of her dress is beautifully realised too. It’s sickly sweet and yet just gorgeous.
In the Thyssen, though, there’s a painting I have to sit for fifteen minutes in front of. John Singer Sargent is well known to Scottish people for his world famous and breathtaking portrait of Lady Agnew in the National Gallery, but he does an even better job of Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland. Full size, romantic, straight-backed, utterly confident, she is magnificent. I know I shouldn’t like it politically (although she was said to be “liberal”, just ask any Scotsman what the Sutherlands did for Scotland) or artistically (all that merging into the natural world, all that floatiness), but I can’t help it. Singer Sargent may well be a relatively minor figure in art history, but by gum, he knew how to burn the image of a beautiful woman into your consciousness.
Strangely, it’s one the Thyssen doesn’t seem to value: its not an image used on postcards or tea towels or mugs; nor does she appear in any of the general guides. I don’t care; I loved it and would quite happily spend some time in her company again.
Ps – walking miles every day, getting out to eat late, we don’t manage any live flamenco, which I would have liked to see. However, I’ve brought back some interesting CDs of Copla music (a bit overwrought, for my taste, I have to say), nuevo flamenco and nuevo tango. The car’s jumping at the moment.
Wroclaw may be the one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve ever visited. Yes, Paris has more to see, Istanbul is more exotic, Venice is fascinating enough to have to exist in an alternate universe where people are born with gills. I’ll go back to any of them any time. But I really like this place. It is lovely and peaceful and architecturally amazing.
But it is all about facades. Big Baroque and Rococo facades. The buildings look so old, so distinguished, like aging gentlemen who take to wearing pastel shades of trouser, perhaps daring the occasional salmon pink blazer, perhaps adopting a penchant for collar length grey hair clipped beneath an expensive panama hat. All facades.
Sixty years go, little of this existed, bombed level as it was by Soviet artillery. It has been rebuilt, “sympathetically” restored, as if a plastic surgeon’s job is to make a face look exactly as old as it should be.
I’ve come here not in search of my father, but perhaps to catch a tiny glimpse of him. It’s impossible, of course. He would not recognise it at all, this vibrant, indolent city. Even the people have changed: Germans out, Poles in. It was somewhere different then, eighty years ago. It has been rebuilt with a different heart. Then, crowds perhaps gathered for political rallies, to hear the Nazi faithful, I imagine; now, the central square – as breathtaking as any I have seen – fills to watch a T-mobile festival of US cinema, the crowds watching Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (a Brit-film, of course), on a screen that Goebbels would have killed for. It is a heart of bars and restaurants – Greek! Spanish! Sushi! – and music clubs and impossibly pretty brunettes. What is it about head-turning Polish brunettes? Is it the broad cheekbones that suit those perfect blue eyes, those fantastic teeth?
My father would be too old for this city; I am too old for this city.
It is all so unfathomable too. I cannot get my Scottish tongue around the twisting words; “Hi” is pronounced “cheshch”, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce a word that consists of 86% consonants. It’s a Countdown nightmare. So I smile apologetically and settle for an English “Hi” that is in turn stolen from the Yanks, so why shouldn’t they have our films? It elicits a long-suffering smile.
I’m sorry. I’d say sorry in Polish, if I could pronounce “pshe pra-shem”. But I can’t.
Very Nice too. Some pals and I go away for a long weekend every year around this time. Last year was Venice (possibly my favourite ever city), the year before Aix-en-Provence (utterly magical). Nice is a different kettle of fish; built up, it’s a place where the eddies of wealth and power and consumption all come together; it’s obviously a place where the rich come to recycle their wealth through the casinos, marinas and yacht merchants, fabulously expensive designer stores, eye-wateringly plush hotels and fancy restaurants. As such, it’s not really my kind of place, but time with my friends is always welcome.
And it’s a great place for dotting about. Lunch over the border in Italy at Ventimiglia was lovely, though the town is awash with North African migrant workers fleeing the troubles in Libya; at the station, Red Cross workers handed out food parcels to dozens of desperate young men while their numbers were matched by threatening looking police. A long walk along the coast to Villfranche was great too. Trips to Monaco (lots of high-rise hotels and big fuck-off yachts) and Cannes (setting up tat for the film festival amongst the genteel hotels) kept us busy too.
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice is well worth a visit. I’m a bit ambivalent about modern art, largely because I think the language used to discuss it is deliberately designed to exclude ordinary people, and to create an artistic class that is self-referential in the extreme: a recent visit to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh had me spitting feathers at the utter pretentiousness of much of the rubbish there.
However, as with all art, there is stuff that has the capacity to move deeply, and the Nice museum – a striking modern building that closes in on itself while at the same time looking out across the panorama of the city – contains some terrific work. I particularly liked Assan Smati in the temporary collections: his big pink centaur was stunning. I also like Sara Sze’s installations, one (“The Uncountables”) a dazzling collection of tiny bric a brac that invites you to mull and browse and speculate.
The permanent collection is great too. Best of all for me was Yves Klein’s “Portrait Relief de Claude Pascal, Arman et Martial Raysse“. A photo doesn’t do the depth of blue and the gorgeous topography of the sculpture justice. It really is a wonderful piece of art. So too is Niki de St Phalle’s “La mariée sous l’arbre”, a sculpture of tiny things, again drawing the audience in to little secret places where little secret things lurk.
Nice has its charms too, including a lovely Russian Orthodox Cathedral. And if you do go and need a place to eat, Pelican’s Station in Rue de la Prefecture is great; classic French food, reasonable prices and a very charming host, Laurent, who is obviously hugely proud of his restaurant.
This great wee restaurant / bar in Faro’s old town is brilliant for music. First night, purely by chance, I wandered by and discovered a jazz trio, comprising three members of Amar Guitarra. João Cuña, one of the brains behind Guitarra Portuguesa, and his long-time collaborator Luís Fialho are stunningly good guitarists, while Betty M. plays the violin with real passion and sings like a sexy linnet. It’s a fantastic, toe-tapping performance, with classics like “Sweet Georgia Brown” interspersed with mesmerising modern compositions. Just listen to “Inconstancias” on MySpace, and you’ll get a feel for just how brilliant they are.
Aqui d’el Rei have a fado night every Sunday, and it’s fado I’m here for. Core musicians for the evening are the eminent fado project director Valentim Filipe on Portuguese guitar and his young collaborator Ricardo Anastácio on guitar and vocals, who are two members of the excellent Al Mouraria. They, too, are fantastic musicians, and we have an interesting chat about fado, the portuguese guitar and football (Benfica are being thrashed five-nil on the telly): the only thing we disagree on is whether or not Deolinda’s music can be called fado, since Ricardo is, he says, a “purist”. Charming guys, and they are tremendously generous in their support of local fadistas like Luis Mira, a typically flashing-eyed singer with a voice like thunder. Being a foreigner, I can’t begin to explain what fado is or means to the Portuguese people, and I haven’t a clue what they’re singing about: I just know I love its passion.
It’s long been an ambition of mine to drink myself vaguely silly in a Portuguese bar while wallowing in top class music. Two nights of it is a very pleasant overdose.
My friends Donald Christie and Claire Cassidy were shopping recently for tiles for their new bathroom and popped into a rather snazzy shop. Browsing around, they spotted a lovely “baroque” design they fancied. They asked for a quote, but the salesman drew a blank. “Baroque? Baroque? No, we don’t stock anything like that,” he told them. So they took him gently by the arm to the corner of the store where the tile was on display. “Ah,” he exclaimed, “you mean the barrow-cue!” So, me and my pals are off to see a true barrow-cue programme filled with slushy delights, with Pachelbel’s Canon and, of course, Albinoni’s Adagio alongside the Four Seasons.
The Albinoni is adequate – certainly, they take it at the accurate walking pace rather than the funereal crawl of some interpretations – but it lacks emotional engagement. Least successful is the Pachelbel. Stripped of the soloist, the remaining quartet struggle somewhat, largely due to an occasionally erratically tuned viola player and a first violinist who is prone to some lazy slurring.
However, the Four Seasons works exceptionally well, largely due to the energy and virtuosity of the (unnamed) soloist. This is a young man who obviously loves performing Vivaldi, and he may well go far beyond this somewhat touristy ensemble. He is excellent, and more than rescues the evening. Let’s face it, we’re in Venice, just off the Rialto Bridge, in a May heatwave listening to some beautiful instruments in the ideal setting. What’s not to enjoy?
After my holiday in Africa, I’m starting a project to raise funds for the Mwendo Needy Children Project on the shores of Lake Bunyoni in Kabale District, Uganda. The energy of the young teachers who run this scheme to support 500 orphans and other needy children is amazing, and I promised to try to raise money to buy some computers for them. More details to follow, but you can find them at